Hello, dear reader. As you may have read in my profile, I've developed a great and unreasonable affection for Toph. I adore Toph. My first order of business in the last few days, therefore, has been to try and see all of the episodes featuring Toph as possible, in order to provide you folks with some quality fanfiction. I was quite angry about how poor Toph was treated in the episodes 'The Library' and 'The Desert', so I wanted to fix that. This story is extremely long and complicated to accomplish such a simple goal, and my only excuse for that is that I didn't know what the point of the story would be until I actually got there.
This is my first Avatar fanfiction. I am not saying that to persuade you to leave kind reviews, or take pity on my mistakes. I am only saying it so that, if I have perhaps stretched Toph and Sokka a bit out of character, you will attribute it to my lack of familiarity with the characters and it will not dissuade you from reading any other stories of mine.
I like to torture the characters I love, mostly so I can give them happy endings. I love Toph, and I want to torture her, but I also think she deserves some happiness. Therefore, I have sworn a vow that for every tormenting-Toph story I write, I must write a happy Toph story before I move on to torturing her again. Therefore you will hopefully see a lot more of me in the future.
Thank you for reading: Enjoy!
Daughter of Atlas
Occasionally, trapped in her own private darkness that was deeper than the night around her, Toph dreamed.
It was always the same; the cool gentle breath of an early spring breeze, the gentle insistent heat of midday sun, the green scent of trees and grass and water enfolding her in a gentle embrace. She was dressed in the long, unwieldy robes of her childhood; they draped in soft folds over her shoulders and arms, hindering the free movements of her arms, her legs. The part of her that had become a warrior screeched that she would not be able to take an Earthbending stance; the greater part of her, the part that belonged to the dream, pushed the faint panic aside. The world felt good, the earth was smooth and solid under her feet, and she surrendered herself to the memory.
Because it was a dream, but a dream rooted in memory. There were no images, no pictures – she had none to remember – but she did not need images. She never had. Nothing, not even years of trials and dangers, could erase from her mind the singular sensation of the Beifong gardens in spring.
Then, echoing through the soil and thrumming up through her bare feet – no shoes! As a girl she had always been forced to wear shoes – she felt the steady rolling rhythm of footsteps, coming closer. She knew those footsteps. Solid, hitting the ground with the weight of a man who walked with authority, who exuded authority and used it without hesitation, yet at the same time the steps had a swift ease to them. They were without purpose, without direction, wandering lazily among trees and buildings. Toph thought she should go to them, but she couldn't move. This didn't alarm her as it should have, for she knew she was safe. The footsteps promised her that. In fact, the man with the strong gait made sure she was even a little too safe.
Toph could not move; she was rooted to the earth, in the clutches of the dream. But she knew the footsteps would find her, because they belonged to her father.
Closer now, speeding up a bit, as though just thinking of a destination. The steady double drumbeats of feet and heart approached, and underneath them, for the first time, Toph could hear a voice. It called her name.
She waited. She opened her mouth to shout back, but perhaps she could not speak, because she did not hear her own voice. She did not hear anything, in fact. The breeze had faded, there was no rustling of leaves or singing of birds as she would have expected. Not even the sounds of bustling servants drifted across to her from the houses of the Beifong estate. An eerie silence had fallen over the gardens, and the waking part of Toph grew unsettled; but she could not be afraid, because she could feel clearly the earth beneath her, and it was welcoming and strong.
Then, breaking through the silence, her father's footsteps again, but hurrying now, almost running. His heart was thundering and the vibrations shook Toph's spine; he was still calling her name, but louder now, a panicked man searching for his daughter instead of a lord taking a leisurely stroll around his grounds.
Then the footsteps and heartbeat grew louder; it sounded as if he was right on top of her, he should be right beside her to produce vibrations that loud, but the earth under her feet was silent and still. She could feel no silhouette beside her, no pressure of another person's feet. Only those two insistent rhythms, growing louder and louder and louder still; then they blurred together, becoming one staccato drum, so loud it lanced like needles into her skull. She managed to move her hands to cover her ears – there was darkness all around her now, not just blind-darkness, but sound-darkness and earth-darkness as well – and then the voice returned, and it thundered and roared like a tempest from the heavens, and these were its words:
"…My daughter is blind, and tiny, and fragile, and weak!"
