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|The Continuing Adventures of Madam Gung-Ho and Stache Man|
August 7, 2012
Previously in Air
Haru was sent to escort Toph to Ba Sing Se, but when he arrived in Gaoling Toph revealed she had other plans. Having found the Guild's influence close by, she's decided that the two of them will go undercover to infiltrate the enemy.
Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Continuing Adventures of Madam Gung-Ho and Stache Man
Two Weeks Ago...
"What are we doing?" Haru asked carefully, intentionally keeping a few paces ahead of Toph. She was smiling as if she found his antics amusing –pointless, but amusing nonetheless.
The last few days really hadn't been so bad. Toph's parents had tried a little harder to change her mind, but she'd disregarded their concern with such practiced callousness, Haru had actually been impressed. He would have buckled under the pressure long before he could escape. She'd taken just enough time to secure all her regular duties in the hands of her father, Hippo and The Boulder, before dragging Haru to a dirty corner of town. She had set claim to a small, rundown shack and they had been camped there ever since.
"I told you," Toph replied, her smile never slipping. "We're training."
As far as the training went, it had been pretty easy. She'd mostly been grilling him about his knowledge and expertise. There was a small dirt alley nearby where he could demonstrate his skills.
Haru had known something worse was coming. And it looked like it was finally here. He gulped. "Shouldn't we be more worried about convincing Jomei–"
Toph shook her head. "We've already done enough to convince him," she replied. "Either he thinks we're rebel material or he doesn't. He'll make his move soon. For now, the best thing we can do is work on your shoddy skills."
"Gee, thanks," Haru muttered. But he sighed in resignation. "What kind of training are we going to do?"
Toph smiled broadly at him. The sight sent chills down his spine. "I'm so glad you asked.
"The last few days, you've told me pretty much everything you know. I've learned about your procedure, your level of discipline, and that thing you call technique."
Haru scowled, but said nothing.
"Now," Toph declared, "it's time to turn the tables." She pulled something from the bag slung over her shoulder and tossed it at Haru.
The piece of dark cloth hit him in the face before he could catch it. Haru coughed to cover his embarrassment and examined it. "What is it?"
"It's a blindfold, dunderhead. Put it on and let the training begin."
Haru made no move to obey. "I don't think I like where this is going..."
Toph chuckled. "Who cares? You're my pupil, remember? Put it on."
Haru quickly did. Those last three words were spoken with a biting kind of emphasis. "Okay," he said uncertainly, tying off the blindfold. "Now what?" He winced as he spoke, half expecting to be bowled over by a sudden volley of earth.
"Listen," Toph said.
Haru frowned, baffled. "You don't want me to practice my horse stance or dodge rocks?" he asked. "Just...listen?"
Toph snorted. "I was under the impression you're already an earthbender. Don't you know the stances? Can't you flaunt your muscles and heave great big rocks?"
"Um..." Haru wasn't sure how to reply.
"I'm not teaching you how to earthbend, Stache Man. That's something you already know, no matter how mediocre your talents."
Haru tried to protest, but Toph plowed on.
"No, what I'm teaching you is much more important. Earthbending isn't just about chucking boulders; it's a way to connect to the earth. And once you master that, the possibilities are endless."
Haru waited for her to clarify, but she didn't. Connect to the earth? What was she talking about? Wasn't he already connected to the earth? Weren't his feet firmly planted on the ground? "Um...okay? So you just want me to–"
Toph sighed tiredly. He really was a dunderhead. "Listen, Haru."
"Right." Haru did. He strained his ears hard and concentrated, but there didn't seem to be anything remarkable.
He sighed. "Listen to what?"
"The earth, numbskull," Toph retorted impatiently. "We're supposed to be swapping perspective, so pretend like you're blind and try to look around you!"
Haru frowned, confused. "What does that have to do with listening?"
The ground beneath him suddenly shifted. A rather undignified yelp escaped Haru as he fell flat on his back.
"Listen, see, feel," Toph snapped, "With your feet it's all the same."
She stomped hard into the earth and Haru's teeth chattered with the harsh vibrations.
"You can feel them if they're strong enough," Toph told him. "You just need to focus that skill."
"Stand up," Toph ordered with a heavy sigh.
Haru quickly obeyed. His upper arms were already black and blue from her frequent punches of annoyance.
"Let's start with something simple," Toph said.
Haru nodded hopefully. Simple was nice. He could do simple.
"Concentrate on your toes," she told him. "Dig them into the earth. Feel the dirt slide over your skin, feel it shift around you."
"Okay," Haru mumbled. "Feeling..."
"Now concentrate harder. Feel past your toes, into the ground beneath them. See the pressure your feet exert on the earth. Listen –can you hear it groan?"
