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|More from Metalarmor||Adventure/Drama||None|
|Walls and Rules|
Being detained at the wall for the night after taking down the Drill, Toph and the rest of Team Avatar awake to be informed that their good deeds have been rewarded with permission to enter the city and with an Upper Ring house for them to reside in (free of charge). Upon entering into the city, however, Toph is assaulted with bad memories of her former stays at Ba Sing Se with her parents, and Ba Sing Se quickly lives up to her low expectations of it in the former of their handler, Joo Dee. Even worse, she and the others soon learn from their next door neighbor that any mention of war in the City is forbidden, and that this law is ruthlessly enforced by the secret police of Ba Sing Se, the Dai Li.
In an attempt to get around these problems, Katara suggests that the group covertly attend a party of the Earth King's in order to seek audience with him; Toph warns the Waterbender that this was unlikely to work given the current state of affairs, and reluctantly trains the peasant girl in the manners of high society as best as she can before the party (leaving the boys to find a way in for themselves). Upon arriving at the party, they learn they required invitations, the Beifong family seal Toph brought with them surprisingly being to no avail. Luckily, a cool-mannered gentleman intervened and allowed them entry under the pretenses the two of them had come up with, only for him to then introduce himself as a cultural minister to the Earth King and to insist that it was therefore his duty to escorting them back to their (non-existent) partying family members. They eventually managed to shake him and meet back up with Sokka and Aang (disguised as bellboys), only for Joo Dee to show up and inadvertently reveal Aang's identity as the Avatar to the crowd. Toph and Katara quickly withdrew from the commotion he caused to find another way to approach the Earth King, only to be captured by the Dai Li before they could get to him and taken to the palace's library; there, Long Feng proceeded to inform them of the true balance of power in the city, and to blackmailing them with Appa when Aang threatened to tell the city about the War.
Day 1, Part 1
"Toph...." Hmmm...?."Wake up, Toph!" She blinked quickly at the rough shaking of her shoulder, and propped herself up on her knees so that her feet were placed against the ground. Oh...it's Sokka, she thought, fighting back a blush at being caught off guard like this. "How do you sleep so soundly on the hard ground like that, anyway?"
"Good morning, Sokka," she said as she jumped to her feet in order to eliminate the vestiges of sleep. "Just one of the things that make me amazing, I guess," she answered him with a smirk. Sounding like he was rolling his eyes at her response, Sokka went on, "Anyways, we have to get going now. Katara and Aang are already packed up and ready to go."
"Ah," she responded simply, she earthbent her pack into her hands, and took several long strides so that she could walk beside Sokka as he exited the door to the way-station at the Outer Wall, where the general had "kindly" let them sleep for the night. "So, we've been permitted to enter into the city, then?" she inquired, trying to strike up general conversation.
"Yeah. And what's more," he paused for a few moments before continuing, "We've been given a house in the Upper Ring of the city, free of charge". At this, Toph raised an eyebrow, then feeling Sokka wave over to where Katara and Aang were sitting, presumably as some sort of visual sign for the two to follow them. "That's odd," she thought aloud, still thinking about their housing arrangements. "Yeah, I thought so too." Sokka agreed. "I mean shouldn't we just need a rental in the Middle Ring if we're going to search for Appa after today's audience with the Earth King? Something doesn't feel right here..." he continued and Toph couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. She sensed that this hospitality they were receiving could mean nothing good . . . This kind of treatment never happened. The last time she could remember being treated like this was . . . well, when she came to the capital city before, with her parents four years ago.
"Sokka, I think the city's bribing us," she informed him in a hushed tone but spitting out the word "bribing" with much distaste, hating even the thought of the political squabbles among the ruling classes of the city. At this, Sokka briefly stopped walking before quickly resuming his previous pace, his pause was so sudden that for a moment Toph failed to notice, causing her move onward a pace ahead of him. "You really think so?" He asked back in an equally hushed tone. "Yeah," the master Earthbender replied, "That's the type of thing they tried to do to my parents when we last visited..." Sounding concerned, Sokka continued, "Are you sure? I mean, they could just be trying to celebrate how good a job we did at defending the city, right?" Toph sighed with exasperation, and stated curtly, "Well, we'll find out soon enough." By this time they had arrived at their destination: the monorail that would take them to the Inner Wall of the city. Toph noticed in passing that the monorail appeared to be pushed by Earthbenders (At least that means I'll probably be able to see when I'm inside it...), something she had never experienced before (having traveled by palanquin with her parents the last time they entered the city, as they didn't want her to be seen by the outside world), but found that her curiosity about the details of how their transport was propelled by earthbending was sapped by the thoughts of what probably awaited them when they finally arrived in the city.
The four friends climbed aboard the monorail, and she quickly settled into the bench Sokka was sitting on. Sitting a few seats down and across the aisle were Katara and Aang. Momo, having apparently developed quite the liking for Toph in the past couple of weeks (perhaps because of Aang's increase in moroseness ever since Appa had been taken), settled in her lap. Sokka promptly dozed off to asleep, having apparently woken up too early, and Katara and Aang seemed to be in their own little world across the aisle; resigning herself to the lack of a proper conversation partner, Toph began stroking the lemur's fur absent-mindedly as memories of her first time in the city began to wash back over her...
When she turned eight years old, her parents decided that she was finally old enough to survive a cross-country trip to the Earth Kingdom capital without her health suffering lethal damage. She would rather have stayed at home, so that she could sneak off to the Badger-mole caves to train in the optimum environment, but her parents would have nothing of it. Apparently, learning more about the culture of "their great land" was necessary to mold her into "a proper noble lady" like her mother, so that "a proper gentleman would ask for her hand in marriage", and staying at their nation's capital for a couple of months was the perfect way to do so. She couldn't have been less thrilled.
Getting past the Outer Wall was easy enough for nobles of her parent's stature, though they reluctantly had to let Toph appear before the guards, who informed them they could not sacrifice the security of the Earth King even for the secrecy of such high-ranking nobles as themselves. (From what Toph could guess from the menagerie of tales Yu had told her, they most likely feared that the Beifongs were taking part in some sort of assassination attempt on the Earth King . . . but of course, her blindness put that fear to rest very quickly.) By the time their caravan approached the Upper Ring, however, it was stopped once again by the Dai Li, who informed their servants that the house Lao had frequented since his youth had been torn down on the orders of Long Feng, for "increased security against peasant uprising". Lao erupted in fury at this, assailing the messenger from his perch atop the palanquin for allowing the house in which he, Lao Beifong, had spent his honeymoon with Poppy (Toph remembered trying hard to shut out thoughts about what this might imply), to be torn down for such mundane reasons, telling them that the thought of revolt would never even enter into the minds of his servants because they were treated well by their lord.
Apparently stunned by the force of this reaction, the member of the Dai Li went silent for a few minutes, and then informed the Beifongs that they had been granted a more lavish place of residence at the special behest of the Earth King himself to make up for this loss. The agent then could be heard whispering something into one of the servant's ears, who whispered it into Lao's. Even without an earthern floor, Toph could feel her father inexplicably quaking beside her as the servant whispered in his ear, and (unusually for him) he then demurely submitted to this unforeseen change in circumstances; he refused to answer her questions about this after they had arrived at their new place of residence, saying only that it was not meant for such delicate ears as hers. Because this was the only interesting thing that happened to her while in Ba Sing Se, Toph thought about it for quite a while, without ever making sense of it. Eventually, her interest in it was drowned out by all the "sight-seeing" her parents had her do around the city via palanquin, which amounted to the sound of Master Yu discussing whatever happened to pass by their propped-up curtain window dully drumming up against her ear-drums. Being back at the house wasn't much better, as for whatever reason she seemed to have been kept under an even closer watch than she was at home, not allowed to go outside to play in what she knew was a rather large surrounding yard even with the supervision of guards, as she usually would have been back at home. She had been bored out of her skull most of the time she was there...
Day 1, Part 2
Suddenly, back in the present, Katara cried out excitedly, "Look, the Inner Wall!" Toph inwardly let out a sigh of relief, glad to know that their train ride would soon be over. Her tone reflecting the Earthbender's opinion, the Waterbender went on, "I can't believe we finally made it to Ba Sing Se in one piece."
"Hey, don't jinx it!" Sokka spoke up from his position beside Toph, his voice ringing in her ears. "We can still be attacked by some giant exploding Fire Nation spoon. Or find out the city's been submerged in an ocean full of killer shrimp!" Honestly, I can't tell what's going on in your head sometimes...Toph shook her head at him internally, silently chuckling to herself as she realized what it reminded her of. "You been hitting the cactus juice again?""I'm just sayin', weird stuff happens to us," Sokka answered her nonchalantly, not really denying that he had. As she was thinking up a quip to shoot back at him, she was suddenly startled out of her train of thought by being roughly shoved to the side by what felt like a rather obese man. Blinking quickly in reaction to the oddly oblivious behavior of whoever decided to sit between them (who from the vibrations he was giving off was apparently....sucking on something?), Toph re-shifted her sitting position into a more comfortable one, figuring nothing could be gained by puzzling over the situation for very long. Perhaps Sokka was actually right about us attracting weirdness...Nothing I can really do about it now, though, Toph accepted, thinking that at least things were more . . . interesting when she was with her friends then before.
