The two figures moved among the shadows of the night, seen by none but the moon and the stars.
The taller one led, silently picking his way through the trees, looking for the best place to see, yet not be seen. The shorter one followed, barefoot, waiting for his signal.
The leader put his back against a tree and gave a soft whistle to the other. She crouched low, almost crawling to meet him. He looked over his shoulder into the clearing beyond. There was a small group of men there, quietly mulling around a cluster of tents. They all seemed to be settling down for the night.
How many? he whispered to her.
She tapped her foot on the ground twice. Thirteen.
He nodded. Hardly seems fair, does it?
When is it ever fair? she asked, grinning. So whats the plan, plan guy?
He was silent for a moment. Zukos troops should be here in about twenty minutes.
She cracked her knuckles. Okay, then what are we supposed to do for the other fifteen minutes?
He laughed softly. Maybe we should just give them a chance to surrender?
And when was the last time that worked?
Youve got a point. He stroked his chin and thought for a moment. "We'll go in with the 'Flying Hog-Monkey' maneuver, then take 'em out with a few 'kick-a-pows.' And maybe, if we're lucky, the 'Blade of Wing Fun' can make an appearance!" He was getting excited. "Just remember that there are only two of us tonight, so watch yourself."
You know, I came up with better attack names than those when I was twelve."
Cant you just be quiet and do it, woman? Before she could respond, he held up his hands. "Didn't mean that!"
Toph sighed. Fine. She took up a bending stance. Usual bet?
Sokka unsheathed his sword without a sound. Naturally.
Toph slammed her foot into the ground. The tremor it caused radiated out from them, shaking the group in the clearing out of their conversations and near-sleep. Suddenly, the peace of the night was shattered as the men grabbed their weapons and took up bending stances of their own. Sokka broke out of the trees, sword in hand, ready to disarm anyone that got in his way.
The fight was over almost before it had started.
The dark of the night and his own clothes camouflaged Sokka enough that he was already on top of the nearest man before anyone had the chance to see him. He lifted his sword and brought the hilt down on the mans head. He fell unconscious instantly. All of a sudden there were three men facing him, each brandishing swords of their own. Sokka sized them each up in an instant. He first attacked the one on the right with one swing of his sword aimed at his knees. The stranger was knocked off balance and fell on his side. As he tried to get up, dirt sprang up from under his wrists and ankles, effectively pinning him to the ground.
I can handle this, Sokka shouted.
Just trying to help, Toph shouted back as she quickly dispatched a firebender with a few quick earthbending moves.
Fine, but he still counts as mine!
Whatever you say, Boomerang.
Sokka turned his attention back to the other two. The man directly in front of him brought his sword over his head to attack. Sokka didnt even bother using his weapon he just punched him in the mouth with his free hand and watched as the man wavered for a moment before falling face-first to the ground. Sokka quickly made sure he was no longer a threat and before facing his remaining attacker. He was taller than the others, and was obviously the only one that had actually been trained to use a sword he swung it around with a precision that would have impressed anyone else.
Sokka just rolled his eyes.
He placed his sword in the path of the big mans, bracing for the vibration of metal on metal. The swords danced in the moonlight, Sokka easily countering each of the mans attacks. Sokka just watched his movements, waiting for an opening. Then, as he swung his sword from right to left in a wide arc, Sokka saw the weakness. He waited for the man to repeat his movement, and then ducked to let the blade swing harmlessly above his head. He stuck his own sword into the ground and, using it a pivot point, swung his legs toward his enemys, making him crash to the ground.
Using his index and middle fingers, he gave three quick jabs to the mans legs and thighs. He wouldnt he walking for a few hours, at least. Thank you Suki, he thought, and went to see if Toph needed help.
He neednt have bothered. By the time he got to her side, there were no firebenders in the area that were still standing.
Only four, he said, shoulders slumped.
Ha! She laughed. I got eight!
He did a quick calculation. You said there were thirteen.
Toph tapped her foot to the ground again then pointed to her left. Hes sneaking off. That way.
Sokka didnt need an invitation. He ran in the direction she had pointed, Toph on his heels. Just behind the tree line was an older man, crawling on his hands and knees, trying to get away from the fighting. With a flick of her wrists, Toph made a column of earth spring up from under him. He was thrown a few feet in the air and landed on his back. She raised her hands, and he was pinned to the ground by his wrists and legs.
