A Matter of Patience: Bumi
Summary: Bumi finds out he isn't the only master of Neutral Jing. Set between seasons 1 and 2.
Bumi, King of Omashu, was a mad genius. A mad genius that had far too much on his plate already to listen to a bunch of pig-headed misers complain about the state of the Earth Kingdom's economy. Swathed in a flowing set of yellow robes, Bumi complained aloud as he hurried through his castle, the cavernous halls magnifying his mumblings one hundred fold. Nearby servants took no notice of the King's passing, well used to his apparent senility by now. The Earth was in turmoil. Its destiny, the very fate of all people, would be decided soon, and Bumi knew that he had a part to play in it. He knew Aang would return to Omashu, and he knew the boy would need an earthbending teacher.
He also knew, however, that Aang's previous visit to Omashu had not gone unnoticed. It was only a matter of time before the Fire Nation attacked Omashu. Fire Nation scouts had been spotted dangerously close to its mighty walls, and what with its value to the Earth Kingdom, its isolation from outside aid, and (he liked to think) incredibly threatening leader, Omashu stood as a very attractive target for the fire armies. Yes, only a matter of time, and Bumi would cede the city to the Fire Nation. He would let them occupy it and not offer the slightest action in resistance, for Bumi was a master of neutral jing. He would lull his enemies into a false sense of security and then, when the moment was ripe, he would strike with unimaginable fury. It had served him well in the past, and he knew it would serve him well again.
Of course, that didn't mean he couldn't use the other eighty-four jings while he waited. He was currently involved in jing number forty-two; damage mitigation through preparedness. He couldn't tell anyone his plans, for word would spread and if the Fire Nation saw him as anything but a senile old man, he might well just be executed and his careful farce would be for naught. Still, Bumi had no intent to let his plan cost more lives than it had to, so he had been steadily whittling away the castle's staff for the past few weeks. His cooks, his tailors, his closest advisors, everyone. When the Fire Nation finally arrived, anyone at all caught within the castle could be in terrible danger, and Bumi would have none of that. Of course, the layoffs had not made Bumi particularly popular, but he didn't see this as an issue of much gravity. When all was said and done, they would understand, and know why he was their king. He just had to have patience, and the world would see his wisdom.
He hadn't fired them all, of course. Many, too dear to him to remove so callously, he had simply sent away. His chief advisor, Obis, he had sent on a long errand to Ba Sing Se, which he knew would occupy the man for weeks. Obis was no fool either, and had clearly recognized that Bumi wanted him gone, but Bumi offered only his usual misaligned stare as explanation and his advisor had left dutifully and without question. Unfortunately, Bumi could not dismiss his guards, for their absence would be an immediate source of suspicion for outside onlookers. Sacrifices had to be made for any victory, and Bumi had been forced to weigh their potential deaths against the greater good.
Still, Bumi did not know how Aang would fit into this equation. Even if the young Avatar were to arrive that very evening, and even if they trained furiously every day thereafter and did nothing else, Bumi probably wouldn't have enough time to adequately educate the boy before the enemy arrived. And while Bumi had all the time in the world to meditate in a Fire Nation cell, awaiting the perfect chance to strike, he knew that Aang did not. Some other solution would be necessary. Precisely what that solution might be, though, was evading even Bumi, the mad genius, at the moment. Neutral Jing, he reminded himself to soothe his tumultuous mind as he stepped into the sunlight on one of his castle's enormous jutting balconies, a matter of patience. A solution will present itself.
A great rectangular table, many feet wide and made of stone, had been set up on the balcony beneath the eastern tower, suspending the dinner guests over the majesty of Omashu. A stone roof ringed with peculiar gargoyles of every kind jutted out over the heads of the guests and kept the table nicely shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. Just like practically everything in Omashu, the floors were stone, the walls were stone, the chairs were stone, and so on.
