Enough time had passed since the last time that Toph and Sokka had visited the Southern Water Tribe that she couldn't quite remember when exactly she was here last. The memories of the visit swam groggily in her head, the voices of her closest friends and family mixing together to paint a fuzzy picture of the meeting, but she couldn't pinpoint when it had happened. Was Aang at that visit? She thought he was, but maybe she was wrong. It had been two whole years since he died, after all, and surely they couldn't have been away that long.
One thing she had no trouble remembering, however, was how much she hated the snow and ice.
"I still don't know how you ever managed to live here," she complained loudly to her husband for the sixth time since disembarking from the boat. "I've only been here a few minutes and I'm already freezing!"
"Toph, I've told you before, if you wore shoes–"
"I am wearing shoes!"
"Not very good ones," he persisted in an amused voice. She felt him shift beside her, presumably craning his neck over to study the moccasins that the workers on the boat had insisted (first politely, then less so) on her wearing. "Those things barely count as shoes, they hardly cover your feet. They don't even go up to your ankles."
"You just be lucky I'm wearing them at all," she grumbled, dutifully ignoring the fact that she had fought putting them on tooth and nail not a half hour ago. "The soles are still too thick. I can hardly see a thing."
"That's why I'm guiding you," Sokka said, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. Instead of endearing to his scowling wife, however, the comment just made her brow furrow deeper. Initially, Toph had insisted on walking herself; this hadn't been a problem in years past, when she would simply refuse to wear shoes. Her feet would be half frozen off by the time they got to Sokka's father's (and then, after he died, their son's) home, but that was the accepted cost of being able to make out some of the shapes of the buildings and people around her through the icy ground.
Adding shoes to that mix, unfortunately, tipped the balance of the scales unfavorably, and Toph had careened into two buildings, a hapless polar bear dog, and no less than five unfortunate pedestrians before Sokka made a weary plea to Toph to let him guide her until they got to their destination.
"I shouldn't need to be guided. I'm an old blind lady, not an invalid!"
"We're almost there," he reassured her. "Then you can go barefoot the rest of the time you're here for all that I care."
"Good," she huffed. "I don't understand how you put up with shoes, either. They're so irritating."
"Well, I like keeping my feet safe from malevolent rocks and frostbite, see."
"Shut up, smartass."
He laughed, shifting so that his arm was wrapped around her shoulders. She fell against him with an air of grudging acquiescence, although after a moment he felt her arm slip around his waist. He couldn't keep the grin off of his face as they walked together, arms around each other while the city of the Southern Water Tribe pulsed with life around them.
The tribe was nothing like when Sokka was young, but that wasn't at all a bad thing. The city that the Fire Nation had destroyed had been rebuilt; the struggling, disparate villages had once again reunited as one tribe living in the same city; and the populations had righted themselves, the growing number of Waterbenders flourishing in the icy climate. They had even managed to start to bring in some modern conveniences from the big industrial cities of the other nations. Large-scale electricity, like he and Toph enjoyed in United Republic City, wasn't available yet, but they were starting to import battery-run devices, and a small radio station with an accompanying tower was being considered for construction.
The city's leadership was also thinking about modifying the vehicles that Sokka himself had designed to work in the frigid climate. In actuality, that was part of the reason they were here. They wanted to talk with the inventor of the machines himself to see if it would be possible to get such vehicles here. Sokka had been mulling over the issue every since he received their correspondence, outlining the vehicle's cold-weather shortfalls and trying to think of how to fix them. He had a few general ideas, bouncing the notions off of Toph until she had finally reminded him as loudly as possible that she was an Earthbender, not a science weirdo like him. Of course, he still needed to iron the issues out further before they could be implemented. They'd be here for a few weeks at least.
People who recognized them called out as they passed, asking how the United Republic was holding up under the rising tide of Equalist rebels. Sokka tried to answer as briefly as possible, sensing Toph's building irritation at the roadblocks between them and her ability to get rid of her shoes.
Their son Atka was waiting in the doorway when they finally reached his house, grinning at his parents as they approached.
"It's about time you two showed up," he called out as they drew closer, holding back the thick curtain that served as his door so they could enter. "The boat docked almost an hour ago."
