After Xin Fu was firmly trounced the group walked back over to Toph, who had dug herself out of the ground. Aang asked, "So, Toph, what are you doing here?"
"I came to rescue you, duh."
"See, Katara!" Aang's voice dripped with cheer. "I knew it would work out."
"Guys, I hate to interrupt this joyous conversation," Sokka put his hand on their shoulders, "but we really need to get going. Xin Fu's goons and Ohev are going to be back any minute."
Toph shook her head. "Not they're not. I took care of them."
"Wait, all of them?"
"Wow," said Aang. "That's amazing." For a second Toph wondered if he was mocking her, but his tone was sincere.
Toph waved her hand dismissively. "It was nothing."
"But you must have been scared, facing them all," Aang pressed.
"Puu-leeze, it was nothing. It took them all on and- shoot." Toph snapped her fingers.
"What?" asked Sokka.
"We need to find a healer in town. I think a few of them might be dying."
"Actually," Katara spoke up, "I'm a healer."
Katara waved her hands over the Masked Earthbender. Toph was getting really tired of not knowing what other bending movements meant, and resolved to learn as soon as possible. After a few minutes, Katara pronounced her diagnosis. "He's fine."
"What?" Toph was slightly indignant. "What do you mean he's fine? I stabbed him with a knife."
"Well it didn't penetrate very deep, the wound was tiny. Just give me another minute and it'll be patched up."
"But, but, he fell to the ground-"
Katara said, "Oh, that. He just fainted."
"Fainted!" Toph groused, "What a wimp."
"Quite moving," snapped Katara.
To Toph, the rumbler said, "The Boulder - OW! - does not like you."
"I said, quit moving. And just be grateful they didn't penetrate very far or hit anything vital." Katara's bedside manner was appalling. Toph wondered if all Water Tribe healers were like this. Must suck to get injured up there.
The Boulder mumbled something, though the only word Toph could make out was "women".
Katara moved her hand down lower. "What was that?" she said with excessively false cheer.
"THE BOULDER WILL BE GOOD!"
"What did she do?" Toph whispered to Sokka.
"Threatened to freeze his… boulders." Sokka shuddered.
Toph sat down, enjoying the silence that was broken only by the occasional "ow" from either the Boulder or the Mole. Her revere ended as she felt a new set of vibrations; faint, but there. She got up and wondered back to the entrance.
There was nothing. No breathing, no rustle of leaves. "Ohev?" Toph stepped back, she shouldn't have come alone. "Guys!" she yelled out, even though they weren't that far. Toph crouched down, trying to find him, but there was nothing- no, Toph could make out slight vibrations of, coming from far off. Ohev was running, and making good time. There was no way they were going to catch him, especially at night.
Aang was the first to the scene. "Toph! What happened?"
"Ohev's gone." That sentence, it shouldn't have hurt, but…
"Good, I don't want see him again." Katara's voice had an edge worse than the one she'd used with the Boulder.
"Shut up," Toph mumbled back.
"What? He betrayed you."
"He - he was stupid. B-b he wasn't trying to hurt me. He meant well. He was helping the Fire Nation because they forbid footbindings." Toph admitted the last part was a petty snipe as much as anything else, but she was feeling surprisingly petty. "I don't think he meant to be bad."
"Fine." Katara folded her arms. "He still betrayed you."
"Actually-" Aang picked up a rock and held it out for the other two to see, then he wordlessly handed it to Toph. Toph traced the rock, crudely sketched on it was a single word.
"So," Aang asked once all the rumblers were healed, "what are you going to do now?"
"Actually... you still in the market for a teacher?"
"You bet! Oh, just wait till you see Appa… well not see Appa, but you know what I mean." Aang continued to happily babble about his flying bison, not noticing that the rest of the group had fallen behind.
Katara walked next to her. "Hey, Toph?"
"Do you wish you could earthbend? I mean, that your feet weren't bound."
Toph sighed. "Look, I'm fine. I'll be able to teach Aang. I already taught one earthbender. And I won't be a burden or useless. I took out the rumblers. I'm fine."
"I didn't mean it like that."
Now Toph felt angry. "Oh, and just how did you 'mean it'?"
"I meant, how would you like to have your feet back to the way they were?"
Toph stopped. "What?"
"I'm not sure it will work, but I might have an idea-"
"Katara, are you sure?" asked Sokka. "This is going to use all the spirit water."
