"Tea cures all the world's ills, Child."
Her head was throbbing, her sense of orientation completely gone. Was she sitting? Lying down? Was her stomach inside her body or outside?
"Augh...Does it-?"Damn, head hurts so bad."Does it cure...stupidity?"
"Wahaha!" the man's voice bellowed with a slap-slap. "If only wisdom could be granted so easily, I would give my tea away!"
A weak laugh managed its way from her mouth, hand grasping her stomach. She felt as if she had puked out all of her guts minutes earlier. Maybe her brain, too. That would explain a lot.
"I feel awful, Uncle Iroh," came the irritable groan as she bumped her head into what seemed to be a pillow. "How did I end up here?"
"If only I knew," Iroh chuckled. "I was inside serving my customers - you came from the back entrance."
"Give me tea or give me death!" impersonated a girl's voice from across the room. It sounded like that girl that worked at the tea shop. What was her name again...?
"I said that?" Toph groaned, embarrassed with herself. She had absolutely no recollection.
"Yup," the girl replied, obviously amused. "And than you fell face-first onto the floor." Some laughs at Toph's expense - not unwarranted, either.
"Ugh, I'm such an idiot..."
"What possessed you to drink such a beverage that would make you so ill?" Iroh wondered with some hint of concern.
"I needed to take my mind off of...stuff," Toph grumbled, taking a deep breath as she tried to relax herself. She let her body go limp and loose, inhaling and exhaling as calmly as she could.
The whistle of a teapot eased her mind as the thought of hot liquid running down her throat tickled her soul.
Tippa tippa tippa. The girl scurried off to the source of the sound as Iroh hummed to himself.
"I would think any niece of mine would know better than to drink anything that isn't tea," he mused, scruffa-ing at his beard.
"Knowing better hasn't been my strong point lately," Toph sighed, her heavy eyelids sliding closed.
"You are like a leaf in the wind," Iroh decided. "being blown about, feeling as though where you will land is out of your control."
"I already landed," Toph corrected, "and then I got trampled on."
Glllluuuup. Water into a cup. She couldn't wait, as she was incredibly thirsty.
"I think I might have burned something that can't be healed," she added with scorn, recollecting what the man had warned her about days before.
"Ah." Iroh was silent until the other girl tippa'd her way in carefully. Kloksh. The mug was set down to her right, while Uncle Iroh's voice came from her left. "Thank you, Jin. Did you put the medicine in?"
"I sure did, Mr. Iroh."
"Thanks," Toph mumbled half-heartedly. This wasn't tea, then, was it? Not the kind of tea she wanted.
"Is there still hot water?" Iroh questioned.
"Um...Yea, I think."
"Could you make our guest some Lemon Balm as well, please?"Oh, yes. Thank you. Read my mind.
"With just a touch of mint, right?" Jin knowingly acknowledged.
"Thank you," Toph whimpered out to the fading tippa tippa.
"You're welcome, Toph," sang Jin from a room away. Based on the acoustics, this wasn't the Jasmine Dragon. It must have been Uncle Iroh's house. Why was Jin here?
"Now, then, my Child. Drink."
Ulgh. Don't wanna. Bleck.But you should, it'll help you feel better.Yea, yea...
With a grouchy grunt, Toph sat up, head still pounding, and slowly reached to her right. Her fingers brushed the wooden floor - no wonder she could hardly sense where anything was - and eventually found their way to a ceramic mug. With care, she hoisted it in both of her grubby hands and tilted it to her parched lips. She braced for an unpleasant taste, and that was exactly what she received. Maintaining her cool, she managed to drink it down, sip by sip, with only a cough or two after each large gulp. She wiped her mouth as she set the mug down, thankful to be done with it.
"That will help ease your body," Iroh explained. "It is like a boat lost in a storm - that medicine will still the waters."Pff. Not all of them, Uncle...
"Here," Jin offered from Toph's side. Toph stuck out her palms and received the new, freshly hot mug.
"Thanks." That word was becoming surprisingly easy for Toph to hand out.
"You're welcome," Jin beamed with a light pat on Toph's head.
Scffa, tippa tippa.