"We were sidetracked a few times," Sokka said, ducking through the doorway with Toph still under his arm.
Atka followed them in, allowing the curtain to fall back into place. "I can imagine. People have been asking about you guys a lot. Oma, too. Being connected to the United Republic sort of makes you an attention magnet down here these days."
Toph was kicking off her shoes as her son talked, sighing with relief as her feet connected with solid ground. She then smirked, cocking her head at Atka. "Are you going to yammer on about politics all day, or are you going to get over here and give your mother a hug?"
Atka laughed again, crossing the distance between them to wrap her in a strong embrace. He was a touch paler than Sokka, but otherwise he resembled his father closely. The only thing he really inherited from his mother was her bending prowess, albeit in a different element than the one she bended. "It's good to see you, Mom. And you, Dad. How's Oma?"
"She's got her hands full," Sokka said, dropping his pack on the ground and stretching with a dull groan. "Those Equalists are a real piece of work. We could really use the Avatar right about now, eh?"
Toph broke away from her son to face her husband. "He always did tend to disappear at inopportune times, didn't he?" she asked softly.
Sokka dipped his head into a brief nod, his expression crestfallen. "Yeah, you can say that again. Pity we know he's not coming back this time..."
The ice hut was silent except for the crackling of the fire as the small family allowed themselves to be lost in mourning for a few minutes. It was Atka who broke the silence, heaving a sigh as he reached up to tug at his wolf tail. "I still can't believe Uncle Aang is gone. He always seemed too full of life to die."
"No kidding," Toph muttered, crossing her arms tightly over her chest. "Sometimes I don't even remember that he's dead. Life without him just feels...unreal."
"Speaking of which," Atka ventured hesitantly, "you guys picked an...interesting day to arrive."
Toph angled herself to face her son, sightless eyes narrowed. "Interesting how?"
He fidgeted nervously, "Well, it's been about two years..."
"And...traditionally, the new Avatar is chosen when they're two, so..."
"You're looking for the new Avatar today?" Sokka asked, surprise in his voice.
"Tomorrow," Atka said. "I have to be there since I'm one of the tribe's Waterbending Masters. You guys can come, too, if you'd like."
"Don't you think that would be a bit weird?" Toph asked softly. She turned to face the fire place, arms crossed firmly over her chest again. "To be there with the kid, and know that he's Aang...but also not Aang..."
"Chief Tarak asked that you two come," he continued, flinching when his mother spun suddenly to glare at him. "Um, if you'd like. Please."
"We had enough to do with the last Avatar," Toph grumbled, turning back to the fire. "To be frank, I'm not so sure that I want anything to do with this one."
"You guys might be able to help," he persisted. Atka hesitated for a moment before turning to his father when he realized he was getting nowhere with his mother. "Dad, please. You two knew what it was like for Uncle Aang. If you were there to talk to the new Avatar's parents..."
"Why didn't Chief Tarak contact us about this directly?" Sokka asked tiredly.
"Well, it's not necessary that you two are there, of course," Atka clarified hesitantly. "It just might make things go smoother. That's all."
"'Might'," Toph echoed brusquely. "This seems like an awful lot of guess work for something as important as finding the next Avatar."
Atka dropped heavily onto a pelt that was spread out on the floor in front of the fire, his pale blue eyes fixed on the glowing embers at its heart. "It is a lot of guess work. No one really realized how much information about the Avatar had been lost in the century that Uncle Aang was missing until we needed it."
"And how much information is missing?" Sokka pressed his son, sitting on the floor across from him.
"A lot," Atka admitted glumly. "Almost all of the information the Southern Water Tribe had was destroyed, except for some prayers in our language that are supposed to be said by a priest over the Avatar when we find him. We're sort of...borrowing everything else from the Northern Water Tribe."
"And how much information do they have?" Toph asked, finally folding herself down onto the ground next to her husband, wincing at her aching joints.
"Enough," Atka hedged. He sat for a moment under the critical gaze of his father and the stern skepticism of his mother before he finally heaved a sigh and clarified, "The Northern Tribe actually has the most complete record of procedures out of all of the Nations. The Fire Nation's records have been completely destroyed. The Air Nomads records are missing about half of what they'd need, but unfortunately, there's only one person in the world who speaks the language they were written in, and he's refused to translate them until after the new Avatar has been found."
