Through Toph's eyes. (ha ha)
Prompt: #67 - Sight
Warnings: is it necessary to warn for Toph-snark…?
AN: now edited. I actually read over it a little while ago and cringed. So many, many little errors. Also, thanksthanks to Rashaka (oh, the squee I released when I realized she'd reviewed...), who pointed out an important detail; I think I've removed the problem (it was only just the one or two statements, I believe), but that remains to be seen. Additionally...new ending. Slightly less ashamed of this one. That is all.
Sight:What She Doesn't See
And she had suddenly never wished more for sight than at this moment.
When the four of them had entered the little tea house (an establishment that they were visiting at the behest of their replacement guide, Ju Di, who had pleasantly suggested the diversion in that eerily affable-authoritative tone of voice that indicated it was anything but a suggestion), spirits heavy and expressions grim after their entirely displeasing and definitively frightening encounter with Long Feng, they had each been secretly harbouring suspicions that they were being led like meek lamb-calfs to some form of undeniably terrible –and likely earth-bendingly squishy—death.
So they weren't exactly shocked to discover that a quick once-over of the establishment revealed that roughly three-quarters of the tea house's patrons were Ba Sing Se soldiers. From here, they would be paraded into the back room and "dealt with," either by malicious attack or mind rape, which they supposed amounted to the same thing, ultimately: they would be unable to disturb the sick, fledgling Utopia in its infancy, and no one was going to come in and ask any questions when veritably the entirety of the restaurant was inhabited by enforcers of the aforementioned demented model of peace.
Needless to say, they had little intention of going down without a fight, and each of the four of them was on his or her guard, respectively, though Toph and Katara were a little worried that in their cumbersome clothing, fighting might be difficult. (And secretly, in the otherwise-neglected part of her that cared for such girlish trappings and petty, brief vanities, Katara was a little disappointed that she would have to sully her appearance.)
They were mildly surprised and slightly worried, then, when instead of the back room, they were led to a table by a graying and amiable man whom they took to be the owner. He hurried away with the promise of expedient service, and went to retrieve—they assumed—his wait-staff.
Toph grounded herself by flattening her feet on the earthen floor, leaning somewhat uncomfortably against the wall, and spreading her yet tiny fingers on top of the surface of the table. She felt Sokka across from her shift, possibly ducking his head, she thought, and definitely leaning in. She felt Katara next to her follow suit, and then Aang shortly thereafter. Ju Di, stationed inertly beside the Avatar, remained perfectly—creepily—still.
"So…any takers for poisoned tea?" Sokka whispered conspiratorially, and Katara made a small noise of disapproval.
Toph opened her mouth to reply, and then flinched visibly. She didn't have to see to know everyone's attention was now on her. She realized belatedly that they couldn't feel that only-too-familiar gait. Either of them, actually. Blinking, she leveled her eyes in Sokka's direction.
"I'll take your bet, and raise you a firebender." Aang started in his seat and hissed an incredulous "what?" as their host turned her head to regard them, and possibly to say something. She never received the opportunity, however, because the next several minutes were a rather interesting-- if not marginally disturbing-- jumble of events.
The four occupants of the table became aware of their servers when the first of them made an odd sort of strangled-furious noise in the back of his throat, and stumbled back a step, making the teacups on the tray he carried jangle uncertainly before he caught himself and tensed, his feet set farther apart than propriety accepted, readying himself to spring. Once all of their full attentions had been redirected toward their waiters, Aang shot to his feet while Sokka fingered his boomerang and Katara lightly uncapped the flask on the bench beside her.
Having apparently completely disregarded the nigh palpable tension suspended thickly amidst the parties, their second server, with a gracious and sincere air about him, lightly nudged his fellow aside and hoisted a metal tea basin before him.
"What will you have, honoured guests? I would suggest the Oolong Tea; it is especially delectable at this time of year, and Ba Sing Se has long boasted the most favourable yield of the delightful plant which makes it." There was a long silence in the wake of his obnoxiously genial presentation, in which Toph imagined that each of her companions was trying to figure out how to react to this situation. She was puzzling over it herself. It was peculiar and alarming to discover the banished Fire Prince and the flighty –though insightful—Dragon of the West in the "impenetrable city." (Perhaps not so alarming in the latter's case; Toph had taken a liking to the grumpy Prince's uncle.) And it was useful, also, to know that such famed figures had managed to slip in to such a fortified stronghold, and even to get a job, evidently with very little trouble.
Meanwhile, their host, also apparently either totally indifferent or possibly retarded after such obviously extensive brainwashing, had opened her mouth to speak.
"Well, well. Such fine gentlemen serving us tea. You must be the reputed new Tea Gurus about whom I've heard so very much. Please, let us introduce ourselves. I am Ju Di, and I've been given the highly privileged duty of escorting the Avatar on his visit to our most esteemed city."