The weight of the roaring forced her to her knees, bludgeoned on the back of her skull with each syllable, crashing against her shoulders, beating her down. She fought against it, fought to stay standing, but it was too strong, and then she was screaming back at it, screaming up, "I am not weak! I am not weak I am not weak I am not…"
The gardens were gone, the voice was gone, the footsteps were gone. She was kneeling still, hands cupped over her ears, but someone was shouting her name; the voice was gone but the panic still beat a wild taboo inside her skull. She reached down to feel the earth – and it was not there.
There was darkness before her – there was always darkness before her – but this darkness had a new quality, a breath of cold stale air, an indefinable sense of space. She was kneeling on the edge of a chasm, and the ground she was kneeling on was not there.
Her own breathing grew loud enough to fill her ears, and she could hear nothing else, only the rushing of air into her own lungs as she gasped, panting, panicked. The vibrations were gone, the earth was gone, it was gone…
But it was not gone. Softly, at the lower threshold of her senses, she felt something. Something that was not solid, but something that was there. It shifted and shook, it swirled and did not stay still long enough to sense it, but it was holding her weight. It felt unclear, it felt diluted, it felt fuzzy… she reached out a shaking hand to touch it, and came away with a fistful of grains that flowed out from between her fingers.
She breathed a sigh of relief, and it filled up her ears like the roaring of a river. Sand was bad, but it could be dealt with. It was not as good as the real solid earth, but it was something, something she recognized, something she knew.
The shout came again, and it was nearby, and human, and terrified. Toph lurched forward to find it, but the sand roared out from underneath her and she jerked backwards, remembering the sense of infinity before her. There was a chasm there, a pit, and she could hear the sand rushing away into its depths like the passing of time itself.
She was shaking. The shout came again, and this time the voice penetrated her panic, the rough tones calling up instant and terrified recognition. She cried out, instinctively; "Sokka!" Her hands darted forward, pressing through the sand, looking for the edge of this cliff that supported her. If she could wrap her fingers around the edge, get a grip on good hard stone, she could…
"Toph, where are you? Help!"
"I'm here, I'm here!" The cliff had no edge, or else there was no layer of supporting stone beneath the flow of sand. Her mind protested at the thought of sand simply floating, but the terror beat it down. Sokka was yelling for her, and underneath his voice she could hear other voices, crying, shouting. Gritting her teeth, she sank her hands down into the sand as deep as they would go, and began inching herself towards where she had heard the familiar voice.
"Sokka, say something!" she shouted, for suddenly there was the whistling of a high wind in her ears and she needed to shout, needed to scream. She dragged herself forward, inch by agonizing inch, and now the wind was whipping her hair into her useless eyes, stinging them. Its roaring was blocking out sound. She wasn't moving fast enough, she knew, her friends were in danger, and here she was crawling along the ground like a coward, like a weakling! But to stand up would be dizzying, impossible, not without the solid earth to ground her…
She tried again, raising her voice until her throat ached. "Sokka, say something, anything! I need to follow your voice! Sokka, where are you?" She could hear the terror and desperation in her own voice, could feel it like a knot in her throat, but the words were steady and clear. She waited…
Answering echoes, faint and fading, like the tired wailing of a ghost in a storm. "Toph! Help, Toph… help…"
"I'm coming!" The words were vanishing, but they had given her a direction. She moved forward with renewed vigor, feeling the yawning gulf open beside her, waiting to swallow her the minute she dared get to her feet. And the wind, sweeping the sand out from under her, pressed and tried to push her off into the void; but she kept going, doggedly. She would find her friends, help them, save them, no matter what the cost!
Then, as she dug her fingers into the next handful of sand she would use to drag herself along, they brushed against something warm and soft -- a hand! The blood thrummed underneath the skin, the fingers shook with the effort of grasping, and the scene burst into Toph's brain like a lightning strike, painted in heartbeats and breaths. The sand did not hold still enough to stand on, but it conducted vibrations well, bringing the grim picture to her in its endless flow. Sokka dangled from the edge of the precipice, clutching desperately with one hand to the edge which was not solid enough to hold; underneath him Katara and Aang hung, their heartbeats faint, their screams loud.
