It had been a whisper in her ear for years. Underneath the underneath of the town's high brow society, there was a ring of earthbenders that tested their skills against each other. Any earthbender was welcome to challenge them.
She had been learning the basics of her art for a few months. Her parents hadn't bothered with a teacher for eight years, until she begged and pleaded and deliberately destroyed half the house in 'untrained accidents'. Deep breathing exercises and stances were boring her to tears. At night, every night, she slipped out of the house and discovered something else she could make the earth do.
When she was ready enough, she went to watch. And to challenge.
She forced her wild hair into its large bun and wore the slightly-too-large boy's tunic she had borrowed from the public baths. She put on her shoes for traveling through the city and followed the sounds of distant cheering.
She sat in the stands and toed off her shoes again, watching intently. These people were…amazing. They could make the earth do anything, to her. She focused, and memorized everything about their body positions and what the earth did. She wasn't letting her freedom go to waste.
The next day, she went again, and this time stepped into the ring.
Her opponent pushed his right foot forward with confidence, one shoulder-length from his left, and breathed deeply.
Last night, that stance had called a pillar to drive itself into its opponent's chest. She was prepared and pulled her arm and fist up, and a wall shot up almost before he finished the move.
He scoffed and jumped into a new stance, both feet together, and stomped, moving his arms stiffly.
There was a second when Toph froze, horrified, and knew that she didn't know what was coming.
A rock threw her into the air. However high she went, it felt like fifty feet, and then she landed on her back and it hurt.
"The match is over!" the judge declared.
There were jeers from the crowds. "Give us a real show next time!" and "Come back when you grow some boobs!"
Toph lay there, still shocked. Not at the words, because she had been there yesterday and knew what to expect when she lost. But that feeling of utter helplessness…she hadn't felt that since before she first kicked off her shoes and saw the world.
A hand touched hers, and she took it to stand. It was small, like a child's, but calloused, and she listened when the person stepped to brace themselves against her weight. A boy, and her height.
"It's great that you can even get in there at your age," he said, and it sounded like he was laughing but he really wasn't. "Be more prepared next time."
"Thanks." She nodded and tottered away, trying to think of a good excuse for the bruises she would have.
Okay. She would just need to study some more.
"Toph, sweetie," her mother began. "Your governess tells me that your back was discolored when you woke up today. She noticed it, helping you change your clothes."
Toph was no fool. She answered immediately, "I was walking up the stairs and slipped backwards. I fell."
"You should have called for help up the steps," her father coddled. "You know how much we care about you. You shouldn't be injured over such a small thing."
Toph repressed the smirk she knew stole across her lips.
Toph landed on her back, outside the ring.
The hand touched hers. "Jeez, what did I say about giving a good show? And you come back the very next day." When she was standing, he bonked her on the head lightly with a fist. "You're not too bright."
She made a face. "That hurt." Her fall had hit all her old bruises. It had hurt a lot.
"What, my fist? I'm stronger than the great Little Girl Who Loses. Wow, I feel so talented." Even though he was teasing her, it was lighthearted and fun. His breathing was calm and steady.
Toph stuck out her tongue, and grinned. "No, you idiot, I've got bruises up and down from yesterday. That fall hurt like your mother must've hurt last night when I was so rough!"
He paused, and then laughed. She could hear sadness in it. "Hey, don't go insulting the dead, now!"
She sucked in air through her teeth and bent her head down. "I'm sorry."
He put a hand on her shoulder. "My name's Saizo."
She said, "Toph. Nice to make your acquaintance, Boy Who Laughs at Loser Girls."
To prove her point, he laughed again and nudged her shoulder in the direction out of the stadium.
"Your bruises seem to be worse today." Worry was laced in her words.
Toph smiled. "It's fine, Mother. The healing process is slow. I'm sure I won't be injured for too long."
"Teacher, will you let me attend one of the classes you teach in the town?" Toph asked.
Her teacher was taken aback. "Why would you ever do that?"
She set her jaw, determined. "I am an earthbender. Even if I'm no good, it calms me down. Being around it will help me meditate."
So he took her to his school and she sat in one corner, concentrating. She didn't move for nearly three hours as he taught his beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes. Obviously, she was meditating more deeply than he had ever seen, and this experiment needed to be repeated.
One week after her second defeat, Toph was all healed up and knew plenty more.
The first fight went well. It was a fairly weak bender, though. She could have faced them the first night.
The second fight tested her with fifteen moves that she had only just recently learned. But, she knew them all and blocked them all and came out the victor.
The third fight, she was thrown out.
A hand touched hers. "Well, you're making progress, I gotta say."
She smiled widely and pulled herself up. Because she was listening specifically for it, she could feel how fast his heart was beating. "Were you cheering for me? I didn't know it was so exciting."