"So, you told your Water Tribe friend about your feelings for him?" Iroh guessed - though Toph felt it wasn't a guess at all.
Toph hummed hesitantly and nodded her head, sniffing the savory vapors from her tea.
"He does not reciprocate," Iroh stated as a fact.
"I can see it in your face, Child - you feel like a warrior who has lost a battle. You think you are disgraced, weak, defeated."
"Hmph." She snorted and sucked on her mug, the water not so hot as to burn her mouth. She decided to gulp it down fairly quickly.
"Love is like a battle," Iroh continued. "Some times you lose." He sighed deeply, a strange pause interrupting his thought. The kind of pause that made it clear he was speaking from experience. "But, eventually, you find a new cause to fight for."Again with this whole 'waiting' bullcrap. Not that she had a choice anymore."But there is no disgrace in losing, Child. You had the bravery to fight in the first place. This is noble - so long as you don't dwell on the battlefield too long. There is a point where you must retreat before you are killed. Losing a battle and falling are two different matters."
Toph's tea was already gone. Now her belly was all sloshy and full.
Sometimes a tactful retreat is the path to victory, Sokka had said in that funny way of his, many days ago.
Toph suddenly wondered how much time had passed since she had swiped Sokka's bottle. Hours? An entire night? A day? She had no idea, but then again, she was in no rush to return, either.
"Would you mind if...I spoke with Toph for a bit?"
"Certainly," Iroh agreed with a grunt, his weight vibrating the wood beneath them. His tud tud footsteps drew near and he planted a consoling, strong hand on Toph's shoulder, taking the empty tea mug from her.
"There are many wonderful things you have going for you, you know," Iroh pointed out, slapping his hand gently. "And four of the most important ones are waiting for you back home. And they love you very much."
Tud. Tud. Tud.Tippa tippa tippa.
"Hey," Jin greeted simply, a faint layer of formality removed from her tone as she sat no more than a few feet ahead. "I know it's hard, Toph. Believe me."
"Why?" Toph wondered plainly. She wanted to feel understood, she wanted advice from someone closer to her age who could perhaps relate things to her in a less...'wise' way.
"Because it happened to me, too."
"Hee. Yea, how'd you know?" Jin wasn't embarrassed by it at all. It sounded as if she found it funny somehow.
Toph shrugged, rubbing her head.Damnit all, so dizzy...
"I could just...tell," Toph thoughtfully muttered, flopping onto her back, loose hair flailed out across the pillow she'd been resting on.
"When he first showed up here with his uncle, I started coming to their old shop every day. I thought Zuko - or 'Lee,' as he said his name was - was really cute, and sweet...in his own way. I could just tell that he was dealing with a lot. Of course, I had no idea just how much it was, but...Anyway, he was mysterious, and lonely, and even though his face was scarred, and he was grouchy all the time, I just...I don't know." She sighed in spite of her memories and snickered at herself. "Whenever I got my tea I would always wait to drink it until I saw his face. It took a while but I finally had the guts to ask him out on a date..." She paused, containing a laugh. "Well, I asked Iroh if he could go on a date." The laugh broke free.
"Haha, for real?"
"Yea. I know, really pathetic, right?"
"Pff, yea, kinda," Toph agreed with a grin, resting her hands on her still queasy stomach.
"But, so...We went out on a date..."
"You and Zuko, huh?"
"Me and Zuko."
"And then you realized you were wrong about him?"
The response was thoughtfully delayed.
"Wh-? Well, no. I was totally right. He was awkward and mysterious and brooding and...still kind of sweet underneath. I felt for him."
"I don't know, probably because I know what's it like to be that way. To be awkward and angry at the world, and have no idea how to properly talk to people. Some times I wonder if I'm still like that," Jin muttered with a hint of melancholy. "But, well...It was nice, and...I wanted to see what would happen, so I kissed him. And he pushed me away." The words felt like a needle poking at the still fresh wound in Toph's chest, but she held back her emotions. Jin came across as so nonchalant about it, like it was no big deal or something. It pissed Toph off in a way.
"And I realized that...he already had someone," Jin thoughtfully explained. "In his heart, he was already with someone else, even if they weren't here in Ba Sing Se. And that...Well, it hurt. But I got over it. You have to or else it's just going to keep eating at you."
