“Yeesh, what made her think I’d be any use at all?”
Wandering around the Inner Ring was a blind little girl looking for anything to catch her attention. And it just so happens that she heard a familiar voice coming from a building filled with tea scents.
“Gramps!” she exclaims to herself with a grin, walking in. Of course, since she willfully ignores all social norms, she bursts open the doors, smirking ear to ear, hollering “What’s on the menu, old man?”
“Ah, fancy seeing you here, my young friend. Would you like some tea?” the old man turns in her direction, offering a friendly greeting with a fondness his regulars recognize from whenever he addresses his nephew.
“Sure, whatever you think I’d like,” as she walks over to a table and refrains from putting her feet on it. A rare expression of respect, showing the ultimate restraint.
“So, what brings you here? And I’m afraid in my old age, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Actually, I don’t think we introduced ourselves. I’m Toph Bei Fong, and I’m the greatest earthbender in the world!”
“Ah, an ambitious title for a prestigious name. I’ve been called many things over the course of my life, but I prefer to be called ‘Uncle’.”
“Okay, ‘Uncle,’ did you manage to find your nephew?”
“I did, and it was very fortunate, as well. We managed to help each other get here safely, and I think he’s even managed to find some female companionship to settle down here with,” he whispers with a gleam in his eye.
“Oh, he’s found a girlfriend? Are they on a date right now?” she asks, leaning in.
“They seem to be. I managed to get out of him that he’s having lunch at Madam Tu Peng’s Grill. I’d appreciate someone keeping an eye on him, if you’re willing to offer your services.”
“Heh, sure, I’ll spy on your nephew. What does his voice sound like, what’s his posture?”
“Ah, I was about to give a visual description. Hmm, his voice is very gravelly, and he’s a sword master, if you’re familiar with them.”
“Yeah, I think that’ll work. I’ll also keep a nose out for someone who smells like this place.”
“That’s a good idea, you obviously know how to navigate on your own.”
“Yup. Have to. Of course, my being able to act like I don’t need eyes makes my friends sometimes forget what I can’t do,” she says sullenly.
“You never said what brought you here. From your demeanor I imagine your friends are looking through a library or something?”
“Yeah, Katara’s searching a corrupt official’s office for anything interesting, not that I’d be any help there, Aang flew off…somewhere, I never got where exactly, and Sokka went to join up with his dad. Aang was his ride.”
“And now you find yourself without anything to do,” he nods.
“Yeah. So, Tu Peng’s Grill, your nephew has a gravelly voice, a sword master’s posture, and a tea shop’s smell?”
“Yes. I don’t know anything about the girl he’s meeting with, though.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for. Later, Uncle!” she waves as she leaves.
“Good luck, Miss Toph!” Uncle chuckles as he processes the information he managed to acquire. Not very useful at the moment or by itself, but he did find it interesting that the Avatar and his companions practically scattered to the four winds. Such a thing was not unheard of, since an Avatar learns from and makes friends in all four nations, but none of them were ready for this separation. Only when all the companions managed to gain an understanding of at least one, if not all three other nations were they supposed to lead the world with the Avatar’s advisement. Thing is, not only were they still children, but the Fire Nation had no representation in the group. Only when Zuko finally found himself and joined them would the group be complete, and only when he taught them everything about his nation could they have the knowledge to be good world leaders.
But that was a thought for another time, when he didn’t have several orders for tea awaiting his attention.
“This meat is too bland.”
“Yeah, it could use more spices.”
“So, you managed to sneak into Ba Sing Se?”
“Yeah, Uncle knows some people and they got us in on the ferry as refugees.”
“Ferry? Do tell,” she says, resting her chin on interlocked fingers.
“On the far side of Serpent Pass, there’s a hidden cove where refugees can get into Ba Sing Se. It’s terribly crowded and the only way to get a ticket is if you have a passport. I have no idea how any real refugees are supposed to not only know how to find the little port, but have the documentation they need.”
“Eh, they’re Earth Kingdom peasants. Why should we try and understand them?”
“Well, if we can understand them, we can more easily integrate them into our nation when we conquer it.”
“What if we simply burn the city to the ground?”
“Well, for one thing, there’s more people living in the Lower Ring than there are in the entire Fire Nation, but also remember that every time we gain territory, that’s another mountain we know nothing about. For example, that cove I mentioned. If Uncle didn’t know some locals, we’d never have been able to find it. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot of holes like that on the continent. If we tried to find them all, not only would it take a million soldiers, but it’d probably take a hundred years and we’d still have insurgents bursting out of holes we think are empty. And that’s not even thinking out of what earthbenders can do.”
“So what do you think we should do?”
“If we can take control of the government and avoid making their lives miserable, and even improve their lives compared to what they experience under the current regime, then the common opinion will be that of complacency.”
“Like you, Uncle, and that shop?”
“Yeah,” his shoulders slumped.
“Well, I’m already making progress on that front,” she says, leaning back with a triumphant smirk, ready to bask in his admiration. Or his bitterness, that’s almost as satisfying.
“Really? How long have you been here?” He says with some amazement.
“Yesterday.” Now she’s also smug.
“Wow. What’s your plan on handling the Dai Li?”
“I haven’t quite figured that out yet. I know I need to wrest their loyalty from Long Feng, get myself a loyal, powerful, dangerous small army.”
“Well, everyone in the Earth Kingdom is supposed to be loyal to the Earth King. Maybe make them think he was putting the king in danger and helping you could keep him from harm?”
“Hmm, maybe you are related to me after all. Thank you, brother,” she says and impulsively kisses him on the cheek. And then pulls back, blushing because she’s not supposed to ever show anyone affection.
“Um, you’re, um, welcome,” he stammers, just as flustered.
“Well, perhaps I’ll be at the shop tomorrow and you can take me to lunch again,” she says forcefully, accidentally raising her voice enough so a certain spy was finally able to hear the words spoken rather than just the tone.
“Uh, that-that sounds good. Um,” he leans in. “What should I call you? I go by Lee.”
“No, like ‘Ching.’ I thought you’d know this, what with how long you’ve been in this kingdom.”
“Well, why should I try and understand a bunch of Earth Kingdom peasants and their pronunciations?” he asks with a grin.
“Humph. Well, in case you’re wondering, it shares meaning with my real name.”
“Of course it does. It completely negates the purpose of making a disguise if it tells everyone exactly who you are anyway.”
“You’re simply not cultured enough to understand.”
“Whatever. I gotta get back to work, and I’m sure you have work of your own to do.”
“Indeed. I imagine I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says, leaning in for another kiss, deliberately this time.
“Tomorrow,” he responds, kissing her back.
Neither of them notice the spring in their step as they walk away, but a certain blind earthbender does, and so does everyone who looks at them. Not that any of them would bring it up.