Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Library

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Author’s Note: In which there are revelations and plot development and another Spirit makes a cameo.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: coming soon…

***The Library***

Appa landed a few days later on an arid plain filled with small holes. Aang immediately jumped off the bison, clutching a wooden pipe in his hand. He sat cross-legged on the ground, unaware on everyone looking at him questioningly.

“What is he doing?” Zuko asked surprised. Katara next to him shrugged.  They slipped off Appa, still staring at Aang.

“What’s out here?” Sokka half-asked, half-grumbled. He was still annoyed that Zuko and Lia had tagged along. Toph placed a hand on the ground, trying to make sense of all the movements under her feet.

“Not what,” she said. “Actually there’s hundreds of little…” Aang shushed her.

“I know you can see underground, but don’t ruin the surprise,” he said. “Just watch.” He turned his back to the group once again and played a few notes. A couple of martens appeared singing the notes he had just played. Lia laughed. She sat next to him and started whistling. The martens repeated the tune.

“We’re putting an orchestra together!” Aang exclaimed laughing.

“Orchestra, huh?” Sokka said dismissively. “Well, la-di-da,” he sang in a deadpan voice. The marmots repeated it perfectly. Aang and Lia continued their whistling and piping for a few more minutes, while Momo chased the little animals.

 

Finally Sokka decided to be the killjoy. He rushed to the musicians’ side and shut Lia’s mouth and Aang’s pipe.

“This is great nonsense, but don’t we have more important things to worry about? We should be making plans,” He complained, trying to put everyone on serious mode.

“We did make plans,” Toph reminded him. “We’re all taking a mini-vacation.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Lia said mischievously.

“There’s no time for vacations!” Sokka insisted. He turned to Zuko and Katara for back-up.

“I’m learning the elements as fast as I can. I practise hard every day with Toph and Katara. I’ve been training my arrow off!” Aang argued.

“Besides, what’s wrong with having a little fun in our down-time?” Katara backed him. Sokka turned to Zuko, expecting to see the prince rolling his eyes at their childishness. Instead he found him eyeing Lia speculatively.

“If we take a vacation,” he asked his Guardian, “does it mean I get away from practising with you for a few days?” Lia had been pushing him hard lately. But now she smiled.

“For as long the vacation holds,” she said generously.

“Then I agree with the Avatar,” Zuko said satisfied. Sokka, realising that he had no back-up whatsoever, tried to reason with Aang.

“Even if you do master all four elements; then what?” he asked. “It’s not like we have a map of the Fire Nation! Should we head west until we reach the Fire Lord’s house?”

“Well,” Lia whispered to Katara and Toph, “should I remind him that we have the Fire prince with us?”

“No,” Toph said. “Let him rant a little more.”

“Knock, knock!” Sokka continued. “Hello? Fire Lord? Anybody home?” he turned back to Aang. “I don’t think so. We need some intelligence if we’re going to win this war.”

“Which you obviously lack,” Zuko mumbled under his breath, studying the warrior. They just had to ask him for information.

“Alright. We’ll finish our vacations and then look for Sokka’s intelligence,” Katara laughed.

 

Aang opened the map, stretching his arms as far as he could to fully unroll the parchment. “Your turn Katara. Where would you like to go on your mini-vacation?” The waterbender studied the map.

“How about the “Mystic Palms Oasis”?” she asked. “That sounds refreshing.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been there,” Aang said. “It’s a pristine natural iceberg.”

“Natural?” Lia sound doubtful. “It’s at the beginning of a dessert.”

“It’s one of nature’s wonders.” Aang insisted. Lia just shrugged.

 

“Well, turns out the Mighty Distrustful Spirit was right,” Sokka said when they arrived.

“It must have changed ownership since I was there.” Aang said nervously. The oasis looked much like the rest of dessert. From the iceberg, only a small block of ice remained. The city itself reminded Zuko of the small port where he had encountered the pirates for the first time. Lia on the other hand seemed delighted. Unlike the mortals of the group she loved high temperatures.

“Let’s have a look around,” she said eagerly. Without waiting for them she dashed off. The rest followed her uneasily. Zuko saw her entering a building out of the corner of his eye.

“We’d better stay together,” he said taking the lead and pulling the rest of the group with him.

 

The building they entered looked like a bar. Lia approached them with a mango juice in hand. Sokka felt his mouth water.

“I don’t see anything wrong with having one of those fruity beverages while we plan our strategy.” He pushed everyone aside and rushed to the bar. “Excuse me!” he half-shouted. The man that had just been served moved to the side. As he turned he stumbled and his juice splashed Aang.

“No worries,” the airbender reassured him cheerfully, “it’ll clean up easy.” He bended a strong air current to dry himself.

“You’re an airbender!” the man said ecstatic. “You’re a living relic!”

“Thanks! I think,” Aang answered sheepishly.

Lia leaned next to Zuko. “He’s a living relic, I’m a living artefact, why don’t we just open a museum and get it over with?”

“Jealous?” Zuko whispered back teasingly.

“Nope. I’m still original: the only Spirit around here.” She turned her attention back to the stranger.

“An Air Nomad!” he was saying. “Right in front of me. Professor Zei. Head of Anthropology at Ba Sing Se University,” he introduced himself. “Tell me, which of the Air Temples do you come from?”

“The Southern Temple.” Aang answered nervously.

“Oh, splendid! Now, tell me, what was the primary agricultural product of your people?” Sokka passed Zuko his juice.

“This man is nuts,” he said quietly. “Wait until he understands we travel with the Avatar AND a Spirit.”

“No point in talking too much about the Spirit. If he asks, Zuko and I are siblings.” Lia repeated the now much-used story quickly.

“You don’t look much like each other,” Sokka argued.

“It has worked before,” Zuko told him.

“Are fruit pies an agricultural product?” Aang was heard asking awkwardly.

“Truly fascinating! That is one for my journal.”

“So Professor,” Sokka started, “you’re obviously a well-travelled guy. Do you have a more current map? Ours seems to be a little dated.”

“Certainly!” Professor Zei said, still enthusiastic from his “discovery”.

 

They sat around a nearby table and Sokka opened the map the Professor lent them. Immediately everyone’s face fell.

“What, no Fire Nation?” Sokka sounded like a little kid, not taking presents on his birthday. “Doesn’t anyone have a good map of that place?” he gave a meaningful glare at Zuko. Before he had a chance to begin a fight Katara marvelled:

“You’ve made a lot of trips into the dessert.”

“All in vain, I’m afraid,” Zei sighed. “I found lost civilizations all over the Earth Kingdom, but I haven’t managed to find the crown jewel. Wong Shi Tong’s Library.”

Everyone’s eyes shot to Lia. “The Spirit of Knowledge,” she explained. Now she was intrigued. She didn’t know that he was still around.

“You spent years walking into the dessert to find some guy’s library?” Toph sounded incredulous.

“Hey!” Lia said offended. “It’s a souvenir straight from the Spirit World!”

“This library is more valuable than gold, little lady,” the Professor added. “It is said to contain a vast collection of knowledge. And knowledge is priceless.”

“Sounds like good times,” the little earthbender said solemnly.

“Oh, it is!” he continued, missing the sarcasm completely. “According to legend it was built by the great Knowledge Spirit Wong Shi Tong, with the help of his foxy knowledge seekers.”

“Oh, so the Spirit has attractive assistants, huh?” the last remark had caught Sokka’s attention.

“I think he means they look like actual foxes, Sokka,” Katara said disapprovingly. Once again everyone glued their eyes to Lia.

“You both have a point,” she said. “They are foxes, but they were blessed by the Spirit with human intelligence. Too bad they can’t speak,” Lia explained sounding a little exasperated.

“You seem really knowledgeable on the subject,” Professor Zei said interested. Lia shrugged.

“I’ve done my research,” she said lazily. “Wong Shi Tong built a palace and put all the books his helpers brought him, for mankind to read,” she continued.

 

Zei unfolded a paper. “This is how it is supposed to look like,” he explained, pointing at the drawing.

“That’s quite accurate!” Lia said in a hushed voice, leaning to study it closely. “The point was for humanity to better itself.”

“If this place has books from all over the world, do you think they’d have info on the Fire Nation?” Sokka asked carefully. “A map maybe?”

“I wouldn’t know. But if such a thing exists, it’s on Wong Shi Tong’s library.”

“Then it’s settled,” Sokka announced. “Aang, I do believe it’s my turn. I’d like to spend my vacation, at the library!”

“Hey! What about me?” Toph asked annoyed.

“Or me?” Zuko added.

“When do we get to pick?” Toph finished.

“You both have to work here a little longer before you qualify for vacation time.” Sokka seemed delighted to say so.

“Of course, there’s the matter of finding it,” Zei said. “I’ve made several trips into the Si Wong dessert and almost died each time. I’m afraid that dessert is impossible to cross.” Sokka and Aang shared a look.

“Professor, would you like to see our sky bison?” Sokka asked smugly.

“A sky bison? You actually have one?”

 

They hurried outside, this time following the Professor. A few sandbenders had approached Appa but Zei shooed them away. Once in flight the heat became a bother even for Lia. She gathered her hair in a ponytail, thankful for her loose dress. Moving carefully on Appa’s back she sat next to Zuko. He was at the back of the saddle as usual.

“I need to show you something,” she said in a low voice. She took out a paper from her pocket and showed it to him silently. It was a wanted poster of him and his uncle.

“Azula,” Zuko hissed.

“I checked the city. That was the only one, but we need to be careful.”

“What’s going on?” Katara asked, coming near them. Zuko silently handed her the poster. She frowned. Then she took a look at Zuko and smiled.

“That’s not the most accurate picture of you they could have had. Your sister isn’t that good after all,” she tried to reassure him.

“We can only hope,” He said taking back the poster. He took a look to check if Zei was looking and burnt it.

 

A few hours later and everyone was getting impatient. Zei had moved to the back and Zuko was sitting next to Katara scanning the horizon.

“Oh! Does this place even exist?” finally Toph asked.

“Some say it doesn’t!” Zei informed her cheerfully.

“Shouldn’t you have mentioned that before?” she asked him, the first traces of anger audible in her voice.

“He needn’t have,” Lia cut in. “It exists.”

“How can you be so sure?” Toph half-yelled at her before realisation hit her.

“I just know,” Lia insisted.

“That’s the spirit young lady!” Zei praised her. Lia merely laughed.

“There it is!” Toph suddenly cried. Everyone rushed on her side, to see empty space. “That’s what it will sound like when one of you spots it,” she added.

“It shouldn’t be this hard to spot a giant ornate building from the air,” Katara said thoughtfully, her eyes still scanning the horizon.

“Wait a minute!” Zuko snatched the spyglass out of Sokka’s hands ignoring his protest. He scanned again the horizon. “I think we found it,” he said spotting a lone tower in the distance.

 

They landed near the base of the building. The tower loomed over them with no visible entrances.

“Forget it,” Katara sighted. “It’s obviously not what we’ve been looking for. The building in this drawing is enormous.”

“Then what’s this?” Lia asked, pointing at a fox approaching.

“What kind of animal is that?” Sokka asked.

“I think it’s one of the knowledge seekers,” Zei was on his element now. “We must be close to the library.”

“No, this is the library,” Sokka said studying the drawing. “Look, it’s completely buried.”

“Almost completely. The tower is still out,” Lia said.

“My life’s ambition, full of sand!” Zei exclaimed. He knelt on the sand. “Time to start excavating.”

“Actually, that won’t be necessary.” Toph said, feeling the wall. “The inside seems to be completely intact. And it’s huge!”

“That fox thingy went through a window.” Sokka studied the tower. “I say, we climb up the tower and give it a look.”

“I say, you guys go ahead without me,” Toph said evenly.

“You’ve got something against libraries?” Katara asked her.

“I’ve held books before, and trust me they didn’t exactly work out for me.”

“Oh right.” The waterbender looked away guiltily. “Sorry.”

“Do you want one of us to stay with you?” Zuko offered. He felt bad for the little girl being left out.

“Nah, I’ll be okay,” she assured him. “Just let me know if they have something you can listen to.”

 

They slowly climbed inside. The building was indeed huge. Lia smiled, noting the owl pattern on the wall carvings. Wise he might be, but the Knowledge Spirit had quite an opinion of himself.

“It’s breathtaking!” Zei exclaimed. “This Spirit spent no expense in designing this place. Look those beautiful decorations!” The teens, with Lia first laughed. Zei acted as if he had entered the Spirit World with a personal invitation. “What’s so funny?” he asked them.