"Why are you telling me this?" Toph grunted, tempted to roll over and ignore her. Getting things rubbed in her face was unpleasant.
"I think you know why, Toph," Jin replied with a laugh, clearly not receptive to Toph's hostility.
Toph groaned out an exaggerated sigh. This girl wasn't going to take her crap, but wasn't actively upset with her, either. Maybe that was what she needed right now.
"When Zuko showed up in Ba Sing Se again, as the Fire Lord, I was just a little surprised. All that time I'd been crushing on a Prince. But by then I had gotten over it, I'd found a job working at the Jasmine Dragon, and when Zuko showed up to pay respects to his Uncle...well, he was nervous at first when he saw me."
"Yeeaaaa, that would be a pretty awkward way to meet, the...kissing...and stuff."
"It was really awkward. I had no idea why he even stopped to talk with me, but...he did. We talked for...gosh, all evening."
"Wow, Zuko having a heart-to-heart with someone? Sounds weird to me." Toph grinned.
"Oh, it was weird. He can be so weird sometimes. Like, he doesn't know what to say without being uncomfortable about it some times. But I could tell he had really changed a lot since I had last seen him. He told me that..." She paused, shuffling her position. "Told me that he wanted us to be friends. That I had cared about him when I thought he was just some stranger, that his being a prince had nothing to do with how I acted. He said he appreciated that and that even though he was already with someone, he wanted us to be friends."
"Hmph." Toph rubbed her stomach gently, considering such a circumstance.
"Even though I don't...like Zuko anymore, I still really care about him. We share some common ground. And I feel so bad for everything he has to fix, but I admire his determination."
"Yea," Toph agreed quietly, reflecting on the rough road that was no-doubt ahead of that poor boy.
Skoofff. "So, I know you're feeling rotten right now, Toph," her voice was closer now, "But...You have a family that's looking out for you, including a very wise uncle. And now I am, too."
Toph's face quivered from all of the stress that was now flooding her mind. Now it had to be all confused by this strange girl wanting to be friends with her. For no apparent reason.
"Why?" she asked, turning her face to the direction of Jin's voice.
"We can all use all the friends we can get, right?"
Someone who hardly knows anything about you, offering you friendship. You were just talking about how you've been being stupid lately. You're not gonna keep doing that, right?No.
"All right, then," Jin concluded. "Friends."
Oddly, Toph was not startled by the dry, rough hand that patted her wrists tenderly. The stroke of sympathy from this relative stranger seemed like just what she needed in that exact moment.
"So what should I do, Jin? How can I make things...not awkward?"
"Well, the first thing you have to do, Toph, is decide what it is you want."
"What do you want from all of this?"
"Er...I want Sokka to like me back..."
"No, no." Jin giggled. "What do you want that you could actually work toward?"
"I could...work toward that."
"Haha, Toph, you're...kind of going backward."
"Oh. Sorry."Well, what the hell, then? I don't get what you're saying.
"You have to accept what's already happened and decide what you want to make from it. It's like...I dunno. You feel like your heart is broken, right?"
Toph chose not to respond out loud but the answer inside was a resounding 'yes,' which she rather hated.
"So you need to figure out what you want to build the broken pieces back into."
"Wouldn't I just...build them back into what they were before?"
"Seeeeee..." Jin began, clicking her tongue. "That's what you haven't realized yet, Toph. Your heart's been broken, but because it's broken, you can take the pieces and build something new from it."Something new?
"You're confused. You're angry - at yourself. I was the same way when I was your age. And right now you don't know what to do with yourself. Now is the time to decide who you want to be and take those broken pieces and build that someone. Sometimes we need to be broken down before we can build something new of ourselves because...well...-"
"'Cuz we get too stubborn," Toph grumbled, the tides of acknowledgment washing over her. She recalled her friends talking about this idea a while back and it not entirely being clear to her what they had meant. Now, she felt it did.
"I think I understand now, Jin..."
Toph let out a 'hrm' as she contemplated her friends back home, no-doubt wondering where she was.
"I should probably...get back home."
"It's already late at night," Jin insisted. "They already know you're here."