At the head of the table sat a large (stone) throne, upon which Bumi seated himself. Those servants he had not yet fired bustled to and fro, bedecking the table with all manner of expensive dishes. Bumi sighed to the empty table, putting his head in his hands. He wanted dearly to call the meal off, but he all too clearly remembered Obis' parting words as the younger man had set off for Ba Sing Se. Attend the feast, Bumi… And for spirits' sake behave yourself. Bumi grumbled for a few more moments. He always hated this sort of meeting. Though ostensibly an informal dinner, these particular guests, Donih from Omashu, Lao from Gaoling, Enghis of the Mongils, Shiush and Kirthi of Iyer, and all the others, were men of great wealth and standing, and always got into passionate speeches about tariffs and taxes and money ad nauseum. It all became frightfully boring for the notoriously playful king, who saw through their miserly squabbles in a heartbeat. Ahh well, he thought, giving up. He needed the support of the kingdom's nobility, and sacrifices had to be made. With a final, resolute sigh, Bumi gestured to his servants to bring in the guests.
Bumi stood and put on a more pleasant face as the procession of guests stepped onto the balcony. The men were laughing and talking jovially, each one dressed in his finest clothes. Many were accompanied by their wives and some even with children, no doubt attempting to impress the King of Omashu with their impeccable behavior. Bumi greeted each one warmly with hearty handshakes and inane comments.
"Hello, everybody! How are you? Enghis, Enghis… How's the grandson? Still takin' after his old man? Shiush, I heard about your pest problem. Those frogweasels can be very tricky! I'm sure you'll be rid of them soon enough… Don't use traps, though, they'll just weasel out of them, instead of croaking!" he snorted uproariously at his own silly jokes. His ridiculous behavior was an act, in part (jing number eleven; placating foes into underestimating you), but Bumi did earnestly enjoy messing with people. Having met with the eccentric king so many times before, the guests were all used to his insane sense of humor. Some endured the jokes in silence, others chuckled politely, and still others, anxious for a good name with the powerful king, shared in a forced bout of laughter. It didn't matter to Bumi, however. After all, he made himself laugh. Who needed any more than that?
As luck would have it, though, when Bumi stepped over to Lao and his wife he noticed a new guest, and a fresh pair of ears for his jokes. A little girl, around Aang's age, with long, coal-black hair pulled into elegant braids and clothed in expensive green garments clung to her mother's dress with one hand. Her painted face was drawn into a pouting sneer, but she stood straight with practiced nobility. Bumi cackled in genuine delight.
"And who do we have here?" he asked, staring down kindly at the porcelain doll of a girl. She angled her face to meet his eyes, but overshot and looked instead about a foot above the king's hunched shoulders, to about (he noticed, intrigued) where his eyes would be if he stood up straight.
"My name is Toph Bei Fong" she answered eloquently, clearly none too pleased to be here. You and me both, little Toph, Bumi thought.
"Our daughter, King Bumi," Lao pointed out as said King shook his hand.
"Of course, of course. A welcome and honored guest." Bumi looked again to Toph, whose pale eyes didn't move an inch, before moving on to the next waiting hand.
The greetings complete, the guests took their seats. Bumi stood before his throne and lifted a goblet of wine in a toast.
"Thank you all for coming! I had thought, in these times of war, that perhaps this yearly tradition of ours was becoming too burdensome for you all to continue!" He said this not without some measure of hope, but was met only by horrified faces, as if to say nothing was farther from the truth. "But my advisors told me otherwise and indeed! Here you are, safe and sound. I hope your journeys treated you well?" There was a murmur of answer. "So for now, let us, some of the Southern Earth Kingdom's most celebrated men, eat and speak, because that food's not getting' any warmer!" There was a resounding 'hear hear' from the men at the table and each sat down to his meal.
Servants worked furiously to keep everyone happy. Such rich men did not come with simple palates, and everything had to be fastidiously and perfectly prepared. Bumi enjoyed a great plate of lettuce, as always, only halfway listening to the conversation Lao and Donih, the closest two men, had struck up with him. He offered the occasional 'Mmhmm' and 'Uhuh' but otherwise let them wax poetic about gold (or whatever it was that rich men waxed poetic about these days) uninterrupted. It wasn't nearly long enough before one of the men at the other end of the pinged his goblet for attention and began a lengthy speech about how the poor weren't taxed enough or something. Bumi practically groaned under the boring words, which almost felt like physical blows against his world-weary mind, but remembered his promise to behave.
