There was a crash and tumult up ahead. Toph ran toward the ghost town, grin on her face as she focused on the tremors reverberating beneath her feet. A fight!
Her muscles coiled, legs planted stiff and solid as rocks as she went into her earthbending stance, arms held high and far from her body. Toph bit her lip, waiting for the right moment, still sorting through all the muss and fuss of the different people clouding her senses. It felt like loads of them; Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen, Sokka running in from somewhere, one of his dangerous ladies, and two strangers. Wait, strike that. One stranger and the friendly old guy she'd just been having tea with.
Whatever, time to work. The dangerous lady was in close quarters with Katara, Aang, and Sokka; where her friends had gotten off to, Toph didn't really know of care. Fewer opponents was better. The group moved in on her, forcing her into an alley. Toph smirked to herself. Couldn't let them have all the fun. With a forceful push, Toph bent the ground beneath her, tugging it away like a magician whipping a tablecloth out from underneath place settings.
"I thought you guys could use a little help," she said, smiling through her exhaustion.
"Thanks," Katara returned, and Toph kinda had to admit she was glad to hear it from her. Felt like a kind of resolution between them. And, seriously, what better way was there to kiss and make up than whipping some hapless loser's butt?
The group advanced together on the dangerous lady. Toph could feel her dodge away, through another of the small, abandoned town's narrow alleys – only to be stopped by Old Guy. Nice one! Toph crowed mentally. She and the others joined formation with him, backing the dangerous lady into a corner of broken walls.
"Well, looks at this," the dangerous lady said. Her tone was arch, smooth. Not nearly as wobbly-knee terrified as Toph preferred in her opponents. No respect at all. "Enemies and traitors – all working together."
Traitors? Toph got the enemies thing. She was proud of the enemies thing. And, seriously, the Fire Nation should be proud in return, having the greatest earthbender in the world as an enemy. But the traitors had to be Old Guy and the stranger – his nephew, she guessed – and that made the whole situation just that much more interesting.
"I'm done," the lady continued. There was a slight shift in her stance. It felt like she lifted her arms, but Toph knew enough of firebenders to be wary. That girl's heartbeat wasn't nearly rapid enough. She wasn't worried or afraid. "I know when I'm beaten. You've got me. A princess surrenders with honor."
Toph wanted to snort at the pronouncement. Surrender. Uh huh. Right. That was exactly why she was getting ready to blast –
A sharp, fiery blast skidded past Toph, hitting Old Guy right next to her. He crumpled backwards with a groan, his nephew crying out in horror. As one, the entire group attacked the princess. Toph gritted her teeth, feeling her own attack be repelled, the resulting explosion tossing her and everyone else to the ground. Dust puffed up in a large cloud around the ruins; Toph could feel the hole the princess had punched through it as sharp, almost painful vibrations through her hands as she pushed herself back to her feet.
Okay, from now on, no more backing people into corners with doors in them.
From behind her, she could feel Old Guy's palpitating heart; she could hear his nephew's growls of aggravation and fear. She and the others walked up behind them cautiously. She wasn't really sure what any of them were doing. But, well, they were allies now, right? Enemies of the Fire Nation needed to stick together.
Plus, Old Guy made a killer cup of tea. His advice wasn't shabby either, and it wasn't like they could just leave him.
"Get away from us!" the nephew shouted suddenly. Toph could feel the tremble in his hands that she couldn't see. Feel the weakness overcoming his uncle.
Katara started forward.
"Zuko, I can help!"
"Leave!" Zuko shouted back, voice rough and rasping with emotion. He cast a large wave of fire above their heads. Toph took in a quick breath of air in shock, feeling the heat course over her, stealing away some of the oxygen.
Behind her, the group was already edging away, Aang reaching out to touch her hand. Toph didn't move.
"What are you, crazy?" she snapped. She could feel how weak Old Guy's heart was, how little air he took in with each breath. "Do you want him to die?"
"Get out of here!" Zuko shouted. He threw another gout of flame, this time directed toward Toph. Badly. It was too high, too weak, too cold. Spirits, she didn't know fire could be so cold.
"No," she replied. She moved into a more solid stance, ready to hit him with a rock until he saw sense. She waved at Katara, urging her forward. "Katara's going to heal your uncle, and you're going to shut up 'til it's done."
