My Uncle Iroh
Toph sat in a clump, her back pressed against the side of the Jasmine Dragon, processing what Zuko had just advised to her. What a jerk...Trying to, like, flip it around and make her look bad.
Damnit damnit damnit. Why does he have to be right, though?You should probably think about what he said.Yea, I should...
The sounds filtering out from the doorway to her left had been tuned out, but she decided to start focusing on them again. Clatters and slurps from tea drinkers were aplenty, a lake of idle conversation rolling over her. When she was able to lock down on Zuko and Iroh, she intently followed their conversation in whispers.
"She is still young, Nephew. Even when they mature, reason is not exactly their strong suit." Were they talking about girls or something?
"Ha, you don't need to tell me. I have one at home." Crispy had a girlfriend, didn't he? That weird depressing girl...Yea.
Toph had vague memories of her. They had shared some quality time together before going their separate ways after the war ended.
"Ahh, yes. Mai. I'm surprised she was so patient with you through all that has happened."
"Not as patient as you've been, Uncle," Zuko expressed with gratitude.
"You have proven to be worth the patience, Zuko - just as I knew you would. I am sure Mai feels the same way. How is she coping with your situation?"
"I think she's dealing with it better than I am," he muttered, laughing at himself. "To her, it's something that's curing her boredom. But I'm just not sure...I wanted to be a leader for so long. Now I am and I have no idea what I'm doing."
"You will do well, Nephew. You will possess something few Fire Lords have: an understanding of being humbled by failure and correcting your own mistakes."
"I hope you're right." He sighed in contemplation and doubt. "I don't feel like I'm ready."
"We never do," Iroh said sagely. Clakker clak. "Now, then, I believe I have a customer waiting. Please continue catching up with your old friend."
"I'm not sure I'd say that we're friends, exactly..."
"You and Jin may have become acquainted under uncomfortable circumstances," Iroh observed, "But you are indeed friends. I can tell just by the way you look at each other. You should not trouble yourself with the past. She no longer does." Tud. Tud. Tud. He had big beefy footsteps.
What was that all about? So Zuko and that shop girl knew each other from before, huh? Little lovin' go on there? Yea, unlike me and my stupid boy who's totally not into me 'cuz he's got some makeup ninja all over him. Great.
Tud. Tud. Tud.He was heading her way.Swuff.
"There you are, Child," he greeted. "Your tea is ready, my Dear. Would you care to join me?"
She could feel his thick form towering over her, inviting and calm.
"Sure." She pushed herself onto her feet. Yes, finally! The entire reason she had come here.
"Here you are," he indicated. She drummed her left toes a couple times to feel where his arm had extended, and carefully retrieved the cup and saucer from him. It was piping hot, so she had to be careful. The heat pressing into her palms was soothing. Guided by his tuds, she followed him to a small spring behind the shop. It must have been where they got their water from. Blubblebububgupgublubblugup...
As Iroh got ready to set himself down, Toph slid her foot across the dirt, calling a bench of earth to rise up for the two of them. Iroh laughed and planted himself solidly onto the makeshift seat. Toph set her tea cup down and scooted herself onto the bench beside him. As she retrieved her cup, Iroh sucked in a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. Her senses suddenly oriented themselves to pay attention to the scents around her. That tree beside the spring must have been a willow based on its scent and structure. Her tea was strong and lemony, with just a touch of mint, as Iroh had indicated. She remembered how much she enjoyed mint - that coot had practically read her mind before she even knew what would hit the spot. The bubbling of the spring, the skssssssssss ffffffffffffff of the swaying willow branches in the evening breeze, the soft dirt beneath her feet, the relaxing aroma of citrus and mint...
"It is quite beautiful, isn't it?" Iroh's crawling voice considered.
"Uh...If you say so," Toph grumbled. How would she know? Was he picking on the fact that she couldn't see?
"You do not think it is?" Iroh inquired suspicipously. What was he getting at? And why did she feel like it'd somehow make sense in a minute?
"Not to be a jerk, but...Did you lose a few marbles during that big battle or somethin'? I can't see. I'm blind."
He 'fufu'd' a few times. Ssssppp. Clak.
"They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But who is to say it cannot be in the nose, the ears, the tongue, or the hands? Beauty is whatever pleases you, Child." Aaaand yep. Made sense now.
"Thennnn I guess it is pretty beautiful out here tonight," she agreed slowly, still grasping the idea. Muscles flexing through the water. A hand scratching across her head. A heartbeat against her cheek.
"That is quite an interesting trinket you have there," Iroh observed. Huh?
She suddenly realized she had habitually started twitching her fingers to roll her bracelet around her wrist.
