Those that wonder the night

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Shadows were dancing at the corners of Timmy’s eyes as he hurried home. The game of hide-and-seek he and his friends had been playing had lasted a lot longer than it should have and now Timmy, whose house was the one furthest from the park, had to make his way in the dark.

“The mayor should put some lamps around here,” he grumbled, repeating the words his father said every time they walked out after sunset. The shadows jumped again and this time Timmy could have sworn he heard something rustle. Shuddering, it was a cold night for the season, he told himself. Nevertheless he walked faster.

“This better not be the others trying to prank me,” he mumbled when rustling was heard again after a few minutes. Having had enough, he turned abruptly to look behind him. Phantom shadows moved for an instant to his left, but by the time he had completed his jump –and a rather impressive jump it was, the kind that you usually encounter in movies with more gunshots than dialog- the enemy he encountered was an innocent-looking pile of leaves lying on the sidewalk. Timmy snorted at his nervousness and turned homewards again.

 

Then, just as he was crossing an intersection, the rustling was heard again. A chill ran down his spine. He turned again. An empty bag was crossing the road right behind him, carried by the breeze. From an alleyway a crash was heard and with a yelp Timmy started running. If any more shadows appeared, he was too focused at the lone light shining in front of his home’s door to pay them any attention. Timmy frantically searched for his keys, the rustling of leaves, much closer now, filling his ears. The door opened… Timmy risked a glance behind his shoulder, only to see a small pile of dry alder leaves fluttering innocently at the porch.

 

The next afternoon there was a knock on the door. Timmy looked on curiously from the kitchen table as a strange man stepped through.

“My name is Erich Koenig,” he introduced himself to Timmy’s mother. “I just moved next door and thought I’d meet the neighbours.” Mr Koenig looked and his eyes met Timmy’s. With a smile he nodded his greeting to the boy and left, a trail of dry leaves following him, dancing in the light breeze.

In which there is something in the air

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And it’s neither the scent of my favourite candle nor a flesh-consuming virus. Actually I’m not quite sure WHAT it is. So, like the good scholar I pretend to be upon occasion, I will try to write myself to a conclusion.

Therefore, first things first! What are the symptoms? So far they include an even shorter temper that usual, exhaustion, tension in my back, all-around bad mood and insane chocolate cravings. And before you ask it, no, I am not pregnant. I am however very tired of feeling like I’ve boarded the proverbial roller coaster and forgot to get off. And besides…. hold on… Oh, damn! Yup, I know what the issues is here. Ladies and gentlemen I have managed to make exactly the same, soul-sucking mistake for the second time exactly ten years after my first monumental stupidity. I have forced myself to be social. No, I am neither a hermit nor an absolute misanthrope. I have simply always found the company of the written word much less stressful and infinitely more attractive. What happened ten years ago was that I changed schools just as I was beginning to go through puberty. Yeah, you know what they say: Never make life-altering decisions whilst under the influence of mind-altering substances. Never mind if these are secreted by your own brain. So in her unquestionable  wisdom 12-year-old me decided that a new school (tabula rasa and all) called for a new attitude towards humanity in general. (And it is at this point that every single little voice that ever rented space in my head felt the need for a collective facepalm.) But I tried. Like, earnestly tried to be more social, to navigate that horrifying setting that is middle school. The end result can be summed up in a few poignant words: I don’t want to remember 95% of those four years. I’m not exaggerating or being over-dramatic. That couple of years when I was eleven and twelve especially I would happily ignore in any flashback-inducing activity. Mercifully I realised what I was doing to myself and went back to my semi-lone wolf ways. And gods, I loved it!

And then uni came. And with it came tabula rasa round two. (On a side note, wouldn’t that be a wicked title for a crime film?) Only this time around I thought I knew better. For nearly three years I was fairly convinced (some might say deluded) that in terms of social obligations I did not exceed my -admittedly- limited skills. Yeah, this pretty much sums it up. The truly obnoxious thing about bad habits is that they sneak up on you just when you thought you’d escaped them. And this is how I find myself now, saddled with way too many social obligations which I am unable to drop because…well… I hate it when people say that’ll do something and then drop out the last second. Honestly, a large part of this unloading has had to do with background stressing over other things (about which I will be probably ranting at some point in the near future…) but it has also got me thinking. It’s not like I’ve been forced into any of the situations I find myself in. I was aware of what I was doing when I signed up for all these different groups and societies and what have you. I don’t even have the puberty excuse anymore or that of inexperience either.

So what is it? I am self-aware enough to know that being around people for more than a few hours (or days, depending how comfortable with/close to them I am) is just not good. I try to be optimistic about life in general but I know what will happen if I exceed my social interaction limits. It’s not pretty and it might even been damaging in the long term. I’d rather avoid becoming the neurotic one at any given setting. There’s more than enough drama queens to go around without me adding to the GSA (Global Stupidity Average). Maybe part of me is still that hopeful 12-year-old that wants to believe things will be different next time. And who knows, maybe they will be. Unfortunately this is here and now and things are not different yet. So, I suppose, until little-me’s wish comes true, I’ll just have to do what I do best: grit my teeth and bear it with what little social grace and understanding I have.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Lake Laogai

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Author’s Note: In which Jet causes trouble, Lia has a vision, Zuko learns that it’s a bad idea to try and keep secrets from Katara and a vital member of Team Avatar returns.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: coming soon…

***Lake Laogai***

Another night came and Jet was once again hiding in the shadows near the teashop. He had been doing so ever since he had discovered where they had been working, but hadn’t yet managed to find any proof. In his frustration he had begun considering just challenging the old man, in order to force him to firebend. Narrowing his eyes he thought of his options.

“Jet! We need to talk,” he heard a muffled voice behind him. He turned alarmed.

“What?” he exclaimed, his hand immediately on his hook-swords. Realising it was his friends he relaxed. “Oh great, it’s you guys. Where have you been? I could use some help with surveillance here.” He turned his eyes back at the teashop. Why had nothing suspicious happened yet?

“We’ve been talking,” Smelarbee continued. “And we think you’re becoming obsessed with this. It’s not healthy!”

“Oh really…” Jet said slowly. “You both think this?”

“We came here to make a fresh start, but you want let this go, even though there’s no real proof…”

“Well maybe if you’d help me…” Jet started accusingly.

“Jet, you’ve got to stop this!” Smelarbee was now raising her voice.

“Maybe you forgot why we need to start over,” Jet continued obviously ignoring what she was telling him. “Maybe you forgot how the Fire Nation left us all homeless, how they wiped out all the people we loved?” the other two teens looked away, but still seemed to disagree with him. “If you don’t want to help me, I’ll get the evidence on my own.” He walked towards the door resolutely. He’d show them that he was right.

 

Iroh was going around the buzzing teashop, serving people with freshly brewed tea.

“This is the best tea in the city!” the customer he had just served – a soldier – said.

“The secret ingredient is love!” Iroh answered happily. Zuko and Lia shared an exasperated glance behind his back. Their employer did not seem to share their sentiment as he looked at his packed shop in satisfaction.

“I think you’re due for a raise,” he said to Iroh.

 

The door suddenly burst open. Jet appeared at it, glaring full force at Iroh and Zuko.

“I’m tired of waiting!” he said, sounding just a little unhinged mad. He pointed accusingly. “These two men are firebenders.” Zuko and Iroh shared a look. “I know they’re firebenders,” Jet continued, drawing his swords. “I saw the old man heating his tea!” The soldier Iroh had served last raised an eyebrow.