"Don't worry, Aang," From across the compartment, Katara's voice broke the silence with a soothing motherly tone. "We'll find Appa." Responding in a rather morose tone, Aang expressed his doubts about this, given how big the city was. Suddenly, Sokka's voice chirped up on the other side of the compartment as well, as he exclaimed his utter disbelief at the Airbender's current pessimism, "He's a giant bison! Where could someone possibly hide him?" Ha...Toph laughed to herself darkly. You've obviously never been here before... Sure enough, Sokka could be soon be heard realizing his mistake with an "Oh", as his sight apparently corroborated what Toph already knew to be true from previous experience.
A few minutes later, the train finally halted with a softened jolt. Finally...Toph thought with relief, bolting upward as soon as she felt (causing Momo to scurry for a safer perch), stretching her arms out vigorously and intentionally ignoring the stares she knew she was getting for her sudden action. Soon enough, vibrations could be felt upon the rock floor of the train as her friends got out their seats as well in order to leave. Before following them out of the railway car, Toph deliberately turned her head around so that her eyes would be staring in the general direction of the fat man's face, in order to give him what she hoped approximated a glare - which he completely failed to react to. Chucking this up to the sheer whimsy of the universe she lived in, she gave up the attempt and followed her friends out into the railway station, Momo jumping back onto her shoulder for a convenient ride out.
Once out in the open air, Toph sighed as her nose slowly recognized the unforgettable smell of the place. "Back in the city. Great." This place wreaks of old fuddy-duddys crushing the human spirit....Ugh. "What's the problem?' Sokka ask, seeming quite surprised that Toph would dislike a "wonderful" place like this. "It's amazing!" Sighing inwardly at his naivety, Toph informed him, "It's just a bunch of walls and rules," unable to keep a sound of disgust out of her voice. "You wait, you'll get sick of it in a couple of days." I know I certainly did... Out of the corner of her ear, she felt the sound of Aang blowing into an animal whistle lightly reverberate against her eardrums, followed by him muttering in a morose tone, "I'm comin' for ya, buddy," Ah...he's worried about Appa again... she thought sadly, as the Waterbending girl walked over to him, comforting him by placing her hand on his shoulder. "He's here; I can feel it," the Airbender informed the other girl in a more confident-sounding tone, having apparently been cheered by that simple act. This quick change in attitude struck Toph as somewhat strange, leading Toph to briefly wonder if her initial understanding of the two's relationship was correct before she shook it out of her head as something irrelevant to their current situation. A little ways behind them, a rougher whistling sound could be heard, making it immediately apparent to Toph that the monorail was being given its initial push back out of the station. Having shifted her attention back in that direction, she suddenly noticed the presence of a woman by the echo of the vibrations given off through her turn-around, who was standing stock-still as if she were waiting specifically for them. Having evidently just spotted them, the woman began slowly walking toward them, the vibrations she gave off as she did so being so confused that Toph was unable to make heads or tails of was evidently a very odd emotional state on her part. This was unnerving enough to raise several hairs on the back of Toph's neck, though she emphatically was not going to tell her friends about that.
Having approached within talking distance, the woman began speaking to them in an excited voice which did not match the vibrations Toph felt coming from her. "Hello, my name is Joo Dee! I have been given the great honor of showing the Avatar around Ba Sing Se," she informed the Airbender, and then, "And you must be Sokka, Katara and Toph!" turning to each of them in turn as she said their names. "Welcome to our wonderful city. Shall we get started?"
"Yes," Sokka agreed, sounding like he was trying to charm the woman into agreeing with his change of subject. "We have information about the Fire Nation army that we need to deliver to the Earth King, immediately," he continued, his voice filled with what sounded to Toph like (almost aggressive) urgency. Can't say I blame him, this city and all... "Great!" Joo Dee responded in the same falsely-excited voice she had used earlier. "Let's begin our tour. And then I'll show you to your new home here. I think you'll like it!" Somehow, she had totally missed Sokka's attempt to change the course of the conversation, an act which Toph suspected wasn't quite accidental...
"Ugh!" Sokka emoted in a slightly annoyed tone, flinging his arms angrily outward in their general direction. Seemingly still convinced that he could get his message across, he could then be felt quickly trying to catch up to Joo Dee as she walked in the direction of what would apparently their carriage, and then broke the silence again in a slightly exasperated tone, "Maybe you missed what I said. We need to talk to the king about the War. It's important." Acting as if she was completely oblivious to anything Sokka just said, Joo Dee informed them that they were in Ba Sing Se now, and that everyone was safe within the walls. Toph felt her jaw drop slightly in confusion, as she begun to get a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach that things had somehow gotten even worse than the last time she had been here.
Worried about the fate of their mission in this city, and also just how long it may force her to be confined within this city, the blind Earthbender climbed into the carriage after the others, only half-aware of the helping hands Sokka extended to draw her out of contact with her element and into their transport. Nestled between Katara and Aang with no way of seeing out of the carriage if she had even wanted to, she quickly got bored as the ostrich-horse pulled them through the streets of Ba Sing Se, returning to petting the Momo currently in her lap in an effort to ignore the annoying feeling that she had been somehow been wrapped backed into a history tour with "good ol' Master Yu". Joo Dee began the verbal tour by informing them that they were currently in the Lower Ring (to Toph the most obvious thing in the world, especially given the bumpiness of the street they were currently on), which caused Katara to naively ask what some wall that she happened to see through the window was for. Smart friends you've found for yourself, Toph. Real intelligent when it comes to these things.
"Oh, Ba Sing Se has many walls!" Their tour guide exclaimed cheerfully, as if this could somehow be construed as a good thing by an enormous stretch of the imagination. "There are the ones outside protecting us, and the ones inside, that help maintain order." As if that were really something anyone needed more of: less of a chance to do anything worthwhile...After the scenery viewable through the window evidentially changed significantly, Joo Dee went on, "This is where our newest arrivals live, as well as our craftsman and artisans, people that work with their hands. It's so quaint and lively!" She sounded as if she was trying to put the best possible spin on what they were seeing to the team, though Toph already knew from her father's broad defamations of it during her last stay that it must in fact be quite dismal. Sure enough, the tour guide's tone soon became nervous in response to some visual stimulus she must have had through the carriages window, as she warned them, "You do want to watch your step, though."
Evidently having been made nervous by the same visual stimulus, Katara paused for a moment before wondering aloud, 'Why do they have all these poor people blocked off in one part of the city?" in a deploring tone, sounding as if this was the first time she had experienced the harsh realities of city life. This earned her a response from Aang, who sounded equally upset at the situation, "This is why I never came here before. I always heard it was so different from the way the monks taught us to live." You and me both, Twinkle-Toes. I cannot think of anything more boring than living in the big city, let alone something more suffocating... Joo Dee refrained from answering these sentiment, obviously finding avoiding talking about the problem altogether to be preferable to trying to explain it to children from the outside world. As a result, they rode on in silence for an indeterminable amount of time, broken again by Joo Dee shortly after the carriage ride began to become noticeably less bumpy. "This is the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se, home to the financial district, ships and restaurants, and the university."
"Yeah, we met a professor from the Ba Sing Se University," Sokka cut in on her description of the outside world, obviously attempting to maneuver the conversation in a direction useful to them, "He took us to an ancient underground library where we discovered information about the war that is absolutely crucial for the Earth King to hear!", sounding like he had lost his patience with her. "Isn't history fascinating?" Joo Dee somehow replied in an excited voice which continued to remain overly cheery voice, acting as if she was oblivious to everything he had just said. "Look, here's one of the oldest towns in the Middle Ring, Town Hall!" Toph felt her body shift forward slightly as the carriage slowed to a stop, followed by the crack of the door opening and the sound of Joo Dee's feet hitting the pavement below. Sounding exasperated, Sokka loudly inquired of the carriage at large, "Is that woman deaf? She only seems to hear every other word I say."
Sighing internally, Toph answered his rhetorical question sourly, ""It's called 'being handled'. Get used to it." This is exactly why I didn't want to stay here again... It's just like being back home. She crossed her arms grumpily at the thought. The group half-snoozed inside of the carriage until Joo Dee finally returned from whatever business she had had in Town Hall, too disinterested in the goings-on to answer in the affirmative when their driver asked them if they intended to follow her (as he did after a few minutes of Joo Dee's absence). The master Earthbender briefly considered climbing out of the carriage and getting her friends to attempt to do something productive to their current mission with her, but quickly dismissed it when she considered that the particular city they were in was likely to make this far more trouble than it was really worth. About half an hour later, she was abruptly startled back into full alertness by the noise Joo Dee inadvertently made when she climbed back into the carriage. Katara immediately asked the woman what errand she had had to run in the middle of the tour, to which their tour guide answered that she had had to put forth a notice that the team were interested in holding an audience with the Earth King, as she had only been made aware of this interest after meeting up with them. Seeing this belatedness as a bad sign, Toph chimed into the conversation by asking whether they were likely to get a response quickly, not bothering to mask the skepticism in her tone, to which their tour guide would only answer that the process seemed to have been going well before she had returned to them. Realizing she wasn't likely to get an informative answer out of Joo Dee, Toph quickly returned to her bored silence, the only thing preventing her from drifting off into a day-dream being the soft clatter of the carriage's wheels against the pavement.