"O-Oh, this?" She melded it into a sphere - that perfect sphere that Aang had made her study - and handed it to him. "It's something a friend gave to me. It's a piece of a rock that fell from the sky."
"Mmm," Iroh appreciatively hummed. "It is quite a stunning stone." Toph's soul smirked as she recalled Aang's analogy. "Quite unlike any other I have seen." He placed it in her lap. "A fitting charm for such a young lady as yourself." He said it in the same way Toph's grandmother used to refer to her before she had passed away. She didn't know how to respond, so she simply warped it back around her arm. Why had Sokka given it to her in the place?
Sweetie. Dear.Smootching, rubbing, whispers, giggles...Why Suki? What was so special about her?They all think of you like a sister.Does he look at me just a sister? Can I ever be anything else? Anything more than that?
Maybe you can, but maybe that's not what's meant to be.Pff, I think I should be the one who decides what's best for me.Sometimes, when we try doing that, we end up being mistaken.Whatever...
Ssssppp. Clak.Iroh's steady drinking snapped her from her thoughts.
She finally decided to drink her own tea. She tried to slurp some up, but her tongue lit on fire, causing her to ssffppbbbhh it back out all over the ground. She was glad she didn't spill her cup, at least.
"Wahaha!" Iroh slapped his knee. "You must be patient, Child. Why the hurry? I have seen you drink here before - I know you are not unwise to the ways of proper tea etiquette."
"I-I'm just...-"clickleclattatat.Her hands were trembling, shaking her cup against its saucer. She set it aside on the earthen bench and mushed her hands between her legs, startled by her own trembling.
"My Dear, whatever is the matter?" Iroh's suddenly concerned tone questioned.
"Nothing," Toph firmly lied as smoothly as she could.
"The turtle who remains inside its shell goes nowhere." Ohhhhhh bah. Fine.
"I have a lot of...stuff...going on right now."
"And the sun sets at the end of the day. I am aware of these things. You are the Bei Fong girl who ran from home."
"Not Bei Fong anymore," Toph grumbled, sliding her feet through the dirt. It was getting real damn old, having to repeat that.
"This is true," Iroh plainly agreed. "Your parents are most displeased. They speak of you as if you were a curse." As if she were a curse? What had she ever done to them?
"...Th-they do?" Her stomach twisted around. "H-how do you know?"
"They have been customers of mine."
"I hate them," Toph blurted with a huff on impulse.
"Because you love them," Iroh clarified. "The fires of hate are a darker shade of the flames of love, and they burn from the same coals." How many metaphors was this guy gonna spill out?
"I don't wanna love them."
"Because they do not want to respect you."
"Yea!" Sure, that sounded right.
"Sometimes love's flame extinguishes itself when left to burn away - but fanning the fire can only make it grow. This is true of both shades, light and dark." Ugh, couldn't he just speak regular talk?
"What do you mean, Mr. Iroh?"
"I am saying that you need to follow my Nephew's advice and stop worrying about what your parents think. They have broken your trust and your heart, pushing you further from them than any parent should, just as Zuko's father once did to him. The more you dwell on how unhappy you are with something you cannot change, the longer those painful thoughts will remain."
"I know, I know," Toph moaned, flopping her head lazily to the side. She was getting sick of everyone singing this same old song. "I'm trying."
"I am glad to hear this. It takes time but I am certain you will find your way, Child."
Ssssppp. Clak. Oh, right. Tea.
Toph clutched her cup, her hands now steady, and took a sip. It slid past her tongue, sending a minty-sweet greeting to her body before cascading down her throat, massaging it the whole way. She sighed in relief and satisfaction.
"This tea is..." She giggled. "Beautiful." They shared a brief laugh before a moment of mutual silence.
"You waited until that tea was ready for you," Iroh sagely pointed out. "Just as we are not always ready for Destiny when it calls us, sometimes Destiny will not have us when we try to find it ourselves. When this happens, we must wait until it will accept us."
"Destiny always gets what it wants, doesn't it?"
"Haha, indeed, my Dear. Indeed, it does."Ssssppp. She joined in and soaked in some more tea, taking a bigger gulp this time. Man, that was good. She recalled Sokka's pessimistic saying.
The Universe is out to get us.
"So...What do you do when Destiny won't let you have what you want?"
"Sometimes, my child, the fruits we want most are on the highest branches that we cannot reach. If we are lucky, one may fall from the tree, but it is not always the fruit we had our eye on." More about trees, huh? Iroh must've had a thing for trees.
She sighed and rubbed at her bracelet longingly before sipping more tea to ease her pain.
"What if someone stole your fruit from you?" she bitterly wondered.
