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Toph smiling
Stand Strong
Chapter information
Series

Footsteps in the Dark

Book

1

Chapter

3

Written by

MetalArmor

Editor(s)

MetalArmor

Chronology
Last chapter

I'm Not Weak

Next chapter

Blindness and Bison

Plot

Toph finally begins tutoring Aang in Earthbending, but has some difficulty moving her student out of his Airbender mindset. Through rigorous training, she tries to make him focus on the head-on approach an Earthbender must take to obstacles in his path, only to have him fail time and time again. After a while, the group notices that Sokka has been gone for the entire day and sets out to look for him. Aang is forced to save Sokka, who is stuck in a crack in the ground, from a raging Saber-Tooth Moose-Lion, which Toph uses to encourage Aang in thinking that he does indeed have the attitude and mindset required to learn Earthbending.

Story

Toph awoke to Aang's loud, cheerful voice coming from somewhere outside of her earth tent. After they had gotten rest from their long sojourn a few days earlier, Sokka had discovered that there was a rocky quarry someways distant from where they had landed the night before, and which she had immediately informed him that they must go to. After an uneventful travel to the spot, she knew that her student-to-be had to have been revved up for training that day (she felt much the same way at the thought of teaching her favorite subject.) To announce that she was completely ready for that day's training, she stood up and raise her fist in the air to explode apart the tent surrounding her, shouting, "Good morning Earthbending student!"

She walked over to the place where her friends could be felt lying next to Appa, who was resting against one of the earthen walls surrounding the quarry. When she got nearer to him, she felt Aang move as if he was bowing slightly, and heard him say, "Good morning, Sifu Toph," as a sign of respect (which she felt she had definitely earned, considering what it had taken her to get to where she was now).

Off to the side, she heard Katara moving and sleepily complaining about him never calling her "Sifu Katara". In the middle of Aang's nervous reaction to this, Sokka sat up and angrily began interrupting with incoherent grumbling, obviously annoyed that any one was up at such an early hour. Overriding his objections, Toph replied in a mocking tone, "Sorry, Snoozles. We'll do our Earthbending as quietly as we can," whispering the last words. For a reason unbeknownst to her, she was beginning to get butterflies in her stomach whenever she said things like this to him, and so tried to get rid of them by badgering Sokka even more. She kicks the ground, making a spire of rock shoot up right underneath where Sokka was trying to sleep, launching him screaming into the air. He thudded back onto the ground, and bounced in his sleeping bag towards the teacher and her student, grumbled directly but non-verbally at both them, and then bounced on far away from the irritating pair.

Aang left the ground in apparent excitement and landed on the ground next to her, and began excitedly chittering about and demonstrated the Earthbending moves he wanted to learn. Knowing he was getting ahead of himself, she slapped a hand on his chest to halt him in the middle of his nonsense, and told him they would start with simply moving a rock. Her still overly-enthusiastic student chattering away in the background, Toph walked over to a pair of smallish boulders she had just noticed nearby which would serve her teaching purposes well. She was very suspicious that Earthbending training was not going to go as easily as Aang thought.

Aang and Katara followed her over to the place where the boulders sat, and Katara sat down on an outcropping nearby in order to watch the two training. Toph began explaining the basics of Earthbending to her excited student. "The key to Earthbending is your stance," lowering herself and widening the distance between her feet to demonstrate. "You've got to be steady and strong. Rock is a stubborn element." She felt that Aang had not lowered his center of gravity enough, and shoved him to make her next point clear. "If you're going to move it, you've got to be like a rock yourself."

Aang parroted her words, obviously not grasping their full meaning. Ignoring this, Toph straightened up and continued to teach her student, "Good. Now the actual motion of this one is pretty simple," she said, and then demonstrated it by lunching forward and punching in the direction of the rock in front of her, slamming it into the side of the canyon. She then asked him if he was ready to give it a try, to which he readily assented that he was.

