Notes: I know people are anxious about what's happening in Ba Sing Se, but I wanted to keep this in the spirit of a true Zuko (and Toph) Alone chapter. We'll return to mindbending shenanigans in the next chapter. Promise!
"I know it's hard for you to see me this way, but the obedient little helpless blind girl that you think I am just isn't me. I love fighting. I love being an earthbender. And I'm really, really good at it."
~ Toph, The Blind Bandit
Zuko opened his eyes a couple of hours before dawn. He lay in place for a moment, pieces of straw digging into his back, not understanding what had woken him. Then he glanced over. The spot where Toph had up curled on the straw mound near him was empty. Momo, however, snoozed on without care.
He waited for a few moments and then rose and walked to barn's open door. Li and Toph stood not far away on the edge of a lily-sunflower field. The night air was cold and still, which easily carried their voices.
"All right," Toph said to the boy. "Show me your strongest stance."
Li planted his feet and raised his fists like he was entering a boxing match.
"Weak." Toph jabbed two fingers into the meat of his shoulder hard enough to make the boy take a surprised step back. "You wanna fight like an earthbender, you gotta stand firmer than that. Center your weight down low. Arms in." She balled her fists and tucked them against her ribs, feet set solid as stone.
Li tentatively pushed her shoulder and she didn't budge an inch. Then the boy spotted Zuko and grinned, waving him over. "Did we wake you up?" he called cheerfully, not a concern in the world.
The answer was obviously yes, so instead Zuko walked up and asked his own question, "What are you two doing?"
Li grinned, showing a gap between his two front teeth. "Toph is teaching me earthbending."
"I'm teaching Twiggy here how to fight like an earthbender," Toph corrected, not budging an inch from her low stance. "Might be good for you to learn, too, Sparky."
Li turned to her. "Why do you call him Sparky?"
"Same reason I call you Twiggy," Toph said. "Now get those twiggy arms tucked in."
The kid did what he was told, but was as cheerfully irrepressible as ever. "But do you think maybe I can learn to earthbend? My great uncle Su Wong didn't start bending until he was twelve. I bet I'm like him."
Zuko shook his head. Bending did not work that way, but didn't see a point in stomping on the kid's dreams. "Non-benders can be dangerous, too."
Li turned to him, eyes wide. "Really?"
"Really. My elder brother's one of the most dangerous people that I know because he outthinks his enemies." He caught himself at the last second. It would not be good for Li to find out he was a firebender. "And I'm not too bad, either."
Zuko eyed the way Toph stood, practically sunk into the dirt. He wasn't sure how much he would learn from her. His bending style required a lot of movement. But Li was looking between them with shining eyes, and what could it hurt?
So, he sunk down, copying Toph's low stance, and immediately felt the strain in his calves and thighs. "Like this?"
"Eh," she said, unimpressed. "It's more of a mindset. If you want to fight an earthbender, you have to out-stubborn your opponent. When they push you," she rose suddenly and pushed Zuko hard with the flat of both hands. Taken by surprise, his root broke completely and he fell back on his butt. Li started to laugh, but then got the same treatment and fell as well. Toph stood over them, grinning. "You gotta be stronger. Only then can you push back."
Note to self: Never get in a shoving match with an earthbender, Zuko thought wryly. There was a sharp rock digging into his rear end and he didn't think it was a coincidence.
Toph helped them back up and then gave Li a few more pointers on where to set his feet to improve his balance.
"How do I knock someone out?" Li asked.
"The first step is to keep from getting knocked out, yourself," she said stolidly.
He shifted from foot to foot. "But what if Gow and his men put another boulder through the roof?"
Zuko straightened. "Who did what, now?"
Li nodded, looking sad. "Gow runs the militia. He and his men are supposed to protect the town, but when they drink, they get mean. A few weeks ago Gow came over and started showing off with his new hammers, that's how we got that hole in the roof." He scowled. "If my brother, Sen Su, were here, he would have stopped Gow, but Dad was out working the field. Dad said we were lucky—Gow could have been the whole house."
And now they had a roof to patch up.
"Those were the same guys that the merchant was worried about?" Toph asked.
Li nodded. "They keep the Fire Nation away, but Dad says that gives them big ideas."
"And the whole town just puts up with that?" Zuko demanded, outraged. "Why doesn't anyone go out, find those guys, and teach them a lesson they won't forget?"
That earned a disbelieving stare from Li.
Toph snorted. "Maybe that's how things are done in the Water Tribes, but in the Earth Kingdom you gotta stand your ground on your own land."
No, Zuko realized with a chill. That wasn't how this problem would have been done in the Water Tribe. Back in the South Pole, the tribe would have gathered, aired the grievance, and acted as one unit to discipline who was causing disharmony in the community.
In the Fire Nation… whichever parent was the fiercest fighter—Sela or Gansu—would have been expected to go out, find the problem, and eliminate it before they could strike again.
