To say the place was packed would be an understatement…
Inside the Fire Palace, people from all across the land, whether they were Fire Nation, Water Tribe or Earth Kingdom… were mingling together as one people. It had been an entire week since the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai at the hands of Avatar Aang, as well as Princess Azula by Zuko and Katara. Not to mention the brave and just as important feat by Sokka, Toph and Suki, who took out the entire rest of the Fire Nation's airships.
With their combined efforts, they were able to save the Earth Kingdom from destruction, and as a result… the entire world.
And in the wake of such chaos and destruction, a new Fire Lord was crowned just earlier that day: Zuko. They may have gone through a lot over the past year, and the final battle may have left them injured and scarred… but their efforts not only paid off, but were universally commended.
At Zuko's coronation ceremony, he and Aang came together in front of everyone, vowing a lifelong friendship and a chance for the world to finally come together in an era of peace… A chance for the world to recover from this century long conflict…
And now, to celebrate such peace, everyone was now gathered in a giant room of the Fire Palace, set up for Zuko's coronation ball.
"I gotta say, Zuko… you really got the place looking jazzed up." Aang grinned, as he and the rest of the Gaang stood together, looking over the event now beginning to pick up before them.
"I can't really take the credit… It was the servants who put in all the work." Zuko responded honestly, all dressed up in his new ceremonial Fire Lord robes, the Fire Crown planted directly in his hair, which was in a top knot.
"Well, still… the place looks great!" Katara seemed to voice her own agreement, looking on with a smile. "It's nice to see everyone, just… getting along." She had to admit.
"Yeah." Sokka agreed. "Even though I'm gonna miss Space Sword, it was all worth it." He flashed a grin of his own, as they all stood there in momentary reflective silence.
This ball had it all, really… An assortment of decorations, refreshments from all the different cultures, and also live musicians, which made for some good music for people to listen and dance to.
Zuko couldn't help but give a small smile. It was… liberating to finally be rid of the war, his father… everything. And he had new friends to share this victory with-
"Fire Lord Zuko!" What looked like a Fire Nation nobleman stepped into view, a forced grin plastered on his face, which was there obviously to look presentable. "Congratulations on your coronation- Oh…" He pretended to only just now notice the rest of his friends.
"You don't mind if I steal him for a moment, do you?" He asked the rest of the Gaang, who could only glance amongst each other, unsure of how to respond. Not that it mattered, since he appeared to be leading Zuko away anyway. "I have just got to introduce you to my wife… and my daughter." He made sure to emphasize that last part.
Zuko internally sighed, his face falling in disappointment as he gave a final glance back at his friends. It was obvious what this nobleman wanted. He wanted to present his daughter before him in the hopes that he found her attractive and asked for her hand in marriage. This would in turn make the nobleman and his family carry a lot more influence than they already did.
And of course, other nobles would attempt the same thing. This had been going on in the Fire Nation for generations… It was all the same…
He thought back to Mai, and just how happy he was to have seen her again. He was happy she had shown up to his coronation, and honestly owed her his life. As did Sokka, Suki, and Hakoda. Without her, they never would have escaped the Boiling Rock alive, and for that… he would be forever grateful.
But… did he truly actually still love her in… a romantic way? Of course, he would always love and care about Mai, as a really close friend, but… were his feelings actually still romantically driven? Or was he just grateful that she had saved his life?
If he was being honest… he didn't know what to feel… Ever since their quarrel on their Ember Island vacation with Azula and Ty Lee, he just felt so… confused. Confused on his feelings for her.
He needed some time to sort things out still, but he was leaning very much towards his feelings being platonic. In a way, he hated himself for it… Could he really afford to break her heart yet again? It wasn't that he didn't care… But-
"And this is my daughter!" The nobleman snapped him out of his thoughts, causing Zuko to blink. He must have really zoned out there.
Zuko looked down at the girl in question. She wore a long, ruby colored dress and appeared to be caked in makeup. Completing her outfit, she wore a necklace which held a gemstone around her neck, which looked very expensive. It was quite clear that she was trying her hardest to look presentable.
"Fire Lord Zuko, this is Lei. Lei, Fire Lord Zuko." He formally introduced.
"Hello, Fire Lord Zuko. It is a real honor…" She bowed respectfully, before leaning forward and brushing his cheek. "You're just as handsome in person as you've been described."
