AN: This one's for nakala! Thanks for the suggestion! =D
"What is so funny, Prince Zuko?"
Clearing his throat, the young man turned his sharp, golden eyes towards his uncle.
"Nothing," he replied, that ever-present scowl overtaking his features once again. Even the scar surrounding his left eye looked more menacing than usual. "I've given the order to return home."
Iroh nodded in understanding. "Perhaps you will rest now?" he asked.
Zuko glared at him. "I'm not tired, uncle."
"But you've hardly slept these past few days... The Avatar is secured below deck. A short nap will not change that, but it will do you some good."
Zuko was about to argue, but decided not to when he saw the hopeful gleam in his uncle's eyes. Since being banished, the old general had been his constant companion, spending nearly as much time playing pai sho as he did ensuring Zuko ate enough, got enough rested, and practiced his firebending. Since his mother...no one had... It was strange having someone in the family looking out for him. He found it oddly comforting.
"I'll be in my quarters then. Wake me in two hours," the Prince declared, then paused to add, "Please."
"I will make certain to do so," came the reply. The older man watched his nephew return inside with a lightness to his step that had long been absent.
Looking out from the long, narrow window in his quarters into the almost uniformly white landscape, Zuko stood tall and proud. The area was so different from what he grew up in. No color, no warmth. There were no lush trees and no ponds where to feed the turtleducks either.
The sun was still present of course, but it was a cold, distant, imitation of what lived in his memories. The temperature around him had something to do with it as well, he supposed. And where it had bothered him only hours earlier, all the ice and snow and freezing cold weather, it wasn't so daunting anymore. Currently, Zuko could even appreciate the grand, natural beauty of such a place. Because here, in this place, he finally found what he had been searching for.
He chuckled lightly to himself. Relief and an unrivaled sense of pride swirl within him. He was going home. Finally returning. Not as the once banished prince, but as the one who captured the Avatar. A corner of his mouth curved upwards as his eyes roamed the never ending scenery.
"So, I guess you've never fought an airbender before. I bet I could take you both with my hands tied behind my back."
"Silence," a guard ordered.
Aang moved faster than they had ever seen, running along the walls and ceiling. He took them both out with little effort and in the process freed his hands. When he rounded a corner, he came to an abrupt stop. There, in the middle of a hall, he saw an older man and a young girl arguing.
"I don't want to hear any excuses, young lady."
Unaware there were other civilians onboard the ship, Aang inched closer, slowly. Being a monk he didn't care very much about fashion or the latest trends, but what the man wore looked expensive, even to his young eyes. The girls's dress, ivory and pale green in color, looked soft and silky.
"I still can't believe you did this!" the man yelled in frustration. There was a quiet, mumbled apology in reply. "Why would you ever think it acceptable for you to sneak into my luggage? Onto the ship!? What did you hope to accomplish, Toph?"
After a short silence, the girl gave her answer.
"I've never gone anywhere," she admitted. Her voice was distant, full of longing. "I've never even been outside the garden walls. And since you weren't traveling very far I thought-"
"That is quite enough!" her father interrupted. "I cannot believe- your mother must be worried sick!"
There was no reply to that accusation. Still, Aang couldn't help feel sorry for the girl getting yelled at. She sounded regretful and had apologized already. Plus, the young nomad couldn't fathom the notion that she had never been allowed to travel anywhere! Nowhere. How could anyone endure it?
The Air Nomads had the freedom to travel anywhere they wished. They would be miserable if they had to stay locked away in one place, never being allowed to see the many wonders out in the world. Suddenly, the unfairness of the entire situation filled him with sadness and something like anger. Before he realized what he was doing, Aang found himself trying to intervene.
"Everyone should be allowed to see the world. I've been all over and it's a beautiful place. I have - had - friends in every nation," he swallowed past the lump in his throat. He was still getting used to the idea everyone he knew was gone. "I'm sure your daughter didn't mean any disrespect, sir."
The man stuttered, "W-who dares!?" But regained his composure quickly. "Who are you? Explain yourself this instant, boy!"
