gaisce: (Pleased as punching)
Flourishing Verdantly ([personal profile] gaisce) wrote2010-01-04 03:37 am

[Avatar] Flint and Spark, part 1

Another unspoken resolution I have this year is to stop being an over-analytical whiner and just write. Which primarily focuses on how I have no pacing for longer stories to save my life and thus don't attempt them. TIMELY EXPOSITION IS MY NEMESIS. I have probably written this chapter over twenty times, posted and deleted it twice, and will likely never finish the story. But whatever, I am posting it now, considering it done, and moving on without constantly re-editing the damn thing this is a lie, I bet I will wake up and fix a dozen things looking at it again.

Title: Flint and Spark (1/?)
Series: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Spoilers/Warnings: Set after the finale, so all canon events are fair game.
Wordcount: 8,783
Summary: Five years later a tenuous balance is on the brink of collapse, ready to send the nations back to war. Toph can stop the conspiracy, but with her only help being the manipulative exile, Princess Azula, her enemies may not be the biggest problem.
Author's notes: If you're brave enough to read this mess, concrit would also be adored.

“We’re lost.”

“Will you stop saying that?” Toph said through gritted teeth. “It gets old fast.”

Concealed chains made a muffled clanking noise, which only seemed to add to the jeers of her companion. “I will, once you admit it’s true. Following you is ridiculous, what with obvious problem of the blind leading the shackled.”

“Prison issued. Which is exactly why they didn’t give you the directions, Little Miss Trustworthy,” she retorted as she let the wave of earth that was carrying them settle back to level ground.

Despite traveling nonstop for the last couple of hours, all it took to rejuvenate Toph was the chance to stretch her legs. Each footstep reconnected her to the miles of earth thrumming beneath her. Their tremors served as far better conversation than the snide remarks she had been forced to endure from her unwilling companion. And even though the blind earthbender did not need to look directly at her fellow traveler to “see” how her so-called was holding up, she was glad for the opportunity to turn and face the other girl.

Azula, exiled princess of the Fire Nation, was not someone you willingly kept near your unguarded back. Even when bound in heavy iron chains.

Toph kicked her heel against the ground and two pillars of rock rose up and fastened Azula’s feet to where she stood. “Rest stop. Hope the scenery’s nice where you are because you’ll be there for a while.”

“Is this really necessary? I already told you I wasn’t going to bother escaping.” she snapped, trying to manage a way to kneel comfortably while both her ankles were encased in rock. “What’s there to escape to in this dustbowl?”

“Maybe I just think it’s what you deserve for being such a backseat bender.”

At the mention of bending Azula grew tense, preferring instead to lean over in a crouching position. Toph could hear the rustle of her long sleeves as Azula adjusted her arms so the cloth draped over the chains. The earthbender did not turn to her movements, but her hands flexed in anticipation, ready to bring up a rock shield as an instinctive defense.

“In that case get me some water,” Azula said, more to the ground than Toph herself.

“I’m not your weasel-gopher,” Toph scoffed. “If you’re thirsty you can wait until we get to the meeting point.”

“If you won’t let me get it myself I guess that makes you the only one qualified to fetch. Besides, you won’t even tell me how far we are from this point you keep not talking about. It could be days’ worth of journeying for all you let on.”

“Trust me, if I had to ferry you longer than a day I wouldn’t have let you get off the ship without a gag.”

Azula brought her manacles down at the rock restraining her, an ugly scraping noise as she chipped off a chunk of stone around her ankles. “Oh, trusting you is the best part of this little expedition.”

“That makes one of us.”

The sound of iron on stone came again as Azula brought her fists down. Then again, not letting the faint tremors finish before she struck a second blow.

Toph crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side to listen. “You’ll break your hands before you get out of there.”

“I’m not looking to break free.” She struck as she spoke. This time a piece as large as the span of an inch fell from the mount.

“No? That’s great, Princess. You’re just throwing a royal fit.”

“Don’t you have something you need to be doing? Rubbing off the top layer of filth? Resting? It’s probably very exhausting, being this much of an aggravating—”

Toph held up a hand to silence her. Surprisingly, the other girl quieted as soon as she noticed her expression.

During their trip, Toph went out of her way to avoid stumbling into any unsuspecting travelers. The exiled princess was the last person she wanted for company, and she was even less inclined to explain the reasons why. So Toph chose unmarked paths that were further inland and with rougher terrain, as far away from the trade routes as possible. But now she could feel faint vibrations against her bare feet, overwhelming the noise of prairie dog-toads digging their tunnels and wren-sparrows calling for their mates.

At first she thought to ignore the sounds, believing it to be merchants who strayed from the main roads from misread maps or poorly chosen guides. Yet the tremors grew more and more hurried the closer they came. Then they echoed and multiplied, extending from all directions until they overlapped the pace of the first steady beat, almost as if they were overtaking the others.

Toph shook her head disgustedly, knowing too well what that sound meant. “Great. Robbers.”

Azula quirked an eyebrow when she heard the mirth in Toph’s voice. It seemed misplaced until she saw a familiar smirk, the kind she felt, a very long time ago, when a battle was reaching its pitch. And realized the meaning was the same—anticipation. “’re not seriously going.”

“I’m seriously going. Messing up your day is just the fun part.”

Her gold eyes scanned the horizon. “They would have to be miles away. If you stop to help every peasant in need, I’m surprised you ever get anything done.”