“Nothing,” Aang hastily replied. “We just like architecture.”

“As do I,” the man was completely oblivious to sarcasm. They finally landed on a bridge linking two different sections of the library. “My word! The amazing handiwork of this mosaic!” Before he had a chance to ramble more Lia interrupted.

“We have company,” she said, sensing a Spirit approaching. Indeed footsteps were heard from a distance. They hastily hid behind some columns, Zuko pulling Katara close to him. A giant owl appeared at the bridge they had landed. He immediately noticed the rope they had used to climb in.

“I know you’re back there,” he calmly called.

“It was worth a try,” Lia sighed stepping into the light. Before Wong Shi Tong had a chance of answering, Professor Zei appeared from behind another column.

“Hello!” he said nearly bouncing on his feet from excitement. “I’m Professor Zei, head of Anthropology at Ba Sing Se University.” He bowed.

“You should leave the way you came,” the Spirit said hostilely. “Unless you want to become stuffed head of anthropology.”

“Are you the Spirit that brought this library to the physical world?” Sokka asked, approaching with the rest of the group.

“Indeed, I am Wong Shi Tong, he who knows ten thousand things. And you are obviously humans, which are no longer permitted in my study.”

“What, the library is closed to the public now?” Lia asked daringly.

“Same goes for you, Agni,” Wong Shi Tong warned.

“For someone who knows ten thousand things you seem to forget the basics,” Lia told him annoyed.

“What do you have against humans?” Aang asked.

“Humans only bother to learn things to get on the edge of other humans,” the Great Owl scoffed. “Like that firebender who came to this place a few years ago, looking to destroy his enemy.”

“The Ocean Spirit took care of him,” Lia informed Wong Shi Tong. “You can’t judge everyone using Zhao as your standard.”

“Your ideas on the matter are widely known Fire Spirit. But who are your friends trying to destroy?”

“What?” Sokka exclaimed. “No, no, no, no destroying! We’re not into that.”

“Then why have you come here?” the Knowledge Spirit insisted.

“Um…Knowledge for knowledge’s sake?”

“If you’re going to lie to an all-knowing Spirit you should at least put some effort into it.” Wong Shi Tong said dryly.

“I’m not lying!” Sokka insisted. “I’m here with the Avatar, he’s the bridge between our worlds. He’ll vouch for me.” He dragged Aang forward.

“Yeah, I’ll vouch,” he said nervously. “We will not abuse the knowledge in your library good Spirit. You have my word.”

“Very well,” the Spirit said reluctantly. “I’ll let you peruse my vast collection on one condition. To prove you’re worthy scholars you’ll have to contribute some worthwhile knowledge.”

 

Professor Zei stepped forward. Kneeling he offered a book. “Please accept this tome as a donation to your library.”

“First edition. Very nice.” He passed his wing over the book, making it disappear. Next was Katara.

“I have an authentic waterbending scroll,” she said.

“Oh, these illustrations are quite stylish,” Wong Shi Tong said accepting it.

“Was that the scroll you stole from the pirates?” Zuko asked her.

“Yes,” she whispered back, “but don’t tell him.” Next was Aang. He unfolded his wanted poster.

“I see,” The Spirit said slightly disappointed. “I suppose that counts.”

“Oh great Spirit, check this out.” Sokka took a piece of string and tied it into a flower. “It’s a special knot!” he insisted. “That counts as knowledge.”

“You’re not very bright, are you?” Wong Shi Tong asked before accepting it. Finally he turned to Lia and Zuko.

“My apprentice and I do not have some kind of donation to make,” Lia began formally. “But we can restore a part of the library that has been destroyed by our element. Would that please you?” The Knowledge Spirit studied her for a few moments.

“Very well,” he finally contested. “Enjoy the library.”

 

The group walked through the corridors, pulling down scrolls from time to time and scanning through them. Sokka sneaked a few that seemed useful on his bag, sending suspicious looks over his shoulder. He approached a showcase that was the centrepiece of that particular room.

“The darkest day on Fire Nation history. It’s got a date on it but nothing else. Hey Zuko…” he turned to see neither the firebender nor the Fire Spirit.

“Where’s Zuko and Lia?” he asked.

“They went to restore the part of the library that had been destroyed,” his sister told him. “Why?”

“I want to know what happened on the Fire Nation on their darkest day,” he said snatching the parchment and taking off. “This could be promising.”

 

Zuko and Lia had gone straight to wing dedicated to the Fire Nation. Everything there had been reduced to ashes.

“Zhao,” Zuko sneered. He turned to Lia. “How are we going to restore the books? There is nothing salvageable here.” Lia walked inside the room.

“Can you feel the fire calling you, even from the ashes?” she asked her student. Zuko closed his eyes and concentrated. Indeed he felt his element calling out to him faintly.

“What should I do?” he asked.

“Call it back to you. I’ll do the rest.” His mentor’s soft voice came to him. Standing, facing each other they began. The work was progressing fast and they only stopped when they heard footsteps.

 

“There you are!” Sokka called. He, Katara, Zei and Aang entered the room. They took a look at the ashes still to be restored.

“What happened here?” Katara asked shocked.

“Zhao paid a visit,” Lia explained frowning. “We have been correcting his stupidity.” Sokka gave Zuko the parchment.

“Do you know what happened then?” he asked eagerly. Zuko took a look at the date.

“That was five hundred years ago! How am I supposed to know what happened then?”

“You are Fire Nation. You ought to know your country’s history!” Sokka yelled. “That’s so unfair! Just when I think I’m one step out of the Fire Nation it turns out that they beat us a long time ago. I need to know what happened on the darkest day.” A sound was heard from the door. It was one of the foxes, trying to get their attention. “Hello,” Sokka called. “Little weird fox-guy.” The fox turned indicating a way.

“It seems she’s trying to assist you,” Zei said.

“Um sure, I guess I’ll follow you,” They turned to leave.

“Are you coming?” Katara asked Zuko and Lia. Zuko nodded negatively.

“We’ll finish here first and then we’ll catch up with you,” he said. Lia had moved further inside the room to place a few books on the shelves. Zuko leaned in and kissed Katara quickly, before she rushed to follow her brother. Her cheeks blushed pink, but she smiled at him before she ran.

 

The gang arrived at a huge golden door. The fox disappeared through a hole and opened it from the inside. They entered cautiously, to see it pushing a lever. The dome overhead turned from day to night.

“This room is a true marvel!” Zei breathed. “It’s a planetarium that shows the heavens moving.”

“This is beautiful. But how is it helpful?” Sokka wondered.

“Maybe these dials represent dates and times.” Katara guessed, pointing at a circular table in the middle of the room. “Sokka try the date from the parchment you took.”

“Katara! Not in front of the fox! He’s with the owl,” her brother reprimanded her. Casting suspicious looks on the crestfallen animal he checked the date. He then programmed the planetarium. The sky turned into night again.

“Wow! I got to hand it to you Sokka,” Aang said. “You picked the best mini vacation.” Over their heads it became day again but the sun didn’t appear.

“Hey wait! What happened to the sun?” Katara asked.

“Great!” Aang frowned. “You must have broken it.”

“It’s not broken,” Sokka narrowed his eyes. “The sun is behind the moon. It’s a solar eclipse! It’s literally the darkest day in Fire Nation history! Now I get it.” He grabbed in his excitement and started shaking him. “Something awful happened that day! I don’t know what, but I do know why. Firebenders lose their powers during a solar eclipse.” He let go of the airbender who stumbled. “Sorry,” he apologised.

“That makes sense,” Katara said. “I mean look at what the lunar eclipse did to the waterbenders on the North Pole. This is huge!” The fox didn’t seem so happy all of a sudden. He stood on his back feet.

“Fine. You earned it.” Sokka smiled, giving it a small piece of meat as a reward. “We’ve got to get this information to the Earth King at Ba Sing Se,” he continued. “We’ll wait for the next eclipse and then we’ll invade the Fire Nation when they’ll be totally helpless. The Fire Lord is going down.”

 

A shadow suddenly fell upon them. “Mortals are so predictable,” Wong Shi Tong said coldly. “And such terrible liars. You betrayed my trust,” he accused them. “From the beginning you intended to misuse this knowledge for evil purposes.”

“You don’t understand,” Sokka said franticly. “If anyone’s evil is the Fire Nation. You saw what they did to your library. They’re destructive and dangerous. We need this information.”

“You think you’re the first person to believe their war justified? Countless others have come before you here, seeking weapons, or weaknesses or battle strategies.”

“We had no choice,” Aang tried to explain. “Please, we’re just desperate to protect the people we love.”

“Then now I’m going to protect what I love,” Wong Shi Tong said gravely. He began flapping his wings creating a huge air current.

“What are you doing?” Aang asked alarmed.

“I’m taking my knowledge back. No one will ever abuse it again.” Sand started to come through the walls.

“He’s sinking the building,” Katara cried. “We need to find Zuko and Lia and get out of here.”

“I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” The Owl said. “You already know too much.” He striked with his beak, but missed them. They all rushed out of the planetarium with him hot on their heels.

 

Wang Shi Tong followed them, destroying everything in his path. Zei turned and begged him to stop the destruction and was saved only thanks to Aang’s airbending pulling him out of harm’s way. They entered another corridor.

“We have to get back to the surface,” he exclaimed.

“I’m not leaving without Zuko,” Katara argued back.

“We’re here,” Lia called, appearing from another corridor. “You go ahead. I’ll hold him off.”

“Sokka, let’s go!” Katara grasped his arm and tried to pull him along.

“But we still don’t know when the next solar eclipse is going to happen!”

“Don’t be stupid.” His sister told him urgently. “We’ll find out later.”

“No, we won’t! If we leave this place we’ll never get the information.”

“You go ahead,” Zuko suddenly said. “I’ll go with him.”

“What?” the two siblings asked simultaneously.

“You’ll need cover,” The Fire prince simply said.

“But…” Katara began. The Knowledge Spirit’s head suddenly appeared. Lia quickly attacked him with her fire. “Go!” she yelled at everyone. The two groups dashed to different directions.

 

She slowly backed away, drawing the Spirit away from Katara, Aang and Zei. Suddenly the Owl turned away from her and followed a different path. Lia turned in time to see Katara and Aang running away. She rushed after them cursing in a very ancient language. Why couldn’t the stupid thing stay and fight her? She saw them backing towards a bridge.

“Your waterbending won’t do you much good,” Wang Shi Tong was saying to Katara. “I’ve studied Northern style, Southern style, even Foggy Swamps style.” Sokka jumped on his head out of nowhere, knocking him out.

“That’s called Sokka style,” he said smugly. “Learn it!” As an answer the rope they had used landed on his head. “Oh, no! What are we going to do now?” he groaned.

“Aang get a hold of Sokka,” Lia said suddenly. “Zuko, do the same for Katara. We’re flying out of here.”

“Zuko can’t fly!” Sokka yelled. “What are you talking about?”

“Actually, I can,” he said. Taking Katara in his arms he began floating in the air, a look of intense concentration on his face.

“Come on professor,” Lia shouted. “Library’s closed.”

“I’m not leaving,” he said. “I can’t. I spent too long trying to find this place. There’s not another collection of knowledge like this one on Earth. I could spend an eternity in here.” He smiled. “I’ll be fine. Go.” They took off with Aang leading the way. Wang Shi Tong made one last attempt to stop them. Lia turned trying to fight him in the air.

 

Outside, Toph heard them landing behind her. Exhausted she let go of the tower she had been struggling to keep above ground. The impact sent her rocketing away. The tower sank to the ground. Once to the sand settled, Zuko looked around. Katara saw him turn deathly pale.

“Where’s Lia?” he asked scared. They looked around them. The Spirit was nowhere to be found. Under their feet, the earth started to rumble. The sand, where the tower once was, heated and turned into glass. Lia sprung out of the small glassy cave, struggling for breath.

“Are you okay?” Zuko helped her to her feet.

“Just let me catch my breath,” she panted.

“We got it!” Sokka was celebrating. He hugged Katara. “There’s a solar eclipse coming! The Fire Nation’s in trouble now.” Aang was also looking around worried. He went over to where Toph was sitting, her back turned to everyone else.

“Where’s Appa?” he asked her. Toph didn’t answer at first. She merely shook her head. Aang’s eyes widened. Something terrible had happened while they had been underground.

