A/N: This chapter (the fifth written for Esteemed) takes place the day after chapter 1, 'Afraid Not.' The narrative points this out, but I figured I'd mention it here, just in case.
-128 ASC; Summer-
-Toph's age: 40-
-Lin's age: 8-
"-...om? ...ke p...Mom...C'm...up!"
"Nngh...?" Toph was slowly waking up to the sound of a familiar voice, her muscles sore and achy. There was a repeated pressure against her abdomen. Ouch. Ouch. Owwwww, what-?
"It's late, Mom! You shouldn't sleep all day."
As Toph pulled herself up from her mattress, her head was thrown into a state of dizziness as it pounded with pain. Damnit, she was hung over, for sure.
"Lin...?" Toph mumbled, pushing messy hair strands from her lips with a 'Puh!'
"Come on, get up."
Toph was still gaining her senses to the world around her. She nudged her sheet off, exposing her bare shins and arms to the air around her. Lin's slender little fingers wrapped themselves around Toph's wrist, and tugged, yanked, pulled.
Toph's entire arm was jolted with a split-second of intense pain. This act - her arm being contorted against her control - harkened back to the day before, when Yakone had forced her to unlock his shackles. She could practically hear the metal clattering to the floor, still echoing in her head as the last sound she'd heard before he'd cut off the flow of blood to her brain.
"M-Mom?" Lin gasped out, having instantly dropped her mother's hand.
Toph realized that she had flinched and jerked her arm away, teeth clenched.
"Did I hurt you?" Lin murmured, words shrouded with a bit of shame.
"Whuh...? No," Toph eased with her croaky morning voice, putting on a shaky smile for her girl.
Toph shifted her body around and planted her feet inches off the mattress and onto the cold, stone floor. Ugh, her stomach was uneasy with nausea. Toph yawned, rubbing her bent knees to wake them up. They were all achy. And her stomach, and her head, and now her hand...Blech. Toph cautiously extended that hand with had just twitched in agony and found Lin's head. She planted her palm against Lin's hair. It was much smoother and wavier than her own. It felt a lot cleaner, too. Ech. The girl had just spent the night with 'Aunt Katara,' so no surprise there on the cleanliness. Toph preferred her daughter with a bit of grit and grime about her - she was a kid, after all. That was, like...how kids were supposed to be, right? It was proof they were out doing things, getting rowdy, having fun, learning important stuff like, erm...well...how to be kids.
"Are you sure?" Lin mumbled dis doubt, regarding whether she had caused her mother pain.
Toph ran her fingers through Lin's hair a couple times as she spoke to her child.
"What would make you think you could hurt your Mama, huh? I'm tough as a Badger-Mole, and twice as mean."
But Toph could feel through her feet that Lin's heartbeat was...flustered, somehow. Lin weaved her head out of her mother's grasp.
"Yea, I know," Lin grumbled. Toph caught this remark as a reference to the other day, during their training. Tough and mean - that was certainly Toph's approach to getting her daughter acquainted with earthbending. And the girl had clearly not forgotten it. "Anyway," Lin changed the topic from sass-talking to sympathy. "Sokka told me what happened yesterday - why I had to stay on the Island last night. It was because that bad guy hurt you."
"Oh..." Toph sighed through her nose, but her still-waking mind needing to draw in another yawn. Scratching her nails against her left bosom, Toph let her head cock over to the side. "Yea, we underestimated that man. But you shouldn't worry about that, it's all taken care of. I'm fine."
"Because Uncle Aang stopped him, right?"
Grgh. There was that tone again, that...admiration. That aspiring, loving tone Lin had been taking toward dear old Uncle Aang lately. What was with that? Why couldn't 'Mama' get that kind of tone, huh? Was that too much to ask, with all that she did? Ulgh. There went the stomach again, all queasy.
"Y-yea," Toph grumbled, getting up on her feet with some effort. "He helped," Toph stated in regards to Aang. She felt like she was going to throw up, some heartburn creeping up from her displeased stomach. It felt empty, too - Toph could barely recall hurling up in the backyard at some point during the night. She could barely remember Sokka coming home, she had been so out of it.
"He told me that he took away that bad guy's bending," Lin said in a hushed tone. "That's...kinda scary."
"Mm," Toph hummed, trudging past her daughter and rustling the girl's hair a bit. "He only does it to bad guys, Kiddo."
Lin tailed behind her mother, who was exiting the bedroom and making way for the kitchen. Lin noticed that Toph was gripping her stomach with one hand, her head with the other, and her steps weren't normal.
"What's wrong, Mom?" Lin asked. "Are you sick?"
"Maybe," Toph vaguely replied. She lingered in the kitchen area for a few moments, nauseated and feeling quite unwell. "Hey, do you know why Sokka didn't wake me up? And how come you're not at school?"
"He...didn't say, he just told me you were going to stay home from work today. And I don't have school today. But I'm still going to do my reading."
Toph sighed through her nose. Sokka had really been pushing Lin to read, read, read these days, now that she was getting proficient at it. Toph wasn't a big of that - after all, books didn't exactly do much for her. Sokka seemed invested in showing Lin how to be smart and responsible, like he was, but Toph would rather see her girl grow up to be strong and free.
"Ah," was all Toph bothered to reply with, leaning herself against the kitchen's stone island counter. Her stomach gurgled, tightening up with discomfort.