“Just because you don’t care about what happens to some ‘peasants’ doesn’t mean I’m going to stand by and let them get trampled on.”

“What about your priorities? I thought we had to make good time to get to our destination. This isn’t the time for you to go sightseeing.”

“Sorry, Princess, but you rank under them. I’ll make this quick though.” Toph spread her feet into a wider stance. Turning back toward Azula she made a farewell wave, simultaneously calling up another slate of rock to replace the part she had chipped away. “Stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”

“Don’t you dare leave me here!” Azula cried after her, the demands giving way to a frustrated shout. “Earthender! Did you hear me? Earthbender! —Toph!”

It had been a while since she could remember being so dead set on picking a fight. While time could not mellow Toph’s rebellious spirit, it became harder to instigate when there was no reason to rebel. No need to prove herself ever since the war ended. The world acknowledged her role and afforded her the respect of her position. She was the Avatar’s earthbending master, the first to discover metalbending, the Blind Bandit, the savior of the Earth Kingdom. No one could take that from her, or dreamed of trying. The places she traveled welcomed her as a hero, bought her drinks and begged for stories up until she set off again.

But with peace settling through the lands like a long forgotten comfort to those afflicted by the siege, she found there was no permanent place for her. Even Xin Fu’s Earth Rumble tournaments lost many of their fans to the surge of artisan and trade schools that grew in the wake of their reclaimed prosperity. The Earth Kingdom’s citizens were a stalwart people and had endured over a hundred years of battle, but they were tired of conflict and exhausted from war. It was not unreasonable that they would turn to other trades besides fighting.

Toph would never get sick of it. She knew that as fact and set in stone.

It did not mean that she was never needed, only that it was barely worth flexing her muscles over. Warm up stuff, breaking up the fights and the monotony. Whatever discontents and rebellions that rose up presented less of a challenge than meeting her own expectations. And any conflict serious enough to need the Avatar’s intervention was almost always resolved before she got word of it. Not that her friends didn’t welcome her with open arms, but when the battle was over so was her part in it.

Diplomacy was never her strong suit. Even with her talent for finding liars, there was an incomprehensible nature to the business. The indirect methods, the inevitable compromises all made her feel out of place. She was the type to dig in her heels and not settle for anything less than what she thought was fair. The mere thought of a peace talk meeting was enough to make her restless, itching to go somewhere else.

Still, all things considered, she never before needed the stress relief that came from putting up with her majesty, the exiled princess of asylums and would-be world conquerors. Any excuse to get away from her snide commentary was better than nothing. And nothing is exactly what she would do if she stayed, since she promised to escort Azula and not give her a well-deserved butt kicking. But if other people needed her, she was obligated to help. And if that motivation happened to include some skull busting, who was she to turn it down?

Toph cracked her knuckles. Oh yeah, this was going to be cathartic do-gooding.

When she arrived on the scene an ambush was already in progress. It was hard to make out from all the dust kicked up and the animals skittering in panic, but one caravan wagon was overturned by the telltale creak of a wheel spinning uselessly in the air. The remaining carts were surrounded by four bandits on foot—earthbenders of course, the axels impaled by stalagmites was proof enough. At the edge of the scene, six riders on ostrich-horse mounts trampled about as they closed in on their quarry.

The members of the overturned cart had already been caught up in the melee, merchants lingering where they fell as if the broken heap of wood could still afford them protection. Toph could hear their heartbeats hammering faster than everyone else. She knew it would be hard to distinguish everyone when she got in the thick of it and the adrenaline took over, with fear making all their movements hurried and reckless.

She could not afford the time to memorize each of the people caught up in the fight. So Toph’s backup strategy was simple, incapacitate everyone and let the traders sort themselves out. It usually worked since the ones she defended were never stupid or ungrateful enough to pick a fight with her. Bar brawls were a different matter.

“Surrender peacefully and I won’t have to beat the snot out of you,” she announced as she strode into the battlefield. That way, they could never say she did not warn them about an easy way out.

The nearest foot-soldier guffawed. From the faint whistling sound he made when inhaling, Toph guessed he was already missing some teeth. “Look what they sent for a cavalry!”

“Pay attention to the job,” one of the riders, most likely the leader, snapped. He started circling away, signaling them to close ranks on her. “We have a schedule to keep.”

“Are you kidding? That’s the Blind Bandit!” said another robber to the right of the whistler.

She grinned. “Finally! A little respect—”

“If we clobber her we’ll be infamous!”

“—neeeeevermind,” Toph said, blowing the bangs from her eyes.

She huffed. In the time it took to exhale the ground shuddered open with a groan, as if mimicking her exasperation. Spreading her feet into a low stance, Toph pushed jagged rocks outward to trip the nearest footmen. Their laughter was replaced the scraping of their heavily armored boots as they tried to keep themselves standing.

And the earthbender smirked under the shadow of her hair to hear it. The grunts of surprise meant she got their attention, Toph’s cue to push the advance.

Although it was not necessary for her to face forward to “see” what she was doing, the heavy bearing of her earthbending echoed the movements of her body’s follow through as she twisted her arms toward them to send an explosion of stalagmites barreling out at full force. The whistling one cut his breath short and brought his splitting maul to bear, slamming it down against Toph’s stone. It made her jaw twitch as the heavy reverberations of his weapon collided against hers. The tremors clouded up her perception, but she ignored them, gritting her teeth against the feedback. It was not the first strike thrown at her, and not one she would take without a return shot. Her outstretched hand twisted, yanking down the mingled earth and collapsing it with her gesture. The ground fell out from under him.

