A/N: I own nothing.. Some of you asked for more Toph and Zuko moments, so here you go. I wanted to show how they've changed slightly thanks to each other... and I'm going on vacation in a week (plus its finals!), so updates will stop for some time. My apologies.
Chapter 11: A Mental Divide
The most difficult obstacle is a choice.
"How about that one on your left, about 100 meters north west?" Zuko specified later that day, sitting lazily next to a concentrating Toph on a secret hill overlooking the town. The girl had her eyebrows scrunched up and furrowed as she she rapidly fired off adjectives, "Tall, a little overweight, has a slight limp, right handed, male!"
"Hmm, your accuracy is getting better, and so is your range," the fire prince admitted, the younger girl's demeanor brightening significantly at her success. "Try 97 meters south east."
"Easy! Short, small build, scrawny, male, quite young, right handed," she chanted quickly. "He's playing earth soccer."
Zuko nodded, and then switched tactics. "Approaching a market stall at 50 meters, tell me his age, his health, his personality, and his looks."
The blind heiress struggled for a moment, the exercise being something he had just introduced a few days ago. She already had a good grasp on it though, and answered slowly, trying to discern the man-in-question's voice as it carried to her ears in waves of sound, "Most likely in his thirties. He seems very strict with high expectations. Straight backed with proper posture, a middle class man who lives rather comfortably. He's more tired than usual, but pretty healthy... judging by his voice he has a few wrinkles and a small nose... uhhh.."
"Good," Zuko said, with an amused half smile. "If you need to identify someone to another person, that is more than enough to go by."
Toph grinned suddenly after a pause, a malicious light in her eyes. "Why, Snappy, I didn't know you were such a voyeur! Trying to use me to commit your crimes?"
The fire prince choked on his words momentarily, and then glared at the earthbender with an annoyed frown on his face. Tyr chattered in what seemed like laughter on his shoulder. "I am not!"
"I dunno," she replied, tilting her head in mock innocence. "That sounds awfully like you're in denial.." Zuko stilled, and then suddenly lunged at her, his eyes playfully narrowed. Toph snickered as she retaliated with earthbending, having achieved her goal of a friendly spar. It wasn't for some time that they both collapsed in exhaustion on the hard dirt ground, wearily watching the clouds as they passed by. A breeze swirled around in the swaying grasses, creating a soft susurration that sounded breathlessly in their ears. The fire prince listened, suddenly contemplative, as he remembered his first official meeting with the Avatar.
"Hey Toph," he said, closing his eyes as if resigned.
"What?" she demanded swiftly, tucking back any stray strands of hair that had fallen out of her headdress during the fight. The blind girl smoothed out her clothes and brushed off the more conspicuous smudges of dirt, tucking in the folds of the cloth while she prepared to go home. "Finally willing to admit your inadequacies? Feeling insufficient in comparison to me? If that's your confession then save it. I already know." She finished this statement with a toss of her head, and a sly, cocky smile.
In response, Zuko moved quickly, faster than she could avoid him at this distance, and slid his arms under her armpits from behind, leaving her unable to use her upper limbs. Toph flailed a little at the sudden restraint before smirking, her voice gaining a taunting ring to it.
"That the best you can do? Maybe I should change your nickname to Sissy!"
The fire prince's demeanor darkened, his golden eyes flashing with deviousness. "Time for payback, Princess. Tyr, let her have it!" The weasel-bat, snapping to attention at its name, gave a fanged grin and leapt, flapping its leathery wings as it landed on Toph's shoulder and proceeded to nuzzle and lick her face. The Bei Fong heiress yelped in surprise at the feel of the raspy, wet tongue and started struggling again. She wriggled out of Zuko's muscular arms and landed, with relief, on her butt on the ground. Tyr flopped into her lap, startled by the sudden drop, and then scuttled away from her, squeaking in reprimand.
"Death by critter love," Toph deadpanned as well as she could after her embarrassing reaction, "I never would've guessed."
"Hmph," the amber eyed male snorted, with some contempt. "Don't put words into my mouth. I was about to say something serious and relevant... but then you just ruined it."
"My bad," the blind girl replied blandly, clearly uninterested. Her cavalier attitude was nothing new, to be honest, and Zuko was quite used to it by now. However, that didn't make it any less annoying.
"Nevermind," he said, shaking his head and slinging his twin swords onto his back. "I'll just tell you this. Whatever you decide tonight, I'll stand by your side."
"Huh?" Toph frowned, twisting to face his general direction as she felt him start to walk away. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Let's just say, you'll probably be getting some uninvited guests in the evening.." he answered cryptically over his shoulder, his unruly black hair gleaming like shadowy fire in the sunlight.
Aang, Katara, and Sokka stared in slight awe at the looming, beautifully adorned and gilded front gate of the Bei Fong estate. It glowed imperially, tinted slightly by the pink afternoon sky, as the sunlight slid fluidly across its soft, golden surface designs. The white stone walls on either side stretched for an incredibly long distance, with a dark emerald green tiled roof. If they craned their necks, they could see the leafy tips of large trees rising above the gate on the other side, but not much else.
