The One Who Waits - [Avatar: The Last Airbender]

A/N:  Per Aang and King Bumi, Toph’s the one who waits (and listens).  Did anyone else ever think that had to be kind of a crappy job?

Words:  600ish

THE ONE WHO WAITS

It tastes bitter going down, thick and salty and jagged.  Glass probably looks like the flavor of this thing, this horrible almost-beverage, and Toph gasps and thrusts her head back and gulps, gulps, gulps.  It splashes against her teeth and she imagines she can hear the enamel on said teeth just melting, sizzling away, hsssssh—thinks too that her tongue is shriveling, a wrinkled husk like the remnants of a dead flower in her skull.  Another gulp.  One more.  It’s gone then, it’s done:  the glass is empty and, with a wheeze, she slams it down against the bar’s countertop. 

“Okay,” she insists.  Tears roll down her cheeks, streams of them, maybe even rivers.  What’s the difference between a stream and a river anyway?  Smearing the tears into nothing with the heel of her hand, she huffs and goes on, “Okay, okay.  I hope every single one of you sorry bastards saw that.”  Licking her lips and baring her teeth, she snarls, “Anyone else in here wanna bet on me not being able to drink something?  Because I think someone already—hey.”  Her head swivels; her arm swings out, and her finger flicks in the direction of the tavern’s tender.  “You.  Yeah.  I think you owe me some money, pal.”

An awed silence stretches over the bar, which was pretty rowdy when she came in, a cluster of cursing and bawdy music and sloshing liquid.  Now she could probably hear a pin hit the floor if someone dropped one, and it’s a beautiful thing, the resounding echo of worship in this place’s sweaty eaves.  The tender trembles as he passes over a bag of coins.  The little bits of metal whisper together, tink-tink-tink, and the man breathes when Toph’s hand closes over her earnings, “The last person who tried to drink a glass of that stuff died on the second swallow and he was a grown mercenary!  He was—”

“A pansy,” Toph opines.  She makes the purse disappear into her vest and swirls her index finger around, just once.  “Another of those, then.”

Toph’s got good ears, and she’s pretty sure she’s hearing this guy blow his fair share of blood vessels.  “But,” the tender hisses.  “But it might kill you—”

“Give me another,” the Earthbender instructs, a threat in her tone now.  “For the road, buddy.  There’s a good boy.”

Reluctant, fearful feet shuffle.  The tender moves away.  Gradually sound blooms in the bar again, whispers, muffled oaths of admiration—but no one else tries to talk to Toph and that, hey, that’s just like normal, huh?  That’s just the way it is. 

When the tender returns with her second drink, she bolts it down—again it’s glass, but the first cut’s always the worst and this second slice is almost buttery, a streak of heat from chin to sternum.  Leaving the cup and a coin on the counter, she hefts to her feet, flexes her toes across the floorboards:  makes for the door.  There is no stagger to her step—only the faintest hitch at her left knee, and it would take a friend to notice the weakness. 

But her friends are gone, frittered off across the four nations doing their diplomatic work, their duties, sure, while she’s stuck here alone in this stinking cesspool of a city.  There’s no Katara hovering at her elbow, no Aang to tease—no Sokka especially, to imbibe with and laugh with and—

Despite that it does her no good—despite that it and all the drinks in this place will never let her forget how far they are from her—Toph closes her eyes.  Her head is heavy and she lets it droop—her lip curls against her teeth.  In her mouth the shards of the drink linger, cutting.

She swallows them.  Stepping out into the night, she limps slowly home.