This originally was meant to be a drabble for my series of one-shots called Snapshots of the Lame Guard. This particular one though, just got to the point where I decided it would be best published as a stand-alone fic.
"And wasn't that cool when that one let you grab on to its dorsal fin and pulled you for two zhang?" Kun asked in excited glee.
"Oh yeah, that was just awesome!" Toph agreed. Her misty eyes widened at the memory as she spoke. "Man, they are so strong! And fast!"
Twelve days earlier, Toph Bei Fong had turned fifteen. To celebrate the occasion and please her, Kun had taken the next day off and taken Toph to a special place along the shores of the great Jiang Shingwa, or Frog River.
It was a town called Chung Haitun, or Dolphin Town. For centuries, its people had regarded the yellow river dolphins that swam in the Jiang Shingwa as sacred creatures, the reincarnations of their temple priestesses. They'd protected and fed the yellow dolphins for generations, and now the creatures had become very tame and friendly.
Perhaps inevitably, the normally shy dolphins had also become an attraction for tourists from all over the Earth Kingdom, especially now that the war was over. When Kun had seen a pamphlet about the dolphins almost a lunar cycle ago, he knew right away that despite her inability to swim, Toph would just love that experience.
After buying a bag of fresh mooneye fish for the dolphins and a striped catfish-bass for their own lunch at the local market, both Kun and Toph had changed into proper swimwear, Kun wearing a wrap-around loincloth, Toph a bra and knee length pants. A guide then led them to a sandy beach not far from the town where the river dolphins gathered.
Four of the river dolphins had slithered into the sandy, tea-colored shallows to greet them, ochre yellow, humpbacked creatures with amazingly tiny black eyes, bulging foreheads, and long, narrow jaws studded with conical teeth as sharp as pins. The largest of them, who their guide said was a male called Gao Gao, had to weigh at least 310 jin and be six chi in length.
He'd coaxed Toph into wading into the sloping shallows until the water was slightly above her breasts, telling her to reach out with her hands when one of the dolphins approached them. The presence of such huge animals so near to them, so agile and confident in the water, able to come at her without any warning, from any direction, had made Toph deeply edgy at first.
But she'd soon warmed to the dolphins, and in no time at all was joining Kun in offering them mooneyes from their basket. The earthbender's milky eyes had been wide and wild with delight, her face split by an enchanted smile as the yellow dolphins slid up and plucked each fish from her outstretched hand. It also helped that their guide Tang had told them that he knew for a fact that the yellow dolphins had saved people who were drowning in the river.
Under their hands, the dolphin's hide had felt sleek as silk and smooth, totally hairless. Yet it was also dense and rigid, and you could get a sense of the thick muscles underneath. And when they turned away after grabbing a fish, the splash of water you got in your face gave no doubt about the sheer power in that broad split tail.
But they were gentle and well-behaved creatures, and Kun had been amazed by their flexibility as they'd weaved around him, Toph, and Tang, who told them that the dolphins could slip through the boughs of a tree that had fallen into the water with the aplomb of a snake, or even grasp their own tails.
Kun decided to swim deeper out into the river, leaving Toph and their basket of fish back in the shallows with Tang. It was there the dolphins had really put on a show, apparently just for him and his girlfriend, or maybe simply for the pure fun of it, leaping into the air and arching their sleek yellow bodies before crashing back into the water. They rolled in the water as they swam, or stuck their gharial jaws out of the water, clasping a stick or stone in their teeth.
Toph had been enchanted by them, running the palms of her hands over their beaks, faces, bared teeth, flanks, flippers and bellies, where according to Tang, they especially loved to be rubbed. She had seemed most amazed and interested by how minute their eyes were.
The ultimate moment came when one of the yellow dolphins slid up alongside Toph and stopped, giving a little splash with its tail. Tang had known what that meant, and told her that the dolphin wanted her to grab on to its back fin and pull her through the water.
She'd worked up the courage to do it, and the dolphin had then pulled her through the water as she'd laughed in joy and excitement, going in a big loop before tugging her back to the shore. Kun had later done the same, fully agreeing with Toph that it was one of the most awesome, exhilarating things he'd ever done in his life.
At last, the basket of mooneyes had emptied, and the sun had begun to tilt down towards the western horizon. So Toph and Kun had reluctantly left the yellow dolphins to have their own meal of fish, paid Tang for his services, and returned to Gaoling before night fell, changing back into their traveling clothes.
