Author’s Note: In which Ba Sing Se is not what it seems, Zuko lands himself the worst job ever, Iroh lands himself the BEST job ever and possibly the most annoying character in the Avatar canon is introduced.
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***City of Walls and Secrets***
The train the newly-christened gaang was riding in was an amazing example of earthbending. Completely made of stone but still able to be moved by only two earthbenders. Still the trip was lengthy and tiring. Aang had dozed off for a while next to Katara, while on the benches opposite to her Sokka and Toph were also battling sleep. Katara was wondering if Zuko, Iroh and Lia had made it safely inside the city. Absentmindedly she looked out of the window.
“Look! The inner wall!” she said shaking Aang. “I can’t believe we finally made it to Ba Sing Se in one piece.”
“Hey, don’t jinx it!” Sokka said nervously. “We could still be attacked by some giant explosive Fire Nation spoon or find out that the city has been submerged to an ocean of killer shrimp.”
“You’ve been hitting the cactus juice again?” Toph asked him.
“I’m just saying; weird stuff happens to us.” As if to prove his words a creepy looking man appeared out of nowhere and sat between them. Aang wasn’t looking so enthusiastic.
“Don’t worry Aang. We’ll find Appa,” Katara tried to assure the Avatar.
“It’s such a big city,” he said discouraged.
“He’s a giant bison. Where could someone possibly hide him?” Sokka wondered going over to them. Their heads hanged out of the window as they crossed the tunnel and finally entered the city. Katara felt her heart drop to her stomach. The ocean of buildings seemed to expand endlessly. Where would they find Appa? And how could she even meet Zuko in there? It would be impossible to find him.
They left the train at the central station. Toph sighed. She hated being in Ba Sing Se.
“Back in the city. Great,” she muttered gloomily.
“What’s the problem?” Sokka asked her. “It’s amazing!”
“Just a bunch of walls and rules. You wait. You’ll get sick of it in a few days,” she answered. Aang took out his bison whistle.
“I’m coming for you buddy,” he whispered gazing at the city. Behind them the train left again. As they turned to look at it, a woman approached them smiling widely. Something in her smile made chills run through Katara’s spine.
“Hello,” she greeted them on a honeyed voice. “My name is Ju Dee. I have been given the great honour of showing the Avatar around Ba Sing Se. And you must be Sokka, Katara and Toph. Welcome to our wonderful city. Shall we get started?”
“Yes,” Sokka said conspiratorially. “We have information about the Fire Nation army that we need to deliver to the Earth King immediately.”
“Great!” Ju Dee said on the same cheerful voice. “Let’s begin our tour, and then I’ll show you to your new home here. I think you’ll like it.” She turned signalling them to follow her.
“Maybe you missed what I said,” Sokka told her annoyed. “We need to talk to the King about the war. It’s important. ”
“You’re in Ba Sing Se now. Everyone is safe here,” Judy assured them. The four teens stared at her. The drill was still fresh in their memories. These people had been so close to getting invaded by the Fire Nation, yet they still believed themselves untouchable by the war.
They boarded a carriage half listening to Ju Dee’s babbling about the “wonderful city”. They were now crossing the poorest area of Ba Sing Se.
“This is the lower ring,” Ju Dee was saying.
“What’s that wall for?” Katara asked curious.
“Oh, Ba Sing Se has many walls. There are the ones outside protecting us, and the ones inside that help maintain order,” their guide explained. “This is where our newest arrivals live, as well as our craftsmen and artisans; people that work with their hands. It’s so quaint and lively.” A few men glared at them as they passed. “You do want to watch your step though,” Ju Dee added uneasily.
“Why do they have all these poor people blocked off in one part of the city?” Katara asked disapprovingly.
“This is why I never came here before,” Aang said. “I always heard it was so different from the way the monks taught us to live.” As they turned to leave the marketplace, Katara swore she had caught a glimpse of red hair.
Zuko walked absentmindedly around the market. Lia and his uncle had wondered off, each one on their own business. He didn’t know what to do, so he just wondered around, his thoughts on Katara. The city was huge. How could they find each other? Iroh approached him carrying a big vase with flowers. Zuko sighed inwardly. Here he goes again! he though grimly. More useless shopping. Iroh caught sight of his nephew’s glare.
