Several months after everything, she turned fourteen the same way she turned thirteen: drinking tea in her parents’ house.
The last cup of tea Toph had enjoyed before visiting Gaoling had been prepared by the Fire Lord, in a camp on the road. This, the no doubt expensive blend preferred by her family, was bland in comparison. Nothing added flavour like the risk of death.
Toph hid a sly smirk behind her cup—Beifong tea, inferior to a man serving tea on the road. Her poor mother would hate it.
“What an interesting brew,” she drawled.
“Yes,” came the placid maternal acknowledgment. “Isn’t it.” A slight pause, the slight rustle of fabric as her mother shifted slightly. “You’ve never taken much of an interest in tea, Toph,” she said.
“Oh,” said Toph, feigning surprise. She knew she wasn’t very good at it: her practice came mostly from pretending to be surprised when Sokka lost a sword fight with Zuko, or when Katara complained about Aang getting distracted. “I suppose you pick these things up, you know. When you travel.”
Ah, there it was. The sweet, sweet sound of pottery under pressure.
“Toph,” her mother said, gentle as Fire Nation steel. “We don’t need to speak of that horrible time.”
Yeah, Katara’s cooking was pretty horrible, at the start. Unless she meant the fighting? Because aside from some close calls, that wasn’t too bad.
Better excitement than this place had ever seen.
“But you’re home now,” she said, and Toph could hear the smile in her voice. A real smile. Her stomach twisted and she took a long drink of tea instead of biting out the first words on her tongue.
She lowered the little cup, the clay smooth and warm in her hands. There would be no cracks found in this house. “It’s just a visit,” she said.
“Of course,” said her mother.
“People are expecting me,” Toph ground out. “Fire Lord Zuko is expecting me.”
Her mother sighed. “Really,” she said. “Must we go through these stories again?”
Toph breathed deep, and took another sip of her tea. It was bitter on her tongue.
The arrival of her father was heralded by the march of what must have been half of the guards normally stationed around the estate. The thud of their boots echoed through the ground, a perfectly timed symphony.
Toph scowled from her place beneath the window sill, digging her fingers into the soft ground. More dirt under her fingers was what she needed, even if it meant that she’d be scrubbed to within an inch of her life before dinner. They had no appreciation for the finer things in life here. It would take her weeks to build up the layer of dirt on her feet again.
“Toph,” called her father. “Toph!”
Her scowl deepened as she heard him approach.
“What do you think you are doing, young lady?” he asked. “Your mother has been looking for you.”
“Good for her,” Toph muttered.
Her father breathed out sharply. “Get up,” he ordered. “We have a guest for dinner and I won’t have you look like you’ve been rolling around in the mud.”
“Why not?” she asked, before she could stop herself. “It’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Toph,” he said, warning clear in his voice. “You will be clean and dressed for dinner. You will not run away from your guides again.”
“Guards,” she said. “You’re keeping me under guard.”
There was a heavy pause. “We love you,” he said. “And we want you safe.”
Her fingers were deep in the ground but it didn’t soothe her. She thought about throwing it at him and the earth trembled with her desire.
“I’m not going to your dinner,” she said flatly. “And I do not need anyone to keep me safe.”
Which was why an hour later she was in fine clothes, skin still tingling from the scrubbing she had predicted, trying not to wince as her hair was pulled out of her head by people attempting to make her look civilised.
“He’s a very charming young man,” said one woman, who had taken it upon herself to do the impossible and convince Toph that she was wrong about something.
Someone else hummed. “Oh, yes,” she said. “He’s very nice. It’s a shame—”
She cut herself off. Toph narrowed her eyes.
“What’s a shame?” she demanded.
The women hesitated. “Nothing of any real importance,” one said. Liar, Toph wanted to say, but held back, even as they needlessly guided her to her parents and the mystery guest.
She slowed as they approached the room, kicking herself for not paying attention sooner: it was a lesson that had been drilled into her constantly over the last several months, and while she wasn’t currently being hunted by anyone, that was no reason for her to stop being aware.
She could feel his stance, could hear his low voice. Toph refused to smile. There was no need to let anyone think she was happy about any of this.
“Ah,” said her father, far more cheerful than the last time he had spoken to her. “Here she is. Lee,” he said, dropping a hand onto her shoulder. “My daughter, Toph.”
“A pleasure,” said Lee.
She smiled at him, tiger-wolf sharp. “You don’t sound local, Lee,” she said.
He didn’t make the slightest attempt at hiding the amusement in his voice. “I’m not,” he told her. “I’m a traveller.”
“Lee is a tea merchant,” her mother chimed in. “You have taken such an interest in it lately, haven’t you, dear?”
A tea merchant. Lee, the travelling tea merchant. She was morbidly curious to see how long he could keep this charade going.
“Oh yes,” said Toph flatly. “Such an interest.”