Sokka pointed his sword at the mans neck. Name, he said simply.
Sh-Shun, he stammered.
And just what do you think youre doing?
N-Nothing! I swear! We
we were just camping
He was starting to sweat. Just a little fishing trip!
Sokka looked at Toph. He knew this was the part she loved. Youre lying, she said, almost singing it. She made the restraints on his wrists tighter, and he howled in pain.
Im not going to ask this time. Sokka raised his sword slightly. I know what you are. You are a group of rebels, trying to undermine Fire Lord Zukos rule. You planned on sneaking into the palace to assassinate the Fire Lord. You are enemies of the Fire Nation, enemies of peace, and therefore
he paused for effect, enemies of mine!
He brought his sword up dramatically and made to plunge it into Shuns chest. About halfway through his swing, Shun fainted.
Sokka stopped his sword, looked at Toph, and immediately began laughing. Toph smiled wide and joined in. You know, Snoozles, we have got to stop doing this! She removed the restraints around Shun.
Sokka sheathed his sword, picked up the rebel, and slung him over his shoulder. Why? he asked as they walked back to the clearing. Were doing a good thing! They reached the rebels tents and he unceremoniously dropped the old man next to the campfire. Were helping to get rid of bad guys. That makes us the good guys!
Not this, she said. Getting rid of these guys is great. She gave Shun a little kick. We have to stop scaring them all. Its no fun if they always faint!
Fine, next time, we do it your way, okay?
She smiled and nodded. Promise?
You got it. He looked around at the campsite and then sat on the ground. I guess all we can do now is wait.
Toph sat next to him. Yep. My favourite part of this job.
Right on time, a group of twenty Fire Nation soldiers walked into the clearing. Sokka and Toph stood up to meet them.
Thirteen of them, Major, Sokka reported. Hope you brought something to carry them all in.
The major snorted. Ive worked with you before, he replied, then smiled. I brought two carts this time.
I take it the Fire Lord wants to see us? Toph asked.
The major nodded, then spoke as an afterthought. Yes. Hes waiting for you at the palace. We can take it from here.
Sokka pointed at Shun. That guys name is Shun. He's the one in charge.
Understood, the major said, and proceeded to go about rounding up the rebel group.
Sokka turned to Toph. I guess weve been dismissed, he said.
Lets just go see Sparky. They walked off together toward the capital city.
By the way, Toph, he said, happy birthday.
Zuko was pacing the floor of his private study. Sokka knew from experience that that was never a good sign.
You know, he said, you could wait for the troops to arrive before you go and do everything yourselves.
And wheres the fun in that? Toph questioned.
The fun is that you wouldnt be risking your lives needlessly!
What risk? Neither of us got so much as sweaty!
Zuko sighed. It was a familiar fight, and one that he knew he would never win. Okay, back to this Shun character. You know for a fact that he was involved in an assassination plot?
Sokka held his head in his hands. Yeah, Zuko. I know.
And, let me guess. You cant tell me how you know.
He looked at Toph, who just shrugged. He shook his head. No, I cant tell you. Just have Shun questioned, youll get the information you want.
Zuko pulled the clip from his hair and threw it on the table. He sat in his chair, pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. Well, he said, you havent been wrong before. I guess Ill just trust you. He glared at Sokka. Again.
Are we finished? Toph jumped out of the low chair she had been lounging in. Because, if we are, there is supposed to be this great party in town in honour of a certain blind earthbenders birthday!
Sokka smiled and stood. Sounds good to me. Coming, Zuko?
He shook his head. I cant.
Sure you can, Sparky! Aang and Katara are going to be there, she teased. Toph walked over to Zuko and pulled on his arm. Just for a little while. He didnt answer. For me?
Please? Sokka and Toph said together.
Zuko looked at them and suppressed a laugh. Fine, but only for an hour.
Sokka and Toph simultaneously raised their arms in triumph.
Sokka, Toph, Zuko and Mai were standing outside the Dragons Den Tavern. They could see people milling about inside, could hear the conversations, and Sokka could almost taste the meat being prepared. The only thing between them and a fantastic party was a rather large man at the door, staring at them.
What? Sokka yelled. Dont you know who we are?