“He works in a teashop!” he said incredulously.

“He’s a firebender, I’m telling you!” Jet insisted.

“Drop your swords boy,” the soldier ordered frowning, as he and his friend stood. “Nice and easy.” Jet ignored him and approached Iroh threateningly.

“You’ll have to defend yourself. Then everyone will know. Go ahead! Show them what you can do,” he prodded. The soldier made a movement to draw his swords, but before he had a chance to do so, Zuko took them approaching Jet angrily. He had had enough of this guy for the rest of his life.

“You want a show?” he asked frostily. “I’ll give you a show!” He kicked a table towards Jet, hoping to throw him off balance, but, just like he suspected, his opponent was better than that. Jet charged towards Zuko only to find his every attack blocked and not even the slightest trace of firebending appearing. That opened a major hole on his theory and pissed him incredibly.

 

Lia made a movement to join the fight but doubled over, feeling the breath being knocked out of her. She collapsed to a nearby chair and closed her eyes trying to make the speedy images of her vision slow down. She saw a lit candle spin around her madly, dimly lit corridors, the mask of the Blue Spirit smiling at her from underwater, green crystals engulfing her, a lightning strike and finally the picture of a small village near the sea appearing. Her eyes snapped open, in time to see Zuko flying out of the broken door.

 

Zuko felt a little winded from the hit but managed to land on his feet and block the next attack.

“You must be getting tired of using those swords,” Jet taunted him. “Why don’t you go ahead and firebend at me?” Zuko didn’t answer, he just pushed him back.

“Please son, you’re confused!” Iroh called worried from the door. “You don’t know what you’re doing!” The two boys ignored him, slowly drawing the battle away from the teashop.

“Bet you wish he’d help you with a fireblast right now!” Jet grumbled. Zuko wordlessly dropped his one sword. Jet looked at him surprised. Had he managed to convince him firebend?

“You’re the one who needs help!” Zuko told him, moving his remaining sword uncomfortably close to Jet’s face. The Freedom Fighter jumped away.

“You see that?” he asked the people that had gathered. “The Fire Nation is trying to silence me! It’ll never happen!” He jumped again, charging at Zuko.

 

The fight continued. For Zuko it felt refreshing to use a sword again, even though he’d much prefer to use his firebending. He had more chance to knock his opponent out with his fire than with a blade. Suddenly the crowd parted, and two Dai Lee appeared.

“Drop your weapons!” they ordered. Zuko took a few steps away from Jet, still keeping a wary eye on him.

“Arrest them!” Jet tried again. “They’re firebenders!”

“This poor boy is confused,” Iroh said calmly. “We’re just simple refuges.”

“This young man racked my teashop and assaulted my employees,” the owner of the teashop added, looking very much like he would have liked to personally drag Jet to prison.

“It’s true sir,” the soldier backed him. “We saw the whole thing. This crazy kid attacked the finest tea maker in the city.”

“Oh, that’s very sweet…” Iroh said blushing.

“Come with us son,” the Dai Lee ordered calmly. Jet tried to fight them, but they handcuffed and dragged him away ignoring his protests.

 

As the crowd was thinning, Zuko looked around for Lia. He had been surprised that she hadn’t made any comments. Not seeing her anywhere, he entered the teashop again, followed by his uncle. There she was, sitting in a chair, her face buried on her knees.

“Are you okay Lia?” Iroh asked the girl worried. She raised her head a little and nodded.

“Just a little faint,” she managed to say. “I’ll be fine tomorrow.” She tried to stand up and swayed. Zuko wordlessly steadied her.

“You’re not a very good liar, you know it, right?” he said calmly.

“I think you should stay home until you feel better,” their employer decided. “The teashop will be closed anyway for a few days. It’s about time I did some renovations.”

 

The moment they arrived back home, Zuko led a protesting Lia – she had recovered that much – to her bed.

“But I’m telling you I’m fine! It was just a vision!” she insisted. Zuko didn’t change his mind.

“Even so, you need to rest. You look like you’d collapse if you move.” He hesitated for a moment and Lia rolled her eyes.

“Come on, ask me!” she told him, a hint of exasperation in her voice. Zuko looked at her guiltily.

“Okay, what did you see?” he asked. Lia opened her mouth to answer, but Iroh came in.

“What are you doing talking?” he asked them sternly. “You should be resting. Go to sleep,” he ordered them. Behind his back Lia mouthed, I’ll tell you tomorrow.

 

When Zuko woke up the next morning, he was surprised to see that the redhead was already up. She was at the kitchen, packing a small bag quietly. She looked up guiltily when she heard him entering the room.

“So you’d leave like this?” Zuko asked her tonelessly. Lia didn’t answer, just went back to her packing.

“I need to travel for a while.” she explained. “Get out of this town, it’s not good for me.” Zuko looked at her suspiciously.

“Where are you going?” he asked her carefully. Her expression saddened.

“I can’t tell you,” Lia said closing the bag and walking towards the door.

 

Zuko looked at her leaving. Something was not right. Lia never acted like this, so distant. He was still thinking of it when his uncle woke up. The old man looked around surprised.

“Where’s Lia?” he asked, a little worried. Zuko was looking out of the window at that time and jerked when he heard Iroh’s voice.

“She left,” he informed his uncle. “She said she had to travel for a while.”

“But why would she leave? She wasn’t in any condition to travel yesterday night.”

“She was looking much better today.” Zuko said in a cold voice, going back to staring outside the window. What had she meant? “I’m going for a walk,” he said going over to the door. Iroh opened his mouth to answer but the teenager had already left. The old General shook his head. There was an air of foreboding in the atmosphere.

 

Zuko’s feet carried him to the teashop, where the workers had already begun making repairs. It would be a few days until they return to work, but thankfully the damage wasn’t big. His eyes wondered absentmindedly to a lone figure in blue. Katara seemed to sense someone’s eyes on her because she turned to face him.

“What happened here?” she asked surprised. Zuko shrugged.

“Nothing major,” he said embracing her and hoping she’d drop the subject. He didn’t want to talk about it. It didn’t work. Katara took a step back and looked at him suspiciously.

“The teashop is closed for repairs, half the front wall was demolished and you’re telling me nothing major happened?” she asked a little hurt. “You know you can trust me.”

“It’s not a matter of trust!” Zuko assured her annoyed. First Lia, now Katara. What was going on today? “I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“And when will you want to?” the waterbender asked, her eyes flashing dangerously.

“I don’t know!” Zuko exclaimed. “Can’t I keep something to myself?” The moment he had said it, he regretted it. Katara’s expression closed off and she stepped away from him.

“When you want to talk with me, you know where I live,” she told him before turning and leaving. Zuko looked at her going away; feeling much like lightning struck him. What was he to do now?

 

A few days later, in the living room of a house in the Upper Ring, papers were scattered everywhere, covered with pictures. Sokka had been working on them the whole morning, trying to make something that resembled Appa. It was harder than it sounded. The front door opened and Katara and Aang stepped in.

“We found a printer to make our posters!” she said excited. Aang nodded approvingly at the – obviously professionally made – poster. Sokka looked up annoyed.

“Hey, I thought designing the “Lost Appa” posters was my job.” He held his latest creation up. “I’ve been working on my Appa the whole morning.” Katara tried to stifle her giggles, while Aang looked shocked.

“Sokka, the arrow is on Appa’s head!” he said.