Haru listened. He felt. He still wasn't sure. Beneath him was solid ground, but –He frowned, shifting his feet again, leaning into the dirt. Webs of movement, like tiny crevices, rippled through the earth's mass. There were hundreds of the spidery lines –thousands.
"Well?" Toph demanded. "Do your blind feet see anything yet?"
"Um..." Haru wriggled his toes deeper into the dirt and the weird ripples of movement swayed, making him a little dizzy. "Yeah. I think so, anyway."
Toph grunted, clearly unimpressed. "And what do your feet see, 'Stache Man?"
Haru flushed. "Well, um, nothing really."
He could almost hear her smug smirk as she replied, "Well, what are you looking for?"
Haru's flush deepened
"Try to find me," she suggested.
But this time she didn't stomp. She didn't announce her presence by shifting her feet. On the contrary, Haru was certain she was intentionally remaining immobile. So how did he find something through vibrations of movement if it wasn't moving?
See the pressure your feet exert on the earth, Toph had told him.
Frowning in concentration, Haru shifted his weight, bending his toes deep into the earth. He caught one of the small strings of movement and followed it.
Where are you? he wondered, searching for any sign of pressure, listening for –
One of the webs snapped. Haru froze, wondering. Another string of vibration suddenly disappeared and, a short distance below, the dirt parted to create another small crevice.
"There!" Haru suddenly cried, gesturing in excitement.
The earth sprang at his unconscious bidding. Toph easily dodged the sorry chunk of dirt that would have soiled her already grungy face.
"Oops." Haru gulped. "Sorry."
Toph laughed. "I didn't think you were the gung-ho type, Stache Man." She cracked her knuckles audibly. "Maybe we'll have to take it up a notch."
Haru blanched. "I'm not gung-ho!" he said quickly. "Not in the least! Please don't –"
A cube of earth caught him in the gut, knocking the words clean out of his head and throwing him to the ground.
He groaned. And moaned. Slowly, he struggled to sit up, one hand pressed to his throbbing stomach. "Really?" he demanded weakly.
"Really," came the reply. The accompanying dark chuckle sent chills up Haru's spine. Mostly because it did not belong to Toph.
Haru shot upright, striking out blindly –
Before the earth could answer his call, another blow hit Haru in the back of the head and he blacked out.
Toph and Haru were blindfolded and bound tight, somewhere dark and damp. Haru could not only smell the earth all around them, he could feel it –under his toes, above his head, everywhere. They were in a cave of some sort. Toph, of course, knew their exact location. Their captors had hoped a couple of rookie tricks on the way to the secret headquarters would disorient them, but Toph was better than that. She'd seen the attackers coming three streets over when they'd ambushed her and Haru in the alley. It was the moment she'd been waiting for.
Haru was certain they weren't alone. The Guild –who else would have shanghaied them like that?– was definitely watching them closely. But since they hadn't yet announced themselves, Haru decided this was a test.
"I told you we should have been concentrating on Jomei," Haru growled at Toph. "He obviously doesn't trust us and we're never getting out of here. I can't believe I let you talk me into this. This whole thing was a bad idea!"
"I didn't hear you come up with anything better," she shot back. "And somebody has to stand up to the Fire Nation!"
Toph's bickering was only half-hearted. She was distracted by the men standing silently by. Number One she placed immediately, but Two and Three...there was something vaguely disconcerting about them. Toph shook her head. No time now; she could figure it out later. "What are you complaining about, anyway? We wanted to get into the Guild, and now we're in it, aren't we?"
Haru barked a laugh, struggling to free himself. "Oh yeah," he said sarcastically, "We're in it alright,"
Number One chuckled. Haru started at the sound; Toph wasn't the only one who decided to play dumb, though he knew he wouldn't have to try nearly as hard.
"Oh, hello, Jomei," Toph said amicably. "I didn't see you there. How've you been?"
Jomei laughed again. "Fine; yourself?"
Toph shrugged. "No complaints."
"Hate to break up the small talk," Haru growled, "But you mind telling us what's going on, Jomei?"
"Not at all." They heard Jomei move closer. "I'm afraid my friends don't trust you."
"Okay..." Toph said slowly. It was no surprise to her that the Guild wasn't accepting them on the spot, but she needed to buy some time to think this through. "Could we get the blindfolds off?"
"What difference would it make, Jen Yi?" Jomei asked. "I thought you were blind."
"I am blind," Toph said. "But this blindfold is itchy. And it stinks."
"...and I'm not blind?" Haru added uncertainly.
"Right, and my friend's annoyed with having his precious sight taken away."
Jomei moved behind them and loosened their blindfolds.