"The Upper Ring is home to our most important citizens," their tour guide explained a good while later when the scenery around them apparently changed (an idea corroborated by the decrease of noise of people from the outside), still speaking in what had quickly become an obnoxiously cheery voice. "Your house is not too far from here!" Well, thank goodness! Not sure how much more of this I can take... again. Apparently seeing something out of the window a few minutes later, Katara then inquired of Joo Dee, "What's inside that wall?" Apparently seeing something noteworthy soon after the Waterbender did, Sokka added to his sister's question, "And who're the mean-looking guys in robes?"
"Inside is the Royal Palace. Those men are agents of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se. They are the guardians of all our traditions!" Yeah. Because your traditions are really interesting enough to be worth guarding. Right. Seemingly just as bored by this conversation as she was, Aang curtly asked their tour guide in an annoyed tone if they could see the king now. In such a cheery voice that made Toph sure that their tour guide had an enormous smile despite her seismic sense's current uselessness, Joo Dee quickly replied, "Oh no! One doesn't just 'pop in' on the Earth King!" Toph had never in her life heard such depressing words uttered in such a cheery voice. As Joo Dee had indicated, soon enough they had arrived at their destination, and piled out of their carriage and up the steps of their new place of residence, a small amount of pressure being released from Toph's shoulder as Momo launched himself into the air. In a cheery voice, Joo Dee announced the obvious, "Here we are! Your new home." From the vibrations traveling up the stone steps from the street below, what appeared to be a messenger could be felt running up to their former tour guide to hand her a piece of parchment (presumably with writing on it of some sort). Then he left, as Joo Dee could be felt unrolling the scroll to read whatever was on it. She then cheerily announced that they had more good news, "Your request for an audience with the Earth King is being processed, and should be put through in about a month."
"A month?" Sokka repeated the word loudly with surprise in his voice. Feeling her eyes widen pointlessly in surprise at the probable length of their wait, she grimaced internally. Man, this just gets better and better... "Six to eight weeks, actually," the tour guide answered his question, apparently having tried to blunt the initial blow the first time around. Wow...it actually got worse, Toph felt like smacking herself in the forehead, but instead opted to simply stand outside for a moment and groan loudly, and then walked into the house after the others, fully intending to hate every inch of it.
Day 1, Part 3
Once inside, she dropped herself down onto one of the cushions in the middle of the room alongside Katara, holding her head in hands so that her neck wouldn't be too strained by the depressing weight pulling her head downward. Joo Dee followed the group in after her, and then she just had to start implying how nice it was to them and telling them that they'd really enjoy it (much to Toph's chagrin). "I think we would enjoy it more if we weren't staying for so long," Sokka interjected, not one to miss an opportunity in conversation with this woman. "Can't we see the Earth King any sooner?"
"The Earth King is very busy running the finest city in the world!" Joo Dee answered excitedly, as if that somehow settled the matter. As a strong prick of annoyance began to obviously emanate from Sokka's position shortly thereafter, the tour guide added, " But he will see you as soon as time permits." After she said this, Aang could be felt turning to point his eyes in the direction of one of their new house's window, as he said in a determined voice, "If we're going to be here for a month, we should spend our time looking for Appa." Momo startled chortling to the Airbender as his old animal buddy's name was said. Behind him, Joo Dee could be felt leaning the top half of her body forward in a bow, as she said in response to Aang's vocalization of his plans for the group, "I'd like to escort you anywhere you'd like to go."
Okay, that's the last straw! The master Earthbender dropped her right hand from her jaw so that her point could be clearly heard by the entire room. "We don't need a babysitter," Toph said with an annoyed tone, standing to her feet and walking towards the exit, wishing to get around what could easily become their permanent watch-dog. "Oh, I won't get in the way," the woman said with her voice full of smiles, as she moved to block the Earthbender's escape attempt. "And to leave you alone would make me a bad host!" Be a bad host, then. We won't complain..."Where shall we start?" Toph turned back away from the exit, annoyed with the sickening realization that anywhere they went, she would have to be in tow. And here I thought nothing could be worse than my first time here..."Hmmm..." Sokka murmured in reply, probably with his thumb and forefinger to his chin in an exaggerated pose, Toph thought. " I suppose the best place to go to find information on Appa would be Ba Sing Se's animal markets." Joo Dee could be felt nodding to this before she informed them that such markets could be found back aways in the Middle Ring, and that she would take them back down there immediately. This provoked Sokka's puzzled reply; "Wait..Don't you have to call a new carriage up first?"
"Oh, don't worry; I'm sure we'll have a means of transportation soon enough," she simply replied in a cheery voice, her wording making it obvious to them by now that she wasn't going to explain why, producing a mixture of surprise and skepticism on Toph's part. However, a carriage could indeed be heard arriving soon enough (especially on the relatively soundless backdrop of the mostly empty streets of the Upper Ring); their handler simply emoted cheerfulness about this with no further explanation, as she shifted her weight in such a way that Toph could tell that she was visually motioning for the group to get into the transport with her arms. It's almost creepy how efficient this city can be, when it needs to be...Toph thought, letting out an audible groan as she climbed back into a transport for the third time that day, with some assistance from Sokka and Katara (not entirely appreciating it from the latter, but she let it slide).
One boring, repetitive-feeling, and otherwise nondescript ride later, the master Earthbender was happy to have her feet firmly planted back on the solid stone of the pavement. She gladly followed the rest of the group in the direction Joo Dee had pointed out to them, willfully attempting to ignore her suspicions of how their mission might go to concentrate more fully on the possibilities of the present. Walking into the building, her ears were immediately greeted with the sounds of sparrowkeets chirping and what seemed to be a squabble between Momo and a cat-owl. (The soft natural beauty of the animal noise lost much of its enjoyability through the cluttered nature of the shop's interior, making it more grating and harsh to the blind girl's ears than it would otherwise be.) Apparently having noticed them despite the noise, the shop-owner walked up to the counter, and asked how might be of service to them. Sokka immediately dove into conversation with him, asking him in a business-like tone, "We've been traveling the world with the Avatar, but recently he had his Sky Bison stolen from him, crippling our military operations. Have you heard word that any of your competitors are trying to sell an unique animal like that?" The man could be felt almost jolting upwards in surprise at the mention of each of the words "Avatar", "Sky Bison", and "military operations", and he paused for a few moments, apparently to consider his words carefully, before he finally answered, "I'm sorry, but I haven't heard anything about a flying bison. I didn't even know there were any." He sounded as if he was totally oblivious to any information they would consider useful; in fact, he sounded a little too oblivious to Toph's ears, especially given how he had jolted at the Water Tribe boy's words just a few second earlier.
Obviously realizing this line of questioning wouldn't get them anywhere, Aang tried a different tactic, "If someone wanted to sell a stolen animal without anyone knowing, where would they go?" Silence hung in the air for several moments, finally being broken by Sokka when it became clear that the shopkeeper wasn't about to answer the question. "Where's the black market? Who runs it?" he asked, his tone slightly frustrated. "Come on, you know!" he grilled the man, shifting his weight in the way that Toph had long since come to understand as his attempt to point at someone accusingly. The man's body could be felt shaking slightly, as he muttered "Uh..." in a nervous tone for an unknown reason. Is merely talking about criminal activities against this city's stupid rules? Toph thought in exasperation, almost overlooking the echos returning from Joo Dee's body which indicate that she was shaking her head in the direction of the shop owner. ...!!!... Now sounding more confident, he finally gave them something approaching a real response, "That would be illegal." He then told them to leave the premises, on the basis of Momo harassing the sparrowkeets that were on sale. Sokka attempted to object, but Joo Dee cut him off, saying that it was customary in the city to respect the wishes of one's host whenever one entered into someone's else's home. Well, that could have went a lot better...
As they ambled a couple of yards back to where they had left their carriage, she grabbed the back of Sokka's shirt to hold him back, simultaneously whispering "Psst, Sokka.." in his direction. He stopped walking forward, and leaned down to ask her what it was that she wanted to say. "I think Joo Dee is trying to keep us in the dark on Appa." Sokka responded with what felt to Toph like a firm nod, and then the two of them hurried forward to try and catch up with the rest of the group, only to find Joo Dee standing stock-still outside of the carriage in an unnerving manner.
"Where would you like to go next?" Their tour guide quickly asked Sokka in an overly-cheery voice as they approached her, which did not match the throbbing of her raised pulse that the blind Earthbender was beginning to feel. Apparently caught off-guard just as much as she was, the Water Tribe Warrior stuttered for a second before gathering his mind together and saying, " I say we go back to the university in the Middle Ring. It's probably our next best bet..." tapering off towards the end, probably thinking (just as Toph was) that if anywhere in the city was to have information on the activities of Sandbenders, it would be the university because of its connections to their former ally Professor Zei, though he probably thought it best to hide this line of thinking from their handler. Their tour guide paused for a second, probably to see if she could deduce what they were keeping secret from her from Sokka's answer, and then explained cheerily, "Ba Sing Se's University is the finest university in the world. If there is any information in our city which could be used to help you kids find your bison, we'll find it there." Unable to object to this, Sokka climbed up into the carriage, pulling Toph into it along with him.