"You look sick," Lin noted plainly. "Oh, oh! Can I cook? I could cook you breakfast, Mom!" Lin clapped her hands together eagerly, the sound piercing Toph's head.
"Urgh-! Y-yea, OK," Toph grunted out, her face twitching with pain beneath sweaty bangs.
"Yea!" There was a thud, a strong vibration through the house from Lin's little body bouncing up with determination. "I'm going to make your favorite."
"Oh, that so?" Toph placated her daughter with a weak smile, rubbing gunk from her eyes. The eyes might not have been useful, but it was still annoying to get crap stuck in them.
The clattering of pots being shuffled around on the wall behind her made Toph's head pulse and ache. She needed to get some fresh air, and some water would also help. Maybe some coffee or tea or something would hit the spot better. Toph warily retrieved her large, stoneware water pot. She had enough energy within her to earthbend it to her waist and carried it by hand against her hip. Ugh. Too tired to earthbend, even? It was going to be one of those days...
"I'm gonna go get some water, Kiddo," Toph informed, dragging herself to the back door. "Don't, uhh...burn yourself, or...-"
"OK!" Lin called back. More grating bangs of metal on metal echoed through the house, eliciting another flinch from Toph as she found her way outside.
The warm summer air was still humid, like yesterday, and Toph grunted in discomfort as she paced down the stone steps from the hand-crafted patio of smooth rock. As daytime heat immediately pressed down on her back, Toph groaned out a "Bleh," he tongue doggedly flopping out. It had to be close to midday by now, with how hot it was. The gentle tossing of waves soothed her as she approached the bay's water. Having a home at the edge of town had entailed living right next to Yue Bay, but Toph's high ranking position had made that an easy enough option. Lin and Sokka both seemed to love having the water close by, and Toph always had a bit of sand within walking distance should her toes get an inkling for the softer side of earth.
Stoneware in hand, Toph limped along in her hung over way. The sands that met her stung a bit at first, warmed by the sun, but she pressed onward, and within seconds was rewarded by the damp sand and the gentle licking of ocean waves across her toes. Sighing with relief, she hoisted up her stone pot, feet wedged into the earth at her feet. She tossed the pot out into the water, maintaining a bending grip on it with outstretched arms.
It landed with a loud 'ker-sploosh,', and Toph tugged her arms back inward, drawing the pot right back up. It landed in the sand at her feet, sloshing out water against her shins.
Toph's attention, which was gradually heightening as she became more conscious, detected something odd. A loud splashing sound was...coming closer. Like something skidding rapidly across water? Confused, Toph stood out on the sand, still in nothing but her short-sleeved under tunic and underpants. She sniffed in the salty air and rubbed her nose, waiting for the curious sound to either stop or pass by. But it wasn't passing by. No, it was definitely approaching her. And as it did, Toph recognized what the sound was - a waterbender, traveling by way of ice surfing. No-doubt it was Katara, come to check up on her after the previous day's events. Ugh, like Toph needed everyone all snooping into her personal life right now.
"Hey, ya don't need to give me a house call!" Toph called out to the approaching waterbender. "I'm fine!"
"Ya sure look it!" called out the person, slowing to a stop about twenty feet away. "I was expectin' a few more bruises, ya know?"
Toph's spine tingled. That...was not Katara. It was a guy. Some guy she did not know. The voice egged her on.
"I'm surprised my boss didn't at least rough you up a little after all this time. Yakone must be gettin' old on us."
Twisting. Churning. Needles on strings, contorting her body from within. Toph's heart skipped at the memory from the day before, and of this reminder.
Just because Yakone was imprisoned did not mean that the Red Monsoon triad was magically gone.
"Or maybe," the man continued to taunt. "Maybe he's just savin' you all for himself. Eh?"
"Yakone's bending is gone," Toph managed to growl out through grit teeth. As she made this retort, she thrust up her hands, summoning a pillar of soggy sand out from beneath the water before her. It clumsily flopped upward, but the man before her waterbended himself with ease out of the way. Toph instinctively made a motion to whip out her metal cables, but...she'd just woken up, and hadn't put her belt on. In this moment of recognition, she was knocking on her behind by a sharp, stinging whip of water to the chest.
The wind knocked out of her, Toph was too stunned to stop this man from distancing himself. She couldn't tell where he was now, his sounds shrouded by the waves sloshing around him. Argh, man, and her abdomen was really stinging from that water whip. Bleeding son-of-a...-
"We locked that bastard up!" Toph cried out in regards to Yakone, lifting her back up from the sand. "He isn't going to be-"
"Yea, I heard," the man shouted. Ah, there he was - well, she could figure the general spot, anyway. "And you n' that pussy excuse for an Avatar are gonna pay for that, so-Whoop!"
Toph had cut him off by kicking up her feet, trying to summon up another, larger pillar. Argh, trying to bend sand through water was not working out so well. And she was far too out of it to muster up much mass insofar as bending was concerned, her head still pounding, now worsened by an increased heart rate.
Her second attempt having failed, the triad member simply cackled at her.
"Flamey-oh-hoho! You're as stubborn as I heard!"
"What do you want?" Toph shouted out. "You gonna fight me like a man or keep splashin' around like a turtle-duck?
"I've been waiting for you to finally drag your dumb ass outta bed to send you a message, Chief!"
Toph, her stomach burning with a dull pain from the blow she'd sustained, had gotten back up to her feet. She stomped her foot into the sand, ignoring the man's words, but he continued to relay what he'd been sent to say.
