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|More Tales of Ba Sing Se|
February 12, 2013
Chapter Fifty-Eight: More Tales of Ba Sing Se
The Tale of Toph and Haru
"Just breathe," Haru muttered under his breath. "It's not that big a deal."
It occurred to him that he'd just fought in a massive battle to determine the fate of Ba Sing Se, gone undercover in a faction of Earth rebels and survived weeks of training with the toughest, maybe meanest, earthbending master in the world without ever considering backing down. But this door, and what it might represent, made him want to bolt.
"Relax," Haru told himself. "It's just a dinner invitation."
Yes, but it was a dinner invitation from Toph. His heart began to pound again. Why was she inviting him to dinner? At her parents' house?
To make matters worse, his father had been standing right there, reading the invitation over his shoulder. And of all the rotten luck, Katara had decided to stop by for a visit. With a mischievous twinkle in her eye and a shared smile with Tyro, she'd insisted on helping Haru prepare and now he was wearing stiff, tailored garments –finer than anyone in his village had ever seen in their lives.
Haru took a deep breath. "Man up!" he ordered sharply and, before he could change his mind, lifted the metal knocker.
The pounding reverberated in the quiet house. Haru felt like a condemned man, listening to the sound of the gavel striking justice.
Through the marble doorstep, he felt footsteps approaching. Two pairs. Perhaps 'approaching' wasn't an accurate description; more like 'racing'.
The door flew open. Toph stood there, hands on hips, scowling. Over her shoulder, Haru caught sight of the manservant Goyan, leaning against the wall, gasping for breath.
This was a game Toph had fallen into whenever she visited her parents. She despised being waited on hand and foot, but her parents –even the servants– insisted it was unladylike for her to do anything for herself. Arguing on the subject never helped, so Toph simply decided to race the servants for the pleasure. She'd even begun to enjoy the odd game. Her mother disapproved, of course, but surprisingly her father seemed to find it amusing. The servants despised it; Toph was not beyond using an occasional bending trick, even if most of the time it was unnecessary.
Toph's scowl brightened minutely. "Oh, it's you!"
Haru shifted. "Um, yes." He tried to read her face for any kind of clue, but he found nothing.
"Well don't just stand there," Toph cried in exasperation, "Get inside!" She grabbed hold of his arm and yanked him in.
Haru couldn't help a yelp of surprise as he was pulled into the foyer. Behind him, Toph slammed the door shut, cutting off his only escape.
Haru pulled away from her grasp. "So, uh...what's going on?"
Toph snorted. "Just dinner," she said. But she said it with a smile that set Haru's skin crawling.
Goyan had caught his breath and nearly recovered his composure when he heard this. He gasped in horror. "Miss Bei Fong!"
Toph seemed to enjoy that. "Mother said I should become more social," she pointed out.
"But– but–" Goyan spluttered. "Your mother has a guest!"
"Yeah, and now I've got one," Toph retorted. "I had to even the odds. She banned The Boulder and Hippo for the night; who else am I supposed to talk to?"
Goyan blanched. "But your mother– her guest–"
"Is boring," Toph finished.
"Wait a minute," Haru broke in, his voice ringing loud and clear. "Let me get this straight. Your parents don't know I'm here? And they have company?" The invitation began to make sense. Relief flooded over him and he couldn't help but smile.
Toph frowned at him. "You got a problem with that, Stache Man?"
Haru shook his head in disbelief. "Yes," he said, reaching for the door. "If you want to embarrass your parents or play some trick on them, you can do it without me."
"Wait!" Toph hissed. "Just...wait."
Haru ground his teeth. He knew that Toph cared about her parents, so how could she be so rude and callous to them all the time? How did they put up with it? His fingers tightened around the door's ring handle until his knuckles paled.
He whirled on her. "Your parents are nice people, Toph, and they deserve better. I want no part of it! If you're so desperate to embarrass them, why don't you ask Poi to help you? I'm sure he'd love the opportunity."
"Poi?" she cried, her nose wrinkling. "That wouldn't be helping, that would be doubling the problem!"
Haru frowned, confused.
She didn't punch him; she didn't move to bend at him. Instead, she lowered her hands in defeat and took a deep breath. "Look, it's not what you think, okay?"
Haru paused. There was something in her voice that he'd never heard before. It sounded a lot like desperation. "Okay, I'm listening."
Toph gritted her teeth. "This guy...he's well to-do, you know? Nobleman, good family." She snorted. "He doesn't even know my parents. It's more of a...social visit."
Out of the corner of his eye, Haru noticed Goyan smirk.
"And he just keeps trying to impress them, but he's boring, and rich, and snobby, and he's driving me crazy!"
Haru raised an eyebrow. The more Toph struggled to explain, the wider Goyan's smile grew. "That still doesn't explain why I'm here."
Toph's scowl deepened. "Well, because...I mean, it's kind of...he's..."
Haru turned expectantly to Goyan.
The servant straightened automatically. He tried to suppress his smug grin, but he couldn't quite manage it. "The young gentleman," Goyan announced with glee, "Is a suitor."
Haru took pity on Toph. Over the last week, she had been dragged to dozens of ritzy functions, carted to visit stuffy friends and forced to endure the several 'guests' her mother had over, all in the hopes that Toph would suddenly shed her characteristic calloused and sarcastic nature and fall for one single noblemen she 'bumped' into along the way.
Goyan confirmed it all with a slight nod, though he couldn't help adding a little commentary under his breath: "Not that any of the well-bred noblemen would have her."
Toph flicked her wrist and Goyan's feet sank into the stone floor. "You know what my mother's always saying. 'Any single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife, and who wouldn't dream of marrying into the esteemed Bei Fongs'?"
"All right." Haru sighed. "I'll stay. But you're telling your parents you invited me."
"Sure, sure; whatever you say, Stache Man." She grabbed his arm again and tugged him down the hall. "Come on, it's this way."
"Wait!" Goyan called, fighting in vain to free his ankles. "I have to announce you!"
Toph shoved Haru into the sitting room ahead of her, crying, "Hey, look who showed up!"
Haru caught himself and turned to scowl at her. Toph ignored him as she slumped against the doorframe, grinning.
"Oh. Haru." He recognized Poppy Bei Fong's voice. "What a...surprise."
Haru quickly bowed to the couple, hoping to hide his reddened cheeks. "I apologize for the intrusion," he said. "Toph–"
Lao Bei Fong stood. "Don't be ridiculous, Haru," he said lightly. "Please, sit, join us."
Haru was more than a little surprised. Though Lao was not quite as prim and proper as his wife, he wasn't exactly laid back. Yet he seemed almost relieved to see Haru. Or perhaps, Haru amended, Lao was merely relieved to see anyone else. As Haru took the indicated seat across from the Bei Fongs, he got a good look at Poppy's guest. He couldn't have been any older than himself, but he eyed Haru with a lofty disregard. Despite his new finery, Haru felt exposed under that regal glare. The nobleman wasn't fooled for a second; he knew exactly what Haru was and that his fine clothes were nothing but a bumpkin playing dress up.
"This is Da Jin," Lao said by way of introduction. "Da Jin, this is Haru. He is a friend–"
"Colleague," Poppy insisted with a gentle smile.
"–of our daughter's."
Da Jin allowed himself a curt nod in Haru's general direction, but he refused to meet his gaze.
Toph did not bother hiding a triumphant smirk from her mother as she resumed her seat alongside her parents. "Funny coincidence, isn't it? I was just saying I wished something interesting would happen."
Poppy delicately flipped open her decorative fan, holding it over her face to veil from the rest of the room the scowl she shot her daughter.
Haru felt the tips of his ears burn. A moment ago, he'd felt sorry for Toph but if he had the option now, he'd probably run for the door.
Da Jin tactfully ignored Toph's comment and the room settled into an awkward silence.
Finally Poppy spoke. "Have you enjoyed your visit to Ba Sing Se, Haru?"
Haru glanced at Da Jin. Better up til now, he thought. Aloud, he replied, "Yes, thank you."
The room fell into silence once more.
Da Jin began expertly stroking his mustache and beard, preening himself and flattening all the hairs.
Haru fought to keep from scowling at the nobleman. He got the feeling Da Jin wasn't much for conversation; when they'd first entered, the room had seemed even quieter, somehow, without Toph's presence.
"What about you, Toph?" Poppy asked. "Has anything interesting happened to you in the city?"
Toph grinned knowingly. "You mean, besides the coronation coup?"
Poppy frowned. "Yes. Besides that awful fight."
Da Jin suddenly found his voice. "I abhor any kind of violence," he stated with a majestic air.
Haru raised an eyebrow. "I suppose you would have just stood by and watched as the King was assassinated?" The words were out before he could stop them.
Toph smirked, impressed despite herself. Lao coughed, though Haru suspected he was hiding a laugh. Her mother frowned at both of them.
Da Jin looked mildly surprised. "Ideally, of course, the assassination would never have taken place."
Haru stared at him.
"Obviously, it is a good thing the King was saved. Ba Sing Se is better off with a king in the direct lineage of the royals, even if he does have radical ideas concerning the..." Da Jin shot a quick glance at Haru. "...peasants. But I personally would never have taken part in that fight." He straightened his collar. "I didn't."
Haru felt like countering. After all, if everyone felt that way, Kuei would be dead now and that Fire Nation traitor would be in control. But any retort he could think of felt weak as he looked at the pompous man. He glanced over at Toph. She clenched her jaw, just as unhappy as her. Her face suddenly lit up.
