"This is the worst fieldtrip ever."
"Okay, Toph… You really want to complain to me right now about having unsupportive parents? Yes, you felt unloved, and that's rough, but have you seen what my father did to my face? What I carry around as a reminder of his regard for me?"
"I haven't, actually, because I was born blind." She knew he was referring to the scar, and she knew it was probably pretty bad, but she couldn't resist playing the card anyway.
"Toph…" It was gentle. What took her totally by surprise is that Zuko said it without a hint of pity. She was genuinely curious where this was going. "You're not like the others. You don't need me for anything. I can't offer you any advice about your family because, as you've probably noticed, I don't connect with mine all that well either, and chasing my father's approval was as futile and against my own nature as it was for you. In fact, you came to this realization and had the guts to do something about it well before I ever did."
She allowed him the moment to hate himself a little. She even turned her face away to give him some privacy; though it made absolutely no difference to her or what she could see, it seemed polite.
"I wish I could tell you how to make everything okay with your parents, but sometimes they're just wrong, and there's nothing you can do about it except leave them behind and do what's right. And you knew that already. You have things pretty figured out, Toph, so I shouldn't have to tell you this, but even with your childhood and your sacrifices, you're lucky."
"I know that," she mumbled indignantly.
"It was never going to be perfect, Toph. If it was, you wouldn't be here." He took a moment, and then mumbled, "For what it's worth, I'm really glad you are."
Toph's eyebrows made a break for her hairline, and she was at least a little glad her bangs covered that up, whether or not Zuko was looking. She felt the world pause around them, Zuko's pulse, his breathing… he wasn't lying. Not even a little.
She debated her next move. Zuko wasn't much for the physical contact, but here was a rare window in which he'd probably allow it. An understanding embrace wasn't out of the question… heck, she could reach out and touch his scar right now and he'd let her. They could use this moment to elaborate on both their childhoods, what they'd left behind, what they hadn't been able to tell the others. There could be tears… maybe even on her side. She could simply pay him back with a compliment, one just as kind and true as his had been. She could easily be sarcastic, which wouldn't be a stretch, and something Zuko certainly considered a possibility. She could decide to take offense or ignore it all. But there were reasons Zuko had said what he said, and it wasn't so Toph would do any of that.
"Well," she said, stretching her arms above her head, "I see your point, but you still owe me a life-changing fieldtrip. It's only fair."
She didn't sense that Zuko got it… the Nuances of Toph were subtle and complicated, after all.
"I mean come on! There weren't any dragons, no daring volcano prison escape, not even a little whatever it was you did with Katara! You're not off the hook yet." For added flourish, Toph grinned broadly and punched Zuko in the arm. Hard. "Just let me know whenever you need my help with something, and I could be persuaded to lend a hand."
"And it would be exciting and life-changing?" Zuko seemed to have caught on.
"Oh, definitely," Toph said, smirking. "I am pretty amazing company. I can bend metal, you know."
"That is pretty incredible." Toph couldn't be sure, but it sounded like Zuko might be smiling. He did seem to let down a few guards in her company, probably assuming she wouldn't notice either way, and she wasn't about to correct him.
"So when you want to take one of those amazing Toph fieldtrips everyone's always talking about, you just let me know."
"Yeah. I'll do that."
"But I'm afraid you'll just have to wait, champ, because we need to find Aang right now, so I don't really have time to take you on some zany adventure at the moment that will utterly change your life."
"Okay. I'll be patient. I'm sure something will come up."
Toph debated thanking him… or punching him in the arm again. Instead, she reached up and touched his shoulder. "It will, Zuko. It will."
It wasn't long after Fire Lord Zuko's coronation that Toph heard him outside her door. She hadn't been sure what she was doing with herself now that everything was over. It seemed wrong to separate from the rest of Team Avatar, but she didn't have the pull with her own kingdom to be remotely useful in the discussions the way that the others could. She was meant for action, and didn't really know where she belonged until then. Whatever this was, it had to be more interesting.
"Can you come with me? Now?"
This felt important, so Toph tried to suppress her glee and tone down the enthusiasm. She joined Zuko in the hall, and he passed her a cloak. The material was unfamiliar… it was probably something in Fire Nation colors… a disguise, maybe? Toph was actually a bit warm and didn't really want to add another layer, let alone a heavy one, but as Zuko began to lead their way out, she thought she may have sensed a similar cloak brushing over the floor. So, quickly and quietly, Toph threw the cloak over her shoulders and followed his brisk steps. She hadn't necessarily expected a short walk, but the length of journey surprised her, pleasantly, really. It was probably possible to go wherever they were going in one of those balloons, but even the thought made Toph's stomach churn a little… whether it was out of consideration for her or not that they took this route, Toph didn't care. She simply followed Zuko, getting her bearings, listening to and feeling the night around them.
