Growing Up Fast

Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph are characters from Avatar, the Last Airbender, created by Michael Dante Dimartino and Brian Konietzko, and owned by Nickelodeon, a subsidiary of Viacom. This story follows Toph's viewpoint through the events of "The Guru," written by Mike and Brian, and "The Crossroads of Destiny," written by Aaron Ehasz, and what might follow immediately after, and incorporates a few lines of dialog from the show. This story, except lines and incidents quoted from the show which are © Nickelodeon, © 2007 cloudmonet.

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Toph pressed her fingers, then her palms, against the steel walls of the box that imprisoned her. The box lurched from side to side unpredictably as the ostrich horse pulled the cart down the uneven road.

She wasn't thinking about what a fool she'd been to let herself be captured by fools like Xin Fu and Master Yu. She wasn't thinking about how she was now forever estranged from her parents, blinder people by far than she would ever be. She set aside all feelings of despair or rage. The only thing that mattered to her right now was the inner structure of the metal. And this she could see. There were crystals, just like the crystals in granite, limestone or sandstone. These ordinary rocks often had little crystals of iron in them. And this steel had tiny crystalline fibers of something very like coal woven through the crystals of iron.

Rock is a very stubborn element, Master Yu had told her long ago, and what was metal but the most stubborn of rocks?

"Come on, metal, budge!"

She took a deep breath, and, while sensing the fine structure of the entire box with her bare feet, punched at the back wall of the box, and it yielded to her. There was a dent the size of a deep serving bowl, and the dented metal's structure was considerably stressed and weakened.

"Whoo!" she exclaimed, rubbing her fist with her other hand. "Toph, you rule!" She tore open the back of the box and jumped off the cart onto the road, and sensed it slowly rolling away as the ostrich horse who was pulling it kept walking and then came to a stop.

"This better not be another one of your tricks," Xin Fu growled.

Both men got off the cart and walked around behind it, probably staring at the gaping hole. She waited for them to turn and see her standing in the road.

"How is this a trick?" asked Master Yu. "There's a gaping hole in the box!"

"It's not a trick," said Toph. "It's the real deal!"

And quicker than they could react, she stomped and had them pinned in a vise of rocks, thrown inside the box, and Toph pulled the metal back together like closing a curtain, hopped on top of the box and proclaimed, "I am the greatest earthbender in the world and don't you dunderheads ever forget it!"

Now Toph let herself feel the full anger. She hopped onto the road, and made waves of earth with her feet, propelling her forward faster and faster, back toward the walls of Ba Sing Se. She wanted to get back to the Earth King's palace, to Katara, to the life she'd just been rudely snatched from, as quickly as possible. Now that Toph was no longer distracted by the illusion that her mother understood and appreciated her, she had the strong feeling that something was still rotten at the heart of Ba Sing Se. She only hoped that Katara hadn't also fallen into some kind of trap.

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Determination. That was what kept the ground rolling under Toph's feet, hour after hour. She knew where she was, and where she needed to go. The night met nothing to her, but she welcomed the warmth of the morning sun. The one thing she wasn't expecting was the voice of the boy she loved suddenly asking, "You need a ride?"

She stumbled, and waves of earth passed over her, knocking her down and burying her deep. She coughed and forced her arms through the dirt, bending herself a hole. The moment her hands broke through the surface, she felt another hand squeeze hers, and then let go. It was Sokka. He knew what she was liable to do, and was backing off to give her space to do it. She could feel where he was, and Appa's ten ton bulk, and even Aang, who lately had been feeling much more solid. Spraying rock and dirt in every direction, Toph erupted from the ground.

"Are you okay?" asked Sokka.

Toph did feel a bit dizzy and disoriented. Her walk wasn't quite the walk of a staggering drunkard, but it was far from her usual confident stride. Sokka was coming toward her. She threw her arms around him and squeezed like she was never going to let go. "I missed you so much," she said quietly.

"Aaack!" gasped Sokka.

Toph eased up on her hug just a little.

"Please, no bonebending," he said.

"Sorry," she said, and gave his cheek a little peck of a kiss.

"Hey, I'm— I'm glad to see you too," he said, rubbing the blind girl's shoulders.