Leaning down on one arm for support, Bumi noticed Toph, sitting dignified a few places down and looking just as miserable as Bumi felt. She kept her head level and did not look at anything, not even her food, as she picked at her meal. To another, she might have appeared an average rich brat, but Bumi could see something else there. He had a way with manipulating people, which meant necessarily that he had a way with understanding people, and he understood that little Toph was not all she seemed. She was blind, he decided, but entirely too proud and too shielded to be just another girl. It seemed to Bumi that she was holding something in, attempting to hide a secret and, in doing so, made herself that much more transparent to a mad genius.
Bumi allowed an insane grin to form, nodding absently at what the current speaker was saying. He pondered little Toph for some moments before he felt a burst of inspiration. Without taking his eyes off of the speaker nor moving at all, he earthbended one of the great rock floor tiles behind him up an inch or so and let it drop back into place. Only one with the sharpest eyes could have seen him do it, but Toph's head whirled around like a shot, her tiny face defensive and confused. Bumi's grin grew all the wider as she returned to her meal. So… she was an earthbender. Only an earthbender could have felt the tile move and Bumi felt immediately certain that she was one of some talent. Not only that, but she was blind. Bumi's sharp mind recalled whispers of a blind earthbending prodigy named The Blind Bandit (one of his guards was from Gaoling and followed the Earth Rumble tournaments with gusto, even if he could only do so from afar.) It seemed almost crazy to suspect that such a young girl could be such a powerful warrior, but stranger things had happened. Aang was a young boy and perhaps the most powerful person on the planet. Lost in thought but satisfied with his sleuthing, Bumi chewed his salad absently.
After the first speaker had concluded, a second stood to speak, and then a third. Each one droned on and on, causing both Bumi and Toph to roll their eyes and grumble.
His boredom finally becoming unbearable, Bumi decided he would try communicating with the little girl. She could obviously use some entertainment. Why not have a little fun? Surely Toph couldn't be as boring as this same old crowd. Again using no physical movement, no outward sign at all, Bumi bended the rocks several feet beneath them, creating a miniature cavern under the floor. Again, Toph seemed to notice, and her features tightened in surprise. Checking to see that no one else had noticed his impromptu addition to the castle (there was probably quite a bump protruding from the ceiling of the floor below, he supposed… Hopefully the servants wouldn't discover it until he had chance to put it back), Bumi continued to feign interest in the speaker.
He watched Toph through the corner of his vision. The girl didn't move her eyes, but Bumi could tell her ears were cocked in search for the earthbender responsible. She hadn't attended one of these meetings in the past, so she couldn't know, as Bumi did, that none of these vacuous men had an ounce of bending talent. Opting to give her a clue, Bumi tapped his foot as he bent several head-sized rocks into the cavern below. This time, her head whipped around to face him, her features accusing. She stared for a few seconds as Bumi looked away innocently, whistling a cacophonous tune. Eventually, she returned her empty gaze to her platter, but her face remained suspicious.
After a moment, Bumi tapped his foot again, and one of the rocks he had placed in his hidden little cavern stood up on end and split in half, forming a mouth like gash. A few taps later, and it came to resemble the fat jowls and bald head of the current speaker, a sweaty, distasteful man named Athou who had become rich on the silk market. A look of restrained curiousity slowly crept over Toph's face. Encouraged, Bumi continued. Waving his big toe in small circles, like a wand, Bumi made the stone head mockingly mime the speaker's words. Bumi had heard them all before, so he could mock the man with practiced efficiency, even making the crude rock puppet pause frequently to wipe its sweaty brow in sync with the real man at the table. Toph allowed a small smile to form before hiding it away again, so Bumi quickly formed a body for his puppet (a grotesquely fat boulder of a body, at that) and had the construct waddle around in the little cavern, over-emoting every syllable the fat man uttered. Toph's smile grew and grew and when Bumi finally crushed the long-winded puppet under a slab of rock, she let out a loud giggle.
Lao silently reprimanded his daughter, and both Toph and Bumi had to guiltily hide their smiles and behave themselves. After only a few moments, though, a new and equally boring speaker began, and Bumi felt the rocks in the cavern below shift. Toph grinned at him briefly as she formed her own puppet, a parody of the newer, thinner speaker. Her puppet rose shakily to its feet as Bumi reforged his own construct. The two of them let out a stream of snickering as they had their little pets box and dance and mock the table. Toph's puppet's movements were crude and imprecise at first, but in watching Bumi (who had years of practice with earth puppets) she refined her technique impressively fast. It was only a few minutes (and several rude outbursts of giggling) later that she had full control over the puppet and had it moving with the same grace as Bumi's, a feat which impressed the old king to no end. He wished some of his other earthbending friends would join his shenanigans with the same gusto, but thusfar none had.