Out of the two, the Fire Nation solution felt the most right. Did that make it wrong, though? He wasn't sure, and that worried him.
They were right in the middle of the Earth Kingdom continent, though. So perhaps this problem should be fixed the Earth Kingdom way. "Then you have to find a way to stand your ground, next time," he said, thinking about his pearl hilted knife and the message etched on the blade: Never give up without a fight.
Zuko reached to his side and pulled his boomerang from its holster. Hakoda had given it to him a few weeks ago. His first had been taken from him on Iroh's ship.
Looking at it, he realized he hadn't touched it since then. Even what little hunting he'd had to do had been accomplished with snares. The edge of the bladed side had become dull in the holster. Good for a beginner.
He bent knelt to Li's eye level and handed it over. "Every boy should have a weapon of his own," he said, remembering when Hakoda had told him the same thing, all those years ago when he'd woken up after being found on the Fire Nation ship.
"What is it?" Li's eyes were round.
"This is a boomerang. We use them to hunt and defend ourselves in the South Pole."
"Give it a try, Twiggy." With a stomp, Toph brought up a stone pillar. It was roughly human shaped with a dirt-clod head on top.
Zuko spent the next few minutes showing Li how to stand, throw, and most importantly, catch the boomerang safely. Li was every bit as terrible as he had been when starting out, but he'd get good with enough practice.
Then Toph ran them both through a couple basic earthbending stances, and how to explode out of them with force when the time was exactly right. As the sun rose into the dawn of a new hot day, Zuko came to the conclusion that Toph's style was not good for his brand of offense, but might be useful standing his ground in the face of oncoming flames. He would work on it.
Before long, Sela called Li in for breakfast. The kid cheered, stomach audibly growling, and hugged both Zuko and Toph before trotting off to the house. His boomerang hung off his belt.
Toph turned her head in his direction to 'watch' him go. "Is that what like having a brother is like?"
"They're usually more annoying," Zuko said, with a swift pang of homesickness. He missed his siblings. Roughhousing and hunting with Sokka, bending and just... talking with Katara. She could always sort out the tangle of his thoughts. He even missed Aang, the kid with too much responsibility on his flighty head who'd become almost like a brother too.
Toph snorted and slugged him in the shoulder. "C'mon, I wanna eat."
Despite the short night's rest, Zuko didn't feel tired or bogged down the next day.
Spring was well on its way. The overhead sun felt good and beamed down with an intensity he was used to feeling only during the long South Pole summer days.
He helped Gansu on the roof repair. He was passable at nailing the shingles in, but spreading the tar was a lot easier. While the bucket was between his warmed hands, it maintained the perfect temperature and viscosity.
Momo awoke later that morning and spent the day flitting from Zuko's shoulder to Toph's, chirping and shamelessly begging for treats from the both of them.
Gansu, too, split his time between the roof and assisting Toph with the well. She had successfully managed to clear the rocks and bend the earth deeper at the main well, and was now taking a look at the family's small backup well. Having two sources of water would be a vast improvement to this family's life. It was a shame no other earthbender could have come out sooner, but… they were needed in the war.
From his vantage point on the roof, Zuko searched the sky, as he always did, for any signs of a sky bison. There was nothing. Not even a cloud in the sky.
But he was the first to spot a drift of dust rising up from the distant road. Several people were riding toward the ranch, and coming on fast.
Zuko stood, watching it, and when he was certain the riders were coming their way he called out, "Gansu!"
The man had been retrieving more wood to use as shingles. He stopped and glanced up. Zuko pointed in the rider's direction before shimmying down the ladder to join him.
"It's the militia," Gansu said, squinting. "What could they want?"
"Trouble," Zuko replied, remembering Li's story from this morning. It would be a dumb idea to reveal himself as a Firebender to people who had already suffered so greatly from the Fire Nation, but if Gow and his men tried putting another hole in the roof he'd nearly patched up, he was going to pay.
Toph walked up to them. She said nothing, but her body language shifted slightly in his direction: Her equivalent of glancing at someone.
He tilted his head to the side and backed one step. It put a little space between himself and Gansu in case he needed to call fire.
Toph quirked a smile and did the same to Gansu's other side.
The man didn't know it, but he had back-up to spare.
The oncoming militia passed the front fence and spurred their ostrich-horses to a full gallop before stopping obnoxiously close in front of Gansu. Their leader, Gow presumedly, was the largest.
"What do you want, Gow?" Gansu asked coldly.
Gow leered down at him. "Just thought someone ought to tell you, your son's battalion got captured." With a mean grin, he turned to the men following him. "You boys hear what the Fire Nation did to their last group of Earth Kingdom prisoners?"
One called up from the back. "Dressed them up in Fire Nation uniforms and put them on the frontline, unarmed." He hawked and then spat. "Then they just watched."
Zuko's stomach swooped in horror. Gansu surged forward. "You watch your mouth, Gow!"