“This is his head!” Sokka cried offended.  His sister knelt next to him.

‘Why are there feet coming out of it?” she asked suppressing her giggles.

“Those are his horns!” Sokka bowed his head defeated. “I haven’t seen him in a while, okay?”

“It looks just like him to me!” Toph said cheerfully. Sokka turned towards her.

“Thanks, I really worked really…” he frowned, realisation hitting him. “Why do you feel the need to do that?” he asked her.

“Let’s just stick with the professional version,” Katara decided. Sokka ripped his latest “creation” angrily.

“Come on!” Aang said excited. “Let’s get busy!”

 

On the Lower Ring of the city, a small teashop was bustling with life, celebrating its re-opening. Iroh had just served a few fancy-dressed men. With barely a sip they stood up and approached him. The fancier-dressed one said:

“So you’re the genius behind this incredible brew! The whole city is buzzing about it.” He smiled. “I hope Pao pays you well.”

“Good tea is its own reward,” Iroh replied good-naturally.

“But, it doesn’t have to be the only reward,” the man continued. “How would you like to have your own teashop?” he asked.

“My own teashop?’ Iroh said thunderstruck. “This is a dream come true.” Pao heard his words and rushed between them.

“What’s going on here?” he asked hostilely. “Are you trying to pouch my tea-maker?”

“Sorry Pao, but that’s business to you, am I right?” the man said laughing a little.

“Mushi, if you stay I’ll make you assistant manager.” Pao said desperately. “Wait! Senior assistant manager.”

“I’ll provide you with a new apartment in the Upper Ring. The teashop is yours to do whatever you want. Complete creative freedom,” the other man proposed.

 

Zuko glanced at them before returning back to his job. So long it had to do with tea, he’d let his Uncle handle it. He had his own problems.

“I even get to name the shop?” Iroh asked.

“Of course!” the other man laughed. Pao tried one last time.

“Senior executive assistant manager?” he half-whined. Iroh wordlessly handed him the teapot. Seeing Zuko passing by he smiled.

“Did you hear nephew?” he asked. “This man wants to give us our own teashop in the Upper Ring!”

‘That’s right young man!” his uncle’s new employer said. “Your life is about to change for the better!”

“I’ll try to contain my joy,” Zuko said, sarcasm virtually raining from his words. He banged his tray on a free table, before exiting the teashop.

 

The Fire prince looked longingly at the sky. He hadn’t seen Katara for almost a week now, and had to admit it was entirely his fault. He acted like an idiot and all because he had been jealous of Jet. He knew the boy meant nothing to Katara, Agni, she had almost killed him back at the ferry. He couldn’t explain it but Zuko didn’t want her to know that Jet was around. Maybe it’s because I know it’d upset her, he mused. Smiling bitterly he turned his eyes towards the sky, hoping for a solution to all his problems. A paper landed in front of him. Curious Zuko picked it up. The picture of a sky bison caught his eyes immediately. So Aang hadn’t found Appa yet, he thought grimly. That wasn’t good for the little monk. But it could be for him.

 

Zuko quickly climbed at the roof of the teashop, looking around for the little airbender. He only saw more papers being carried by the breeze. What was the difference? If Katara didn’t want to talk to him, not even the Avatar would convince her otherwise. Sighing, the young man moved to put the flyer in his pocket. Then he paused and hesitantly scrutinized the paper. What would Lia tell him if she was there? He buried his face in his hands. Probably stop being an idiot and go make things up with the waterbender. Zuko shook his head. There was no way she’d talk to him, unless… Zuko stared on Appa’s picture thoughtfully. She’d talk to him, if he brought them the thing they were looking for.

 

Sokka and Katara were playing cards when Aang returned.

“I just finished dropping all the leaflets,” he announced. “Has anyone come with news about Appa?” he asked joining them at the table.

“It’s only been a day,” Katara answered, not bothering to raise her eyes. She had been a little moody lately. “Just be patient.” Aang plopped down disappointed, to jump on his feet again, hearing a knock on the door.

“Wow, you’re right!” he exclaimed. “Patience really pays off!” he ran to the door excited. His face fell immediately when he saw who was there. “Ju Dee?”

“Hello Aang and Katara and Sokka and Toph,” she greeted them with her usual bright smile.

“What happened to you?” Sokka asked. “Did the Dai Lee throw you in jail?”

“What? Jail? Of course not!” she said dismissively. “The Dai Lee are the protectors of our cultural heritage.”

“But you disappeared at the Earth King’s party,” Toph insisted.

“Oh, I simply took a small vacation on Lake Laogai, out in the country. It was quite refreshing.”

“But then they replaced you with some other woman, who also said her name was Ju Dee,” Katara added. Ju Dee looked at her surprised.

“I’m Ju Dee,” she said.

“Why are you here?” Aang asked. She took out one of the flyers.

“Dropping flyers and putting up posters isn’t permitted within the city.” She explained. “Not without proper clearance.”

“We can’t wait around to get permission for everything,” Sokka said frustrated.

“You are absolutely prohibited by the rules of the city to continue putting up posters,” Ju Dee said, her smile only brightening. Aang felt the blood rushing to his head.

“We don’t care about the rules and we’re not asking permission! We’re finding Appa on our own and you should stay out of our way!” he slammed the door on her face.

“That might come back to bite us in the blubber,” Sokka remarked, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t care,” Aang snapped. “From now on we do whatever it takes to find Appa.”

“Yeah! Let’s break some rules!” Toph exclaimed, before earthbending a wall to ruins to underline her point. No one bothered to answer her. Instead they took the posters they had printed earlier and went out to put them up. No one noticed to shadows dressed in dark green following them silently.

 

Zuko returned to their apartment, hoping to find it empty. Instead his uncle was there, packing their few belongings. Hearing the door open and then close Iroh said:

“So… I was thinking about names for my new teashop. How about, the Jasmine Dragon? It’s dramatic, poetic, has a nice ring to it.” Zuko handed him the flyer.

“Aang is still looking for Appa,” he said instead, turning to look out of the window. His uncle gazed first at the paper and then at the tense figure of the prince. For a moment he flashbacked to their days on the ship.

“We have a chance for a new life here. If you start stirring up trouble, we could lose all the good things that are happening for us,” he warned the teenager. Zuko felt his temper rising. Good things? Nothing good had happened to him in this city, aside from his dates with Katara. He spun around angrily.

“Good things that are happening for you. Have you ever thought that I want more from life than a nice apartment and a job serving tea‌?” Iroh shook his head.

“There is nothing wrong with a life of peace and prosperity.” His face grew stern. “I suggest you think about what it is that you want for your life, and why.”

“I want my destiny,” Zuko mumbled.
“What that means is up to you.” Iroh watched his nephew leaving for the roof wordlessly. “The Tea Weevil!” he suddenly exclaimed. He frowned. “No, that’s stupid.”

 

At the roof the Fire prince looked down the city. His uncle thought obviously that he was after the Avatar. Zuko smiled bitterly. There was nothing further from the truth. His thoughts turned to the mask, securely hidden inside his things. Spotting a figure dressed in dark green walking down the street he started working on his plan. Tonight, the Blue Spirit would be hunting once again.

 

Sokka carefully put up a poster on the wall. A little further away Katara and Aang were doing the same, while Toph was resting against the wall” observing” their work. The warrior looked at the stack of posters they still had to place.

“We’ll split up to cover more area,” he decided. Turning to the petite girl near him he said, “Toph, I guess you should just come with me.” Toph glared at his direction.

