|Whisper Into the Sky
Author: DamageCtrl PM
Toph has two choices: Go home and get married or have the family fortune and her inheritence given to a stranger. The problem: She wants to keep her ties to her family, but is quite content traveling with Aang.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Toph & Aang - Chapters: 10 - Words: 87,670 - Reviews: 570 - Favs: 487 - Follows: 110 - Updated: 02-28-07 - Published: 11-10-06 - Status: Complete - id: 3238948
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Whisper Into the Sky
All Standard Disclaimers Apply: I do not own Avatar: The Last Airbender or anything related to it.
A content sigh escaped pink lips as sea foam green eyes closed. "This is the life, isn't it, guys?" she asked out loud. She really didn't expect an answer; it wasn't like her current companions could actually talk. "It's a perfect day and we're not indoors stuck at some meeting." A small trill from a lemur echoed beside her, causing her lazy smile to widen.
Nothing was more refreshing to her than a cool, calm day, lying on a sloping hillside as the mid-day breeze swept over her body. The Eastern Earth Kingdom weather was perfect and gave them all a much needed day of rest from the usual hectic schedule of international mediators. It was rare that they had a moment to themselves like this; just to sit around and do nothing.
More often then not, they were traveling around the massive continent doing the work of an Avatar, his faithful bison, lemur, and exalted Earthbending Master. That meant solving disputes, mediating arguments, signing treaties, encouraging international trade, and speeches. Lots and lots of speeches.
But for now, they were out in the country side, at some unknown location, without another dispute to resolve for miles. She would soak it up while she could. Toph lazily chewed on a piece of grass as she rested her head back against her arms. Through the earth beneath her, she could feel the vibrations of Appa sleeping at the top of the slope above her.
She could feel the relaxed, steady swishing of Momo's tail on the ground just an arm's length from where she lay. And she could feel the rapidly approaching footsteps of one seemingly excited Avatar. The relaxed smile began to fall.
"We got mail!" Aang's voice echoed over the grassy slope where Toph had settled herself in. So much for her relaxing moment in the sun. Aang was charging down the hill, waving some pieces of paper in one hand and his staff in the other.
For an eighteen-year old, he still didn't act like one. Then again, he did only seem to act like his usual uppity, overly cheerful self when he was around them. At least he had the chance do that instead of always having to act like a very mature and responsible Avatar. Toph casually spit out her piece of grass and sat up; bits of green grass stuck in her pitch black hair.
"What is it this time, Twinkle Toes? Trouble in Ba Sing Se? Rebellion in the south? Tax evasion?" Toph snorted.
Aang slid to a stop beside her and quickly plopped himself down. "We got a message from Katara and Zuko!"
"Ah…the happy couple," Toph fell back against the slope, her arms immediately curling behind her head. "What's the news? Sugar Queen finally had it with the Fire Lord and froze him in that pond?"
"Nope…" The teenaged Avatar read through the letter. "Dear Aang and Toph. You will not believe this. My daughter is a firebender. Two days ago, she set fire to her calligraphy brush while with Iroh and Zuko has been ecstatic ever since. He is currently dancing around the room with her while rubbing it in my face that he won out."
A small snort sounded beside Aang. "Yeah, he'd do that…" Toph agreed with a subtle nod of her head. "So she's telling us that her daughter is a firebender?"
"And inviting us to the celebration Zuko is throwing in her honor," Aang beamed a wide smile and lowered the invitation. "It's in two weeks. We can make it in time."
"I could go for a break," the female earthbender said. She stretched out her limbs as she sat back up. "Sounds good. I have to admit, I do miss sleeping on an actual bed." She began to stand up and brush herself off.
"Oh, wait…there's one more for you," Aang said. He lifted up a green envelope embossed with gold and a familiar seal of a flying boar. "It's from your family."
Toph immediately tensed. A feeling of dread slowly crept over her body as the implications of the letter weighed in. Letters from her family always filled her with dread. She rarely got mail from her family when she was out traveling the world with Aang. When she did it get, it was always subtle letters from her mother about how she should come home. No matter how many times Toph refused, the letters still came.
In the last two years, they had only gotten more demanding. She was a wealthy heiress of a powerful family descended from Earth Kingdom nobility. She was of marrying age. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they wanted her to do.
Toph took a deep breath. "A messenger sent it over?" she asked, her voice slightly shaking.
"Yes. Want me to read it?" Aang offered, about to tear open the seal.
"No!" Toph nearly shouted. Aang jerked his head back, looking surprised. Her eyes were opened wide and clouded over the sea foam color. As if realizing her sudden outburst, she quickly lowered her hand. "I mean…I can read it later. Give it to me." she demanded as she held her hand out.
He wordlessly passed the envelope to her. As soon as it brushed her finger tips, she snatched it away and pocketed it. "Toph…are you okay?" he asked carefully.
