Azula frowned as she approached the throne room. The royal guards were already posted outside the entrance, which meant that her father was meeting with someone...which also meant that he was not to be disturbed during this time, barring any urgent situations that required his immediate attention. And since she had no such situation to speak of, she was going to have to wait.
Azula hated waiting.
Not to say Azula was impatient; she wasn't. She prided herself on being composed and well disciplined, and maintaining that composure and discipline at all times. Part of that meant knowing how to bide one's time and wait for the most opportune moment to act. Unlike some members of her family who would not be named, (like Zuko) she understood that there was an appropriate time and place for everything.
But that didn't mean she had to like it.
Fortunately, Azula's patience would not be tested for long. One of her father's advisors stormed out of the room, red-faced and scowling. In regards to her father's disposition following a meeting, this was rarely a good sign. Still, she never passed up an opportunity to kick someone when down.
"Councilman Azir. Good evening. I take it your meeting with my father went well?"
Azula smirked sweetly - a look that only Azula seemed capable of pulling off - at the glaring look the councilman sent her.
"The meeting went just fine, Princess Azula."
"Splendid." Azula considered prodding him for details, but the councilman didn't appear to be in a talkative mood at the moment. Besides, she had her own business to attend to. "Now, if you'll excuse me..."
Azir stepped aside and bowed as Azula walked past. "Of course, Princess."
Azula repressed a snicker as she turned to watch the still-fuming councilman depart. Her father tended to have that effect on people. After all, Fire Lord Ozai was never a strong believer in the concept of tact. That one particular debacle with Fire Lord Azulon immediately came to mind... "Oh hey dad, sorry your grandson just died, canIbeFirelordnow?" ...Yes, that hadn't gone over very well, as she recalled. Repressing yet another snicker (a meeting with the Fire Lord would be a bad time to come down with a case of the giggles), Azula entered the throne room.
To those who knew Toph Bei Fong well, it would come as a surprise to learn that there were times when she envied the sighted. But it wasn't because the sighted could see – no, her earthbending gave her the ability to 'see' the world in ways that most people could never even imagine. Toph envied the sighted because, unlike her, they could control what they see. In Toph's world, where every minuscule vibration in the earth was like the opening to a window that wouldn't quite shut, that luxury was not always available to her.
So when Toph found herself standing only a few dozen feet away from a man being crushed to death, a simple closing of her eyes and covering of her ears were not enough to shield her from every vivid, gruesome detail. As hard as she tried to forget, she could still feel every bone in the man's body crack and shatter with every impact as a large stone statue repeatedly slammed into his back. Again. And again. She could sense the frantic beating of his heart grow steadily weaker. The blood filling the man's lungs was all that could silence the strangled cries - and Toph knew this, of course, because she could see that too.
No young girl should have to witness a murder. But Toph felt as if she hadn't just witnessed a murder, she'd experienced it. At that moment, Toph didn't want to be blind. She didn't want to be an earthbender. She didn't want to "see" what others couldn't. She just wanted to shut her eyes and make it stop.
And so she did.
Toph sat up from her bed with a startled yelp, her hair and clothes damp from an all-too-familiar cold sweat. She sat there, silently, for a moment, staring off into space. As if she could actually 'see' space. If not for her state of distress, Toph might've pondered what exactly it is that people see in space when they stare off into it.
Whatever the case, Toph was brought out of her daze when her bedroom door opened. "Toph," she heard her father call out, worry evident in his voice. "What's wrong? I heard you screaming."
Toph frowned. She had hoped that she'd grown out of that 'screaming in her sleep' thing. Darn. "I wasn't screaming, I just – I...saw a bug." Toph grimaced inwardly at her poor excuse for a lie as soon as she said it, hoping it didn't come off quite as lame and pitiful (not to mention implausible, considering she wouldn't have technically "seen" the bug anyway) as it sounded to her.
Her father's sigh indicated that, yeah, it probably did. "Toph..."
"Okay, I had a bad dream. It's over now. I'm fine."
"Are you sure?"
The room was silent for a moment, and Toph, unable to see from her bed, wondered if her father had left already. But of course, he hadn't.
"Are you sure you don't want to talk about-"
"Yes, I'm sure. Good night."
Lao Bei Fong heaved another sigh and reluctantly exited, shutting the door behind him. Toph flopped back down onto her bed, continuing to stare off into space. Absentmindedly, she wondered what the big deal was about space that made people want to stare into it, resigning herself to the fact that she wouldn't be getting any more sleep tonight.
"Good evening, Father." Azula greeted as she knelt before her father's throne.
Fire Lord Ozai, shrouded in shadows despite the flames that surrounded him (Azula always wondered how that worked), didn't bother with formalities. "You wished to see me, Azula?"
Azula nodded. "Yes father. I wanted to talk to you about the earthbender who was recently admitted into the academy."
Ozai leaned back in his throne. "Ah yes, the Bei Fong girl. From what I've heard, she left quite the first impression on you."