“Why? Because you think I can’t put up posters on my own‌?” she snapped. Snatching the brush from his hand she splashed the wall with glue and slammed a poster on it. The others just looked.

“It’s upside-down isn’t it‌?” Toph asked sounded resigned. “I’ll just go with Sokka.” She sighed.

 

They split up and Katara somehow found herself in the Lower Ring. Approaching a small stream she sighed, thinking of the times she had sat there with Zuko after they had been shooed away from the roof from Iroh. She closed her eyes stubbornly. She would not think of him before he decided to apologise for his lack of trust.

“Katara!” she heard a boy calling behind her. A boy she knew. Turning sharply she saw Jet smiling confidently at her.

“I think I can help you,” he told her approaching.

 

Before he had a chance to say anything else, Katara’s shock melted into rage. Raising her arms she bended the water behind her into two huge waves, sending them against the Freedom Fighter.

“Katara, I’ve changed!” Jet yelled alarmed as the water swept him into a nearby alley. Katara ran after him, a rather impressive amount of water in her hands. She froze it mid-air, turning it to icy daggers and sending them at him. Jet dodged them with his hook swords, only managing to fuel her frustration.

“I don’t want to fight you! I’m here to help,” he said dropping the swords to the ground. Katara approached him cautiously. Seeing his one hand moving slowly to his back she pinned him to the wall with the remaining ice.
Footsteps approached and she heard Sokka calling her.

“Katara, what is it‌?” he asked a little out of breath. Behind him appeared Toph and Aang.

“Jet’s back,” she informed them tonelessly, not bothering to turn and look at them. Sokka opened his mouth, probably to ask for an explanation but his sister cut in. “We can’t trust anything Jet says.”

“But we don’t even know why he’s here,” Sokka reasoned.

“I don’t care why he’s here!” Katara snapped. “Whatever the reason is, it can’t be good.”

“I’m here to help you find Appa.” Everyone turned to stare at him as he unrolled one of the leaflets Aang had dropped earlier. The airbender looked from the paper to Jet and then to Katara.

“Katara, we have to give him a chance.” Jet seeing his chance tried again.

“I swear I’ve changed. I was a troubled person, and I let my anger get out of control. But I don’t even have the gang now. I’ve put all that behind me.” His words reminded Katara a little too much of another dark-haired boy she knew. She closed her eyes frustrated for a moment before glaring at him again.

“You’re lying,” she said simply.

Now Toph was never a really patient person. She had learned when she was still young to hate dramatics, what with her parents fusing over her all the time. She was ready to cut Sugar Queen some slack, as she had obviously argued with her boyfriend lately, but this was ridiculous! Brushing past the older girl, the blind earthbender touched the wall next to Jet and concentrated.

“He’s not lying,” she announced.

“How can you tell?” she heard Sokka asking incredulously.

“I can feel his breathing and heart beat,” Toph explained. “When people lie, there is a physical reaction. He’s telling the truth.” She turned towards Katara expectantly, feeling Sokka and Aang doing the same.

“Katara, we don’t have any leads. If Jet says he can take us to Appa, we have to check it out,” Aang said pleadingly. Katara sighed defeated.

“Alright…” she said melting the ice on the way. Before Jet had a chance to move she turned rapidly towards him with a warning glare. “But we’re not letting you out of our sight!”
Surprisingly, near the alley they had been in, there was a large warehouse. Katara wondered how she hadn’t seen it before.

“This is the place I heard about,” Jet explained as they started looking around.

“There’s nothing here,” Aang sighed disappointed. Katara turned angrily towards Jet.

“If this is a trap…” she began with her hand already on her pouch.

“I told you, I work nearby! Two guys were talking about some giant furry creature they had. I figured it must be Appa,” Jet snapped, a little annoyed himself.

“He was here!” Toph suddenly exclaimed. Everyone rushed to her side to see her holding a clump of white fur. She silently handed to Aang.

“We missed him,” he whispered.
“They took that big thing yesterday,” an old man suddenly appeared behind them. Aang spun to look at him in shock. “Shipped him out to some island,” The janitor continued. “About time, I’ve been cleaning up fur and various, uh leavings all day.”

“What island?” Aang asked frantically.‌ “Where’s Appa‌?”

“Foreman said some rich royal type on Whale Tail Island bought him up, guess for a zoo or such, though could be for the meat; would be good,” the old man answered on the same weary tone. Aang turned to the others anxiously.

“We’ve gotta get to Whale Tail Island.” He crouched next to Sokka, who had already spread a map on the ground. “Where’s Whale Tail island‌?” The warrior’s face fell.

“Far. Very far,” He announced pointing at the map. “Here it is. It’s near the South Pole almost all the way back home.”

“Aang, it’ll take us weeks just to get to the tip of the Earth Kingdom,” Katara reasoned. “And then we’ll need to find a boat to get to the island.” Aang stood up, his face set.

“I don’t care. We have a chance to find Appa. We have to try.”

“Must be nice to visit an island. I haven’t had a vacation for years,” the janitor suddenly commented, sweeping in the background. Katara looked at him annoyed.

“Don’t you have some more hair to clean up‌?” she snapped.

“Shuffle on, I get ya. No more need for “old sweepy,” the old man grumbled. The waterbender turned back to Aang.

“You’re right Aang,” she said placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Right now, our first concern has to be finding Appa. We can come back when we have him.” Everyone stood up.

“All right, let’s get moving,” Sokka said decisively.

“I’ll come with you,” Jet said firmly. Katara glared at him.

“We don’t need your help.” The boy looked at her hurt.

“Why won’t you trust me‌?” he asked her. Katara crossed her arms.

“Gee, I wonder‌!” she huffed. Toph raised an eyebrow.

“Was this guy your boyfriend or something‌?” she asked confused. Katara blushed a little.

“What‌? No!” she shook her head and headed towards the door.

“I can tell you’re lyyyyying,” Toph called from behind following her.

Out in the street Sokka had already began planning.

“We can take the train out to the wall, but then we’ll have to walk.” He didn’t seem enthusiastic about the prospect.

“Don’t worry!” Aang said cheerfully. “On the way back, we’ll be flying!”

“We’re finally leaving Ba Sing Se.” Toph threw her arms in the air in relief. “Worst city ever!”

Suddenly two more familiar figures appeared. Smelarbee’s eyes doubled in size seeing her old leader walking freely around.

“Jet!” she called rushing after the group with Longshot behind he. Katara heard the cry and turned surprised.

“I thought you said you didn’t have your gang anymore‌,” she accused Jet.

“I don’t,” he told her bewildered. As if to prove him wrong Smelarbee threw herself on him, relieved he was still in one piece.

“We were so worried,” she told him. “How did you get away from the Dai Li‌?”

“The Dai Li‌!” Katara said alarmed.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about‌!” Jet said close to panicking.

“He got arrested by the Dai Li a week ago,” Smelarbee explained. “We saw them drag him away.”

“Why would I be arrested‌?” Jet wondered. “I’ve been living peacefully in the city.” Toph knelt on the ground, her brow furrowed in concentration.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “They’re both telling the truth.”

“That’s impossible,” Katara said dismissively. Sokka looked thoughtful.

“No, it’s not. Toph can’t tell who’s lying because they both think they’re telling the truth. Jet’s been brainwashed,” he concluded.

