"What do you mean, The Boulder's not going to be in Earth Rumble Five?"
Zuko blinked, glancing over his shoulder. In spite of its status as an underground event, it wasn't that unusual to overhear people talking about the Earth Rumble, especially not young kids, if the squeaky voices were any indication. But The Boulder not being in the next Rumble? He hadn't heard anything about that.
Toph would no doubt be very, very interested.
Turning back to the spice merchant, he held up a finger. "Give me just a second."
The merchant just flashed him a smile, almost invisible underneath his massive beard. "Anything for my favorite customer."
Zuko quirked a faint grin, before scanning the marketplace crowd for whoever it was that was gossiping about the next Earth Rumble so openly. They weren't that hard to find, actually- he took one look at the stupid hairstyle one of the kids was sporting, and knew right away that the only reason someone would wear their hair like that was if they were a big fan of The Hippo.
They were also, he noted, taking in the uniforms, students of Master Yu.
Weaving through the crowd, he made a beeline for them, stopping in front of the pair. They jumped at his sudden appearance, then flinched at the sight of his scar. He brushed it off, folding his arms in front of him. He already knew it was ugly- he'd long since passed the second year anniversary of getting the damn thing, so he'd had plenty of time to become infinitely familiar with his changed face. He'd also learned to stop taking every flinch so personally.
Having people who didn't even bat an eye at it definitely helped.
"What's this about The Boulder not being in the next Earth Rumble?"
One of the boys, probably the one with more guts, but absolutely more stupidity, squinted suspiciously up at him. "Why should we tell you?"
Zuko frowned. He didn't see any point in them withholding the information from him. The Earth Rumbles were pretty much an open secret. They even let kids in, for Agni's sake.
But if they were going to do it the hard way...
...well, two could play at that game.
And he could play at it much, much better.
Zuko bared his teeth, using every precious inch he'd gained during his most recent growth spurt to loom over the boys. His scar made him look intimidating by default, but in the last year and a half he'd gotten glaring down to almost an art form. There was never any shortage of noble boys that Toph's father brought to the manor to meet her, so he'd gotten plenty of practice staring them down.
"Because," he told them, grateful that his voice had finally stopped cracking two weeks ago, "-I can't guarantee what will happen if you don't."
The boys swallowed.
"The Boulder's what?"
"Taking time off to take care of his sick mother. At least that's the word on the street." Zuko said, avoiding the wayward rock Toph hurtled in his direction, too close to his head for comfort.
"Huh." Toph said, recovering her lost focus. "Wouldn't have pictured him for a mama's boy."
Zuko's lips quirked in a grin. "Really? He seems the type to me."
"Well, you know what they say," Toph beamed, and in that moment, he knew he'd somehow made a mistake, "-takes one to know one."
He could only wince. "...I walked right into that one, didn't I?"
Toph just chucked another rock at him in reply. He knew he should never have told her about his mother. He'd definitely skimped on more than a few details, but he'd told her enough that she got the impression of how close they had been, at least. She'd teased him about it ever since.
Then again, given Toph's relationship with her own mother... he couldn't exactly begrudge her any teasing. At least he'd had a mother who had loved and supported him unconditionally- and not just some version of him that only existed in her head. He was sure she'd be proud of him even now, even if he had kind of broken his last promise to her.
(But then, it wasn't exactly like he'd forgotten who he was. It was just... that person was changing. He just wasn't fully sure into what.)
Evading the rock, Zuko inhaled, before punching out a pitiful excuse for a fireball. The flames were barely even hot- which he guessed for purposes of training was fine. He wasn't trying to hurt Toph, after all. Not that it mattered much anyways, given how swiftly she blocked it with a wall of earth.
"Not bad, Scruffy," she said, "-that one looked pretty good."
The edge of his lip twitched upwards. "You know I never fall for that, right?"
She was right, though. Compared to when he hadn't been able to throw fire at all, even that measly excuse for a fireball was a vast improvement. And if he had to be honest... yeah, it had been pretty measly. If he'd made a fireball like that around one of his old firebending teachers, he would be doing drills well into the evening to make up for it.
And if he made one like that around his father...
...well, there were things worse things in the world than endless drills.