"Ah," Toph sighed, "Much better." She tried to adjust to a more comfortable position, but she was bound too tight. She ignored the other two men, who seemed neither happy nor inclined to speak. "Now, let's get down to business."
Jomei nodded. He was in his early twenties, good looking, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. A ready smile hovered over his lips and Haru felt he was laughing at them.
Toph's amicable mood instantly slipped. "Why wouldn't you trust me?" she demanded angrily. "I've already told you, I'm no fan of the Fire Nation. That's what you guys are about, right? Fighting to drive out the evil and conniving fire tyrants? What, you want me to kidnap a Fire Nation general to prove myself? I will, you know!"
Jomei chuckled. "Don't be so dramatic," he said. He kicked up a block of earth and sat on it. "My friends are stubborn and suspicious. Personally, I think they're being ridiculous."
"So what's the problem?" Toph said. "Did I beat up one of your little spies? 'Cause if so, I didn't know he was one of yours. That's just what I do to pick-pockets."
"We don't pick pockets," Jomei told her coldly, "It only makes people suspicious. No," he continued, "It's because you're blind."
Haru felt beads of sweat prickle his brow. He fought hard to keep any kind of expression from his face. His heart raced, coursing adrenaline through his system, which only embarrassed him because he knew Toph could feel his fear and she was probably cool as a sea cucumber.
"Oh, so it's discrimination," Toph spat, harsh and accusing. "That's much better!" Jomei chuckled. "Nothing so trivial," he assured her. He picked a small pebble from the folds of his tunic and flicked it away carelessly. "They think you're Toph Bei Fong, the Blind Bandit."
Toph froze. "What?"
I told you so! was dangling on the tip of Haru's tongue, but he clamped his mouth shut.
"The Blind Bandit?!" Toph cried, and her exasperation wasn't an act. What was wrong with these people? "Why? Because there's only one bending blind chick in the whole Earth Kingdom?"
Jomei shrugged. "Well, maybe not the whole Earth Kingdom, but really, Jen Yi, how many blind people have you heard of in Gaoling?"
Toph snorted. "One," she said. "People don't usually make a habit of gossiping about the blind beggar girl who sits at the corner of Pick-Pocket Central."
Jomei chuckled. "That's a good point. But I'm afraid you'll have to do better than that to convince them." He gestured at the two scowling strangers.
Haru forced himself to relax. Jomei himself wasn't suspicious. But it wasn't Jomei they had to convince to join the Guild. And they were probably right –could there really be another blind earthbender in Gaoling? He just hoped they couldn't prove it.
"You told Jomei you could earthbend," one of the men accused.
"Sorry, I didn't realize it was a crime," Toph retorted testily.
His face flushed scarlet and Haru winced. He wondered if Toph knew she was infuriating him. He glanced over at her. She knew, all right. She was smirking, though she tried to hide it. Thankfully her long bangs covered it up.
"How can you bend without seeing?" the other demanded, trying to clarify his friend's point.
"Through feeling," Toph replied. "When people move, the vibrations they make travel through the ground, and earthbenders who are practiced at it can visualize what they can't see." Her smirk widened, visible now. "It's elementary, guys. If you were as smart as everyone thinks you are, you should've figured that out."
The two men fumed.
Jomei frowned. "That's exactly how the Blind Bandit does it," he pointed out.
"Come on!" Toph cried. "If I was the Blind Bandit I could've kicked all your butts when you jumped us in the alley. Besides, why would I even be here?" Toph struggled violently against her bonds in frustration. "You know what, I wish I was the Blind Bandit. The earthbending masters might have developed the concept, but she perfected it."
Haru fought hard not to roll his eyes. He wondered how she'd be able to go for days selling herself short.
"I can only barely manage it," Toph went on. "And everything's really fuzzy unless I'm standing still. Even then it's not great. I can't even see you three clearly."
"And yet you know there are three of us," one of the men realized.
Haru supplied the answer to that one. "All three of you have spoken."
"I'm better with my ears than I am with my feet," Toph complained. "Just my luck to have the wrong sense compensate."
"Forgive us if we don't take your word for it," one of the men said.
Toph felt the subtle vibrations as the man slid into a bending stance. She ignored it. "Sure, why not? You didn't believe me about –ahhhhhhhh!" She screamed as she shot toward the ceiling on a rocket of earth.
Haru struggled to break free. "Jen Yi!"
The rock bonds around Toph crumbled. She hurtled toward the floor. The fall wasn't too far, but it still hurt. She landed with a hard and loud thud. She fought her instincts to deck all three of them with one sweeping movement and instead scrabbled in the dirt. She plunged her fingers into the earth and made a big show of searching for some kind of vibration. The benders moved again, their actions quick and precise. And familiar. But no time to dwell on that now. They stomped into the earth, summoning several small missiles.