Toph sighed, knowing how much gladder he'd soon be about reuniting with that Kyoshi warrior girl, unless— Toph just hoped that Suki wasn't sitting smugly on Appa's back where she couldn't easily see her. There was someone there— probably Aang, who no longer seemed to be on the ground. Then Sokka took Toph's hand, and helped her climb up Appa's leg to his back.

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She sat between Sokka and Aang, clinging to Sokka's muscular bare arm, as the huge wooly beast airbent himself into flight. Sometimes Toph clung so tightly that the arm pressed against her small right breast. Sokka wasn't objecting at all. His heartbeat and breathing suggested a sort of calm joy, a feeling that for the moment all was right with his world— not something Toph sensed in Sokka very often.

"So what were you doing way out here?" Sokka asked.

"You know that letter from my mother?" Toph replied. "It was a trap. Remember Xin Fu from the Earth Rumble, and Master Yu from the school? My dad paid them to catch me and bring me home, but they didn't seem to know which road to take."

"Typical," said Sokka. "What did you do to them?"

"Roughed them up a little and shut them in their own metal box."

"How'd you break out of a metal box?" asked Aang.

"I figured out how to metalbend," Toph said, with a sly smile. "I punched it, then I ripped it apart. So what are we doing?"

"Katara's in trouble," said Aang. "I had a vision of her screaming for help."

"The Dai Li!" said Toph. "I bet they're still loyal to Long Feng."

"Could be," said Aang. "It looked dark, where Katara was."

"Could be a trap, but we can take 'em. So how'd it go with the guru? Did you master the avatar state"

"Uh—" Aang said, and fell silent.

"Aang are you okay?" asked Sokka.

"Sure, I'm great. It went great with the guru. I completely mastered the avatar state. Yeah, sure."

"What went wrong?" asked Toph.

Aang made no response at all, but Toph could sense that he was all shook up inside.

"When he gets like this, only Katara can get it out of him," Sokka explained.

"For now, let's just focus on rescuing Katara," said Aang. "I hope her capture wasn't the first move of a coup or something. Be ready. We might have to fight our way into the palace again."

"Can we do it without Katara?" asked Sokka.

"We have to," said Aang.

"I'm ready for anything," said Toph.

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But they had no trouble at all approaching the palace. The guards who escorted them to the throne room seemed honest. "I'm a little bit suspicious," Sokka told Toph. "I don't see any Dai Li agents at all, and usually there's at least a few of them around."

Aang was already facing the Earth King, awkwardly trying to explain his vision and his fear.

"Katara's fine," the King insisted.

"But in my vision, I was so sure that she was in trouble."

"She met with General Howe and the others to discuss the war plan, then she met up with your friends, the Kyoshi warriors."

Toph could feel Sokka relaxing, dropping his suspicion. "She's with Suki," he told Aang. "They're probably back at the apartment, talking about makeup or something."

"Well, okay," Aang said.

"If anything was wrong, Bosco's animal instincts would pick up on it right away," the King assured the Avatar. At the mention of his name, the bear raised his head and made an inquisitive bark.

They led Appa out of the great hall of the palace, mounted, and flew the short distance to the house.

As soon as they walked in, Momo chittered and jumped onto Aang's shoulder. Toph carefully examined every room with her earthbending sense. "There's no one else here," she said.

"Katara is in trouble! I knew it!" said Aang.

"There's someone at the door," said Toph, and immediately noticed the approach of Iroh, that nice old man who shared his tea with her. "Actually, I know who it is. It's an old friend."

She opened the door and Sokka and Aang were both alarmed to see Iroh. She could tell his intentions were friendly, but they could not, despite being able to see all the subtle nuances of facial expression that people with eyesight considered so important.

"I need your help," Iroh said.

"You two know each other?" Aang asked Toph.

"I met him in the woods. He gave me tea, and some very good advice."

"May I come in?" Iroh asked politely, then came right to the point. "Azula's in the city. She seems to be leading the Dai Li. They've captured my nephew."

"They must have Katara as well," Aang concluded.

At this point Aang and Sokka got into an argument about Zuko, Aang being willing to rescue him, and Sokka very reluctant.

"Good inside him isn't enough," Sokka told Iroh. "Come back when he's good on the outside as well."