"What's the big deal, anyhow?" Toph asked in exasperation. "From what Aang said, all the little snot monster has to do is pick out some toys. Why is this something that has to be all ritualistic and complicated?"
"It's a deeply spiritual matter, Mom," he said, deliberately ignoring the fact that she just called the most powerful bender in the world a snot monster. "Each of the four bending nations had their own ways of doing it."
"Well, we don't know, do we?" he said in an exasperated voice. "A lot of the records were destroyed! We can piece together the basics; who finds the Avatar, who's responsible for telling them, things like that, but the specifics...we just don't know." After she sat silently for a moment, glaring at Atka as if he had just levied a serious offense against her, he persisted, "Mom, if you have a problem with it, take it up with the chief, not me. I don't know why they're doing what they're doing. I just know that I have to be there."
Sokka turned to face his wife, reaching out to gently grasp her hand. "It wouldn't hurt anything," he said softly. "It might be kind of neat, wouldn't it, seeing the new Avatar?"
She pressed her lips together, the anger that was building in her painfully evident. After a few tense minutes of silence, her husband and son watching her in silent anticipation, she heaved a frustrated sigh. "Fine. Fine. We'll go tomorrow. And I'm giving Chief Tarak a piece of my mind while I'm there!"
The selection ceremony for the new Avatar wasn't taking place until mid-morning, but the little family set out for the location of the event right after breakfast with the intent of letting Toph rail at the chief in the least-embarrassing setting as possible. The huge hall of ice where the ceremony was taking place wasn't exactly like the palatial fortress that served as the home of the royal family in the north, but it was similar in function and design; just less ornate, and no one lived there. It served as a meeting place for the tribe to gather for ceremonies, celebrations, and announcements, the wide interior large enough to fit the swelled Southern population with ease.
When they entered the hall, they saw (or vaguely sensed in Toph's case) workers setting up a vast collection of toys. They were all laid out on the floor in neat rows, with enough room in between them for a grown person to walk with ease; dolls, stuffed animals, toy instruments, harmless play swords, and everything in between.
"How many are there?" Toph asked, unable to make out a specific number through the soles of her shoes.
"Five hundred or more, I'd say," Sokka murmured, tightening his grip on her lightly. "Ah, and here comes..."
Cheif Tarak was making his way over to them, carefully sidestepping the rows and rows of toys that were still being arranged. He offered them a smile as he drew nearer, one that only Sokka and Atak returned.
"It's good to see you again," he said, reaching out to grasp Sokka's arm. "How was your journey?"
"Uneventful," Sokka said, detaching himself from Toph to return the Water Tribe handshake. "How wa–"
"Sokka, stop stalling and let me talk to the man," Toph cut in curtly, her eyes narrowed. He hesitated for a moment before stepping to the side, shooting the chief an apologetic grimace as he did so.
"What's the point in getting Sokka and I tangled up in this anyhow?" she asked, her voice a bit louder than necessary.
"Master Bei Fong, we just tho–"
"I am old," she snapped. "I fought in and ended the war. I knew Aang since we were twelve and he literally couldn't Earthbend to save his life."
"Or my life," Sokka grumbled.
"And when you're as old as me, chief, you don't need to be going and getting all tangled up in the next generation's political crap! So there'd better be a really good reason for you asking us here today, or I'm going to–"
"Master Bei Fong," he tried again, frantically speaking over her, "I understand your frustration, but please understand, we – we're trying to make this all as easy and painless for everyone involved as possible."
Toph let out a short laugh. "Ha! Painless. Right. Because Sokka and I aren't going to be hurt at all by knowing that the soul of our dead friend is in this kid, right Sokka?"
"I can't imagine how difficult this is for you, but understand, your cooperation will be a great help to us. The process of choosing the Avatar–"
"Involves making the kid pick out some toy, teaching them Waterbending, making sure they don't do anything stupid for sixteen years, and then shipping them off to learn the other three elements," she deadpanned. "Why on earth do you need us?"
