That Lights My Way
"So, Meathead," she called.
"Yea?" He paused, back-stepping to her side.
Toph fished around in her pocket nervously, fingering the smooth bone piece she had carved back at the South Pole.
"Now that we're...cool, and everything. There was something I wanted to give to you."
She carefully removed the intricately crafted jewelry from her pocket and timidly pressed it into the air before Sokka. He tenderly accepted it, and she could sense him surveying it in front of his face.
"Wow," he murmured. "Did you make this?"
"Yea," Toph declared, swelling with pride at his impressed tone. "I made it from some bone, using the meteor rock you gave me."
"That's pretty spiffy, Kiddo." He slipped it around his right hand's middle finger. Thankfully, it seemed to fit just fine.
"It's to remind you that you have a little sister to keep your eye on," Toph explained. "Since she can't keep an eye on herself," she added with a sly smirk.
"Haha. I won't forget," Sokka assured. "Hey, this goes with my necklace pretty well, actually."
"What can I say? I'm so good at being blind I have a sense of fashion that's greater than yours."
"I'll say." He ruffled her bangs and slapped her on the back, easing her to follow him to the tea shop. "You're just all about the jewelry these days, huh? Bracelet, necklace, anklet, making me a ring. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were starting to act more like a girl."
"Then it's a good thing you know better," Toph teased, her face pink from his remark - he was correct, though, wasn't he?
As they approached the entrance, the thick crowd Toph had been dreading engulfed them. Thankfully, things were a bit less crowded inside, she could tell, but they had to wade through the masses first. Sokka gripped her wrist tightly as they pushed through, her senses overloaded from all the heartbeats, talking, chinaware clattering, sipping of tea, laughing...it was so much she couldn't make out the music from within very clearly. By the time they'd wormed their way in the playing had stopped.
"Hey! Sokka! Toph!" Aang's voice cut through the clamor like a knife, his distinctive voice clear to Toph's ears. Toph waved him arm up in the air at the direction of the voice, his heartbeat somewhat tricky to ascertain in the busy shop. Before she knew it they had reached their table near the back of the store, and Toph could more easily distinguish some familiar figures - Zuko and Jin were standing beside Iroh and Zuko' girlfriend, seeming to be having a light hearted discussion.
"How are you doing, Toph?" Katara wondered from one seat to the right.
"A lot better," Toph piped out, her mouth drooling at the many delightful scents enveloping her. She could practically sense all of their eyes on her, and her face was warm with embarrassment. They all knew what had just happened, she was sure.
"So where's this magical singing Fire Lord I've been hearing about?" Sokka demanded, slapping his palm on the table.
"They're taking a break," Suki explained. "Calm down, unbeliever."
"He's actually not bad," Katara complimented in earnest. "I'm kind of surprised." She poked Toph on the shoulder. "Hey, Toph, you thirsty?"
Toph nodded vigorously, the idea of Lemon Balm tea taunting her tongue.
"C'mon, let's go get you some tea and say hi to everyone," Katara offered, prodding her on the back. Stohhfff. She skidded her chair out as she rose, and Toph followed her lead. Something told her Katara had something on her mind and her cleared out head was quite open to finding out what it was. "We'll be back," she told the group before guiding Toph over to their comrades. For the first time in as long as she could, Toph was overcome with a sense of satisfied compliance - being led around by the hand by her older siblings, not due to any lack of her own ability but by their desire to take her with them.
"Hello, there, Katara," Iroh's distinct voice crackled. "And hello, Niece."
"Hi, Iroh," Katara warmly replied. Toph found it sufficient to wave her arm in the air in their direction.
"Katara, it's good to see you," Zuko's girlfriend rasped out, her normally chilled voice emenating heat like fading embers. The two girls hugged, and Toph pressed the side of her head into Iroh's stomach as she stretched her arms around his front side.
"How is everything going, Lord Zuko?" Katara coyly questioned, presenting his new title with an amused laugh. Another hug, and the maturing boy chuckled.
"Not entirely according to plan," he confessed.
"Waha," Iroh belted out. "You'd best get used to that, Nephew."
"Don't I know it," Zuko chuckled back.
"Have you been served yet?" Mai wondered.
"Actually, Toph and my brother just got here, we were wondering if you could make a black tea for Sokka and...-"
"Lemon Balm with a touch of mint," Jin finished knowingly.
"Of course," said Mai, making her way around the group. "I'll get that for you right now." She stopped to peck Zuko on the cheek as she passed. "You two keep playing your music," she encouraged. "You make a good team."
"Thanks," Jin replied. Toph read relief in her voice - relief that Mai seemed so comfortable with her proximity to Zuko. There was no jealously, no protectiveness, and it made Toph feel guilty for what she had been expressing toward Suki, especially without any claim to how he conducted himself.
"Glad you guys could make it," Zuko expressed gently to Katara.
"Of course." Taft, Katara nudged him on the arm. "Go get 'em, guys. You're doing great."
