"-...awwfff?" A faint voice, cutting through the murkiness of sleep.
"Hnngh..." She could hardly move, her limbs like lead. Everything ached. Her entire body was a lump of numbed, sore flesh coated in a metal suit. The floor was cold against her cheek.
"Toph!" That voice - his voice. It was near, but muffled by the daze she was lost in. In this cloud of pain and confusion, his voice was waking her up.
Sprawled on her side, she meagerly grasped her deadened fingertips at the hard floor. Nothing. No pulse of the earth. This was disconcerting.
"Toph," he grunted out again, his voice forced and ragged. She could hear his approach amidst the scuffling of dozens of others, further off.
"Gugh-" was all she could manage out before a cough flew from her throat. Her fluids had been displaced, which was throwing her body for a loop.
"Agh, Spirits...You're OK." Fwumph. The familiar sounds of his heavy clothes flopped before her, the weight of his body slumping at her side. She could just barely sense the vibration of his knees hitting the ground.
"Sahk...-" She choked out, unable to complete his name. She attempted to lift her dizzy head, only for it to fall back to the floor, buckling under her weakened neck.
It suddenly all came back to her now: weakness. The dire, horrifying futility she'd experienced, the very blood in her body twisting and writhing out of control. Her arms, tugged from inside, grasping the cold, metal keyring. The suffocating pain flooding her body as the world beneath her mostly feet vanished. Moments stretched for a small eternity where the only sensation that existed was the suffering that corkscrewed her body from within. Her neck, snapped around in retaliation of her struggling. The blood slipping from her brain, and the sounds around her - the terrified groaning, the only world she could perceive in that instant - fading away.
Toph Beifong, Chief of Police, self-proclaimed 'Greatest Earthbender in the World,' had been rendered utterly infantile by a man tied in handcuffs with merely a twitch. It had all happened in a matter of seconds, and she'd been powerless against him. Yakone...where was he now? What had happened? Republic City wasn't safe! Damnit! What was she doing on the floor? She had to do something to stop this crazed psychopath! It was her duty, and she was failing. Toph Beifong did not fail.
While Toph's mind was angrily pushing at this concept, her rubbery body was slowly regaining some sense of self. Now cut from the puppet strings that had choked her, she forced up her left arm from the floor, groping at the air meekly. What had he done to her? This was bloodbending? It was now quite apparent to Toph exactly why Katara had been so dire about outlawing the practice.
"Toph?" Sokka's rough, dry palm pressed against her pale cheek, pulling her back to the moment with comfort and familiarity. His other hand swept across the opposing jawline, and her head was tilted up. The warmth of his flesh was like a gust of hot air blowing against the chilled fog of wariness. She sprung awake at the sensation of his lips enveloping hers, and her mouth instinctively puckered out to reciprocate his kiss.
"Sokka," she croaked out, her eyes damp and burning as the reality of what had just transpired came crashing down. Her whole body pulsated with pain, and her heart was still pounding against her ribcage, having been hastened by adrenaline and fear. "Where...-? Where did he go?" Panic was setting in now, the temporary relief of her lover's lips giving way to the impending disaster of Yakone's escape.
Toph's dizzy world was thrown into upheaval as Sokka's rigid arm hoisted itself around her back, pulling her up. He huffed from the effort, still a bit out of sorts, himself. Toph's wobbly legs almost collapsed on themselves, but Sokka latched her arm around his own shoulders, clasping her wrist as he helped steady her.
"I'm not sure," he answered her question. "But...Aang seems to be gone, as well."
No. Damnit. Argh, no. What had Yakone done with Aang? Taken him hostage?
"Gurgh...Bastard...We have to...-" Toph's feet finally touched the ground, and her heart skipped a beat: she could hardly feel anything. She scrunched up her left toes, and slid her right foot along the stone floor. The world was all a haze, still trying to assume its forms around her. She faltered slightly, still a bit woozy.
"Hey, take it easy," Sokka insisted, gripping her tight.