"I'm afraid it's a bit more complicated than that," he said wearily. "There are ceremonies to be see–"
"Unnecessary," she cut in firmly. "All of this is just useless pomp! What's the point of any of it?"
"Tradition, Master Bei Fong."
"You say that," he said softly, "but you speak as someone who's culture wasn't destroyed in the war. If they choose to do so, the Earth Kingdom can piece together a relatively accurate ceremony for their next Avatar's selection, one that may have been used on Avatar Kyoshi. We haven't got that luxury. Right now, we're just doing our best to keep it as close to how it was as possible, and the traditions we have studied from the north did dictate that someone who knew the last Avatar be present to speak to the parents of the new Avatar."
She fell silent after his explanation, arms still crossed stubbornly over her chest even though her face was frozen in a mask of surprise. Finally, she turned away from him, scowling lightly. "You could have just said as much."
"I'm sorry we weren't clearer with our intentions," he said. "We're working with incomplete tools. It's all we can do to get a semi-accurate ceremony."
"It's fine," she said, her voice so soft he almost couldn't hear the words. "You're doing what you have to. I can hardly hold that against you."
"Thank you for understanding."
The four stood in an awkward silence, pointedly looking everywhere but at each other, before Chief Tarak finally said, "Well, I'm going to...go and confer with the head priest before the families start coming in. You two can wait on the steps over there if you'd like; the floor in that area is made of stone, so you should be able to see, Master Bei Fong. Master Atka, if you would please come with me."
Atka gave his parents a weary wave before following his chief over to where a perplexed-looking man in a polar bear headdress was studying an ancient-looking piece of parchment, eyes narrowed in confusion as he scanned the words. Sokka cleared his throat, stepping forward to grab Toph's hand. She jumped at the contact, swinging around to face him. "Where are we going?" she asked in a slightly dazed voice.
"Over here," he said, guiding her around the rows of toys. The area the chief had referred them to was literally the only visible expanse of earth in the entire building. As a rule, the Water Tribes avoided building with stone because of how vulnerable the material was to the wear and tear of water and ice, but the massive stone steps where the chief, master benders, and holy figures of the tribe sat during ceremonies were constructed with the fact that people would be sitting there for long periods of time in mind.
The moment she set foot on solid ground, Toph heaved a sigh of relief, stopping in her tracks to relish the feel of the stone beneath her. Even through her shoes, she could see everything much more clearly now. She untangled her arm from Sokka's and made her way over to the vast steps, dropping herself down on the first one she came to. She pressed both hands to the cold, rough stone on either side of her and allowed herself to soak in the feel of solid ground again.
"I don't think it'll be much longer," Sokka said as he sat down next to her. "I can see people waiting outside."
"Good," Toph muttered. "I want to go home and not do anything for a while. All this excitement is too much for an old gal like me."
Sokka snorted loud enough to draw the curious gazes of some of the workers still setting up the toys. "You're a funny person, Toph."
She smirked. "Yeah, I know. One of my many talents."
It wasn't long before the floor was almost completely covered with the neat rows of toys. Sokka had to admit that he was a bit impressed with the scale of the venture; even though he knew exactly what the four Avatar relics looked like, having seen them plenty of times in the half a century he had known Aang, he couldn't have picked them out of the crowd to save his life. At last, the bending masters, handful of priests, and finally the chief came to sit on the steps where Toph and Sokka were perched, settling carefully next to each other and murmuring with nervous excitement. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation.
"All right," Chief Tarak boomed, bringing silence to the chamber immediately. "Bring in the first family."
The man by the door nodded his head before drawing back the thick curtain of the doorway. In stepped a family of four, each of the parents holding onto a toddler.
"Which child was born at the specified time?" the chief asked.
"Both," responded the mother. "They're twins."
Sokka winced involuntarily, almost unable to imagine how hard it would be to be the twin sibling of the Avatar.
"Very well," said the chief. "Akna, if you would explain to the children what they are to do?"
A woman who was standing on the other side of the door as the man who had opened the curtain darted forward, circling around so that she was standing before the two toddlers. She bent over slightly and could be heard explaining to them in a low voice that they could each pick out four toys for themselves.
"Set them down on the ground and let them make their selections."
Sokka turned to face the chief. "Are they allowed to keep the toys?"
