Ye Chang Meng Duo: Chapter 1
Disclaimer: Nickelodeon (and all others) own "Avatar: The Last Airbender." I own whatever I write/create. Don't steal and don't sue.
A/N: This is a collaborative work between myself, and the artist Mag (fortheloveofpizza. Please make sure to visit Mag's deviantArt page for artwork that is, not so much inspired by this story, as the story is inspired by Mag's exceptional imagination. The title is Chinese for, "The longer the night lasts, the more our dreams will be."
The guards standing at the gates of the city of Taonan knew that their job was hardly an important one. In the past, travelers would have been required to show proper forms of identification, state their purpose for coming or going, and give strong proof that they were neither Fire Nation citizens nor carrying weapons from said nation. Even Taonan, small compared to Omashu and a speck when held up against Ba Sing Se, had held to the strictest enforcement of policy when the war was in its waning days.
Now, a simple identification or statement of purpose would assuage the guards' needs. They let all but the most peculiar-looking to pass through the gates to the city, typically allowing even the strange ones entrance after a slightly more thorough questioning. As time went on, and the guards grew all the more familiar with the people who made their homes in Taonan, the guards would often give those who they recognized simple waves, smiles, and permitted them to come and go from the city as they pleased.
One day, with the blue sky dotted with wisps of white cloud, the young man standing to the right of the open gate caught sight of something on the horizon. As the shape came closer and grew more distinct, he smiled and relaxed. His companion, a woman a few years younger than him, continued to squint confusedly at the hazy shape.
"Don't worry," the man called to her. "It's just Momo coming back from wherever he was."
"I can see the lemur," the woman replied, continuing to squint. "It's the person that's actually on the ground that bothers me." The man raised a brow and turned. The shape he had seen at first was the familiar sight of a flying lemur turning loops in the air. Any person who had lived in Taonan could recognize the lemur and, other than protecting whatever food was nearby, paid him little mind.
The person that was walking on the path to the city, however, was one that neither guard had seen before. Drawing closer to the gates, the tall, feminine form became obvious, and the guards found themselves tensing. The woman's clothes were simply made and colored the deep greens and pale and bright gold found all throughout the Earth Kingdom, the sleeveless top formfitting and the loose pants leaving her bare feet uncovered. Her dark hair was messily done, captured in a loose bun that let strands fall in her face. Her stride was long and swift, and she walked in an unerringly straight line that brought her before the guards in mere minutes.
"So, are you two the guards?" The question was directed to the air, as the woman did not look at either of the duo. They gave each other glances from the corners of their eyes. At the silence, the woman shifted her feet, adjusting the rucksack slung over her left shoulder and pointing into the air with her free hand. "Does the lemur count as a pass in?" Momo gave a rumbling squeal, turning a final loop in the air to land heavily on the woman's uncovered shoulder. He closed his massive eyes and turned his head proudly, puffing out his chest.
"Well, no," the female guard replied. "We still need some kind of identification." The woman sighed, her milky eyes rolling. She reached into the folds of the bright gold sash around her waist, retrieving a piece of paper that had become extremely crumpled in such a place.
"You know, this letter says that you'd recognize Momo and let me in without a problem," she said. The guards repeated their sidelong looks before stepping forward. The man took the letter and began to skim through it.
"Where does it say that?" he asked. The woman shrugged with one shoulder, her right still weighted down by Momo.
"I don't know. Somewhere toward the bottom, probably."
"Haven't you read the letter?" the female guard asked. The tall woman turned toward the short guard, staring inches above her head.
"No, I haven't." She smiled too widely for good humor, waving a hand before her face and eyes. "Someone else did it for me." The blood in the guard's face drained before quickly returning in a deep blush that reached to her ears.
"I'm so sorry!" she gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth. "I—I couldn't tell!" The man looked up from the letter, mouth opening to speak, and paused at the sight of the woman's back turned to him. Momo stared down at the man from his perch, squeaking and tilting his head. Sitting on the woman's shoulder, his weight pulled the shirt aside just enough for the guard to notice the gold ink of a tattoo.
"Is that a boar?" he asked. The gold ink spread smoothly from the woman's shoulder blade to her upper arm, the curve of a wing and the profile of the boar easily seen beyond the boundaries of the cloth. She picked Momo up by the scruff of his neck, ignoring the indignant shriek he gave when she dropped him.
"A flying one." She busied herself with brushing away the traces of fur left on her clothes, even as the man's mouth dropped open.
"Wait a minute!" he said, looking from the tattoo to the letter and back again. "That's the flying boar of the Bei Fong family!"