He went down just as the second bandit pole vaulted into the space between them. With an ease deceptive of his stocky build, the pole in his hands shot out and struck her knuckles. Toph managed to dodge, pulling her fist back in a block, but it still surprised her. Highway bandits were not the type for coordinated attacks. Especially ones that meant training with a variety of weapon styles.

The robber did not wait for her to catch her breath. He twisted the lacquered staff in his wrists and with each turn of his hand the wooden edge shot out fast as an arrow, aiming for Toph’s chest and arms. The first two hit, once on the collarbone and one a glancing shot where her sleeve ended. She didn’t have the time to bring up a proper rock shield so she waited for him to lunge at her before digging her heel into the ground. A channel of dirt wrapped around his back foot and sent him tumbling underneath his center of balance.

He collapsed like the earth beneath him. The grip on his staff loosened and Toph took added pleasure in smacking it away from his hands with another column of stone, letting the weapon pinwheel out into the air and land far out of his reach.

“Just because I’m blind doesn’t mean I need a walking stick. But you will if you try that again,” Toph jeered. Her fist extended to the remaining bandits in a challenging taunt. “What’s the matter? Is that all you got?”

Despite the bravado, things were not going as well as she initially hoped. Pain burned under her skin, its warm flecks stinging her collarbone but still comforting in the heat of moment. The bruises would hurt more when she had time to rest. Thankfully, there were other things to distract her until then.

It had been a while since someone landed a good hit on her. And Toph hated to admit it, but they slipped through her defenses because she was not ready for this fight. Her mind still divided in its worries over the threat she left behind. This skirmish here was supposed to be simple, but too many things were off. And even in the open terrain of the trading route she felt as if she had accidentally stepped into a patch of uneven ground, fighting her way uphill to finish things.

One of the merchants shouted in alarm as the riders swooped in to flank their fallen conspirators and keep Toph from getting between them and their hopes of plunder. Using her injured arm she willed up an earth slope to keep the ostrich horses from rushing the wagons. Her good arm swung in an arc to shove back the remaining foot soldier just as he unhooked his halberd.

Toph’s mind was spinning through possibilities. If she could keep them separate, track the earthbenders of the group and take them out quick, this would go down smoother. Faster. And for a brief second she wondered how Azula was doing.

The Blind Bandit fought enough to know the ones on foot were not her biggest concern even if they were earthbenders. Riders were two creatures melded together in her senses, unpredictable and further from the ground she used to see. And once the leader saw her rush to their defense he kept the other five in a holding formation, trying to pick at their prey. She did not have to look at his face to know he was waiting for a moment to descend on them en masse.

The two left standing rushed together to break Toph’s wall. One she had already shoved rebounding back with the halberd gone from his hands. Their arms motioned in sync like pinwheels from the same win, grinding the heavy slates back into the ground. Riders were dangerous, but the traders were the reason she was fighting. The ones left by the wagon gave her no place to move except in their defense.

Ignoring finesse, Toph ripped apart at the gravel and threw it at the two bandits. Her aim was better than sight when she could read the tensions of their muscles and knew just where to strike to collapse them under their own weight. The two earthbenders were caught off guard and she could hear their grunts as she pelted them to tripping over the battle scarred ground.

Without turning Toph made sure to repeat the gesture at the two she had previously sunk and who were trying to regain their bearings. One dodged, his gauntlets knocking away the stray pieces even as he stumbled. But Toph heard a satisfying wheeze as her main target, the whistler with the splitting maul, fell backwards. A good guess was she knocked out two teeth at least.

Toph cracked her knuckles. “How’s that for infamy?”

It was not just for show. Any distraction her bragging earned could put her between the wagon bound victims and their assailants. And if she played it loud enough and coupled with her reputation they could let the doubt seep in. Hopefully make retreating seem like a good idea.

However, her effective blockade seemed only to make them tighten rank and coordinate. The leader raised his arm, Toph could not sense the specific gesture from the shifting of the ostrich-horse’s hindquarters and the way he balanced in the saddle. But she did not need to see it to know it meant trouble. Suddenly the other five reached for their packs. The heavy clack of weights striking against each other was followed by a cycling roar as she could hear them swinging the objects over their heads like bolos.

On instinct she brought her fist to her face defensively, the stone walls left by the two bandits closing ranks, one rising up to defend her and the other curving over the traders like a half-formed dome. However, Toph was too busy reinforcing the traders’ wall that she did not have the attention for her own. Just as the earthbenders doubled back to keep whatever one handed attack she launched at the riders, their bolos were already sailing over her.

She could hear the horrified shouts of one of the merchants, or a merchant’s son—not old enough for his voice to deepen, yell at her, “Look out!”

A part of her bristled to hear someone giving her that advice again. What part of the Blind Bandit was so hard to comprehend? But even though she knew they were coming, it did not help when there was no way to doge five all at once.

Toph fell to her knees as the heavy netting overwhelmed her. Resisting the urge to claw at her restraints she listened for their movements. She managed to keep the bolos from sweeping her feet by kicking ripples in the ground. If they tried to sweep her she would have no trouble launching the weighted nets back at them with her bending.

But no further attack came.

As if on cue, the four earthbenders simultaneously launched themselves onto the backs of one of their cohort’s ostrich-horses. And without even a parting shot the leader and his group retreated into the wilderness.

“That was weird,” she muttered to nobody in particular.