"The Red Monsoons are still watching you, Beifong! Your every bleedin' move!"
Toph made quick, tight motions with her open hands, summoning up a large chunk of sand and separating it into smaller chunks.
"Yakone ain't down for the count yet, and neither are we!"
Toph clenched her fists, squeezing the balls of sand into hardened makeshift rocks.
"We know where you live, and if you cross us, that kid o' yours ain't gonna fine when we're done with her!"
With a guttural grunt through grit teeth, Toph flung her hands forward, pushing the myriad of sand stones out toward the source of the voice.
She heard a yelp, and what she liked to think was the sound of earth pelting flesh. But the waterbender was quickly making his escape, unmoved from position above the waves.
Toph stood for a few moments as the sound vanished. Her body was tight, still squat in earthbending form, teeth grinding together, heart banging against her ribs. It took a few seconds of tension for her to accept that the triad member had escaped, and for her body to loosen up. Aching and sore all around, a moment of despair leaked from Toph's face in a frustrated whimper. So long had she been dealing with Yakone and his cronies, and even now, she was still not rid of their threat. If anything, Yakone's capture had made them quite ballsy to go delivering direct threats to her home.
Should she report it? Ugh, but that could just make it worse for her. She'd have to uproot her small, precious family that it had taken so long to build. No. Screw that. This was her home, and she wasn't about to let some two-bit lackey get her scared.
Yea. She wasn't scared of anything. Not at all. She'd never let them touch Lin. Or Sokka. And, psh, what? Had that guy tried to threaten the Avatar? Yea, she wished him good luck on that one. Because that had worked out just wonderfully for the biggest crime boss Republic City had ever known.
Toph wore off her shakiness and pushed her tired body to refill her spilled pot of water and bring it back inside. As she levitated it along toward the house with one hand, she made care to earthbend out any sand, grit, or sea salt crystals.
Upon entering the house, she was immediately welcomed by the savory scents chopped vegetables. Lin was preparing. Damn, for only being eight years old, Lin had already picked up some great cooking skills. If only Toph could get the kid off cooking and books and focusing on junk that mattered, like making the very earth beneath her move at will...Lin was bound to become quite the bender, with the Beifong blood coursing through her veins.
"Oh, hey," Lin greeted between chopping food. "What took so long? You...-?" The chopping slowed to a pause as Toph trudged toward the fireplace, dumping the water in the cauldron they used for boiling. "Mom, are you OK?"
"Nothin'," Toph mumbled back. "Just had a bit of trouble filling this up, I'm not quite awake, heh. Hey, help your Mama get this fire started up, huh?"
"Sh-sure," Lin dropped what she was doing and skittered over to the fireplace as Toph went to sit down on the couch in their living room. She flicked her wrists about, bending off trace dirt and sand from her body. Sokka loved his stupid couch, and he'd throw a tizzy if she got it grimy.
Toph sucked in air between her teeth and she laid herself down, her entirety gnarled with pain and tension. She could hear Lin flicking flint stones together.
"Thanks, Kiddo," Toph sighed, sprawled across the couch. Her head was swimming with worry. If Yakone had truly been such an expert bloodbender, there was no way he wouldn't have taught at leas some of his cronies how to bloodbend. What if any of them somehow possessed his power? Or...or even just normal bloodbending, that was still bad enough, and jeez, her home was right next to the water, they could just-...Bleh. She needed to take her mind off of this. "Mama's not feelin' so great."
"So...you're not OK," Lin concluded with some contained and confused bitterness. The fireplace awakened with a whisping sound.
"No," Toph puffed impatiently. "Just don't...worry about it. All right?"
"Fine," Lin said with a rather intentional sigh.
Toph's face was covered in messy hair, her feet dangling over the couch's edge. She listened and rested as Lin went about preparing the meal. As the water began to boil, Toph got herself onto her bare feet and went about using the hot water to prepare herself a cup. She grabbed her favorite, trusty pewter mug and bended it into the hot water, scooping it up. She could smell Lin chopping up potatoes, a delight to her nostrils. Given the other smells present, it seemed that Lin was getting a batch of spicy potato curry whipped up. That and a cup of strong coffee ought to stir Toph awake and clear her head, for sure.
"I guess Sokka was right," Lin noted vaguely, tending to her cooking duty.
"Huh?" Toph dumped a small scoop of coffee grinds from the often-used container they stored their roasts in.
"He said you needed the day off," Lin explained. "Because you're not feeling well."
"Eh," Toph stubbornly conceded. She added no sugar to her drink, opting to let only the coffee grounds settle within. At this point, she didn't much care how good it turn out, she was desperate to get some caffeine into her system and straighten her hungover head.
"So, um...-" Lin began with some hesitation. "I bet you still think I should practice my bending today...huh?"
"Uh, yea," Toph puffed out, letting the vapors of the steaming water and coffee trickle into her nose.
"But, well, you're not feeling good," Lin cited.
"Uncle Aang offered to come visit and, um...give me a lesson today, since you...-"
"What?" Toph grumbled, befuddled. Aang had already done enough snooping into Toph's business over everything that had gone down the day before, and now he was trying to directly walk in and intrude on her training for her daughter? He had some nerve.
"I still need help, Mom, and I don't want to train with you if you're sick."
"I'm not sick."
"But you seem pretty sick to me."
