A/N: Hello, Zuko here.
Lol, well I didn't quite expect to have another update out so soon, but the inspiration must have struck me at the right time, so now here we are!
I certainly am proud of how things go in this one, though depending on your tastes, you might find it a bit on the slower side.
But hey… I guess that's why this is a slow burn story, right? XD
In any case, I hope you'll enjoy this update! Let's get into it.
MrHoodman2132 - Very true on all accounts. Yeah, I suppose Yue liking Zuko could be seen as an unexpected turn, but a very interesting one with lots of potential, both story and character wise. As for the rest? Well, only time will tell…
tokolover (Guest) - Thanks! And oh yeah, it's a very complicated matter for everyone involved… Especially with the misunderstandings from the last chapter. That can only end so well… lol. How will Toph react? Well, I suppose we'll have to wait until that time comes and figure it out together.
Chapter 9: Reflection
Zuko's golden eyes shot open instantly, going wide for a brief moment, before they lazily began to weigh themselves back down again once a familiar realization set in.
There was that same droning annoyance again…
The sound of his phone's alarm clock going off on the nightstand beside his full-sized bed.
The Firebender tried to cover his ears with his pillow, forcing his tired eyes shut in an attempt to drown out the noise and maybe get a few more minutes of sleep…
This effort would be in vain, and Zuko knew it. There was no changing the inevitable fact… that he had to return to school today.
Growling lowly, Zuko tossed his pillow aside before sitting up and turning off the alarm. His scowl faded into a curious frown after hearing bliss return to the room, and he looked back at his pillow with a tempted gaze
'Surely five more minutes wouldn't make a difference…' Zuko considered.
Ultimately, however, he threw that idea out the window… He remembered what happened the last time he got an idea that 'wouldn't be a big deal'. It had gotten him into trouble, and by extension, Aang into trouble… since he had to deal with Jet and his goons all alone.
Well, that is until he showed up to back up Aang, but that led to even bigger problems.
'Like the fact that everyone still knows I'm a Firebender…' Zuko sighed, tossing the covers off of him and standing up.
He just wanted to get this over with… as he had the past couple days.
The routine went about as he expected at first: he grabbed his red and gold Fire Nation styled robe, of which he had many, as well as his boots, before he exited his room and trudged his way to the bathroom not far down the hall so he could take his daily shower.
Beginning to run the hot and steaming water, relief was audibly displayed in the scarred teen in the form of a sigh as the water ran down his bare back.
Now, he could mindlessly go about taking a shower… while his thoughts took over. After all, aside from meditation, thinking probably was best done while in the shower.
The first thing Zuko knew for certain was… he was tired. No, not the kind of 'tired' that one claimed to be every time they woke up in the morning… He was genuinely tired this morning, unlike the past two.
Sleep had not been kind to him the night before. He remembered waking up at least twice in the middle of the night in a bit of a sweat. He didn't bother checking the time during either one, since it didn't really seem important in the moment.
Zuko couldn't remember suffering any nightmares to speak of. Hell, he didn't even remember dreaming at all… All he knew was… he had a lot on his mind, and it made him feel a lot of things.
Fear… Sadness… Betrayal… Uncertainty…
He could go on, but those were the main ones.
'I still can't believe Mai would do this to me…' Zuko thought sorrowfully, feeling his chest start to tighten up the more he reflected on it. It wasn't that he wanted to, but… how couldn't he?
Mai had been his girlfriend for two whole years and they had been friends for even longer than that! How could she break up with him so bluntly and so suddenly? As if he were nothing?
Yes, he knew she felt some guilt in doing it, or at least… that's the impression she gave, but…
The Firebender's eyes shut, craning his neck down so he could allow the water better access to wash over him.
No… He- He needed to stop. He needed to move on. He couldn't blame Mai completely. Surely some of it was his own fault too.
'But what?' Zuko frowned, the tightness in his chest constricting him once again.
What had he done wrong? It was that very fact that made him feel so horrible. Where did he screw up to where she would dump him without so much as a warning or consideration for his own feelings?
Then again… Zuko knew he wasn't the perfect guy. He made plenty of mistakes, and he seemed to be the master of making already bad situations worse.
'Like yesterday…' He reflected, his thoughts now moving on to Toph and their swimming lesson.
No, scratch that… 'Sokka' and Toph's swimming lesson… He honestly didn't know why this was even still on his mind. He and Sokka had agreed to just forget about it yesterday and let the past be the past.
That was… ethical.
The tightness once again returned, and this time… it began to worry Zuko. Seriously, was he having some sort of heart problem?
Well, metaphorically speaking… he supposed he was. Perhaps this was just his body's own way of telling him he was stressed? That he felt bad? Felt guilt?
Zuko cut off the water after that… He had spent long enough in the shower and in his thoughts.
He just needed to put on his clothes and get ready to head out… There would be plenty of time to worry about this after school.
'Or preferably never…' The scarred teen hoped.
Yeah… As if that was gonna happen…
Meanwhile, Uncle Iroh was downstairs in the living room, his morning cup of jasmine tea steaming in his hands, while he sat on the couch to watch the local news on TV.
He always found it comforting to at least be caught up to speed on what was going on around them, so he found himself watching it at least once every few days.
This live coverage in particular, however, brought his focus away from his tea and fully on the screen.
"Once again, Mr. Mayor… I thank you for your time and willingness to answer these questions." A female reporter of obvious Earth Kingdom origins spoke to another man seated across from her. You could tell it by the way she was dressed that she was proud of her upbringing.
The same could be said for the Mayor, who, despite wearing more fancy attire, was clearly Earth Kingdom. Which made sense of course, since Gaoling and its government body was founded under those with Earth Kingdom roots. Aside from that, his most notable feature was the long and thin mustache he had, which drooped down off his face.
"But of course…" The mayor nodded. "I am always willing to keep everyone informed…"
"The hot topic of the week, no pun intended of course, is on the Fire Nation." The reporter started out.
