She sensed a distinct shift in the atmosphere, one that could not be ignored, and her heart skipped a beat as she realised what she had to do next. If they had any chance of restoring harmony between the four nations, of keeping balance … something had to be done. The Avatar, as great as he was, could not do this alone, but why she had been chosen for the task she had not the faintest idea.
Gradually it came to a halt; the fleeting sensation she experienced as she dove beneath the ferns and hid from the Fire Nation tyrants. They stormed past on Ostrich-horses, their bodies clad in crimson armour but their loyalty to their king unchanging. These people did not serve Fire Lord Zuko, they served Ozai, and they were a threat to everyone they would come across.
Reaching for a foothold in the rock, she pulled herself slowly onto higher ground, shifting her weight as she did so. The rock was already unstable, she didn't want to add any more danger to her mission, as fun as that would make it. When she reached a high enough platform, she flattened herself and reached out with her senses, trying to ensure that they wouldn't see her. Being blind, she had no idea if they could or not, so it was really a game of trial and error. If they saw her, fair enough, she'd just have to silence them. If not, perhaps she could get deeper into the heart of their camp without them realising it, and set the traps there.
The idea was to wait until the changing of shifts. They'd gather around the fire, sit down to eat and trade old war stories, and she would strike then when the patrols had moved enough ahead that they wouldn't be alerted by any of their comrades' cries. Once they sat down, she would Earthbend the ground from under them and seal it up to make it look as if everyone had just gone. When they came back, she'd do the same to them, or if they became suspicious … she'd just have to make sure they never left the camp to warn any other patrols crossing nearby.
The Fire Nation tyrants were buried underground, clawing at their earth prison until the air ran out and they lost consciousness. Sensing them go limp one by one, she waited until the last one had slumped against the wall and opened up some small air holes to allow them to breathe.
The earth's heartbeat was growing stronger. She could feel it vibrating up her legs and it was glorious. It was beautiful. Everything about what she saw now was right. Nobody else was this deep into the Earth Kingdom – this area itself was out of bounds, but Toph Beifong never listened to rules, and that was why only she could–
She was woken by something nudging her arm, and her eyes blinked open blearily. To her there was only an all encompassing darkness, no light and no movement to her silvery-green eyes. There was just emptiness.
But she was okay with that.
Warm winds caressed her lithe frame. As she stood she was aware that they were alone in the camp. Katara was searching for water (going in the completely wrong direction, Toph noted) and Sokka was hunting, using Momo as eyes in the sky since a certain flying monk refused to do anything that would aid in an animal's death. That left her and Aang alone, not that she minded.
"Good morning Sifu Toph!" called Aang from the edge of the camp. They were in a clearing surrounded by rocks and trees with nobody around for miles. Aang was busy fiddling with Appa's saddle, but as she stretched her limbs, he landed in front of her lightly.
Any other person would have asked what time it was, but from the soft, warm sunlight and the scent of cooking food told her it was nearing mid-day. Why had she slept in? How come nobody had woken her up? She must have said the question out loud in a slightly accusatory way, because Aang leaned back slightly, and it was then that Toph realised her finger was poking into his chest.
A sudden image made her recoil and lose concentration, plunging her into darkness. For some reason she had caught the vibrations of something … indescribable … something startling, but something … Why was there an arm around her? How dare someone pull her to her feet? No, more importantly, when had she fallen to her knees?
Aang was coaxing her up worriedly. "Toph? You okay? You kinda just … tripped …"
"I'm fine," barked Toph a little too angrily than necessary, pulling her arm out of his grip.
"You've been acting strange for weeks … you hardly eat, you don't really talk to us any more and you look like you've hardly slept … I'm just worried, Toph," murmured the Avatar gently, moving around behind her and tugging a strand of silk black hair back into her headband, which was crooked. Her bun looked like it was about to fall from her head and her eyes seemed to have a third glaze over them, they almost looked white. "We all are."
"Don't go all sappy on me," growled the Earthbender. "Avatar or not, I can still kick your butt, Twinkletoes."
"I never said you couldn't," said Aang, and he reached around to plant a gentle, lingering kiss on her lips. "If we're honest, you could kick my butt twice. You're twice the Earthbender I'll ever be."