She took her former place between Aang and Katara, opting to leave Joo Dee to Sokka ... and Sokka to Joo Dee. Not many words were passed between the group for the next several minutes, until their driver finally announced that they had arrived at their destination. Once she had exited the carriage and stepped on the pavement, the master Earthbender detected a likely candidate sitting half-way across the university's courtyard on the base of the statue of some regal-feeling figure (Toph figured it was likely that of a former Earth King she had learned about during her first journey to the capital, one who had emphasized the enlightenment of the common Earth Kingdom peasant, butwhose proper name she had long forced out of her memory), and stuck out her arm in his direction to point him out to her friends (and less fortunately, also Joo Dee). Once they had gotten within the apparent hearing range of sighted people, Sokka called out to the individual sitting at the statue's base. "Hello! Are you enrolled at Ba Sing Se University?" The person seemed startled at first, but soon answered, "Yes, I'm a student of anthropology." Sounding a bit confused, he continued, "Why do you ask?" But before Sokka could jump into a discussion of their lost bison, Joo Dee did them the "courtesy" of introducing each one of them individually and then herself as the individual nominated to act as their tour guide. Impressed by the seeming importance of the children standing in front of him, he inadvertently distracted the course of their conversation for several minutes from their actual reason for coming to the University in the first place. Finally, Sokka cut him off mid-sentence, saying, "Look, the Avatar recently lost his bison to the hands of a tribe of Sandbending nomads. What part of the city or people they would be most likely to trade with, if they came to the Earth Kingdom capital?"
"Hmm... I've never seen any sandbenders or nomads around here," the student answered in genuine confusion, judging by the feel of the vibrations he gave off. "You should ask Professor Zei, he teaches the class on desert cultures," he finished, apparently thinking he was actually being informative. Wow...talk school cramming one's head full of useless knowledge... "Right," Sokka sarcastically responded, obviously as annoyed as Toph was by the complete lack of practical information taught by this university. "And which of your professors could we ask about the war with the Fire Nation?" At the mention of the word "war", the student could suddenly be felt shaking through the ground, and could seemingly only utter a nervous "Uhh..." in response. Paying close attention to their handler's actions, Joo Dee could then be clearly felt shaking her head back and forth at the student by the master Earthbender, just as Toph had suspected. Sokka, apparently picking up on the same vibe two seconds later, turned quickly around to look at their former tour guide mid-shake, but by the transparent feeling of disappointment he gave off he obviously hadn't been able to catch her in the act. Sounding as if he feared for his life, "I don't know," the student finally answered unhelpfully. "I'm not a political science student...I've got to get to class." He quickly stood to his feet and began walking briskly away, by the feel of how he moved obviously trying to escape what he considered a dire situation, only to trip and drop the scrolls he was carrying. Still emanating nervousness, he quickly gathered them back up in a panic, and hurried off back toward the university, at which point he no longer was worth Toph keeping track off. Joo Dee simply stood there waving at his departure, currently giving off no clue to the unwary that she had any devious intentions at cross-purposes with those of Toph and her friends. "Well, shall we keep looking, then?" Their tour guide asked excitedly in her most sickly-cheery voice. "Or do you children wish to turn in for the day?" Toph felt her friends turn around to look at each other's faces, before Aang answered morosely, "I suppose there's nothing left for us to do but head on back home, and try to get a fresh start tomorrow." Joo Dee nodded at this suggestion, and then ushered them back towards the carriage.
"It's okay, children," she attempted to reassure them as they entered back into the carriage for what was to be the final time that day, apparently in reaction to the dejected looks on their faces. "You just need your rest. You've had a long day, and I'm sure your actions yesterday took a lot out of you children. You're still very young, after all." The master Earthbender could feel her own eyebrows bunch up together at this, and she was only able to restrain herself from chewing the woman's head off with some difficulty. "Just take a nice restful back at home for the rest of the day, and I'm sure you'll be up tomorrow and ready to find your bison in no time." Even when she was saying what would theoretically be the most encouraging words one could hear, their handler somehow managed to make matters all the more depressing by their mere implications for the group. Too morose to strike up much conversation, the group traveled back to their new home in relative silence.
"Well, I'm sorry no one has seen your bison. Why don't you go get some rest?" Joo Dee indicated to them once more, after they climbed out of the carriage and up the steps to (finally) see her off. "Someone will be over with dinner, later." Even when you're gone, you'll still know if we've gone out. . Wouldn't expect anything less from this stupid city, Toph thought, shaking her head internally. After their handler had finally driven off for what was hopefully the rest of the day, she refocused her attention in the direction which had suddenly peaked her friend's interest. Weird...A man was apparently standing inside of the house at the other end of the street, staring through his door at them. Sokka pointed his thumb at the door in some sort of visual sign to the rest of the group in response to this, as he asked them to come with him. Following Sokka, Toph and her other friends ambled across the street to the house facing them. The Water Tribe Warrior began the assault on the unknown spy unsubtly by knocking on his door. The man shifted from where she could feel him standing a few feet to the left of the door, and behind the of the door's window-frame so that her friends could see him, before opening the door. "You're the Avatar!" He exclaimed in a cheery voice which felt much more genuine than their handler's. "I heard you were in town. I'm Pong."
"Nice to meet you, Pong," the Airbender replied, apparently cheered up somewhat by this now-refreshing display of genuineness. "So, Pong, what's goin' on with this city?" Sokka struck up a practical course of conversation, apparently hopeful that they may actually be able to get some information out this guy. "Why is everyone here so scared to talk about the war?"
"War? Scared?" Pong asked, quite obviously shaking with nervousness. "What do you mean?" Frustrated with the wall being put up just as they were on the verge of learning something important, the master Earthbender pointed out what she felt was obvious, and told him that she could feel him shaking in a tone which failed to completely mask her annoyance. The less false pretenses we have, the better, she thought with satisfaction. "Look, I'm just a minor government official," he finally answered, trying to be straightforward while avoiding the danger of whatever was making him so nervous. He could then be felt tilting his body back and forth, as if he was trying to confirm that no one else was around, before he went on, "I've waited three years to get this house. I don't want to get into trouble."
"Get in trouble with who?!" The Waterbender girl asked with confusion in her voice. "Shh..." Pong tried to cut her off, holding a finger to his lips "Listen. You can't mention the War here." That can't be good... He went on in a hushed tone, "And whatever you do, stay away from the Dai Li." At this, he abruptly closed the door on them, obviously finding it too great a risk to continue the conversation any longer. Her friends could only stare at each other in confusion at this turn of events, while Toph simply let her head incline towards the ground, hating the fact that her premonitions were turning out so right. They walked back across the street to their house in silence, the Earthbending master dropping herself back down on one of the cushions beside Sokka, Katara and Aang situating themselves on the side opposite their own, waiting for the waiter Joo Dee said would bring food over for them to arrive so that they could have dinner. The Airbender was the first to break the silence, with a load groan. "I can't believe that no one's seen Appa...I was so sure we'd find him here waiting for us somewhere."
"I know," Sokka complained in a whiny voice, "And the Earth King won't meet with us, either. It's like we came all this way for nothing!" Katara tried reassuring the two boys with the optimistic idea that things might work out better for them tomorrow, but Toph cut her off mid-explanation by saying, "No, it'll be like this as long as we stay here." Katara paused before responding to this, obviously startled by the assurance in Toph's statement, and then asked her, "What makes you think that, Toph?" Sighing loudly, Toph then went on to explain to the whole group that her parents had taken her to Ba Sing Se once before, and that the city was always like this. In fact, it might have actually gotten worse since the last time she was here. "This thing about not mentioning the War is new, though," Toph admitted, wracking her brains for any indication that to the contrary. Unfortunately, her parents had never talked much about the War around her "delicate ears" in the first place, so she couldn't place this very easily. Right as she was explaining this, the group heard a knock at the door, and Toph's friends nearly jumped out of their seats when they realize their discussion of the War might have been overheard.
"Relax," Toph reassured her friends, standing up to confirm what she had suspected by placing her feet firmly against the ground. "It's just the waiter Joo Dee sent over." As the three all sighed with relief, Katara walked over to the door to let their waiter in. He bowed after she did so, saying there was no need for her to pay him this courtesy; she offered to help set up dinner for her family, but he raised a hand up between the two of them, proceeding to reassure her that he was there to serve them, and that she could simply enjoy the meal with everyone else. Hesitating for a second, the Waterbender finally relented, and went back to her seat beside Aang.
Once he finished and had left the building, Katara finally voiced her misgivings to the rest of the group, "Isn't it a bit strange that we're being treated so well, though?" Aang nodded in agreement, before he continued her question," Yeah, you'd think that if they were trying to be nice to us, they'd help us find Appa and complete our mission with the Earth King...?" By the silence which hung in the air for the next couple of second before she broke it, the Earthbending master could tell that statement had been aimed at her. "Like I told Sokka this morning," she began, waiting a second when she felt the two turn to stare at Sokka before looking back at her, "I think the city officials are trying to bribe us into keeping quiet about our mission here." She could almost picture the surprise on their faces by the vibrations they gave off in reaction to that statement. "And I'm pretty sure that Joo Dee was signaling the shop-owner and the student to keep quiet. Even if I'm wrong, I don't think we can trust the "kindness" they show us. Something about it felt wrong even the last time I was here . . . and now my feet tell me it's definitely worse."
As no one was really in the mood to eat after these revelations (except Sokka, who still ate less than usual), the group left their dinner half-eaten before they decided to turn in for the night, Katara taking the lead in deciding who would sleep where. Exhausted by the sheer depressingness of their day, Toph wasn't really in the mood to challenge "Miss Bossiness" at the moment, so she opted to simply pull the blanket off of the bed after Katara left to give a sense of homeliness to sleeping on the stone floor. Trying to edge out thoughts of her first stay in the city, Toph resolved to try and plan out strategy for getting around their handler the next day, but the warmth and comforting earthiness of the stone floor, with the aid of the blanket, quickly sent her drifting off to sleep.
