A/N – Thank you so much, everyone for all your wonderful reviews. This is the final chapter of this story. I hate writing endings, I never feel they are right. Consequently, this chapter had been almost finished for the better part of a week while I fiddle around with the last few paragraphs. But I think it's as good as it's going to get, I hope it's good enough.
The Firelord's palace was the biggest house she had ever been in. Corridors sprouted off this way and that from the main hall, each one filled with doors to rooms and to yet more corridors, which in turn led to more. Stairs to the higher levels, where the the building was equally confusing, and stairs down to the underground rooms. Luckily for Toph mazes were her specialty. The vibrations carried through the stone floor, both from her own footsteps and the actions of other people in the house, built up a map of the area.. She navigated the halls and corridors like she had grown up there.
Pausing for a moment, she stood completely still and allowed the rhythm of the house to flow through her. She located Zuko by his familiar heartbeat, and made her way in the right direction. Once she found the room, she knocked quickly on the wooden door, then pushed it open in one move. "Hey, Shuffles," she said as she let herself in.
Zuko was sitting at a desk at the far side of the room, by the window. As she entered, he pushed back his chair and stood up quickly. "Toph. Custom dictates if you knock on a door you at least wait for a reply before you let yourself in. I could have been getting dressed."
She smirked, "It'd be nothing I haven't seen before. Anyway, the floors are made of stone, it carries vibrations really well, I knew what you were doing form the other side of the house."
"Oh?" he said.
"Well, I knew you were sitting around not doing much. There's a huge crowd outside. You'd better hurry up or you're going to be late for your own coronation."
Zuko shook his head, "There's time yet. Anyway, it's my coronation, it's not like they can start without me."
His chair scraped along the floor as he pushed it back underneath the desk and she heard a rustling of parchment as he rolled something up and placed it in a drawer. Toph frowned. "What was that?"
"It's nothing," he told her.
He nodded. "Really."
Toph decided to let it go for now. "So, everyone's leaving tomorrow, I guess they told you? Down to the South Pole, dropping Sokka off at Kyoshi Island on the way."
Zuko nodded, "I heard. What about you? I take it you're not planning on visiting the South Pole?"
She shivered at the memory of the North Pole and shook her head. "No way. They do have earth under the snow down there, but I doubt I could do much with it. Anyway, I'll be happy if I never go anywhere near ice again for the rest of my life. I thought maybe I'd go home and visit my parents, but I don't want to end up trapped there being looked after for the rest of my life. I'm sure you understand that. So maybe I'll get Aang to drop me off somewhere on the way too and I can do a bit of exploring on my own."
Zuko smiled. "Well of course you could do that if you want, but you're welcome to stay here for as long as you want, Toph."
"Oh," said the earthbender. "Well, that was easier than I expected. I had this whole speech about how my parents will be sending more people to kidnap me, and the wild animals, and angry firebenders..."
"All of which I'm sure you'd be able to handle without any problem," Zuko told her. "But if you wanted to guilt me into letting you stay, you could have led with how much I owe you."
"Too obvious," she said, "but if you really don't mind me hanging around, that would be great. I know you don't really need any more lessons, but I'm sure there's something I could do. I could be a guard."
Zuko shrugged, "How about you just be my friend?" He stood up and reached for his stick, then walked toward the door.
Toph followed him. "I can do that," she said. "And as your friend, why don't you tell me what you were doing just now?"
"I'm going to be crowned Firelord," he told her, deliberately misunderstanding. "Unless you have something more interesting that we could be doing."
Toph ran a few steps in ahead of him and grabbed hold of his stick in mid swing. "Oh no you don't, Shuffles. You're keeping something from me, and I don't like it. I probably wouldn't even have noticed if you weren't being so deliberately secretive about it, so come on, out with it."
Zuko frowned. "It's nothing, honestly."
She waited silently for more information, feeling his heartbeat transmitted through the stone floor to her feet.
He sighed. "All right. How much do you know about colors?" he asked.
Toph loosened her grip on the stick and took a step backward. "I've heard of them," she told him. "Beyond that, not a whole lot."
"The darker a color is, the more light it absorbs. Black absorbs all light, that's why it's black, white reflects it all." He paused, sighed, and rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers, trying to think of a better way of explaining. "I feel like I'm speaking a language you don't understand," he told her.
Toph crossed the room and sat down on the edge of Zuko's bed, keeping her feet in contact with the floor. "You are," she told him. "Get to the point."
"Okay, on a sunny day have you ever walked on one surface and it's cool, then stepped onto something else that feels hot?"
Toph nodded. "Sure."