“That’s crazy! It can’t be.” Jet looked at them closing in, in panic. “Stay away from me!” he half-ordered them.

***

Patrolling the streets at night must have been one of the most boring jobs in Ba Sing Se. For the lone Dai Li agent though, things were about to become very interesting. A dark figure with a Blue Spirit’s mask suddenly knocked him out of the way, running through an alley.

“Out of my way, skinny!” he ordered not bothering to look back. The agent ran right after him, to see a figure waiting motionlessly on the back of the alley. Knocking his stone gloves together, he managed to make the dummy fall to the ground. The Dai Li looked at it perplexed. Before he had a chance to move, a sword was resting dangerously close to his neck.

“If you don’t want to end up like him, you’ll do what I say,” the Blue Spirit hissed.

 

A few blocks away the gang had gathered in Jet’s apartment. Katara was staring at the boy thoughtfully.

“The Dai Li must have sent Jet to mislead us, and that janitor was part of their plot too.”

“I bet they have Appa here in the city. Maybe he’s in the same place they took Jet,” Aang said turning to Jet hopefully. “Where did they take you‌?” he asked. The Freedom Fighter looked at them cluelessly.

“Nowhere. I, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“We need to find a way to jog his real memories back.” Aang looked around for ideas.

“Maybe Katara could kiss him. That should bring something back.” Sokka smirked at his sister. It disappeared when he saw the death glare she was giving him.

“Maybe you should kiss him, Sokka,” She snapped.

“Hey, just an idea!” he said nervously

“A bad one.” She glared at him. Suddenly Sokka’s eyes brightened.

“Oh, wait. I got it!” He rushed to the mattress and picked a straw. Rushing back to Jet he pocked it on the other boy’s mouth, looking at him expectantly.

“I don’t think it’s working,” Jet remarked flatly, spiting the straw out.

“Try to think of something from your past that triggers your emotions,” Toph suggested.

“The Fire Nation!” Smelarbee suddenly exclaimed. “Remember what they did to your family?”

“Close your eyes,” Katara instructed. “Picture it.”
Jet complied, closing his eyes. Silence reigned into the room as the rest of the teens waited for something, anything, to happen. Suddenly he snapped his eyes open.

“No! It’s too painful,” he managed to choke out. Katara walked behind him, bending some water from her pouch.

“Maybe this will help.” The water began to glow as she placed it on his temples. Jet stared right ahead, his eyes unfocused, as if he was seeing something no one else could.

“They took me to a headquarters under the water, like a lake,” he said tentatively after a while.

“Wait!” Sokka exclaimed. Everyone turned to look at him. “Remember what Ju Dee said? ‌ She said she went on vacation to Lake Laogai.” Jet jumped on his feet.

“That’s it! Lake Laogai.”

 

They waited until morning before taking the train to the northern outskirts of town. The lake was beautiful, surrounded by mountains, a few small islands tracing its surface. Sokka looked around.

“So where’s this secret headquarters‌?” he asked to Jet’s general direction. The older boy scratched his head.

“Under the lake. I think,” He said unsure. Toph pointed to her right, her head still facing forward.

“There’s a tunnel right there near the shore.” She walked away whistling innocently. Reaching the end of the shore, she stomped her feet, creating a stone pathway with a hatch at the end of it. The teens peered inside it, before climbing in. Momo flew away, chattering nervously. That dark hole looked evil to the poor, little lemur.

 

Inside everything was lit with a dim, green light. The passage was spacey, created by smoothly-cut stones. Clearly the work of expert earthbenders. The group waited for a pair of Dai Li that were walking by to disappear into a nearby passage before sneaking in. Jet took the lead.

“It’s all starting to come back to me,” he said quietly, his memories falling back into place. They walked silently past a slightly open door. Sokka sneaked a look and felt his eyes widen. Inside there were at least a dozen of women, all dressed like Ju Dee, repeating the mantra a Dai Li was chanting.

“I’m Ju Dee. Welcome to Ba Sing Se,” he said and they repeated. “We are so lucky to have our walls to create order.”

“I think there might be a cell big enough to hold Appa up ahead,” Jet said, taking again the lead. He stopped in front of a door. “I think it’s through here. “
Appa raised his head as the door to his cell opened. He moaned uncertainly, wishing it wasn’t another Dai Li. Instead he saw a figure dressed in black, wearing the mask of the Blue Spirit.

“Expecting someone else‌?” Zuko whispered drawing his swords. Appa tried to back away, but the chains on his feet wouldn’t let him. Zuko approached carefully the bewildered animal. Raising slowly a hand he patted the bison’s nose, just like he had seen Aang do. To his surprise Appa relaxed. Lowering his guard a little Zuko whispered.

“I’ll help you if you help me.”

 

In another part of the headquarters a door opened. Jet and the others stepped into a massive cavern. Suddenly the door behind them thud shut. Looking around warily, they noticed the Dai Li hanging from the ceiling over them. Turning to face the door, they saw Long Feng.

“Now that’s something different.” Sokka remarked, still staring at the Dai Li on the ceiling.

“You have made yourselves enemies of the state,” Long Feng announced grimly. “Take them into custody,” He ordered his men.

 

The Dai Li dropped from the ceiling surrounding the teens. Two of them launched their stone fists but Toph turned them into dust before they could hit a target. Before the men had a chance to do anything she launched them across the room, much like she did with Sokka and Aang whenever she was annoyed with them. Behind her Jet was fighting another pair. Aang was using both his air and earthbending, giving his opponents a field day, while in another corner Sokka and Katara were fighting together. Suddenly two stone fists grabbed the two Water siblings. Toph sensed the movement and placed a wall between them and the agents. Before they had a chance to hit her, she made earth rise under her, creating a rather impressive pillar and forcing the agents surrounding her to do them same, becoming easy pray for Aang’s airbending.

 

Soon it was obvious that the Dai Li were going to lose. Long Feng turned wordlessly and left, shutting the passage behind him. Aang saw him.

“Long Feng is escaping!” he cried. Together with Jet they lunged after him. Aang blasted the door open and the two boys raced after the Head Dai Li. He led them to another huge room before disappearing. They looked wearily around them when they heard the door close behind them. They turned just in time to see Long Feng dropping from the ceiling.

“Alright Avatar, you’ve caused me enough problems. This is your last chance, if you want your bison back,” He said threateningly. Aang looked at him aghast.

“You do have Appa. Tell me where he is!”

“Agree to exit the city now, and I’ll waive all charges against you and allow you to leave with your lost pet,” Long Feng insisted.

“You’re in no position to bargain,” Jet said raising his swords.

“Am I not‌?”

“You’re definitely not!” Aang shouted, bringing his staff forward.

“Jet,” Long Feng said calmly. “The Earth King has invited you to Lake Laogai.” Jet’s eyes dimmed.

“I am honoured to except his invitation,” He said in an empty voice, before turning and attacking viciously Aang.

 

In Appa’s cell Zuko had knelt and was working on the chains on the bison’s feet, when he heard the door creak open. He sprung to his feet, swords ready for attack. Seeing who the person who opened the door was, he nearly dropped them in surprise.

“Uncle‌?” he whispered taken aback. The old man crossed his arms, looking at him with fake puzzlement.

“So, the Blue Spirit,” he began disapprovingly. “I wonder who could be behind that mask‌…” Zuko sighed before removing the mask.

“What are you doing here‌?” he asked his uncle. Iroh scowled.

