As it would turn out, Kyoshi Island was not particularly helpful towards finding out anything about the Avatar, and eventually the three travelers moved on. Passing through village after village, they tried their best to keep a low profile, but the longer they were in the Earth Kingdom, the more paranoid Sokka got about them being watched.
He had tried to insist that they end up walking part of the way north, but it ended up being too difficult. Appa just didn’t fit on the footpaths. Flying over, the ride was fairly quiet. Momo occasionally glided along, and chattered to Appa, while Aang cloudgazed . Katara, however, had brought some reading material.
When she pulled Zuko’s scrolls out of one of the bags, Sokka’s eyes bulged out so much that Aang said he’d looked a little like Momo. Snatching up a scroll , Sokka whisper-yelled at his sister.
“Why do you have these?” She looked at him funny, and then spoke normally.
“I brought them along to study the bending forms. The day he left, Zuko taught me that bending different elements really just involved different ways of bending the same energy, and it’s possible that bending itself is not entirely subjective to one element. In this particular scroll, it shows the Firebender using waterbending forms to direct lightning.”
“Woah, really?” Aang floated up to have a look. Admiring the scrolls, Aang peeked at a few of the forms. “Hey, this one used an airbending trick! That’s so cool! Where did you get these?”
Katara and Sokka exchanged looks. “They’re Zuko’s. They were the only thing he left behind when he went back to the Fire Nation.” The air was somber. Both of them missed Zuko, and hoped he was okay.
“Y’know, the Kyoshi warriors apply the same concept to their fighting.” Sokka said after a moment. “Suki told me that they applied fighting styles from all over the world into their combat, because that’s what Kyoshi did. She used all four elements in unison as a means of defense.”
“That would make sense, given that she’s the Avatar.” Katara surmised. Before anyone could say anything else though, Momo let out a loud screeching noise. All three children turned to look at the lemur, who was pointing down on the ground.
Peering down over the edge of the saddle, all three gasped upon seeing the burned remains of a forest beneath them. Aang directed Appa to land, and Katara packed away the scrolls. Settling down on the ground, the group was disturbed by the eerie silence of the nature around them. Ash covered the ground, and the charred remains of trees stuck out of the ground like dried tendrils.
Aang clutched his staff, horrified. Nearby they spotted a Fire Nation soldier helmet, laying carelessly on the ground, partially buried in soot, and Aang felt so guilty.
“How could I have let this happen?”
“Aang, you didn’t let this happen. This wasn’t your fault.” Katara said gently.
“ Yes it was. It’s the Avatar’s job to protect nature, and I don’t know how to DO my job. Gystso said Avatar Roku was supposed to help me!”
Aang kicked the dirt, and walked away, and that’s when Katara noticed something on the ground. She picked it up, and smiled, before gesturing to Sokka. He looked at her oddly, but scrounged around, picking up a similar item.
“I know what might make you feel better.” She called out to Aang, who had his back to her.
Aang shook his head. “I don’t thin ...OW!” Katara chucked what she had picked up at his head, and he whirled around, noticing an acorn at his feet.
“Well, that cheered me up!” Sokka laughed. Aang scowled at him. Katara threw another acorn at her brother who yelped, startled, and whined at his sister.
“I don’t understand.” He held the acorn in his hand, and Katara waved her hands around.
“These acorns are everywhere, Aang, all over the ground. That means the forest will grow back. Every single one will grow into a great big tree, the birds and animals will return, and the ecosystem will be restored.”
Aang smiled a little, and looked at the acorn once more. Sokka grinned at his sister, and then tensed upon noticing that they were being watched.
“Hey, who are you?” He called out, drawing Aang and Katara’s attention to the stranger, who’s attention was locked onto Aang.
“When I saw the flying bison, I thought it was impossible, but those markings...Are you the Avatar, young man?”
Aang hesitated, but nodded. “Yes.”
The man gave him a look of relief. “My village desperately needs your help.”
He led the trio back to his village, which had been significantly damaged. “What happened here?” Katara asked. More villagers appeared, watching the newcomers.
“We were attacked by a spirit monster, for the last few days he has come at sunset, and with the winter solstice coming, the attack could get worse. The spirit has taken people, Avatar, please help us.”
“Taken?” Sokka asks, alarmed. “Wait, why would the solstice make the attacks worse?”
“The winter solstice marks the natural and Spirit Worlds get closer, blurring the walls between our world and theirs. The spirit, Hei Bai, we call him, is already causing devestation, what would he be able to do if there was nothing to stop him?”
