This two-part fic is set three years after the end of the war. While I always planned to have an update in here about what had happened to Toph and the rest of Team Avatar since then, I never expected it to become as long as it did here. I mean, this is basically a fic about The Blind Bandit hunting something down, right? But that was just the way the story wanted to go. *shrugs*
Anyhow, here we go.
Day 14 of Magnolia Blossom Month, Kuei 22.
In the wooded hills around Gaoling, about five miles southeast of the town as the blue crow flew, a lone gharial hog boar rooted under the canopy of oaks and maples and birches. As with all hogs, his tastes in food were diverse and adventurous. Acorns, other nuts, tubers, fallen fruit, eggs, ant's nests, snakes, roots, frogs, dead animals, turtles, worms, insects, even the corpses of his own kind...all were consumed with sloppy, lip-smacking relish.
He was barrel-shaped and stocky, weighing 220 pounds, and was covered in cinnabar red bristles, caked and plastered with dried mud. He reeked of manure and fetid mud.
Still, the stench he carried about him was no barrier to his amazing sense of smell. Whenever his nose detected something interesting, he shoved his snout into the leaf litter and loam, jerking it forward and up until he found and ate yet another tasty little snack.
Every plowing movement of his long muzzle, every step he took with his stunted-looking legs, sent vibrations cascading outward through the soil.
Ask the original hunters, the ones that live in a world red in tooth and claw, that must seize and kill every time they wish to eat, how they detect prey they can't see.
They will tell you about scents on the ground and in the air, weak pulses of electricity perceived through their skin, body heat and the sensation of displaced, roiled water. They'll advise you about vibrations transmitted through the air as sound, molecules tasted with split tongues, brushing whiskers, and vibrations felt through the earth itself.
And it was this last sense, combined with a sharpened sense of hearing, which had just tipped off a 15-year old girl, blind as a cave catfish and the only Earthbender able to bend metal.
Underneath her long bangs, Toph faintly grinned in delight, excitement welling up inside her. Now this was good luck indeed!
After about an hour and a half of stealthy walking, hearing and sensing only birds, insects, and other animals too small to bother with, she'd come across a gharial hog! She liked all wild game, but as far as Toph was concerned, not even platypus bear, with its wonderfully sweet, greasy taste, could compare to the pleasures of roast gharial pig. The fact that boars also made decent trophies didn't hurt either.
She wore a tunic and pants quite similar to the one she'd traveled in during those amazing, life-changing, several months as a part of Team Avatar, but her hair was currently worn in a simple, long braid. Going out hunting in thick forest or brush with her hair up in a bun or any other complex hairstyle wasn't really a good idea, she'd quickly found out.
To protect her arms from thorns and twigs, she wore a pair of long leather gauntlets with eyelets, and used a pair of halved shoes to protect the tops of her feet. The shoes were Fire Nation.
Toph smiled lightly again. Who would've ever dreamed three years ago, that she would be a close friend of the Fire Lord himself? That his queen would actually have several pairs of shoes sent to her home as a gift?
She definitely could scarcely believe that she now had the freedom to go out and hunt potentially dangerous animals all by herself, or even leave the estate at all. Not so long ago, that would've been unimaginable. And unacceptable.
But thankfully, life-and her parents-had been a lot kinder to Toph Bei Fong since then.
After Twinkletoes had whupped Loser Lord Ozai nice and good, they'd all attended Zuko's coronation. She was happy for Sparky.
They'd all returned to Ba Sing Se afterwards, to spend one last, blissful week together as the family they'd become before separating.
Sokka and Suki, along with Ty Lee, went south, back to Kyoshi Island. Mai and Zuko of course, went back to their thrones. Aang and Katara settled down in the Air Nation, in a town about four days away by flying bison from where her awesome, sarcasm-spouting brother now lived.
Amazingly, happily, while Aang was still the last known Airbender, Twinkletoes and Sugar Queen had actually found surviving Air Nomads here and there, hiding in the recesses and crannies of the Air Nation's landscape.