"I'm Aang. Hi," he waved one hand. Lao did not fail to notice the rope hanging from his wrists, rope that surely bound the boy's hands together at one point. There was only one reason Lao could think of for the boy to have been tied up.
"You're an escaped prisoner!?" he gasped. "Who do you think you are? And how dare you involve yourself in my family's private affairs?"
Aang gulped. "I'm the Avatar and I didn't mean any disrespect either. It's only that I overheard-"
"Enough!" The man didn't bother adding anything else. The fear in his eyes said it all. He was afraid of Aang, afraid of what the Avatar could do to him and his daughter. He had seen that look many times in his one-time playmates before he ran away.
His daughter, however...she wasn't looking at him. Aang bent his head to the side and caught a glimpse of her face and soon realized she didn't look at him because she couldn't. She was blind.
"You stay away from us!" Lao ordered, taking a step back and reaching for his daughter's hand.
"But I'm not- I really didn't mean anything by it!" Aang assured them, but they continued backing away.
That's when the two guards rounded the same corner Aang had.
"There he is! Get him!"
Afraid a scuffle with the guards would result in either the girl or her father getting caught in the crossfire, Aang didn't resist. His hands were bound again and he was thrown into the first room that required a key to lock and unlock the door. Because now that the guards knew the Avatar wasn't just some weak kid, they planned to return with more guards to escort the boy down to the brig. One of them secured the lock and hooked the key into his belt.
The room Aang was in was small. There was a bed and not much else. But that wasn't what bothered him the most. That whole thing with the man and his daughter, it didn't go so well, he thought glumly. He used to be so good at making friends, too. More miserable now than before, Aang slumped to the floor.
Out in the hallway, Toph left her dad's side.
"Which one of you locked the Avatar away?" she asked.
"Toph, what are you doing?" her father asked under his breath.
One of the guards stepped forward.
"It was me."
Toph followed the sound of his voice and when she was close enough, wrapped her arms around his waist.
"Thank you," she lied so convincingly she nearly believed it. "I was so scared." Everyone thought she was helpless, might as well use it to her advantage this once.
"Uh, of course," the guard replied, patting her shoulder awkwardly.
When Toph stepped away to return to her father's side, she carried the guard's keys in her hand.
"Toph, are you certain you're all right? We should return upstairs in any case," Lao insisted not waiting for a reply. "There must be a physician on board."
"I don't need a doctor, dad. My stomach just feels weird."
"You are my daughter. It is my duty to protect you and if I want you to see a doctor, you will see one. Understood?"
She didn't bother answering him, it's not like he would listen anyway. Instead, Toph simply sighed to herself and trailed behind him, like the obedient daughter her dad wanted her to be.
Lao Beifong did not like leaving his home. He especially didn't like traveling by ship. But on top of that, he abhorred the fact that Toph was with him. She was blind and tiny and helpless and fragile. So many terrible things could happen away from the safety of their estate. So many things had already happened.
Their ship stalled out in the ocean only a few hours after departure. Then a violent storm appeared out of nowhere. The waves and wind carried the useless vessel further out, deep into unknown waters.
They had been stranded for nearly two full days when the Fire Nation ship appeared. Whether being found by the banished prince himself was a blessing or a curse, Lao had yet to decide. However, he was very grateful he and Toph were on their way back to dry land. Because unfortunately, it appeared she inherited his distaste for seafaring travel - if her queasy stomach was any indication. In any case, he would feel better once his daughter was safe in Gaoling again.
"Yes, what is it?" Lao frowned deeply not really paying attention. This couldn't be right, he thought, facing right then left. Everything in this hallway looked the same as the previous one. Same dimly lit walkways, same stale air, same metal doors every few feet. The place was like a dark, musty labyrinth. "We should be in our room by now," he muttered under his breath.
"Do you think what he said was true?" Toph asked her father as she mentally mapped out the route that would lead back to the boy again. He sounded so young. He couldn't have been much older than she was. Maybe that was what piqued her interest... Her parents didn't allow her to speak to many people and certainly not anyone her own age. Plus, he had claimed to have been 'all over the world'. Could it possibly be true?
"No, that wasn't the Avatar. The Avatar died long ago. That was a dangerous, desperate prisoner trying to gain our sympathy."