"Actually, something interesting did happen."
Poppy looked relieved. "Oh?"
"Hippo and The Boulder said they ran into a guy who wants to feature an Earth Rumble Tournament, right here in Ba Sing Se."
Lao perked up. "Really?"
Toph sat up straighter. "Yeah; he's a bending teacher and apparently he's got quite a crowd warming up to the idea."
"Hmm," Lao mused, stroking his mustache with a smile. "An interesting prospect..."
Da Jin shuddered. "Earth Rumble? Aren't those the vulgar fighting tournaments peasants join in for sport?"
Toph frowned. Her voice was flat as she said, "I run the Earth Rumbles."
Da Jin bristled slightly and shifted uncomfortably.
Okay, Haru thought, so the guy's embarrassed. Maybe that means he's human.
But what Da Jin said by way of apology was: "Everyone makes mistakes."
A frown twitched at the corner of Poppy Bei Fong's mouth.
At that instant, Goyan appeared in the doorway. "Dinner is served," he announced into the tense atmosphere.
Da Jin also displayed annoying soup-slurping tendencies. Each time Da Jin slurped, Haru felt the marble tabletop shudder. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Toph, seated beside the nobleman by a previous design of her mother. She laid one hand on the tabletop and every time Da Jin puckered his lips for another slurp, Toph drummed her fingers on the marble, sending gentle vibrations along the whole table.
Haru fought back a laugh.
Toph –other than the table shaking– was trying very hard to ignore Da Jin. Her mother had other ideas; smiling politely, she kicked at her daughter's foot.
Toph flinched, yanking her foot back as the world went topsy-turvy. Hello! I see with that foot. You wouldn't poke somebody in the eye to get their attention, would you?
But Toph decided to take the hint. She turned to Da Jin, fluttering her eyelashes. "So what is it you do, Da Jin?"
Her voice oozed such sickly sweetness Haru sputtered. Poppy frowned at him. Haru flushed bright red, apologizing profusely and coughing into his napkin.
Da Jin eyed Haru with slight disdain, even pity. After all, it was quite obvious the peasant didn't belong in those fine garments.
"I am one of the King's royal counters," Da Jin announced grandly.
Haru was slightly cowed by this impressive title.
"You mean," Toph clarified innocently, "One of those people who go around counting sacks of rice and things for the King's tally book?"
"Yes," Da Jin replied with forced patience. "That's why we're called 'counters'."
Toph smiled. "Oh, I see."
Da Jin smiled back, but Haru frowned. Why did Toph sound so ditzy and happy all of a sudden?
Toph's misleading smile didn't waver an instant as she asked, "Don't they have hundreds of people who do that?"
"Well..." Da Jin deflated. "...Yes."
"Are you an earthbender, Da Jin?" Poppy asked hurriedly, determined to find something these two had in common. "Toph is quite a magnificent bender."
Da Jin's lips curled up, but the expression was too patronizing to be a smile. "I'm afraid not. My brother is a rather accomplished bender. It's a great art, no doubt, but I always found myself relieved it was he and not I. Earthbending seems such a...dirty business."
Toph let loose a loud, guttural belch. "Oh, excuse me!" she tittered, with a look of mock surprise.
Poppy tried once more to save the conversation. In desperation, she turned to her unexpected guest. "Haru, what is it you do?"
Haru started. "Uh..."
Da Jin rolled his eyes at the utterance of such an uncouth expression.
Haru cleared his throat. "Not much yet, I'm afraid."
"Surely you have some options open?" Poppy pressed.
Haru felt his cheeks redden. "Well, my father has been teaching me quite a bit the last few years."
"A peddler, is he?" Da Jin murmured. The question was loud enough to be heard, but soft enough to be questioned. Da Jin did not look up from his meal and so he did not notice Poppy Bei Fong scowling at him.
Haru ignored Da Jin, instead keeping his attention focused on Poppy, with whom he was conversing. "Actually, my father is the leader of our village."
Poppy became suddenly intrigued. She raised a finger to her chin and studied him with a new, calculating gaze. "Leader?"
Haru decided he didn't like that crafty gleam in her eye. He shifted. "Well, it's a small village," he said quickly. But he saw Toph, shaking her head; too late, that shake told him.
"And what has he taught you?" Poppy pressed.
Haru sighed in defeat. "How to protect the community and keep it together," he replied. "Handling trade with other villages and merchants, settling common disputes, things like that."
"Politics!" Poppy cried with joy, clapping her hands together. "And will you be the leader of your village some day?"
Haru paled. "Well, uh–" He swallowed hard. He thought he would. He thought he was ready. But then Toph had dragged him away for some unknown reason and his head was still spinning.
"Tell me," interrupted Da Jin with a sneer, "How do you settle these 'common disputes'?"
Haru tensed; he didn't like that tone. He turned to face Da Jin, treating him to a thin smile. "You mean, do we just throw rocks at each other until someone surrenders?"
Da Jin adopted an expression of mock innocence. "Oh, I'm sorry; is that what you heard?"
Haru lowered his eyes, overwhelmed by the sudden desire to bend of chunk of the marble tabletop and plow it into the snob's chest. Obviously, some of Toph's habits had rubbed off on him. He had a bad feeling he'd do something he'd regret if he had to look at Da Jin's smirking face.
Toph watched in mild surprise as Haru swirled his spoon through his soup. She would have kicked Da Jin into the next room by now. She'd seen Haru bend; he had the skill. But he didn't even seem to consider the option and she was intrigued in spite of herself.
"There are only two things worth a fight in our village," Haru said finally.
"Oh?" Da Jin simpered. "And what are they?"
"The first," Haru replied, locking his gaze on Da Jin with determination, "Is when someone insults another's honor. That's something about peasants you may not know, Da Jin. We don't have fancy clothes and grand homes. What we do have is our name. Everything we've accomplished, everything we stand for, everything we are is tied up in that. When someone insults it, well" –Haru smirked– "it's considered worth fighting for."
Da Jin blinked in surprise. He stared at Haru for a long moment, the wheels of his brain churning in indignation. "Are you challenging me?"
"I'm sorry," Haru replied mildly; "Is that what you heard?"
Twin red splotches blossomed on Da Jin's cheeks and the color quickly spread over his entire face.
Toph threw back her head and laughed. Her mother frowned at her in disapproval, but her father fought to keep his face straight.
Da Jin stood. He nodded to Lao –"Master Bei Fong"– and to Poppy –"Madam Bei Fong." He glowered down the table at Toph and Haru as he said, "You keep quite vulgar company." He threw his napkin into his bowl and turned on his heel, gathering his fine robes in his bejeweled fingers to sweep away with a flourish. Of course, being a well-bred man of good blood he paused in the doorway long enough to say "The soup was lovely" before storming out of the house.
Haru smiled, satisfied with how he'd handled the arrogant snob. His father would have been proud of that smooth-talking and he hadn't even raised his voice. It took him a moment to remember exactly where he was and whose guest Da Jin had been.
And whose guest he was.
As soon as Haru began stuttering apologies, Toph's reasonably admirable estimation of him dropped several notches. Sure, he's got spine for dealing with jerks, but not when it really counts.
Poppy, however, waved a dismissive hand. "Don't be ridiculous, Haru," she said, oozing hostess grace –and perhaps something a little more hopeful. "I was nearly ready to dismiss him myself. My, I've never entertained such an uncouth guest before!" She dabbed lightly at her lips with her napkin. "May I interest anyone in fruit or dessert?"
No one replied. All eyes stared at Poppy Bei Fong in shock. Toph's jaw actually dropped open. The fact that her mother was calling the rich and well-bred Da Jin 'uncouth' while smiling at Haru amazed her.
Poppy ignored them all. "Goyan?" she called. "Please remove this unnecessary place setting and bring out dessert." She caught sight of Toph and smiled. "Oh, and please adjust my daughter's jaw. It seems to have misplaced itself."
With great pleasure, Goyan reached out and flicked Toph's mouth closed.
Haru's eyes widened in surprise. "Wow, genuine gratitude!"
Toph slugged him in the arm as she led him to the door. "Don't get used to it."
The rest of the evening had passed and, to his surprise, Haru actually had a good time.
"Things would not have gone well if we'd been left alone with that jerk," Toph said.
Haru scoffed. "I'm sure you would have thought of something."
Toph laughed. "Are you kidding? I would have actually fought him, which would have been awesome and felt really, really good, but it would have gotten my mother on my case so, all in all, it's a good thing you dealt with him." She opened the door and Haru stepped out.
"That reminds me," Toph said, stopping him before he moved down the steps. "What's the second reason?"
Haru averted his gaze to the beautifully manicured grounds. "The second reason?" he asked, feigning innocence.
Toph smirked. She could feel his heart pounding through the stone. "Yeah. You said there were only two reasons people in your village get into fights. What's the second?"
Defending a woman's honor was the second reason. But that suddenly sounded far too...sophisticated.
Haru shrugged, blushing scarlet. "Girls."
Toph grinned. "Figures."
Before Haru could step away, Toph kicked the stone beneath him, shoving him onto the path below.
Haru landed hard on his back, gazing up at the night sky. "Ow."
At the bottom of his vision he could see Toph, waving and smiling goodbye.
"And don't come back again," she called cheerfully, before slamming the door.
Haru rolled his eyes. "Sheesh."
The Tale of Ursa and Roh-Roh
Ursa and Roh-Roh didn't know what they wanted to do.
