Toph ran her hands across the various articles of clothing she'd placed inside the bag. She hadn't brought very much with her, and now she was leaving Zuko's palace with a bag nearly half her size, filled with the outfits she'd acquired along her trip and a few she'd picked up recently in town.

"I shouldn't be packing all this stuff," she thought, her eyes taking on a bored expression. "Besides, I don't even care about clothes anyway… and I've got plenty of outfits waiting for me at home."

Home… Toph knew she had to go back, but had put it off for weeks after the defeat of the Firelord. She'd spent the first week partying, though after the furor over the postwar celebrations died down, the rest of her time at the palace had been one of great boredom now that her adventures were over, boredom broken up only by the presence of her friends. But now, Katara and Sokka wanted to go back home, and Aang was too busy as the Avatar to spend much time with her. Toph knew it was time to go. She'd long stopped worrying about how her parents would react, or whether they'd try to keep her from leaving again. Katara, Sokka, and Aang had all promised they'd look in on her and would break her out of her parents' house if for some reason she couldn't sneak out on her own. She wasn't afraid of them anyway.

The only reason she could think of for not wanting to go home was that it finally meant the end of her adventures, which were the most fun she'd had in her twelve years of life. She'd gotten to experience the world, use her Earthbending powers to their fullest extent, meet new friends… friends she'd inevitably miss within days of them leaving her side. But she missed her parents too, as much as they tried to smother her… and she knew they loved her very much. She had to return to them.

"Hey… Toph?" Toph recognized the voice immediately, and turned toward the door.

"Sokka!" she happily cried, quickly trying to regain her usual calmness. "…come to say goodbye?"

"Actually, I came to see if you needed any help packing your stuff," replied Sokka, walking into the room. Toph's possessions were scattered around the bag, though all of her clothing had already been packed inside.

"I'm blind. I'm not helpless," replied Toph, a hint of annoyance in her voice. "I can do it myself."

Toph began gathering her things and tossing them into the bag, paying little attention to what was going on top or whether anything was getting squashed. Organization was not one of Toph's strong points, and within a few seconds, she'd gotten everything inside the bag and was closing it up with string.

"Uh… well, then I guess this is goodbye…" said Sokka, taking a few steps toward Toph. "The boat back to the South Pole leaves in the morning… when's your boat leave?"

"Half an hour," replied Toph, making her way toward the door. "I know, I know, I started packing really late. Well, I wasn't in any hurry to leave. Only reason I'm leaving now is because you guys are leaving."

Sokka could detect some bitterness in Toph's voice, and began to wonder if she felt as if she was being pushed out.

"You… can't live here your whole life, you know."

"I know, Sokka…" Toph bowed her head, stopping next to Sokka, almost close enough for their sides to touch. "It's just… I'm gonna miss you guys. All of you guys. Even Katara."

"Oh, trust me, I'm gonna wish I was missing Katara in about a week, trust me," replied Sokka, allowing himself a bit of a chuckle. "At least when we were out getting ready to fight the Firelord, I had Aang or Suki to talk to. Now it's just gonna be me and my sis. I mean, I'll visit Kyoshi Island from time to time to hang out with Suki… which reminds me, I gotta tell the boat guy to stop there on the way back! Just for one night, long enough to… uhhhhhh…"

Toph couldn't see the intense blush forming on Sokka's face, but the tone of his voice gave her all the information she needed. She let out a sigh.

"Okay, I can tell what you're thinking about and it's clear that you're not interested in anything I have to say. Tell Katara I said bye."

Toph picked up her bag and began to push past Sokka, only for Sokka to gently grab her wrist on the way past. Toph immediately smiled and blushed a small amount, though she quickly restrained her emotions and the blush disappeared.

"Hey, I care about you too… I'm really gonna miss you, Toph. You taught me that girls can be funny."

"Oh… didn't I also teach you that girls can kick butt?" Toph asked, looking up at Sokka.

"Well, to be honest, Suki taught me that. But you taught me that blind girls can kick butt!"

Toph let out a sigh.

"I'm… gonna miss you, Sokka," Toph said, dropping her bag for a brief moment and wrapping her arms around Sokka's waist. Sokka returned the hug, letting go after a few seconds. Toph was smiling as she parted from the embrace.

"I promise I'll visit you too. It's a much longer boat ride, but that just means you gotta promise we'll have plenty of fun once we reach your house!"

"Well, I'd have to get my parents out first, but then yeah, we'd totally wreck the place!" said Toph, pumping her fists and giving a mischievous smile. "It's a date! …uh, a party. You know what I mean."

O-O-O

The private boat chartered to return Toph to the Bei Fong estate sat in waiting at the dock of the Fire Nation capital, a large, wooden vessel with green sails displaying the Earth Kingdom symbol. Toph was a bit nervous about boarding a boat such as this, knowing her 'sight' would be muted slightly, though she'd still be able to feel enough vibrations to tell where people and things were… she just wouldn't be able to Earthbend effectively. It wouldn't be much of a problem, of course. Toph's parents knew the boat's crew personally; the captain was the father of Mr. Bei Fong's best friend, and many of the crewmembers were either members of the Bei Fong family or close family friends. The boat itself was capable of transporting several important people in safety and comfort, with a cabin that had six luxurious rooms and crew quarters that housed up to two dozen well-fed crewmembers. The ship was very expensive, but the Bei Fong family spared no expense.

"Miss Bei Fong, it's an honor to bring you back to your family's estate," said the elderly, bearded man who greeted Toph as she walked up the ramp to the boat itself. "Rest assured, you'll be in complete comfort for the duration of your-"

"Yeah, yeah, where's the food on this thing?" Toph could feel her stomach growling the whole walk from the palace to the boatyard. She needed some food, and fast.

"Right this way," said the bearded man, leading Toph across the deck to a wooden door that led to the cabin. "There's a fruit basket in your room, and you can request anything you wish from the ship's kitchen."

As Toph walked across the deck, several of the crewmembers watched her. One of them in particular had her eyes focused on the girl. She was the youngest person on the crew, and the only female. Aged sixteen, she had long, straight black hair that framed her pale face and went down to just past her shoulders. She wore a green sailor's outfit like the others, consisting of a dark green vest over a light green shirt, though unlike the male sailors, who all wore long brown pants, the bottom part of her wardrobe consisted of a short, plated metal brown skirt.

"Palo, ma'am-"

As one of the crewmembers attempted to speak, the young woman raised her hand. On her palm she bore a long scar, the only such mark on her body. She watched Toph, her striking blue eyes watching to see if the girl would turn… she didn't. Toph didn't notice the crewmember's words, or maybe she just didn't care.

"Her sense of hearing is incredibly acute…" Palo thought, remembering everything she'd been told about the girl during the weeks she'd spent gathering information about her. "We don't talk about anything until she's in the cabin."