Thread’s End

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Thundering could be heard since the morning, causing people to glance at the sky nervously before shuffling back to their work. Cloudy skies were common at this time of the year, although rain had been scarce ever since the testing grounds had been established. At the very edge of the village there was a hastily pulled-together wooden hut, the newest building in the village by far. Inside, golden hued shadows danced on the quilt-covered walls, the hiss of threads being weaved on the loom the only sound breaking the oppressive silence. Hevasti was staring blankly ahead, her hands dancing through the motions mechanically, as her entire being focused on the sounds outside her door. She had been hiding away on this obscure village, as near to the testing grounds as she dared, for nearly a year now, posing as a blind weaver.

 

She had been on the run for nearly two years, her hunter finding her only months after the band had gone their separate ways, deciding that fighting would be easier in smaller groups. Her lot had been the Southern Plains, what used to be her birthplace before the Empire had spread, engulfing the small mountainous province. Hevasti had been shocked when she had first arrived. The wild fields at the foot of the mountains, pieces of land that should have been shining golden under the pale, late summer sun were stripped bare. Where caravans of the Mountain People had been now stood a series of concrete buildings, the smoke from their chimneys turning the sky a sickly grey.

 

The years on the run with her brother and the rest of the band had changed her, so much that a cloak and slightly unfocused eyes were all that it took to convince the village people of her cover story. They had made her the hut and she had repaid them in kind, weaving and sewing anything they asked of her, never accepting money, too fearful of tying herself down to a single place. She had tried to find the others, of course she had; but all communication had been lost, and they were all too talented in disguising themselves for her to be certain that any rumor reaching her had anything to do with her precious ones.

 

Hevasti tugged at the fabric she was weaving sharply, trying to focus herself on the present. Arta, one of the local girls was getting married after the autumn equinox and the thick white cloth –it would be the girl’s formal dress once the ceremony was over – needed to be finished by then. The weaver shuddered at the thought of a winter wedding. She almost had had one. She almost had a life once, almost settle down, left the running and hiding and killing behind. And then he had been taken from her, just at the end of the summer, conscripted to an army he hated, to fight for a cause he did not understand. They had dreamt of a daughter, a little girl called Seela. She had taken that name afterwards, a tribute to a life she was never going to have. Marti had scoffed and called her sentimental. She almost stabbed him with his own dagger, nearly mad with grief at the time, screaming that how he, her own brother could not understand, not feel anything.

 

Another harsh tug of the fabric and she resolutely ignored the tear that fell like a stray raindrop on her hand. She missed them, oh how she missed them! Fighting had become the center of her life, their victory – hopeless as it seemed – the only light left to her. Now she could only hide away like a scared child, locking herself inside whenever the officials from the testing facilities scouted the area for ‘volunteers.’ Her eyes fell idly to her rows of paints, precious colors once used to hide her comrades’ appearance, now reduced to instruments of manual work. How the mighty had fallen indeed…

 

But isn’t this life so much more comfortable? A fire blazing at your hearth, a bed, three meals a day, not having to keep a weapon on you at all times? Why would you want to go back to the fear and the uncertainty and the heartbreak? Isn’t it time? You aren’t young anymore. Surely it’s time to be selfish, think of your own needs for once.

 

No, these aren’t Hevasti’s musings. So close to the Empire it’s easy for them to slip into her head, plant foreign thoughts, make her lose the scraps of identity she holds on to. She isn’t that old, she never will be as long as she can yield a weapon. And why begin being selfish now, when that’s all she has been? She had been selfish when she took her brother and ran from their house, selfish when she nearly left the cause they were fighting for just for a man and a chance at a fairytale ending, selfish when she returned more broken than ever, selfish when she encouraged the breaking of the band, selfish when she hid at her old hometown, putting all the people there in danger. Selfish is her name and nature, the one thing the voices in the shadows cannot tempt her with.

 

The wind picked up outside, thunder echoing closer now and the door rattled under the force of the oncoming storm. Hevasti frowned. The wail of the wind sounded ominous, almost like a lament she had heard on the coastal province, sang by the family of a drowned child. He had gone swimming in the middle of a storm and never came back. They hadn’t even found the body. She had made sure of that herself. The door rattled again and Hevasti felt a shiver race down her spine. This was less like the wind and more like a person trying to get in. Her eyes snapped back at the loom in front of her, fingers mechanically continuing the motions as the door finally gave in to the violence and slammed open, the wind rushing in, blowing away the few candles, and plunging the room in nearly complete shadow.

 

Hevasti, Seela, turned slowly to face her visitor. The figure on the door was feminine, draped in the black folds usually worn by the assassins, her face hidden in the shadows. Silence stretched between them and then, mechanically almost, the woman at the door, her executioner, took a step forward just as her fireplace roared back to life and Hevasti jumped to her feet, because she knew that face, had fought side by side with that women and oh the betrayal hurt all the worse.

“You,” she whispered in horror, her eyes wide and scanning at the impassive woman, looking for any sign of recognition. “How can it be you?” Why you? No matter how good a cover, this is too much. You wouldn’t kill a comrade to get to a target, right Destra?” Destra took another mechanical step closer, seemingly not hearing a word, a long, needle-sharp dagger now dangling from her hand.

 

Step for step they danced around the room, the distance between them staying the same, Hevasti’s harsh breaths and the now raging storm outside the only sounds in the room. Her back bumped against the white fabric hanging from the loom and she choked down a sob.

“Destra, you know me,” she tried franticly again, hoping against all hope for a sign, any sign of recognition. “Marti brought you to us, I dyed your hair black, showed you how to do it on your own, how to change appearances like they’re only dresses. Remember that Duke we had to seduce, the one who thought we were siblings the three of us and walked in on you and Marti kissing? Or, or that washer woman who thought we were artists because of all the paint stains in our clothes?” Another sob, this one tumbling from her lips as her former friend she would have been a sister if you hadn’t taken her from your brother because you were jealous of his happiness closed the distance between them and raised the dagger. The wind rushed in and finally smothered the fire, darkness descending on them just like the needle-like weapon came down on her.

 

“I want to die in autumn,” Hevasti, Seela, Rajiya had told her brother when she was seven. It was autumn then and they were sitting at the porch of their house watching the gold and red leaves dance at the breeze.

“You are weird,” was his mumbled reply.

“But why not?” her fingers brushed the fallen leaves around them. “Everything else dies in the autumn, why not us? Wouldn’t it be nice to know when you’ll die? To know how much time you have? Everything would be much more fun if you knew it was the last time you were doing it! Even boring stuff like, like,” she looked around, searching for something appropriately boring. “Watering the plants!” she concluded triumphantly. “Wouldn’t it be fun if you knew, you’d never ever ever do it again?”

“No,” her brother said, poking an ant with a twig. “It’d be sad. What if it was something you really liked? Or someone important? Goodbyes are not fun.” Rajuya frowned thoughtfully.

“No,” she sighed. “I suppose not.”

 

The precious white cloth was stained red with her blood and it was probably ruined. Rajiya thought absently what a disappointment that’d be for Arta when she found out. Her legs gave out and she slumped against the skeleton of her loom, slowly bleeding out. Her assassin long gone, she looked at the hut that was to be her tomb before dipping a finger in the small pool of blood at her feet and slowly, painstakingly, she wrote her name, the true one, on the floor. The eternal night was drawing near and with a wet chuckle Hevasti Seela Rajiya laid herself on the floor next to her name.

“Guess I got my wish,” she whispered to the storm still moaning outside and then she was no more.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Decisions

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Author’s Note:  In which decisions are made, shippings are shipped and the canon is laid to rest.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Decisions***

Toph woke up first the next morning. For a few moments she remained lying motionless on the floor, taking in the vibrations around her. Sokka was sleeping outside of his sleeping bag, his arms and legs sprawled in every possible direction. Aang was curled into a small ball, with Momo sleeping next to him. Finally Katara… Toph paused disbelieving. She took her feet off the ground and then felt again the vibrations. It felt like the waterbender was asleep facing Zuko. The Fire prince was facing her too, their hands entwined. So they did make out last night! the little earthbender thought satisfied. Iroh was still asleep, judging from the rumble coming from his room, but Lia was already up and, if her nose was telling the truth, making breakfast.

 

The Spirit looked up from her work, when she sensed another presence near her. She smiled warmly at the petite girl entering.

“Good morning Toph. Did you sleep well?” she asked cheerfully. Toph looked at her suspicious.

“Why are you so friendly?” she asked.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Lia shrugged. “I ceased judging people hastily a few thousand years ago. Besides,” she paused for a moment and lowered her voice to a whisper, “I kind of have a favour to ask you.”

“I knew it would be something like this!” the earthbender said angrily. “Every time someone acts nice to me it’s because they want a favour! Well bring it on! Should I also teach Sparky earthbending? He can’t be any harder than Twinkle-Toes!”

“I was actually going to ask you not to tell him or Sokka about Zuko and Katara. I don’t think they’d react well to the news.” Lia told her calmly, unfazed by the younger girl’s outburst.

“Oh.” Toph smiled sheepishly. “I acted like an idiot, didn’t I?” she asked.

“No, you acted like a twelve-year-old who is sick of being pushed around.” Lia ruffled Toph’s hair teasingly and ducked the answering punch with a chuckle. “By the way, how about a quick spar before breakfast?”

“You’re on!” Toph turned to exit the house but turned back immediately. “Oh, and about the lovebirds? I won’t tell, but if they want to keep it secret, they’d better wake up soon.”

 

Zuko woke up half-convinced that last night had been a wonderful dream. He had told Katara his feelings and that she had returned. He opened his eyes to see Katara’s peaceful face inches from his. The young man smiled spying their hands laced together. Nope! Not a dream after all! He leaned down and kissed the still sleeping girl lightly. Katara opened her eyes and smiled at him. It made Zuko’s heart flutter.

“Good morning,” she told him sleepily.

“Slept well?” Zuko asked her.

“Uh-huh.” Katara sat up and looked around. “Toph’s already up. That’s strange.”

“So is Lia,” Zuko added surveying the room. “They’ll probably be in the kitchen.”

The two teens went to the kitchen, to find it empty. They exchanged questioning glances. Where could the two girls be? As if to answer them a rumble was heard from outside. They rushed to the door to see Toph and Lia sparring furiously.

 

Toph noticed them first. “Well look who’s up!” she commented avoiding a few flames that nearly singed her tunic. “Had a good night Sugar Queen?” Katara blushed a little.

“Well, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to join us?” Lia asked, melting a rock Toph sent to her. “Toph and I against you two.” Zuko smiled at the challenge.

“You’re on.” The two pairs took stances and began. Zuko was immediately attacked by both Lia and Toph who seemed to have way to much fun ganging up on him. Katara came to his aid, driving the Fire Spirit away. The waterbender soon realized that her opponent was going easy on her, shooting comments to Zuko all the time.

“Use more heat and fewer flames,” Lia advised even as she ducked a waterwhip. Katara turned curiously and saw Zuko floating a little over the ground, a look of concentration on his face. Toph was looking around, obviously trying to understand where her opponent had disappeared. Zuko shot a blast near her, making the little earthbender jump. Lia smiled at her student, who was now approaching her with a challenging smirk. He sent a fire ball towards her. She caught it and sent it back to him in the form of a dagger. Zuko raised an arm to protect himself, but he had miscalculated the force and stumbled, landing on his ankle.

“Oh my goodness!” Lia rushed to his side worried. “I’m sorry Zuko. Did you get hurt?” Zuko was holding his ankle with a pained expression.

“I think I sprained it,” he muttered. Katara knelt next to him and moved his hands away softly. She took water out of her pouch and formed the healing glove. Zuko watched astonished as the pain steadily disappeared.

“We’d better stop for now,” Katara said. “It’s time for breakfast anyway.”

“Does this happen every time you spar?” Toph asked curiously.

“No, usually he just lands rather roughly.” Lia answered with a strained laugh. Zuko heard the tension on her voice and turned to her.

“Lia I’m okay, really. You worry too much.” His sister smiled.

“I guess you’re right. I was overreacting.” She turned towards the house and if there was still tension in the way she held herself, none of the teens commented on it.

 

Once inside, Lia went immediately to the stove. She wiped the ashes and some coal away, to reveal a metal box. Calmly she took it on her hands and opened it.

“What are you doing? You’ll burn yourself!” Katara exclaimed worried.

“She doesn’t have a problem,” Zuko told her reassuringly. Indeed Lia took out the freshly baked bread so calmly, as if it wasn’t much warmer than a stone.