"Just passing the news along, Gansu. You watch your boy." He eyed him. "And your pretty wife."
Then with a laugh he wheeled his ostrich-horse around. Then he and his men rode away.
The moment they were out of sight, Gansu turned to comfort his wife and son.
"What's going to happen to my brother?" Li demanded.
Zuko shut his eyes, pained. He heard Toph's soft footfalls as she stepped over. "Gow was telling the truth," she said lowly.
"Yeah, Colonel Mongke mentioned something like that, too. I don't see why these nobodies would get the news," he added with a dismissive glance towards the retreating cloud of dust.
Gansu detached himself from his wife to walk back up to Zuko and Toph.
"I'm heading out today to the front lines to get my boy." He paused, glancing at Zuko. "I would feel a lot better if the ranch had additional hands to help Sela out while I'm gone."
Zuko's stomach sank. No doubt Sela would need help if Gow and his men felt like making more trouble.
He glanced at Toph, who's mouth pressed in a thin line. It might take Gansu weeks just to get to the front lines. Meanwhile, Toph wanted to join the Earth Rumble at Ba Sing Se, and Zuko had to find Katara, Sokka, and Aang.
Plus, there was another problem.
"It's not a good idea for us to stay in one place for a long time," Zuko started, but wasn't sure how to explain… everything.
Gansu's green eyes sharpened. "You're runaways?"
"My parents thought I was ready for marriage," Toph said in her blunt fashion. "I disagreed."
He frowned and glanced at Zuko for some reason. "She is a little young for that."
"Not for a Fire Nation Colonel," Toph said.
Zuko winced, but it was the truth. "The Fire Nation will be searching for us."
"And whoever my parents can hire, too," Toph added cheerfully.
"I see. So that's why you're seeking the Avatar. He has the power to make or break agreements." Gansu nodded as if this made sense, even though that was not what Zuko had told him at all. Then the man sighed and cast a look back over his shoulder toward his wife and young son, lowering his voice. "Best not let Sela know your situation. She has enough worries."
That much he could do. Zuko nodded. "We can stay through tomorrow. That will give me enough time to finish the roof."
"I'll have a look around the ranch, too." Toph seemed to sink into the dirt a little. "I can tell it's been a while since a proper earthbender has send to this property."
True to the nature of an Earth Kingdom man, once Gansu had made his decision, he stuck with it. He was gone within the hour.
Sela and Li watched ride off from the front porch of their tiny house—Li clinging onto his mother for support.
The sight reminded Zuko of when Hakoda had left the South Pole with the rest of the Water Tribe men. Hopefully, Gansu would return soon, and with more than just an urn of ashes for his journey.
No, he reminded himself. Cremation was a Fire Nation custom. The people of the Earth probably buried their dead, in the same way the Water Tribe gave theirs back to the sea.
He hoped Gansu was able to bring back his son, and not just a trinket to remember him by.
Sighing, he turned away and scaled the ladder to return to his work. He finished his patch on the roof shortly before midday. It wasn't the neatest work, but he thought it should hold until Gansu returned.
Toph was busy walking the property "talking rock" as she called it, so when Sela asked if she could borrow Ushi to haul supplies in from the town, Zuko offered to go with her. Li, naturally, tagged along.
The atmosphere in the small village was strained. There were more people about than the last time he'd been there, but they mostly stuck to the shadows under awnings. The only real sound came from the saloon where several ostrich-horses had been tied to the standing posts. Rough, too-loud laughter drifted out the swinging doors, along with the crash of furniture.
Li tugged on his arm and pointed. "That's Gow's men."
Zuko had been taught by Gran-Gran that it was rude to point, but those men deserved rudeness. Idly, he took note of the small flames feeding the overhead oil lamps, ever burning even in the heat of the day. They were damped down, but he could draw from them in a pinch. Or better yet, from the sun burning overhead.
He, Sela, and Li weren't bothered as they made their way to the general store. Sela was no fool and did her shopping quickly. She purchased enough feed and grain to last the little family until Gansu got back.
Zuko was helping the general store clerk pile a few bags on Ushi's back when a voice drawled out behind them.
"Didn't expect to see you all here, Sela. Shouldn't you be grieving?"
Zuko turned and saw Gow and his men had come out of the saloon, leering openly at Sela.
She glanced down. "We're just shopping, Gow. Leave us alone."
Gow grinned. "I can see that. Where's Gansu?"
"My dad's bringing my brother home!" Li declared, pushing forward to stand between the man and his mother.
"Is that so?" Gow asked. "And left you all alone?"
Li puffed out his skinny chest. "I can protect the ranch." And he reached for the boomerang in his belt.
This was a recipe for trouble. Stepping away from Ushi, Zuko moved to stand before the boy. "Stay away from them."
"Or what?" one of the soldiers asked.
Zuko's good eye narrowed so that it matched the bad. "Or I'll have something to say about it." It would be a bad idea to firebend, but he would do what had to be done.