Zuko's eyes were wide, stunned by her boldness, but he quickly put a stop to it when he gently moved her hand away.
"Thank you…" He accepted the compliment, standing and speaking proper. "It has been great meeting you too. But I am afraid I am very busy."
"Now, hold on…" The nobleman nervously chuckled, seeing his opportunity slipping away. "Are you certain you don't wish to chat just a couple minutes longer? I could even fetch a drink if you-"
"As I said, nobleman… I'm very busy. I have other guests to greet. Enjoy the festivities." Zuko reinforced his decision to walk away, which left the nobleman to sigh deeply, knowing his attempt had been in vain.
'I should have known this was going to happen…' Zuko thought to himself. 'I really should go find the others, and-'
"Fire Lord Zuko!" Another nobleman with a similar looking demeanor began to approach him in greeting.
Zuko gritted his teeth with closed eyes, knowing he was well within earshot to have heard him. And seeing as he had to act 'proper' amongst the nobles, he had no choice but to turn around.
"What an honor it is to meet you! Congratulations on your coronation." The nobleman continued.
"Thank you… I-"
"By the way, I have just got to introduce you to my daughter. She's been dying to meet you." The nobleman cut Zuko off, before leading them along to another part of the room.
'Agni… End my misery now…' Zuko internally groaned.
Meanwhile the rest of the Gaang still stuck together, mingling with whatever familiar faces they saw.
"Oh, hey Smellerbee!" Aang greeted with a friendly smile. "Nice to see you could make it too."
He then glances to the taller figure standing beside her. "You too, Longshot."
Longshot said nothing, merely giving a nod of acknowledgement.
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world." Smellerbee admitted. "I'm just glad to see everything's over now. Or, I hope it is." She added, still a bit internally skeptical.
"Don't worry. With me as the Avatar and Zuko as the new Firelord, we'll make sure things stay on the right track!" Aang reassured, earning a sigh from Smellerbee.
"Yeah, I hope you're right." She spoke, before seemingly spotting someone she recognized. "I'll catch ya later, Aang. Tell the new guy I said congrats, by the way."
"Okay, see ya." He waved her off, before Katara approached him when they were out of earshot.
"Think you'll ever stop getting swarmed?" She joked, earning a chuckle from the Airbender.
"I don't mind it! Really… Seeing everyone so happy really makes me feel accomplished… Like all will finally go right with the world."
The Waterbender had to smile at the young Avatar's optimism, and she put a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm certain it will…" She agreed with him.
"Sheesh, Snoozles…" The two heard Toph's familiar voice speak, as her, Sokka and Suki are seen approaching. She appeared to be holding a small platter of food, as was Suki. Meanwhile Sokka was busy going to town on a mountain of food on his plate, which mainly consisted of meat. "I'm hungry too, but you sound like you haven't eaten for weeks."
Sokka seemed to verbally respond, but all they could make out was muffled gibberish, since his mouth was full.
"Huh?" Toph cocked a brow.
Katara sighed, rolling her eyes.
"Maybe don't talk with your mouth full, Sokka?" She suggested. "I can't believe I have to tell you this."
"Ah, don't be such a downer." Sokka dismissed the suggestion after swallowing his large bite of food. "It's a party! What better time to live it up than right now!" He offered his own counter argument, shoveling more food in his mouth.
"You could at least have some decent manners while 'living it up'." She sighed, trying to look away as her brother chewed his food.
"She does have a point." Suki agreed. "You do chew pretty loud, too…"
"No I don't." He seemed to get out, as he accidentally spit some food while talking. "Oh, whoops…"
"My point exactly…" Katara folded her arms, as the current song that was playing ended.
As the next song began, it seemed to catch everyone's attention, the majority of whom were over the 'idle chatter' stage of the ball, and were now more interested in the food, Fire Nation wine, and dancing.
"Oh, I like this song!" Ty Lee excitedly said, stopping mid conversation with someone she had gotten to mingle with as of late.
Going to take a sip of his drink, Haru was surprised to feel Ty Lee tug at his arm, as if to lead him onto the dance floor.
"Huh- Woah!" Haru exclaimed in slight surprise, internally knowing there was no turning back.