"Katara's in trouble," Aang argued. "All of Ba Sing Se is in trouble. Our best chance is to work together."

Sokka grunted reluctant assent.

"Iroh's okay," Toph assured him. "I can tell his intentions are good."

"I know that," Sokka said. "I was there when Iroh tried to save the moon from General Zhao. I—"

"Sokka, don't dwell on that now," Toph said, sensing the heartache welling up inside him and giving him a hug.

"Let's do this," he said.

"I brought someone along who might be able to help," said Iroh, leading him outside.

The moment Toph realized Iroh's captive was a Dai Li, she pinned him with a tight cone of rocks that left him barely able to breathe.

"Azula's plotting a coup," the Dai Li man said.

"Where's Katara? Where's my sister?" Sokka demanded.

"In the crystal catacombs of the old city, deep beneath the palace," he replied.

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Aang told Appa to fly back to the house and hide in the back yard with Momo.

Toph was feeling the ground beneath her feet, deeper, deeper. There were a few tunnels, but so far nothing with crystals, and no sign of Katara. Wait— there was rubble, the ruins of an ancient palace. Evidently someone's army had penetrated the impenetrable city in the depth of time, and burned and looted the palace. How long ago this happened, Toph couldn't guess. And not far below this was the crystal caverns. And it felt as though someone might be down there, though she couldn't be certain at this distance.

"What do you know? There is an ancient city down there, but it's deep." She stomped her foot to earthbend the beginning of a tunnel.

But Sokka had other ideas. He wanted to take Toph and warn the King, while Aang and Iroh would rescue Katara and "the angry jerk." It seemed a logical enough choice. Probably Katara and Zuko weren't heavily guarded. Probably the coup wouldn't happen till nightfall. By splitting up, they had a chance to get ahead of Azula's plans.

"There's General Howe," Sokka said quietly, tugging Toph behind a column. She could sense the Dai Li agents swarming like ants on the pillars on the opposite side of the colonnade.

"What's the meaning of this?" asked General Howe, struggling.

"You're under house arrest."

Sokka was tugging Toph this way and that so quickly that she was getting disoriented. She had to trust him and hope, and not talk unless he did. The first time she could plant her feet somewhere long enough to see where she was, she was in the throne room, with the Earth King and whom?

"Thank goodness we got here in time," Sokka said.

One of the girls in Kyoshi uniforms was as light on her feet as Aang used to be.

"In time for what, cutie?" she asked, in a voice that was both annoyingly girly and dripping with hidden menace. It was Ty Lee!

"Uh, I'm kinda with Suki," Sokka said.

Toph had no time to be amused by the awkward position Sokka found himself in. She stomped her foot and raised a rock pillar under Ty Lee so quickly that she was thrown high in the air. Wrong move! Ty Lee was far too good an acrobat for this to do her any damage.

"They're not the real Kyoshi warriors," said Toph.

The other girl, Mai, was attacking with the darts and daggers under her sleeves. Toph blocked the first volley with a rockwall.

Ty Lee was attempting to chi-punch Sokka, who was evidently managing to dodge her moves fairly well. "Hmm, it almost looks like we're dancing," she taunted him, not the least doubtful of eventual victory.

But most of Toph's attention was on Mai's shifting weight, and which direction the darts would fly from next.

"This fight is over," said Azula, standing next to the King and threatening to kill him with flames.

Sokka and Toph raised their hands over their heads, and Ty Lee poked Toph in the side three times.

She collapsed to the floor, paralyzed and blind.

"Get them out of my sight," Azula said.

Toph was so numb, she could barely feel two people grab her arms and drag her limp body away.

"Now comes the part where I doublecross you," Toph heard Long Feng say. "Dai Li, arrest the Fire Nation princess."

"I wish we could stay and watch this," Mai said quietly, as she paused to push open a door. From the nearness and direction of her voice, she was one of the people dragging Toph.

"I can tell you what's going to happen," said a man's voice from behind. "He'll either bow to Princess Azula as our divinely anointed ruler, or he'll die."

"What have I done to earn your disloyalty?" asked the Earth King.