"Toph," Katara started warily. "I don't know if that's such a good –"
Toph let out a long, frustrated breath. She really didn't want to mix it up with Sweetness and get back on her bad side all of five minutes after they made up, but come on!
Thankfully, Aang did some of his Avatar stuff, stepping up to keep the balance.
"I think you should do it, Katara," he said softly. He turned slightly, angling his body. Toph frowned a little, trying to figure out the meaning of the movement. Stupid sighted people and their stupid expressions. He was probably looking at Zuko. That would make sense, she reasoned. He directed his voice toward the other boy, "Consider it a debt repaid."
Zuko didn't move for a long moment; his breathing had turned controlled and focused. It was the kind of focus Toph recognized from her many, many, many fallen opponents at Earth Rumble. Guys just trying to hold it together one minute more.
Silently – well, to most people, because Toph could hear Katara's heart like a big, deep gong clanging in her head – Katara knelt next to Old Guy. She bent the water from her water skin, gloving her hand in it. She passed her hands once over Old Guy's body before settling near the center of his chest, pressing down into the burn. Toph listened avidly, waiting for the moment when everything would be right with him again.
Behind her, though, Aang and Sokka were somewhat less attentive.
"What did you mean?" Sokka asked quietly. "A debt repaid?"
"Ah, huh, well," Aang said, drawing out the vowels. He stepped a little further back from Old Guy and Zuko, and consequently Katara. Despite herself, Toph followed. He dropped his voice slightly as he explained, "Zuko kinda, sorta rescued me that time. You remember? When you were delirious from fever?"
"Not really. Wait! When I was sick? And you made me suck on a frog?"
"Frozen frog!" Aang said, as if that somehow made it better.
Toph could feel Katara's attention wandering at all the noise they were making. She jerked her thumb back over her shoulder, reminding them of the kind of important life saving going on back there.
"Interesting as all that is," Toph said, almost meaning it. "What do frogs have to do with Zuko?"
"I got captured by Zhao, and Zuko rescued me. He could have left me there, or tried to capture me, but he let me go. I kinda owe him my life," Aang explained. "Sokka and Katara's, too, I guess."
"Fine, then we repay him, we make camp, conk him on the head, and get away clean!" Sokka said.
That didn't exactly seem like debt paying to Toph. She was about to say as much when Katara approached the group.
"I don't think that's going to be an option," she said wearily. "I did what I could, but…"
She ended on a sigh, and Aang immediately stepped over to her, enveloping her in a hug. They seemed more like two dolls propped up against each other than two people in a genuine embrace. The adrenaline of the fight was passing, leaving behind only the bone shaking tiredness caused by a sleepless, stressful day and night of running.
Behind Katara and Aang, Zuko was helping his uncle to his feet, concern softening every movement. Together, Old Guy leaning heavily on Zuko, they lurched over to the assembled group.
"We'll make camp," Zuko said in a low, tense voice. "And then you'll finish what you started."
Was that a threat? Toph blinked in surprise. The words sounded vaguely threat-like, but everything else about Zuko – heartbeat, breath, stance – said plea. He was pleading with them for his uncle's life.
Beside her, Katara bristled. She broke away from Aang to poke a finger into Zuko's chest.
"I don't take orders from you!"
"Please, Katara!" Aang said, rushing over to seize her arm, dragging her back. "We said we'd help."
With great effort, Old Guy focused his attention on Katara.
"My nephew does not mean what he says. I thank you for the help you've given me," he said. "And if you could continue, I would be most appreciative. It is always good to make allies of enemies in this dangerous world. It is a good sailor who knows to take advantage of the shifting wind, unexpected thought it may be."
"Er, what?" Sokka said beside her. Toph was right there with him. Cryptic she did not do.
But Aang was almost giddy, clearly happy to have an airbender style aphorism to wrestle with.
"Yeah! We should work together!" he said enthusiastically. He bounded over to Old Guy's side, ducking under his arm to help Zuko, and together they walked him into one of the abandoned but still largely defensible buildings. Zuko's steps were clipped as he walked, hostile and awkward and thankful all at once. Man, if he knew just how much he gave away in his body language, he'd be pretty embarrassed.
Next to her, uneasiness radiated off of Katara and Sokka as they watched the unlikely trio go.
"Seriously?" Sokka asked.
"We'll figure it out in the morning," Katara replied through a jaw cracking yawn.