Seeing her friend pull Haru away, Mai looked across the room, scanning her eyes for a certain Fire Lord. However, when she saw he was busy talking amongst the nobles, she felt a yawn escape her, as if her body was giving her a sign.
She wasn't much of a dancing fan anyways, so she decided to call it an early night. She knew Zuko would understand…
"Looks like everyone's migrating to the dance floor." Aang observed.
"That sounds like fun! Wanna go, Sokka?" Suki suggested with a grin.
"Hm?" Sokka snapped his attention to her, his mouth still full, prompting the Kyoshi Warrior to playfully roll her eyes.
"Come on. Your food will still be here." She said, before leading him towards the dance floor as well. Sokka seemed conflicted because he was still hungry, but he let it go. He enjoyed his time with Suki that much more.
"The Boulder is about to get jiggy with it… on the dance floor!" The Boulder dramatically spoke in the third person, rushing to join in as well.
Aang and Katara looked on with thoughtful expressions, before the two glanced at the other with knowing expressions.
"Would you care to dance, Sifu Katara?" He addressed her, intentionally referring to what he had started to call her awhile back.
"Why certainly, Avatar Aang…" Katara accepted with a grin. A hint of a blush stained her cheeks as Aang took her hand, the couple joining in with the others. The song was starting to really get going by this point.
"Yeah, guess I'll… just stay here, then." Toph voiced to herself, letting out a sigh as she sat down, deciding to maybe eat some food until they got back.
Hakoda glanced towards the dance floor, sipping on some wine as he conversed with some of the Water Tribe men that had fought alongside him, before he caught a glimpse of both Sokka and Katara, now beginning to dance with their respective partner. He couldn't help but be really proud of them both, for how strong they had been… both physically and mentally. The war had taken a toll on them all, but now that peace had been seemingly restored, they deserved the chance to celebrate. All of them did.
Meanwhile, Zuko merely stood in the presence of yet another noble family… trying his best to zone them out and just move on. Seriously, he didn't get these people! It was honestly beginning to grow tiresome… Wasn't this his coronation ball? Shouldn't he get to join in the celebrating as well? He was far from a party animal, but anything was better than having to put up with this.
He glanced towards the dance floor, the music picking up slightly in volume. Everyone was dancing of course… which during Ozai's rule was looked down upon. But now it appeared everyone could happily express themselves.
Looking further to the side, he could see that Toph was where the rest of the Gaang had been, only she was sitting alone… That would make sense, considering the rest of them were out dancing.
And upon noticing this, Zuko saw this as his ticket out of this conversation!
"-and we would be absolutely thrilled if you would consider-" The nobleman droned on, as Zuko held up a hand.
"It was an honor to have greeted you, but I must be moving on." The Fire Lord sternly declared.
"But-" The nobleman didn't get a chance to say more, as Zuko was already walking away. More called out to him, but he simply paid them no mind this time.
Toph continued to sit at the table, picking through the food Sokka had left behind in boredom. A visible, disappointed frown was present, the Earthbender now very thoughtful. However, upon hearing some approaching footsteps, she cocked a brow. They were very familiar footsteps…
They couldn't have belonged to the others in the Gaang, since the song was still going strong. Which left only one other option…
"Oh… Hey, Zuko." Toph greeted, though there wasn't much energy in her voice. "Finally get away from the crowd?"
"More like blood sucking leeches…" Zuko sighed, as he took a seat across from her.
"That bad, huh?" She questioned.
"Yeah…" The Fire Lord admitted, swearing he could still hear his name being called. "But anyways… what's with you?"
"Nothing's with me…" Toph defended, seeming to take his words out of context. "I'm fine…"
Zuko cocked a brow, very much confused.
"I… didn't say anything was wrong." He replied. "I just meant… how were you doing?"
"Oh…" Toph's eyes widened a bit in realization, a sigh escaping her lips. "Sorry…"
Zuko had come over here at first to simply get away from the nobles, but now he was beginning to take note of how the Earthbender was reacting.
"Are you… sure everything is okay?" He questioned, not good at all with these kinds of things.
"Yeah…" Toph nodded, though her glance to the side and evident frown said otherwise.
Zuko took a breath. He knew full well something was wrong with Toph, but he wasn't exactly a therapist. Not even a self-proclaimed one… If there was anyone in the group suited for that role, he would probably be the last.
