This chapter takes place during events of 'The Promise,' so if you have yet to read it, a lot of the context won't make complete sense. Since there is a certain plot-ish kind of point that I think is a big deal for the story I want to tell, I've copied some dialogue from the comic to make sure this device is made apparent, while also adding in extra narrative and dialogue around existing pieces from the comic. A lot of these earlier chapters are directly connected to scenes from the series, but most chapters for this series will not follow that format.
-101 ASC; Summer-
-Toph's age: 13-
Their shouts reverberated off of the dojo walls, their movements sending subtle vibrations across the stone floor.
Feet were steadied and fists were thrust out. But the coins did not move from their positions, wedged atop their stalks of bamboo.
"Nothing," sighed Ho Tun, the largest of the three. "No movement at all."
Stop dragging your knuckles, fatty.
Penga, the youngest and tiniest, gave her coin a ragged glare.
"How am I supposed to impress my boyfriend?!" she squealed through clenched teeth of frustration.
Tsh. Yea, your 'boyfriend' my ass, little missy.
"I hate failure," muttered Moo - 'the Dark One' - with the same unenthused tone he always spoke in.
Cry me a river, you lump of 'blah.'
"This is bad!" cried Ho Tun. He slapped his palms against his cheeks as he bemoaned, "I can't concentrate on forms with doom coming in two days!"
"I'm sick of hearing about doom!" Penga stamped her foot as she pointed an angry finger at her fellow student. The shake her stomp sent across the dojo's stone floor was startling to Toph's tired feet. "I'm not practicing with you anymore!" Ugh. And her whiny, squeaky little voice sure wasn't gaining any sympathy from the Sifu.
"I hate...-!" Moo folded his arms with bitter defeat. "I hate...all of this!"
Toph's head was throbbing from the stress of the situation, compounded by what irritating little dungballs these students were being. They had two more days until Kunyo arrived - his students were to battle Toph's students "to the sit" (rather than 'to the death'). Toph had occupied Kunyo's dojo in his leave due to the Harmony Restoration Movement, but seeing that Zuko had apparently lost some marbles recently, the movement had been withdrawn, and Fire Nation forces were returning to Yu Dao, the largest of the colonies. Toph had selected Yu Dao as her base of operations for multiple reasons, but primarily because it hosted a blend of Fire Nation culture (which meant lots of metal) and Earth Kingdom citizens (which meant lots of potential metalbenders).
However, if her students couldn't prove their worth against Kunyo's firebenders, Toph would be left disgraced, a failure of a teacher, and per her agreement with Kunyo, she would be obligated to leave the dojo building. At this rate, however, Toph was losing hope in her students and her capabilities as a mentor. Maybe metalbending wasn't something she could teach to these dunderheads.
As Penga yammered her complaints at Ho Ton, Toph and Sokka observed in the next room. Toph sensed Sokka's body slide slightly, rotating to face her. She could feel him raising his arm, probably gesturing toward what she imagined was a pathetic sight.
"So, these were the most qualified students you could find, huh?" Sokka wondered. He sounded especially doubtful, and for good reason.
"It wasn't me," Toph insisted, rolling up her right sleeve. She revealed to Sokka the tightly wound ring of meteorite stone wrapped around her bicep. "It was this!"
"Ooooh! Space bracelet!" Sokka sounded happy to see the little treasure. Toph had constantly kept it with her all year, a sort of souvenir of her time with her friends in the Fire Nation, ending the war. But also, it being a token gift from Sokka to her, she couldn't help but think of it as a symbol of her friendship with the Water Tribe good. His enthusiasm at the bracelet made Toph's inside bubble up just a little with delight. However, Sokka's mind immediately went in a different direction as he whimpered, "Oh, how I miss you, Space Sword!"
Eeh. Those bubbles in Toph's stomach popped. The subject of 'Space Sword' was one that Toph, even a year after the war had ended, couldn't properly formulate her thoughts on. There was guilt, gratitude, regret, joy, all bundled up into one mish-mash of...feelings. Toph didn't much like to dwell on the idea. She chose not to acknowledge Sokka's whimpering statement - his reminder of Space Sword, of the day she'd almost died, of the way he clung to her fingertips in desperation to protect her, the way that Space Sword was lost on account of her not being strong enough to save herself at just the wrong time, the-...Wait. It was doing that thing again. Toph's bracelet was...shivering. Just barely, but it was there. Rather than dwell on this fact, much less on why it had happened, Toph opted to carry on, ignoring Sokka's embellished agony.
Toph flicked her left wrist, willing the stone jewelry to slide off her arm and re-close itself in its normally neat ring in her left hand. She began twirling it around her index finger as she spoke, pacing thoughtfully toward the tiny school's front entrance.
"About a year ago," she told Sokka, "I noticed that every now and then, when I was in public, my bracelet would shiver the tiniest bit."
Having reached the front steps of her self-proclaimed academy, Toph caught the whirling rock in her palm, squeezing it tightly into a ball. She folded her hands behind her back, taking in the fresh summer air. As Sokka arrived at her side, she appreciated the particular flavor his scent added to the collection of smells that had become stale around the dojo since her taking up residence there. She took in a deep breath as a weird part of her thought, 'Sure would be nice if that smell of his stuck around for a while.'