"I would be humbled, young lady, if you would call me Mushi. And this is my nephew—"
"Are you wearing an apron?" Katara interjected suddenly, the question proffered without any warning or precursor whatsoever, her voice directed at the silent waiter (whom Toph had first identified before he had even reached them by his confident, measured, though distantly hesitant strides as the banished Fire Prince, Zuko), who stood very close to where she sat. The silence that descended upon them this time was quite different from the first.
And decidedly more hilarious.
In the corner of her mind, Toph noted curiously that it was typically Sokka who zeroed in on such meaningless inanities –or was at least the first to point them out –albeit with much more sarcastic finesse and less blatant astonishment.
This time, however, it seemed that Katara had concisely –and quite effectively—beaten him to the punch.
Not, it turned out, that Sokka didn't have something to contribute. Almost a full moment after Katara's hush-inducing observation, the Water Tribe warrior succumbed to the hysterics Toph could feel him shakingly holding in, and fell backwards off of his seat and harshly onto the ground, laughing loudly enough that even their bizarre guide couldn't help but to turn to watch the spectacle. Toph snickered herself; the thought of the proud Zuko adorned in such humble attire was pretty funny, though she had no intention of joining Sokka on the floor.
Finally, after what seemed like a small eternity of inaction, the inevitable response in defense of his tattered pride was delivered…and found severely wanting.
"Yes, little peasant. I am wearing an apron. Such an astute observation. And since we're on the subject, what, if I might ask, is that thing on your head supposed to be? Did you find a choice piece of rubble lying around and ask your earth-bending friend to fashion an absurd hair ornament out of it? I'm surprised your tiny head can support the weight. But I guess if there's nothing inside your head, the weight difference can't be too drastic." Was it just Toph, or did it seem like the Prince was really grasping at straws there? Sure, he'd managed to challenge her friend's vanity and intelligence in one fell swoop, and then simultaneously redirect the focus to Katara as opposed to himself, but really, Toph didn't think he'd done a very good job of it. Picking out her hair ornament as the object of his persecution? Definitely a desperation tactic, she decided.
And so she was surprised when Katara shot out of her seat across from Aang and softly slammed her fist down onto the table.
"For you information, Prince of the Teahouse, this thing happens to be suitable and fashionable for nobility—not that that's something I'd expect you to know, since you're an IDIOT!" Toph winced. Katara's rejoinder wasn't exactly winning material, either. Why was she getting upset, the earth bender wondered, over such silly comments? Why was this escalating so quickly? More puzzling still, something in Katara's stance belied the anger in her voice. It felt like the Water Tribe girl was shifting –oh-so-painstakingly-slowly—toward Zuko, without the controlled poise of the fighter she was.
"Are you stupid? If anyone here knows what looks ridiculous on nobility, it's me!" The only thing ridiculous about this entire situation, Toph groused to herself, was that this dialogue was still going. But for the moment, anyway, her interest was captivated by the Fire Prince's feet, which appeared to be mirroring her friend's movements. He wasn't set to fight her, and yet he kept drawing closer…there was something suspicious happening here. What was going on? She heard Sokka recovering himself and then slipping in a quiet query to Aang that voiced her confusion.
"What are they doing?" Aang didn't respond, but she figured that that meant that he'd given Sokka some physical indication that the Avatar was just as clueless as he was.
"Oh, right, like you're all about keeping up with the modern fashion of the nobility in the Earth Kingdoms while you're prancing around in an apron!" Great. Now they were going in circles. She heard the teacups clatter again, this time more jarringly, and also dimly noted the general hush in the tea house as –she suspected—the soldiers and other patrons watched the strange scene unfold.
"At least I don't have a piece of cement sticking out of my head! And for your information," he sneeringly mimicked her earlier disdainful condescension, "green is not your colour." Katara sucked in a sharp breath and Toph was really confused now. What was the point of all of this meaningless gibberish? Was there some subtext she was missing? Shouldn't they be fighting now? All the same, she was sick of the non-sequitur, nonsensical proceedings of this equally senseless conversation, and was just about ready to put her foot down.
Perhaps to make Zuko go flying, and to fashion a ceiling ornament out of him.
And hell, maybe Katara, too.
"Yeah, well…you have…stupid hair!" Okay, that was it. Toph had had it. This whole thing was stupid and the Sugar Queen had somehow metamorphosed into a spectacular moron, and she was fed up. So, sharply, she dropped her weight and focused it forward, into her right foot and down, into the hard, caked earth beneath it. She felt the force of her energy tunnel quietly along the floor, just past Katara, and straight underneath Zuko, who realized what was happening at the last possible second and took hurried steps forward to attempt to dodge the strike, though an instant too late, it seemed, as the leading edge of the suddenly protruding cylinder of rock as it shot up caught him by the heel and launched him forward.