Day 2, Part 1
She awoke the next day to the pleasant sound of bird chirping outside of her window. Stretching and yawning rather loudly to wake herself up, the Earthbender soon realized that her stomach felt rather empty (having not been filled very well the night before). She quickly ambled out of her room, intending to remedy this situation, and quickly swiped a dish off of the table in the middle of the room, stacked with pastries from the night before. Stretching herself back out on a couple of cushions on the upper part of the living room, she simply relaxed as she waited for everyone else to wake up for the morning, preferring to just nap or eat rather than say anything to them when they eventually did. No offense to you guys, but sometimes an Earthbender's got to have her essentials...
Oddly enough, Katara was the last one of the group to finally get up for the day (perhaps because she had been the most unsettled by the revelations of the night before, Toph thought with a small self-affirmative mental nod). Seeming still a little dreary, the other girl paid little attention to her house-mates as she made her way to the door; once she was out there, however, all sleep was quickly lost in a single gasp filled with what was clearly excitement (as one could certainly tell from the way she ran back into the house)."I got it! I know how we're going to see the Earth King!" the Waterbender exclaimed, happily. "How are we supposed to do that?" Toph couldn't help but skeptically inquire, Katara's words having gotten her attention. With annoyance, Toph recalled how Joo Dee had handled them the day before, and attempted to shed her frustration by mimicking Joo Dee's expression as best as she could from the mere sound of her words, "One doesn't just pop in on the Earth King!" Obviously understanding the source of this skepticism, Katara went on to explain, "The king is having a party tonight for his pet bear."
Wait...bear??? Toph's thoughts stalled in confusion. Oh, wait..Katara's probably just giving us shorthand for what it says on the scroll, she reasoned, only half-overhearing Aang's simultaneous question as to whether the Water Tribe girl had really meant a platypus bear. Katara corrected Toph's thoughts and his question by informing them that it just said, "bear". This got her brother to raise his head up off of where he had been lying upside down on the ground, as he re-corrected her with assurance, "Certainly you mean his pet skunk bear." The Earthbending master offered the idea of it being an armadillo bear, as she saw both possibilities as being equally likely. Aang even questioned whether it was a gopher bear, something the blind Earthbender was pretty sure had died out around a century ago. Katara sounded as if she was also confused when she slowly answered, "Just ... bear." Toph could only chalk this up to the sheer oddity of Ba Sing Se, commenting on this to her friends as an explanation of sorts. Sokka is sounding pretty smart right now, with the way things are turning out in this city...
Katara paused for a moment, before excitedly returning to her plan, "The palace will be packed. We can sneak in with the crowd!" Oh, you ignorant peasant...Toph thought sadly as she heard those words, lying down to ease some of her disgust with the situation, curtly informing her Waterbending friend that her plan wouldn't work as she did so. "Why not?" Katara asked with confusion in her tone, probably wondering why Toph would be an authority on such matters, given her lifelong seclusion and all. "Well," Toph began, silently groaning at the reality that this had to be done at all, "No offense to you simple country folk, but a real society crowd will spot you a mile away. You've got no manners!" If Aang hadn't been the Avatar, you never would have gotten past the front gate, no matter how important your business was... she thought as she plucked one of the pastries from the bowl sitting beside her and roughly shoved it into her own mouth.
"Excuse me? I've got no manners!?" Katara asked loudly with an insulted tone in her voice. "You're not exactly 'Lady Fancy Fingers'!" Smirking inwardly at how badly she was able to present herself despite everything, the blind Earthbender forced a burp to emphasize her next point before continuing. "I learned proper society behavior and chose to leave it." Having already burped on the rest of her pastry, she made the call that she no longer wanted to eat it and tossed it to the side. She half-consciously began picking her nose to relieve the disgust in her stomach at having been forced to be "a perfect lady", "You never learned anything. And frankly, it's a little too late," ending by flicking her snot off her fingers into the abyss of the open air.
Sokka, lifting his head off the floor, suddenly exclaimed with excitement, "Aha, but you learned it! You could teach us!" Aang, by way of agreement with him, pointed out that he already had to master all the elements, and that manners should be easy in comparison. To prove his point, the Airbender grabbed a nearby curtain and curled it around himself to mimic a noble's robe, and began talking to everyone in the room in an overly-sophisticated manner which she couldn't help but roll her eyes at. The Water Tribe Warrior soon joined him, pulling a curtain seemingly out of nowhere, and soon the two boys were engaged in a ridiculous bowing contest which would get them throne out of any society party as an obvious mockery.
Exasperated when the two finally knocked into each other's foreheads, Toph rose from the pillows she had been reclining on and walked over to where Katara was standing, contemplating her options. Deciding that the Water Tribe girl had at least some semblance of propriety, she spoke down to the two incorrigible peasants, stating what would be obvious to anyone brought up as she had been, " Katara might be able to pull it off, but you two would be lucky to pass as busboys!" Sokka muttered something about "feeling fancy", followed soon afterward by a squishy sound (probably the snot she had flicked onto the ceiling, Toph realized with a satisfied smirk). Waving vaguely in Katara's general direction, Toph headed down the steps and out the door, leaving the boys to their own devices. Katara followed her out, and the two of them waited five minutes before a carriage showed up. Under normal circumstances, she would have found the convenience of its arrival rather suspicious, but at the moment she was too focused on figuring out the best way to instruct Katara in proper manners before the Earth King's party later that day to pay it much mind. The Waterbender, having picked up on her team mate's intentions, asked the driver to take the two of them to whatever store sold the best formal wear for Upper Ring ladies. The driver paused, giving Toph the uncomfortable feeling that she was being looked over and subsequently judged as sub-par, before he finally told them that he would take them to what was apparently the center of Earth Kingdom fashion (the name of which Toph didn't bother to remember), even if he wasn't quite sure why they'd want to go there.
After semi-circling the Upper Ring and then circling the Middle Ring for an hour, the two girls finally made it to the "fashion center" described by their driver; apparently, he had a bit of trouble finding it despite its supposed fame, having had no reason to visit it himself. Toph slowly climbed out of her seat opposite Katara, and informed her as soon as her feet hit the solid pavement that as much as she herself wouldn't like it, they would probably would be in the building for several hours. Upon hearing this, the Water Tribe peasant girl turned back to the driver as if to inform him of their plans, but Toph pull at her sleeve before she could do so, and informed her, "A noble lady does not talk to one of lower rank without need, and only at her own pleasure." Katara seemed stunned by this direction, so the nobleman's daughter continued, "Besides, he's already overheard what I said to you, so there's no risk of him driving off." Katara nodded slowly, apparently to take the odd new standard in, and followed Toph into the building.
Bottling up her disgust at the training her parents forced her through as she did so, Toph tried to manage a dignified strut as she lead the Water Tribe girl over to the front counter. Spotting the two of them, the middle class merchant (who had managed to become quite wealthy off of his wares, just judging by the weight of his clothing) met them at the counter, asking, "And what can I do for you two fine ladies this morning?" Toph couldn't resist rolling her eyes at this obvious sleazy attempt to squeeze as much money out of them as possible. Pulling out her family document from where she had it stashed on her person before she left the house, she presented it to his face. "My name is Toph Beifong. My servant girl and I need to leave here as the most fashionable ladies in Ba Sing Se," she announced their intentions with an air of laziness in her voice, then went on in a snobbish tone, "if that's not too difficult for you." This seemed to have the intended effect on the merchant, as he hurried on to the back of the store presumably to get a selection of kimonos for them, with what sounded like gold necklaces clanking against his chest as he did so. (However, he did pause for a second before doing so, to do what Toph could only understand as giving them the once-over to assure himself that they were indeed connected to the nobility, as their current appearances seemed to heavily indicate otherwise.)
After a couple of minutes, the merchant returned with several kimonos weighing down his arms, and placed them on the counter-top for them to look through. "Ooh," Katara suddenly exclaimed," this kimono is gorgeous! What do you think, Toph?" The Water Tribe girl asked the blind Earthbender, earning the peasant a roll of Toph's eyes. "Gee, I don't know, Katara..." she started, "I'm not sure if that shade of lightlessness is your color." Katara did what felt like a double-take, and then apologized profusely, "I'm so sorry, Toph. I was all wrapped in being a real lady. I guess I forgot." Toph raised her hand up between them to cut her off from continuing, telling her it was fine; however, Katara was insistent in making it up to her and laid the kimono back down on the counter right next her, and guided Toph's right hand over it while lightly grasping her wrist.