"We will," said Jin as they made their back to their instruments.
"How is our brave little warrior doing?" Iroh asked Toph.
"I'm doing," came her simple answer, accented with a deep breath and a shrug. "Pretty good, actually."
"Thanks so much for looking after her," Katara lauded.
"It was no trouble at all," testified the wise old guru. "I have a certain obligation to look after my niece, don't you think?" Toph beamed, hands grasping her hips with pride.
"Our family does take care of its own," Katara certified, running her hand across Toph's head.
"Well, I do hope you all enjoy your stay," Iroh insisted. "Now, if you will excuse me, I believe my nephew is about to start performing again."
"We'll see you later, Iroh," Toph assured with a grin, casting her arm up in a farewell wave as she spun around and followed Katara. They followed Mai to where the tea was being brewed and awaited it patiently.
"It'll be one moment here," Mai affirmed.
Katara knelt down beside Toph and spoke quietly into her ear.
"So you and Sokka worked everything out?"
"Sure did," Toph proudly confirmed.
"I'm so glad to hear that." Katara paused for a moment before continuing. "There's something I've been wanting to tell you."
"I thought it might help you feel better about everything," Katara explained. Her tone tickled Toph's heart with its joy and affection. "You can't tell, because you can't see, but...I can."
"What can you see?" Toph asked, perplexed.
"The way Sokka looks at you, Toph - there's just something in his eyes when he's with you. It took me a long time to figure out, but I finally realized that the way he looks at you...there's only one other person in the world he looks at the same way."
"Who?" Toph wondered, baffled.
"Me," Katara gleefully specified.
While this idea had already been established pretty clearly, hearing Katara explain it in this way - not just through words, but through action, through something she couldn't detect - somehow made her appreciate this truth even more. Sokka grew up with Katara - flesh and blood siblings. And Sokka thought of her, Toph, inthe exact same way, with the same care and respect, after mere months of being acquainted. And she knew it wasn't just Sokka, Katara and Aang - and maybe even Suki, with time - all felt this way. What more could she ask for, really?
"Thanks for telling me, Katara. That..." She mumbled out the rest. "That kinda means a lot."
"I'm kinda glad to hear it."
"Tea's done," Mai announced. Katara Took both mugs, and Toph reached out her arm to accept hers, to which Katara obliged.
Treading lightly, Toph paid heed to Jin and Zuko on her way back.
"We'd like to dedicate this next song to the man of the hour," Jin declared loudly. "Our generous host tonight and father to us all: we'd be lost without you, Uncle Iroh."
Toph honed in on the man of honor's body and could detect his heart elevate with bashful joy. Her ears were suddenly filled with the pleasures of guitar strings vibrating in rhythm: strum-hum-hmmm, strumma-strum-hm, strum-hum-hmmm, strumma-strum-hm. Bongo drums supported the guitar with steady, confident strides: bom-bok-tah, bottatotta-bum, bom-bok-tah, bottatotta-bum.
A familiar raspy voice rang out clearly, wrapped in an alien elegance.
"~I am just a tired man - the weight of the world on my should-ers-~~I am just a sad man - with the tears of a nation in my- eyes-~~I am just trying to find my lost soul and follow- you-~"
Zuko sang with an earnest sincerity that Toph had never picked up on during any occasion in which they had spoken. As he proceeded into the chorus, Jin harmonized backup, her voice soulful with a bit of a twang.
"~Follow you,~ 'cuz~every time I fall down, you pick me up again~""~eve-ry-time- you pick- me- up-~""~And every time I come apart you put me together again~""~And eve-ry-time- put me- to-ge-ther-~""~And every time I mess things up, you clean me up a-gain-~""~And eve-ry-time- clean- me- up- a-gain-~"
Jin took up the second verse, and Toph had realized that Katara had already reached the table while she had been dawdling behind, meserized by the song, swept up by the gratitude expressed in its lyrics.
"~I am just a simple girl, with a message to pro-claim-~~I am just a kindred soul, and I'm searching for the- flame-~~I am just a soldier now, and I'm marching in your- name-~Your name, 'cuz-"
"~every time I fall down, you pick me up again~""~eve-ry-time- you pick- me- up-~""~And every time I come undone you put me together again~""~And eve-ry-time- put me- to-ge-ther-~""~And every time I mess things up, you clean me up a-gain-~""~And eve-ry-time- clean- me- up- a-gain-~"
Transported by the tune, Toph's attention was too divided to notice her misstep until it was too late: she tripped over someone's boot and was flung face first to the floor no more than two feet from her chair. Had she been prepared for it, she was certain she could have prevented the teacup and saucer from smashing on the floor, but the she had not been prepared, and ended up on her knees, hot tea splashed all around her. She could hear the commotion of everyone at her table shove their chairs out and rise at the concern of her safety. Strange but comforting.
"Goodness, are you all right?" murmured the stranger whose heel she just vaulted herself around.