Dinner, she decided, was going to be far more interesting than she had anticipated.
‘Lee,’ her father disclosed over dinner, was seeking new business partners.
“And I’ve heard only the best about the Beifong family from other traders,” the tea merchant said.
Toph shovelled food into her mouth, and ignored the irritated tutting of her mother. Dinner and a show was enough for her.
“Have you travelled much?” her mother asked after many pleasantries had been exchanged.
There was a smile in his voice as he said, “Extensively.” Another bite of food. The best thing about not travelling was food cooked evenly. “My uncle and I have travelled across most of the Earth kingdom. We have a tea shop in Ba Sing Se.”
“You must have been here for quite a while,” her mother said. “You hardly seem Fire Nation at all.”
“Thank you. We’ve tried our best.”
Not a word of it was a lie, but still. He was stupidly honest for someone from his family. Someone must have been giving him lessons, Toph thought.
“It must have been difficult,” her mother said. “To travel while we were in such turmoil.”
“At times,” said Lee, evenly.
Toph turned in his direction, eyes wide and guileless. “Did you ever meet the Avatar?” she asked brightly.
His heart skipped a beat. Her father hissed, “Toph,” as if that could stop her.
“I may have run into him a time or two,” he said. She made a mental note to congratulate him on his performance later as she did her best to sound surprised.
“Maybe you’ve seen me before, then,” she teased. “I taught him earth-bending.”
She couldn’t have timed it better if she’d tried: her mother’s chopsticks skidded through her meal, her father inhaled his tea rather than drank it, and through it all, Lee sounded impressively unimpressed as he said, “Oh, really?”
The trials of people knowing you, really. You stop being able to surprise them.
He continued, “You would expect the Avatar’s teachers to be a bit—more experienced.”
“Hey,” she said, jabbing her chopsticks in his direction and ignoring her mother’s horrified gasp at her abysmal table manners. “I’ll have you know I’m the greatest earth-bender ever.”
“You can’t be older than twelve,” he smiled.
Twelve. That was it. She was going to dump him in the North Pole for that. Appa probably needed the exercise at this point. “I’m fourteen,” she seethed at him. “And you know it.”
“Toph!” her father interrupted. “I’m terribly sorry for her,” he said to… Lee. Toph could barely even think the name anymore, the whole situation was so ridiculous.
“You needn’t be,” Zuko said, and sighed. Hair rustled across a collar as he shook his head. “Actually, it’s me who should be apologising—to you.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” her father said, refusing to sound as baffled as she knew he was.
Her mother shifted unhappily.
“Of course you do, father,” Toph said, gleefully. “He’s been lying. For a start, his name isn’t Lee.”
“It is sometimes,” he said, as if that made it any better.
“And he isn’t a tea merchant.”
“I did sell tea, for a time,” he corrected.
“Well,” she said, smug. “You’re not here to sell tea, are you?”
“I could be,” he said lightly.
Toph gave up on resisting a snort. “You could be running your country,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” her father demanded.
“Father,” she said, adopting the sweet tone they always preferred from her. “May I introduce you to my friend, Fire Lord Zuko, who is not here to sell tea?”
“The—Fire Lord,” her mother repeated. A guard at the door shifted uneasily.
Zuko sighed. “You know,” he said to her. “I at least wanted to have finished a meal first.”
“Can’t always get what you want,” she said cheerfully, and shovelled more food into her mouth as her father politely and quietly exploded.
“We were concerned,” Zuko repeated, as Toph’s father rather alternated between calmly shouting at him and attempting not to cower. He had been politely and impolitely shouted at by people who were far scarier than an Earth kingdom merchant, and Toph would bet good money that more than a few people had spent the last several months cowering in his direction.
“You have no reason to be concerned over how I treat my daughter, Fire Lord” her father said. “We act only in her best interest.”
Toph could almost feel Zuko radiate incredulity. “Her best interest?” he repeated. “Sir, I have to ask: do you know who your daughter is?”
“I know that she is blind,” he said. “And she needs to be cared for, not taken advantage of by those children.”
Ozai hadn’t thought she was a child to be coddled. Azula hadn’t hesitated to try and kill her. Uncle had seen her wandering around on her own and had talked to her, given her tea, told her to find her friends again—but hadn’t suggested that she was too young, too weak, too crippled to be alone. She was Toph Beifong. She was a metal-bender.
“Are you kidding me,” she said.
“I think he’s being serious,” Zuko said, stepping a little to the side.
He did that, sometimes—she didn’t think he’d stand by and let her get smushed or fried, but he wasn’t going to throw himself in front of something that didn’t even register as a threat. Aang was great, if a bit of an airhead sometimes. She’d go to war again for him, no hesitation. But he had this habit of trying to jump between his friends and anything that could hurt them.
Tense as he was, Zuko still stepped to the side, because this was hers.