"Wh-? They do?"
"Of course." Jin laughed through her nose and tapped Toph on the shoulder. "Your friend Aang told me that the Jasmine Dragon was the first place they thought to look."
"Well...Why aren't they here, then?" Toph wondered, her stomach lurching a bit.
"Iroh told them that you had probably run away from home because you needed some time to sort yourself out. We promised them we'd take care of you and send you back home tomorrow."And they were OK with that?
"All right," Toph replied to Jin's explanation in a mumble, finding it sufficient. She appreciated the fact that they had let her be, now that she considered it. But then again, maybe they were mad at her...
Haha.What?You're actually worried about them being mad at you....So?You don't want to make them upset.Um, duh? Why would I?Getting them irritated didn't used to bother you so much before. Sometimes you'd do it on purpose.Oh...Guess that is a good point.See? You've already been rebuilding some of your broken pieces these days.Maybe I have...
"Maybe you should get to sleep," Jin suggested with a giggle.
"Hm?" Toph opened her eyes and directed her face to the voice. Oh, wait. Her eyes had been closed. And keeping them open was becoming quite a chore - like there was even a point, anyway. She had a feeling this had something to do with that yucky stuff they had her drink a few minutes ago.
A hand was pressed against her back, and she was leaning into it. She could sense her body tilting over, laying down, feather-filled pillow under her head.
"Good night, Toph."
Who do you want to be, Toph Bei Fong?I'm not a Bei Fong anymore.Oh, right. Of course. You want to be someone else now.I want to be strong and tough but not just outside, inside. I want to...I want to feel people around me. Not just where they are, I want to feel them.That means you're going to have to start letting people inside more.I know, I know.Do you know? Are you actually going to do it?Yes. OK? I promise.
"Whew. OK. I think...I think we've got it down, finally." Jin grinned at her music partner who sighed and nodded.
"Yea. That sounded all right," he agreed.
"I thought it was good," came Toph's voice from the next room over. She stumbled in with a yawn, arms stretched out. She leaned against the doorway and crossed her arms over her chest. "I didn't know you could sing, Zuko."
"Oh, w-well, I...had some training when I was a kid, but..." he was a bit flustered by her compliment. Jin wondered if perhaps he was afraid of getting hit in the royal jewels again, given that it had been the last interaction the two had shared.
"So why are you still here?" Toph wondered. "I thought you had business to take care of back home?"
"I did," Zuko answered. "Turns out, part of that business entailed coming to Ba Sing Se to establish negotiations with the King."
"Oh. Sooo...you went to the Fire Nation and came right back?"
"More or less."
"Pff." Toph shook her head, tangles of black hair matted against her face. "So what does playing bongo drums have to do with negotiations?"
Zuko set his drums aside and gave Jin a smile.
"My Uncle thought it would be a good idea if I took some time to get to know the people of this city, so this afternoon I'm going out with the King to show the people of the Earth Kingdom who I really am."
"I'd thought it'd be cool if Zuko and I played at the Jasmine Dragon afterward, try and draw some new customers in. Celebrity power!"
"Sooo...Basically, you're using him to make a profit," Toph teased.
"Kind of?" Jin smacked Zuko on the back and gave him a joking wink. "Nah, I just wanted to play some music. And besides, we both want to express our thanks to Iroh. Getting him some more customers and playing him some music seemed like a good idea."
"Yea," Zuko murmured with a smirk, patting his drum affectionately.
"So...What, are you like, dedicating that song you just played to Uncle Iroh?" Toph wondered.
"No, we have another song," Zuko explained.
"Oh. Um..." She bobbed her head, her eyes covered by her messy bangs. "Do you think...maybe you could dedicate that song to someone for me?" The words shyly found their way out.
Jin felt her heart warm up with joy at Toph's request.
"Of course we can, Hun."
"Why that song?" Zuko wondered. "Not to be rude, but...-"
"I know," Toph chuckled. "The light you sang about? No, it's OK. I think I...know what it feels like."Thatta girl, Toph. That's the way.
Pleased with Toph's attitude, Jin strummed a chord on her instrument and asked a question she already knew the answer to.
"So...Who do want us to dedicate the song to?"