"Take it easy?" Toph growled out. "There's a madman out there, and...-" Her brain was dunked in a well of guilt. What if Aang had been captured? Or worse? She was supposed to protect this city and its people. If the Avatar - her dear friend - had been hurt...how would she be able to forgive her own shortcomings? She hadn't thought this thing through, she'd just marched up and dragged Yakone to trial, and she'd let Aang tag along. Argh, she knew she should've made him mind his own business, it was too dangerous. Gah, but if she'd thought things through, she would've been more prepared for this in the first place, and...-
"Toph," said Sokka, helping her regain footing, leading her a few steps forward. "Leave that worrying stuff to me and my Sister, all right?" Heh. He knew her well enough to tell when she was going into that dark state of mind. "Aang's the Avatar. I bet he's probably putting that creep in his place as we speak. Here." Sokka slowly turned her body around, nudging her to sit at the front pew within the hall. She was resistant to this.
"I can't relax right now," she huffed, taking a step forward. "We need to be doing something about...-" Her legs wobbled and she nearly stumbled, but Sokka's solid grip on her shoulders kept her on her feet.
"Toph, c'mon, you need to sit for a minute. Your officers and some others are already checking things out."
"But...-" Toph's metal-bound chest was pressed upon by Sokka's steady hand, easing her down onto the wooden pew despite her protest. She slid her hand across the smooth, wooden surface, savoring the returned sensation to her fingers. "He bloodbent, Aang, too. He could've...-" She lifted her fingers up from the pew and they balled into a wrathful fist, trembling.
Twinkle-Toes, you'd better be safe. I don't know if I could forgive myself if something happened to you.
"Hey. Dead-Eyes." Sokka's knuckles rattled against her shoulder plate. He was trying to calm her down by being casual, she decided. "What'd I just say about worrying? Don't tell me you're going deaf on me here, too." Yep, he was definitely trying to get her to relax for a second to regain her bearings. Toph's doubt loosened its grip enough for her to take a deep breath, a small smile emerging. The commotion around her was slowly taking shape at her feet. Her blood was pumping properly through her veins again and her senses were regaining.
"Councilman," called a voice Toph recognized, but didn't associate with on a personal level. Some stuffy office-type Sokka worked with who had a stiff voice. "Chief," he addressed Toph, as well. "Thank goodness. I think everyone is all right."
"Do we know where they've gone?" Sokka demanded, his voice hardened.
"A couple of officers went outside to see if they could find anything, but they just left moments ago."
"Mm," replied Sokka. "Keep us posted."
As hurried footsteps faded off into the flurry of activity behind them, Toph found herself slinking her arm around the padded back of her partner.
"What just happened?" Toph mumbled. "I mean...that was bloodbending, right? I know he got us, but...-"
"Everyone," Sokka breathed out heavily. Toph could detect a tint of horror beneath Sokka's bewildered tone. "I guess you couldn't tell, but...I saw it. Everyone in the entire room."
"That's-...No way. That's impossible."
"Do you remember, about two minutes ago? When I mentioned the man who could firebend with his mind? Remember him?"
"...Oh. Right. Yea." Toph must not have heard that part. Her mind had been wandering during the trial, which had generally been another boring, pointless affair for her, right up until the delivery of the sentence, of course.
"You weren't even paying attention during that trial, were you?" Sokka weakly chuckled, apparently eager to make light humor in spite of the circumstance. "Typical Toph."
"What? I was," she insisted. "I definitely was. You proclaimed my bad-assery and everything."
"Yea, of course you heard that part..." He breathed out a light laugh.
Toph sucked in another deep inhalation and tapped her foot twice on the ground. She could 'see' everything again at last. That had taken much longer than Toph would've preferred. The last time she could think that she had felt a similar sensation was having her chi blocked, back before armor had become part of her uniform. This had felt much more painful than chi blocking, however.
"You good?" Sokka checked when she went to stand up. She snorted with some indignity.
