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The Dreaded Author's Notes OHNOES!!: This an AU taking off from episode 2.15 ("Tales of Ba Sing Se").
The Chong Sheng Trilogy
PART I: War
Chapter 1: Words of Wisdom
After careful consideration, Katara decided that she did not, in fact, like Ba Sing Se at all. Of course, being that "careful consideration" consisted of sore feet, a parched throat, and the Great Gran-Gran of All Headaches, this did not come as much of a surprise.
She hadn't been able to picture a city that could be so enormous yet so claustrophobic before she experienced such a thing for herself. And no doubt the strangle hold Long Feng had on the people's peace of mind had more than a little to do with it. And then there were the walls. Like a miniature labyrinth above ground. She supposed that was their biggest advantage; it would be awfully hard to invade a city if the army kept getting lost.
Although, she reasoned, more places to sit down and drink something rather than buy clothes and curiosities would be rather nice. Especially when one had to split her waterskin with her bending skills.
Appa was the first priority at the moment while they waited for an audience with the Earth King, assuming that the paperwork had actually been put through and Joo Dee hadn't been lying through her mask of a smile. Which, considering she'd just been replaced by an even creepier woman uttering the exact same deaf-to-common-sense rhetoric, was highly doubtful.
All in all, Katara was beginning to doubt that Appa was even in Ba Sing Se. Or he was hidden by some kind of optical illusion. Because really, in a city of perhaps a couple million people, who could miss a ten-ton fluffy monster with an arrow on its head?
But then, this city was in all respects gigantic. He could literally be miles away where no one in the area she was combing had seen him. She sighed, forcing one foot in front of the other. What was it with all the wild goosemonkey chases? Couldn't they go two minutes without getting into some kind of life-altering trouble?
Of course not. This is war, remember?
How easy to forget in a place like Ba Sing Se, where remembering what was going on outside the city walls was a good way to get you dragged off by creepy officers who moved like shadows through the bedroom in the dead of night. The thought of them, of cold hands clapping over her mouth before she could scream and the strength of granite itself immobilizing her while they whisked her down a dark hallway, was enough to send a cold shudder down her back despite the dry heat all around her. Stay away from the Dai Li, the official had told them. Well, now she knew why.
She rounded the corner, dragging a hand across her forehead. So far, she'd seen more shops than restaurants in this district. If Long Feng himself were to hand her a glass of water, she might possibly be tempted to shake his hand. The dust in the air didn't help matters. She hated dust, how it got in her eyes and up her nose and down her throat and stuck to damn near everything. Part of her wondered how Toph could stand being covered in it.
She supposed it was an Earthbender thing, and definitely one she could use right now. But a drink and a comfortable chair would do in a pinch. Unfortunately, she wasn't going to find either one unless she kept walking, blistered feet and tired legs and parched throat be damned.
And then, up ahead, she saw it.
Perhaps some unknown deity of luck was smiling on her today. Perhaps there was an alignment of the heavens at that very moment that she didn't know about. Or perhaps it was just a lovely little coincidence. Whatever it was, she didn't care, because the sign above the door that read "Teahouse" was the most beautiful thing she'd seen in this city yet.
A grin plastered across her lips, she headed for the doorway.
"Yeah, a flying bison. You know, huge? Hairy? Eats a lot? Covers you in slobber if he likes you? Believe me, you couldn't miss him if you wanted to."
"I'm sorry, young man, but the closest I've ever seen to that is a mountain kangawolf. Except the only reason he'd like you is if you tasted like a chickenpig. Fortunately, they seem to think humans taste like old sandal straps."
Sokka blinked, not knowing whether to laugh or be intrigued, so he settled for being confused. "Um...thanks anyway?"
"No problem, Sonny. I do hope you find him, though."
He nodded, turning to catch up with Toph as quickly as the street crowd would allow. "You were right. This place is strange and the people are crazy."
"Told you," she replied. "Seriously, I don't think anyone's seen him. And even if they did, I'd bet you a cave full of fire rubies that they wouldn't say so."
He sighed, defeated. "This is hopeless, isn't it?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"So where else should we waste time that could be spent doing much more productive things? Like listening to a brainwashed tour guide?"
Toph was about to answer when a frantic trilling caught his attention, and a pair of clawed feet landed on his head. He looked up, although he really hadn't needed to. "Momo?" The lemur clicked his teeth as he climbed down to Sokka's shoulder, waving a tuft of fur in one hand and gesturing wildly with the other.
"You found him?" Sokka gasped.
"Or at least something of him?" Toph added.