Hmm...she's right, Toph thought as she ran her hand over the silken material. This feels pretty, at any rate..."What does it look like, Katara?" She finally asked, figuring she had better find out whether it conformed to the social standards she had reluctantly learned from her mother before they purchased it. Katara paused for a few seconds before she answered, most likely to try to figure out how to describe it in a way Toph would understand (Oh, the eternal dilemma...). "It...It looks like the feeling of putting your feet in a cool spring on a hot day." The blind Earthbender nodded slowly as she took this information in, pondering whether this was up to par or not. Finally deciding that something apparently so visually stunning ought to at least be decent attire for women of nobility, she nodded firmly and gave Katara the thumbs up, saying, "It should look really nice on you." Giving her companion an unladylike giggle of glee, Katara abruptly pulled her over to yet another kimono, exclaiming happily, "And here's one in your size!" Caught a bit off balance by her friend's sudden rush of feelingness, Toph stuttered, "Uh-h-h, you sure, Katara?", knowing that they were earning stares from the people around them due to the Waterbender's current lack of grace (and, speaking frankly, feeling like she herself was out of place in a store like this to begin with). "Of course!" Katara went on, "Well, it's a slightly lighter shade, but that just makes your eyes pop!" Toph wasn't sure whether she wanted her eyes to have any more problems than they already did, Katara's reassurances that this was a good thing aside. On Katara's insistence, however, she held it up to her body, and apparently it would it made her look like quite the fine young lady, if her Waterbending friend's words could be trusted (and she had no reason to doubt them as of yet, though she found the merchant's more flowery words somewhat suspect).
Not wanting to purchase the first thing she laid her fingers upon, Toph and Katara rummaged through the rest of the kimonos for an hour or two to see if any were to their liking (the Beifong name allowing them to take precedence of any other customers), ultimately deciding that they would just try on the original kimonos they had selected and purchase them so long as they fit. The merchant pointed out the direction of the changing room to Katara, Toph followed her lead until they separated out into different stalls. Having been told that the kimono was to be purchased with a headdress (which Katara had described to her), Toph removed her headband, and slowly undid her hairbun, letting her long hair hang freely after she ran her hands through it for a while to straighten out the tangles which inevitably crept up in it and Earthbending as much dirt out of it as she could. Unclipping her studded belt and setting it aside, the blind Earthbender then easily unfastened her loose outer tunic, but was only able to strip off the sleeved inner tunic with some difficulty. Feeling a bit cold in her undergarments despite the warm spring weather, she quickly wrapped her potential kimono around her body, adjusting it so that it fit her body more snugly. It actually fit quite nicely. Picking up the fans which came with the dress for dramatic effect (even though no one was watching), she waved them back and forth slightly, reminding herself of another girl that she had recently met, which made her quite pleased with herself. She exited the room to find Katara waiting outside for her, greeted by the Waterbender's exclamation, "Toph, that looks so cute on you!" She sincerely hoped that the warmth that suddenly rose to her cheeks had no visual correlate.
Nodding to each other to indicate their mutual satisfaction with their potential purchases, the two girls quickly went back into their stalls and changed back into their street clothing (though Toph felt too lazy to bother tying up her hairbun again when she'd just have to redo it after they had returned home, and simply carried her headband in her hands), and walked back up to the merchant and placed their kimonos on the counter. "Well, these rags will have to do," Toph said in a snobbish tone, indicating their satisfaction with the purchase without loosing face to the merchant. "Coming from the noblest family in the southern Earth Kingdom, surely you've the means to provide me my due for the kimonos," the merchant stated with a questioning tone, pausing seemingly to look them over once more before continuing, "though it would seem by your current attire that you don't have any money on you." Toph felt like palming herself in the face for forgetting a detail like this, but thought quickly and smirked as an idea suddenly came to her. "Put it on the credit of our handler Joo Dee. My parents arranged for the payment of all my expenses through the guardian I was assign upon entering the capital." Seeming satisfied, the merchant folded the kimonos they picked out, and handed the dresses back over to them, along with the headdresses which went with each dress. Carrying the kimonos they had picked out for each other, the two headed back out to their carriage, the blind Earthbender feeling the side-long glance the other girl gave her when she saw that the carriage was indeed still there. The guard seemed to do a double-take after he first spotted them; from what Toph could tell, apparently he hadn't recognized her at first, which made her question his intelligence.
They arrived back home about an hour later, to find that the boys had been keeping themselves busy playing what was apparently the Four Elements card game, judging by the words they exchanged with one another as the girls entered back through the door-way. Apparently having heard them coming in, the Airbender moved as if he was looking up at the two of them, and then did a double-take before asking in a bewildered voice, "Where did you get so much hair, Sifu Toph?"
"It's always been this long, Twinkle-Toes," Toph answered back, rolling her eyes at him. Apparently, Aang's comment caused Sokka to look up at Toph also, as he continued the Airbender's line of questioning, "Really? How come we've never seen it like this before, then? Hmm?" Toph, her brow beginning to prickle with irritation at the weird interrogation about her hair, shot back at him, "It messes up my Earthbending if I keep it down like this, you idiots." Seriously, what is it with people and me having my hair down? Toph thought with annoyance, shaking herself internally to get rid of the thought. "Me and Katara are going to prepare for the party in the backroom. Don't bug us if you want your heads to stay attached to your necks." That ought to shut them up, she thought with satisfaction. Secretly, though, she kind of liked the fact that Sokka had noticed her hair after thinking about it for a couple of seconds, but she wasn't about to explain the grin that briefly crossed her face to anyone.The Waterbender quickly followed her into the back room, and the two of them stripped their street clothes back off, with their backs to each other for some semblance of privacy. The blind Earthbender quickly wrapped her kimono back around herself, and, setting aside her usual headband, picked up the more ornate headdress(complete with a huge carnation-like flower, which Toph could only assume was for visual purposes, as it gave off no detectable smell), and began weaving her hair through it by muscle memory. Turning around, she suddenly realized that Katara was now looking at her, and was apparently a bit stunned at what was going on before her eyes. "What, Katara?" she asked impatiently, wanting to get this day done and over with. "Nothing, Toph..." the other girl began, apparently pausing to gather her thoughts. "I just never pegged you as one who knew anything about fashionable hair-styles." The master Earthbender sighed, now understanding what she had been so stunned about. "Believe me, I don't know how to work these things by any choice of my own," she answered her friend's unspoken questioned, pointing upward at the ornament which now stood firmly in place, leaving the rest to Katara's deductive skills. Realizing that Katara still had her own headdress in her hands, Toph walked over to her and yanked it out of the Waterbender's hands, thinking everything would go quicker if she just did it for her. Also, it gave her an excuse to boss the older girl around for a while, even if everything she instructed her to do would be related to making her intend a proper lady rather than anything more fun.
"Conversation is not to speak continually, but listen and only speak in our turn," she rattled off the rules she had been forced to memorize by rote as a young child. Katara's hair, being a bit coarser than she was used to handling, so she had to yank on it a bit to fit it through the loom, earning several sharp repetitions of the word "Ow!" from the Waterbender sprinkled intermittently throughout the conversation. "And when one does talk, one must speak with proper comportment, but not stand out too distinctly in any conversation. A noble lady will always speak in a distinct but subdued tone." Really, the rules of proper etiquette had been relatively easy to memorize, once she realized that they would always require her to act opposite to her own preferences. "Intelligence is not to be encouraged in a proper lady, nor is any interest in current politics." At this, the Water Tribe girl tried to speak out, but Toph intentionally yanked harder on her hair in order to muffle her. "Look, I know it's no fun, Katara, but you're going to have to put up with it for the rest of the night."
After five minutes, she finally managed to weave Katara's coarse Water Tribe hair through the headdress properly, and then stepped back to check the echoes of her work. Satisfied, she contemplated what they ought to do next to prepare for an upper-class party, then groaned as she realized what they'd have to do next. Her mother and servant had tried to help her learn this as well, but without working eyes she could never distinguish the right colors to use, even if she put it on properly otherwise. "What is it, Toph?" Her girl friend asked, obviously wondering what caused her to suddenly groan like that, with a touch of motherliness in her voice. "Katara...You're going to have to make-up my face for me," she answered awkwardly. After a few moments of confusion, however, Katara realized what the problem was with an "Oh!" and dove in to the task quite cheerily, barely giving Toph due time to wash off her face first. Pausing every few seconds to question the sighted girl about her make-up to make sure that she was doing it according to the standard her mother had taught her, Toph returned to instructing her friend in proper etiquette, though she had to clamp up her trap for a while towards the end so that the Waterbender could apply what she said was light pink lipstick (which, if the Earthbender remembered the words her mother's servants correctly, was the best shade for her) to the skin of her mouth properly. Once her face was properly made-up (so far as one could tell from where she stood, anyways), she backed away from the Water Tribe girl to allow her to make-up her own face, giving her pointers on how to carry her body properly as a noble lady every few minutes. (Katara didn't quite like what Toph seemed to be implying when she lectured about the rule about not being too liberal with one's feminine charm, but "To be fair is fair", as Toph's mother would say.) Once Katara informed Toph that she was finished with her own face, both took a few minutes to make sure that their kimonos were wrapped around them properly, and then the master Earthbender spent another hour going over the rules of etiquette again with Katara. (In particular, she seemed to find the rules about "saving face" to be confusing, which was a crying shame, because these rules were among the few that Toph had occasionally found useful whenever she wanted to avoid giving a straight answer about her doings outside of the home when she still lived with her parents.)
Finally finished, the two primped-up girls walked towards the door to the backroom and each opened one side of the double door. As instructed, Katara stood there at an angle silently waiting for the boys to notice her, holding up a fan in front of the upper half of her body to draw attention to herself; Toph herself attempted (this went quite against the grain) to hold her gaze above the fan covering her mouth and look out upon her male audience in a demure, but alluring fashion (she wasn't quite sure how good she was at accomplishing this). Aware when the boys shifted their gazes from whatever they had been doing to the two of them, the blind Earthbender and the Water Tribe girl continued to stare calmly in their direction, but were quickly unable to take the non sequitur any longer and fell into a brief fit of giggles at the ludicrousness of their being proper ladies. (At least, that's what was running through Toph's mind at the moment.) Even from across the room, the master Earthbender could feel the Avatar's heartbeat speed up, increasing her suspicions that there was definitely something going on between those two.