"And don't you forget it. Now stop kissing me. You need to start training, and I need-"
"Mm-mm." Aang hummed in refusal. "I'll train on my own for a bit. Why don't you lie down, get some sleep? I'll wake you up when food's ready." Toph opened her mouth to reply, but the Airbender added quickly, "if you're not going to sleep, at least lie down. You're dead on your feet, Toph. You remember what you keep telling me about paying attention when we spar? If you aren't paying attention..."
Toph sighed. "You're not in the game," she finished. "Fine. But I'll be watching you. Basic stretches, then lift some weights" -Toph Earthbent two pillars- "and then move a rock in between those two pillars. Your aim is atrocious."
"Yes, Sifu Toph."
She sensed him working as she'd asked as she went for a lie down. He worked diligently, not answering Katara when she returned to camp empty-handed ("You went the wrong way for water!" laughed Toph, knowing that she had walked several miles out) and making sure he got the form correctly. She would "test" him from time to time, try to unbalance him by knocking his ankle or flinging rocks at his head (she did this more out of boredom than anything) but he ignored it all.
For an Airbender, he was doing a good job with Earthbending. Toph had held little hope for him when they'd started training, and in those crucial few months. They'd bonded, fallen hard for each other, after Aang had snapped out of his crush when Katara had taunted her quite brutally about her blindness. Toph was still surprised that the meek, timid little runt of the litter could actually stand up to someone like that.
Pressing her forehead against the ground, she sighed. He was an Air Nomad, she was an Earth Kingdom noble. Her parents would never approve (though she would spit at the ground they walked on, she didn't give a damn what they thought) and he still had someone eyeing him from the sidelines. Katara still held some sort of infatuation with him and every time the Waterbender glanced in her direction, her eyes burned with jealousy. She wasn't even the same soft-spoken young woman that Toph had first come to know. She'd changed and not for the better.
Toph couldn't tell any of them of the visions that plagued her, of the distant, whispering voices she heard in the back of her mind. She wasn't insane, she was far from it … but there was a secret she was hiding from them all. A secret that would affect the rest of the world. A secret that she could not tell Aang until she had fulfilled the mission that been trusted to her.
At the edge of camp he still trained, even as she drifted off into the realm of dreams. The voices were beginning to come back to her, deep in the recesses of her mind. They begged her to set them free, and the worst thing of all was that she actually knew where they were, what needed to be done.
No, she hissed, trying to control the voices. Not yet. Wait and listen.
The voices retreated with a sad sigh. Toph felt someone crouch down beside her; the scent of high winds told her it was Aang, and he ran a hand over her forehead. She was warm, but not because of fever. Toph was sorely tempted to Earthbend his feet into the ground for breaking away from his training, but then she realised why. She'd fallen asleep, he'd finished his training, and the scent of cooking meat was drifting through the air.
"Food ready yet?" she mumbled sleepily, pushing herself up slightly and reading the vibrations. Sokka was polishing his boomerang and Katara was boiling water and tending to the food.
Aang smiled and offered her his hand. "You hungry?" he offered by way of confirmation. "Did you get any sleep?"
Yes, but in truth she didn't feel like she had. It felt like only a few seconds had passed; it had been dreamless and empty with hardly any time to regain her strength. However she was not going to tell him this, so as they walked over to the camp fire and settled down on the benches Toph had made with earth, she shrugged. "Sure."
Twisting, the tendrils of wind snarled around her body and hoisted her high into the air. Toph, horrified, clawed up some earth with her, trying to get back to her element, but it felt like every move she made was just making her go higher. A great source of power was rampaging not too far away; it felt like the time when she'd experienced Aang becoming completely enraged after Appa had been stolen, except rather than being pushed away from the frightening power, she was being sucked into it. Being blind, she had no idea what it actually was, and that nearly sent her into a frenzy.
Reaching out, she groped for a couple of small stones and flung them towards the source of power. Hell, if she was going to get sucked into something weird, she was at least going to chuck something at it before she died.
"Ow!" yelped Katara, and Toph blinked. "What was that for?"
