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|The Dynamic Duo|
July 31, 2012
Previously in 'Air'
After months of wondering just where Toph has disappeared to, Wordbender has finally taken pity on her readers. Diving three weeks into the past, we learn that Haru was specially requested to 'escort' Toph to the meeting in Ba Sing Se. However, Toph seemed to have other ideas...
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Dynamic Duo
Still Three Weeks Ago...
Toph refused to answer any of Haru's questions.
Typical, he thought. It was just like a girl to be irritatingly vague. And he'd been hoping to get a break from all that. Girls, that is. Over the last few years he had come to realize that they were all infuriating. But this one seemed especially so.
"All right, Number Eleven," Toph suddenly declared, loud enough to be overheard, "You've got plenty of forms to sign so I can fill your next year with the best pain and misery you've ever known. Why don't we step into my office?"
Toph led Haru through the Academy, past the bruised new recruits. Several receptionists –all women, of course– were distracted from assisting for a moment as Haru passed by. Infuriating. He flushed violently and hurried after Toph, thankful she hadn't seen.
The plaque said it was the Sifu Lounge, but Haru would have gone with Rooster-Pig Sty. There were three men in the Lounge and Toph introduced them.
"Boulder, Hippo," she said, gesturing, "You guys remember Haru."
The Boulder rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "The Boulder does not recall!" he declared. "...though the striking mustache seems familiar."
Haru resisted the urge to stroke it with his hand.
"You've got a mustache?!" Toph demanded. She almost poked his eye out, reaching up and sticking her hand in his face. She found one side and tugged painfully at it. She laughed. "You do! Hahahaha, a mustache!"
Haru scowled at her.
"Toph, don't be so impolite," the third man chided, standing. He seemed to occupy the far corner and, Haru noticed, it alone was meticulously spotless. "Introduce me to your friend."
Toph shrugged. She grabbed Haru's arm and shoved him toward the desk. "Dad, this is Haru. He and Katara met on a Fire Nation ocean prison or something. Before my time. He was part of the Invasion, too."
"Lao Bei Fong," the man introduced himself, nodding courteously at Haru. "Any friend of Toph's is a friend of mine." Perhaps, Lao realized, he should rephrase this particular greeting. After all, it had opened the door to his daughter's fellow instructors. Of course, Lao suspected that Toph had intentionally allowed the Blind Bandit part of her life to slowly seep into the respectable world of earthbending instructor Toph Bei Fong. What surprised him was that he was beginning to forget this uncouth side of her bothered him.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir," Haru replied, bowing politely.
Toph led Haru to her own desk. At least, it might at one time have been considered a desk. Carved from white marble, Toph refashioned it into a large, comfortable chair and settled in.
Haru couldn't help asking, "So, out there. What was that all about?"
"Oh, just the annual competition," Toph said airily. "I offer free lessons to anyone who can beat me. If I win, they have to sign up for a year."
"And people actually do it?"
Toph shrugged. "Hey, what can I say? Everybody wants to beat me, or learn from me. Or both."
"The Blind Bandit is widely popular," the Boulder assured him. "It helps to draw a crowd. The presence of the Boulder doesn't hurt."
Toph grinned, knocking the Boulder down with a kick of earthbending.
Lao didn't seem to register the roughhousing. Perhaps, Haru thought, the nobleman had developed a kind of intentional blindness.
Lao opened a book and selected a quill. "How did it go, Toph?" he asked.
"Great! Eleven new enrollments, including Stache Man here." She gestured at Haru with a wicked smile.
Haru started. "Wait, what?"
"Here are the forms, by the way," Toph said, plopping a thick stack of parchments into his lap. "Try not to take all day with them, 'kay?"
Haru stared at her. "You were serious? But I didn't even challenge you!"
"Really?" Toph said innocently. "It certainly sounded like a challenge."
"The Blind Bandit," the Boulder muttered, picking himself off the floor, "Lives in a world of her own."
"Yep," Toph said with a grin, "And I'm the supreme lord and dictator."
"I'm not signing these." Haru tried to shove the stack back at Toph but she ignored them.