He shifted into what felt like an studious attempt to copy her earlier stance, and then launched out. But instead ofEearthbending the rock forward, Aang's apparently weak mental approach made him instead send out a blast of Airbending against the rock, preserving its momentum by blowing him swiftly backwards into Appa's side. In the background, she could hear Sokka saying wryly, "Rock beats Airbender!"

Getting back to his senses, Aang slowly walked back over to the boulder, obviously confused at this turn of events. Katara (who had gotten up) puzzled this over out loud, "I don't understand what went wrong. He did it exactly the way you did."

Aang, ever the optimist, tried to answer this question, "Maybe there's another way." He began circling around the boulder in a fighting stance as he continued, " What if I came at the boulder from another angle..."

Her suspicions confirmed, the master Earthbender interrupted her difficult student by grabbing his collar and making him turn towards her. " No, that's the problem. You've got to stop thinking like an Airbender." She knocked her fist against his head to emphasize her point and went on. "There's no different angle, no clever solution, no trickity trick that's going to move that rock." Knowing now he would never learn to stand strong like an Earthbender unless she forced him to, she pushed him over and made a demonstration of exactly what it would take. "You've got to face it head on. And when I say head on, I mean like this!" She ran forward and jumped into the air, crashing her head into the rock in an awesome display of simple Earthbender stubbornness which caused it to explode into pieces.

She walked away from the site, her point made, only to have Katara chase after her. She stopped in her tracks, and the other girl began speaking her mind, " I've been training Aang for awhile now. He really responds well to a positive teaching experience. Lots of encouragement and praise. Kind words. If he's doing something wrong, maybe a gentle nudge in the right direction."

Taking in the Waterbender's advice (Not that I'll ever need it, she thought privately), she thanked her friend and fellow tutor, "Thanks Katara. A gentle nudge. I'll try that." She walked off to find another area in the rock quarry to begin another style of training, telling Aang to hurry after her. Finding a large boulder, she told him to lift it on his shoulders and carry it the length of the field. When he objected, she told him it was necessary for him to learn to be completely rooted in his Earthbending stances. While he stumbled forward, audibly straining to keep it upright, she lifted rock pillars underneath his feet to trip him up, eventually causing her unrooted student to loose balance and drop the rock.

Shaking her head, she walked over to a nearby rock ledge to begin another toughening-up lesson. She rubbed her hands together and then demonstrated what she wanted him to do, quickly shoving her hand into it up past her uniform's wristbands. Aang followed her motions exactly, but merely managed to hurt his wrist. "Well, you certainly showed that rock," she commented with sarcasm in her voice, then motioned for him to follow her once more.

She left him in that spot, informing him that she would be back soon and that he would have to keep absolutely still until she returned, turning past a boulder (and therefore out of his line of sight). Smiling, she dug into the ground with earthbending and tunneled underneath her student's feet. Feeling his nervous vibrations above her, she jumped out of the ground, landed right next to him, and yelled in his face, "Rock-like!"

Her abysmal student fell over out of surprise, so she kicked the ground and Earthbended him back to his feet, poking him in the eye to show her disapproval, in a way which was hopefully aggressive enough to get him to stand up for himself like an Earthbender (which of course failed once again).

Next, she blindfolded Aang, so that he would learn how to root himself mentally by listening to the vibrations which passed through the ground. Going out of her way to get on her other guy-friend's nerves, she took one of Sokka's weapons away from him without asking (though not without a struggle), and gave the weapon to her pupil. She walked over to a small hill in order to get a better view of things from the raised elevation, and began kicking the ground to form rock columns for Aang to attack. After completely missing four of these targets, he succeeded in hitting the fifth, to which Toph nodded her approval. At least he's getting somewhere.
Toph pointing down

