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|The Life and Times of Toph Bei Fong|
July 24, 2012
Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Life and Times of Toph Bei Fong
Three Years Ago...
"Just breathe," Toph muttered under her breath.
It occurred to her that she had faced down hulky wrestlers five times her size, a band of elite earthbenders, a psycho princess prodigy and an entire fleet of Fire Nation air ships without so much as butterflies in her stomach. But this door, and what it represented, had her frozen to the spot.
It also occurred to her that Just breathe was exactly the kind of gag-inducing encouragement she would never be caught dead giving even to her protégés. To punish herself, she smacked the back of her head. "Just get it over with, Toph."
She reached up to pound on the door but an inch away from the gilded wood she realized they would really hate that. She hesitated, lowered her hand, glanced at the gold chain dangling from an elaborate bell. She shifted her feet uncomfortably on the doorstep. Through the swirling marble she could feel the vague movements of people in the house. No one stood at the door. They probably weren't expecting her. Maybe she could sneak away now and pretend she was never here at all!
That would be a great idea –if not for the parade. Someone had recognized her on the street, not as the Blind Bandit, but as Toph, Friend of the Avatar and Master Earthbender. Add to that the fact she was instrumental in ending the war, and yeah, she could see why they'd want to throw her an awesome impromptu party and parade her all through town.
Toph let out a long puff of air.
A moment stretched past. Then another.
Suddenly irritated, she stomped her feet into a firm stance. "Come on, Toph; they're just people!" She rolled her neck, popped her knuckles, gritted her teeth –and meekly tugged on the gold bell chain.
She swallowed hard. Too late to back down now.
Toph didn't have to wait long on the doorstep. In a matter of seconds she felt the hastened patter of feet against the stone floor and the door was gracefully swung open.
A finely dressed servant nodded respectfully without really looking, opened his mouth to speak –and gasped. "M-miss Bei F-fong!" he stammered. "P-please! Come inside!"
Toph could feel twenty-one years' worth of pent up emotions roiling in her gut, but she marched into the foyer as though she didn't have a smidgeon of doubt. "Hey, Goyan, still around, are you? My parents here?"
Goyan was on the verge of panic. He couldn't stop staring at her; he wrung his hands nervously and the poor guy began to sweat buckets. "What? Yes! Your parents –achem." Goyan tugged harshly at his hand one last time and seemed to instantly regain his composure. He threw his shoulders back so he stood ramrod straight and after a quick breath, nodded courteously at the visitor. "Lord and Lady Bei Fong are in, Miss. I shall see if they are accepting visitors."
To his horror, Toph said, "That's all right." She shrugged and started down the hall. "Are they in the sitting room? I'll just stop in and say hi."
Composure fled. "What? No! Wait, I have to announce you!" Goyan hurried after Toph. "You can't just–"
"Barge in?" Toph finished with a wicked grin. She threw open the sitting room door. "I just did."
Poppy Bei Fong glanced up mildly. It was unladylike to look startled. She had been enjoying the last of the evening sun as she cross-stitched a throw pillow which she now carefully set aside. "Oh," she said, "Do we have visitors?"
"Yes, madam." The words rushed out between Goyan's panting. He was determined to maintain etiquette. "Miss, uh, Miss Toph insisted on seeing you. I'm sorry for the interruption, but–"
Poppy waved dismissively. "Don't be ridiculous, Goyan. Toph!" She smiled at her daughter and stretched a hand out. "Come and sit down, my dear!"
Toph's heart thudded so loud she wondered no one else could hear it. Every ounce of her courage had seeped away the moment she felt her mother's presence. For years she had wondered how this meeting would go, how her parents would react, what they would say. She had been so scared and nervous...and now her mother was smiling at her?
Comforting warmth blossomed inside Toph. It was something she hadn't felt in a long time and when it reached her face it tugged her lips into a smile. She had forgotten how her mother could make her smile. Why? she thought. Why did I wait so long?
Toph shrugged off her heavy pack –it contained everything she owned– and left it by the door. Goyan turned his nose up at it, but she didn't care. She stepped forward, hesitantly at first, but the closer she drew to her mother's heartbeat the more confident she became.
As Toph settled onto the couch beside her mother, Goyan shifted uncomfortably. "Will Miss Toph be, uh, staying?"
Poppy laughed. "Of course! And see if we've enough for a third at dinner." She turned to Toph. "We wouldn't dream of turning away anyone so important!"