With a cry, Toph seized Sokka's hand where it clutched the cliff, and she focused her perception on it, listening to the vibrations of his body. She knew she could not pull him up, she was not strong enough – if she could find some other way, if a little farther down his foot kicked against a patch of stone, a pebble, anything –
Nothing. She felt his body strung wire-tight between two poles, stretched on one end from his hand where it hung on to the sand, with hers overtop of it, and pulled from down below where he clutched Katara's hand. They were tiring, all of them, their heartbeats were slowing, time was running out and the sand rushed by, the sand she could not feel; this was all her fault, the stupid sand confounded her, it threw her off and she could not focus, she was as helpless as they were, dangling out over space.
Sokka was moving. She did not look down – there was no point – she tightened her grip on his hand to better sense the motions. Sand slipped around and between her fingers where she touched Sokka's skin, and through its minute vibrations she felt him turn his head – that was impossible, the sand should not be able to let her feel in so much detail! – she felt him turn his head and look up at her, and she knew the expression on his face was one of hopelessness, though she did not know how she knew.
"Toph…" he near-whispered, his voice weak and growing weaker – she cried out, but it was too late, he was gone – swept away by the sand, his hand wrenched from her grasp, and he plummeted down, down, away from where she could feel his heartbeat or those of Katara and Aang. She couldn't breathe, the sand was choking her, slipping down into her throat, and then the flow of the sand grew stronger and she was swept off the edge as well, plummeting down into the depths of eternity, encased in a terrible, terrible silence.
Awareness returned in a rush, the night bursting in on her like an explosion, and Toph jerked upright, chest heaving, gasping for breath. She slammed her hands down, hard; they hit solid earth, and it spoke to her of things moving and living and real. The gray sense of earth-sight returned. The ground soothed her with its immovable calm. Her panicked breathing returned to a more normal pace as she gulped down great draughts of the cool night air. Her heartbeat slowed.
The panic eased, and she was able to orient herself, listening to the quiet shiverings and stirrings conducted through the earth. Tree-roots, dangling deep down into the soil, and the trees themselves planted solidly, unmoving. Small animals skittering about around their trunks, their tiny hearts whirring so fast they were almost impossible to detect. Closer nearby, two much slower and steadier heartbeats, echoing her own. Aang and Katara were sunk in sleep; Toph could feel their forms pressed against the ground. She breathed a sigh of relief.
The noise that had woken her came again, a soft tapping from directly above and in front of her. It was over her head somewhere, the rapping of stone on stone, and it took Toph a moment to decipher what it was. Someone was knocking, softly and cautiously, on the "door" of her nightly earth-tent. And judging from the shape of the silhouette she could feel standing outside, she could guess who it might be.
He hissed her name again, through a crack in the stone; "Toph!" When she did not answer, too absorbed in regaining her breath, he tapped again with what Toph guessed was the end of his boomerang. "Toph, are you alright?"
She allowed the door of the earth-tent to drop back into the ground, feeling the cold night breeze enter the tent, passing over her face in a cool caress. She could feel beads of sweat clinging to her temples; too late, she realized that Sokka would see them, and be puzzled, for the night was almost cold enough to snow. Just in time, she tucked her hands into her lap, out of sight. She did not want Sokka to see them shaking.
Then she realized he had spoken to her. "I'm fine, Sokka," she answered briskly, hoping without hope that he would not notice the lag between question and answer. The dream was still fogging up her mind, its emotion was pounding through her veins, and she wasn't up to a close cross-examination just yet.
There was silence for a moment. Toph sat cross-legged on the cold ground, framed by two slabs of rock that jutted up over her head to form her tent. Sokka stood in the gap between them, where her door had been a moment ago; he neither spoke nor moved, merely stood. His breathing was steady, but his heartbeat was irregular, as though it had been racing a moment ago and was now settling down; Toph could tell he was agitated and thinking. She closed her eyes. It did not make any difference in the darkness surrounding her, but perhaps it would telegraph to him the message that she wanted to be left alone.