"Sounds good to me," Toph said. They were almost to the door of the building when it occurred to her to ask the question that had been bugging her since the fight, "How exactly did you guys get here so quickly? Is Appa here?"
Between the exhausted good guys and the questionable motives of the Fire Nation folks, it would be really handy to have their ten ton escape route around.
"Yeah," Katara said. "He landed just on the outskirts. Fell asleep almost immediately."
"Lucky him," Toph grumbled.
She was ready to let it go at that because, well, even without Appa around, she guessed they were probably fairly safe. If Zuko turned on them, then Katara wouldn't heal Old Guy. And if the princess and her sidekicks came back… they'd all die gruesomely.
Toph hadn't exactly figured out all of the kinks, okay? She was tired.
Sokka, however, was less inclined to let the issue go. He'd stopped, stock still in the doorway, face upturned as he contemplated.
"How did we get here so fast? I was paralyzed and you were pinned to a tree, Katara. Logically, it makes no sense!"
"Ugh, logic later, sleep now," she said, tugging on his hand.
Toph had to agree.
Aang had already curled up on the floor, his staff pulled close to his chest for comfort. Katara made to lie down next to him, patting the earthen ground smooth and looking around briefly for something she could make into a pillow before giving up with a tired, philosophical sigh. They were both on the far side of the room from where Old Guy lay and where Zuko kneeled next to him, holding anxious vigil.
"Shouldn't we, you know," Sokka asked her in a hush, angling his body away from the Fire Nation guys, "set up a watch, or something?"
Well, yeah, technically, they should.
"Okay, you first," she said shortly.
"Why do I have to stay up?" Sokka whined.
Duh, because he suggested it. It didn't help that Aang and Katara were already snoozing away.
Zuko's voice broke into their conversation from across the room, "Nothing will happen to you while you sleep. You have my word."
Sokka watched him for a moment in quiet stillness, before nodding.
"I'm gonna hold you to that," he said.
How, Toph didn't really know, but she liked the sentiment.
They both joined Katara and Aang on the floor. Sleep was already creeping up the edges of Toph's consciousness when her head touched the welcoming, soft earth beneath it. The heartbeats of her friends were quickly becoming more comforting than distracting, and it didn't take long for her to be lulled to sleep.
She awoke to the smell of something burning. Toph raised her head muzzily, hand reaching out across the floor, pressing here and there to try to find a source. It wasn't hot on the ground, and it didn't seem hot above, so what the heck was going on?
Beside her, Katara was already jumping to her feet in anger. On the floor, Sokka slumbered on, oblivious.
"I knew we couldn't… Oh."
"Oh? Oh what Katara?" Toph asked, tugging on the hem of Katara's robe. Most of the time she liked it when people forgot she was blind. Not so much when there was stuff you could only know by looking and no one was keeping her in the loop, though.
"Someone decided to cook for us," Katara explained, stifling a giggle. "Seems they don't teach how to make zhou at the palace."
"Ohhh," Toph said. So that was what that smell was. Burned rice sticking to the inside of a cook pot. Toph scrunched her nose. Gross. She actually hadn't really smelled it before, between her parents' cook and Katara's serviceable if salty fare.
"If you don't want it, then fine!" Zuko snapped back at them, from somewhere in the vicinity of the smell. "It's for Uncle anyway!"
Toph edged closer, pinpointing him as just outside the door of the house. Sometime during the night, he had dug a firepit and brought Appa into the yard. Aang had moved to his animal friend's side, curling up on his thick pelt with Momo on his lap. An ostrich-horse pecked feed from the ground next to them.
He'd been busy. Zuko must not have slept at all during the night.
Katara propped a fist on her cocked hip.
"My mistake. I thought you liked your uncle. But if you're busy killing him yourself with your cooking, then I guess there's no need for me."
"Good one, Katara!" Toph said with a laugh. She reached out, punching Katara in the closest body part. From the sound of the thump, she estimated it was Katara's ribcage.
"So, how about you two fix breakfast, then Katara can fix up your uncle, and you two can flirt later?" Toph suggested. She could feel the two of them exchanging embarrassed looks.
She ignored them, making her way over to Appa. Big guy had all her stuff, after all, and that included a bowl. If Sugar Queen couldn't salvage the zhou, she had a few unopened packs of dried dates from their last pit stop in a town that could serve as breakfast. Actually… she dug into Aang's pack as well. There we go! He had quite a nice selection of gathered nuts and even some fresh, if aging, fruit.