But it was progress. He had to try and not let himself forget that. He wasn't afraid of his own fire anymore, not like he had been. Unfortunately, while his previous epiphany had helped him to not fear his flames, and allow him to create them again, they hadn't done much in replacing his drive. The anger and rage that had used to fuel his firebending just didn't sit right with him anymore- though looking back, he wasn't sure if it ever had. Until he found something that could substitute for it, his flames would probably stay weak.
He had gotten pretty good at manipulating heat. Just... kind of on its own and mostly for the sole purpose of keeping himself warm during the brutal Earth Kingdom winters. Xia-Su had told him that there were places in the Earth Kingdom even colder than this, and he shuddered to think what it was like to even live there.
Maybe he didn't miss a lot from the Fire Nation these days, but Agni, did he ever miss the climate.
"Worth a try." Toph shrugged. "You never know when I'll meet someone who will. Gotta stay sharp."
"Well, if you do," Zuko's gestured towards his left eye, "-count me in."
He'd kept hoping the vision in his left eye would improve with time, but it was still just as blurry as ever. His hearing, on the other hand, had improved somewhat- but not enough that it was anywhere near back to normal. He'd shifted gears from hoping to adapting, an effort which Toph helped out with by constantly attacking his left side.
"Joint effort, huh?" Toph was still beaming as she let her rock wall crumble, repurposing it into projectiles. "I like the sound of that."
Zuko ducked low, avoiding the rocks. The faint tremor of the earth was all the warning he got that something was about to happen, but it was enough- once the rocks were clear, he sprang to his feet, jumping backwards just in time to avoid the rocks jutting out from the ground where he had been mere seconds ago.
"Yeah?" He asked as he landed. "I thought you would."
"Sounds like you know me pretty well then, Scruffy." Toph observed. "So, did you find out anything else about the next Earth Rumble? I don't suppose your new friends gave you any details about how to sign up, did they?"
"They didn't say." Zuko shrugged. "Maybe you should just stick to the original plan."
"Show up and beat everyone up?" Toph asked.
"Show up and beat everyone up." Zuko repeated.
"Yeah," Toph's grin widened, "-I think I like that plan."
Looking at that smile, Zuko almost felt sorry for all the unsuspecting earthbenders who were about to get their asses handed to them by a ten year old girl. Then he thought about Fire Nation Man, and somehow, he didn't feel so bad about it anymore.
Actually, he was kind of starting to look forward to it.
"You know," Toph said, "-I'm starting to think you're just excited for the Rumble so I can beat someone else up for a change."
"It's a distinct possibility."
"What do you think my catchphrase should be?"
"Catchphrase?" Zuko asked, arching a brow as he looked down at Toph.
The little earthbender was navigating through the dark forest like only a blind girl with an earth sense could do. He'd had to resort to summoning a flame just to see- it was pitch black out, the moon covered entirely by clouds. It had been raining until just an hour ago, a sudden summer storm blowing over without any warning in the afternoon that had stuck around well past its welcome. Toph had been grumbling about it the entire time, annoyed about possibly losing her precious practice time to rain.
He almost wished it had kept raining until tomorrow. He hated mud and the forest floor was now ninety percent mud. Toph, on the other hand, was completely unbothered by it, and even seemed to enjoy the squelching sound her bare feet made as she marched through the mud. He felt a pang of sympathy for the maidservants who would doubtlessly be tasked with getting it out of her toenails come tomorrow morning.
"You know," Toph said, pausing to dig her toes a little into the mud, "-my catchphrase. Something to say whenever I wipe the floor with someone."
Zuko stared at her for a good few seconds, before slowly narrowing his eyes. "...you're just messing with me, aren't you?"
Toph beamed, an eerie sight in the flickering light of his tiny flame. He exhaled, making the flame in the palm of his hand grow larger, but that only seemed to make the effect worse, the flame illuminating the mischievous glint of her eyes.
Then again, with his scar, he probably looked a bit frightening in this light too.
Or, well. Any light, really.
(He wondered if Mai would think he looked ugly. Not that it would matter, since he was probably never going to see her again.)
"Of course I'm messing with you, Scruffy." Toph said. "I mean, a catchphrase? Can you imagine? I might as well start speaking in the third person like The Boulder."
Zuko grinned. "You think The Boulder talks like that out of the ring too?"
"Pssh, no way. He's obviously just putting on an act." Toph said. "Can you imagine what it would be like to go shopping with him if he did?"
"Can you?" Zuko asked, quirking a grin. "Because I seem to recall that you've never actually been shopping in your life, Lady Beifong."