"That's-...No, I just...-"
"Drank too much?"
Toph's nose wrinkled. She twirled around and leaned over her daughter's shoulder, directing what she perceived to be a fairly intimidating look down at the girl.
"You listen here, Lin. Don't you sass me like that. I'm your Mother."
Lin didn't reply.
Tok. Tok. Tok.
Lin's knife hit the cutting board repeatedly. Toph breathed out with irritation. She could feel through her feet her daughter's elevated heart beat, so at least she'd made her point clear enough.
"Apologize," Toph commanded, stepping back to the counter where her coffee was brewing.
"I'm sorry, Mom," Lin curtly obeyed.
A stifling awkwardness lingered over the two of them for a couple more minutes, and Toph took a sample sip of her coffee, nearly burning her tongue. By now, Lin was boiling food in the cauldron, stirring it about.
In these moments of homey quiet, Toph couldn't help but recognize that she was being more terse with Lin than necessary.
She couldn't quite get it out of her head - that niggling worry. Fear? Ha, no. There was nothing to be afraid of. But, still, there was...some doubt. Toph couldn't keep an eye on Lin 24/7 - Spirits, Toph couldn't keep 'an eye' on Lin at all. She had to figure out what to do about this triad dung heap that had been spilled into her lap.
But that didn't mean she needed to take out her frustrations on her well-meaning girl.
"I'm sorry I got mad," Toph muttered out over the sound of boiling water.
Lin didn't respond, but Toph could sense the girl stirring the food.
"I'm just...feeling sick," Toph flipped around her phrasing for the sake of hoping to get her daughter's understanding. "I was hurt yesterday, and...Sokka was, too, and even though...we put that bad guy in jail, I'm, you know...maybe a little worried his bad guy buddies might try to cause trouble. I guess."
Toph paused at the calm way Lin had said the word. Like she didn't really understand what she was saying - what it truly meant.
Toph took in a deep, solemn breath. Those terrifying moments kept replaying in her head, her own involuntary groans - Sokka's yelp of pain, the wave of undead-esque moaning - it bounced around in her skull, and she sought reprieve with another sip of her black coffee-like beverage. Ech.
"Yea," Toph replied quietly. "It hurts like...nothing else I can think of."
"Oh...Sokka wouldn't explain it to me."
"That's because it's something you don't need to worry about."
Lin had abandoned her cooking pot, leaving it to boil, and walked over to her mother.
"But you're OK?" Lin asked once again. Jeez, Sugar-Queen's incessant worry-warting was really rubbing off, or something.
"Sokka's fine, Kiddo. I'm fine. Don't make a fuss."
Toph was startled as Lin's dainty body pressed itself against her. Lin pushed her head against Toph's waist, squeezing her mother's back. It was a tender touch, one that Toph could not recall having received from Lin in some time.
"OK," Lin whimpered out with a small sniffle. "When...when Aang told me...wh-what happened, and...how I needed to stay on the Island overnight, I...I was...a little scared."
"What? Hey. Hey, now..." Toph sipped her coffee and stroked her hand over Lin's head.
"I was sc-scared you got...hurt..."
"What did I tell you about that? No getting scared."
Lin sobbed, and Toph could feel a bit of snot getting rubbed into her tunic.
"And no crying, come...come on..." Toph sighed, her face flushing with embarrassment as her own eyes began to well up.
In all of the pain, the aching, the soreness...the headache, the fear, the queasiness...the past day had been quite a trip.
But this moment - this moment of innocent, physically expressed concern and love...that meant something. It meant something that Toph still, years after Lin's birth, was trying to figure out why she craved so much. Why so little of it could fuel so much of her being.
Toph's head was finally cleared up by the time Aang had arrived, and she had bothered to stick on proper clothes, too. After a stilted, awkward bit of small talk with Toph to make sure she was doing OK, Aang had been practically assaulted with enthusiasm from Lin, who was eager to get some earthbending practice in. The excitement in Lin's tone around 'Uncle' Aang stung Toph right in the chest, only reminding the mother of the grumbling and groaning she received from Lin in regards to the same act of training.
At this point, Toph could feel the air in front of her whirling a bit as Aang was kicking up a small twister, spinning himself in circles above the air. Lin had just handed him a blindfold and scurried off to hid beside a nearby tree in Toph's backyard. Toph was passively witnessing this so-called training session from the back porch through her ears and her feet.
Toph could feel Aang's body spinning against the dirt as he landed, facing the complete opposite direction that she knew Lin was hiding in. He shuffled his a feet around a bit, regaining his balance. Hunched over her porch steps, head bobbed, Toph paid attention as Aang steadied his stance in a rigid squat, balling his fists by his waist as he slid his feet against the dirt. It was just like she'd taught him, all those years ago. He lifted a foot and slammed it against the dirt. A moment of quiet tension passed, and Toph could detect her daughter's form almost blending with the base of the tree she was huddled against. Cheeky little one, Toph would give her that.
Aang's body rotated to face Lin, and he thrust out his arms, pounding his foot into the earth once again. Toph felt the ground beneath them wobble as his bending tremor traveled to Lin's exact position. A small pillar of dirt jumped up from the ground, knocking Lin off of the tree's base and onto her butt. Lin giggled, falling over on her back, and Aang in turn chuckled, removing his blindfold.
"Ah, see?" Aang called out, crossing the distance. "I told you!"