With a disgruntled flick of her wrists, each of the weights tethering the netting sailed up into the air in perfect timing. To emphasize her disgust for their parting trick she shoved a large boulder into the air to give the netting something to wrap around before she sent it sailing off in the direction the bandits had retreated. Part of her really wanted to go after them, but she knew leaving would mean abandoning the merchants and—as much as she did not want to deal with it—keep her from going back to check on Azula.

With a frown she turned to where the traders had huddled under the shadow of her rock wall. At least she could make sure they were all okay. “They’re gone. You can come out now.”

As soon as she disposed of the dome a few came rushing out to greet her as if she had just given them their first glimpse of daylight.

“You saved us!” cried one. Presumably the head of the caravan since he was the fattest as well as the richest of the merchants if she based it on how many coins he carried under his belt.

“Yeah, that’s me,” Toph grinned. “World’s greatest earthbender and butt kicker of bandits.”

“But didn’t one of them call you the Blind Bandit…?” came the tremulous voice of the young boy who called out to her earlier.

“Yeah, because I rob jerks of their dignity,” Toph explained, not wanting to get into the history of Earth Rumble monikers when she had things to do and crazy people to supervise. “Look, I appreciate the thanks and I’d love to stay and chat but I’ve got to get going.”

“Wait please! Can’t you at least help us mend our cart axel,” asked another. “None of us have the tools for fixing it, and it would take us hours to turn it on its right side again.”

Toph paused, listening to the tremble in his voice. He sure sounded spooked, even after the heartbeats of the rest of the group had settled into something that was not indicative of impending heart attacks. But she could not blame him for asking, it’s not like she wanted to go back and leave them.

She tilted her head in consideration before nodding. “Sure. Gimme five minutes.”

After all, what was five minutes more to someone like Azula who had spent the last five years stuck in the same place?

Azula had been waiting far longer than Toph’s estimation. The disgraced princess lost count of the days a long time ago, but she knew it started before they imprisoned her in that sunless cell and locked her away from the world. Maybe it was when Fire Lord Ozai told her to stay behind. She heard the words, knew how intractable he was, but part of her never stopped expecting him to change his mind. A spoiled princess used to getting her way made for a willful consciousness and there the thought remained. The little girl dressed up in her father’s robes and standing guard at the borderlands waiting for his return.

Or it could have started when she came back from the Boiling Rock. The evening she paced alone in her room, clawing and tugging at her clothes as if it could rend the disappointment from her body. All the while she grew more and more frustrated at the sluggish response of her movements, her fingers fumbling with clasps and arms getting tangled up in the robes. It was not until the armor lay in a scattered pile at her feet that she realized she was not used to doing this by herself, anticipating an interruption that would never come again.

The last suggestion was a harried whisper she never allowed herself to consider, to even finish thinking. It started when she fell. She was impatient and unprepared when she charged her brother, pushed too much and the explosion of both their attacks sent them both over the edge of the war balloon. His friends caught him immediately. While she waited for something to reach for as the nothingness tumbled past her, all her fears pressing down on her faster than gravity. It was just like those nightmares, the helpless falling sensation where you’d wake up right before hitting the ground. Only she never reached that far, and Azula wondered if it meant she was still trapped. Her stricken mind still waiting to hit rock bottom.

She brought the chains down to break off another bit of stone, banishing the thought away with her hands. The first day out of her cell and it was spent either in the bowels of a ship or buried in the castoff dirt of her escort’s earthbending. Azula had no delusions that this was anything like real freedom, but with the open horizon in her sights all the cautious surveying seemed so unimportant now. Let the earthbender think she was wasting her energy on useless revolt by chipping away at her restraints. It was better than standing around and doing nothing.

When Toph returned, Azula managed to strip part of stone down to cuffs that bound her ankles. The exile stood up and dusted her hands, not bothering to disguise what she had been doing. In fact, she had a certain swagger to her stance, despite still being trapped in place.

“Huh,” was all Toph said. “Good thing those jerks were easy or you might’ve gotten a whole foot out.”

Azula resisted the urge to kick against the stone and demonstrate how soon she could have managed. It didn’t matter anyway as Toph merely waved her hand and suddenly there was nothing except for the ground beneath her feet.

“In that case, you should have let me come with you. Easier to manage when you’re actually around to keep an eye out—but I guess that’s not your style.”

“I can handle myself without worrying about you of all people covering my back.”

“Next time I’ll just escape and say you left me off on my own,” the exiled princess continued in a flat, clinical tone. “Who could blame me when my prison keeper abandons me without water, food, and no guarantee of return? It’s a matter of personal survival.”

“Pfft, bet you’re real good at that,” Toph snorted as a new wave of pain settled in her collarbone. A tug of raw nerves had gone from novelty to racking soreness quicker than she expected. The sensation stayed with her as she gathered up their supplies, and thankfully it was not bad enough for Azula to notice. “But even if you prove I can’t leave you alone—and oh man you are proving it—it’d be like carrying a millstone into a fight. You’re in chains. And if you weren’t, you wouldn’t help me anyway.”

“If it helped to get this finished faster,” Azula said, almost sounding offended, “I might.”

“Lucky for both of us, I don’t need it.”

Chain links scratched and grew taut as Azula twisted her wrists against them. She did not say anything, but Toph could feel the glare of her eyes burning resentment on her back. Almost as if anger might make her capable of firebending in spite the chi-blocking restraints.