A week had passed since the coronation. Their days had been spent with Mother and Uncle –Yuki and the other bodyguards at their shoulders– searching the city for entertainment, while Dad was held up in dozens of different meetings with leaders and generals. Every night they spent together, as a family. Now that Dad finally had a day off, it was decided that their parents deserved some time alone. A date, Uncle had called it, with a wink. Ursa and Roh-Roh didn't mind; it meant they had the entire day with their Uncle, and he'd promised to do whatever they wanted.
There were many options: a zoo on the outskirts of Ba Sing Se, they'd heard Toph hinting at plans for an Earth Rumble, and there was always shopping in the chic Upper Ring district. But none of these places really seemed ideal for spending quality time with their Uncle. Ursa and Roh-Roh came to Ba Sing Se once a year. They had probably already seen everything worth seeing more than thrice, but their favorite place in the whole city was The Jasmine Dragon.
Their first request of the day was breakfast, in his tea shop. Uncle laughed when they told him.
They were just finishing a breakfast of sweet tea and delicious pastries. A regular customer had momentarily pulled Uncle's attention away when Ursa noticed Smellerbee. With one arm wrapped tight in a sling to keep from jostling her damaged ribs, the young woman struggled to hold her teapot with one hand, barely managing to pour and certainly not where she aimed. Over Smellerbee's shoulder Ursa spotted Longshot, one table over from his friend.
Ursa liked Smellerbee and Longshot. They were always nice whenever she came to visit and they were devoted to her Uncle. Other than that, the only thing she really knew about them was how well they knew each other. They were practically inseparable and they hardly ever needed to speak to know what the other was thinking. Ursa liked that best about them.
She expected Longshot to step over and assist his struggling friend. But he didn't seem to notice that Smellerbee was having trouble.
Ursa frowned. She studied Smellerbee as she continued to struggle with the teapot while Longshot bussed tables nearby, completely oblivious.
They definitely needed help, Ursa decided. And she knew just what to do.
Roh-Roh was eating the last of his cream-filled pastry. He'd somehow managed to get a dollop of it on the tip of his nose.
Ursa giggled and gestured at it. As Roh-Roh wiped the cream away, she leaned over and whispered, "What would you think of spending the day in the tea shop?"
Roh-Roh thought about it. "What would we do?" he asked. "Play Pai Sho all day?"
Ursa shook her head. "What if we worked in the tea shop?"
Roh-Roh blinked. "Why?"
"Well, we'd get to spend all day with Uncle instead of parading around town," Ursa said. She couldn't suppress a mischievous smile. "Plus, I think Smellerbee and Longshot could use a day off."
She glanced meaningfully over at them. Roh-Roh followed her gaze. He watched as Smellerbee soaked the tablecloths and Longshot's brooding drove customers and colleagues away. He nodded. "They do look like they need a break."
"Not just a break," Ursa said knowingly. "They need to spend some time together. Like Mother and Dad. Alone."
Roh-Roh raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Like...a date?"
"Of course! Just look at them," Ursa insisted.
Roh-Roh did. All he saw were two tired people, one recovering from a bad battle injury.
Ursa sighed. "Trust me on this, Roh-Roh."
Roh-Roh shrugged. Girls were so weird... "Working in the tea shop does sound fun, though."
When Smellerbee reached their table, she smiled at the children as she tried to refill their pot with hot water.
Their Uncle returned just as the stream of water missed the pot and filled an empty platter, but he tactfully ignored it. "Now, have you children finally decided what you'd like to do today?"
Ursa, however, was too distracted to notice him. She watched Smellerbee intently, wondering how to go about with her matchmaking scheme. She decided bluntness was the best approach. "You should take the day off," she told Smellerbee.
Roh-Roh quickly pulled his hands away as Smellerbee made another attempt at the pot from a different angle.
"That's what I said!" Uncle cried in agreement.
Smellerbee sighed. "I already told you, Iroh; if we left you wouldn't have enough staff to run the shop."
"So I'll close for the day!" Uncle insisted. "Closing down for one day is a small price to ensure your good health. The two of you really should get some rest."
Smellerbee shook her head.
"Roh-Roh and I can work," Ursa piped up.
Both Uncle and Smellerbee turned to her in surprise.
"It would be fun," Ursa said. "I've never served tea before. And after all New experiences open the mind."
Roh-Roh grinned. "Yeah!"
Smellerbee looked less than thrilled, but Uncle spotted his golden opportunity.
"What a wonderful idea!" he cried, prying the pot from Smellerbee's hand. He set it carefully on the table and pulled Smellerbee to where Longshot worked alone in brooding silence. Ursa and Roh-Roh tagged along behind.
"This way the two of you can have a day off," Uncle said warmly, "And the children can get some sound, worldly experience!"
Longshot raised an eyebrow. He looked as happy with the idea as Smellerbee, but Ursa wasn't going to give them a chance to protest. She began helping Smellerbee remove her apron, though the young woman had made no move for the strings. Roh-Roh took the hint and likewise began unwinding Longshot's apron from his waist.
Iroh's best tea servers had been acting rather odd since the coronation. He had a sneaking suspicion as to the reason, but it still concerned him. A day on the town might just do the trick, he decided. He hurried to get their pay from the counter, though it wasn't due for another week.
Deaf to protests of any kind, Ursa, Roh-Roh and Uncle pushed the reluctant pair to the front door.
"You look like you could really use the rest," Ursa said.
"A day off is just what you need!" Uncle put in. "Go out and enjoy yourselves!"
The three stood, posted in the doorway like sentries as Smellerbee and Longshot slowly backed down the steps.
The three waved them off, smiling. "Have fun!"
None of them budged until Longshot and Smellerbee grudgingly headed off down the street. Once the two were out of sight, they relaxed, stepping back into the tea house.
Uncle laughed. "Thank you, children. I've been trying to get them out of the tea shop all week."
"They looked like they needed some time," Ursa replied.
Uncle noticed a glint in his great-niece's eye. He raised an eyebrow, but didn't ask for what she thought they needed time. He only chuckled. Smart girl...
"Well," he said, clapping his hands. "Now that we've finally got those two out of here, what would you like to do next?"
Roh-Roh cocked his head in confusion. "Work in the tea shop."
Uncle chuckled. "You don't really have to, Roh-Roh. The rest of my staff is more than capable of watching things." He winked. "Smellerbee, it seems, was a little desperate for an excuse."
"But we really want to, Uncle," Ursa insisted.
Uncle looked at them in surprise. "You do?"
They clasped their hands in a pleading gesture, staring up at their Uncle in adoration. "Please?"
How could he resist? "All right," he said, laughing.
Iroh gave his niece and nephew a quick, rudimentary training course in the kitchen. As his servers and tea makers bustled in and out, he snagged them one by one to explain their job to the children and provide a simple demonstration.
The staff couldn't hide their amusement of the young Prince and Princess. "Isn't it sweet?" they whispered.
'Sweet' was not what Ursa had in mind. She was thinking more along the lines of 'accomplishment', 'manual labor', and 'experience'.
Finally, Uncle had the two don the aprons they had taken from Longshot and Smellerbee. The aprons, like the Dragon's uniforms, were far too large for the children, but with a little pinning they soon looked the part of tea servers. Albeit short, very young and finely dressed tea servers.
"Do you think anyone will notice?" Ursa asked, amused by the thought of some noble suddenly discovering a Princess serving their tea.
Uncle chuckled. "Well, this is the nobles' circle..."
Roh-Roh helped the clerk at the counter, welcoming people, taking payment, handing out change, and bidding goodbye. The clerk stood at his shoulder, assisting him to count change and soon he smiled as broadly as Roh-Roh. The boy's bright and happy nature was infectious. The customers weren't impervious, either; they found the boy adorable and left the shop with spirits as high as the clouds.
Ursa took the job of serving tea. Uncle hovered at her shoulder as she did so, but he soon he found it unnecessary. He chuckled, surprised at how easily she went about; she was polite, friendly, and helpful.
The customers, too, were surprised. They smiled at the young girl, who they at first thought to be at play. But Ursa would glide to their table, nod in greeting, and ask, "How do you do?" She would recommend teas and the different pastries that pleasantly accented the various flavors. They would make their order and she would hurry off to the kitchen to fill it.
Ursa encountered the same difficultly as Smellerbee. Her arm was still bandaged from the lightning strike, throbbing softly. She, too, bore a sling, but not for her strong hand, so she managed not to spill much.
It wasn't long before someone recognized her fine Fire Nation garments.
A noblewoman gasped in a shocked but stately manner. "You're the Fire Princess! You saved the Earth King, didn't you? You're a hero!"
Ursa smiled, nodded pleasantly. "Yes, I am the Fire Princess. I did save the Earth King, so I suppose that could make me a hero. What can I get for you today, ma'am?"
The noblewoman and her three friends stared.
"You're serving tea?"
Ursa nodded again, still smiling.
"But...you're a princess!"
"Yes," Ursa said, "And I'd recommend the jasmine-ginseng."
One of the women huffed. "What is this world coming to?"
"Nobility forced to work in a tea shop!" another exclaimed. "What's next? A vagabond acting as king?"
Ursa cleared her throat. "I beg your pardon, Ladies; but I wanted to work in the tea shop today."
The noblewoman blinked incomprehensively.
Ursa took this as a sign she should continue. "You see, my father always says there are two kinds of nobility: noble of blood and noble of character. People can be born with noble blood, but it doesn't necessarily make them a noble person. But if you're noble of character, you define yourself as a noble person.