Toph slid down Appa's side, landing with a grunt. When she returned to Zuko and Katara, they were actually working together, having made peace through mutual hunger and mortification at Toph's comment. Zuko stood, silent but attentive, at Katara's side as she scraped the rice from the sides of the cook pot, carefully removing the worst of the burned rice.
"Zhou is supposed to be made from leftovers. That's what makes it so squishy. Try to make it squish from the first cooking and, well, you just make fire," Katara said with a light, only somewhat strained laugh.
"And I can do that already," Zuko said. His posture was still tense, still guarded, but he also seemed sort of grateful for the lesson.
Toph held out her bowl and Katara promptly filled it. She dropped to the floor, crossing her legs as she started to crack open walnuts with rocks, to crumble into her zhou.
"Where'd you get those?" Katara asked in surprise.
"Aang's pack," Toph said. She tossed the rest of the bag at Katara and snickered when it hit her in the face. "Think fast."
Whatever qualms Katara might have had about borrowing from Aang without permission were obviously overcome by the taste of Zuko's cooking. Somewhat abashed, Zuko himself accepted the walnuts, roasting them quickly in his hand before tossing them into his congealing, half-burned zhou.
"So," Toph said into the quickly descending awkwardness. "That was your sister?"
Zuko hunched his shoulders.
"Yes," he said stiffly.
"She's a lot butcher than you," Toph continued, musing out loud. "What's up with that? And what's up with the Fire Nation? Do you guys even still have any royalty in the capitol, or are you all out here, fighting for glory or whatever?"
Despite herself, Toph couldn't help but be interested. The war history she had been taught by tutors had been severely watered down, the better to help shelter Lao Bei Fong's delicate daughter from the horrible truth. But beyond that, Toph had been raised to be a fancy lady, and in the Earth Kingdom no one got fancier or more ladylike than a princess. To see – for varying definitions of the word, anyway – a Fire Nation princess out fighting the Avatar was pretty shocking, and even intriguing.
"Father is back in the Fire Nation. Obviously."
Which, by inference, meant that the rest of the royal family really was out fighting for glory or honor or the joy of pyromania. That didn't seem like an altogether circumspect way of running a country, but then again, Toph was hardly one to criticize.
From there the group descended into an uncomfortable silence. Toph would have liked to continue, and she got the sense that Katara, too, was pretty interested in the machinations of the Fire Nation's royal family – and their policy on gender equality – but Zuko's distraction prevented further questions. He could barely concentrate enough to eat, let alone talk further, since he kept casting anxious looks over his shoulder at Old Guy's still form.
When they finished, Katara collected the bowls from them and then looked around, apparently in frustration at the lack of a water source. Toph smirked, cocking an eyebrow in her general direction. No way to share chores now!
"I filled the trough last night," Zuko said, taking the bowls from Katara. He swallowed deeply, ducking his head. "You can do your thing, and we'll wash up."
That was about as close to a thank you as he could apparently get. To her credit, Katara didn't comment, padding softly over to Old Guy's side to begin healing. Zuko, in turn, led Toph out past Aang and the animals to the water trough before she could protest that she didn't really know how she had gotten caught up in his gesture of appreciation. Didn't it mean more if he did it all himself?
But then he dipped her hand in the water, shoving a bowl and a rag her way, and Toph realized just how deep the trough was. She didn't remember water anywhere near here – except that river they landed at before she left the group, and that wasn't exactly close by.
"Seriously?" she asked in shock. "Did you sleep at all last night?"
"He's gonna be okay, you know. Sugar Queen's real good at healing."
Or, at least, Toph assumed she was. Having seen exactly what Aang was up against, she figured that Katara's healing was basically the only reason he'd survived this long.
Zuko just nodded stiffly, continuing to work. He seemed no more suited to the domestic arts than she was. Scrubbing when maybe soaking would be better, repeating the action over and over again mindlessly, just for the sake of the distraction. Toph stopped her own scrubbing, letting the bowl sink to the bottom of the trough. She shifted on her feet, feeling out Zuko.
He was skinny, that much she could tell. Middling height. Probably about ready to grow more going off his feet, although where he was storing the energy for that from on that delicate frame, she had no idea. Absolutely a trained fighter – not solidly rooted in the way of an earthbender, but not as free-spirited and froofy as an airbender either. Flexible almost like a waterbender, but more aggressive. More distrustful.