"You were weak. Long Feng was stronger, yet still not strong enough. Princess Azula will rule Ba Sing Se. When Sozin's Comet returns, her father's armies will not burn it to the ground."

"And you trust her? She fooled me. Might she not be fooling you as well?"

"You be quiet," said Mai. "Unless you want to get paralyzed and dragged like these two. By the way, where are we taking them?"

"The blind girl is a master earthbender. It's the iron lockup for her. Might as well put them all together."

"Yes," agreed another Dai Li agent.

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The numbness began to feel like cramps and pain by the time the iron door clanged shut. After what seemed like an eternity, Toph barely managed to say Sokka's name.

"I'm here, Toph," he said. She felt him nudge her awkwardly.

"I can't see," she said, jerkily moving her arm and hitting some part of him.

"It will wear off soon," Sokka said slowly.

"Now I get why Katara hates her so much," she said.

"She took Bosco," said the Earth King.

After a few minutes more, Toph felt Sokka holding her hand. "I'm getting less numb in my fingers and toes," she told him. "Could you rub my hands, and if my feet aren't too gross, could you rub them too? It'll really help me get my bending back."

"This is helping get the numbness out of my own fingers too," Sokka said. After doing her hands, he gently leaned her against the wall and put her feet in his lap.

"I can see you, Sokka."

"Your majesty," Sokka said, "can you see if anyone's guarding the hallway?"

Toph heard the King take a couple of steps.

"There's no one here, but what does it matter?" he asked.

"You don't make escape plans in front of the guards," said Sokka. "It makes the escaping so much harder."

"I'm kinda starting to see," said Toph, feeling the floor with her hands. "That's the door, right?" she pointed toward it.

"And I was looking back while they dragged me here," said Sokka. "So I know one way out." He turned to the King. "But once we get out of the dungeon, you know all the passages, right?"

"Yes, but I don't see how we're getting out of this cell. Hush! I think someone's coming."

Toph could see the shape of the cell, and Sokka, and the King, but everything outside the cell seemed blurry and vague. She wasn't even sure she heard anyone.

"It's Chu," the King said eagerly. "Chu, we're in this cell," he said, waving his hand through the bars.

"You'll get your meal in a few hours," Chu said coldly.

"Chu, even you? Have you no loyalty to your King, your city, your kingdom?"

"Yes, yes I do, Kuei. I owe my fealty to the monarch who can and will protect our city from the fire lord's wrath— Princess Azula."

"You trust Azula?" Sokka asked incredulously, crowding next to the King to peer out the barred window at the Dai Li agent.

"If I were you, I'd watch my tongue, boy. Her highness has no patience with enemies of the state. Same goes for you, Kuei."

Toph squeezed Sokka's hand, hard. He got the message and kept quiet.

"Chu! Come! The princess needs us now!" said another man's voice.

"The Dai Li are calling me Kuei," the King said, sitting on the floor with his head in his hands. "I don't believe this."

"What does that mean, your majesty?" Toph asked politely.

"That was my name, before I became the Earth King. For Chu to call me this now—" His voice cracked, and he did not continue.

Sokka continued to stand at the door, looking through the window, then just as suddenly his whisper was in Toph's ear. "That's seven Dai Li so far. I wonder what's going on."

"You think Azula went after Aang?" asked Toph.

"Good guess. Between Aang, Katara, and Iroh, Azula could be in real trouble. I really hope so. But what's Zuko gonna do? He seems to hate Azula, but he doesn't like Aang either. And is Iroh really on our side?"

"He is," Toph said firmly.

"I hope you're right."

"You know I'm right. So what's the plan?"

Sokka stood up and looked out the window again, then moved back to Toph's ear. "We get the King to safety, meaning on Appa's back and high in the air, and if Aang and Katara haven't met up with us by then, we go down after them."

"Sounds good. Do you see any Dai Li agents now?"

Sokka looked through the small window in both directions. "All clear."

Toph cracked her knuckles, moved Sokka out of the way, and pressed her hands against the steel door. This wasn't so hard to do. She crumpled the door, breaking it off its hinges and lock, and pushed it aside.

"Let's go," Sokka said, taking the astonished Earth King's hand.

"I'm not leaving without Bosco!" He insisted, his voice cracking.