Toph gazed dreamily past them all and told her simply, "I was aiming for the Chameleomonkey."
"The Chameleomonkey?" asked Sokka. "What's a Chameleomonkey?"
"A Chameleomonkey is a Chameleomonkey," grunted Toph, "and you should know, they're very dangerous. They have venom that will melt your eyes and make your lungs explode. It's quite painful, or so I've heard."
Aang was gazing at her mildly as Sokka began screaming and leaping for his boomerang. Toph just sat still and munched on a bit of Boar-q-pine meat. It was very chewy and tough meat. Katara was just glaring at her, covered in Sokka's meal from head to toe. Sokka would realise that Toph had made it up (or the part about the venom, anyway, since they were quite dangerous) and there was nothing to be worried about.
"Gee, thanks Toph," muttered Katara as she brushed Sokka's dinner off of her.
Toph smiled. "You're welcome," she said, and showered her with a mouthful of food. After swallowing, she belched very loudly, causing the birds in the nearby trees to scatter. Even the earth rumbled a little bit.
Katara looked disgusted. Aang stared, and Sokka was nodding in slow approval as he pulled his boomerang free of his bag, tripping himself over in the process.
"Well," Toph said, wiping her hands on her tunic, "if that's all, I have some Earthbending to get on with. You're free to join me, Twinkletoes. Or not," she added as she stood and stretched her back, "it's up to you."
Odd clothes tugged at her lithe body as she padded over the ancient stone. She could feel a shawl over her shoulders, a long-sleeved shirt and a sash. She had trousers that had more than one layer, and high boots that hugged her calves, but had no underside, allowing her feet to touch the ground. Around her waist, partially covering the sash, there was her Earth Rumble Championship belt. Her hair was confined within her headband, her bangs falling into her silvery-green eyes.
There were many other people around her, parting as she glided through the hall and picked up a small, soft fruit pie with a swirling purple icing top, the same flavour as the berries she had eaten in the forest. Running her forefingers over the top, she popped a sample in her mouth and hummed appreciatively.
Something around her neck clinked … something with two thick wooden blocks with carvings in them. Out of simple habit she moved her hand to realign them. One of them she recognised as the symbol for her element, Earth. The other was–
"...so, what do you think?" asked Aang nervously, and Toph stopped. Those bloody daydreams wouldn't leave her alone, and now Aang had asked her something that she hadn't been listening to in the first place.
"Run that by me again, I'm not sure I understand," she said and started walking again. Aang was silent for a moment. Shoot.
"Er, well, I was saying..."
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
Two days later, Toph was sitting in the forest by a fire. The rest of the Gaang was in the nearby town gathering supplies, and Toph had suddenly felt compelled to make something. But not anything; she was cooking a couple of fruit pies, her eyes glazed over and distant. She had no idea where she had got the ingredients or even how she was making them, though somehow she knew it was about to turn the right colour for the next step: adding the berries.
Overall she made four pies – the rest of them (she'd made about eight) were bowled over when Momo shot from the sky and crashed into the pot. The action snapped Toph out of her trance, and it was a good thing, because Aang landed on Appa just behind her.
"Momo, I told you not to fly away!" he started, and then stopped, seeing Toph leaning over a fire, clutching her head in her hands. "Toph?"
"I'm okay," said Toph, hitting the ground with her fist with enough force to put out the fire that was spilling out onto the ground. "You finished shopping?"
"Yeah." Aang approached and sat down next to her. "What're you doing?"
"...something," sighed Toph. In all honesty she just remembered zoning out and waking up as Appa landed with enough vibrations to make her throbbing head worse. It felt like her heart had jumped into her skull. Suddenly it came back to her, and she picked up a warm fruit pie from its place on a small platform. It was sat upon a dock leaf which was effectively a plate. "Here," she mumbled, stuffing one of the pies into his hands. She took one for herself and threw the last one over her shoulder and into Appa's mouth. The Sky Bison let out a delighted moan.
"Thanks!" said Aang happily as he munched down on the treat. "I didn't know you could make Fruit Pies."
Neither did I, thought Toph, though she nibbled on her own with less enthusiasm. "Why?" she jibed.