"Unless they unwittingly choose one of the relics, yes. It struck us as unkind otherwise."
They both turned back to watch the two children toddle out into the field of toys, staring around at their options wide-eyed. The one to Sokka's left just grabbed the first four he could get his pudgy hands on before running back to his mom as fast as his legs could carry him, whereas the other one seemed to carefully consider his options before making his selection, holding up toys next to one another in comparison before settling on the four he wanted. Neither one, as fate would have it, found any of the relics.
This process repeated itself no less than two dozen times. The workers would replace the toys that had been taken with new ones so that everyone was dealing with the same playing field. Sokka was particularly fascinated in the reactions of the parents as they brought their kids in. Some looked nervous; some looked downright terrified; others looked smug and expectant. Their reactions were predictable given their attitudes coming in; those who had been more apprehensive responded to the news that their child was not the Avatar with relief, whereas those who appeared to have been hoping that their child was the Avatar looked like they had just been force-fed a lemon.
"How many kids are we testing," Toph muttered as yet another family was led out of the building. "There can't have been this many born the same day Aang died."
"There's actually a three-day window following the Avatar's death for the next Avatar to be born," said the head priest from directly behind them. "It's rather difficult to pinpoint exactly how little time lies between the incarnations, you see. But there is one record of an Avatar being born three days exactly after his predecessor died, so that's our precedent."
"That's really interesting and everything," Toph deadpanned, "but you still didn't answer my question."
"Ah," said the priest nervously. "There are, um, thirty seven children who must be tested."
"At least we're almost done," Sokka muttered, reaching down to grab her hand.
She snorted, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. "Whatever."
They watched the next family slide hesitantly through the door, a mother, father and daughter. The mother was clutching the squirming, whining girl to her chest, the father's arm wrapped protectively around his wife's shoulders as they warily entered the room. When Akna stepped forward to explain things to the little girl, she started bawling loudly, drowning out the woman's words.
"I'm sorry," the mother could be heard saying over the girl's crying. "I'm sorry, really, she's just very cranky today and she doesn't usually like strangers."
They finally managed to get through to the toddler what they wanted her to do, and her mother set her down on the ground. The child sat there for a moment, blinking her still-teary eyes at the toys laid out in front of her before swinging her head around to stare at her parents. Her father nodded his encouragement, and with that, she pushed herself to her feet and toddled into the array of playthings.
She ignored most of them, occasionally picking up a stuffed animal only to toss it unceremoniously back to the ground. The first thing she actually expressed interest in was the Earth Kingdom relic, a wooden hog-monkey that she scooped up, examined with wide-eyed interest, and gnawed on for a moment before turning to her parents, waving it in the air, and screaming, "MINE!"
She then stuffed it under her arm and continued on her trek, staring at the toys with newfound interest now that she'd found one she liked. The tribe's elders, for their part, weren't impressed. Other kids had picked up a relic by chance before; this wasn't anything new. However, the next toy she picked up was the Water Tribe relic, a tiny, durable sea turtle made from leather. That piqued the interest of a few of the priests. She wasn't even the first to grab two relics, but she was the only one who had grabbed two of them in a row.
At this point, she had worked her way to the back, sticking to the edge without really venturing towards the middle. She walked along the back row, scanning the toys and occasionally stopping to stare at the elders sitting behind her, as if challenging them to stop her.
Finally, she drew even with Toph and Sokka, her eyes fixed on the row of toys as she clutched the first two relics to her chest. True to pattern, she glanced over her shoulder at the stone steps. All of the other times, she would glance away after a matter of seconds, her attention devoted almost fully to the toys. This time, however, she froze, her sharp blue eyes fixed on Toph and Sokka.
"Oh, no way," Sokka breathed.
She held eye contact with him for a moment before taking a tentative step towards them. The room was absolutely silent except for the soft scuffling of her feet against the floor. Sokka drew a sharp breath, squeezing his wife's hand.
"I know, Sokka," she murmured. "I can see her."
The little girl didn't stop until she was directly in front of them, her eyes still wide and her mouth now hanging open, as if she had just witnessed the most amazing thing she had ever encountered. Sokka found himself at a loss for words. His heart was inexplicably stuck in his throat. He wanted to say something to her, but he didn't know what.
