Πειρατές

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Μέσα απ’τη λάμψη και τον καπνό των βεγγαλικών ξεχυνόμαστε στο λιμάνι. Νωρίς είχαμε βγάλει τα καΐκια στ’ανοιχτά, και τώρα με κραυγές και τραγούδια κάνουμε ρεσάλτο. Κρύψτε τους θησαυρούς σας όπου μπορείτε, κι αυτά που θα βρούμε θα είναι δικά μας. Απόψε θα κοιμηθούμε στα σπίτια σας το πρωί θα ξανοιχτούμε.

In which there are rites of passage

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In case it hasn’t been made obvious so far, I am a student. This means that most members of my social circle (that were born in the same decade I was…) can be roughly summed up in two categories: the ones that know how to drive but can’t afford a car and the ones that haven’t had the time/money/inclination to get a licence. And where does Yours Truly fit in this oversimplification? Well… I may have been playing hopscotch with Option B for the past few weeks. Part of me has been pointing out how FREAKING EXPENSIVE it is to actually learn how to drive but an equally nagging, different part of me has been very sensibly saying that sometime very soon I will find myself needing to drive. So I crossed the proverbial Rubicon and contacted a driving school in my city.

Even as these lines are being written my stomach has been replaced by a merry-go-round and I am by turns appropriately horrified at putting my fellow humans at risk by driving (which I am told is standard reaction to newbies so no surprises here), excited(mainly my inner child for whom driving is a whole other kind of cool), anxious (because they said they’d come in contact with me within 24 hours and I still haven’t heard anything…21 hours and counting…) and well just plain out weird. I mean, come on! When you’re little driving is the cool and pretty damn convenient thing grown-ups do to get you from place to place. Then it becomes the cool thing you could be doing, a sign of independence (cue the teenage whines of “But muuuuuuuum! In America I would have a licence by now! Why can’t I take the car?”) Then comes the stage where you have the licence but no car to show it off on. And then, I’m told by such reliable sources as my parents -and pretty much every parental unit I’ve met-, comes the stage when you become everyone else’s taxi, either because your car is bigger or because your kids are too young to steal it. Wow! Kind of a letdown! Er, why do I have to get a licence again? Because in the long term it’s cheaper than getting to train to everywhere…. Right. Good point. Thank you snarky, conveniently italics-ised second voice. You’re welcome. Sucker. -ahem- Moving on.

But yeah, back to my title. Learning to drive is a rite of passage, I think. It’s one of those things like washing your own clothes and paying your own rent (with your parent’s money but never mind schematics) that mark you as an adult. I’m not gonna touch on the rather spiky subject of “whose money are you living off” as this is meant to be a half-serious post only but you get the message. Bit like a level-up in a video game, once achieved it unlocks a whole lot of new cool extras. Is that a reason to start classes as soon as it is legally possible? Personally, my answer is no. I’ve been in cars driven by new drivers and seen them speed past me as I cower on the pavement. I’m not saying young drivers or fresh licence holders are menaces of Dick Dastardly’s proportions. I just think that before you start something that you subconsciously categorise as “adult” you need to feel like an adult. And -myself included- I have yet to meet an 18-year old that I would comfortably describe as a mature, comfortable-with-taking-responsibilities adult.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Tales of Ba Sing Se

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Author’s Note: In which not much of import happens but there is fluff and mostly laughs and that’s good, right?
Previous chapter: link
Next chapter: coming soon…

***Tales of Ba Sing Se***

The Tale of Toph, Katara and Lia

It was a morning like every other in Ba Sing Se. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping and Katara, Sokka and Aang were getting ready for the day. Looking around, the waterbender realised that Toph wasn’t up yet. Smiling slightly Katara went to the other girl’s room. She must have overslept. Opening the door she felt the smile leave her face.

“Toph!” she called at the sleeping girl. “Aren’t you going to get ready for the day?” Toph stood sleepily and dusted herself.

“I’m ready,” she said groggily.

“You’re not gonna wash up?” Katara asked, feeling very much like a mother. “You’ve got a little dirt on your…” she took a second look, “everywhere actually.”

“You call it dirt. I call it a healthy coating of earth,” Toph argued. Katara gave her a sceptical look.

“Hm… You know what we need? A girls’ day out!” she finally proposed enthusiastically. Toph didn’t seem so happy.

“Do I have to?” she whined.

“It will be fun!” Katara insisted. “We could take Lia with us too!” At the mention of the older girl Toph seemed to become a little more convinced.

An hour later the three girls were standing outside an ornately decorated building. Written over the doors was “The Fancy Lady’s Day Spa”. Lia read it out loud.

“Sounds like my kind of place,” Toph grumbled.

“Are you ready for some serious pampering?” Katara asked her. She was in an even better mood after having seen Zuko.

“Sure Katara,” the youngest girl said hesitantly. “Whatever you say. As long as they don’t touch my feet,” she warned. They followed Lia inside. The Spirit had been a little hesitant too about this girls’-day-out idea, but she admitted it did sound like fun. Besides, what’s wrong with spoiling yourself once in a while?