Bleh. What a stupid thing to think. How come all of a sudden she was thinking dumb crud like that? Sokka's idiocy was rubbing off of her, probably.
Confused as to why her mind had gone there, Toph continued her explanation about the bracelet, rubbing her thumb along the round rock behind her back.
"I could only feel it when I was really paying attention," she cited, pressing her thumb into the stone and bending a hole into it. "Eventually, I figured out that this would happen when someone around me got super emotional. So I had an idea. Maybe these people who could move my bracelet could also be metalbenders." Toph took in a sharp intake of air through her nose when she realized she'd been playing with the space stone, and stopped, crushing it between clenched fingers. "I started recruiting them to my school."
She regaled to Sokka how she met Ho Tun freaking out over a bug in his soup, of Penga getting worked up over shoes, and of Moo focusing his quiet rage on passersby. She explained how in each of these instances, her bracelet would begin to shiver due to what Toph perceived as subtle, subconscious earthbending of those who were getting emotional around her. She had concluded that if they had this effect on her bracelet without even realizing it, they might have the potential to get the grasp of metalbending easier than the average student.
"That sounds about right," Sokka muttered, accepting Toph's theory. "Katara found out she was a waterbender because the ice would crack whenever I made her mad-...er, whenever she got super emotional."
Toph re-formed her meteor rock into its familiar shape - a bracelet around her arm. As she approached the front door of the school to head back inside, she could feel it vibrating against her skin from the swell of frustration of her students.
"Yeah," Toph said in reply to Sokka. "but there's a problem with finding students that way. Think about it." She opened the door, spilling out an irritable collection of noise from where her students bickered at each other. "What kind of people get super emotional in public?!" she growled, her fists clenched as she stomped inside.
Sokka followed her, guessing an answer.
"Uh, crazy people?"
"Crazy people!" Toph roared, thrusting up her balled fists in aggravation.
Her students were so preoccupied with their squabbling that they didn't even seem to notice.
Toph could yell and shout and stomp her feet, but at the end of the day, her Lily Livers needed to be self-motivated for change transpire.
Sokka was here now, though. He was an Idea Guy. Surely he could come up with something. She was at her wit's end. At this rate, she might end up a crazy person, herself.
Toph huffed out a deep sigh, her face buried in her arms. She was hunched over the steps of her school. That is to say, the school she'd stolen, and couldn't so much as find competent pupils for, much less teach anyone anything. The night air was still a bit humid, and she could hear a cricket's chirping.
Sokka's most recent venture had failed, marking the end of their intensive three day training period. She'd followed his advice to the last word, they'd planned it out perfectly, but no dice. Sokka didn't always know how to solve things. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was what it was.
Her mind jogging in circles, trying to figure out what had gone wrong, Toph growled to herself, scratching her nails at her forehead through sweaty bangs.
This was all so incredibly frustrating. Toph was used to carrying her own weight, or at least having reliable people like Katara and Aang to work alongside. This business of putting her faith in these delinquents? She hated this - yes, probably even more than 'The Dark One' did. At least he didn't have some kind of reputation to lose. Or a building, for that matter. Toph had stolen - er, occupied this dojo fair and square. She wasn't keen on losing the property, especially with how close it was to Yu Dao. This was a great location, being close enough to a bustling town for convenience but far enough outside of said town for Toph to have some freedom and privacy.
If Sifu Kunyo were to win their arranged duel, it wouldn't just mean that Toph was out a school building - it would mean she was out a home once again. And then where would she go? The almighty Avatar didn't have a use for her anymore, and Katara and Sokka were basically his valets or something at this point. And Toph certainly wasn't keen on crying back to her parents with her tail between her legs. Her letter from the summer prior remained unanswered. Part of her wanted to write it off as some mistake - something had happened to Sokka's bird, or her parents hadn't figured out how to send a reply...but they were Beifongs. An incredibly rich and wealthy family. And Toph had been doing her best to make her metalbending academy known in the region. The Beifong Metalbending Academy. That ought to have gotten her parents' attention, right?
And yet no answer, no visit, no messenger...no nothing. For months, just nothing.
Then again, if Toph was really such a failure that the only student she was capable of teaching was an ancient spiritual being who had already learned earthbending hundreds of times over, then maybe her school wasn't worthy of their attention to begin with.
Useless. This has all been useless. I'm a waste. I'm no real Sifu.
Sure, I 'taught' one student. Aang - Avatar Aang. Of course he'd be able to learn earthbending, because he already did learn it, a hundred times in past lives.
All I did was get him off his ass and remind him of how to do it. Maybe he didn't need me at all.
I've gone through the same steps and then-some with three different students, and none of them have taken up the skill.
And why would they? I didn't take them under my wing 'cuz they were battle-hardened, or disciplined. I did it because they were crazy, emotional nutjobs.
What was I thinking? What is wrong with me? What a damned stupid idea! Rrrgh!
I know I was kind of joking around when I told Sokka why I wanted to become a teacher, but there was actually some truth there, and he just blew it off like some big joke.
That's Sokka, I guess - always blowing it all off for a laugh. But I'm not always joking around, ya Meat-Head.