Toph's spirit plummeted. Important. The word bounced around in her head like a trapped saber-toothed moose lion and echoed off the hallow shell of her heart.
"Of course, madam," Goyan said softly, dismissing himself with a bow.
She could feel it now, in the way her mother held her hands. Gently, like a porcelain doll's; there was not an ounce of warmth in her grasp.
The word crushed all the cautious hopes Toph had nurtured over the years.
Poppy Bei Fong's smile didn't falter. "What an honor to have you in our humble home. But I must wonder what could possibly bring you to such a trivial place as Gaoling." She spoke with delight, a noblewoman graced with the presence of an icon. "Surely there are much grander places that desire your presence? More deserving people, perhaps, that need you?"
Slowly, Toph eased her hands away. Lady Bei Fong didn't seem to mind.
"And you have picked just the right time to visit!" Poppy went on. "It really is beautiful this time of year. Of course, the cherry trees won't blossom for another three weeks, but perhaps you'll still be here to see them? Are you staying with acquaintances, perhaps the Tao Mings? Oh! Lao," she cried happily as her husband entered the room, "Look who popped by for a visit! Such a great honor, isn't it?"
Lao Bei Fong froze in the doorway. "Yes," he finally murmured, staring at his daughter as though she were a stranger. "What a great honor."
"I was just saying how very important she must be. Why, you're not only one of the Avatar's friends and companions, but also his earthbending master. Imagine! And of course you're a great war hero," she enthused.
Toph felt cold. Every word her mother spoke struck like fists to her gut. Her father said nothing more, but took a seat across the room and watched impassively.
"You must have so many terribly exciting stories to tell!" Poppy exclaimed. "What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?"
For the first time it seemed her mother expected her to answer. Toph swallowed hard. "I told you guys," she said softly. "In my letters."
"Letters?" There was not a flicker of recognition in her mother's voice.
Toph knew then it was a mistake. Her parents obviously weren't interested in making amends. To them, she wasn't a daughter anymore; she was only an important figure to be courted and entertained. She felt like a fool.
She jumped to her feet. "I should go," she muttered.
"You won't join us for dinner?" Her mother sounded disappointed, but Toph knew it was only an act. "And I was so looking forward to hearing all about the reformation of the Fire Nation..."
Toph lost it. "Why can't you just be happy for me?" she shouted. Tears stung at her eyes. She clenched her fists. "Why can't you accept me for who I am?"
No one answered. A tense, fragile silence descended upon the room. After a long moment, her father spoke into it. "I certainly don't see why you need our acceptance when you seem to have everyone else's." His voice was stern and disapproving. "But if it really matters, we have accepted it, Toph. Did we send anyone to bring you home?"
Toph snorted. "Uh, yeah. Remember the two thugs you hired to stuff me in a metal cage?"
Lao shifted uncomfortably. "Their employment was quickly terminated."
"That's because they were a couple of sissies who couldn't take down a twelve-year-old blind girl!" Toph threw her head back and laughed harshly. "Do all fathers pay kidnappers to track down their runaway kids, or just the ones of noble blood?"
"That's enough!" The sharpness of her father's words startled Toph. She'd never heard him so angry. "In this house there are strict rules of propriety that even guests will abide by."
Toph didn't know what to say.
Goyan saved her the trouble, appearing in the doorway to announce that dinner was served.
Lao rose. "Our guest will not be joining us," he said coldly. "Please show her to the door."
"Don't bother," Toph growled. She summoned her pack with a kick of earthbending and pushed past the servant, hurrying into the hall before her parents could see her tears.
Toph didn't allow herself to cry. She'd hoped that her parents would be glad to see her, but she'd always known that the chances were slim. She had been stupid to think that they would just welcome her back with a smile. She had thought that her letters over the years might have begun to smooth things over but they probably weren't even read.
There was only one place in Gaoling where she ever felt happy and she knew they would accept her there for who she was. So Toph made her way to the underground Earth Rumble auditorium.
What she found was a dilapidated cave. She was probably the first spectator in years. All the suppressed emotions welled in her chest. She dropped her pack to the ground, slumped onto one of the abandoned tier seats and let her tears fall.
Tomorrow she would leave. There was nothing left for her in Gaoling. Her parents had pushed her away and now even the Earth Rumble had deserted her. What a crummy day. Maybe she'd wander the smaller villages down on the coast for awhile; she might stumble on an earthbending prodigy worthy of her tutorage. Or maybe she'd visit Sokka and Suki on Kyoshi Island. It had been a long time since she'd seen any of the gang. Who knew? Tomorrow would plan itself. But first, she would spend the night in this old battered cave and cry herself dry.
