"And now... the moment you've all be waiting for: The Boulder, verses your champion!" Xin Fu paused for effect, as the crowd looked down on the figure. The champion was surprisingly small; he looked about Aang, maybe Katara's height. "The Stone Servant!"
The crowd roared as his scantily clad assistants took away the cloak and belt.
Aang paused. "Hey guys, does something feel wrong to you?"
"The only thing wrong is that anyone imagines this is going to be a real match," Sokka answered. "Watch as the Boulder takes this nobody to the curb."
Six years previous…
Toph cried out in pain. She had been told to be brave. She had been determined to be brave. But in the wake of the raw, uncontested pain of her foot breaking in two, all those resolutions crumbled into nothingness. Her entire body was in agony, her other foot kicking wildly while her arms twisted about.
Her foot was broken a second time. Toph screamed and struggled. She first reached for the earth, trying to call it, but the room was solid wood. She tried to pull her uninjured foot away, but Chanzu held it tight and moving it only made it worse. Finally out of other options, Toph cried for her father. "Daddy!"
"Please, Toph, be brave. It will be over soon." Her father calmly tried to reassure her, but the only message Toph got was that there would be no help from him. She tried to call out for her mother instead, but the wooden walls were quite thick and she had left the room before the procedure started. Chanzu had begun to apply some sort of wrapping to her foot, further crushing it. Toph finally managed to gather enough concentration to aim her other foot's kick.
"Ouch!" Chanzu let go, and the pressure on her broken foot was released. "Hold her down. I can't work like this."
Her father tightly grabbed her free leg with one hand, while he held her chest down with his other hand. Toph felt the woman grab her foot again. "No! Daddy!"
"I said hold her down," said Chanzu. "If she moves it could cause complications. If you are going to be squeamish about this, get a servant."
"Yes, I…. Chang, come over here." A second pair of arms held her down. Toph screamed and fought and yelled herself horse, but it was futile. Her toes were curled under her foot and pressure was applied to it. Bandages wrapped around, tighter and tighter, crushing her foot.
Then, the wrapping stopped. Toph redoubled her efforts, she knew what was coming next. But it was futile; she was held down tightly, Chanzu's grip was strong. For a second, time seemed to stop as Chanzu held her unbroken foot in her hand, examining and feeling it.
After the binding, Toph was carried to her bed. Chanzu wanted to make her walk, but her father put his foot down. After they left, her mother sat down besides her. Toph tried to pretend to be asleep.
Toph wasn't listening. Could her mother see how hard she wasn't listening?
"Toph, I know you're upset, but footbinding it just part of growing up. It's how little girls become proper young ladies. I have them. The servants have them. It's simply something everyone has to go through. I know it hurts right now, but it will get better soon."
"So when does it stop?"
Her mother didn't answer.
Toph sucked in her breath, carefully lifting her foot up.
Chanzu hit her in the back of the head. "Hurry up, lazy girl. It will only be worse if you take too much time."
Toph clenched her hands into fists. Stupid old woman, stupid ground, stupid footbinding. However, fear of more punishment outweighed any rebellion, and she set her foot down. The grass was soft, not that she could really feel it with the bandages; every step was like crushing her foot with a rock. The worst part was when her entire bodyweight was on one foot. It hurt more than anything she'd done before. And Chanzu had insisted they walk through the entire outer compound.
After a few more painful steps, Toph stopped. Someone was yelling for Chanzu. "Excuse me!" As the voice got closer, Toph could make out a boy about her age.
"What is it?" the old woman snapped back.
"I- Mom said to tell you that an important guest was here for you."
"And just who are you?"
"Mom cooks and dad-" he started before being cut off.
"Ah, one of the servant's children. Just who is this important guest?"
"I-uh." The boy hesitated. "He was wearing fancy clothes and had a big pointy green hat-."
"Peng. I told him I would be busy until this afternoon." The woman gave an exasperated sigh. "You!"
"Me?" the boy asked.
"Do you see anyone else?" Chanzu answered. "Don't move, and make sure she continues to walk. Those feet won't bind themselves."