He never once stopped to see that she was following; he seemed to sense her there as clearly as she sensed him. A shift in the terrain… buildings, stone floors, indoors, other people nearby. Then, a hand on her shoulder.
"Can you wait out here, and listen?" Zuko was whispering. "I can't have him know I'm not alone, or he might not talk at all. It's just… if he does…"
It was then Toph recognized the man in the room. It was Ozai's breathing, beaten and resigned, that gave him away. "You want to know if he's lying." Toph adjusted her stance on the stone floors, honed in on that breathing. The rock spoke to her clearly. "I can do that. I can feel him from here just fine."
Zuko's heart was racing, but before Toph could begin to grasp at something to tell him, something comforting perhaps, or a warning, he had gotten a hold of himself. He glided into the room a Fire Lord, different and stronger. Toph felt Ozai's awe of this son he had never seemed to properly realize he had. She smiled a little and made a mental note to tell Zuko, in case he ever needed to hear it, when it hit her that something was wrong. There was no shock… in either of them. This isn't Zuko's first visit. Toph gave herself a second to sulk before they began speaking. She was irritated with Zuko, but it didn't take a genius to realize this was more important than that. When the questions started, Toph held her breath. It wasn't just that their content was jarring (though Zuko could definitely have given her a little warning there), she was simply less sure of this part than she'd let on, and was determined, whatever she did, to miss nothing. It all felt like truth, so far, even if it was ambiguous, and that made her nervous. What was worse is that it sounded like they'd been over this before. If he'd had a chance to answer these questions earlier, to lie, it might come more naturally the next time around. Dammit, Zuko. Worse still, if he were like Azula, then there was nothing Toph could do at all, nothing to help.
And then there it was. After Zuko had tried and failed to get an explicit version of the past, his father twisted the knife.
"You were probably wiser to believe she was dead, Zuko. It's unlikely she's still alive after all this time." Zuko's guilt was and would probably always be a very easy target. But this was a lie.
"But you said—" Zuko was losing patience with his father's games.
"I have no way to be sure." Lie.
Toph wanted to jump out, shout the truth, taunt the fallen Fire Lord some more… but those weren't options. There had to be some way to signal to Zuko… Why did they not work this out beforehand? Lacking other ideas, Toph started jabbing Zuko's feet with the stones he was standing on, hoping she wouldn't get too carried away with her excitement, hoping he would get it.
"You're lying." He got it, and he played it off well. She bit her lip and concentrated, adjusting her stance. "And now, this time, you're going to tell me exactly where she is."
Toph had to admit, Zuko was pretty amazing in there. Coaxing anything concrete enough for Toph to evaluate was a challenge. Keeping his father talking, even if it was in questions and uncertainties, keeping his focus, and keeping track of the information must have been maddening. Toph had had to give up on following it all and simply concentrate on her job.
"When I find her," Zuko said, and Toph couldn't help imagining what form Zuko's wrath might take, now that he didn't need his father for information. "Would you like to see her?"
Whether he wasn't sure if it was a trap, or he couldn't resist taunting Zuko with one last uncertainty, the question still hung in the air as they left, unanswered.
Zuko made it outside before he crumpled to the ground. Toph had wondered how he had handled that crazy labyrinth of a conversation without going a little crazy, and now she realized he hadn't. She felt a little guilty for ever complaining to him about her own parents, and was trying to come up with something supportive and sympathetic to say, when Zuko interrupted her train of thought.
"I'm sorry… Toph…" he said, voice shaky. "I just need a minute to…" He didn't even know what.
So Toph sat beside him and waited until his breathing was once again regular and even, and that heavy emotional armor was repaired and back in place. She knew the moment before he did.
"My stuff is packed. We could leave tonight if you wanted," she told him. She may not have anticipated this, but the last few months had trained her to always anticipate something. Protests included. "I know you shouldn't run into much of a fight," she said for him, trying not to let it sound like a complaint, "but there's no way you got enough information in there to know exactly where to look, and I can definitely help you there. I'm way better than information."
"I can't think of a way to get there without flying."
Toph debated backing out, but only briefly. "Lead the way, champ."