Toph takes joy at surprising her student

Deciding that she now ought to give him a more difficult task, they walked over to a clearing to begin their next round of training. She raised her arms to create two rock walls surrounding her pre-planned arena, and then drew a line in the ground in front of her feet, implying that he would have to push her past it. She smiled at his amazement, and then held up her fists to make rock fly towards her like metal to a magnet, covering her entire body with rock armor. She left a slot open for her eyes in order to intimidate him (and also to leave some space for air to flow through her rock into her mouth so she could breathe). She heard Aang gasp, and then slid herself forward with Earthbending, rushing towards the Airbender. He stuck out his arms to stop her progression, and attempted to push her back. After expending great effort to push her rock-encrusted feet back through the dirt, he finally managed to push her past the line. Once he had passed this test of stubborn endurance, they went on to another round of training.

She made him stand on two tall rock pillars she created, and then crafted a handle into a weighty rock for him to toss back and forth. After he had done this for a while, she walked between the pillars, stomped the ground and hit the columns with her hands in order to send small tremors upwards to his feet, yelling "Rock-like!" as she did so. Apparently having learned something from their previous rounds, he did not budge from his position. She walked back over to the right side of the pillar under his right foot, and Earthbended herself up to his level, nodding her approval at the fact that he was finally beginning to act like an Earthbender. It felt like he was outlandishly happy at this indirect praise.

Rock on slope

Toph tries to scare Aang into Earthbending

Encouraged by his progress, she told him to take a break and walked off to set up something for their next training round. Walking into a canyon, she selected a large boulder and began pushing it up a sloped wall with Earthbending, intentionally creating a trench as she did so. Once she was done, she went back and brought her student to the boulder set-up, Katara following in the distance.


"This time we're going to try something a little different. Instead of moving a rock, you're going to stop a rock." She walked away from him and then lunged back at him to test his steadfastness (the results were rather disappointing), "Get in your horse stance!"

After she felt Aang widen his stance, she informed him of what she was going to do. "I'm going to roll that boulder down at you," Toph said, pointing, and went on, "If you have the attitude of an Earthbender, you'll stay in your stance and stop the rock." Ignoring the vibrations of surprise she felt coming from him, she illustrated the movement she expected him to make to stop the oncoming rock. Hopefully this will be enough to force him to Earthbend now.

Katara, ever the helpful advice-giver, interrupted her before she could do as she had planned, "Sorry Toph, but are you really sure this is the best way to teach Aang Earthbending?"

Well, I'm not sure, but if this doesn't work I'm out of ideas. Although ... Toph replied, "I'm glad you said something," took Aang's belt and blindfolded him with it, continuing, "This way, he'll really have to sense the vibrations of the boulder to stop it. Thank you, Katara," giving the other girl a thumbs-up for the inspiration. Aang did not seem to happy about this alteration of Toph's original plan.

Toph walked up to the top of the hill, and nonchalantly pushed the rock forward. If worse came to worse, she planned to stop the rock's rolling with her own Earthbending; telling Aang that, however, would interfere with the point of the present task she had given him. From her high vantage point, she could easily feel the fear of her two friends, and hoped that Aang wouldn't be tempted to move. She crossed her arms, thinking, If you don't stop this, Twinkle-Toes ...

Just before the boulder reached him, Aang finally succumbed to fear and jumped out of the way. As the rock crashed into the opposite canyon wall, she ran down to him, feeling quite angry. You just wasted my whole day, Twinkle-Toes! She felt him move to remove the blindfold, and came right up next to him, glaring aggressively in his face. He said lamely, "I guess I just panicked. I don't know what to say."

At this, she blew up, yelling, "There's nothing to say. You blew it. You had a perfect stance and a perfect form, but when it came right down to it you didn't have the guts." She lightly punched him in the chest at these last word, which he allowed to knock him over.

"I know. I'm sorry." he apologized. Could he make this any more difficult?!! she thought, and bent over in a position which she knew made her unfocused eyes seem as if they were looking right at his face.

Toph chastising Aang

Could he make this more difficult?