The weight of that hit her like a house dropped on her head. Four months ago she had carefully felt his face, mapped out the careful cruelty seared into his skin. Ozai was in prison now. She knew that.
Her father had never hurt her. Not in a way that she could point out. But this house was her prison.
She had thought about ripping it down, before. Tearing out doors, shattering walls, ripping up earth. But Toph had spent nearly a year doing that, and really all she wanted was to take Zuko’s arm and guide him out of Gaoling and back to where they should be.
Her father had never hurt her—not in a way she could point out. But he had put her in a prison, and she was going to walk out of it.
“I do not need help,” she said lowly. “I haven’t needed anyone for years.” She settled her feet into a more solid stance, hands curled into fists at her sides. It would take no effort at all, to tear the place down.
Toph Beifong didn’t do easy things.
“I came for a visit,” she continued before he could say anything. She was tired of hearing him. “And I did. I came, I visited, you know I’m alive, and now I’m going.”
Zuko huffed a little laugh. Diplomacy had probably started to rot his brain again. Sometimes you just had to tell people what was happening.
She reached out and grasped Zuko’s arm, pulling him with her as she turned. He went easily, and she was going to enjoy being able to do that while she could. Probably nobody else would think they could just drag the Fire Lord around with them. Well. The others might, but the Avatar could do whatever he wanted, so that didn’t count.
“Where do you think you are going?” her father asked. “You are not leaving.”
“Sure am,” she said breezily. “I can walk just fine.”
Zuko trembled in her grasp.
“The Fire Nation appreciates your cooperation,” he told her father, as if Fire Lords normally went around personally thanking Earth kingdom merchants for not trying to kill him for walking off with his daughter.
“Not even a little earthquake?” he asked her as they left.
She didn’t need to be able to see to feel him staring at the side of her face. “Nope.”
“Huh. Okay, then.”
The sun was warm on her face. She wondered what it would be like, in the Caldera. She could smell phantom smoke and sea salt, could feel the remembered burn of fire flakes.
“Come on,” she said, walking faster. “He’ll probably still call the guards.”
The yelling only reached them as they passed through the gate. She grinned as Zuko turned.
“What’s a day without them?” he asked and Toph laughed as she dropped his arm, and let the ground push them farther and farther ahead.
“We should be fine now,” he said, not even slightly out of breath after running through most of the town. They meandered along the path out of Gaoling, and Toph relished the way the dirt clung to her toes as she stomped her way next to Zuko.
“Yeah,” Toph agreed. “Until they tell people to watch out for us.”
“What are they going to say?” Zuko scoffed. “That their daughter was kidnapped by the Fire Lord?”
“Ooh,” Toph grinned in his direction. “You might have a new wanted poster! You could add it to your collection.”
“I don’t—I don’t have a collection,” he said. His heart briefly jackrabbited as he shuffled, then paused, and found solid footing again.
Her grin widened. Evading the truth, he could do. Outright lying? He still couldn’t get past her. “It really doesn’t run in the family, huh?”
He sighed heavily. “Don’t tell the others.”
Toph cackled, and threw her arms around his side. “Don’t you worry, Sparky,” she said, still laughing. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Thanks,” he said flatly. “I feel so reassured.”
She punched his arm. “That’s what your fancy advisors are for,” she told him.
“Toph,” he said. “Why do you think I came here?”
“Everyone’s life is better when I’m around,” she said.
The road beneath her feet was long and winding and free, and she twisted a little, wriggling her toes into soil and pebbles.
Zuko laughed a little, like he was still getting used to not being cooped up in heavy robes that said No Happiness Allowed. “Greatest earth-bender in the world,” he said, mostly to himself. “At least nobody can say you’re too confident.”
“I’m just that awesome,” she agreed.
“Toph,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”
She tilted her head. “You’re kidnapping me because I’m awesome?”
“I—Well. Sort of.” He shook his head. “The ‘fancy advisors’ think it’d be a good idea for me to have some ambassadors,” he said.
“Sure. Makes sense.”
“Yeah, it does. Which is why I’m—kidnapping you.”
Toph stopped in the middle of the road. “Wait,” she said, grabbing his sleeve. “Sparky, are you saying you want me as an ambassador?”
“Who better?” he asked. “Sokka’s already agreed.”
“Why didn’t you just tell my dad that?” she asked, baffled.
Zuko once again radiated incredulity. “Do you think he would have said yes?” he asked her. “Besides, it’s not him I want. So, what do you say?”
What did she say? What did she say?
“Yes!” Toph cried, throwing her arms up. “Are you kidding me? Life changing field trip with Zuko, here I come!”
She paused. “Also, you should know, there are people coming this way. A lot of people.”
“Alright, cheer later,” he said, pulling her along. “Run now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, ambling along next to him. “So, tell me. Does Uncle know you abandoned the Fire Nation to sell tea again?”
Something about his resolute silence told her that this would be an excellent adventure.