"Ohh." Still grinning, Gow turned to his men. "Looks like we have a real fighter here, boys." Then, back to Zuko, "Why aren't you in the front lines? Already seen too much of the war?" He lifted one of his stone hammers. "Or maybe you haven't seen enough?"
Sela gripped Zuko's arm. "Let's go."
"I don't think so," Gow said silkily. "Sela, your ranch is behind on your taxes."
"No we are not. Gansu paid—"
"Well he's not around to ask, is he? We'll take those feed bags, the ostrich-horse too."
Zuko stiffened. They were not taking Ushi.
Quick as an arctic coyote, Li darted around him to challenge the man directly. "Those aren't yours! You can't take whatever you want."
"Sounds to me that you're getting too big for your britches. Maybe it's time you saw a little war action, too." With that, the beefy earthbender reached for Li.
Zuko would have called fire except that Li was standing right by his side. He hesitated, and instead grabbed for one of the spears one of the soldiers held, spinning it in hand in a move he'd learned at the North Pole.
But in doing so, he took his eyes off the earthbender. That was a mistake. He heard the scrape of a tough-soled foot against rock, there was a bonk, a flash of white light, and then darkness.
Toph spent that afternoon walking the property while Momo flitted overhead, landing on the ground to much up scorp-crickets. She paid him little mind. Earth held a memory longer than any man, and she could tell it had been at least a couple of generations since a proper earthbender had seen to this place.
It wasn't bad soil. The top layer was a little sandy and baked to a fine crust that made it difficult for any plants to break through. There were enough earthworms and ants that the ground must have been worth something, though.
Fighting was a lot of fun, and Toph was good at it, but it was meditative to stroll around and commune with the earth to see what it had to tell her.
As she walked, she pushed interfering rocks down and the more nutrient-rich layers up. Different materials within the earth had different magnetic pulls upon one another. That's mainly how Toph could tell iron from, say, silica. She made sure to stir these around, too. Even earth shouldn't stay bound in one place for too long.
Toph's concentration was broken by the approach of rapid feet. Sela. And judging by her pounding heart, she was either really scared or really angry. Momo called out a chittering greeting to her.
Toph stopped and turned toward the approaching woman, absently digging the heel of one foot into the ground to cast out. Nope. The boys weren't with her.
That figured. Trouble followed Sparky like flies to an ostrich-horse.
"What happened?" Toph demanded.
By the sounds of her ragged breaths, Sela was crying, almost on the edge of hysterics. "Gow and his men demanded our food. Zuko tried to stop him, but there were too many. They… They grabbed Li, too. Gow says he's old enough for the Earth Kingdom army now." She heaved a sob.
Toph found herself speechless. It was one thing for Zuko to be caught by her parents' guards (her father only hired the best) but this tiny town's militia? She didn't know a lot about firebending, but he was good enough to have scared the pants off those wagon supply soldiers the other day.
Ah, but he couldn't firebend in front of Li and his mother, could he? That was an annoying handicap.
Sela heaved a sob. "I don't know what to do! No one in the town can stop Gow. He's too strong."
"Not for me," Toph said.
The woman shook her head. "I know we just met, and I'm asking much, but could you please watch the ranch? I will ride out to Wang Su village to the east. One of the men might be able to do something."
Toph felt her jaw drop. Hello! She was right here! "You don't need to go anywhere. I'll get Li back for you."
A pause. It was almost as if Sela wasn't sure she heard her correctly. "I can't ask you to do that. Gow is a veteran earthbender and he has three trained men with him."
"So what? I've defeated more in the Earth Rumble ring."
Sela put a hand on her shoulder. "I know you care about your brother, but he would not want to see you get hurt."
It took a moment to realize Sela was talking about Zuko. Toph's annoyance flashed into affront. No one had ever told her she looked Water Tribe.
"He's not my brother, and I won't get hurt." She knocked Sela's hand away. "Where are they?"
She stomped and earth shook with the impact. "What direction!"
Sela didn't say it, but her body twitched back the way she had come. Straight due east.
Turning, Toph strode in that direction. She felt the woman pause and trot after her, reluctance in every line of her body.
Toph didn't care. She knew Sela's type: It didn't matter that Toph had fixed their wells or fence. Toph was blind and couldn't cook or sew like a proper woman. She saw Toph as nothing but a helpless little girl.
Along the way, Sela tried to talk to her several times, but Toph cracked her knuckles and ignored her.
It had been too long since she'd been in a good fight, and from the distant vibrations she picked up from the down, she was about to have an audience.
Toph grinned, showing teeth. She'd show Sela. She'd show everyone in this stupid town that Toph Bei Fong was not someone to be pitied.
Zuko heard Gow step up behind him, started to turn, heard a brief flash of pain and a bright flash of light, and then…
… and then…
And then he was pelting down the palace corridor as fast as his legs would carry him. The tiny, fluffy body cupped oh-so-carefully in his hands was too still and too cold.
