To Whom It May Concern
"Uh...Well, this seems bad," Toph mumbled awkwardly, sensing the tension in their body signals. "What's up with all you guys?" She reached the group and frowned at no one in particular. "Seriously," she reiterated with a sharp tone. Suddenly, her expression perked up into confusion when she realized there was an extra heartbeat present.
"Wait." She pointed a finger toward Suki. "What're you holding? Is it dinner?" A hungry smile crawled onto her face.
Sokka gasped in terror and snatched the bird away from Suki, clutching it tightly, like a mother protecting its child.
"How dare you," he whispered viciously. "Don't listen to her, Hawky," he comforted, continuing to crush the bird inadvertently. It squawked in agony. "Oh, I know, she's a terror."
Toph relished the comment, but her face contorted back into a perplexed mess immediately thereafter.
"Hawky?" she blurted. "Pfff!" A few giggles later, she asked, "Who's that? You caught a bird? Is it your pet?"
"Excuse me?" Sokka growled, holding out Hawky's near crippled form. "You don't recognize his heartbeat?"
Toph shrugged but smirked at the boy's melodrama.
"Hawky's heart beats with the strength of one hundred birds!" boldly declared the passionate young man. Hawky screeched a whimpering screech.
"Um-kaaay," Toph muttered slowly, her lower lip propped out, hands on her hips. "What about him?"
"He's the delivery bird we used to send that letter to your parents," Katara explained, cutting to the chase. She shook the open letter a bit so Toph could hear it. Her expression went slack-jawed and her eyes quivered with shock.
"Is-is that...?" she sputtered out, arms dropping to her sides.
"It has the Bei Fong seal on it," Aang explained. "We think it's from your parents." He cast a glance at Katara, watching her eyes scanning over the words frantically. He frowned. "But we haven't read it yet 'cuz we were waiting for you to get back." Katara's expression flashed with embarrassment.
Everyone's eyes were on Toph's. They stared blankly into space, but overflowed with fear and apprehension. She could feel it in their heartbeats: they were nervous. Why were they nervous? That just made her feel worse.
"Well?" Toph growled impatiently. "I'm back now. Ya gonna read it, or what?"
Katara rolled the letter back up, eyes petrified. "W-well, what's the rush? I mean, maybe we should get some dinner first and-"
Aang had airbended the scroll from Katara's hand into his own, spreading it open on the way over.
"I'll read it," he announced, shooting his girlfriend a stubborn glance of disapproval.
Katara avoided his gaze and her insides churned as she stared at the subtle pleading in Toph's expression, her hands fidgeting together. Aang began his reading solemnly and loudly.
"To Whom It May Concern,
The Bei Fong Family is offended that the fiends who kidnapped their daughter would dare to pass off this letter as one written by her. Toph cannot write, so what reason do they have to believe these words are truly hers?"
Sokka gave Katara a look that said, Told ya so. Katara cast her gaze back on Toph, whose brows twisted with perplexity. Aang grimaced but went on. This felt like forcing a sea slug down his throat, only in reverse.
"Furthermore, the words written in this letter are those of a rebel, not the courteous daughter they once had. The Bei Fong Family feels that the girl they once loved and cared for has been corrupted into a monster who cheats townsfolk of their money and who viciously uses the powers of nature to bring harm to others, even those who are sent to return her home safely."
Toph's fists were tight and shaking, her furrowed brows quivering. She felt her insides contort into a knot, her heart skip, her face flush with warmth and water trickle down her face. Her body seemed to be entirely out of her control, and it infuriated her on top of everything else. Pebbles and grains of dirt by her feet started to skitter around her.
Katara planted her palm on her forehead and bit her lip. She turned to Sokka, who wore a look of defeat, his arms crossed sagely. Suki didn't seem to know quite how to react to the whole situation. Katara faced Aang again, her eyes begging him to stop. But those serious eyes of his sparked with a sense of duty, the same glow she admired them for, and she knew he had to finish reading. She knew what Aang knew: Toph had to hear everything it said.