"Yes, I'm sure," snapped Katara. "Toph, are you ready?"
Toph sat on the grass, her feet outstretched. If she were honest, she wasn't ready, the set-up reminded her to much of the bindings, and it was probably going to hurt just as much. But being able to earthbend, having her feet restored, that was worth it. "Yes, just get it on."
The first thing Toph felt was wetness. The water shifted around, tickling her feet ever so slightly. Then-
For the rest of her life Toph would never be able to describe the feeling that came next. It was like nothing else in the world. It wasn't painful, but it wasn't pleasant either. It was weird. It was like her feet were moving, only they weren't. Like they were flowing, the skin and muscles had become water, or- or- words failed, any description she could come up with was only a crude approximation of the sensation.
"Stay still," Katara cautioned. Toph tried, but it was hard since her feet felt like they were moving on their own. She could hear the boys giving alternative ohhhs and ewwws in the background.
The healing wasn't quick, and it defiantly wasn't some instant reformation. It remained Toph of diamond bending more than anything else. Actually, that was good metaphor for the difference between this and her bindings. The bindings were like Earthbending, forcing the feet to comply, this was like diamond bending, coaxing them. As it wore on, she could feel the slight rays of the sun that indicated morning on her face.
"All right," Katara finally said. "I think that's it." The water withdrew.
Toph felt her feet. The first thing she noticed was that they still felt weird, like they were somebody else's feet. The second thing was how easy it was to wiggle her toes. Toph spent several minutes just wiggling them in delight. Next she felt her foot, it was… like a man's foot. Big, flat, no bone near the skin.
Finally, cautiously, Toph stood up. "It, it doesn't hurt…" It had been a long time since she'd even noticed, but, with its absence, it was as obvious as an earthquake. The constant background pain that happened every time she walked wasn't there. She could stand up without any aches at all.
Toph felt tears of joy rolling down her face.
The second thing she noticed was how much livelier the world was. She could feel everything. It was like she was walking on her hands. The vibrations didn't feel exactly the same, but they were there, and strong. It was amazing. Actually, Toph felt slightly worried. Unlike her hands, she couldn't exactly lift her feet up to stop feeling things. What if she wanted some peace and quiet?
Still, any doubts were more than overcome by her sheer joy. She could earthbend with just as much power as the guys. "This is awesome!" Toph stomped her feet, revealing in her power.
Pain shot through her foot. Toph, in agony, grasped it. The miniature earthquake created by her stomp unbalanced her. Already somewhat shaky and now standing on one foot, she lost her balance and fell to the ground.
The joy drained away, replaced by a hollow feeling. "I thought, I thought I was supposed to be healed. What's wrong?"
"I-I don't know? Let me check." Katara crouched down, sending water toward her feet. Toph felt some that strange sensation again as the water circled over her feet, but not quite, the weird… energy was there, but her feeling of her feet becoming water wasn't. After a few minutes, Katara finally withdrew the water. Somberly, she informed her, "Toph, I'm sorry. I can feel your chi pathways, they're much better, but the binding... its damage was bad. The water helped, they're not crocked and half-dead like before, but they're weak. Really weak."
"So… I can't bend?"
"I don't know," answered Katara. "I'm not an earthbender, but they are a lot better than before. I think you can bend, and do better than before. But they aren't fully healed, so really heavy impacts… Maybe they just need time," she offered hopefully, but from her heartbeat Toph could tell she didn't believe it.
Toph sat up, a sense of melancholy setting over her previous exuberance. This wasn't a magic cure. She was better off, but still… crippled.
But as she sat there, she began to cheer up. She couldn't do the style males preferred, but so what? She could manage. She'd never been concerned with copying the rumblers before. Ohev had won thanks to the foot sense, and she'd beaten all the rumblers by not playing the same game. Sure, she couldn't do heavy attack, but a lighter, more maneuverable style she could handle. She could do anything.
"It's okay." Toph smiled. "Thanks."
"Hey, Toph?" said Aang. "Do you want to say good-bye to your parent?"
Toph laughed and lifted her foot. "Like this? Please, if they're one thing this did it's guarantee I have to go with you. They would freak."
This was irony. She was finally able to feel the ground all the time and they had a method of travel through the air. Toph felt nervous and slightly sick. She needed something to take her mind off it. And besides, the question had been burning away at her. "Katara?"