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Once they were out of the iron lockup area, Toph was easily able to sense the presence of anybody before they came into sight, and the King knew all the back passages and stairways. They found Bosco in the throne room without any trouble. Ty Lee was apparently trying to teach him circus tricks. She was walking on her hands when Toph suddenly earthbent the floor stones around her hands.

"That is a good trick," said Toph. "Do you know what else is a good trick?"

Ty Lee flopped over backwards and Toph pinned her feet with the floor stone as well. Then Toph raised up a big block of rock and was about to hurl it toward Mai, who was sitting nonchalantly on the steps, wearing short sleeves and possibly lacking her usual armament of daggers and darts.

"Just take the bear," she said.

"Bosco!" the King exclaimed, embracing the large brown bear.

"Come on, let's go," said Sokka.

"Mai wasn't even interested in fighting us," Toph remarked.

"They're much less dangerous when Azula's not around," Sokka explained. "They just don't seem to care. But if they're not with Azula, that's better for Aang, if fighting him is what Azula's doing."

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Guided by Toph's unique perception, they hurried through the maze of great halls and back corridors, avoiding everybody. Outside, the sun was setting.

"The clouds look bloodstained," said the King, staring at the sunset for a moment. "What are we going to do?"

"Walk. It's just a few blocks to our house."

Did anyone in Ba Sing Se see the King walking with Bosco, Toph, and Sokka? If so, did they have any idea what this meant? Toph didn't know. Not knowing who might be spying for the Dai Li, she led them on a route that avoided people on the street as much as possible.

"This is the house they let you stay in?" the King asked Sokka. "Even if it wasn't being remodeled, this is hardly fit accommodations for great heroes like yourselves."

"That damage is kinda my fault," Toph said sheepishly, as they went in the front door. "I was mad at the Dai Li and I stomped too hard."

The Earth King raised his right foot and stomped on the floor. "Nothing!" he said, and shrugged. Bosco looked at him and made an inquisitive noise, and the king ruffled the fur on his head affectionately.

In the back yard, Appa was initially a bit suspicious of the bear, but Momo immediately jumped onto Bosco's back and began grooming him.

"You remember Bosco, don't you?" Sokka asked the air bison, who grunted and sniffed the bear. "I hope you don't mind giving him a ride."

Appa looked a bit displeased at this, but allowed the Bear to climb a bent leg onto his back, followed by the Earth King.

"Now Appa," Sokka explained, hoping Aang's wooly beast would understand him. "I want you to fly into the air and circle, till I whistle like this—" Sokka whistled— "and then come to me."

Appa grunted and licked Sokka.

"You hanging on, your majesty?"

"What are we going to do?"

"We'll figure that out when we find Aang and Katara," said Sokka, patting Appa's nose. "Yip, yip!"

Sokka held onto Toph as Appa flapped his tail and airbent himself upward, just clearing the neighbor's roof and tree before circling into the sky with the King and the bear clinging to his back.

"Let's go," said Sokka, tugging Toph's arm.

She tugged back and pulled him into a hug. "I have a bad feeling, Sokka, a real bad feeling. Just in case—" She pulled his face to hers and gave him a really intense, passionate kiss. He resisted for an instant, then melted into her arms. "Just in case either of us dies, I wanted to do that first," she explained, "because I love you."

"You're growing up fast."

"We may all be cursed with short lives," Toph said, wiping a tear from her eye. "Let's go fight whoever we have to fight."

"Okay," said Sokka, and they ran hand in hand back toward the palace.

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Toph and Sokka cautiously approached the mouth of the tunnel Toph had started. Rather than letting Sokka peer into it, she moved to the pavement on top of it, feeling the layers of soul and stone deep beneath with her feet. "Dai Li," she whispered, "coming up the tunnel fast, chasing someone. Are Aang and Katara already out?"

"I'll have to look."

"Hurry. You have less than half a minute."

Sokka ran a few steps into the tunnel, looking for footprints. "It's hard to see much in this light," he told Toph. "I might have seen Iroh's tracks going in."

Toph raised her hand to signal silence, then jumped into the air and landed with both feet, punching her fists ahead and down at the angle of the tunnel, which collapsed suddenly with a rumble.

"If Aang and Katara are in there—" Sokka began.