Iroh replied with a calm but ever-so-slightly scolding tone. "Someone cannot steal something from you that was never yours to begin with." That was...He...But! "Destiny is not always kind to us, Little One, especially when we try to steal from it." Sssspp. Sssssssssspp. Clak. Sounded like he was done. "You are still young, Child, and have many long years ahead. Even in my old age, standing under the Tree of Desire and waiting calmly will still yield fallen fruits." From what Toph could gather, Iroh was telling her that she ought to be patient. She didn't like this business about "not always the fruit we had our eye on," though. What did he mean? Like, someone who wasn't Sokka? She couldn't even imagine the idea.
"I don't want any other fruits," she pouted, slurping on her tea some more. "I already picked mine, it's the only one I want."
"Sometimes, when we stare at one paint stroke for too long, we lose sight of the art itself." OK, seriously. This was getting real old.
"Maybe I like a boy," she spat out in frustration, sick of all of the fancy talk. "And maybe he likes some other girl."
"Then maybe," Iroh slowly ventured. He paused for a moment, carefully considering his answer. "Maybe you need get over yourself." What?
It was as if he'd taken a chisel and hammered into the crack Sokka's relationship with Suki had created.
"Fire is dangerous," Iroh explained. Again with the damned metaphors. She was too angry to bother protesting. "It spreads and consumes all in its path. This is true of hate and love. And it sounds as if you are fighting both. As much as these fires may burn within you, you must face the truth that you are still young, and keep those flames in their hearth. In time, if left alone, these flames will die out. This is the nature of things. But if you continue to fan the embers, the fires shall spread and scorch a path through your heart. You may never be able to heal what is left burned."
Toph snorted in disgust. What did it mean? She had a feeling this was basically what Zuko had been telling her earlier...
"Could you just tell me in normal words?" she grumbled. She swallowed the rest of her tea in one long swig. He sighed, scriff scriff, scratching at his beard.
"This boy you speak of...The one from the Water Tribe." Urk. How'd he know? "I have no doubt you truly care for him, and that he does possess love for you, but love of a different kind than what you seem to be after. It sounds as if you could destroy what you have been given if you are not careful."
"A different kind?" Toph growled. "A worse kind is more like it."
"You speak of love as if it is a ladder that you are trying to climb, but I assure you, there is no kind of love that is more powerful than another."
"He sure seems to care more about that other girl than he does me."
"Ah, this might be true - who are we to say? We are not him. His loves may be compounded together for this other girl. But my love for my Nephew, the love I once gave to my own son, the love I once had for his mother...These are all different kinds of love, yet I would not dare say that one eclipses another. His time may be spent more with this other girl, but it is entirely possible that he loves you both equally."
Toph hadn't considered this idea, but...she didn't want to. She deserved what Suki had. Only, well, maybe without all the smootching and gross stuff. OK, maybe a little smootching. Ehhhhh maybe not? Bleh, she couldn't decide.
"W-well...What should I do? I really care about this guy but I don't like seeing him with this other girl. It just pisses me off."
"If you truly cared about him, as you say that you do, you would want to see him happy - if you loved him, you would put his own happiness before your own. Selflessness is love put into action."
Ouch. That...is probably true. Wow. Maybe I am being a jerk...?The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it.
"I know it is difficult to consider - you are but only a child, and should not even be fretting over such things. But you came to me seeking counsel, and I have given it."
Toph set her empty tea cup to her left, running her hand over her face, through her bangs, over her useless eyes. Her head bulged, her stomach was sideways, her lungs were tight. The volcano was about to erupt again. She curled up and laid herself on the bench, her head resting in Iroh's lap, hands clutched to her head.
"I'm sick of this," she groaned miserably. "When did everything have to become so...so stupid? My family, my friends, this dumb boy...I don't even know what I want right now, I'm just...I want to punch something." Iroh gently patted her on the head. It wasn't the way Aang or Katara or Sokka would, but it was still cool.
"Growing up is not fun," he admitted. "Even at Zuko's age, one is certainly still growing. My advice to you, my child, is to stop worrying so much about all of these things you are so concerned of. Appreciate what Destiny has given you. It always takes things from us, but not without giving us something else in return."
She had managed to hold back tears, thankfully. That was a sight she didn't want him to see. She didn't even understand why she felt like crying for a second there. Was it about Sokka? Her parents? She didn't get it. She released the grip on her own head and rolled over, her face pointed up at his.
"My friends told me that I'm like their sister now," she said hopefully. "Mr. Iroh...Would you be my uncle?"
There was a long pause, a deep breath, a scriff scriff.
"I will not deny that you are a lost child," he said pensively. "If you truly would like an old man such as myself to watch over you from time to time, I can certainly do my best."
"Really?" He was such a sweet old man. She knew he'd say yes. She rolled up into a sitting position and gave him a squeeze. Whoa. Yea, he was a lot harder and less squishy than she remembered. Had he been working out or something? Major, it seemed like. "Thanks, Uncle Iroh. You're pretty cool for an old guy." That sounded a lot more natural than "Mr. Iroh," that was for sure.