"Because –" Aang nearly said it, he nearly gave her a reason to Earthbend him to the moon. Toph's blindness wasn't a taboo subject but treating her condescendingly because of it was. Toph was itching to destroy something out of frustration, to take out her anxiety on something that could actually fight back. "Er, well, I just didn't take you for a baking person."
"So close," Toph whispered and shook her head teasingly. "Slow down, Twinkletoes, I'm not shoving my hand down your throat if you choke."
Aang swallowed a mouthful and slowed down his chewing considerably. "Seriously, Toph, this is delicious! Why'd you make them?"
"I … felt like it," Toph shrugged, not about to tell him that she hadn't consciously made them. "There's no real reason … didn't know you liked them so much."
"I love fruit pies!" exclaimed Aang, and he very nearly brought eternal doom upon the world as Toph's head almost started to hurt again. "The monks in the Southern Air Temple used to make them all the time. In fact … I used to make them too, with Monk Gyatso! He–"
"–was your Airbending teacher, a father to you, and was the greatest Airbender of the time," observed Toph distractedly. They both froze.
"Uh … how'd you know that?"
Toph swallowed a mouthful of pie with a gulp and stared ahead of her. "You … told me?" she offered weakly, though it was obvious she was lying. Aang remained silent. No seriously, how did I know that?
"Toph–" Aang started, but suddenly Sokka burst through the bushes.
"Guys – look! I found a new bag!"
Thankful for the distraction, Toph kicked everything into the air with an earth spike, sending all of her items hurtling towards the Water Tribesman. He was lucky he was still fawning over it and that it was still open, else he would have been bombarded with a load of washing pots. The cry of dismay and the sound of squashing, and Aang's gasp, told her that the pies had half landed in the bag, half pie-covered Sokka. Momo, chattering excitedly, leapt on top of him and started nibbling at his face.
"Great. You can carry my stuff. Let's go," said Toph brusquely, walking quickly away from Aang.
"MY BAG!" cried Sokka.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
More visions, more dreams … they were driving her crazy. They came on randomly, made her lose focus, made her act … well, unTophlike. And screw that not being a word, that was just unacceptable! It was a good thing when they went back to the village, because Toph had a reason to unwind and let loose.
"You're the Avatar, ain't ya?" asked the grouchy old sailor, spitting through yellowed teeth. "You turned your back on the world!"
Toph bristled as the old man's finger prodded Aang's chest accusingly. Storming forward, fuelled by rage, she grabbed his wrist and wrenched him away from him. "Keep your filthy hands off my pupil," seethed Toph, folding her arms over her chest and snarling as the sailor yanked himself free from her grip.
"And who are you?" the old man demanded. "Pupil? So the Avatar is being taught by a child? From those colours, you must be an Earthbender."
"That's right, Old Man," Toph snapped. "I'm the Blind Bandit, the world's most powerful Earthbender. And if you lay one more finger on him, I'll bury you six feet under."
"Hey," Aang murmured, trying to reach out to stop the obvious oncoming fight.
"You're nothing but a little girl!" laughed the old man, and it was at that point that he was deemed insane. "I could beat you. You cannot be his mentor. He doesn't show you the respect of a student to a Ma–"
But Toph was beyond listening. Avatar he may be, nobody spoke to him that way – nobody spoke to her that way either. Before he could say another word, he was flying into the water by the docks, where (unfortunately) a passing fishing boat turned to get him out.
At that point Aang had vanished, disturbed by the old man's words, but she knew where he had gone. There were a series of caves dotted in the nearby mountains. How she got to them, or when, she had no idea. She had zoned out again. But she tapped her feet against the calloused rock and searched for his distinctive heartbeat along the mountainside.
Approaching the cave he was in, she walked in confidently. He was kneeling with his back to her, his head low and staff placed in front of him.
"You didn't have to-"
"Yes, Aang. I did," Toph growled, "because you didn't stick up for yourself. I thought I taught you better than that."
"I know, I know!" Aang's voice rose a few octaves in desperation. Effeminate hands clawed at his knees and dragged the trousers from beneath his knee-high shoes. "I ran like an Airbender again, I didn't stand up like an Earthbender. I let you down – I let everybody down." Sighing, he added under his breath, "nothing I ever do is good enough..."
