"So," Toph began, "-Li."
"What?" Li asked, his tone curt and his posture just as guarded. He kept some distance away from her, his arms crossed as he leaned against the wall on the other side of the room. She couldn't tell with her earth sense just how tightly crossed said arms were, but she was pretty sure the answer was fairly. He was acting so wary that she was almost tempted to see what would happen if she shook the earth under him. You know, just a bit. Enough to keep him on his toes.
But she was still trying to be friendly, so she'd restrain herself.
"Tell me about yourself."
"That's... pretty vague." Li said, after remaining silent for long enough that she knew he'd been thinking his response over. "And I don't exactly owe you my whole life history."
"That's fair." Toph shrugged. She didn't exactly expect someone who lied about his own name to open up to her at the drop of a hat just because she'd found him a job.
Technically, he was still on a probationary period, according to her father. That was probably why they hadn't been left alone together, not yet. The guard lingering by the door was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, but the sheer amount of awkward radiating from Li made that pretty difficult, especially as the silence between them stretched on.
After a few more awkward minutes of it, Li apparently gave up on sulking and sat down- closer to her, but still far away enough that they weren't in each others bubbles. She had her knees pulled up to her chest- an improper way for a young lady to sit, but it allowed her to keep her feet flat on the floor, giving her a better feel for her surroundings. Li, on the other hand, crossed his legs in front of him, but she didn't doubt he could get up quickly if the situation called for it. She'd been keeping tabs on the way he moved, and she had to admit- he seemed pretty agile.
She'd also never met someone with such quiet footsteps before. It made her wonder how they'd even caught him sneaking in to begin with.
She wondered who'd taught him to be so quiet.
"So," Li slowly began, and she could sense him shifting slightly, "-it's... Toph, right?"
"Aw, you remembered my name." Toph grinned. "I'm flattered, Scruffy."
Li's hand darted up towards his hair again, and even though she didn't actually know what a frown looked like, she could imagine that was exactly the expression he was making. Clearly he was self-conscious about his hair.
Not a problem she could relate to, seeing as she had no idea what her own hair even looked like. She knew what it felt like, silky smooth from the oils that her mother insisted the servants use whenever they washed it. She didn't hate the feeling, but there was still something comforting about the feeling of dirt clinging to not just her hair, but to the rest of her. Maybe it was just an earthbender thing.
Speaking of bending...
"So," Toph asked, settling on something less vague, "-are you a bender?"
"No," he said, way too quickly to be anything but a lie, "-I'm not."
Toph tilted her head, her lips tugging downwards in a slight frown. Not only did it sound like a lie, it felt like one too. And yet... there was something off in the way he'd reacted. Something she couldn't quite place. Nevermind the fact that she didn't see any reason why someone would keep their bending a secret- unless they were an airbender, maybe, but she didn't think there were any of those left, and Scruffy felt too grounded for that, in spite of his too quiet footsteps.
Then again, he could also be a firebender.
Which... yeah, she guessed she could see why he might lie about that too. Her parents might try to keep her oblivious to the world outside the walls of their home, but that didn't actually mean she was oblivious. She knew there was a war going on, and that there had been one going on for the past one hundred years. She'd heard about the Fire Nation colonies, and the headway that they'd been making into the Earth Kingdom.
Even her parents, try as they might, couldn't hide the events of the Dragon of the West's six hundred day siege on Ba Sing Se from her. She'd be willing to bet that even the most remote villages in the Earth Kingdom had heard about that particular battle, even if no one in Ba Sing Se itself was actually willing to talk about it anymore.
(Honestly, some part of her almost wished he had conquered it. At least that way she'd never have to go to that terrible excuse for a city. Way too many rules.)
"What about you?" Li asked.
Toph blinked. She honestly hadn't expected him to ask her a real question. Guess he was making an effort after all.
"Sure am." Toph said. "I'm an earthbender."