"I thought only Mom could do that," Lin said with a tint of amazement, lifting herself from the dirt.
Aang's form vanished from Toph's perception, only to reappear a couple of seconds later upon the upturned earth he'd just toppled Lin with. He seemed to hop up and land hard, bending the ground back into place.
"Well, she's the one who taught me, after all," Aang pointed out, extending an arm. Little Lin took it and was hoisted up. "Your Mom's pretty talented, you know."
"Yea," Lin muttered. Toph's keen hearing could pick up that tinge of bitterness, even across the distance. Another needle in her chest.
"What's wrong?" Aang asked.
"Mm," Lin hummed out vaguely.
"All right," Aang dropped the subject. "Here." He extended his hand, and Lin reached out to it, taking what Toph assumed was the blindfold. "Why don't you try?"
"Mom hasn't...really taught me how to do that yet," Lin pointed out.
"That's OK," Aang assured, giving her a pat on the shoulder as he led her to the spot where he had started off. "It won't hurt to give it a try. You never know."
"Uhhh...Sure," Lin gave in.
Oh, pff. Yea, all right. Toph had tried to get Lin to practice this technique earlier that week, and she'd refused. Suddenly, the girl was all too complacent when Aang babied her along.
Toph could feel Lin's body wriggling a bit, and she assumed Lin was tied her blindfold over her eyes.
"Ready?" Aang checked.
"Mm!" Lin's body was tight and tense with determination, and Toph sensed the girl's heartbeat rise a bit. Lin's bare feet slid across the dirt as she took her horse stance.
Then, Aang disappeared from Toph's radar, silently and without incident. Toph irritably puffed hot air at her floppy bangs, chin resting lazily in one palm as she waited for the old 'Fancy Dancer' to touch the ground. Toph could definitely feel Lin's presence, though - the girl was skidding her feet across the ground. After a few moments, Lin was smacking her right foot against the dirt every couple of seconds. Toph could already tell where Aang had touched down. Lin, however, didn't seem to have a clue. And how could she? Toph hadn't gotten her into that phase of training yet, since the girl was still learning the basics.
From a distance, Toph's interest was piqued when she felt a strange vibration emanating from Aang, like...some kind of shock wave? What? Aang seemed to be gesturing his hands in quick and quiet downward thrust. He'd take a step with each movement. Was he creating small tremors with his footsteps? After he'd performed this act a few times, Lin seemed to catch on, and was slowly but surely starting to find her way toward Aang's movements.
Toph's insides bubbled with irritation. What good was it to trick your student into thinking they were succeeding? That was useless! Urgh. Maybe Aang and Katara wanted to teach like that, but Toph wanted her daughter to be strong, iron-willed, not coddled.
By the time Lin had made her way about ten feet from Aang, he'd stopped his slight of hand bending, and she'd gotten a bit lost as a result. Just as she started meandering off away from where he stood, Aang called out to her.
"Hey, not bad!"
Lin paused, spinning around as she pulled off her blindfold. Upon realizing how close she'd made it, she gasped with some delighted pride and hopped in mild celebration.
With a sigh, Toph pushed herself up from the steps of her back porch and stalked toward the two of them. Aang was giving her a pat on the back as she excitedly rambled about how she had barely been able to feel his steps.
"-but then I...I guess I messed up, and started...going the wrong way, but...-"
"But you still got pretty close for your first try," Aang encouraged. "Put in some practice, and some day you might be able to do it like your Mom does."
"You really think so?"
"You've got natural talent, Lin," said Aang, kneeling to her eye level and giving her shoulder a squeeze. "I'm sure you could become a great bender if you focus on your training."
Lin seemed a bit speechless at his compliment, while Toph's insides were wriggling with a mixture of frustrated and conflicting thoughts.
As Toph got close, Lin noticed and scampered her way.
"Mom! I just tried-"
"Yea, I know," Toph mumbled, her disinterest more apparent than she'd intended. Lin stalled to a stop right before her, and Toph sighed through her nose, head pointed right over her daughter. "Uh, good effort, Kiddo," Toph tried to save face. She planted her palm on Lin's head, which was at least more sweaty and gritty now that she'd been doing some bending practice. "Now c'mon, it's time to cook some lunch."
"Ooh, can Uncle Aang join us?"
Aang let out a sheepish laugh, but the corners of Toph's mouth arced down ever so slightly, her nostrils wrinkling as she removed her hand from Lin.
"Well," she said pointedly, "If Uncle Aang wants to eat meat - which is what we're having - then...sure."
"Oh..." Lin's excitement wilted a bit. "I wanted to...practice a bit more, and...-"
"Hey," said Aang, walking right up to the both of them. "Don't worry about me. I'll go run some errands while you take a break with your Mom, OK?"
"Mm..." Lin nodded toward him, evidently uncertain about him leaving.
Aang assured her, "I'll be back in a little while, I promise."
"OK," Lin accepted his word. "And can we do more practice?"
"Er, well...-" Aang's body seemed to direct itself to Toph, who was struggling to suppress the unexplained pit her stomach. Aang spoke. "If you Mother's fine with it, then...-"
"Please, Mom?" Lin begged quietly and politely. Geez, where was she getting this courteous attitude, from? Maybe all of that house sitting at Air Temple Island while Toph and Sokka were at work was making Lin too soft for her own good. "Please?"