Much to Toph’s distress the first part of pampering package Katara had booked was a full pedicure. While Katara and Lia were relaxing, three of the strongest women working at the spa were needed to keep Toph still and clean the dirt that had gathered on her soles. Finally the girl resulted in earthbending to free herself from them.

Next they moved on a room with stone bathtubs full of mud. As soon as she felt her element surrounding her Toph brightened up. She was even in a mood good enough to scare the lady that came to give them towels, making the mud mask on her face move and forming the face of an insect.

When they moved to the next room Lia’s faced literally glowed. It was a sauna, and a high quality one at that. She checked behind her shoulder for any eavesdroppers before motioning to the other two girls to move ahead.

“Finally some pampering for me! Take your seats ladies.” Katara and Toph did as asked and saw her concentrating on raising the temperature. Soon steam had covered everything. The three girls sighed contently.

“It’s nice to have three benders at the same room,” Toph said. “This may be a little fun after all.” The older girls high-fived.

“Soooo…” Lia said rubbing her hands. “How about a make-over next? I haven’t worked on a face other than my own for almost ten years. This would be refreshing.”

“Are you good at this?” Toph asked hesitantly.

“Not to tut my own horn but yes, yes I am.”

“It could be interesting to try.” Katara said intrigued. The few times she had tried to put make-up on she had found it challenging to say the least.

Once they were out of the sauna – it had taken quite some persuading to convince Lia to step out of the hot cabin – they moved to a brightly lit room with huge mirrors. Lia took a look at the different kinds of make-up and sighed.

“I’m in heaven,” she whispered in a giddy voice. Hearing Katara giggle next to her, she turned threateningly to the waterbender. “Tell Zuko I said this and I’ll do something unspeakably horrible, like cause bad weather when he finally asks you out!” she hissed. Katara just shrugged.

“You’re not very convincing,” she said taking a seat in front of a mirror.

“She can be if she wants to,” Toph warned her thinking back at the angry vibes the Spirit seemed to emit whenever the name Agni was mentioned. She silently listened to the explanations Lia gave as she applied the different powders on Katara’s face. Fifteen minutes later Lia stepped back.

“What do you think?” she asked Katara. The colours she had used were next to invisible, yet they brought out the waterbenders eyes making them look like a pair of sapphires.

“It’s great!” Katara breathed.

“I want the same!” Toph decided excitedly. Lia looked at Toph hesitantly.

“These colours don’t suit you very well,” she explained to the youngest girl gently. “Do you want me to do something similar but use your colours?”

“What do you mean my colours?” Toph asked surprised.

“Each face is different,” the Spirit explained. “Colours that look good on me or you would look horrible on Katara and vice versa.” Toph sighted and leaned back on her chair.

“Then do what you think best,” she said a little sad. She understood what Lia was talking about, but for her all this meant nothing. It wasn’t as if she could see the outcome… Surprisingly the soft touches of the different brushes calmed her. When she felt Lia move back she turned anxiously to Katara.

“You look great!” her friend exclaimed. Toph silently hoped that Aang would think the same if he saw her.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” Toph admitted as they returned home. Lia had left them at the train station, from there she’d return to the Lower Ring. “I’m not usually into that stuff, but I actually feel… girly.”

“I’m glad,” Katara said genuinely happy. “It’s about time we did something fun together.” As they crossed a bridge they came along a few fancy-dressed girls.

“Wow!” one of them said. “Great make-up!”

“Thanks!” Toph answered happily.

“For a clown!” the girl finished snickering. Toph felt her good mood going down the drain.

“Don’t listen to them,” Katara said glaring at the girls’ direction. “Let’s just keep walking.”

“I think she looks cute,” the second girl said. “Like that time you put a sweater on your pet poodle-monkey.”

“Good one!” her friends praised her.

“Let’s go Toph,” Katara said noting the mortified expression on the other girl’s face.

“No, no!” Toph said with a false laugh. “That was a good one!” she turned to the girls. “Like your poodle-monkey… You know what else is a good one?” She stomped her foot creating a hole under the three girls. They fell into the river squeaking.

“Now that was funny…” Katara laughed at them before waterbending them away. She hurried to catch up with Toph.

“Those girls don’t know what they’re talking about,” she assured her.

“It’s okay. One of the good things about being blind is that I don’t have to waste my time worrying about appearances. I don’t care what I look like. I’m not looking for anyone’s approval. I know who I am,” Toph said firmly, trying to convince more herself than Katara.

“That’s what I really admire about you Toph,” Katara said quietly. “You’re so strong and confident and self-assured. And I know it doesn’t matter,” she added hearing the little earthbender sniffing, “but you’re really pretty.”

“I am?” Toph asked disbelievingly.

“Yeah, you are. At the ball Aang couldn’t take his eyes away from you.” That seemed to have the desired effect.

“I’d return the compliment,” Toph said sounding more like herself again, “but I’ve no idea what you look like.” Katara laughed. “Thank you Katara.” She added punching her lightly on the shoulder.

The Tale of Zuko:

It would have been just another day on the teashop, if it wasn’t for the fact that Zuko’s suspicions had been confirmed. And it just had to be today! The prince thought annoyed as he approached his uncle. He had to do this discreetly.