Suddenly a pensive, thoughtful expression came over Toph's face, and she said, "You know, they reminded me in many ways of the badgermoles. I'm sure you noticed how tiny their eyes were?"
Kun nodded. "Yeah, they were almost like little sunken pits. And if they can still see anything with them, I doubt it's very much. The water was so murky though that it probably doesn't make much difference if they're totally blind or not."
Toph agreed. "That's what I think too. If they're not as blind as I am, they're close to it. Anyway, just like when I met the badger-moles for the first time, the dolphins really seemed to understand me because of that. And I think they liked you because they knew you understood me too," she added, warmly smiling at him.
"Well, I can certainly vouch that you got on great together."
"Anyway, did you hear the clicking noises they made whenever you put your head underwater or they came up to you? I could kind of feel them through my feet too."
"I sure did. Maybe it's their way of talking to each other."
"That's what I thought at first too," Toph replied with growing enthusiasm, "and it could still be for that reason as well. But I've been thinking ever since we got back, what if they're using the clicks as a way to tell exactly where things are in the water and how big they are and what they are...just like how the badgermoles and I use vibrations in the ground!"
A thrill of amazement swept through Kun at the idea, at Toph's flash of insight. Yes, that was possible. Quite possible.
"That would make perfect sense Toph," he replied, the thrill of discovery, of new knowledge to be gained, seeping through his own nervous system like a drug. "You know, we should travel to Ba Sing Se University so you can tell the professors of biology there about it! Maybe they can catch one for the zoo and do tests to see if it really can find things by click sounds alone! Can you imagine how cool that would be if your theory proved to be true Toph?"
"Way cool," she grinned. "Personally, I'd be fine with official recognition and an honorary degree for my inspired little concept," she coyly shrugged.
"Well, you're already renowned for developing the technique of Metalbending. Quite a few people in the Four Nations honestly believe that you're a living goddess, to be able to do that," he mentioned.
Toph laughed in satisfaction, clearly pleased by the idea as she conceitedly replied, "A goddess huh? I think I like that title Granite Feet. Glad people can recognize my superhuman awesomeness for what it truly is," she bragged, holding her head up in the air and placing her left hand on her chest. "By the way, how are your attempts at metalbending going?"
"I'm making progress," Kun replied. "I can manipulate metal objects up to the size of a goblet now, and am becoming better at producing bulges in thick sheets. It helps if I meditate before doing it. Oh, and I can do all kinds of crazy stuff with a spoon now!" he laughed.
"That's good to hear Granite Feet," she said approvingly. "Just keep practicing, and you'll get to the point where you won't need to do that meditation stuff anymore. You'll just buckle down and do it."
"Anyway," she continued, her misty eyes beaming in mounting excitement, "the dolphins and the clicks they made motivated me to invent another technique, one that would help me tell where I was if I was standing on something that wasn't earth, that my feet couldn't pick up vibrations from."
Since they'd first fallen in love, Toph had persuaded Kun not to go around wearing his stone Dai Li clogs all the time, to walk around barefoot and focus on what was underneath his feet. Over time, she'd taught him to become more attuned to the nature of the earth itself and the quivering signals that passed through it, although he would never be as expert at it as she was.
Still, through his soles he could feel the other earthbender's pulse race with exhilaration and her muscles tense as she leaned forward a little. He saw a light in her sightless eyes and heard her voice become steadily more strident as she spoke. He had an eerie premonition that she was going to reveal something of great importance, something beyond his imagination.
And Kun wasn't disappointed.
"As we both know," Toph went on as she stood up, starting to pace back and forth, "I can't feel vibrations if I'm on standing on ice, snow, dead leaves, wood, thick mud, or stuff like that. So I either need help or have to use my hearing instead to move around and tell where things are, which totally stinks," she snorted.
Kun nodded. "Yeah."
"Also," Toph went on as she paced, flinging her hands apart in frustration, "I can't tell if there's an object on a wood table, a dresser, a bed, or anything else not made of earth or metal or what it is exactly, unless someone tells me or I reach out and touch it first. Do you know how many times I've touched something nasty or burnt my fingers or sat on something pointy because of that?"
Kun winced at the thought. "I can imagine," he answered grimly.
"Too many Granite Feet," Toph said in disgust, shaking her head.
"Anyway, getting back to the point, I decided to try and see if I couldn't make clicks with my tongue and use them to find my way around too like the river dolphins did," she said proudly. "I tried different pitches, found one that worked best for me, and succeeded!" she declared happily as she stopped to face him, throwing her hands in the air in joy.