“I’ve touched warmer things.” She said lightly. “Besides, you kids forget that I am Fire. Heat, ash, flamed…They don’t bother me.”

“You know,” Toph said mischievously, “I never thought that a spirit like Agni would be so… unspiritlike.”

Lia’s eyes darkened. “Don’t call me that,” she warned dangerously.

“Why?” Toph asked confused. She had sensed the threatening undercurrent.

“She just hates the name,” Zuko explained hastily.

“What name?” Sokka yawned entering. His face brightened seeing breakfast already served.

“Good morning everyone!” Aang called behind him.

“Good morning boys,” Lia greeted them, all previous bad mood forgotten. Sokka’s face fell, noticing her and Zuko for the first time. Toph looked around.

“Iroh isn’t up yet,” she noted surprised. “I thought firebenders rose with the sun.”

“The exceptions are those that make the rule,” Lia said wisely.

“We’d better wake him anyway,” Katara said. “He needs to eat something.”

“Yeah, before Snoozles over there devours the universe,” Toph laughed. Zuko stood up.

“I’ll go get him,” he offered.

 

He returned minutes later with Iroh. The old man smiled sleepily to everyone before sitting between Toph and Lia. He seemed to liven up a little when Lia passed him his tea. Zuko took his seat next to Katara. There was an awkward silence hanging over the table.

“So…” Zuko began awkwardly, “where are you going to go next?” Aang opened his mouth to answer, but Sokka cut in.

“Don’t answer him! He’ll probably be there waiting for us.”

“No I won’t!” Zuko protested. He turned to Aang. “I won’t be hunting you anymore.”

“Still, it’s classified.” Sokka insisted smugly.

“Actually we don’t know where we’ll go yet.” Katara glared at her brother, even as she smiled encouragingly to the firebender on her side.

“What will you guys do?” Aang asked still surprised that Zuko wouldn’t be after him anymore.

“This is a great question. Where do you go when you are wanted for different reasons from two different countries?” Lia pondered aloud.

“You could come with us.” Toph offered (Sokka choked on his shock.) “It can’t be any more dangerous than it has already has been for you or us.” Calmly she slapped Sokka in the back, causing him to splutter and take a couple deep breaths.

“It’s very kind of you my dear,” Iroh said gratefully, “But we wouldn’t want to become a burden to your friends.”

“We’ll discuss this later,” Katara said decisively, still eyeing her red-faced brother as if she expected him to explode. “Now there are things to be done. Toph, will you train with Aang again today?”

“Sure, come on Twinkle-Toes.” Toph sprung to her feet and dragged Aang outside with her, ignoring his protests. Katara turned to the rest of them. Before she had a chance to say anything Lia jumped in.

“I could spar with Sokka!”

“I’m not a bender! How can we spar?” the boy asked alarmed.

“With swords! Who do you think taught the prince over there how to duel?” the Sprit said as if it was obvious.

“Okay,” The warrior said, the challenge already shining in his eyes. Iroh stood up as well.

“I’m going to take a walk. It is fascinating how much nature clears the head.”

 

Once everyone else was out Katara began cleaning. Zuko made a movement to help her, but she pushed him back down.

“You’d better rest,” she told him. “I have never healed something like this before.”

“It feels fine,” Zuko objected.

“Still! You might accidentally strain it again.” They battled stares for a few moments before Zuko smiled.

“Are those healer’s orders?” he asked cheekily.

“Yes!” she answered exasperated.

“You know, you’re really cute when you’re angry,” Zuko told her all of a sudden, blushing as soon as the words left his mouth. Katara blushed and smiled shyly. She finished her chores quickly and they went to sit outside.

 

Sokka and Lia were still practicing in the distance. Sokka was obviously having a hard time. Iroh was nowhere to be seen, and neither were Toph and Aang.

“Seriously now,” Katara said, “why don’t you come with us?”

“Neither your brother nor the Avatar would welcome us. It would just add tension.”

“I don’t think Aang would be much of a problem. He needs to learn firebending eventually.”

“It’s still not so simple,” Zuko tried to explain to her. “I don’t know if uncle Iroh or Lia would want to come too. I don’t want to force it on them.”

“I don’t know about Iroh, but I have no objections about tagging along. Sokka is fun to mess around with.” Lia materialised next to him.

“Where is he now?” Katara asked the Spirit curious. Lia shrugged.

“He went to find the others. I’m sure I heard Toph yelling at him as I came back.”

Zuko looked at her uncertainly. “Do you think we should travel together?”

 

Lia stretched on her back, gazing at the sky thoughtfully. “It’s not as if we have anywhere to go,” she said thoughtfully. “And I’m willing to bet that Iroh has a few plans of his own. Maybe it would be better if we kind of let him in peace to do whatever he wants. It would also be good for Aang to know he has a firebending teacher. And I’m sure neither of you would have much of an objection.” She lazily raised her head to see the two teens avoiding each other’s gaze blushing. “I thought as much,” she remarked laying back down. “You’d better go talk with Iroh, Zuko. If he doesn’t have any objections, it will be only Sokka disagreeing.” The two teens shot her a look. She looked at them surprised. “What? Toph had been pestering Aang to let us come with you ever since they left the house! He’ll come around, even if it’s just to get away from her.”

 

Zuko rolled his eyes. He had gotten used to Lia’s way of thinking (not that he always understood her) and he knew she had a way of reading other people’s thoughts. But now he saw her through Katara’s eyes, and it sounded like a lot of nonsense. He stood up carefully. “I guess you’ll make me go and talk to him,” he said at the Spirit.

“No need. You’ve already decided it,” she told him cheekily. Zuko sighed and waved goodbye to the two girls, before leaving to find his uncle.

 

Katara glanced at the Spirit nervously. She didn’t know what to say to her now that they were alone, but they couldn’t just sit there not saying anything.

“You know, you made Zuko really happy yesterday,” Lia suddenly told her.

“Really?” Katara looked at her surprised. The other girl was now sitting, facing her with a serious expression.

“He’ll kill me for telling you, but he has been falling for you for quite some time now,” she said. Katara blushed.

“How long?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“Oh, he noticed you back at the South Pole alright, but it didn’t hit him before your little encounter with the pirates.” Lia laughed. “When I told him that that necklace of yours was a betrothal gift…” she was laughing so hard she could hardly breathe. Zuko’s horrified expression had been priceless.

“It’s been quite a shock for me too,” Katara said dryly. A thought occurred to her. ‘That’s why you said it was about time we talked?” Lia nodded. She had noticed how awkward the waterbender was acting around her.

“Katara, really, there’s nothing to be nervous about. Relax!”

“It’s just that…” the girl tried to explain.

“Would it be different if I hadn’t told you I’m a Spirit?”

“I guess.” Katara admitted. “I should be used on Spirits. La! I’m traveling with the Avatar. It’s just I have always imagined the Fire Spirit different.”

“If it makes you feel better I wasn’t always a Spirit,” Lia said. “Besides, the Spirit World is very much like the physical world. Anyway, would you ever imagine that Spirits as powerful as Tui and La would chose the forms of fish?”

“I guess not.” Katara said unsurely.

“How did you imagine me?” Lia asked curiously. Katara had started to relax, with the semi-normal conversation they were having.

“Full of flames,” She said jokingly. Lia winked. She stood up and moved away a little. She closed her eyes and suddenly she looked…different. Her eyes seemed older and her hair and dress danced in an invisible breeze, trailing sparks behind them and moving almost like actual flames.

“Like this?” she asked teasingly.

“Pretty much,” the waterbender said uneasily. Lia closed her eyes once more and the next moment she was back at her old self: still otherworldly but somehow more human.

“I rarely take this form,” she explained. “It’s not practical to go around in it. And to be honest with you, I don’t really like it.”

“Can you tell me about the Spirit World?” Katara asked curiously. “It sounds like an unbelievable place to me.”

“It is unbelievable at the beginning,” Lia said, sitting down. She hadn’t told stories to anyone for a long time.

 

Zuko walked towards the canyon. Sure enough his uncle was there. He sat comfortably on a flat rock chatting with Toph while Aang was practicing nearby. Sokka was nowhere to be found. Once he was near Toph called.

“Well, if it isn’t Sparky!” Zuko winced at the new nickname. At least it was better than “Zuzu”.

“Can I talk with you uncle?” he asked formally, ignoring the smirking earthbender.

“Of course,” his uncle stood puzzled and followed him back to the forest. They walked in silence for a few minutes. Iroh looked at his nephew surprised. It wasn’t like him to hesitate opening a conversation. Meanwhile Zuko was trying to think how to begin.

“Uncle, what are we going to do from here?” he finally asked. So that was it! Iroh knew that Zuko wanted to go with Katara. It surprised him that he hesitated.

“What do you want to do prince Zuko?” he asked the teen.

“I want to travel with Katara and the others, but…” Zuko looked at his uncle uncertainly. “I don’t want to force you or Lia to follow me.” Iroh smiled proudly. His nephew had come a long way over the last few months. It was time to let him go.

“I believe it is time to continue on separate paths,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Zuko looked at him alarmed.

“You and Lia will travel with the Avatar. It has been your destiny all along my nephew.”

“But what about you uncle?”

The old General smiled. “I will head to Ba Sing Se. I have some business to take care of.”

“What business?” Zuko insisted. What could his uncle mean by that?

“Oh, just old people’s stuff,” Iroh said indifferently. His nephew didn’t seem convinced. “I will explain everything to you in due time. But for now, do you agree with this arrangement?” Zuko looked at him for a long time before nodding. “Marvelous!” Iroh said satisfied. “Now, I think we should get back. A cup of tea before packing is necessary!”

 

Zuko followed his uncle exasperated. Even if the end of the world came, Iroh would invite it for a cup of tea before getting down to business. As they neared the house they heard laughter. Lia and Katara were still sitting outside the house talking. Or more accurately laughing. When they saw the two men approaching, they tried to stifle their giggles, to no avail.

“What’s so funny?” Sokka called, appearing at the clearing almost simultaneously with the two Fire Nation men. At his sight the two girls began laughing again.

“Zuko you have to see this one!” Lia called him, when she managed to catch her breath. She created a rather large circle of flames. Sokka’s face appeared in it.

“His name is Zhao,” the Sokka on the image said. “Middle-aged, big sideburns, bigger temper.” The image disappeared. Everyone but Sokka was laughing.

“This is the most accurate description of Zhao I have ever heard,” Lia declared. At this Sokka’s face turned from annoyed to smug.

 

Once they had caught their breaths Katara turned to Zuko. “So, what did you decide?” Zuko looked around uneasily.

“I would like to travel with you if you want me in your group.”

“I’m tagging along!” Lia rushed to add. Katara turned to Iroh.

“What about you General Iroh?” she asked. He shook his head.

“My place is not amongst all you young people,” he said. “I will continue on my own. But,” he winked at Katara, “I trust you to take care of my nephew.” The girl blushed.

“Absolutely…” Sokka began crossly.

“Yes!” his sister finished. Sokka looked ready to have a seizure.

“What?” he yelled at Katara. She merely pushed him away, unfazed.

“Aang needs a firebending teacher,” she simply said.

“She’s right Sokka,” Aang’s voice was heard. He and Toph had returned. The airbender turned to the firebender and the Fire Spirit. “You are welcome to come with us,” he said with a hesitant smile.

“Okay! Now this is settled let’s start packing,” Lia said, rubbing her hands eagerly.

“Oh, right! My opinion doesn’t matter at all,” Sokka grumbled, stomping back to the house.

 

Aang thought it would take them more than usual to pack with two extra people. But to his amazement it took less. Zuko and Lia made a good team and they seemed to collaborate perfectly with everyone else. Sokka seemed to be the only one having serious trouble. He would glare at the prince with every chance he had. But even he couldn’t remain angry, seeing the amounts of food they packed. Finally the time came for farewells. The teens wished goodbye to Iroh and took off. The old General stood looking at the bison until he disappeared at the horizon. Then he left with a secret smile. He had some old friends to meet.

In which there is coffee….