"Yea, yea," Toph murmured out with hesitation, nudging Lin back toward the house. "But first, we gotta get some meat on those bones of yours. Go start up the fire, I'll be there in a minute."
"OK!" Lin obediently scurried by, and Toph could sense the girl's body twist back toward them, her arm stretched up. "See you later, Uncle?"
"Yep! I'll be back," Aang insisted as he waved over.
Toph waited until Lin's presence had disappeared into their home, her head craned over her shoulder.
"Toph?" Aang mumbled to her, confused. "Is everything all right?"
Toph snapped her head toward him, stepped right up to him and jabbing her index finger into the dusty fabric over his pectoral.
"What're you doing?" she grunted in quiet accusation.
Aang pushed her hand away from his chest and crossed his arms.
"I'm visiting," he stated. "Why, did Lin not check with you first?"
"No, she didn't," Toph said. She paused, recalling that Lin had brought it up, and Toph had indirectly OK-ed it. "I mean, not...before she'd asked you, anyway. I wasn't expecting company today."
"Why didn't you say something when I arrived?" Aang asked, his tone softening."Do you need more time alone, or...-?"
"N-no, I don't...-"
"I could go get Sokka if you want, tell him you're not feeling well-"
"I'm fine, Twinkle-Toes."
"I told you to stop calling me that..."
"This isn't about us, it's about her."
"What, do you want Katara to look after her again tonight? I'm sure she wouldn't-"
"No, I didn't mean...-!"
"Are you sure you're OK? You seem out of sorts."
"Rrgh..." Toph scraped her fingernails against her hair line, taking a step away from this hushed back and forth she was trying to engage in.
"Did something else happen?" Aang asked. Damnit, why did he have to be so...perceptive like that?
"I must...just still be feeling off," Toph huffed out. It was easier to let herself look vulnerable and stressed than to admit she was afraid and jealous. "I dunno, maybe my...cycle's starting back up, or...-" Yea, that was a feasible explanation, right? He wouldn't go asking about something like that.
"Ah. It...has been a crazy week, hasn't it?" Aang sympathized. "But listen. Toph." Against her shoulder, Toph could feel Aang's hand - once squishy and delicate, now sturdy and firm in his older age. "We got him. Yakone is behind bars. He's not going to be hurting any one any more."
"Y-yea, ya don't gotta tell me," Toph grumbled with indignity. "In case ya forgot, I'm the one who locked him up myself. Bastard'll rot there for the rest of his days, as far as I'm concerned."
"But, I mean, the Red Monsoons...-" She trailed off. She couldn't bring herself to tell him of her encounter that morning. She didn't need the Avatar getting involved any more than he already had. Yakone had tried to assassinate Aang, only to have his bending removed. The Monsoons were just as likely to try coming after the Avatar and his family if Toph made any kind of move against them right now. Toph had one kid to protect, but Aang and Katara had three now, and then who knew how many others on that island.
"I know, they're still out there," Aang conveyed his understanding. "But without their leader, they're probably disorganized. Your officers - and you, once you're back on your feet - will take care of it," Aang put her at ease. "And if you need my help, you know that you don't even have to ask."
No, I don't even have to ask, because I don't need your help.
"I know it's got to be difficult," Aang related with her, "trying to not think about all of this, but you really need to set some time aside right now for your family - for yourself. How long has it been since you've taken a break for more than a day?"
"I...I don't...-" Toph couldn't quite remember. The past few months had been exhausting with all of the gang activity going on.
"Even you need to rest once in a while," Aang pointed out, patting her arm as he broke their contact. "Sokka told me you didn't sleep well last night, and given what happened, I don't blame you. To be honest, I didn't get good rest, either."
Urgh! What're you doing, you Meat-Head? Blabbing about our personal lives...
"OK, all right, I get it," Toph huffily dismissed Aang's attempt at getting her to expose herself. "I'll...look into taking a few more days off, but if some kind of emergency comes up, I'm not just gonna sit on my ass."
"All right." Aang seemed satisfied. "Maybe it'll be a good chance to bond with your daughter, have some fun for a change? Instead of just being all focused on her training."
"Yea, and another thing," Toph puffed, circling back to the original topic of discussion. She latched her hands on her hips and attempted to give Aang a scowl. "What was that out here?" she demanded. "I'm not ignorant, ya know. I could sense your trickety-trick, playing head-games with my kid."
"You lied to her, Aang," Toph accused with disappointment. "Made her think she's better than she is."
"Oh, that? No, I was...just trying to give her some confidence."
"She doesn't need confidence."
"That's a little hypocritical, coming from you."
"I think I've earned my place, here. Lin doesn't need her ego stroked, she needs to stop being so lazy and practice the new forms I keep trying to get her on."
"Toph, Lin's...just a child, I don't think it's such a-"
"Wh-?! Just a child? Um, hello? By the time we were thirteen, we'd ended a century long war, for Spirits' sake. I was one of best benders on the planet before my cherry had even popped."
"Toph," Aang sighed - he sounded just the slightest bit uncomfortable by her 'cherry' remark. Typical. "That was during a war. But now, we're living in a new kind of world. We're living in a time of peace. One that doesn't need bending to be used for violence on a day-to-day basis."
"Heh! Right. That's why yesterday played out the way it did, right? No. There's still psychos out there, and my daughter's going to learn to protect herself."
"I...completely understand, and I'm not saying she shouldn't."
"And I am saying that she shouldn't be coddled."
