The New Dai Li
An Avatar: The Last Airbender, post-series story
Told in 100-word ficlets, by Kimberly T.
The Dai Li had been corrupt, committing atrocities under Long Feng. Everyone had sighed with relief when they'd been banished from Ba Sing Se...
And soon realized that they were needed after all. Because besides brainwashing people into Joo Dee's, the Dai Li had done the sneaky undercover work that found and dealt with the nastiest troublemakers, before they could wreak havoc on the city.
"I hate saying it, but without the Dai Li's assistance, we're fighting a losing battle," a City Guardsman sighed, drinking tea in the Jasmine Dragon. "What can we do?"
Iroh smiled. "I have an idea…"
"So, you want me to create a New Dai Li… that's a throwback to the original Dai Li; 'Protectors of Cultural Heritage'."
"Correct. Which encompasses many things: Preventing destructive riots. Breaking up theft rings. Protecting the artisans, making the city safe for them to practice their art, and pass that cultural heritage on to the next generation. And it must all be done quietly, and without harming innocents in any way."
"Sounds like a challenge."
"A great challenge; made harder by the reputation of the previous organization. Do you think you can handle it?"
Toph grinned. "Of course I can!"
"Are you insane? Sh-she's just a girl!"
"She is Toph Bei Fong."
"A blind girl!"
She prefers 'Blind Bandit'."
"She just turned thirteen!"
"I repeat: she is Toph Bei Fong. She knows not just how to listen, wait and strike swiftly, but how to be so sneaky that no one in Gaoling knew the Blind Bandit's true identity. And her travels and battles with the Avatar taught her even more."
"Okay, she's a master. But… the Dai Li were created to get their hands dirty. And not dirt dirty; you know what I mean! What will that do to her?"
It wasn't hard to find recruits for the New Dai Li. Toph knew how to find earthbenders, and could tell quickly which ones could be trained in her techniques. Soon she'd gathered forty quiet, reasonably competent earthbenders for training.
And one more…
"I don't need to train you at all," she said gleefully. "You're not going to be sneaking in alleys, listening for trouble; you're going to be loud and out in front of everybody! I need a public figure for dealing with nobles at court functions; someone who looks impressive."
The Boulder flexed his biceps. "The Boulder is impressive!"
"Smellerbee! Longshot!" Toph whooped, as she recognized their footsteps. "I thought the old Dai Li had…"
"Taken us prisoner, yeah; we were freed when the whole city was liberated," Smellerbee told her.
Later, Toph said in astonishment, "You want to join the New Dai Li?"
"It'll be our revenge on the old group," as Smellerbee grinned. "We're not earthbenders, but you know we're sneaky fighters!"
"Yeah… Yeah! This could work! But I'll need to pair each of you with earthbenders. Smellerbee, Phan needs someone like you to watch his back. Longshot…"
Longshot spoke. "I can be your eyes."
One day the Earth King himself came down to watch the training. After she finally got everyone up from where they'd been prostrate on the floor, Toph ran them through some basic exercises, stuff they'd been doing easily lately… and wanted to tear her hair out, when they kept making mistake after mistake.
"I believe my presence is making them nervous," the Earth King said apologetically. "Perhaps I should leave…"
"Yeah, you're right, but no, don't leave!" Toph said. "In fact, can you come down and watch more often? These people have got to learn to keep calm no matter what!"
At her request, the Earth King came down to watch the training as often as his busy schedule would permit. Toph's recruits gradually got used to being in his presence and turned their nervousness into competence.
Once they learned to sense vibrations through the earth, and use that sense in combat –not as well as Toph herself, but well enough— they began training in people-watching. Iroh helped create exercises for that, such as finding some planted 'arsonists' and 'assassination plotters'.
One training exercise accidentally uncovered a real assassination plot. "Serendipity," Iroh said wryly as the plotters were arrested. "Well done!"
