It all started with a game of Pai Sho.
If you hung around the Jasmine Dragon for long enough you couldn't help but learn a little bit about Pai Sho, even if you couldn't see what was painted on the tiles. There was always a game or two going on somewhere in the shop, and eventually Toph began to get a feeling for the rhythm of the game. After a while she had pretty much figured out when it would be most annoying for her lean over and say "Use the rock tile!" or hum seriously and ask "But aren't those tiles disharmonious?"
Sokka found this incredibly annoying (which of course made it all the more fun), especially when she was right. One day he said "Look, if you're going to give me advice it should at least be informed".
He pointed to each tile in turn saying what it's type was, and explaining the relationships between it and the tiles around it.
"See, and now I'm placing a White Dragon tile over here near Suki's Chrysanthemum tile. Next turn I can move three spaces and take it, and since it's next to a knotweed she can't do anything about it."
"Actually, honey," said Suki affectionately "There is something I can do about it. Pay attention Toph, this is called a Wheel Gambit, also known as kicking your boyfriend's ass."
By the time Teo and his father came to visit a few months later, Toph had made her own indented set of tiles from ceramic, metal and semi precious gems. She could have told the tiles apart with only a few minor changes in shape and composition, but with some aesthetic advice from Katara she'd made designs which were also visible to her less perceptive sighted friends (you can't play Pai Sho with yourself after all) After some other blind customers expressed an interest Toph made a few alterations and now had a set that could be recognised and played with by pretty much anyone who knew the rules of the game.
The mechanist Ru Cheng looked at the set with admiration, but as always had limited interest in any invention which relied on bending and not science. What he wanted to talk about was his latest invention, a printing press.
"It's going to revolutionise society!" he said breathlessly "Just imagine! Books distributed cheap to every child who wants to learn! A full education to every would-be student! Every house will be like a miniature version of Wan Shi Tong's library!"
"Well that's great," said Toph "You guys have fun with your big piles of dead trees, I'll be sitting over here reading my Pai Sho tiles and carved murals."
"Oh," he said. Then "What do you mean about carved murals?"
"It's about the only thing I can 'read': I can feel the shapes through the stone and kind of figure out the story. I could read the captions as well if I knew what any of the characters meant."
"How interesting," he said "I wonder if you could read our pressing plates: they have the characters embossed in metal to capture the ink."
"Well, I could feel them, but it'd just be a bunch of funny looking lines," said Toph.
"Hmm," said Ru thoughtfully.
They also came with news of the Northern Air Temple. Now that the Fire Nation was no longer a threat many of the inhabitants had gone back to their old homes to try and rebuild, but the rest of them had stayed in in their new home, and the city had also become home to more new immigrants displaced by the war, ready to create a better future. Toph had never been there, but Teo and Aang sounded so happy when they discussed the Temple that she almost felt as if she had seen the hallowed halls and soaring mountains for herself.
"Of course," said Teo a little sadly, "All this rebuilding is means father doesn't have as much time or money for working on his inventions. He got the Earth Kingdom civil service to support the development of the printing press but it's turning out to be harder than we thought, and they're getting impatient. It's easy to make a single plate but making all the individual characters and getting them to line up properly is surprisingly tricky. Do you know how many characters there are in the alphabet? Thousands!"
"Really? Pfft, now I'm really glad I never learned to read."
After Teo and his father left Toph found herself running her fingers over the indented surface of a Pai Sho tile and thinking.
Now that she was free to leave whenever she wanted (and as stupid as her parents could be sometimes, they weren't going to go against the will of the leaders of all three nations and the Avatar) Toph didn't mind her parent's house quite so much. It was familiar and safe, and although she would never admit it to anyone sometimes she missed her collection of dolls. What she did not miss was her parents bizarre ability to ignore her history as a war veteran and powerful earthbender and see her only as a little blind girl.
"I do not like you spending so much time by yourself in Ba Sing Se," said her father. "I know you think you can take care of yourself, but you must not forget that you are still a young girl. And how will you become an accomplished and proper young woman if you are always off traveling to strange places and putting yourself in danger?"
"You know father, you are absolutely right. In fact, I want you to help me hire a tutor. It's time I learned to read."
The first few tutors her father hired were completely useless. But eventually she found one who was willing to think outside the box a bit, and between them they developed a system of writing in wet sand that allowed them both to read and write the characters easily.
Toph was glad she'd decided to do this where none of her friends could see. It was so embarrassing, thirteen years of age and she could barely recognise (let alone write) her own name. But one of the advantages of living in the Earth Kingdom is that a lot of things are made out of rock, and as time went on she was able to make out more and more of the various carved and embossed text in stone all over the town. One of the first words she learnt was Bei Fong, since she had lived with the shape of those characters carved into the buildings around her for her whole life. Her parents congratulated her, but said that as much as they admired her newfound ability to write they'd rather she didn't bend "Toph Bei Fong was here" into all the decorative boulders.