"—the Dai Li wouldn't be rushing out. There must be a way out that they can't use, but Aang and Katara can—" Toph stepped away from the tunnel, to stand on undisturbed ground, where she could more easily sense what was below. "There's channels of flowing water in the cave," she said. "I feel it through the stone. That big fountain nearby— where does the water drain? Let's go there— now, Sokka!"

He took her hand and they ran several blocks to the square with the great fountain, a column of water erupting almost like a geyser, surrounded by a stone-lined pool that overflowed through a spout into a vertical shaft roofed with an iron grate.

"I think the grate's just sitting there. Maybe we can lift it off," Sokka said, trying to make it budge.

"Let me," said Toph, and pushed it off with a clatter.

A moment later a second fountain of water erupted from the drain shaft, arched through the air, and splashed a few feet away with a force that knocked down both Toph and Sokka, and there stood Katara, her hair wild, wet, and loose, her sleeves tattered, holding an unconscious Aang in her arms.

"I am so glad to see you guys," she said. "Call Appa now! We've gotta get out of here."

Sokka whistled for Appa. "What happened?"

"Azula hit Aang with a lightning blast just as he was going avatar state."

Appa landed right in front of them. Sokka gently helped Katara place Aang on Appa's neck. Toph climbed on his back near the King, and Sokka joined her.

"Yip, yip!" said Katara, and the air bison rose into the dimming twilight.

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High above the city, Katara sat facing Aang, waterbending the spirit oasis water from the small flask into a spinning disk. She pulled Aang forward onto her lap and applied the water to the black burn on his back. She sobbed when the burn didn't look any better, but Aang's tattoos flashed, and he moaned, opened his eyes, saw Katara's beautiful smile, and smiled back. She very gently embraced him.

"Tell him you love him, Katara," said Toph. "If you don't, and you don't have another chance, you'll never forgive yourself."

She sat back against Appa's hump, and let Aang lean against her shoulder, her hands gently embracing his arms. "He knows I love him, Toph," she said quietly.

"The Earth Kingdom has fallen," the King said solemnly.

"Yeah, this has been a really bad day," said Sokka.

Toph punched his shoulder.

"Ow!"

"We need a plan. Where are we going?" asked Toph.

"This is gonna be so humiliating cause we failed, but we have to go to my dad, Hakoda, and the other southern water tribe warriors," Sokka said. "We have to warn them about Azula's coup. They need to get out of there. Also, they're not that far away and they have burn ointments and stuff."

"Is Appa going the right way?" asked Katara.

"Maybe just turn a little bit to the right, yeah, like that. I think Chameleon Bay is just to the south of that distant mountain."

"What distant mountain? Okay, I kinda see it."

"After we reach the water tribe, what then?" asked the Earth King.

"I don't know," said Sokka. "Maybe we should do like Azula did, make a sneak attack. Maybe we could just sneak in and assassinate Ozai on the Day of Black Sun or something."

"They know about that," said the Earth King. "I— I told Azula, thinking she was your friend and a trusted ally."

"Why, why, why?" said Sokka. "Why didn't I go to see Suki? I would have known she wasn't Suki. Toph would have known, too."

"I would've known she was Azula."

"Yes. We were all together. We could have taken them down. I was just so anxious to go see Dad and impress him. He's not going to be impressed now."

"That's it," said Toph. "No more separating. We stay together, and we fight together. The four of us as a team can fight our way through anything."

"You're including me?" asked Sokka.

"Of course I'm including you."

"You didn't used to."

"Silly me," said Toph, putting her arm around his back and leaning on his shoulder. "You're clever, you fill whatever gaps the other three of us leave with your boomerang and club, and most important to me, you're my eyes. Yes, I can see with earthbending. I can see things with earthbending that you can't see. But you can see things I can't see, like when we're flying, or when things are flying at us."

"Don't blame yourself, Sokka," said Katara. "It was my idea for us to separate. That's what started all the trouble."

"So what happened to Iroh and Zuko?" Sokka asked.

"Zuko— betrayed us," Katara said, speaking his name with vehement disgust. "He fought for Azula. Iroh fought them both for me after Aang was struck down. He was a brave and noble man." Katara moved her left hand from Aang's arm to wipe her tears, then put it back.