“I just want our new place to look nice, in case someone brings his lady friend,” he said mischievously. Zuko shook his head.
“This city is a prison,” he said as they walked. “I don’t want to make a life here.” He missed the days he travelled around the Nations. Settling down in this city, now of all times, sounded like a nightmare.
“Life happens wherever you are,” Iroh told him wisely. “Whether you make it or not. Now come on, we need to find your sister. I found us some new jobs and we start this afternoon.”
“What kind of jobs?” Lia asked, materialising next to them. She was once again wearing Earth Kingdom clothes. Zuko found it strange how the greens and browns contrasted to her red hair. She looked just like a Fire Lilly.
“At a tea shop of course!” Iroh looked at her incredulously.
“Of course,” she sighed. “Are there any other jobs? I guess it’s a good thing the apartment I found is the same way the tea shop is.”
On another part of the city Sokka was trying with all his might not to start yelling. This Ju Dee-woman was simply unable to shut up and hear what the people around her said. They were now in a much better neighbourhood than the Lower Ring.
“This is the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se,” she was saying now. “Home to the financial district, shops and restaurants and the university.”
“Yeah we met a professor from Ba Sing Se University. He took us to an ancient underground library where we discovered some information about the war that is absolutely crucial for the King to hear!” he stretched the last words hoping to gain her attention. Her smile didn’t falter a bit.
“Isn’t history fascinating?” she exclaimed. “Look! Here is one of the oldest building in the Middle Ring; Town Hall.” The carriage stopped and she stepped out of it without another word. Sokka turned to the others incredulous.
“Is that woman deaf?” he asked. “She only seems to hear every other word I say.”
“It’s called ‘being handled’” Toph informed him. “Get used to it.” They looked at each other disappointed. Ba Sing Se turned out to be much different than they had imagined.
The teashop was a small, badly-lit building. The man who owned was obviously glad to have hired a tea-maker and two waiters at the same time. Judging by the looks of this place he had been doing everything by himself, rather unsuccessfully. He gave them aprons and then scrutinized them satisfied.
“Well, you certainly look like official tea-servers. How do you feel?”
“Ridiculous,” Zuko muttered under his breath. Lia was thankfully the only one who heard him and elbowed him subtly on the side. Iroh on the other hand was trying, unsuccessfully to tie his apron.
“Does this possibly come to a larger size?” he asked finally. The man nodded.
“I have some in the back,” he said. “Have some tea while you’re waiting.”
As soon as he left Iroh took an experimental sip and made a disgusted face.
“This tea is nothing more than hot leaves’ juice!” he said insulted.
“Uncle, that’s what all tea is,” Zuko reminded him rolling his eyes.
“How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?” Iroh glared at his nephew and then at the teapot. “We’ll have to make some major changes around here.” He emptied the pot outside the window. Lia giggled.
“I think someone has just found his paradise,” she said conspiratorially to Zuko.
“He’s the only one,” the teen muttered back.
“Oh just wait and see…”she whispered absentmindedly.
“See what?” Zuko prodded her. Lia shrugged.
“I don’t know. It just came to me to say this.” She paused for a moment. “I think though, that you’d better keep an eye on the girls you’ll be serving. You never know.”
“The Upper Ring is home to our most important citizens.” Ju Dee continued her babbling tirelessly. “Your house is not far from here.” They were passing an impressive building.
“What’s inside that wall?” Katara asked curious.
“And who are the mean-looking guys in robes?” Sokka added noticing a few men glaring at them.
“Inside is the Royal Palace,” Ju Dee explained. “Those men are agents of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se. They are the guardians of all our traditions.”
“Can we see the King now?” Aang asked impatiently.
“Oh no!” Judy laughed. “One doesn’t just pop in on the Earth King!” She obviously missed the disappointed looks the kids shared.
Finally the carriage stopped in front of a modest house.
“Here we are! Your new home.” Ju Dee announced. A man appeared at the door and handed her an important looking scroll. “More good news. Your request for an audience with the Earth King is being processed and should be put through in about a month. Much more quickly than usual.”
“A month?” Sokka whined.