“Why is he attacking you?” Aang asked.
The stranger shook his head. “I do not know.”
“ So what do you want me to do?” Aang continues, confused.
“Who better to resolve a crisis between our world and the Spirit World than the Avatar, the great bridge between man and spirits?”
“Uh...” Aang floundered, and Katara covered for him.
“We’ll help in any way we can.”
It took a few days towards Ba Sing Se for the guilt to truly set in, for Zuko. The further they got from Omashu , the more Zuko wanted to go back to the ship, and set sail for the South Pole. He had thought beforehand that the best way to separate himself from the Water Tribes was to just never go back, but now he had realized that he was just trying to avoid feeling guilty for not being able to protect them. He should have faced Hakoda when he had the chance.
Iroh could see his nephew’s inner conflict, and didn’t know how to help. Soldiers were supposed to escort them all the way to the city, which would make it difficult for Zuko to sneak away without alarm. Part of the way to Ba Sing Se, they came across a town that was well-developed for Earth Kingdom villages, and the soldiers posted locally informed them of a wealthy family that had a home just on the outskirts of town, that had invited the two royal members to dinner within their compound.
Iroh graciously accepted the invitation, and Zuko admired the metalwork that decorated the front gate as they waited to be greeted. The flying boar emblem was everywhere in the main lobby, and the finery rivalled that of the Fire Nation palace, if not exceeding it.
“Ah, General Iroh and Ambassador Zuko, welcome to my family home. I am Lao Beifong, please, come with me.”
“Master Beifong , you have a lovely home.” Zuko commented, trying to be polite.
“Why thank you. I cannot take all the credit of course, the building has been in my family since the age of Avatar Kuruk, and we’ve done our best to preserve our history within this place.”
“It is truly impressive.” Iroh followed up.
“Allow me to introduce my wife, Poppy, and our only daughter, Toph.” The two firebenders were led into a grand room, where two women were standing, ready to be presented to their guests. Or rather, one woman, and one young girl.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” Iroh bowed to the family matriarch, and Zuko followed suit. “And you as well my dear.” Iroh directed the words to the daughter, who only nodded in acknowledgement.
Zuko’s eyes widened upon seeing her glassy look, and realized that Toph was in fact, blind.
“So, General Iroh, I understand that you are traveling to Ba Sing Se?” Lao asked, drawing their attention away from his family.
“Well, actually, my nephew is, and I’m just along for the ride.” Iroh responded. Lao redirected his attention to Zuko, upon hearing Iroh’s answer.
“And what interests you in the Earth Kingdom’s great city, Ambassador Zuko?”
Taking his eyes off of Toph for a moment, Zuko cleared his throat. “After spending some time in the Southern Water Tribe, I have gained a desire to see the world outside of the Fire Nation homeland. Since Ba Sing Se is such a significant part of the Earth Kingdom, I thought it would be a good place to start.”
“I understand. I used to travel frequently to Ba Sing Se before my daughter was born, it is a wonderful city. Or was, so I’ve heard recently.” Lao’s tone was sharp and critical, and both Iroh and Zuko resisted wincing.
“Forgive me if this is rude, but I am curious, are you three Earthbenders ?” Zuko asked, and Lao shook his head.
“No. My daughter is gifted, but she would not be able to use her talents, as she is blind.”
“Oh, I disagree,” Iroh said, thoughtlessly. “I have known many benders who are abled differently, that are extremely good benders. Why, the last time I was in Ba Sing Se, I met a bender who had lost his hands, but was able to use his bending through manipulation of his facial muscles.”
Toph’s face directly slightly in Iroh’s direction, a look of curiosity on her face, her mouth ticked up to the side.
Lao’s face darkened. “Regardless, she is too young, and fragile for me to even consider allowing...”
“Allowing?” Zuko interrupted, confused. “If she has been gifted with an ability to bend, surely that is something she must pursue. Forbidding someone to bend is a punishment for a bender, it’s why that particular technique is used in prisons.”
“I don’t like what you are implying, Ambassador Zuko.” Lao snarled.
Zuko reeled back, recognizing the man’s anger. “I meant no disrespect Master Beifong . But as a bender myself, my element is as much a part of me as my body, or my senses. But Toph should explore her abilities, and challenge herself to bend beyond her physical state.”
“Regardless, she is my daughter, I am responsible for her, and I have decided that bending is too risky for her. I understand your perspective, but do not question my choice to protect my family.”
“It was in the interests of family that I got this scar, Master Beifong . Consider other factors before making unilateral decisions.” Zuko snapped, shocking their host into silence.