The greatest in the world, she wanted to say, but she managed to bite her tongue. Just because she kind of liked Li, it didn't mean she was about to reveal all her secrets to him- especially not when he wasn't doing the same. And besides, she'd have to be a total idiot to say something like that within earshot of one of her parents' guards. Sure, Huan wasn't as insufferable as some of the others around here, but he still treated her like the delicate little blind girl everyone around here thought she was.
She hoped Li wouldn't start treating her like that eventually. She didn't know if she could stand that.
Li hummed in response. "I take it your parents-"
"-aren't?" Toph finished for him. "No. My grandmother was though, on my father's side. That's where I get it from, I think."
"Oh," Li said, "-that must be nice."
Toph couldn't help but snort, even if it wasn't exactly all that ladylike. "You really do have a way with words, Scruffy. Let me guess- you haven't had many friends."
She could feel Li bristle at her remark. "I have friends, I just-!"
He cut himself off, his shoulders slumping slightly. It was kind of alarming, really, how quickly the fight had gone out of him. "I just can't see them ever again. And they were more of my sister's friends anyways."
That last part had been muttered quietly underneath his breath, like he hadn't wanted her to hear it. Well, too bad, because her hearing was just as top notch as her earthbending. He would have to talk a lot quieter if he wanted her not to hear something.
"You have a sister?" Toph asked.
Yup. Judging from the way he tensed, Li definitely hadn't meant for her to hear that part.
"Yeah." Li said. "A younger sister. We didn't exactly get along."
There was a whole history spelled out in that simple statement, one that left her almost vaguely grateful she had no siblings of her own. Her parents could be insufferable enough- she couldn't imagine having another sibling around who would just treat her the same way. Maybe being an only child was lonely, but it was definitely preferable to that.
Or whatever the hell it was that had gone on between Li and his sister to leave such a raw ache to his voice. Probably better not to ask. Earthbending was all about listening and waiting, and right now, her listening skills were telling her to wait.
"Eh," Toph shrugged, "-that's how it is sometimes with family. Just cause you're related to them, doesn't mean things will always work out."
"Yeah," Li agreed, "-I guess it is."
And there was more of that awkward silence again. Gee, she knew what she'd said and all, but just how bad at making conversation was Li?
Okay, to be fair, she wasn't exactly an expert either- but she was pretty sure she was better at it than he was. But eh, they had just met. Maybe they'd get the hang of it yet. She'd never been one to back down from a challenge before, and something told her that Li wasn't the type to either.
"So, you ever see a badgermole before?" Toph asked.
Li shifted a little, as if he were looking up at her in surprise. "No. I've heard of them though. You have?"
"Oh, sure." Toph didn't even resist the urge to smirk. "I've seen them before."
Li audibly winced. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean-"
"Relax, I'm only teasing." Toph said. "You're so on edge."
"Sorry," Li apologized, making a transparent, if not effective, effort to relax, "-it's just been a rough few months."
That, she sensed, was the truth. If anything, it was probably an understatement. He might have told her parents that he was a simple refugee, but based on his heart rate when he'd said it, there was more to that story than just an orphan desperately trying to flee the war. Besides, from the way he talked about her, his little sister sounded like she was still alive- and not necessarily in any danger.
He was fleeing something, alright. She just didn't think it was the war.
But that was fine with her. Li was the first chance she had at actually making a friend since... well, forever, basically. And it was obvious he needed the work. She wasn't about to blow this for him- or for her, for that matter.
Which didn't mean she'd stop trying to unravel his secrets. It just meant that she wouldn't ask about them in the close presence of the guard. Especially if he really did turn out to be a secret firebender or something.
Speaking of the guard...
Those especially heavy footsteps heading this way could only belong to Yang. Curiously, she noted that Li seemed to turn his head towards the sound almost exactly at the same time she did- too close to being in sync for him to have just caught the motion of her head.
Yang was approaching from her left- Li's right. If it was his left, he might not have noticed. She'd been closely observing Li ever since they first met- one of the first things she'd picked up on was that he had good ears. Or ear, rather. It hadn't been until he'd been brought before both her parents to sort out his future here at the Beifong manor that she'd picked up on it. It was subtle, but whenever her mother began to speak, he would turn his head slightly so that he was facing her more directly.