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For the longest time I refused to drink coffee. Even the smell of it made my skin (figuratively) crawl. Like many things in our lives I can blame this on my mother. You see, she loves coffee (as in OTP) and one of my earliest memories involves scarfing down my breakfast in order to catch the school bus while the entire kitchen smelled like Starbucks during rush hour. Pleasant smell yes; but really bad associations. Earlier this year I caved to my inner masochist and bought a mocha in an effort to stay awake during my (boring-to-tears) Journalism seminar. I can’t say it was love at first sip but it did the job. Mocha became my substitute when I didn’t feel like hot chocolate. -Ironically I managed some really nasty burns with how chocolate, which has always been my favourite, but never with anything remotely coffee related-

And then summer came, and I came back to Greece and eventually in the small island of Paros which I love to bits but which does not serve mocha. Anywhere. And believe me, I’ve checked. But a girl needs to force herself awake somehow, especially when there are day-trips involved, and in a second masochistic impulse I tried a… freddo cappuccino. Now, I’m sure most of you have watched Looney Tunes at some point. You how Speedy Gonzales speaks when he’s on his rapid-fire mode? Well, I was like that. Gods know what I was babbling about, I can’t remember. I do remember that at some point there was a sing-along involved (one that lasted at least 30 minutes…). Point being: my father’s reaction when I made it home giggling like a madwoman: “Are you drunk?” No, daddy dearest, I’m not…

Am I going to drink coffee again? Should I? I think the answers are occasionally and no. I must admit it was funny having the world about me look like an episode of Looney Tunes (even if Taz didn’t feature, pity!) but I can achieve the same results with two strawberry daiquiris and frankly the context in which I end up with a coctail on each hand sounds more promising in terms of F.U.N.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Bitter Work

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Author’s note: In which painful lessons are learned, Sokka is the butt of this week’s joke and the shipping is not implied anymore! -cue the (not so) inner fangirl screams-

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

*** Bitter Work ***

When Iroh woke the next morning dawn was just breaking. He felt weak, but in surprisingly less pain than he thought he ought to be. He tried to rise but he couldn’t. With a grunt he turned his head to take in his surroundings. On his side Zuko was asleep facing him. Even now he had a worried expression etched on his face. Next to him slept Lia. She was using his nephew as a cushion, something Iroh found adorable. They could easily be passed for siblings, if it wasn’t for the Spirit’s red hair. Such a scene would never unfold between Zuko and Azula. He was feeling more and more tired by just thinking all this through, so he drifted back to sleep. The next time he woke was by the smell of tea and the sound of quiet conversation.

 

Zuko had woken up early, feeling a strange weight resting on his stomach. Opening his eyes cautiously, he saw Lia sleeping soundly. Uncle Iroh also seemed asleep. Zuko stood up carefully, trying not to wake his friend. Lia mumbled in annoyance at the shift but she went right back to sleep, snuggling deeper inside the sleeping bag. She reminded him of a cat, curling next to the fireplace to get warm. He decided to go check on the provisions she had stored. Hopefully there would be tea there too. If nothing else could wake his uncle, tea would. To his surprise, he wasn’t the first to rise from bed. Katara was already in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. She was having trouble with lightning the fire, he noted smiling.

 

Katara had been trying to light the fire for fifteen minutes now, to no avail. Just as she was about to give up and let the others figure out breakfast, the stove sprung to life. Startled she turned to see Zuko leaning against the doorway.

“I thought you could use some help,” he said casually. “By the way is there any tea?”

“Thanks,” Katara hastened to say. She looked around at the cupboards. “I didn’t have time to check through all of these. You like tea for breakfast?” she asked curious.

“Not really,” Zuko shrugged. “But it is the only thing that would convince uncle Iroh to wake up.” He couldn’t believe he was having an actual conversation with her at last. Even if it was only about his uncle’s drinking habits. He went over to some cupboards and started looking over them. Katara silently started to do the same on the other side of the wall. They met in the middle, their hands lightly brushing as they tried to open the cupboard the same time. Both teens flushed red and then burst out laughing at each other’s expression. Zuko opened the cupboard, still chuckling. Sure enough, inside it, there was everything they would need for a cup of tea.

 

Lia found them, still in the kitchen, half an hour later. They sat by the stove, talking and comparing their travels. When she entered, Zuko was listening with interest about Katara’s fight with Master Paku. The Spirit hated to disturb them, but she was a much better choice than Sokka or – Spirits forbid – Aang. She coughed loudly. The two teens jumped startled. Zuko relaxed immediately upon seeing her and Katara followed his example.

“I thought it would be better for you to know,” Lia said mischievously. “Aang has just woken Sokka and,” she paused for a moment, unsure about the other girl’s name. “The little earthbender too. Prepare yourselves.” As if to prove her words, Aang entered the kitchen.

“Today is the day! Can you believe it?” he was so ecstatic he didn’t notice Zuko sitting close to Katara, studying him with a bemused smile. “After all that time searching for a teacher, I’m finally learning earthbending!” Sokka stumbled in the kitchen behind the Avatar. He had a serious case of bedhead and his expression didn’t lighten even when the smell of breakfast reached him. Katara sighed.

“Aang I know you are excited,” she said handing him and her brother their breakfast, “but you needn’t have woken Sokka. You know he hates it.”

“Sorry,” Aang smiled sheepishly.

“Good morning earthbending student!” Toph yelled entering.

“Good morning sifu Toph,” Aang said equally laud.

“You never called me “sifu” Katara,” the waterbender observed with raised eyebrows.

“Well, if you think I should…” Aang started.

“Never mind!” Katara cut him off smiling as she handed Toph her plate. She shot a questioning glance at Lia. “Won’t you eat something?” she asked her.

“No, thanks,” the Spirit declined. “I’m rarely hungry.”

“Okay…” Katara said unsure.

 

Sokka nearly buried his head inside his plate, obviously not quite awake yet.

“Sorry Snoozles,” Toph told him sarcasm dripping from her words, “we’ll do our earthbending as quietly as possible,” she whispered. Zuko laughed upon hearing this. He remembered his few fights with earthbenders as nothing but noisy. Sokka stood, still muttering under his breath and retreated back to his sleeping bag.

“So what move are you going to teach me first?” Aang asked eagerly. “Rock-the-land? The Trembler? Oh, maybe I can learn to make a whirlpool out of land!” He didn’t notice Katara’s wince at the mention of the last trick.

“Bad memories?” Zuko whispered to her concerned. She nodded.

“Let’s start with move-a-rock,” Toph proposed calmly.

“Okay! Sounds good, sounds good.” Aang followed her outside. There was a small canyon twenty minutes from the house. Toph led him there, mindful of Iroh, who had still to awaken. Sokka, still wrapped in his sleeping bag had taken a seat near them to watch the lesson. Upon Aang’s first failed attempt to move a rock he snickered.

“Rock beats airbender,” he announced, more to himself.

 

Back at the house Lia had shooed Zuko and Katara out of the kitchen in order to clean up. The two teens went back to Iroh’s room carrying the tray with the tea along.

“Is she always like this?” Katara asked curiously Zuko.

“More or less. It makes you forget how powerful she really is,” Zuko shrugged. “Why did you wince when the Avatar mentioned the whirlpool?” he asked her back.

“When we first arrived to the Earth kingdom, we were supposed to meet with this General, who would provide us with an escort to Omashu. This man was obsessed with the Avatar State. He convinced Aang to try to trigger it, in order to lead an invasion to the Fire Nation.” She stopped, realizing what she had just said and to whom.

“I guess it didn’t work out,” Zuko said tonelessly.

“It didn’t,” Katara hurriedly assured him. “Finally the General resulted to attack Aang in order to force him into the Avatar State. When neither this worked, he trapped me into a whirlpool of earth. He freed me only when Aang went out of instinct into the Avatar State. But then he was impossible to control. He destroyed the whole courtyard, before he snapped out of it.”

Zuko looked angry. “So you’re telling me that this man purposely endangered you, in order to secure a weapon against the Fire Nation? He would make quite a pair with Azula.”

“Who’s Azula?” Katara asked him confused.

“My sister,” he answered bitterly.

“She is traveling with two other girls. One that throws darts and one that could paralyze me and take my bending away,” Katara told him. “Do you know them?”

“Their names are Mai and Tai Li,” Zuko explained. “They have been friends with Azula since childhood.”

 

Their heads shot up when they heard a groan from the bed. Zuko was immediately at his uncle’s side.

“Uncle?” he asked seeing the old man waking. “You were unconscious. Azula did this to you. It was a surprise attack.”

“Somehow that’s not so surprising,” Iroh commented, trying to sit up. Zuko took a cup from the tray.

“I hope I made it the way you like it,” he said hesitantly. He had never made tea before. Katara saw Iroh taking a sip and trying to stifle a disgusted expression. She stood and approached them not wanting Zuko to notice it.

“That was very… bracing.” Iroh looked up from his cup and saw her. “My dear,” he said. “I think I should be thanking you.” Katara blushed.

“It was nothing. I will just need to check on the wound one more time and then I will leave you two in peace.”  Zuko moved to make way for her, as she peeled off the bandages from Iroh’s wound, and bended water from a small basin she had brought, to form the healing glove. The wound was doing better than she had thought and she was finished quickly. She put the bandages back into place and left to go watch Aang’s lesson.

“Such a wonderful girl,” Iroh commented.

“She really is,” Zuko agreed in a whisper. He turned his attention back to Iroh, studiously ignoring Iroh’s teasing look. “So uncle, I’ve been thinking, it’s only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I’m going to need to know more advanced firebending if I want to stand a chance against her. I know what you’re going to say,” he added hastily. “She’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.”

“No, she’s crazy and she needs to go down.” Iroh said seriously. “It’s time to resume your training,” he added.

 

Meanwhile Katara had found the rest of her friends. A laughing Sokka informed her of Aang’s failed attempts before leaving to hunt. His sister couldn’t see why. There was plenty of meat in the house. She approached Toph and Aang.

“Maybe there’s a different way!” Aang was still hyper from excitement. “What if I came at the boulder from a different angle…?”

“No!” Toph cut him. “That’s the problem! You’ve got to stop thinking like an airbender. There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickily trick that’s gonna move that rock.” She shoved him to the ground to underline her words. “You’ve got to face it head on. And when I say head on, I mean like this!” She smashed the boulder with her head and started to go away in a huff. Katara ran after her.

“I’ve been training Aang for a while now,” she said to the impatient girl. “He really responds well to a positive teaching experience. Lots of encouragement and praise. Kind words. If he’s doing something wrong, maybe a gentle nudge on the right direction.”

“Thanks Katara.” Toph said sweetly. “A gentle nudge? I’ll try that.”

 

The waterbender wandered away from them ignoring the yells that echoed behind her from Toph and the occasional yelp from Aang. She was at loss of what to do. Aang and Toph were having their lessons, Sokka had disappeared to hunt, and there were no jobs to be done. She thought of returning to watch Zuko practice. Maybe they could spar a little. She halted as soon as she thought that. She was already thinking of the prince as a part of their team. They had barely spent a day together, yet she had noticed that she was opening up to him. That very morning they had sat together, sharing stories of their lives. They had already created a bond and Katara noticed surprised that she didn’t have a problem with it. Maybe they could even be friends… Or something more, a tiny voice on the back of her head whispered. The girl blushed furiously. She was so deep in thought; she didn’t notice she had returned to the small forest near the house. She didn’t even hear the sound of running water. Which resulted in her falling into a small stream. Katara smiled. She had just found what she was going to do today.

 

Sokka was perched on a tree near the forest too. He knew they had enough provisions thanks to Lia, but he wasn’t going to trust a Fire Spirit – one that was friends with Zuko of all people! Today’s breakfast had tasted a little funny. Under him, he saw a small cub passing. Sokka tried to tell what kind of animal it was, but he couldn’t.

“You’re awfully cute,” he said to himself, “but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.” He watched it approaching. “Just a bit closer…” He jumped screaming from the tree, to feel the earth giving way on the spot he landed. The cub neared him curiously. Sokka tried again to strike it, only succeeding to sink more on the narrow hole.

“You are one lucky little meat-creature,” he told the cub furiously.

 

Zuko and Iroh moved from the bedroom to the kitchen, where Iroh brewed a fresh pot of tea, before he began to instruct his nephew. Lia was leaning on the doorframe, listening curiously. It had been a long time since she had heard Iroh instructing Zuko, what with her travels and all.

“Lightning is a pure form of Fire,” the old man began, “without aggression. It is not filled with rage and emotion the way any other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula. To perform the technique requires peace of mind.” Iroh wondered whether his nephew was ready for such a step. Lightning didn’t suit his temperament at all.

“I see,” Zuko observed. “That’s why we’re drinking tea. To calm the mind.”

“Oh yes good point,” Iroh said cheerfully. He heard Lia laugh quietly from behind him and sobered hastily. “I mean, yes,” he said more seriously.