Then several things seemed to happen at once. Instinctively –Toph hoped—Katara advanced to intercept the boy falling toward her, the teacups crashed noisily against the ground as Zuko dropped them, and, having underestimated the force of Toph's attack and the combined momentum of the Prince's futile effort to evade it, Katara over-balanced and the two went tumbling sideways, over the bench, and toppled into a heap onto the ground. There was another long moment of silence –Toph was really becoming annoyed with all these pauses—in which hardly anyone dared move, and the only thing that broke it was the new, interesting noise Katara made beneath Zuko as he shifted on top of her in what Toph assumed was either a defensive maneuver or a preliminary movement to remove himself from her person.
Except that a split second after Katara made that little almost-whimpering-type noise, Sokka made a disgusted, gagging sound, Aang growled, Iroh made a thoughtful, cryptic comment to the effect of pointing out that maybe the flowers for their house had been a good idea after all, and even their freakish guide 'hmm'ed in what sounded like brain-dead amusement.
Toph puzzled over what all these things could mean while she also tried to figure out why Zuko wasn't yet on his feet. She didn't have long to mull it over, because before she knew it, Sokka and Aang were leaping over the table, and she heard one of the two of them physically extricating the fallen Prince from atop her friend.
"You bastard –what the hell are you doing to my sister!" Sokka demanded at approximately the same time she listened to Aang call out Katara's name and help her to stand –was Katara swaying on her feet? Was she dizzy? Surely she hadn't been so terribly off-balanced!—upright.
Aang seemed to take a moment to collect himself before he turned to Zuko, where Sokka had him by the high collar of his tunic, and just as Toph started to think that the Avatar would restore some semblance of order to whatever catastrophe she had just inspired, she heard the sound of a fist solidly connecting with something fleshy –a nose? A cheek?—and realized that Twinkle Toes, the harbinger of peace and justice and the symbol of hope for an entire crumbling world (not to mention the first one to tout Zuko's potential "inner-goodness"), had just punched the Prince of the Fire Nation in the face.
She was frantically trying to make heads-or-tails out of the situation, and she had suddenly never wished more for sight than this moment.
"What happened?" Toph demanded as Zuko hit the ground in a manner she hoped was terribly painful. When no response seemed immediately forthcoming, she tugged none-too-gently on Katara's arm and pulled the girl to face her. "Hey, Katara, earth to Katara! What just happened?" The girl in question started bodily and seemed to emerge from whatever distant plane she'd been whisked away to and made a speechless sort of sound.
"Th-the jerk kissed me!"
Toph was getting a handle on this 'pregnant pause' concept, too, apparently.
"He-it was your fault, Toph! What were you thinking!" Before Toph could snap out of her shock and retort, Katara had wheeled out of her grip and turned to face the boys. "And YOU two! You can't just go around punching people for no reason!" Then she was advancing on Zuko, who was gradually pulling himself to his feet. "And you…" Her voice was low, dangerous. Toph heard Iroh chuckle softly. "You will never touch me again." And for the second time in the space of maybe half a minute, the Prince found himself on the receiving end of –what sounded like—a pretty nasty punch. "Let's get out of here. We've got a ten-ton bison to find and save and a Communist government to overthrow." Toph, flabbergasted though definitely in a better mood then when they'd entered, quickly trailed after her friend, accidentally stepping on Zuko (hey, she was blind! How could she possibly have known he was there?), listening for the sounds of Aang and Sokka to follow suit. They did soon after, though she heard them mutter a few more words; to Iroh, their guide, or the Prince, she wasn't sure. When they finally emerged to pursue Katara, who was stomping feverishly away from the tea establishment, Sokka explained shortly that their guide would take care of the bill for the damages, though he was a little worried about the consequences of Katara proclaiming so openly that the government officials of Ba Sing Se were "communists."
Even if they were.
But she wasn't paying much attention to Sokka; she was more focused on the jerky, uneven strides of her water-bending female companion. They indicated anger, frustration, and something else that Toph wasn't sure she wanted to believe she usually associated with that kind of telling footfall. Except that Sokka had caught up with his sister at this point and formatted his following incredulous question in the same manner that had started this crazy mess in the first place.
"Are you…blushing?" Katara abruptly shoved her brother into a nearby wall, ignored his squeak of surprise and subsequent wail of pain, and stomped away more quickly. While Aang rushed forward to help Sokka to his feet, Toph felt the corner of her lip twitching up. Even without attempted murder or brainwashing, she decided that their little excursion had been fairly eventful.
I realize I made Toph into an imperceptive, selfish little child. Oops.
She is selfish, but she's definitely not imperceptive. But she needed to be for this to work.
It was pretty difficult not to describe the more visual aspects of the story. Like, really difficult. But it wouldn't have fit the theme if I hadn't used Toph, and I wanted to use Toph, anyway, because it seemed like it would be an interesting exercise, and it was. But still…I think I may do a smaller, more condensed version from either Zuko or Katara's POV (or both), because I'd really like to work in some imagery.
I brake for imagery.
Note: Obviously, I ignored the fact that Zuko and Jet only just recently tore the restaurant apart. Let's just forget that ever actually happened. For the purposes of this fic, anyway. I wouldn't want you to ACTUALLY forget that particular event. That would be a travesty of epic proportions.