Her mother had sat on the right. Li's left.
Something, she concluded, was clearly wrong with this left ear. Maybe that had been the source of her father's weird hesitation to label Li as being able-bodied.
Honestly, knowing that kind of just made him feel like more of a kindred spirit. People probably underestimated him too.
But ugh, back to Yang. She crinkled her nose slightly in distaste. If Huan was the most tolerable of the guards, then Yang was the worst. He was rude to the servants, and yet treated her like she was the most delicate blossom ever to bloom. Even worse was the fact that though his earthbending was so mediocre and boring that she was almost ashamed to share an element with him, he still thought he was good at it. In reality, Huan picked up most of the slack- Yang was just around to look big and beefy.
"Is the kid here?" Yang asked Huan, without any preamble. "Boss brought over someone to test his sword skills."
Toph frowned slightly at that. Her father had mentioned something like that, but she hadn't been sure if he was serious or not. He was kind of prone to saying things and then never following through on them, which wasn't exactly the same thing as lying.
Though from the feel of his heartbeat, Li had believed it. Expected it, even. There was a kind of fluid grace in the way he rose to his feet, but unlike the kind of courtly nobles she tended to associate that sort of thing with, there were no extraneous movements.
She didn't know if anyone else noticed it, though. In some ways, it was made all the more obvious to her, who only saw through the earth's vibrations. It made certain things easier to pick up on.
Like Li's quiet footsteps, or the way he always held himself like he was ready for a fight.
Oh, there was no way she was going to miss this.
Rising to her feet, she moved to trail after Li, only to find a hand thrust in her face. She arched a brow, tempted to just walk straight into it to show how ineffective that would have been had she truly been as unseeing as everyone around here thought she was, but she chose not to. It wasn't like he'd learn, anyways. She just deepened her frown instead, straightened her back, and forced herself to look up into the general vicinity of Yang's face.
(She didn't see the point of looking at people's faces when they talked. It wasn't like she could make exact eye contact anyways. Her earth sense was good, but it wasn't that good.)
"Your father has instructed me to stay here with you, Miss Beifong." Yang said. "Huan will guide the boy to the inner courtyard."
Toph's frown deepened. She didn't even need to ask the reason why- her father probably thought that something as violent as a swordfight wasn't fit for her delicate sensibilities. Which was ridiculous, because her father was under the impression that she couldn't see at all. What was there to protect her from? Scary noises?
Metal clanging against metal. Yeah. Real terrifying.
"Sorry," she heard Li apologize, before Huan lead him down the hall. It actually sounded sincere, she thought.
Huh. She knew there was a reason she liked the guy.
The summons had been sudden, but there wasn't a single man in Gaoling who would be foolish enough to ignore summons from Lao Beifong. He was the most well known figure in the city- and it certainly didn't hurt that he was also the richest. While he'd needed to readjust his schedule considerably to fit the nobleman in, he didn't doubt that he would be well compensated for his troubles.
That said, he did have to wonder what it was that he needed a swordsmaster for.
The best swordsmaster in the city, nonetheless. He couldn't help but preen at the way Lao's missive had addressed him. He certainly was that. Whatever request Lao Beifong wanted him to fulfill, he was certain he could do that and more.
He didn't have to wait long for the nobleman to appear. He greeted him in the inner courtyard of his manor, pausing to whisper something to one of his guards before he turned to address him. The guard hurried off elsewhere in the estate, but he paid him little mind. Perhaps he'd simply gone to fetch something.
"Master Han. It is good to see that you could come on such short notice."
"It is no trouble at all, my lord." He bowed, giving the nobleman all the courtesy he deserved. "I am always ready to be of service to the Beifong family."
"I am glad to hear that." Lao said. "We have need of your expertise."
"Of course." Han said, straightening slightly. "What is it that you wish of me?"
"We have... acquired a new guard, of a sorts." Lao said, a slight frown tugging on his lips. "I am certain you know the plight of our dear daughter."