“Uncle!” he called quietly Iroh. “We have a problem.” The old man climbed down the ladder he stood on to restock the shelves and looked at his nephew with mild interest. “One of the customers is on to us,” Zuko continued. “Don’t look now, but there is a girl over there at the corner table. She knows we’re Fire Nation.” Iroh felt his slight worry turn into amusement. Even though he was with Katara now – and Iroh had caught them making out on the roof more than once – his nephew was still ignorant on the subject of girls. He turned curiously to give the girl a look, but Zuko turned him back roughly. “Didn’t I say don’t look?” he asked annoyed.

“You’re right Zuko,” he said to his nephew. “I’ve seen that girl quite a lot. It seems to me she has quite a crush on you.”

“What?” Zuko exclaimed horrified.

“Thanks for the tea,” the girl said from behind them. Zuko took wordlessly the coins she gave him and turned to give her her change. “What’s your name?” she asked him, clearly hoping to strike up a conversation.

“My name’s Lee.” Zuko answered evenly. “My uncle, sister and I just moved here.”

Before the girl had chance to say anything else, Zuko’s eye caught something blue outside the teashop. Hastily he gave her her change and rushed to the door. Indeed, outside was Katara, her hand outstretched to open the door.

“That was some timing!” she told him laughing.

“You have no idea!” he laughed back, a little nervous. There was no going back now. “There are a few customers now, so why don’t you come round the back of the shop? I need to ask you something.”

“Sure,” Katara said surprised. She had sensed his uneasiness and wondered if something was wrong. They sat at the back room, which served as storage, or more accurately Katara sat down. Zuko was passing up and down restlessly, trying to find the words to ask her.

Finally Katara decided that there was no way he’d calm down on his own. Silently she walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Zuko froze. He had been so deep in his thoughts, he hadn’t heard her.

“What are you so worried about?” she asked him confused. “Did something happen?”

“No!” Zuko hurried to assure her. He took a deep breath. That was it. “I was wondering if you would come tonight. I… I want to show you something I found and it has to be night…” Katara silenced his babbling, placing a finger on his lips.

“Are you asking me on a date?” she asked teasingly. Zuko’s face turned red. Before he had a chance to answer, she kissed him softly on the lips.

“I’ll meet you outside the teashop at sundown,” she told him smiling.

By midday Katara returned to the Upper Ring, while Zuko and Iroh went back to their apartment for lunch. Lia had been feeling a little sick that day – or so she said – so she had taken the day off. She had prepared lunch and now she was waiting impatiently for her brother to return and tell her the news. She was willing to bet her position as a Spirit that he had been stammering for an hour before asking Katara out. Indeed once they were back home, Zuko came right into the bedroom and plopped onto his bed staring at the ceiling wondrously.

“I take that she said yes?” she asked him. He just nodded, still staring at the ceiling.

“I KNEW IT!” Lia said jumping off her bed. She sat next to her brother. “I told you, you had nothing to worry about!” she laughed at his expression of disbelief. “See? There was no point in acting as if you were going to be executed.” At that Zuko switched expressions and glared at her, even though they both knew she was immune to it.

Katara was feeling giddy as she returned home. She couldn’t believe that Zuko had asked her on a date. She knew their relationship wasn’t a conventional one and she didn’t mind, but still it was nice gesture. She laughed softly remembering how nervous Zuko had been until he had finally gathered the courage to ask her. It had been really cute. Then another thought occurred to her. What was she going to wear? She only had her Water Tribe outfits and none of them seemed right for a date. Stopping in front of a shop on the Middle Ring Katara paused. She had a little money with her. Maybe she could find something nice here…

Precisely at sundown Zuko was standing outside the teashop. A thousand questions were spinning through his head. Would Katara come? Would his surprise work? Would she like it? Had it been a good idea to ask Lia’s advice?

“I hope I’m not late,” he heard a girl saying behind him He turned and felt his jaw drop. Katara was wearing an Earth Kingdom dress of deep green – almost blue – and had let her hair down. Smiling softly she approached him and stood on her toes in order to kiss him.

“Uncle is watching us,” he whispered and fitted a flower into her hand. Katara’s knowing smile turned to one of pleasant surprise. Zuko had given her blooming Panda Lilly.

“Thanks!” she said. The prince took the flower back and placed it in her hair.

“You look beautiful,” he said shyly. Then taking her hand he led her away. Once they were away enough from Iroh’s – and probably Lia’s – curiosity Katara paused.

“Can I kiss you now?” she asked fake-pouting.

“If you can’t hold back,” Zuko answered smugly. Katara humph-ed before leaning in and kissing him. When they broke away Zuko told her smiling:

“Like you said, I could get used to this.”

“I think you already are,” Katara told him leaning on his chest.

They walked through the alleys, Zuko’s hand around her waist and her head leaning on his shoulder, talking quietly, but mostly enjoying each other’s company. Arriving in a square Zuko pointed to an eating place.

“You like it my Lady?” he asked her smiling. Katara nodded. It was a nice place, where they could talk freely without being afraid of someone eavesdropping.

They sat down and soon their food came. Katara’s thoughtful expression drew Zuko’s attention.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked her curiously.