If Sokka was anything, it was oblivious. He stood for a few moments more, and tapped his boomerang against his chin, once. Then, without a word, he sat down in the door of the earth-tent, facing Toph, dropping his hands to his knees with a small vibration that sent shiver up Toph's spine. Or maybe that was only the cold night…
"Are you sure you're okay in here without a blanket?" Sokka asked dubiously, as though he had read her mind. "It's pretty cold. Aang is sleeping up against Appa for warmth." Toph felt him shrug. "That's perhaps a little much, but you can at least take a blanket. We have a couple extra."
"I'm fine, boomerang-boy," Toph growled. She hoped that if she could muster up some thorns and toughness into her tone, he'd get the message and go away. "You did not wake me up to discuss the weather and the bison, so either say what you're going to say or get lost."
"Something's wrong, and I want you to tell me what it is."
The blunt reply startled her, and she flinched, feeling a sudden heat rush into her cheeks. The shocked reply slipped out from between her teeth before she could bite it back; "H-how did you know that?"
She did not see him grin, but she could hear it in his voice. "Two reasons. One, there is a swirling dust cloud hanging outside your tent, and occasionally small pebbles jump up and zoom away. Two – and here's the big one – when you opened the door, you called me Sokka, not Snoozles. My brilliant mind pieced together the rest."
His mocking tone strengthened her resolve, and Toph pulled herself together, putting the biting harshness of barely concealed panic behind her words. "'Brilliant mind'? Hah! Some brilliance!" She struggled to come up with something to say, something that would hurt, something that would make him leave. "Better hang on to that brilliant mind of yours, Sokka. It's all you've got; you can't even bend!"
That old taunt was pathetic, and she knew it. Sokka let out a triumphant laugh. "Hey, you did it again! That's twice you've called me by my name." The grin suddenly disappeared from his voice, and he was utterly serious again. "Now tell me why pebbles have been going berserk outside your tent for the past twenty minutes."
"I…" Toph hesitated, clenching her hands into fists. They had stopped shaking, but they threatened to start again as the dream came rushing back. She bit her lip, hard, and mustered her defiance yet again. Her mouth set into a mulish line. "No."
"No?" Sokka's voice was heavy with disbelief. "Toph, you've got to be kidding. You have to…"
"I don't have to do anything. You asked a question, and I'm not answering it. Now go away." She turned her back to him, confident that she had won. Then, unexpected enough to stop her in her tracks, his voice again, after a moment of stunned silence, ringing out as clear and strong as ever.
Toph whirled around again, her rage getting the better of her. "What do you mean, 'No'?"
"I meant what I said. You didn't answer my question; I'm not obeying your command." And he lay down, stretching himself across the threshold of the earth-tent, preventing her from raising the door again. "I'm not going to go away until you tell me why you're upset."
Toph didn't even bother to deny it this time. "I can just Earthbend you out of the way," she pointed out, infuriated.
Sokka didn't even flinch. "Fine," he said calmly. "Go ahead."
"I can fling you all the way to the Fire Nation. Let your little friend Zuko deal with you."
She felt his shoulders move against the earth as he shrugged. "If you want to, I suppose I can't stop you."
"I can dump you into a pit the size of Ba Sing Se. I can bury you in rocks the size of your head. I can wake up your sister and have her come deal with you."
They sat in silence for a while.
Toph was quiet, biting her lip, thinking. The earth's solid immovability soaked into her from where her feet and hands were pressed against the ground, and it soothed her; the night breeze whirled softly about the small confines of the tent. Sokka tapped his boomerang against the ground in a short quick rhythm, one-two, one-two-three. Toph considered the shape of him against the ground. She could have very easily pitched the earth up from underneath him, she could have flung him into the woods, she could have just shifted the soil until he was far enough away to close the door. She could easily have gotten rid of him and gone right back to sleep.
So why haven't I? She asked herself, growing frustrated. It would be so easy, and then all of her problems would be solved, and they could both go on with their lives!
Because that's not what I want. It was true. She didn't want to force him away, she didn't want to bruise him with a fist of rock or slam him to the ground. Not after that dream. She didn't want to hurt him; and even if she could get him away without physically hurting him, the pain of breached trust would be echoing in his footsteps for days to come. That wasn't what she wanted.
Then what do I want…?