Where am I supposed to go if this doesn't pan out? Ugh, I'll be back where I was a year ago. Aang and Katara don'y need me anymore, and I don't even know what Sokka's been up to, but I'm sure there's no place for me in his plans. I can't just go back to my parents...No way. Aghhh...That'd be like walking back into a cage.
Walking back into that metal box that I broke out of in the first place.
Walking back to Mom and Dad, disgraced, shaming our family's name after all my big talk?
Dishonorable. It'd just prove to them that I can't take care of myself, after all.
I can't go back to that.
Her mind started filling with memories of her parents - of the good little girl she'd been dog-trained to act like, of their rules and their coddling and their pressure and the pain it brought on. Toph was presently tuning out the world around her, but this surge of stress and bad memories was causing her arm bracelet to shudder just a bit. Her nose wrinkled as her face formed into a frown, and she sighed through her nose. Her eyes were damp at the ends, and this aggravated her. It made her upset to be noticing that she was upset in the first place. Argh, that didn't even make sense, how stupid, something must've been physically wrong with her, because why would-
Toph felt her face flush with the heat of blood as she noticed the vibrations of Sokka's weight padding toward her position on the front steps of her self-proclaimed academy. His presence was accompanied by that cricket's chirping. Toph rubbed the ball of her right foot along the stone step as Sokka drew close. Her feet could sense Sokka's body, his heartbeat, the cricket's vibrations off in the grass up ahead, her students back inside, scuffling around within their rooms...probably packing up to leave, no doubt, given what a pathetic excuse for a Sifu they had been putting up with.
"Toph!" Sokka called to her from behind as he passed through the front door. "There you are!"
Here I am...
Toph didn't budge, instead trying to sniffle up her forming sob of defeat as quietly as possible. Sokka's body plopped down beside her, which was at least a welcoming thing to sense.
"Don't give up yet, okay?" he tried to encourage. "I just got a brand-new best idea ever! What if I rig it so that-"
"You ever think about metal?" Toph posed solemnly, her face still veiled between her arms.
"Nope," Sokka casually replied. "When I have extra thinking time, I usually spend it on food. Meat, specifically."
Oh, ha-ha. Bleeding hog-monkeys, can we be serious for two seconds here?
Toph tilted her head up slightly, breathing in some fresh air.
She explained her thoughts to Sokka.
"Metal is just a part of earth that's been purified and refined. But how does it become like that? By getting heated, melted, and pounded. By going through pressure and pain." Toph twisted her face away from Sokka as her mouth managed to form what her thoughts had in the moments before his arrival. "I discovered metalbending in a tiny metal cell, when Master Yu and Xin Fu were taking me back to my parents. That whole trip, all I could think about was how my parents expected me to be something I'm not. Sure, they wanted me to be helpless, but they also wanted me to be a cultured, well-mannered, soft-spoken little lady." She huffed air through her nose, her face contorting with bitterness. "All I felt was pressure and pain."
Toph was grateful that Sokka had shut up his stupid trap for once. It was like he was actually paying attention to what she was saying. Like he was taking her seriously. She turned her face toward his and spoke directly.
"When I brought Ho Tun, Penga, and 'The Dark One' to this school, I expected them to become metalbenders! I was gonna make them tough enough to move the most stubborn part of the most stubborn element!" Toph grunted in self-loathing pressing her palm over her face. "I expected them to be something they're not."
Toph stood up on her two bare feet. She could detect those Lily Livers - er, students - were huddled in the building behind her, holding their luggage. They could probably hear what she was saying, but she didn't even care. She was a failure, an idiot, and a hypocrite. She'd let them down. She hadn't taught them diddly doo-dah. She's just...yelled at them a lot, and somehow expected results.
"How is what I'm doing to them different from what my parents did to me? Maybe the Beifong Metalbending Academy is just a way for me to pass all that pressure and pain to someone else..."
"No, Toph," Sokka eased. "That's not what this place is at all..." Toph's feet told her that he was sincere. She couldn't decide if this was frustrating because he didn't understand what she was trying to say, or encouraging because he was still backing her up despite her idiocy.
Toph's arm was shuddering ever-so-slightly once again. Sokka, her students, her parents. She was a failure to all of them. Her stomach was tied up in knots. Here she was, professing this realization in front of Sokka, one of her closest friends. It was embarrassing. She felt weak, and foolish, and...just...argh. Her eyes were welling up now, and Sokka didn't need to see that!
She marched off back into the dojo, dismissing Sokka's mild words of support.
As Toph retreated into the building, she declared darkly, "When Kunyo comes tomorrow, I'm gonna go up to him and sit down. He can have his school back."
Tears. Burning. Heat. Fire.
Metal. Pressing, cooking her alive, fire. Agh, her feet. The hot metal. The empty expanse below.
That was a lot of fire down there, wasn't it?
Shrieking, grunting, shouts of pain and alarm.
Metal. Pressure and pain.
Toph was dangling, hanging on a thread of Meat. His Meat - his arm.
"Hang on, Toph!"
Metal. Fire. Heat. Burning. Tears.
Clanging, banging, slicing.
"Bye, Space Sword..."
"Nnghh...! I don't think Boomerang is comin' back, Toph...It looks like this is the end."