Back home, she had overheard the servants mention a being of mythical proportions on more than one occasion, but it never failed that they stopped talking about anything interesting whenever they became aware of her presence. Toph did know the basics: the Avatar was supposed to be able to master all four elements and he or she was supposed to bring balance to the world, but something happened to make the Avatar disappear decades ago. If that was true, it would mean the Avatar was much, much older...
So maybe the boy wasn't who he claimed to be? But...what if he had been to all four nations? She could ask him what it was like in other Earth Kingdom cities or if the Fire Nation was as humid and hot as she overheard. Could the North and South Poles really be as cold as they said?
Toph had often wondered about these and other things and now someone might actually be able to answer her questions. The more thought she gave it, the more excited and curious she became. But one thing dampened her mood: why would he be a prisoner aboard a Fire Nation ship? What if her dad was right and he was dangerous? It's not like she was on dry land where she could actually defend herself.
"I didn't mean his being the Avatar, I meant about his traveling the world?"
Lao narrowed his eyes. In a short amount of time that boy had already given his daughter ideas. That was the last thing she needed. It was part of the reason he kept her so sheltered. Well, he was going to put an end to whatever was going on in her head before it was too late.
"I've realized something."
Toph's face lit up with hope. "You have?"
"Yes. I've let you have far too much freedom. From now on you'll be cared for and guarded twenty-four hours a day."
"I'm sure your mother would agree that we'll be doing it for your own good, Toph."
She fought back the tears, but they fell anyway. That was how a pair of guards found them.
Toph and her father were escorted to their quarters then given orders to stay put. Dangerous criminals were being transported, they said. It wasn't safe for someone like her they insisted. She hardly paid attention to any of the exchange. Not her father's indignation, not the guards' apologies concerning the direct orders from Prince Zuko himself. She was too focused memorizing the lefts, rights, and stairways they had just walked.
Waiting until her dad fell asleep, Toph slipped out of their room as quietly as she could manage in the old, creaky ship. Rusty metal made a lot of noise, however, and she had to stop and listen for his steady breathing numerous times before she was finally out the door. Stopping midway down the hallway, she strained her ears intently for any footsteps, but thankfully there was only silence.
Normally, Toph didn't have a problem with her blindness. But being on a metal ship, as opposed to her beloved earth, she couldn't see a thing. Nothing. There were no vibrations she could pick up on. It was so strange, and as much as she refused to acknowledge it, incredibly frightening. Still, she made the rights and lefts necessary, then continued for another fifteen steps, a left, two short staircases, four doors, and she was standing before the boy's room.
As Toph made her way to him, she'd experienced so many emotions. Fear chief among them. Not only because she was walking blind in every sense of the word, but what if she got caught or lost. Worse...what if something far more horrible happened? What if the boy had lied? What if he hadn't been all over the world like he claimed? What if she was wasting her time wanting to talk to him?
On the other side of the door, the Avatar sat alone and dejected on the cold, hard floor of his cell. The only thing that put his mind at ease was knowing Appa wasn't out there all alone. His oldest friend was with Katara and Sokka. They would take care of each other, he knew it. What Aang had to do was figure out a way off the angry teenager's ship and back to them.
After Toph unlocked the door she took a step back. All she had to do was turn the handle now. Before she had a chance to do so she heard something, someone approach.
Lying back on the surprisingly soft mattress, both hands still tied together resting atop his abdomen, Aang must have dozed off. The constant rocking of the ship must have lulled him to sleep because he didn't recall feeling tired prior to being placed in restraints. But noises - the rattling of keys and then voices - woke him. Straining to listen, the Avatar could barely make out the two people outside his door.
"What are you doing here, little girl?"
Zuko. Really angry by the sound of it.
Toph tried not to let the panic show on her face, but she wasn't used to people sneaking up on her. The last time someone did must have been years ago, before she first learned earthbending from the masters themselves, the badgermoles.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, putting on a brave face. Whoever it was must not have seen here unlock the door, otherwise they would have demanded she hand over the keys. "And who do you think you are questioning me?"
It was the girl from before. Aang inched closer, pressing his ear to the metal door.