Yes sir, Captain Sokka, I know who you are. He made a point of looking directly down at Sokka, as if the emphasize the large height difference. And I remember the last time you were in here. So, I say it again: no weapons!
he pointed at Zuko. This is your Fire Lord! You cant tell him what to do!
The doorman looked to Zuko and Mai and gave a slight bow. I do realize that this is Lord Zuko and Lady Mai, but I simply cannot allow weapons into this establishment when you are also present.
I understand, Mai said, and came forward to remove her knives. She took two rolls of knives from her sleeves, one from each ankle, three from inside her belt, and one long, gruesome knife from behind her back. She dropped them all on the ground in front of him. I take it these will be fine here until we leave? she asked, and then entered the tavern without waiting for an answer.
Zuko held out his hands in apology. I am afraid Im unarmed this evening, he said, and followed his wife inside.
The doorman placed his hands on his hips, waiting for Sokka. Um, Im unarmed too? Bluffing wasnt Sokkas best skill.
If you are unarmed, then Im a baby mooselion.
Fine, Sokka conceded, you win. He took the sword and boomerang off his back and put them in the pile of Mais knives. He drew two knives out of his boots, his club and machete from his belt and a small knife from inside his gauntlet. Happy?
No. The doorman continued at glare at him. All your weapons.
Sokka sighed and turned to Toph. She raised her arms, and Sokka pulled two more knives from the sides of her belt. He threw them on the ever expanding weapon pile. Thats all, I swear it, Sokka said.
The doorman eyed both of them and pointed to Tophs space-earth bracelet. I seem to remember that bracelet being a lot sharper.
Quicker than Sokka could see, Toph grabbed the front of the doormans tunic and pulled his head down so it was level with hers. If she could see, she would be staring into his eyes. If you try to remove this bracelet from my arm, she said in a voice so low it was almost inaudible, I will remove your arm from your body. She released his tunic and smiled, deceptively sweet and innocent. Besides, its my birthday! A girls allowed a bit of jewelry, isnt she?
To his credit, he recovered quickly. Happy birthday, Lady Toph. Enjoy your evening. He stepped aside and let them pass.
Nicely done, Sokka said, and put his arm around her shoulders.
Inside, the party was in full swing. There were twenty or so people there, mostly residents of the palace that Toph and Sokka were around on a daily basis. Of everyone there, however, there were two people they wanted to see more than anyone.
Sokka was attacked by his sister, while Toph was nearly lifted off the ground by her student. Put me down Twinkle Toes! Toph yelled while laughing. Aang obeyed. Well, youre not so scrawny anymore, are you?
Sokka was sure he saw his friend blush. Guess not, Aang agreed. Toph was right. In the three months since hed last seen Aang, he must have grown another four inches.
Sokka grasped his friends hand and was slightly disappointed to see he had to look up to Aang now. Seriously, Aang, he said, stop growing. Aang smiled and embraced Sokka.
Katara hugged Toph. Hi Toph! I missed you!
Toph smiled and hugged her back. Missed you too, Sweetness.
The four of them walked to a table close to the back wall, where Mai and Zuko had been waiting for them. They sat and ordered dinner and drinks from the server.
I hope you brought a lot of money, Snoozles, Toph said. I plan on eating my weight in pig cow.
Good thing you dont weigh much, then, he snapped back.
Okay then, I'm going to eat your weight in pig cow. Satisfied?
He held his face in his hands. Did you make another bet with her? Katara whispered. He nodded. You really ought to know better by now. Sokka could only agree.
Dinner arrived, and they played catch-up with all the things theyd missed in the three months since Mai and Zukos wedding.
Toph was offered a great new job! Sokka was almost bragging.
Yeah, but its not like Im taking it!
What job? Aang asked.
Sokka put his arm around Toph. The Earth King himself asked Toph to be on the Council of Five!
Toph pushed him off and punched his arm. And I said Im not taking it. I hate Ba Sing Se.
But you would be General Toph Bei Fong! You deserve it!
Toph shrugged. I dont need some rank and title to know Im good.
Still, Zuko said. It is an honour.
She dismissed him with a flip of her hand. Yeah, yeah, great honour. Im not going to take some cushy job in the Earth Kingdom, and thats final. Ill get soft.
This brought a laugh from the table. She turned to face Sokka. Besides, someone has to keep an eye on you and Suki. Its not like you can save your own butts.