Toph really hated her. Couldn't even give her a lousy break. Toph bet she was an ugly, black-hearted old woman. Probably everyone else hated her.
For a while it was silent, Toph walking in circles, dividing her time between thinking on the evils of Chanzu and trying to find a less painful method. Perhaps lifting them only a little, or maybe some shuffling-
"Do you wanna sit down..?" the boy offered.
"Well…" The boy hesitated. "Isn't that painful? And she's been gone forever."
Toph stopped walking and thought. "What if she comes back? If she realizes I wasn't walking-"
"I'll look out for you."
Toph mulled over the offer. Her feet were really hurting, and making her walk was stupid anyways. But could she trust him? "Fine, but you gotta promise."
"Okay, I promise."
"No, not like that." Toph sighed at some people's obvious ignorance. "You gotta promise on something important."
"Oh." The boy thought for a while. "I promise on my mother's silver coin."
Toph crossed her arms. "Don't be stupid. That's not important."
"Oh. I um… I…" The boy struggled to think of something. "I promise on my earthbending."
Toph had to admit that was a pretty important thing to promise on.
It was an absolute relief to take the pressure off her aching feet. For a while Toph was able to enjoy the feeling of grass beneath her hands. In time, Chanzu came back, but the boy made good on his promise.
With the pain it took to walk it wasn't till a week after the bindings that felt well enough to walk without being forced, and she could finally find some alone time. Balancing herself on her feet, she lifted her arms up and attempted to earthbend.
She gave a cry of pain as the earth fought back. It had always fought back, but before... before she could take it. Now her feet demanded she stop. But Toph was stubborn. Again she got up, more prepared for the pain. Again she tried to lift a piece, and again the pain was too great.
Eventually, Toph conceded defeat and tried for a smaller bit of earth. And when that failed, a smaller bit. And then a smaller bit still. Finally, she managed a piece, her feet screaming at her every second she lifted it, but Toph managed to pulled it out and deposit it on the ground.
After taking a while to sit down, Top walked over and felt it. It was tiny. Granted, by the standards of a non-earthbender it was impressive; a full-grown laborer would be needed to lift it. But she used to be able to lift so much more. Every single earthbender she knew could lift so much more.
Toph sat down next to the tiny boulder. She'd always loved her earthbending. As long as she could remember, she played with the earth more than any babble her parents got her. Once she'd started to understand the world, the earth had been the only one who never judged her, never made excuses or didn't let her do things. She hadn't encountered many other earthbenders, but she'd always thought she was good at it. And now…
Toph fought back tears. She hated growing up. She hated her stupid bindings.
Toph sat at the table, considering her options. To go for a drink or not? On the one hand, she was thirsty. On the other hand, the tea would mean she had to walk. Walks hurt and stunk and she hated walking. Maybe if she just waited she's stop being thirsty…
"Excuse me." It was the boy from the walk. "Do you want me to get you a drink?" Toph hesitated. Toph hated asking for things … but her feet hurt.
"Here." Toph felt the drink place in her outstretched hand.
After finishing it off, Toph stayed silent, struggling with herself.
Finally, she spoke. "Thank you."
Toph regarded the visitor with suspicion. Old women meant nothing good. Her mother had assured her this would be nothing bad, but Toph didn't trust her and she had screamed and cried until she got her mother to stay in the room.
"My name is Nu Wa, and I am here to train you in earthbending."
"Can't," Toph mumbled.
"I'm sorry, please speak up."
"Can't," Toph said slightly louder, shoving her feet onto the table to her mother's horror.
Nu Wa gave a slight chuckle. "I am not talking about the uncivilized chucking of boulders, but a proper lady's earthbending." One advantage of being blind was Toph didn't feel the need to face people in order to hear them, which meant she could preserve the illusion of being disinterested even when she wasn't. "Please, hold out your hand," Nu Wa continued.
Toph held out her hand, the picture of disinterest and reluctance. Nu Wa placed something in. "What is this?" Toph asked as she felt it, soft, smooth. This wasn't earth, or rock, it was-
"Clay. We are going to begin with sculpting."