"Yeah, you are sorry. If you're not tough enough to stop the rock, then you could at least give it the pleasure of smushing you instead of jumping out of the way like a jelly-boned wimp! Now, do you have what it takes to face that rock like an Earthbender!" she yelled at him, trying her hardest to get the guy to assert himself in some way. Aang failed to do this, and Toph stood up from her former intimidating position and crossed her arms, seeing all the training they went through that day as completely pointless. Katara walked over and began comforting him, saying he could learn Earthbending later (which Toph seriously doubted) and then made him concentrate on Waterbending training with her, a subject which he was apparently more comfortable with. As the two of them walked off, she derided the other girl's style of bending, seeing it as a distraction from the problem that Aang needed to confront.

She walked off and practiced Earthbending elsewhere to cool down her temper. She did this until she guessed Katara and Aang were done training, and then, getting an idea, went over to where she felt his glider. Figuring that messing around with this device (which he seemed quite attached to) might be enough to make him stand up for himself and confront his problems directly, she searched around a bit more until she came across a bag full of nuts. She picked them both up and walked off in search of vibrations similar to his in order to execute her plan. After a bit of difficulty - apparently because he was sitting still in meditation instead of walking around - she finally found him, and sat down nearby.

"Aang! I found these nuts in your bag. I thought you wouldn't mind. And besides, even if you did, you're too much of a pushover to do anything about it." she called out so he could hear. She felt his annoyance as he replied that he didn't mind and that he was happy to share anything he had. She went on, " You know, I'm really glad you feel that way, because I also have this great new nutcracker." She span Aang's staff around her head to show off to him exactly what she meant, and then smashed it down on a nut, smiling widely at how irritating she knew this would be to him.

Aang showed weak signs of trying to stop her, " Actually, I'd prefer it if you didn't ..." (she cracked another nut), "That's an antique, hand-crafted by the monks..." (yet another cracked nut) "It's a delicate instrument!"

Momo, who had been lying down next to Aang, flew over and landed on her shoulder to share the nuts she had cracked with her. She left him with an insult, saying it wasn't the only delicate instrument around the place, hoping he would take the insult to heart and eventually man up enough to protect his own belongings. Walking on while hitting Aang's staff against rocks as she passed them by, she overheard Katara loudly worrying about where Sokka was before she could get out of (her rather long) earshot. Caring about the well-being of her other guy-friend, she decided to help the others look for Sokka (doing so privately because she didn't want to drop her present irritating persona around Aang).

After a few minutes of searching, she finally found him, shaking her head in wonder about how he had managed to get stuck in a crack in the ground. Aang had apparently gotten there first, so she kept herself out of sight and sat down cross-legged on a rock where she didn't think he would normally look. Aang was apparently holding some small animal, and the two boys were discussing what kind of animal it was. While they were in the middle of talking, Toph felt a large creature barge through the bushes toward them. She got up and was about to move forward to defend the three of them against it when she stopped herself, thinking that this random encounter could supply what she had not been able to, and sat back down to let events unfold by themselves.

Aang attempted to prevent the creature from attacking the two of them by giving the small animal, apparently its baby, back to it. Ignoring this completely, the mother shook its head and roared at the two of them. Sokka frantically asked Aang to get him out of the crack as the creature charged; Aang was forced to lift the creature off the ground so that it landed somewhere else. It span around and roared at them again.

Sokka, who seem very scared, said loudly, "This is really bad! Please, Aang! You have to Earthbend me out, there's no other way!" Aang began performing some complicated and overdone moves in an attempt to comply with his request, but (predictably) utterly failed to accomplish anything. As the beast prepared to charge again, Aang did the predictable Airbender thing and leapt away to a nearby outcropping, and began to dance and shout to distract it from the place where Sokka was trapped (making Toph wince in frustration). This didn't work and he was forced to come back to level ground to blow the creature away from its career. Sokka, sounding and feeling quite terrified, asked Aang not to leave him again, to which Aang said he wouldn't (sounding determined for once).