 

They moved outside to continue. Lia had followed them silently, watching their every move closely. It made Iroh a little uneasy.

“There is energy all around us,” he continued nevertheless. “The energy is both yin and yang, positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate these energies. This creates an imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance and in the moment the positive and negative energy come pressing back together, you provide release and guidance, creating lightning.” He motioned Zuko to pull back and once the boy did, he produced a lightning shot.

“I’m ready to try it,” Zuko said impatiently.

“Remember, once you separate the energy, you do not command it. You are its humble guide. Breathe first.” Iroh went to sit back with Lia.

“He is not ready yet,” she told him grimly.

“I know,” Iroh answered. “But he needs to understand it himself.”

They saw Zuko mimicking his uncle’s movements, but instead of producing lightning, he was blasted back. He tried again and again to no avail. Finally Zuko lost his patience.

“Why can’t I do it?” he asked both his uncle and Lia. “Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face! Like everything always does,” he added bitterly. Iroh opened his mouth to say something, but Lia stopped him. She walked to her student and placed a hand on his shoulder. Iroh studied her curiously.

“Stand up Zuko,” the Spirit told him calmly. The boy did as asked. “I want to show you something.” She stood right behind him and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Now, when I tell you, you will repeat the movement, okay? Just the movement. Don’t try to produce lightning.” Zuko nodded. He felt Lia taking a slow, deep breath and, “Now.”

 

He felt an unearthly calm wash through him. It emptied his mind, leaving him feeling cold. He repeated fluently the movements and was surprised to see lightning springing from his fingertips. Once the move was finished, Lia let go of him. The flow of emotions returned like a tidal wave, making him feel dizzy. She steadied him.

“That’s the price you have to pay to produce lightning; this emptiness. I don’t think you are ready to practice such a move regularly, without it affecting you,” she explained to Zuko. “Originally lightning was taught to grown adults, as the last step before receiving the title of a master.”

“She’s right,” Iroh added. “You won’t be able to master lightning unless you deal with the turmoil inside you.”

“What turmoil?” Zuko yelled at Iroh’s direction.

“Don’t you yell!” Lia snapped at him. “You know exactly what he’s talking about. Spirits above! I thought I was going to explode, holding all those feelings and thoughts back!” Zuko bowed his head. They were right of course.

“I apologise uncle Iroh,” he said bowing.

 

The scene reminded vividly to Iroh of that storm they had encountered on their ship. He had seen his nephew losing his hold and always marvelled at how he hadn’t fall into the sea. Now he had his suspicions of how it had happened, as well as for the reason behind Zuko’s improved attitude the following days.

“I know! I’m going to teach you a firebending move that even Azula doesn’t know. Because I made it up myself,” he said in a flash of inspiration. Lia smiled approvingly.

“Come on prince Gloomy,” she called affectionately the prince, nudging him with her shoulder. “I know you’re curious about it!” Zuko turned smiling slightly.

 

Somewhere else, inside the forest Sokka was losing his patience. He was stuck in that hole for hours, with his would-be lunch sitting comfortably on his head.

“You probably think I deserve this, don’t you,” he said at the cub. “Look I’m sorry I hunted you, but that’s just the natural order of things! Big things eat smaller things. Nothing personal. But this time it didn’t work out that way.” The little animal snuggled on his head and fell asleep. Sokka sighed. “I admit it; you’re cute. Okay you convinced me. If I ever get out of this there will only be a karmically correct, vegetarian existence for me. No meat. Even though meat is so tasty.” He sniffed, holding back tears at the thought. The cub jumped of his head and ran off. It returned moments later with an apple on its mouth.

“Hey! Looks like my karma is already paying off!” He tried to reach the apple, but he couldn’t with his hands literally glued inside the hole. Instead his boomerang fell of its sheath. “Now come back boomerang,” he ordered it frowning. Spirits I must have the worst luck in all four Nations.

 

Sokka and Zuko weren’t the only ones facing problems. Aang had quickly realized that earthbending was much harder than it looked. His airbender mind-frame was getting in the way of truly understanding the new technique. Besides training with Toph was so much different than training with Katara. Katara was lenient with him, never too tired to explain something again and again. Toph on the other hand yelled at him whenever he did something wrong. She was tough and expected him to pick up her attitude immediately. Finally Aang gave up and went to find Katara. She took one look at him and understood the situation. They were practicing waterbending together now, talking their – or more accurately his – problems over.

“You know this block you’re having is only temporary, right?” Katara asked him.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Aang passed her back the water they were bending. He was still embarrassed from being yelled at by Toph.

“You do realize that’s the problem, do you?” Katara insisted. “If you face this issue instead of avoiding it…”

“I know, I know, I know! I get it, alright? I need to face it “head on” like a rock. But I just can’t do it. I don’t know why I can’t but I can’t,” he blurted out angrily.

“Aang, if fire is the opposite of water, then what is the opposite of air?” his waterbending sifu calmly asked.

“I guess it’s earth.”

“That’s why it’s so hard for you to get this,” she explained. “You’re working with your natural opposite.” Aang looked at the water thoughtfully. “But you’ll figure it out. I know you will.” While she was talking she cut a small reed from behind her. She threw it at him. “Think fast!” she ordered. Aang quickly raised a wave in front of him, cutting the piece of wood in two. “Excellent!” Katara praised him. “You have the reflexes of a waterbending master.”

“Thanks Katara.” Aang bowed on her. “Sifu Katara,” he added.

 

Iroh took a long stick and started sketching in the dirt. This would need a longer introduction than lightning. He took a look at the teenagers sitting in front of him. Zuko had a look of serious concentration on his face, while Lia a bemused expression, as if she was trying to guess his words before he said them.

“Fire is the element of power,” Iroh began, sketching the symbol of fire. “The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will and the energy to achieve what they want. Earth is the element of substance,” he continued, again sketching the element’s symbol. “The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring. Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom.”

“They also had a great sense of humour,” Lia added. Iroh laughed at her remark.

“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them through anything.” Zuko’s thoughts turned to Katara. These things described her well.

“Why are you telling me these things?” he asked confused nonetheless.

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places,” General Iroh explained. “If you take only from one place it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements and the other Nations will help you become whole.”

“All this four elements talk is sounding like Avatar stuff,” Zuko remarked.

“That’s because the combination of all elements on one person is what makes the Avatar so powerful,” Lia explained. “You shouldn’t be surprised. Remember our lessons?”

“You see, the technique I’m about to teach you, is one I learned by studying the waterbenders,” Iroh concluded. Zuko’s face lightened. Whatever it was that uncle Iroh was going to teach him, was bound to be interesting.

 

They started practicing with some basic blocking moves. While they repeated the sequence Iroh continued explaining:

“Waterbenders deal with the flow of energy. A waterbender lets his defence become his offence, turning his enemy’s energy against him. I learned a way to do this with lightning.”

“You can teach me to redirect lightning?” Zuko had never thought it possible.

“If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow. You create a pathway through your fingertips, up your arm to your shoulder, then down into your stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It is called the sea of chi. Although,” he chuckled, “in my case it is more like a vast ocean. From the stomach you direct it up again and out the other arm. The stomach can take a critical amount of energy, but you must not let the lightning pass through your heart, where the damage could be deadly. You may wish to try a physical motion, to get a feel of the energy’s pathway like this.” They tried the movement a few times.

“Now are you focusing your energy? Can you feel your own chi flowing in, down, up and out of your body?” Iroh asked.

“I think so,” Zuko answered, still concentrated on the move.

“Come on,” Iroh said. “You’ve got to feel the flow.” Lia giggled seeing the old man making wave-like movements with his arms.

 

Half an hour later Iroh stopped his nephew. “Excellent!” he praised him. “You’ve got it.”

“Great! I’m ready to try it with real lightning!” Zuko said, sounding very much like Aang had that very morning.

“What?” Lia exclaimed.

“Are you crazy?” Iroh asked incredulous. “Lightning is very dangerous!”

“I thought that was the point,” Zuko insisted. “You teaching me how to protect myself from it.”

“But I’m not going to shoot lightning at you!” his uncle insisted horrified. “If you’re lucky, you won’t have to use this technique at all.” He walked away. Zuko turned hopeful at Lia.

“I never use lightning,” she told him gravely. “Besides, your uncle is right. You know the movement. You don’t have to prove anything.” A distant rumble was heard from the canyon.

“Well if you won’t help me, I’ll find my own lightning.” Zuko stormed off furious.

 

Katara returned to the house at almost sundown, thinking that everyone would be there already. Instead she found Iroh gazing worriedly at the darkening horizon and Lia pacing restlessly.

“What happened?” Katara asked worried. “Where is everyone?”

“Beats me!” Lia said. She looked furious. “But I know what I will do once I get my hands on Zuko. Nobody storms off like this into such weather alone. I swear I’m going to prevent him from bending for a month if he returns with so much of a scratch!”

The waterbender looked questioningly at Iroh.

“My nephew has some very set ideas on some topics,” the old man explained wearily. “Things turned out to be very different than what he thought and he refused to accept them.”

“Sokka’s missing too,” Katara said. “I’m going to find Aang and start looking for them.”

“I’ll go look around town,” Lia decided.

 

Katara raced to the canyon. Aang was sitting on a rock, his back to her.

“Aang, have you seen…” she tried asking him but he interrupted her.

“Meditating here!” he said, still annoyed with Toph.

“It’s important,” she insisted. “It’s almost sundown and Sokka and Zuko are missing. I think we should search for them.” Aang turned towards her in worry.

“We’ll find them faster if we split up. I’ll go search the forest and you go back to the house in case they return.” Katara nodded and took off again.

 

Toph, Aang and Sokka finally returned just as the sun set on the horizon. Katara had prepared dinner quickly and now was worried sick. Iroh was in no better condition. He didn’t want to think what his nephew would do in order to find lightning. Finally the trio arrived at the entrance.

“You found him!” Katara cried, feeling only a tiny little bit relieved. She hugged her brother, checking him for injuries.

“The whole time I was in that hole,” Sokka told her reflecting. “Not knowing if I would live or die. It makes a man think what’s really important. I realized…”

“Hey Katara, look what I can do!” Aang jumped in. He took an earthbending position, but she stopped him.

“Not now Aang.” She turned to Toph. “Do you know where Zuko is?” she asked.

“No clue Sugar Queen,” the earthbender said carelessly. “Can we go eat now?”

“Yes,” Katara said a little sadly. “Get inside. Dinner is ready.” They all entered the house.

 

Katara had just served Iroh when Lia returned. She looked exhausted.

“Hasn’t he returned yet?” she asked out of breath. Her face was almost ashy with fatigue.

“No. Where could he be?” Katara asked. She noticed the colour of the Spirit’s face. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“We must head in to the heart of the storm…” Lia muttered sitting next to a bewildered Sokka and then leaping right back up on her feet again. “I have to go find him.” Katara pushed her back down.

“No you don’t,” she ordered. “You stay here, rest and eat something. I’ll go find him.” She turned to Toph. “Don’t let her leave.”

“No problem.” The tiny earthbender had too sensed the tiredness in the other girl’s movements. Katara put on her cloak. “I’ll be back soon,” she promised.

 

The storm got worse the farther she went from the house. From the canyon earlier she had noticed a small cliff that seemed to loom higher than everything else.  Zuko would probably be there. No one had thought to search the rocky area. The storm was at its peak when she climbed to the top of the cliff. Indeed Zuko was there. From Katara’s point of view it seemed as if he was kneeling in front of the raging storm. Suddenly, she realized that he was sobbing. Hesitantly she approached him, unsure of what his reaction would be, and put a hand on his shoulder.

“What do you want?” he asked her harshly.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him back.

“Proving to myself what everyone else seems to know. That I’m a failure,” he said bitterly. Zuko didn’t understand why he was confiding in Katara, but he found he couldn’t stop the words.

“How could you be a failure?” the girl asked him in disbelief.

“Multiple reasons – take your pick.” The prince said with a humourless laugh. “I will never be the crown prince my father wanted. My sister will always best me at firebending. It took me sixteen years to understand what a monster my father is. Uncle Iroh will soon tire of me and leave me and so will Lia. I don’t even know who I am supposed to be and you…” he trailed off. They were now standing close, facing each other. Zuko had stopped crying but was still trembling. He turned away.

“What about me?” Katara asked him quietly.

“It doesn’t matter.” He answered still refusing to face her. “You don’t care anyway.”

