Belle strolled confidently along the streets of Ba Sing Se, happily immersed in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Her few years living in the city had taught her that it was best to travel with an air of confidence, especially when navigating the Lower Ring. While the vast majority of the population were good, hardworking people, there still existed the ever-present threat of thieves and ruffians.
Gaston had jokingly offered to accompany her as bodyguard, knowing full well that Belle could easily subdue any troublemakers on her own. A well-placed water whip tended to put a quick end to mischief.
That lesson was reinforced when Belle had laughingly chased Gaston around the courtyard, water from the pond flowing forth at her command and breaking over his head repeatedly. Perfectly acceptable retribution for his teasing, she felt, though he would argue otherwise.
A passerby, their neighbor from up the street, had glared down her nose at their antics, huffing indignantly when Gaston scrunched up his face in a mocking imitation of her haughtiness.
Unlike most of their similarly stuffy Upper Ring neighbors, Belle felt no need to flaunt her supposed status to the city’s inhabitants. She had dressed as simply as possible for her errand, plain earth-tones and no jewelry or other adornments. It was much how she dressed everyday, training exercises being quite unforgiving towards impractical clothing, but she had still taken extra care.
The citizens of the Lower Ring had very little. Many of them were refugees and Belle was awed by their bravery, by their sheer force of will in the face of the Fire Nation’s destruction. They had been uprooted from their homes, forced to travel to Ba Sing Se and start over. The least she could do was remove any markings that would make it seem as if she wanted their attention or reverence.
She wanted neither.
What Belle did want was some fabric, the purpose of this little errand. There was an upcoming party at the palace that required her father’s attendance. Consequently, Belle would also be required to attend.
She had little sewing skill and would certainly not be able to make the dress herself, but she enjoyed the task of picking out the fabric. The seamstress had been aghast when Belle had informed her that not only would she be choosing her own fabrics, but that she would also travel to the Lower Ring herself in order to shop for them.
The seamstress had given Belle several recommendations for fabric shops. So far, Belle had visited them all and not one had held anything to catch her eye.
She was somewhat annoyed with herself for being so picky, but… parties at the palace were endless and boring and if Belle was going to suffer though one while Gaston got to stay home and relax, she was at least going to do so in a dress that she loved.
Deciding to rely on chance for a while, Belle meandered the streets somewhat aimlessly, no real destination in mind. She stopped here and there, speaking with people that she met along the way and inquiring into local businesses.
Eventually, she spoke to a woman who directed her down a nearby street.
Following the road, Belle came to that shop that the woman had mentioned. It was aged, but seemed well cared for. A sign above the door read simply: Bae’s.
A small bell chimed as Belle opened the door and glanced around. Every available surface was covered in spools of thread or folds of fabric in varying patterns and shades of green and brown. There was a door on the far wall that probably led to a back room, which was blocked by a counter. Though small, the shop was clean and neatly kept. As she stepped further inside, Belle instantly felt at home in the place, although she was loathe to understand why.
A boy sat perched on the counter, toying with some thread in his hands, and he looked up at the sound of the door chime. Spotting Belle, his face lit up and he leapt to the floor.
“Good afternoon!” he chirped, brushing his hands down the front of his clothes to neaten them. “Welcome to Bae’s. How may I help you today?”
Belle smiled. “Good afternoon to you, too. I’m looking to buy some fabric. Might you have any?” she teased, looking around the room.
The boy laughed. “I think we may be able to find you some.” He swept his arm in a wide arc. “We have a large selection and we can also do special custom orders. Are you looking for anything specific?”
Belle took an immediate liking to the boy and his wide, beaming smile. He seemed only about ten or eleven years of age, yet he spoke to her as maturely and politely as any adult. “I need some fabric for a dress,” she explained.
“I can help with that!” He grabbed her hand excitedly and tugged her towards one shelf. “These fabrics are the lightest weave we have,” he said before pulling her to the next shelf. “And these are a bit heavier.”
He continued leading Belle around the shop, stopping at every shelf and table and offering descriptions and recommendations. Belle followed along gladly, enjoying the boy’s enthusiasm and asking questions which he gleefully answered.
