Cadence slowly opened her eyes, wincing against the light of the sun in her eyes as it shone through the window, the curtains not pulled shut. She lifted a foreleg to cover her eyes, only to wince again as the entire limb twinged. Glancing down, she saw the bandages wrapped around the burned area, protecting the burned portion from further damage. The pain was a lot less than she thought it should have been.
After a moment, she realized that she wasn't in the field of blood red clay she remembered crying herself to sleep in. Sitting up somewhat in the bed, she glanced around...taking in the Upper Ring apartment she had shared with Iroh and Zuko when they'd lived in Ba Sing Se. Glancing out the window, she saw the city of Ba Sing Se. "...how did I get here?"
"Well, when a boy pony and a girl pony love each other very much...well, at least I assume that's how it works. For all I know, you spore."
Cadence slowly turned to the source of the voice. "Toph?" she asked, surprised to see her blind friend, though she had difficulty gathering the energy and enthusiasm to show it. "What are you doing here?"
Toph's smirk wavered a bit at Cadence' unenthused response. "Here to check up on you," Toph replied, coming to sit beside her. "You've been asleep for a week. Everyone's been worried about you."
Cadence lay back in her bed. "How...how did it go? The fight with...Uncle Ozai?"
"Probably not as interesting as your fight, whoever you were fighting!" Feeling Cadence flinch, Toph decided to be a bit less flippant regarding that. "Well, don't worry! I can give you a first hand eye-witness account of our fight!" This close, Toph could feel the shape of Cadence' facial expressions, and her lips didn't so much as quiver. "...wow, you really aren't in the mood, huh? Ozai said you looked like you were having nightmares when it was his turn to check on you-"
"Uncle Ozai's alive?" Cadence gasped desperately. "B...but how?"
"Well, that's kinda complicated," Toph explained, glad to see any sign of Cadence showing emotion other than emptiness or despair. "We were doing pretty good at holding the War Balloons back, despite the force they were throwing. The Firebenders on the ground were able to keep the fire back, and my Metalbending sent several of the balloons crashing into each other...but then Aang jumped into the fray in Avatar state. From what Sokka told me, one of the first things he did was split a War Balloon down the middle with a blade of air!" Toph chuckled happily. "He squealed over that quite a bit. After that, most of what I can tell you is from Suki's perspective."
Cadence nodded. "Alright...what then?"
"Well, Aang and Ozai fought each other, but it was apparently pretty one-sided," Toph continued. "Then again, considering I could feel the weight of Aang's power in the Earth, I'm not surprised. Anyway, Ozai was cornered and I heard Aang getting ready to deliver the final blow - he had a bit of a speech and everything, not that I remember much-"
"Why don't you remember much?" Cadence asked, confused.
"Because I was too busy feeling the entire planet lurch," Toph explained. "According to Suki, the Comet stopped in its passage through the sky, held in a glowing light." Feeling Cadence shift uncomfortably, Toph gasped. "Cadence...you stopped the Comet?"
Cadence glanced away. "...yeah..."
"That is so...awesome!" Toph squealed. "Especially with the effect it had on everyone! I mean, I'm pretty sure the other Earthbenders felt the same as I did with the way the Earth reacted, and Katara nearly fainted...but the Firebenders sank to their knees and genuflected, hiding their faces like they were in the presence of a God or something. Then again, we could all feel the pressure from the Spirit Realm from what happened, so I'm not all that surprised. Ozai slumped over at the sight of it, though."
"He...he did?" Cadence whimpered.
"Yup!" Toph confirmed. "He's just fine now, though. Pakku says his healers determined that Ozai suffered a 'brainstorm'. Apparently, whatever happened killed the part of his brain that triggered his Firebending. He's still got a connection to Fire in his spirit, and everything else works just fine...but no fire comes out."
"I...I guess that's...good?" Cadence offered.
"Zuko sure seems to think so," Toph offered. "He's going to work at the Jasmine Dragon for a while until he's learned to let go of his anger completely, then Zuko's going to call him back to the Fire Nation as his adviser, and to sit as a respected former leader of the Nation. So...everything's going to work out just fine." She turned to face Cadence, hair hanging over her eyes. "So...what about you? How come your spirit fought the Northern Healers trying to remove the scars on your forelegs? They were even using water from the Spirit Spring, whatever that means."
Cadence lowered her head, tears forming in her eyes. "I...I killed Azula..."