Caught slightly off guard, Azula glanced up at her father. His expression was stoic, but Azula could have sworn that she detected a hint of humor in his voice. If she didn't know better, Azula might've thought her father had actually cracked a joke.
"Oh, so you've heard about that..." Azula mentally berated herself for being surprised at that. Of course he'd heard. The Fire Lord has eyes and ears everywhere. Nothing in the Fire Nation goes by without him hearing about it from someone. "I suppose you could say that. To be honest though, I couldn't help but be curious when it was announced that the girl had been admitted by decree of the Fire Lord."
Again, her father's face betrayed nothing. "Curious? How so?"
Azula knew to choose her words carefully. Her father had evidently made a judgment call in admitting the Bei Fong's daughter into the academy, and Toph's questionable citizenship aside, it simply was not wise to question the Fire Lord's judgment.
"Well, as you know, the Royal Fire Academy for Girls is one of the two most prestigious schools in our nation, normally reserved for those of royal and noble blood. It is somewhat unusual for someone of Toph Bei Fong's...background...to be admitted there."
"So, I suppose you would say her enrollment conflicts with the school's 'tradition', hm?"
Ozai chuckled. Bad things tended to happen whenever her father chuckled. Azula wondered briefly if she would be worried. "Allow me to enlighten you, daughter. Tradition is overrated. Tradition is followed only by those who were born to follow. For those of us who were born to lead, we make our own traditions Tell me, was it not tradition which decreed that the eldest son of the Fire Lord be the one to inherit the throne?"
"And did I follow that tradition?"
"Do you intend to follow that tradition?"
"And why is that, Azula?"
"Because power belongs to the strongest and most capable. Power belongs to those who will it. Power belongs-"
"-to those who have earned it," Ozai recited with his daughter. "Indeed. You see, I believe that people deserve to be rewarded based on their merit, not their birthright."
"As do I, father."
Ozai nodded. "The Bei Fong family has been of great service to our nation for years, and will prove to be an even greater service once Lao Bei Fong becomes a member of my war council."
Azula certainly hadn't been expecting that. "Your war council? But father-"
"Remember to whom power belongs, Azula. Lao Bei Fong has earned his place in this war. And mark my words, the Bei Fong family will play a large part in seeing to the war's end."
"I understand, father."
"Good." Azula bowed and stood to leave, but not before Ozai stopped her. "Oh, and Azula? That little altercation you had at the academy? I trust that I won't be hearing about any more of those in the future."
Azula knew that last bit was not in the form of a question. "Yes, father."
Poppy Bei Fong stepped out onto the balcony of her bedroom, where she found her husband, staring out into the capital city of the nation they now called 'home'. Lao peered over his shoulder with a faint smile.
"Forgive me, is the draft bothering you, dear?"
Poppy laughed. "Don't be silly! It feels wonderful out here. I imagine always does."
With a sigh, Lao leaned over against the railing. "Do you think it was a mistake? Coming here?"
"I've told you enough times that I trust your judgment." Poppy walked over to her husband's side. "You still trust it too, don't you?"
"I don't know anymore. We came here for peace of mind. For our family. For our daughter. But I'm not sure we're going to find it here."
"It's only been a few days, Lao. You haven't even given it a week yet."
"Toph had another nightmare. This is the third night in a row. Before now, it had been over a year since she last had them..."
"It's been over a year since we last moved, as well. It takes her some time to adjust to a new environment. I'm sure once she settles in, it will all be fine."
Lao wrapped an arm around his wife's shoulders and pulled her close to him. "Sometimes I wish the spirits had blessed me with your optimism."
Leaning into his embrace, Poppy shrugged. "Close enough; they blessed you with me, didn't they?"
Lao laughed. "That they did."
Councilman Azir couldn't understand it. Of all the qualified citizens of the Fire Nation...why would the Fire Lord give one of his highest advisory positions to a businessman from the colonies? What did Lao Bei Fong even know about war? He was a merchant, for Agni's sake! Granted, he was a very wealthy and successful merchant, but that hardly made him qualified.
Azir had gone through an entire bookshelf of political archives from his personal library, and not one mention of the Bei Fong family had he come across. Something simply was not adding up.
Only problem was, further inquiry would no doubt draw the ire of the Fire Lord, who had personally vouched for Bei Fong's credentials. It was simply not a wise political move to question the Fire Lord's judgment. If only there were a way to get some information on the Bei Fong family...preferably information as close to the source as...wait.
Azir placed his reading glasses next to a large pile of scrolls on his desk and made his way upstairs.
"Riza. Riza, wake up!" He yelled, knocking on his daughters door until she answered.
Finally she did, half-yawning. "Whaaaaaaat?"
"The Bei Fong's daughter, she goes to your school, right?" Azir asked as he opened the door.
Riza rubbed her eyes. "Yes. Unfortunately."
"Maybe not so unfortunate...Riza, I believe I have a task for you."
"Can it wait till morning?"
"...Yes. But I expect you up bright and early! This is important!"
Riza groaned. Her father's tasks were never simple. And if this one was going to involve that Bei Fong girl, she just knew it wasn't going to be easy either.