The quiet swish of an ink brush across dry parchment was the only sound that filled the small room. The sun was high in the sky and from her desk near the window Ming could see the construction crews and machinery operators far below breaking for lunch. The Justice Building; home of the Republic City Police Department and Toph's new hand-trained metalbending force had been one of the first public structures completed. From there straight out to Yue Bay buildings in progress tickled the skyline. The young woman set her brush down, allowing herself to take in the beautiful image of her new home. The city that would be the crowning jewel of the free Republic that Avatar Aang, Fire Lord Zuko, and King Kuei had created was rising forth from the land as if the Spirits themselves had dreamed it into existence.
The doorknob clicked and turned as the large wooden door slid open. A barrage of curses and muttering accompanied the girl as she entered. "Got another vandalism call. Someone scorched all the fire-lillies in the Azula Memorial Garden. Again. I swear, I wish Zuko would let me rename that place…it would save us so much trouble. You finished with that district report yet?"
Ming permitted a little smile to pull at her lips and turned to glance Toph's way. "I put that on your desk this morning. I was just signing off on next month's recruit dossiers. Did you get my mango smoothie?"
"Yeah, yeah..." The earthbender closed the door behind her and padded across the room to set one of the two tall glasses on the edge of the desk. "Not sure where you're gonna put all that-Aren't you out of space yet?"
Chuckling in spite of herself, Ming pushed her chair back-her belly was so large that she already felt as though she could barely sit comfortably at the desk. "I keep hoping that if I eat enough it will get too cramped in there and this little one will decide to come on out."
The blind girl made a disgusted face. "Make sure I'm not around when that happens, please."
She ran a hand over her sizeable abdomen lovingly, a smile still on her face. There were times when the impending trials of childbirth and motherhood made her everything from nervous to downright terrified, but Ming had spent much of the past nine months convincing herself that no matter what unfortunate tiles she had been dealt, it was her responsibility to her child to persevere.
The desk creaked as Toph pulled herself up to sit upon its edge; short legs swinging over the side. An awkward silence had begun to settle over the two of them, and just as the older woman picked up her glass and wrapped her lips around the straw the earthbender decided to broach the subject that had been somewhat of an elephant-panda in the room between them for months. "It's Ozai's, isn't it?"
Ming didn't answer. Her racing heart, she knew, would be enough for the prodigious earthbender to garner her response. There was no use lying to Toph.
"Look, I'm not judging. Things happen sometimes, and maybe we don't always have to be proud of them. I get it. It doesn't make you a bad person." Her milky green eyes stared off into nothing, but she inclined her head toward her friend and held out a small fist to lightly punch Ming's shoulder. "And Ming...It doesn't mean your kid will turn out like him, either."
Her gaze was lowered, studying the paperwork on her desk as if it were suddenly the most interesting stuff in the world. The ink smudged as the first tear hit the parchment, and then the second.
"Does Zuko know?"
"No." she whispered, not looking up.
Ming buried her face in her hand, choking back a sob. "No..."
Toph started to place another light punch against the other woman's shoulder, but hesitated, and laid an open palm on her arm instead. "Probably best if we just keep it between us, then, huh?" She gave her friend a little pat-gentle comforting techniques weren't exactly her thing.
A few more moments passed. "So…How did that work, exactly? You and him. I never really took ol' Loser Lord for the sweep-a-girl-off-her-feet type."
"It was…not a normal relationship." She answered hesitantly. "After Avatar Aang took his bending from him he and I were together every day, for more than a year. When you spend that much time with someone you start to see a different side to them. I know it's hard to believe, but sometimes, when it was just the two of us, he wasn't so bad. He could be sweet, when he wanted to be. I guess somewhere along the line I fell in love with him—or thought I did. I know I was naive. And I suppose, deep down, I always knew that he never loved me. But I wanted to believe that he could change. I wanted to give him a reason to change." Her lip quivered as she took a shuddering breath. "For a time, I really thought that he had. He played me for a fool."
Toph cracked her knuckles absently as she listened. "He didn't escape on his own, did he?"
Dark hair brushed her shoulders as she shook her head.
A tiny smirk pulled at the corner of the earthbender's mouth. "You know, that kinda makes you the worst prison guard ever, right?"
Suddenly Ming was crying and laughing all at once. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the desk and cupping her cheeks in her palms. "Yeah, I guess it does..."
"So how was he?"
"You know." She winked with one sightless eye. "How was he?"
She blushed furiously, wiping at her damp eyes with the heels of her hands. "That's...You're not supposed to ask things like that. It's not something-"
Toph grinned, obviously pleased with herself. "Oh, come on. You're not going to be a prude like Katara, are you? I'm not as pure and innocent as I look. Did I ever tell you about the time I sucked The Boulder's-"
"Toph!" Ming exclaimed, scandalized. "We are nothaving this conversation!"
The little earthbender cackled madly, holding her sides as she doubled over with laughter. "Relax, Moonpeaches! I'm just trying to cheer you up!" Her laughing quieted to the occasional snicker and the two women sat in companionable silence once more for a while.
"You really think everything will turn out okay?" the older woman asked at last.