He did. Few knew of the Beifongs' only child, but he had met her on the handful of rare occasions that she was allowed to greet guests, when her parents deigned themselves rub elbows with those in Gaoling they thought important. She was blind, a fragile little thing that was hardly equipped to navigate the dangers of the world, which was why her parents kept her here, in the manor, where she could be safe.
It was, in his view, a wise decision.
"We keep her here to keep her safe, but recently she has begun to grow... lonely." Lao said, his frown deepening. "After much contemplation, we came upon the idea of hiring a young man to guard her personally, someone a bit closer to her own age that she could talk to. Our guards are more than competent, of course, but they are all..."
The nobleman trailed off, and Han took it as a sign that it was safe to speak. "You need not say more. I have daughter just a few years older than your Toph."
Old men were hardly what one would consider companionable to a young girl. His daughter barely even wanted to talk to him most days, he couldn't imagine her wishing to converse with another man of his age.
"While the idea has merit, our current hire is... troublesome." Lao admitted. "I would like to test how well he knows his blades, before I fully commit to him."
There was much more to the story than he was presented, but he decided it wise not to ask. Instead, Han merely bowed his head a second time. "Of course. I would be more than happy to test this young man of yours."
"Excellent." Lao said. "I just sent a guard to fetch him. It should not be long now."
He didn't have to wait very long at all, as it turned out. The young man in question- little more than a boy, really- was... not quite what he expected, even with Lao's mention of him being troublesome. He wasn't certain what it was that attracted his attention first- the threadbare outer robes he wore, hardly befitting of his current environment, or the horrible burn scar that alighted most of the left half of his face.
(How well did he even see out of that eye? It seemed little more than a slit, set as if in a permanent glare.)
He glanced back towards Lao, almost expecting this to be some kind of nobleman's joke, but the man's face was completely serious. This was the new hire in question.
Lao caught his gaze, and merely shook his head, looking at a bit of a loss himself. "My daughter seems to like him. My wife is... sympathetic."
Ah. Han turned back towards the scrap of a boy, only to find that he was being watched. The boy didn't flinch or look away- if anything, his gaze only seemed to intensify, as if he were sizing him up. Unconsciously, he felt himself stand a little straighter, wondering exactly where the lady of the manor had dug this boy out of. He could only assume that she was the one who had brought him back to the manor- he couldn't imagine a businessman as shrewd and clever as Lao picking him up.
His eyes, Han realized, were an uncomfortable shade of gold.
"Li," Lao began, "-this is Master Han. I brought him here to test your abilities with the sword."
The boy- Li- spared Lao only the faintest glance, before performing a court perfect bow. He wasn't sure what the action was more in contrast with- his weathered clothing or his unruly mop of short hair.
"I thank you for this opportunity." He said, his voice surprisingly rough for a boy his age. "I only hope that I can live up to whatever expectations you might have for me."
Han cleared his throat, not returning the bow back. So the boy knew some manners. That didn't mean he had to treat him as if he had any actual station. He was clearly a refugee, no matter how one looked at him- perhaps one from the colonies, if those eyes were any indication.
(There were rumors that Fire Nation soldiers would sometimes... but no, he would not think about that. Better to think that the child was wanted, at least at some point.)
"Very good." Han said, taking a step back, his gaze darting towards the sheath hung over the boy's back. "Let us begin by seeing your sword of choice."
Li lifted his head, blinking slightly at his statement. Then without another word, he nodded, stepping down into the inner courtyard proper. He reached for the sword strapped to his back- and it was only then that Han realized that it wasn't merely one sword, but a pair- dual dao, no less.
That was... very unusual, especially for a refugee.
Even more unusual was the quality of the blades in question. They were finely crafted, not something one would typically find in the hands of a commoner, much less a refugee. He'd either stolen them- or had once been of noble blood himself. With a slight frown, Han forced himself to look past the horrible burn that marred the left half of the boy's face to focus on the right. Upon closer examination, he certainly did seem to have features that one might consider noble.
He very quickly decided that it was in his best interest not to pry.
"The dual dao," Han observed, doing his best to cover up his lapse of silence, "-not a common sight. Have you had any training with them?"