 

What Katara did next surprised them both. She forced him to turn and face her, placing a hand on each side of his face.

“Zuko look at me.” She told him urgently. “You’re wrong. I care about you and you’re definitely not a failure.” He still refused to meet her gaze, so she did the only thing she could think of. She stood on her tip-toes and kissed him. Zuko was so shocked that he didn’t react at first. Katara broke away almost immediately, blushing crimson.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, turning to leave. What was I thinking, kissing him? she thought, close to tears. He obviously doesn’t like me. She felt a hand taking hold of her own. Katara caught Zuko’s unreadable expression just before he leaned down and kissed her.

 

It was as if they had been doing this forever. Zuko’s hands went immediately to the small of her back, pulling her closer. Katara felt hers move out of their own free will to each side of his face. Through the haze of her mind she could hear the small voice cheering. When lack of air became evident they pulled away.

“I think I’m falling in love with you Katara.” Zuko whispered trying to catch his breath, still holding her close. Said waterbender felt the teenage girl inside her wanting to squeal in delight. She didn’t though. Instead she snuggled closer to the boy’s warm body and said something she had been refusing to believe for a long time: “I think I’m falling in love with you too.”

 

They just stood there while the storm raged around them. Finally a thunderclap broke the spell. They pulled away smiling shyly at one another.

“We should go back. Everyone will be worried,” Katara said reluctantly. She didn’t want to leave his warm embrace.

“Let’s go then,” Zuko answered equally reluctant taking her hand once again.

 

The walk seemed to them to last mere seconds. Before they entered the house, Zuko paused and tuned Katara to face him.

“Do you want them to know?” he asked her hesitantly.

“No, not yet,” she answered unsurely. “Sokka and Aang will go crazy.”

“Then there is something I should do before we go in,” he said kissing her again. Katara felt him smile through the kiss. When they broke away she bended the water out of their clothes and hair and gave him another shy smile.

“Let’s go home.” Zuko told her, smiling back the biggest smile of his life.

 

Once they entered Toph opened her mouth to say something. Lia, spying the mischievous twinkle on the other girl’s eyes, quickly put her hand over the earthbender’s mouth.

“About time you two talked!” Lia cried out over Toph’s muffled protests.

“What do you mean ‘talked’?” Sokka asked her. Lia studied him for a moment before spreading her arms in the air and saying dramatically:

“I’m a Spirit! I’m supposed to say stuff that doesn’t makes sense!”

“That’s true,” Zuko said taking a seat next to Lia, with Katara on his other side. “Half the things you say are nonsense.”

“And the other half?” his ‘sister’ asked.

“You only understand it when it’s too late.”

“Gee! Thanks for the vote of confidence!”

Everyone laughed as the firebender and Fire Spirit continued their bickering, much like normal siblings would.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Chase

Standard

Author’s Note: In which the canon is shifted sideways, there is shipping and teenage hormones and a favour from way back is asked.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Τhe Chase***

That night Zuko and Lia camped within the forest again. Once the fire was set and food was being cooked, Zuko asked her the question that had been bothering him ever since she had lashed out at the town’s people.

“Why did you ask me if I was mad at you?” he questioned curiously.

“When I returned uncle Iroh told me you wanted to continue alone. I was going to respect your wishes, but had to make sure you’d be okay.”

Zuko tugged the small charm from under his shirt. “Wouldn’t this keep you informed?” he asked her.

“It would, but if I was too far away, I wouldn’t be able to get to you in time. Besides,” she added thoughtfully, “danger is subjective.”

“What about uncle?” Zuko asked her again.

“Oh, he’s probably tracking you down, helping whoever he finds on the way,” Lia told carelessly. “Did you expect anything else?”

“I guess not,” he answered smiling.

 

Later that night, Zuko was awoken by a strange noise. He turned to see Lia diving her hands inside the fire, pulling the flames out to the sides, as if trying to create a flat surface. Once she succeeded she muttered a few words under her breath and the flames tuned white. From Zuko’s point of view it was as if she was staring intently at the bright whiteness, but then pictures started to appear and disappear rapidly. He had time to make out a metal tank, a half-moon like cloud, the outline of a young girl dressed in green and finally an abandoned city in flames. There was much more, he was willing to bet, because Lia stopped the conjuration, looking rather grim.

“This is not good,” she whispered to herself. She closed her eyes for a few minutes, obviously re-picturing the images she had seen. Slowly a smile started to form on her lips. She opened her eyes. “But it could be worse!” she said louder.

“What did you see?” Zuko asked her. Lia raised an eyebrow.

“The reason that you’ll to be traveling alone for a few hours tomorrow – I have a small job to do.” She saw his disappointed look. “I promise by midday I’ll be finished! Come on Zuko! One would think you can’t survive without someone around to listen to your complaints!”

“And what do you suggest I do?” he asked her, irate.

“Look for tracks from a tank. That lovely, little sister of yours is looking for Aang personally.”

“How come she’s doing it alone?” Zuko looked at her disbelievingly. Lia shrugged.

“Beats me!” she said also confused.

 

Not very far from Zuko’s campsite Katara found herself exhausted. First she had to set camp nearly by herself – the boys weren’t much of a help. As soon as that was done, she had had to dismantle everything and store it away on Appa’s back. A metal tank-like…thing had appeared on the horizon and was quickly gaining on them. Aang, not wanting to get in a fight when it was nearly dark, had got everyone on board and flew to a nearby forest to hide. As if their mysterious stalker wasn’t enough, there was the latest addition to the group: Toph the blind earthbender who had tagged along to teach Aang. Katara didn’t know how to treat the younger girl. The earthbender refused to open up and let herself become a true member of the group. She preferred to stay on the sidelines, neither in nor out. The waterbender’s motherly instincts were working overboard around her, and, besides, she wasn’t sleeping well at nights. Her thoughts kept returning to Zuko. She was worried for the Fire Prince, although she couldn’t figure out why. She decided sleepily that once she had a decent night’s sleep, she would seriously think over the issue.

“Land, sweet land!” Toph exclaimed as soon as her feet hit the ground. She honestly hated flying. “See you guys in the morning!”

“Actually can you help us unload?” Katara tried for the third time the same evening.

“Really? You want me to help unload Sokka’a funky-smelling sleeping-bag?” Toph asked incredulously. Behind her Katara heard Sokka smell his sleeping-bag and making a disgusted noise.

“Well, yeah. That and everything else,” she told Toph annoyed. “You’re a part of our team now and…”

“Look I didn’t ask you to help unload my stuff,” the twelve-year-old girl said equally annoyed. “I carry my own weight.”

“That’s not the point! Ever since you’ve joined us you’ve been nothing but selfish and unhelpful.”

“What? Look here Sugar Queen; I gave up everything I had to teach Aang earthbending, so don’t you talk to me about being selfish.” She created a tent out of the ground with an angry movement and stormed inside.

“Sugar Queen?” Katara repeated in disbelief. The tent closed completely as an answer. “Did you just slam the door in my face? How can you be so infuriating?” She knew she acted childishly, but Toph always managed to punch her buttons.

“Okay, okay,” she heard Aang say, “you both need to calm down!”

“I’m perfectly calm!” she yelled at him.

“I can see that…” Aang moved away from her quickly and nervously.

 

They didn’t bother to set up their tents after this little scene. Everyone climbed into his or hers sleeping bag and that was it. Unlike the boys, Katara couldn’t fall asleep.

“The stars are beautiful tonight,” she commented loud enough for Toph to hear. “Too bad you can’t see them Toph!” The girl responded with an earth wave. Katara was launched in the air and landed on her brother.

“Hey, how’s a guy supposed to sleep with all this yelling and earthquaking!” Sokka yelled.

“That thing is back!’ Toph said alarmed, all previous annoyance forgotten for the moment.

“Oh no! How far away is it?” Sokka buried himself in his sleeping bag. “Maybe we can close our eyes for a few more minutes.” His voice was heard muffled.

“I don’t think so Sokka.” Aang said spying the smoke approaching. They were soon in flight again.

 

“Seriously, what is that thing?” Katara asked scared.

“And how does it keep finding us?” Toph added.

“I don’t know.” Aang turned to face them. “But this time I’m going to make sure we lose them.” There were a few rocky cliffs around them. They found one that was high enough and Appa landed heavily on it.

“Okay, forget about setting camp,” Sokka muttered, crawling inside his sleeping-bag again. “I’m going to find the softest pile of dirt and fall asleep.”

“That’s good, because Toph wasn’t going to help anyway,” Katara said venomously.

“Oh, I didn’t realize baby still needed someone to tuck her in bed,” Toph snapped back.

“Come on guys. We’re all tired and we don’t know what or who is after us,” Aang covered his head with his coat, too tired himself to be the peacemaker.

“It could be Zuko,” Katara said thoughtfully. Aang though she sounded a little too hopeful about the prospect. “We haven’t seen him since the North Pole,” she continued.

“Who’s Zuko?” Toph asked confused.

“Oh, just an angry freak with a ponytail who’s tracked us down all around the world,” Sokka informed her before burrowing his head into the dirt.

“What’s wrong with ponytails, ponytail?” Katara felt slightly offended on Zuko’s behalf. Inside her head she viciously stamped down the little voice telling her exactly why…

“This is a warrior’s wolftail,” her brother pointed out.

“It certainly tells the other warriors that you are fun and perky!” she teased him.

“Anyway, whoever is tracking us, can’t find us here, so please shush!” Momo jumped worried on Sokka’s chest. “Now Momo, shush! Sleepy time!” Sokka refused to open his eyes. That didn’t discourage Momo. Everyone sat up except for him. Sokka merely buried his head once again and whined. “Oh no, don’t tell me!”

“This is impossible. There’s no way they could have tracked us!” Aang said incredulous.

“I can feel it with my own two feet!” Toph insisted. Aang ran to the side and saw the weird tank approaching them.

“Let’s get out of here,” Katara ordered worried.

“Maybe we should face them, find out who they are.” Aang was unsure. “Who knows? Maybe they are friendly.”

“Always the optimist,” Sokka sighed.

The tanked stopped to reveal three girls riding giant lizards.

“It’s those three girls from Omashu,” Katara said, now truly scared.

“We can take them,” Toph said confidently. “Three on three.”

“Actually Toph, there’s four of us,” Sokka reminded her awkwardly.

“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t count you. You know, no bending and all…”

“I can still fight!’ Sokka yelled.

“Okay,” Toph amended. “Three on three plus Sokka.” She sent a few piles of earth on the girls. They dodged them easily.

“Okay, we found out who they were. Now let’s get out of here!” Sokka ordered nervously, making a bee-line for Appa.  They rushed to follow his example and soon they were once again airborne.

 

The next morning Zuko woke alone. It took him a few moments to register where Lia was. When the previous night’s events came to his mind he frowned. What was Azula doing after the Avatar, alone? It didn’t make any sense to him. I guess I’ll find out soon, he thought as he set off in search for tracks. He found them soon enough. Along the trail there were a few bits and pieces of white hair. Zuko guessed it belonged to the Avatar’s bison. By midday he was getting impatient. The tracks seemed endless.

“Time to change course.” Lia appeared next to him half-walking half-floating.

“Took care of your errands?” he asked her icily. Zuko was getting tired of the never-ending nothingness. Lia shrugged good-naturedly.

“You will be grateful for this later. Anyway, there is an abandoned city nearby. You will find there both your sister and Aang.” She paused thoughtfully. “Isn’t there a proverb for this kind of things?” she asked.

“You’d better ask uncle.”

 

She had said nearby but the setting sun was painting the sky orange by the time they arrived. Hearing voices ahead Zuko dismounted silently. He and Lia approached the main road from the shadows. Lia whispered with her rarely heard stern voice, “The same deal, okay?” Zuko nodded. He wouldn’t have it any other way. After all it wasn’t the Avatar he was after this time. They heard Azula’s condescending voice:

“Do you really want to fight me?” Before Aang had a chance to answer, Zuko cut in. “Yes,” he said. “I really do.”

“Zuko?” Aang exclaimed startled.

“I was wandering when you’d show up Zuzu,” his sister asked.

“Zuzu?” Aang giggled under his breath. Azula noticed Lia, who had silently moved and was now backing up her brother.

“And you brought company too? Marvelous!” the princess continued. Lia lowered her arms a little and gave her a long look.

“You know,” Lia said, “you just proved wrong two things I’ve always believed about princesses.”

“And what would these be?” Azula asked curious.