"I'm fine. Sorry," she sheepishly mumbled to the stranger.
"Toph," Sokka cried out, immediately at her side. His slender arm was immediately around her shoulder, and his opposing hand eased her up. "I gotcha, Rocky."
"~Every time I fall down, you pick me up again~"
Sokka smacked her on the back and chuckled at her accident.
"Are you OK?" Aang checked as she stepped through sticky, warm liquid. Aang took her hand and guided her out of the sloppy tea puddle. "You oughtta take it easy."
"~And every time I come apart you put me together again~"
"Come here, Hun," Katara grunted, the swirling sounds of waterbending surrounding Toph as the watery accident and all traces of it on Toph's body were swiped away and splashed into a dirty mug on their table. Katara kissed Toph on the forehead and giggled. "Getting a little too excited about your tea, huh?"
"~And every time I mess things up, you clean me up a-gain-~"
"Thanks, guys," Toph sighed, scratching the back of her head after she seated herself at the table once again.
"Aw," Suki whimpered with sympathy, "All that and no tea. You want me to go get you more?"
"No, it's OK, I'm,-" But Suki had already taken off. "Thanks," Toph called out awkwardly. The music had died down to an instrumental romp that served as a delightful background to their...sudden lack of conversation.
"Seriously, guys," Toph insisted. "I'm totally fine."
"We know," Katara chuckled, rubbing her shoulder tenderly. "You really are totally fine for a change, aren't you?"
"All right, everyone!" cried out Jin from the corner of the shop. "This next one was a request from a friend of ours. She wanted to dedicate this one to her family." A gentle thrummm rang out from Jin's guitar and she elaborated.
"She wants her brothers and her sister to know that even though she can't see light in the darkness, you guys show her what light feels like."
Katara's hand squeezed around Toph's bicep and she had a feeling Jin had cast some look their way to indicate exactly who this was directed toward.
The guitar plucks trickled like a gentle tributary through Toph's ears, washing over her like water. Jin's streetwise singing came to the forefront with the streaming guitar singing backup.
~The pain of this world is ever present, and the misery and doubt have been sustained.~~I'll never leave your side, my friends, for you hold me in yours arms.~~And when the cold wind blows, I'll look for you in the dark~~For you are the Lighthouse, and you are the Candle~~That lights my way tonight.~
As the song proceeded through its verses, Suki returned with more tea that was eagerly inhaled and the group engaged themselves in the first conversation lacking in any kind of stress or sorrow in weeks. When Toph's mind diverted from the music to the topic at hand, she recalled the sword dueling contest Sokka had been invited to join.
"I could totally take 'em," Sokka boasted.
"I thought you said you said you needed a new sword?" Toph taunted.
"W-well, sure, but...-"
"I'll bet Toph could help you build a great new sword!" Aang proposed.
"Whoa, yea!" Toph cried out with jubilant determination. "Yea, I could metalbend you a freakin' sweet sword!"
"Hm," Sokka contemplated. "Can you make the hilt look like dragon wings?"
"Oh, oh, and can we inscribe, like, ancient runes on it?"
"Uh, sure, I gu-"
"Ohhhh, oh oh! And give it, like, a serrated edge to make it look so bad!"
"Thanks Aang," Toph sighed as Sokka burst out dramatized battle cries.
~And I say all the big words and I do all the wrong things~~And I come back to you each night~~To feel you holding my head as I weep- as I weep beneath these sheets~
"Do you think that's such a good idea, Sokka?" Suki teased. "You haven't been keeping up with your training lately."
"Maybe we should find a comet to taunt you into becoming a sword master before winter," Aang joked. "That sorta thing worked for me, right?"
"Oh, come on, it's only been a few weeks," Sokka hum-hawed with a snort.
"A lot can change in just a few weeks," Toph pointed out with a coy implication.
"It sure can," Katara agreed with a solemnly satisfied tone. She had been oddly quiet, but when Toph heard her humming the chorus by the end she figured out that her sister had been listening to the song with careful intent. Zuko chimed in with Jin during the final segment.
~The pain of this world is ever present~~And the misery and doubt have been sustained.~~I'll never leave your side, my friends~For you hold me in yours arms~~And when the cold wind blows~~I'll look for you in the dark~~For you are the Lighthouse~~And you are the Candle~~That lights my way tonight~
As the trickling guitar slowed, Toph rotated her wrist, swirling her rock bracelet across her arm. She tapped her foot and relished the clattering of her bone anklet. She rubbed her fingers across the smooth round jewel wrapped around her neck. She methodically rubbed her bare feet back and forth against the cool stone floor of the Jasmine Dragon, savoring the pulsing vibrations that rang clear through the crowd from her three favorite people in the world.
Ta-Thump. Ta-Thump.Th-tump. Th-tump.Thum-thump. Thum-thump.
(Lyrics from Simple Man and The Lighthouse, by Jesse Orton.)
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