"And you are...'pretty cool' for a youngster."
"I promise I'll think about what you said," she muttered. She wasn't really sure how much she'd consider it, but since he was going to be her uncle and all that, she ought to make due on really thinking about this stuff.
"Always remember that you are the one who must make these choices, Toph," Iroh specified. OK, so he did remember her name. She had been wondering. "I am but only one man with his own opinions. True wisdom in this world means seeking knowledge from everywhere you can."
"Meaning I should listen to my friends, too," Toph agreed.
She shuffled through her satchel and pulled out a couple of coins for her tea, dropping them in Iroh's empty mug. Clinklechink.
"I'll try," she repeated. Maybe if she just kept saying it she'd actually do it.
"You are a stubborn little girl," Iroh told her with a warmth she knew to expect. "If you set your mind to this task I see nothing in your path that cannot be bypassed."
"Thanks for everything, Uncle. I'm going off on a trip but I promise I'll bring my friends to see you when we get back."
"Leaving again so soon?"
"I guess we're headed for the South Pole," Toph proudly declared, pouncing off the bench and landing behind the elderly sage. "I've never been there but I think I'm gonna suck it up and try to have fun."
"Speaking from experience, I can tell you it is very lovely down there," Iroh informed her. "Very beautiful. I am certain you will agree."
It certainly didn't sound like it would be beautiful, but...if he said so, maybe it was, after all.
Toph stomped her foot, making her bench crumble back into the earth from whence it came, bringing Iroh down with it. The tea cups on their saucers remained afloat on slim discs of ground, which she flung into the building with a flick of her wrist. Iroh belted out an amused laugh from the dirt.
"What have I gotten myself into?" he cried between chuckles.
"I'm a trouble child all right," Toph declared with a prideful smirk. She was feeling a lot better. That tea had soaked in. Her talk with Iroh, while frustrating in some ways, made her feel more hopeful about figuring her way through all of this problems, and she now officially had the most awesome uncle in the world.
Pad pad pad pad schuf.
"Uncle," Zuko called. "There are more customers, and Jin can't serve them all at once. You'd better get back in here. Wh...Why are you sitting in the dirt?"
Schiff shiff, he dusted himself off. Crick-crack-popple. Yow. Were those his bones?
"Just...enjoying your cousin's company," Iroh replied, shuffling his way over.
"My what?" Zuko muttered, barely audibly.
"I shall await your return, my child," Iroh assured with a light pat on her back. "I hope you find the answers you are looking for on your travels."
As Iroh entered the Jasmine Dragon to resume his business, Zuko stood silently by the door.
"You've become more like your Uncle, ya know that, Crispy?"
"What makes you say that?" Zuko wondered, approaching her.
"He told me practically the same stuff you did. Just, ya know...about trees and fire and stuff. Or whatever."
"Oh, Iroh-Speak," Zuko acknowledged, as if this were common sense.. "All the metaphors?"
"Yeaaaa, that." Another pause. "I like him. You're not so bad, either, Crispy."
"Yea? Well, neither are you, um...Foot. Girl."
"Er...Maybe you should leave the nicknames to me, huh?"
"S-sounds like a good idea..." Another awkward pause. "I'm sorry if I was harsh on you, Toph. But I did mean what I said. I've been where you have, and you don't have to go down the road I did."
"No, you're right," she dismissed. Might as well get this 'apologizing' crap out of the way and be done with it. "I was being a jerk, and you didn't deserve it, and...Yea. Just...don't worry about it. It's in the past."
"I think that's the attitude you need to exercise here with what's going with your parents. Good luck."
"Sounds like you need luck more than I do, Lord Crispy."
As Toph merrily passed by, she sent a rapid shock through the ground with an otherwise unassuming footstep, causing a small pillar to sharply spike up and retract, nailing Zuko between the legs. Fump. A nice, satisfying face-to-the-ground.
"I'm guessing you probably don't remember this either, but...That was my revenge. For burning my feet. Figured I'd put that behind us, too."
"I thought...it was...in the past..." he managed to whimper. She giggled.
"Changed my mind about that one." Toph tapped at his back with her dirty foot. "Well, it's been real, and it's been fun...But it ain't been real fun," she snickered. "I guess I'll see ya later, Crispy."
She slipped through the Jasmine Dragon's back door where that Jin girl was preparing tea for the clump of fresh customers that had passed in as Iroh was serving it out.
"What happened to Zuko?" Jin whispered to her.
"He got what was comin' to him," Toph devilishly answered. She marched through the crowded shop, chiming, "See ya, Uncle!"