"Was there ever any doubt?" The mayor forced a chuckle, as if he had answered plenty of questions on the topic before.
Iroh raised a brow of curiosity, turning the TV up just a couple notches. Sure, he and Gyatso discussed modern politics in Gaoling when playing Pai Sho, but it was only very briefly and by word of mouth.
Now was the first time he would actually hear it from the source.
"Firstly, just to set the record straight once and for all… what is your general opinion on the Fire Nation? Taking both the past and present into account…" The reporter asked.
"An excellent starting question…" The mayor complimented. "Well, if I may put things bluntly… I believe those from the Fire Nation are irredeemable savages and always have been…"
Iroh nearly spit out his tea. Did he just… say that so openly!? And all over the news? This was… one of the things that Gyatso had warned about, were those choice of words used by them.
"'Irredeemable', you say?" The reporter cocked a brow, not appearing all that phased by his words, instead just wanting confirmation.
"Indeed…" The mayor said, his face forming into a scowl. "Let us not forget the way Gaoling was a hundred years ago. It was a much smaller town, akin to a village… Denizens from all four cultures resided here, not unlike other towns across the country at the time."
He paused briefly, as if to string his words together better.
"The people from the Water culture took care of healing the sick and the injured, the Air culture supplied us with food to keep us sustained, and the hard working people from the Earth culture built our buildings, our infrastructure, our everything… All utilizing their Earthbending talents." The mayor gave every culture their dues, especially those from the Earth Kingdom.
His eyes quickly narrowed once again.
"What was the Fire culture in charge of?" The mayor rhetorically questioned. "Why, keeping order of course! The idea of utilizing their Firebending to keep law and order in our fair city seemed like a good idea at the time."
He could only force a chuckle.
"Oh how times have changed…" He stated.
Iroh hummed, taking a sip of tea with narrowed and frustrated eyes. He didn't like the way all of this was sounding at all…
"It started with Chief Sozin…" The mayor continued before the reporter could ask another question. "He founded the police force of Gaoling, and for many years… it sounded as though he didn't do that bad a job."
He paused once again, a look of disdain in his eyes.
"Of course… we all know that eventually, he began to abuse his power: burning people that didn't deserve it, leaving them with permanent injuries, and in certain cases… even fatally damning them."
His rant continued.
"People!" He exclaimed. "Good and hard-working people of the Earth, Water and Air cultures! But did you ever see the same treatment towards those from Fire culture? No! You didn't… Because they were the ones 'in charge' and they saw themselves as superior to everyone else…"
The mayor leaned forward.
"But I can say once and for all… that that will never happen. Not ever again! We may have tolerated their kind when Sozin was Gaoling's Chief… and during his son Azulon's years doing much the same…" He began. "But come the time Azulon's son Ozai became Chief of police? The people had finally had enough… They had enough, I had enough, and for good reason!"
The mayor's emotions were at their peak.
"The people of Gaoling have spoken, and it appeared their sentiments were mirrored across the country!" The mayor forced a grin. "It brings me great pleasure to know that we're finally starting to weed out the rest of those savage brutes. They have migrated out West and founded their 'cities'… and I say good! Let them stay there. Let them kill each other while the rest of us maintain a peaceful and civilized existence."
Iroh couldn't believe what he had just heard! His mouth had been agape for that entire rambling mess! To call out everyone Fire Nation and compare them to nothing but 'savages' or 'brutes'? That was just low…
Sure, maybe Sozin, Azulon and Ozai did do horrible things. Iroh knew that was true, and he would never deny that.
But to generalize an entire culture for those that only a few did? And to act like everyone else had no problems of their own?
"How disgraceful…" Iroh muttered, summing it up best.
The reporter finally reeled the mayor in enough from his rant to start asking another question, but at that moment-
Iroh's eyes widened, as he fumbled for the remote, quickly turning the TV off.
"Uncle…" Zuko spoke again, having just come down the stairs.
As he entered the living room, he cocked a brow, as if confused about something.
"Huh… Weren't you just watching TV?" Zuko observed.
"I was…" Iroh admitted, turning the cup of his now cooler but still warm tea in his hands. "But it is about time for us to leave."
Zuko sighed as his uncle began to sip on his jasmine tea.
He did have a point…
"Well… whenever you're ready." The scarred teen replied. "I'll be waiting in the car."
"You look tired, Nephew..." Iroh observed with a concerned frown, stopping the scarred teen in his tracks. "Is everything alright?"
Zuko let out a sigh, looking downcast as his back still faced his Uncle.
Why did he always have to be so observant?
"It's nothing, Uncle..." Zuko insisted. "Just a rough night..."
Iroh was about to pry some more, but Zuko was already off to the front door, which he used to quickly exit the house. As soon as he did, Iroh couldn't help the worried groan that escaped him. Sitting his cup of tea back down on the table, the elder Firebender started to rub the temples of his head out of stress.
He was so certain that Gaoling would be the perfect place he and Zuko could just… get away.
Away from his brother, Ozai, and away from all of that craziness in the family.
But with so-called 'leaders' as narrow-minded as this? It was bound to be a struggle.
'Do not worry, Zuko…' Iroh silently vowed. 'I will make sure that life goes well for us here. For you, especially… I promise.'
Iroh finally stood up, and with that, walked out the front door to get Zuko to school. After all, things would never get easier right away. They would get easier with a sense of normalcy, and with time…
Same first hour class… Same Mr. Zei… Same boring lectures…
Zuko sat in his usual seat with Sokka sitting to his right. The Water Tribe senior had tried to make small talk on a few occasions, but all attempts to do so had been shut down by the teacher thus far.
But Zuko knew he'd try again eventually… It was inevitable.
Making sure Mr. Zei was caught up in another spiel about the 'proper' way to cite sources, Sokka scooted a bit to his left, before turning to Zuko.
"Hey…" Sokka whispered. "Pst… Zuko."
The scarred teen sighed.
'How did I know?' He sarcastically questioned in his mind, before subtly turning to face Sokka too.