He looked at the dance floor, seeing that Aang and Katara were in a trance, lost in each other's company. So Katara wouldn't be of use right now… Glancing the other way, he saw that Sokka and Suki were still just as occupied.
That meant he truly was alone in this right now…
Seeing that her mood wasn't even remotely improving, Zuko sighed, before responding,
"I might not be the human lie detector that you are… but I still know a false statement when I hear one."
"Pft, oh yeah?" Toph's voice seemed to get moody, not liking the tone of how that was phrased. "And so what if it was?"
Zuko's instinct was to bite back with a snippy retort of his own, but… he couldn't find it within him to do that. Not anymore. Not when he saw a friend, clearly in great need of someone to talk to. Sure, maybe the old him wouldn't have cared, but that simply wasn't true these days.
"Look…" Zuko began to backtrack, closing his eyes momentarily and taking a different approach with this. "What I meant was… you seem a little different right now. More down than you usually are…"
The words were almost symmetrical to a conversation they had not long ago… They had gone to see the Ember Island Players, and the second act had concluded. Zuko was visibly upset, and the Earthbender took immediate notice. And with her words and reassurance regarding his Uncle, she really made him feel a lot better.
She had helped him in his time of need… Surely, he could at least try to do something for her. Whatever was going on…
Toph remained silent, not denying any of what he claimed.
"What is going on?" Zuko now rephrased his question. "You can tell me, you know."
Toph remained silent, looking down, as if internally debating with herself if she should. With a sigh, she finally broke the silence,
"It's… kind of embarrassing." She admitted.
"Well, even if it is embarrassing… I'd still be willing to bet I've heard worse." The Fire Lord reassured.
Toph chuckled, albeit a bit nervously.
"Yeah… I bet." She started to tap her fingers on the table, gathering her thoughts. "Well, I don't know… It's just… I always have to listen to everyone have some fun out there. And yet, here I am… sitting by myself."
"Why don't you go join them?" He wondered aloud. "People are capable of dancing by themselves."
"…That's not the point either-"
"Are you too nervous to dance? I bet no one would even notice…"
"Ughh…" Toph facepalmed. "Are you really gonna make me spell it out, Zuko?"
At a loss, Zuko sighed.
"It would help…" He admitted.
"I don't want to dance by myself… okay?" Toph admitted in a low voice, just above a whisper. She kept her arms folded, instinctively looking away in embarrassment to having admitted that.
"Oh…" Zuko frowned, now understanding the problem. Now that he thought about it, there did seem to be a lot of couples out there…
"But I mean, who am I kidding, right?" Toph laughed to herself, merely as a coping mechanism to keep from involuntarily showing her true feelings. "Who would ever want to dance with the blind Earthbender girl anyway? My blindness would probably just take all the fun out of it…"
Toph's head, which hung down, immediately sprung back up when she heard those words. She was almost certain she had misheard him.
"Say what now?" Toph had to question.
"I would dance with you… You know… if it would help." Zuko gave a nonchalant shrug.
Toph thought at first he was playing some kind of joke on her, but… no. The seismic reading of that statement confirmed… he wasn't lying. Toph's cheeks began to flush, as she wondered aloud,
"You would? But… why?"
"Because no one should have to feel left out… Unwanted." His eyes narrowed, bitter memories returning to him. "Believe me… I know."
He then looked her way, before smirking,
"And besides… this'll give me the perfect opportunity to get away from those noblemen for awhile."
Toph blinked. "Is that what you meant by 'blood sucking leeches'?"
"Maybe…" He left it intentionally vague, in case someone were listening. As if on cue, the lengthy song from before began to end.
"Now come on… Before the next one starts." Zuko said, taking her hand.
"Wha-" Toph's eyes widened, a bit taken aback by his pace.
As the two walked to the dance floor, all eyes appeared to fall on them, as they wondered what the Fire Lord was doing. Murmurs began to go around the room, though it wasn't clear what they were saying.
"Zuko… People are starting to talk." Toph acknowledged in a whisper, able to hear the murmurs clearly.
"Let them talk…" Zuko responded, uncaring. "We're just two friends celebrating my coronation, and the end of the war… Our business is not their own."
"Yeah… I guess you're right." She let a smile escape her, as the song began to start.