The Dai Li's duties in protecting the city involved dealing with not just human troublemakers, but troublesome artifact-spirits. Antiquities over a century old never truly came to life, but sometimes acquired animating spirits; some were benign or even benevolent, but many others were not.
The recruits gulped as Toph lifted the lock on a chest… and a dozen fan-spirits flashed out, flapping about like multicolored bats. "Now trap 'em! …I said trap 'em, not duck, idiots! Use your chains; use your heads! Come on, these are the easy ones! Do you want to be New Dai Li, or not?"
Six months after accepting the challenge, Toph Bei Fong presented her New Dai Li to the Earth King and announced they were ready for duty. She was told to work with the Commissioner of the City Guard, and meet with him in his Middle Ring offices.
"I expected you hours ago," the Commissioner growled later, when Toph appeared in his office. "Did you get lost on the way here?"
"Nope; I did some gift shopping," Toph said, and whistled. Ten of her agents appeared, carrying bound criminals that had been on wanted posters for months. "Where do you want 'em?"
Within two months of operation, the New Dai Li had taken down a band of thieves that had been plaguing the Middle Ring for far too long, and a vicious arsonist. They'd also, working with the City Guard, arrested three serial killers.
The Boulder, once he'd been force-fed some lessons in courtly manners, did his best to make people understand that the New Dai Li were to be respected, but not feared anymore.
…Not feared by most people, that is. After Toph brought her evidence straight to the Earth King, five nobles retired from court. For health reasons, they said.
Toph picked Longshot to be second-in-command, and read for her when necessary. And write all the reports; this job came with tons of paperwork.
Toph took every opportunity to get out of the office! And in the field, they made a good team. She'd explained to Longshot the limitations of her earth-sensing; he reported stuff she couldn't sense, like flying artifact-spirits and people mounted on ostrich-horseback, but otherwise kept silent as they fought side-by-side.
When the Commissioner asked about him, she said firmly, "He's my partner."
Longshot was Smellerbee's boyfriend. And Dai Li leaders don't even think about romance.
The hardest part of her job wasn't the criminals, or the artifact-spirits. No, it was dealing with the city officials. She'd hired The Boulder to be her front man at court, but some people insisted on dealing with the Dai Li's leader personally… and when she wasn't actively earthbending, all they saw was a little blind girl.
The Commissioner was one of the worst. He did try to treat her as an equal, but as he kept saying, he had a daughter older than her! And if he called her 'young lady' in that tone of voice One. More. Time.…
They never did find out exactly who had discovered an ancient Dai Li underground storage chamber, broken the seal on a jar without reading the warning label, and loosed a hungry oni on the city. Afterwards, all they found were his shoes.
Six civilians were eaten before they cornered the shape-changing devil. And before they could finally kill it…
They lost Agent Gyong.
After the funeral, the Commissioner told Toph, "Take tomorrow off; you need it."
"Don't. Condescend. To me. Today."
"I'm not. I'd say the same to any Guardsman. …You saved the city, Leader of the New Dai Li."
After the funeral, Toph took the suggestion, and the day off. She found an isolated hilltop, sat down and just tried not to think. She'd never had an agent—a student—a friend—die before…
Smellerbee and Longshot found her there, and just sat with her, saying nothing.
The ex-freedom fighters had lost friends before, and family. She asked quietly, "How long will it hurt this much?"
"A long time," Smellerbee said. "But eventually the pain fades. A little."
Over the hours, nearly all her agents gathered on that hilltop. They just sat there, saying nothing, watching the sun set.
Toph left things on Longshot's desk, sometimes:
A new set of custom-made arrows, after he broke several of his fighting off a malevolent sword-spirit.
A new telescope, with the sign of the bow and arrow engraved on it.
A glass paperweight that someone told her had really pretty colors.
He left things on her desk, too:
A stone carving of a badger-mole, made by a local artisan.
Orangicots, her favorite fruit.