“I was just about to ask you the same thing. What do you plan to do now that you have found the Avatar’s bison? ‌ Keep it locked in our new apartment? ‌ Should I go put on a pot of tea for him‌?” Zuko turned back to face Appa.

“First I have to get it out of here,” he said, his eyes searching for possible exits.

“AND THEN WHAT‌!” Iroh yelled. “You never think these things through! This is exactly what happened when you captured the Avatar at the North Pole! You had him, and then you had nowhere to go!”

“I would have figured something out!” Zuko shouted back. This wasn’t helping. His plan had been simple: free Appa and return him to Aang, hoping to get back in Katara’s good books.

“No! If his friends hadn’t found you, you would have frozen to death!” Iroh said, concern lacing his frustration. Zuko shut his eyes, memories of his two fights with Katara at the North Pole flashing through his mind. He had thought that was his destiny. He knew better now.

“I know my own destiny uncle.” Iroh didn’t seem to agree with him.

“Is it your own destiny? ‌ Or is it a destiny someone else has tried to force on you‌?”

“Stop it uncle. I have to do this.” Zuko tried to shut the voices out of his head.

I must do it.

There are other ways. Lia’s voice said inside his head.

Katara hates me.

No she doesn’t. She’s just hurt because YOU wouldn’t trust her.

But…

“I’m begging you prince Zuko! It’s time for you to look inward, and begin asking yourself the big questions. Who are you‌? And what do you want‌?” Iroh said silencing the debate inside his nephew’s head. With a cry of frustration Zuko dropped the mask and his swords on the ground.

He still thinks I’m after the Avatar, he thought bitterly. And Katara accused him for lack of trust.

 

Aang was twisting and turning, trying to avoid Jet’s attacks without hurting him.

“Jet, it’s me Aang! You don’t have to do this,” he pleaded, hoping to help the Freedom Fighter snap out of his trance.

“I’m afraid he no longer has a choice,” Long Feng sneered. Jet stopped, trying to catch his breath. Then he charged again towards Aang yelling. The Avatar sent a blast of air against him, but Jet used his hook swords to grab onto the stones of the floor. Taking advantage of the break, Aang tried again.

“Jet, I’m your friend! Look inside your heart!” he pleaded.

“Do your duty Jet,” Long Feng ordered. Jet obeyed nearing the airbender.

“He can’t make you do this! You’re a Freedom Fighter.”

 

His words made Jet freeze in shock. Images of Smelarbee, the Duke, Pipsqueak, Katara, Longshot, Iroh and Zuko flashed through his mind. Being dragged away from the Dai Li, the brainwashing. Iroh, the Fire Nation soldiers that had attacked his town and Long Feng. His eyes cleared as Long Feng ordered once again.

“Do it! Do it now!” Enraged Jet whirled and attacked the head Dai Li. Before he had a chance to land a hit, Long Feng sent a huge rock against him, before earthbending himself to the exit.

“Foolish boy,” he said scornfully. “You’ve chosen your own demise.” Aang moved stunned to where Jet was lying injured.

“I’m sorry, Aang,” He said quietly.

“Don’t be,” Aang said back, sitting next to him.

 

Behind them, the door opened once again and the rest of the group appeared. They all rushed next to the fallen Freedom Fighter. Katara knelt next to him, drawing her water and starting to heal the crushed portion of Jet’s chest. Worried she turned to the others.

“This isn’t good,” She said gravely.

“You guys go find Appa. We’ll take care of Jet,” Smelarbee decided. Katara looked at her shocked.

“We’re not going to leave you,” Longshot shook his head.

“There’s no time. Just go. We’ll take care of him. He’s our leader,” He said gravely. The others looked at him shocked by the fact he spoke.

“Don’t worry Katara,” Jet smiled weakly. “I’ll be fine.” Katara closed her eyes to keep the tears from running. She never thought it would end up like this. As they headed away from the Freedom Fighters Toph whispered to Aang.

“He’s lying.”

They hurried silently from cell to cell until they reached the right one. Stepping inside they only saw Appa’s former manacles lying broken on the floor.

“Appa’s gone. Long Feng beat us here,” Aang concluded disappointed.

“If we keep moving, maybe we can catch up to him,” Sokka said optimistically.

 

Toph took the lead and after blasting a few walls away, the gang ended up on one of Lake Laogai’s islands. Aang tuned his head in time to see nine Dai Lis following them.

“Do you think we can outrun them‌?” Sokka asked running at his side.

“I don’t think it’s gonna matter.” Aang said seeing six more Dai Lis and Long Feng ahead of them. The agents bended two walls, effectively trapping the teens inside. Momo appeared suddenly appeared and sat on Aang’s shoulder, chattering excitedly.

“What is it Momo?” the airbender asked.‌ The lemur took off again and for a moment seemed to disappear on the midday sun. A few moments later he returned, followed closely by the familiar figure of Appa.

“Appa!” Aang called delighted.

 

The bison crashed into the first wall, bringing it down easily, as Aang and Toph did the same for the other one. (Toph earthbended as many Dai Li as possible into the

lake in the process.) Appa landed in front of Long Feng. Seeing his men running away, the earthbender fell into stance with a malicious look on his face.

“I can handle you by myself,” he said. He launched a kick but before he had a chance to strike, Appa caught his leg between his teeth. With one mighty move, he tossed Long Feng to the lake, before spitting the Dai Li’s shoe out.

 

Sokka, Aang, Katara and Momo threw themselves on the giant animal while Toph stroked his nose tenderly.

“Yeah!” Sokka yelled celebrating. “Appa!”

“I missed you, buddy,” Aang whispered, feeling like crying.
Back on the shore Zuko climbed tiredly out of the trap door Toph had created earlier. Turning, he helped his uncle out. The old man took a few breaths. All this running and climbing had taken its toll on him. Nevertheless, he gave his nephew a proud look.

“You did the right thing, nephew,” Zuko wordlessly took out the Blue Spirit mask, staring at it longingly.

-Flashback-:

Lia had handed him a small package. “If you’re going to make life hard for Commander Monkey-face you need a proper alter ego.” Zuko opened the box to reveal a Blue Spirit mask. He raised an eyebrow.

“A Water Tribe Spirit?” he had asked her dubiously.

“What? I know the guy! He’s great for secret missions. We’ve gone to a few together. And who would guess prince Zuko under it?”

“Good point,” the boy had murmured still scrutinizing the grinning mask.

-End Flashback-

The mask had turned out to be so much more for him. But perhaps it was time to let go. Iroh put a hand on his shoulder.

“Leave it behind,” he encouraged the teen. With a sigh, Zuko walked at the edge of the small path and threw the mask in the water. The last tie to his ship-bound years was gone.

 

At the same time, on the shores of the Earth Kingdom Lia was walking through the streets of a small village. She stopped at a house near the coastline and took a deep breath. It was time for her search to come to an end.

Πειρατές

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Μέσα απ’τη λάμψη και τον καπνό των βεγγαλικών ξεχυνόμαστε στο λιμάνι. Νωρίς είχαμε βγάλει τα καΐκια στ’ανοιχτά, και τώρα με κραυγές και τραγούδια κάνουμε ρεσάλτο. Κρύψτε τους θησαυρούς σας όπου μπορείτε, κι αυτά που θα βρούμε θα είναι δικά μας. Απόψε θα κοιμηθούμε στα σπίτια σας το πρωί θα ξανοιχτούμε.