As everyone else began to move, Zuko and Toph merely stood there for a moment, unsure how to proceed.
"So… uhm…" Zuko awkwardly glanced to the side.
"So…" Toph returned the gesture.
"Are you… a fan of dancing? I mean, personally?" He asked her.
Zuko mentally facepalmed, instantly regretting having said that. That was what he came up with!?
'Smooth, Zuko…' He mentally chastised himself.
"Huh?" Toph was taken aback at first, but then answered with a grin. "Oh, well… not really. I haven't done it much."
"Yeah… Me neither." Zuko admitted, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "You know, except for that dance- Firebending Form me and Aang learned. You know… 'The Dancing Dragon'?"
"Uh huh…" Toph seemed to be waiting for something to happen, as Zuko continued to stand in awkward silence. It seemed that now that he was out here, he wasn't sure where to even begin. He was far from a dancer.
"So have you ever-"
"Spirits, Zuko. Just hold me and start moving." Toph couldn't help but be more than amused by Zuko's socially awkward demeanor he had sometimes. "Like this."
She placed his hands on her hips, before putting her own on his shoulders.
Zuko's cheeks flushed as well, surprised by how suddenly everything changed. But even still… it was better than standing around out there.
"R- Right…" Zuko accepted, before the two began to sway back and forth to the slower paced song.
He didn't know why he was so nervous right now… What even was that at the beginning!? Maybe he just didn't like it how much people were staring at him. He wasn't used to being the center of attention like Azula for instance was.
As the moments began to pass, the nervous energy began to fade, and he really got into a rhythm. Honestly, it was kinda nice.
Especially when compared to speaking with the annoying Fire Nations nobles that only wanted to use him for his power! Celebrating with those he cared about and having a good time was far better in every way.
As the two of them continued to sway to the slower paced song, Toph, lost in the trance of the moment, found that she had instinctively been resting her head on his shoulder. Or at least… as much of his shoulder as she could, given that she still stood at a much shorter height than the tall Fire Lord.
The feeling was surprisingly… comforting. Relaxing… She wasn't quite sure she ever wanted this moment to ever end.
And that's exactly when her inner thoughts hit her like an angry Komodo-Rhino. She thought of her future: Would she have to go back home now to her parents? What would happen to her friends? Where would they go? Would they still be as close to each other as they had been, now that the war was over? The more she thought about the near future, especially what she feared to lose, it began to scare her more and more…
Zuko's arms tightened further around her waist, seemingly lost in his own trance as she leaned into his firm chest, listening to his heartbeat. She snapped back to the present reality now… She was dancing with the Fire Lord… With Zuko.
He had come to her when she was feeling down… and had offered to help her out with no hesitation, and with no sense of obligation. He just… genuinely wanted to help her.
Hanging her head down lower and more towards his chest, the Earthbender's lower lip began to quiver… Her emotions that she held inside were beginning to spill over, and completely out of her control.
"You honestly keep up pretty well…" Zuko complimented the Earthbender. "Your blindness is almost a non-factor."
As he leaned back a bit to look down at her, his smile faded as he saw the last thing he wanted to see.
Hearing a sniffle, he saw a tear begin to roll down Toph's face.
Why was she crying!? Did he do something wrong? Was it something he had said?...
Realizing that stares were still present, Zuko did his best to conceal Toph's face to spare her from anyone taking notice.
"Come on…" He whispered to her, taking her by the hand and leading her away from the dance floor, striding towards a back door that led to one of the Palace's gardens.
When the two were finally back outside, it was pitch black darkness. The two were now all alone, away from anyone else from the ball.
"I'm sorry, Zuko…" Toph rubbed her eyes, trying to get herself under control.
"You have nothing to apologize for… Take your time." He folded his arms, willing to wait this out with her.
Even though he wanted to know more than anything what was going on, he knew that he needed to be patient. All he hoped was that it wasn't because of something he had said or did.
"Ugh… So embarrassing." Toph continued to wipe her eyes, before taking a deep breath.
"What happened back there?" The Fire Lord asked of her, when she began to calm down. "If it was about my earlier comment, I do apologize. I didn't mean to bring up your blindness-"
"No." Toph denied immediately. "It… wasn't that. You did nothing wrong." The Earthbender looked down, her cloudy green eyes glistening in the moon's light.