"The Boulder clearly hears the sounds of a poor maiden in distress! Perhaps his skillfully toned biceps can be of some comfort and support?"
Toph couldn't help grinning despite her tears. So she wasn't the only spectator after all. "I don't think so." She punched a fist out, catching the Boulder by surprise as a column of rock shot into his gut.
Toph stood and clambered onto the stage where the Boulder gasped for breath. She laughed. "It's been a long time since I've heard your weak lines and they've only gotten worse!"
The Boulder frowned, flexing his chest muscles. "The Boulder does not recall having before suffered this specific avalanche of feminine wiles."
A moment later the Boulder's memory was jogged by a quick but painful flight off the stage and into the stone seats.
"Ah. The Boulder did not recognize The Blind Bandit with her new..." he searched for the right word "...curves."
It was the wrong word.
"What happened to this place?" Toph asked, once she'd finally beat an appropriate amount of sense into the Boulder's thick skull.
The Boulder rubbed several knots on his head and chose his words with deliberate care. "When Xin Fu disappeared there was no one left to run the Earth Rumbles. The Boulder attempted to make due but his strength is in his arms, not his ability to generate a crowd."
Toph snorted. And to think, it was all her fault the underground fights stopped. If she hadn't crammed Xin Fu into a metal cage and threatened him with bodily harm never to set foot in Gaoling again...An idea struck her. It was probably a horrible idea. But then why was she smiling so broadly? Her parents would be furious. And if Katara ever found out she would never let it go. It was definitely a bad idea.
She loved it.
"What if I ran the Earth Rumble tournaments?"
"You?" The Boulder's doubt was clear.
Toph resisted the urge to knock him out of the ring again. "Think about it. 'The Return of the Blind Bandit.' That ought to generate some interest! But we'd have to make it look like we're keeping it hush-hush," she enthused, warming up to the idea. "Invitation only, you know, for people who know people. Then everyone would want to get in."
"Hmm." The Boulder mused. "The legend of the Blind Bandit is well known among fighting rings. And of course the Boulder has his own fans..." He stroked his chin in consideration. "It may work."
Toph grinned. "Of course it will! How many fighters do you think you could pull together?"
"The Boulder has occasional brawls with most of his old rivals." He stood quickly. "The Boulder will set out to find them now!" He turned, but paused to look back at her. "And may the Boulder say he is looking forward to crushing the Blind Bandit in the competition."
Toph laughed. "You wish."
Four weeks passed and the underground world was buzzing with the rumor of the renewed Earth Rumble. The Boulder had managed to gather several new fighters and most of the old ones. Some of them were coming back; some were passing the legacy on to their kids. Most of them were so thrilled with the return of the tournaments they were willing to do this first year pro bono. Things were looking up.
Toph did not hear from the Bei Fongs. They doubtless knew she was still around, even that she was starting the fights back up. But they didn't reach out and she certainly wasn't going to play the fool again.
Toph kept herself busy mostly out of spite, hoping her parents would see she was happier with a bunch of shady characters and underground macho men than she'd ever been with them. After what they'd put her through, it was the least they deserved.
Thoughts of that night still left a bitter taste in her mouth. Her parents could have made an effort. They could've at least said 'we missed you' or even admitted that she had hurt them. They could have treated her like a real person.
Toph was in desperate need of some alone time –even she needed a break from a group of muscley guys. For the first time since arriving, she set out on a walk through town. It surprised her how little Gaoling had changed in the ten years she'd been gone. There were still the same pompous estates, humble shops, and those pesky dirty corners everyone pretended not to see.
And speaking of pompous, wasn't that Master Yu's Bending School? Toph laughed sharply. Pretentious, untalented, spineless...She paused. She ran her foot across the threshold to be certain. The school was abandoned. Well, it would be, wouldn't? Master Yu didn't come back to Gaoling either. No one left to run the place.
Toph expected to feel happy. After all, this was probably her second least favorite place in the world. But she only felt hallow.
"Miss Bei Fong?" Goyan didn't sneak up on her, but his presence surprised her.
Toph snorted in disgust. "Did my parents send you after an apology? Well, they're not getting one."
"No." Goyan wasn't at all nervous. Surprising. "I heard you're starting the tournaments up again."