"Hey, you only started going shopping yourself not all that long ago, mister ex-Fire Nation noble," Toph said, pointing accusingly at him without looking at him, "-so I'm not about to sit around and listen to you criticize my basic life skills."
"Point taken." Zuko said. "But I think you're wrong. I bet The Boulder absolutely talks like that, even out of the ring."
"Yeah?" Toph leered at him. "You wanna make that a real bet, Scruffy?"
Zuko leered right back. "You're on, Blind Bandit."
"Loser has to talk in third person for the week," Toph said, tilting her head and lifting her brows, "-unless, of course, you're scared of being wrong."
"I'm never scared." Zuko said.
"You sure about that?" Toph asked. "Because I seem to recall a certain someone's heart beating like crazy when I introduced him to my masters."
Zuko glared at her. "That's because you didn't warn me your masters were badgermoles!"
"Duh," Toph said, "-it wouldn't have been any fun otherwise."
Zuko frowned, narrowing his eyes. "You are a terrible person, Toph Beifong."
"Yeah, yeah," Toph grinned, "-you're my best friend too, Li."
The sound of his false name spoken so earnestly made him twitch, but only a little. The guilt stayed with him, but he'd gotten used to it. Deep down, some part of him knew that he could probably tell Toph the whole truth. It wasn't optimism- he just knew Toph well enough to know that when she said she didn't care, she meant it. Especially not now, not after they had spent so much time together, had discovered that while they might have entirely different elements and were from entirely different places, they still had so much in common. Toph understood him in a way no one really had before- and he knew she felt the same way. They had a bond, one forged of steel so strong, that not even the most powerful firebender could melt it.
But he still didn't want her to know. Like maybe if he never talked about it, he'd just... stop being a Fire Nation prince entirely. Like maybe he could just be Li.
Wouldn't that be great.
"Thanks," Zuko said, "-but get back to me on that when I'm not your only friend."
"...so how do we actually figure out who wins the bet?"
Toph paused mid-kata, narrowing her eyes. "Shit. I didn't think about that."
Actually, Toph's father wouldn't even need to find out about him being Fire Nation to find a reason to get rid of him. He'd just need to listen to his daughter swear.
Oh well. What's done was done.
"So do you think you'll need-"
"For the last time Li," Toph cut him off, "-I don't need a mask."
Zuko huffed. He still thought a mask was a good idea, no matter what Toph said.
"Hey." Toph's grin was nearly as wide as her face, the white of her teeth visible underneath the thin sliver of moonlight that shone through the gap in the trees. "Guess what?"
"What?" Zuko asked, even though he already knew.
Toph's grin somehow managed to grow. "Earth Rumble Five is tomorrow."
Zuko snorted, cracking a grin of his own. It was hard not to, when Toph's was so infectious. "You sound pretty excited."
Toph playfully punched his arm. "You think?"
"I definitely think so." Zuko said, rubbing his arm where Toph had punched him. He'd gotten used to her unique brand of affection, but that didn't mean her punches didn't have some real... well, punch to them. He wondered where the arm strength came from, seeing as she didn't have any visible muscles.
(He barely flinched anymore when she touched him. Toph would never hurt him. Not in any way it counted. He could trust that- and her.)
"I think you're right," Toph said, "-and I think you should be ready to get your ass kicked tonight. Don't think for one second I'm going to go easy on you just because I've got a big fight coming up."
"You?" Zuko asked. "Go easy on someone? I don't think you even know how."
Toph's cackle was all the response he got- but it was all the response he needed. Holding back was not, and had never been a part of Toph Beifong's dictionary.
He did, in fact, get his ass kicked.
Eh. He was kind of used to it at this point. Even getting his firebending back somewhat hadn't been able to turn the tables on Toph. Then again, something told him that even if he got his firebending back to what it once was and then some, it still wouldn't be enough to beat Toph.
He was okay with that. Sparring with Toph had become less about winning, and more about having fun. And if that meant getting his ass kicked every time they fought, well... maybe that wasn't so bad. He was sure his father would call him weak for losing to an earthbender that was younger than him, but he was pretty sure his father had never fought anyone like Toph.
His father had never fought anyone he might lose to. Maybe... maybe it was actually his father who was the weak one, not him.
(Wouldn't it be nice if he could actually believe that.)