Part of Toph wanted to brush this off, talk about how Azula was totally psycho and killing her probably fixed a lot of problems. The larger part saw her oldest friend in pain, and decided comfort was required. Reaching over, Toph gently scooped Cadence into her lap and held her close.
Cadence burst into tears. "All...all she wanted was to be loved..." she sobbed, burying her face in Toph's chest. "But...but her brain didn't work right...and my magic...could have fixed it...but I rejected her..."
Toph gently rubbed Cadence' back, letting her cry herself out. She listened as Cadence related everything that had happened in her fight with Azula - and what had happened to Azula to cause the fight - between choked sobs. She didn't pretend to fully understand everything Cadence was saying. She barely understood when Cadence talked about her magic when she wasn't in a state of emotional turmoil. Even so, she could be there for Cadence, and let her work through it.
Eventually, Cadence stopped crying, and rubbed the tears from her eyes. "...thanks for listening, Toph. I just...I just don't know what to do..."
Toph sat back, letting Cadence curl back up on her bed. She scratched her chin. "Well, the way I see it...you've got two choices. You can stay here moping and let the world roll right over you, or you can punch it really hard."
"...punch the world?" Cadence asked, confused.
"Yeah!" Toph insisted. "The world's handed you a really shitty deal. You've been buried under lemons, so you can bemoan them being sour, or-"
"Or find some way to make them explode before chucking them back?" Cadence offered.
"I was gonna say 'drink lemonade', but I like your way better!" Toph proclaimed happily. "Let's go blow up some lemons!"
"Experience tells me cabbages are more readily combustible..." Cadence pointed out, a smile starting to take shape on her features.
"That's the spirit!" Toph agreed. "Find something to get really fired up about!"
Cadence tilted her head back thoughtfully as she scanned the world around her for a project, something she could accomplish that would make her feel good about herself. Eventually, her eyes fell on her friend. "Toph...how come you never look straight at someone?"
"Other than the obvious?" Toph joked.
"Yes, other than that," Cadence confirmed. "You're always looking down, letting your hair hide half of your face."
Toph winced. "Forgot how blunt you could be," she grumbled. Cadence remained silent, waiting for an answer. Sighing, Toph lowered her gaze. "I know I'm not much to look at," she admitted finally. "Don't need to see to know that. I don't look at anyone, they don't look at me. It's all about what I can do. I...like it better that way."
"...Toph, you taught me how to read lies with Earthbending," Cadence pointed out adroitly.
"If you weren't already wrapped up in bandages, I'd punch you right now," Toph grumbled. "So what? Gonna drag me off to the spa to give me a makeover? Katara already tried that-"
"I saw," Cadence interrupted. "And she obviously had no idea what she was doing. She tried to make you over into a beautiful lady. Beautiful you are, but you and I both know you're no lady." Seeing that got the chuckle she wanted, Cadence managed a grin. "I'm going to commandeer the spa to turn you into a beautiful you." She started to stand, only to wince as she tried to put weight on her legs. "Umm...you're going to have to carry me."
Rolling her eyes, Toph picked Cadence up and set her on her shoulders. "So...the spa?" she groaned.
"First we need to pick up some green silk and gold thread," Cadence countered. "I'm feeling...inspired."
Cadence' approach to Toph's 'beauty treatment' proved a bit more effective than Katara's had been. Using magic to work the dirt from Toph's skin and the calluses from her feet worked much smoother than pumice, and before long the 'cleansing' was finished. Cadence had also used the green fabric and gold thread to make a new style of dress for Toph, one that both emphasized her feminine beauty and strength. The top buttoned over her entire torso along her right side with jade buttons, and hanging silk trailed down to just above her ankles, slit up either side to give her legs total freedom. A giant badger-mole was stitched in gold over her left breast, and the snug fit of the fabric emphasized that aspect of her feminine beauty. Toph's hair had been cleaned and combed, and braided into a long rope that hung down over her right shoulder. To finish the look off, Cadence had pulled gemstones out of the earth, reshaping two solid emeralds into low heeled slippers, the Bending having made them sturdy enough to function as shoes and let Toph both bend and see through them. Cadence hadn't bothered with makeup, save for a colorless lip gloss she'd mixed up with her Waterbending.
"I'm not so sure about this..." Toph murmured at the exit to the spa.
