For months she had walked the world with Aang and Sokka and Katara and later Zuko, and each stride had been a rush of information and incalculable detail concerning the land's every last subtlety. She bent the earth starting with her callous-hard heels, molding her own place beside rock, garden, field and forest. She slid her feet along the pebbly dirt and splayed her fingers out, angled to the wind; she listened to the particles rising away from where she could follow them and tried to imagine the sky.
It was emptiness without the echo and there was nothing like it that she could ever grasp. Sokka told her it was blue, but lighter than the ocean, and the word in his mouth sounded like wind singing off the lips of glass bottles; Aang told her it was his and that blue was only a reflection, so she imagined his serenity given profound form, impenetrability in reverse. In her mind a great cavern enclosed everything there was, infinite walls farther out than even tigerhawks could see, and she knew she had nothing of a disadvantage.
The Fire Lord's palace was smooth and igneous, polished and austere to the point where the vibrations were so loud they crossed and muddled one another, and Toph had to rub her toes against the cold floor and snap at whoever was nearby to shut up, so she could see. She wondered if Aang's sky was really reflecting Zuko's palace — sometimes the boys themselves gave her a similar impression — and wondered harder at the wall of flame he sat behind during the coronation. Fire was something she understood only in the reactions others had to it; before Zuko had injured her in the last fight before Iroh died and he joined them, she'd never touched it, and then it was touching her, which wasn't the same thing at all. Heat alone couldn't give her the impression she wanted; the throne room's flames sounded large and they made her sweat, but the salty taste of her own damp skin was the closest she could come to seeing the way Katara described air burning and flowing up, like rebel water. She said it was orange and Toph thought of sandstone, crumbling and soft in the palm of her hand.
She wandered the gardens and the vast honeycomb of the royal complex; they weren't hard to get around and Toph felt a secret satisfaction at all the tiny pockets of chaos new life invariably formed in even the most meticulously kept of courtyards. When her companions were all busy planning their futures and that of the world, Toph would climb into the shallow ponds and splash with a kind of abandon she would never have let Aang or Katara see. She mapped out the gravel and scared all the koi, plotting their movements from the ripples radiating against her shins. When she clambered out her feet were wet and the grass was slippery and she loved the slight difference that layer of chilly sensation made in the way everything around her felt, a little more surprising, a little less stable. The water collected in soft squishy spots under her arches if she stood still long enough, which she liked to do until she thought she could be a tree, with roots in the ground and the permanence to defy a whole battalion of earthbenders sent by her parents to collect her.
In the city, the streets were full of soldiers; not there to move the ground but doing it all the same as the sons and daughters of the Fire Nation returned from the war they had been born into to a home they barely knew. Toph could feel them approaching without ever leaving the palace's private sparring ring, where she hung around and heckled the new Fire Lord and his sister's betrayer, who faced off not with fire but with knives — solid and destructible, just the way Toph liked things. When she got bored she crouched down to intensify her impressions and to snicker at how easily they seemed to forget her, becoming absorbed in the rhythm of scraping metal and wooden thunks that spelled out for her every move of the match despite their nearly nonexistent conversation. Sometimes if Toph stayed at the ring for long enough she could also listen to Sokka trying to learn about power points from Azula's other friend. The routine was full of scuffing and laughter and exclamations, and although the precise placement of the acrobat's delicate blows were difficult to discern, Toph could follow the arc of their movements and was always ready with a jeer to call when Sokka started trying to tell her to leave him and Ty Lee alone.
The air in the city was dense: buzzing with change and polluted by the coal smoke that wafted in from the eastern sea. Decommissioned warships were arriving by the fleet, now, and the Fire Nation was reforming, soldiers and tacticians filling up a vessel that had forgotten how empty it was. Each returning regiment was addressed by Zuko, his young voice straining to find the authority to advocate attitudes and values that under Ozai or Zhao meant only treason. Victory seemed to lay a pressure on Aang as well, as he discovered that the war's end was not the journey's, that his people were still and forever gone. Toph stood with him at the mouth of the road, and with the others, feeling the sun warm her back and the distant ocean wind touch her face. Beneath her the road stretched to the harbor, compacting into stale highway under the relentless march of the homeward armies, and she turned to follow the chain of steady vibrations. She imagined she could sense the churning water eroding the shore, that she could feel the men's first steps back on native soil. She lifted her face into the morning warmth, and listened to the earth shake.