Ignoring the ominous silence and the ache in her arms, Toph twisted her hands into the air and the earth to propelled them forward. “Hey, if you really wanted to help you’d offer to carry the packs, Princess. But you didn’t, so why don’t you just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

They continued without exchanging another word. And under any other circumstances Toph would have enjoyed the lack of conversation. It was funny, really. She was practically begging for silence when they first started out, Azula offering nothing except for subtle questions about their destination and less than subtle taunts about everything else. But now she was completely unresponsive, where even the jibe about the packs went unanswered. And that aggravating, dangerous presence became nothing but a heavy weight that dragged behind her as Toph guided them over the terrain.

It was driving her crazy.

Without the princess’s personality getting in the way, there was nothing to distract Toph from worrying over the other problems. Obviously, being the sole guard for Azula was a difficult task, even for the world’s greatest earthbender. However, it surprised her to recognize what she resented most about her passenger was the one thing that was not actually Azula’s fault. Despite being a master firebender and one of their most dogged pursuers during the war, the older girl contributed nothing to hastening their journey while in chains. And although she was capable of keeping up, letting her have control of a fast mount or even the ability to travel under her own power would be practically inviting escape, so it simply wasn’t an option.

Someone who could not pull their own weight was everything the self-sufficient earthbender hated dealing with. Yet if she were the one stuck with nothing else to do, nowhere to go on her own, and generally being treated like an ineffectual waste of space, Toph knew she would be furious as well. And she recognized that anger in the tension of Azula’s clenched fist. It made her wish this part would be over soon, so she would not be the only one dealing with the prisoner. That way, they would be free of each other and could go on to other tasks where they could both do something useful. All she had to do was endure it a little longer.

“We’re here,” Toph announced once she deposited Azula back on solid ground.

It was an obvious statement, given the fact that they had set down on the only landmark for miles around, but Toph felt the need to say something. She wanted those words to be a signal for others to appear, for their greetings to fill up the quiet and the lingering tension between them. But no one came and so she was left with Azula’s wordless disdain as she surveyed their surroundings.

Their final stop turned out to be nothing more than a small farm in the shadow of the foothills. Koala-sheep skittered in a panicked greeting, bleating at their arrival and kicking dust from their fenced in area. Their pen served as a boundary for the garden that curved past the ridge with a water silo marking the boundary of the farm, while the house itself was carved out of a mound that marked the start of the ground swell. Its unusual shape came from how the natural rock formations defined its craggy front walls.

Toph could look past the deceptive appearance to see the extensive tunnel network below it. The burrows were an older style of Earth Kingdom architecture, dating back hundreds of years when people sought to emulate the badger moles in as many ways as possible. Practically speaking, it also made a perfect safe house since the house blended in with the mountainside seamlessly to escape notice. Unless someone was specifically looking for it, which was precisely why Toph had no trouble shoving past the door and ushering her companion inside.

“How quaint,” the exile muttered under her breath.

Toph reached out to the nearby table and ran her fingers against the countertop. The granite was sanded to a fine, even finish, obviously the work of a master craftsman. She could also feel the faint engraving of a lotus blossom in the southwest corner, so small it was about the size of a pai sho tile. It was something most people would never see in the dim light of the room, and like all symbols that marked the Order of the White Lotus, its unobtrusive nature made it all the more significant.

This was a safe house for travelers in the Earth Kingdom. And the fact that there was a white lotus marking near the entryway announced that anyone who could find this place was already considered under their protection. While many of the society’s outposts also served as regular establishments such as taverns, merchant stores, or a variety of other trade shops, places specifically meant for White Lotus business were rare and heavily guarded secrets within their network.

The man whose home served as their meeting place was called Roi Se. He was a shepherd by trade, although his importance within the Order of the White Lotus was due to his mapmaking skills rather than his stock of koala-sheep. Iroh mentioned that his adventures to chart the terrain for the Earth Kingdom resistance made an interesting story, and suggested she ask Roi Se to tell her about the next time she visited. It was one of the few details she remembered in the blur of introductions, back when the old general and King Bumi were busy persuading the wayward earthbender meet as many of their comrades as possible.

Most arranged social gatherings left a sour impression on her anyway, but last summer she was particularly obstinate. A trip to the Wu Long forest ended abruptly and with a heated argument over how unreachable she became, both physically and otherwise. Katara explained that it was because they worried about her. Worried for her, to be precise. Toph relented enough to let them parade her about to guests and dignitaries so they could sleep better at night knowing she had connections. But her pride stung at the idea that she needed to rely on acquaintances to remind her of her place in the world.

To Toph, there was no difference between Aang wandering off to chat with a magical talking lion-turtle and her stomping into the forest for training. And though there might not be a difference in the act itself, apparently there was a difference with her. Everyone else had settled into neat little groupings. Young couples exploring their relationships and families reunited at last. Reunions Toph was a part of and yet not directly involved. And she could not blame them for their concern since they spent most of their lives worrying how everything could be ripped away. Peace, to them, meant a comfortable nearness.

Settling down.

But Toph was different. Before the war, her life was sheltered—suffocating. She needed to wander and sometimes, no matter how much she loved her friends, she needed to be away from them.

Roi Se was an acquaintance, and reminder that being alone did not mean isolation. He was a solitary type of person, as expected from someone who lived miles away from any village with only koala-sheep to keep him company. But he was also one of the old secret keepers in the Order, and his absence in their meetings did not remove his usefulness. When she heard that his place was the rendezvous, she realized how important its secrecy should be kept. It was the reason she accepted escorting Azula between the nations by herself, and kept her on guard so they would not be discovered. And it was why the prolonged quiet did nothing except raise her wariness.