"Of course I'm good." No sooner than she spoke did her right knee tremble slightly under her own weight.
What was the problem here? Everyone else seemed already up and about, scurrying around, and she was all weak in the knees. She was Toph Beifong, she was tough as nails. What was going on? Maybe it was just nerves. The prospect of Avatar Aang having been captured and potentially killed under her watch did not settle well. The crushing heft of this hypothetical situation slammed Toph in the stomach hard, but she held it in.
"Then let's go out there and see what we can find out," Sokka encouraged, clamping down on her arm briefly. "Lead the way, Chief," he insisted. "This is your investigation, right?"
Toph smirked in reaction to this. Even in uncertain times, that man still tried to add coals to her ego's fire. He should've known better, given what he had just witnessed.
Toph wasn't the invincible, impenetrable wall of Ba Sing Se she often made herself out to be. Yakone, after months and months of pounding away at her armor, had finally drilled a hole right through her solid foundation, letting fear and doubt slip inside.
Toph pushed her way through the hall, heading through the throng of confused and frightened citizens to the front doors, which were still wide open. She ignored the aching of her joints that lingered from the attack, each step firm and unrelenting. Sokka pursued, keeping a bit of distance between the two of them. He could tell from Toph's stern motions that she could spring into violent action at a moment's notice, so it'd be best to give her space.
The midday summer sun beat down on Toph's face. Her body was rapidly moistening from beneath her plating from just a couple minutes of being outdoors. Her steps tipped her off that something had happened further down main street. A wagon, toppled over, and a man buried beneath a formed pillar of stone. It was Yakone, all right. And there were the twinkling little steps of Aang, heading in her direction from the distance.
One of her officers was closer, however, and reached her first.
"Chief! Yakone has been recaptured. Our men are getting ready to put him back in restraints and deliver him to HQ."
"I'm aware," Toph bluntly replied. "Let's exercise some more caution this time around, shall we?" She marched right past the Sergeant, continuing her trek, but was called out from behind by the officer she'd just passed by.
"I don't think that will be a problem, Ma'am!"
What was that supposed to mean? Yakone was a serious threat. He needed to be stopped - permanently. He was far too powerful even to be kept restrained. Yes. Right. Far too dangerous! Action had to be taken...here and now. Toph's insides churned with anger. Yakone had planted a seed of fear inside her, and she wasn't going to let it grow. Not an inch. She'd nip this whole matter in the bud, and be done with it. She was the Chief of Police, damnit. Someone had to make the hard decisions around here, especially with the Avatar being a lilly-livered coward. She was ready for Yakone this time. Yes. He wouldn't get the jump on her.
Toph had been at odds with Yakone and his unruly gang for some time now, and that little flourish in the town hall - making her grab the key and unlock him herself - that had been Yakone taunting her, sending a message. That was him rubbing it all over her face that he'd 'won' this long battle they'd waged. All this time...a bloodbender of such strength. It was no longer a wonder how he'd manipulated Republic City from the shadows. The savage press had been eating up the whole affair like a wild pack of wolf-bats for months now, and she'd grown quite sick of the trend. Yakone had buried his roots deep in the underground of Republic City with quite an extraordinary power. She'd underestimated Yakone this whole time.
Toph was so focused on her snowballing plan of vengeance - er, pre-emptive protection of the city, rather - that she almost failed to notice the plodding footsteps of Aang approach.
"Yakone has been taken care of," Aang declared with all due solemnity. "He won't be able to...-" But Toph was marching right by him without any response. "Are you all right?" Aang checked, concerned by the wrathful look on his friend's face. "Was anyone injured?"
Yea, I didn't ask for your help. I can tell everything going on right now with my damned toes, and you're no officer of mine. Go back to your stupid island and mind your own business.
"Toph?" Aang called to her.
She'd blown right by him without a word. She was heading straight for Yakone, who was still dazed, given the slowed heart-rate she could detect. He had been removed from the tiny rock prison Aang had apparently trapped him within. One of Toph's Captains had wrapped the deadly arms of the waterbending crime lord behind his back, encasing them in a chunk of solid stone. He'd been blindfolded, as well, as a precaution. It was pleasant to see Toph's men operating efficiently of their own accord, at least.