Tears. Pressure and pain.
Shuddering banging, metal on metal.
Pressure and pain.
His fingertips' desperate grip disconnects from hers.
"Suki!" his voice from above. Cheerful?
Happy to see Suki. Leaving Toph behind.
Nothing holding her, no strong arm, no determined fingertips...No sensation but wind - hot, burning wind.
Toph's heart stopped for a second, jarring her from her sleep with a gasp.
Toph choked on her own saliva, coughing and pounding at her chest as she regained her bearings. She rose up on one hand, holding herself up from the bare stone floor she had been sleeping upon. It was a bit chilly, just the way she liked it, but she didn't feel so well. Her stomach had an awful emptiness to it. She was warm, so warm...She pushed off the light blanket she'd been under.
Argh, ow, and what was with the soreness on her right arm? Toph's bicep was stinging, the skin a bit raw. Sort of like a friction burn, maybe?
Toph realized she was sweaty, her skin was clammy and cold. But her head was also throbbing, and her heart was slamming against her ribs.
Dazed, and not entirely awake, Toph's hand on the stone tile could detect the small tremors of a figure approaching. It smelled like Sokka. Ah, right, she had offered him refuge in the teacher's spare bunk while Toph had occupied the floor on the other side of the room.
She groaned in discomfort and clamped her pounding forehead as Sokka's steps grew close. The source of her chafed skin suddenly revealed itself to her in that moment: she realized she was wearing her meteor bracelet, and it was vibrating. Like, a lot. More than usual. Not enough to create an audible sound - still just a shiver - but it was enough to catch her attention, and it was obviously the cause of her sore arm. Had her nightmare been making her...super emotional? What had she even been dreaming about?
"Toph...?" In her half-asleep stupor she could hear his voice. It was...calming.
The light vibration against her arm intensified. Why? Why now?
"Toph, are you...-?"
Concern? That sounded like concern. Dreaming? Was she still dreaming?
"Hey, Bud," he whispered, at her side. "You OK?"
His hand touched her shoulder - that hand. Now she remembered the dream. It was that hand that had carried her weight when she couldn't carry it herself, holding her high in the sky, holding her from death. That glorious, wonderful hand, it-...
Oh, no. What? Why was she feeling that way about his stupid, fat, meat-stack for a hand? Her cheeks were burning warm. The vapors of his night-hour breath caressed her nose. He was really close to her in that moment. Her heart was pounding in her chest. Er, from the dream! No, no, the nightmare. Right. That was why. Yea, that made sense, she was...shaken up. Ugh.
Her stray hand propped her abdomen against the stone floor that was her bed. That hand could still feel those damned vibrations, those subtle tremors from that dumb slab of space rock, suddenly a reminder of weakness.
"Hell-ohhh, Toph?" Sokka's voice called her back, his firm, comforting grip gently nudging her abdomen forward and backward. Forward and backward. Whhh...-? "Hey, yo, wake up!"
The harsh clicking of skin against skin - Sokka snapping his fingers - rattled her ears.
"Guh!" she flinched out of her confusion at the sound. Her throat was still full of gunk, and her brisk intake of air elicited a couple more coughs. A couple led to a couple more, and Sokka pounded the side of his wrist against her back as she cleared her passageways.
"Still alive?" Sokka checked, evidently humored by this embarrassing moment for her.
"Rrrmmph," was about all Toph was able to manage, sluggish as she was in her sleepiness.
"'Kay, that's good," Sokka muttered, satisfied enough with her incoherent groans. "You have a nightmare, or what?"
"Heh, I thought nothing scared you, O Metalbending Queen."
Toph smirked, her eyelids hung closed. Her head was sagging from drowsiness, but her heart was fluttering from his little bit of nicknaming - and one she didn't even have to prompt out of him, no less! Hm, queen, though? Nah, not so much her style.
Fwumph. Sokka's mass set itself down beside her. Her heartbeat began to quicken some more again. Ugh. Why did it have to do that?
"Hey, Toph..." Sokka shifted his body to her side, their hips pressed together as he laid an arm over her shoulder. Toph swallowed the lump in her throat and scratched at her chest. She worried that Sokka might be able to hear her heartbeat pounding at her ribs.
"Argh," Toph whimpered, rolling her head around her neck in exhaustion. "What?" she irritably croaked. She liked this physical contact. And she hated that she liked it. There was that retarded contradiction again. What was with that?
"Seriously, are you all right? I know tomorrow's gonna be hard when Kunyo comes, but, hey. We did our best."
"What you said earlier, about your parents? I'm...sorry about that. It sounds like they, uh...never got back to you?"
Toph didn't speak, instead letting her head sag, her boar-q-pine of hair sliding against Sokka's arm.
"Come on," Sokka slapped her bare bicep and gave her a shake by her shoulder. Rrghhh, she was too tired and sleepy and grumpy and graggh to appreciate his gesture. "We'll figure something out. Maybe if we wake up early, we can squeeze it a little extra time to-"
"No," Toph huffed. "No, Sokka, I don't...-" She yawned and clawed at an itch under her slightly hairy arm pit. "I tried. It's done. Let's...drop it. I wanna get some sleep."