Bumi and Toph shared in their suppressed laughter as they acted out little scenes, most ending with one or both of the characters exploding into a rain of pebbles. When Toph's golem sprouted an earthen dress during an eerily perfect mock soliloquy, the King and the little blind girl could contain their laughter no longer and simultaneously burst into noisy guffaws. Toph's musical giggles seemed to weave around Bumi's harsher snorts and laughs as he pounded the table with his large fist.
The entire table turned to look at the wildly laughing Toph and Bumi, quizzical expressions on their faces as they tried to figure out what was so funny. Some apparently believed some aspect of the speech had amused the pair so much, and hesitantly joined in to avoid looking stupid. Bumi, recovering from his laughter and wiping tears from his eyes, waved a hand at the speaker, urging him to continue. With a reluctant look at the kooky king, he did so.
As the speeches droned on, Toph and Bumi exchanged a number of tentative glances at one another, each one trying to encourage the other into some sort of new prank, funny enough to distract them. More than one stone plate slid away from an incoming fork, eliciting some snickering, but it was when Toph pulverized one of the noses off of the gargoyles leering above, causing a steady trickle of sand to land on the fat man's bald head that they exploded into peals of laughter again, again earning them dirty looks and Toph a harsh warning from her father.
"I'm sorry, Athou," Bumi admitted to the not-at-all-pleased merchant, still shaking a bit from laughter. "I guess this place isn't holding together quite as well as it used to!" Bumi felt a little sorry for getting Toph in trouble, but she didn't seem to mind, as she immediately began to erode the other gargoyles, causing people to shift their plates away from the streams of sand (which inexplicably diverted themselves to follow the meals around). Bumi chortled along with her, but, almost instantaneously, he stopped to listen.
A faint tremor moved through the Earth, far too weak for any average person, or even any average earthbender, to notice. Bumi noticed, however, and understood. To his surprise and awe, Toph had stopped at the very same instant, and now appeared, like Bumi, to be listening intently. The Earth was speaking, and only a chosen few, the few who could hear it, knew that an earthquake was heading their way. Earthquakes had become more and more common recently, no doubt because the Earth itself could sense the growing tension on its surface. The two of them exchanged a knowing look but made no effort to stop the current long-winded speech. Bumi drained his cup so it wouldn't spill and braced himself for the coming tremors, his mind amazed that a girl so young could rival his own connection with the planet. He had always thought that anyone could hear the Earth if they tried, but that being old as dirt helped quite a bit.
True to her word, Earth shook mightily mere minutes later, interrupting the speaker and invoking a brief murmur of surprise from the guests. Plates clattered, goblets spilled, and people dropped to the floor with rehearsed calm. The earthquake persisted, intensifying, and only Bumi and Toph remained in their seats. Some of the gargoyles from high above were shaken loose and fell like bullets towards the group, only to be diverted with confident waves of Bumi's hand. Toph sat, unconcerned even as rock thundered down around her. The two of them exchanged goofy grins and continued to eat with comical nonchalance, as if nothing were happening at all. Eventually, though, the tremors subsided and the dinner guests stood and brushed themselves off, relieved to have weathered another disaster.
A great crack, however, changed their tone of relief to one of fear. All eyes went to the enormous eastern tower, which towered high above their heads, as a fissure worked its way up the stonework. Time seemed to proceed in slow motion as the entire turret, thousands of tons of carved stone, peeled away from the castle and started to fall.
Bumi was on his feet in an instant, lifting his muscled arms in the air to slow the tower's descent. He strained, grinding his already flat teeth together with the great exertion, as the tower slowed to a stop mere feet above the dinner party, its enormous weight held up by one seemingly-frail old man. The guests cowered to the floor, not bothering to run, as they knew if Bumi couldn't stop the tower, their fate was sealed already. So they watched in great suspense as one of the greatest earthbenders in the world strained and fought against the mighty inertia of his element.
