Title: The Great Job Hunt
Universe: Avatar the Last Airbender
Character/Pairing/s: Toph focus (appearances by Zuko, Sokka, and Iroh)
Warnings/Spoilers: Spoilers for the end of the series.
Word Count: 2,930
Summary: So what happens after you're done saving the world?
Dedication: happy birthday, gaisce! LOL We talked about so many ideas and yet when I was actually trying to execute them they decided to run away. Sorry if this is lame, but at the same time, I thought it was appropriate for both of us.
A/N: Still so unsure about how to write in this fandom. Oftentimes the things gaisce shows me makes me think it's better that I don't because it seems like a scary place. XD Also, I hate haikus.
Disclaimer: No harm or infringement intended.
"It's her! It's the Avatar's earth bending teacher!" they exclaim whenever they see her on the streets during those first few glorious months after Ozai's defeat. They often stop everything they're doing to point at her in awe and admiration, to ask for her autograph, or to shake her hand. "She helped defeat the Fire Lord!" they say.
Which is completely true, and Toph basks in the deference and recognition those accomplishments afford her in those first few months after the war, when she's invited out to all sorts of fancy parties and big events and asked time and time again to please retell the part of the story where she destroyed the entire Fire Nation's fleet of airships single-handedly, because that's always been everyone's favorite part.
It's all great and she's on top of the world in those months, especially because she knows she's so far removed from the little girl her parents thought she was, the little girl who was helpless and blind and meant to be indoors all the time, sheltered and coddled.
But it doesn't last as long as she would have liked; she learns soon after that people's memories are incredibly short.
Not even a year after the peace begins—nine and a half months to be precise—things start to change. "She used to be the Avatar's earth bending teacher, didn't she?" people start to say about her instead, and look at her curiously when they spot her on the streets, probably staring at her with their heads cocked curiously to the side, blinking thoughtfully to themselves like she's a celebrity who has aged past the point of instant recognition.
"Weird," she starts to hear as well, more often than not, "so what's she been doing lately?"
No matter how many times she hears it, it always makes her want to commit random acts of violence to show them exactly what she's been up to lately (but she refrains because being one of those child stars turned criminal is not the way she wants her biography to go when it's retold a hundred years from now). So instead, she grits her teeth and thinks that now is not nearly as great as it used to be then, that it's not the same as the good old days and that she can't believe she's still just a kid and has had her good old days happen already, just like that.
Almost a year after the war, Toph discovers that when your biggest life accomplishment in the eyes of the world occurs when you're only twelve years old, all it really means is that you're going to have one hell of a time trying to outdo yourself in the years that follow.
The Earth Kingdom's very first (and very only) Prestigious Metal Bending Academy for Badasses doesn't last very long. She's nearly fourteen when she opens it with the enthusiastic blessing of the Earth King and even more enthusiastic aid from his coffers. From there, word goes out all across the country that this is the school that will finally bring the Earth Kingdom into the world of the future, that will catch it up with every one else. The Fire Kingdom might be doing it with all sorts of fancy steamships and flying contraptions, but the Earth Kingdom has a new, hip way of bending that's much harder to duplicate.
It's a nice idea and kind of cool to be the sole creator of an entirely novel (and entirely lauded) way of bending, but as it turns out, Toph's school really only gets a lot of deluded, self-important students enrolling in it with hopes of becoming the next big thing. They all tend to have that particular dream irrevocably quashed a few days later, right around the time her mandatory Death Trial Placement Testing for New Recruits begins.
More specifically, it is usually during the Flaming Crushed Steel Beam Exam when those formerly hopeful kids finally have to come to terms with the fact that while they are proficient enough at earth bending—some of them are good at it, even— they won't ever have the skills necessary to become a metal bender worth much of anything. Most of them inevitably run screaming off of the academy grounds by the time they figure this out too, crying tears of shame and possibly still a little bit on fire from the balls of Flaming Crushed Steel Toph had been launching at them moments ago.
Which is fine, because average is average as far as Toph is concerned, and she already knows that it will be impossible to teach someone how to metal bend when they can't even figure out the different mineral compositions they'll need to separate from within the ten foot ball of smoking steel that is careening toward their faces at lightning speed. Being able to break metal bonds requires that exact ability, and as it is, the only kid at the academy who shows any sort of promise for it at all during the school's short lifespan is this deaf orphan named Tae Suk, who is nine years old and apparently has a pretty sharp pair of eyes on him.
But even still, he's not very good at working with the more complex metals; sure he can do copper and brass and the basic stuff, but once they get into things like iron and steel and aluminum the kid's just SOL.
And so, a mere five weeks after the Academy's doors open, they close again, forever, and Toph is still the only competent metal bender that she knows of in the entire world.