Palo couldn't even speak these instructions, and could only hope that her crewmembers would be thinking the same thing she was. Once Palo was sure that Toph was safely in the cabin, she turned to the other men on deck and addressed them calmly and quietly.

"Carry about your business completely as normal. I will do the job and then give you all the signal once it is complete," said Palo, commanding a great deal of authority with her voice, slightly deeper than that of a normal sixteen-year-old girl. "It should be done in twenty minutes. Possibly thirty. Any questions?"

One of the crew members, a skinny, nervous looking man slightly older than Palo, raised his hand to speak.

"You're sure this is going to work? That we're not all gonna die…?"

"The only person who will be seeing with Toph, or dealing with Toph after it is complete is me. None of you will be going near her. None of you are to be going near her. Is that understood?"

The men all nodded, clearly intimidated by Palo's commanding presence. At first, some of the crewmembers had been skeptical of taking on a job headed by a sixteen year old girl. But those who'd heard of her prior deeds both respected and feared her. As a mercenary during the war, she'd fought a particularly dangerous firebender to a draw, despite having no bending abilities of her own. She was the only person known to have escaped the custody of Dai Li agents. She'd even subdued a master-level Waterbender during a late night raid on a small encampment, and only the Avatar himself had been able to stop her from taking the Waterbender away. The men now employed by Palo both respected and feared her, and were glad that she'd be the one now dealing with Toph Bei Fong.

"Then," said Palo, allowing a smile to creep onto her face, "let the fun begin."

O-O-O

All of Toph's doubts about the voyage home subsided once she'd gotten a feel for the bed in her cabin, even more comfortable than the one she'd had at the palace. It perfectly supported her back, and she even enjoyed rubbing her feet across the velvet covers before slipping under them and allowing them to warm her skin. As she'd come into the room, she'd been able to sense something on the desk next to her bed, and when she reached over, she could clearly recognize the smooth skin of an apple.

"Let's see here," Toph said to herself, taking a bite from the apple. Her eyes lit up, and she quickly took a second bite. "Whoa!"

"Is everything to your liking, then?" replied the bearded man. "Or shall I fetch you something from the kitchen."

"No, no, this is fine," said Toph through a mouthful of apple. "This fruit is way good! Is this the only apple?"

"There are two more in the basket and an assortment of-"

"Cool, cool," Toph muttered, waving the man away. "Now leave me to my fruit…"

"As you wish," the bearded man replied, bowing out of the room.

Toph quickly finished off the apple, tossing the core aside and letting out an enormous belch. Patting her stomach, she reached into the bowl and found the second apple, then began chowing down. It took her about a minute to finish all three of the apples in the bowl, and a few seconds after that, the door opened again. Toph could tell from the vibrations the person made as they walked that it wasn't the bearded man from before… the shape was of someone a bit shorter and skinnier.

"A girl?" Toph thought to herself, raising an eyebrow. "Well, good. It's nice to see some girl power on these ships nowadays! Heya there, sister! What's your name?"

"Palo."

Immediately after Palo announced her name, Toph could feel a sharp object pierce her skin near the front of her throat. She let out a gasp, but couldn't form a single word, and as soon as she lifted her hands to mount some kind of defense, she was immediately unconscious. Palo slowly walked over to Toph and plucked the sharp object, which was a feathered dart, from the front of her neck.

"Tungfei toxin, from the skin of the Tungfei toadworm, Palo said quietly, a smile on her face. Knocked out two of those Dai Li agents… my hands took out the third, but I'm not going to be risking them on you… I know all about you."

Palo began dragging the unconscious girl out of the room, taking her out into the hallway of the cabin area. She took Toph past one door and over to another, opening it up and taking the girl inside. What had formerly been a luxurious bedroom like the others had been converted into a brig/storage area, where Palo had already prepared numerous implements of restraint and otherwise. She put the unconscious Earthbender flat on her stomach and got quickly to work, knowing that the toxin's effects could wear off of a particularly strong bender within minutes. Despite the fact that she was working on a time limit, Palo had little cause to worry. She'd done this plenty of times before.

Picking up a length of shiny silver chain, Palo crossed Toph's wrists behind her back and bound them tightly together, linking and looping and finally locking the chains in place. Once that was completed, Palo worked a bit more casually, taking longer loops of thicker chain all the way around Toph's body, wrapping three times above her chained wrists and securing them in place, ensuring Toph wouldn't be able to move her hands from their fixed spot against the small of her back. More lengths of the same silvery chain went around Toph's upper body, around the center of her chest, pinning Toph's arms even more, so she couldn't even lift them an inch, no matter how much she tried. After that task was completed, four more lengths of chain went around Toph's legs, securing them at the thighs, the knees, the calves, and the ankles. A final length of chain went down from Toph's wrists to the chains around her thighs, not hogtying her, but fixing her wrists and locking her legs so that any movements she made would be akin to that of a worm slinking along the ground. The chains around her knees were to prevent her from bending her legs, blocking any attempt she could make at standing up. Finally, Palo picked up a roll of flesh-colored bandaging adhesive from the ground.

"This stuff was designed to patch wounds together in battle until they could be properly stitched… should seal that big mouth of yours pretty well…" Palo tore off a strip of the adhesive and applied it to Toph's lips, pressing it down tightly so that the girl couldn't even slip her tongue out of her mouth once she woke up. Seeing that Toph was still unconscious, Palo carefully tugged at each of the chains that bound her, testing to see if any of them had any sort of give. None of them did. Giving a satisfied smile, Palo packed up the remaining implements that were lying on the floor, placing them in a wooden box that sat in the corner of the room. She then left the room without a word, going upstairs to let the ship's crewmembers know that the need for a facade was over.

Toph woke up a few minutes later. She opened her eyes to the familiar blindness that greeted her re-entries into the waking world, but the sensations she felt as she awoke were completely abnormal. She felt cold metal all over her body, a dull pain in her skin and muscles in various places along her arms and legs… and trying to open her mouth brought a far more intense pain, as if she were trying to rip a scab from her body. Her lips wouldn't budge.

"I'm not dreaming, am I?" She tried to lift her arms, but found them fixed in place, completely immobile. She also discovered that she was lying on her side, but when she tried to move her legs to stand, her knees refused to bend. "It hurts too much for me to be dreaming… which means….!"

Toph didn't know what all the sensations she felt meant. All she knew was that she couldn't move her arms, she couldn't bend her legs, and she couldn't open her mouth. All she could do was roll over on the ground a couple times… ground that felt much harder than the soft, comfortable bed she'd fallen asleep in.