"It's not like you to just...give up."
"Yea?" Toph testily grunted. "'S not like me to...be so stupid, either, n'...rrghh..."
Toph rubbed her fingers at her sandy eyes, brushing gunk out of them.
"Huh?" Sokka was puzzled. "What did you do that was stupid? I mean, you know...this time."
"Funny," Toph flatly dismissed his attempt at humor. "Geez, Sokka! I'm bein' serious here, n' you go and-...Just-! Nevermind..."
Toph's face was warm, her breaths quickening, her heart thumping. She flicked out her wrist, morphing the stone floor beside her and sliding Sokka away, removing his grip from her. She couldn't deal with this right now. Already with these horrible thoughts of failure in her head, and then the nightmare, and now he was touching her, but picking on her, but...-! Why couldn't he...-? Did he have to be such a...-? Arghhh.
Toph adjusted her sleeveless sleepwear and dropped herself back into the bare floor, face down. She fidgeted her loose blanket back on so it covered up her toes.
Toph's tired, aching brain was being circled with too many disappointing thoughts, too many fears of what was to come, too many...feelings.
"Uh, sorry?" Sokka was clueless. "I mean, I know it's been a rough day and all that, but...-" Sokka trailed off.
Sokka being around was supposed to help her feel better, not worse. Right? That was how it worked. It was how it pretty much always worked. Sokka made her feel better, made her feel comfortable, made her feel OK to be herself. Why, then, on this depressing day of facing her incompetence as a teacher was Sokka not only unable to help, but his presence was making it worse?
Toph's arm was trembling again. She snorted hot air in a huff and lifted herself up from her bed, bending the strange stone right off of her arm. She crushed it between her fingers, forming it into a mishapen lump, then shoved it in Sokka's face.
"Go put this...on my dresser or something," she grumbled, trying to make it less conspicuous than it felt.
"Er, sure," Sokka obliged. He took it and performed the task. Bah. He really was a clueless buffoon. He probably had no idea what that thing meant to her, did he? Maybe she'd been deluding herself this entire time, thinking the meteor rock had meant something to him when he'd handed it to her.
Toph dropped herself back down on the stone floor, her cushion of dirty hair like a bushy little pillow. She rested her palms down on the tiles below as her tired eyelids slid closed. She felt Sokka's movements, felt him setting the bracelet on the dresser at the edge of the room beside her.
"So, you're fine?" Sokka checked, stumbling around. Now that she was paying attention, Toph could tell that Sokka wasn't quite awake, either.
"Mmm," Toph lazily hummed some confirmation.
"I mean, like...on the inside," Sokka clarified. He yawned as he walked by. Toph was too tired to try bending the earth beneath him, so instead she flopped around her arms a bit to show him she he was about to step on her.
"Ah!" he yelped like a little girl, then grumbled something under his breath as he walked around her. His words ended with an audible "-didn't see ya there..."
"Actually, no," Toph admitted. Oh, crap. What? Huh? Where had that come from?
"No?" Sokka had paused.
"On the inside? I'm not fine," Toph mumbled quietly, still laying flat on her back on the cold surface below like a dead body in a morgue.
"Ermm...Oh, 'bout your parents?"
Toph sighed as Sokka carefully sat cross-legged beside her.
"Sort of," said Toph. "It's a buncha stuff, really."
A weird few seconds of quiet. Sokka sniffed dry mucus and scratched his nose.
"Well, uh...you need to, like, talk about it, or...-?"
Toph swallowed, which was hard to do with the big lump in her throat.
"I guess I'm just worried about the future, mostly."
"Oh. OK. Yea, I can hear that. I can relate."
"For sure. You know, when the war ended I figured I'd just end up back home in the South, but...I dunno, I guess I've had a bit of a, uh...a calling. You know? Like you and metalbending. I feel like I have more I can do."
"Aang's a good guy, and as it turns out, so is the Fire Lord - when he's not being, ya know, crazy? And I mean, the Water Tribe is obviously chill..." A pause. "Get it? Because-"
"And it sounds like Aang and Katara are going to get through to the Earth King. Maybe this whole 'Harmony' thing can actually play out."
"I guess that would be kinda neat, or something."
"More like revolutionary."
"Heh." He needed fancy words for everything, didn't he?
"Anyway...-" Sokka got back up. He nudged Toph's side with his foot, and she grunted in playful, half-awake disdain. "If worse comes to worse and this 'school' thing isn't working, we can figure something out."
"Yea, all right," Toph mumbled as Sokka crawled back to the bed on the other side of the room. This was about as much gratitude as his words were going to get from her that night.
"Look at it like this," said Sokka. "No matter what happens tomorrow, one way or the other, you're looking at a new start: either your students make metalbending 'click,' or you ditch the school and...find some other calling."
"Was that...optimism?" mumbled Toph, befuddled and amused.
"Maybe just a little. But don't tell Katara I shared some with you. She thinks I'm a heartless jerk, and as her brother, I need to make sure it stays that way."
Toph smiled at Sokka's humor, and at this little moment of him actually seeing something good for her despite her failure.
"So, yea. Good night, Toph. Erm, again."
Cheers, shouts of awe, back-patting, apologizing...