He didn't know what happened, Pip had been fine before he left for firebending training this morning, chirping for bits of rice left over from Zuko's breakfast. Now he was ice cold with his little neck was at the wrong angle.
He spotted his mother in the garden strolling along with her usual attendants. "Mom!" he cried. "Mom help! It's Pip!"
She turned and knew he was too old to be crying, but as she bent to receive him he pressed his face against her rich, red robes, sniffing.
"Zuko? What's—Is that a turtle-duck?"
"I'm sorry!" The confession came out in a rush. "He had a bad foot, and he couldn't keep up with the others, so I was feeding him in… in my room. I told the servants not to tell, and Pip was doing so good but when I checked on him…" He held up the little broken body, the head lolling to the side.
"Oh, Zuko." Her arms tightened about his shoulders, bringing the scent of cherry-lilac. He manfully tried to sniff back his tears. "Honey, he is a wild animal. Sometimes these things happen."
"But he was fine this morning!" He drew back, wiping his face with his free hand. He couldn't bring himself to look in her eyes. "Can't I bring him to Agni's pool? Please? Please? Agni could fix him. I know he would."
"That pool is only for the royal family, dum-dum," said a dismissive voice. Zuko stiffened and turned. He hadn't noticed that Azula had been there, walking along with their mother. She rolled her eyes. "And Agni doesn't care about stupid turtle-ducks."
"Azula," said Mother. "Can't you see your brother is upset?"
"Sorry, Zuko." But when his mother wasn't looking, she mouthed 'cry baby'.
Zuko's hands felt hot with anger, but that made the tiny body only felt colder. "I could… Can't I just ask? I'm a prince. Agni would listen to me."
His mother let out a regretful sigh and bent to hug him again, once again sweeping him in her arms with the scent of cherry-lilac. "I'm afraid your sister is right. A turtle-duck is such a little life and the great spirit has all of our troops and the war to look after."
He looked down Pip. He wasn't supposed to have pets, it was undignified, but Zuko had thought if he rescued him, it would be different. Maybe Pip could be like a…a friend, maybe.
Not only that, the palace was supposed to be safe. There weren't even any pigmy pumas stalking about after that time Azula set one on fire. The whole pride had been scared away. Plus, a pigmy puma couldn't get into his rooms, anyway. Only his servants and family were allowed…
Zuko felt a chill. He looked up past his mother's shoulder.
Azula smiled back at him.
Zuko woke with a gasp. "'zula, what did you do?" he tried to say, but his voice felt mushy and his head ached.
He knew with the sixth sense of a firebender that the sun was directly overhead, shining down at full strength. Somehow, he was sitting upright. He shifted, glancing around, and found that his hands were bound against his back
Understanding hit in a flash, pushing away the dream—the memory? An actual memory of his Fire Nation childhood and his mother—to the side, and burning away the confusion.
He was tied to a post in the middle of the town square. Villagers stood at either side of the street and anxiously peered out from windows and from under building awnings. All were too scared and intimidated to help.
Meanwhile, Gow and his three militia strutted around like they were making a point.
They were making a point: Don't question us, or this will happen to you and your children.
"Zuko?" Li's voice came from behind. The ropes tightened as the boy moved. "You're awake?" He sounded scared.
Zuko twisted and found that Li was sitting with his back to the other side of the pole. They were tied with the same length of rope, so every time the boy shifted, he felt it. Inwardly, he cursed himself and hoped that Sela was able to get away. "I'm awake," he confirmed grimly. "What happened?"
Li's voice was high-pitched and filled with fear. "Gow's telling everyone you're a deserter from the earth army and that I'm old enough to join, too. He's going to take us to the front lines."
"That's not going to happen," Zuko said.
"I tried cutting the ropes with the side of the boomerang but it's not sharp enough. Gow told me if catches me again, he'll hit us with the hammer!"
A flash of the memory hit him, his mother's arms folding around him. She couldn't take away his grief, but for a second… for a second he had still believed it was going to be okay.
Zuko took a deep breath. "Li," he said steadily, cutting through the boy's rambling. "Listen to me. No one is going to take you away from your mother. I promise."
His fingers felt the rough, dry weave of the rope. Firebending himself free would be risky, but if he was careful…
Li suddenly twisted—the kid was completely incapable of sitting still—which caused Zuko's ropes to pull tight. "There she is!" he called, loud enough to get the attention of the watchers. "I knew she'd come!"
Zuko raised his head. Out, across the village square, a tiny figure strode into view. It was Toph.
Toph strode into the town square and stomped once to get the lay of the land.
Ahead stood Gow and his three men. Best she could tell, he was the only earthbender out of the group. They stood smack in the middle of the square, blocking her from where Zuko and Li were tied up. Li's fluttering heartbeat was excited and hopeful. Zuko's was an angry thrumming, but cautiously optimistic. Honestly, he should have more faith in her.