The night of Earth Rumble Five was clear, not a cloud in the sky. The moon was little more than a thin sliver, but combined with the stars, it provided more than enough light to illuminate their path- or his path, since Toph didn't exactly need the light. The Earth Rumble arena was easy to find, as it had been last time, but there was an excitement, an anticipation in the air that hadn't been there when they'd come to watch Earth Rumble Four.
After all, they hadn't come to just watch this time.
Or well. He was. Toph wasn't. Toph was going to be kicking ass.
"You remember the plan?" Zuko asked as they closed in on the arena.
Toph grinned, punching her open palm. "I bust in there and beat everyone up."
"Good." Zuko nodded. "Glad we're on the same page."
Earth Rumble Five was open entry.
Zuko could only watch in amusement as a line of earthbenders formed outside of the arena- all hopefuls wishing to take part and have a chance at becoming champion in The Boulder's absence. For an underground tournament, it was surprisingly orderly- there was a sign up sheet and everything, though he was going to take a wild guess that most weren't signing with their actual names.
There was also an entry price- an entry price of five whole gold pieces. It made the part of him that had pinched every last copper he'd been given when he'd first been banished hurt. All he could think about was how much longer he would have lasted if he'd been given five gold pieces. He probably would have had to resort to theft a lot later.
Then again, given the results... he couldn't exactly complain.
"So," Zuko glanced down at Toph, "-change of plans?"
"Depends," Toph said, "-you got five gold pieces on you?"
"As if." Zuko huffed, the part of him that still clung to some misplaced sense of noble pride annoyed beyond measure at having to admit it. "I don't think I've even seen a gold piece since being kicked out of the Fire Nation."
"Well, I don't either, but," Toph shrugged, "-I think there's going to be a change of plans."
In the dim moonlight, Toph's grin looked downright menacing. More importantly, he knew that look.
"So what's the new plan?" He asked. "Wipe everyone else out so you're the only one left standing so they have to let you fight?"
Toph's grin only grew. "Wow, Scruffy. You really do know me well."
Zuko heaved a short sigh, casting a glance towards the line of entrants. They all looked big and burly, some with biceps that were bigger than Toph's head and others who would loom even over Yang. Pretty much what anyone would picture when they imagined the ideal earthbender, a total contrast to Toph's petite even for a ten year old stature.
And not a single one of them stood a chance.
"So what do you think?" Toph asked. "Sound like a solid plan?"
Zuko eventually shrugged, seeing no reason to protest. "Sounds solid to me."
"Great!" Toph pumped her fists, letting out a loud whoop. "Let's go kick some ass!"
Her proclamation was loud enough to garner more than a few stares- and a couple of chuckles once they locked onto the source of it. No doubt that they had taken one look at Toph, and decided that she was all bark and no bite. He probably could glare them into submission, but frankly, it wasn't worth the effort.
Not when Toph's actions would speak loudly enough.
Besides. Where was the fun if he gave them a warning? Sometimes you just had to learn things the hard way.
It had taken exactly fifteen seconds for Toph to knock every single would-be challenger out- and it had only taken that long was because she'd spent ten seconds of that time just getting to the center of the arena. Once she had, no one stood a chance against the wave of earth that her single stomp sent out in every direction.
When the dust settled, only Toph was left.
"I'm the Blind Bandit," she loudly declared, acting for all the world like she'd already won the entire tournament, "-and I can kick every last one of your sorry asses, so bring it on!"
A hush fell over the crowd, before a burst of laughter broke it. He recognized the man who stepped out of the wings of the arena, bending himself a bridge as he walked. He had been the one who had served as the announcer for the previous Earth Rumble- someone that he strongly suspected was also the event organizer. He certainly looked the type.
If he recalled correctly... he was pretty sure he'd said his name was Xin Fu.
"That sounds an awful lot like a challenge, little lady." Xin Fu said, coming to a halt in front of Toph. "Are you sure you have what it takes to live up to that?"
Watching him, Zuko could pinpoint the exact moment when he noticed Toph's cloudy, clearly blind eyes, as well as the exact second where he was switched to chalking up Toph's earlier display of earthbending prowess as a fluke. Narrowing his eyes, he instantly decided that he didn't like this guy- not only did he seem shady, he probably also was.
But this was Toph's fight, not his. She could handle this.
Toph just grinned, her blind eyes gleaming dangerously. "How about you fight me right now and find out, old man?"