Speaking of, where is Suki? Katara asked. I thought for sure shed be here.
Back on Kyoshi, Sokka answered. They got some new recruits, so she has to be there for a while to begin their training. She doesnt trust anyone else in those first few crucial weeks, or so she says. Personally, I think she just wanted a vacation.
Toph turned to Aang and Katara. How about you two? Behaving yourselves?
They better be, Sokka said under his breath.
Knock it off, Sokka.
Zuko knew when it was time to change the subject. How are trade talks going?
Aang turned to Zuko. Not bad, he said. Naturally, there are more than a few provinces that would rather not have anything to do with the Fire Nation, but there is a genuine desire for trade that would be mutually beneficial, as one mayor put it.
Zuko nodded. How far inland have you gotten? Can our ships-
Sorry to interrupt, Mai said, but can we please not talk politics tonight? Its bad enough that I have to listen to it all day. She and Zuko looked at each other, and then both smiled as she leaned into his outstretched arm.
Yeah, Toph agreed. Lets talk about the presents you got me!
Mine first, Katara said, and she placed a box on Tophs lap.
Toph opened it and felt inside. Um, thanks Katara, but
Not just any shoes, she said. A stylish shoe for the blind earthbender. Toph pulled them out, and it was obvious that they were missing soles. I saw them and thought of you, since they are the same colour as your eyes.
Toph laughed. Ill take your word for that.
And I knew there would be some kind of function that you would need them for. State dinner, dance, birthday party
Okay, Sugar Queen. I can take a hint. Toph bent down and put the shoes on and smiled. Thanks Katara. I really do like them.
Me next, said Aang. She opened the next box and pulled out the item. Theyre wind chimes! Aang explained. I made them myself out of bamboo. She held them up and listened to the center hammer strike the bamboo.
Thanks, Aang, she said.
An hour later, right on time, Mai and Zuko made their way arm-in-arm back to the palace. Shortly after that, Aang and Katara left as well.
Toph turned to Sokka and jabbed him in the chest. Babysitters are gone, she said. She smiled the smile that told Sokka, Lets have some fun.
One more, Sokka said to her.
A grin crept across Tophs face. You really are a glutton for punishment tonight, arent you?
Oh, come on! Just one?
Why should I?
Because if you dont, he teased, Ill just say you forfeit. Then you lose anyway.
She snapped up her head to face him. Fine. She put her elbow on the table and held out her hand to him. Just dont cry when you lose this time.
He took her hand. You are so going down!
She smiled. Not likely.
And no bending!
She blew a piece of hair out of her face. I dont need to bend to beat you!
He began pushing against her with all his strength, focusing on their interlocked hands. After a moment, he managed to move her arm a few inches toward the table. He looked at her, expecting to see her struggling.
Instead, she was almost laughing. He knew what that meant. He held her hand harder, vowing that if he was going down, she was going down with him.
As if on cue, Toph put all of her strength into pushing Sokkas arm to the table. At the last moment, he moved his elbow to the edge, and let her push down toward the floor. With nothing to stop his momentum, his whole body went crashing to the floor. He held onto her hand and pulled her after him.
She didnt expect it. She tried stopping herself, but only succeeded in breaking the chair against the table. She landed on her side next to Sokka, still holding his hand.
Gotcha! Sokka laughed.
She glared at him, then broke into laughter as well. The two of them lay there, sprawled on the floor, laughing uncontrollably. They stayed that way until the doorman stood over them.
Sokka stopped laughing to catch his breath. What? he said.
You heard me. Thats the third chair youve broken tonight. Youve had your fun, but now it is time to leave!
Sokka finally let go of Toph and tried to stand up. His legs were weak beneath him, but he did manage to stand somewhat straight. Now you listen to me, he said, waving his finger in the doormans face. This is Toph Bei Fong you are speaking about! She is a war hero! She is the best earthbender in the world, and you
He faltered and looked down at Toph. What cant he do, he asked her.
Toph had managed to get to her knees. He cant kick me out on my birthday?
Thats right! He faced the doorman again. You cant kick her out on her birthday!
By my calculations, Miss Tophs birthday ended an hour ago, and we are rapidly running out of furniture. Now, you can either leave quietly, or I can escort you out personally. He folded his arms across his chest, waiting for an answer.