“It’s silly,” she shrugged. “I was just wondering why you call me your ‘Lady’. Not that it bothers me,” she hurried to add when he shifted uncomfortably, “but I was curious.”

“It was Lia who called you first so,” Zuko explained, rubbing the back of his head nervously. “Back on the ferry. And if the Avatar defeats my father, then I will be Fire Lord. So you’d better be used to people calling you Lady Katara.” The waterbender looked at him confused.

“But shouldn’t we be, I don’t know, married, for me to be considered the Fire Lady?” she asked.

“Well, yeah,” the firebender shrugged. “But the moment a member of the Royal Family is crowned and he is not married, then the nobles will begin pestering him about finding a bride.”

“But if there is a girlfriend…” Katara began, understanding his trail of thought.

“They treat her as the Fire Lady-to-be in order to press the situation. That is if they approve of the choice.”

“You think they’d approve of me?” Katara asked nervously.

“You shouldn’t be worried. The nobles have influence, that’s true, but they can’t directly affect the decisions. And their approval would be the least worry in my mind if we were to get married.”

“What would be your first?” Katara asked him, feeling a little weird that they were talking about marriage.

“Your brother,” Zuko answered. “He’d murder me before I had a chance to finish my sentence.” At the thought of Sokka’s reaction the two teens burst out laughing. A waiter approached Zuko.

“If you and your girlfriend are finished, I will bring the desserts,” he half-asked, half-proposed. Zuko nodded. The mention of Katara as his girlfriend made him feel warm inside. She didn’t seem to have a problem with the term either.

When they had finished eating they started walking around again, with Zuko leading the way. They had nearly reached the limits of the Lower Ring when he paused and turned to Katara.

“Are you ready for the surprise?” he asked her. She nodded eagerly. They approached a fountain in the middle of a big crossroad. Zuko’s face fell.

“It’s not lit!” he said disappointed. Katara looked around and noticed many torches, lanterns and candles around.

“It must be magical to see them all lit,” she said trying to comfort him. “I’m sure it would be beautiful.” Zuko had a set expression on his face.

“I wanted to show you the place as it should be and I will,” he said decisively. Motioning for her to wait, he took a step forward and closed his eyes concentrating. Even though he hadn’t done any actual firebending for quite some time now he felt the fire’s response immediately, as the candles sprung to life.

Katara took a sharp breath. It was indeed a magical sight. The flames illuminating the water making it look like liquid light.

“That’s amazing!” she breathed, walking up next to him. She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she whispered. She felt his hands creep around her waist and she looked up in anticipation. Zuko didn’t disappoint her. Pulling her closer he slowly met her lips with his.

Iroh had been looking curiously out the window, on the pretext of taking care of his plants. That didn’t discourage a sniggering Lia, who had long ago pointed out that the only reason they were both still awake was that they were waiting for Zuko. As she opened her mouth to tease Iroh once again, they heard the door opening. Zuko entered the room wordlessly although the dreamy look on his face was more than enough for Lia. Iroh on the other hand couldn’t resist the temptation.

“How was your evening prince Zuko?” he asked the boy. His nephew’s dreamy expression instantly turned into a scowl. He marched into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. A second later the door opened a bit and Zuko’s face reappeared.

“It was nice,” he admitted quietly. The door closed, quietly this time, and the prince missed his uncle’s satisfied expression.

Inner Monologue

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…And simply sitting on the sun, letting the breeze play with a few stubborn strands of hair that escape my bun is nice. It almost makes me wish I could capture the moment and live in it forever, with no worries, just the warmth and the peacefulness filling me in like never before and a pair of eyes studying me in an admiration I do not understand…At least the pose he made me sit on is comfortable… Peculiar, fascinating child-man…Walking back from work at the fields, the last thing I expected was being stopped by a complete stranger and asked to become his model. He said I was an everyday beauty, a part of Nature herself, ebony hair and golden skin (he doesn’t know of the sickly white I turn during winter) and eyes the shape of a teardrop and he would go on and on with his flattery if I hadn’t cut him off, asking what I was going to get out of this. He stumbled, probably did not expect someone to be more concerned about the mundane everyday struggles rather than “the eternal existence of a piece of art.” Regardless the money he’s paying is good. All I have to do is sit there in my work clothes -why would anyone care about those old things instead of that beautiful stitched skirt Mary gave me on my birthdate or the dress my mother made for my wedding I do not know- and stare at him unmoving and bored -thoughtful he says-. He has found this small field near the coast. No one bothers with it. It’s too near the sea to grow anything properly, but he finds it the perfect inspiration. Or so he thought until he wandered curiously further down to the beach. The view stole away any loud comments he might have had, all full of description and color. It looks the same to me, just a few rocks and lots of sand and the tide’s soft roar sending you to sleep like my old mother’s lullaby. How I wish I had children to sing the old songs to. He is an overgrown child; he comes from the city, the painter. I’ve heard that things are different there. Nessy was telling me the last time she was here that the house she works in does not even have a garden and yet it’s one of the best in town. Townsfolk is weird like that. So he makes me sit on the ground, my back to the water, only half-turned towards him so that the light will be “just right.” Then he spends the rest of the morning taking turns between staring through me and painting in his canvas. I have no idea what the painting itself looks like. He covers it the moment midday comes, insisting that he cannot work without the light hitting me “properly.” Then he returns to whatever he does the rest of his time and I rush back to my life and the chores that cannot be left undone because an artist -as he calls himself- wished to waste his mornings staring at me. Or through me. Jake worried that I spend too much time with him but the moment I brought home the first payment all his worries flew out of the window. This is the most either of us has ever made. We can finally make the repairs we needed in our house and even put a little on the side for when the good times are long gone. If I were to be honest (and I pride myself to be) I’d say it’s nice to be noticed. No one ever called me any kind of beauty and I never entertained the thought that I might be anything other than plain. Then this strange man stops me and declares that I would be the Muse for his latest work. I don’t know what a Muse is but his tone was nice so it must be something good. I wish Jake took the time to notice me. It’s been two years that we have been married and he spends more time in the fields and the tavern than with me. It’s not fair to compare the two men of my life and yet I do. Jake is sturdy; strong like the oak that he used to make our bed. The other is a child stuck to the body of a grown man with a tendency to drop things in the most inconvenient moments and places. What does he know of the real world? But then what do I know? I’ve never left our little spot in the world. I dreamed once, dreamed that a pirate like those of the old days would come and whisk me away. Then I woke up.