"I'm fine, Twinkle Toes," she asserted as she stood up straight, momentarily towering above him as he sat on the grassy slope. "What are you still sitting around for?" she asked as she kicked the ground. A mound of earth rose beneath Aang and pushed him up. "Let's get going! If we get there early enough, I can talk Katara into letting me ride a komodo rhino again!"
The concern that had filled him moments earlier left as memories of Toph trampling through the outskirts of the palace on a several ton beast came rushing back. An entire wing of the palace had to be rebuilt, Katara was furious at them for ruining her wedding reception, and Zuko wanted them banned from the Fire Nation. Aang shivered. Luckily, Iroh had been there to defuse the situation.
"Umm…let's take our time," Aang offered as he stood back up. "Besides, they probably need time to…prepare for us."
"Then we can stop by a town and get a present for the Little Sparky," Toph decided, giving a new nick name to the Fire Nation's princess. "I'm thinking fire works. I heard they're big in the Fire Nation."
Aang cringed as he imagined the damage a three year old firebender could do with fireworks. "You know, I was thinking something smaller…How about a doll?"
In front of him, a three year old girl mirrored his concentrated look and took a deep breath through her nostrils. She held it in for a second longer before exhaling. She had been doing that for what seemed like an eternity, and it was getting old fast. "Grandpa Iroh?" a curious voice, with a bit of a lisp, began. "Can I make fire now?"
"Soon, princess, soon. First you must begin with the basics," Iroh explained. "You cannot get any further until you master the basics."
"Oh…" she sounded disappointed as her big blue eyes lowered to her feet. Her eyebrows furrowed and she looked back up at the old retired general. "When will I master the basics?"
Iroh chuckled. She was so much like her father. "It is different for everyone."
The child wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. "I want to master it soon. So I can make fire like daddy."
Up the steps, under the overhanging eaves of the palace behind her stood a tall, dark haired man dressed in rich red cloth. Golden eyes were focused on his black haired, blue eyed progeny in the court yard below. He took a deep breath; literally swelling with pride, as he heard his daughter's words. She wanted to be just like her daddy. He would rub that in to his wife later.
"Are you going to cry again, Fire Lord?" a teasing voice asked to his right. He glanced down with slightly annoyed eyes just as a curvy woman dressed in casual deep blue robes joined him.
Zuko snorted indignantly at the mere suggestion. "I told you, I was not crying."
"Right, right," the brown haired woman nodded as she kept her eyes on the black haired girl running circles around the rotund former general below. "That was just sweat rolling down your cheeks when we told you she set her calligraphy brush on fire."
She didn't have to look over at her husband to know he was desperately trying to subdue his embarrassment. After all, Fire Lords did not cry. Not even upon the discovery that his only child with a master waterbender was, in fact, a firebender. No matter how happy he was.
"I keep explaining it to you, but you don't seem to be listening," Zuko told her as casually as he could. "I was training and sweating."
"Yes, because as we all know, signing documents in your office is quite labor intensive." Katara replied smoothly.
He snapped his head to the side and fixed a cold glare at the side of his wife's head. "I was not crying." He insisted.
"Of course not, Zuko," she sighed as she rolled her head back and smirked at him. She raised her hand and gently placed it on his upper arm. Slowly, she rubbed it up and down, feeling the toned bicep underneath the layers of silk. Smiling softly, she wrapped her arms around one of his arms and looked back down at the court yard. "How is she doing?"
"She's impatient…but she's doing well with her breathing exercises. What she needs to focus on right now is control." Zuko told her. He pulled Katara against him, wrapping her sloping shoulders in both arms as he rested his chin against the top of her head; careful not to poke himself with the Fire Lady emblem pinned to her bun.
"Impatient, huh? Well, I wonder where she could've gotten that."
"If you've come to tease me, know that it is not appreciated," Zuko grumbled as he pulled his arms back, and crossed them over his chest. He looked back over the court yard as Katara giggled and looked back at him. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm busy watching my daughter learn firebending." he stressed, as if to rub it in. Katara merely rolled her eyes.
"Which is what I came to talk to you about," Katara said. She dug into the pockets hidden in the flowing sleeves of her robes. "A few responses came in for her celebration," She pulled out a few small rolls of paper that had been sent back, all with post marks from different nations. Zuko merely grunted and kept his eyes on his daughter, who was practicing her first position stance. "Sokka and Suki are coming. They're bringing their daughter."
Zuko nodded his head. "How's Suki doing, by the way?" the Fire Lord asked calmly. The last he heard, she was pregnant once more.
"Coming along and showing," Katara reported. "Kyoshi wants to know if she can bunk with her favorite cousin while she's here."
"That's fine." Zuko nodded, despite the small feeling of dread that crept up. The girls were cousins; born just a few months apart. Kyoshi, being the older one, tended to come up with all the ideas for their little adventures. And their daughter, being the younger one, followed along without question.