Toph gnashed her teeth in a grin. "That's right. It's going to be the best Earth Rumble there's ever been."
"I'm glad that you're happy," Goyan said quietly. He studied her carefully. "You are happy, aren't you?"
Toph fell silent. Happy? Of course she was happy! How could she not be?
"Miss Bei Fong?"
"Stop that," Toph snapped. "It's pretty clear I'm not a Bei Fong to them anymore."
Goyan sighed. "That's not how they feel."
Toph frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"Your letters, Miss –" He stopped himself at a threatening gesture from Toph. "They do read them."
"They keep them in a special box," Goyan said softly, "Wrapped up tight. They're always very careful with them. As though a single wrong move might mar them forever."
A painful lump formed in Toph's throat. "Why didn't they–" She didn't finish. She knew why. Her eyes welled with tears, but she didn't care.
They'd read her letters. They'd kept them. They'd treasured them.
They loved her.
For a moment her world tipped upside down. But finally she shook her head. "Doesn't really make a difference, does it?" she said bitterly.
If her parents had told her themselves, that would have made a difference. But they couldn't bring themselves to do it. Why? Because they were still angry? Embarrassed? Or maybe it was simply their pride. She only knew that they didn't have the courage. It had taken the guts of a servant rising above his station, trying to put right a wrong of his master. It was downright pathetic when she thought about it.
Goyan sighed again. "Perhaps not," he said. "I just thought you should know."
He left her to shed her tears in peace. What the young Miss Bei Fong did with her parents' secret was up to her.
It was a long time before Toph wiped her eyes. The news wouldn't put things right, but it certainly changed the way she saw her parents.
The question was, now what did she do?
Toph found herself back on her parents' doorstep. But this time, she didn't hesitate. She pounded her fists against the door and hoped that everyone on the street could hear it. Four weeks home and she'd finally realized she was still running from her parents. Well, she was finished running and she wanted everyone to know it.
There was the clatter of racing footsteps down the hall and an instant later Goyan opened the door. He appeared perfectly calm and Toph might have been fooled if his heart wasn't racing.
Toph smiled sweetly. "Are the Bei Fongs in?"
Goyan had a sinking feeling in his gut. "I can check, if you'd be so good to wait..."
Toph snorted. "Right," she said sarcastically, stepping inside before he could close the door.
Goyan was nervous again. "I don't suppose you'll let me announce you?" he said doubtfully.
Toph grinned. "You're getting better," she said, starting down the hall.
Goyan scrambled after her, wringing his hands. "They won't be pleased," he muttered. "Won't be pleased at all."
"Where are they?"
"The study," Goyan said absently.
"Thanks." Toph changed direction.
"Miss Bei Fong..." Goyan hesitated. "About what I told you..."
"Don't worry," Toph said, waving her hand airily. "That's not why I'm here."
They paused before the study door.
Goyan blinked at her. "It...it's not?" He shook his head, confused. "Why are you here?"
Toph grinned. "I want some money."
Goyan paled as Toph stepped into the study. "What?"
Lao Bei Fong had a much more violent reaction when he heard. Toph calmly endured his heated tirade until he paused to catch his breath. He slumped back into his desk chair, panting slightly. Some of his veins were still pulsing.
"Think of it as a business proposition," Toph encouraged, taking the seat across from him without an invitation. "Aristocrats do that kind of stuff all the time, don't they?"
Several more veins visibly popped up on her father's neck. "I will not go into business with wrestlers!"
"Don't be ridiculous," Toph said with a laugh. "The Rumble's practically going to pay for itself."
Lao frowned. He was curious in spite of himself. But did he dare ask? "...then what do you need the money for?"
"I want to buy the bending school. You know, where you paid Master Yu to squelch my amazingly awesome talents."
There was a small gasp of surprise, but it came from Goyan who couldn't help lurking in the doorway. They both pretended not to notice. Lao himself was beyond words. His face slowly darkened from a bright red to a deep purple. His next words were slow and deliberate. "I only did that to protect you–"
"Yeah, yeah," Toph said dismissively, "Blind equals weak and helpless. I remember. The point is, I've already worked the guy down to three hundred gold pieces. The current owner wants it taken off his hands."
"Certainly your Earth Rumble will provide you the money given time," Lao said with a touch of disdain.
"Somebody else is looking to buy, so I need it now."