Toph was delighted for him, but not really surprised. After all, no matter how hard you attempted to completely empty a jar of sugar, some always stuck to the sides.
Even better, Zuko had found his mother alive! A shackled Ozai had told his son that Ursa had fled to the Earth Kingdom, but he honestly didn't know what happened to her after that.
With only that information to go on, Zuko decided to take a gamble and ask King Bumi, Piandao, and the other members of the Order of the White Lotus if they'd heard or seen anything that might provide further clues to where the queen mother was.
Bumi had suggested that Zuko should try looking in his city, "for Omashu is known as the City of Lost and Found!"
Toph had never known Omashu to bear that particular title, but Zuko had believed it enough to decide a search would be worthwhile. And it was.
Ursa was there in the mountaintop city, working as the manager of a local inn and keeping her head down. She'd been shocked to see a flyer saying that the Fire Lord was looking for her. She was even more shocked and ecstatic to realize the Fire Lord was now Zuko.
It was a grand day, a grand reunion, when after more than a decade apart, mother and son saw each other again. From what Bumi had told her, there were lots of joyful tears, lots of hugs, and lots of maternal pride.
Then Ursa, no longer dressed in a commoner's rags, was introduced to Appa by her son. And Aang himself, tearing up with joy for his friend, took her home to her native land, to her palace, for the first time in years.
Toph too, knew all about reunions.
She'd stayed in Ba Sing Se for several more days with The Boulder and The Hippo. They'd shared a rented house together, earning their keep by using their Earthbending skills to help repair the damage to the city and flush out war criminals or any occupying soldiers who refused to surrender.
Every day, they'd visited Iroh and had tea with him at the Jasmine Dragon. There were plenty of shops and vendors to visit for food, and fun activities to do.
But then a message had arrived for her. In his guttural, slurred voice, the barely literate Hippo had read it for her. It was from her mother, desperately asking if she was okay, and to come home if she was.
Toph missed them terribly. She'd nearly died several times in battle during her time with the Avatar. She'd been rendered helpless by being put in a wooden cell. And each time, she would've given anything to have had her mother or father there to comfort her. Her former tournament competitors wanted to go back home too, and it wouldn't be right to hold them back.
But she also remembered how her father had coldly told her that he'd given her too much freedom. How he'd said she would now be watched by guards every hour of the day. How he'd sent those jerks Xin Fu and Master Yu to basically kidnap her, even though he probably felt it was for her own good.
She wanted to be with her parents. But she didn't trust them either. Would she be essentially returning to a cage again?
Frantic and torn, she'd gone to see Iroh, showing him the scroll and telling him about her predicament.
After reading it, Iroh had been silent and thoughtful for a while, considering.
Then he'd told her that yes, she had to return home to Gaoling-but only after her parents had made peace with her first, and with what she wanted from life.
He'd then asked if her parents liked to go on trips. She'd nodded.
Then he would send word to Lao and Poppy Bei Fong to come to Ba Sing Se, and meet their daughter at the Jasmine Dragon.
It was four day's journey by ostrich horse from Gaoling to the great city, and the Earthbender spent the time in a mixture of trepidation and excitement, continuing to have fun times with her former tournament rivals and living each day to the fullest.
Then they'd arrived.
Iroh had recently gotten himself a cat, and Toph had been sitting on the floor of the tea shop, petting its soft fur and listening to its soothing purring. Hippo and the Boulder were there too.
Then she'd detected a pair of gaits, smelt two intertwined scents, she would've recognized anywhere.
Letting the cat go, she'd stood erect, saying "Mom! Dad!"
"Oh Toph," her mother had replied in relief, as her pleased daughter had slipped into her embrace. It felt so good.
They'd been all for leaving with her at once, but Iroh had asked Lao and Poppy if they wanted to enjoy some of his choice tea before they left. It was an offer her father at least, couldn't resist.
After pouring her dad a cup of oolong, and her mother a cup of green, Iroh had joined them at the table and brought up the subject of Toph's future in his calm, wise way.