"I don't even remember going to sleep! Just this pain in my neck… somebody shot me with something!" Toph's mind was racing now, and she felt her heartbeat pick up as she again lay on her side, trying desperately to move her arms and legs. She could sense metal links around her ankles and wrists, and it finally dawned on her that she was chained up, though to what extent, she was unable to tell, her soles kept from the ground by her current position. She tried rolling over on her back, but this left her with her heels touching the ground, unable to bend her legs enough to press down her feet. She could still sense some vibrations with her fingers, but not enough to tell her anything besides the fact that she was now in a room without a bed. "Who chained me up? Whoever did it, this isn't funny! Let me go now… right… NOW!"

Toph struggled mightily with her chains, her shoulders and arms flexing a few millimeters up and down, the only slack that the severely tightened chains would allow. She then let out a loud scream, but unable to open her mouth, the sound came out as a muted shriek.

"Mmmmm….mmmmbbbblll mmmm mmmmmm….!!!" The numerous curse words Toph knew were all severely deformed by her sealed lips, coming out as various iterations of 'mmbl' or 'mmmm'. Not caring that there was no one around to hear her or no way to understand what she was saying, Toph continued her tirade, her rage providing a release that briefly allowed her to ignore the intense pain forming in her muscles as she struggled against the chains. She was swearing so much that she didn't hear Palo re-enter the room, a smug smile on her lips as she watched Toph futily fight her bonds. The sound that Palo's black boots made against the floor did transmit to Toph's ears, as did the vibrations they made to the blind girl's fingers. This was enough to get Toph to stop struggling for a moment. She tried to sit up, but was only able to arc herself up a few inches before the chain connecting her wrists to her thighs forced her again onto her back.

"As you can tell, you've been captured. You're totally helpless, so I strongly advise you to comply with all my commands."

Hearing the sound of her captor's voice brought Toph into a bit of a rage, and she emitted a growl before letting out another muffled vulgarity. Toph's fists were clenched tightly behind her back, though chained as she was, she knew she couldn't do anything. Palo's form appeared as a very fuzzy image in Toph's secondary sight, her fingers lacking much of the sensory capability of her feet. She could tell Palo was drawing near by the sound her boots made against the wooden floor, and could hear Palo's knees as they too touched the floor next to Toph's side. Palo bent over to address Toph directly, their faces a few inches apart.

"All we want is some money from your parents. Lots of money, actually."

"I can't believe it… they're holding me for ransom?" Toph turned her head toward Palo as much as she could, her eyes narrowing as she tried to let her captor know exactly how she felt. "Grrrmmmmm…."

"I'm sure they'll pay. After all, they ruined the first twelve years of your life to protect you from people like me, right?"

The conscending tone in Palo's voice drew Toph's anger, but what really made the Earthbender's blood boil was hearing this lunatic girl slander her parents. Yes, they annoyed her. Yes, they were overprotective. Yes, they even arranged to have her kidnapped themselves… but they were still her parents, and Toph knew they loved her. And she loved them, which is why she was looking forward to seeing them again… but now, those plans were derailed. The private ship her parents had sent had been somehow taken over by a kidnapper bent on ransoming Toph back for a huge amount of money. Toph had never felt rage like this before…

"Mmmmmm…. MMMMMMMM!!!" Toph began thrashing again, her body shifting helplessly in the chains. She concentrated and tried to shatter the chains with her metalbending, but even though she was in close proximity to metal, she couldn't bend them like she normally did… she couldn't see the chains at all. "What's wrong…? Why can't I bend the metal in these chains?"

"If you're thinking about doing that metalbending trick of yours, forget it," said Palo, sensing Toph's concentration and knowing what she was trying to do. "Those chains are made with a special process that rids them completely of impurities. It's called 'silver steel', and it's impossible for you to metalbend them."

Toph was in disbelief. She shook her head and continued trying to bend the metal in the chains, but with no impurities, there was nothing her Earthbending could do. She let out another frustrated scream.

"I have you totally figured out, Toph," said Palo, placing a hand on the girl's cheek. Toph immediately recoiled as much as she could, but Palo's hand continued pressing down, lightly brushing Toph's soft skin. "I always do my research before a job. That's how I know about your parents… how they would always try to shelter you, keep you from Earthbending… thinking you were so weak. Well, what do you know? They were right."

Hearing Palo insult her just brought more rage to the surface, adding to the overwhelming anger Toph was now feeling. She let out two more screams, her arms flexing outward but unable to move the chains back even a fraction of an inch. She moved her legs up a couple of inches, slamming her heels down onto the wooden floor repeatedly. Palo stood up and walked over to Toph's legs, repositioning herself so that she was sitting close to the girl's feet. Toph continued to bang her heels into the floor a few more times, then let out a sigh of frustration, her useless eyes fixed helplessly on the ceiling.

"You see, Toph, everything I did was carefully planned to prevent you from trying to escape. The way I chained your knees prevents the soles of your feet from touching the floor… I could've just put socks on you, but this works out nicer. You see, if for some reason you get out of line… I can easily torture you."

Palo ran one of her fingers slowly but lightly across the sole of Toph's right foot. Immediately, Toph let out a loud squeal, or more accurately, a scream, as sensations raced up her legs and through her entire body.

"DON'T!" Toph emoted through the tape, angrily trying to warn Palo not to touch her feet again.

"If your feet are your eyes, then touching them would be like poking someone in the eye, right? That's always very painful."

Without warning, Palo began violently tickling Toph's feet, her fingernails scraping rapidly and firmly across both of the helpless girl's soles. This sent Toph into waves of hysterical laughter, though what might be fun for a normal person was horrific for Toph. Her nerves were going into overdrive processing the sensations passing through her body, with dozens of colors racing across her field of sight as Palo's fingers scratched up and down and back and forth. Convulsions of pain raced through Toph's midsection, and her heart began to beat at an incredible, dangerous pace. Toph could no longer do anything but scream, her mind unable to form comprehensive thoughts as her nerves overloaded and a searing pain attacked her muscles and nerves.

Palo was relentless. Her tickling continued for a full minute, over which time Toph lost all her breath and became completely unable to obtain more. Her screams went silent, replaced by guttural gasps from her throat and the frantic wheezing of air in and out of her nose. Her face turned completely red and became covered with tears, both from the intense laughter she'd experience and from the real and legitimate fear that she was about to die. Finally, when Palo could see that her captive was on the edge of having a heart attack, she stopped. Toph continued to gasp, sucking air at a tremendous pace through both her nostrils, unable to take in any through her taped up mouth. Her eyes were as wide as they could be, and she shook her head, her expression begging Palo to remove her gag so that she could take in a full breath. Palo did not comply, and allowed Toph to finish the agonizing process of regaining her breath completely on her own, a process which took almost three full minutes. As Toph was finally regaining her breath, Palo went over and took a small knife from the wooden box in the corner of the room, closing up the box and returning to her captive with the knife in hand.