After the silence had stretched out for a reasonable time, Toph decided it was safe to try again. She snapped her hand out in a quick motion, flinging a pebble that bounced halfheartedly off the blade of his boomerang. "It was just a dream," she said firmly, though without hope. "Go away."
Sokka didn't even answer. Instead he started humming, not loud enough to wake their sleeping friends, but loud enough to produce a faint humming vibration in the ground beneath him which resonated in Toph's fingertips. With a sigh that was half frustrated groan, Toph allowed the walls of her tent to fold themselves back into the ground with a puff of dust. She stood without bothering to brush the dust from her clothes and nudged Sokka's shoulder with one bare foot.
"Fine," she sighed. "If it's the only way to get rid of you. But let's go somewhere other than here, okay?"
Sokka climbed to his feet and stretched, yawning. He stood quietly for a moment – so unlike him, that silence – and then, when it became apparent that Toph wasn't going to lead the way, he turned and started walking. Toph followed, empty eyes staring straight ahead as she felt carefully through the ground for treacherous tree roots and stray rocks as Sokka led her away from the campsite, into the surrounding forest. Once, a small animal darted across her path; she stumbled, thrown off by its lightning-quick movement, and Sokka whirled around to steady her, gripping her shoulder. She shook his hand off with a silent snarl, and he turned back around and continued on without comment.
Toph felt the ground ending long before he stopped moving; far ahead, through the tree roots and forest movements, she felt the steady heartbeat-pounding of waves crashing against stone and the sudden dropping off of a jagged cliff. This time, the sensation of fear and sand only returned for a moment before she managed to shove it back.
Sokka stopped at what she judged to be healthy distance from the cliff's end and sat down again, patting the earth for her to do likewise. Instead, she chose to perch on a nearby boulder, savoring the scent of the salt wind as it blew in gusts around them.
"I didn't know there was water here," she said quietly, after a few moments had passed, with Sokka continuing in his uncharacteristic silence.
"We could see it from Appa's back this morning," he responded, without the stuttering or barely-concealed pity for her blindness that would have accompanied it only a few months ago. She had managed to beat the stupid pity out of him, then; Toph allowed herself a small, crooked smile at the thought. Sokka continued, oblivious as always. "Aang says it's the Burning Sea, but our map is probably a few hundred years out of date, so there's no way of knowing. It's pretty, though. Shiny." That startled a laugh from her, albeit a small one. It was just so Sokka-like, to be distracted by something that, she presumed, glittered and gleamed.
Unfortunately, the sight of the water was not nearly as distracting as she'd hoped. Sokka's voice cut through her musings, stern and serious again. "Now, I believe there was something you were going to tell me…"
There was no avoiding it. Quickly, sharpening each word before it left her lips so that she spoke in daggers of obsidian, Toph told him of the Beifong gardens and the cliff of sand. She left out the roaring voices and the grim fate he, Katara and Aang had suffered; those were things that hurt, things that should be locked up tight and never exposed to the open air, for fear they would take on a life of their own.
Sokka was silent all through the recitation of the dream, and silent for a few moments afterwards. Toph realized, distantly, why he was acting so strangely, so quiet and tense; it was because he was trying to protect her, as he always did, only this time he was protecting her from an enemy he could neither fight nor see.
Finally, he spoke. "This is about the fight in the desert, isn't it," he said flatly, not a question, but a statement. His words felt heavy in Toph's ears, hollow with a ring of truth. "The sand, the… weakness." Toph didn't answer. She simply stared out to sea, ruthlessly ignoring the fact that her throat burned and there was pressure behind her eyes. I am not weak I am not weak I am not…
When Sokka spoke again, his tone was gentle, but Toph jumped as if stung. "That was months ago, Toph," he said soothingly. "Aang apologized for the things he said to you. You know he didn't mean them, he was only upset. You did the best you could."
"I know," Toph answered, speaking now through clenched teeth to hold back her rage, at him and at herself, and to hold back the tears which did not exist, the tears she would not allow herself to acknowledge. I am not... "I did my best, and that wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough. I'm not stupid," she snapped harshly, feeling him tense, ready to interrupt. "I'm not going to fling myself off the cliff, I know I'm not worthless, but there are things that I can't do, Sokka. And I'm afraid that… someday… what I can't do is going to be something that everyone depends on. Something that could save lives… Aang's life, Katara's life. Your life."