"You think Azula killed him?" asked Toph.

"I don't know. She didn't kill me, or you guys, but then— I think she wanted to use me to trap Aang, and probably you three as well."

"Excuse me," said the King, "But who are Zuko and Iroh?"

"Fire Nation royals," said Sokka. "Azula's brother and uncle. Iroh seems to be on our side now."

"Iroh is on our side," said Toph.

"He saved our lives," said Katara.

"This is new," said Sokka. "Zuko, Zhao, Azula, they never seemed to be trying to kill Aang before."

"I think I know why, but I could be wrong. Aang doesn't know I know about this— I'm not even sure it's true, but while you were researching the fire nation in the library, I was researching the Avatar's past lives, looking for strengths or weaknesses. I may have found a weakness, and it's not impossible that Ozai and Azula might know about it too, maybe from those fire sages from Roku's temple, assuming the sages know. I don't want to discuss it with anyone but Aang."

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They reached Hakoda's camp on Chameleon Bay just before dawn.

"We need to talk to my father," Sokka told Huto, the man standing guard.

"He's asleep in the big tent," Huto replied. "This is bad news, isn't it?"

The Earth King was helping Katara move Aang off Appa's back. "Bad news? I should say so! The Firelord's daughter is sitting on my throne."

"This is his majesty, the Earth King of Ba Sing Se," Sokka said, and Huto bowed low, "and this is Toph, the greatest earthbender in the world."

"What's wrong with the Avatar?" asked Huto.

"Azula!" Katara said, pronouncing the name with rage, "struck him down with lightning. He's alive but hanging on by a thread. Let's get him inside where it's warm."

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In the tent, Toph listened to Sokka repeat the introductions to Hakoda.

"I am honored to meet you, your highness," said the Southern Water Tribe chief.

"Your children never mentioned that you're chief of your tribe," replied the King, bowing slightly to Hakoda. "Now I understand the reason for their nobility."

"How long do you think we have before we have to leave this place?" asked Hakoda. "Or do you think there may be some strategic reason for continuing to guard this passage?"

"You'd think Azula would need some time to consolidate her power, but she moves pretty quickly," said Sokka. "I'd say we have at most a couple of days."

"What about Aang?" asked Katara, who was kneeling beside him, spreading soft blankets over him. "He may need to rest longer than that."

Toph cracked her knuckles. "Where do you want the hidden cave? I'll try to find somewhere nearby where the rock's strong enough to support a chamber big enough for Appa."

"I'm sure we can make Aang comfortable enough aboard my ship," said Hakoda.

"There's two options," said Sokka.

"Could somebody get me some clean, fresh water?" asked Katara.

"Would that be enough?" asked Hakoda, pointing toward a bronze jug.

"Do you want me to start making a cave or what?" asked Toph.

"I want you to help me examine Aang," said Katara.

One of the men she knew well, Bato, helped her remove Aang's jacket and pants. They lay him on his stomach on the soft fur.

She coated her hands with water, let her own warmth warm the water, and applied it to the black burn on Aang's back.

Toph held one of Aang's hands. "He's breathing smoothly," she said. "His heart is kinda slow. His chi is deep."

"Yes," said Katara. "Retreating from the pain. Let me know if anything changes. This burn is worse than any other I've ever healed."

————————

No matter how concerned Toph felt about Aang's condition, it soon became boring sitting there sensing bodily functions that didn't change. And what had Aang been eating, anyway? He smelled like a mixture of onions and bananas. Then quite suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, Aang's breath and heartrate suddenly sped up, and he groaned, rolled over and sat up.

"How are you doing?" asked Katara.

"I really need to use the potty," he said.

"I'll ask Sokka—" Toph began saying.

"I'll just go behind a bush," said Aang, staggering to his feet. When he came back, limping, he lay back down, and Katara covered him with a blanket. "I've got burns all over my arms, a really nasty one on this foot, my back is totally numb, and I don't even want to talk about how my gut feels. I've pretty much had nothing to eat for several days but that awful onion and banana juice."

"Ewww," said Toph. "That sounds disgusting."

"The guru said it was the first step to balancing myself," said Aang. "Yeah— I really had to balance my stomach to keep it from barfing."