The last time, during the princess' birthday, they some how got into his office and painted all over a series of important documents. It had been quite a task explaining to the council why exactly flying bison, at least he assumed they were flying bison, and flowers were on land reform documents. Zuko had formulated a theory that Sokka was purposely training his daughter to covertly make his life difficult as some sort of revenge for marrying his sister.
"Let's see…" Katara shuffled through the small stack of papers. "Dad's coming, too. Gran-Gran is coming from the Northern Water Tribe, since she was on vacation up there, with Master Pakku."
A small smirk tugged at Zuko's lips. "I bet he wasn't thrilled to find out his precious waterbending pupil's daughter is a firebender."
"Will you grow up and stop rubbing it in?" Katara rolled her eyes. The smirk on his face told her he wouldn't. "Ugh...anyway, Aang and Toph are coming from the Earth Kingdom, and are expected to arrive early."
Zuko's smirk left his face. His eyes narrowed slightly as he turned to his wife. "How early?" He swore that the earthbender also lived to make his life difficult. On his wedding day, she tore through the southern wing of the palace on a komodo rhino in an effort to bring 'life' to the party. In his mind, Katara forgave them far too easily.
The Fire Lady shrugged. "It doesn't say," she said as she showed him the small note. "It was dated a week and a half ago. They're probably near-by." A knock sounded from the doors behind them.
"Enter." Zuko called out; his voice full of authority.
"Fire Lord, Fire Lady," a solemn voice called behind them and the duo turned around. Mai was standing at the door way, looking a bit out of breath as she clutched some scrolls against her. She had probably been running around, trying to find them. "The Avatar's bison has been sighted off the coast."
"Already? That means they'll be here by today!" Katara's eyes widened. Without another thought, she shoved all the papers in Zuko's hands as she turned around. He fumbled with them before letting out a low grumble. "Mai, alert the kitchen staff and have them prepare some vegetarian meals for Aang. Send someone to prepare the stables with some hay for Appa. And are the rooms ready?"
Mai looked down at one of the scrolls in her arms. "All the guest rooms in the eastern wing are prepared, Lady Katara. I will send someone to the stables immediately for the Avatar's bison."
"Zuko!" Katara shouted over her shoulder as she began to rush out the door with Mai to prepare for her guests. "When her lesson is over, send her to her room to bathe and change!"
Zuko rolled his eyes. Their daughter didn't have a nanny. Katara did not believe one was necessary and so left the responsibilities of childcare to herself, her husband, one retired general, and occasionally to one, lone female senior advisor. "I will." There was no use in arguing; Katara would only add on more tasks if he did.
"Mai, once the kitchen staff is alerted, go and gather any remaining nobles and invite them for an impromptu dinner," Katara began. "Just a small get together for the Avatar and Miss Bei Fong."
Mai nodded and scribbled notes down on her scroll. "Yes, Fire Lady." She bowed her head and rushed off. Katara stood at the door way and turned back to Zuko.
"I'm going to prepare the dining room for the dinner tonight," she told him as she headed out the door. "Once you tell my baby to go to her room and change, come to the dining room."
He nodded and she closed the door. A small thud echoed through the room and he released a heavy breath. When they were married, the nobles were in an uproar. No one believed she could pull off the task of Fire Lady. They believed she lacked the refinement necessary to carry the duties the title brought. It took her a few months, but before long, she was running the palace staff as if she were born to do it.
Her brother said it was because she was naturally bossy. Along with internal palace affairs, Katara worked heavily with the Ministry of International Relations, Ministry of Health, and continued being an ambassador of sorts to visiting dignitaries. To top it all off, she was a loving and devoted wife and mother.
His life was completely together. The Fire Nation was stabilizing nicely, despite the nobility's resentment for him marrying a Water Tribe peasant. They could complain all they wanted, he was Fire Lord and he could marry whoever he pleased. And now, he had a three year old firebender to groom.
His Uncle Iroh had been very vocal in the child's education. He believed the young princess would not fair well at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, especially since it was still in the process of being completely restructured. Therefore, Iroh had been teaching the princess everything from writing to classical poetry. Now, he was also her firebending master.
"Daddy! Daddy, look at me!" her voice cut through his thoughts and he focused his attention back to the little girl in red.
"I'm looking, princess!" he assured her. She scrambled to her first position stance to show her father what she had learned so far and Zuko smiled. She had a long way to go, but would progress well.
Now, all he had to deal with was getting her to change and then dealing with the guests that would be arriving in the coming days. That would mean absolute chaos.
"Twinkle Toes, shh!" she hissed. She planted her feet firmly on the ground, trying to search for any vibrations. "Okay, it's clear!"
Aang almost whimpered as he was dragged forward towards the eastern stables; where the komodo rhinos were kept. This would not end well and he knew it. The duo ran across the clear pathway to the large stables along the far wall. They jumped into the bushes by the door and Toph felt the ground again.