In which there are (inappropriate) references

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We’ve been studying Troilus and Criseyde for the past couple of weeks in my Chaucer seminar. My thoughts so far? Troilus SUCKS! I mean, I like my angst as much as the next fangirl, but holy laughing skulls is he making Twilight’s characters seem proactive! I made a comment half-jokingly last week about how Troilus is a bit like -shudder- Edward. The result? Hysterical laughter by everyone within earshot. And even more laughter when our tutor asked genially confused what Twilight is. So, today, we were again collectively complaining about Troilus (yeah, he’s not really popular with my group…) when someone said that the scene in Book II where Criseyde first sees Troilus riding by her window is a bit like that one Old Spice advertisement. You know the one. Cue a second round of hysterical laughter (and a viewing of the ad for the benefit of our pop-culture misinformed tutor).

So why inappropriate? I don’t know, there seems to be something vaguely sacrilegious about comparing the work of someone like Chaucer with pop culture (and something downright insulting about comparing ANYTHING to Twilight…). So here is my question? Is it wrong to use concepts we are familiar and comfortable with to understand something we are just starting to tap on? Or are we just being lazy?

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The King’s Ball

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Author’s note: In which the plot rears its head again but the shipping remains strong, Sokka is incredibly oblivious and Zhao’s Earth Kingdom counterpart enters fashionably late.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The King’s Ball***

The gaang had arrived in Ba Sing Se to find things much more different than they expected. That was what Katara was thinking one morning during their fourth week in the city. Everyone was discouraged to say the least, waiting impatiently for Ju Dee to tell them when they would finally see the King. Their hostess on the other hand avoided the subject like the plague. Despite their disappointment they had started making a routine of their everyday life. Aang would train with Toph, and less regularly with Katara. Sokka made plans for an invasion, improving them with each revision. What Katara was most thankful for though, was that they didn’t ask her too many questions about her absences. She would sneak out and go on the Lower Ring almost every day, helping at the teashop, walking around the streets with Zuko or simply sitting with him on the roof talking about whatever came to their mind.

 

The air was warm when, still half-asleep she went outside the house to gather the newspaper. The night she had stayed after the teashop had closed to help tidy the place and had returned home very tired. She took a look at the title of the paper and immediately felt sleep leave her mind. She rushed back inside.

“I’ve got it!” she said excited. “I know how we’re going to see the Earth King!”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Toph asked. “One doesn’t just pop in on the Earth King,” she mimicked Judy.

“The King is having a party next week for his pet bear,” Katara explained.

“You mean platypus bear?” Aang asked.

“No, it’s just says bear,” Katara said uneasily.

“Certainly you mean his pet skink bear,” Sokka guessed.

“Or his armadillo bear?” Toph offered.

“Just bear,” Katara insisted.

“This place is weird,” Toph decided a little creeped out.

“The palace will be packed,” Katara continued with her train of thought. “We can sneak in with the crowd.”

“Won’t work,” Toph tossed dismissively.

“Why not?” the older girl asked her.

“Well no offence to you simply country folk, but a real society crowd would spot you a mile away. You’ve got no manners,” Toph concluded.

“Excuse me?’ Katara asked offended. “I’ve got no manners? You’re not exactly lady Fancy-Fingers.” As if to prove it, Toph burped.

“I learnt proper society behaviour and chose to leave it,” the earthbender explained. “You never learnt anything. And frankly, it’s a little too late now.”

“Aha!” Sokka suddenly exclained. “But you learnt it. You could teach us!”

“Yeah, I’m mastering every element,” Aang added. “How hard can manners be?” He shot standing and wrapped a curtain around him like a cloak. “Good evening mister Sokka Watertribe;” he began bowing respectfully. “Miss Katara Watertribe; Lord Momo of the Momo Nation; Your Momoness.” Sokka joined the game talking in a false grown-up voice.

“Avatar Aang how do you go on?” they began to bow to each other until they crashed their heads together.