There was a pause as he did something. By his next words, he was shaking his head. "I'm just amazed at how much progress you've made in a week. When you said that you got hurt and then disappeared, I figured that you wouldn't be back."
"I don't give up."
"I figured that, too," he agreed. He put a hand on her shoulder, and began walking away, leading her.
Everything came quieter and they were approaching a wall. She said, "Saizo? Where are we going?"
He said, very quietly, "You know, they'd be willing to go easier on you if you just told them that you're blind."
Toph gaped at him, and shouted, "Why didn't you tell me you knew?"
"I thought you knew that you were blind and weren't trying to hide it. I'm still surprised that no one else picked up on it. How did you do so well in those other fights?" His hand moved a section of her bangs out of her face. "You gonna tell me your secrets?"
She shrugged. "The vibrations in the ground through my feet give me an idea of how they're standing. Then I know what they're going to do."
"That kinda thing takes a lot of memorization and experience before it works," he said, more gravely than she had ever heard him.
No, this wasn't like Saizo, she wanted to say. Saizo was funny, and traded insults with her. Why did he have to know? Not that it was so hard to figure out. She had been trying to move her eyes passably, but she had apparently failed.
He finished, "So, I was just wondering, would you teach me? I mean, I'm an earthbender, technically, but no one's ever trained me."
"Look, I can't teach anyone else to bend like me," she said plainly. "I'm blind, so I've always used earthbending to see."
He took a few steps back and forth, with short pauses in between. She said, "What are you doing?"
"Your eyes follow me when you're paying attention, but stare straight forward when you're not. It's weird."
"Sorry for your discomfort," she grumbled unhappily. She focused, and the feeling of earthbending was coming from behind and to the left of her. She could get back out of the stadium from there, easy. She took off.
He ran to catch with her. "Toph, wait." She stopped, and he moved between her and her perceived exit. The ground was freezing cold on her feet, but the air was warmer in his direction. Saizo said, "Are you going to come back and try again?"
"Of course I am," Toph spat petulantly, turning her face away.
"I hope you win. But you'll need a fighting name, right? Can I suggest something?"
She hesitated, then nodded.
"The Blind Bandit. Remember, the more you win, the less they'll go easy on you!"
Toph smiled, and the back of his index finger bushed along her chin, and then she left.
Two years passed, and Toph won and won and, ere long, became the champion of the "underground" group that fought each other. The smart money was always put on her.
She knew every move that her teacher had ever taught. She had had them memorized after six months. Nothing that anyone threw at her was new anymore, and she had removed any challenge in the fights all by herself.
The only reason she kept going was Saizo.
He was always there, cheering her on, telling her about the looks on their faces when they lost and how he was sure that they would be back to beat her eventually.
In her mind, 'fight' was synonymous with 'Saizo'.
She was dependent on his presence.
On one of the few trips into town she was allowed to make, a temple visit with her mother, Toph heard familiar footsteps coming up quickly. She stopped and turned around before he got to her. "What are you doing here?" she said haughtily.
Saizo stopped, and, in that laughing tone of his, said, "So sorry, princess. I thought you were someone decent."
Her mother stepped up behind Toph, and Toph's heart stopped.
At the look on her face, Saizo said, "What's wrong?"
"You need to get out of here right now."
Her mother said, "Toph, sweetie, is this dirty boy harassing you?"
Saizo tried. He always tried to get along with everyone. "No, ma'am, we're friends."
Toph winced at her mother's tone. "My daughter does not associate with ugly beggars."
Saizo, ugly? The two words had no use together. "But, Mom, we really do know each other!"
Her mother adopted the tone in which she told Toph about the World She Was Protected From. "Toph, he's hideous. I know you can't see, but people like that just aren't cut out for much in life, and they don't grow up to be princes. I don't want you around that sort. We're nobility, remember?"
As she was pulled away, Toph could feel Saizo's silence as a stab to the heart.
That night, she went to the ring and, waiting there, no one touched her hand in familiarity.
Saizo wasn't there.
Toph finally found a use for her eyes and began to cry.
One week passed. Toph was leaning against the side of the ring, which rose ten yards above her. The people shuffled past, one after another, but she didn't care.
Suddenly, one of the people in the crowd turned to her and she was wrapped in a hug. They whispered in her ear, "I'm really, really sorry that I never told you how I look and don't be mad or not be friends with me anymore just because of what your mom said!"
His arms held her tighter. "And, yes, I'm really ugly to look at but it's not like I really hurt you by not telling you that because I just didn't want you to hate me like everyone else does…"
The heavy thing inside her dropped away and she hugged him back. "Of course not, you dolt. How you look doesn't matter, right? I'm defective."
He sniffed and his hand went to his face. She assumed that he was wiping his nose or something. They sat down, in the shadow of the ring where they had been for two years.
His arm stayed around her shoulders. He said, lightly, trying to be upbeat, "Jeez, how old are you now? Eight? The crowd's gonna get bored if you don't grow up some."