"I think there's a pot of rice around somewhere," said Katara.

"I've got some dried apples and nuts," said Toph.

"Rice would be good," said Aang.

Katara rummaged around, looking into several pots before finding the rice. "I'm sorry that it's cold," she said. "I could take it outside and heat it up if you'd like."

"That's all right," said Aang.

Katara spooned the rice into a wooden bowl.

Aang sat up and ate slowly. "Where's my clothes?" he asked.

"Here, put this on," said Katara, helping him into one of Sokka's shirts. "Yours is here, but it's burned and tattered." She showed him the remains of his yellow shirt.

"Whoa!" Aang exclaimed. "What happened to me, anyway?"

"Azula hit you with lightning," said Katara. "I was so afraid she killed you, till I caught you. I could feel you breathing. Aang, you can't imagine how I felt when you opened your eyes and smiled at me. I was so afraid of losing you." She took a deep breath. "I'm just gonna say it. Aang, I love you." She moved close to him, carefully embraced him, avoiding his burns, and kissed his lips.

"You saved me, Katara," Aang said, with tears rolling from his eyes. "And after I— I let you go to enter the avatar state— what did letting you go mean, anyway? I love you more than ever."

"Letting me go?" she asked.

"The guru said I had to let go of my earthly attachments to feel the pure cosmic energy and enter the avatar state," Aang explained.

"Aang, this isn't good," Katara said, tension and worry in her voice.

Toph spoke up. "Don't worry about it. I know what he means, and it's not the problem you think it is."

"It's not?" asked Aang.

"When you're not in the avatar state, there shouldn't be a problem with you being attached to anyone you want. But to enter the avatar state, you must let go. It's just like when I learned how to earthbend metal to get out of the box. I had to let everything go— my anger, my sadness— learning that my dad hired two goons to shut me up in a metal box made me feel all kinds of stuff— but I had to let all those feelings go, so I could see with earthbending how the metal in the box was made of tiny crystals, not really that different from ordinary rock. And then once I ripped my way out of there, I could feel whatever I wanted." She chuckled. "I taught those guys not to mess with Toph!"

"So you're saying, I just need to let go of my earthly attachment while I'm in the Avatar State," said Aang.

"That makes sense," said Katara. "So that when you're in the avatar state you won't be using all that power while feeling rage or pain."

At that moment Toph felt Sokka come into the tent. "How are you doing?" he asked Aang.

"I'm— I'm great," he said, mustering a bit of cheerful optimism. "Actually, I hurt all over, but—"

Toph walked over to Sokka and took his arm. "He needs to talk things over with Katara," she said, pulling him back out of the tent. "And I need to go over your plan with you before you get all stuck in it."

"It's a really good plan," he said. "Dad and I came up with it together."

"Feels like they're taking down the tents," said Toph. "So what's the plan?"

"Basically it involves going to the South Pole, repairing that wrecked Fire Nation ship that's near our village, and using it to sneak into the Fire Nation. There's a bunch of master waterbenders there now, so we figure—"

"Uh huh," interrupted Toph. "Sounds okay, I guess, but what do I do?"

"You're good at breaking into heavily guarded palaces."

Toph chuckled. "Yeah, that was fun. And I'll get to see your home on the way there."

"Do you know what the South Pole is like?" asked Sokka.

"Not really."

"You're not gonna like it very much. It's almost all ice and snow, and you wouldn't be able to see."

"You've got a girl there, don't you?" Toph asked.

"No, actually, they're all married ladies or little kid girls."

"That's good, cause you know what I'm gonna have to do?" Toph asked, slipping her arm around his waist. "I'm gonna have to hold onto someone who can see."

Sokka's arm went around her shoulder. "Uh, sure, okay."

"You like me, but maybe you don't love me. You know, I'm okay with that."

"You shouldn't be. You deserve—"

"Who could possibly be better than you?" Toph asked, feeling her way up his arms to his shoulders. "You know you've got the world's greatest earthbender in your arms, going all soft and snuggly. What are you gonna do?"

"I guess I'm gonna kiss her."

"That's a good answer." Toph closed her sightless eyes and felt the soft warmth of his lips on her own.

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The End