"Some." Li replied. "I had a master to teach me, before..."
He trailed off, and didn't finish. Han thought it better not to ask, but for entirely different reasons than before. There was a good reason he stayed far away from the savagery of war. Some would call him a coward. But his daughter had no mother, and a swordsman was of little use against firebenders. The would-be child swordsman's face was proof enough of that.
"I see." Han said simply, drawing his own sword. "In that case, allow me to test your previous master's training."
Li said nothing in reply, just readied his stance. Lao wisely stepped well out of the way, leaving the inner courtyard to the pair of them.
It was not a long match by any means, but nevertheless, an enlightening one. Han was able to draw a few conclusions- namely that with practice, Li would likely be able to make up for any deficiencies he had with his left hand side- and there clearly were more than few. But also that whoever had trained the boy, they were clearly a far superior swordsman than he.
And lastly, that the boy was intense.
Even with their short battle over, he still watched him with a wary eye. He wasn't out of breath, nevermind winded- something told Han that he could have kept going for however long he needed to in order to win the match, even though it had never been about such things. He briefly wondered if the boy even knew the meaning of the phrase give up, before quickly concluding that he likely didn't.
Someone had got past his guard once, had branded him. He clearly wasn't going to allow that to happen again.
"Well," Han said, sheathing his sword and turning slightly to face Lao, "-in my expert opinion, I believe he will shape up to be a fine swordsman."
Lao's expression was perfectly neutral, but he could have sworn it felt as if he were frowning. Briefly, he wondered if he'd given him the wrong answer- but though he was certainly interested in making a profit here, it wasn't to the extent that he would do his job incorrectly. The nobleman had asked for an honest evaluation of the skills of his new hire- and that was exactly what he had given him.
If anything, he should be thrilled to have found such a remarkable diamond in the rough. In a few years time, Toph Beifong would be the safest noble in the city. A father couldn't ask for more.
"Thank you, Master Han, for your time." Lao said, turning sharply on his heel. "If you will come with me, we can discuss the matter of your payment."
Han bowed in response, moving to follow- but not before he spared a glance back towards Li. The boy had since returned his swords to their sheath, but his eyes had never left him.
He looked, Han thought, relieved.
Watching the match, Huan quickly decided that if this was what the kid could do with a full stomach and a good night's rest, then the lack of both those things had to be the only reason they'd been able to catch him in the first place. He might not be a swordsman, but he didn't need to be to realize that no ordinary thirteen year old boy should be able to hold his own against a master swordsman.
Which was exactly what Li had done.
He was impressed. More than impressed, actually. He'd had his doubts- the kid didn't exactly look like much- but clearly, he'd been proven wrong.
Now, if only he could work on his social skills. Because he'd had to listen to his conversation with the young lady of the manor, and he had to admit- it had been painful. The awkward silences had been bad enough, but his attempts at conversation had proven... interesting, to say the least.
Ah well. Nobody could be a master of everything. Maybe he just needed a few pointers.
Lao Beifong watched the master swordsman depart with a poorly hidden expression of displeasure.
He was not necessarily against his daughter's idea of having a companion close to her own age- one that could protect her, no less. It seemed a fine solution, in fact. He just wasn't sure why she had gotten so attached to the half-starved refugee that had tried stealing from them. Surely there had to be other, better candidates out there, he reasoned. It didn't need to be this one. If his wife hadn't been so for it, clearly taking pity on the disfigured child, he never would have agreed to this.
Still, he was nothing if not a man of his word. He'd agreed to this, and he knew Toph would never forgive him if he tried to chase the boy away. He would just have to wait for her to get tired of him on her own, and then he could pick someone better. Someone more suitable for not just his daughter, but their family as a whole.
Perhaps Master Yu knew of a few skilled young earthbenders from more... reputable families. One such boy would do nicely, he thought, and there certainly would be benefits to such an arrangement beyond merely keeping his daughter safe and happy. It was never too early to look for marriage prospects, in his opinion.