"I'm ten, for your information," Toph laughed. "And no one gets bored of old men getting beat by little blind girls."
"You're right, I guess," he sighed. There was a long pause.
"It's nice to know that you're icky," Toph said in a considering tone. "Makes you more human."
"So glad that I could help," Saizo said in a querulous tone.
"No, no, because I'm all deficient, and now you're not so perfect. So, all is right with the world." She turned her face towards where she assumed his was, and hit shoulder. Saizo adjusted his grip.
He said, "It's just that I'd never had a real friend. Because, you know, the ugly germs would get to them."
"If you're contagious, I must look like a man by now," Toph snickered.
"You don't, you know," he mumbled. "You're pretty, kinda. Sometimes."
She brought her hand up and touched his shirt. It trailed upwards to the base of his neck, and then to his chin, and then found his lips and migrated to his cheeks. They were hot. "Are you blushing?"
"Boys don't blush!" Saizo sputtered.
"Except you," she teased. "It's almost like you're in love with me!"
"I am!" he said quickly.
She closed her mouth and became very still.
More softly, he went on, "I am, okay? Sorry."
"No, it's fine," she said slowly. "I guess I'm in love with you, too. I don't know. I'm ten. I've never been in love before."
"I'm eleven. You think I have any idea?"
They sat there, her leaning into him, for a few seconds more.
The announcer of the matches yelled, "And next, our challenger will go against the defending champion, the Blind Bandit!"
Saizo laughed into his hand. "Every time I hear that, I can't believe that you went along with the name."
She shot to her feet. "To be continued!" She raised both her arms to shoulder-height, and rose on a thick pillar to applause.
She dispatched this man easily, and stood in the middle of the ring. Her ring. And, suddenly, she wanted Saizo next to her.
Toph turned and marched with purpose to the top of the stairs. There, she ran straight into a shoulder. Whatever the shoulder was attached to grew arms and pulled her up to kiss very warm lips.
"Good job," Saizo said breathlessly, as the crowd began its obligatory catcalls. He wrapped his hand around hers and they went down the steps as quickly as they could.
In a quiet hallway under the stands, they slowed down and Toph felt her cheeks begin to ache from her smile.
"Now I'm really sorry," Saizo panted.
"Why? That was fun!" Toph yelled enthusiastically. She found his arm, flung him again the wall, and pressed into him. "Let's try it again!"
"Toph, I'm leaving."
Her quick breaths slowly calmed down.
"The reason I came back so soon was because I found out that Dad's moving us to Ba Sing Se because of the war, and I couldn't just leave like that without even explaining what your mother was talking about."
Toph didn't say anything, but her fists tightened on the cloth of his shirt.
"And I'm leaving in a week. And I'm really sorry, I never mean to make you fall in love with me, honest."
Toph began to cry again, very softly. "Then I guess I can stop fighting."
"No! You're brilliant! You can't just stop!"
"You were the only reason I kept coming, though."
"You're meant for more than just being the little blind daughter of nobility. This group of people will show you more about life than anything else. You have to promise me that you'll stay the champion until someone beats you in a fair fight."
Toph's hands found Saizo's cheeks again. He was crying, too.
"Then…will we ever see each other again?"
"I hope so. God, Toph, I really hope so."
Soon enough, a snotty twinkletoes knocked Toph out of the ring.
He was the avatar, and she finally admitted that this was who Saizo was talking about. She went with him as a teacher.
And then they wound up in Ba Sing Se.
There was a letter waiting for her. Her heart rose.
It was from her mother. Her heart sank.
But she went, and it got her captured.
But she was still young. She would find him eventually.
Because Toph had Hope, that which is greatest of all things.
In another place and another time, Toph was walking down the streets of Ba Sing Se, pondering her life. She had helped win a war and taught the avatar earthbending in her short sixteen years.
Through her bare feet on the compacted ground, she noticed a pattern of footsteps. Before it registered in her mind, she shouted, "Saizo!" in the middle of the crowd.
They stopped dead, and then sprinted toward her, and then she was pressed into a wall in the tightest and safest hug she had ever known.
"Toph," he breathed, shocked. "Dude, you grew boobs! I'm proud of you!"
"And you're squishing them, idiot!" she laughed. "Let go!"
He didn't let go, and she was glad. "So, did your destiny thing catch up with you?"
"It has now," she said blissfully. "I have stories to tell you."
"I'll bet you do. Have you got time to tell me over tea or something?"
"For you, I have all the time in the world."
He took her hand in his and showed her the way. She smiled.
And all was right in the world.
Wow. That was insanely fluffy. This was awesome, though. It went much further than intended. I'm glad that it had a happy ending, too.
Ten-year-old love is extremely cute, you know?
Oh, and, if you watch the episode when they meet Toph, try to think of this story. What are her thoughts after being knocked out?