Adults were stupid. Since she was blind no one bothered to hide the double-backed sugared plums from her. Toph grunted as she stretched her arm up. Stupid high shelves.
Toph thrust her arms forward, trying to shake the earth, and with it, the plum jar. Unfortunately it was as useless as all her other efforts. She wanted to kick something, but she knew how bad an idea that was. Instead she sat down in frustration. It wasn't even about the stupid plums any more, just being so-
The jar fell to the ground with a crash.
Toph looked up in confusion. She could hear someone approaching.
"Hey, I, I thought maybe you wanted one?" It was the boy from earlier.
Toph smiled, and reached for one of the plums. Feeling its plump, soft outside. She bit into it, enjoying the delicious juicy sweetness. She was still angry about the earthbending, but she had to admit that the plums were wonderful when you were feeling down.
Unfortunately the good times could only last so long. There was an angry scream from one of the servants, "What is going on here?"
Before Toph could think of a response, the boy stood up. "I'm sorry, Mother, the jar just fell and I was cleaning it up-"
The sound of someone being smacked followed.
"Don't lie to me. You knocked it off on purpose. And what is Lady Toph doing in here?" Toph's fists clenched, she hated it when people treated her as if she wasn't there.
"I don't know. She just walked in."
"Idiot boy, what if she had injured herself on the shards?" the mother yelled back. Toph gnashed her teeth; like clay would pierce the stupid bandages. "Lady, are you alright?"
"Alright? Is something wrong?" Toph asked, the picture of innocence.
"You didn't see?"
"See what? I'm blind."
"No, no nothing." She turned her attention back to her son. "There will be no dinner tonight, and be grateful no one found out. Now make sure Lady Toph doesn't hurt herself while I get something to clean this up."
As the woman left, the boy spoke up, "Sorry."
Toph shrugged. "For what? I didn't get in trouble."
"No, for Mom ignoring you."
Toph was surprised, that was the first time anyone had even noticed other people ignoring her. "Thanks. And thanks for not tattling."
"I broke it."
Toph laughed. "Yeah. What's your name?"
"Ohev." Toph bowed like her parents taught her. "It is an honor to meet you."
"Bored, are you?" Nu Wa asked.
Toph smiled sweetly. "Oh no, sifu, what could ever give you that impression?"
"I've had plenty of students." Nu Wa was right. Toph was so bored. Shaping clay was the dullest, easiest earthbending she'd ever done. You didn't even need to be an earthbender to do it, so what was the point? Okay, non-earthbenders couldn't shape dried clay, but so what? The day after she'd learned that the plum-jars had been locked in wooden cabinets. Even though she was only six, Toph was fairly certain the two events were correlated. Nu Wa continued speaking, "You want a bit more of a challenge? Fine then, hold out your hand."
Toph felt the object placed in it; hard, smooth, cool. "A stone?"Toph felt it again to make sure, but there was nothing special about it. It was simply a plain, smooth stone, like one would scoop from the river.
"Sculpting is the second of the shaping arts. Now go on, shape it." Toph stood up. "And what do you think you're doing?"
Nu Wa gave a small laugh. "As I said before, this is art, not brutish rock throwing. You don't bend with your feet. Bend with your hands. Now sit down."
Toph did so, grumbling low enough Nu Wa couldn't hear. Toph tried to earthbend the stone, but it was impossible. She just pushed against it, but there was nothing to push back with. She could stand against the ground, but she wasn't stable. Toph fought against the rock, twisting her hands as she tried to find some way to force it to move. Stupid, impossible, rock, if she could just stand up-
Toph gave and exasperated sigh and threw the stone across the table in frustration.
"Giving up so easily?" Nu Wa picked up the rock. She held in her hands for a moment before setting it down in front of Toph. "Now, try to shape it back."
Toph picked it up again, only to find the rock was now completely different. All spiky and delicate. As Toph traced her fingers on it, a clearer picture began to emerge. It was a miniature badger-mole figurine. The sides were ruffled to resemble fur, the snout had little dimples for the nostrils, and the tiny claws were even sharp.
Toph pushed against the rock, trying to turn it back.