"Is Toph all right?" Aang muttered to Sokka as his old friend approached.
"She was...pretty shaken up back there," Sokka explained under his breath.
Toph could still clearly hear the two of them, however. 'Shaken up?' Bah. Exaggeration.
"Understandable," Aang remarked. "I think it's safe to say all the stories about Yakone were true."
"No kidding..." Sokka sighed, running his hand across his head. "I'm just glad you were here, Aang. I don't know what we would've done." This compliment ruffled Toph's feathers.
"I am, too," said Aang. "At least he won't be causing us any more trouble."
Don't act so smug about it, Twinkle-Toes. I'm the one that's been dealing with this creep for months. You don't know what it's been like.
She hadn't wanted Aang here in the first place, and she surely didn't need him upstanding the authority and respect she'd worked so long and hard to earn. Sokka, of all people, jumping to thank Oh-So-Mighty-Mr.-Avatar, saving the day at the last minute after months of this? Puh. It was insulting.
By now, Toph was within spitting distance of Yakone, who was being hauled away by three officers.
"Back away from him, men," Toph commanded darkly. They all paused at her voice, like the obedient little dogs she'd trained them to be. "I'll handle it from here."
"Uh, but...Chief, it's really not-""Back away, Captain."
The trio of officers that were flocked around Yakone did as they were told, and the blind-folded, dizzied man collapsed to his knees without the officers to hold him up. Toph slammed her foot to the road and flicked up her wrists, catching Yakone in a tiny pyramid of solidified dirt.
"You're not going to be harming another hair on anyone's head, Yakone," Toph seethed, her expression brutal.
The metal band of meteor rock wrapped around her right arm shivered violently from beneath her armor, her mind swarmed with fear and anger.
You're dangerous. You can hurt me. You can kill me. I was powerless before you. I can't tolerate someone like you in my city. You have to be stopped once and for all, before anyone else is hurt.
Before anyone starts to doubt my ability.
"Toph?" Aang cried out from behind, rushing up toward her. He was ignored. She stretched out her arms, and two small, rock-hard dirt clods were formed from chunks of the road. They hovered, a few feet feet away from Yakon's skull, poised to slam together. Her officers flinched back in surprise. "Toph!" Aang growled out, grabbing Toph's shoulder and tugged with ferocity. "What are you doing? I took away his bending!"
'Took away his bending.' No wonder Aang had seemed so self-assured. Of course. Obviously. It made perfect sense. The idea had slipped her mind, lost in the miasma of hate, shame, and apprehension.
Toph's rage, bubbling out from unfocused eyes, began to trickle down her cheeks. She took in a sharp breath between her teeth, and let her arms drop when she exhaled. The up-heaved chunks of earth crumbled back to dirt, leaving a confused and petrified Yakone to sputter and gasp, falling to his face on the ground.
"I told you that I'd resolved the situation," Aang snarled with impatience, pulling Toph around by the shoulder. "What just...-? What was that?"
"That...-" Toph sucked in a rough sniff through her nostrils. "That was-""-you having this under control?" Aang spat out, throwing Toph's words from earlier that day back in her face.
Her teeth were clenched, and from the contact of his hands on her shoulders he could feel her body trembling.
"That wasn't control I just saw," said Aang with rigid disapproval. Toph's face squirmed with bridled embarrassment. The Avatar was publicly scolding her in front of her own officers like a child. "And it was you being controlled back there at the trial. All of us. If I hadn't been here, who knows what could've happened." Toph could sense Aang's tense muscles relax in a thoughtful pause as he calmed his temper. "But it's finished, now. I've taken care of it. I'm not sure what's wrong with you, but I think you'd best take the rest of today to yourself."
Since when did you become my boss? I'm Chief of Police, not some celebrity who lives on a little island vacation home away from the people.