“Six to eight weeks actually.” They entered the house, looking around. It really was a nice apartment, not overly-decorated but not poor either. “Isn’t it nice? I think you’ll really enjoy it here.”
“I think we’d enjoy it more if we weren’t staying for so long,” Sokka insisted. “Can’t we see the King any sooner?”
“The Earth King is very busy running the finest city in the world, but he will see you as soon as time permits.” Ju Dee said in a tighter, but still bright smile.
“If we’re going to be here for a month, we should spend our time looking for Appa,” Aang said thoughtfully, looking out of a window.
“I’d be happy to escort you wherever you’d like to go,” Ju Dee offered immediately.
“We don’t need a babysitter,” Toph told her frostily. She stood and headed for the door.
“Oh I won’t get in the way,” Ju Dee assured her blocking her way. “And to leave you alone would make me a bad host. Where shall we start?”
They went once again to the Lower Ring. Judy led them to what seemed to be a huge pet store.
“I’m sorry but have never heard anything about a flying bison,” the owner told them. “I didn’t even know there were any.”
“If someone wanted to sell a stolen animal without anyone knowing where would they go?” Aang asked.
“Where’s the black market? Who runs it?” Sokka asked interrogatorily. “Come on, you know!” The man looked nervous. Ju Dee nodded “no” to him behind Sokka’s back.
“That would be illegal,” the owner finally said nervously. “You have to leave now. Your lemur is harassing my birds.”
Next they tried at the Ba Sing Se University. They found a lone student sitting near the gates and immediately started questioning him.
“I’ve never seen any sandbenders or nomads around here,” he said. “You should ask Professor Zei. He teaches the class on desert cultures.”
“Right,” Sokka said with the same interrogator face. “And which of your professors could we ask about the war with the Fire Nation.” The student stole a glance at Ju Dee. She nodded negatively.
“I don’t know. I’m not a political science student,” he said rising hastily. “I have to get to class.” In his haste he stumbled on his feet and feel to the ground.
After that and with exhaustion and tiredness weighing them down, they decided to call it a day. The carriage dropped them in front of their house, with Ju Dee inside it.
“Well,” she said, “I’m sorry no one has seen your bison. Why don’t you go get some rest? Someone will be over with dinner later.” With these parting words she left. The kids were left standing uneasily on the doorstep. Sokka looked at the house opposite of their own, to see a man hastily moving away from the door.
“Hey, come with me,” he told the rest of them. They knocked the door and an old man opened them.
“You’re the Avatar!” he said with a bright smile. “I heard you were in town. I’m Pong.”
“Nice to meet you Pong,” Aang said pleasantly.
“So Pong, what’s going on with this city?” Sokka asked. “Why is everyone here so scared to talk about the war?” Pong’s smile faltered.
“War? Scared? What do you mean?”
“I can feel you shaking,” Toph pointed out evenly.
“Look I’m just a minor government official. I waited three years to get this house. I don’t want to get into trouble.”
“Get in trouble with who?” Katara asked. He hastily shushed her.
“Listen, you can’t mention the war here. And whatever you do, stay away from the Dai Li.” With these parting words he banged the door on their faces.
Night fell quickly. They had gone to their apartment, where Lia had immediately set on making dinner, something Zuko was thankful for. She was now inside the room that would serve them as a bedroom, making the beds.
“Would you like a pot of tea?” Iroh suddenly asked his nephew.
“We’ve been working on a teashop all day,” Zuko answered from the couch he was resting, glaring at the ceiling and not even bothering to mask the whine in his voice. “I’m sick of tea!”
“Sick of tea?” his uncle repeated aghast. “That’s like being sick of breathing!” he turned his attention back on the stove. “Have you seen our spark-rocks to heat up the water?” Lia opened the door.
“I have them here,” she said, passing them to Iroh. “I’m going to call it a night.” She continued, yawning. “Good night everyone.”
“Good night my dear,” Iroh called after her. Zuko simply stood up.
“Good night uncle,” he said following the Spirit.
“Good night my nephew.”
Later that night, while everyone else was asleep, a boy in the Lower Ring and a girl in the Upper Ring sat by their windows, looking at the moon, and wondered when would they see each other again.