“Something’s wrong.”

“More than one thing,” Azula said quietly as she cast a glance about the room.

Of course the crazy prisoner would decide to keep quiet until the worst possible moment, she thought. But even if it was a flippant remark Azula said nothing more, lingering near the window and waiting. If she was contemplating running, Toph figured that keeping her near the doorway would still be better than letting her wander inside the dens before she figured out what was amiss. And considering how the tunnels were designed, all twists and narrow pathways, Toph doubted the other girl was going to argue about taking the lead.

There were no vibrations except for the herd outside and Azula’s faint shifting. Being blind, Toph did not bother with the lamps as she began exploring. With each tread of her feet she could feel the hollowed out tunnels, the dead ends and secret chambers, but no sign of a living soul within. It was only until she held still and poured all her concentration into her earthbending senses that she managed to feel a slight shift of dirt coming from an adjoining room. Briefly she wondered if this was the result of something spilling, especially if it came from a wash room and Roi Se had to leave in a hurry. A knocked over stew pot or bathwater leaking.

Then Toph froze mid-step, her body seizing up in recoil.

Already suspecting the worst, the Fire Nation exile attempted to see what was causing her companion’s sudden halt. It had to be serious to get under the earthbender’s thick skin. And since Toph was blind it had to be something she felt, Azula reasoned, looking down at the ground to confirm her suspicions.

Even from the distance, she found it all too easily. A pool of red was already seeping into the dirt, slick and full of dire warnings.

She briefly considered mentioning how it was fresh enough to catch the light, what little there was anyway. But by the expression on the blind girl’s face she already knew. Even as the Toph’s bare feet retreated from its edge, dragging her heels guiltily.

“Are there others?”

“Shut up,” Toph growled, and the firebender did not know if it was simply out of disgust or if she was trying to listen for more vibrations or any other sign of the intruders. Either way, she decided it was better to keep quiet.

After a long silence Toph swallowed to clear her throat. Because of nausea or grief, it was hard to tell. They both were the kind to twist hard in a stomach with nowhere else to release the feeling.

“There’s no one else.”

Azula did not ask for clarification on what that meant. But she took a step toward the younger girl and could see her silhouette tense up in response. “Earthbender...”

Toph grit her teeth, touching the walls as if they could explain the fight to her. Or perhaps to keep her steady. “He was alone. It was a group against one old man. He wasn’t even a fighter and they...”

“There was nothing you could have done,” Azula finished. And the way she said it sounded more like a condemnation than an attempt at consoling her, but Toph shook it off. She knew it felt that way no matter what and—help or hinder—Azula’s words were not responsible for the heaviness settling in her stomach. Just her guilt.

“I should have.”

“Maybe if you didn’t stop to play hero,” Azula said evenly, but whatever she meant by it was brushed away as easily as she shrugged. It was an economical movement, not careless at all. “We could’ve arrived early and we would have been just in time for them to ambush us as well. Of course, if you listened to me he might still be alive, but that would mean admitting I was right. And those peasants wouldn’t have noticed their poor luck, depending on how thugs dealt with merchants who make them work for their stolen goods.”

Her tone was cold and without sympathy. At first, all Toph wanted to do was break her jaw and make her shut up, but there was a certain chilling assurance to them. The way they cut to the marrow and shoved back the tumble of could have and should have. And hating her for it gave Toph a focus for what to do next. She had to get Azula into the custody of the Order of the White Lotus, and she had to warn them about this attack. Whether or not the two were related—and once again Toph wished she could accurately tell when Azula was lying—she could not ignore the fact that things were already put in motion and she was lagging behind.

Shaking her head, Toph sucked in a ragged breath and tried to get her bearings. She would catch up, but there were priorities. “We take care of him first.”

“Disgusting,” Azula murmured to the dust lingering in Roi Se’s garden.

“Shut up,” said Toph in a voice as hard as steel. She had not bothered arguing with Azula about it, instead setting to work by opening up a grave in the adjacent garden and finding a tapestry to wrap the body. “We’re burying him.”

“It’s a disgusting custom to throw dirt over a body and simply leave it to rot...”

“We’re burying him and that’s final.”

Azula’s feet shifted defensively, the overspill disrupting the garden’s soil and putting imperceptible pressure on the roots that only Toph could sense. But then the former princess never seemed to be mindful of what she stepped on to get where she was going. “He’s gone now, what does it matter?”

“Because he deserves this.”

“I’m sure if he were alive he’d appreciate us scattering the ashes of his murderers instead of tidying up his garden.”

Toph shoved past her. “You’re wrong. That’s not what he’d want. Now help me carry him.”

Azula paused for a moment, then half-turned and stopped again. “How well did you know this person?”

“Better than you.”

She snorted. “How unspecific.”

“We weren’t exactly pen pals, alright? But he was a good guy who was going to help you in case you forgot why you’re out of your cage.”

“Did he know I was coming or were you the only one pleasantly surprised by the details of this mission?” Azula asked, her fingers smoothing out the creases in the tapestry but not enough to touch what lay beneath it.

“He knew,” Toph said tersely. For a moment she looked as if she would say more but closed her mouth when she thought better of it. Without waiting for Azula to grab hold, or really expecting her to help, she wrapped her arms around the body’s torso and lifted it from the ground.