"Toph, I really think we should go greet Katara and Zuko first-"
"We can greet them later!" Toph insisted. When she couldn't feel anything but the vibrations of the komodo rhinos within the stables, she shot up from the bushes and made a beeline to the heavy doors of the stables.
Aang watched as she pushed the doors open and then walked in. A wide grin appeared on Toph's face as she stood at the door way. Her hands fell to her hips as she looked triumphantly into the dimly lit rows of snorting, ill tempered beasts.
Aang quietly stood behind her and sighed. "Toph, I don't know if this is a good idea. I mean…I'm as much for riding animals as the next person, but last time we almost got banned from the Fire Nation."
"Details," Toph waved her hand dismissingly. "Now grab a saddle…I'm feeling a good vibe from the angry one three stalls in."
"Me?" Aang piped, his voice raising and almost cracking. "Why do I have to do it?"
"Are you going against your Master?" Toph reached out blindly, and poked his chest threateningly. She felt him shake his head. "Good! Now go put a saddle on number three before we have to settle this outside!"
Aang let out a weak whimper as he swallowed nervously. He looked warily down the corridor, towards the fuming beast in the third stall. "Okay...if you're sure."
Carefully, the last airbender headed towards the sides and grabbed one of the heavy saddles. He fumbled with it a bit before lifting it over his shoulder and walking towards the third stall. He peered over the metal gates and met the snorting nose of the komodo rhino.
"Does it have to be this one?" Aang asked as he looked back at Toph. The earthbender nodded.
"That one's good. I can tell!"
Aang looked back at the komodo rhino. "Okay, buddy," he told the animal carefully. "I don't want to hurt you…" He unlatched the iron gate, cringing as it creaked open. The animal within began to pack up and lowered his head. Aang didn't take a step forward. He held his hand out, trying to calm the animal. "It's okay, boy…calm down…"
"Hurry up, Twinkle Toes!" Toph shouted.
"Give me a moment!" Aang exclaimed loudly over his shoulder. He immediately regretted raising his voice, and slowly turned his head back to the animal. In front of him, he heard heavy feet stamp the ground, and watched as the beast lowered his head. "Uh-oh…"
Toph's head perked up as she heard and felt the movements happening deeper in the stables. An excited expression appeared on her face as she felt the beast emerging from his pen. "Did you put the saddle on him!?"
Aang's shouting filled the stables as she felt the familiar vibrations of his air scooter on the ground. "Run!"
"What?" Toph's bright expression fell. "Don't tell me you-Ah!" Aang's arm shot out and grabbed Toph around the waist as he sped past her. "What are you doing!?" she screamed, her face burning with embarrassment.
"He's charging after us!" Aang exclaimed. With a quick movement of his arms, he hoisted Toph over his left shoulder and kept one arm clamped securely around her waist.
"Then stop it! You're the Avatar!" Toph shouted, trying to wiggle out of his hold. Twinkle Toes might have remained the twelve year old in her mind, but he had grown in size and strength. That was something Toph easily forgot.
He exhibited that now as he held Toph firmly as he ran. "I can't stop it!" Aang shouted. "He'll flatten us!" He glanced over his shoulder as he hopped off his scooter and began running forward. Even he could feel the heavy footsteps of the massive beast shaking the ground beneath them as he ran after them.
"This is entirely your fault!" Toph shouted as she pounded her fisted hands feebly on his shoulders. "If you had just put the saddle on his back, like I said, he wouldn't be chasing us right now!"
"You're the one who wanted to ride one-"
"Don't argue with me!" Toph yelled, kicking her legs out as she did so. "Now put me down! I'll stop him!"
"I don't think he'll stop so easily! He's really doesn't look happy, Toph!" She heard him screaming as they ran across the pathway. They were headed straight for the Fire Palace.
"Then run up some stairs! I heard that they can't climb stairs!" she exclaimed.
Aang's eyes lit up. "That's a good idea! The palace is coming up! There are plenty of stairs there!" Taking a deep breath, Aang rushed forward. He skidded into a turn as he burst through a row of bushes, and landed on to the brick lined pathway that led to the palace. Up ahead, guards and other by standers were also walking to the building. "Look out!"
Aang's hold on Toph loosened as he raised his arms up and shot a stream of air down the center path way. Shouts and yells were heard as people were blown out of the way just as Aang cut through the path. He looked behind him and groaned.
The fuming beast jumped out of the bushes where he had emerged from and landed on the pathway. Guards yelled as people dove for cover. The komodo rhino barreled after the duo. "Is he still coming!?" Toph asked.
"Yeah! But don't worry!" Aang beamed as he saw the series of stairs that lay ahead of them. "There are some stairs coming up!"