“Katara might be able to pull it off, but I’m not so sure about you two,” Toph said reluctantly.

“But I feel so fancy,” Sokka insisted rubbing his head.

“Besides,” Toph continued, “we lack two very important things: invitations and escorts.”

“What do you mean escorts?” Katara asked her surprised.

“It’s the fancy word for a date,” Toph explained sighing. “We need a least one boy who already knows this stuff.”

“And where are we supposed to find one?” Sokka asked frowning. Katara’s face brightened.

“I know!” she said rushing to the door. “I’ll be back later. Toph can you begin teaching them?”

“Okay,” the little earthbender said with a sly smile. “Just because I want to see who your date will be,” she called after the waterbender. Katara slammed the door feeling her cheeks heating up.

 

“…And that’s how things are.” Katara concluded putting down her cup. The teashop was closed today, so she had met with Zuko and Lia in their apartment. Iroh had left the three teens on their own, after brewing them a pot of tea. Lia had a thoughtful expression on her face.

“So what’s your idea?” she asked the other girl.

“Well, I was wondering if you could help me find some invitations,” Katara said hesitantly. Lia smiled standing up.

“No problem. I’ll drop by one of these days to give them to you.” She went over to the door and turned her head. “Three invitations for pairs, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” Katara told her with a grateful smile. Once the Spirit was out of earshot Zuko turned to his girlfriend surprised.

“Why three pairs?” he asked her. She looked at him awkwardly.

“I was wondering if you could come too. Like Toph said we need a boy that will know what he’s doing. And you are a prince. Don’t tell me that you don’t know about these things.” Zuko shifted uneasily.

“I do,” he admitted. “But what will Sokka or Aang say…” he caught sight of her expression. “What?” he asked suspiciously.

“Remember at the ferry when Aang left earlier than us?” Zuko nodded. “Well he happened to wake up before me and…” she took a deep breath. “He saw us holding hands in our sleep.”

“How did he take it?”

“Better than I had thought,” Katara said, recalling the Avatar’s reaction. “But he told me to tell you that if you hurt me, not even Lia will be able to save you.” Zuko laughed.

“If I did hurt you, I would go myself and ask him to punish me.”

“So this means you’ll come?” Katara looked at him pleadingly. “Please.”

 

Zuko looked at her, biting his lip thoughtfully. He was having a hard time saying no when she was looking at him like this. At last he sighed.

“Fine,” he grumbled admitting his defeat. Katara kissed him enthusiastically.

“I guess Lia will come too,” Zuko said. “Someone will have to keep an eye on Sokka.”

“You’re right!” Katara laughed. “If she could keep him under control when he was drunk, I don’t see why she wouldn’t be able to do so during the party.” She stood up.

“Won’t you stay a little more?” Zuko asked her disappointed.

“I’m sorry, but I need to get back.” Katara didn’t sound very enthusiastic about the concept. “Will you walk me to the station?” she asked him.

“As if I wouldn’t.” Zuko said under his breath standing as well. The waterbender didn’t hear him. Smiling to himself he moved silently behind her and scooped her in his arms laughing when she yelped surprised.

“Put me down Zuko!” Katara ordered him trying to sound stern and to stifle her giggles at the same time.

“What will you give me to do so?” the price asked her still laughing.

“Nothing. Put me down!” she told him stubbornly.

“Then I won’t.” he answered sounding equally stubborn. Katara sighed, knowing he was more than capable to keep holding her like that for a while.

Fine!” she grumbled. “What do you want?” Zuko paused seemingly thinking about it.

“How about one more kiss?” he asked her finally.

“Okay,” Katara sighed. Zuko put her down and twirled her to face him, still not letting her go. Katara kissed him quickly on the lips. Then she looked at him expectantly.

“What?” he asked her.

“Won’t you let me go?” she asked him frustrated.

“You didn’t give me a kiss.”

“What? I did!”

“No you didn’t”

“Did!”

“Didn’t”

“Did!”

“Didn’t!”

“Di…” before Katara had a chance to continue their banter Zuko pressed his lips on hers. Like every other time they kissed she immediately relaxed and kissed him back. Suddenly they heard the door open. They broke away hastily right as Iroh entered the room winking at the two flushed teens.

“I thought I heard you two arguing but apparently I was mistaken,” he said acting as if nothing happened.

“I…I was just leaving,” Katara stammered.

“Until next time then, my dear,” the old man told her, completely ignoring the glare he was receiving from Zuko. As the waterbender left the house, he wordlessly followed her slamming the door behind him.

 

When outside they both breathed a sigh of relief. Iroh wouldn’t reprimand them, but his teasing would be worse. Zuko and Katara walked towards the train station chatting and comparing their lives so far. Before they entered the station Katara dragged Zuko into a nearby alley. There she kissed him fully on the lips. When they broke away she gave him a Happy now? look. Zuko laughed.

“I’ll try to come tomorrow,” Katara told him smiling herself.

“I want you to tell me how exactly Toph is teaching them. Too bad I can’t see this myself.”

 

Zuko’s words rang in her ears when she heard a loud crash as she opened the door to their house. Sokka was on the ground, a few heavy-looking books next to him.