It is while she is systematically demolishing the walls to the academy when she comes to the sudden realization that it seems like all the world's greatest benders have to be missing something, whether it's their sanity or some other thing. Everyone else who is well adjusted and in possession of all five of their senses (and all of their faculties) seems to be doomed to live the life of the painfully normal.
After she is done compressing the former Prestigious Metal Bending Academy for Badasses into a neat, fifteen-by-fifteen foot square of crushed metal and clay to be returned (with gratitude) to the Earth King, she packs up a duffle and hits the road, looking for her next big challenge.
"Are you done yet?"
Zuko twitches at his desk. "No."
Toph sighs and tries to ignore the incredible boredom that seems to come hand-in-hand with her latest job.
Five more seconds pass after that before she actually starts to squirm in her chair. "Are you done now?" she demands again, when she can't hold it in any more.
Zuko's body temperature starts to go up at that; she can feel it, even from all the way across the room. She snorts because it's not scary so much as completely unbelievable. As far as she's concerned, she ought to be the one who's getting annoyed here, not the big, boring Fire Lord. "What's got your panties in a twist now, Lord Flamey Pants?"
When Zuko speaks again, his voice is a little bit tight. "It's going to take more than one day to write a new official foreign policy plan for the Fire Nation, Toph."
She snorts and wiggles her toes, because they're getting stiff from all this sitting around. "What? Why? Just use what you've already got and change around a few words. That's what Bumi and I did when we were working out the new trade routes for your merchants. Then we spent the rest of the day Fox-Antelope tipping with boulders. It was great."
Zuko sounds like his head hurts. "I would if I could, but the policy we've had until recently is…"
He trails off, and is probably doing something with his face that finishes the sentence, except sometimes he forgets that Toph can't see him. "Is what?" she prompts, when she gets too impatient to wait for him to remember.
Zuko sighs. "The one we've already got is a little bit too simplistic."
Toph is actually relieved to hear that. "Simplistic is great! That means you can do it fast. Just work it in there."
"I don't think we…"
"Oh c'mon. If you do, then we can make it to town in time for the pay-per-round Agni Kai they were advertising down at the marketplace during my official tour this morning."
It is at that point that the Fire Lord, after an admirable seven hours under Toph's impatient assault, finally breaks. "We can't do that because the former Fire Nation foreign policy plan just says to kill everybody, okay?!" he shouts, momentarily standing from his chair in frustration.
Zuko breathes heavily.
And then Toph starts to pick absently at her toes. "So why don't you just go ahead and put a 'don't' in front of that so we can call this puppy handled?"
"Argh," Zuko replies, and slumps back down into his chair.
Toph endures another fifteen minutes of sitting around and waiting for him to do something useful before she decides to just go to the Agni Kai herself.
Needless to say, her career as an official Earth Kingdom Diplomat to the Fire Nation is even more short-lived than her attempts at being a Metal Bending Headmaster.
"I am sick of cabbages," Toph says, two weeks into her third job stint, as she listlessly earth bends the offending cart of produce into oblivion due to illegal Cabbage Slug infestation.
"Argh, my cabbages!" the merchant trying to get into Ba Sing Se gripes.
"And now, I'm sick of fish!" Toph complains two weeks after that, as she clings helplessly to the side of Chief Hakoda's modest fishing vessel as it's tossed violently from side to side in the cold ocean waves. She's feeling decidedly green around the gills at this point, but at least it's not as bad now as it was during her first day on the job. Kind of.
Nearby, Sokka keeps one wary eye on her and the other on the fishing nets (because he's since learned that keeping both eyes on the fishing nets usually means he doesn't notice it when she staggers close enough to him to throw up on his shoes). "I've got some leftover Arctic Hippo Blubber if you want to eat that instead of the fish," he offers after a moment, helpfully. He reaches into his hip pack. "It's probably still good. But smell it first, to make sure."
"Guy made fun of me. Thinks short girls are really weak. So I kicked his ass. " Toph grins triumphantly at her new classmates.
Madame Macmu-Ling is not amused. Nor are the other girls, apparently, as they clearly have no souls left after being left to waste away in this ridiculous society for so long. The Madame straightens, nose wrinkled in disgust, before speaking to Toph. "Grace in words is life. Miss Bei Fong has not yet lived. Try once more, with grace," she says.
Toph huffs, blowing hair out of her face. Then smirks to herself. "Boredom kills me dead. Haikus are so damn boring. How do you live like thi…aw crap."
She is escorted off of the society grounds shortly thereafter.
Metal crunches and the candlelight flickers ominously as the scream on the lips of her prisoner is effectively quashed by two feet of iron winding with the ease of a snake over his mouth and around his neck.