"Now that," Sokka said, impressed, "is a classic example of living in style."
"Well, those boys did say they were the richest people in town," Katara reasoned, seemingly undaunted as she looked the entrance up and down. She crossed her arms and started to tap her foot, searching her brain for a way to convince the guards to let them in. If they were this well-to-do of a family, they were bound to have high standards of guests or audiences.. They stood there for a few moments in silence, not moving much as they all stared at the structure in front of them. Suddenly, Aang gave a shit-eating grin.
"What are we waiting for?" he chirped, cocking his head to the side and jumping on his heels, his orange and yellow clothes rippling as if there had been a breeze. His gray eyes were bright with excitement. "We can just jump the wall, can't we?"
The female waterbender snapped her fingers. "Good idea, Aang!"
Then, with some special help from the Avatar's airbending skills, the trio chose an inconspicuous piece of wall on the left side and climbed over it, landing in the well kept grass garden on the other side. The inside of the estate was just as beautiful as the outside, with a tasteful sprawling lawn, winding dirt paths, and a large pond. They stealthily checked their surroundings and, seeing no guards at this part of the property, started to tiptoe across the open grass. They had only taken a few steps when the ground beneath them shot up with sudden and unexpected force and sent them flying into a few nearby bushes to land near the feet of an irritated Toph. The Bei Fong heiress glared at them, having felt their intrusion during her walk through the vibrations in the earth.
"What are you doing here, Twinkle Toes?" she asked rudely, addressing the Avatar. "Come back for another beat down?"
"No!" Aang implored, airbending himself into a more comfortable, upright position. "I didn't come to fight. I just wanted to talk."
Toph narrowed her eyes, her voice bold and strong. "Yeah? I haven't got all day, you know. Make it quick."
"Right.. quick" the bald monk-in-training repeated, looking determined. "Alright. I want you! Wait no.. I need you!"
The blind girl nearly fell down in shock, her gray-green eyes widening in disgusted confusion as she tried to process his words. His two friends sighed in exasperation from their places, and the dark skinned Water tribe girl stepped in to clarify.
"I think that was a little too quick, Aang," Katara said, looking a little sympathetically at the small-figured earthbender while laughing nervously.
"O-Oh, sorry," Aang blinked, before plowing on fearlessly. "What I mean is.. okay, we were in a swamp a week ago, and something in the swamp made us hallucinate and stuff. I saw a vision of you, laughing, with a pet flying boar.. and I also saw this man with a blue mask and–"
"I think what he's trying to say is," Katara cut in hurriedly before Toph got too weirded out, sending the boy an apologetic look. "Aang here is the Avatar.. and he's trying to look for someone to teach him earthbending. We think you're supposed to be his teacher, because you are the only one that fits the criteria."
Ah, Toph thought with some dread. This was what Zuko was talking about when he mentioned a decision. She gave no outward reaction though, aside from her usual scowl, and tried to dissuade the three.
"What makes you think that only I fit the criteria?" she asked bitingly, standing up straighter in unconscious defiance.
"Well, an earthbending King told us that we needed to find someone who waits and listens before striking. At Earth Rumble VI, the only one to do that was you," the Avatar explained, somewhat expectantly. Sure, he was eager to start his elemental training, but he also wanted to get to know someone his own age.. He'd never told Sokka or Katara this, but constantly being with people older than him was kind of tiring after a while. Not that he didn't enjoy their company.
"That sounds unreliable," the Bei Fong heiress commented with a raised eyebrow, sounding skeptical. "You're telling me to leave my family.. my life, for a reason like that?"
"I understand it's a difficult decision," Katara answered gently, her mothering habit taking over. "My brother and I left our home in the South Pole to help Aang, so I know how it feels. And look, if you get homesick or anything.. after you teach Aang earthbending, you can return home. We're not asking you for your whole future.. we just want some of your time and expertise.. and maybe even your friendship." The older girl gave a warm smile as she spoke, a hand over her heart.
Toph didn't respond immediately, finding it difficult to quell the warring emotions inside of her, and simply clenched her pale fists at her sides. There was silence for a long moment, as the trio awaited her answer with bated breath. The blind girl's thoughts went straight to Zuko's words, and they echoed like far away, rumbling thunder inside of her, reawakening old desires of freedom. They were treacherous desires, lurking beneath her mind and entangling their black roots in her heart.. but then she thought of her parents, and what they would say.. Shaking her head vigorously to clear it, she turned partially away from the group, hiding her expression as she spoke.
"Give me some time to think about it," said Toph. Her voice was rough and blunt, and she felt angered by her unconscious and uncontrollable emotions. "You can.. stay as guests for tonight. Just tell my parents that you're traveling with the Avatar." With that said, she abruptly pivoted on her heel and walked purposefully away, leaving them behind in the dust. And she didn't look back.
Aang watched as she headed back to the mansion in the distance, feeling a twinge of something complex and unidentifiable in his gut. The wind whispered of conflict and cages and carried the sent of fresh soil as it swirled around him in a slow, teasing draft.