Something very different gleamed in Xin Fu's eyes, as he turned on his heel, sweeping a hand theatrically out towards the audience, pointedly ignoring Toph's challenge.
"What do all of you think, ladies and gentlemen?" Xin Fu's voice carried through the arena. "Should we allow the Blind Bandit to challenge our seasoned earthbenders?"
The audience, which up until then had been left in a state of stunned silence, erupted.
"Well then, I think we have our answer!" Xin Fu said. "Tonight, we'll see just how far the Blind Bandit can go!"
Zuko smiled, took his seat, and got ready to watch the show of a lifetime.
Oh yeah, this felt good.
And to think, she hadn't even started fighting anyone yet. But man, did being cheered for really get her blood pumping. The awed silence after she'd washed the floor with those would-be Earth Rumblers had been pretty nice too, but this?
She could get used to this.
She'd been worried that without The Boulder to draw in crowds, there would be fewer people than last time, but unless her feet were playing tricks on her, it almost seemed like the crowd was bigger. These people were clearly expecting a show, and she wasn't about to let them down. She could feel them packed in in the back rows- with a handful of people who didn't know any better sitting closer to the arena. She was going to completely ignore the fact that the last time she'd been here, she'd been one of those people who hadn't known any better. Li had been the sensible one who had made her move.
Speaking of Li...
Her lips curled into a smile as she picked him out from the crowd. It was easy. She knew Scruffy better than she did anyone else here- even if he wasn't quite so scruffy anymore. The nickname stuck, much to his annoyance- which was part of why she kept it.
(Also what else was she supposed to call him? Sparky? Not in Yang's earshot, she wasn't.)
Turning her attention away from the stands, she sensed the approach of her first challenger. Baring her teeth in a fierce grin, she instantly recognized who it had to be- there was only one earthbender around these parts that could make the earth shake half as much as he was just by walking.
It had to be The Hippo. Looks like Xin Fu was sending out the heavy hitter first. Probably hoped he'd scare her away or something.
Well, he was going to be sorely disappointed.
This was just perfect, actually. If she laid waste to someone The Hippo's size, then anyone that came after him would have to take her seriously. She might be blind, but she knew damn well how she looked to other people- like she was every inch the tiny, helpless blind girl he parents thought she was, too delicate and fragile to do anything for herself.
They'd only be able to cling to that delusion for a short while longer.
"Round one," Xin Fu's boomed, all safe and sound in the announcer's box, "-The Big Bad Hippo versus the newcomer, The Blind Bandit!"
"Big bad, huh?" Toph's grin grew. "We'll just have to see about that."
"Tiny bandit girl mocks Hippo? Hippo will crush tiny bandit girl!" The Hippo bristled as if personally insulted, stomping forward with enough force that the rock around him shook, sending a tremor in her direction.
She refused to let it move her, standing her ground and cackling- which only served to make The Hippo even angrier. The tremor became a rocking, as The Hippo jumped up and down, shaking the very arena that they stood on. If she hadn't expected it, it might have actually given her some trouble.
If she hadn't expected it.
But she did. In fact, it was the same opening move The Hippo had used during his match against The Boulder last time. It hadn't worked on him, and it sure as anything wasn't going to work on her. Using the earth itself to keep one foot rooted to the ground, she slid the other foot forward, striking out with her hands. The rocking earth turned against The Hippo, a hefty slab of it shooting up in front of the earthbender and striking him in just the right position to knock him off his feet and put a stop to the rocking.
After that, knocking him out of the ring was practically a breeze.
For the first few seconds, the audience was dead silent again. Then a single cheer cut through the silence, at which point, the audience erupted into chaos. Beaming, Toph turned her head, looking in the general direction of that first cheer. Sticking out her hand, she gave them a thumbs up.
She was positive Li was beaming right back at her.
"You know her?"
Zuko frowned, glancing behind him as he sat back down. He didn't recognize the middle-aged man who'd spoken to him, but that didn't exactly surprise him. His social circle pretty much consisted of Toph and the other servants who lived at the Beifong manor- and also maybe the spice merchant, though he would hesitate to classify the latter as a friend.
"Yeah," he grinned, seeing no reason to hide it, "-you could say that."
"Huh," the man said, looking him up and down, pausing for only a moment on the scar before doing the same to Toph, "-she your little sister or something?"
Zuko blinked- but then smiled. That... didn't feel wrong, actually.