"Keep going," the woman said. "I think you're about to figure it all out." The man looked back at the letter once more, scanning the crumpled page quickly. His eyes widened, his mouth still hanging open, and he pointed at the woman with a shaking hand.
"You're the Blind Bandit?" he asked. "Toph Bei Fong?"
"And he wins the prize." She clapped her hands free of the fur from her clothes before crossing her arms over her chest. "Now can I go into the city? I'm meeting someone important."
"Of course!" the female guard said. "We're so sorry to have delayed you!" Toph turned, heels scraping against the ground, to face the open gates. When she stopped, she reached out and took the letter from the man's hand, tucking it back into her belt.
"Come on, Momo," she said. The lemur trilled and jumped into the air, flapping his wings to fly forward as Toph began to walk through the gates.
"Would—would you like a guide?" the male guard asked quickly.
"I'm good," Toph replied, lifting her right hand over her shoulder as she continued to walk. "I got here from Dazu on my own all right." The guards could only turn to stare at each other as she strode out of sight, vanishing when she turned a corner.
"But Dazu is past the mountains—toward Ba Sing Se," the man said quietly. "It's a ten day walk from there." The woman shrugged helplessly, returning to her place to the left of the gates with crimson still coloring her cheeks. The man stared into the city a moment longer before shuffling to the right of the gates, blinking at the ground.
Momo glanced over his shoulder from time to time, squealing whenever Toph turned a corner abruptly and doubling back to find her once again. Eventually, with his ears flattened and his eyes narrowed, he landed heavily on her right shoulder, giving a long, low rumble in her ear.
"It's not like I can follow you," she said simply. "I don't know where you are in the air." Momo continued to chatter irritably until Toph stopped quickly to dodge a passing cart. He pitched forward with a shriek, falling to the ground. From the vibration that passed up her legs, Toph winced at the facedown position Momo had landed in. She crouched down, picking the lemur up before he was trampled by a group of children running after the cart. Momo shook his fisted paw after them, squeaking and howling while he rubbed at his face.
"Now I know why you liked being on Appa so much." The statement was answered with a whine as Momo transferred both paws to his nose. Toph resisted the urge to grin and moved quickly to the side of the road to avoid the crowds of people that continued to move about them. "Listen, why don't I find somewhere that isn't so busy and wait there while you go get Katara and Aang?" The lemur sniffed, scrunching his face and finding that the sting had finally faded. He rubbed away the dirt that had gathered on the wet tip of his nose and made a trill that Toph recognized, even after seven years of being away from the animal, as an affirmative.
"Come on, then," she said. Momo scurried up onto her shoulder as she began to walk down the road, gripping her shirt tightly with his front and back paws. He watched her walk, sidestepping men and women that strode in the opposite direction and stopping occasionally to let people pass in front of her. She stared straight forward all the while, only turning her head when she paused.
Momo soon found his ears twitching and rising in time with Toph's pauses, his hearing piqued as much as hers. Over the clamor of people, animals, and carts, he could hear the sound of a flute. As the sound grew louder, he began to shift anxiously on Toph's shoulder, standing up and looking about. Toph turned another corner and paused, blinking slowly as Momo chattered and all but danced on her shoulder.
The so-called center of Taonan was a massive, paved circle that opened to the sea on the city's western border. While the main port was close by, only four piers extended from the edges of the circle into the water to avoid overcrowding in the popular location. Toph could feel dozens upon dozens of conflicting vibrations through the stone under her feet, grinning lopsidedly at the distinctly clear view that came to her. Adults strode from storefront to storefront, speaking with each other or the various shopkeepers that came to assist them. Children either walked alongside their parents or ran about the circle shrieking and laughing.
The center of the circle, however, was where Toph turned her focus. She strode forward, following the sound of the flute that continued to play. A crowd of men, women, and children had gathered, clapping their hands and tapping their feet on the ground in time with the music's beat. The flutist sat on the ground, playing for the woman that danced to the music. The woman was of average height, her build the lithe, slim shape that Toph expected of a dancer. From the faint fluttering of cloth and flashes of vibration when the woman's feet struck the ground sharply, Toph could see her loose pants, though the form-fitting shirt was far more difficult to discern. The occasional whistle from the men in the crowd made Toph all the more anxious for the woman to stand solidly on the ground for more than a moment.
Momo bounced on Toph's shoulder, patting rapidly at the side of her head and rumbling in her ear. When she did not immediately respond, he gripped the edges of her ear and squealed loudly. Toph grabbed the lemur and pulled him from her shoulder, holding him by the scruff and letting him dangle before her face.
"Okay, I get it," she said, rolling her shoulder against her ringing ear. "You know where I am now. Go get them already. I'll stay here." When he chattered in the affirmative, Toph let go of him, feeling the rush of air as he flapped his wings and hurried away.