Learning to read is a complex business, and it was going to take her years to approach competency. But after a few months Toph decided that she had enough of a basic gist to be able to at least recognisably copy a character when it was shown to her, and for now that was all that she needed. It was time to go to the Northern Air Temple.
Toph had to admit that Teo and Aang had a point: the temple was beautiful. Not as interestingly bizarre as the Western Air Temple with it's funky upside down buildings, but still pretty cool. She had gotten a ride with a local merchant who kept waxing lyrical about the beauty of the scenery, and when she had a chance to stand on the ground and look at it properly she was inclined to agree. The earth bristled with with mountains and deep valleys, the fossil-pocked clines and anticlines formed over millenia as the world buckled and clashed under the pressure of it's giant slowly shifting plates.
The temple itself was an extension of this rock, carved into and out of the mountains themselves and riddled with iron and people and other organic matter. She sat in the cart trying to feel the shape of it through the wood then had a sudden shock when she narrowed her focus and considered the road they were traveling on.
"I don't mean to be a backseat driver," she said to the merchant, "But aren't we about to hit a hundred foot drop into a rock filled crevasse? I'm not an expert or anything but I'm assuming that may be a bit of a problem."
"Oh, yes, the road to the Temple was destroyed by the Fire Nation," he said cheerfully.
"But don't worry, they've made this really clever drawbridge. We just wait at the end of the road and they'll bring it down for us."
And sure enough Toph soon felt what she had assumed was some sort of tower shifting down and across the gap in the road, and they drove across without any trouble beyond Toph's constant sense that they were about to fall to their deaths through the rickety wooden structure.
When she was finally back on solid ground she found a local and asked where she could find Teo.
"Look up, he's right there!" they said pointing cheerfully.
She raised an eyebrow.
"Oh," said the Temple inhabitant a little chastened. "Well, if you go up that ramp and out to the flying platform you can talk to him when he comes back down."
Toph considered throwing some rocks in his general direction to get his attention, but decided to wait instead.
Toph was not really an ideas sort of person, she preferred to leave that stuff to people like Sokka. So she felt particularly self conscious as she explained Teo her plan to use metalbending to help them make their press. To her great relief he grinned and said "Actually, we were inspired by that conversation too."
He took her up various winding ramps to a workroom deep in the Temple and sent for his father.
"Feel this," he said, holding out a piece of paper.
Toph ran her fingers over the page. The thick card was covered in strange shapes, little indentations making up dotted unfinished circles in some incomprehensible pattern.
"It's a piece of paper with some holes in it."
"Not just any holes," said Ru, "Writing."
"Uh," said Toph "I might not have been able to read the last time you saw me but I can now and that is not what writing feels like."
"Not normal writing, no. It's a special sort of writing designed to be easily recognised by touch."
"A special..you mean I spent all this time learning how to read these stupid complicated characters with their billions of arbitrary little lines and it turns out all I needed to learn was some little circles and dots?"
"Well, the stupid complicated characters have their uses too." This new voice came from a woman who had been standing at the side of the room. Like Zuko she had the crenelations of a burn scar across her face, but in her case it covered most of the top of her head and left only cloth covered holes where eyes would normally be. Her face felt fascinating.
The woman bowed. "My name is Wen. I was a teacher before I lost my sight, and have been helping Ru develop a writing system for the blind that can be pressed into paper. It has been an interesting challenge, and I've been looking forward to meeting the girl who set the idea in motion."
Toph's efforts learning to write turned out not to have been in vain: while Ru did intend to try and adapt the printing press to be able to press these dot characters eventually, the main use and first goal of the press was still going to be creating inked pages of normal printing, and despite some progress they were still having problems with the mechanism.
"What you need," said Toph "Is a metalbender."
Casting metal is a long and unpredictable process, and if your design is off you'll probably have to melt it down and start again. Now that Ru could just ask Toph to change a shape slightly or adapt two parts to fit together the process of experimentation went much more quickly.
"I cannot express how helpful you've been Toph, thankyou so much for your help," said Ru one day after an afternoon of repetitive tiny alterations and frustrating dead ends. "But if I may ask: what motivated you to come help us? You are such a powerful earthbender, there's no end of people who could benefit from your assistance. And you did not know that I was working on this touch-writing, so what prompted you to help us create books you will not be able to read yourself?"
"Don't overestimate how nice I am," she replied. "Mainly I was just bored, and this sounded like something different to do. And it...gave me an excuse, I guess, to learn to read. I've always wished I could understand the writing in stuff around me but given that most of it is on paper, going to all that bother just for a few statues and plaques seemed like a waste of time."