However, before Zuko could get a reply in, he noticed the frown on Sokka's face, which was quickly followed by a reply.
"You okay, man?" Sokka looked back up towards the front of the room every now and again, as a precaution.
'You can't be serious…' The Firebender resisted the urge to groan aloud. If there was one thing he didn't want to discuss right now, it was how he was feeling.
"…I'm fine." Zuko lied, setting that fact even further in stone.
The scarred teen was not looking forward to bringing those thoughts from this morning back to the forefront of his mind.
Still, though… how did Sokka even notice!? Was it that obvious? Or did he even notice?
Why was he even asking this question!?
"Okay. Just… making sure." Sokka sighed, though it was clear to them both that he didn't believe him. "You just look… I dunno. Down?"
Zuko hummed, acting like he was paying attention to Mr. Zei's lecture by looking in his direction.
"Don't I always look 'down'?" The Firebender retorted.
"Well… I mean… sure, but…" Sokka looked like he had a lot to say. Taking another breath, he decided to just come out with it. "Is this about yesterday?"
Zuko felt his blood run cold. So it was that obvious!
"No…" Zuko emphasized, his expression forming into a defensive scowl. "We said we would forget about it, remember? So that's what I'm doing… is forgetting."
Sokka frowned. "We never said we'd 'forget' about it… Just that we'd go along with the current story… with what Toph thinks happened."
"Yeah, well…" Zuko folded his arms. "Let's just say I'd rather forget…"
"You feel guilty… don't you?" Sokka maintained his frown.
Zuko said nothing this time, but he felt his scowl soften. He looked downcast, as if confirming that's exactly what it was.
"Zuko…" Sokka sighed. "I don't like lying to her either… But it's like you said: why yank the memory of that fun time away from Toph? She's happy, isn't she?"
"Well… yes, but-" Zuko tried to say, but Sokka continued.
"Then what's wrong?" Sokka asked. "You said you only took her swimming, and if that's the case, then it's not that big of a deal… Right?"
"I-" Zuko sighed. "Right…" He buried his face in his hands.
"Okay, cool… So why make a big deal out of something so minor?" Sokka tried to ease his guilt.
Zuko felt like his head was about to explode! He knew damn well why this wasn't at all 'minor', and why Toph thinking Sokka did this was a bad idea!
No, it wasn't like they 'kissed' or did anything serious like Sokka would annoyingly suggest. But the moment did feel more… intimate than the Firebender cared to actually admit.
Their bodies were touching, he held her tightly, and they even held each other's hands the entire time… Sure, maybe it was a good way to keep her afloat and teach her, but the problem lied in the fact that she thought he was Sokka!
Sokka! The guy she had a crush on! A crush he saw clear as day!
He knew this experience was gonna swirl all kinds of emotions in Toph… Emotions for Sokka… Emotions Zuko wasn't sure would even be mutual on Sokka's end…
Hell, the guy seemed oblivious to the entire thing!
But how could he? It was so freaking obvious!
Not only was Toph left in the dark about the truth, but so was Sokka… He had no idea why this was such a big concern…
"Zuko?" Sokka snapped the scarred teen out of his internal struggle. "You good?"
Zuko's shoulders slumped.
No… No, he wasn't…
The Firebender was cut off immediately, when another voice spoke up.
"Sokka and Zuko! Are we really going to have a problem?" Zei's eyes were narrowed, as once again he had to interrupt the class.
Sokka straightened up in his chair, before clearing his throat.
"Uh… nope. Nope, I think we're good." The Water Tribe senior shrugged.
Zei let out another annoyed sigh.
"If I catch you talking again, it's to the Principal's Office!"
That shut Sokka up… and Zuko in kind. If there's any way this day could get any worse, it was having to interact with Long Feng…
Content with his threat, Zei turned back around, continuing on.
"As I was saying… your essays are to be 4 pages at minimum, and are due Monday!" Zei called out, earning a groan out of the entire class.
They hated essays… as any other sane person would.
"You have the rest of class to work on them if you wish…" Zei stated. "Maybe you can get a head start."
Zuko would typically be up for keeping ahead on his work, but for right now? He couldn't be bothered… It was Wednesday today, anyway, so he still had some time until it was due.
Besides, he had way more important things to worry about right now than a stupid essay…
Sokka might be okay with lying to Toph because he saw the situation as minor… but Zuko? Knowing the full truth and perspective of things?
He couldn't… Not anymore.
He wouldn't take advantage of her blindness and continue to lie to her about this.
He needed to come clean and tell her the truth… or this would eat him alive!
'Sorry, Sokka…' Zuko internally sighed. 'But it's decided…'
He would take the brunt of the blame if possible… After all, even though it was Sokka's original idea, he is the one who screwed everything up.
Walking into his second period class, Zuko knew he would have the perfect opportunity to tell Toph, since she usually sat directly in front of him.
It was a rare sight to see he had arrived here before Sokka, but Aang and Toph had already made it. And by the look of things, they were conversing.
"Oh…" Aang began to frown. "Seriously?"
Toph sighed. "Yeah…"
Her reply seemed… down.
'Oh no…' Zuko hated it when this happened. 'What could it be about this time?'
"I hate it when he makes me wear that stupid dress…" Toph rolled her sightless eyes. "It's so uncomfortable…"
Zuko blinked, taking the time to walk to his seat. What was this conversation even about?
Toph's attention was immediately caught as she felt Zuko's vibrations, prompting her to turn around a bit.
"Hey, Zuko!" Aang greeted him first. "Must be pretty weird, me not having to show you to your classes anymore, huh?"
"No…" Zuko sighed. "Honestly, it's a relief…"
There was momentary silence, before the Firebender's curiosity grew too much to contain.
"What were you talking about, anyway? Something about a dress?" Zuko asked.
"Ugh…" Toph rubbed her head, clearly stressed. "Yes…" She confirmed.
"I'm guessing… you're not a fan, then." Zuko observed, unsure how else to put it.