"I was born with noble blood" –Ursa smiled– "So there's not much I can do about that. But I still have to strive to be noble of character and I thought that working in the shop would give me experience in humility." She glanced between the noblewomen. "Don't you think the world be a better place if everyone was more concerned about the second kind of nobility than the first?"
The question was so innocent, so pure, that it caught the women completely off-guard. Perhaps, if it were any but that angelic face behind those words, they would have thought to be offended. But Ursa waited patiently for an answer, a gentle smile gracing her lips. It gave them pause.
"Yes..." one said finally, slowly. "I–I suppose it would."
They glanced at one another, blinking. It was something that had never occurred to them before.
"...you say the jasmine-ginseng is good?" one asked faintly.
Ursa beamed. "Excellent!"
The day continued like that. Ursa regaled many people with her odd hodge-podge of soaked-up proverbs and words of wisdom. Roh-Roh perched precariously on a stool behind the counter so he could hand out peoples' change, grinning infectiously all the while.
Word quickly spread that the Fire Prince and Princess were ---working--- in a tea shop and people crowded in to see, skeptical and some even enraged. But everyone of them left happy and enlightened.
Iroh watched it all, laughing to himself. These children, he knew, were something special.
Ursa and Roh-Roh insisted working for several hours without break, but their Uncle saw they were tired. Finally, he pulled the two into the kitchen.
Uncle set the two children down at the table, putting on a pot of tea. "Well, well," he chuckled, "I think Ba Sing Se will remember this day forever!"
Ursa and Roh-Roh beamed, their smiles refusing to dim despite their exhaustion.
Iroh settled into a chair across from them. "So, you have now worked in a teashop. And a fine job you did, too." He stroked his beard. "I wonder if your parents would let me hire you..."
The children giggled.
"What would you like to do now?"
Ursa and Roh-Roh suddenly stopped smiling. They glanced at one another, uncertain.
Uncle frowned in concern. "What is it?"
Ursa bit her lip. Roh-Roh nodded encouragement.
They turned back to Uncle, their small faces serious and determined. "We...we want to hear about our grandmother."
Another glance exchanged. "Dad's mother. Grandmother Ursa."
Uncle blinked in surprise.
The teapot began to whistle, abruptly snatching him from his stunned reverie. He rose and took the pot away from the flame. Slowly, contemplating, Uncle poured the tea. He set the cups on the table and studied his niece and nephew.
"Hasn't your father told you about her?"
Ursa and Roh-Roh exchanged yet another glance.
"If we ask," Ursa said. "But..."
Roh-Roh chipped in. "It makes him sad."
"We really want to know about our grandmother," Ursa hurried on, "About what she was like, but..." Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she brushed them away. "We just hate seeing Dad like that."
Uncle smiled at them, tears gathering in his eyes. "That's very considerate of you, children. Your father lost his mother at a young age. Far too young an age." His face darkened, perhaps remembering someone he himself had lost too young. When he spoke again, his voice caught. "It is very difficult for him."
"We know," Roh-Roh whispered
"That's why we asked you," Ursa explained. "Didn't you know her, too?"
Uncle nodded slowly. He sipped at his tea to clear his head. "Yes, I did know your grandmother." He smiled. "She was an amazing woman." He tapped his tea cup thoughtfully. "Now. Where to begin..."
Ursa and Roh-Roh beamed, settling in for tales of their mysterious grandmother, known to them thus far only by a faded portrait and a stone memorial by their favorite pond.
The Tale of Zuko and Mai
"But, Your Majesty," Captain Yao of the Earth Palace Guard protested, "it isn't safe!"
Zuko shook his head, his arm wrapped around Mai. They were both dressed in fine Earth Kingdom style, compliments of the Palace. "No guards," he repeated. "If there were still enemies in the city who wanted me dead, they would have attacked by now. Need I remind you, Captain, that I have my own bodyguards, and there happens to be a reason they're not accompanying me. I want a day to myself. A single day."
Jeong Jeong did not look entirely pleased, but he nodded. "If you encounter anything, come back to the Palace immediately."
Zuko laughed softly. He felt like a child being told not to stray too far. "I will." He and Mai turned out of the Palace courtyard.
Captain Yao turned to Jeong Jeong; surely the Fire Admiral would listen to reason. "But–"
Jeong Jeong waved him away. "You heard the Firelord."
Zuko and Mai strolled aimlessly through the city, arms linked, with no real thought as to direction. They stumbled across a small market where merchants flaunted jewelry and other pretty baubles.
"You like the jewelry?" a vendor asked Mai, grinning broadly. "Pretty jewelry for a pretty lady."
Mai nodded politely. She and Zuko turned to go, but the merchant, eager for a sale, caught hold of her arm to pull her back.
"Wait," he began, "I have a special piece! Perfect for–"
He never finished that sentence. A slab of earth rose from the ground, shoving him away from the Firelord and Lady.
Before either Mai or Zuko could react, three uniformed Earth Palace guards pushed through the crowd toward them. One detained the merchant while the other two whisked the Fire royals away.
After a few hundreds yards, the guards disappeared into the crowd.
"So much for a free day," Mai muttered. She glanced at Zuko. A frown tugged at his eyes and the corner of his lips. The happiness she'd felt, being alone with him for a change, fell away from her. "I'm sorry, Zuko."
Zuko smiled down at her. "It doesn't matter; we'll just ignore them."
Mai knew that it did matter. And now that they had been revealed, the guards seemed to decide it was safer if their presence were made a little more obvious. They would be impossible to ignore now.
Mai sighed, glaring at the guards. They took no notice. Sometimes, she knew, Zuko needed to be himself, and not the Firelord; sometimes he needed just a few moments of his life without someone watching his every move.
A mischievous smile spread over Mai's face. "We could try to ignore them." She glanced back to gauge the distance between them and the guards. "Or we could ditch them."
Zuko laughed aloud, surprised. "What?" They couldn't; it would send Yao into conniptions. He'd bring the entire Palace guard on them. But the idea...
Mai only looked at him, her eyes dancing.
Zuko shook his head, but he was smiling. He couldn't believe he was even considering this. "You first."
Lieutenant Yin followed the royal Fire couple carefully. Captain Yao had insisted they be guarded, whether they liked it or not. No royal dignitaries were going to get themselves killed in Ba Sing Se, not on Captain Yao's watch. Yin had lost momentary sight of the couple as they rounded a corner, but not to worry. Surely, now that the guards had made themselves known, no one would try anything.
He rounded the corner and –to his horror– found that Firelord Zuko stood alone, looking over the wares of a booth. Firelady Mai was nowhere in sight.
"Split up!" Yin hissed. "Search for Firelady Mai!"
The other soldiers disappeared into the crowd while Yin kept an eye on the Firelord, who had wandered to another booth. He wasn't too concerned about the Lady's safety because the Firelord didn't appear worried; she probably wandered off to look at something else.
It was during this lapse of attention that the Firelord leapt atop a booth and vaulted himself off, catching hold of the roof of the building above and swinging himself over, disappearing from sight.
Zuko met Mai on the other side. They only paused long enough to grab hold of each other's hands before taking off through the streets.
The guards gave chase. It wasn't the first time some adventure-craving noble tried to duck out from under their care. Although, granted, not many nobles were as agile and skilled as the Firelord and his Lady. Fortunately, the guards had the home advantage and Yin knew they were headed straight for a dead-end.
"This looks promising," Mai said dryly, as they pulled to an abrupt halt before a bare wall.
"Wrong turn," Zuko said, sheepish. Running away from guards was much easier when one knew the layout of the land.
They could hear the clattering steps of the guards echoing close by.
Zuko gestured at the tall walls surrounding them. "We could scale them," he suggested casually.
Mai tugged at her outfit. "And get dirt on this?" Some of the maids had the annoying habit of suggesting how difficult many of the spots and stains were to get out, to advise on avoiding such marks.
Zuko smiled. "What do you suggest?"
The guards skittered to a stop behind them, panting.
"Halt!" Lieutenant Yin cried, bending over to catch his breath. He considered himself an athletic man, but the royal Fire couple had led them a merry chase, through crowded streets, buzzing markets, over booths, through squares and crowded alleys. The ease with which the two hurdled the obstacles, never managing to loose one another's hand, amazed and shamed him.
"Too late," Mai told Zuko, shrugging.
"We're here for your own safety, Your Majesties," Yin insisted, still panting.
Zuko ignored the lieutenant, nudging his wife. "You should be able to think of something on the run."
"Well..." Mai glanced around the small, cramped alley.
"Please don't make this difficult for yourselves," Yin pleaded.
Mai glanced back at the puffing guards. "I think someone's getting tired."
Yin scowled; it didn't sound like they were giving up yet.
"Don't tell me you're ready to stop now?" Zuko teased his wife.
Mai's smile was small, but happy. "Me? I'm just getting started."
Yin's heart fell.
Leaning against one of the walls, bound together with a rotting leather strap, long, thin planks of wood sagged. Mai flicked her wrist toward them. Yin didn't see the knife until it sliced through the leather strap, easily breaking it. With a protesting creak, the planks began to tumble forward.
Yin and his soldiers –startled– jumped back to avoid being hit. As the planks fell, they kicked up thick dust clouds. The guards coughed, blinking quickly or closing their eyes to avoid the dust.