She turned toward him and stared him down with her sightless eyes. "Look. Haru. For some reason Aang has seen fit to saddle me with you as a sidekick. I honestly don't know what goes on in that arrowfied head of his sometimes. You're going to have to keep up, and with your mediocre skills that's going to be tough."
"Sidekick?!" Haru exploded. "Mediocre? Let me get this straight, I came all this way to escort you, as a personal favor to Aang, and you're going to sit there and insult me?"
The Boulder, Hippo and Lao Bei Fong watched in amusement and not a little awe. It had been awhile since someone had gone toe to toe with Toph and they weren't going to miss a moment of it. And if the occasional approving 'ooh' or a wince of pity escaped them, who could blame them? They were going to enjoy the show.
"First off," Toph said, bristling, "I don't need anybody to 'escort' me, sissy britches. The only reason Aang sent you was to make sure I don't get into any fights along the way. And secondly–" With one smooth movement, Toph bent shackles of marble from the floor and bound Haru to his chair before he could blink. "Secondly, insult you? Your skills are insulting. If you couldn't see that coming, you're blinder than I am. If this little partnership is going to work, I'm going to have to rely on you to watch my back. Right now, I wouldn't trust your skills as far as I could throw you. You need my help."
Haru scowled. It was a thunderclap of disapproval that never failed to unnerve an opponent who caught sight of it. It seemed to be the only trait he'd picked up from his father. "You make it sound like we're waltzing into the saber-toothed moose lion's den."
Haru actually didn't know what he would be doing. The message he and his father had received from Aang had been rather vague. Something about an emergency, needing the help of all their friends, and the request for Haru to escort Toph to the capital city. Toph's message must have given a little more detail.
Toph considered him a moment. "All right, Haru," she said with a sudden smile, "I'll make you a special deal. You don't have to sign up for a year at the Toph Beifong Academy. But instead, you have to give me free reign to pound as many lessons into you as I think your pretty 'stache can take, for as long as you're my sidekick."
Haru's scowl darkened. He wasn't signing up for her Academy, that was certain. He didn't need that kind of abuse; he had enough problems of his own. He wasn't thrilled about the idea of having Toph as a bending master for any length of time, but they were only traveling to Ba Sing Se, right? A couple of days, maximum. He supposed his skills could use a little refining.
"Fine." Haru sighed. "Stop calling me your sidekick and you've got a deal."
Toph grinned. "Great! You'll just need to sign this one that says I'm not liable for any injuries you may and probably will incur and then we're all set!"
Haru had misgivings, but he signed the paper. "Okay, I signed it. Can we leave now? The city's days away and we're already going to be late for the meeting."
Toph chuckled. "Oh, we're not going to Ba Sing Se," she told him, taking the paper and stuffing it somewhere deep in her crammed cubbyhole where it was sure to never be seen again.
"What?" Haru stared after the paper as it disappeared forever. He realized he'd just signed over his soul. He should have known. There had been something in her smile, like he was about to be the punch line for a bad joke.
"Relax," Toph told him. "Don't get your 'stache in a twist."
Haru had been ranting and raving, but this comment quickly pulled him back. His hand flew protectively to his mustache.
"We don't need to go to Ba Sing Se," Toph explained, "Because I found the Guild here."
Haru frowned. "The Guild?"
"Yeah, the Guild of the Granite Gauntlet. Seriously lame name if you ask me, but then they are trying to restart a war we won twelve years ago so they can't be geniuses."
"Don't tell me you don't know," Toph groaned. "Aang explained it in his letter."
"Not mine," Haru growled.
Toph let out a puff of air, exasperated. "Fine. I'll tell you what I know. Over lunch. I'm starving."
As far as Toph knew, the Guild was some kind of anti-Fire Nation cult in the Earth Kingdom. Apparently they'd done something bad enough to get Aang's attention, though Toph wasn't sure what. In his letter, Aang promised she could infiltrate the organization and beat the information he needed out of them –her words, not his. It was a kind gesture, and one Toph obviously appreciated. But she decided to save herself the trip.
"...you found them here?" Haru repeated.
"Yep. Glad to see you catch on so fast."