His eyes widen in horror and he starts to shake his head, eyes begging for her to stop before it gets any tighter. But Toph doesn't notice; she's too busy making the stalactites all around the cave suddenly detach themselves from the ceiling of the underground prison they are in; she directs them towards the bound prisoner, making them careen towards his immobile form with deadly speed.
He starts to struggle in his bonds, like he thinks that if he tries hard enough, he'll be able to squirm his way out of the shell of metal she's encased him in. He even forgets about the iron around his neck for a moment, desperately attempting to shift any way he can to evade the rocky spikes hurtling towards him.
Which he can't actually.
She's the one who stops them from killing him, making them pull up short mere millimeters from his eyes. "Now tell us who the mole in the government is! How are you planning to attack the Earth King tomorrow!?" she demands, glaring down at the prisoner in all her pointy-hat-wearing glory. The long green sleeves of the robe she is wearing flare theatrically around her as she moves, with a pleasant rustling noise that echoes through the walls of the cave.
"I won't ask you again!" Toph demands, and takes a stance that means the metal glove she's put around the guy is going to get a lot tighter really soon.
"Um," a voice behind her says. It kind of ruins the dramatic effect she'd been going for just now.
She makes an irritated noise. "What? I'm kinda busy."
The Dai Li member who had spoken up just now swallows. "Prisoner's unconscious, Toph."
She blinks. "What? Really?"
There is a sigh behind her.
Then, "Alright, you're done for the day, newbie," Commander Shin Woo's voice tells her, a moment later. He is the current head of her unit in the Dai Li and technically her superior and kind of tall and imposing in a cool way that Toph hopes to grow up to be like one day (minus the goofy mustache that her team members are always making fun of him for whenever Commander Shin Woo isn't around to hear). "Go home," he adds after a beat, a bit more gently. "Cool off."
Toph sulks. "But I am cool! I was so cool just now! I mean, did you see how I totally…"
Shin Woo makes a gravely noise in the back of his throat. "I did see it. But none of it does us any good if we can't get the information we need out of him before the hit is supposed to take place."
Toph supposes that makes sense. "But I definitely softened him up for you guys, right? Like, the bad cop part."
"Go home," Shin Woo repeats, in a tone that echoes off the walls in a booming patriarchal sort of way that means there's no room for argument, even though Toph could totally kick his ass in a fight if she really wanted to. But she still kind of likes him because he lets her beat up people without yelling too badly like some of the other Dai Li unit commanders tend to do during her interrogations.
Eventually, she just sighs before pulling off her pointy hat and rolling up her dramatic, flappy sleeves. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going."
She skulks off through the cave alone after that, while the rest of her unit try to revive the unconscious prisoner in order to conduct a more civilized, more mutually beneficial torture-slash-interrogation session.
Vaguely, she wonders if the Fire Nation's secret police gets to be a little less pansy than the Dai Li are about how they treat criminals during urgent interrogations regarding the possible future of the country.
Probably not, if Zuko's Fire Lord.
"It's not my fault that the guy was a total wimp," Toph says when she visits Iroh's tea shop later, as she often does whenever she's in-between work in the Earth Kingdom (or any kingdom). "This sucks. Everyone's saying I'm all washed up! I'm a hack, a has-been, a nobody." She scowls into her lap. "How do you deal with it?"
Nearby, Iroh simply chuckles throatily to himself before pouring her more tea and taking a seat beside her. "I consider myself retired," he says, wryly.
Toph huffs. "Man, if this was a year ago, they'd be begging me to ring that guy's neck. They'd take notes!" She slumps onto the table and pokes at her teacup listlessly. "I miss the good old days."
Things were so much easier then. She could just kick ass and take names and no one was there to complain about property damage or regulations or amnesty or health code violations.
Iroh is silent for a while, as he leans back in his chair and takes the time to savor the atmosphere and the fragrant aroma of a well-brewed cup of tea. "Sometimes," he begins eventually, voice slow and dreamily content as it has often been in these easy days of peace, "the best thing you can do for yourself is take a little time to relax. Perhaps then, when you are rested and ready, the great things you are looking for will come and find you."
She makes a face at him. "Is that really the best you got right now?"
He makes an amused sound in the back of his throat. "I've also got some delightful red bean cakes that Zuko sent, if you think that will help."
She perks a little. "It might."
"Then we shall try it." He gets up then, in no real hurry, and goes to prepare the cakes. She listens to his measured, graceful steps as he does, and when he returns with something sweet and wonderful smelling, she smiles up at him, suddenly inspired.
"So," she starts casually, as he patiently dishes out plenty of the sweet, sticky cakes for them to share, "you don't happen to need an ass-kicking waitress around here, do you?"