Her parents weren't totally ignorant of what their daughter had been up to after her disappearance from their home. They knew she'd played no small part in bringing the Fire Nation to its knees, and that she was now a war hero. A pragmatic man, her dad recognized that this meant trying to keep her sheltered and hidden away from the rest of the world was now a moot point. And that was a huge victory in itself.
Still, they were angry and scared to death by the knowledge that their sole child, blind and deprived of their protection, had chosen to get herself into very dangerous situations that had nearly gotten her killed. Amazingly, they also told Iroh they honestly believed Aang had kidnapped her to force her to be his Earthbending teacher, although now they weren't so sure.
Toph had nearly fallen out of her chair laughing as Iroh had laughed too, before collecting herself and telling her mom and dad that it wasn't so, that she'd deliberately run away to escape from their control, to actually enjoy and experience a real life.
Iroh had concurred, telling them that he'd encountered Toph several times while she was with the Avatar. As a former general, he was very good at recognizing the demeanor of a prisoner, the signs that someone was being held against their will, and Toph's behavior had been nothing like that at all. The Hippo and the Boulder had agreed, telling her parents that she'd been totally at ease with the others, that they were very much trusted partners and pals.
That significantly calmed them down, although her father still wasn't very happy about her cutting and running. Iroh had agreed with him that yes, it had been wrong for Toph to run away and make them worry so much.
But then he told her parents that they'd been in the wrong as well, for being so overprotective and sheltering towards their daughter, for misunderstanding and restricting her so badly that they'd left her with no other option but to be disobedient.
Her father had so not wanted to hear this, and had gotten up from his seat, intending to leave. To his chagrin though, he was greeted by a slab of stone that the Boulder had quietly earthbended to seal the door.
Reluctantly, he'd sat back down, sulky and fuming, but still with an open ear.
Then the Dragon of the West, so wise and laid-back, gave her parents The Talk.
He told them that there was nothing wrong with loving their daughter deeply and wanting to watch over her. And it was both right and natural to be concerned about the welfare of a child who had a disability.
However, love could also be like a python. If you squeezed someone too hard with your love, you constricted them, choked them, imprisoned them, made them suffer, just like the snake would.
He told them that just because someone had a disability, it didn't make them weak or helpless or fragile. Just different, that was all. Life was harder perhaps in some ways, but it generally made them all the stronger for it in the end...just like their daughter.
He told them that life was about change and balance. It was wonderful that they cared about their daughter, wanted to provide support and be there for her. But they also had to understand that there must be a balance with their daughter's desires and needs, to only give Toph support and protection when she truly needed it from them.
He also grimly added that one day, as awful as it was to think about, there would be a heartbreaking, wrenching change in Toph's life, when one or both of her parents would pass away. When that day came, would they want their daughter to be lonely, awkward, friendless, with little to no clue about how to manage her affairs, how to make it in the real world? Or would they want her to be a confident, happy, wise, well-adjusted adult with friends who would help comfort and advise her during that difficult time?
The Earthbender could feel the chilling, sobering effect his words had on her parents as they'd sat silently, looking at her, then each other, then back to her. Swallowing his pride, her dad had admitted that he much preferred the second outcome.
Hardly believing what she was sensing, Toph had realized that Iroh's wisdom was getting through to her dad. He was changing, relenting!
The former general then switched the topic to how Lao and Poppy certainly had nothing to worry about when it came to their so-called fragile daughter's ability to defend herself.
Her dad had chuffed in wry amusement, telling Iroh that he certainly didn't have to tell them twice, not after they'd seen her best the other two men in the shop with them and four others with the most extraordinary displays of Earthbending power he'd ever seen. Lao could hardly have been more shocked if he'd seen a tree pull itself out of the ground and start moving around on its roots.
"Still, it's always good to have additional witnesses, don't you think so?" Iroh had cheerily mentioned.
Then he'd turned towards the back of the Jasmine Dragon, and called for whoever was lurking there in the rooms behind the door to come and join them.
Then it had been Toph's turn to be shocked and apprehensive.
They'd been silently sitting on chairs or crates, cross-legged as they awaited their cue from the former general.