Snorting and lowering its head, the komodo rhino set his sights on the two benders ahead of it. Aang half ran, half air bended them on to the top of the long series stairs and whirled around to see if the animal would stop.
"You know…" Toph mused as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. She was still hoisted over one of Aang's shoulders. "Was it komodo rhinos that couldn't climb stairs or am I thinking of rabbiroos…?"
Aang paled as the Fire Nation creature snorted and began to stomp up the stairs without any problem. Inside, he felt a small part of him want to cry. "Um…Rabbiroos! Definitely rabbiroos!" he yelled, sounding defeated.
Toph paused. "Oh…" she smiled sheepishly. "Never mind…Run, Twinkle Toes!" she commanded.
She felt Aang whirl around beneath her, and begin running once more. "Katara and Zuko are going to kill us!"
"We'll worry about that later!" Toph shouted. "Just get me to a court yard! We'll earthbend the thing into stopping!"
"I don't think we have a choice now!" Aang exclaimed. He could hear the guards and servants yelling as they ran through the palace with an irate animal at their heels. "There's a court yard coming up!"
Raising his arms once more, Aang did a turn and sent a ball of air forward. The heavy wooden doors that closed the courtyard off were blown open, and he put Toph down. As soon as Toph's bare feet touched the ground, her eyes widened.
"It's coming! Hurry up!"
The duo ran into the court yard. "Avatar, stop!" Voices were shouting somewhere behind him. "Someone stop the komodo rhino!"
Around them, a dozen servants scrambled to prepare the proper table settings for that evening's meal. The Fire Lady's eyes were narrowed as she studied the seating critically. Her arms were crossed over her chest.
"I think we should double it." Katara asserted as she nodded her head. She took a step forward to give the order.
"Double it?" Zuko gasped. "We've invited the remaining nobles who were still here. We don't need that many chairs."
"Zuko, they're going to tell the others. Word of mouth will spread and some other nobles will come. They might even bring their spouses." Katara told him wisely. The Fire Lord grumbled. She was right. Again.
"If you think they are necessary, then go ahead." Zuko watched as she approached the nearest servant and told them of the change of plans. The servant bowed and rushed off of carry out the order. Silently, he wondered why Katara even made him come if she already knew what she was doing.
"Okay, I think we're all set," Katara beamed him a warm smile as she turned around, and clapped her hands together. "The kitchen staff is preparing a nice meal, the bedrooms are ready, and the dining room is set. We just have to wait for them to arrive."
Heavy footsteps could be heard rushing through the halls. A darkly dressed figured ran into the room. "My Lord, my Lady," Mai bowed her head as she approached them. "Some guards have found the Avatar's bison just outside the eastern palace walls, however it is alone."
Katara's eyes widened. "Oh no…" Her hand shot and grabbed hold of Zuko's sleeve. Big blue eyes turned to him with horror. "You don't think that something happened to them to do?"
"The bison seemed fine, Lady Katara," Mai told her. "It was just sitting there eating, but there is no sign of the Avatar."
Zuko's lips fell into a frown as Katara's eyebrows furrowed, confused. Just as she opened her mouth, a guard burst through the doorway Mai had come from. He looked completely panic stricken as he fell to his knees and bowed his head before the royal couple.
"My Lord! My Lady! A komodo rhino is loose in the palace!"
Zuko's eyes went wide. "A komodo rhino…" he trailed off and closed his eyes. He could already feel the headache coming.
The guard kept his head low as he began an explanation. "Someone went into the eastern stables without permission and-"
The rest of his words fell on deaf ears as both Katara and Zuko felt their hearts stop in their chests. "Oh no…" Katara whispered as dread filled her stomach. They turned towards each other. "Ai Li Zhen!"
The guard was knocked the ground in the wake of the Fire Lord and his wife as they shot forward. Mai stood in her spot. "What is a komodo rhino doing out of the stables…?" she trailed off and paused. "Oh."
"Oh! Grandpa! Look! They brought a komo-rhino!" the little girl exclaimed excitedly beside him.
Iroh's mouth dropped. "Oh dear…"
"Komo-rhino! Komo-rhino!" the child rushed forward with her arms extended.
"Princess!" Iroh's face paled as he stumbled forward. The child was much too fast for him. She was already darting across the court yard. "Princess, come back! Someone stop her!"
Aang lifted his head as he heard the familiar voice yelling from somewhere in the court yard. His gray eyes scanned the court yard and zoomed in to the little figure in red rushing towards them. "Toph!"
"I got her!" the earthbender shouted. She rushed forward, stomping her feet and extending her hands just as the child reached them. The earth rose behind the little girl as she fell back on her bottom and giggled as she slid down the bender created slide, and into Toph's arms.
"Hi!" the child piped cheerfully as Toph's arms wrapped around the little girl. The surprise of the sudden appearance of a child was short lived. Behind them, the komodo rhino was fast approaching.