More importantly, to either side were more than three dozen different heartbeats. Toph hadn't had this big of an audience since the Earth Rumble before the Fire Nation moved in.
She grinned, big and broad.
"Who's this?" Gow called out, laughter in his voice. "You here to beg for your friends back, little girl?"
"Nope," she called back. "I'm here to slap that smile off your face, kick your soldiers into next week, and then free my friends."
There were hushed murmurs from the watching townsfolk, quickly hushed. Apparently people didn't talk back to Gow that often.
"Is… is she blind?" one of the soldier's asked his friends. They traded shrugs.
Gow made a show of looking around. He was strangely reluctant. Not from fear, but from annoyance. Toph knew why: They treated their girls like precious objects here—something to be protected. No one wanted to be the one seen beating up on a girl. "This is ridiculous. There are consequences for interfering with official militia business. Go home before you get hurt."
Toph stood as firm as stone. "What's the matter, Gow? I thought you liked beating up little kids."
She could practically hear Zuko's affronted huff at that. Too bad. Maybe next time, he wouldn't let losers like this get the drop on him.
"You're going to regret saying that," Gow growled and strode forward.
Toph's grin grew wicked. She widened her stance, hands snapping up into guard positions in front of her face. The earth beneath her toes trembled at the ready.
At Gow's signal, two of the guardsmen rushed forward. Several of the townsfolk screamed in dismay, but Toph tuned them out as she would any rumble audience.
The man to the right held a pike, the other came at her barehanded. Toph waited until they were close enough to fully commit into a lunge. Then, at the exact right moment she slid the earth under their feet. The ooph as they ran into each other was immensely satisfying.
There was a shocked silence. Then the audience screamed their approval.
It was music to Toph's ears.
The two men picked themselves painfully up. She could have sunk them to their necks in a second or launched them out of the town square completely. Instead, she let them limp a few steps back. They'd try something in a few moments, and she'd make fools of them again. That's how it went.
She could practically feel the heat of Gow's glare. Still grinning, Toph crooked her finger and made a 'come forward' gesture.
Swinging his hammers menacingly, he obliged her. His feet were as bare as hers and the earth bowed under his weight. Unlike her, he used stone hammers to beat the earth to his will. Amateur.
One hammer came down, raising knocking a chunky boulder into the air that the other hammer sent flying straight at Toph.
A sharp wedge of rock erupted before Toph at her command, cleaving the oncoming boulder in two. Then, with a flick she sent it shooting forward.
Gow dived out of the way.
Toph was about to follow it up with a dull spike, maybe to his rump, maybe to some other painful tender point, but all three soldiers took that moment to charge her again.
She stood in place, hands and feet moving in a precise dance as she shot rocks out, as the men tripped on toeholds that hadn't been there before, and the very earth buckled under them.
Gow hadn't yet closed in, preferring to strike rocks at her which she batted away with contempt. He would, though. His temper was fraying. She could feel it in his rapid breathing and escalating heart rate. He knew he was being humiliated. Only a matter of time before he snapped.
Meanwhile, the audience screamed their approval. And this… this was what Toph was born to do.
A sharp word from Zuko and a quick patter of feet drew her attention briefly from the fight. Li was free and darting across the square to join to his mother.
Gow saw Li, too, and turned just as the three soldiers she'd been toying with came for her again. She dodged the pike—too close, she'd make him pay for that—and to her horror felt Gow's dual hammers slice the ground.
The boulder wasn't headed toward Toph. It was headed straight for LI.
And she couldn't block it and deal with the soldiers at the same time.
What was Toph doing? But Zuko knew. She was putting on a show. She'd let one of Gow's three goons get close, only for the earth to shift suddenly under their feet and make them miss their mark, or for them to trip hilariously into one another.
Gow was getting mad, striking the earth with his hammer with less and less precision.
Meanwhile, the crowd ate it up, hooting and cheering. "Give him a left! A left!" Whatever that was meant to mean.
Even Li yelled encouragement, and only yelped in surprise when rock chips from boulder shrapnel blew in his direction.
Zuko was pissed.
It would take one sloppily thrown boulder, one errant rock spike to hurt Li. Or worse, for Gow to remember he had hostages who couldn't fight back.
Sela watched anxiously from the side, hand pressed to her mouth. She clearly wanted to run over to her boy, but was too afraid of drawing Gow's attention.
Zuko had enough of this.
"Li," he said. Then repeated himself twice until he got the boy's attention. "I almost got the knots undone," he lied. "Pull the rope tight."
"Okay!" No need to look. He could hear the boy's grin.
Somehow, someway, he was going to have to introduce him to Aang.
"The second you're free, run to your mother. Got it? Straight over to her."
"I will. I promise!"
He sounded way too happy, clearly not understanding that it would take one badly aimed rock to crush them flat. "On three. One… Two…" he took a deep breath and grabbed the rope. "Pull!"