"You're feeling the difference between light and dark," he told her. "When dark colors absorb the light from the sun, it turns to heat and makes them warm to the touch. Light colors reflect the light, so they stay cool."
"The parchment is light colored." Zuko explained. "Ink is dark."
Toph frowned as she nodded again, trying to see the relevance of these two new pieces of information. Suddenly it dawned on her. "You're using heat to read."
"Yes." he paused. "Well, no. But I'm trying to. It's completely different to what I've been doing so far. I have to put the page in the sunlight first, touch the writing directly and work out what each character is before my hand blocking the light cools it down. I can't do it yet, but with practice, maybe."
"Wow." Toph jumped down from the bed and walked over to the desk. She opened the drawer and pulled out one of the rolled up sheets, spread it out on the desk and ran a hand over the smooth surface. "If you tell anyone I said this, I'll earthbend you into the ground and leave you there for a week, but I'm actually kind of jealous."
"It might not work," he told her.
Toph shrugged, "It will. One day someone will come up with something to let all blind people read," she said.
"Maybe you could think of something," Zuko suggested.
She shook her head and placed the parchment carefully back in the drawer, "Nah, I don't have the patience for reading," she told him, "I'd much rather be doing something fun. Like attending a coronation. Shall we?"
Zuko started to walk toward the door again.
"Wait a minute," Toph said.
He sighed. "If you keep doing this I really will be late, and that's not going to look good."
"Yeah, well talking of looking good..." she grabbed hold of the branch still in his hand and shook it from side to side to ensure he knew what he was talking about. "You don't really need this anymore, do you?"
Zuko tightened his grip on the top of the branch and held on until she let go. "Not all the time, I suppose, but I'd rather use it just in case than trip over something and land flat on my face."
Toph shrugged and Zuko felt the slight change in the shape of her body heat as she did. "This is your home. You don't use a cane in your own home. You don't need to use a cane at all anymore, Zuko, you know exactly what's going on around you."
She reached out to take it from him, and he felt the motion, guessed its purpose and moved the stick into his other hand. "Don't," he said.
"See what I mean?"
"Yes, but don't, Toph."
A note of warning crept into his voice and she backed down slightly. "Why not?"
"It was a gift. From a very good friend."
Toph backed off a full step and laughed, not unkindly, but still in a way that made him think he was being mocked. "It's an old branch that I found on the ground in the forest. Buried under a bunch of dead leaves."
He flexed his fingers over the rough surface of the wood, feeling the now familiar texture on his skin. "Why do you care if I keep it?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"I don't," she told him. "Keep it if you want, but don't use it today. Think about it, that thing is like a symbol to the rest of the world telling them that you're blind. If you needed it, that'd be fine. Good even, but you don't need it. You said you didn't want to appear weak, and you seem to have forgotten how the rest of the world sees."
"I'm not weak." Zuko told her. "I know that now, and I can prove it to anyone who dares to challenge me."
"As long as you know using that in front of everyone today means you're more likely to need to prove it."
Zuko hesitated. "I know what people will think," he told her, "but I also know what they'll think if I make a mistake and trip over something."
Toph shook her head, "You won't make a mistake. I taught you better than that. If you wanted to use a cane at the ceremony, you should've gotten a real one. I don't know about you, but old tree branch doesn't exactly scream 'Firelord' to me."
Zuko's hand tightened briefly on the top of the wood, then he sighed and reluctantly leaned the branch against the wall. "I don't want to come back here and find it gone," he told her warningly. Then made another attempt to leave the room. This time there was no comment from his teacher.
It felt strange to be walking without his cane. During the days since he had arrived back, he had spent a lot of time walking around the palace, trying to create a new mental map not based on sight. Counting steps, touching the walls feeling for slight changes in the texture, bumps that he had never noticed before, listening to the different ways his footsteps echoed in different parts of the house. Anything that could help him navigate and stop him getting lost.
The palace had been built to keep its inhabitants cool even in the middle of a Fire Nation summer, so inside it was rarely warm enough to navigate by firebending without first heating the room. He could get a vague idea, enough to keep him from walking into walls, but little else. It was frustrating, like going back in time several weeks to before he had learned most of what he could do. He hoped that with time, he would improve to the point where he could sense more inside, but for now he had to use other methods. One of which was his cane, but now he thought about it, he knew that Toph was right about the message it would send.
The coronation was held at midday, when the sun was highest in the sky. He knew he was almost there by the increase in the temperature. The door leading to the courtyard had been opened, but with a curtain pulled across. Heat from outside spilled into the building, allowing Zuko to sense much more at this end of the hall. Someone was sitting on the ground by the entrance. He focused his concentration on the shape their body heat made, but although he had become much better at identifying people, it was still difficult, and someone sitting had a completely different shape to someone standing. Before he he he could identify who it was, Toph answered the question for him.