“What happened here?” the waterbender asked surprised. Her brother looked at her helplessly.

“Toph says we must learn to dance without dropping these books from our head,” he whined. “It’s impossible!”

“No, it just needs good balance,” Aang defended his earthbending teacher. Katara raised an eyebrow.

“I suppose you woudln’t have much of a problem with it,” she commented helping Sokka to his feet.

“Let’s see how you will do Sugar Queen.” Toph handed her a few tomes. Katara balanced them on her head and took a few steps cautiously. The books didn’t fall. Toph nodded approvingly.

“That’s how it’s done,” she said. “Did you have any luck with the invitations?”

“Yes,” Katara answered trying a few dance moves. “We’ll have them one of these days.”

“And your date?” Toph insisted.

“My escort,” Katara corrected her. “I took care of that too.”

“Then we just have a week for you to learn society manners and to find dresses.”

“And something for the boys to wear,” Katara added. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow morning.”

“Okay.” Toph agreed. The prospect of shopping didn’t thrill her. “Now let’s continue with our lesson…”

 

- A week later: –

Sokka and Aang were dressed in the stuffy, formal outfits the girls had picked for them. They had been waiting for Katara and Toph for almost an hour now.

“Katara what’s taking you so long?” Sokka finally yelled frustrated.

“Relax Sokka,” Aang advised him although he felt a little impatient himself. “Girls always take their time to get ready.”

“How much time? We’ll be late!” A door opened behind the stressed Warrior. Katara and Toph appeared wearing formal Earth Kingdom light green kimonos. They had styled their hair with flowers and had even put some make-up on.

“What do you think?” Katara asked as they stepped into the light. Aang was gaping at them. Who knew that Toph would look so pretty in a formal dress?

“Wow!” he told her. “You look…”

“You’re date’s here,” Toph cut him talking to Katara.

“What date?” Sokka asked alarmed.

 

Katara rushed to the door. Outside Lia was waiting wearing a dress similar to Katara’s, only hers was dark green and beside her, stood Zuko looking incredibly nervous. Lia moved inside, casually greeting everyone, while the secret couple halted at the entrance. “You look beautiful,” Zuko told her nervously. Why am I feeling so nervous? he wondered, a little annoyed with himself. Katara blushed lightly.

“Thanks,” she said kissing him on the cheek. They moved inside. Lia must have just finished explaining why they were here, because Toph was laughing at Sokka’s expense. Sokka’s frown deepened when he saw Zuko.

“Why isn’t he wearing the same clothes as me and Aang?” he asked looking accusingly at the Prince.

“Because he, unlike you two, doesn’t need his sister to pick a decent outfit for him to wear,” Lia said not bothering to turn and look at him.

 

Of course this meant that Sokka was grumbling under his breath for the whole way to the palace. Lia felt like she was back at the desert. At least, she noted satisfied, Aang is staring at Toph and not Katara. In front of the gates there was a reasonable queue of guests.

“See?” Sokka glared at his sisters. “I told you we’d be late!”

“Oh, relax Sokka!” Katara snapped at him. “There’s no point in being the first to arrive.”

 

It took them twenty minutes to get inside the palace. When they arrived at the hall where the party was being held, they felt their mouths drop. It wasn’t just the size of the room, which was an impressive one anyway; it was mainly how many people had been invited. Many were sitting at the huge table that was placed in the middle, but still the room was almost packed. Aang looked around discouraged.

“How are we going to find the Earth King in here?”

“We’d better split up and look for him,” Sokka suggested.

“But we don’t even know what he looks like!” Katara reminded him. Sokka shrugged.

“You know: royal, flowing robe, fancy jewellery…” they took a look around them.

“That could be anyone!” Aang said.

“I don’t think the King is here yet,” Zuko said thoughtfully.

“Why would you say that?” Toph asked him.

“There are still guests arriving,” the prince explained. “If here it is anything like the Fire Nation, the guests arrive much earlier than their host. We’ll just have to wait.”

“And what do you suggest we do while waiting?” Sokka asked dismissively.

“We could dance,” Aang said. He bowed to Toph. “May I have this dance?” he asked her formally.

“It would be an honour,” she answered at the same tone. They walked away at the dance floor, with Zuko and Katara following right after them. Sokka looked worried at Lia.

“I hope you don’t want us to dance,” he told her. She smiled reassuringly.

“No, I’m no good at this type of dancing.” She looked around casually. “Why don’t we find a nice quite place to sit? All this noise is getting to my head.”

 

They found a quiet table near the doors that were now closed. Once the dance was over, the two pairs approached them. Aang took a jug and a few glasses and served everyone. Toph’s eyes widened suddenly.

“Wait!” she said in disbelief. “What is…?” Before she had time to finish her sentence, Judy appeared.

“What are you doing here?” she asked them worried. “You all have to leave immediately or we’ll all be in terrible trouble!”

“Not until we see the King,” Sokka said firmly.

“You don’t understand,” Judy said gravely. “You must go!” She tried to push him towards the door, but only managed to make him bump into Aang. Aang lost his step and the jug he was holding overturned and splashed a lady that was near them. The woman turned shocked to see who did it.

“Sorry! No, don’t shout!” Aang pleaded sending hastily an air current to dry her.