She watched as Toph lay there on the floor, her eyes still wide, her heart still beating rapidly, her breaths coming at a slow, labored pace. Most of Toph's anger had been replaced with fear, the emotional aftershocks of what had just happened still echoing in her mind. She'd remembered nearly breaking someone's leg just for brushing against the sole of her foot… this is what she'd feared ever since her earthsight had fully developed. Her face was still drenched in tears.

"I'm… going to get out of this…" thought Toph, trying to regain some of the determination she'd lost after Palo had tickled her. "And she is… going to pay…"

Toph's anger began to build, but no sooner had she started brainstorming ideas to escape than Palo had placed the blade of the knife she was holding against the sole of Toph's left foot.

"If you try even once to escape…" said Palo, pressing the knife a bit harder against Toph's flesh and forcing out an involuntary scream from the helpless girl, "I'll filet both of your feet, and I will make it slow and very painful for you, and I will make it so you never see again."

Just to drive the point home, Palo made a tiny cut in Toph's sole, immediately eliciting an even louder scream as sensations of pain ripped through her left leg. Her toes immediately curled, and Palo smiled with satisfaction at getting the response she wanted.

"I'll have you fed twice a day, and you'll be relatively well taken care of. You'll see your parents again in a few days, provided they pay the ransom. Until then, sit tight here and enjoy the ride… and remember what I said."

As Toph shivered in pain on her side, Palo placed the knife back in the wooden box and started to exit the room. Just before she did, however, she stopped by Toph one last time and bent down, planting a quick kiss on Toph's tapegagged lips. She then kicked Toph lightly in the ribs before exiting the room for good, leaving the helpless girl curled up on the floor.

"Why am I so scared…?" thought Toph, remembering back to the day the Fire Nation was defeated, when she and Sokka were hanging from that blimp as it was about to crash to the ground. That was the last time Toph remembered being so frightened, so completely convinced that she was going to die. She usually didn't back down from bullies like Palo, but the air of viciousness about her, combined with the fact that she was still completely helpless, sent waves of fear through the young Earthbender's body that she was unable to make go away. "There's no way for me to get out of this… unless my parents pay the money, I'm finished…"

Toph had no doubt her parents would pay the ransom, no matter how steep it was. She knew they'd already hired mercenaries to kidnap her and bring her back home… her parents would spare no expense to keep her safe. That wasn't the problem. Being held for ransom, her parents paying a significant amount of their fortune to get her back… all of it would just convince them that she was a helpless little girl who needed sheltering, needed to be protected from the cruelty of the outside world. Toph knew it was all a lie, but what Palo had done in the last few minutes… brought her to a point where if she hadn't been gagged, she'd have probably begged for that horrible tickle torture to end… it began bringing up doubts in Toph's mind about whether Palo and her parents were really right. Maybe she was weak. Maybe she was completely helpless.

The thought of it all overwhelmed Toph, to the point that when the tears once again came, she didn't even try to stop them. She let them come, and she began to sob.

O-O-O

Toph didn't know when she fell asleep again, but she woke up to a stinging sensation in her lips as the tape was pulled off and something shoveled into her mouth.

"Eat up," Toph could hear Palo say. "You don't eat again until supper."

Toph recognized the food being shoveled into her mouth as scrambled eggs, slightly soggy scrambled eggs, definitely not as good as the ones she'd enjoyed for breakfast back at Zuko's palace. She was too exhausted and sleepy to protest, however, and didn't try spitting the eggs back out as they were put into her mouth, bite after bite.

"Wonder how close we are to home…?" Toph remembered hearing that the journey would take three days, so she was still a good way yet from her parents' estate, though she had no way of knowing whether she'd be released on arrival or held longer while her parents tried to gather the money. She kept thinking about this and about a few other things as Palo began forcing her to drink water from a glass being held up to her lips. After a few initial dribbles, the drinking went smoothly, and Toph was able to finish the glass without too much trouble. "You better let me go, or-"

Palo said nothing, simply pressing a hand to Toph's mouth with a white cloth over it to wipe off the excess moisture and food from her lips. As Palo was wiping off Toph's mouth, the girl would attempt to say a few more words, some of which came through clear, and others which were muffled through the cloth and Palo's hand.

"Hey…!" Toph shouted once Palo had finished wiping her off. "Are you listening? I'm warning you…"

Palo had already ripped off a strip of adhesive bandage to re-apply over her captive's mouth, but instead of trying to apply it while Toph was talking, she waited as the girl continued to protest and shout. As soon as there was a lull in which Toph's lips were closed for a significant amount of time, Palo pressed the bandage over them, pressing it tightly down as Toph began screaming loudly.

"Mmmmmmmmm…mmmm mmmm mmmmphhhh…! MMMMMM!!!!" Most of Toph's fear had again subsided, and with her anger renewed, she even began struggling again, though it did her as little good as it had done the previous night, and Toph was left as helpless and as muted as before. "I gotta get out of here…!"

As Toph strained and struggled, Palo took the roll of adhesive tape and placed it back in the wooden box in the corner of the room. Through her muted cries of anger, Toph could hear a thud as the box closed, and used her fingers to sense where the thud had come from as Palo exited the room without a word. The door to the room closed, and Toph was again left alone, though she now had something new to think about, something that had gone unnoticed before.

"She's getting stuff from somewhere in this room…" thought Toph, turning her body in the direction of the box. "Maybe some of that stuff is lying over there… maybe I can use it to get free!"

Using what limited movement she retained in her chained up legs, Toph began inching along the floor, her body curling slightly as she squirmed forward. After a few slight pushes toward the box, Toph put her nose against the floor and began to concentrate, trying to sense exactly what she'd felt before. She couldn't sense any individual items, but instead, received a very fuzzy image of some large object in the corner.

"A table…? Or maybe it's a box!" Whatever it was, Toph was going to check it out. She continued squirming along the floor, putting every bit of effort she had into pulling her body along. Beads of sweat began to form on her forehead as she strained, tugging both herself and the chains that bound her across the floor.

Finally, she felt her head brush lightly against something. Rubbing her nose and forehead against the object, she could tell that it was solid and wooden, of a different texture than the wall.

"It IS a box… I think…" Toph began turning her body around, so that her feet were facing the box rather than her head. She pressed her soles up against the side of the box and again started to concentrate, trying to sense the objects inside… anything that had earthen minerals in it would send a reflexive signal back.

She concentrated for several moments, focusing intensely, listening with her mind, seeing with her thoughts, trying to feel the vibrations against her sensitive feet… the image came in cloudy, but inside the box were several metal objects not comprised of the pure steel that comprised her chains. Inside the box were metal objects with mineral impurities, impurities that could be manipulated… if she could only get to them.

"I have to touch an object to manipulate the rock inside of it… inside that box, I can't... I have to find some way to get in there…"

Toph realized that the only way for her to reach the objects in the box would be for her to break into the box itself… but chained as she was, she would be physically unable to break inside. Calming her mind for a few moments, she once again started to think, remembering well what Palo had told her. If she was caught trying to do anything that might aid her escape, the consequences would be too horrible to think about. Toph decided she wouldn't think about them.