"Clearly she is an enemy of the state, as it has been reported that she has escaped to enemy territory and learned to bend metal. Such a demonic skill was surely bred by the Fire Nation she fled to."
"They must have written this before the war ended," Sokka observed aloud, his voice doused in melancholy.
Katara took a step toward Toph, quickly assuring, "Aang can stop reading if you don't-"
"Keep going," Toph commanded, turning away from the group as she wiped at her face. Her legs felt like rubber and her arms trembled with anger.
Aang took a deep breath before finishing the letter.
"All of this evidence suggests that Toph has cast away her heritage and all honor her family once possessed. She is no longer a member of the Bei Fong Family and her presence amongst them will be considered a threat."
Aang's dutiful look had been replaced with one of sorrow. He knew he'd done the right thing but he didn't feel very good about it.
"It ends there with the Bei Fong seal," he concluded, rolling the scroll up and handing it to Toph from the side. Her whole body was quaking like the very earth she rumbled every day. She sniffled and extended her arm to accept the letter. She immediately cast it to the ground and lifted her foot up, a slab of tightened earth clumped onto it like a shoe, and crushed the piece of paper. She twisted her ankle around, gnashing it into a pulp, then let the dirt around her foot collapse, burying it beneath.
"I knew it," she whispered. "I knew this would happen. I can't believe I let you guys convince me to even write that letter in the first place."
Katara's heart sank. By 'you guys' Toph really meant her. This was entirely not what she had been anticipating back when she had made the offer. She feared her own involvement with Toph's situation had potentially made it worse.
Sokka proposed a possible explanation in an attempt to soften the blow. "W-well, wait, Toph, that was written before the war ended. Maybe now that everyone knows you helped, they'll-"
Sokka sighed and dropped his arms. No way of logicking out of this one, huh?
"My parents have always been like this."
"Toph," Katara insisted, "Your parents love you, they're just-"
"No, Sugar Queen," Toph growled, spinning around to face the group. Her face was wet, her hair was still matted and messy from her water escapade, and her eyes burned with pain through the icy white. "My parents," she began, shifting into a squeaky mocking tone, "loved the little girl who did everything she was told and never complained and never spoke back and would never ever be anything but helpless and useless." She huffed through her nose like a bull and went back to anger. "The cheating, the violence, hell, even the demonic metalbending, that is who I am. And my parents have never loved that girl." She wiped at her face some more, completely ashamed of herself. How could she have let herself believe for even a moment anything besides this would've happened? This is why she had run away from home in the first place.
She thrust her hands down in a fit and the ground shook violently, tossing everyone off balance.
"Well, we do!" Katara insisted, her body bracing the impact.
Toph had no answer. She was angry and bitter and afraid and she wanted to remain that way for a while. Before anyone could say anything, she leapt up and stomped her whole weight into the ground, causing a thick pillar to propel her to the top of the cliff she had just come out of minutes before.
"Well," Sokka mused, scratching his head. "That went better than expected..."
Katara glared at him incredulously.
"How can you say that?" she demanded.
He shrugged. "We're not buried under a rockslide, are we?" Katara sighed at his effort at lightening the mood.
"We should find some dinner before it gets dark out," Suki suggested, patting Sokka on the shoulder. The two of them began collecting equipment to head off for a hunt.
"I'll talk to her," Aang announced simply, tapping his newly acquired staff onto the ground. He raised his hand and forced the formation of earth back into its original position, fixing what Toph had changed.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Sokka prodded, slipping Boomerang Jr. into its proper place on his back. "I mean, Toph seemed pretty ticked off. I don't know if she'll-"
"She needs us," Katara insisted. "Even if she doesn't realize it. But why you, Aang?"
Aang gave her a thoughtful smile and looked up at the setting sun.
"Because I know what it's like to lose one family and find another."