"Way to state the obvious, Sparky…" Toph forced a grin, but it disappeared just as quickly as it had shown up. "But… yeah. It sucks. My Dad makes me wear it all the time, because it makes me look… oh, how did he put it? 'Proper' and 'like a lady'. Oh, and 'befitting of my class' or something stupid like that…"
'Looks like my earlier assumption was right…' Zuko remembered. 'Her father sounds quite strict…'
"Oh… I'm sorry." Zuko expressed his sympathies, his mind seeking out any potential bright side. "Well… at least you don't have to wear it when you're with us or at school."
"True, but that's only because I take all that crap off…" Toph pointed out.
"Really?" The Firebender widened his eyes a bit, sounding surprised.
"Yep. Every day before ever entering the school." The Earthbender confirmed. "As far as he knows, I wear it all the time. If he saw what I was wearing right now, he'd probably flip." She giggled, making sure to motion towards her green and tan colored clothes, along with her headpiece.
Zuko felt a subtle smirk creep its way onto his own face.
"You almost sound amused by that…" He pointed out.
"Wow, you think?" Toph maintained her grin, before folding her arms. "Maybe I screwed up calling you 'Sparky' and should have named you 'Captain Obvious' instead."
"You could always call me 'Zuko'." The Firebender suggested plainly.
"Hmm, let me think about that…" Toph rested a finger on her chin.
It was pretty obvious where this was going…
"Uhh, no." Toph shut that down. "Too boring. Nicknames add that extra flair."
"Since when does a name require 'flair'?" Zuko refused to see her point.
"Since I said they do." The Earthbender smiled, before slugging his arm. "That's when."
Zuko's golden eyes went wide, as a surge of pain was felt in his arm. Seriously, this girl had an arm like a cannon!
"Ow!" Zuko hissed, rubbing his arm with a scowl. "Why do you always feel the need to do that!?"
"That's how I show affection…" Toph's smile was genuine, despite the painful display. "Believe me, if I was really trying to hit you, it would feel a lot worse…"
A sigh escaped Zuko's lips, as he let his arm throb.
"I believe you…" He muttered. "Still, that's a funny way of showing someone you like them."
"'Tolerate', Sparky." The blind Earthbender corrected the term with a small grin. "Tolerate…"
Zuko almost wanted to laugh… almost. It wasn't the funniest thing in the world, but for whatever reason, he found it… amusing.
His grin then faded entirely. In that moment, he remembered what he planned on doing…
He was going to tell Toph the truth… of what actually happened the day before at the lake. He was going to reveal that it was actually him she swam with, and not Sokka…
The lie was wrong and he needed to do this before Toph and Sokka both got roped into something they shouldn't.
He was going to do this… He needed to do this.
"Toph, I…" Zuko spoke softly and very genuinely, yet at the same time like a lump was caught in his throat.
Toph's head tilted to the side. She could feel his increased heartbeats from where she sat.
"Yes, Sparky? What is it?" Toph questioned.
"…I-" Zuko cleared his throat. "I… need to tell you something-"
"Hey, Sokka! There you are…" Zuko heard Aang's voice call out.
Zuko's shoulders slumped, all of his confidence falling right out the window.
'What!? No… Why now!' The Firebender very nearly cursed out loud.
Aang had been sitting there in slight boredom, realizing he was out of the conversation topic when Zuko and Toph's chatter became more of a one on one. However, the Airbender's face lit up upon seeing Sokka. It gave him someone else to talk to.
Toph instantly started to flush, hiding her face in her bangs to conceal her emotions. She felt Sokka's vibrations with every step as he slowly made his way to his usual seat beside her, her focus honed in deeply.
This was a fact that didn't go unnoticed to Zuko, who now sat with a newfound annoyance.
'Great… Now when am I supposed to tell her!?' He mentally ranted.
Honestly, he was debating whether or not he should just tell her anyway. Sure, Zuko would rather have made his confession with Sokka not present, to spare him of her potential wrath, but now that was looking less likely…
"H- Hey, Sokka!" Toph greeted with an uncharacteristic stutter.
''Sokka'?' Zuko thought. 'So she can say HIS first name, but not mine, I guess… Though maybe that's because she likes him… or something.'
It was just a guess, but one Zuko was confident about.
"Oh, hey Toph." Sokka turned the Earthbender's way to address her, flashing a grin.
To Toph's credit, though, she was good at making adjustments; AKA preventing herself from becoming a stuttering mess the entire time.
"You're the last one of us in here?" She questioned Sokka teasingly. "That's kind of a shocker. Usually you're pretty quick about making it to class."
"Yeah, I know. But…" Sokka sighed. "Katara left her flute for band class or whatever in my car. So I had to go out and unlock it for her."
"Sugar Queen is unprepared for a change?" Toph's sightless eyes widened. "That's a new one…"
"I know…" Aang now chimed in. "She never forgets things like that."
"Yeah, well, we all slip up every now and then, I guess." Sokka shrugged. "Even my 'oh so perfect' sister…" It was his turn to tease Katara, a smirk on his features.
"Just don't let her hear you say it like that, or she'll Waterbend your sorry butt." Toph chuckled at the thought. "Or even worse… she might lecture your ear off."
"Yeah…" Sokka shuddered. "I'll stick to being Waterbended."
A more genuine smile came to Sokka's face, as he addressed everyone. "So how's everyone doing since yesterday? Pretty fun stuff, right?"
Toph's heart rate went through the roof… If what Suki claimed to see was true, which she hadn't detected a lie, so it probably was, then Sokka looked like he had enjoyed himself a lot being so close to her and helping her out…
With this in mind… a rather interesting theory came to the Earthbender: perhaps Sokka was just prying for more info so he could see a bit more on how she felt. That was Toph's assessment at least.
'Very subtle, Snoozles… I'll give you that.' Toph admitted, a small smile coming to her to compliment her still present blush. 'I had the time of my life!'
"Psh, yeah…" Toph gave a nonchalant shrug, her outward attitude defying her actual thoughts. "It was alright… A bit too much beach for my taste."