The woman, breath coming in deep rushes, had stopped dancing by the time Toph sharpened her focus. The crowd began to clap, and the clinks of metal echoed with the vibrations coins made as they fell into an open sack sitting near the flutist. The dancer continued to shift back and forth on her feet, laughing while she caught her breath.
"Thank you!" she said brightly as the coins continued to fall. The flutist stood up slowly, and Toph watched through the earth. The flutist was another woman, taller than the dancer though with the same slender build. Her clothes were not as form-fitting, from what little Toph could glean from the woman's faint movements. The simple boots, pants, and loose, long-sleeved shirt were like most all other clothes Toph had known, and so she thought nothing of them. Some in the crowd began to wander away, even as the dancer crouched down and reached for a lute that lay near the sack filled with coins.
Toph lingered, smiling as the two women began to play a duet. It was a cheerful tune, well-suited for the day where Toph could feel the sun on her skin. At first, the tapping of her foot was in time with the music she heard. As the minutes passed, her foot fell out of time with the beat, her arms crossing and her fingers drumming on her elbows. She allowed her focus to cycle around every so often, wondering if she would recognize the footfalls of her friends after seven years. A small part of her scoffed and wondered if Katara would have to fight her way through an Avatar-driven entourage reminiscent of the ones she had told Toph about.
As the song the two women played came to a close, Toph swung her rucksack from her shoulder, opening it and taking hold of the small, rough bag that sat atop the clothes stuffed into the sack. The coins within the bag were varied in size, and Toph smiled when she counted out four of the smallest coins. With an expert hand, she tossed the four gold pieces into the sack on the ground, rearranging her things and lifting the rucksack back onto her shoulder.
Had she been able to see them, Toph would have ignored the raised eyebrows that were turned toward her at the tossing of the coins. The bag in her rucksack was filled with the spoils of earthbending tournaments, and she had no reason to fear bandits taking the gold that she carried with her. It had become a game to devise new ways to stop the thieves when they came for the prize money, and Toph prided herself on each new encasement of stone she made. In reality, relinquishing a few gold pieces was erring on the side of caution.
The women began to play a new song, one that was similarly cheerful, but slower in its beat and deeper in its notes. Toph allowed her focus to move around the stone circle, sighing when no familiar echoes reverberated. She rubbed at her hands, pushing at the dirt that had settled in the creases and calluses. When the four compatriots had gone their separate ways before, Toph had asked to touch the faces of each member of the hodgepodge family. She had no qualms about slapping her dirty hands on Sokka's cheeks before roughly taking a measure of his features. Aang had received little better treatment, though most of the excess dirt had been transferred to Sokka's face before Toph vigorously rubbed the young monk's bald head.
Katara, however, had been another matter. With all the speed she could muster, Toph had scraped the remaining dirt from her hands before touching Katara's face. Just as she had thought, the older girl's skin was soft enough to warrant the effort, and her hands had lingered. She had only let her hands move away when she felt the underlying burn in Katara's cheeks despite her faint smile. Though Aang would be present and could take the brunt of the dirt, Toph was not willing to touch such fair skin with unnecessarily rough hands.
She sighed, brushing the remains of the dirt from her fingertips before hitching the rucksack higher on her shoulder. Her heel dug into the ground as her fingers continued to drum on her elbows. She let her head fall forward, locks of her hair falling before eyes that, while unseeing, showed all her anxiety. The music continued to play, and though Toph ignored most of the idle buzz of the city, she could not help but hear the unmistakable trill of a flying lemur.
"Sifu Toph!" The voice was deeper than she remembered, the faint lisp that had been fading with the transition from childhood completely gone. The footfalls were still absurdly light, even as Aang ran at full speed from one of the streets branching off from the stone circle. The vibrations from his feet faded quickly, one set barely reaching her before the next set from his long-legged dash became apparent. As he drew closer, the afterimage of the person that accompanied him grew all the dimmer, and Toph had no time to focus on that image before Aang had all but tackled her with his hug.
"I can't believe it's been so long since we've seen each other!" he laughed, squeezing her around the shoulders. "It's great to see you!" Before he could react, the stone had fallen away beneath his feet, and Toph had wrapped an arm around his neck.
"I wish I could say the same, Twinkle Toes!" she replied. She ground her knuckles against his bare head, grinning lopsidedly as Aang laughed and struggled against her hold. After a moment, she stomped her foot and brought the stone level with the rest of the ground, putting her hands on Aang's face. "Stop grinning for a second so I can actually see you, air boy."