"Wow, you look beautiful," Aang finally said in a stunned tone after staring in the direction of Katara for several seconds, earning him a flick in the forehead from Sokka. For a reason she couldn't quite pin down, the situation caused Toph to feel quite annoyed, and she deliberately placed her fans in the way of Katara's mouth before she could reply to Aang's compliment. "Don't talk to the commoners, Katara," she instructed the other girl, finding this the best way to explain her action, "First rule of society." Which was for the most part. Especially when one felt snubbed - not that that had anything to do with anything. As directed, Katara followed Toph to the door in silence, only turning back around briefly to inform the boys that they'd find a way to let the two of them in through the side gate after they'd gotten into the party.
Day 2, Part 2
Stepping outside, they waited around ten minutes for a carriage to arrive, only for one to never show up. Frustratingly, then, the two of them had to walk over to the Earth King's palace, which, despite being not being all that far away in the Upper Ring, unfortunately took what seemed to be quite a long time when fully dressed up, much to Toph's ire. Upon approaching the palace, Toph easily picked out the entrance by the large mass of vibrations coming from a certain location, indicating that there was probably a check-in line right outside the doorway, and pointed it out to Katara. Luckily, the Earthbending master had come prepared for such a situation, having figured that they had been informed of the Earth King's party simply because they were the residents of an Upper Ring building and weren't actually intended to know, and told Katara that she would handle the door-man as they got in line.
"Invitation, please," the guard asked them when they finally made their way up to him, in a firm tone which did not allow for questioning. "I think this will do," Toph replied formally, with self-assurance in her voice. It usually did. "No entry without an invitation," The guard replied, sounding unimpressed. "Step out of line, please." This left Toph flabbergasted.
"Look, the Pangs and the Yum Soon Hans are waiting in there for us!" Toph replied, irritated that the Beifong name didn't hold as much sway as she had thought and that all her efforts to mold Katara would now go unrewarded. "I'm going to have to tell them who didn't let me in." Hopefully, he wouldn't realize that her family's friends from the southern Earth Kingdom were no more in the party at the moment than they were. "Step out of line please," The guard replied, not even flinching at the possibility, and shifted his weight slightly to point to the side. Unable to do anything about it, the two disguised girls shuffled along as directed, Toph feeling quite disappointed with the realization that her family was perhaps not quite as influential as she once thought they were.
Suddenly, she felt Katara's heart-rate suddenly speed up and then gradually slow back down to normal, and so she angled her feet in the direction Katara seemed to be looking. Sure enough, there stood two Dai Li agents, who were apparently bowing to the figure who was climbing out of the carriage which had just arrived. Picking up on Katara's train of thought, she followed the disguised Water Tribe peasant over to what appeared to be the leader of the Dai Li. "Sir, I'm sorry to bother you, but my cousin lost our invitations," Katara began pleading with him in a polite tone. Eh??? She lowered her voice to a whisper as she stated simply, "She's blind." Ah...Good call, Katara. "Our family's inside and I'm sure they're very worried."
The leader of the Dai Li seemed to pause for a second, before making up his mind and suavely saying with a small bow, " I am honored." He then turned slightly towards the guard and indicated, "Please come with me." Walking back over with him, they held their breath briefly with expectation until the guard inclined his head before him, and let them pass on into the palace. Before they had walked far beyond him, however, Toph couldn't help but turn around and loudly stuck out her tongue in defiance of him; somewhat to her surprise, Katara also appeared to have had the same idea.
They followed the leader of the Dai Li down the long entry hall into the dining room, where the King's bear's party had apparently long since started, judging by the presence of the bear at the table which Toph immediately noticed upon entering into the doorway. Huh...so it is just a bear...Weird. Ignoring the noise of a squabble between two guests sitting near the bear, the Earthbender felt around the room with Seismic Sense but was unable to detect the Earth King anywhere, only seeing the usual overdressed, stuck-up snobs who typically gathered at these affairs scattered throughout the room. (Apparently, they felt the presence of the bear at the table was beneath their dignity, even if it was the King's.) "It's beautiful, isn't it?" The leader of the Dai Li commented on their surroundings. Not exactly what I would call it, but who cares what I think. Shifting his weight in the two girls' direction, he went on to introduce himself to Katara (apparently assuming Toph was under her watch), "By the way, I'm Long Feng. I'm a cultural minister to the king." Having memorized the rules of etiquette from Toph earlier that day, Katara quickly realized that she definitely ought to introduce herself when already introduced to by "her betters", and apparently came up with aliases for the two of them on the spot. "I'm Kwan Mei," Katara introduced herself, "And this is...Dong." I'm lewd?!! Toph thought with a spike of anger crossing her brow, frowning and yanking on a string hanging from Katara's headdress, rewarding her with a pained "Ow!" Serves you right for giving yourself the better name, O' Mysterious Beauty. The nobleman's daughter thought with a satisfied smirk.
"Now, where is your family?" Long Feng asked the two of them. "I'd love to meet them." For an unfathomable reason, the odd way he emphasized the word "love" secretly made the hairs on the back of Toph's neck stand up. Luckily, Katara was apparently almost as good as thinking on her feet as the blind Earthbender considered herself to be, and feigned looking around for their imaginary family before telling them that although she couldn't spot them right now, she was sure they'd find them soon and thanked him for all his help. The two girls walked away from him into the dining room, nominally to find their partying family but in reality trying to get within speaking distance of the Earth King, but Long Feng stepped back in front of them before they really got anywhere, and told them in a charming voice, "Don't worry, as your escort it would be dishonorable to abandon you ladies without finding your family first. We'll keep looking." He then turned around again to lead the girls in search of their supposed noble family, Toph feeling Katara's eyes nervously glancing down at her as if to ask what they ought to do. Unfortunately, proper etiquette would not allow them to turn down the gentleman's (rather forceful) offer of assistance, and so she simply lead the Water Tribe girl in following the leader of the Dai Li, knowing they would otherwise risk destroying their disguise as upper class ladies (especially since she was beginning to suspect that Long Feng may have already found them out).
They proceeded to wander aimlessly around the room for several minutes, during which the leader of the Dai Li could only have gotten more and more suspicious of them, if indeed he didn't see through them already. (He did seem to be an Earthbender, after all, judging by his soleless shoes.) Just as Toph was beginning to get worried that Long Feng would resort to throwing them out of the party, she felt vibrations deftly spreading out from across the room, accompanied by firm vibrations which she had also begun to distinctly recognize. Twinkle-Toes! And Sokka! She was cheered by the thought, and began to slowly creep away from their self-declared escort while his back was turned. As she walked slowly towards them through the crowd, she noticed that both of them seemed like they were holding themselves up under greater weight than usual, and suddenly realized that they had disguised themselves as busboys. Well, what do you know...They did get lucky after all. She thought with a chuckle, and at that moment decided to play a trick on Sokka to get rid of some of her discomfort with her disguise as noble lady, only half-conscious of Katara's distant voice trying to explain to Long Feng that her cousin was starving and had to walk off to get something to eat."Another crab puff, please," Toph ordered Sokka in a fancy, aristocratic tone as she stepped within earshot. Apparently he had his eyes closed or something, because he simply leaned in and offered her the plate to take a crab puff from. Oh, I am good! She smirked to herself, feeling somewhat flattered by the opinion Sokka was probably holding of her right now because of his total obliviousness to who. Of course, the Avatar made sure that wouldn't last long. "You found us!" he exclaimed in surprise, obviously happy to see her.
"I'd know your little footsteps anywhere, Twinkle-Toes," she replied with good humour. At that moment, Katara finally caught up with her (Aang's increased heart upon her doing so further confirming what she was already guessing to be the case), and Sokka finally recognized who was standing in front of him (probably because the use of "Twinkle-Toes" tipped him off). "Thanks for letting us in!" Sokka sarcastically retorted to his sister, apparently exempting Toph from the blame. Katara apologized, and quickly explained that that their escort wouldn't let them out of his sight. Her brother paused for a second, probably to look around, only to finally ask in a slightly confused tone, "What guy?"
Suddenly, Toph became aware that Long Feng had not been in close pursuit of Katara after she walked over to where the boys and Toph stood. Along with everyone else, she began feeling around to see if she could detect him anywhere, when Joo Dee abruptly appeared within the range of her Seismic Sense (which, admittedly, was somewhat smaller in such a packed room) and began walking over to them. Crap! I knew shouldn't have put these dresses on Joo Dee's tab! " What are you doing here?" Their handler asked nervously, in a more condemning tone than was her norm, "You have to leave immediately, or we will be in terrible trouble." Meaning business, Joo Dee tried to push Sokka towards the door, but he blocked her with his tray.