It actually felt pretty right. He had a closer relationship with Toph than he did with his actual sister, banishment not withstanding. He and Azula had been closer once... but that was a long time ago now. Ever since she'd begun to firebend, things had started to change.
(He wondered if the new Crown Princess ever thought about him at all.)
"Yeah," he said, "-I guess you could say that too."
It was official.
She loved this.
The next two opponents after The Hippo went down just as easy, but somehow, that didn't make her feel dissatisfied. What Li had told her during one of their earlier sparring matches had kind of stuck with her ever since- that it was a pretty bold claim to say that she was the greatest earthbender in the world when she had no one to really compare herself to. She'd kicked his ass over it, but he definitely hadn't been wrong.
But here she was, trashing grown men at their own game- and it wasn't even hard.
So yeah. Greatest earthbender in the world? Totally not an exaggeration.
"The Blind Bandit continues her reign of terror!" Xin Fu crowed. "Is there anyone who can stop her? Or are we witnessing the birth of a new champion, ladies and gentlemen?"
Zuko huffed in amusement, arching his only brow. Xin Fu was definitely a showman, even if he could vaguely sense an edge of annoyance to his voice. Clearly, he hadn't thought Toph would get this far, and was starting to wonder just how this little girl was managing to beat all of his star earthbenders.
Probably because said little girl really was the greatest earthbender in the world. Guess she'd been right all along. He felt kind of stupid for ever having doubted her, however briefly it had been. That ass kicking had been downright justified.
As it was, he was kind of having the time of his life here. There was something that was so satisfying about watching Toph take down earthbender after earthbender. He'd almost been afraid that he might have flashbacks to his Agni Kai, but that hadn't happened. It helped that Toph knew exactly who she was fighting against, and could more than defend herself.
That thought sat in his stomach like a bitter coal, a reminder of how awful his father was- and a reminder of how stupid he'd been for not having seen that sooner.
He shook the unpleasant thought off, focusing back on Toph. If just watching her was satisfying, he couldn't imagine how satisfying this all was for her. She never acted like she needed validation of her skills, but it definitely wasn't something that would hurt.
"Next match," Xin Fu boomed, "-The Blind Bandit versus Fire Nation Man!"
Well. Guess today really could get better.
Staring down the Fire Nation imposter, Toph grinned her fiercest grin. She already knew this was going to be an easy fight- he'd barely put up one last time.
But for Li's sake, she wasn't going to let him go down that easy. Taking a step forward, she exhaled, before striking out with her fists. The earth underneath their feet rumbled, before it burst out in the form of a giant fist, barreling down towards Fire Nation Man. Somehow, she didn't think the quaking in his boots he was doing was part of his act.
She used her giant rock hand to grasp Fire Nation Man, giving him just the lightest of squeezes- not enough to do any real damage, but definitely enough to bruise. She then tossed him up into the air, caught him by the hem of that stupid cape, and deposited just outside of the ring.
It was a completely unnecessary amount of flair, and it was all for Li.
"That," Toph yelled, making damn sure he could hear her, "-is for your stupid anthem!"
In the stands, nobody cheered louder than Li.
The Gopher tried to sneak up on her from underground. She was quick to show him why that was a huge mistake.
The Gecko was quick and light on his feet, especially for an earthbender.
But Li was still faster- and had in turn pushed her to be faster. If this guy thought mere speed was enough to get the drop on her, then he had another thing coming.
The Headhunter might have almost given her trouble, if he didn't scream so much- which totally gave him away. In the end, he wasn't hard to beat- when it came down to it, he was just a guy with a rock and rope. Compared to some of the aerial attacks Li had pulled on her during their sparring matches, that was nothing she couldn't handle. Using the sound of his screaming to pinpoint his location, she'd spun on her heel and thrown a rock of her own at him, knocking him right off his rope and out of the ring.
She'd have to ask Li to describe his expression later. It was bound to be hilarious.
In the meantime...
"Is that all you got?" Toph spat. "I thought this was Earth Rumble Five, not a daycare for big babies!"
There were some jeers mixed in with the cheering this time, but you know what? She kind of liked that too.
Xin Fu twitched.
When he'd learned The Boulder would not be returning to Earth Rumble Five to defend his title, he'd only been briefly annoyed. But instead of a potential loss of profit, he'd seen a chance to make some additional revenue, by letting anyone compete in this year's Rumble- for a fee, of course. Things had been working out perfectly, and Earth Rumble Five was well on it's way to turning a bigger profit than the one before it.