"Yeah." Toph smiled. "Kid's got a bright future here in Republic City."
68 Years Later...
"Pabu! Quit gnawing on that!" Bolin laughed, swiping playfully at the fire ferret as he hoisted the wooden crate on his shoulder and started across the room to add it to the pile of odds and ends stacked in the corner. The small attic atop the Pro-Bending Arena that the brothers called home was sparsely decorated and utilitarian, save for Bolin's collection of various junk. Mako had finally become fed up with the clutter and declared it cleaning day.
From her vantage point on the arm of the sofa Korra giggled. "Aw, he's just trying to help!"
Mako rolled his eyes, lifting up one of the battered old chairs beside the crate that served as their dining table to sweep beneath it. "Yeah, imagine that. Someone helping."
The young woman sighed, hopping off of her cozy seat. "Fine, fine. So what do you want me to do?" She stood with her hands on her hips, glancing around the room approvingly.
"You can start going through that bookshelf over there." Bolin put in helpfully, nodding toward the haphazardly constructed wooden shelving unit against the far wall.
The Avatar made her way to the shelf and started sorting through books and knick knacks; tossing far more than half into a pile on the floor. She slid her hand along the top shelf, thinking that it must be empty, until her fingers came into contact with something. Standing on tip-toes, Korra managed to get ahold of the item and pull it down for closer inspection. "Hey, what's this?"
"What's what?" The earthbender asked, setting down the desk clock he'd been dusting and heading over to stand beside his friend.
Korra held out the old fashioned dagger to him; its blade tucked safely away in a weathered leather sheath. "Looks like an antique."
"Huh." Bolin mused, turning the weapon over in his hands and drawing the blade out an inch or so to inspect its quality. "Pretty nice. Old Fire Nation military piece, I think. Hey Mako...Remind me again why we never pawned this?"
The older brother dropped his broom, stomping over to snatch the dagger out of Bolin's hand. "Because that was our grandmother's." he snapped, clearly agitated.
"Oh, right." Bolin made an effort to appear duly chastised before leaning over and whispering loudly into Korra's ear, "...On the firebender side."
The young woman held her hand to her mouth, grinning behind it. "I see." She cleared her throat, trying to be serious for her humorless friend's sake. "She must have been in the army way back when, huh?"
Mako shook his head, some of the tension leaving him. "No. Royal Guard. See..." He held up the weapon, pointing to the characters engraved on the hilt. "It says so right here. She served the Fire Lord."
"She knew Fire Lord Zuko? Wow…Why'd she give up a cushy job at the Fire Palace to come here?" Korra asked dryly, eliciting a snicker from the earthbender.
Waving a hand dismissively the firebender huffed in frustration and turned, tucking the dagger into his belt for safekeeping. "Forget it. Its historical significance is wasted on the two of you."
"Aw, come on, bro. Don't take everything so seriously."
Korra smiled, stepping forward to lay a hand on Mako's arm and reached for the hilt of the dagger. "It's probably got quite a story to tell, and it must have meant a lot to your grandmother if she brought it all the way here when she came from the Fire Nation." She paused, her lovely blue eyes quietly searching the gold ones that stared back at her. "I think it's sweet that you've held onto it for so long. Was your grandfather from the Fire Nation, too?"
The brothers exchanged glances. "Yeah." The elder replied.
Korra raised a brow curiously. "O…kay…So was he somebody important?"
Mako cast his golden eyes downward, fingering the hilt of the dagger. "No."
"Not really." Bolin added, shrugging.
"Uh, okay." The Avatar muttered, looking back and forth between the strangely quiet brothers. She stepped in closer to Mako, and waited expectantly for him to meet her eyes.
Several moments passed. "Ahem. Ahem." Bolin cleared his throat, raising an eyebrow at the pair.
Mako turned away, though he was not quick enough to hide the reddening of his pale cheeks from his little brother. "Better get back to cleaning. We've got a match tonight and it's getting late."
"Yeah, I guess." Korra agreed, not overly enthusiastic.
The earthbender grinned knowingly.
A/N: Toes. She was going to say "Toes"….I just thought it came out funnier to leave it ambiguous. Credit for the inspiration for that idea goes to KimberlyT, whose multiple depictions of The Boulder in her stories amuse me greatly.
So what's up with that last part? I don't know. Do Mako and Bolin know something? I don't know. That's for you to decide. It could go either way, really. I liked the idea of not giving a clear cut answer. I didn't want to go with the whole Amon thing that was suggested in some of the reviews-it just seemed too obvious. And this way is a little bit more optimistic. As heavy as this story got at parts, I really wanted to end it on a positive note.
Reviewers: It has been a real pleasure writing this story, and I owe much of that enjoyment to you.
All Readers: I hope that you have been entertained by this story. If reading it made you feel—even for only a moment—the least bit of sympathy for Ozai, then I did what I set out to do. If you have enjoyed this tale and stuck with it to completion, I hope that you will consider adding it to your Favorites list. Also, I have decided that this won't be my last attempt at fanfiction. I hope that in the very near future I will be able to share more of my ridiculous head canon with you…Keep an eye out for it!
Thank you all again for reading!