Mai leapt onto one of the planks as it fell, pulling Zuko with her. They raced up the length of the plank as it slanted toward the far wall. Before it fell, they jumped, landing in a run on the roof.
When the dust settled, there was no sign of Firelord Zuko and Lady Mai, or what direction they may have fled. Yin groaned. For a moment, his guards stared in open-mouthed shock.
"Where did they go?" one asked in hush tones.
The lieutenant cuffed him on the ear. He smashed his knuckles on the guard's helmet and winced. He really needed to stop doing that...
"They must have scaled the walls. Circle round!" he ordered.
The guards obeyed without question, pushing through the crowds, navigating the complicated streets as only a born city-dweller could.
But there was no trace of the royal Fire couple.
Mai and Zuko leapt from the roof to the awning of a booth below, sliding down the tough wood and straw into the street. Many people stared, whispered and pointed, but they ignored the onlookers, taking off as soon as their feet touched ground. They turned left and right, with no idea where they were going. They backtracked when they found themselves at dead ends until finally they came into the second circle.
"Looks like we're finally free of prying eyes," Zuko said. "Now what do you want to do?"
Mai shrugged. "It's your day off; you choose."
"I like to choose what makes you happy."
Mai rolled her eyes, but she laid her head on Zuko's shoulder. For the moment, she just enjoyed spending time with him.
"Perhaps," ventured a nearby voice, "She would like to try my brand new fried cream puff?"
They both turned to the merchant. He held out a pair of tongs, dangling a delicate pastry before them.
Zuko and Mai exchanged smiles. She reached out and popped it into her mouth. She said nothing, but her eyes sparked. She stood on her toes to whisper something in Zuko's ear. He smiled. He handed a gold piece to the stunned merchant. "I'll take two dozen."
After that, every merchant in the square volunteered free samples, hoping to catch the couple's fancy.
Zuko purchased a small basket. Anything that looked good, they bought. The merchants watched with amusement as Zuko asked Mai what else she wanted to try. She would survey the selections, take a tasting and declare judgment. Zuko bought anything she wanted and his endless purse eluded no one. Everyone wanted their goods to be next on the menu.
But it was more than the prospect of a good sale that kept the merchants' eyes on the young couple. They watched as the pair whispered and stood close to one another, arms linked, fingers clasped; it reminded them of their own spouses, of their younger days when love seemed the only thing really worth having. The daily allure of making money didn't seem to matter as much as it once did. More than one merchant closed up shop early and surprised their wives with one of the beautiful roses Umera always sold on the corner. Neither Zuko nor Mai noticed the watchful eyes of the merchants or the wistful air they seemed to bring over the square.
By the time the good-sized basket was filled with savory and aromatic treats, Mai and Zuko were both starving. They were waiting on what they decided would be their last purchase –a bag of seasoned leechi nuts which, as he wrapped it up, the merchant decided would be his last sale– when Umera wobbled from her corner toward them.
The old woman was not beautiful, but she was not a hag. Her scraggly white hair hung down into her face. Her eyes and her smile were kind. She winked at the young lovers. "Heading out for a romantic picnic?" she asked, her voice surprisingly sweet and melodious.
Zuko and Mai didn't need to reply.
From the basket on her arm, beneath the pile of long-stemmed, crimson roses, Umera produced a blanket with a flourish. It was a thick, soft blanket, so red in color it was nearly black. Roses of black silk were sewn along the border.
"Every picnic needs a blanket."
Zuko bought it, along with three of her darkest roses. He handed them to Mai and she smiled. She didn't need to ask why three; she knew.
As the two wandered out of the square, the market seemed to let out a collective sigh. An instant later it broke into a bustle of movement as merchants hurried to close and fight for a place in line to buy one of Umera's roses.
It didn't take Mai and Zuko long to find the perfect picnic spot. It was a small park by a pond, just off the road, where an ornate bride crossed the water.
Zuko laid the blanket out on the grass and they curled up together.
Evidently, though beautiful and perfect, the spot was not frequented by picnickers. Anyone who passed them on the fairly well-traveled bridge started in surprise at the sight of the lovebirds. Zuko and Mai didn't even notice. For one afternoon, at least, they were lost in their own world. They had a chance not to be the Firelord and Lady, but simply husband and wife, spending some much-needed time together.
Evening began to close in and they found that the park was a perfect place to watch the sunset. It was then that Jeong Jeong found them.
Mai sighed. "I guess nothing lasts forever."
Zuko nodded. Without taking his eyes from the blazing sunset, he asked, "How upset is Captain Yao?"
"Quite," Jeong Jeong replied. "He is convinced you have been kidnapped, beaten and robbed, or killed."
Mai looked annoyed. "Nobody thinks we can take care of ourselves."
"He has already alerted King Kuei and the Water Tribe chieftains of your inevitable demise."
Zuko raised an eyebrow. "He must really think we're helpless. How did that go over?"
Jeong Jeong cleared his throat. "They seemed to find it greatly amusing."
"Captain Yao has insisted on a search party. They are currently tearing apart the city looking for you."
Zuko sighed. "I suppose we should get back, then." But neither made a move to rise.
Jeong Jeong glanced up at the sunset, only half faded from the sky. "I'll tell the captain he can call off his search."
Zuko smiled his thanks. Mai rested her head on his shoulder again.
Jeong Jeong turned away, calling over his shoulder, "Don't be too long, or he may place guards on you for the rest of your visit."
Zuko and Mai watched until the last tendrils of color bled from the sky. Then they watched until the first stars appeared.
"We should get back," Zuko whispered.
Mai nodded, but didn't rise.
Zuko watched her, mesmerized by her as only a man truly in love can be. "Did you enjoy today?"
Mai smiled. "I didn't hate it."
Mai frowned thoughtfully. "I can't help thinking there's something missing, though. Something that would make it perfect..."
Zuko raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"
Mai turned to him, her eyes sparkling. "Snowberries."
Zuko chuckled and let out a mock groan. "In the middle of summer?"
An odd smile pulled at Mai's lips. "It's not my fault what season it is."
Zuko frowned. There was something in her voice, in that smile... As his heart fluttered to his throat, his stomach turned a somersault. "S-snowberries? You really want snowberries?"
Mai's smile widened. "Yes," she said, laying her head back on his shoulder. "It's funny; lately, I've just been craving them..."
The Tale of Longshot and Smellerbee
Smellerbee and Longshot walked in silence for a long time. Usually, Smellerbee didn't mind the silence she and Longshot often endured. But it was always a friendly, companionable, understanding silence. This silence was just...silent. And Smellerbee couldn't take it anymore.
"So...What would you like to do?"
Smellerbee scowled at him. "You're not much help."
Longshot made no reply. He kept his head down and she couldn't see his expression.
"I suppose we could go to one of our places," Smellerbee suggested. They both rented small rooms in a boarding house, but there was never anything to do. "Or find something to eat."
Longshot shook his head, and it occurred to Smellerbee he might not want to spend his day off with her.
"You probably want to be alone," Smellerbee said, feeling stupid.
Longshot hesitated, and her face flamed. Frowning, he shook his head again.
The burning in her cheeks cooled. She wound the hem of her tunic around her finger. "We could...keep walking?"
Longshot shrugged again. So they walked.
Smellerbee couldn't figure it out, but the only people they seemed to pass were enchanted couples. And not all of them were young, either. There were older men and women strolling about the city who looked as if they'd been married for years. She frowned as she watched yet another pair amble past, lost in the love of one another's eyes. All of the women held delicate, long-stemmed crimson roses.
Was the city always like this? Smellerbee found it hard to believe. She'd never noticed it before today, either. She glanced at Longshot. He, too, watched the amorous couple pass them out of the corner of his eye.
"Must be a festival somewhere," she said.
Longshot nodded, shoulders shrugging awkwardly.
Smellerbee, frustrated that her words weren't sparking any kind of humor or life into her friend, sunk into a sullen silence.
Longshot watched her out of the corner of his eye, watched her reaction to the seemingly endless stream of blissful couples. She scowled at them as if they had just declared war on everything she held dear.
A flash of anger burst in his chest as he realized her irritation annoyed him. Even as the thought made him angry, he felt that cord yank at his heart. The cord that had looped around his heart at the coronation, the one that had been strangling him ever since. He frowned, trying to shake the anger and frustration away. He'd been so confused and uncertain of late, and he didn't know why. What he wouldn't give for these feelings to slip away, to return to the way things had always been.
They soon found themselves in a small marketplace, but, oddly, most of the booths were closed. Longshot and Smellerbee instinctively glanced at one another.
"It's got to be a festival," Smellerbee said.
The only open booth belonged to a puppeteer. A small crowd of children had gathered round it, their parents watching in the background. With nothing better to do, Longshot and Smellerbee wandered to join them. The puppets were often poorly made as the puppeteers didn't make much money, but many times the stories were clever and creative.
Currently, the puppets were in the midst of a skirmish. The heroic-looking warrior battled a villainous old general. With a small burst of flame, the puppeteer set the villain ablaze, dropping him from sight.
"Lady!" the hero called. "I have rescued you!"
Another puppet appeared, a beautiful maid clasping her hands to her heart. "My love!" she cried, running for his embrace. It was an awkward hug as the puppeteer –probably caught up in the joy of the moment– forgot which fingers to manipulate, but the crowd cheered with approval at the lovers' reunion.
Smellerbee and Longshot glanced uncomfortably at the puppets and sidled a few steps away from one another.