The snorting beast rushed forward and Aang grabbed Toph by the waist. "Hold on!" He could hear Toph's yell of resistance. Childish giggling followed as they were thrown into the air by a burst of wind beneath them.
"Aang, we have a problem!" Toph shouted in mid air.
"Just hold on!" Aang repeated. He bended them over the raging beast, and on to its back with a heavy thud. Gray eyes gleamed with satisfaction. "Yes! We're on!"
"Aang!" Toph shouted once more as she tried to hold on to Aang and the child at the same time. "We have to stop him!"
Aang looked confused as he felt Toph grab on to him from behind. He could hear the energetic clapping of the little girl Toph caught as she jumped up and down on Toph's lap. "But we just got on-"
"You don't understand-" The beast suddenly stopped in the middle of the court yard; his body lurching forward as he bucked his head back. They had stopped just over the ponds of decorative water on either side of the irate animal. Suddenly, water rose from the sides of the komodo rhino; freezing his feet firmly to the ground as ropes of ice wove around him to keep him from moving.
"Ooh…" The child gushed as she looked around. She watched the lovely arches of ice freeze the animal into place.
For a moment, Aang was also lost in awe. Then he heard a voice dripping with fury. "Aang! Toph!"
Behind him, Toph's head dropped and she let out a groan. "That's what I was trying to tell you," she grumbled. "Katara's here."
Aang paled as he lifted his head and looked up at the stairs directly ahead of them. A fuming woman in blue was stalking down the stairs, her eyes blazing with anger as fists were clenched at her sides. "Uh-oh…"
Still on Toph's lap, the child clapped her hands once more. "Mommy!"
Aang's eyes widened and Toph froze. "Mommy?" they chorused. The situation suddenly grew a hundred times worse. Aang whimpered and dropped his head. "I knew this was a bad idea…"
"What was going through your mind!?" Katara yelled from where she stood by a pillar, her arms crossed and a disapproving frown on her face. "You could've been hurt!"
"And not just you two," Zuko exclaimed as he threw his arms in the air. "You put our daughter in danger! You two know that there is a child here! What would've happened if you didn't get to her in time!?"
"I don't even want to think about that!" Katara added. She ran her hand over her face.
"It was an accident…" Aang whispered. His face was downcast as a look of regret crossed over it.
"This time it was an accident," Toph insisted. "We didn't know it was going to charge at us! We thought we could stop it, but it kept following us!"
"It's a miracle no one was hurt," Katara spat out. "If you wanted to ride a komodo rhino so bad, you should've just asked! We could've arranged for something further away from the palace!"
"We're having a celebration in a few days and our main gates are in dire need to repair," Zuko growled. "Not only that, but now my daughter has it in her head to ride a komodo rhino!"
"And she just got over her riding lizard phase!" Katara grumbled. She crossed her arms over her chest. "You're lucky Mai found us in time. I don't know what would've happened if we didn't come and stop the animal!"
"We're sorry…" the duo chorused.
"Do you know how terrifying it was for me to watch my daughter running towards a stampeding komodo rhino?" Katara asked, her frown deepening.
"We didn't know she'd be there!" Aang insisted. "If we did, we would've tried to stop the komodo rhino sooner!"
"Now, in the end no one was hurt," Iroh spoke up for the first time since they entered the throne room. "Just a few broken walk ways and doors, but everyone was okay. And I'm sure the Avatar and Miss Bei Fong have learned a lesson."
"I'm still not letting them off that easy," Zuko frowned. "Ai Li Zhen could've been hurt." He grumbled.
"But, daddy, I'm okay!" the child said from where she was seated on a soft pillow beside Iroh. "The komo-rhino was fun! I rode one, just like daddy!"
Katara groaned and ran a hand down her face. "Just like daddy…" she murmured. Narrowed blue slits shot an annoyed glare at Zuko as he tugged the collar of his shirt.
"Princess, I told you, you cannot ride komo-rhinos…I mean, komodo rhinos until you are older," Zuko told her. "I thought we had this talk."
Nose wrinkling and lips pouting, the child turned to her mother. "Mommy…" she whimpered.
"Not until you are older," Katara agreed. The child looked defeated and slumped down. The Fire Lady released a heavy breath and walked over to her daughter. "Come on, you need to get ready for dinner."
"Okay…" She raised her arms and Katara picked her up and rested her on her hip.
"Zuko, I'll leave you to the punishment." she said as she lovingly stroked Ai Li Zhen's dark bangs out of her face.
"Punishment!?" Aang asked. "But…but…"
"Well, we did destroy a bunch of property…" Toph reminded him.
"Bye!" Ai Li Zhen waved her hand behind her mother's back as she held on to the woman. The doors closed behind the mother and daughter, and Aang reluctantly looked back at Zuko.