She thought back to her conversation with his uncle. Boy, had she nailed it. If ever there was a kid who needed to hear he was needed and appreciated, it was this guy.
"You know," she started, "for an angry guy with a ponytail, you don't seem all that angry."
Toph could feel his shift; he was totally looking down at the top of her head, wasn't he?
"Uh. I don't have a ponytail."
To be entirely fair, Toph really only had a passing idea of what a ponytail was. Her hair had been long since she could remember, and coiffed by servants even before that. The Bei Fongs owned ostrich-horses rather than ponies, and she wasn't allowed anywhere near the stables, regardless. Still, it annoyed Toph. She relied on Sokka for one thing, and he couldn't even get that right! If his information was always this trustworthy, then maybe Appa was blue and it was the sky that was covered in arrows.
"I don't have one anymore," Zuko said, enunciating each word as if for a child. "I cut it off."
Toph failed to suppress her horrified gasp. If there was one thing she knew from the way her father ran his business, it was that cutting someone's hair in such a way was a horrible humiliation.
"Why? I mean, I know your crazy sister called you a traitor and everything, but why would you give yourself such a mark of dishonor?"
Zuko let out a breathy chuff of cynical laughter.
"Mark of dishonor. Ha."
Toph had the sense that she was missing something.
"What?" she demanded.
"It's just that my father already gave me a 'mark of dishonor' – a long time ago. But even with that, I still had a chance. I still had a way back home. I just had to capture the Avatar. Now," Again he laughed that hopeless laugh, "Now I have nothing. No one to swear fealty to."
"But that wasn't your choice," she pressed. That made all the difference in the world. Both because she didn't really think you could be declared a traitor without being a traitor, and because, hi, if he wasn't a traitor that was kind of a bad thing for her and hers.
"Since when does that matter?"
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard! Of course it matters!" She turned, jabbing her finger repeatedly into his abdomen. "All you've got in this world is you and your own decisions, and screw everyone else! If you want to go home, you should go home! Aang is right there, numbskull! Don't let your precious honor stop you! But if you do, if you're willing to make a deal with us, to let us go, maybe you should sit down and consider just what that means.
"Maybe you aren't who your sister thinks you are. Maybe you aren't even who you think you are. Maybe you need to stop whining about honor and figure things out for yourself!"
There was a long, deep silence. Toph was dimly aware that maybe, just possibly, she might have just encouraged him to kidnap Aang and run right back to his daddy. But, well, all that 'dishonor' crap had ticked her off!
Zuko reached down to grasp her hand, carefully moving it away from him. She had probably bruised his precious royal skin or something. He stepped back, turning back to the trough, and going back to work. Toph stood a moment, flexing her toes into the dirt, trying again to get a read on him. So far it hadn't been difficult at all, but suddenly he seemed far less transparent. Was it possible he was thinking through her words?
Much later, after Sokka had woken, after Katara sought out Appa for a quick nap after the healing session, after Old guy made the rounds in jolly, renewed health, introducing himself as Iroh, only then did Aang awaken.
When he did, Zuko sidled close to Toph, leaning down to ask, "What would you do if I took him right now?"
"Kick your butt back to the Fire Nation," she replied without hesitation.
He seemed satisfied with that answer.
"I guess that's one way to get back home," he said wryly.
He stuck out a hand, only wincing a little when she grabbed it, grinding his bones together in a harsh shake.
"It was nice to meet you," he said.
He strode off, back to the others. From where she stood, she could hear his fierce declaration to the group: the next time they met, it would be as enemies. Iroh tried to protest, but Zuko overrode him. Aang, almost more than Iroh, seemed disappointed in the prince's decision. It was really amazing how blind sighted people could be. How much more transparent and hollow did Zuko's words need to be for them to get it was all a show?
Zuko and Iroh picked up their packs, thanks given and temporary alliance broken, while Toph, Aang, Sokka, and Katara piled back onto Appa.
"Time to add ungrateful right in front of 'angry jerk'," Sokka groused.
"Excuse me? I was doing all the work," Katara said.
Toph settled in to ignore them both, arm laying across Appa's sadddle, face peering sightlessly toward the ground. She missed it already.
"Nice meeting you, too," she said softly.