When they finally returned to their starting point, the boy dropped her hand and hopped back up to sit on the counter. “Did you see anything that you liked?” he asked hopefully.
“Yes, actually, I-” she started to speak, but a man’s voice cut her off.
The boy turned, smiling, as a man limped in through the back door. “Papa, this nice woman needs some fabric!”
The man gave a long-suffering sigh, leaning a bit more on his wooden staff. “Bae, you know you’re supposed to come fetch me when there’s a customer.”
“I know, but you were busy. And I was very professional.” He turned to Belle. “Wasn’t I?”
Belle smiled at them both and nodded. “He was. Your boy is quite the salesman.”
“See, Papa? She wants to buy some fabric for a dress. I showed her all of the material that we have.”
“It’s true,” Belle nodded. “I feel much more informed about my choices now.”
Bae grinned at his father in triumph and the man rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
“Bae, why don’t you go and make some tea for your new favorite customer?”
Pleased by the hospitality but not wanting to be any trouble, Belle started to protest. “Oh, no, that’s not necessary-“
“Wait, I make really good tea!” Bae interrupted, sliding off the counter. “You’ll love it, I promise!” He scampered off to the back room, brushing past his father and receiving a hair ruffle in return. Once the door had shut the man looked sheepishly at Belle.
“Thank you for humoring him.”
Belle waved a hand. “Don’t be silly. I was happy to speak with him,” she insisted, offering him gentle smile.
The man bowed his head to her briefly anyway. “You still have my thanks. We don’t get many customers looking for more than the most basic of wares. This shop means a lot to him, it was a great kindness for you to allow him to show you around.”
“It was no trouble. Honestly,” she added, when his face showed he still doubted her sincerity. “If it made him happy then I’m glad. The shop is named after him, I assume?”
“Yes. We moved to Ba Sing Se when he was only a few years old and he loved the idea of having his own shop.”
Belle smiled at the thought, a tiny boy marveling at the shop his father named after him.
“Where did you live before you came here?” she questioned. “If you don’t mind me asking,” she added hastily, remembering too late that many of the families in the city were refugees and likely had no desire to talk about their pasts.
“I don’t mind,” he assured her. “I come from a small Earth Kingdom island in the south. Things… took a turn for a worse and so we left.”
Belle nodded sympathetically. She noted his his leg injury and the fact that he made no mention of Bae’s mother; the signs pointed to refugee, but she had no proof and there was really no reason to ask. Who they had been before and how they had gotten here was not important. Not wanting to upset him, she redirected the conversation. “You have a lovely shop. I’ve been to quite a few today and this is definitely my favorite.”
“Thank you,” he responded sincerely, inclining his head again. “Bae rearranges the displays most every day.” Belle enjoyed the obvious affection in his voice while he talked about his son. “I can never find anything because he keeps moving it all around,” he added with a rueful chuckle.
“Do you make all of this fabric yourself?”
“Most of it. I also spin the threads and yarns.”
Belle picked up a nearby length of fabric, light green with a faint pattern. “It’s beautiful,” she said, running the cloth gently between her fingers. “I wish I were so talented.”
“Oh, I… thank you. It’s quite simple, really, once you know how…” Belle saw that the tips of his ears had gone red. For some reason, she found herself delighting in his bashfulness. She was searching for something else to say to make him blush when he spoke again.
“Um…” He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “Bae mentioned you were looking for some fabric for a dress?”
Bae chose that moment to return from the back room, laden down with a tray of tea things. He placed it on the counter carefully before pouring three cups and handing one to Belle. “Here you go, Miss.”
“Thank you very much,” she said. “My name is Belle, by the way.”
“I’m Bae,” he said, sticking out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Miss Belle.”
She shook his hand enthusiastically. “You can just call me Belle, Mister Bae.”
He giggled. “Then you can call me Bae.” He turned to his father. “What about you, Papa?”
He smiled indulgently at his son before moving to briefly shake Belle’s hand. “Rum.”
“Nice to meet you, Rum,” she said warmly. She felt a bit foolish, being so overly friendly with them, but they seemed like such nice people.