A devious smirk on the Fire Lord's face made a shiver go down his spine. "Well..." he smirked. "Now that Katara is gone…"
Aang had insisted that it wasn't as bad as it could be. At least they hadn't been banned from the Fire Nation. Instead, they were confined to select places in the palace and were forced to pay for the damages they had created. Knowing Aang had no money, Toph had paid for the damages out of her own pocket.
She had hoped that she would be allowed to wander outside the palace if she did, but Zuko told her no, and threatened to make them clean out the stables for the length of their stay as punishment. That had been his original punishment, but Iroh told him it was too much work for just two people.
Still, she hated being confined. She just knew that the Fire Lord had it out for her. He was getting back at her for all her smart remarks in their younger days; she just knew it. Toph shoved her hand into the paper bag of fire flakes and frowned. She was all out.
Frustrated, she crumpled up the paper bag and tossed it over her shoulder carelessly. She stopped in the hall way, and felt for vibrations on the ground. "Uh-oh…" The structure didn't feel familiar to her. Meaning she had wandered too far and now had no idea where she was.
She bit her lip and felt for anyone near-by. All she needed were directions, and then she could head back to the eastern wing, where her room was. Further down the hall, she felt the presence of someone else. Without a second thought, Toph walked down the hall and rounded the corner.
Just as she did, she felt the person turn and walk away. Toph froze in her spot. The Fire Lord. She immediately scowled with distaste. There was no way she would ask him for help after he placed her on lock down. Zuko was disappearing down the other end of the corridor, and Toph was about to turn around and walk back when she felt a vibration coming from outside the walk way where Zuko had been standing.
Was he watching someone? Curiously, Toph walked down the empty walk away. She could feel the cool night breeze move her body as she reached the side of the walk away. Her hand reached out and took hold of the railing.
In the darkness, she could hear water moving. No…it wasn't just moving. It was being bended. A small smile tugged on her lips. Zuko had been watching Katara waterbend.
Further out into the vacant garden, standing on a pillar of ice in the middle of a deep, stone lined pool was Katara. Her eyes were closed as her body twisted and turned. Coils of water rose from the pool around her, recreating elaborate shapes in the dark sky as the moon shone down on her.
Blue eyes flashed open and she threw a dozen orbs of water into the sky. As they rain down upon her, she froze them and then began to run over jutting pillars of ice to shatter them before they hit the pond. A small sound of a foot against the dried leaves on the ground echoed in her ears and she whirled around, sending a water whip flying at the intruder.
The colors of green and black immediately caught her eye and Katara stopped the whip before it flicked Toph lightly on the forehead.
"Toph?" Katara bended the water whip back and lowered her arms. The ice pillars she had been standing on melted back in the pool as Katara stepped down. "What are you doing in my garden?"
"Your garden?" Toph asked, tilting her head curiously to the side.
The blue eyed brunette smiled slightly. "Every Fire Lady gets a garden. It's a gift from her husband," Katara chuckled as she stood at the edge of the pool. "Zuko had a pool of water installed for me here."
"Why here?" Toph asked. She could feel the soft ground beneath her feet. The earth was fresh and clean there. The garden was new.
"He had it built here because the window of his office is directly on your right." Katara chuckled.
Toph snorted. "You know he was watching you."
"He watches me every night I'm here," Katara mused. "He'll come out of his office and he'll stand over on the walk way. He thinks I don't know."
"And you just dance around for him?" Toph asked. She raised an eyebrow in question. "You are married to him, you know. You don't have to seduce him any more."
"I'm not seducing him," Katara rolled her eyes. She sat down on the ground and patted the spot next to her. "He likes watching me waterbend and I think it calms him down when he's stressed. Ruling a country isn't easy, you know."
"I kind of figured," Toph sat down beside Katara and leaned back against her arms. "So even though you know his secret, you haven't told him?"
"He'd be embarrassed if I did and then he'd deny it completely," Katara told the younger bender. "It's small and the council would probably see it as pointless…but if watching my waterbending clears his head when he's been working too hard, I'll gladly do it. Even if I'm tired myself, it's the least I can do…I am his wife, you know." She giggled.
Toph smiled slightly. A few moments of silence passed between the two and Toph's blank gaze stared at her feet. "Hey, Katara…is it hard?"
"Is what hard? Bending?" Katara chuckled. "Come on, now, you're the best earthbender I know."
"No, not bending," Toph bit her lip hesitantly. "Being a wife."
The waterbender drew her eyebrows together as she looked down at the earthbender beside her. "Being a wife?" she whispered. Katara never really thought about it. She turned her head back towards the pool of water. "I guess…it's difficult. I have responsibilities to the nation and to my family. To my husband, I have to be his pillar of support whenever he needs it. That can be tiring and emotionally draining," She looked back at Toph. "But it's worth it. You know I love Zuko. I do whatever I can to support him, and I know he does the same for me."