Kun Yong's jaw fell open in disbelief as he sat bolt upright and stared in awe at his girlfriend. A chill swept through him, not one of fear, but of pride and amazement and wonder.
"Show me," he breathily demanded. "How do you do it Toph?"
She giggled. "It's actually fairly easy Granite Feet. First I curl my tongue up so that the tip is touching the very front of the roof of my mouth, like this-" as she opened her jaws. "Then I flick it down and against the back of both rows of teeth to make a clicking noise, like this."
She then produced a short series of the clicks, sounding to Kun like an agitated shrew-squirrel.
"Does...does it work well?" he inquired, stunned.
"You bet it does Granite Feet," Toph smiled jubilantly. "I've already tested it out by walking around with shoes on or over the straw in the stables, and it really did help me find my way! I'm still practicing at mastering it, but I've gotten fairly good already."
"I want to see you test it out," Kun said eagerly, robe billowing as he stood from his chair.
"Then kneel down and take me for a test run," she requested.
He did so, and Toph put her wiry, yet gracile arms around his neck, wrapping her legs around his belly as he helped support her thighs with his hands. Despite his scarred leg, Kun was still strong, with a good sense of balance, and could easily carry her about in this way.
For her part, Toph always took great pleasure in this, telling him once she enjoyed it because whenever she was riding piggyback on Kun, all she could sense was him, that he became her entire universe. Now they would see if she could sense even more from this position.
Her breath warm and intoxicating against his nape and right cheek, Toph calmly asked, "Just start walking around the room Granite Feet."
And then she began to click.
Kun decided to walk right towards a wall first.
Within seconds, Toph said simply, "Let's see. There's a wall in front of us, and we're approaching it, from what I can hear."
Kun Yong was astonished. This method his amazing girlfriend had invented actually did work!
"I'll be damned," he said in hushed amazement.
Toph chuckled before saying, "Now walk in another direction."
In disbelief, he toted her towards the chair he'd been seated in as Toph made her tongue clicks again. As they approached, she leaned over his shoulder, thoughtfully moving her head up and down.
"A chair," she declared. "Yeah, that sounds like a chair from the echoes."
They did this several more times, and each time Toph was able to detect a wall, an item of furniture, a window, without any assistance from Kun. He even closed his own eyes a few times, trusting Toph's click method to keep them from colliding with something. She never failed. Kun Yong could hardly have been more delighted, more astounded, more awed than if he'd suddenly been able to speak to his ostrich-horse.
When her weight proved too much for him, Kun sat down on the rug as Toph let go. Overwhelmed with pride and euphoria, he turned and embraced her, laughing as she hugged him back.
Pulling back, he gently took her head in his hands and kissed her brow, then on the lips before warmly telling her, "You are something extraordinary Toph, did you know that? Truly extraordinary. And I love you for it."
"I love you too," she told him with a warm smile, feeling the contours of his face with her right hand before kissing him again.
Once the excitement had subsided, Kun asked the blind earthbender, now leaning against his right side as they sat and resting in the crook of his arm, "So, this method of finding where you are by making clicks...do you have a name for it?"
She thought for a moment. "I haven't actually decided on one yet Granite Feet. What about sound seeing? No, that's just lame," she dismissed.
She thought deeply for a bit longer. Then she declared in excitement, "I got it!" as she half turned to face him. "I'm basically making sounds and then listening to the echoes to figure out where things are right? So I think I'll call this method I've invented echolocation! What do you think Kun?"
Kun Yong meditatively tried out the new term on his own tongue, a staccato, snapping, skipping thing.
It seemed fitting.
The yellow river dolphins are based off of both the pink river dolphin of the Amazon, or boto, and the tragically departed baiji of China's Yangtze.
A chi is 13 inches long, while a jin is half a kilogram.
Toph's new method of tongue clicking to find her way around was inspired by Ben Underwood, a Californian boy who after losing his eyesight to retinal cancer at the age of three, used this method with extraordinary success to navigate his world until his death from cancer in 2009 at the age of 16. This fic pays him tribute.
Some discussion questions:
1. What did you think of how Kun took Toph to meet the yellow dolphins for her B-day? Of the dolphins themselves? Of her comment that like the badger-moles, they understood her?
2. Did you think that Toph was beliveable in this fic?
3. Your reaction to her realization that clicks produced in the mouth could be used in place of seismic sensing? Was it a beliveable mental leap?
4. Were Kun's own reactions beliveable?
5. Finally, what do you think of fics like this that in part at least, pay tribute to a dead individual?