Zuko snarled. "Clearly, you can't see it," he hissed, "But you're on my ship and I'll ask the questions."
Oh, so this was Prince Zuko, was it? Her small hands turned to fists at her sides. As much as she wanted to knock him on his ass, throwing a punch when she couldn't see meant she risked missing completely. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
"You can ask whatever questions you like, Princess, doesn't mean I'm gonna answer," she replied with a grin. If he wasn't going to be polite, she didn't have to be either.
On the other side of the door, Aang chuckled quietly. Princess? That was a good one.
"Princess?" Zuko fumed, glaring at the small girl. He grabbed her arm. "You're just a spoiled rich girl, you don't know anything."
"Hey, watch it!" she growled, struggling to get out of his grip. "Lemme go!"
He didn't. If anything, his hold tightened. Crud. She couldn't let him take her back to her father! Not after what he said. At the rate things were going, she'd be lucky if her parents ever let her out of her room again.
Before she could grow more disheartened she remembered her entire reason for being there. Toph only hoped he was awake.
"Aang!" she yelled, pretty sure that was the name he gave her father earlier. "The door's unlocked!"
Zuko scanned the area. "What are you talking about!?" he demanded, grabbing both her arms and drawing her closer.
"Nothing," Toph smirked up at him. "Just needed the distraction to do this." Without a second thought, she rammed her head into his nose.
Zuko stumbled back at the same time that a door creaked open. Before he had a chance to react, a strong gust of wind sent him flying against one wall and then another.
"Are you okay?" Aang asked, rushing to her side. She was holding her head with both hands. "Did Zuko hurt you?"
"Nah, I'm fine. Princess over there just has a harder head than I thought."
"Thank you for getting me out of there, I owe you," he said, smiling at her. "It's Toph, right?"
"Yeah." For some reason the fact he remembered her name made her stomach feel queasy. But maybe it was simply being on water that caused that strange sensation to return. "Thank me later. Right now we gotta go," she said suddenly, grabbing his hand. "Someone's coming." She retraced her steps back towards the upper floors, but Aang stopped her halfway. "What're you doing? They're getting closer."
With her excellent hearing, she could hear the footsteps growing progressively more loud.
"Wait, I need to get my glider. Then I can fly us off this ship."
Did she hear him right? Fly them off the ship? He was an airbender. That meant...he was telling the truth about being the Avatar. But more importantly, about having traveled all over the world. What would it be like to do that freely, go wherever you want. No one telling you what to do... that would be the life. That could be her life. Reaching new lands, meeting old friends? What would it be like to have friends?
Her face must have displayed her uncertainty because he started stumbling for an explanation.
"I only thought you could come with us. Why stay where you're not happy, you know?"
But he misread her surprise. It wasn't doubt but elation. Endless possibilities opened up before her. The decision was far easier than she expected it to be.
"Well, where's your glider?" she asked, making a brilliant smile appear on his face.
It was his turn to take her hand. "I think it's this way," he replied, leading the way.
"What do you mean, you think?" she snapped.
After searching a few empty rooms they found his glider. They had little trouble getting of the ship after that and even less finding his friends, who were already on their way to him.
"Aang! You're okay!" a girl yelled and wrapped him up in a giant hug.
"That was a nice bit of flying," a boy added.
"Hey, Katara. Hey, Sokka. Thanks for coming," Aang said, then turned to Toph again. "This is...my friend, Toph." He gauged her reaction and when she smiled, his own grew. "Toph, this is Sokka and Katara."
"Hey," she said, a little self-conscious since she had never been introduced as anyone's friend before.
They stared at the girl in the pretty white dress, but soon welcomed her. Sokka was quick to mumble something about a new girlfriend, which made Aang turn red. Katara, happy to have another girl in their little group, graciously offered Toph a warm parka to wear over her dress because the arctic wind was unforgiving. Later Toph would complain endlessly, but in that moment, she didn't care about the cold weather.
While the others discussed where they were headed, Toph held onto the side of Appa's saddle and smiled utterly content. She leapt off that ship with Aang, leaving her old life behind to fly away into the unknown with him. Terrified and excited, she'd never been happier.