Li bent forward, pulling the rope that bound their wrists tight—and more importantly, inching away from Zuko's suddenly burning hot hands. There would be some smoke, but he hoped that everyone was too involved in the fight to notice.
The strands of rope parted and came free. Li whooped, leaping to his feet.
Zuko did as well, barking out, "Run!"
Li was a good kid. He did exactly what he promised, pelting across the square to his mother's open arms.
Unfortunately, Gow turned at exactly the wrong time to see him. His three men were busy charging Toph, taking her attention.
It only took a second for Gow to turn and bring both hammers down in a slice. A boulder the size of a man's head chipped off the earth and flew, unerringly, toward Li.
Zuko didn't think. He stepped forward in a form from the dancing dragon, with both palms up. A single dart of flame shot out, and as he poured will and effort into it, the flame compacted into a tiny white flare—more hot and energetic than he had ever bent before. It whistled through the air and struck the oncoming boulder like an arrow.
The explosion blasted the rock into a shower of dust which rained down on the watchers.
"He's a firebender!" Gow yelled and raised his great hammers for another blow.
Zuko was already running forward. He was a firebender, however oddly he bent, and firebenders did not wait and endure like the people of earth. They attacked.
A thick wreath of golden flame lit between his hands. He brought it up, and then down, crashing the fire like a vengeful wave in front of him.
Gow had his hammers over his head, which unbalanced him. He tried to back up. Too slow. The terrible wave washed over his bare feet. He screamed, dropping the hammers and falling back onto his hands, which burned too.
With a crunch of rock, three narrow columns of stone simultaneously shot Gow's goons in three separate directions. The men landed twenty feet away, groaning, the fight knocked out of them.
Paying them no heed, Toph walked up to Zuko who stood over the whimpering Gow.
"I burned him." This wasn't the first man he'd intentionally burned—Zhao took that honor—but Zuko didn't like it. He also didn't allow himself to look away from what he had done. The fire had been cool, but it had still been fire. The red, peeling skin on Gow's hands and feet looked like a massive sunburn. It would be weeks until he could walk normally again, or use his hands. "He tried to strike Li."
Toph's expression darkened, and with a corkscrew twist of a clawed hand, Gow was sunk into the ground, his head, red hands, and burned tootsies sticking out.
"Stop your whining, dirt for brains," Toph told Gow. "You got what you deserved."
Zuko rounded on her. "What were you thinking, playing around with them like that?"
Toph looked surprised, but as usual didn't give an inch. "I can fight and put on a good show at the same time."
"Show?" he snapped. "This wasn't an Earth Rumble brawl! Those men were serious."
"I… I know that."
"Li's life was on the line. If I hadn't been fast enough—"
Toph clenched her fists. "I know."
"You could have flattened all of them within seconds," he said. "But no, you were too busy making it look good!"
Her jaw dropped open. For once, she seemed at a loss for words. "I—"
Zuko caught the motion towards her out of the corner of his bad eye. He turned, striking out with a hasty sheet of fire. A half-rotten tomato-pear flopped to the ground, still smoking.
It hadn't been aimed at him. The person who threw it had been aiming at Toph.
"Traitor!" one of the villagers screamed out. "Fire Nation sympathizer!"
Zuko's stomach sank to his shoes. The cheering was over. Now, the faces staring at them from either side of the road were sullen and angry. Not good.
The old man who had been yelling at Toph to 'give him a left' stepped forward. He had a pitchfork in one hand. "Those were our soldiers! Who's going to protect us now?"
"But… But they were bullying the town!" Toph's voice was high with distress and confusion. " They tried to take Li from his mother!" She stomped in frustration, and the ground rumbled.
The villagers drew back—not awed. Afraid.
Then the old man piped up again. "The firebender took our strongest man out. Now the Fire Nation will come down on us all. Mark my words, this was the plan all along."
"That girl is helping him!" another yelled.
"It was a set-up!"
"She's not one of us!"
One woman started to boo, then it was taken up by the man standing next to her. Within seconds the whole crowd was jeering and yelling curses. Sela remained silent, but stared at them with anger. Peeking out behind her, Li looked on with tears in his eyes.
Neither of them came to their defense. If they did, the whole town would fall on their heads.
"Come on," Zuko said roughly. Ushi was nearby, relieved of the foodstuff thanks to Gow's men, but unhurt, still saddled, and tied placidly to a post. They had to get out of there.
He took three steps before he realized Toph wasn't following. She stood there, taking the town's abuse with her fists clenched and her head bowed. Zuko wasn't sure if she was crying because her hair hid her face, but he suspected she was.
"Toph," he said quieter, "There's nothing you can do. Let's go."
She let out a breath, nodded once, and followed.
She let him boost her onto Ushi's back. He jumped up behind, and Momo settled himself high on the ostrich-horse's neck. Some of the braver villagers moved forward as if to chase them out, but stayed out of Zuko's firing range.
He could feel the townspeople's glares on the back of his neck as they rode away.