And anyway, she decided it was worth a little foolishness to see a blush redden the tips of Rum’s ears again.
When she took a sip of her tea to hide her smile, the taste caused her eyes to widen in surprise. “This is delicious, Bae.”
The compliment earned her a wide smile from the boy. “Thank you! I just learned how to make it extra special. An old man at a tea shop taught me when I delivered some fabric for their new aprons.”
Belle grinned. “Salesman, expert tea-maker, and delivery boy? You have many talents.”
“And Papa is teaching me how to spin, too. I’m going to learn to do everything and one day, we’re going to have the best shop in the whole city!”
“I’m sure you will. I was telling you father a moment ago, you’re shop is already my favorite.”
“Really?” Bae’s face lit up and he turned to Rum, tugging on his father’s sleeve. “Did you hear that, Papa?”
“I did. I suppose we should be sure that you’re favorite customer gets the best possible materials for her dress.”
“Of course we will!” Bae grabbed her hand like he had earlier. “Belle, which fabrics did you like the most?”
They went around the room together, picking out a few bolts of fabric while Rum watched from the counter with an expression on his face that Belle couldn’t quite decipher.
It wasn’t until they had brought the fabric to the counter and Rum was using a pair of shears to cut lengths according to her specifications that Belle asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have anything in blue, would you?”
Rum shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. We don’t get much call for anything outside of green and brown.”
“I understand completely. I knew it was a long shot, but it’s my favorite color. I would have loved to have something, even just a small accent piece.”
Rum continued to cut the fabric for a moment. “I might be able to whip something up,” he offered hesitantly, glancing up at her quickly before looking back down at his work.
“Yes, I think so. I’ll need to procure the correct plants to dye it with, but I have some contacts who should be able to help.”
“That would be wonderful! I’ll pay extra, of course, for the extra work. Thank you so much, Rum,” she enthused.
“I- I’ll need a few days to get it ready,” he cautioned, stuttering slightly. “You aren’t on too much of a deadline, I hope?”
“No, that’s perfectly fine. I have almost a month before I need the dress completed.”
Rum folded her fabric selections neatly and stacked them one on top of the other. “You can take these with you now, it you’d like, or we can hold them until you come to pick up the rest.”
“I’ll leave them until then, if that’s okay.”
Bae bounced excitedly on the spot. “We’ll see you in a few days, then. You’ll have the prettiest dress ever made, Belle!” He flung his arms out to the side in excitement and his hand hit the teapot, knocking it over. It tipped onto its side, water flowing out onto the counter and soaking the fabric. “Oh no!” Bae looked up at Belle, eyes wide and horrified. “I’m sorry!”
“I didn’t mean to, I’m so sorry!”
“Bae, it’s okay.”
Rum put a comforting hand on Bae’s shoulder. “It was just an accident, son.”
“No, I ruined it! You liked our shop best and now I’ve ruined everything!” He sounded close to tears and Belle’s heart broke for him. She righted the upended teapot and lay a hand on Bae’s other shoulder.
“Bae, wait. I want to tell you something.” Bae sniffled a little and looked up at her. “Well, actually, I want to show you something.” She leaned in conspiratorially and squeezed his shoulder. “Watch this.”
Waving her hand, she effortlessly pulled the puddle of water up off the counter and into a single strand. She heard Bae gasp beside her. A flick of her wrist and the water soaking the fabric joined the strand, leaving the cloth just as dry as it had been before.
Unable to resist showing off just a little, she waved her hand, letting the water flow through the air in a few graceful arcs before before she guided it back into the teapot.
“See? No harm done.”
Bae and Rum stared at her in shock. “You’re a waterbender,” Bae breathed, awed.
“I am,” she affirmed, a familiar pride in her heritage flowing through her.
Rum was looking at her with an awed expression similar to that of his son’s. “I’ve never met a waterbender before. I thought your people stayed close to the Poles?”
“That’s true, for the most part. But my father was an ambassador for his home in the Earth Kingdom. He had to spend some time in the North Pole for work and he met my mother there. When they decided to marry, she moved to the Earth Kingdom with him.”
“Is she a waterbender, too?” Bae asked.