It was—he was heavy, Toph thought, trying to keep her balance and grip the cloth in a respectful manner. She could have simply used her earthbending to do the whole job, but felt it would be disgraceful. If she was unable to reach Roi Se in time to save his life, then the least she could do would be to carry him to a proper resting place with her own two hands. And she was so caught up that she had momentarily forgotten her prisoner, her entire reason for being there, as she carried the body toward the grave. Only when she felt the weight lift and could hear the noise of cloth and chains moving after her, did she remember the other girl. She held her breath as they walked through the garden, as if that would keep Azula from speaking too. It was the only part of their journey made in peaceable silence.

It was only a few steps before Toph was walking on the freshly upturned soil, moving around the opening so she could place his body gently inside the grave. She knelt and flinched at the sensation that followed as Azula’s robes brush against her wounded shoulder. It did not hurt, but it surprised her. It was strange to feel the other girl leaning over alongside her, their heads bowed in mutual concentration that would have kept them from reading each other’s expressions if Toph could not already sense it. But there was no need to see her face, given the incongruity of their actions. The former princess of the Fire Nation and her hated enemy, kneeling in the dirt with her to bury a man she had never known and Toph had known all too little.

And as soon as the body was on the ground she felt Azula pull away, scrubbing at her hands. Her whole body was radiating scorn. Toph remained, her hand resting on his chest as if to protect him from her startled movement. Now that he was in place she closed her eyes and willed the earth to cover the body. When she opened them again, Toph hoped whatever spirit or afterlife that existed would accept him the way the earth did. And she hoped his spirit would forgive her easier than she could forgive herself.

“We have to put some distance between us and this place,” Azula said right on the heels of a respectful silence, “as soon as possible.”

Toph stood, not bothering to brush off the dirt of the grave. “I know.”

“So remove my chains.”

“Excuse me?” she snorted, the sheer audacity breaking all solemnity of the moment. “For a second there I thought you were talking crazy.”

“They slow me down, we both know it. And if someone manages to overtake us or word gets out about his murder faster than we can travel don’t you think I’ll look a little conspicuous with these?” She held them up for inspection, not bothering to conceal the loud rattling the cuffs made.

“No way.”

Azula took a step forward. “You’re going to end up risking both of our lives because you’re afraid I’ll slip out of your grasp?”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Toph said evenly. “But that doesn’t mean I’d trust you.”

Suddenly, the plaintive gesture became a weapon, the chain looping around the earthbender’s arm and twisting to make the iron pull her hands tightly behind her. Azula’s face was close enough that her breath could move the loose strands of Toph’s hair. But even closer was a three inch piece of slate, sharpened like a blade and pressed along the underside of her jaw by the prisoner’s steady shackled hand.

“What does this tell you?” Azula asked slowly.

Toph didn’t dare swallow but kept her voice steady. “That you’ve got a bigger chip on shoulder than up your sleeve.”

For a tense moment nothing happened. There were a dozen ways to disarm and incapacitate the firebender before she could try to draw blood but—even though she really wanted to—Toph held herself back. If Azula was seriously attempting to kill her she would have gone for the throat already, quick and without preamble. Toph was confident enough to believe she would not have succeeded, but she might have done enough damage to make it hard to go on alone.

“It should tell you that if I really wanted to escape into the wilderness of the Earth Kingdom I wouldn’t let you get in my way. I’d been watching—there were times where you were much more vulnerable than this when I could have struck.”

Toph clenched her teeth, thinking of Azula stooping over, shoulder to shoulder with her as they laid Roi Se’s body into the makeshift grave. And she silently had to admit, she let her guard down that time. “Here’s a hint. Threats aren’t the way to get people trust you. Ever. I’m sure Mai gave you the message before.”

The point of the weapon touched Toph’s cheek briefly, hesitating. Then Azula withdrew, releasing her arm and the lingering menace. “It’s not about trust. I’m proving to you that you can believe me. That you need to believe me, otherwise we’ll both fail.”

“Believe you, got it.” Toph nodded. Then turned around and slugged Azula in the stomach, sending the prisoner reeling. “Did anyone ever tell you that you are seriously messed up?!”

To Azula’s credit she did not collapse but came close to doubling over. Azula coughed through gritted teeth, trying to steady herself. “What else am I supposed to do?” She coughed again. “Saying ‘please’ doesn’t work when you clearly have no manners.”

“I know how to act polite, but I’m not wasting it on you. Stop acting like you get a say in this. The only reason you’re still not rotting in an asylum is because Twinkletoes thought you deserved a chance. And you’re blowing it.”

“The only reason they let me out is because I commanded the Dai Li once. I’m useful and you’re desperate!” Azula snapped venomously. “This is about what’s necessary. I know if it was about what you wanted, or my brother wanted, I would be back there and you’d never let me out. But if we stay here and argue we’ll be caught. And I don’t want to trade a Fire Nation cell for an Earth Kingdom prison.”

It was hard to admit that part of that made sense in a sick and twisted way. Shaking her head in disbelief, she reached for Azula’s hands, easily crushing the slate shard into dust. Then with a flick of her fingers she wrenched the chain from her manacles, the links clattering into her waiting hand until all that was left was Azula’s iron gauntlets.

“You’re right,” Toph said after a moment, crushing the metal and warping it until she could twine it around her own wrist as a plain-looking bracelet. “It’s not about what I want, but it’s not what you want either. So stop standing around and follow me.”