“The Avatar!” the woman exclaimed giddily. “I didn’t know the Avatar would be here!” Many heads turned towards Aang’s direction. He waved awkwardly.

“You keep their attention while we’ll look for the King,” Sokka hissed to him. Aang nodded.

“Watch this everybody!” he called, flying to the table. There he waterbended the wines from different glasses and started doing tricks with them, while everyone was looking in awe.

 

Thankfully he didn’t have to do it for a long time. Soon the palanquin οf the Earth King appeared. Sokka spied the figure inside and turned to call Aang. The Avatar turned and approached the other end of the table doing the air scooter.

“Greetings Your Majesty,” he called. Sokka turned to inform the others, but before he had a chance to find them, two Dai Lee agents seized him silently. Two more did the same to Katara and Toph. Lia and Zuko were still standing near the doors, looking over everything unnoticed. Lia saw a few Dai Lee agents entering from a side door. They had obviously not noticed them but she decided not to take any chances. Taking Zuko’s arm she concentrated and transported them to the apartment that had been granted to the Avatar. He looked at her surprised.

“Why did you do that?” he asked her.

“There were suddenly too many Dai Lee for my taste,” Lia explained. She took out the small charm that was only now losing its red colour. She showed it wordlessly to Zuko.

“But what about the others?”

“The others are not wanted. I’ll go to see what the Dai Lee want with them, but you’ll wait here,” she half-proposed, half-ordered. Zuko plopped down in a chair.

“Okay,” he said. There was no point in arguing with her. Lia nodded once and disappeared.

 

Aang stopped in front of the Earth King’s bodyguards. A middle-aged man appeared from behind them.

“Avatar Aang it is a great honour to meet you,” he said in a measured voice. “I am Long Feng, Grant Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and head of the Dai Lee. I’d like to talk to you. Your friends will be waiting for us in the library.” He turned and Aang followed him surprised. Unknown to both a certain Fire Spirit followed them unseen.

 

Once the library doors closed behind them Sokka tuned angrily to Long Feng.

“Why won’t you let us talk to the King?” he asked. “We have information that could defeat the Fire Nation!”

“The Earth King has no time to get involved with the political squabbles and the day-to-day management of the military,” Long Feng answered.

“This could be the most important thing he’s ever heard,” Aang insisted.

“What’s most important to His Majesty is maintaining the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. All his duties rely to issuing decrees to such matters. It’s my job to oversee the rest of the city’s resources, including the military.”

“So the King is just a figure head!” Katara said surprised.

“He’s your puppet!’ Toph accused.

“Oh no, no!” Long Feng hastened to assure them. “His Majesty is an icon, a god to his people. He can’t soil his hands with the hourly changes of an endless war.”

“But we found out about a solar eclipse that would leave the Fire Nation defenceless,” Sokka tried again. “You could lead an invasion and…”

“Enough!” Long Feng ordered standing. “I don’t want to hear your ridiculous plan. It is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se, that the war not to be mentioned within the walls. Constant news about an escalating war would lead the citizens of Ba Sing Se into a state of panic. Our economy would be ruined, our peaceful way of life, our traditions would disappear. In silencing the talk of conflict, Ba Sing Se remains an orderly peaceful utopia. The last one on earth.”

“You can’t keep the truth from all these people,” Katara said horrified. “They have to know.”

“I’ll tell them,” Aang threatened. “I’ll make sure everyone knows.”

“Until now you’ve been treated like an honoured guest, but from now on you’ll be watched every minute by Dai Lee agents. If you mention the war to anyone you’ll be expelled from the city.” Long Feng turned to face the fireplace. “I understand you’ve been looking for your bison,” he turned back towards the teens. “It would be quite a shame if you were unable to complete your quest.” As he took a seat again the flames behind him livened up for a moment. Katara looked at them surprised to see their apartment pictured inside them for a moment. Then she understood. There could only be one person that could make something like this happen.

“Now Ju Dee will show you home,” Long Feng said as the door opened again. A woman they had never seen before appeared.

“Come with me please,” she said.

“What happened to Ju Dee?” Katara asked feeling a shiver pass down her spine.

“I’m Ju Dee,” the woman said. “I’ll be your host as long as you remain in our wonderful city.”

 

The ride home was a silent one. The moment they were inside the apartment everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Something was seriously wrong in this city.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sokka said, “but I’m going to bed.” He yawned.

“We’re not alone Snoozles,” Toph said icily. Zuko and Lia appeared from the shadows.

“Sorry guys, but this trick only works with close distances,” Lia explained.

“So that’s why the Dai Lee didn’t find you!” Aang said wide-eyed.

“It wouldn’t do any good if they did,” Lia said indifferently going over to the door. “It was some party though…” she laughed to herself quietly.

“Will you stay for the night?” Katara asked them. Zuko shook his head.

“We’d better return home. Uncle Iroh will already be more worried than is necessary.”

“Okay!” Sokka said with a smile that rivalled Ju Dee’s plastered on his face. “Nice to see you and all that stuff, but goodbye!” he swept them towards the door, banging it after them. They heard Katara yell, “Sokka!” before Lia transported them back to the Lower Ring.