"You seem to enjoy married life." Toph mused. She wiggled her toes slightly.
A small grin appeared on Katara's lips. "I always knew I'd end up married. You know, Aunt Wu said I'd marry a powerful bender…and I did," Katara laughed. "Who knew it would be that stubborn fool." She sighed fondly.
"But you always expected it, right?" Toph urged, turning her head in Katara's direction. "And you weren't forced into it."
This time, Katara frowned. "Toph," she began carefully. "Why are you asking me all of a sudden?"
"I'm just curious," Toph shrugged. She turned her head away. "I don't see the reason you have to dance around in the moonlight for Zuko. I kind of wondered if getting married made you crazy."
"Getting married doesn't make you crazy," Katara assured her. "Falling in love…that's a completely different story," Toph snorted indignantly and Katara looked at her worriedly. "Seriously, Toph…why are you asking?"
"You wouldn't understand," Toph told her. "You didn't grow up like I did. It's easy for you to dismiss it."
"Dismiss what?" Katara persisted. "I can't dismiss anything unless I know what it is."
"Never mind," The earthbender began to rise from her seat. "Just forget I said anything."
"Toph," Katara called out as she stood up. Toph had her backed turned to Katara and stopped at the sound of her old friend's voice. "You know you can tell me. Things have changed, but you're still my friend."
Blue eyes watched pale hands clench at Toph's sides. "They want me to get married." Her voice was low and almost unheard.
Katara's eyes narrowed. "What?"
Toph turned around, and kept her head lowered as she slipped her hand under her shirt and dug out a crinkled letter. "A letter from my father." Toph said as she handed the gold sealed paper to Katara.
The waterbender carefully took it and opened up the letter. The paper was thick and the ink was written in such a way that it was raised over the flat paper. Katara could see the smudges from where Toph had gone over the characters with her fingers several times in order to 'read' the letter.
Katara lifted her head and looked back at Toph. The younger woman's face was shadowed. "This isn't the first time, is it?"
Toph shook her head. "They started coming when I turned 15."
"So this whole time you were traveling…?" Katara trailed off. Toph nodded her head.
"I told them I don't want to get married. I want to keep traveling with Aang, Appa, and Momo," Toph explained. "I thought they understood."
Katara folded up the letter, and reached forward. She gathered Toph's hand, and placed the letter in her palm. "Are you going to tell them no?"
"If I tell them no, my dad's going to take away my inheritance…" Toph said softly. "And give it away to someone else's son. I can't let him do that! He says he'll take away my name and everything that was supposed to be mine just because I won't marry someone! It's not fair!"
"If you don't want to get married, you shouldn't have to," Katara agreed. "You're seventeen years old-"
Toph sighed heavily. "I'll be eighteen in two weeks," She shook her head and turned back around. "You wouldn't understand, Katara. When you were my age, you were already pregnant with Little Sparky and married. And no one was forcing you."
"That's me. This is about you," Katara stressed. "What do you want to do, Toph?"
The earthbender paused for a moment. "I don't want to get married, that's for sure." she stated firmly.
"Then tell your parents you don't want to get married."
"It's not that simple," Toph said, exasperatedly. She turned around and began to pace in front of Katara. "You were born a peasant, you don't understand these things," Katara rolled her eyes. When would people stop using that as an excuse? "My parents want me to get married so I can provide them with an heir that will continue the Bei Fong line."
"That's the reason?"
"It's for financial stability, lineage, and someone to take over the family business," Toph grumbled. "I thought I would take it over later. When things sort of settled down and I was bored with traveling, but I didn't think I'd have to marry to take over. My mother was always hinting that I should come home and settle down, but I didn't know she meant this!"
"Now your father is getting involved and wants you to come home or else you get nothing," Katara concluded. "Usually you wouldn't care. You're fine camping and traveling around anyway."
"I wouldn't care," Toph frowned. "But I don't want them giving it to some stranger. They could ruin everything!" She threw her arms in the air to emphasize her point. Katara released a heavy breath.
"You should talk to them."
Immediately, Toph scowled. "I haven't gone home in years, Katara. Why would I go now?"
"Because you need to talk to your parents about this. Maybe you can work something out." Katara replied calmly.
The earthbender mused over her thoughts for just a moment as she stood silently in place. A thousand ideas ran through her head as she thought over the proposition. Katara watched the concentrated look on Toph's face as the young woman's eyes widened.
"You're right, Katara…" The waterbender cringed slightly. She didn't like the tone of Toph's voice; it meant she was thinking of a plan completely different from what Katara had in mind. "I might be able to get out of this…"
"Toph," Katara began as she stood up straight and reached out. "That's not what I meant."
"Well, thanks for the chat, Sugar Queen!" Toph beamed as she turned around and headed back to the palace. "You gave me a great idea!"
Katara groaned and ran her hand down her face. "I don't know whether to be happy I helped or worried…"