It was a miserable flight for both of them, but neither was going to be the first to say so. Responsibility was shared, as they had both figured that things like food, water, and maps would be available anywhere, and it was just stalling to waste time packing up anything more; neither was willing to be the one that held up the party. Toph had a nagging feeling that in a lapse-within-a-lapse of judgment, while Zuko prepared their balloon, he had assumed that she would leave the note that calmed everyone's worries and explained where they were going.
Toph was ready to break the silence and admit that when they came back, she was going to give Katara and Sokka great big hugs or exceptionally affectionate punches, even if she would never tell them why, when Zuko cleared his throat.
"I was thinking… about what we talked about last time…" Even he realized that was vague. "Your parents? They… live in the Earth Kingdom, right?" And even he realized that was unsubtle.
"We're finding your mother." It was the first time Toph had mentioned her explicitly, and she achieved the desired effect.
"Yeah…" Zuko trailed off. Toph elected to pretend to sleep and avoid the topic a little longer.
Toph twitched awake from a very convincing bout of pretend sleep. Zuko was making a strange noise… not quite a whisper…
"What are you doing?" The noise stopped.
"Nothing." The reply came too quickly.
Toph gave him a second. "You were saying something."
"There is no way you heard that!" A beat. "No I wasn't."
She gave him another chance to admit it, facing his general direction.
"I… it isn't important."
"You were rehearsing what you were going to say to your mother."
He began to deny that, then thought better of it. "And? What did you think?"
"You can't possibly prepare what you're going to say to her. You have no idea what to expect. The best you can do is cross that bridge when you come to it."
A sigh. "I sounded stupid, didn't I?"
Zuko made a few unintelligible frustrated noises.
"Look… Your mother loves you. You know that. You've turned out well enough despite everything she had to leave you with, saved the world, and become Fire Lord. I'm just guessing here, but she's going to be proud of you. I don't see what you're so ridiculously nervous about."
"It's the scar. She's never seen it. It's going to scare her."
"Are you kidding? I barely even notice it."
It took him longer than he wanted to admit to get that, so he segued almost flawlessly into a silent reverie.
Toph didn't want to let him off that easy, if only because it was terribly likely he might bring up her parents again. That made her more nervous than it should have. "The words aren't going to matter so much. Not really."
"Then why are you so scared of seeing your parents?" Backfire!
"Because it's completely different! That's why!" She was sorely tempted to use all the metal within reach to make a tent she could hide in, but had a feeling that might mess with the balloon's ability to stay in the air.
When Zuko finally brought the balloon down, presumably at the first chance he spotted, Toph had absolutely planned on continuing to sulk, but was too relieved to be on solid ground, to see again, that she found herself completely calmed. Zuko, in a fit of pragmatism, insisted on going into the nearby village and getting supplies before he and Toph gave in to exhaustion. Toph had argued that it would be a much better plan to leave her there to "guard the camp," but Zuko would have none of it. It wasn't until they returned to camp, armed with the supplies they really should have brought from the Fire Nation to begin with, both tempers cooled, that Toph asked why Zuko had wanted her company.
"Honestly? I thought you would run away."
"No, not just now.... But seriously? Where would I go?"
"Away." Zuko shrugged. "I didn't imagine you'd give it much more thought than that." And before Toph could get too defensive, he continued, "We're alike that way."
She evaluated this. "So is that why you brought me here?"
"Mostly. I know I could have asked and everyone would have probably come, and that probably would even make things go smoother, but... I felt like it's something I need to do for myself. But, if she's... if it doesn't... go well... I didn't want to be on my own. And I knew I could trust you not to pity me or ask too many questions."
Toph absorbed that before adding, "And also, I'm amazing."
"You are that." He might have been smiling. "Very handy to have around."
"We'll find her." It wasn't reassurance, or even intended to be all that comforting. Those three words were the reason Zuko had brought her: she was the only other one stubborn enough to reject all other options.
It wasn't easy. At all. They both considered putting the search on hold, regrouping, but never out loud, and never at the same time. They simply weren't willing to have come all this way just to fail and disappoint the other. They considered asking for help, but knew even a third party would upset this balance, make it a possibility, even easy, to go home empty-handed. So, together, they continued looking. Toph reached out as far as she could, trying to sense the right activity, while Zuko lead the way. He hadn't been idle after his coronation... there were things that only the Fire Lord was supposed to know, things about what happened to the banished, where you could put someone who you never wanted to surface again. He couldn't be as overt as he would have liked; he worried that if the wrong people figured out who he was looking for, there was a chance, however small, that she could be moved, and he'd have to start again from scratch. But there wasn't a lot to go on, and there were some options he didn't love to consider.