There was silence, and Toph could feel the pressure of things unspoken building up within her, until it had to escape or she would burst. The tears she had been fighting escaped as well; she could feel them trickling down from her useless eyes, but she ignored the feeling, ignored the catch in her breath, because if she ignored it maybe it would go away. "And most of the time it doesn't matter, I can ignore it, everyone can. But then there are times, like in the desert… I couldn't save Appa. I almost couldn't save you… any of you. I can Earthbend, but I can't see. And there will always be times when Earthbending isn't good enough…when I'm not good enough."
She was proud of her voice, of how short and clear and sharp the words were, of how she not allowed them to slur together or be drowned in tears. She focused on that pride, on that cold clear knot of cleanliness in the messy tangled smear of emotions in her chest. She had let her empty gaze rest on the ground, but now turned her face out to sea, wanting to feel the brush of the salt wind.
"What?" She did not turn to look at him – there was no point – but her shoulders tensed, betraying her surprise. "What are you talking about, Sokka?"
"You're wrong," he repeated, and his voice was calm and cheerful and almost lazy, as though debating the shape of clouds on a summer afternoon, instead of comforting a blind Earthbender in the dead of a winter night. "You're wrong. Everything you just said? Completely wrong. You're crazy if you believe any of that. You're more than good enough. You're perfect."
"You're crazy," she replied brusquely, ruthlessly. "You're babbling."
"Yes, I am," he answered, still cheerful. Toph wanted to punch him. She wanted to bash his head in with a rock, if only to wipe away the grin that she could hear in his voice. He continued on, oblivious still. "I am babbling. But I'm right. You're perfect just the way you are, and you know it."
"The desert –"
"The desert? Toph, you kept a massive building, larger than my entire village, from sinking into the sand when a spirit wanted to destroy it. You fought against the will of an immensely powerful spirit in the form of an enormous owl, and you won. Alone, using only your own power, already exhausted from days of travel, and on unfamiliar terrain, completely deprived of your normal senses." Now it was his turn to be blunt; he was speaking like a warrior, and Toph felt each word crashing into her skull like a blow and exploding behind her eyes like a sunburst. He was only speaking… and he was not speaking loud enough to cause the vibrations that shuddered up her spine. Then what…?
Sokka was still talking, and it took an immense effort to focus on his words. "And you're calling yourself not good enough because, while you were doing all this, you failed to save a two-ton flying bison from a group of men who were probably much older and more experienced than you, who were experts at controlling the very element you had so much trouble with. Not good enough? You're crazy. And don't say I don't understand," he added, seeing Toph open her mouth. She abruptly shut it again. "Aang and Katara have said the same thing, and they're benders. That favorite joke of yours won't work here."
His triumphant voice died out and then there was only the waves and, beneath their crashing, silence.
Sokka grinned, dusted his hands off as though after a hard day's work, and sang out, "I win."
"What? You win?" Toph snarled, and then she was on her feet, her hands clenched into fists. Sokka caught a hint of movement across her face; she was trying desperately not to smile. "You haven't won anything, boomerang-boy," she growled, flicking her fingers in a quick snapping motion. A hail of pebbles threw themselves at Sokka, most hitting his chest, where they bounced off the thick cloth of his tunic. He grinned, knowing Toph couldn't see him, and decided to pretend that the attack had stung.
The two of them crashed through the undergrowth back towards camp, where they started a banter-argument that was only ended by the sleepy protests of their friends, the low rumbling of Appa, and two walls of stone crashing up to form a crude tent. Then, after silence had descended on the forest clearing, Toph lay with one ear to the ground and listened to the rumbling of the earth and the three steady heartbeats around her. She drifted off into sleep, carried away by the currents of sound and ocean, and did not dream.
That was long, and random... sorry. I'll try and do better next time...
It was cathartic, though. I need to get a better handle on Toph's character, and this is the best way to do it... please, tell me what you think. Reviews are greatly appreciated. So is constructive criticism. Flames, I will laugh at...
Thanks again for reading.
Your Humble Storyteller,
Daughter of Atlas