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.
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***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”
“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.