As the creature charged at him, Toph felt from the vibrations he gave off that he was waiting for it in what she was beginning to identify as a prepared Airbending fighting stance. She lowered her hands to the ground unexpectedly, observing him staying steadfast as the beast rushed towards him. Finally showing some backbone, he did not run away or deflect it but instead shot it directly backward with a powerful Airbending attack. It left after this, obviously perturbed by this sudden show of aggression.

Deciding to reveal herself, she clapped slowly in celebration of the fact that he had finally been able to attack a problem directly in the face of danger. She did it slowly to make her presence all the more obnoxious to him, feeling his surprise that she had been present at all.

Sokka asked in amazement, " What are you doing here?"

"Just enjoying the show."

"What?!! You were there the whole time?!!" Aang accused, to which she informed him that she had been there long enough to have done something, just managing to restrain a laugh at how comically blind to their surroundings sighted people could be. She felt his body shift into a position which felt like he was pointing at her as he loudly went on, "Why didn't you do something?!! Sokka was in trouble! I was in trouble! You could've gotten him out and helped us get away!"

Oh, I had my reasons, she thought to herself and remained unaffected by Aang's accusations as she answered, "I guess it just didn't occur to me." She threw down a nut and prepared to crack it, hoping that he would remain motivated enough to attempt to stop her. Happily, he did as she expected and ordered her forcefully to give his staff back. She let him take it and jumped off the rock so she would be standing right in front of him as she told him, "Do it now."

"What?" he shot back, sounding still angry.

"Earthbend, Twinkle-Toes. You just stood your ground against a crazy beast, and - even more impressive- you stood your ground against me. You've got the stuff." she encouraged him. (And yes, the order in which she mentioned the two threats was exactly how she privately balanced the two in her mind.) When he seemed hesitant, she shouted at him to do it. After pausing, obviously to overcoming his confusion at this change of events, he then did exactly as she said, causing a nearby rock to shoot off and crash into a ridge.

Glad to finally have a student she could work with, Toph informed him excitedly that he was an Earthbender, which he seemed to hardly believe himself. From his place in the ground, Sokka asked them wryly to remove him from his situation so that he give them a hug during their "wonderful, touching moment." Aang, who was apparently able to quickly become overconfident, ran over to help out their friend; Toph had to stop him in order protect Sokka's well-being, thinking he may accidentally be crushed. She walked over, lifted her left foot and then stomped down, Earthbending the subterranean ledge that he had somehow gotten stuck on so that it launched him part way out of the hole (Aang seemed a bit surprised about how simple that was). She grabbed his wild hair - the pony-tail had apparently come loose at some point - and dragged him out so he could walk with them back to the camp.

She walked slowly behind the two boys, carrying Aang's staff as he helped Sokka hobble slowly back to their camp. Judging from the heat of the air, Toph thought that it must have been nearly night-time when they got back to their earlier resting place, which explained the relief in Katara's voice when she shouted out that they found him. Toph and Aang stood back and looked on as the siblings exchanged a hug. Sokka was apparently starting a long speech about a revelation that had come to him in the hole when Aang excitedly interrupted to show the other girl that he could Earthbend.

Aang earthbends

Aang shows Katara he can Earthbend

"You did it! I knew you would," she encouraged him, and then shifted her stance in a very slight way which made Toph think Katara was looking over at her. " You tried the positive reinforcement, didn't you?"

"Yep." she answered, I guess you could call it that. "It worked wonders."

Ever the eager student, Aang ran over to his sky bison and began telling him how he had learned Earthbending. Just as he had told him the part about being physically and mentally unmovable, Appa contradicted him by licking him, causing him to fly several feet forward onto his face. They all began laughing at this, Aang eventually joining in from his position on the ground.

Once the laughter died down, Aang got up and turned to Toph, asking her what they would do now. She told him that he had learned enough for the day, and that they should probably go to sleep for the night, informing him at the last minute to be on his guard for what she might choose to do to him tomorrow.

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