Allowing herself a small smile, though, she took a risk.
"Still, though… I really enjoyed swimming with you, Sokka. It was… nice." Toph admitted. "You made getting in the water… more bearable for me." Her cheeks flushed even more, as her thoughts went back to that.
Sure, she could have phrased it a number of different ways, and she was holding back a lot of what she actually felt. But as far as expressing her inner feelings went? She saw this as a major step in the right direction. Expressing a fraction of them was better than none at all, she decided.
Meanwhile, Zuko had a very different thought process.
'You know full well how it was, Sokka. You…' He almost wanted to groan, but that would draw too much attention.
Seriously, he couldn't have asked about anything differently?
Aang, meanwhile, looked on with a very confused look. In such a way that he seemed ready to say something.
"What do you mean, Toph?" Aang asked straight up.
Sokka and Zuko instantly paled.
'Oh no…' They both thought the exact same thing simultaneously.
Luckily for them, Toph didn't notice their heartbeats spike, since she was focused on Aang's question.
"What do you mean, Twinkletoes?" Toph threw the question back at him.
Rubbing his bald head in confusion, he came right out with it.
"You… said you swam with Sokka." Aang brought up.
"Well, yeah." Toph tilted her head, acting like it was common knowledge. "I did… Weren't you there?"
Aang's face just screamed 'wtf' at this point, as he looked Zuko's way, then Sokka's. The two Seniors would be sweating bullets if they weren't working so hard to keep their nervous energy under wraps.
"Uh… yeah. I was…" Aang replied. "But weren't you-"
"Aang, buddy…" Sokka chuckled almost nervously, deciding to finally get him to stop talking. "Don't act so confused."
Sokka looked at the Airbender in such a way that silently hinted that he'd tell him later.
Aang, getting the hint, conceded and nodded slowly. He was more confused and concerned than ever before, though.
"Oh… Uh, okay." Aang let it go, though all three boys knew they were in for yet another discussion very soon.
'Or maybe not…' Zuko's eyes narrowed.
If he told Toph the truth, then there'd be no need for a discussion or any confusion…
Looking Toph's way, Zuko prepared to do just that. However, just as he opened his mouth, his eyes opened along with it.
And then all was still…
Instantly, his heart began to melt at the sight…
Toph looked just as confused, but mostly towards the way Aang was acting. Beyond that, though, she still had that smile of hers.
A smile full of confidence, of energy, and of contentment.
'Oh no…' Zuko's chest tightened once again, his guilt returning.
But even worse… he felt weakness begin to return.
His willingness to spare her feelings from the truth started to come back full swing, and just like that… his confidence was gone.
He- He couldn't…
He couldn't tell her the truth…
He couldn't tell her because he was afraid; afraid of how she would react, and afraid of how it would affect her.
It wasn't so much that he feared the safety of his own well-being, although that definitely was on his list of concerns.
Just about her.
'You're such a COWARD, Zuko!' He scolded himself in his mind. 'Do it! You KNOW it's the right thing to do! Stop being weak!'
The Firebender's shoulders slumped in that moment, and he felt his body slowly begin to tremble.
He… wasn't quite sure why at first, but then… it began to dawn on him.
During that entire thought process, as he scolded himself in his mind, rather than his own voice talking… he could hear nothing except Ozai.
Ozai was the one calling him cowardly and weak…
And that wasn't even the scariest part…
The scary part for Zuko was that… he agreed with him.
"Are you okay, Sparky?"
Zuko's trembling form glanced up, and he could see Toph looking his way. Or, well… glancing in his general direction was more accurate.
Her typical smile was gone now, replaced by a look of… what was it? Concern?
'No…' Zuko denied. 'Probably just morbid curiosity over my pathetic and cowardly demeanor.' He put himself down further, acknowledging his own shaking.
"Yeah…" Sokka spoke up, a frown of his own present and his concern rising through the roof. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Is everything good?"
Zuko was silent. He didn't say anything… And in an instant, it felt as though the room was beginning to close in on him.
He felt everyone's attention hone in on him, despite the fact that it was only three people he was talking to.
He felt instantly trapped.
"Zuko?" Aang showed observant concern. "You look pale…"
"I… have to go." The Firebender quickly stood up, intent on leaving the classroom.
"Wha- Hey, hold on!" Toph's sightless green eyes widened, as she just managed to grab his arm. "Where are you going?"
"…Bathroom." Zuko quickly decided, the whole room spinning with a sense of vertigo. "I- I feel sick…"
"I'll go with you-" Sokka began to stand up.
"No…" Zuko sharpened his tone, shutting down his idea. "No, I- I'll be fine…"
Prying Toph's hand off of him, the scarred teen rushed towards the door of the classroom.
"Don't be too long! Or else you'll miss-"
Aang's voice was cut off, as the bell for second period rang.
"-class…" Aang finished his sentence, his arm drooping down off of his desk.
Zuko was already out the door by that point, and a very confused Mr. Mechanist walked into the classroom. He definitely had seen Zuko, and most likely questioned him on where he was going.
But it was doubtful he got an answer…
"Why is Sparky… acting so weird?" Toph questioned Aang and Sokka. "Weirder than usual, anyway."
A frown came to her.
"Do you think something might have happened?" Toph added.
"I… have no idea." Aang spoke genuinely and with much concern. "I hope he's alright."
"Yeah…" Sokka sighed, looking towards the classroom door, adding his own truthful statement. "Me too…"
Toph looked downcast, but said nothing more. Could this have anything to do with what Zuko wanted to tell her before Sokka walked in?
Or could this maybe… be connected to why he seemed so down yesterday while at the restaurant?
She never did fully get an answer out of Zuko about what was wrong, because they had to leave to go to the beach.
It was at that moment that Toph reached a decision…
The next chance she got, she was gonna ask him about it again…
Meanwhile, Zuko had reached the bathroom, which luckily was void of anyone else… This would provide him a moment of solitude and of peace…
He hadn't been lying when he claimed he felt sick… He legitimately did feel lightheaded; dizzy almost. On top of feeling that familiar tightness of guilt in his chest, he felt… mentally defeated all on top of that.