When he returned to the inner courtyard, he was surprised to find that the boy- Li- was still there. He looked up as he entered, and Lao forced himself not to flinch at the sight of the boy's face. The boy's burn was difficult to look at, made all the more worse by just how much of his face it took up. It left his features asymmetrical, his left eye reduced to a tiny slit that he hadn't even been certain he could see out of until his match with Master Han had proven otherwise.
Even then, he still wasn't fully convinced.
Yet another reason he needed to find someone better to guard his daughter. How was a half-blind boy supposed to guard a blind girl? He needed someone he could feel safe leaving Toph with, not someone she could relate to.
(He certainly wouldn't want him to give her any ideas.)
Still, he was not a heartless man. It was all too clear the boy had no place to go. Even if he didn't prove to be a good fit here, he would be sure to at least find him somewhere else he could work- an apprenticeship, perhaps, one that came with room and board. Thirteen was still a child, and even a commoner's child shouldn't be allowed to fend for themselves at such a tender age.
Sadly, with the war, such things were becoming far too common.
"You are still here?" Lao asked.
"You didn't tell me to leave." Li said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"I suppose I did not." Lao admitted, before letting his gaze flick downwards, to the tattered outer robe the boy wore. The rest of his clothes didn't appear to be in much better condition, the sleeves of his shirt frayed and his boots badly scuffed. He looked every inch the refugee he said he was.
He would need, he decided, some new clothes if he were to stay here- at least for the time being. He would speak to Poppy about it- he was certain she could arrange something with one of her seamstress friends. Surely one of them could make something more suitable than the near rags he currently had. They didn't even seem to fit him well, hanging too loosely in places and too tight in others. He already suspected that the boy's swords were likely stolen, but perhaps his clothes had been as well.
If nothing else, he supposed the boy had managed to clean up fairly well. His hair was still a disordered, scraggly mess, but perhaps it would even out with time- assuming he hadn't worn out his welcome by then. Still, even if he did end up staying longer than he would have liked, at least he wouldn't have to worry about him looking too disreputable.
Save for his burn, he supposed, but there was hardly anything to be done about that. At the very least, Toph would never have to see it. It was too savage a sight for someone so fragile as his daughter. He could barely stomach it himself.
"Huan will take you back to my daughter." Lao said, gesturing towards the guard. "I trust you can keep her entertained until this afternoon, and then keep an eye on her while her tutors give her lessons. We can create a more formal routine in the coming days."
Li simply bowed in response, before wordlessly following Huan away. He didn't seem to be much of one for words.
He watched until the refugee was out of sight, before turning on his heel and heading towards the tea room, where he knew he would find his wife at this hour. He wanted to ask about that seamstress right away. Perhaps once the boy was properly dressed, he would become more amenable to his continued presence here.
When Li and Huan returned, Toph was seated properly this time.
Huan might overlook unladylike behavior- to him she was a child first, and a lady second- but Yang chided her for it almost worse than her mother did. It took all of her self control to not just sink him into the earth and be done with it sometimes.
One day, though. One day she would be an adult, free of her parents, and then? Then she would get her sweet, sweet revenge.
"So," Toph began once she sensed Li crossing the threshold, skipping any preamble, "-how did it go with the swords?"
"Okay," Li replied, then with more hesitation, added, "-I guess?"
"You guess?" Huan almost seemed to snort. "Looked to me like you really impressed Master Han. Not bad, kid."
In spite of being forced to sit properly, Toph had kept one hand touching the floor. The impressions it gave her weren't as good as what she could get with both her feet, but it worked well enough for her to 'see' Huan clapping Li on the back, though his flinch in response was harder to make out. She might have just dismissed it as stumbling, if it weren't for the fact that his feet didn't move an inch.
Neither Huan or Yang noticed. Li didn't say anything.
(The seeing could be so blind, sometimes.)
"Thanks." Li said quickly- too quickly, as he hastily moved to put some distance between himself and Huan. Like he didn't want him to touch him again.
Maybe he didn't like being touched. He hadn't flinched when she'd grabbed his wrist yesterday, but maybe he'd been too stunned to react. She'd try to remember that.