"Are you sure we should be doing this?" Ohev asked nervously. "We could get in trouble."
"Duh, that's what makes it fun. Now watch out for me, or you're gonna lose your earthbending." Toph put her ear against the door.
"It is amazing," Nu Wa gushed. She never sounded so impressed during their lessons. "When she was doing pottery, I wasn't impressed. Then with sculpting she actually became interested, enthusiastic."
"Then her work is acceptable?" her father asked. "Even with her disability?"
"Her work on the clay was acceptable. Her progress with sculpting is just… sublime. She's become so much more receptive to learning. Look at the figurine. It's almost an exact duplicate of the one I gave her."
"So her work is good?"
"No, you don't understand. Her work is amazing, and I would not hesitate to call her a prodigy. It is a shame about her blindness, she will never learn all the arts of earthbending. But still, her sculpting alone-"
"Toph!" Ohev shook her. "Someone's comin'."
The two beat a hasty retreat from the door.
That night, they met up for more fun.
"So what is it?" Ohev voice quivered with excitement. Which was right and proper, Toph was going to tell him a secret, and everyone knew secrets were the best thing ever. Especially secrets the adults didn't know.
"You promise not to tell anyone?"
"Yes. I promise."
Toph smiled and pulled out a rock, it was about the size of one of the worker's fists. Slowly she began to shape it, turning it long and thin, and flattening the edge to a perfect sharpness. Soon she held a stone knife in her hand. She held it out. "Feel it."
Ohev took the knife. "Ouch!" And Toph heard it clatter to the floor.
"Shhh, you'll wake everyone up. You gotta be careful with it. Now give it back."
Ohev handed the knife back. "What are you gonna do with it?"
"Watch." Toph, who was already sitting down, lifted one of her feet into the air and began to cut the bindings.
"Do you want-"
"I have it." Toph hissed back. Slowly she cut through the layers of hardened binding. Once they were cut she began ripping them away with joy. She then resharpened the knife and began to work on the other foot.
Once both feet were free, she stretched out her legs and felt around her feet. She frowned. They felt wrong. She was sure feet weren't supposed to be that way. Still, they would go back to normal now that the bindings were removed, she was certain.
Toph stood up.
Pain shot through her feet. Toph fought back tears. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair, she had cut them away. It shouldn't hurt anymore. It shouldn't hurt to stand.
"Are you alright?" Ohev asked with worry.
Toph carefully put one foot in front of her. "I'm... I'm fine."
Toph's plan proved less effective than she hoped. The next morning, her parents immediately freaked. "Quickly, summon Chanzu." Her lessons were stopped and now Nu Wa, her mother and father some of the servants stood in the room with her.
"What!" Toph protested indignantly. She had removed them. They weren't allowed to put them back. That wasn't fair.
Her father bent down to her. "Now tell me. Did you know who? What villain attacked you?"
Toph crossed her arms. She wasn't talking.
"Toph I know you must be scared. But I need you to tell me anything you can remember. I know you can't see, but please try."
Her father stood up. "Chang, conduct a full investigation. We need to find out who did this whoever it is much be kicked out of the household."
"Wait!" Toph's mouth dropped as Ohev rushed in. "Wait. I did it, I cut the bindings."
"You what!" her father asked in disbelief.
"What!" Toph finally regained her voice. What was he doing?
"You realize your entire family will be dismissed?" Lao asked.
"No!" Toph shouted. "He didn't do it. I did!" Toph shouted.
"Toph, please be quite. Now, boy, tell me how you did it."
"I earthbent a knife," Ohev answered.
"No, he didn't!"
Her father ignored her objectins objections. "Right, well then, Chang. Summon the boy's parents. If they couldn't control him-"
"IT WAS ME!" Toph screamed, why was he doing this? Did he want to be sent away? What was wrong with him!
"Toph, I know you like him." Her mother bent down to try to calm her. "But don't try to pretend he didn't do it. He could have hurt you."
"Wait." Nu Wa's voice cut through the atmosphere, and even Toph's father was silent. "You say you earthbent the knife?"
"Yes," Ohev answered.