Bumi's feet sank into the ground, cracking the solid rock floor like it was mere glass. He felt the Earth's strength course through his body as he slowly extended his arms again and the tower slowly, slowly began its ponderous trip back upwards. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, Bumi worked the fallen tower back up to where from it had been cut. To call it strenuous would be an understatement and Bumi's brow dripped copiously with sweat.
Suddenly, he felt as if a great burden were lifted from his shoulders. The tower felt immediately lighter, and he looked around, surprised, to see Toph standing, her arms above her head, helping him heft the building back into place. Her frail form stood in stark contrast with his pillar-like physique, but she was undeniably, unbelievably mighty. With her help, it took only a few moments for the tower to be eased back into place and braced with a few newly-bended buttresses of rock.
Bumi let out a great grunt of relief as he finally let go of the tower, which held steadily. The guests released their collective breath, rose to their feet, and clapped emphatically for his lifesaving bending. Bumi tried to respond in kind but couldn't tear his eyes away from Toph, who sat pleasantly in her seat as if nothing had happened. Several had noticed her involvement, laughed in the fashion one laughs at a precocious child, and spoke to her good-naturedly, though they cleary upset the girl with their patronizing tones.
"A fine job, Toph," they said, all smiles. "Perhaps one day you will be as great a bender as Bumi himself!" Toph let out an irritated huff, clearly indignant at the very suggestion, but said nothing. Lao forced a laugh.
"Perhaps one day" he said uncomfortably, his tone clearly indicating how unlikely he thought that. Bumi only steadily found the use of words again.
"A fine job, indeed," Bumi said, his face abeam with great pride for Toph and the noble element they shared. "Thank you for your help, Toph." Toph smiled at him and spoke in her most showy, adorable voice.
"You are most welcome, Your Highness" she responded sweetly, eliciting a round of 'Awwww's' from the audience. Only the two of them knew just how serious they really were.
The shock of nearly dying abated, the feast resumed, but after such a close call, no one really seemed to retain much of an appetite. Some guests remained to speak to one another, while others rushed off in a huff, muttering about something Bumi could only hazard a guess at. Bumi himself settled back into his chair, feeling his old joints settle and pop uncomfortably. Realizing his time with Toph was ending, Bumi decided to ask her about the suspicion that had been sneaking around in his mind since they had started their childish pranks. Returning his mind to the cavern, he bent the pulverized puppets into an image of Toph, reshaped her surroundings into an arena of sorts, and had her lift a little stone belt to a cheering crowd. The likeness was uncanny, and the message was clear: ARE YOU THE BLIND BANDIT?
Toph's mouth opened in surprise as she realized what Bumi was asking. After a momentary hesitation, she smiled and put a solitary finger to her lips, cocking her head and 'staring' right at Bumi. She was cute and she knew it, and Bumi knew it too. How could he say no to that? He smiled back warmly and nodded, folding his hands in front of him and bending the cavern and the Toph puppet back into the flooring, as if they had never existed. As the Bei Fongs left (clearly none too pleased with Toph's behavior), the Blind Bandit's beaming face caught Bumi's eye one last time. She wouldn't risk a wave, but Bumi knew she would miss him as much as he would miss her.
The last one at the table, Bumi was lost in thought as the servants cleaned up around him. This had been the best of these feasts he had ever attended. He had managed to entertain a young girl, and likewise be entertained, instead of merely being bored by the windbags! Bumi couldn't help but let out a loud cackle (which the servants ignored, well used to it by now). Toph was a master earthbender by anyone's definition. But what was more, she was a master of neutral jing, and clearly knew the Earth just as innately as Bumi himself. Bumi nodded. He knew, now, what to do, when Aang finally returned.
A matter of patience, he repeated to himself with a grin. A solution had presented itself.
A/N: Well, there you have it. My first attempt at fanfiction, hope you enjoyed it. By the way, some of the concepts in this story were inspired by an extremely awesome Bumi-centric piece called Nothing, by DarkSeverus. At the risk of being upstaged, I strongly suggest you check it out.
A/N2: Update – I am repurposing this story into a short collection of sorts, dedicated to assorted auxiliary characters in Avatar. I doubt I will update it frequently, if at all, but as the characters I wish to use will largely not show up in the filters, I think consolidating them will make them more accessible.