Longshot bowed his head lower, hoping she wouldn't notice his reddened features. But she wasn't looking at him; she was scowling at the puppets.
Okay, so Longshot did know why he'd been so confused and uncertain lately.
He couldn't get it out of his head, the sight of Smellerbee lying immobile after Rin hurled her into the stairs. She'd saved Longshot's life, no doubt about it. And he was grateful; it was what any friend would do, especially when they'd been through as many thick and thins together as Longshot and Smellerbee had survived. But that moment, when she didn't move, the feeling he had was so intense, so unforgettable, that it made him uncomfortable.
He'd been terrified that she would die.
Longshot had experienced loss before. When he was a child, the Fire Nation burned his entire village to the ground. He was too young to remember much about it or any of the people –even his family– but he always felt a pang of sadness and regret. When Jet had died, twelve years ago, it hurt him bad. It was the passing not only of his leader, but a great friend. But the pain and the sadness that he felt over Jet's passing faded over time and now it was a dull throb whenever he thought of his lost friend.
But with Smellerbee, he had not merely felt pain or sadness. He'd felt pure terror.
Pain, hunger, sadness, loss, regret, vengeance, anger, fear, even hatred –these were all emotions Longshot lived with his entire life. But never terror.
Staring at Smellerbee's prone figure, thinking her dead for that single instant, he wondered how he could go on without her. She was always there, by his side. She understood him like no one else did.
So yes; Longshot knew why he'd been acting odd and distant, why he felt so confused and surly. He just refused to admit it.
"It's a day for love, young man."
Longshot turned in surprise.
An old woman stood watching at him. She was bent with age and her long white hair hung loose, fluttering in the breeze. A basket of roses slung over her arm and her kind eyes glittered with mischief. She inhaled deeply. "Ahhh," she sighed. "Can't you smell it?"
Longshot did not reply.
The woman smiled at him. She reached into her basket and pulled out one of the flowers. "Perhaps you would like a beautiful rose for your beautiful lady?"
Longshot glanced back at Smellerbee. He'd never thought of her as beautiful; he'd never thought of it all. He supposed she might be. It was hard to tell. She was still scowling at the puppets.
A pang shot through his chest and Longshot blinked. Was Smellerbee beautiful? What was he thinking? He'd never wanted to think of her that way before! It would ruin everything between them. Nothing would ever be the same.
Longshot looked back at the old woman and her rose. She winked and Longshot suddenly realized that, when the old woman had asked, he'd actually thought of Smellerbee as his lady.
Smellerbee scowled at the embracing puppets. And when the hero –much to his lady's delight– declared, 'We shall be married at once', Smellerbee scowled harder.
Dozens of couples lost in each other's eyes... The old woman at the corner, pawning off her roses... A puppet show love story... What was the matter with people today? It was like a romantic monsoon had swamped the normally sane city.
What a bunch of nonsense.
Longshot stepped back beside her. Smellerbee turned toward him, so they could move on and leave the ridiculous puppet show, but she stopped. Longshot held a rose out to her. The same delicate, long-stemmed crimson kind she'd seen dozens of already.
Smellerbee stared at the rose. Other than blushing –probably as deep a red as the rose– she didn't know how to react. She couldn't.
What was he doing?
Relax, she told herself. It's just a flower. Friends give each other flowers all the time. She gulped. Don't they?
Smellerbee stopped staring at the rose, shifting her gaze to Longshot instead.
Longshot couldn't look at her. Smellerbee knew he was uncomfortable. His cheeks didn't flame, instead ghostly pale. He didn't shift or glance about; on the contrary, he was completely still. But she knew.
Smellerbee's heart skipped a beat. She couldn't believe it. Her heart actually fluttered!
"What is that?" she croaked.
Longshot didn't reply. She hadn't expected him to say anything, but she'd almost hoped he would shrug, even toss the rose aside. But he didn't. For a long moment, Longshot didn't move.
Finally, he extended his hand to her.
Smellerbee stared at that, too.
"We've been friends for a long time, Smellerbee," he said, still not daring to look at her. "You know me, unlike anyone else. You're the one person I trust completely." He swallowed hard, his heart blocking the words in his throat. His voice fell to whisper. "Can I trust my heart to you?"
Ice pooled in her veins, flushed out by a burst of heat as her entire body blushed red. Somehow, she had known. From that moment she woke up in his arms, even when he tried to excuse it with her injured ribs –she had known. But she had pushed it aside. She refused to believe it. Why? Did she not want to think of him that way? The strained air between them the past few days and the sudden pounding in her chest told her otherwise. So what then? Was she so scared of losing her best friend that she couldn't bear to consider it?
Longshot's fingers trembled. That terror washed over him again, terror that Smellerbee would say something, or that she wouldn't and simply turn away from him. He was perhaps even more terrified she might actually take his hand.
Tentatively, Smellerbee did.
Longshot felt her tremble, too. She was as scared as he. That comforted them both. Longshot wrapped his fingers around her hand. Smellerbee didn't pull back; she didn't change her mind and run.
They walked away, hand in hand, and looked differently at each other than they had their whole lives.
And for the first time, they allowed idea of love to take root in their minds.
The Tale of Azula
It wasn't Zuko's first time to the asylum, but it had been awhile.
Made of stone and metal bars, the building felt cold and emotionless. There was not much difference between it and the prison farther down, except the sunlight streaming through the windows. Light, they insisted, was necessary; it was the only thing nearing cheerfulness in this gloomy building.
Unlike a prison, the cell was sparsely furnished. A straw mattress sagged in the corner, and in the middle of the room a table and chair. Both were riddled with scorch marks, as if an unlearnt child playing with fire lost control of a few sparks.
"Well, well, well. If it isn't my dear brother, Firelord Zuzu." Her voice sounded dull, devoid of feeling. The giggle that followed chilled Zuko to the bone.
Azula leapt from the darkness of the far corner, the one place in the cell that shadows could fester.
Zuko betrayed no surprise. They had warned him that Azula's fury would be fueled by any expression he showed.
"What brings you here, Zuzu?" She gripped the cell's bars tight, hanging from them as she leaned back. Her nails were dirty and broken; her long hair disheveled and unkempt. Her eyes danced wildly and her unnerving smile seemed permanently fixed on her face.
"I came to see you, Azula. How have you been?"
Azula laughed. "How have I been?" She gnashed her teeth. Stepping back, she flung her arms out, gesturing at the room. "Look around you, dum-dum!" she screeched. "Look at what they've done to me!"
Zuko did look around. He could see more black burns on the stone walls and floor. "This you've done to yourself."
Azula pulled back and hurled a ball of blue fire through the bars.
Zuko sidestepped the missile, though her aim was off. Azula shrieked piteously as her fire harmlessly dissipated. She leapt at the bars, hissing.
"Do you think I'm stupid, Zuko? Did you think putting me in here would make me forget? You did this to me, dear brother," she snarled. Hatred smoldered in her eyes and a chill brushed over Zuko's flesh. "I remember."
She flung herself away, onto the floor as she cackled. "And someday you'll pay! Father will make you pay, and mother won't be around to save you!"
Zuko's eyes saddened as he watched his sister roll in the dirt, laughing to herself. "No, Azula. He won't."
Azula jerked upright. "That's what you think! You're weak and stupid, Zuko. You always were. It takes guts to be the Firelord. Guts and dignity!"
"Dignity?" Zuko questioned, watching as a piece of straw caught in Azula's hair tickled her upper lip.
Azula lunged at him, reaching through the bars to grab at him. "The crown is mine, Zuko!" she screamed. Her eyes brimmed with tears. "And you know it! Father gave it me!"
"He used you, Azula."
Azula reeled back from the bars. "No!" she shrieked, clapping her hands to her ears. "Stop it! He trusts me!"
As the cry fell from her lips, an eerie calm took possession of her. She crossed the room to the chair, seating herself as her crafty eyes gleamed. She sat straight, with her head held high, the queen of her own little world.
"You're just jealous, Zuzu. Father made me Firelord, instead of you. You'd say anything to ruin this for me." She smiled. "Father trusts me. He said so. He told me I was the only person he could trust to rule the Fire Nation." She glared at Zuko. "The only one."
"Perhaps," Zuko said. "But your entire life the only thing you've wanted is to please him, and he used that. He used you." He shrugged. "He used me, too. It's just the kind of man he is."
Azula scoffed, flicking a strand of loose hair over her shoulder. It slipped right back, but she ignored it. "He didn't use you, Zuko. He didn't use either of us. You betrayed him."
Zuko looked hard at his sister. She would not meet his gaze, holding her nose high like a snobby royal refusing to relent. But he could see the clouds in her face, the doubt in her eyes.
"Yes, he did. And what's more, you know it."
Azula caught the table leg with her foot and kicked it at him. "Liar!"
The table crashed against the bars and guards rushed into the passage.
"Get out!" She screamed at Zuko. "I hate you! Get out!"
But Zuko did not go. Instead, his lips curled into a cold smile, his face paling and contorting.
A chill crept up Azula's spine. No, this wasn't right. This wasn't how the memory ended. She remembered. She remembered Zuko pleading with her one last time, filling her head with lies, before finally turning away...
The sunlight through the windows faded, plunging the world into shadows. The only thing she could see was that face, that terrible, smiling face.
"Foolish little child."
"You..." Azula staggered back, bracing herself against the wall. The voice wasn't Zuko's, but she recognized it all too well. "Go away!"
"You came to me."