The conflict between Fire Lord Zuko and Earth King Kuei had been resolved. From what Toph was hearing, it had been Twinkle-Toes and Sugar Queen that had set them at ease. Toph had been quite rattled by the whole day's mad events. Her students had picked up the pace and eked out a win against Kunyo's kids by managing to figure out how to bend metal coins to use as weapons. Then Toph and Sokka had been scooped up by Aang and Katara to help engage in a battle that could've been the start of another war between the two nations. Mere minutes earlier, however, to top it all off, the very earth beneath Toph's feet had been literally uprooted. She could feel that the entirety of Yu Dao had been physically separated from the land surrounding it. A gaping chasm now surrounded the city. Toph wasn't sure how practical this for right now, but it had certainly been a reminder of the Avatar's power.
When the ground had splintered, and her feet sensed the entire city of Yu Dao being separated from the mountains surrounding it, Toph had been flabbergasted. Such massive strength, such a display of skill and force...there was no else it could have been but Aang. Avatar Aang. That was a point Toph made the mistake of forgetting now and again. For such a softy, Aang was still the Avatar, and that stood for something. It meant that no matter how powerful, how refined, how strong Toph became...there would always be at least one person who would be better than her, as much as she didn't like to admit it. At least she could rest assured that the world's most powerful being was one of her best friends, right?
Toph's thoughts were being stirred by the conversations unfolding around her in light of the Fire Nation troops and Earth Kingdom soldiers making peace. People were expressing relief, protesting the premature end of the combat, apologizing to one another...The people closest to Toph - her students, some friends, some acquaintances - she was finding it hard to relate with and connect with these people in this seemingly emotional moment. It was a bizarre and startling reminder to Toph that for her, this was all just a fight, but for many of these people, it was life-changing. It was intimately tied to their pasts, their futures...They had family members they'd lost in the past, and looking toward the future they had...significant others to consider...
Speaking of which, Toph could hear Penga giggling like a schoolgirl - er, well, she was still technically a schoolgirl, but...Anyway, it was distracting. Toph's feet could feel the quickened heartbeats of Ho Tun and Penga, the shrimpy little girl gushing over her 'new boyfriend' as he humbly and bashfully mumbled away the credit she was doling on him. Spirits. Freaking crazy people.
"I hope you've learned a lesson today, Smellerbee."
"Yea, Sneers, yea...I learned that you're a traitor to your own people."
"Don't you get it? Kori is our people! She has Earth Kingdom blood and Fire Nation blood within her."
"You know," Sokka observed. "Smellerbee, you could really stand to lighten up a bit, man."
"I'm not a man!" roared the girl's gravelly voice.
"Whoa! Whoa! OK!" Sokka swiftly stepped down. "Right. Sorry. About that. Ahem."
Smellerbee railed at Sokka. "I can't believe you guys and even the Avatar would defend those Ash-Makers, after all of the pain they've brought us for so long!"
"Hey," Sokka defended against the gruff girl's sharp words. "Believe me, I'm no fan of the Fire Nation, either, but Zuko's not a bad guy. He wants the same thing you do: harmony."
"That's right," Suki added in her two pieces. "My warriors and I have been protecting the Fire Lord for months now, and he's actually-"
"Wait, you serve him?" Smellerbee snapped with disbelief. "You were just fighting his soldiers a few minutes ago! I heard their army attacked Kyoshi Island!"
"Th-that was a long time ago, under Ozai's rule," Suki replied, startled by the angry girl. "Zuko's not the same, he's trying very hard to-"
"Yea? Then why'd he just try to kill our King? And you'd protect him?"
As Smellerbee approached Suki and Sokka in a threatening demeanor, Toph's body tensed up on instinct. The angry girl was brandishing a dagger, and shoving her way toward Toph's friends. Toph didn't appreciate that, and with a focused thrust of her hand, she metalbent Smellerbee's dagger out of her hand and into the dirt, out of reach.
"Hey!" Smellerbee snarled, gaping around with surprise. "Who just-?!"
"Smellerbee." The girl was froze in place.
Toph could detect that Smellerbee's little boyfriend - that guy who barely ever spoke - had grabbed her. He pulled her aside, away from the crowd.
"What?" Smellerbee growled under her breath, though she allowed him to drag her away. Toph concentrated on their conversation.
Longshot's calm, unassuming voice was advising Smellerbee from inches away. "I think they may be right. We lost Jet because he was unable to let go of his anger, and his obsession. He couldn't accept change. I hate to say it, but...maybe we're making the same mistake."
"Longshot..." Smellerbee was distraught and shocked, but Longshot continued.
"If Avatar Aang has faith in the new Fire Lord, we should, too. We should stand down."
"Tch!" Smellerbee seemed confused and dissatisfied by Longshot's advice. Toph could read that both their heart rates were elevated.
"Please," Longshot whispered. Toph suddenly felt awkward, able to eavesdrop on this more subdued, private tension with her acute senses, while the others nearby were all chattering in hushed tones.
"Y-you're right," Smellerbee mumbled to Longshot. "This...isn't 'Harmony Now,' after all, is it? It's more fighting. We're just doing what Jet did, and-...I didn't-...I didn't even think of it like that. Why didn't you say anything?"