Momo made a few more pleading noises, before launching aloft down the street. Sokka pumped his fist, taking off after him. "Finally! C'mon, let's go!"
"Right behind you!" Toph yelled, following him with pounding footsteps.
No, he thought, Fate wasn't subtly mocking him. Fate was past mocking him. Fate had moved on to openly laughing her old wrinkled head off at him, like he was sure the shop patrons would do if he didn't walk around with a permanent scowl that threatened to cut up and eat with sauce anyone blindingly stupid enough to cross him. And wash it down with something other than tea, because was as sick of the stuff as any mortal could ever hope to get. Sick of the smell and the taste and the way the damn leaves stuck to his fingers if they were the least bit wet, and especially the way the powder would go up his nose when grinding and cause at least two sneezing fits a day. More if Fate was feeling particularly sadistic.
The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation in a tea apron, serving customers and smelling like an herb garden. He could almost hear Azula snickering somewhere in the back of his mind. Fine. She could stay there. As long as all she did was laugh at him, he counted himself well off.
The little bell at the front of the shop tinkled again, indicating a customer. He inwardly groaned, noting that the place was busy enough as it is and hoping this one was sober enough to leave a decent tip. Not like the kind who usually showed up at this hour for a cup of Iroh's strongest black tea with peppermint to take care of their hangovers. With a heavy sigh, he looked up to meet the new arrival.
The rehearsed greeting died in his throat.
Her. No, couldn't be. Was he seeing things? Working too hard? Was it possible to get high off the smell of tea? Had he fallen asleep standing up and gotten caught in some kind of surreal nightmare world?
No, no, probably not, and hell no.
He scampered into the back as if he had the Rough Rhinos on his tail, pulling Iroh aside in a harsh whisper. "Uncle, we have a problem."
"What is it?"
Iroh laughed. "Well you shouldn't be surprised that Miss Jin would--"
"Not her! The one travelling with...him."
Iroh arched a brow. "Well if that isn't an odd coincidence..."
His voice fairly squeaked with panic. "What the hell do I do? If she outs us..."
"We're short-staffed, and she's liable to recognize me even sooner. You'll have to play it natural and hope for the best."
"Uncle! Are you--"
"You have no other choice. If you try to back out, you'll only look like you have something to hide."
There were no words to convey how much he hated it when the man was right. None at all.
He stiffened, swallowing half the lump in his throat before heading out to the floor to greet her. She looked like hell, he noticed, what with street dust all through her hair and clothes, and the telltale way she attempted to sit with her feet not touching the floor. Blisters, he surmised, noticing the edge of one poking above her sandal strap. A part of him came close to pitying her, until he remembered a column of snow and a splitting headache.
He gulped down the other half of that lump and approached the table. The words he'd said with mindless ease to so many other faces -- severe faces, friendly faces, heart-stoppingly beautiful faces, and faces which made him want to crawl under a chair and whimper like a four-year-old however he dared not admit it -- had to force themselves out of his throat.
"Welcome to the Twin Leaves. May I take your order, or do you need more time?"
She finally raised her head. The sick, squishy knot in his stomach became a two-ton block of icy dread as her eyes widened. The corners of her mouth dropped, and the tiniest gasp flew from her lips. "You."
He hadn't the faintest idea how he managed an even face and tone as he replied without missing a beat. "Our specials today are green jasmine, spiced oolong, and full-leaf black ginger peach. We also have a premium blend selection. The best in the world."
The complete disbelief written across her features almost made the whole thing worthwhile. "I'll have the...uh...spiced oolong."
He bowed and nodded, before heading into the back. "One spiced oolong, Uncle."
"Well that went smoother than expected."
The tremor in his voice was audible. "Please don't hex it."
"Of course not," Iroh agreed, grinding up the teacake and adding it to the empty cup. "After this one, you can have a break to go take care of the bad leaves out back. It will give you a chance to calm yourself."
Never in his life had he imagined such elation at the thought of garbage duty as he took the cup and the pot of water. "Thank you, Uncle."
He didn't dare make eye contact as he poured her tea. Not that it mattered; he felt that stare like an icy needle to the throat. Of all the tea shops in the entire city, he wanted to find out what it was that made her walk into this one. And kill it with fire.
The other customers went by in something of a blur until it was time to take her empty cup and the money into the back. Iroh gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder as he took the rejected leaves out to the disposal bins, wrapping them in layers of cloth to hide the smell as they decomposed later.
