“Well, I did as you asked.” Katara eased herself down into a seat, knees creaking. “Nobody knows I've come to this meeting --”
“Or me,” volunteered Zuko. “As far as my staff are concerned, I'm on Ember Island with Mai.”
“So what's this all about?” Katara continued. “Is it the Triad problem again? Because I know we agreed it was serious in the last meeting, but I don't really think it warrants measures outside of the council.”
Toph leaned back in her chair, folded skinny corded arms behind her head, and grinned. Katara began to get a sinking feeling in her stomach. “So . . . How much do you two know about this pro-bending thing?”
Zuko stared and opened his mouth; Katara, quicker on the uptake, had already pushed herself to her feet. “Toph! That is ridiculous. Bending is supposed to be used to help people, not as some kind of silly entertainment, and anyway, we all have much more important things to do with our time than --”
“Oh, come on,” scoffed Toph. “You tell me you've never turned on the radio --”
“I never turn on the radio,” volunteered Zuko. “It depresses me.”
“-- and thought that you could kick any of those snot-nosed brats they call bending masters these days down to the curb?”
“Of course I could,” said Katara automatically, and then, seeing Toph's smirk, added hastily, “That's not the point. Besides, our positions --”
With an eloquent hand gesture, Toph made it very clear what she thought about their positions.
“She's right, though,” protested Zuko. “The former Firelord can't just --”
“Look,” Toph interrupted him. “It's pretty simple. I really want to try out pro-bending, and there's no way I'm making up a team with anybody but the best. That's you two. So you can argue with me for another hour and then say yes, or you can save us all some time and agree now, whatever would make you ladies happy.”
“I'm sorry, Toph,” said Katara, “but this is just not going to happen.”
“I still can't believe you talked me into this,” said Zuko.
“I'm only here to round out your team so you can compete,” said Katara. “I'm not going to bend.”
“I can't wait until we put these face-shields on,” said Toph, “and I don't have to listen to you two whine anymore. Come on!” She gave Katara and Zuko each a shove from behind, and then strode up to the desk where the organizer was taking down team names.
“Okay, listen up, pal.” She slammed her hands down on the desk. “I'm Lin, this is Xin Fu --” She jerked her thumb at the curtain of long gray hair that was the undercover Firelord – “and that's Nyla.”
Katara, whose concession to the notion of disguise was to put all of her hair back in two buns behind her head instead of teasing a few strands into her usual hair loops, looked long-suffering.
“Earthbender, Firebender, Waterbender,” Toph went on. “We're the Butt-Kicking Badgermoles, and we're ready to win this tournament!”
The organizer squinted at her. “Ma'am, are you sure you're in the right place? This isn't a pai sho tournament, you know.”
Toph shoved her huge dark glasses up her nose and glared in his general direction. “Do I look like I'm here to play pai sho?”
“I'm just warning you, things in the arena might get pretty intense --”
“Things in your face might get pretty intense,” said Toph.
“We're not responsible for any broken pelvises or slipped discs, ma'am, that's all I'm gonna say,” said the organizer, unfazed. He looked Katara up and down, glanced dubiously at Zuko, and then shook his head and returned his gaze to Toph. “Just try to put on a good show, all right? Some of us have to make a living at this.”
“Oh, don't worry --” Toph began, when Katara shoved forward past her and leaned so far into the organizer's face that their noses nearly bumped.
“We'll give you a show, all right, whippersnapper,” she sneered. “We'll give you a show like you'll never forget!”
From behind Zuko's hair came a very small muttered sound. It went something like, “Uh-oh....”
In the four months since pro-bending had caught the city's attention, Sokka had developed a comfortable routine: come to the arena, buy a plus-sized bag of pickled chickenchovies, and heckle for all he was worth.
“And now,” the announcer trumpeted, “last week's champions, the Last Chance Lion Turtles, face off against an unexpected new challenger – the Butt-Kicking Badgermoles!” The Badgermoles headed in – one stomping, one strutting, one shuffling – as the anouncer continued, “We'll see if this – uh – surprisingly venerable team lives up to their bravado in picking a team name . . .”
“Boo, Badgermoles!” shouted Sokka happily. “Eat dirt – uh, disc!”
The stomping Badgermole turned and gave him a blue storm-cloud of a glare from behind the clear glass of her helmet.
“. . . . Boo!” Sokka howled, more fervently than ever. “Boo to every single one of you stupid Badgermole jerks!” If they were going to pull a stunt like this, the very least they could have done was tell him before he bet a sizeable purse on the Lion Turtles.
“Don't worry, Grandmother,” said the waterbending Lion Turtle, and grinned across at Katara. “I've always tried to be respectful of my elders. We'll go easy on you.”
“That's so kind,” said Katara, sweetly. Both of her teammates eyed her.
“This is not good,” muttered Zuko. “This is really, really not good.”
“Are you kidding?” Toph smirked. “This is great!” Evil Katara was Toph's absolute favorite Katara.