With his eyes and mouth closed, Toph let her hands roam on the Avatar's face. His jaw had strengthened considerably, and the little baby fat that had been on his cheeks completely gone. A smile continued to linger on his face, his brow smooth. She lifted her hands from his face and clapped them on his shoulders. They stood much as they had in their youth, Aang only having an inch or two of height advantage over Toph despite all their mutual growth. His shoulders had broadened, and he stood powerfully formed in clothes that hung loosely on him. Toph grinned and slapped his shoulders once more, hearing him laugh aloud.
"You've certainly grown up." Toph's head lifted and turned, the ear she turned toward the voice wishing that it would speak again. The tone was only a shade deeper than what she remembered, and the footfalls were still even in stride and weight. With her concentration focused, she turned, letting her feet drag on the ground. The vibrations that returned to her showed her the slender woman that strode toward her, wearing clothes that fit her form and hearkened back, once again, to days gone by. Toph turned about completely, unsure of whether or not to smile. The footsteps stopped just before her, and she heard a faint chuckle.
"You're taller than I am," Katara remarked. "Now I get to have you staring over my head instead of at my chest."
"Hi, Katara," Toph said quietly.
"Hello, Toph," Katara replied. For a moment, they stood in silence, inches apart and Toph's hands twitching to reach out and see. Katara laughed and wrapped her arms around Toph in a gentle hug, and Toph blinked twice before putting her hands on Katara's back. "I'm happy you're here."
"So am I." She grinned after a moment, leaning back and lifting one hand. "May I?" Katara took both of Toph's hands and laid them on her cheeks, and Toph felt her smile. Her skin was still the softest Toph had ever touched, utterly smooth wherever her fingertips roamed. As her hands moved higher, she found Katara's hair loosened from the braid it had most always been bound in, and could not help but follow the natural wave all the way to the middle of Katara's back with one hand. Her other hand moved to brush fingertips over Katara's closed eyes and, before she could stop herself, touch her lips. The faint tremor that ran up and down the length of Katara's spine was enough for Toph to let her hands fall away.
"Still prettier than the girls we dumped off a bridge," she said, grinning as best she could. Katara laughed, and Toph's grin grew stronger.
"You dumped them off the bridge," Katara replied. "I just sent them down the river." They laughed aloud, only stopping when Aang moved to stand beside them.
"Come on," he said. "We'll show you where you're staying."
"You plan to have me stay here for more than a few days?" Toph asked, brow rising though she continued to smile.
"We were hoping you could stay for a while," Katara replied. Toph listened as the other woman shifted on her heels, seeing the echo of her crossed arms and tight shoulders. "Until summer's end?"
"It's the middle of spring." The smile faded and the raised brow remained. "Your letter said you wanted to catch up, and unless you're planning on having us go through the whole end of the war again, I don't think we'll take as long as summer's end to chat." Aang's laugh did not match the way Katara continued to stand, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
"Sorry," he said. "We wanted to surprise you."
"With what?" Toph started when Katara reached out and took one of her hands. She brought Toph's fingers to her throat and the choker that hung there. The image was identical to the necklace Katara had worn when Toph had last asked to touch it, until she let her thumb pass the carving on the stone that hung from the cloth. Instead of the signature waves and whorls of the Water Tribe that she remembered, she found the Air Nomads' inverted triangle of circular swirls imprinted in the smooth stone.
"Aang and I are getting married," Katara said quietly. Toph's thumb stopped in the center of the stone before she withdrew her hand. It took all of her focus not to shatter the stone and grind the shards into the ground under her heel. She grinned crookedly, much as she always had.
"Let me guess—you're waiting until the end of summer?" she asked.
"Right!" Aang said with a laugh. "We didn't want to wait until the summer to tell you, and we were hoping you could stay here for a while." Toph's head tilted forward slightly, hiding the tightness in her jaw behind her hair.
"I guess I can take a break from tournaments," she said. She lifted her head and smiled. "So, what hole in the ground did you find for me to stay in?" Aang laughed once more and slapped a hand against her shoulder.
"You'll love this!" he said. "Come on!" He started away with Toph following close behind. Though Aang could not see Katara after he passed by her, Toph let her focus turn toward the other woman. Walking in a swift, shuffling fashion, she sent waves through the earth and saw, in flashes timed to her footsteps, Katara lift her hands slowly. Though she could not see the detail of Katara's face, Toph knew that when her hands parted, one set of fingers touched the choker and the other touched her lips. Toph held her tongue and returned her focus to the ground before her, quickening her step and resisting the urge to reach back and offer Katara her hand. It would not have been a gesture of friendship, and so Toph kept her thoughts and her offer to herself.
—to be continued—