"Not until we see the king," Sokka refused, hardly going to give up once they'd come this far. "You don't understand. You must go," Joo Dee instructed even more firmly, shoving hard against Sokka's tray. Fortunately for them, she accidentally caused Sokka to topple into Aang, and Aang to spill the water from the pitcher he was carrying onto a female guest; in an attempt to prevent the afflicted guest from shouting, Aang shifted his body weight and raised one foot off the ground, followed by gusts of air which were obviously supposed to dry off her clothes. This made the guest to cry out in amazement at the fact that the Avatar was at the Earth King's party, causing the rest of the guests to turn their attention on the young Airbender, much to Joo Dee's great dismay. Guessing that the panicky vibrations of dread emanating from Joo Dee meant she would be distracted, Toph pull softly but noticeably on Katara's sleeve, and the Waterbender followed her as they slipped away into the crowd, out of their handler's sight. (Or so Toph hoped, anyways, not really understanding the limitations on the range of sighted people's vision with much precision.)
Turning away from the noisy display the Avatar was making to keep the bear and the guests occupied, Toph and Katara began to search the room in earnest, now that they no longer had Long Feng or Joo Dee slowing them up. Unfortunately, several minutes went by and their search was still fruitless as of yet, until she suddenly noticed four guards carrying a palanquin in through the entry hall. That has to be the Earth King! She thought excitedly, judging by his apparent greater importance than the ordinary nobles in the room. She motioned to Katara and the two of them slowly tried to sneak their way over to His Majesty, while still keeping a foot out for Joo Dee and Long Feng. Off in the distance, she heard Sokka calling out loudly, apparently announcing a similar plan to Aang. This was quickly followed by a swift buzzing Aang had told her was called "an air scooter" (for whatever reason), and the sound of plates clattering against the table, followed by the Avatar's simple greeting to the Earth King as he whizzed a long towards him, "Greetings, Your Majesty."
The two girls separated off from one another, figuring that they'd be harder to spot that way, and could therefore get to the Earth King more easily. Feeling around for the best way to maneuver around the crowd to get to her quarry, she was caught completely off her guard when she suddenly felt a cold, stony-hard hand clamp herself over her mouth, her heart racing when a second appendage clamped itself onto her waist right afterwards, her yelp muffled as the rock hands pull her backwards off her feet within a split second of her first feeling their eerily cold weight . A moment later, she fell flat on her back, her eyes staring uselessly up at what appeared to be a Dai Li agent standing watch over her, joined shortly thereafter by her Waterbending friend. She silently cursed herself for not having been more aware of her surroundings, although in reality there was no way she could have known how cunningly the Dai Li agents operated.
"Get up," The agent guarding them curtly told them in a low but commanding tone." Head over to the library, if you care for the safety of your non-bending friend." Sokka!?! The two girls sprung up quickly upon hearing that, and followed the agent over to the library without a murmur of dissent. There they found the Water Tribe warrior safe but under the heavy watch of a stern-seeming Dai Li agent, whose bulk alone was rather imposing. They shuffled up alongside him and waited there in silence, warmed by the fireplace (which seemed to have some sort of burning crystals at its center, from what Toph could tell), while the Dai Li agent who had brought them into the room took his position beside the bulky man guarding Sokka. Through the door, she was able to hear the sound of Long Feng's suave voice informing Aang of his name and position as the Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se, and then inviting him to join them in the library.
Upon entering into the room, the Airbender could be felt jolting with surprise, mostly like at the fact that his friends were being kept under armed (in a sense) guard. As he cautiously joined their ranks, Long Feng order the two Dai Li agents to exit the room, presumably so that they could speak more freely, and sat down in a chair a little ways across the room from them. Sokka, boarish as ever, jumped right into conversation with Long Feng in an accusing tone, "Why won't you let us talk to the king! We have information that could defeat the Fire Nation!"
"The Earth King has no time to get involved with political squabble and the day-to-day minutia of military activities," The Grand Secretariat shut him down immediately. Aang pleaded with him, saying that this could be the most important thing the king has ever heard. "What's most important to his Royal Majesty is maintaining the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se." The leader of the Dai Li again cut them off. "All his duties relate to issuing decrees on such matters. It's my job to oversee the rest of the city's resources, including the military." Taking a few moments to take this in, Toph's forehead began boiling with rage and frustration as she processed the information, and barely hearing Katara's simultaneous surprised realization that the king was just a figurehead as a result. "He's your puppet!" Toph accused the Grand Secretariat angrily, leaning forward to project her full ire in his face. I can't believe this ... Even the Earth King is kept under someone else's thumb...What is wrong with this country!?!
"Oh, no, no," Long Feng said in his most charming voice, which was beginning to become a tip-off as to the degree of deceptiveness in his speech. "His Majesty is an icon, a god to his people. He can't sully his hand with the hourly change of an endless war." "But we found out about a solar eclipse that will leave the Fire Nation defenseless. You could lead an invasion..." Sokka began, but was abruptly cut off by Long Feng standing up and loudly saying "Enough", the echoes returning from him through the ground indicating he was quite annoyed. "I don't want to hear your ridiculous plan." He explained, denouncing Sokka's idea as mere folly. He went on to describe the state of the capital city, as if it were the only true solution to the horrors of war so recently at Ba Sing Se's doorstep. "It is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se that the War not be mentioned within the walls. Constant news of an escalating war will throw the citizens of Ba Sing Se into a panic." He paused for a moment, seemingly to formulate his thoughts, and then went on. "Our economy would be ruined. Our peaceful way of life, our traditions would disappear." Another pause. "In silencing talk of conflict, Ba Sing Se remains a peaceful, orderly utopia. The last one on Earth." Toph felt sick to her stomach as she heard this, any innocence that may have been felt from "the big city" during her first stay being abruptly stripped away. I mean, I knew Ba Sing Se was bad, but...I had no idea it was this awful. In a single horrifying moment, she suddenly realized exactly why Joo Dee (immediately) and Long Feng (rather quickly) had unnerved her so much. At least my feet haven't betrayed me. This gave her a minimal sense of security, which she hung onto all the more tightly for its smallness.
A heavy, frighteningly morose silence hung over the group for what felt like eternity, Toph's mind so stunned and so thrown into chaos by the impact of this revelation that it took all she had to continue using Seismic Sense to grasp the world around, let alone understand what anyone else was feeling. This shadow darkened her thoughts, until finally Katara was brave enough to break the silence, "You can't keep the truth from all these people. They have to know." Emboldened by his Water Tribe friend and possible love interest, the Avatar stepped forward and pointed his finger at the source of the problem as he announced like a true hero, "I'll tell them! I'll make sure everyone knows!"
"Until now, you've been treated as our honored guest," the Grand Secretariat informed them in his most threatening of deceptively charming tones. He stepped forward, and bent down (probably to look Aang the eyes threateningly) as he revealed to them the precariousness of their situation "But from now on, you will be watched every moment by Dai Li agents. If you mention the War to anyone, you will be expelled from the city." Having made his point, the leader of the Dai Li walked over to the hearth in which crystals slowly burnt. "I understand you've been looking for your bison," he commented, almost as if it were a side-note, and then turned slightly towards Aang. "It would be quite a shame if you were not able to complete your quest." She could feel Aang quaking with fear immediately after he made this statement, vaguely reminding her of a similar situation she never fully understood earlier in her life, but his heart soon changed its beating pattern, as the emotions Toph was able to detect transformed from fear into anger, at the dystopian capital in general and more specifically the man in charge of it. Having made his point to the children, Long Feng sat back down upon his chair, and then abruptly, the door to the library opened and a middle-aged woman walked in towards the group. "Now, Joo Dee will show you to your home."
The master Earthbender turned to face the woman, only to be surprised by the pattern of the vibrations which returned to her after that movement. That's . . . that's not... Toph stuttered even in thought, feeling as if the eeriness of the Earth Kingdom's capital had finally reached its nadir. Though the woman in front of them was roughly the same age as the tour guide that had been accompanying them all yesterday, and her clothes were certainly the same if one went by their basic weight distribution, Toph's feet told her that she was of a distinctly different build than before, even though that made little sense. "Come with me, please," The woman said, bowing before them. That settles it... our Joo Dee's voice is not that deep! She realized with a jolt, Katara simultaneously asking the question that everyone in the group had to have been thinking by now: "What happened to Joo Dee?"
As if she noticed nothing odd about the situation, the replacement parroted the same lines said by their Joo Dee, telling them in that same falsely-cheery voice that she'd be their host as long as they were in "our wonderful city". Nervously turning back for a moment towards Long Feng to check if he noticed anything out of place about their handler, Toph turned back towards the replacement when it seemed that he was oblivious to anything different about her, and followed her out of the library along with her friends. In silence, the replacement for Joo Dee lead them through the now empty party room, and out through the vacant hallway they had entered through earlier, where they found a carriage ready and waiting for them. Now, Toph finally understood why they had found carriages ready and waiting for them when they required it, and even why one never showed up to take them to the party: they had been under the constant watch of the Dai Li since they had passed through the inner wall, a thought even she had not been paranoid to consider until just that moment. During the short carriage ride home, she could not help but wonder at the identity of the "Joo Dee" sitting across from here, and whether there was even a tour guide whose real name was Joo Dee at all.
- The alias that Katara came up with for herself, "Kwan Mei" or 关美, more strictly translates to "The beauty of the/my turn-off", but for the sake of clarity, I went with the rougher translation "the mysterious beauty" in the text above.
- The alias that Katara came up with for Toph, "Dong" or 侗, translates to "heathen, crass, lewd, uncultured, prosaic, etc.", providing Toph with the justification to pull on Katara's hair for giving her such an unfavorable alias in comparison to her own.
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