"Why do you heal?"
"What?" Katara said in confusion.
"When we were back home, you said that the Northern Tribe force women to heal. But you, you managed to learn to fight. You don't have to heal. Why do you?"
"I… well…" Katara struggled for an answer. "Why wouldn't I? I can still fight and heal. I mean, it's not like I hate healing, or it's bad. I hated what they did because I wanted to be able to fight, not because I hated healing."
Toph was silent. "Is something wrong?" Katara asked.
"Yeah, Aang! Turn around."
"Huh? What are you doing?"
"I have one last goodbye to say."
Toph asked the rest of them to stay back, she wanted to do this alone. It should be… private.
Nu Wa's manners were, always impeccable. Even though Toph had dropped out of nowhere, she had set the table like it was just a routine visit. "Toph, I had hoped I might see you."
"Your parents, or rather one of their servants came by. They woke me up in the middle of the night. Apparently you've vanished."
"Sorry. You can tell them I'm fine…. and that I won't be coming back."
Nu Wa took a sip of tea. "I see."
"And… I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to say that I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Nu Wa said in honest confusion.
"I never really respected you. I always thought of your earthbending as inferior. Not as good as the guys. Theirs is flashier, but it wasn't worse, just different."
Nu Wa laughed. "Child, if I had a penny for every student how didn't respect my teaching, I would be a much richer woman… But I must ask, what path?"
"I knew you were great, that's why I gave you such indulgences. That you had such skills, you would be more than just a great earthbender. You would be one to redefine the art. To add a new skill and take a place in history. Now, it seems you've found your path. So tell me, what is it? What path could requires you to run away from home?"
"I'm teaching the Avatar."
Wordlessly, Toph took a rock from her pocked and shaped it into a knife, making a few swishing motions. Next she focused on the table, bending little spike up, they were small, far smaller than a male's, but sharp, and so hard to see. Next she took out a crystal, and began to make it vibrate, though she calmed it back down before it exploded.
The room was silent.
Finally, Toph could take it no longer. "Sifu?"
Nu Wa gave a mirthless chuckle. "I'm sorry, but even though I prepared myself, it is still so hard. I know art, new art, is always decried by the old guard, ridiculed and seen as inferior, or worse, an abomination. I prepared myself, I was not going to be like that. And yet… to see the art used for violence." Nu Wa sighed.
"I'm sorry, this is who I am."
"I... I know. And I could do nothing to stop you. But, as I said, you will redefine the world. Bringing girls to the battlefield, bad enough the men have to do it…"
"If we don't fight, the Fire Nation will conquer us as all."
Nu Wa didn't speak for a long time. "Before you go, I have one last gift." Nu Wa got up and reached into her lockbox, pulling out a small piece of paper. "This is a letter, for your parents. It certifies that you learned everything yourself, and I only oversaw two days of your training. And that the earthvision was entirely yours. You can keep it or send it to them as you want." She handed it to Toph.
"But won't this ruin your reputation?"
Nu Wa shrugged. "I'm getting old. And have a nice nest egg to retire to. It never sat right with me, lying about such genius."
Toph turned the letter over in her hands, half considering tearing it right there. Eventually, she stuffed it in her pocket.
"Does this guy have a name?" Zuko turned to see a women like Lee and his father, she was dressed in simple green.
Zuko struggled, his usual name unavailable. "I, uh?"
She laughed. "Not another one!"
Gansu shook his head. "Like I said before, he doesn't have to say if he doesn't want to. Anyone who can hold his own against those bullies is welcome here. Heck, at this rate, we might have our own private army."
Zuko blinked. "What?"
Lee sheepishly rubbed his head. "Sorry, I forgot to mention him."
Gansu nodded. "Well stranger, you're not the first person in these parts. We've got another guest, even younger than you. Handy though, I don't think I've seen a better earthbender. If he wasn't so young, I'd say it a shame he wasn't in the army."
Looking past the man, Zuko though he could make out the other guest. Gansu was right, he was young. But Zuko didn't let that fool him, if the walls her was conjuring up weren't enough, Zuko experience with the Avatar had dissuaded him of any notion that a lack of age meant a lack of skill.
Somewhat reluctantly, Zuko walked over. He might as well introduce himself now, and get it over with.