"OK." Aang seemed to be backing off a bit. It never seemed to take much to get him to lily-liver out of an argument, but Toph was at least a bit impressed he had been sticking with it this long.
Toph posed to him, "Did I coddle you, when I trained your sorry ass into shape?"
"No," Aang replied with a touch of defiance.
"Then I'm definitely not gonna pamper my own flesh and blood."
"The way you approached my training worked because...it had to," Aang walked around her point. "We had to protect the Earth Kingdom. We had no other choice - I needed to learn, so I...dealt with it."
"That's my point. You sucked it up. If even you could do it when you were little, my daughter should be able to handle it, no sweat. I don't need her going all soft."
"She's not 'soft,' she's eight years old."
"I was training with wild badger-moles in caves when I was eight - and blind. Lin can barely move pebbles around."
"That's...great, Toph," Aang muttered. He was starting to get impatient. Good. Maybe he'd let it drop and accept that she was right. "I just don't think it's a good idea to put all of that pressure on Lin when she's still so young."
"I don't think it's a good idea to tell me how to raise my kid."
Aang sighed through his nose. His heart was starting to race a bit from the tension in their discussion.
"Fair enough," Aang let the matter drop. "It's just that...it seems like maybe - at least at this early stage - Lin might need to build her way up a bit."
"That's for me to decide."
"All right. OK. So...do you not want me to train with her?"
"Mmph." Toph grunted through slightly flared nostrils, folding her arms across her chest. She wanted to say 'No.' But she knew, right then and there, that if she did, it would just make Lin look at her as 'the bad guy.' So she'd have both Aang and her kid angry with her. Damnit. She just couldn't learn to shut her mouth and let dung roll off her back.
Aang was waiting for her answer, so she gave him one.
"Fine, you can train her once in a while - I already can tell she's going to ask you without my say-so as it is...But no more of this crap where you give her fake expectations of herself. We clear?"
"Well...All right, then. So...-" She flicked her wrist off at him and turned back to head inside. "Until later."
"Enjoy your lunch," Aang said to her back. "And I'm serious, Toph - try to just relax a bit with Lin."
"Gettin' right on that, thanks."
Toph wriggled her hand up over her shoulder at him. She wanted him to leave already. Trying to talk about all of this drama and such was only stressing her out even more. If he was so perceptive, couldn't he at least figure that much out?
As Toph trudged her way back to the back door of her home, she felt Aang's twinkly little footsteps fade off into the found herself conflicted by her own attitude. Aang was an old and dear friend - the first real friend she had ever made. He genuinely cared, not just about her but about Lin, too. Toph knew that, deep down, and yet still her bristles and spines would stab out at the first sign of her ego coming under fire. Rrgh, why did that still happen? She was forty freaking years old, she shouldn't still be...-
"Hey, Mom." Lin's voice ripped Toph from her inner workings.
"Hey, Kiddo," Toph breathed out tiredly, willing the door closed behind her. She could hear the crackling of the fire across the way.
"I was wondering what was taking so long..."
"Ah, it's nothin'," Toph assuaged the girl's curiosity. "Just catching up with Aang."
"About the bad stuff from yesterday?"
Lin prodded at the coals of the fire she'd started. "You guys...seem mad at each other lately."
At Lin's astute observation, Toph's nose let slip a forced sigh.
"Don't worry about it," Toph pushed the matter aside. She pulled out their half-consumed loaf of bread from that morning and metalbending their bread knife to the cutting board.
"OK." Lin could tell this was just another thing Mom wasn't going to open up about, and she might as well drop the subject. "But, um...-"
"Yea?" Toph checked, hand slicing the bread with careful motions.
"Aang's still coming back later, right?"
"Yea, he is. I told you, don't worry. It's fine." Toph set the bread back into its box as she retrieved some cured meat from its container. Sokka had taken Lin aside a couple of days prior and walked her through the steps of salt-curing it, and now was as good a time as any to make use of the stuff.
"Thanks, Mom. I...really like training with him."
"I could tell," Toph mumbled, sawing her knife at the bread in her hands.
A few moments of homebody quiet passed, with Toph cutting up fresh vegetables while Lin took the cured meat and prepared it to be cooked. The two of them prepped food side by and side in those precious seconds, and Toph had to admit that she savored these moments alone with Lin. Not that she minded Sokka's presence, it's just that the man had a habit of bringing noise and sound to the mix, when now and again some quiet understanding could go a long way.
As she cooked the meat across the way, Lin's voice traveled to Toph.
"We're pretty lucky, huh?"
"How's that?" Toph wondered.
"We get to be friends with the Avatar. That's...really neat. The most powerful person in the world? And the smartest, too."
"I dunno about all that..."
"Because, well...Isn't the Avatar connected to all of the previous Avatars before them?"
"I...guess, I don't...-" Toph sniffed, her eyes dampening from the onion she was chopping up. "Your Mama's not so big on that Spirit stuff. You know that."
"I know. I'm not, either. That's just neat to think about that stuff."
The two finished their task of putting together beef-ham sandwiches, completing a third for Sokka when he returned for his midday meal break, which would be fairly soon, Toph surmised.
The two sat together out on the back patio of their home, the distant sound of boats traversing the bay's waves keeping them company.