A branch loaded with catkin pods, fuzzy to the touch.
But other than a deliberately casual "Thanks," she never said anything about it. And of course, neither did he.
This was a particularly pesky artifact-spirit, that had been eluding them for weeks since it first animated; an antique flute that played bawdy music all by itself as it flew over the streets.
Toph was tempted to just let it go; it wasn't hurting anyone, and why not add another legend to Ba Sing Se? But the Earth King had heard of it, and wanted it brought in; probably as entertainment for Bosco.
"It's going through the market!" Longshot told Toph, mounted behind him on an ostrich-horse.
They finally chased it down, overturning a cart in the process.
"But I hired The Boulder just for these stupid court functions!" Toph whined. "Why is the King's invitation for me, specifically?"
The Commissioner shrugged. "Cheer up; it could be worse. This is just a formal dinner; there could have been…" he shuddered, "dancing."
"Ha. Ha. Okay, but I'm not going alone! The invitation says I can bring a guest, right? Smellerbee owes me…"
It took four hours to dress appropriately. When they went out to their waiting carriage, Smellerbee whispered uneasily, "Everyone's staring…"
"And their heartbeats are speeding up," Toph whispered back.
She couldn't help wondering, which of them was prettier.
After too many dark rumors, they found solid evidence that slavers were operating in the Lower Ring. The New Dai Li and the City Guard worked together to find them and shut them down, hard and fast.
Toph personally shattered the warehouse wall as agents and guardsmen swarmed in. They killed two slavers and arrested seven more. They saved fifteen children...
But they were too late for many more. Including one boy who'd resisted too hard, and had just been killed 'as a lesson to others.'
Back in their office, Longshot said nothing; he just held Toph as she sobbed.
"Hey, Toph!" Aang said cheerfully as he swooped in, through the window; Longshot had seen him coming and opened it moments ago. "How's it going? Oh, hi, Longshot! I'd heard you and Smellerbee are working for Toph!"
"Hi, Twinkletoes!" Toph said with her best cheerful smile, while Longshot nodded in greeting. "How's the whole 'keeping the world in balance' thing going?"
"Oh, it's… Toph, are you okay? You look… tired. Sort-of… older."
She snorted. "Of course I look older; we haven't seen each other in months! As for tired…" she gave up and sighed. "It's been a long, bad week."
Longshot examined a scroll from the mail sack. "This is from Gaoling."
"Oh, spirits." Toph thumped her head onto her desk. "My parents." Still facedown, she muttered, "Go ahead; read it."
Longshot opened the scroll. "It's from the mayor of Gaoling. They've had an outbreak of artifact-spirits recently, and two people have gone missing… Toph, this is word for word: 'Lao Bei Fong has recommended I contact you for assistance, in training some of our local earthbenders to become Gaoling's own Dai Li'."
She didn't believe it, until he read it twice. Then she grinned. "Time for a working vacation!"
Author's Note: Telling a short story in 100-word drabbles, or a story spanning an entire year in twenty 100-word segments, has become a hobby of mine.
When I get a little plot critter in my head bouncing around screaming "Write me! Write me!" but it won't hold still long enough for me to really flesh it out into a full-fledged short story, I'll pare it down to the 100-word bones instead, making every single word essential, and post that. Then every once in a while one of those 100-word drabbles starts breeding more little critters on me, and they turn into drabble-series stories.
For the last drabble-series story I wrote, the Gargoyles post-series story "Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship", I later went back and expanded one of those 100-word drabbles into a 5,000 word story: "Partners." (Both are posted here at .)
Now that I've set precedent, I offer you readers a chance to influence my writing: Tell me in a review or PM or email, which drabble from 'The New Dai Li' you'd like to see turned into a full-sized story. Of the three that accumulate the most votes over the next few months, I'll pick one to expand and flesh out, and give you all a more in-depth look at Ba Sing Se and what Toph is doing for a living now.