Haru glared at her. She'd been leading him on the whole time. They wouldn't be going to Ba Sing Se, and now Haru was stuck with her for the foreseeable future. She'd tricked him into signing that paper and now she could freely pound him black and blue in sparring matches for who knew how long.
"Amazingly enough," Toph said, voice dripping sarcasm, "The Earth Rumble tournaments have some less than reputable fans. Which means that someone in a position to offer them good seats has got some reliable shady contacts. It's really amazing how much a pickpocket can find out about a semi-exclusive super-secret organization."
"And this guy Jomei," he said slowly, "He's our way in?"
Toph took a giant bite out of a cream puff before replying. "Yep," she got out through a full mouth. A line of white cream remained on her upper lip. "My squealer says he's in with the Guild up to his topknot."
"Where can we meet him?"
"He doesn't actually live in Gaoling," Toph told him. "He comes here every few weeks or so, hangs around in the markets and some of the dark corners, keeping an eye out for potentials. At least, that's what the squealer said."
"And we have to be potentials?" Haru asked uneasily.
"You're catching on." Toph's grin was broadened by her creamy white mustache.
Haru hadn't been able to eat much. When he'd accepted the invite to lunch, he wasn't aware that Hippo and The Boulder would be joining them. Lao Bei Fong had wisely opted to return to his rich estate for a meal. Haru couldn't blame him; he wasn't a stickler for manners and etiquette, but the two wrestlers were making him squeamish.
"Dad doesn't really hang around here all the time," Toph confided. "Only when there's a contest, or some form of paperwork to deal with."
Haru hesitated, averting his eyes as Hippo popped a whole possum chicken into his mouth. "...how did you manage it?"
"Because I'm a genius," Toph replied automatically, shoving the rest of the cream puff into her mouth. "...Mannige whaa?"
Haru suddenly flushed. He shouldn't have brought it up. He wasn't even supposed to know, was he? There were just all kinds of stories bouncing around after the war. "Never mind. It's none of my business."
Toph chuckled. "You must mean my parents."
Toph smiled sweetly. "Oh, you know. I may have sort of convinced my dad without his knowing it that he wanted to go into business with me."
Haru had finally managed to take a bite just in time to choke in surprise. "You tricked your dad into working for you?"
"Tricked?" Toph tried to look offended. "He was practically begging me. I only gave him what he wanted. He just didn't know at the time that it was what he wanted."
"So that's it?" Haru said incredulously. "You dragged him into your business and now you're best buds?"
"Not exactly. We've had our share of arguments. Like the school's name. That one almost blew the place apart. He wanted to call it the 'Bei Fong Institute of Bending Mastery'. Can you believe that?" She scoffed.
Haru was almost afraid to ask. "What did you want to call it?"
"Kick-Butt Academy. But no, Dad said we had to aim for a 'reputable' establishment." She snickered. "After he saw our first Earth Rumble, he had to rethink that a little. He suggested the 'Toph Bei Fong Academy'; he said it had a nice ring to it. Of course, I didn't mind, because 'Toph' is practically synonymous with 'kick-butt' anyway. Oh, and my mother! Please, don't get me started on her!" Toph rolled her eyes in exasperation, but she was still smiling.
Haru was still staring at her.
"What's the matter," Toph laughed, "You don't have any dysfunctional family problems?"
Haru shrugged. What did he say, that everyone expected him to follow in his father's impressive footsteps and he was struggling with the pressure? That he doubted he could ever live up to that high standard of guidance and wisdom? That lately he'd begun to wonder if he even wanted to try? Add to that his mother's constant prods about settling down and how every girl in the village would chase him –– for hours on end...Sometimes Haru wanted to hide under a rock and never come out.
"Won't the whole 'blind' thing be a dead giveaway?" Haru asked. They were at the Bei Fong's estate, preparing their rebel disguises. Haru tried hard not to gape at his rich surroundings like the country peasant he was, but it wasn't easy.
He and Toph's father were waiting impatiently while, behind a closed door, Toph and her mother were putting the finishing touches on her disguise. Toph had guaranteed she would be unrecognizable and entirely blamed her mother.