One by one, she'd felt their feet touch the floor. Feet encased in granite shoes.
Oh no, she'd thought as the realization hit her, her blind eyes widening.
The Earthbender jerked back her chair from the table, got out, and stood at the ready in a fighting stance as her parents, Hippo, and the Boulder all regarded her with confusion.
From the kitchen and the storerooms, four of them came, entering the main shop in a disciplined single file and wearing civilian clothes. They walked with the deliberate, businesslike, stalking fluidity of a tiger patrolling its territory.
Toph breathed in deep, channeling her energy. She could feel her parents tense up, and heard her mother gasp.
Even in Gaoling, people knew all about the Dai Li and their fearsome reputation. How they were elite Earthbenders. How they had a remorseless, take-no-prisoners attitude. How they responded to dissent and disruptive individuals. How they hushed people up. How they brainwashed people. How they would happily strike to kill.
She felt the heavy footsteps of Hippo and the Boulder as they hurried to her aid, ready to strike in tandem as she extended her left arm, snapping "You try anything, and I'll send you flying so hard through these walls-"
"Oh, don't worry yourself Miss Bei Fong," one of the Dai Li agents replied with a dismissive flick of his right hand, his voice husky and rumbling. "We're tame now."
His partner gave a barking laugh, and Iroh couldn't help but chuckle as well. Toph faintly smiled.
Then, one by one, all four agents took a seat as Iroh poured them each a cup of green tea.
She recognized each of them as an opponent she'd done battle with somewhere along the line.
And when her awed father asked them if it was true, if she, a blind, 12-year old girl, had held her own against members of the Dai Li, they'd all confirmed that she'd definitely been a match for them-even besting them!
They'd told Lao that his daughter was truly amazing, something special, a worthy opponent indeed.
Her dad had asked them, "I suppose you know why Iroh had you come to this shop to speak with me, right?"
"Yes, we do," one of the agents, Pang, said, nodding. "Believe me, if we couldn't get the better of your daughter in combat, then I can't imagine anyone or anything else who can. She can certainly defend herself just fine."
"Okay, we get the picture!" her dad had half-shouted, rocking back in his chair. "I'm willing to turn over a new leaf in how Poppy and I relate to Toph," he stated in a softer tone. "It's just hard to let go," he sighed. "Scary."
"It always is," Iroh sagely agreed.
"But I think I can make myself," Lao added as he turned towards her, and Toph's heart soared as she felt her father's sincerity.
They'd left Iroh on good terms and with many happy good-byes. And gifts too.
The blind Earthbender received a box of jasmine tea and a jade ring. Her mom got a box of ginseng, and her dad got a box of black tea. Even Hippo and the Boulder got some bull-boar jerky to share.
In a rare moment of respectful playfulness, each Dai Li agent had used one of their stone gloves to give her a firm handshake, wished her a safe journey, and then left.
This organization of secret police would become intertwined with her life again later on.
The fighters chose to go back home in a cart, while Toph of course, joined her parents in the carriage they'd traveled here in. Before the coachman had flicked the reins, Iroh had shook hands with them one last time. He'd also half-jokingly told her dad that if they ever backslid in regards to Toph's independence, he would find out, and he'd show them that he was called The Dragon of The West for a reason.
And since that day three years ago, her dad had been quite content to never discover how the general got his title.
Yes, so much had changed during that time in the blind Earthbender's life and the lives of her friends, mostly for the better, happily.
One thing that hadn't changed though was her love of fighting, of using her Earthbending and Metalbending skills in battle. Another was her fondness for meat.
Hunting was a perfect way to bring those two passions together. She loved to stalk the game, to get close and then rend a boulder into stone daggers, flinging them through the air to impale the prey with the same deadly accuracy Mai displayed with her knives. Or she would simply tear a nice mid-sized slab of rock loose with her bending, use it like a swinging board to knock the animal off its feet, and then smash it like an insect.
She was an accomplished huntress and a humane killer too. And although the idea of their blind daughter going out into the middle of the woods to chase after animals was deeply frightening to her parents-and not to mention terribly unladylike!-they certainly had no complaints about the tasty meat she brought home.
