In the middle ages, swords of Damascus steel were legendary for their sharpness and strength. The technique of forging has been lost, but used monsoon winds and wind turbulence to increase the heat in forges, as well as mixing in glass to bind and then remove impurities. Purified with glass, which is of Earth, forged in Fire and Air, cooled in Water, these swords are an excellent metaphor for the Avatar... and even more for the one in this story.
When the fate of the world rests upon the shoulders of one person, best to hope that it isn't a blind, chi-crippled child...
This fanfiction is based on the universe and characters of the Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko. It is neither endorsed nor licensed by those fine gentlemen and may not be used for any commercial purpose whatsoever. Any further circulation of this work must be acceptable under the terms of Creative Commons Licensing (and it would be kind of you to notify me).
First and foremost I have to acknowledge Vathara's fanfic Embers. I didn't think much of Avatar, the first few times I tried to watch it. His story convinced me that I was missing something and convinced me to give it another try. And then, as anyone who knows me would have guessed, inspiration started dropping plot bunnies down the back of my shirt collar.
Similarly, thanks are due to soulgriever13, for pointing me to Embers, for batting plot back and forth and answering some questions I had that the show had not yet answered for me.
I'm not a big one for theme songs, but I found that Meatloaf's album Bat out of Hell III had songs applicable to Mai (Blind as a Bat), Toph (Seize the Night) and Zuko (Alive). Overall though, if Damascus has a theme song it would be Follow by Breaking Benjamin.
I am also grateful for the supportive reviews and criticisms I received from the Drunkard's Walk, , The Freedom Stone and The Fanfiction Forum internet forums. This would not have been the same story without them.
Having Damascus recommended on TV Tropes (Avatar Fanfiction, AU section) was a huge lift in the third week of writing the story.
And of course, the story might have never been begun were it not for the motivational power of NaNoWriMo. This is my fifth annual entry and the third to hit the target number of words. Now if I can just finish it...
To Clare, who embarked on the next great adventure November 6th, 2009. God bless.
.oOo. Fire .oOo.
.oOo. Air .oOo.
.oOo. Water .oOo.
.oOo. Earth .oOo.
The first time that Mai saw Toph Bei Fong, the younger girl was standing in the throne room of Omashu. Modifications were still underway, converting the chamber from the relatively simple arrangement favoured under Mad King Bumi towards the Fire Nation's traditional elevated throne and fire pits. For now, however, the workmen had been banished and soldiers lined the walls while Mai's father sat on an elaborately carved wooden chair that she had seen in his study at home.
Toph herself had four guards accompanying her: two had preceded her into the room and then stood aside, flanking the doors - and to Mai's eyes, nervously aware that each had a Fire Nation soldier stood discreetly behind them, ready to strike them down. The other two followed Toph as she walked down the centre of the room towards the Mai's family. One cleared his throat and as if signalled, Toph halted at the appropriate distance from the Governor for a noble petitioner.
Mai's eyes narrowed. No, that was a signal. The tiny girl - barely waist-high to her towering guards had a film of milky-white over the more expected green that was common in the Earth Kingdom, and they disconcertingly failed to focus upon those in front of her. She was blind.
"So cute," Mai's mother Seung whispered and the fire maiden's lips twitched. Indeed. Ty Lee would have had a pink ribbon around the Earth Kingdom girl's throat in an instant, and probably romped with her like a puppy after no more than a minute. Toph's raven dark hair was elaborately bound up behind her head and contrasted with her porcelain-like complexion and the pale yellow gown and creamy girdle that she wore. Weak colours, Mai calculated. Making her look vulnerable and unthreatening. Her choices? Unlikely if she's blind, but who then?
"Lady Toph Bei Fong," the Governor greeted her formally, inclining his head slightly. "I am curious to hear what brings a daughter of your clan into the newest stronghold of the Fire Nation."
Toph dropped to one knee and lowered her head. By Agni, Mai thought boredly. Eyelashes too? Her mother squealed again at the cuteness, causing Mai's brother Tom-Tom to squirm excitedly in their mother's arms.
"Lord Governor, with the triumph of the Fire Nation in securing Omashu, my father has concluded that the time has come for the Bei Fong to seek closer ties with the conquerors," Toph recited sweetly. "I have been sent here in token of his hopes for a new relationship."
"Hmm." Mai's father leant back in his chair. Although she could not see it, Mai knew that his face had stilled to mask his calculations. Pointless, particularly since the girl in front of him couldn't see his face. "You father offers an alliance?"
"Lord Governor, an alliance would be between equals," Toph replied, evading the trap neatly. "What my father offers is his allegiance." She reached delicately into her girdle and produced a small scroll.
