Rumor Has It

People say the strangest things...
"You eat babies," Toph began, circling him warily, hands poised in that strange, mantis-like stance she favored so heavily.

Zuko snorted, and another tiny flame streaked across the ground, curling in the vegetation around Toph's feet. She wasn't taking the bait, as per usual.

"Really," she insisted, that small, ever-present smirk fixed firmly on her face. "They say you don't have any heirs because you keep eating them. Something about prolonging your own life through the ingestion of the innocent blood of your family."

Zuko snorted again, and asked, "They don't think my wife might have a problem with me eating our children?"

"Nope," Toph replied, coming to a standstill and shifting her feet, rooting herself in place. "She's too busy drinking the blood of beautiful slaughtered virgins."

When Zuko paused to laugh, she struck. The ground fell out from beneath him, but he was too quick to get caught in that trap. Still, all that shaking ruined his leap, forcing him to duck and roll. He covered more distance than he'd expected, and came up close beside her. He didn't usually employ hand-to-hand techniques, but he'd always needed more than firebending to best Toph. His leg swept out, meant to break her stance, but she back-pedaled hastily and just barely avoided ending up flat on her back.

"You're not really blind," he offered as she shifted her bare feet on her new patch of ground.

She laughed a little – the smallest rush of air through her nasal passages, the tiniest wavering of her vocal chords – and a shaft of sharp rock shot up from the ground, aimed squarely at the soft underside of Zuko's chin. It was little effort to roll backwards, and onto his feet. He didn't plan on losing any teeth today.

She kicked a rock at him, and said, "You can't really bend lightning."

That one stung a little, because it was so dangerously close to the truth. No matter how much he meditated and practiced and fought and bled it never came easy to him. It never had, and he was finally beginning to realize it never would.

Still, dwelling on it would do him no good.

He countered with four quick, successive punches, each producing a thin, hot blast of red flame. The first flew just past her right ear – Zuko could smell, very faintly, the stench of burning hair – and all the rest burnt themselves out on the shell of rock called up to defend its mistress. While she hid, he shouted, "You're not a Bei Fong."

"Like that's such a stretch," he heard her shout back before her tiny fortress suddenly rolled towards him. He barely managed the hand vault that carried him over it. Thank Agni she was so still so short.

"No, really," he pressed, dodging all her little pitfalls and coming in close enough to tap her on the shoulder. She was going easy on him today. "They say the Bei Fongs found you wandering around in the mountains, and that they took you in because they'd just lost their real daughter. You were raised by badgermoles, apparently."

Toph laughed outright at this, then quipped, "Stop touching me, Princess!" and Zuko found that the wrist of his hand, still resting on her shoulder, was caught in a vice between two small pinnacles of rock. Planting one foot against each column and pulling as hard as he could, he managed to free himself by the time Toph had stopped laughing.

"You're really Azula in disguise," she said, when she could finally talk again, only to send herself back into a fit of laughter. Of course, that didn't stop her from trying to knock his vital organs out of his chest.

"How is that supposed to work?" Zuko demanded, more than a little irked that she was finding the rumor so amusing.

"I don't know!" she said between laughing, and pulling a sizeable boulder out of his lawn. "I don't think you're Azula."

Zuko rolled his eyes – though he knew the gesture was completely lost on Toph – and then she said, "Your sister had much better technique. She'd never stand all knock-kneed and gimpy-legged like you do all the time."


"And her voice never squeaked."

"I don't sque-"

"And she wasn't whiny."

"You're in love with Iroh."

Toph nearly tripped over her own feet on that one, and then spent the next few minutes laughing uncontrollably. She was practically rolling around on the ground when she choked out, "You k-keep Ty Lee as a sex slave!"

While Zuko sputtered, Toph continued, "She's not really Mai's friend! You just won't let her leave!" Any subsequent comments were swallowed by the ensuing gales of laughter.

"Please," Zuko finally managed, despite the color in his cheeks. "As far as the Fire Nation nobles are concerned, you're entire house is filled with impressionable young men – and women!- of questionable age, who attend to your every need twenty-four hours a day!"

Toph began to nod her head, still wiping at her steaming eyes. "Yeah," she said with a chuckle, "that sounds like home. You're in love with Aang."

Zuko couldn't help the squawk of dismay (Fire Lords did not squawk) that jumped out of his throat as he narrowly avoided being smashed into the far wall by Toph's boulder, thrown in the instant he'd paused to process the hideous, terrible lie that had come out of her mouth.

"Who said that?!" he demanded, retaliating with a sudden burst of flame that sprang from his open palm to fly across her face just inches from her unseeing eyes. "I'll have them killed!"

"Those aren't the rules," Toph chided gently, even as a ground twisted and opened beneath him. A lesser man would have broken his leg in those rifts. "And it wouldn't do you any good anyways. You can't kill your entire court."

"Watch me!" Zuko snarled, leaping at her with all the speed and accuracy of an enraged saber-toothed moose lion.

Unfortunately, at that exact moment a fist-sized rock caught him in the gut and the sudden vacuum in his lungs was enough in and of itself to stop his charge. The second rock caught him square in the chest, just below his collarbone, and he toppled backwards to land in an undignified heap on the uneven ground.

Toph sidled up to his prone form, and used her toe – her freezing, filthy, callused toe – to poke him in the cheek.

"Don't worry," she soothed, squatting down to pat the same cheek she had poked. "I'll keep your dirty secret."

Zuko just turned his head into the grass, and tried in vain to shoo the little earthbender away. Toph, as usual, refused to be shooed, and left him buried up to his neck in loam and pebbles. He couldn't find the strength to dig himself out.

AN: Omigod, this story is alive! I give all the credit to Artemis Rae, who pushed and pulled and begged and pleaded and wheedled and bribed and threatened and whined until I got this chapter done, cause she just loved it that much. Hopefully it stand up to the previous chapters well.