But first Toph had to get close to her quarry if she wanted to lay it at the feet of her parents. And that was the difficult bit.
She knew that even as he snorted and fed, the hog was listening all around him with hearing even sharper than hers. And his sense of smell was at least as good as a dog's.
Most of all, although he looked dumpy and slow, the gharial hog was a deceptively fast and agile runner. Very agile. If he spooked, she'd never be able to strike him in this thick woodland.
Toph paused, feeling the breeze on her forehead and scalp, gauging its direction as the leaves softly hissed. She was more or less downwind of him. Excellent.
Softly, she worked her way towards the hog. Before each step, she used the toes of her raised foot to carefully caress the spot where she intended to place it, making certain there were no twigs or sticks there. If there were, she either placed her foot somewhere else, or in a miracle of control, earthbended the loam in such a way that the stick would not crack under her weight.
Still, Toph did inevitably break a few, rustle some dead leaves. It made her heart skip a beat each time, and her body tense. The hog would tense too.
But he couldn't smell her, and there were plenty of nonthreatening creatures in the woods that made noises as they foraged and moved about. Nothing was wrong. Back to snack searching.
Then, as she carefully drew closer to the rooting, grunting gharial boar, Toph suddenly felt something through her callused soles that bothered her for a moment. It provoked the same sense of unease that had woken her, puzzled, on that terrible night when Combustion Man had first attacked their little gang.
And on top of the vibration, there was just something that darkly touched her on a purely instinctive level, a sensation which now made her freeze and listen attentively.
The Earthbender knew full well she wasn't the only hunter out here in this forest. There were platypus bears, dire wolves, boar crocodiles, and giant finback lizards, among other dangerous predators, that wouldn't hesitate to attack her if they could.
And then there were the venomous snakes. Rattle-adders, sting-fangs, sulfurheads, swamp vipers, fifty-steppers. Just like her and the badger moles, they knew all about detecting other creatures by the vibrations they made, and their scent in the air. So they generally knew Toph was coming long before she drew close, and through her feet she'd also feel them slip away into the forest, hearing the rustle of old leaves against their scales.
It was the snakes that didn't move, that were laying in ambush or dozing in a bright patch of sunlight, lying on a log or in a pile of leaves that didn't carry vibrations, which concerned Toph. She'd had close calls before.
The young huntress pursed her lips doubtfully. Just like with walking on sand, she really didn't like to wander through thick woodland if she had to. The layers of dead leaves and wet loam made it difficult to pick up vibrations clearly, and all the trees got in the way too, their roots and trunks breaking up the signals as they passed to and from her.
Worst of all, any stone she intended to use for a weapon in woodland was buried at least three feet under topsoil and pebbles. Extracting it through all that soil required several precious additional seconds-a delay which could be costly.
If you wanted some mouth-watering gharial hog chops on the table though, you had to go where the gharial hogs were and accept the risk.
The sound of the breeze in the branches and the hog's methodical rooting didn't help matters either, and Toph hoped they weren't drowning out other noises that were vital for her to detect.
But nothing seemed amiss, and she switched her full concentration back to her game.
She wanted to get herself into a position where she would have a good straight-line shot, yet also make a close approach. It would take some maneuvering to accomplish.
As yet still as unaware of the Earthbender's presence as she was of his, the horned jaguar too, slunk closer to the feeding hog, seeming to grin demonically in the dappled sunlight.
Yes, things are going to get very interesting in the next chapter...
On the Chinese calendar, Magnolia Blossom month corresponds to April, while the use of Kuei's reign to measure time-more about him next chapter!- is based on the Japanese practice of naming years after the length of time the current emperor has been on the throne.
The species of snakes here are all my own invention, while the dire wolves and boar-crocs were actual prehistoric animals. The finback lizards are of course, modeled off of Dimetrodon.
Last but not least, I knew right from the beginning that Iroh was the perfect choice for an outside party that would help Toph's parents see the light, and mend the rift between them with his wisdom and calming tea. :)