The bars separating her from the creature that had once been her brother vanished like smoke in the wind. She no longer cowered in her cell, but in the open air, on a cliff hovering above the sea. Ocean mist sprayed her face. The wind tugged at her clothes, threatening to pull her over. To get away from that thing, she almost let it.
An eerie cackle filled the air, chilling the marrow in her bones.
"Always remember that, little one. You came to me."
Azula woke gasping.
She jumped from the pathetic excuse of a mattress, face emotionless, fire billowing from her fingertips. She surveyed the room slowly, looking for enemies that were not there. She realized she was still in Ba Sing Se, in the slums of the lowest circle, waiting.
Angry with herself, she kicked at the small table with a furious cry. Then she fell back, collapsing onto the bed. She shivered –she hated herself for it, but she shivered nonetheless.
That meeting continued to leak into her nightmares. Azula closed her eyes, but it only brought back that face, mocking her. Azula gritted her teeth. She was a Princess, a skilled fighter and strategist; she didn't get scared!
But that meeting... He had frightened her.
"It's all right to be scared."
Azula looked up, watching her mother as she gazed down at her.
"I'm not scared!" she snapped.
"Don't worry, Azula." Her mother smiled. "I'm here for you. I'll always be here for you, no matter what."
Tears stung Azula's eyes. "You're lying!" She leapt at her mother with fists of flame.
But her mother disappeared. Just like she always did.
Azula clenched her eyes tight to fight back the tears, her fists to clench the flame. For a moment, the fire intensified, but finally it dwindled to a spark until it, too, faded away.
Azula took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm. She reached for the scroll she'd read a hundred times, hoping to find comfort in its words.
Princess Azula, it read.
The time for patience and increasing our numbers has ended and the time to strike has finally come. You will no longer be contained in your prison.
I have a very important task for you. There is someone you must contact. Engage him in negotiation; his assistance is vital. Only then can we be assured of complete and eternal victory. The second scroll contains the information you will need. Guard it with your life. No eyes but mine have seen it since it was delivered to me,. I have waited until such a time as it proved useful. Until such a time as now. A troop of soldiers waits to accompany you. Like them, you will answer to Kuzarr.
Once you have completed this task, there is one more thing you must do. The Fire Nation cannot rise to its former glory with this naïve Firelord holding it back. You must kill Zuko.
When it is done, you will travel to Ba Sing Se and await further instruction from Kuzarr.
I have not forgotten the last task you failed me. Do not disappoint me again.
It was signed merely By order of the Phoenix King.
Failed. Azula's fingers tightened, crinkling the parchment. Disappoint me.
"I won't," she whispered to the darkness.
"What are you doing here, Azula?"
Azula didn't look up from the scroll. She didn't want to see her mother or the look of sadness, of pity ...of love.
"You know you don't belong here, my angel."
"I belong wherever the Phoenix King tells me to go," Azula replied coolly. "I will do whatever the Phoenix King commands. I am the Phoenix King's servant."
"You're also his daughter, Azula. Can't you call him 'dad'?"
Azula scowled, looking up from her scroll.
But her mother was gone again.
Azula stared for a moment at the empty room, wondering where she had gone. Not now, but then.
A soft knock at the door made her jump, which only served to anger her. She flung the door open.
A single man stood there, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed in respect.
Azula relaxed. She crossed her arms with a snide smile. "It took you long enough."
He made no excuse. "I apologize, Princess."
Azula eyed the Dai Li agent, prodding him for any sign of treachery. He trembled under her gaze. Good. He feared her, as well he should. "Very well," she said, waving the apology away. "Come inside."
The Dai Li agent did so, slipping into the room without ever raising his eyes.
Azula did not invite him to sit. She crossed the room, gazing blankly at the wall as though she could see the entire city sprawled out before her. "And where is Kuzarr?"
The Dai Li flinched. "Kuzarr has been captured."
"Imbecile..." Azula muttered. But the thought made her smile. "Where are the other Dai Li?"
"Also captured. The metalbender was ready for them."
Azula's smile twisted downward. So the Avatar and his friends were still causing her trouble. "How did you escape?"
The Dai Li gulped at the implication in her voice. "It was a contingency," he replied. "In the unlikely event today's plan failed, Kuzarr posted me with instructions to carry news of our defeat to the Loyal."
Contingency plans really were one thing Kuzarr was good at. She would give him that.
"And lucky you," Azula said, turning to the agent. "You found me."
The Dai Li's skin crawled. He saw the madness dancing in her expectant eyes. He knew only too well that his life now rested in this madwoman's hand. Whatever assurances he had been given before, with Kuzarr now in the hands of the enemy, he was most assuredly at the mercy of the woman who had banished him.
Bending one knee, the agent knelt before her, bowing his head even deeper. "I am at your service." He swallowed hard. "Princess."
Azula smiled in satisfaction. "You and I shall get along very nicely."
The Dai Li gulped.
Her eyes flashed. "You have a question?"
"Yes, Princess." The Dai Li hardly dared to breathe. "What do we do now? Without Kuzarr–"
"Kuzarr is not nearly as important as he thinks," Azula snapped.
The Dai Li blinked, confused. "Your...Majesty?"
Azula flicked her bangs away from her eyes with a bored sigh. "Kuzarr thought himself a great head among the leaders," she said. "It was a necessary ploy to appeal to his vanity. In the end, he was merely a pawn in control of lesser pawns. Now that the ridiculous charade is over, I am in control." She smiled. "As it was always meant to be."
The Dai Li frowned. What was she talking about? Had she forgotten that it was Kuzarr who released her? Under his authority which she was placed? He decided not to mention that. He would let someone else remind her of her place.
"Will Kuzarr talk, your majesty?"
"Even if he does," she replied airily, "It doesn't matter. They can't stop us now."
The agent could not fight the chill that crawled over his flesh. "Of course, Your Majesty." He hesitated, but after a moment he asked, "What is the next step, Princess?"
Azula smiled. Even without looking at her, the Dai Li knew it. He could hear it in her voice.
"Assuring our victory."
The Tale of Aang and Katara
The University of Ba Sing Se was a grand building of gold-colored bricks and sloping green roofs, eaves curling up at the ends and reaching into the clear blue sky. Aang and Katara had visited it a few times over the last decade, eager to see what knowledge was stored there and also so Aang might pass down his own knowledge of the Air Nomads. But today their mission was of a much more serious nature.
They stepped over the threshold of the library and Katara's breath caught. Though it wasn't nearly so vast a collection as Wan Shi Tan's library, it was still impressive. Shelves crisscrossed through the huge hall and stretched upward along the walls, curving around bulkheads and wrapping the room in a comforting if dusty embrace. Books lined the shelves, and cubbyholes dotted the woodwork, housing hundreds of scrolls.
At a desk in the middle of the room, a young man in fine robes leaned over an old book. He didn't seem to mind that his elegantly embroidered sleeve dragged through the pot of adhesive open by his side and how the dust clung to his dark hair.
"Excuse me," Aang asked. "But I understand you have a collection of works on past Avatars."
The librarian squinted down at the book on his desk, concentrating on aligning a torn page back to the spine. "Yes..." He stuck out his tongue to better aim, inching the page toward the rip. As the two jagged edges met, he grinned. "Indeed we do!" he crowed. He ducked under his desk to retrieve a few small clamps. "If you shall give me just a moment, I will take you right there." He stuck his tongue out again as he gently eased the clamps over the nearly repaired tear.
His grin returning, the librarian wiped his brow. "Whew! I almost lost several pages of The Histories of the Rice Famine. Others may not see this as a historical treasure, but it actually gave rise to several unsung heroes, and told of some supposed heroes who lapsed into villainy. It's amazing how things can change so vastly from one day to the next, when you take away something so common and vital as food. In such a time, we finally learn the true nature of a man. Who will rise from the chaos to keep the balance, and who will fall to join it as it rips everything down?" The librarian readjusted his glasses and looked up. "Now, you were looking for..." As his eyes met Aang's, the color drained from his face.
Aang beamed. "Works on past Avatars," he supplied.
"O-of course," the librarian stammered, jumping to his feet. He swallowed hard. "I'm so sorry to keep you waiting, Avatar Aang, only..." His voice trailed off as he realized his excuse rested on the account of a rice famine nearly three hundred years ago that no one else in the world seemed to remember or care about.
"It's alright," Aang said. "I understand the importance of preserving history, no matter how obscure."
The librarian blinked. He found himself staring at the blue tattoo on the Avatar's forehead, remembering so much of this man's history was lost and destroyed. The librarian bowed his head. "Indeed, Avatar."
The librarian led them through the winding aisles, soon finding his voice along the way. "The Avatar collection is one of my favorites," he confided. "It's a combination of so many interesting topics –history, spirituality, the pursuit of bending, and often personal growth. Many accounts read so much like campfire stories it's hard to believe sometimes that they actually happened." He laughed suddenly. "Of course, a hundred years from now, that's probably what they'll be saying about you and the Hundred Year War. Ah, here we are!"
The librarian stopped before a small, glass enclosed case. Several ancient tomes and scrolls were displayed behind the locked door. In one corner rested a scroll whose handles had been painted orange, now faded. Pressed onto the scroll's protective cover was the symbol of the Air Nomads.
Aang reached out to touch the glass above one of the only remaining pieces of his people's history. "The collection's smaller than I imagined," he said, dropping his hand.