Toph knew her moments. "Hit me with it. Where's the worst place he could have stashed her?" Toph's bluntness made it easier for him to think.
So they'd started in the desert, after Toph assured him that her sandbending skills were "pretty decent." The prison wasn't too difficult to locate... there actually weren't many possible locations that meant death in every possible direction, which was the one thing they knew about the place.
They'd landed the balloon, Toph had strutted out, and with one move had brought the entire prison to the surface.
"'Pretty decent'?" Zuko had asked, shrilly. Toph had shrugged.
"This one's empty." Another move, and it vanished back into the sand. "Where to next, champ?"
And so it had gone. Most times the prisons were freshly abandoned, likely due to Ozai's loss and the general confusion over what was supposed to happen next. Sometimes they weren't, and in those cases, Toph returned to the balloon to wait for Zuko. She had done her job, and he needed to do his. He never seemed to like that part much, so she just never asked about it.
The list was getting smaller.
It had been there since the beginning, that feeling that somewhere along they way, they'd followed a bad lead. Toph wanted to tell him that even if that were true, they had at least found lots of places where Zuko's mother wasn't and that had to count for something, but that would be giving voice to their fear, and that wasn't why Zuko had brought her along.
The mountain was in the clouds. Zuko was complaining about not being able to see anything, and Toph just let him vent. She knew her moments. The important thing now was to land the balloon, so Toph stayed silent and out of the way. It was not a smooth landing... Toph had a feeling they may need to find another way back to the Fire Nation, and Zuko seemed reluctant to share with her the extent of the damage. "Later" was all he said.
This prison seemed more like a village. Secluded, definitely, and well guarded, but there was motion.
Toph trailed Zuko, and listened. She'd been over the moment in her head, when Zuko's breath would catch in his throat, he would gasp "that's her!" and Toph would discreetly get back to the balloon to wait out the tearful reunion that would follow. What she didn't expect was that she would be the one to recognize Zuko's mother.
It was simple enough... they rounded a corner. Then Toph sensed a fluttering... someone nearby who must have spotted-- must have recognized him. Brow furrowed, she tugged at Zuko's sleeve and pointed. She hadn't been wrong.
The dialogue, as Toph had predicted, was mostly fragmented and generally nonsensical; the words didn't matter. She wasn't able to leave, however, as much as she felt like an intruder. The moment was a little too enchanting to just run away from it.
Then she heard her own name.
"Toph... this is my mother."
"Ursa." The voice was different... soothing. It wasn't until that moment that Toph realized she had been expecting someone wholly different, that her idea of the woman who had married Ozai, mothered Azula, and played a crucial role in Zuko's messed-up childhood was miles from this reality in front of her. She was at once horribly relieved without ever realizing she had been that scared. Toph had a moment to enjoy this before a new kind of fear set in; she had never been that great with mothers.
Toph was decidedly nervous. As Zuko oversaw the repairs to their balloon or arrangements for different transportation or whatever it was he was taking so long to do, Ursa and Toph had been left together. Toph had this irrational fear that if Zuko's mother saw what Toph's hair actually looked like, or got a peek at Toph's fingernails, or, worst of all, perceived that layer of dirt Toph existed in, she would immediately be frightened away and Zuko would never see her again, and it would be Toph's fault. Terrified as she was of Ursa's company, Toph was also pretty certain that if she left Ursa alone or wasn't as friendly and cordial as absolutely possible, the consequences would be dire.
"Toph, can you tell me something?"
"Yes!" Toph answered quickly. Then thought a moment and added, "M'am." She hoped that was proper enough.
"What happened to my family? After I left?"
A dodge seemed like the best choice. "I don't really know the whole story. Zuko's kind of private."
"What do you know?"
Toph elected to try the fastest run-down she could manage. "I guess he got banished and needed to hunt Aang... the Avatar, that is... so he did and one time it looked like Aang was dead because Azula got him, and Zuko went to the Fire Nation, and then I guess he decided that wasn't what he wanted so he joined us to help the Avatar and taught Aang firebending, and then helped us beat Ozai and Azula and now he's Fire Lord." Toph paused. "Iroh didn't want it. Zuko asked first." That seemed important to mention.
"When you say they beat Ozai and Azula..."
"Oh! They didn't kill them. No. Aang just took Ozai's bending away, and Azula went kind of crazy I guess, but they're just... I guess Ozai's in a prison and I don't really know where Azula is exactly," Toph really wished she could see this woman's face. "But Aang... and Zuko... wouldn't kill them. M'am." She hoped that was the right answer. After that initial shock of seeing her son, Ursa had become almost impossible for Toph to read.