“Aaaaaaaand . . . . go!” The referee blew the whistle, and the match began.
Immediately, the Butt-Kicking Badgermoles were on the move. Toph shifted the ground out from under the rival Earthbender's feet; Zuko whirled up a column of defensive flame; and Katara struck out with whips of water, wrapping themselves in tendrils around the waterbending Lion Turtle and dragging her back towards the second zone.
The whistle blew. “FOUL!” shrieked the referee. “Foul and foul! Everyone on the Badgermoles, move back a zone, and you're lucky I don't make it two!”
“What!” Katara demanded. “What kind of call is that?”
“Water can only be pulled up from between the zone lines! Water blasts cannot exceed one second in duration! Fire blasts cannot exceed one second in duration! Earthbending is limited to the use of rock discs! Didn't any of you read the rules before stepping into the ring?”
The Butt-Kicking Badgermoles reluctantly took a step back into the second zone.
“Those,” said Toph, not bothering to lower her voice, “are some incredibly stupid rules.”
“One second?” said Zuko. “What kind of bending competition is that? It's just punching people with fire!”
Katara folded her arms. “We're still going to win this,” she told her teammates, firmly. “We just have to get a little more creative. Think outside the box a little!”
Three more fouls later, the referee announced that Katara was permanently offsided.
“What's illegal about bending water under people's feet to make them trip?” Katara was shrieking. “It took less than a second to do!”
“If it wasn't illegal before,” roared the harassed referee, “I'm declaring it illegal now! You're out of the pro-bending game, ma'am. Permanently!”
“Oh – ARGH!” screamed Katara, and used a blast of water to tip over the ref's chair before bending herself an ice bridge on which to storm dramatically out of the ring.
Toph jutted her chin out, and adjusted her helmet more firmly on her head. “Well, now we have to win this,” she announced. “For Ka--Nyla!”
Then the referee blew his whistle, and a blast of water hit her straight in the face.
“I want to go home,” muttered Zuko, rolling up his sleeves for another volley.
“This round,” said Sokka generously an hour later, “can also be on me.” It was a lot easier to be magnanimous about the Butt-Kicking Badgermoles leaving him out of the loop when it had resulted in him making a profit of sixty yuans.
“None of those children would have lasted ten seconds in the Earth Rumble tournaments,” fumed Toph, not for the first time. Her hair stuck out around her head in a giant, slightly singed puff – the combined result of repeated volleys of water, and Zuko's well-intentioned efforts to dry her off afterwards. “I thought kids were supposed to be the innovative ones! All that stupid rock-juggling was to real Earthbending what – what Sokka's stupid memoirs are to the love poems of Avatar Yangchen!”
“Hey!” said Sokka, stung. “My memoirs are works of great literature.”
“No, they aren't,” said Toph, and drained her mug. “But if it makes you feel better, this is great rice wine. Good choice of bar!”
“I told you signing up was a bad idea,” said Zuko, who had not enjoyed the match, but did enjoy being right. “I did tell you it was a bad idea, right?”
“It would have been a great idea,” retorted Toph, “if pro-bending wasn't a stupid sport.”
“Pro-bending is a fine sport,” said Sokka, and draped his arms around Zuko and Toph's shoulders. “It's just that you guys are too great for pro-bending.”
“Hmph!” snorted Toph, but she looked a little mollified.
“I said it was a bad idea,” said Katara, gloomily bending her rice wine into tiny ice sculptures. “I should have listened to myself. I'm so embarrassed! I can't believe I made a spectacle of myself that way.”
Toph grinned suddenly at that. “Well, hey, Katara – you did say you'd give them a show like they'd never forget, right?”
Katara did not look mollified like this.
“At the very least,” offered Zuko, “we gave them all a look at what real benders can do.”
“True.” Katara brightened a little. “Perhaps we've inspired some of those young benders to start experimenting more with their art. It's a moral victory, in a way.”
“A moral victory is fine,” said Toph,” but a real victory would be a lot better.”
“It'll feel a lot more like a real victory for all of you,” Sokka said, “after another round.”
Katara hesitated. “You know, maybe we've all acted like children enough for one day. It might be time that we go back to our responsibilities and –”
“I don't know about you all,” said Toph, “but I think, if there's one thing we learned today, it's that the the kids these days aren't half as good at being kids as we were.” She reached out for the bottle, poured herself another glass, and downed it. “We might as well complete the job of showing them how it's done.”
Lin Beifong rubbed her face in her hands. “Why,” she demanded, “am I always the one who has to take care of the clean up after a bending bender?”
“Don't look to me for sympathy,” laughed her superior officer. “She's my elder, but she's your mother.”
Lin considered her options. She could metalbend her superior's boots to the floor, or she could go take care of the cleanup.
On the other hand, if there was one thing her mother had taught her, it was not to limit her thinking; there was no reason she couldn't do both.