Toph was silent for a moment. Surely he had not just said what she thought he had. Perhaps he thought she hadn't heard him, but that was ridiculous, her ears were as sharp as a wolfbat's. The gears in her head were grinding together, trying to force their way through an impasse. They were clicking together like spark rocks, setting the fire in her head. It began to throb again and she glowered at him.
In one movement that had him crying out in pain and surprise, Toph pinned him against the wall with her Earthbending, trapping his wrists and ankles there with stone cuffs. She advanced on him with her head low but eyes burning with anger, and he looked at her fearfully, wishing he could phase through the stone.
Thrusting her face close to his, she snarled quietly, "don't ever – ever – let me hear you say that again."
Aang would have preferred it if she had shouted at him. "B- but..."
"You're more than good enough, Aang. What happened was not your fault. Stop living in the past," she ordered, "otherwise you'll stay there. You need to move on, just as you've moved past your grief for Gyatso. You're not the only person to have made a mistake."
"But I'm the Avatar," whimpered Aang. "I'm–"
"Only twelve years old," said Toph decisively. "And stop pulling that damn I'm-the-Avatar card, Twinkletoes, because I couldn't care less if I tried. Be the Avatar all you want, you're still going to screw up. Now shut up or I'll shut you up."
"Remind me never to get on your bad side," Aang muttered quietly.
"Remind yourself to listen to instructions," Toph retorted crossly. "You haven't shut up. Guess what?"
"U- uh-" Aang fumbled over his words and then bit his lip. Speaking now would only get him into even worse trouble.
"That's more like it," smiled Toph, and she jabbed him in the arm before releasing him from his stone shackles.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~ x ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
After they'd broken apart Aang knelt down before the Earthbending Master. Toph sat casually, though it was more of a half-sitting, half reclining position, and she was leaning on her arm with one leg folded over her knee. She was picking at her toes lazily, pausing only to sniff at a small ball of dirt she'd dug out from beneath her toenail before she flicked it away disinterestedly. It would be left in the corner of the cave (or embedded half-way up the wall, she had strong fingers) to fester.
Anyone else would have found this behaviour repulsive and unbecoming of a young, rich noblewoman, but these were the actions that made Toph … Toph. She never listened to rules and certainly didn't listen to reason, unless it was her own (even then it wasn't guaranteed. It really depended on what mood she was in at the time.)
Toph could tell that the others were looking for them. Appa's large feet had long since left the ground and she could hear him calling out in the distance in low, rumbling roars. An odd feeling crept into the back of her mind and she felt herself slipping into another vision, and she shook herself to try and keep it at bay. Aang was already worried about her, if she acted dopey now, it'd only turn him into even more of a mother hen.
But it was persistent, digging in with its heels and not letting go. Toph dug her own heels in; her eyes narrowed, she glared at the floor, stood her ground like an Earthbender.
It suddenly switched tactics, turned into more of an Airbender, and darted around her shield so quickly it could have sent her reeling.
She was back in the strange temple. People crowded around her, talking and whispering, laughing … there were children as young as three darting by, all with steps as light as feathers brushing the ground. The people would inch out of her way as she moved past and headed for the exit, as if her presence intimidated them. Perhaps they weren't used to an Earthbender walking around.
Fleeting warm winds twisted around the outside of the temple like a she-cat curling around her kits to protect them, to keep them safe from harm. Toph took a few steps forward onto the courtyard where a crowd was gathering at the bottom of the steps. Hesitating, she reached out with her vision, trying to ascertain what it was they were congregating around.
With a jolt she knew who it was, and she moved forward quickly, Earthbending herself into the air to land in the middle of the action … except she didn't land. She didn't fall, but there was no earth around her, just endless skies. Panic gripped her. She couldn't see, and she hated the feeling of truly being blind. She clawed at everything she could get to, trying to summon earth to her so that she could at least defend herself. Whatever damned abyss was trying to make her fall, she wasn't going to do it. A Beifong did not fall. Toph did not fall.
"Toph, wake up!"
Those visions were going to be the death of her, Toph thought, as she opened her eyes and grunted.