"Actions speak louder than words," Longshot quietly explained. "I chose to trust you on this. But this isn't working. Now I'm asking you to trust me. Let's call a truce. Get our supporters to calm down."
"I just...want them out of our home already..." Smellerbee's breathing was forming into quiet, dry sobs.
"I know." Longshot drew her into an embrace, which she reciprocated. "But this is their home now, too. The Avatar was able to keep peace today, just as he ended the war: without taking lives. We should follow his example."
Huh. Keeping the peace, without taking a life. Toph was reminded of the fight she was just engaged in: using metalbending to restrain soldiers, but not kill them. It had been difficult, much more so than using earthbending to knock them aside without a second thought. It had taken a lot of focus and energy - Toph had needed her students' help, and even Suki had watched her back, defending them from fire with her metal fan shield. Toph's brain spent a few seconds whirling around the many possibilities and applications of metal, and how her newly discovered skill fell into all of that.
The squealing giggling of Penga brought Toph out of her internal state of being.
Toph shifted her weight around, trying to regain her bearings. Smellerbee and Longshot were off in the distance, hugging. Penga was trying to hold Ho Tun's hand, which he was bashfully letting her do out of shock and shyness. Penga was gushing over his strong arms and his bravery and his sensitive soul, and...Bleh. For Spirits' sake, even 'The Dark One' was prattling off some dung-pile of a poem about love blossoming on the battlefield between Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. Gag. Toph was about ready to throw up from it all - Sokka would lighten her mood with his dumb remarks, she was sure. Toph gave her foot a light pound into the earth to pick up the vibrations around her. She deciphered Sokka's location with ease, having committed to memory the contours of his body shape, the particular pressure of his footsteps, and the distinctive pulse of his heartbeat.
That...wasn't weird, right?
Ohhhh, bleh. As soon as Toph figured out where Sokka was, she realized he was all over Suki. They were all...being gross, with their mouths, and their hands, and their heartbeats were syncing up, and augh, gross!
Oogies all around.
Toph sighed, and with her head bobbed, she trudged away from all of this loving and kissing and nonsense. Toph went to the edge of the rift Aang had created around Yu Dao. She could feel that it went down a long ways. She sat her tired body down at its edge, letting one foot dangle over the crevice. She just wanted to be alone, instead of in the thick of everyone rubbing their gushy happiness all up in her face. Those guys had boyfriends and girlfriends, and they were being all sappy, and just like Aang and Katara, it was making them stupid in the head. Yea. It was dumb.
Puh. Toph didn't need that. Or want that. What use to her was that sorta thing? Someone supporting her, and loving her - for exactly who she was. Psh, she didn't need someone else to make her feel good about herself. Yea. She was just fine on her own. Someone else clinging to her arm with his muscular, slender hands, the scent of meat-breath over her neck, the-...Eulgh! What the heck? Why did her brain go there? Gross.
Anyway, she didn't need any of that junk, and soon enough it wouldn't matter. Sokka would just leave again, go back to...whatever it was he doing. Politics and stuff with Aang and Katara. Yea, right, like Toph had any place there. She'd had him for a few days after a year of absence. Apparently that was all the Meat-Head she was allowed now that the war was over and he didn't need her anymore.
That thought stung like a needle in her chest: Aang, Katara, and Sokka didn't need or want her around anymore. Her parents didn't seem to care what she did with herself, neither did they, huh? Well, whatever. Fine. More metalbending training. Yea, that was her purpose now.
Who needed a boyfriend? Or family? Toph Beifong had greater things to be concerned with. A higher calling.
She wouldn't miss him at all, not his stupid jokes or his sarcasm or his smart ideas or his encouragement or his...-
Toph's right arm was shivering.
Toph lifted her right arm and rolled up her sleeve, observing her bicep closely. Her meteor bracelet was shivering like mad, actually.
Oh, well, duh. Because the battle had ended. There was so much emotion going on, lots of earthbenders all around.
Still, all the same, Toph couldn't help but be reminded of the night prior, when thoughts of Sokka had been causing it to tremble. And she was, right now, brooding over so much stupid stuff. Parents, friends, students, life, Sokka, grah...It was all in tangles.
Toph could feel a headache coming on, and she rested her head against one palm. Her eyelids slid closed, her face was warm from bashful thoughts, and her body was tired from the battle. Longing and fear, exhaustion and hope, desire and regret, the prospect of her future so uncertain.
Toph just wanted to dull all the pain. Wasn't there stuff people, like, drank when they were feeling this way? Like wine, or something? Maybe she oughtta look into that some time.
Damnit, she just needed some space from all of this cheering and celebration.
"Hey, Toph!" Sokka's voice from behind. She flinched, feeling a fool about her no-doubt mopey appearance. "Whoa, what's up?" Sokka asked as Toph tried to come off as more casual. Suki was beside Sokka, her arm around his. Bleh. Toph could detect her three pupils coming up from behind.
"Ah, I'm good," Toph grunted as she stood back up. "A little tuckered out from all the commotion, that's all."
"All that metalbending must have you exhausted," Suki sympathized.
"Eh, I'm fine," Toph shrugged it off, wiping sweat from her forehead. Geez, she didn't look that bad, did she?