That wasn't a recitation, Mai noted. She might have been briefed, but she's no talking doll. At her father's nod she stepped forwards and reached out for the scroll but as her hand reached it, Toph's hand moved slightly - clearly questing for the hand to receive the scroll, moving it outside of Mai's closing fingers. "Hold still," the older girl instructed flatly and pulled the document away from Toph, not bothering to wait for her father's instructions before cracking the seal.
It only took her a moment to decipher to contents before handing it over to her father to peruse. Rats deserting a sinking ship. And sacrificing their daughter for their own prosperity. How tedious.
Lady Seung leant over and read the scroll over her husband's shoulder. Usually it would be a shocking breach of protocol, but then, how would Toph know. "Ooh!" she squealed. "Of course you can stay here, Lady Bei Fong! I'm sure Mai would love a new friend." Ah. That was how.
Her father hummed. "Yes, that would be best I think." He looked up. "Mai, Lord Bei Fong has sent his daughter here to ask for my assistance in arranging a suitable marriage for her within the Fire Nation's nobility when she is old enough. In the meantime," he smiled triumphantly, "he hopes that we will educate her in how to become a suitable young lady of the Fire Nation. Do you know what this means?"
"Mother has a new doll," Mai drawled under her breath and out of the corner of her eye saw Toph twitch. Good hearing.
"It means that the Bei Fong Clan, one of the leading names of the southern Kingdom want to assimilate," the Governor declared proudly. "Tell me, Lady Bei Fong, do you have a brother?"
Oh Great Agni, no! Mai thought. Bad enough to be trapped her in Omashu. Marriage to some Earth Kingdom bumpkin? Unthinkable.
"No, Lord Governor. I am an only child," Toph replied evenly. Thank you, Agni.
"Hmm. A shame. Still, that would make you the heir to your family, wouldn't it? Whoever marries you is going to be very lucky young man." Colour appeared on Toph's face, high on her cheeks.
Seung giggled. "Oh, she's just a little girl, dear." She turned her attention to Toph. "Tell me child, are you a bender?"
Mai could read regret in Toph's posture. "No, my lady. I have been taught some of the exercises, for health reasons, but I cannot bend."
"Ah, well that would have made matters a little awkward. It would be best if you didn't practise the earth bending exercises any more, Lady Bei Fong. Perhaps Mai can teach you some of the fire bending equivalents."
"I would like that," Toph agreed, smiling - a little nervously - but even so, the first smile to cross her face since she had entered the throne room.
"Now Mai, Toph and I want your honest opinion on this," Lady Seung called from behind the changing screen.
"Mm-hmm," Mai agreed from the couch and scooped a handful of fire flakes out of the bowl she held, bracing herself. Her mother had insisted on bringing chest after chest of clothes with them, even those long packed away as far too small for Mai and decidedly the wrong garments to dress Tom-Tom in once he was old enough. Still, the arrival of Toph made it somewhat convenient to have all the spare clothes around - perhaps an act of genuine foresight by her mother. Ha ha. So funny that Mai forgot to laugh.
It wasn't as bad as it could have been. Toph stumbled a little coming out from behind the screen, probably due to the elaborate ankle boots that had replaced the simple sandals that she had worn earlier under her gown. Red breeches and a heavy looking tunic that Mai thought had started out as part of her uniform at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls.
"Well?" demanded Seung eagerly.
Mai paused. "Adorable," she drawled. "But you'll have to do something with her hair." She could have sworn that a panicked look crossed Toph's face but it was quickly replaced by the solemn expression that Mai was beginning to suspect was a mask.
"Well of course," her mother fluttered. "Do you remember how Azula had her hair?" She touched Toph familiarly on the shoulder. "That's Princess Azula, the Fire Lord's daughter. She and Mai were great friends when they were younger. Come and help me, Mai."
She took another mouthful of fire flakes before obeying, brushing Toph's hair back and allowing her mother to pull free the bangs that framed the younger girl's face before pulling the hair into a topknot. The hairpiece that her mother handed her to use was one she'd been given by Prince Zuko - probably picked out by his mother but still - and she cursed herself for hesitating before fastening it.
"Now, what do you think?" Seung carolled and pulled Toph in front of - oh surely not! - the room's single, tall mirror.
She saw Toph blink, and just as Mai was about to say something cutting, the younger girl tilted her head and asked: "Is that me?" in wonderstruck tones.
"Of course it is, Toph," the older woman declared proudly. "You're the very image of a fine young fire maiden. You'll have young men beating their way to your door in no time." She swept off towards the door. "I'll leave the two of you to get to know each other."
Mai waited until her mother was out of earshot before commenting. "'Is that me'?"
"That's what I'd say if I looked any different." Toph giggled and waved one hand in front of her face. "I don't look like a clown do I?"
"She's right. Except for your eyes, you could walk down any street in the Fire Nation and no one would look twice at you." She shrugged and held out her bowl. "Fire flake?"