"Hey Twinkletoes, not watching from out front?"
"Zuko wants me to go out there with him," Aang told her.
"Oh." Toph elbowed Zuko sharply in the side. "You asked him and not me?"
Zuko could tell from her tone of voice that she wasn't serious. He shrugged, "He's the Avatar. I thought if everyone who helped in the war was standing out there, we'd outnumber the audience."
"No stick?" asked Aang.
Zuko flexed the fingers of his right hand that had grown accustomed to holding the branch and shook his head. "My hand feels empty," he admitted, "I don't know what to do with it."
"Wave," said Sokka's voice from behind him. The Water Tribe boy was approaching with someone that could only be Katara next to him, from the direction Zuko and Toph had come. "A lot of waving. And smile. Try to make it look like you're glad to be here. You look so miserable most of the time."
Katara punched Sokka lightly and took a step toward Zuko. "Don't listen to him. You look amazing."
"Thanks," Zuko said, and tugged on the ceremonial robes self-consciously, "I was a little worried I had something on inside out..."
She ran a hand quickly down the front of his robes as though brushing out a crease and shook her head, "No, it's perfect. I prefer your hair loose, though."
He shrugged, "Tradition," he said by way of an explanation. After so many months without it, the topknot felt unfamiliar. But it felt good too, to be able wear it again.
"Just promise me you won't shave the rest of your head again," she told him.
Zuko nodded his agreement, then turned to Aang. "Ready?" he asked.
The Avatar got to his feet and nodded, and together the two former enemies walked through the curtain to face the cheering crowd.
Zuko poured boiling water onto the crushed leaves of his uncle's favorite ginseng tea. It had been a long, tiring day, the coronation itself had been followed by meetings with an endless stream of well-wishers, each one with the same complements, encouragements and intrusive questions about his sight. He was glad it was finally over.
The sun had set, and in Iroh's tea room, a fire was burning in the hearth. The warmth spread throughout the room, touching every surface, bringing it into focus.
The ceremony itself had gone exactly to plan. With Aang by his side, he had knelt to be crowned, and the cheers and applause of the crowd had almost made up for the fact that he couldn't see them. Almost, but not quite.
Slouched on a cushion on the floor by the fire, Sokka was hunched over, the scraping sound of charcoal or something similar on parchment indicated that he was writing or drawing something. He was unusually quiet, whatever it was clearly took all his attention. Aang and Katara sat close together by the table, while Toph sat not far from Sokka, leaning against the wall.
Now that the formalities were over, he had changed into more casual attire, taken out the royal insignia and allowed his hair hang loose. It may not be traditional, but he was off duty and it was comfortable. Besides if anyone disapproved, he was the Firelord. They would be unlikely to say anything.
That felt strange to think. He was the Firelord. It didn't seem quite real.
He stirred the tea in the pot once, quickly, then wrapped his left hand around the top of a cup and poured carefully, feeling the rising heat of the hot liquid. Before it reached the top, he stopped and moved onto the next one, repeating the procedure.
Sitting at the other side of the table, he was aware of his uncle's presence. Although firebending couldn't tell him anything about facial expression or subtle motions, he could sense, perhaps through experience, that he was being closely observed. His actions obviously met with approval, as Iroh offered no comment.
Zuko slid the cup across the table toward him, and his uncle accepted it with a nod of thanks.
He crossed the room, handing out cups to his friends as they sat together for their final evening before most of them would depart. Aang, Katara and Sokka would leave early in the morning, and his uncle planned to stay long enough to satisfy himself that Zuko didn't need his help, before he, too, left the capital and returned to his tea shop in Ba Sing Se. Of course, he gave no indication as to how long that would be, and Zuko suspected he would stay longer than was strictly necessary. He didn't mind that at all.
This was the beginning of a new era for the world, a time of peace and prosperity. But every new beginning means the end of something else. Although in this case it meant the end of the war, it also meant the end of their group, at least how they were now. They would be together again, he knew that, but in many ways this was an ending.
At the other side of the room, Katara and Aang laughed at whatever Sokka was drawing, while Toph joined in with a complement of his artistic skills. Zuko found himself smiling even as he squashed down his regret at being unable to see the picture for himself. All around him were the sounds of laughter and fun, sounds that he hoped would soon echo around the whole world, because of what they had done together. He held the cup of tea underneath his nose and inhaled deeply, enjoying the aroma before he took a sip, thinking as he did that even in the darkness that surrounded him, the future had never appeared brighter.