"I can't let her intimidate me! I'll get out of this and I'll get that mean girl for doing this to me! I will get inside that box!"

Toph couldn't kick the box with her feet, because she was unable to bend her legs. Her hands couldn't move either, so that ruled out punching the box. She'd have to break in with her head.

"This might be painful, but I don't care! I have to get out of this right now!" Slowly, Toph began turning her body again, until her head was once again facing the box. She lined up the top of her head with the box and crunched up as much as she could, bending her chest and scrunching back her neck. She closed her eyes and with all the force she had, moved forward into the box. She felt a dull pain at the top of her head and a quiet thud as the wooden box was impacted. Her head had definitely taken more damage than the box. "Ugh… that might not have been a good idea."

Despite her initial failure, Toph tried two more times to break the box with the top of her head. By now, the top of her head was throbbing, and still the box remained undamaged. Toph let out a quiet moan and rolled onto her back, trying to think of some other way she could puncture the box. She quieted her mind and concentrated again, drawing inspiration from everyone she'd ever met, trying to figure out what they might do. She began to think of Sokka, and how resourceful and smart he was, even though he didn't show it most of the time.

"What would Sokka tell me right now? …I must be desperate if I'm trying to think about what he would do, but this is my only chance!"

She could picture him in her mind, telling her not to give up, telling her to keep using her head even if it got her into trouble. She rolled her eyes despite herself, but kept Sokka in her mind as she once again rolled onto her stomach and prepared to headbutt the box.

"I need to hit it exactly where I was hitting it before…" With no way to see where she'd hit the box or how she was doing, she had to go on memory and instinct alone. She closed her eyes, she arched her body back and drew strength from every muscle she had. She pushed forward and slammed her head into the box with a surprising amount of force. "MMMMMMMM!!!"

She'd heard a crack, though she didn't know if it was her head that had just split or the wooden frame of the box. Her head was throbbing intensely now, she felt a sharp pain at the top of her skull and it took her a few seconds to regain her bearings. Finally, she turned herself back around and used her feet to feel the side of the box where she'd hit it.

"Mmmmmmmm…." Feeling nothing but wood, she let out a moan of disappointment. Her feet began to move away from the box, but at the last moment, she felt something else, a spot where the wood seemed to give way. She moved her feet slightly to the right… there was a hole, a two-inch wide, seven-inch long crack in the box. Toph let out a squeal of excitement. "MMMMM!"

She rested for a few moments, her head still aching even though she was now smiling under her tapegag, After her brief rest, she turned herself sideways so that she could slip the sides of her feet into the hole and feel around for any objects inside. When she felt the coldness of something metal, she stopped and brushed one of her toes lightly against the object in question. It felt like some kind of long, smooth, flat article of clothing… a metal belt, perhaps? Taking in a breath through her nose, Toph began to concentrate, feeling out the object to see if there were any impurities in it that she could bend. Her eyes lit up… there were! She calmed herself and concentrated again, brushing her toe against the metal object, slowly manipulating it into the shape that she wanted… the metal in the belt began to move and fold, coming together into a thicker form, a two-sided metal rod about eight inches long. Keeping her feet on the object, she slowly moved it toward the crack in the wooden box, placing it so that the sides could press up against the edges of the crack.

"Okay…" thought Toph, "here goes…"

Using her metalbending, Toph forced the sides of the object outward, exerting a large amount of pressure on both sides of the crack and ripping the front of the metal box open, destroying it and sending small shards of wood everywhere. The contents of the box spilled out onto the floor and onto Toph, who didn't anticipate there being so much stuff inside. She let out a squeal and rolled out from under the pile of objects, letting out a few quick breaths and a quiet moan.

"Now I just have to get myself free…"

The objects that had spilled out of the box were a collection of various tools and restraint devices, with shackles and chains piled atop pliers and wrenches, with an assortment of other items mixed in. Toph cared little about what the items were individually, all she wanted was to know that she'd be able to create something that would free her from the chains that bound her. Her feet first ran across the side of a pair of shackles, and unlike the steel chains used on her, these shackles were made of an iron alloy that contained many impurities, enabling Toph to quickly reform the shackles into something resembling a long, narrow blade. Hopefully, thought Toph, the blade would be sharp enough and hard enough to cut through her chains.

Carefully, Toph maneuvered her body so that her ankle chains would be the first things to touch the blade, using her fingers to sense exactly where the blade rested on the floor. She very slowly lowered her ankle chains onto the blade, scraping them back and forth and waiting to feel the tightness subside from her ankles, indicating that the chains had snapped. Slowly, the steel chains began to cut away, though Toph continued to work slowly, not wanting to cut her feet on the very sharp blade she'd created. After several minutes of slow, intense work, a snap could be heard as one of the links severed. Toph lifted up her legs slightly and the chains fell off her ankles, allowing her a few more inches of freedom. She slid slightly forward and began working on the chains around her calves, cutting those and then sliding again to free her knees.

"Once I'm able to stand, I'll be able to see better…" though Toph, though the room's wooden floor would make her vision fuzzy at best. "At least then I'd be able to defend myself if that girl came back in here…"

As carefully as before, Toph ran her knee chains over the blade, still making sure she didn't cut herself as she scraped the chains along the blade as quickly as she could. After she'd made a small cut in one of the links, the groove made kept the blade in place and allowed Toph to work faster without having to worry about knocking the blade over. After Toph had finally freed her knees, she let out a loud cry of joy, bending her exhausted legs several times to restore some of the feeling in them. She wanted to stand up and celebrate, but she knew she wasn't quite done yet. Freeing her thighs would allow her to sit, stand, and walk around, but it would also be the most difficult part of the process, as she would have to slide the blade all the way between her legs.

"I have to be careful with this…." Toph thought, repositioning herself on the floor. Now able to use her soles to feel out the blade's location, she was able to easily center herself on top of it. Sitting on the ground less than an inch from the blade, she lifted her legs and places the chains binding her thighs together on top of it, sliding back and forth as she had done with the other chains. About a minute after she'd started, the blade fell over. "Mmmmbbblmmmmphhhh!"

Cursing loudly, Toph carefully slid back and picked up the end of the blade between her heels, carefully placing it back on its side, blade side up. Then, she slowly slid herself along and placed the blade once more between her legs, sliding back and forth and working for ten minutes until she'd finally severed the chains binding her thighs.

Her legs now completely free, Toph let out another squeal, standing up and bowing her head, shaking until she felt as if she would cry. She reigned in her emotions, knowing that she still had plenty of work to do. Sitting back down on the ground, she slid up to the blade and took the end of it in her hands. Then, she began to saw at the chains around her wrists.