Okay, so that was a lie. But it was a lie Toph was willing to tell. One thing her parents seemed to completely understand was the concept of being 'needed'. The reality was that Toph didn't 'need' them anymore. She'd lived on her own for almost ten years and it was a feeling of blissful liberty she wasn't ready to give up. But she could choke back her pride and pretend for awhile that she 'needed' them, because the truth was much better. Toph wanted them. She hoped in time they would understand that.
"So," Toph went on before her father could collect his thoughts, "I figure the three hundred to buy the place, plus an extra two to get me started and I'll cut you in on the profits. And don't worry," Toph smiled, "I'll be sure to keep all the 'wrestlers' in the underground part of my life."
Lao was once again beyond words. Where did he even begin? "This..." he faltered. "This is ridiculous! You can't run a business! You don't the first thing about money management or the paperwork involved. You're not cut out for it."
Toph did not like being told what she could or could not do, but this time she let it slide. This time, she would work it to her advantage.
She allowed herself to look disillusioned. "Maybe you're right," she said with a sigh. She paused for a moment. "Okay, fine; I give in. Since you make such a sound argument and you obviously have your heart set on it, I'll take you on as a business partner."
A suspiciously laughter-like noise escaped Goyan before he could restrain it.
"Wait, what?" Lao's head was suddenly spinning. Business partner? When did he mention that?
"Don't worry," Toph said soothingly, "I won't make you beg. I'll concentrate on teaching and you can handle the business side. We'll split the profits fifty-fifty and you'll be there to ensure we remain a perfectly 'reputable' establishment. But there is a condition: You have to at least watch me compete in the Earth Rumble. To help you gauge exactly what kind of direction we want to take the school. And that's non-negotiable. So it's settled? Great! We've got an appointment tomorrow to close the deal on the school so you'll have plenty of time to scrounge up all the forms you'll want me to sign. Well, I've got to say it's a pleasure doing business with you!"
Toph left her father in a stunned silence, wondering just when he lost control of the conversation.
A moment later, a thoroughly confused Poppy Bei Fong was ushered in by Goyan to 'reassure' her husband. "Who was that? What's going on?"
"I...have no idea..." It was some time before Lao fully realized what exactly had taken place. But by then –and by Toph's design– it was too late for her father to back out.
Three Weeks Ago...
"You lunkheads just signed up for a year's worth of training, so you better straighten out those so-called spines and get a move on!"
Haru watched in some disbelief as the ten defeated opponents rushed to obey. No one wanted to get on Toph Bei Fong's bad side. He couldn't help applauding.
Toph easily picked him out of the impressive audience crowded outside the Toph Bei Fong Academy. She twitched her foot, jabbed up with her fist and a mound of earth rolled under Haru's feet, knocking him down. She cackled manically. "Looks like we have loser number eleven. Any other takers?"
From where he lay, Haru moaned softly. He rubbed at his sore shoulder, feeling idiotic. He should tread carefully around this girl. She was tough, direct, and an unmerciful opponent.
There was no answer to Toph's challenge. She clapped her hands, a commanding 'I'm-in-charge-so-listen-up' kind of clap. "Okay, people!" she shouted at the crowd. "Show's over! Break it up, unless you want me to pick another challenger at random!"
The gathered onlookers quickly dispersed. They knew from past experience this was no idle threat.
Toph turned her back on Haru without another word and headed inside. Haru waited for a moment, uncertain, but it soon became clear she wasn't coming back. He hurried after her, wondering just what she was trying to pull.
Toph was lurking just inside the door and an undignified yelp escaped Haru. He flushed. "Sorry, I–"
But Toph wasn't listening. "I thought you were going to stay out there all day."
Haru frowned. What was wrong with this girl? "There is such a thing as being invited in–"
"Invited?" Toph cocked her head. "Sounds suspiciously like manners. Besides, if this plan is going to work we have to be careful no one actually sees you with me." She started down a hallway.
Haru scrambled after her, brain racing. Plan? What plan? And was someone watching him? "Just what are you up to?" he demanded.
But Toph would only smile.
'The Life and Times...' I always loved the sound of that. ;)
This was one of the funnest chapters to write. One of the unanswered questions left over from the original series that really bugged me was whether, and how, Toph ever reconciled with her parents. So I had a whole great story figured out...and nowhere to put it.
I tried several times to work enough of the backstory into idle conversation between Haru and Toph but it didn't work. And then inspiration struck. If I wanted to tell the story so badly, why didn't I just tell it? Mua ha ha.
I especially love the interaction between Toph and The Boulder. XD
For the collective works of the author, go here.