That was, until she had shown up.
When she'd knocked everyone else out of the ring, he'd been forced to admit that the so-called Blind Bandit had some skill, but he'd been confident that The Hippo would be enough to deal with her. She was small enough that she couldn't possibly be any older than eight- and on top of that, she was blind. Clearly, she was just some rich noble's child that had gotten it into her head that her earthbending was better than it actually was.
But then she'd defeated The Hippo.
She'd defeated almost every single one of his earthbenders.
And that was when he started to get really annoyed. He'd been hoping to chase her off, but instead she was well on her way to becoming Champion.
Yet for all his frustrations, the crowd was practically eating it up. That was the only thing stopping him from putting an end to this farce himself. Perhaps if he played his cards right, he could even make this work in his favor. People might pay quite a bit of money to see someone as tiny as the Blind Bandit lay waste to men more than twice her size. He wasn't keen on the idea of offering someone who barely even came up to his hip a contract, but maybe...
...though perhaps he was getting ahead of himself. She'd certainly had a lucky streak thus far, but there was no way this little girl could beat all of his earthbenders. She might be talented, but she was still just a little girl.
There was no way she'd be able to win.
"The winner, and your new Earth Rumble Champion, The Blind Bandit!"
Pumping her fists in the air, Toph let out a whoop of victory. In the stands, she felt Li leap to his feet, before the rest of the audience could even react.
And here she thought that they'd stopped with the stunned silences. Guess they must have not really thought she could actually win. Judging from Xin Fu's raging heartbeat and tightly clenched fists, they weren't the only ones.
Well, she sure showed them.
Xin Fu wanted to scream, but he would not. He was a professional showman. He would not scream while on stage- especially not because of a little girl.
"So," the Blind Bandit tilted her head, extending her hand towards him without really looking at him, "-where's my belt?"
Xin Fu ground his teeth, but nevertheless presented the belt to her. Judging from the cheers she was getting, he'd had a riot on his hands if he didn't. It practically dwarfed her in size. He somehow suspected that even as an adult, she likely wouldn't get very tall. The Blind Bandit smiled a wide, toothy grin that took up nearly the whole of her face. Taking the belt from him, she hooked it around her waist. Somehow she managed to get it to stay in place, a miracle that no amount of bending or Spirit interference could explain.
"Now," she said, before extending her hand a second time, "-where's my cash prize?"
He was reconsidering screaming.
Zuko heard Toph coming before he actually saw her, proud yet tiny footsteps that could only belong to the newly crowned Earth Rumble champion. They'd arranged a place to meet after the tournament ended in advance, unsure of what the reaction would be once Toph had won. She might not be recognizable, considering most of Gaoling didn't even know she existed, but he sure as heck was. They didn't exactly want anyone tracing him back to her and getting them both in trouble.
"So was I amazing," Toph beamed, chest pushed out with pride, "-or was I amazing?"
Zuko quirked a grin. "Yeah, you were amazing."
"Darn right, I was amazing!" Toph's grin grew, elbowing Zuko in the rib. "Plus I kicked Fire Nation Man's ass just for you. Even made a little showy."
"An effort which I greatly appreciate." Zuko said, before glancing down towards the bag of gold coins tucked underneath her arm. "So what are you going to do with your winnings?"
"Don't know yet," Toph shrugged, "-but we should probably find somewhere to hide it where nobody can find it."
"Good idea." Zuko agreed. "I'm pretty sure either one of us having a bag of two hundred gold coins would raise a few questions."
More than just a few, in his case. It was ironic, considering the fact that he used to be pretty rich himself. Then again, none of it was actually his money- and being a Fire Nation prince, he was willing to bet a fair amount of the money in the royal family's personal coffers was nothing short of blood money.
It churned his stomach just thinking about it.
"We can swing by the cave on the way back," Toph suggested, "-bury it there. No one there to find it but badgermoles and they aren't exactly interested in gold."
"Solid plan." Zuko said. "So, how was being up on stage?"
"It's an arena, Scruffy," Toph corrected, "-not a stage."
Unbothered, Zuko just shrugged. "Eh. Same thing."
"You know, normally I'd argue." Toph said. "But I think you might actually have a point. You know. For once."
"For once?" Zuko said, arching his brow, not even attempting to sound offended. "Oh, I see. So that's how it is."