He was afraid this would happen. A fear that gnawed at him from the time he woke up to the time he went back to bed, and usually had a midnight snack in his sleep every few days. That they we would be found out and sent on the run yet again, uprooted like an oak in a typhoon. It was one thing being a refugee with only one nation after you. Literally running from the world because everyone and anyone who could wanted to kill you on sight -- or worse, apprehend you so you could be tortured first by those of your own nation -- was a whole other Pai Sho table.
His legs were still shaking. She could've ruined him in there. Not that she hadn't already. Because he was positive that her next course of action would be telling the Avatar so they could get the hell out of this place. Escaped again. All because he was too busy serving tea and being upstanding to remember what his mission was.
Fate, he concluded, was having far too much fun with this.
"Dare I ask what you're doing here?"
Something inside him fell to the ground and shattered like a cheap vase. What was it about taking comfort in the notion that one's day couldn't possibly get any worse that made it do just that?
"Serving tea, apparently," he replied. "Though I don't see what concern it is of yours."
"You being anywhere near me or my friends is a big concern of mine. Or have you forgotten--"
"No, I haven't," he snapped. "Unfortunately, I'm far too busy to try and kill you right now. But I suggest you get yourself out of here before I change my mind. Nightfall isn't for several hours, and with a sun like this it wouldn't take me long to finish you. I've had a lousy day at work."
She sighed, exasperated. "Look, I'm not trying to start anything. If I was, I wouldn't have spared you a scene back there. I'm tired, I'm thirsty, and my feet hurt, and this was the first place I found to have a drink and sit down. I didn't expect to find the guy who's been trying to kill me and kidnap my friend for the last few months, much less for him to be my waiter. Pardon me if I'm just a bit confused and wanting to know what the hell is going on."
He paused in wrapping a fourth bundle of leaves, his eyes finding a particularly ugly cobblestone to fix themselves on. "I'm a refugee. Just like everyone else in this godforsaken place. Happy now?"
"Right. Because all the other refugees hunt the Avatar with their own warships, and have family members trying like hell to kill them."
He finally raised his head to look at her. "That's a matter of honor. Now shut up and leave."
Her eyes narrowed, hands tightening into fists at her sides. "Honor? He saved your life in a blizzard, and you're still trying to capture him. You have any idea what the word even means?"
Of all the responses he'd expected from her, that wasn't one of them. And as such, all the comebacks he'd been anticipating to use vanished as if they had never been considered, leaving him standing there with a bundle of tea leaves in his hands and feeling as if he'd been caught out of the bath.
"Never thought about it, did you? 'Cause you're too busy letting your whole crazy nation tell you what to do with your life, and apparently you've screwed up so badly even they don't want you anymore."
Something in his chest twisted painfully, like a steel coil still in the forge. His mouth opened to shoot off a half-thought reply when she cut him off.
"Oh don't you even. Do you really think everything will go back to normal once you hand over the Avatar? Do you really think they won't just take him and toss you away like the sack of bad tea leaves you have there? Because if you sincerely believe that, I know some long lost Air Nomads who would love to kick your butt at Pai Sho."
Don't kill her, you'll just get arrested...Don't kill her, you'll just get arrested...
"I said shut up! I'm not explaining myself to anyone, least of all you. I sure as hell don't have to. Now either leave me alone, or I'll be forced to think you want to be turned into a smoking pile of ash. Believe me, I'm more than willing to arrange it."
She grinned, smug and cocky and in every way hateable. "Oh sure, keep on telling yourself that. Go ahead and write off reality when it's ugly. Your kind are so damn predictable...I'd laugh if it were actually funny."
That was it. If she didn't close her mouth for good within the next minute, he would be doing it for her with a needle and thread. "Awfully big words for someone who has no clue what the hell she's on about. You knownothing about my nation or its people."
She folded her arms across her chest, the grin shrinking just a little. "Oh really? I don't know anything about the nation that killed my mother and almost wiped out my entire tribe?"
He silently cursed her, looking away, nevermind that he'd left himself wide open for it. "You only know what you want to know."
Her stare hardened, he could feel it. "And I'm not the only one. She called you a traitor, a disgrace to your people. From the little I do know, if I were you, I'd be flattered."
"But you're not," he snapped, "so whatever you would do is irrelevant. You have no idea who I am."
Her voice dropped in a way that made his stomach squirm. "And apparently, neither do you."
He almost dropped the tea leaves, snapping up to look at her. She wore a thoroughly dangerous expression; cold and angry and radiating more disgust and contempt for a single person than even he ever thought possible. He'd seen the look on his sister's face enough times, more often than not right before she visited some hideous childish torture on her next unsuspecting victim. The words wouldn't come, blocked off like a dammed river.