Her father said, "Now then-"
Nu Wa cut him off. "Hmph. An untrained boy making a knife sharp enough to cut through foot bindings? My students are much better liars."
"But-" Ohev began.
"So you made the knife? Very well." Nu Wa handed him a round stone. "Here should be all you need to create another. Show us."
The next several minutes were silent, save for the sound of Ohev grunting and trying to move it.. Finally, he began yelling, "Hey, wait! Give it back. I'm not done!"
"And you never will be. Now look at this." For once Toph wished she could see, to know what it looked like. "Does anyone think this could have possibly cut through properly made bindings? I admit to not particularly examining Toph's, but then I don't need to. Chanzu is a professional. Now Toph, you claim you did it?"
"Yes, sifu," Toph answered.
"Then show us." Nu Wa handed her the same piece of rock. Toph felt Ohev's clumsy attempts to shape it. Not a sharp edge anywhere, it wasn't even straight. Toph quickly flattened the blade out, recreating the knife.
"Here," she said, handing it back to Nu Wa.
"Now, tell me. As before, is there any doubt that this could have cut through them?" Nu Wa added to Toph's parents, "You can feel it if you like."
"Wait!" Ohev yelled. "I lied. I didn't really make the knife."
"Oh?" Nu Wa's replied.
"I… I stole one, from the kitchen."
"What? He's lying!" Toph yelled.
"You stole it from the Kitchens?" "Well, let us go down stairs and you can show us how you managed to get a knife sharp enough to cut the bindings. I admit to not having inspected the kitchen in the house, but I remember they tend to be kept in locked, high, cabinets, exactly so children cannot get to them. And you claim you managed to?"
"I-I- I did. I'll prove it. I'll get them!" Ohev answered resolvedly.
As the others filed out of the room, Toph moved to get up but her mother held her down. "You can't walk like that."
"I wanna talk to Nu Wa."
"What is it?" Nu Wa moved towards her.
"Don't thank me." She replied coldly. "I simply can't stand seeing the wrong people blamed. And I'm going to suggest you receive appropriate punishment." Even so, Toph was grateful.
Toph lay in her bed. Ohev hadn't been able to reach the kitchen knives. Once it was clear she had cut her foot bindings, her parents had decided it wasn't that bad. She had needed rebinding soon anyways.
After it was done, her new bandages bound her feet even tighter. Worse, they'd put some sort of metal…. thing over them to prevent her from removing them. Apparently she wasn't the first girl to think of cutting them off.
"Toph?" It was Ohev, sneaking into her bedroom. Toph turned to the other side, trying to pretend she was asleep. "Are you mad at me?"
Toph didn't answer.
Toph had had enough. "Sorry! Sorry? You almost got you and your family kicked out. And then - and then you would have been gone. Why are you so stupid?"
"I was worried about you."
"Me?" Toph asked in confusion, "What were you worried about me for?"
"Your parents said they'd kick out the person who did it. I have a family. We could have gone somewhere else. But…. But you wouldn't have had anyone."
"Stupid… My parents wouldn't have done that. Besides, I could have lived on my own."
"Well I, I could go to the cave outside of town. Live in them, just like a fire barbarian." Toph wasn't exactly sure exactly what a barbarian was, but she remembered her mother said that they didn't have footbindings. Their women were undignified and fought all the time. And everyone was scared of 'em. Toph thought that sounded like fun.
"But what would you eat?"
Toph paused. She hadn't considered that. "Well… bugs and worms, that's what barbarians eat."
"Coarse it is." Toph hesitated; being a barbarian sounded like less fun now. "And you could bring me food from the house."
"Oh. Sorry for ruining it then."
"It's fine." Toph stopped thinking. "I'm really glad you didn't have to go. You're my friend."
"Of course you are, stupid."
"Oh… You're my friend too, Toph."
AN: This story is already complete, and as such will be updated weekly. Promise, honestly.
Thanks to Loopy7777, Lavanya Six and pandora_remix for story development. An extra special thanks to Lavanays Six for Betaing at the very last minute, and not killing me for dumping a 30k fic to beta over about two weeks.