"Hey, girl," Toph said suddenly, her voice like canon fire in the silent room, "you still have two more gifts to pick out, don't you?"
Her voice, far from breaking the girl of her stupor, just seemed to surprise her more. After a moment, though, she inexplicably snapped out of it, turning away from them and making her way back over to the toys as if nothing had ever happened.
"Spirits," Sokka whispered hoarsely. "That's..."
"No question," Toph murmured.
Absolutely nobody was surprised when the girl picked up the Fire Nation and Air Nomad relics. She brought the toys back to her parents, who had been staring back and forth between their daughter and the elders in terrifying apprehension, trying to gauge what was happening by their reactions. Without waiting for Akna to call him, the head priest pushed himself to his feet, making his way around the edge of the room to examine the relics – not that there was really any need. When he had confirmed that the toys that the girl held were, indeed, the Avatar Relics, he turned to give the chief a nod, a grin breaking his face. The chief nodded in return and stood. The rest of the elders quickly followed suit. The parents of the girl looked scared senseless.
"What is your daughter's name?"
"K-Korra," responded the mother weakly.
The chief nodded, making is way down the steps. "Akna, please take Korra to the side room. I must have a word with her parents."
The second the woman took the child from her mother, she began shrieking again. Not even being presented with the four toys seemed to console her. Her parents watched in helpless silence as their daughter was carried into another room, the curtain cutting off the worst of her shrieks as it fell into place.
"This way, please," Chief Tarak said softly, beckoning the parents forward before making his way to another side room. They hesitated for a moment before making their way forward around the toys, their hands locked together.
"What are we doing?" Toph asked her husband in a hushed voice.
"I don't know," Sokka said. "Maybe we should wait..."
"No," came Atka's voice from behind them. "The chief wants you in there with us. You can help explain things to the parents."
Toph turned slightly to give her son the best glare she could muster. "This isn't what we–"
"Mother, please," he pleaded. "They're probably scared enough as it is. You two might be able to help."
She scowled at him for a moment longer before her resistance grudgingly fell away. With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet, grimacing at the complaints in her joints. "Too damn old for this, Atka."
"Don't worry, Mom," he said softly as they made their way over to the side room. "This is the kind of thing you only really have to deal with once."
When they arrived, all of the others who were to discuss matters with the parents were already there; Chief Tarak, the head priest, a priest and a priestess, and two of the other Waterbending masters. They were all standing on the side of the room opposite of the parents, who were back against a wall, looking downright terrified. The husband had one arm around his wife's shoulders as the other clutched her hand, steadying her against him.
"Akau and Anatu," the chief said, "congratulations. Your daughter is the next Avatar."
It was a good thing Akau was steadying his wife, because she almost passed out at the news, slumping back against him briefly before managing to right herself.
"Are you sure?" she asked after a moment of assuring her husband that she was all right. "I mean, just from that test – you can tell? It's Korra? There's no doubt?"
"There's no doubt," Chief Tarak confirmed. "It's definitely her."
Anatu let out a shuddery gasping sound, her grip on her husband tightening. Akau stood in silence for a moment, holding her steady, before asking slowly, "What does this mean for us? As a family?"
The chief turned to the head priest, who stepped forward and explained in an almost mockingly cheerful voice, "Your lives should be more or less normal. Korra will have to learn Waterbending, of course, but I'm sure you were planning on her learning that anyway."
He paused as if waiting for their confirmation. Upon realizing that it wasn't forthcoming, he continued hastily.
"There's still some discussion about the specifics of her education, of course. One of the options we're looking at is having her learn any of the other elements available to her here in the South Pole while she's growing up instead of having her learn them when she's older."
It took a moment for that enigma of a statement to unravel in Toph's mind. When it did, she jerked slightly, opening her mouth to interject. Before she got the opportunity, the head priest said almost the exact words that were on her tongue.
"This would, of course, mean informing her of her identity within the next few years."
"Are you an idiot?"
All gazes in the room swung over to Toph, who had habitually fallen into a menacing Earthbending stance, her eyes narrowed.
"You are not thinking of robbing that poor girl of her childhood," she snarled, fists clenched and teeth bared.