"Yea," Sokka dismissed. "She's tough, don't worry about her."
Once again, Sokka had said another stupid thing that made Toph's strangely inconsistent brain have dual reactions. It made her glad that he could recognize her independence. Yet it hurt a bit to feel like he didn't care about her well-being beneath the surface, like he had the night prior - when Suki wasn't around. Hmph.
Toph's trio of students arrived.
"Sifu Toph! Wow!"
"Sifu! Sifu! Your bending is soooo good!"
"Mine eyes were bedazzled by your-"
"Gonna stop ya right there," Toph interrupted 'The Dark One', shoving her palm upward toward where she knew his face was.
"We did it!" Penga cried.
"No doom for us today!" said Ho Tun.
"Behold, what our wondrous-"
"No," Toph flatly declined Moo's attempt, simultaneously raising up a thin wall of rock in front of him.
There was a stiff pause between the two, until Moo bended the earth down, pushing it back into the ground.
"I hate my art getting interrupted," he grumbled.
"Heh, that's more like it," Toph jaunted, flashing a wide, devilish grin from beneath her mat of bangs. She pointed up a dramatic finger and shouted boldly. "Hey! Lily Livers!"
She delighted at the way they all stumbled back with alarm. Toph lowered her finger, pointing in their direction.
"I'm proud of you guys!" Toph told them. "You finally got the hang of basic metalbending, you helped save my school...you didn't give up on me when I had. And then you even disobeyed my orders, and came here to fight. That took guts, guys. But seriously. As soon as we get back, you're working on your forms and breathing techniques. Dinky little coins and spinny helmets aren't gonna cut it at my school."
"Sifu!" All three obediently bowed before her, just as she'd trained them to.
Toph pointed her finger toward the gate that they had just quarreled beside.
"Now get your butts in that city we just defended, and go find some dinner. You're gonna need full furnaces to take the heat tonight."
They repeated their affirmative gesture before scuttling off in high spirits. Toph's chest swelled with pride.
She was not a failure. She was still useful to her friends, to the Avatar.
Toph Beifong was still wanted, still needed, even now, a year after the war was over. She had a new purpose - to pass on this gift, this skill she had learned.
Her friends wanted to help change the world, help bring about harmony. That was well and good.
Toph wanted to bring honor to the Beifong name.
Toph wanted 'Beifong' to be synonymous not with wealth or riches or property, but with strength and honor and pride.
The Metalbending Academy had perhaps been a way for passing on pressure and pain she'd endured from her parents. But maybe, with some hard work and determination, it could become a way for her to receive her parents' support and attention once again.
With all of this radiating from within her being, Toph let herself smile, knuckles on her hips.
"Wow, hey." Sokka approached her, slapping his hand on her back. It found a place on her shoulder and he squeezed. He seemed to be looking off toward Yu Dao's gate, where the Lily Livers had scampered toward. "Those guys really look up to you, don't they?"
"Eh." Toph shrugged. She was too busy focusing on Sokka's physical contact - the heartbeat pulsing from his palm - to have really paid attention to what he'd just said.
"I guess I'm just glad you've managed to make a few friends out here on your own," said Sokka. "Honestly, I wasn't sure you'd manage so well without us."
"I can take care of myself, by myself," Toph primly responded, nudging Sokka's hand off of her.
"Sokka!" That would be Suki. Bleh. Her voice may as well have been a whistle to Sokka, who would dash toward it like a dumb dog.
"Ah, time to go," Sokka told her, giving her another pat. And here it was, that moment she'd dreaded. After a year apart, he was already disappearing from her again.
"Uh, w-wait, hey!" Toph spun around, extending her arm out to him.
"Yea?" Sokka slowed to a stop, and Toph charged at him. She dove into him, flowing her face into his chest.
"Whoa," he grunted, surprised. He reciprocated the hug.
Toph took in a deep sniff of his shirt and sighed out with some longing. She tilted her head sideways and listened to his heartbeat. Gah, so dumb. It was so dumb for her to care so much about such little details. But she just...did. And she didn't know why.
"I'll miss you, Meat-Head," she told him, squeezing him tight.
"Yea, you, too, Bud," Sokka replied. He pounded her back a couple times with his fist - too hard, actually, as some kind of joke. She laughed through her coughing and playfully shoved him off, her face warm and droplets forming at the corners of her eyes.
"Aw, that's so sweet," Suki cooed at their interaction. "It's like you two are brother and sister, almost."
Suki's words had meant to be authentically kind and caring - Toph could tell - but it still was a metaphorical punch to the gut.
"Eh, Toph here's a lot more mean than Katara is," Sokka chuckled, rustling Toph's hair and throwing her hairband off its center. "Maybe even more stubborn, too!"
They shared a laugh, though Toph's was more forced and fake than she'd like - an art she had perfected under her parents' roof. She bid them off to go wherever it was they were going. Somewhere without her.
This complex interaction now over, Toph noticed that familiar, discomforting feeling of her heart banging in her chest. She dried the edges of her eyes, wondering how long it would be until her friends would come back into her life. And sure enough, just as soon as Toph realized how she was feeling and thought to pay attention to it, she noticed it.
Toph's bracelet was shivering.