O-O-O

Back on deck, Palo stood looking out across the ocean, waiting for her messenger hawk to return. She'd sent it out the previous night with the ransom demands, but had not heard a reply from the Bei Fong family.

"I suppose if they don't actually have the money, they might be taking time to figure out how they're going to get it," Palo thought, looking slightly away. "20,000 silver pieces is quite a lot… but I'm sure they have far more than that in their coffers."

The other thought that came to Palo's mind was that the Bei Fongs might be organizing a mercenary army to attack their daughter's kidnappers as soon as the boat made it to shore. If that was the case, Palo would simply kill Toph and be done with it… and she would certainly make the girl suffer for her parents' treachery.

"I'll get a reply soon," Palo thought with a smile. "I know it."

She could hear the sounds of her men partying elsewhere on deck, having probably raided the ship's stores of alcohol and food. She still hadn't decided what she would do with the real crew, having been a bit too merciful to kill them outright. She thought that perhaps if Toph's family wouldn't pay up for their daughter, the families of the crew members would certainly pay ransom for them.

"100 silver pieces a head, perhaps? It'd certainly be a decent consolation prize…"

As Palo pondered her next move, one of her men approached. It was the bearded man who'd shown Toph to her cabin, the oldest of the men Palo had hired. A look of concern was visible on his face. Palo turned from her ocean view to speak with him.

"Nobu, what troubles you?"

"It's the child…" he replied, a mixture of fear and worry in his eyes.

"I told you, I handled her. Silver steel is completely unbendable, even for a master metalbender such as Toph. She will not escape; she knows I'll mutilate her if she tries."

"That's what I'm concerned about, actually. The girl, she's so young… I hope you're not really hurting her… I heard screaming from below, and-"

"Don't go soft on me now," Palo replied, her eyes narrowing as her expression hardened. "You knew from the beginning that her death would be a distinct possibility. If her parents don't pay the ransom, she dies. If she attempts to escape, I have to keep it from happening again. You know the consequences. We're out in the middle of the ocean. If she were to somehow escape, she could kill everyone on this ship. Including you."

Nobu gave a knowing nod, but he still looked uncertain. He remembered his granddaughter back at home, the same age as the girl now being held prisoner in the cabin. He thought of how he'd react if something like what was happening to Toph now happened to her. He couldn't even bear that thought.

"Imagine how your granddaughter Kaliya would feel if you were crushed like a bug by one of that Earthbender's rocks? Remember, you're doing this to give her a better life. Your share of the ransom is 1,000 silver pieces. That's enough to provide for her for five years. Maybe even enough to get her into a good academy. I already told you I wouldn't hurt Toph if it wasn't necessary, but if she makes it necessary, my hands are tied. Do you understand?"

Nobu again nodded.

"Will you at least… let me feed her supper tonight? You know I won't do what the other men on the ship would."

"You're right, you wouldn't," Palo said. "Those brigands and fiends over there, getting drunk off their minds… they wouldn't care that she would twelve, they'd do what their sick instincts told them to do… but not you. All right, old man. You can go down and feed Toph tonight, but don't do anything besides removing her gag, and make sure you put it back on when you're finished feeding her. Don't do a thing she says, no matter how much she begs you to undo her bindings. Remember, she could kill you in an instant."

"Thank you, thank you…" Nobu said graciously, leaving Palo's side and walking back toward the port side of the deck. Palo turned back out toward the ocean, watching as the sun began to set off in the distance.

"If you even think about helping her, I'll make you and your granddaughter suffer."

Palo's blue eyes remained fixed on the horizon.

O-O-O

"Mmmm..mmmm….!" Toph heard and felt the last of the chains around her midsection slip away, completely freeing her. She tossed away the blade she'd used to free herself and stood up, reaching to her lips and ripping the adhesive tape from her mouth as fast as she could. "Mmmm….!"

Removing the tape felt as if Toph was peeling away a second skin. She let out a loud gasp as the tape came free and tossed the crumpled piece of adhesive to the floor.

"Ow… dammit!" Toph rubbed her lips to make sure they weren't bleeding, then spat onto the ground. "I'd rather have had a yucky cloth in my mouth than that thing on my face!"

Now totally free, Toph took in her bearings, using her feet to get a good 'glimpse' of the room. The wooden floor made everything fuzzy and she had a small blind spot from one of the cuts Palo had made in her soles, but she could still tell everything that was in the room, including the metallic objects that were lying on the ground. She couldn't bend her chains, but the objects from the box were more than enough to make weapons out of, and she quickly crafted two metallic fists out of the impure iron items, using the excess metal to make two large, apple-sized orbs that she made hover in front of her. She walked over to the door and prepared to knock it down with her fists, only to have it open on its own. Toph swung immediately at the person who entered, only stopping when she realized it wasn't her tormentor Palo, but Nobu, the bearded man who'd greeted her upon entering the ship before. Toph crafted the two orbs into metallic shackles that she used to pin Nobu by his wrists to the wall, while she wrapped one of her metallic hands around his throat to keep him from screaming.

"Tell me why I shouldn't break your neck, old man!" Toph said through gritted teeth. While Nobu hadn't done anything other than show her to her room, he was still complicit in everything that had happened to Toph thus far, and in her eyes, that made him an enemy. Nobu began gasping and coughing, and Toph loosened her grip on his throat. "If you scream I'll just beat up everyone that comes to help you, so you'd better just answer my questions and maybe I'll let you go!"

Nobu began coughing violently, still reeling from the effects of being choked. Toph sighed and released her hold on his neck completely, allowing him to breathe before beginning to speak.

"P…please don't hurt me…!" Nobu begged in a frightened voice. "I just came to ask you what you wanted for supper…!"

"Oh, so now you're pretending to be nice to me?" Toph was still extremely angry, just as much at Nobu as she was at Palo. "I'm not hungry right now. Just tell me how many people are in on this!"

"There's… there's… sixteen of us…! That girl, Palo, she's the leader… everybody else is just here to replace the crew!"

"So the real crew must be…" Toph's eyes grew wide with worry, before her angry expression returned and she started again to grab Nobu by the throat.

"The crew's locked up down in the brig! We didn't hurt them!" Nobu was shaking violently now, visions of his granddaughter flashing before him. Toph again backed off, feeling a sense of relief but trying not to show it. She thought for a few moments about what her next course of action should be. Feeling that she needed to make sure the crew was safe, she reformed the shackles holding Nobu to the wall back into metal orbs, allowing them to hover in front of her while Nobu sat against the wall, rubbing his wrists. "She didn't kill me? What's going on now?"

"Okay, get up and take me down to the brig! Right now!" Toph waited until Nobu stood up, then held one of her fists up to his face. "And I don't want Palo or any of those other men seeing me on the way there, got it?"