"How is it?" Lin wondered, curious as to her meat-cooking skills. Toph could hear the girl's jaws digging into her meal eagerly - she was no-doubt hungry from being a busy-body that day. Cleaning, training, cooking...Lin was being more obedient than usual, and Toph wasn't going to complain.
"Mm," Toph hummed her approval, mouth full of food. As she chewed, she reached out to hand to her daughter's head. She scratched her nails across Lin's wavy, sweaty hair. The man whom Lin had inherited that hair from had been quite the mistake, but at least even he had brought some kind of blessing to Toph's life. Toph was still working on trying to appreciate that, but Aang had been right: some quiet time relaxing with the girl was more enjoyable than she'd normally expect. "Tastes fine, Lin," Toph replied after she'd swallowed.
"I hope Sokka teaches me more about cooking."
"Ha! Yea, you and me, both."
"Then I can make even better food for you."
"I'm sure I wouldn't that."
"And also, I hope Uncle Aang teaches me more about bending."
"I'm really glad that Uncle Aang and Auntie Katara live so close to us."
Toph took a moment to contemplate this notion.
"...Yea. Me, too, Kiddo. Me, too."
The two ate their sandwiches in peace. Well, Lin did, at least. Toph ate hers with in a silent state of anxiety as her brain spun a web of worries.
If things with the Red Monsoons take a turn for the worst, at least I know they'll have my back. Maybe I'm being too hard on them. They're trying to help us out here. Still, Lin is my daughter, and I need her to be strong. To know how to protect herself, how to protect Sokka - poor idiot thinks his boomerang can save him from some of the kinds of creeps lurking our streets...Being the Police Chief's kid makes Lin a prime target for the Monsoons if they've got a revenge wish. I can't ignore that. But I also can't go dragging everyone else into my problems. Damnit, what am I going to do about this mess? Yakone kicked my ass while barely flinching a muscle. What if he was able to teach his lackeys how to bloodbend? What do I do if-
A small burp from Toph's left caused her to drop that train of thought. Another burp from Lin, just as small and dainty, elicited Toph to smirk. Toph swallowed her last bite of sandwich and let her own belch pop out, bringing out a giggle from Lin.
"You burp like a boy, Mom," said Lin, dusting crumbs off of her pants.
"Oh, really?" Toph played with a mischievous tone. "I thought that was a 'dignified lady' kind of burp."
"No," Lin chuckled.
"You sure? Here, lemme...-" Toph willed up another burp, but wasn't able to get it as loud as the last one. She rolled with it. "That any better?"
"A little, I guess," said Lin, evidently amused by her mother's childish behavior.
"C'mon, then," Toph goaded, nudging Lin with her elbow. "Let's hear it."
"You give me another girly burp," Toph requested, slapping Lin on the back. "Show me how it's done."
"I can't!" Lin bashfully shrugged off her mother's arm.
"Ah, c'mere..." Toph tapped at Lin's shoulder, gesturing the girl to slide over toward her.
"What?" Lin mumbled with some impatience.
"Sit with your Mama for a minute," Toph offered.
Lin paused, evidently dumbfounded. Her mother wasn't prone to random acts of sensitivity and tenderness. Something seemed off, but Lin figured it best to just appreciate her mother's currently kind attitude.
Lin was startled as the stone beneath her rippled, a small wave of earth moving her leftward and into her mother's side. She laughed through her nose, amused by her mom's nonchalant bending. Toph's slender but sturdy arm latched itself across Lin's back and shoulder, and Lin leaned into her mom's side, taking a deep breath.
Toph extended her legs down the patio's steps, letting the warmth of the sun massage her feet. She twisted her neck to the left, letting her chin fall on Lin's head. In the quiet, Toph was able to grasp just how achy she was - her joints, her head, her arms...The soothing heat of the sun on her toes was relaxing, and the steady, subtle vibrations of Lin's heartbeat through Toph's palm was the melody to a lullaby. This rare moment of her child's warmth against her breast brought Toph back to an earlier time, when she had been less appreciative of holding her own daughter. Toph maybe still didn't really understand why her heart could be rendered so stung one minute and so full the next, all on account of this girl - but she would be damned if she'd let anyone hurt the kid.
"Sooo...-" Lin's heels tapped against the steps. "What do we do now, Mom?"
Toph answered by humming out an 'I dunno.'
"Umm...Should I...-?" Lin made a gesture to get up, but realized her mother's grip was pretty solid on her.
"Take a break, Kiddo," Toph eased, rubbing the girl's back and letting her re-settled down.
"You're...acting weird, Mom," Lin mumbled out. "Is everything OK? Do you have a fever? Does your arm still hurt?"
"Mama's just a little tired today," Toph explained casually, embracing the girl in her arm. "Even I need to recover here and there."
"Oh. But...how is sitting here helping you feel better? Shouldn't you lay down in bed, or...-?"
Toph grinned, rustled Lin's hair a bit, and planted her chin back down the girl's dusty nest of a head.
"You know what, Kiddo? You help me feel a lot better just by being here. I guess you must be pretty special like that, huh?"
Lin smiled a little bit at her mother's vague explanation. Mom was having a bad time lately - she knew that. If sitting here for a while in peace and quiet was what Mom wanted, Lin was OK with that. She adjusted herself into a more comfortable position.
Lazy lounging on a summer afternoon, hum of Republic City behind them, the gentle whispers of the ocean's bay in front of them, and her daughter's heartbeat singing a song over it all. This proved to be the most effective medicine for Toph's ailments.