Toph grabbed Sokkas arm and pulled herself to her feet. You know, I think we should leave, she said.
He looked at her with his mouth open. You
She grabbed Sokkas shirt and brought his ear to her mouth. Secret stash, she whispered.
Oh, yeah, he whispered back, and grinned. He stood back up. We will be leaving now, and dont expect us to come back! he announced, and led Toph by the hand to the door.
Wait! she said. I need my presents!
The Lord Zuko and Lady Mai already arranged to have them sent back to your apartments in the palace, as well as your weapons. He was herding them out.
Well, thats convenient, Sokka said. The doorman followed as he half-pulled Toph through the door. Once outside, the doorman stood at the threshold, almost daring them both to try and return.
Watch this, Toph whispered to Sokka. She raised both of her arms slightly, and he looked back in time to see the doorman be pushed fifteen feet in the air by a column of earth. The man didnt stop yelping until he had fallen quite ungracefully back to the ground.
Sokka didnt wait for the tirade of curses to start. He grabbed Tophs hand and started running toward the palace. He almost tripped twice and was laughing so hard that he could barely see. Once they got to the palace courtyard, he stopped running and pulled Toph into a hug. Wow, he said between laughs. Now that was fun.
Toph stopped laughing and tried to catch her breath. She took a step back and turned to him. What did his face look like? she asked.
It was classic! he answered. Pure terror! He started laughing all over again. Man, I am so glad Sukis not here.
Sokka put his arm around her shoulder and they started staggering toward the palace. You know she hates when we do this! Toph wound her arm around his waist as they both helped each other walk. So, Sokka said, how was your birthday?
Almost perfect, she answered.
What? Sokka stopped walking. He stood in front of her and held her shoulders. What do you mean almost?
She shrugged. Almost.
Nope, no good. My Toph cannot have an almost perfect sixteenth birthday. He thought for a moment. You got some great stuff, we broke some furniture, got kicked out of the tavern. What else?
She smirked slyly. I got this, too. She reached behind her back and pulled a small knife out of her belt.
Where did you get that?
Its one of Mais.
Sokka stared. No way! You managed to get that off of her? Toph nodded. And she didnt know? She shook her head. Wait. I thought she gave them all up at the door.
Did you give all yours up?
Well neither did she. She always has at least four on her, even when you dont think shes got any.
Sokka narrowed his eyes and looked at her. Okay then, how do you know about them?
As an answer, she just tapped her foot on the ground.
He broke into his own sly grin. Oh, yeah. He chuckled. You are amazing, you know that?
Yes, I do, but thank you very much for noticing. She put the knife back in her belt.
So what would make this day perfect for you?
Well, she said softly, you didnt give me your present.
Sokka opened his mouth, then hung his head. I know. The truth is, I didnt get you one yet. He looked at her. Its not my fault, though! I just wanted to get you something as amazing as you, and I couldnt find anything!
Its okay Snoozles.
No, it isnt. He raised his head and rested his elbows on her shoulders. Anything you want anything at all just name it and its yours.
He nodded. Anything. He bent his head closer to hers.
Okay then, I want
she whispered in his ear, then trailed off. He waited, but she didnt say anything else.
Instead, Sokka felt something warm and moist on his lips. It took a few seconds to realize what was going on. He let out a small gasp of surprise and broke away from her. He quickly backed up a few steps, tripping over his own feet and landing quite ungracefully on the hard stone. He looked up at Toph, whose eyes were open wide and hand was covering her mouth. She looked horrified. What was that? he asked. Did you just
She backed up a few steps. I have to go, she said, and turned and ran out of the courtyard.
Toph! Wait! He stood up and ran after her.
He almost lost her twice, but managed to hear her running each time. Finally, on the main street, Sokka knew he was going catch up to her. Please, Toph, he yelled at her. Stop! When he thought he was close enough to grab her arm, he made a sudden lunge and grabbed the fabric of her tunic.
Sokka could only watch as she sunk into the ground. He let go at the last possible moment, slamming his shoulder into the solid earth. She was gone.
He sat there in the middle of the street, alone, confused, drunk, and hoping that Toph would pop back up and explain to him what was going on.
She'd kissed him, and he'd never seen it coming.
He strained his hearing, listening for any sign of earthbending.
"Come back, Toph."
Only silence answered him.