It starts with a kid in Toph's office.
There's no cheerful (or tearful) greeting of "Uncle Toph!" so that rules out any of Aang and Katara's kids. And even at their dirtiest, those three smell cleaner than this one. A street kid, then, and since Toph is not in the business of running a jailhouse from which a kid can escape, that leaves only one possibility.
"I don't take students," Toph says, flipping through the stack of documents on his desk. Considering he can't actually read them, it's a pretty boring display of dismissal. Though it'd probably be just as boring if he could.
The kid hasn't moved. Toph considers stamping the documents without having them read to him. Probably a bad idea. He gets out the stamp anyway.
"Matsu!" Toph calls and his assistant comes scurrying in.
Toph stamps a document at random. Really, he should just give his stamp to Matsu and tell the man to use his own judgement. Toph didn't sign up for all this paperwork. He stamps the next paper and says, "Escort our young visitor out, will you?"
"Our young..." Matsu finally notices the kid. "What are you doing in here!?"
The kid runs out without an answer.
"Hey!" Matsu shouts, and takes a step towards the door.
"Don't worry about it," Toph says. "There's no law against trying to see the chief of police without an appointment. I don't think."
"But, sir, what if she stole something?"
"I don't see anything missing."
"Well..." Matsu hesitates, almost certainly wringing his hands and looking around the room. As if there's anything in here a kid like that would think worth stealing. "If you're sure..."
Toph waits for it. One, two...and there it is on three, the heavy sigh of a man who realizes he's been had again. It's like music to Toph's ears.
With a smile, Toph him the stack of documents. "Make sure I didn't agree to anything you wouldn't."
That's how it starts, but that's not the end of it. Of course it's not.
The kid's lurking in his office the next day, and the day after that, and Toph is really beginning to question Matsu's competency.
Each time, Toph tells her he's not taking students and then proceeds to ignore her until it becomes obvious she's not going away on her own, at which point he calls Matsu and the kid runs away. The first time it was annoying, but at least it was something out of the ordinary. Now it's becoming routine, and this is not a routine he wants to encourage.
The fourth day, things start off the same, but instead of calling Matsu, Toph releases one of the metal cables in his sleeves and binds the kid's wrists. Not tight, just enough to maybe scare her a little. "I can take you down to the holding cell if that's what you want."
"Metal can't hold me!"
She struggles. Not panicky, but determined, and Toph can feel her resistance flowing through the metal. If he let go now, she probably could break the cable, or at least bend it enough to get her wrists out. Not bad for a kid, especially one self-taught. "Do you really think you're a match for me?"
The cable writhes like a gatorsnake as the kid sends a burst of energy through it, but Toph holds his ground. The kid makes a frustrated sound and he lets her go, the cable sliding smoothly back into his sleeve.
"I would've got free eventually!" she snaps, and then she's gone.
The next day there is no kid in Toph's office. It's a little disappointing, to be honest; he hadn't pegged her for one who'd give up so easily. He even asks Matsu if he's seen her, if perhaps she came and went while Toph was out. Matsu swears he hasn't seen her, but then again, he doesn't have the best track record there.
There is no sign of her at police headquarters at all. Instead, she is waiting outside the noodle house where he eats dinner. At least he's pretty sure it's the same kid.
He's also pretty sure the kid following him the day after that is her, and he's definitely sure that's her sleeping in his garden. One time she is eating baozi on his doorstep. He nudges her with a foot and she scoots over to let him by.
He is not sure what the point of this is anymore, but he has to admire her stubbornness.
"Hey," he says, poking his head back out the door. "What's your name?"
"Funny name, Nothing."
He's about to close the door when he hears her mutter, "They gave some boy a name, not me." He thinks he understands.
After a few months, Toph has grown so used to being shadowed when he's alone that he's more likely to notice when the kid's not there than when she is.
As far as he can tell, she's not following him when he's working, but then again, it could just be that there's usually too many people around to notice one more. And it's not like he can ask the other officers. Hey, have you seen this kid around? I think she might be ten or twelve, but maybe she's big for her age, or maybe small. Yeah, that narrows things down.
So he assumes she's off doing her own thing. It probably involves stealing or something equally illegal, but while Toph may be the chief of police, he doesn't concern himself with what street kids do to stay alive. Some of the more zealous officers do, but he's always made it known that their priority is actual criminals.
She's always waiting for him at home if she doesn't find him sooner. He suspects Mrs. Yoo is feeding her and he's sure Old Fong must have noticed her sleeping under the hedge when he's gardening, but neither of them have said anything to Toph about it.
The nights turn cold and it doesn't seem strange when the kid is sleeping inside the house rather than in the garden. He's pretty sure Mrs. Yoo is behind that, though all she says when Toph asks is, "Oh, you can't expect the poor dear to sleep outside in this weather," as if having her move in is the obvious solution.
He's long since learned there's no use arguing with the woman. Unlike the servants Toph grew up with, Mrs. Yoo defers to no one. Toph may own the house and employ Mrs. Yoo as a housekeeper, but she generally treats those facts as mere technicalities.
Having the kid there doesn't significantly change things. They eat together sometimes, but they still don't talk much. She joins him in his morning bending sessions and he tells her again that he doesn't take students.
"I know," she says, bringing her foot down as a chunk of the garden shoots ten feet into the air.
She's got raw talent, that's for sure, and if she's not as good as he was at her age, it's only from lack of experience.
"I'm hardly the only metalbender anymore." He flattens the section she raised and adds, "I'm sure you could find someone else willing to teach you."
She doesn't answer, but later, when he's changed into his uniform, she says, "I'm going to be the chief of police when I grow up."
"You'll have to fight me for it," he says, but he smiles.
Spring rolls around and it's warm enough for her to sleep outside again, but no one suggests that she does.
It's Old Fong who starts calling the kid Lin. Maybe he just likes the name or maybe he thinks she's someone else, who knows, but somehow it sticks.
Toph has never wanted kids. His parents would love a grandkid or two, but they're also still hoping someday they'll get their little princess back. He'd always thought both scenarios were equally as likely, which is to say not at all.
He's not sure what his parents would think of having a teenage granddaughter all of a sudden, especially a former street rat, but he's pretty sure Lin could win them over. She's good at that.