The brig was on the other side of the ship, Nobu didn't know if he could sneak Toph across from the cabin… but he didn't have a choice, and if it meant his life would be spared, he would go along with anything the girl told him to do. Nodding meekly and bowing his head, he began leading Toph out of the cabin area.

Getting past the men wouldn't be much of a challenge, as they were all toward the front of the ship, partying and singing and creating a natural distraction. The one problem was Palo, who could be anywhere onboard… but she wasn't around as Nobu lead Toph up to the deck. Nobu looked nervously back and forth, while Toph also couldn't help but feel a sense of fear as she was led blindly along into what could easily be some kind of trap. She could sense the raucous partying of Palo's drunken flunkies, but that wasn't what she was worried about. Armed with only a few metal weapons, she wasn't sure whether she could take on someone like Palo, who already knew so much about Toph, and probably knew exactly how she fought.

"I just hope this old guy is scared enough of me to lead me where I want to go…"

Toph and Nobu began descending down a flight of stairs. As they went further and further down, Toph began hearing muffled voices around her, and could sense quite a bit of fear as she and Nobu walked the narrow hallway to the brig. Finally, the two of them stopped.

"I don't have the key, so-"

Toph cut Nobu off by slamming her metal fists into the door, knocking it down and opening up a room where fifteen gagged and bound crewmembers were sitting, some of them crying, some of them shivering in fear. Ten of them were male, five were female, all were overjoyed to see that Toph was safe and had come to rescue them. She turned to Nobu and gave him another order.

"Start untying them," Toph said. "After I watch you untie two of them, I'll know you wouldn't be stupid enough to try anything else."

She looked up at the crewmembers, whose eyes were all fixed on her, some looking to see if she was hurt, others just listening to hear what she had to say.

"You guys all suck for letting yourselves get captured!" Toph shouted. "Mom and dad hired you to protect me, and you let the ship get taken over? You're lucky I came down here to free all of you!"

A few of the bound and gagged sailors looked angry at hearing this, while others bowed their heads in shame, knowing Toph was right. Nobu untied the first two crewmembers, a young man and woman who apparently were a couple, as they had been leaning on each other when they were found and embraced after they were untied.

"I'm glad all of you are okay..." Toph continued, giving them a quick smile. She pointed at Nobu. "He's one of the bad guys who hijacked the ship, but don't hurt him! He helped me get free."

Nobu's eyes widened for a moment as he began to correct Toph's assessment, but she shook her head at him and started to speak again.

"Stay in here," she ordered the crewmembers.

"But Miss Bei Fong," replied one of the freed sailors, still rubbing his wrists, "certainly you can't-"

"Beat up every one of these losers who kidnapped us? You're darn right I can, and I'm gonna! Stay down here, that's an order!"

Toph marched out of the room and back up to the deck, leaving Nobu to finish untying everyone. Her eyes narrowed, and a look of determination was clearly displayed on her face. She was about to go kick some ass.

O-O-O

Unaware of the events down in the brig, Palo had been eating supper quietly in the kitchen area before heading to the cabin to check on Nobu and Toph. Her eyes immediately widened when she saw the flattened door lying in the hallway, and her fists clenched in rage.

"He didn't… HE DID!" Thinking that Nobu had helped Toph escape, Palo ran over to the wrecked door, peering into the cabin and seeing the carnage on the floor. Chains and other objects scattered about, the wooden box in the corner of the room destroyed… "Or did he…?"

Palo knew that Nobu would've just undid Toph's chains instead of going to the trouble of breaking into the box of objects in the corner of the room. No, thought Palo, this was all Toph's doing… and she immediately berated herself upon realizing her catastrophic error. She'd procured highly expensive silver steel chains to ensure Toph couldn't Metalbend out of them, but had completely overlooked the fact that she'd left metal objects with impurities right in the room with her.

"She got into the box and used them to escape… I've been a fool!" Palo clenched her fists and stormed out of the room. "I'll rectify this mistake immediately… and tear that little bitch apart!"

The sounds of chaotic fighting echoed in Palo's ears as she made her way up onto the deck. She ran to the front side of the ship and was forced to immediately duck as two of her men flew over her head. Toph was fighting furiously, throwing her metal orbs into the stomachs of her adversaries while using her metal fists to knock some of them clear off the ship. It was clear that none of the men Palo had hired had come prepared to fight, and in half a minute, Toph had incapacitated all of them, knocking out some while sending others into the water. By the time Palo had arrived to the fight, all of her men had been defeated. Toph could sense Palo's presence nearby, and turned to her the instant after she'd knocked out the last of the men.

"Now I'm gonna kick your butt," Toph said, taking a fighting stance. The two iron spheres she'd made hovered in front of her, while her metal fists were clenched tightly. Palo quickly drew a weapon from the sheath across her back. The weapon consisted of a wooden handle with a long, thin, cylindrical shaft comprised of the same silver steel that Toph's chains were made of. At the end of the shaft was a sharp, diamond-tipped point. The weapon could be used to bludgeon or impale… Palo hadn't decided on how she'd kill Toph with it yet.

"You will regret this, child," Palo replied, preparing for battle. "Have at you!"

Toph didn't wait for Palo to make the first move, sending both iron spheres right at Palo's head. The mercenary smiled, ducking under the first spear and swinging her polespear fiercely at the second. A loud metallic crack could be heard as the steel spear caught the iron ball in midair, sending it flying dozens of feet through the air as if it was a baseball. It landed in the water with a loud splash, while the other sphere landed far behind Palo, out of Toph's metalbending range. Toph took a step back as Palo leapt forward, striking Toph in the face with a kick that knocked her onto her back. As Toph let out a gasp, Palo stabbed down at Toph with the pointed end of the polespear, nearly impaling her. Toph was able to roll away at the last moment, though she'd already lost two of her weapons and could feel blood starting to trickle down from one of her nostrils.

"She hit me so fast, I didn't even have time to-" As Toph tried to stand, Palo stabbed repeatedly at her chest, forcing her to continue dodging. She had to block one of the blows with the back of her right metallic fist, causing the tip of the spear to impale it and nearly strike Toph in the hand. She quickly pulled out the tip, giving Toph time to reach a standing position.

"As you can see, I'm not afraid of your metalbending, and there's no rock out here for you to bend either… as if that would matter," said Palo, the tip of her polespear pointed at Toph's chest. Toph knew that Palo's weapon kept her too far back to strike with a direct punch, and without her spheres she couldn't make a ranged attack either. She was in trouble.

"I don't care if you're afraid of me, I'm not afraid of you either!" Toph stood her ground and waited for Palo to make her next move. Palo again thrust forward with her spear, and Toph responded by leaping over it, waiting for her opponent to come at her with the tip of her weapon. Palo obliged, thrusting her spear up and forward, trying to pierce Toph's stomach. "Bingo…!"