"Yes." The librarian nodded sadly. "There is still a wealth of information here, but many works were lost during the War. The last Avatar, Roku, lived in the Fire Nation, of course. Every Avatar was granted unlimited access to this collection, since it was practically their own histories. Back in the old days, each nation held a quarter of the collection in their capitals."
Aang held a vague memory of a revered collection of books, set aside from studies on meditation and guides of spirituality. He nodded. "I think I remember."
"Roku had collected a great many of these works over his lifetime, which was nothing unusual. At his death, they would have been returned to their designated collections." The librarian's face drooped.
A ball of lead sunk to the bottom of Aang's gut. "But Roku died when his island home was destroyed in a volcanic eruption." He shook his head sadly. "His concern wouldn't have been with the books; he was trying to save his home."
"Yes," the librarian agreed. "More than half the collection was destroyed. The rest remained in their respective capitals, but those of the Air Nomads were burned in the genocide. Firelord Zuko has managed to recover many of the Fire Nation collection. It seems the tyrants before him saved most of the scrolls and hid them away for study on how to hunt the Avatar. And as far as I know, the remaining collection in the Northern Water Tribe has escaped any real damage. But sadly, this is all that remains in the Earth Kingdom."
Aang looked over the collection with a new wave of sadness.
"Still," the librarian went on, forcing cheerfulness, "It's a wonderful collection. We have histories that heavily involve any Avatar and several works by renowned scholars about several, as well as a few theories on the nature of the Avatar itself, though I personally think there are some things in this world that we're not meant to fully understand." He blushed suddenly, remembering who he was talking to. "Except you, I mean. Certainly you might find it interesting and informative." The librarian cleared his throat. "We also boast a number of personal accounts and journals of several Avatars."
Aang perked up. "Really?"
The librarian nodded, pleased by his reaction. "Yes. Mostly they are from Avatars of the Earth Kingdom, having been entrusted to the Royal Library and moved here. Is there anything particular I can help you look for?"
Aang hesitated. He glanced at Katara and she nodded. "I'm looking for any information on an Air Nomad before Yangchen."
"Hmm..." The librarian scratched his chin. "That may be difficult to find." He retrieved a small key from his sleeve and unlocked the case. Leaning forward, he removed several works with care and set them on a nearby table. "These contain general histories of many Avatars," he explained. "If you know the Avatar's name or accomplishments, it should be relatively easy to find."
"Really?" Aang leaned over the scrolls and a grin broke across his face. "This is great!"
The librarian returned the smile. "Do you mind my asking, Avatar...?"
Aang looked up, and the librarian took it as a sign to continue.
"It's just something I've always wanted to know," the librarian went on, blushing. "Why study writings about past Avatars if you can actually commune with them?"
The color drained from Aang's face. He fished for an excuse, but he caught nothing.
"Aang likes to fill in the holes," Katara said, easing between them. "Sometimes there are things that his past lives don't like to talk about, and now that he knows there is so little information, he might be able to fill in the gaps."
The librarian blinked. "That...that's wonderful!"
"Hopefully," Katara said. She caught him by the elbow and led him away. "Thank you so much. You've been very helpful."
The librarian was so pleased to have been of assistance that he didn't even realize he had been dismissed until he reached his desk.
Katara settled beside her husband at the table, choosing one of the five books while he perused another. As she flipped through the pages, she said casually, "It is interesting what he said. About the true nature of men."
"Mm-hmm," Aang replied, distracted.
She glanced at him, his eyes dancing across the page and turning to the next. "Especially about those who rise from the chaos to keep the balance," she persisted.
Aang's eyes clouded in confusion. He looked up from the page. "What?"
Katara rolled her eyes. "I've been trying to tell you that being the Avatar isn't what makes you such a great person. You're trying to keep the balance even now but you don't seem to realize that you did it not because you're 'the Avatar', but because it's just the kind of person you are. Just look at what you did with Toph!"
"How did you–"
Katara smirked. "I saw those fancy metal toys she and her mysterious friend were playing with. I put two and two together."
Pink colored Aang's cheeks.
"You don't have to explain it to me, Aang," Katara told him. "I just want you to see that's the kind of man you are. Even when everything seems to be falling apart, you're focusing on the bigger picture, the benefit for all." Her voice grew stern. "You are a great man, Aang, and that is what makes you such a wonderful Avatar." She softened and clasped his hand on the tabletop. "I just want to make sure you know that."
Aang smiled at her. "I do now."
The collection was indeed sparse, but after several hours of searching Aang finally came across the name he was looking for in a massive tome listing the Avatars and their accomplishments in chronological order.
He nudged Katara's foot under the table. "Here it is! Avatar Haku of the Air Nomads."
Katara leaned forward. "What does it say?"
Aang scanned the section, his face falling. "Nothing helpful." He read the passage aloud:
Not much is known about Avatar Haku. He was raised in the Southern Air Temple and made a great study of spirituality. During his lifetime, Ba Sing Se flourished into a metropolis, the Southern Water Tribe was established, and all four nations traded freely with one another, yet he had no direct connection to any of these successes. Avatar Haku performed many traditional and ceremonial tasks of the Avatar, but his efforts were never extraordinary. Many believe that Haku merely had nothing to do, as there were no great disputes or upheavals in his time, while others argue that he was neglect in his duties despite no obvious need for a mediator within the world. He spent an inordinate amount of time in study and meditation, especially at the Western Air Temple, one of the two Temples inhabited exclusively by female monks. A nun, after Haku's death, insisted that he had been deep in study as to the exact nature of the Avatar, but many scholars since have come to believe that Haku withdrew himself from a world that did not seem to need his assistance.
"It's not completely unhelpful," Katara argued. "At least we know he spent a lot of time at the Western Air Temple. I wonder why."
Aang only listened with half an ear. He was thinking about another man who had neglected his duties as Avatar, and what he had lost as punishment. He shook his head. "Why him?"
Katara cocked her head. "What do you mean?"
"Of all the Avatars, why would the Spirit direct me to the one who never did anything? Kuruk didn't do anything either and even he knows he messed up! And this guy just spent his time meditating and ignoring the outside world?"
"Aang," Katara said gently, "It doesn't say he ignored the world. It just says there wasn't anything for him to do."
Aang surged to his feet. "That's no excuse!" He didn't know why he was so angry, but frustration and loss pulled his chest so tight he thought he might suffocate. His vision blurred and his voice turned hoarse. "If there's one thing I've learned, there's always something to do. Nothing's ever perfect, and even if there were no wars in his time, Haku should have been involved in the world, not hiding from it or ignoring it. He should have known what it could cost him." His voice dropped and he turned away. "He should have known what it cost me."
"Aang..." Katara stood slowly, fear gleaming in her eyes. "Aang, what are you talking about?"
But he ignored her. He glanced around the library as if seeing it for the first time. Stepping over to a shelf, he ran his fingers along the spines of books. His breath caught. "So much knowledge..."
He whirled and Katara took a step back. This man certainly looked like Aang, but there was a wild desperation in his eyes that wasn't him.
"Is there any information about the Spirit World?"
"I-I..." Katara's voice failed her.
He leapt forward, seizing her by the shoulders. "Quick, woman! Tell me now." He shook her as though it might pry the answer loose.
"I don't know!" she cried. "Aang, stop it. What's gotten into you?"
Her husband's face crinkled in confusion. He stared at her as though she were mad. "I don't have time for this," he growled, turning away. "I need to find my wife."
Katara stood, frozen, watching him walk away. Too stunned to move or to think. She heard only the echo of his departing footsteps and the sound of her heart rending in two.
"Aang!" That one word held her every ounce of love and sorrow, every precious moment they had ever shared, the very core of her being, begging him to come back.
Aang dropped to his knees.
Katara's feet forced her forward, running toward him. He knelt on the floor, head clasped in his hand. He groaned, wincing in pain. Tentatively, Katara reached out to touch him.
When her fingers brushed his shoulder, Aang looked up at her, his big gray eyes just as they should be. "Katara... What just happened?"
- At just over 14,000 words, this is the longest chapter to date.
- As I was editing, I realized this is my favorite Tale.
- Haru's struggle to ring the bell is reminiscent of Toph's own hesitation when she sees her parents again for the first time in .
- 'Any single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife, and who wouldn't dream of marrying into the esteemed Bei Fongs?' –Here we see a little Mrs. Bennet in Poppy Bei Fong.
- In Chinese, 'Da' means 'achieve' or 'attain'; 'Jin' means 'gold' or 'money'.
- Da Jin's annoying soup-slurping tendencies is another off-handed Clue reference.
- 'May I interest anyone in fruit, or dessert?' –This one is a blatant Clue reference. ;)
- Snowberries, in case anyone has forgotten, is Mai's strongest and most inconvenient pregnant craving.
- You know when I said that my affectionately dubbed 'Smellershot Subplot' had nothing to do with the shipping? I lied. ;) I'm a fan of Smellershot, but only under the right circumstances. As far as canon goes, I believe the relationship only has potential. In the series, they were just friends.
- This used to be my favorite Tale. I've been waiting years to share this one, and I especially love how it's so interconnected with the Tales of Mai & Zuko and Ursa & Roh-Roh.
- "In such a time, we finally learn the true nature of a man." –I just realized why this sounded so familiar. It was subconsciously inspired by 'War Stories', an episode of Firefly, which I just started watching and find to be brilliant and can't believe I only have two episodes left. 8O
- "He fished for an excuse, but he caught nothing." –Sorry, I just really like this. XD
- Follow the link...
For the collective works of the author, go here.