“Firstly that they ride something better than an oversized lizard and secondly that they dress a tiny little bit more stylishly,” the Spirit said mischievously. Zuko and Aang laughed at this. Azula frowned dangerously.

“You’d better back off Azula.” Zuko warned his sister, slipping into a bending stance, all previous mirth gone.

“I don’t think so.” She answered falling into a stance too. Aang hastened to follow their examples.

 

Zuko measured his two opponents, trying to decide where the first hit would come from. The Avatar was obviously exhausted, unlike Azula. Indeed she fired first. Zuko blocked the hit, but the impact sent him flying against a wall. Azula aimed her next fire bolt to Aang. The boy took off on his air scooter, trying to avoid the flames, while Lia called the majority of them to her. The blue flames twirled around her and seemed to intensify, flaring white for just one moment, as she sent them to Azula’s direction. The princess dodged them and charged at the Avatar, running on the roofs. She jumped to him, but Aang managed to avoid her again. Whipping up another air scooter he approached Zuko. He preferred him to his sister as an opponent. To his surprise though, the other boy didn’t try to attack him. Both he and Lia were shooting flames at Azula. The latter was growing frustrated. She had to fight the Avatar – who wouldn’t stand still for a second – her brother and his mysterious friend. That girl unnerved her. She was merely moving her arms, not even falling into the simplest stance, yet it was as if she was talking to the fire surrounding her. And she obviously had a lot of time to practice with her brother. They backed each other perfectly.

 

Aang took advantage of her distraction and ran inside a house, with Azula hot on his heels. The girl nearly fell, as there was no floor left, but managed to keep her balance somehow. Zuko, who came running immediately after her, wasn’t so lucky. Azula saw him fall, slow down and land perfectly. He rushed to his feet. His sister concentrated on shooting flames at the Avatar, who dodged them. Then she felt someone pushing her roughly. She turned to see Lia waving goodbye at her with a cheeky smile. Azula landed next to her brother, though much less gracefully. Zuko smirked.

“Crash landing?” he asked her teasingly. She sent a blast at him. He was knocked out as he landed on the road. Lia’s expression darkened and she turned to Azula. She sent a huge ball of fire at the younger girl, missing her by an inch. Having pushed the princess at a safe distance she returned to Zuko, feeling more presences approaching.

 

The first thing Katara saw when she reached the city was the mysterious young woman she had seen at the North Pole, kneeling over the prince. She looked up for a moment motioning her to enter a house. She did, in time to send a waterwhip and prevent the girl from Omashu – who, she now realized, resembled Zuko terribly – from burning Aang. With another whip she freed the boy. Then she ran for her life. Sokka appeared from another ruin and blocked Azula’s way with his machete, giving Katara a chance to summon more water from her pouch. Together the three of them started to circle the princess.

 

Meanwhile Lia was still trying to wake Zuko. As he opened his eyes a shadow fell on them.

“Uncle?” Zuko mumbled, not really awake yet.

“Get up,” Iroh ordered him. Together with Lia, he helped his nephew on his feet. They surveyed the battle. Katara, Sokka and Aang were giving Azula a field day. Suddenly the land slid from under her feet, causing her to lose her balance. The petite form of a girl dressed in green appeared.

“I thought you guys could use some help,” Toph said cheekily.

“Toph!” Katara called smiling. “Thanks.” Together they ran after Azula. The princess was beginning to rethink her whole plan. Even without her brother and his friend they were too many for her to handle on her own. She looked over her shoulder to check if they were gaining on her. It was a wrong thing to do, and she fell right on Iroh. She backed away slowly until her back hit a corner. They had trapped her, leaving no exit.

“Well look at this,” she commented, sweeping her eyes on them. “Enemies and traitors all working together. I surrender. I’m done. I know when I’m beaten.” She raised her hands on the air. “You caught me. A princess surrenders with honor.”

No one lowered their guard. Iroh let his gaze slip from Aang to Toph, trying to decide which one Azula would find easier to hit. His niece caught his gaze. Moving suddenly she hit him instead. Even as the old man fell unconscious to the ground, the teenagers sent their combined powers against her. Aang cleared the smoke from the resulting explosion, to discover that Azula had disappeared. Zuko rushed to his uncle’s side, refusing to believe what had just happened. He felt Katara approaching behind him.

“Zuko, I can help,” she told him with earnest worry in her voice.

 

Zuko almost declined her offer. He only wanted them to leave him and his uncle alone. He was helpless and couldn’t stand, no refused to think, that Iroh might be dead. This was all the Avatar’s fault. The prince was ready to yell at them, but before he had a chance a hand was set firmly on his mouth, silencing him. A very grim-looking Lia was kneeling next to him. She forced Zuko to look at her and whispered:

“You owe me a favor.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” he spat.

“I ask it now. I want you to let Katara help Iroh.”

Zuko looked at her for a long moment before nodding. He turned to the waterbender: “Please,” he said quietly.

 

Katara – who had been staring at Lia, surprised – jerked and hastily knelt next to the fallen General. She took out her water, forming a healing glove, and placed it on the wound. Once the water was back on her pouch Zuko looked at her anxiously. She smiled warmly.

“He will be fine. He’ll probably wake up sometime tonight or tomorrow. I will need to check on him again though, once he’s awake.”

“Thank you” Zuko mumbled looking at the beautiful girl next to him with awe. Katara blushed a little.

“There is a little abandoned hut nearby, by the woods,” Lia offered. “We could stay there and be safe.”

The Spirit and the Water Tribe girl shared a look.

 

“Sokka, come here” his sister called him.

“What? Why?” the warrior whined, still shooting suspicious looks at Zuko.

“You, Zuko and I will carry…” she trailed, realized she didn’t know the old man’s name.

“Iroh,” Toph said. She had paled when she felt her old friend falling.

“Thank you, Iroh on the saddle. We will have to stay together until he is well enough to travel.”

“Katara, what are you talking about?” Aang asked aghast.

She put on her “mother face”: “You can either do so or just drop us there and then leave. Because. I. Am. Staying.”

“So am I!” Toph added. Sensing everyone staring at her she shrugged. “What? He gives good tea and even better advice!”

“Sounds like Iroh to me.” Lia whispered to Zuko as she stood up. Sokka noticed her for the first time.

“Who are you anyway?” he asked her suspiciously.

“I’m Lia.”

Sokka looked at her expectantly. “And?”

“You don’t want to hear my entire life story. Trust me at least on this; it’s longer than it seems.”

“Sokka now it’s not the time for this!” Katara snapped. “Come help us!”

 

Knowing better than to argue with the waterbender, the two boys of Team Avatar did as she asked. Together the three teens managed to put Iroh safely on Appa’s saddle. Zuko hurried immediately to sit next to him. He took out a blanket from his backpack and covered his uncle. Katara blushed recognizing it. It was the blanket he gave her the night he had tried to bribe her with her mother’s necklace. The same thought seemed to cross his mind too, because he met her gaze and gave her a shy smile.

 

Lia sat next to Aang giving him directions, while Toph and Sokka were right behind them. Katara sat by them at first, but as soon as they were in the air she scooted nearer Zuko. They sat in awkward silence for a while, not really knowing what to say. Finally Zuko gathered enough courage to speak.

“Why did you help us?” he asked looking at the girl, who was currently bandaging Iroh’s wound. She looked up.

“I may be a waterbending master, but I’m also a healer. I couldn’t let him die. Besides that girl was right.”

“She’s my sister,” Zuko told her bitterly.

“Oh.” Katara had a feeling that there was more on this than he let out. “But we did team up in the end. And I would never leave a part of my team suffer,” she explained.

“So what, we are a team now?” he was surprised.

“I won’t force you to join if that’s what you fear,” she assured him. “But you have to admit that it sounds better than ‘enemies with benefits’.”

 

Despite his worries Zuko smiled weakly. Katara couldn’t help but notice how much more handsome he looked when he was smiling. Admittedly he also looked much better with short hair, more mature and serious. It made her feel secure to be near him. She remembered when he had held her…The memory made her blush and she turned quickly to stare at the front.

 

Meanwhile Zuko thought. He had been certain that Katara wouldn’t be any friendlier than her brother or the Avatar. But she seemed to genially care. He had seen her blush before she had time to turn. The thought of Katara caring made his heart grow and Zuko turned back to his uncle smiling faintly.

 

They soon arrived at the forest. What Lia had called a “hut” was in reality a small abandoned house.

“I’ve had it stocked. There are enough provisions for a few weeks,” she explained. At the mention of food Sokka seemed to glow. Zuko turned to Lia surprised.

“So that was your job! You knew this would happen?”

“I knew we’d end up here all together. Not the reason. It’s not as if future reveals everything to me!”

“Of course.” Zuko bowed his head.

“I saw that smile!” Lia hovered back to the saddle to help him. Katara laughed at their argument.

“Come on kids,” she called them. “We need to get Iroh inside.”

 

Zuko’s face turned serious immediately. He silently moved to help Katara, with Lia following him. They moved inside and placed Iroh on the first room with a bed they found.

“Hey!” Sokka called. “That’s my bedroom!”

“And why would that be?” Zuko asked, crossing his arms.

“It’s the one closest to the kitchen.” Sokka said as if it was obvious. “See?”

“Oh, I do see,” Zuko said raising an eyebrow. “It’s your stomach speaking. Never mind.”

“Sokka let at him be,” Katara scolded him.

“Don’t take the jerkbender’s side! There’s not another bed in the house!”

Katara opened her mouth to yell at him, but Zuko cut in.

“What did you just call me?” he said narrowing his eyes.

“Well no offence,” Sokka saif in a tone that suggested offence was very much intended, “but judging by historical evidence Fire in general is a jerk. So you’re a jerkbender.” His satisfied expression faltered a little when he saw three glares set on him. Zuko exchanged a look with Lia and she nodded. He turned to the warrior, smiling threateningly.

“Did I mention,” he asked, “that Lia is often called Agni?”

“You are named after the Spirit of Fire?” Katara asked wide-eyed.

“Actually…” Lia began.

“You are the Spirit of Fire!” Aang finished, standing  at door with Toph, his eyes wide with realization. Every single member of team Avatar was staring at her. Lia merely threw her arms in the air.

“Finally the great bridge between our worlds gets it.” She turned to Zuko. “It didn’t take you that long.”

“How can a Spirit be helping him?” Sokka asked incredulous.

“I have my reasons.” Lia narrowed her eyes. “And you young man risk some really nasty burns if you don’t shut up. Now…” she said to everyone. “If you’ve got nothing to do here, you’d better go get some sleep. You are all dead on your feet.”

 

They all disappeared on the rest of the house, only Katara stealing a glance behind her. She paused for a moment at the doorframe, opened her mouth as if to say something, but decided against it and left. Zuko took a seat next to his Uncle. Night had fallen and the older man hadn’t stirred. Lia took pity on the boy. She sat next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

“He’s going to be okay. Katara is really good at healing and Iroh is strong. He’ll make it.”

He looked at her. “But what if he doesn’t?” he asked her in a small voice. For a moment Lia found herself looking at the child Zuko had been when she had first seen him.

“He will. If you believe it, he will,” she assured him firmly, stubbornly blinking back tears. She smiled faintly at a thought. “I can’t wait to see Sokka’s expression in the morning. I bet that he will be bracing himself for an inferno.”

“Not to mention the Avatar,” Zuko added rolling his eyes. “You were right. For such a spiritual person it did take him long to figure it out.” He closed his eyes fighting exhaustion. The battle with Azula and the previous days of hardship had really drained him. But he had to remain awake. He forced his eyes open again. Lia looked at him sternly.

“You need to sleep too, you know. I promise I’ll wake you if something happens.”

 

They battled stares for a few moments, before Zuko turned, defeated. He took his shirt off and unrolled his sleeping bag. As he turned back, he sensed movement and looked up to see a nervous, blushing Katara standing at the door. She had let her hair down for sleep, he noted. She looked beautiful.

“I just came to check on Iroh,” she stammered still staring at Zuko. “Come and wake me if anything happens.” With one last nervous glance she disappeared.

“That was interesting…” Lia said. Zuko looked at her nervously. Unlike Katara she wasn’t staring at him, he noted with relief.

“Why was she looking at me like that?” he asked her confused.

Lia huffed annoyed at his ignorance: “She likes you!” she told him throwing her hands in the air. Zuko felt his face heat. Lia had never lied to him. His last conscious thought before he fell asleep was, Could this be true?