The other thing Toph could do was teach more metalbenders. There were quite a few earthbenders living in the Temple, and while none of them could bend metal with her proficiency, some of them managed to grasp the basic principles well enough to help out here and there, not only with the press but with all the various metal related jobs around the city. Soon the water and steam pipes criss-crossing the Temple had the same smooth aesthetic design as the carved and bent rock they wove through.
Meanwhile she had to learn to read all over again with Wen. Luckily it was not as hard as learning written characters since the dotted circles were just a fairly straightforward transliteration of each written character into sounds and tone. It helped that Wen was way cuter than her writing tutor back home.
"What is it with me and falling for people who are all old and unavailable?" said Toph, collapsing in a heap next to Teo as the two of them sat by a fountain to eat lunch.
"Not that she isn't way too old for you anyway, but how is Wen unavailable?" he replied.
"Oh please. I'm blind and even I can see the way she and your dad look at each other. So to speak."
"Gah! That's disturbing."
Toph's eyes narrowed. "What, it's disturbing because she's blind?"
"No, it's disturbing that you and my dad..both..um..."
There was an awkward silence.
"Hey, have you ever thought about flying?" asked Teo.
"If by "thinking about" you mean 'vowing to never do again even if my life depends on it' then sure," said Toph.
"Really?" he said. "Because most of flying is about feeling the shift of air currents and gravity, and I bet you'd be great at that."
"Sure I would, right up until I crashed head first into a cliff."
"...yeah ok. I can see how that might be a problem."
As the days turned into weeks the date approached for a visit from the Earth Kingdom civil service to check on their investment. Ru bustled about double checking the mechanics and reshuffling the sample sheets, but thanks to Toph's help the press had been basically finished for some time and there was nothing to do but sit back and wait for him to arrive.
The government agent was a tall, thin, tightly-wound man with a checklist and no sense of humour. He looked over the press with sharp eyes and a raft of detailed questions, asking for demonstrations and taking detailed bulleted notes.
Later, at the evening meal, as the agent picked at the complicated specialties cooked especially for his arrival, Toph felt a sinking feeling. There was an intense air of negativity about his whole demeanor, from the scowl on his face to the tense curl of his toes inside his overly tight shoes.
"Ru Cheng," said the agent, "I am not surprised that this device has taken so long to build. Your facilities here are cramped and your staff less than minimal. I hate to think of the expense we are going to have to outlay to get your operation up to speed in order to replicate the press on the necessary scale."
"So you want me to create more? You are happy with the press?"
"It fulfills our requirements, yes."
"Oh how fantastic! If you give me the money for materials and staff I can get started on building a whole raft of these presses. And I have more ideas for incorporating art and maps, plus of course there's the touch-writing for the blind we've been working on. Just think of it! We will be sharing knowledge with the world, books and reading for everyone who want them!"
"Well, anyone who wants them for government business," said the agent. "And while we might have some use for diagrams there are no blind people in the civil service."
"Why not?" asked Toph.
"Don't be silly: they can hardly join the civil service if they can't read."
Ru sighed deeply as they watched the official drive off, taking the prototype press with him.
"It's not as bad as making weapons for the Fire Nation, but this is still not what I had in mind for my invention. I am sorry Toph, but don't worry, I'm sure I'll be able to spare some time and funds to work on the touch-writing press."
"Oh, don't worry about it." she replied.
"Don't say that!" said Teo "It's way too important just to let it go."
"Oh I am definitely not going to let it go. But you shouldn't worry. You see, as well as being the world's most amazing earthbender, and the inventor of metalbending, and all around awesome, I am also really really rich."
Of course technically Toph had no money at all. But given that printing books involved staying indoors and creating literature (and, hopefully, profit) rather than running around war zones doing battle it did not take much persuasion to get her parents to offer the support of the Bei Fong name and fortune.
The one condition her parents gave was that they got to name the company. Toph felt a bit bad about this since it was the Chengs, not the Bei Fongs, who had been the driving force behind the creation of the press. But as her parents pointed out there was a lot of power in names, and being attached to such an old and powerful family would be good publicity.
Thus the Bei Fong publishing company was born.
They eventually decided to set up shop in Ba Sing Se, since the Northern Air Temple was not well suited to being a distribution hub.
Leaving Teo and the others to continue unpacking, Toph wandered towards the Upper Ring and the Jasmine Dragon. As she walked up the ramp she'd made to the door the last time Teo had visited, Toph used her bending to create a line of dot characters under her feet, spelling out a greeting: "This way to the Jasmine Dragon Tea House. All welcome." The dots made an interesting pattern in the smooth and subtly marbled stone.
Approaching the door she was greeted by Sokka, who had been waving to her through the window.
"Hey Toph, long time no see! Wait, what are those shapes you're making on the ground?"
"Gee Sokka" she snorted, "Can't you read?"