He didn't know what else to do or who to turn to…
He could talk to his new friends about it, but it isn't like they would understand what he was going through. It was just… far too complicated.
Zuko doubted even his Uncle Iroh could help him either… Besides, it wasn't like he even wanted to tell Iroh.
It would simply be too shameful and too embarrassing…
If there was anything he learned from his experiences with Mai, it was that opening up was a bad idea and should be avoided at all costs…
This was his own mess, and he would dig his own way out of it…
How he would actually go about that, however, was a different story altogether…
Doing his best to stop himself from vomiting or getting even more sick, Zuko took some deep breaths, using the water from one of the sinks to splash his face and calm himself down.
Some time to think and be alone would prove beneficial, Zuko figured…
So… that's exactly what the Firebender did. For the entirety of second period, Zuko waited and waited… trying to maintain a sense of calm.
It felt like no time at all had passed when the bell finally rang again…
"Okay, this is… kinda worrying." Aang was the first one to speak, as he, Sokka and Toph all exited their second period math class.
"I agree, Aang…" Toph called him by name in a rare display, taking things rather seriously. "You don't just dip from class like that so suddenly and then disappear the whole hour… Not unless something is seriously wrong."
"I should probably go check on him…" Sokka felt obligated, just as worried for Zuko as the rest of them. "You coming, Aang?"
"Of course…" The Airbender didn't even hesitate.
"Well I'm going too…" Toph insisted.
This caused Sokka to go silent for a moment.
"Actually, Toph… It… might be best if you went to your next class. Aang and I got this one." Sokka suggested.
"What?" Toph scrunched her nose in immediate disagreement. "No way! I wanna see what's wrong."
"Zuko said he went to the bathroom." Sokka reminded. "Which means the boy's bathroom… Which you can't go into." He lamely excused.
"Pft, oh please…" Toph rolled her cloudy green eyes. "Says who? The sign on the door? It's not like I can even read that sign, anyway. If all else fails, I can just say I stumbled my way into the wrong bathroom by accident."
It was clear that her points were very solid, and she had every right to see what was going on.
But only Sokka seemed to know that the reason Zuko was acting this way was most likely because of Toph. Having her present there would probably only make things worse.
"Yeah, Sokka… I don't see what the problem would be-" Aang was cut off when Sokka glanced his way pleadingly, asking him to stay out of it for a moment.
The Airbender silently got the hint and complied.
"Toph…" Sokka questioned, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Do you trust me?"
Toph tensed up at the feeling of his hand, but instantly relaxed and melted into it once the initial surprise went away.
It was almost annoying to Toph how he always seemed to have this effect on her!
"Y- Yeah, Sokka… I… trust you." Toph answered his question, seemingly in her own world.
"Then let me and Aang handle this one… Please." Sokka pleaded. "I can't get into the details, so I'm gonna need you to trust me on this one."
Sokka's tone became softer, before he added,
Toph was stunned at what she was hearing. Why couldn't she be there? Why the mysterious lack of details? Why… a lot of things?
Her instinct was to stand firm… to say no and demand an explanation.
But she caved into what her heart wanted, rather than what her head was telling her to do. After all, Sokka had never led her wrong before. Why would now be any different?
"Okay…" Toph relented with a sigh. "Fine…"
The Earthbender folded her arms, her expression firm. "But I expect an update later!"
Sokka grinned, before nodding slowly.
"I think I can manage that…" He said.
Not another word was spoken before Toph kept to her word and headed in the direction of her third period class instead, leaving Aang and Sokka alone.
"Sokka…" Aang sighed with a frown, more confused than ever. "Why couldn't Toph come? Why are you acting so weird lately?"
Sokka gave a sigh of his own, before he looked Aang in the eye, keeping his tone softer. "I'll explain everything in a bit, Aang… We just need to find Zuko first."
As much as Aang wanted to know now what was going on, he accepted Sokka's answer. It was probably for the best that all three of them discussed things together anyway.
Not only was Sokka acting weird, but so was Zuko.
And Aang needed to know why…
Hearing the door to the bathroom open, Zuko didn't even need to turn his head… He knew exactly who it was.
"What do you want?" Zuko rhetorically questioned his visitors.
It wasn't like he actually wanted to know… He already knew what this was about.
"Zuko, we're worried about you." Sokka spoke up. "Me, Aang, Toph… All of us."
Zuko stood frozen in place for a moment, before letting out a hum of acknowledgement and turning around to face the two of them.
He noticed the lack of Toph's presence, which honestly… wasn't that much of a surprise. Knowing Sokka, he had somehow managed to convince her to not be here for this… for obvious reasons.
"I'm worried for the both of you…" Aang gave his own input, a look of concern evidently plastered on his face. "You're both acting so weird and you're making me hide stuff… And why does Toph think she swam with Sokka? Katara and I saw her swimming with Zuko-"
"I know…" Zuko sighed, rubbing his head in an attempt to ease his agonizing stress.
Aang's shoulders slumped. Even that response didn't seem to make sense.
"Can you just please tell me what's going on?" Aang asked straight up. "I'm so confused right now…"
Both Sokka and Zuko were silent for awhile, wondering who would say the first word…
Seeing most, if not all of this as his fault, Zuko was the one who relented.
"Are you sure we should do this now?" Zuko questioned, knowing how good Aang usually was about following the rules. And as for Sokka? Well… missing class couldn't be good for him either. "You both could miss class."
"Were you ever gonna go to third period anyway?" Sokka threw the question back at him.
"…" Zuko said nothing for a moment.
"No…" The scarred teen admitted.
"Well then… guess I'm not either." Sokka shrugged. "Not yet, anyway… We have important things to talk about. If it came down to it, missing one class won't be the end of the world."
"I agree…" Aang surprised them both. "It's never good to make missing class a habit, but… I can tell something serious is going on and you're my friends. I just wanna make sure everything is okay."