Jomei stood by impassively as they began to pelt Toph. She threw her arms up, raising a wall to protect her from the onslaught. She wasn't quick enough to fend off the first missiles. One struck her knee, one her foot and another her gut. A jagged stone grazed her cheek. The wall was too small to protect her entire body, so she collapsed into a small ball behind it.
Toph felt the two men finally relax from their bending positions. But Jen Yi wouldn't be able to feel that.
"Are you guys crazy?!" she shouted. "What part of I barely manage didn't you get?!"
Jomei clapped. "Congratulations," he said. "You've passed the test."
Haru was released. He hurried over to where Toph crouched and helped her stand.
"Are you okay?"
Toph was annoyed at the concern in his voice. Of course she was okay! Why couldn't she convince people she could take of herself? She really was the Blind Bandit, after all. "I'm not a baby," she hissed back.
"I was talking to Jen Yi," Haru retorted softly.
Toph's face went red. He wondered if she was embarrassed that he was only pretending to be concerned about Jen Yi, or mad that he wasn't actually worried about Toph.
"I-I'm alright," Toph said shakily, loud enough for the others to hear.
Haru turned angrily on the three rebels. "You ever try something like that again and I'll–"
"Relax, Haru," Jomei said. "We had to know for sure your girlfriend wasn't playing dumb."
Before Haru could say 'She's not my girlfriend' or Toph could muster enough indignation after her supposed harrowing experience to cry 'I'm not his girlfriend!' Jomei opened the wall of the interrogation cave.
He gestured into the cavern beyond. "Welcome to the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet."
"You kept the messenger hawk?" Haru hissed.
Toph shrugged. "I thought I might need it. Turns out I was right, as I so often am."
Haru rolled his eyes, thankful she couldn't see him.
"And stop rolling your eyes at me," Toph said.
Haru jumped. "How did you–"
"People are so predictable."
He hoped that was all.
The sky was beginning to glow with the rising sun. It was still dark enough that the flying bird might not be spotted on its way north.
This would be their last night in the lean-to; tomorrow the Guild's hideout would become their home.
Haru unlatched the small cage Toph had stuffed the messenger hawk into. The bird had some room to move around, but it obviously didn't want to be there. It fluttered about, itching to go home.
The bird hopped onto Haru's arm. It seemed to recognize the little scroll in his hand and allowed it to be placed in the small tube strapped to its back.
"Okay, birdbrain," Toph told it. "We need you to take this to Iroh, in Ba Sing Se at The Jasmine Dragon tea shop."
"How's it going to know that?" Haru asked. "It can't understand you."
Toph shrugged. "Smart bird?"
Before Haru could stop it, the dragon hawk spotted the open window. Determined, the bird made for it. It spread its brilliant wings gracefully, twisting to squeeze through the odd-shaped window then arcing elegantly up into the dawn sky. It faded into the retreating dark, going northward.
"Let's hope it stays on that course," Haru said.
"Yeah," Toph snorted, collapsing onto her bed roll and sprawling her limbs every which way. "It would kind of suck to have gotten into the Guild and never know what to look for."
Haru whirled on her, aghast. "You don't know?"
"Nope." Toph closed her eyes. "Aang never did get around to it in his message."
Haru moaned and held his head between his hands.
Toph scowled. "Not my fault. And don't think you get a pass just because our session was interrupted."
Haru was already fighting back a yawn. "But–"
"No buts, Stache Man! I want you to dig your toes into the earth and concentrate on those vibrations until you can tell me the exact location of the gecko spider nest in this dump!"
Haru shuddered involuntarily. "There's a gecko spider nest in here?"
Toph slammed her heel into the dirt floor, knocking Haru off his feet. "Not the point! Start searching, and don't take all day with it!"
With that final order, Toph sprawled onto her stomach, arms and legs hanging off the side of her bed roll. In minutes, she began to snore.
The last few chapter titles have taken on a comic book-esque vibe. I submit no apologies. :)
I've tried to make Haru's training different than Aang's. After all, Haru is already an earthbender. Toph's just trying to 'improve' him.
How the messenger hawks operate, I've never quite understood. Are they trained to fly back and forth between two points, or can they be given directions? In the episode The Runaway, Toph sends Hawky to her parents with a message -how did he know how to get there? And thus a scene was born. ;)
For those readers who want more chapters faster: I apologize that the speed of released chapters will not increase anytime soon. I just don't have the time right now, but I'm working on it. However, I can offer an alternative. It's not fanon, but I have several pieces posted on Figment.com, including a few short stories and my middle-grade novel.
For the collective works of the author, go here.