Toph put her feet on the table. While Zuko knew she was capable of being the respected sifu of the Avatar or a young Earth Kingdom noble, he also knew she took great pleasure in reminding people she was also a rude, crude . "Look, Firelord Sparky, I don't kid about things like this. Now, if I wanted to send you on a wild dragon chase, I know a lot of tall tales." She wasn't looking at him -- Toph generally wasn't known for her ability to focus on faces -- but he could see a serious expression on her face, despite her caviler disregard for the furniture.
Zuko sat down. Hard. He was suddenly glad that he had met with Toph in one of the small, private audience chambers. He had done that because Toph loved annoying his advisers and baiting his guards into breaking their stoic 'on-duty' face. When she showed up, grinning like the cathawk that ate the songbird, Zuko knew she'd be worse than usual.
Now he was just glad no one but Toph saw him lose his cool like this. Despite his reputation -- or perhaps because of it, since part of the reputation was Zuko the Peacemaker -- men and women of his father's generation had problems taking him seriously. As a result, he felt he had to be constantly... constantly being the Firelord. Instead of a man who just found out his mother, missing for years, was finally found.
"Some tiny little Earth Kingdom town that you've never heard of. I probably wouldn't have noticed it at all, except I was helping stop a forest fire. And, well, after fighting enough firebenders, and watching you and Aang, I know what a firebender doing her thing looks like, even if she was trying to hide it. So I asked your uncle to come out and check.
"And he did?"
Toph nodded. "Well, he'd have rather she come to the city, since he's so attached to his tea shop and all. But he decided to make a research trip of it, buy some more tea leaves from the sticks." She grinned. "He nearly scared the shit out of her when he showed up."
Zuko winced at the language, and Toph's amused way of reciting it. "This is my mother you're talking about, Toph."
"Well, yeah. Guess she was worried he was upset over something when he was happy to see her alive and well. You never did tell me why she ran off or your dad sent her into exile or whatever."
Because he didn't know. He didn't even know if it had been her idea or Ozai's. His father had only confirmed she lived; or had lived when she left the palace. He seemed to take great pride in denying Zuko information, the one bit of freedom he had left. All Zuko knew was a child's memory, tempered by an adult's wisdom. His grandfather's death, after his sister had claimed his grandfather had ordered his death, his mother's disappearance, the way that no one but him seemed surprised by the sudden change of fortune. It was not an image he could reconcile with the memories of his sweet mother, but she was the granddaughter of Avatar Roku, and had survived court politics and marriage to his father.
It frightened him, to wonder what she'd become, after years in hiding. He had changed, even under Uncle's guidance. Maybe for the better, but it still worried him.
"Hey!" Toph had shifted position to lean forward, feet back on the ground and waving her hand in front of his face. "Did you hear me or not?"
"You were asking about what my mother did?" Zuko said.
"I'm done with that," Toph rocked back on her heels, settling back into her chair. "I wanted to know if you wanted her to come here, or if you were going to visit the Dragon. Uncle Iroh brought her there once she calmed down. Said she was family, so she could stay with him as long as she'd like. Only… Iroh-y." She waved a hand, taking in the entirety of his uncle. Toph and Iroh had made some kind of connection when they had met, and, while she had no permanent home, serving as an itinerant advanced earthbending teacher, she could be found occasionally, between jobs, in the Jasmine Dragon harassing the waitstaff until Iroh told her to go help with the shopping. Which she would do, surprisingly enough. In some ways, Iroh had taken her under his wing as 'like family'… well, like family should be, rather than the dysfunctional mess their family had been.
Zuko considered. His mother had disappeared; had been made to disappear. Whatever sins she committed had been erased so thorough that no one could recollect more than gossip. And yet, this was his mother, the one person, besides Uncle, that he considered above reproach. It was a truth he had remembered -- no matter what happened, his mother loved him and had done what she could. And, if she didn't come home, it was because she couldn't. And maybe she still thought she couldn't, considering even Uncle had spooked her, Uncle who had given up any ties to the Fire Nation save the blood tie to Zuko and his firebending.
Toph folded her arms. "How long are you going to take to think about this?" she said. "If it were me, I'd be on the first boat to the Earth Kingdom. I wouldn't even pack."
Zuko knew something of Toph's family. She was the daughter of wealthy merchants who somehow seemed to observe that their daughter was blind while missing every other fact of her existence. Even now, years later, she was closer to Iroh than her blood kin. But she made time to dictate letters home to them, and once he had caught her in a hanbok that didn't suit her at all, but she claimed was a gift from her mother 'for special occasions'. "Would you?"
"She's your mother," Toph said, as if he was a particularly slow student. "And, unlike the rest of your immediate family, she hasn't tried to set you on fire. Everything else is details." She waved a hand, dismissing the presence of details. "What are you worried about anyway?"
"I don't know," Zuko said, truthfully. "Maybe that I'll bring her home and have an one rebellion because she really did do something so terrible she can never come home."
Toph shrugged. "Then she can keep Uncle Iroh company making tea and small talk. It's not like everyone doesn't know where he retired to. Or that you visit him every time you leave your cushy throne in your big house to take a look around the real world."
"I didn't see you objecting to the big house when you were trying to see how many rooms you could trash." Zuko replied, raising an eyebrow.
"I was not 'trashing'. I was making myself comfortable. Not my fault your people haven't quite grasped how to entertain an earthbender."
Well, his household staff had grasped the concept of 'damage control: Toph Bei Fong edition' by now. Which seemed to work.
"Now, am I going to have to drag you along?" she asked. "Because that's a hell of a way to greet your long-lost mother who you actually care for."
He held up his hand. "No, I think I can get myself to Ba Sing Sei." There were trade meetings and reparations. There were always reparations. He was beginning to think the Fire Nation had rebuilt everything the war had destroyed twice over. Not to mention helping Aang with territories that had changed hands so many times that he was surprised people still remembered which nation they came from.
"Good." Toph said. "Can I bum a ride with you on your metal boats? Best way to travel." When one saw by sensing where earth and metal were and weren't, she was probably right. And Earth Kingdom smiths weren't as concerned about oceangoing vessels. As for the Fire Nation, they had plenty of repurposed warships that now served to haul people and goods from place to place. Including one reserved for the Firelord.
"Of course," Zuko said. "And Toph? Thank you. I owe you one."
Toph settled back into her chair. "More than one, but who's counting?"