"Don't worry, Toph," Cadence reassured her, her wings gently flapping. "I'll be directly above you the whole way. Just walk straight down the road with a smile on your face and your head held high. The Jasmine Dragon's not far from here."
"A...alright..." Toph murmured, stepping out. At first, she did her best to hide her nervousness...but her Earthbending showed her every single person that stopped to stare at her, and every case of whiplash that a double take caused. She hadn't even made it a quarter of the way to the Jasmine Dragon before 20 different people had walked into things. One such crash resulted in a particularly noisy reaction.
"My cabbages! Rrr...that's it! I'm switching to Brussels Sprouts!"(1)
As laughter bubbled out of her over that, Toph walked down the road with a great deal more confidence, the eyes on her now making her feel like a queen. Despite her confidence, a bit of nervousness entered her as she felt two familiar figures approach.
"Hey pretty lady," Pipsqueak grunted from well above her. "Looking for fun?"
"How'd you like to spend the day with a couple of war heroes?" The Duke asked from Pipsqueak's shoulder.
Realizing they didn't even recognize her, Toph burst into laughter. "Well, Twinkletoes is busy, so I can settle for you two."
"T-Toph?" The Duke sputtered, completely stunned.
Smirking, Toph punched each of them on the arm. "Teach you two to trust your eyes!"
"...you clean up nice," Pipsqueak managed to grunt out, making Toph blush.
"Come on!" Toph countered. "I'm heading to the Jasmine Dragon. Escort me." She couldn't help but chuckle at how they leapt to obey. She began to think she could get used to being 'pretty'.
As they opened the doors for her, she heard a snatch of conversation. "...we can't trust him yet!" Sokka was insisting.
"What can he do?" Aang countered. "It's not like he can bend anymore."
"That's just what he wants you to think!" Sokka snapped back.
"...you know I'm right here," Ozai pointed out as he poured tea for Sokka.
"Nobody asked you!" Sokka snarled. He then took a sip of tea. "Thanks, though." Next to him, Suki's palm met her face with a resounding smack. Sokka then let out a whistle. "Duke, Pip, where'd you meet that cutie?" Suki promptly elbowed him in the ribs. "Ow!"
"Still giving yourself athlete's tongue, Sokka?" Toph asked, wishing she could better hide the blush she got from him calling her cutie. She then quickly stepped behind Pipsqueak as tea sprayed everywhere.
"Nice one!" Cadence praised, levitating herself with her magic long enough to meet Toph's high five with her wing before settling into Iroh's arms.
As Katara, Suki, Jin, Mai, and Ty Lee surrounded Toph to marvel at how wonderful she looked and talk about her daring outfit, Cadence turned to Sokka. "Now...what were you saying about my Uncle?" she asked softly.
Sokka rolled his eyes. "Look, I know he's family and you want to give him a second chance, but he was pushing the whole war and world conquest thing for his entire life. That's not the sort of thing that just goes away overnight!" He leaned forward, waving his arms. "I'm telling you, we need to keep an eye on him! He may act like he's all at peace and whatnot without his bending, but you can just bet he's biding his time, waiting until his bending returns and then-"
"Ooga booga booga!" Ozai shouted out, leaping up behind Sokka and holding a flame in front of Sokka's face.
Sokka let out a high pitched scream of terror as he leapt back. "See?! See?!"
Ozai laughed uproariously as he set down a metal box with gears and levers on the top, the flame coming from the box before it extinguished. Cadence giggled as Iroh let out a belly laugh.
"I made that for him!" the Mechanist called out from a nearby table. "He said he felt incomplete without fire he could generate, so I made him a fire he could safely carry around in his pocket. I call it a Zippo...because the gears make a zipping sound when used, and 'zipper' was already taken."
As Sokka began arguing with the Mechanist over not telling him and the possibilities of the device, Iroh smiled widely, tears of joy in his eyes. "This is...such a perfect day," he murmured.
"What do you mean?" Cadence asked softly.
"I'm surrounded by family and friends in my own tea shop, my daughter is once more awake and happy, my brother laughs joyfully for the first time in years, my nephew will soon be happily wed...and the world is at peace, building towards a bright future." Iroh wiped away his tears. "Truly a perfect day...which I will remember for the rest of my life."
Cadence stared out at the happy, laughing assemblage...and knew that she would, too.
(1) I asked Mom which vegetable was the most logical for the cabbage guy to switch to. This is what she said.