Toph allowed herself to fall forward, sweeping past the spear and coming at Palo's face with a powerful punch. Palo stepped back, smiling and raising her knee to strike up at Toph as she continued to fall. Toph punched down with her other fist, coming down right on Palo's knee with her metallic hand. Palo let out a gasp and clenched her teeth, screaming as her knee impacted the hard cast-iron. She fell to one knee, while Toph landed gracefully beside her.

"I got you now!" Toph cried, striking another blow at Palo's face with her other fist. Palo responded by lifting her spear, smacking Toph on the side of the head with the hard steel. Toph let out a cry of pain and crumpled to the ground, and Palo then stabbed down at her, pushing herself forward along the ground to aim the tip of the spear at Toph's throat. "No…!"

Toph grabbed the tip of the spear between her metallic hands, stopping it an inch from her neck. Palo violently tried to force it forward, but Toph held it in place, keeping it from moving forward even a slight bit. Both girls began straining, Palo trying with all she had to push the spear into Toph's flesh as Toph strained to hold it back, her teeth clenching and her muscles tightening as sweat poured down her forehead.

"You're going to die…!" Palo screamed, her veins rising in her forehead and arms, her blue eyes locked on Toph's, filled with rage.

"I… am not… losing to you!!" Toph's arms began to shake… she knew Palo was stronger than her, and her spear began moving forward, its tip now millimeters from Toph's throat. "I'm never losing to you!"

Palo's lips curved into a victorious smile. She could practically smell Toph's blood, and as she saw the fear forming in the girl's eyes, her own eyes widened in anticipation.

"I'll get your parents' money and then I'll send them your corpse! Just remember, you could have lived had you just did as you were told! Their suffering will be on your conscience as you burn in hell!"

Tears streaked down Toph's cheeks, even as all of her fear was converted into rage. The metal covering her hands began to transform around the tip of Palo's spear, and as it made contact with her throat, the dull iron cap now encased around it was unable to pierce Toph's skin. Palo's eyebrow raised, and her grip on the end of the spear loosened ever so slightly, enabling Toph to rip it away from her. Toph's metallic gloves had morphed into a shapeless chunk of metal, in which the end of Palo's weapon was tightly encased. The chunk of metal quickly re-formed back into gloves around Toph's hands, which now held the polespear, its tip still pointed at Toph's throat. Palo lunged at Toph in an attempt to reclaim her weapon, but in a single motion, Toph flipped the weapon and slammed the metal shaft into Palo's forehead, stunning her.

"That's how I felt when you hit me!" Toph shouted, but she wasn't done yet. A second blow caused blood to begin trickling down Palo's face, and then a third blow finally knocked her unconscious, sending her fallen form to the deck of the ship. The mercenary landed hard on her back, while Toph stood over her with the polespear, waiting for a few seconds to see if Palo would recover. She did not. "It's over."

Toph finally allowed herself to relax, falling to her knees at Palo's feet and tossing the polespear aside. She wiped the sweat from her brow and caught her breath as a wave of satisfaction and relief swept over her body.

"I told you I'd kick your butt," said Toph. She was smiling from ear to ear.

O-O-O

Those of Palo's men who remained unconscious on the deck were tied up, while those knocked into the water were pulled out by the crew and tied up as well. Nobu was left free, as Toph had persuaded the crew to allow him to be pardoned for his actions… though he'd still have to serve as the ship's cook for the remainder of the voyage, because Toph liked his cooking.

As for Palo, she was chained up tightly to the bottom of a small raft that was tugged behind the ship. The Earth Kingdom authorities would deal with her upon the ship's arrival at Gaoling. Her forehead had been wrapped with the same adhesive bandage used to gag Toph earlier, and Toph was there to greet her with more of the adhesive upon her awakening.

"Unnnngggh…" Palo groaned, reaching up to rub her forehead but realizing that she was chained down. She strained and struggled, but the chains around her wrists and ankles were far too strong to budge. "What is this…?! You… you can't-"

"Excuse me?" Toph replied, stepping on Palo's chest and applying enough pressure to cause her former captor a slight amount of pain. "You're the one who kidnapped me first! You're lucky we don't set you adrift… but maybe once you get to jail you'll wish we had."

"No jail can hold me," Palo warned, her eyes narrowing. "And when I escape, I swear I'm going to-"

"I already kicked your butt once, I'll just do it again. Nobody can beat me, I'm the greatest Earthbender in all the world!" Toph declared, launching into a series of victorious laughs as Palo rolled her eyes. "Don't make me change my mind about not cutting you adrift."

"Your friends… your parents… I'll make them all suffer, and-"

"I've heard just about enough," said Toph, cutting off Palo by pressing a strip of adhesive bandage tape over her lips. "If you EVER come after my friends or my parents, I won't have any mercy on you… you understand?"

Palo didn't respond, she simply stared up at Toph for a few moments, her eyes narrowed in rage. Toph grabbed the rope leading back up to the ship and climbed up onto the deck. She then turned to the ship's captain.

"Take us home," said Toph, looking slightly away. "I want to see my mom and dad again."

One of the crew members walked over to Toph, handing her a piece of parchment. It was her parents' reply to the ransom note sent by Palo, promising to have the 20,000 silver pieces ready upon the ship's arrival in Gaoling. Toph handed the parchment back to the crew member and asked him to read it to her. It was an emotional plea from her mother, begging Palo's crew to release Toph unharmed. Toph remembered that she'd felt spots on the letter where her mother's tears had stained it, and she herself began to shed a tear, though she turned her head so none of the crewmembers could see it.

"Should I let your parents know that-"

"Yeah," Toph whispered. "Send a messenger hawk…"

Normally she would've wanted to surprise them, but… not today. They had to know she was safe sooner than the two days it would take for the ship to reach her parents' estate. She missed them too much to let them worry about her.

"I'm safe now… and I'm coming home."

O-O-O

Toph walked up the long road leading to the Bei Fong manor… a road she'd last walked half a year before, when she'd run away from home to escape her parents' overprotective nature. She'd had a wonderful adventure and had made so many friends… but deep in her heart had always been a secret longing to come home. That moment had arrived now, and she could sense her parents waiting for her, standing in front of the door to the mansion. There were no attendants, no guards… only her parents, her mother and father waiting, her mother with tears streaking down her face.

"No turning back now," thought Toph, though the thought of running away now never entered her mind. She knew she'd see her friends again.

She heard and felt her mother breaking off into a run, and prepared herself to be hugged. The embrace was sooner than she'd expected, and stronger too. She was swept up into her mother's arms, and her father came close behind, waiting his turn to wrap Toph up in an embrace.

"My baby's finally home…" Toph's mother sobbed, her voice lined with overwhelming joy. Toph couldn't help but smile, even as annoyed she was at her mother calling her a baby. They'd work those issues out later… for now, there was only one thing that mattered.

"Yeah, mom…" Toph replied, resting her head in her mother's chest. "I'm home."