Mai watched Toph cross the room cautiously and after seeing her reach uncertainly for the bowl, positioned it in front of Toph's questing fingers. Fingers that seemed if anything more calloused than her own. She hadn't thought that Earth Kingdom girls were trained to fight, but perhaps the earth bending styles were harder on the fingers.
A little blind girl was the most interesting thing in all Omashu, and wasn't that pathetic?
"You're too balanced," Mai advised from her seat on the steps outside the palace. This was Toph's third lesson in the fire bending style and the first where she'd tried more than breathing exercises. Thus far it wasn't actually going too badly. Having walked Toph through the moves, physically guiding her through each step, Mai had been impressed at how closely the young girl had managed to repeat them without that guidance.
"How can I be too balanced?" Toph asked, sounding surprised. "My teachers always said balance was everything."
"Yeah. Earth bender teachers. You're not doing that any more." Mai stood and walked over towards her student. "Fire bending is all about power and the greatest power comes from creating an imbalance and directing it to your advantage. Like my brother walking."
Toph frowned. "Your brother?"
"Tom-Tom's just learning to toddle. When he walks he throws himself forward creating an imbalance that should have him fall on his face. Then he pushes his legs forward and rides the imbalance. It's the same for fire benders: they use their imbalance to power their attacks."
"But what about defence?"
Mai shook her head. "The best defence is to destroy your enemies before they can strike you down. Fire bending is aggressive." She looked around and the building work and nodded. "Come this way."
Toph frowned and then followed Mai as she walked towards one of the stone pillars that were being replaced by steel buttresses for the new palace. This one was still standing. "Look at... uh, touch this pillar. This is balanced, right."
The younger girl ran her hands over the carefully shaped stones. "It had better be, or it would topple over."
"What if it did?" Mai asked. "What if it was off balance and it fell? You can imagine the destructive force that would be unleashed on whatever was underneath it. Stone hammering against stone, crushing everything between them and the ground."
Toph grinned. "Yes, I can."
"Well, if it was balanced, it wouldn't fall. Fire benders create and use imbalance. Our arts are the same way. Don't cling to balance, release it... and unleash power." Mai took Toph by the shoulders and pushed her into place. "Now try again, and stop being so static."
Toph nodded and began to move through the kata. Still slow, still somewhat stiffly, but now with just the beginnings of the energy that Mai had been looking for. "Again, faster!" Toph obediently repeated the moves, but she wasn't showing any more energy - her control was impressive, Mai admitted: every move was exactly placed the same way as the first time. Which was the problem. "Too rooted, let go of the ground."
"I thought you wanted to teach me the fire bending arts, not the air bending ones?" called Toph, still repeating the moves flawlessly. She had stamina at least.
"Exaggerate, think about fire dancing?"
Mai shrugged. She'd heard the term from Zuko. Actual dancing wasn't something she could claim any experience of. And it wasn't as if Toph would have ever seen a flame flicker the way that most people had. "Try putting some passion into it."
Toph frowned but obeyed. The whirling moves grew sloppier, but more energetic. "I suppose that that's better. Are you tired?"
"Shouldn't I ask that?" Toph asked. "I mean, sitting down watching me do this must be very tiring."
"Hmm. Keep going then." It wasn't like there was anything else for her to do.
Round and round the Earth girl went. Hmm. Earth girl. She didn't really look or act like any of the demure, dainty little girls Mai had seen among the Earth Kingdom families that remained in Omashu. The Earth Kingdom nobility apparently considered porcelain dolls the feminine ideal: pretty to look at but otherwise quiet and useless. Toph might act like that around Mai's parents, but it was becoming clear that she was a passionate girl underneath that mask... almost as fiery as the sparks...
Mai sat up sharply, eyes locked on the firefly sparks flying around Toph's fingers as she danced through the kata, topknot bouncing. There was a spreading grin on the blind girl's face but she seemed - no, probably was - oblivious to what was happening around her hands. Panting, exuberant. "Remember your breathing," Mai instructed, keeping her voice flat and even. This was unexpected. And interesting. "Your chi depends upon your breath."
Toph took an even breath and moved on, turning, hands wheeling and...
It wasn't a lot of flame - Azula, fire bending prodigy that she was, would have heaped scorn upon the brief trickle of fire. But it was completely unexpected and Toph fell out of the form, barely staying on her feet as she blew hastily on her fingers. "What was that?" she exclaimed nervously. "Why didn't you warn me there was a candle there?"
"There isn't a candle there," Mai told her.
"But I burned my fingers," Toph protested, holding up the reddened tips of her fingers in proof. "I felt it."
"I'm sure you did," the fire maiden agreed. "But there isn't a candle there."
Toph frowned and then moved her hand gently through the air where she had just been burned. "Well what is it? There's some sort of fire - or there was. Did I knock it over?"
Mai pursed her lip. "Tell me, Toph. How long have you been a fire bender?"
"How long I've been a what?"