"You're a coward" she said. "Someone so afraid of thinking for himself that he'll blindly follow the words of anyone who says what he wants to hear, whether they're true or not. Someone so desperate to regain honor he never had that he would go on a wild goosemonkey chase to find something nobody thought existed. And someone so terrified of standing up for himself that he'll hide in a tea shop and hope it all goes away instead of doing anything about it. That's what you are. A coward. Actually, not even a coward. A pathetic, weak, spinelesshusk of one."
Rage built inside him at every word. From the toes up, searing hot and freezing cold at the same time, making his stomach clench in coiled steel knots and his chest burn from the inside out and his blood turn to steam in his veins. She wasn't going there. She wasn't even thinking of going there, the little bitch.
Dad's gonna kill you! Really, he is.
Why would he banish you if he didn't care?
In his eyes you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation. You have the scar to prove it.
You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher!
"For the last goddamn time, shut up!" he yelled. "It's so easy for you to stand there and judge someone else when you don't knowanything! When you've been holed up safe in snow and ice, have had nothing to worry about except waiting for your soldiers -- if they can even be called that -- to come back home. When you've had friends willing to bail you out ofanything! When you have a clear purpose and know exactly what you're supposed to do! When you've never had to question yourself, your actions, or your goals!"
He fought back the angry stinging in his eyes and tremor in his fists, fought to lower his voice, felt it drop to a dangerous rasping growl.
"When you've lost everything...your friends, your family, even your worth as a living, breathing creature and have no chance of getting any of it back, when you've been lied to so many times that you can't even trust yourself anymore, then you can talk about pathetic. Until then, shut up. Just. Shut. Up."
He didn't even bother to catch the look on her face before he turned around and stormed back into the shop.
Suki ducked through streams, blasts, and suspended walls of it, and that didn't even count the occasional forks of crackly blue death that she thanked her shield for blocking. Like she did now, before having to turn and disperse a wave of blue flames with her fan.
The other Kyoshi warriors had managed to lead the two women accompanying her away, leaving Suki to contend. Leader to leader. She took a bit more delight than she should have in that, twirling her fan to break up another fireblast.
So much for fans feeding flames.
The other woman jumped back, and Suki raised her shield against a particularly vicious crackle of lightning. She smirked above the rim before spinning behind her assailant with a high kick to the neck. The woman went down, rolling into a crouch with a cold glare.
"That's all the Fire Nation can throw at us now?" Suki scoffed. "How the mighty are falling."
A barrage of fireblasts answered her, most of which she blocked with her shield, and one made her wince as it singed her ankle. She ignored the pain, looking for her opening as the girl readied another strike.
Suki charged, elbow first, driving into her as blue lightning flew from her fingers. They both hit the ground, and she brought her shield in front to pin her as she fell.
"Not so hot stuff when you can't bend, are you?" she sneered, smirking.
The woman growled in indignation, struggling against Suki's weight atop the shield, both of them pressing her into a sprawl that didn't allow for much leverage. Or movement of any kind, really. The girl bared her teeth in a snarl above the shield's rim, before her lips curved into an equally animalistic grin.
"Whatever you and your circus clown rejects do to me is irrelevant."
"Oh really?" Suki snickered. "If all of the Fire Nation's military is as incompetent as this, it makes me wonder why this war has gone on for a century."
"You'll soon find out," the girl said, a cryptic gleam in her eye, "on a scale such as this world has never seen in all of history. By the time you fools can give a name to what hit you, it will be far too late to do anything about it. Not that you could anyway."
Suki's confident smirk melted to reflect the dread those words inspired. Was she serious?
Before she had a chance to consider it, her opponent took advantage of the slacking of her muscles, enough to throw her off with a sudden turn. Suki rolled as a fireblast charred the ground she'd been laying on, and rose to her feet. The other girl took off running, heading into the cover of the surrounding woods.
Her first instinct was to chase down the bitch and give her the royal Kyoshi treatment. But she squashed those thoughts. If the revelation was true, there were far more pressing things to be concerned about. She turned back toward the clearing in a lope, just as one of the other warriors came to meet her, blood running down her face.
"Suki, they've escaped!"
"Let them go," she said. "We have other matters to attend to. The Fire Nation is planning a grand-scale strike."
Suki shook her head. "No details yet. But make ready to head for Ba Sing Se. We must warn the Avatar, and quickly."
TO BE CONTINUED...