In which there are rites of passage

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In case it hasn’t been made obvious so far, I am a student. This means that most members of my social circle (that were born in the same decade I was…) can be roughly summed up in two categories: the ones that know how to drive but can’t afford a car and the ones that haven’t had the time/money/inclination to get a licence. And where does Yours Truly fit in this oversimplification? Well… I may have been playing hopscotch with Option B for the past few weeks. Part of me has been pointing out how FREAKING EXPENSIVE it is to actually learn how to drive but an equally nagging, different part of me has been very sensibly saying that sometime very soon I will find myself needing to drive. So I crossed the proverbial Rubicon and contacted a driving school in my city.

Even as these lines are being written my stomach has been replaced by a merry-go-round and I am by turns appropriately horrified at putting my fellow humans at risk by driving (which I am told is standard reaction to newbies so no surprises here), excited(mainly my inner child for whom driving is a whole other kind of cool), anxious (because they said they’d come in contact with me within 24 hours and I still haven’t heard anything…21 hours and counting…) and well just plain out weird. I mean, come on! When you’re little driving is the cool and pretty damn convenient thing grown-ups do to get you from place to place. Then it becomes the cool thing you could be doing, a sign of independence (cue the teenage whines of “But muuuuuuuum! In America I would have a licence by now! Why can’t I take the car?”) Then comes the stage where you have the licence but no car to show it off on. And then, I’m told by such reliable sources as my parents -and pretty much every parental unit I’ve met-, comes the stage when you become everyone else’s taxi, either because your car is bigger or because your kids are too young to steal it. Wow! Kind of a letdown! Er, why do I have to get a licence again? Because in the long term it’s cheaper than getting to train to everywhere…. Right. Good point. Thank you snarky, conveniently italics-ised second voice. You’re welcome. Sucker. -ahem- Moving on.

But yeah, back to my title. Learning to drive is a rite of passage, I think. It’s one of those things like washing your own clothes and paying your own rent (with your parent’s money but never mind schematics) that mark you as an adult. I’m not gonna touch on the rather spiky subject of “whose money are you living off” as this is meant to be a half-serious post only but you get the message. Bit like a level-up in a video game, once achieved it unlocks a whole lot of new cool extras. Is that a reason to start classes as soon as it is legally possible? Personally, my answer is no. I’ve been in cars driven by new drivers and seen them speed past me as I cower on the pavement. I’m not saying young drivers or fresh licence holders are menaces of Dick Dastardly’s proportions. I just think that before you start something that you subconsciously categorise as “adult” you need to feel like an adult. And -myself included- I have yet to meet an 18-year old that I would comfortably describe as a mature, comfortable-with-taking-responsibilities adult.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Tales of Ba Sing Se

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Author’s Note: In which not much of import happens but there is fluff and mostly laughs and that’s good, right?
Previous chapter: link
Next chapter: link

***Tales of Ba Sing Se***

The Tale of Toph, Katara and Lia

It was a morning like every other in Ba Sing Se. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping and Katara, Sokka and Aang were getting ready for the day. Looking around, the waterbender realised that Toph wasn’t up yet. Smiling slightly Katara went to the other girl’s room. She must have overslept. Opening the door she felt the smile leave her face.

“Toph!” she called at the sleeping girl. “Aren’t you going to get ready for the day?” Toph stood sleepily and dusted herself.

“I’m ready,” she said groggily.

“You’re not gonna wash up?” Katara asked, feeling very much like a mother. “You’ve got a little dirt on your…” she took a second look, “everywhere actually.”

“You call it dirt. I call it a healthy coating of earth,” Toph argued. Katara gave her a sceptical look.

“Hm… You know what we need? A girls’ day out!” she finally proposed enthusiastically. Toph didn’t seem so happy.

“Do I have to?” she whined.

“It will be fun!” Katara insisted. “We could take Lia with us too!” At the mention of the older girl Toph seemed to become a little more convinced.

An hour later the three girls were standing outside an ornately decorated building. Written over the doors was “The Fancy Lady’s Day Spa”. Lia read it out loud.

“Sounds like my kind of place,” Toph grumbled.

“Are you ready for some serious pampering?” Katara asked her. She was in an even better mood after having seen Zuko.

“Sure Katara,” the youngest girl said hesitantly. “Whatever you say. As long as they don’t touch my feet,” she warned. They followed Lia inside. The Spirit had been a little hesitant too about this girls’-day-out idea, but she admitted it did sound like fun. Besides, what’s wrong with spoiling yourself once in a while?

Much to Toph’s distress the first part of pampering package Katara had booked was a full pedicure. While Katara and Lia were relaxing, three of the strongest women working at the spa were needed to keep Toph still and clean the dirt that had gathered on her soles. Finally the girl resulted in earthbending to free herself from them.

Next they moved on a room with stone bathtubs full of mud. As soon as she felt her element surrounding her Toph brightened up. She was even in a mood good enough to scare the lady that came to give them towels, making the mud mask on her face move and forming the face of an insect.

When they moved to the next room Lia’s faced literally glowed. It was a sauna, and a high quality one at that. She checked behind her shoulder for any eavesdroppers before motioning to the other two girls to move ahead.

“Finally some pampering for me! Take your seats ladies.” Katara and Toph did as asked and saw her concentrating on raising the temperature. Soon steam had covered everything. The three girls sighed contently.

“It’s nice to have three benders at the same room,” Toph said. “This may be a little fun after all.” The older girls high-fived.

“Soooo…” Lia said rubbing her hands. “How about a make-over next? I haven’t worked on a face other than my own for almost ten years. This would be refreshing.”

“Are you good at this?” Toph asked hesitantly.

“Not to tut my own horn but yes, yes I am.”

“It could be interesting to try.” Katara said intrigued. The few times she had tried to put make-up on she had found it challenging to say the least.

Once they were out of the sauna – it had taken quite some persuading to convince Lia to step out of the hot cabin – they moved to a brightly lit room with huge mirrors. Lia took a look at the different kinds of make-up and sighed.

“I’m in heaven,” she whispered in a giddy voice. Hearing Katara giggle next to her, she turned threateningly to the waterbender. “Tell Zuko I said this and I’ll do something unspeakably horrible, like cause bad weather when he finally asks you out!” she hissed. Katara just shrugged.

“You’re not very convincing,” she said taking a seat in front of a mirror.

“She can be if she wants to,” Toph warned her thinking back at the angry vibes the Spirit seemed to emit whenever the name Agni was mentioned. She silently listened to the explanations Lia gave as she applied the different powders on Katara’s face. Fifteen minutes later Lia stepped back.

“What do you think?” she asked Katara. The colours she had used were next to invisible, yet they brought out the waterbenders eyes making them look like a pair of sapphires.

“It’s great!” Katara breathed.

“I want the same!” Toph decided excitedly. Lia looked at Toph hesitantly.

“These colours don’t suit you very well,” she explained to the youngest girl gently. “Do you want me to do something similar but use your colours?”

“What do you mean my colours?” Toph asked surprised.

“Each face is different,” the Spirit explained. “Colours that look good on me or you would look horrible on Katara and vice versa.” Toph sighted and leaned back on her chair.

“Then do what you think best,” she said a little sad. She understood what Lia was talking about, but for her all this meant nothing. It wasn’t as if she could see the outcome… Surprisingly the soft touches of the different brushes calmed her. When she felt Lia move back she turned anxiously to Katara.