"It's just Ursa, Toph." She said it gently enough, Toph decided to assume she'd given the right answer after all.
"Just one more question about this... do you know what happened to Zuko's face?"
Right, the scar. It was so easy to forget that was the first thing everyone else noticed about him. "I don't know exactly, but it was Ozai who did it. I think it had something to do with his banishment, but I don't exactly know." Being a little candid couldn't hurt, right? Maybe Ursa would follow that lead. "You should talk to him about it, though. He was really scared of what you would think."
"I'll do that. Thank you, Toph." She sounded at ease, anyway. "I'd heard some things here, and I feared the worst. I worried what he might have become, since I left."
"Yeah, with Azula and Ozai there to raise him, what could go wrong, right?" Toph had forgotten herself, and who she was talking to. "That... what I meant was..." There was no recovering.
Ursa gave a laugh. It was sad, but not bitter. It was a beautiful sound. "I understand. They weren't always the way you know them, Toph, but I admit I could see where they were going," she said, sighing lightly. "If Zuko hasn't told you why I had to leave, let me just assure you it was the only way I could think to save him. It gave him a chance."
"Iroh helped." Toph had so rarely conversed with actual adults, this felt conspiratorial. "Those two... they really care for each other." She hoped Ursa had missed that faint hint of jealousy.
"I'm so glad. He's made me very proud."
"Now," it was sudden and less soft than before... more fun. "I have another request. Tell me about yourself."
With the difficult things out of the way, Toph found she was feeling more comfortable with this woman. It came easy enough, and Toph quickly found herself actively trying to make Ursa laugh, to hear that sound again.
"We're ready... we can leave!" It was so lighthearted, Toph did not easily recognize Zuko's voice.
"Zuko..." Ursa sounded so sad. "I can't return to the Fire Nation."
"But you're not banished anymore," Zuko protested.
"I don't deserve it. I know what I did, and I can't go back."
"But I'm the Fire Lord!" He didn't sound like it.
"That's why, Zuko. Not everything your father did was wrong. What I did... I'm so sorry, Zuko, but I deserved to be here. Even if you have me released, I can never go home."
Toph understood then why Ursa had not needed to be in one of the worse prisons, the ones that made escape impossible: she'd never seen escape as an option.
"But... I found you."
"You have. And you're not going to lose me. Listen, Toph told me that Iroh is living in the Earth Kingdom now... that's correct, isn't it?"
Zuko made some kind of affirmative sound.
"I can go there, all right? I'll be in good hands, and you can visit anytime."
"We can come right back!" Toph offered. "We can bring everyone back here from the Fire Nation! They'll want to meet you! Right, Zuko?"
"I'm not leaving you," Zuko insisted. "Not now."
"I don't think anyone knows we're here, champ... it might be a good idea to go back and let them know what happened. You need to."
"We're taking you to Iroh's. It's on the way... mostly. Let me do that one thing."
"Zuko... you've done plenty. But all right."
Toph wished she could disappear during the balloon ride to Iroh's tea shop. Failing that, she pretended to sleep the whole way, hoping that Zuko and his mother would work things out, and the ride back to the Fire Nation wouldn't be as miserable as it currently looked like it was going to be.
"So... Toph tells me that you and Mai are together."
"She has a big mouth for a little girl."
"I think it's wonderful, by the way." Ursa changed tone. "Tell me about Toph."
"What about her?"
"She's a little girl you dragged over half the world to find me, Zuko. Is there really not a reason?"
"She's a great earthbender... probably the best." Ursa didn't respond. So Zuko continued, "I sort of owed her an adventure. And she was good company." Again, Ursa didn't respond. She was waiting for something. "And I thought that maybe I could take her to see her parents."
Toph debated waking up from her pretend sleep just to derail this conversation. She couldn't say exactly why she didn't.
"I see. What do you know about them?"
"She doesn't talk about them too often... I guess they kind of locked her up from the rest of the world, treated her like she was broken and helpless. She had run away a few times... that's how she learned earthbending. That's where she really shines, where she's really herself, and her parents... I guess they don't see it. Even when the Avatar himself went and told them he needed her, they refused. She had to run away. I think they sent someone to get her once, and she learned metalbending just to escape." Zuko made one of his frustrated noises. "She's probably the toughest person I know. I just can't believe there's anyone, let alone her parents, that can see her as all that fragile and delicate. She's.... Toph."
"Okay." And Ursa's tone reverted to her previous, cheery one. "So you and Mai... tell me about that! And please, be adequately candid, or I'm just going to ask her."