"So," Toph began, sensing his need for an out, "-will you tell me about it?"
Li seemed to hesitate for just a moment, before he sat down across from her. He still kept a distance away, but he was slightly closer than the last time. "What do you want to know?"
Toph just grinned. It wasn't ladylike or proper. "Give me the play by play."
She didn't need to be able to see to picture Yang's sputter.
In his opinion, the Li kid was shifty.
It was those eyes he didn't trust, more than anything. He'd never seen gold eyes before, not on any good Earth Kingdom folk, at least. If he wasn't spirit-touched, then that could only mean one thing.
The kid was Fire Nation.
The kid was Fire Nation, and Yang didn't trust him in the least. For all he knew, this was part of some grand plan on the part of their army. Sure, the kid was young, but he wouldn't put it past them to train child soldiers. Huan might be impressed with his skills with the sword, but he knew better. No thirteen year old kid had any right to be skilled enough with dual dao of all things to impress a man with the kind of reputation Master Han had around these parts.
No normal thirteen year old boy.
He wasn't sure what kind of trick he'd pulled on the little lady, but whatever it was, it wasn't going to fool him. He'd be keeping a close eye on him- one slip, and he'd show the kid that it took more than some fancy swordplay to be a real fighter. He'd caught his ass before, and he'd catch it again, no problem.
"Don't glare at him like that, Yang." Huan said in a hushed whisper. "You'll scare him off."
Yang just huffed. "Good."
That was the idea. He didn't know what gods those Fire Nation scum worshiped, but whatever gods they were, he'd put the fear of them into this kid.
The kid, however, merely lifted his head, pausing mid-conversation to look at him. Probably heard him. He turned his head so that he was facing him head on, and glared right back.
It was the scar. That was the only reason he looked away first. That damn scar. That was probably some kind of trick too, he concluded. Put there to invoke pity. Had done a damn number on the mistress of the manor.
The kid looked away, and he swore that he had the audacity to look smug. Like he'd won something. He grit his teeth, not wanting to say anything out of line in front of the little lady.
Damn kid. He bet his name wasn't even Li.
Poppy Beifong paused to smile at the young man- little more than a boy, really- waiting just outside the manor's lesson hall. He caught her gaze, and it took everything she had to not look away. It must have shown in her eyes, because not a second later, it was Li who tore his gaze away, attempting to appear as if it was merely disinterest that had him staring at the floor, and not the realization that she found his face difficult to look at.
It wasn't his fault, not really. She simply wasn't used to seeing such awful scars. And on such a young child too! It was such a shame- the unmarred half of the boy's face had such fine features, that he might have even been handsome when he came of age.
Now? Now she was certain there was a reason the Spirits had decided to put this child in their path. In her daughter's sightless eyes, no one could be ugly.
(And he wasn't ugly! Just... unpleasant to look at, from a certain angle.)
"Are you here to see," he began, before stopping, the words seemingly fleeing his mouth before he found them again, "-your daughter?"
She realized, in that instant, that he wasn't certain as to how he should refer to Toph. It was a fair question. They'd hired him to keep her company as much as they had to guard her. It would be a bit odd for him to refer to her in a completely formal manner, but at the same time, it would hardly do to have a commoner so casually refer to a member of the nobility by name. Clearly, they would have to work something out.
But that was a topic for another day. Let him get used to being here first, and then they could work on the other matters.
"Yes," Poppy agreed, "-I take it you two have been getting along well."
"Fine." Li said.
She expected him to elaborate, but he instead remained silent. Poppy tried not to frown, recalling the way he'd been all but silent unless spoken to when her husband had questioned him the previous day. Perhaps he simply wasn't accustomed to dealing with people of their station. It was understandable. Newly hired servants were often the same way. She supposed in Li's case, an orphaned refugee who had been forced to steal in order to survive, that would only be more pronounced.
He'd probably expected to be thrown in jail- if not worse.