Toph just grinned, not taking his bait. "Hey, I have to call it like I see it."
And apparently tossing out some of her own.
Snorting, Zuko returned the favor from earlier, lightly punching Toph on the shoulder. She grinned and punched him right back, before tossing the coin sack up in the air- and promptly failed to catch it, just barely moving her foot out of the way in time so she didn't have her toes crushed by two hundred gold pieces.
"...that wasn't my best idea."
"Maybe I should carry this." Zuko said, stooping down to pick up the bag. "Come on. If we make good time, we might be able to get in a spar of our before dawn."
"Sweet. I was just thinking I hadn't fought enough tonight." Toph said. From anyone else, it might have been sarcasm, but she was nothing short of sincere. "Maybe we can even get some work done on those puny fireballs of yours."
Zuko narrowed his eyes. "I thought you said my fireballs were getting better."
"And they are!" Toph said. "You know, compared to nothing."
Zuko glared at her for a second longer, before cracking a smile, dropping the act. "Yeah, okay. That's fair."
"Chin up, Scruffy." Toph said. "Maybe by the end of the year, you'll actually be throwing some real fire around."
Zuko laughed, falling into step behind Toph. From anyone else, those words would have stung, but he knew that Toph didn't actually mean any of it. She didn't actually care if he was a strong firebender or not- no part of their friendship hinged on his ability to live up to impossible expectations. After spending so long living in his sister's shadow, it was nice to be around someone who didn't care about the color of his fire.
Well, not that Toph could see the color of his fire, but still.
Speaking of Azula... it was strange how different she and Toph were, in spite of both of them being bending prodigies. Maybe Azula wasn't the greatest firebender in the world yet, but she was well on her way to being one. He wouldn't be surprised if in a few years, she learned how to wield lightning, the same way father and uncle could. It was a technique he'd never been able to master- or one that anyone had ever bothered trying to teach him.
After all, why bother? He was clearly an inferior firebender.
"You okay?" Toph's voice broke him out of his thoughts. "Your heartbeat's doing that thing again."
"Just thinking." Zuko said. "Someone asked me if you were my sister today."
"Neat." Toph said. "Always wanted a brother."
"Thanks." Zuko smiled. "I've always wanted a sister that doesn't try to kill me."
Toph whistled, the sound cutting through the night. "That bad?"
"It wasn't always like that." Zuko admitted. Strange as it was to think, there was a time he'd gotten along with Azula- but that time had long since passed.
"Yeah, well, your family sucks." Toph said. "But then, mine does too."
Zuko thought of the way the Beifongs spoke about their daughter, and had to agree. There might be actual love there, but it was clear that it was directed towards someone that didn't actually exist. At least his father had always been open about how much he'd loathed him- he'd just been too stupid to pick up on the signals.
"Well, if my family sucks," Zuko began, "-and your family sucks, why don't we just... be each others family instead?"
Toph came to a halt, staring up at him. Zuko froze, suddenly feeling embarrassed and second guessing himself. What if he'd read the signals wrong? He'd thought...
"Wait," Toph said, "-I thought we were already family."
Zuko blinked, staring at her. "You thought...?"
"I mean... yeah?" Toph said, frowning. "Did you not...?"
"No," Zuko said quickly, "-no I thought- I mean yes. Yes, I do. Think of you like a sister."
"Oh." Toph blinked- then grinned. "Well in that case, welcome to the family, big brother! How about an ass kicking to make it official?"
Zuko scrunched up his nose. "Actually you know what? I take that back."
"Nope," Toph shook her head, "-too late for take backs. Time for your inaugural ass kicking."
Cackling, Toph took him by the wrist while he pretended to drag his feet. It was kind of funny- she'd taken him by the wrist like this the first time they had met too. Back then, he never could have imagined that they would have become friends- much less family. But Toph had worked her way into his heart, winning her over with the same kind of ease she'd taken down those earthbenders tonight.
"My name," he blurted out before he could stop himself, "-it's actually Zuko."
Toph paused, partially releasing his wrist- before grasping it just as firmly as before. He didn't know if she'd recognized his name or not, but deep down, he knew it didn't matter.
"Zuko, huh?" She asked. "Well, you still look more like a Scruffy to me."
"You realize those are fighting words, right?" Zuko asked.
Toph just grinned.
She kicked Zuko's ass.
Somehow it was way more fun than Earth Rumble.