And Toph had been wishing she could disappear before...
Their conversation, their journey, their short time at Iroh's before parting with Ursa and leaving for the Fire Nation... it went too quickly. Zuko had, if not tearfully, at least a little damply, promised that they would return practically the minute they landed. Iroh and Ursa informed him he would do no such thing... he would settle what needed to be settled and come out when an opportunity presented itself. Not before.
Toph had really wanted to stay behind with Ursa and Iroh, but joined Zuko in the balloon without a hint of reluctance. This had been one of her jobs, too, after all.
The ride back was better than their first one had been, but it was a difficult journey. Zuko would have pretty happily abandoned his Fire Lord title and responsibilities to stay with his mother and uncle and serve tea all day, and having to do the opposite was no happy prospect. He took it pretty well, for Zuko, but he had no energy left to entertain Toph.
They were both lost in thoughts and plans almost the entire journey. Toph made a few remarks about the view from up there, and they eased the tension, but never really broke it. She wasn't that amazing.
"We have a reception party," Zuko warned her as he brought the balloon in for a landing. They weren't even on the ground before the interrogation began.
"Where were you?" Katara demanded.
"Earth Kingdom," Toph replied, swinging over the side and landing, thankfully, on her feet.
"And just what were you doing there?"
Toph gestured at where she presumed Zuko was standing. He was the one to ask. The reply came from her other side. "We found my mother."
Katara went silent. "Oh, Zuko... I'm so sorry. If you ever want to talk about it--"
"Talk about what?" Zuko sounded confused.
"She's alive, Katara. We found her. Alive. We just couldn't bring her back with us."
"Well then why do you look so... SAD?!"
"You found her?" It was Mai.
"Yes," Zuko had gone to her side. "She wants to see you... and everyone. We're going back to Iroh's tea shop as soon as we can."
Katara wasn't going to give up that easy. "You might have left a note or SOMETHING."
"That's on me, Katara, sorry. Zuko was busy getting the balloon together and I just totally forgot," Toph grinned. It felt really good be taunting someone again. Zuko had been off-limits for too long.
"What, can you not leave a note?!" Katara demanded of Zuko.
"Oh, he can, but trust me, we were probably better off just guessing," Mai replied dryly.
"I'm sorry," Zuko said softly to her.
"I know. The apology is appreciated but I might prefer it if you would just stop doing things you needed to be sorry about." Mai sighed. She was really good at that. "I understand, though. Come on, tell me about it and I'll fill you in on what you missed." Mai led him away from Katara's interrogation. Brilliant move, but it left Toph to answer for Zuko.
"I'm tired," Toph said, before Katara could resume the inquisition.
"You must be. Come on, Toph." Aang. He might bring peace to the rest of the world, but Katara and Toph would not give up so easily.
"Ah, he figured if Zuko could take off, then there wasn't much reason that he needed to stick around. He went to the Earth Kingdom with Suki."
"Don't say it like that... it's not some romantic little getaway for the two of them. Sokka had me proofread some flyers before he left. He dragged Suki there to help him find his sword."
"And Boomerang?" Toph asked.
"Actually, he got the boomerang back," Aang informed her. "I'm really not sure how exactly... he was too happy to explain it clearly."
Time dragged. Even with Zuko and Aang working to get the group back to the Earth Kingdom, there were delays. Toph stayed out of it for the most part. She was happy to help when there was real work to be done, but it seemed like so much talking had to happen to get that far. Zuko eventually found her one afternoon, sounding much happier than usual, and named the day they could leave.
"I'm sorry I didn't say before... but thank you. If there's anything I can do for you..."
"I'm so bored, Zuko. Just get me out of here so I can do something again. Please."
"As soon as I can, trust me."
The night before their planned departure, Zuko shook Toph awake.
"Come on, we're leaving."
Mai helped put Toph on Zuko's back, and carried Toph's pack herself, and they stealthily made their way outside, where Katara and Aang were waiting with Appa. The escape was quick and, as far as Toph could tell, went unnoticed.
Still groggy, Toph attempted to get her bearings. "Can someone tell me what's going on?"
The others waited for Zuko to explain. "They weren't going to make it that easy for us to leave. First thing in the morning, there was going to be an 'emergency' meeting, and then Aang and I would be separated to attend to different matters that 'just came up.' All of it can wait, they know that, but apparently this sort of thing is too undignified for us anymore."
"I don't know who 'they' are, but how do you know this?"
"He has his sources." Mai.