They rode in sullen silence. Zuko wasn't sure what he should say to Toph to make her feel better, and he didn't trust his temper right then to try.
The town had been… bad there at the end. Though despite all that had happened he now had an actual memory of his mother…
… His mother.
Her calming voice, the scent of cherry-lilacs as her arms had swept around him. Why hadn't he looked up at her face? He had been so focused on his own grief over the turtle-duck hatchling…
(A hatchling he was sure Azula had killed. What was wrong with that girl?)
How many times had he wondered about his Fire Nation parents? He'd always thought they must be evil, hateful people simply because they were Fire Nation. He'd come to realize on Iroh's ship that there could be decent Fire people too, but his parents were royals. They were everything wrong with the world. They were responsible for the war.
My mother loved me. Or… she acted like she did. She was kind in a way that mothers should be and Fire Nation shouldn't, and… and…
He resisted the urge to touch the left side of his face.
Did she know?
"All right!" Toph said abruptly, shattering his thoughts. "I screwed up! Are you happy, now?"
"No." Zuko shook his head to refocus himself. He would worry about what the memory meant, later.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Toph barreled on "I wanted to humiliate Gow. You weren't there. Sela acted like I was useless!" Her hands clenched and her voice took on a mocking falsetto. "Poor little blind girl. She pitied me and… and earthbending is the one thing I can do better than everyone else." She lowered her head. "I wanted to show everyone how amazing I was."
He inhaled a long breath, then let out it, forcing his lingering irritation to the side. Li was safe. That was the important thing. Sure, the townspeople hated them but it wasn't like they would ever be back. Plus, could he blame them? They were small-minded, hurting, and trapped in a dying town. He could sympathize. If a pair of strangers had ridden into the Southern Water Tribe the way he and Toph had…
… Actually, now he thought about it, his and Sokka's reaction to Aang hadn't been too far off.
No, he thought abruptly. That had been a different situation. He and his brother weren't perfect, but in the end they set their egos aside for the sake of what was right and for the community. That was a part of being tribe.
He had to do the same thing, now. For Toph. It was the right thing to do.
"I wish you could have seen the looks on those people's faces during the fight," he admitted. "You were amazing."
She didn't answer for a long moment and when she did her voice was small. "Really?"
"Toph, you did what no one in that stupid town had the courage to do. You stood up to Gow and his men. You put them all to shame."
"Yeah?" She straightened in the saddle and then ducked her head again. "You really think so?"
Suspicious, he glanced at her and saw she was hiding a smile.
"Stop fishing for compliments. You know how good you are," he replied testily, and her smile broadened. "That was part of why they were so angry. Other than… me."
Her smile dimmed. "Your firebending saved Li. It wasn't fair."
"I'm used to it," he grumbled.
"… And Li?"
Seeing the hurt and fear in his eyes had gone straight to his heart. Zuko sighed. "He's a kid. He picks up what the adults tell him. The important thing is that he's safe."
She nodded, but she looked sad. "Guess we're banned from that town forever, huh?"
"Yeah? So what?" he said abruptly. "I'm one of Chief Hakoda's sons, I've crossed the heart of the Great Eastern Current, and I'm a personal friend to the Avatar. I don't need those random nobodies to like me."
She chuckled, taking him up. "And I'm Toph Bei Fong. I'm twelve years old and already the greatest earthbender in the world. If anyone has a problem with that, they can go chew on a rock."
He grinned back, now on a roll. "In fact—"
A flash of white caught his attention out of the corner of his eye—so different from red-brown dirt and sage green.
Dropping the reins, he dismounted and snatched it from the ground. It was a long tuft of white hair which had gotten tangled in the branches of a sage bush.
"What is it?" Toph asked.
He turned, feeling it between his fingers, thick and soft, and so familiar he felt an ache of homesickness. The skies were blue, cloudless and empty, and the shed fur was dirty as if it had been rolling along the ground for some time, but… He felt his heart speed up. "This is air bison fur! It has to be Appa's! Do you know what this means?"
"Um, sounds like something was shedding…?"
"Aang, Katara, and Sokka were here!" He laughed and before he could think of it he lifted Toph off Ushi's back, spinning her around. She actually squeaked in surprise, which would have been hilarious if his heart weren't bursting with relief. Grinning, he set her down. "Or… or they were near here! We're on the right track."
She cocked her head and pointed directly to the side. "Wind's coming from that direction—about five degrees north-north east," she said with the same perfect confidence he had if someone asked him how long until sunrise, or how Katara knew if a stream was safe to drink from. Trust an earthbender to always know where she was.
North-east…"Hold on." He grabbed for the map which was in Ushi's saddle pack, then laid it out. He had to do a little guesswork, but the destination was pretty clear. The great circular walls took up nearly a quarter of this part of the continent.
Toph must have felt his heart rate spike because she asked, "What is it?"
"That direction leads straight to Ba Sing Se."