Zuko had to frown at that, still guilty he was making him miss class regardless.
Aang was just too pure for this world sometimes…
"Okay…" Zuko sighed, feeling confident enough to begin. "Here it is… All of it."
After another couple moments of hesitation to gather his thoughts, Zuko spoke.
"When we were at the beach… after I got done changing into my trunks, Sokka came rushing towards me." The Firebender began in reflection, making sure no details were missed. "At first I was just sort of confused, but after his ramblings, my mind pieced it together pretty quickly… He promised to teach Toph the basics of swimming since she didn't know how to, for… I suppose pretty obvious reasons. But after overeating at the restaurant, he got sick… so he asked me to cover for him."
Aang stood there silently, taking in every word.
'So Sokka actually WAS supposed to take her swimming? Then he got sick and asked Zuko to cover for him…' Aang repeated it in his own mind.
Okay, that made sense so far.
"After that, I… got in the water." Zuko was aware he was getting to the stuff that mattered. "I… didn't state my presence right away, because I was under the impression that Toph would recognize me with her Earthbending."
"But Toph couldn't have recognized you…" The Airbender pointed out. "She was in the water."
"Yes, well I know that now…" Zuko's eyes narrowed, his frustration returning. "Up until very recently, the only people I've been around have been Fire Nation… So I seriously had no idea how her Earthbending worked."
"I… suppose that makes sense…" Aang acknowledged. "So where is this leading? You told her at some point, right?" He got straight to the point.
It seemed a small part of Aang wanted to remain optimistic.
Zuko said nothing… Neither did Sokka. They didn't have to.
And that was all the confirmation Aang needed.
"W- Wait…" The Airbender's eyes widened. "You mean you… didn't-"
The Firebender sighed, shaking his head.
"No…" He answered truthfully, feeling much shame and regret. "I didn't."
Aang's mouth hung agape, as he looked downcast. Now he was starting to see the problem here.
"Oh…" Was all he could utter at first. "Oh no. Zuko… why didn't you-"
"Because I froze up, okay?" Zuko responded with a sharper tone. But only because of his frustration in himself. "Toph was very eager in the water and got us into it, and… I just never said anything."
"You have to have said something eventually." Aang was still trying to process all of this. "What about afterwards? When you got out…"
Zuko didn't respond this time, instead looking Sokka's way. This was his part to tell.
Aang picked up on this, and shifted his attention towards the Water Tribe senior.
"Sokka?" Aang looked at him questioningly.
Sokka was quick to shake his head, a bit of guilt evident in his features as well.
"I never said anything either…" He admitted.
"What?" Aang's eyes widened. "But why?"
"Look, I didn't know what the hell happened either…" Sokka admitted. "When she got out of the water and thanked me for the lesson, I nearly froze up, myself. I thought Zuko might have said something about it being him when I was gone, but… things didn't exactly go as I thought they would."
Zuko looked down. That was true… He should have let Toph know right from the start. Hence why the blame fell squarely upon his shoulders.
"I didn't want Toph to be upset or angry with me, so… I just sort of panicked and went along with it." Sokka concluded.
"That's exactly what I did." Zuko reminded.
Aang was silent for several seconds. He was relieved to finally get an explanation, but… at the same time, he wasn't at all happy with how the two of them handled things.
"Oh my Spirits, guys…" Aang nearly facepalmed. "Why couldn't you just come clean to start with? Then we wouldn't have this problem going on right now…"
Zuko and Sokka said nothing. Aang was completely right, and they knew it.
"You can't hide the truth forever, guys." Aang gave his advice, whether they wanted it or not. "The longer you allow this lie to go on, the more she may resent you for it when she discovers the truth… Not 'if', but 'when'." He emphasized that.
Both seniors' expressions fell, as they took Aang's words into account. Once again, he made quite an enticing point.
"You gotta remember, Toph is a walking lie detector." Aang allowed a hint of a grin. "If she wants to know the truth… she'll eventually find it. Better to come clean now than live to regret it later on, is what I say."
And just like that… Zuko felt validated. To hear this from Aang, that telling her the truth was the way to go? It brought back his confidence.
Yes… he knew that the truth was most likely gonna sting at first, both for her and especially for him… But by the end of it? He was certain things would recover between them.
They'd let that awkward moment remain in the past, and they'd never bring it up again.
"I'm… still not completely sure, Aang." Sokka spoke up.
Zuko's golden eyes widened.
'Wait, what!?' Zuko almost wanted to exclaim aloud. 'But why not?'
"I mean…" The Water Tribe senior sounded very mellow and nonchalant about the whole thing. "According to Zuko, they were just going swimming… So pretty minor stuff. My argument is why risk starting a big drama over something that doesn't even matter that much?"
'But it DOES matter!' Zuko continued. 'She damn near LOVES you, you idiot! And I may have just unintentionally given her the wrong idea.'
As if seeing the look in Zuko's eyes, Sokka's posture began to loosen up, his curiosity growing.
"What… do you think we should do, Zuko? Keep it under wraps? Or you think Aang's onto something?"
Zuko looked downcast, as if weighing the options in his head.
"Whatever you choose… I'm all for it." Sokka felt compelled to add, seriously fine with either or. He realized that this was Zuko's problem, or at least, that Zuko felt like this was his own problem, so Sokka felt letting him make the decision would make things easier on him.
Zuko gave an honest assessment over each option and truly did consider which each one would bring.
But in the end… he knew what the right thing to do truly was.
"…I'm gonna tell her the truth." Zuko decided. "She deserves to know what happened… Not to live a lie of our own creation… Who knows what kind of embarrassments or misunderstandings could potentially arise if we allowed that. Taking advantage of her blindness for our own benefit is wrong, and I won't have any part in that."
Aang smiled, nodding silently. He was proud of the decision that Zuko had reached, and would support it completely.
Sokka was on board as well. Though he wasn't quite sure why it would be 'embarrassing' or what possible 'misunderstandings' could possibly come of it, he had to agree that taking advantage of Toph's blindness was low.