Toph forcibly shoved Aang's grip from her. It was infuriating, this entire mess. Her brain was clouded and stressed from everything that had transpired today and the days prior. It was a lot to take in, and evidently her rattled soul couldn't cope with it properly. She was a little light-headed from all of the pressure pushing her skull from the inside out. Her armpits were damp with sweat, her forehead was starting to drip from the summer heat. She was exhausted, both physically and mentally. But she was Toph Beifong, she couldn't just call it a day.
"I don't...-" she began to protest, trailing off.
"Lin's still back at the island with Katara and the kids," Aang explained to her quietly as the policemen awkwardly resumed their duty of transporting Yakone to headquarters. "We can watch over her tonight so you have some space to yourself, if-""I think I can handle my own daughter, Aang," Toph grunted out spitefully, stepping away from the Avatar. Twinkle-Toes and Sugar-Queen had been strongly applying the passive-aggresivity lately, treating her like she was incompetent with her own kid. More insults to her ability.
"I'm sorry, Toph, but right now, it seems like you can't even handle yourself," Aang countered with disappointment.
Guilt was pressing down hard in this moment. Toph hadn't taken proper caution with Yakone. Aang could've been captured. The city could've been put in danger. She had a daughter to be thinking about, with whom she was on shaky ground with. She'd nearly killed a man out of rage and fear. And Aang was taking great strides to help her in every way, and she was spitting it back in his face out of arrogance and egotism. She was in too deep – the shame was a pit she currently didn't have the willpower to climb out of. She suddenly felt bad for how she'd been treating Aang, and what she'd even been thinking of him. But she didn't have the capacity to apologize right now. Her cheeks burned pink and her eyes stung from the stress.
"Toph," said Sokka with offense. "Calm down," he insisted with a tired breath of concern, patting his palms against her plated biceps. "I'm sorry, but...Aang's right. You're not yourself right now - it's been a crazy day. This entire week has...-" Toph's face twitched in reproach at his words. "-...taken its toll on all of us. Let's let Katara watch over Lin tonight. The Council and I will help clean up this mess. You should go back home and rest." Sokka rubbed his dry thumb across Toph's face, clearing up the tear trails that had appeared moments earlier. "I'll stop by this evening. We can...go out for tea. Relax."
"Fine," Toph huffed, pulling herself away from Sokka and stalking off. Making her leave, she waved a careless wrist up in the air at them as her farewell. She was sorely tempted in her aggressive mindset to toss out a 'Good day, Twinkle-Toes' just to irritate Aang, but her conscience managed to hold this inside.
Aang and Sokka watched her for a few moments, and when it seemed that she was going to heed their advice, the two of them made the trek back to City Hall. There'd no-doubt be some questions that needed answering at this point, and a small crowd could be seen forming at the hall's entrance.
"Sokka," said Aang to his companion. "Katara and I are worried about her..."
"I know," Sokka sighed. "Believe me, my sister has chatted my ear off about it. I'm worried, too."
A/N: At the time of this posting, Michael and Bryan (creators of Avatar) have stated that Book 3 of Legend of Korra will involve some focus on Lin and "her family," whom we will supposedly learn a lot more about. While my intent with Esteemed is to follow canon as closely as possible, I do want to explore somewhat more mature themes and more complex narrative ideas, while keeping it appropriate for a teen-and-up audience. That said, depending on what new story we learn next year, I may incorporate those ideas into this work and retcon some things if necessary - or I may just keep going with what I have produced up until that point to maintain the story's intended direction; I might write a spin-off story with a similar concept based on the new canon we will learn.
A collection of fan art for this story project can already be found at the project's DA group, #Esteemed-Beifongs, or in the 'Esteemed' Favourites folder of my DA account, Destiny-Smasher.
You can also find the full gallery and follow all project updates on the Facebook page (Search for 'Esteemed' or 'Esteemed Beifongs')Facebook(dotcom)/EsteemedBeifongs