"So this was really our only opportunity," Katara explained, sounding more anxious than could really be necessary.
"Sorry we couldn't let you know sooner, Toph. It happened pretty quickly," Aang apologized over his shoulder.
"No problem," Toph yawned. "Just wake me up when we get there." Someone's hand on her shoulder... she couldn't be bothered to figure out whose.
There was a quick detour to find Sokka and Suki, which supplied conversation of a sort for the rest of the trip, as Katara scolded her brother for everything she could think of.
"So, Zuko... what's your mother like?" Sokka asked.
"Sokka!" Katara hissed at him.
"What? You haven't wondered?"
The truth was they all had, but for whatever reason, hadn't dared to ask. Whether the idea of her scared them as it had Toph, or they were just too darn polite, neither Katara nor Aang had really approached the subject.
"She's great," Toph offered.
"Yeah," Zuko confirmed.
Sokka gave them a second before continuing to press. "...And?"
"I... don't really know what to say. I know how I remember her from before she left, but I'm not sure that's who she is now. I didn't get to spend too much time with her."
"You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?" Sokka accused.
"She's really easy to talk to," Toph informed him, "she's smart, and she has a beautiful laugh. She's great. What more do you need to know?"
"I don't know... I'm just curious. It's Zuko's mother!"
"What's that supposed to mean?" Zuko did not sound amused.
Sokka didn't know when to quit. "Come on! You've got this mysterious past, an evil father, a crazy evil sister, and a zany uncle! I'm just dying to know how your mom fits into all of it!"
No one spoke. Most of them had been wondering the same thing.
"Eh, I like mysterious past Zuko. I think we ought to leave him that way," Toph suggested.
"He's definitely better the less you know about him," Mai said dismissively.
"This way it'll be more of a surprise," agreed Suki. "You don't want to ruin the surprise, do you Sokka?"
"You're early!" Iroh exclaimed as he received his guests.
"Yes. Where's my mother?"
"You're early," Iroh repeated, this time by way of explanation. "She had something she wanted to attend to, before you arrived. She isn't back yet."
"You're all in this together, aren't you?" complained Sokka.
Mai kept Zuko calm as the rest of the group unloaded Appa.
"This will give us some time to prepare for her," Katara suggested. "We can rest, get all dressed up, put on some tea... give her a nice reception."
"That's true," Zuko admitted.
"Great! I'll work on the tea!" Iroh chuckled as he lead them inside.
The day went pleasantly enough. Zuko was in much better spirits after seeing the letter his mother had sent, assuring her arrival would be today. It was evening when Toph announced someone was coming.
Aang was near the door. "Toph?"
"The seal...were... are you expecting... you should come here."
"Is it my mother?" Zuko asked as he rushed out with Toph.
"Oh, Toph..." Katara put a hand on her shoulder.
"What?!" Toph demanded.
"Toph...?" And her head spun.
"Mom? What's going on?"
"Mother!" Zuko exclaimed, rushing to meet her.
It was all confusion from there. Toph had absolutely no idea what was going on, why her parents were there. The mood was chaotic... there was all delight for Ursa's arrival, but the tension around Toph's parents was suffocating. Toph had not been in her parents' company since she made up her mind to teach the Avatar, and the consequences of this visit made her awfully anxious. This could be the start of an understanding between herself and her parents, the beginning of another estrangement, or the end of her life outside the walls of her family's home.
"Toph, may we speak with you privately?" her father asked. It was only barely a question.
Ursa's reply came quickly, biting at the heels of his words. "I thought we might sit down and have tea first." The tone was very friendly, but it was, in turn, only barely a suggestion. Toph got a sense of how this new acquaintance had gone for both parties. The three of them were of a society high enough to know the art of polite conversation; Toph had listened to her parents engaging dozens of important figures, speaking words that said nothing but conveyed everything. But Ursa had been royalty in a volatile family in the Fire Nation, and she was much better at this than the Bei Fongs. Toph had been wanting to ask her what she said to get Toph's parents to come all this way, but now realized that the words themselves didn't matter. Ursa had basically just willed them here.
And now Ursa's will dictated that the Bei Fong family would not be left alone together just yet. She kept the group and conversation fluid, and they yielded to her. The dynamic of the old group was apparent, and glimpses of their exploits were revealed as necessary. It was a well-choreographed show, Toph realized, put on for the benefit of her parents, meant to show her as skilled and capable, a valued member of a family she had found herself. Toph didn't want to think about the comparison, but she could see that Azula had been her mother's daughter; Ursa was an amazingly skilled manipulator, and the trait had been passed to her daughter, even if it had been warped and corrupted there. It might have been scarier if Toph had not been a bender herself, and had known that the skill was one thing, the nature of the wielder another, and which was ultimately more important.