“And the rest?” Azula prompted.

“Don’t push it, Princess,” she grunted, kicking off the chain that bound Azula’s ankles with her bare foot. That one she left in the dirt, as if waiting for the firebender to pick it up if she dared. “You don’t need your firebending to move.”

The girl inhaled as if to say more, or recuperate from Toph’s punch, but held off. “Fine. Let’s get out of here. This place is depressing.”

Despite her insistence to leave as soon as possible, Azula took the opportunity to ransack supplies from Roi Se’s home. He had no need of them now, she explained as Toph waited with crossed arms and a disapproving scowl. The earthbender did not have to scurry about in order to make use of the time left to them. With only a few careful gestures she buried any evidence of the Order of the White Lotus. The one she took special care to remove was the white lotus symbol on the table, wiping it away with her palm as she left. She also took special care to make sure nothing Azula packed was a weapon that she would later use against her.

When they finally got moving, twilight was settling in. The darkness did not bother Toph; it was the same as daylight to her. And the cold did not bother Azula because she could raise her body heat even if the manacles prevented her from firebending. Nevertheless, they did not travel for very long and when they made camp both were eager to spend the night unconscious to its splendor.

Toph extended her arms out at adjoining points and two solid rock slabs rose up for her tent. She turned to where Azula was sulking by their supply sacks and called up another tent right beside her. To Toph’s disappointment, Azula was either too accustomed to sudden gestures of earthbending or too tired to be surprised.

“Sleep time, Princess Psycho,” the earthbender called and jutted a thumb toward the tent entrance. “Go get some beauty rest or whatever it is you do.”

“I’m sleeping outside,” Azula responded in a tired voice.

Toph thought it would have been nice if she could at least go to bed without this problem, dumping Azula in a rock cage with enough air holes to breathe until she could worry about her in the morning. But of course even the most minor things would have to cause her companion to start another argument.

“No, I think you’re supposed to say ‘Thank you, Toph. Because all I have is a bedroll I stole, so you giving me shelter even after I’ve been an annoying pain in your butt the whole time you’ve known me is real generous of you.’”

“If you want to tie me to a stake to make you feel more secure about me running away then do it, but I’ve been in an underground prison for five years. I’m not going to willingly crawl back into another just because you’re promising to let me out in the morning.”

Toph thought about repeating her threat. How the slightest movement would alert her to an escape and she would drag her back in reinforced and very uncomfortable ill-fitted chains if the princess tried anything. But something in Azula’s mannerisms kept her from pushing.

“It’s a disgusting custom to throw dirt over a body and simply leave it to rot...”

Toph sighed and headed to the shelter of her tent. No, she would not let her guard down again. But she would not antagonize the former princess of the Fire Nation either. So instead the blind girl closed her eyes, opting for sleep, knowing that this day was exhausting and the next one held no promise to be any better. “Suit yourself, Sparky.”

[identity profile] 2010-01-04 01:18 pm (UTC)(link)


[identity profile] 2010-01-04 07:43 pm (UTC)(link)
What if I wrote Zutara vampires/werewolves AU. Would you love me then?

[identity profile] 2010-01-05 06:20 am (UTC)(link)
This premise is so great and I am seriously intrigued. What could a threat possibly be that they'd need Azula to help? Sure she brings a lot of power but you'd have to unshackle her to get it; she also could contribute a whole lot to strategy & tactics if you could trust her not to play you false. But Toph's comment about Aang wanting to give her another chance catches my attention; if there were alternatives to Azula's help then Aang probably leaned toward Azula because he is a silly thing like that...

ANYWAY I seriously liked this and it got me thinking, so! Awesome.

[identity profile] 2010-01-06 08:34 am (UTC)(link)
Aha thank you so much. You have no idea how grateful I am that you found it interesting because I have been writing this like one giant gratuitous post of self-indulgence.

I might throw up the exposition chapter I cut just for reference, but it was five thousand words of people setting up the situation and I think anything with Toph in it should immediately start with fighting.

[identity profile] 2010-08-05 03:14 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow. I hope you don't mind feedbacks from strangers but I was looking around for anything Avatar related and somehow stumbled into your LJ and I'm very glad I did because I love this story! This is very well written and you really have Toph and Azula down, especially Azula all the things she says and the things that's left unsaid and her thoughts about the time she's lost and her inability to pinpoint it. Is just... and I love how circumstances are forcing Toph and Azula to work together, especially on Toph's part. I don't envy her her job it's difficult to know what to make of Azula's 90% of the time.

“It’s a disgusting custom to throw dirt over a body and simply leave it to rot...”

I do find that statement interesting both as an insight to Fire Nation and to Azula herself and her dislike for being caught underground. I hope there would be more of this story because it has such a promising beginning!

[identity profile] 2010-08-05 10:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh no it's always a wonderful and unexpected surprise if other people comment on my stuff. This comment has left me grinning like an idiot for the last hour.

I am still writing more of this story, I just happen to be an exceptionally slow writer and currently have put it on hold to finish [ profile] avatarbigbang but I really do have more written. It just may take me months to work it into something coherent.

Thank you so much for your comment!

[identity profile] 2010-08-09 03:43 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, then I shall be looking forward to your entry in [ profile] avatarbigbang! And, don't worry, I know what you mean, I'm also an exceptionally glacially slow writer so I know what you mean!

Also, again, putting Toph and Azula together? It's kind of genius!