She scoffed at the idea. They weren't savage brutes, like those in the Fire Nation were. They knew the difference between a desperate, starving child and a hardened criminal. They weren't the sort of people who would brand the face of a child, for where could a burn like that could have come from, if not from a firebender? Though she didn't like to think of the war, she was hardly ignorant of it.
She couldn't think of a single thing a child could have done to possibly deserve a scar like that.
"I have called for a seamstress." Poppy said, pushing such awful thoughts out of her mind. She truly didn't like thinking about the war, after all. "She will be here first thing tomorrow morning, so that she can measure you for new clothing."
Li stiffened, surprised enough by her statement to chance looking up again. She didn't recoil this time either. "You don't have to-"
"Think nothing of it." Poppy said, giving the boy a soft smile. "It is the least we can do."
She knew her husband had asked her to call the seamstress because she thought the state of Li's clothing was distasteful, and though she agreed, she was hardly about to say that to the boy's face. Those clothes were likely all he had. She was not about to mock him for it. The war had taken so much from many, and if they had the resources to give back, she did not see any reason why they should not do so.
Li swallowed, looking as if he was about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead he gave her a curt bow and left it at that.
She didn't press. He likely wasn't used to such kindness, the poor thing. She was certain he would get used to everything given time. She merely gave him the faintest incline of her head in acknowledgment, before entering the lesson hall to check on Toph's progress. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Li once more take up position just outside the door. Dutifully, one might say.
Yes, she thought to herself, -this new arrangement was going to work out splendidly.
For a sheltered girl whose parents had no real intention of letting her out into the world, she sure had to put up with an almost inane amount of lessons. She guessed they were just prepping her for when they inevitably married her off- which, gross- but that didn't make it any less annoying. She didn't even see when she was going to use this stuff, seeing as she had no interest at all in being married off to the highest bidder.
But then, her parents didn't know that.
So until then, she guessed she just sort of had to put up with the endless etiquette lessons. At least they weren't as bad as her earthbending lessons with that half-baked excuse for a master her parents had hired. As if she even needed him. She could beat his pansy butt up in her sleep, with her hands tied behind her back.
Hell, she was willing to bet even Scruffy could probably beat him, if he was half as good with those swords as he made it sound like he was. And as far as she had been able to tell, he hadn't been lying.
He was, however, a lousy storyteller.
He was also still waiting for her when she finally hauled herself to her feet, well after both her tutor and her mother had left. It was just him for the moment- she didn't doubt Yang would eventually manifest again, not yet willing to trust their new addition, but for the moment, it was just the two of them.
Carefully, she moved as quietly as possible towards the door. She knew Li would be waiting for her to come out- but that didn't mean she couldn't still take him by surprise. Her feet being bare meant her steps were practically noiseless, especially once she picked up her skirts, preventing them from trailing after her. She remembered how Li had been able to pick up on her presence outside the door to his room, and she couldn't help but indulge in her curiosity as to exactly how good his senses actually were.
She grinned to herself. Already, just having Li around was vastly improving her overall mood. It was a good thing too, since she was pretty sure she wouldn't be able to sneak out tonight- or even tomorrow, if she knew her father. The less steam she had to blow off, the better.
She didn't even make it halfway to the door before Li shifted. "No more lessons?"
Toph fought the urge to huff. She was used to getting the drop on people, not the other way around. Dropping her skirts, she just gave him a wide grin.
"Yep." Toph said. "No more listening to some old crone drone on about obscure court customs for the day."
She could have sworn Li laughed. It was a faint, tiny sound, and Toph instantly decided that she loved it, but that it could also definitely stand to be louder.
Unfortunately, she didn't have long to dwell on it. Yang must have noticed that her tutor had left, because he'd decided to grace her with his presence again. She privately huffed, wondering how long she'd have to wait to actually have the chance to be truly left alone with Li. Knowing her father, it would be way longer than she might like.
Knowing him, he probably also thought she'd get sick of Li in a few weeks. Which just went to show how well he actually knew her- because if he honestly thought she was going to get sick of someone this interesting, then he seriously had another thing coming.
Oh no, she thought. Li was going to stick around for awhile. She'd make sure of it.