Toph snorted, though the sound was muffled. "What, you think there's only one blind girl in all the Earth Kingdom?"
"No..." Haru said sullenly.
"He's right, Toph," Lao interjected. "Maybe this is too dangerous." He paced nervously. It was a terrible plan. Too much could go wrong. But he couldn't very well forbid her. That had a history of backfiring. No, he had to be supportive, even if it wrenched his gut.
"Will you guys relax?" Toph cried in exasperation. "I've already told you, there's nothing to worry about." She hesitated. "Okay, I'm coming out now."
The door slowly opened. Toph cautiously stepped out, her mother beaming confidently behind. Poppy Bei Fong had been trying to get her daughter out of the tomboy outfit for years and she was taking far too much pleasure in helping with the disguise.
Toph still wore her green and cream color scheme, but the clothes were much more feminine, close cut and formfitting. The gleaming black 'space earth' was no longer worn as a bracelet, but on her ankle. And it looked like she'd put quite some time and thought into its delicate yet solid design. Her black hair hung long and loose, most of it dangling down before her unseeing eyes in thick locks.
"You're beautiful!" Poppy Bei Fong gushed. She turned to the two men. "Isn't she beautiful?"
Haru wasn't going to put his foot in his mouth. He wasn't exactly an expert on girls, considering he spent all his time running from the crazy mob of them back home. Anything he said would probably be taken the wrong way.
"So I look the picture of innocence?" Toph fluttered her eyelashes dramatically, gushing in melodious tones. "From now on, I'm the angelic Jen Yi." She gnashed her teeth in a sudden iron grin, shattering the illusion. "And don't you forget it!"
Haru rolled his eyes. Yeah, that was the face of an angel. "What if someone recognizes you as the Blind Bandit?" he demanded.
"What do you think the disguise is for?" Toph shot back. "Look, even if something does happen and they try to kill us, we'll be able to take them out."
"Gee, I don't know," Haru said sarcastically, "Since you've got me as backup, I guess our chances are as good as two turtle ducks in a komodo rhino stampede."
"Don't be ridiculous," Toph snorted. "I totally make up for your shoddy skills."
"That's reassuring..." Lao muttered. He might have confidence in Toph's bending abilities, but that didn't mean he wanted her to dive headfirst into danger. What really worried him was Toph's personality. His daughter was overconfident and she had a tendency to show off. Could she play dumb long enough to survive this charade?
"Holy coincidental plagiarism, Batman! They stole our slogan for a chapter title!"
- I'm offended, Robin. You know what they say, 'Imitation is the highest form of flattery.' And I love me the Dynamic Duo. :)
- Don't jump the gun, my readers. Robin overreacted. I'm not plagiarizing or stealing. ;)
*reader stares aghast* How can you be so cruel to Haru?
- Cruel to a character? Me? It's my specialty. Actually, it's kind of a funny story. As my devoted readers know from the commentary blogs I used to write, the conception of began with several lists, one of which being the infamous List of Characters Who Must Appear. Haru was on this list, though I had no real idea what to do with him. He almost didn't make it into the story at all. Then I came up with the brilliant idea to have Toph infiltrate the Guild and obviously she'd need a partner. Now who would be the most amusing and unlikely candidate? Xin Fu or Master Yu, of course, but I'm not quite that cruel. Next best thing? Teaming the sensitive dude with the abrasive chick. Comedic genius. ;)
Random Fact: I love Haru's mustache.
Bonus scene? *blinks stupidly* I have no idea what you're talking about. It's just a vicious rumor that I started.
The Boulder and Hippo have encountered Haru before, as they all participated in the invasion on the Day of Black Sun, as mentioned. This was also the first time Haru was seen with his epic new mustache.
Another Random Fact: I love to tease Haru about his mustache. Ever since Sokka made the comment of it being a 'chick magnet', I could not get the idea out of my head. Another score for Sokka.
- A comment which, apparently, I just made up, as I can't find mention of it any where. Sorry, Sokka.
Th-th-that's all, folks! Tune in next week for a new chapter, same Bat-day, same Bat-Wiki! ;)
For the collective works of the author, go here.