What Toph had felt was a certainty, from the moment she had heard her mother's voice, was that, no matter what rational arguments were presented, however cleverly, there was no way her parents were going to let her out of their sights. They had come all this way, and they weren't going to leave empty-handed; Toph would either have to leave with them or run away again.
The night wore on, driving towards this inevitability, when Ursa, polite and friendly as ever, apologized to Toph's parents. "You two must be so tired from the journey. I know you had planned to stay at the palace, but if you would rather not leave your daughter alone with us, Iroh and I can prepare a room for you. You may have my own, if you like."
After a silent conversation with his wife, Toph's father said, "No, it's all right... we're expected at the palace."
Her mother ventured, "And if Toph is with all of you, then she is not alone."
Toph could not believe it. She had been running through dozens of the best arguments she could think of, largely relying on her skills as a bender and the countless ways she had escaped danger during the war, proving she was more than capable of looking after herself for at least one night. She was sure the others, outraged at the absurdity of her parents continuing to think of Toph as helpless and fragile, would come to her aid. But that hadn't been necessary.
After her parents departed, Sokka laughed. "Wow, I really did not think we were gonna get out of that one without a fight, Toph. I was ready to start preparing for another hasty escape!"
"He made me sneak out and saddle Appa," Suki confessed.
"I was kind of worried they'd take you back with them," Aang admitted. "And we wouldn't see you until you ran away again," he added, laughing.
"Well, I had a feeling it might go exactly like this," Ursa said happily.
"Thank you," Toph said to her. "I have no idea how you did it, but..."
"I didn't do anything," Ursa protested. "I'm sure it was hearing from all of your friends that changed their minds."
"That might be true, but... thank you anyway."
"Well, we'll see if I deserve that just yet. I get the feeling they may not be persuaded to leave Ba Sing Se for a while, but tonight is a start." Ursa put a gentle hand on Toph's shoulder, and Toph embraced her. "I'm sure they'll see, Toph. They have forgiven you for leaving, for having a purpose that lead you away, and now they just need to accept what that purpose means, what it has always meant for you. It's going to take patience, for all of you, but with enough small victories, you'll get there. You know you aren't helpless; you just need to find the right way to prove it to them."
They continued to talk and enjoy each other's company well into the night, and it was late the next morning before they were all awake, once again monopolizing Iroh's tea shop. He seemed far too happy with the company to really care, as long as they kept drinking tea.
"Mother... " Zuko said softly, joining Mai and his mother. He would have blushed if he'd known the nature of the conversation he was interrupting; Toph had been trying not to listen, terribly unsuccessfully.
"Sit, please," his mother said gently. Zuko didn't move.
"I got word from the Fire Nation, and it seems that Aang and I need to go back."
"I'm sorry to hear that, but I understand. You've got greater responsibilities than your mother right now," she said, gentle and proud.
"It's sounding likely that we'll be back soon, attending to business in the Earth Kingdom. I should be able to stop by and see you again."
"I would like that."
"Me too," Zuko sounded more at ease. It dawned on Toph that the true degree of Ursa's skill was even more impressive than she had first thought. "Mai, would you like to come with me?"
"I suppose." It was positively elated, for Mai.
Zuko approached Toph's table and sat beside her. "I want to thank you again. For everything."
"Best fieldtrip ever?" Toph grinned.
"Yeah," Zuko laughed. He added, softly, "If you want, you can come back with us."
"That's okay," Toph said, a little louder. "I think I'd like to hang around and give my parents a chance to get to know me."
"That's great, Toph," Zuko sounded genuinely happy. Clearly, his plan had worked.
"I got invited to join them for dinner at the palace, and they said I could bring some friends with me. So don't go taking everyone back with you."
"I'll try not to."
Iroh, Ursa, and Toph, all dressed for dinner at the palace, watched as the rest of the group departed on Appa for the Fire Nation. Katara had assured Toph repeatedly that they were going to come back as soon as they possibly could. Zuko had hugged his uncle and his mother and simply said he'd see them again soon. Even Mai had given Ursa a quick embrace. Sokka and Suki said they'd be back with the others, provided that didn't take too long or get too boring, in which case they'd find another way back... or they'd go and do something else; they really weren't sure.
Toph's future was about as certain. She figured she could stick around and help with the rebuilding in Ba Sing Se. There was a lot of work to be done all over the world, but it was a start.