“She was. A healer.” Belle bowed her head, looking to her folded hands on the counter. “She died when I was very young.”
Rum made an aborted gesture, as though he was considering moving forward to comfort her but then thinking better of it. Instead, he said, “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
Though she appreciated his words and their obvious sincerity, Belle found herself strangely disappointed that he hadn’t rested a hand on her arm the way it had seemed he might.
She wasn’t given a chance to dwell on the thought when, likely uncomfortable with the serious moment, Bae distracted her with another question. “Is your father an earthbender?”
Belle shook her head. “No, he isn’t. He says he’s glad of it, that I inherited the bending from my mother. It keeps her close.” She felt a small smile break over her face. “There’s a special bond between parents and children that share bending.”
“Like me and Papa!” Bae exclaimed. “We’re earthbenders.”
Rum shifted awkwardly, keeping his gaze averted. “I’m not much of a bender anymore.”
“Papa’s leg got hurt in the war,” Bae announced with an air of helpfulness that caused his father to wince.
Taken off guard, Belle asked, “I imagine a leg injury makes it difficult to be get yourself grounded?”
Rum lifted his head in surprise. “How do you know that?”
“My best friend is an earthbender,” she offered as explanation. “I’m familiar with the technique, at least in theory if not practice. Gaston can ramble on for hours about lower body strength and the importance of being solidly grounded.”
“He’s certainly right about that. There’s not much you can do if you’re down a leg.” Rum said self-deprecatingly, his face split by look that could just as easily have been a smile as a grimace.
Belle was at a loss. To lose access to one’s bending was horrific, a fate she could barely stand to contemplate. It was bad enough as an abstract concept, an idea with no connection, but Belle felt a bond with these people. It was premature, perhaps, but she couldn’t seem to help herself; she wanted to know them. But they had just met, and so though it felt a meager response to something so terrible, the most she could offer was a heartfelt, “I’m so sorry, Rum.”
He shrugged, again offered that half grimace that she decided on the spot was an expression she never wanted to see on his face again.
“It’s no matter. You shouldn’t trouble yourself with my problems. Now, we’ve kept you from your business long enough. I’m sure you have more important places to be.”
“Not at all!” She looked between them. It was true. She knew she would spend the next few days looking forward to seeing them again. “I’ve very much enjoyed meeting you. Both of you.”
Bae gave her another beaming smile. “I’m glad you came to our shop, Belle.”
Standing behind Bae, Rum nodded once and gave a small smile. A much more sedate response than his son’s, but somehow Belle felt that, from him, it was was equivalent to Bae’s more obvious enthusiasm.
Not wanting to overstay her welcome, she bid them both a good day and left the shop, confirming that she would return in a few days’ time.
She was already looking forward to it.
Father and son watched Belle leave the shop.
“I like her!” Bae announced once the door had shut behind her. He wandered over to a table and carefully began straightening the piles of fabric. “She’s so pretty, I think she must be from the Middle Ring.”
“Bae, there are plenty of pretty people in the Lower Ring.” He glanced down at the order form on the counter. “And I’m sure not everyone in the higher rings is so pretty as that,” he added quietly, absently tracing a pattern on the counter with his finger.
“Do you think she’s from the Middle Ring?”
“She could be, son. I don’t know.” What he did know was that almost no one in the Lower Ring had need for formal dresses, much less the money to spend on them.
“I’ve never talked to anyone from a higher ring before.”
“I haven’t either.”
“And she was so nice! She didn’t treat me like I was silly when I showed her around the shop, the way that most people do. I thought rich people were supposed to be snooty and mean.”
“That’s why you shouldn’t assume things about people before you know them, Bae.”
Silence for a few moments and then,
“She’s so pretty, Papa! And she’s a waterbender!”
Rum smiled at his son’s outburst. “Well, she’ll be back in a few days time to pick up her order. Perhaps you should ask her on a date,” he teased.
Young enough still to dislike the thought of girls outside of friendship, Bae wrinkled his nose. “Yuck. You ask her on a date.”
Rum studied the counter intently in response.
He didn’t see the curious, appraising glance that Bae threw in his direction.