"I… don't understand." Zuko admitted. "So then what happened?"
Toph almost wanted to keep it to herself out of instinct, but she knew that Zuko would be persistent no matter what. And since it was only the two of them… she figured it wouldn't be as bad.
Even if to her, it was still embarrassing…
"It's just… all my life, I've always been so sheltered." She began. "Living life the way my parents wanted me to live… Being kept secret from the whole world… Before I met Twinkletoes, Sweetness and Snoozles, I had no real friends. I barely interacted with anyone except for my parents and my Earthbending instructor…"
Zuko said nothing this time, only silently listening. This is what she tried telling him before back on Ember Island, but since they were trying to look for Aang, it had come at a bad time. Now he was going to allow her to open up, and he would listen to what she had to say.
"And just… dancing out there with you? I don't know… It might not sound like much, and to you it might sound dumb… but it made me feel… heard. You didn't have to do that with me, and yet you still did… I guess it's one of the only times lately that I felt… like a normal person." She admitted.
"You are a normal person, Toph." He assured her, shocked to learn that she didn't see it that way.
"I know, I know…" She dismissed, trying to find her next words. "And… I guess I've been thinking a lot about… the future too."
"The future?" The Fire Lord repeated with a frown, though he suspected he knew what she was talking about.
"Yeah…" Toph's misty, opaque green eyes seemed to look right up at him, as if she could see. "With the war now over… with Twinkletoes as the Avatar and… with you as the Fire Lord…"
Toph paused. Zuko didn't interrupt.
"Will things ever be the same, Zuko? Will we… still be friends? All of us?" The Earthbender voiced, her efforts to hide the fear in her tone in vain.
She was surprised to feel his hand on her shoulder. The Earthbender winced at first, but quickly relaxed.
"I can't promise that… we'll be seeing each other on a daily basis. Like we used to…" Zuko truthfully stated, a downtrodden tone in his voice.
Toph's shoulders sunk. That was exactly what she didn't like to hear.
"But…" Zuko continued, with Toph perking up. He smiled, not caring if she could see it or not. "I promise I'll try and make time for visits when I can… And I'm certain the others will too. It definitely won't be an easy road ahead of us, and maybe we won't be breathing down each other's necks on a day-to-day basis anymore, but…"
Zuko's smile grew wider, before he finished.
"That doesn't mean I don't care about you…"
It was Zuko's turn to be surprised, when he found himself wrapped in a constricting embrace by the Earthbender. Tears threatened to stain Toph's face again, but she held them back this time.
"I'm gonna hold you to that, Loser Lord…" Toph smirked, though with a sniffle.
Zuko returned the gesture, with just as much affection. He still didn't know what to make of the strange names she called people, but what he did know is that she was practically family now. Everyone in the Gaang was. Even throughout all the wrong he had committed in the name of his father, he still somehow came out of it a different and more honorable man…
He wouldn't trade his family for the world…
"Oh, and… thanks, Zuko. For helping me feel better." She let go of the hug, and he followed her lead, looking down into her eyes, which now sparkled. "It was… very sweet."
Toph smiled, earning a slight grin from Zuko in return. He was at least glad that was over, and that she was feeling better than she was. The future might be scary to think about, but he knew they could all conquer it… Conquer it together.
Zuko was caught off guard yet again when the Earthbender leaned forward, giving him a peck on the cheek as a show of thanks. The Fire Lord's cheeks flushed as red as the robes he was wearing, unsure of how to respond in his shocked state.
Toph's grin faded, before she pointed at him with a serious expression.
"Don't you tell anyone about this. Got it?"
Zuko snapped out of his stupor, before giving a nod of understanding.
"Your secret's safe with me." He promised.
"Good…" She was relieved to hear, before clutching his arm. "Well, Sparky… I guess we should get back to the ball before the others wonder where we went."
Zuko cocked a brow at the nickname.
"'Sparky'?" He questioned.
"Yeah. I realized I have nicknames for everyone else in our quaint little group. But not one for you. Guess it just came to mind… Like it?" Toph wondered his opinion.
The Fire Lord pondered it for a moment, before giving a shrug.
"I don't hate it…" Was his reply.
"Then it's perfect!" Toph giggled, the two walking back the way they came from the garden, and back inside the Fire Palace.