"Yeah, Sokka… I trust you."
Those words from earlier echoed in Sokka's mind, and instantly he began to feel guilt, which sealed his support of this decision even further. Toph had vocally admitted to trusting him, and to betray that trust with continuing this lie?
'Yeah…' Sokka finally admitted it. 'This doesn't sit right with me anymore…'
And so now… it appeared everyone was finally on the same page.
"Thank you, Aang…" Zuko showed his gratitude, giving a slight bow. "You… really helped me. I honestly had no idea what to do. I didn't want to hurt her, but… you helped me realize that covering the truth… would probably just end up hurting her worse than ripping the band-aid off here and now."
"Yeah… Thanks." Sokka felt very similar. "I guess freaking out and panicking over stupid stuff leads to even stupider decisions, huh?" He chuckled.
Zuko allowed a hint of a grin, but it was very subtle. Aang's? Well… it was less subtle.
"Yeah… It really does." Aang agreed, sounding more like his usual upbeat self.
He was glad they could have this talk… Hell, all of them were glad for it…
'Perhaps confiding in Aang when needed… COULD have its advantages after all.' Zuko acknowledged.
He still wasn't completely certain of all that, but it was just a thought…
"I say we get out of this bathroom and get to where we're supposed to be…" Sokka finally advised, knowing they had pretty much concluded what they needed to discuss. "I hate listening to teachers drone on as much as the next guy, but it beats hanging out in a bathroom."
Well, they couldn't argue with that logic…
"What if the teachers ask where we were?" Aang frowned. He hadn't exactly thought that one through.
"Oh, that?" Sokka rolled his eyes. "Pft… That's easy. Just say you were in the bathroom. That's what I always do…"
"…But Sokka. We are in the bathroom." Aang pointed out.
"See there?" Sokka grinned. "That just means we wouldn't be lying either!"
Resisting the urge to facepalm, Zuko instead let out a sigh.
"Whatever…" The Firebender uttered, stepping towards the door. "I guess I'll see you guys soon."
"Wait a minute…" Aang spoke up, which halted Zuko from leaving and prompted him to cock a brow.
Sokka looked just as curious as to where this was going.
"Yeah?" Zuko responded.
"So… when are you gonna let Toph know, anyway?" Aang got right to it. "You know… if you even know when."
Zuko considered that for a moment. Honestly… that was a good question. When would be a good time to tell her?
"I'm… not sure." The scarred teen admitted. "But as soon as I see an opportunity, I'm gonna take it and get it out of the way."
"Good call…" Aang seemed satisfied with that answer.
"Okay, boys…" Sokka practically shoved the both of them out the bathroom door. "Back to class-"
The sight that awaited the trio outside the door caused them all to instantly freeze in place.
No, luckily it wasn't Toph… But it still wasn't good news.
"Is there any particular reason you boys have decided to play Hooky in my facility?" Long Feng questioned them all.
Silence was his response for the next few seconds.
"Well?" Long Feng seemed to demand an answer.
"Uhm… I- I mean- We-" Sokka's stutter was cut off as soon as Long Feng held up a hand.
"Enough!" The principal exclaimed, which snapped them all back to silence.
Long Feng's gaze fell upon Zuko again, before a knowing smirk settled on his features.
"Watch any news lately?" He seemed to ask out of the blue.
"…Uhm…" Zuko peered from left to right, unsure how to interpret that. "I'm not sure I understand-"
"He was right about everything, you know…" Long Feng continued talking. "And I for one admire his view of the future… Perhaps one day that might just become a reality."
"…What are you talking about?" Zuko asked him straight up, completely lost as to who he was referring to or what he meant.
Long Feng completely ignored the Firebender's question, allowing what he had said to fully settle in. The principal's attention now found itself drifting towards Aang, who stood there nervously.
"Now, Mr. Chen… this is very odd behavior for one such as yourself." He addressed Aang calmly, yet with an eerie sounding edge to it that none of them could place. "You've never been one to cut class before…"
"My apologies, Principal Long Feng." Aang tried to own up to his mistake. "It won't happen again."
"Hm…" The principal hummed his acknowledgment. "That remains to be seen. Let us hope the Firebender has not instilled his… bad habits within you."
Zuko's golden eyes narrowed. There it was again! He was clearly targeting him because he didn't like him!
But why? Because he was Fire Nation?
That had to be it…
After all, Long Feng showed tendencies of this just a couple days prior as well when he let Jet and his goons off scot free! Yet it was Zuko who had gotten in trouble and taken the full blame…
And all because of his Firebending…
Now glancing at Sokka, Long Feng could do nothing more than shake his head. He didn't have any clever comment for Sokka, almost as if he was used to his antics.
"Get back to class. All of you…" Long Feng ordered. "Before I give you all detention."
Sokka and Aang both widened their eyes at the threat, while Zuko could do nothing more except pierce Long Feng with his own distrusting gaze.
The Firebender could understand why Aang probably wouldn't like the idea of detention, but he was honestly surprised that Sokka looked as phased as he did.
Zuko would have no time to question this, though, since Long Feng seemed pretty adamant about them dispersing right at that very moment.
So… that's what they did.
The trio immediately rushed to their respective third period classes before Long Feng could change his mind, intent on getting through the rest of the day as if nothing had ever happened.
Of course… Zuko knew it wouldn't be that easy, especially in his case. He still needed to have that long overdue conversation with Toph, and soon.
However, when the best time for that would be exactly? He had no idea…
But when the right time came… Zuko would know.
Now was not the time to be indecisive or weak anymore, and Zuko was aware of that. He needed to stand firm and give her all the details.
It was only the right thing to do…
Leaning back in his seat in boredom, Zuko stifled another sigh, another realization dawning on him…
By third period's end, he would only be halfway through the school day… He still had another half to go after this, including lunch.
An audible thud was heard, as Zuko allowed himself to faceplant directly on the surface of his desk.
This school year was gonna end up killing him by the time it was over… wasn't it?