“What scar?” Toph asked, speaking at last.
Lao was silent, but Zuko cut him off. “May I approach you, Miss Beifong ?” She nodded, looking unsure. Zuko stood, and moved closer to the girl, kneeling next to her.
She reached out her hand, to which Zuko raised his own, guiding it until her fingertips brushed the scarred cheek, and her palm flattened against his face until her entire hand was spread out flush, exploring the scarred region.
“Are you blind, like me, in this eye?” She asked.
“I used to be. My vision is still weak, and my hearing will never recover either.”
“And you bend fine?” She asked, her voice small.
“Not at first, but I adjusted, adapted, and learned. Now I can bend just as well as I used to, if not better.”
“Thank you.” She whispered, and Zuko squeezed her fingers before moving back to his place. Lao glared at Zuko for a moment, before schooling his features into a calm look.
The rest of the dinner resumed without much conversation, however Zuko noticed Toph frequently facing empty space to angle her ears towards the other people in the room. Occasionally her mother would chastise her, saying that it was rude not to face their guests, and she would freeze her face in lieu of a scowl, and Zuko would clench his fist under the table. It wasn’t his business.
As they left, Zuko thought a lot about the girl, which is why she scared the hell out him when she tugged on his sleeve just outside of the compound.
“Hey!” She said loudly, losing the gentle mask on her voice.
“What the...where did you come from?” Zuko whispered, trying not to draw alarm. Iroh continued walking carelessly with their soldier escort, leaving Zuko behind.
“You’re the first person to ever talk to my parents like that. Most of the earthbenders I’ve been around don’t think I can bend because of my sight.” She grinned dangerously, and Zuko took in her appearance. Gone was her high-class finery, her hair now unkempt and dirty. In fact ...all of her was dirty.
“Given the state of your clothes, I don’t think that’s true at all.” Zuko said dryly.
She snorted, very unladylike. “No. I’m a great bender. And although I wish my parents could see that, they see me nothing more than just a...”
“Puppet.” Zuko finished the sentence for her, and her expression took on an inspired look.
“Yeah. Puppet. Seems like you know a thing or two about that.”
“Maybe a bit more than two.” Zuko joked, grinning.
“ So you were introduced as Ambassador Zuko. What are you the ambassador to?” Toph asked, curious.
“The Fire Nation ambassador to the Water Tribes. But now I guess you could say I’m recently unemployed.”
“ Why’s that?” The girl asked, frowning.
Zuko winced. “Because the Fire Nation is about to declare war on the Northern Water Tribe.”
Toph wrinkled her nose in disgust. “You guys have to stop with the wars. I’m all for a good fight, but jeez. Didn’t you get enough out of the last one?”
“Apparently not.” Zuko felt guilty. “The Fire Nation won’t be happy until the entire world is under their control.”
“And you won’t be happy while it is.” Toph commented, and Zuko’s eyes widened at her insight.
“Uh...” He didn’t know what to say.
“I can sense your heartbeat through the ground. It’s slow, and given your tone of voice, you’re sad, but not about the lack of a job. You’re sad about the war.”
“Do me a favor, don’t tell anyone that. And you can sense my heartbeat?” Zuko asked, catching what she had just said.
“Yeah. I can usually tell when people are lying to me because of that neat trick.” She smirks.
“That would’ve been useful, growing up around my sister.” Zuko imagined.
“ So how’d you get your scar? You weren’t lying about that earlier, even if your uncle was lying about why you were travelling to Ba Sing Se.”
“I don’t want to talk abo...wait, what? What do you mean my uncle was lying about why he was travelling with me. The trip was my idea.”
Toph shrugged. “I don’t know. All I know is that when he answered my dad, he was lying about something.”
Zuko glanced in the direction of his uncle, who was now almost a speck down the path, and that was when Zuko realized he was alone. He could sneak away, and no one would notice.
“Sounds like you’ve just realized something.” Toph said, and Zuko remembered that she was there, pulling him out of his thoughts.
“Yes. I’m sorry, but I have to go.” He turns to run, but she grabs his arm.
“Wait.” She says, stopping him. “Let me come with you.”
Zuko freezes in alarm. “Excuse me?”
“To Ba Sing Se! Let me come with you.” She asked, and Zuko shakes his head for a moment, before remembering she couldn’t see that.
“I’m not going to Ba Sing Se anymore.” Toph frowns.
“Then where are you going?” She asks, confused.
“I’m going home, back to the Southern Water Tribe.”