"It's being considered," Chief Tarak admitted; at least he had the decency to look ashamed.
"That's – no! You can't. Do you know how awful that'd be for her?"
"Avatar Aang learned of his identity before he was of age–"
"Yeah, and it upset him so badly that he ran away from home. I can't believe you'd even seriously consider that! Just what are you trying to do to this poor girl?"
"We don't have much of a choice," said one of the master Waterbenders firmly. "The Equalists are raising more trouble by the day. Korra needs t–"
Toph huffed loudly. "If you're going to shoulder her with that much responsibility, you're going to give her the honor that comes with the title, too."
A horrifically awkward silence hung in the air after Toph's brusque demand. Atka was glancing at the other elders uncomfortably, and Sokka was resting his head in his hands, torn between agreement with what Toph was saying and mild embarrassment over the fact that they literally could not avoid causing a scene anywhere.
"...Fine," growled the master, glaring at her. "Avatar Korra needs to be able to head them off as soon as possible. And we cannot stop them without her."
"If she learns the other bending disciplines early," Anatu ventured in a voice still faint with shock, "how soon would she have to leave to fight them...?"
"We don't know yet," interjected the chief. "We're not even sure if we want to reveal her identity to her early or not. It's all very touch-and-go at this point."
The two parents still looked a bit stunned, clutching at each other in silence. When they didn't say anything else, the chief cleared his throat uncertainly, glancing over at the high priest before saying, "Well, we have a year or two before she can even start Waterbending. We'll work things out in the meantime. Again, congratulations. We'll stay in contact."
The two realized this meant that they had been dismissed. They glanced at each other briefly before sweeping out of the room, doubtless eager to get home. Toph was almost right behind them, ignoring Sokka's calls for her to wait. Before they got too far ahead of her, she darted forward as fast as she could, catching Akau by the arm.
"Can I see her?"
They stopped, turning to face her in surprise.
"I...of course," Anatu said shakily. "She doesn't like strangers much, though."
"That's fine," Toph said, releasing Akau's arm. "I have a way with kids."
She followed them to the room where Korra was waiting (distinguishable by the screaming). It was smaller than the room where they had just been, but this one had a small, roughly-hewn table, whereas the other had been bare. Akna was sitting with Korra in her lap, still making futile attempts to entertain the girl and calm her down. Toph sighed and stepped forward, her age settling in her bones as she regarded the child through the ice.
"Give her here before I go deaf, too."
Akna gratefully handed the child over, digging furiously at her ears as she ducked out of the room. Toph was notably unsurprised when Korra stopped shrieking upon being placed in her arms.
"She really is adorable," she heard Sokka say from behind her, making her jump.
"I'll bet," Toph murmured.
Emotions that she didn't know what to do with welled up in her throat, making her want to laugh and cry at the same time. She felt it now, really felt it. As Korra reached up to tug at Toph's thin gray bangs, laughing all the while, Toph could swear that she felt the rumble of the earth shifting beneath her feet. The world as Toph had always known it was no longer what she recognized. No longer was the Avatar Aang, her student and confidant, girly little Airbender and babysitter of her children when she and Sokka seriously needed to go get drunk, hero and savior and best friend.
"It's gonna be tough for you, you know," she muttered to the toddler, wincing as she continued to pull on her hair. "It wasn't easy for Aang, either. Boy, did he have his work cut out for him. Alone in the world and having to face down a crazy tyrant at twelve...less than a year to learn the elements..."
Korra surprised her by abruptly letting go of her bangs and throwing her arms around her neck in a death grip, squeezing her tight.
"He did it, though," Toph continued softly, adjusting her grip on the child. "He really had what it took to pull through it all." She wrapped her arms around Korra and returned the hug, surprised at the tears pricking at her eyes. "You do, too. The hell with these stuffy old relics, I can tell. You've got the same stuff he had. You're tough, girl. You have what it takes."
She made her way over to the girl's parents, carefully passing Korra off to her father before she made her way over to Sokka. She fell heavily into his embrace, pressing her face into his shoulder for a minute to quell the rising tide of emotions inside of her before turning back to the small family.
"You're gonna be fine, Korra," she said with a grin. "I know it."