“You look great!” her friend exclaimed. Toph silently hoped that Aang would think the same if he saw her.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” Toph admitted as they returned home. Lia had left them at the train station, from there she’d return to the Lower Ring. “I’m not usually into that stuff, but I actually feel… girly.”

“I’m glad,” Katara said genuinely happy. “It’s about time we did something fun together.” As they crossed a bridge they came along a few fancy-dressed girls.

“Wow!” one of them said. “Great make-up!”

“Thanks!” Toph answered happily.

“For a clown!” the girl finished snickering. Toph felt her good mood going down the drain.

“Don’t listen to them,” Katara said glaring at the girls’ direction. “Let’s just keep walking.”

“I think she looks cute,” the second girl said. “Like that time you put a sweater on your pet poodle-monkey.”

“Good one!” her friends praised her.

“Let’s go Toph,” Katara said noting the mortified expression on the other girl’s face.

“No, no!” Toph said with a false laugh. “That was a good one!” she turned to the girls. “Like your poodle-monkey… You know what else is a good one?” She stomped her foot creating a hole under the three girls. They fell into the river squeaking.

“Now that was funny…” Katara laughed at them before waterbending them away. She hurried to catch up with Toph.

“Those girls don’t know what they’re talking about,” she assured her.

“It’s okay. One of the good things about being blind is that I don’t have to waste my time worrying about appearances. I don’t care what I look like. I’m not looking for anyone’s approval. I know who I am,” Toph said firmly, trying to convince more herself than Katara.

“That’s what I really admire about you Toph,” Katara said quietly. “You’re so strong and confident and self-assured. And I know it doesn’t matter,” she added hearing the little earthbender sniffing, “but you’re really pretty.”

“I am?” Toph asked disbelievingly.

“Yeah, you are. At the ball Aang couldn’t take his eyes away from you.” That seemed to have the desired effect.

“I’d return the compliment,” Toph said sounding more like herself again, “but I’ve no idea what you look like.” Katara laughed. “Thank you Katara.” She added punching her lightly on the shoulder.

The Tale of Zuko:

It would have been just another day on the teashop, if it wasn’t for the fact that Zuko’s suspicions had been confirmed. And it just had to be today! The prince thought annoyed as he approached his uncle. He had to do this discreetly.

“Uncle!” he called quietly Iroh. “We have a problem.” The old man climbed down the ladder he stood on to restock the shelves and looked at his nephew with mild interest. “One of the customers is on to us,” Zuko continued. “Don’t look now, but there is a girl over there at the corner table. She knows we’re Fire Nation.” Iroh felt his slight worry turn into amusement. Even though he was with Katara now – and Iroh had caught them making out on the roof more than once – his nephew was still ignorant on the subject of girls. He turned curiously to give the girl a look, but Zuko turned him back roughly. “Didn’t I say don’t look?” he asked annoyed.

“You’re right Zuko,” he said to his nephew. “I’ve seen that girl quite a lot. It seems to me she has quite a crush on you.”

“What?” Zuko exclaimed horrified.

“Thanks for the tea,” the girl said from behind them. Zuko took wordlessly the coins she gave him and turned to give her her change. “What’s your name?” she asked him, clearly hoping to strike up a conversation.

“My name’s Lee.” Zuko answered evenly. “My uncle, sister and I just moved here.”

Before the girl had chance to say anything else, Zuko’s eye caught something blue outside the teashop. Hastily he gave her her change and rushed to the door. Indeed, outside was Katara, her hand outstretched to open the door.

“That was some timing!” she told him laughing.

“You have no idea!” he laughed back, a little nervous. There was no going back now. “There are a few customers now, so why don’t you come round the back of the shop? I need to ask you something.”

“Sure,” Katara said surprised. She had sensed his uneasiness and wondered if something was wrong. They sat at the back room, which served as storage, or more accurately Katara sat down. Zuko was passing up and down restlessly, trying to find the words to ask her.

Finally Katara decided that there was no way he’d calm down on his own. Silently she walked up to him and kissed him on the cheek. Zuko froze. He had been so deep in his thoughts, he hadn’t heard her.

“What are you so worried about?” she asked him confused. “Did something happen?”

“No!” Zuko hurried to assure her. He took a deep breath. That was it. “I was wondering if you would come tonight. I… I want to show you something I found and it has to be night…” Katara silenced his babbling, placing a finger on his lips.

“Are you asking me on a date?” she asked teasingly. Zuko’s face turned red. Before he had a chance to answer, she kissed him softly on the lips.

“I’ll meet you outside the teashop at sundown,” she told him smiling.

By midday Katara returned to the Upper Ring, while Zuko and Iroh went back to their apartment for lunch. Lia had been feeling a little sick that day – or so she said – so she had taken the day off. She had prepared lunch and now she was waiting impatiently for her brother to return and tell her the news. She was willing to bet her position as a Spirit that he had been stammering for an hour before asking Katara out. Indeed once they were back home, Zuko came right into the bedroom and plopped onto his bed staring at the ceiling wondrously.

“I take that she said yes?” she asked him. He just nodded, still staring at the ceiling.

“I KNEW IT!” Lia said jumping off her bed. She sat next to her brother. “I told you, you had nothing to worry about!” she laughed at his expression of disbelief. “See? There was no point in acting as if you were going to be executed.” At that Zuko switched expressions and glared at her, even though they both knew she was immune to it.

Katara was feeling giddy as she returned home. She couldn’t believe that Zuko had asked her on a date. She knew their relationship wasn’t a conventional one and she didn’t mind, but still it was nice gesture. She laughed softly remembering how nervous Zuko had been until he had finally gathered the courage to ask her. It had been really cute. Then another thought occurred to her. What was she going to wear? She only had her Water Tribe outfits and none of them seemed right for a date. Stopping in front of a shop on the Middle Ring Katara paused. She had a little money with her. Maybe she could find something nice here…

Precisely at sundown Zuko was standing outside the teashop. A thousand questions were spinning through his head. Would Katara come? Would his surprise work? Would she like it? Had it been a good idea to ask Lia’s advice?

“I hope I’m not late,” he heard a girl saying behind him He turned and felt his jaw drop. Katara was wearing an Earth Kingdom dress of deep green – almost blue – and had let her hair down. Smiling softly she approached him and stood on her toes in order to kiss him.

“Uncle is watching us,” he whispered and fitted a flower into her hand. Katara’s knowing smile turned to one of pleasant surprise. Zuko had given her blooming Panda Lilly.

“Thanks!” she said. The prince took the flower back and placed it in her hair.

“You look beautiful,” he said shyly. Then taking her hand he led her away. Once they were away enough from Iroh’s – and probably Lia’s – curiosity Katara paused.

“Can I kiss you now?” she asked fake-pouting.

“If you can’t hold back,” Zuko answered smugly. Katara humph-ed before leaning in and kissing him. When they broke away Zuko told her smiling:

“Like you said, I could get used to this.”

“I think you already are,” Katara told him leaning on his chest.

They walked through the alleys, Zuko’s hand around her waist and her head leaning on his shoulder, talking quietly, but mostly enjoying each other’s company. Arriving in a square Zuko pointed to an eating place.

“You like it my Lady?” he asked her smiling. Katara nodded. It was a nice place, where they could talk freely without being afraid of someone eavesdropping.

They sat down and soon their food came. Katara’s thoughtful expression drew Zuko’s attention.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked her curiously.

“It’s silly,” she shrugged. “I was just wondering why you call me your ‘Lady’. Not that it bothers me,” she hurried to add when he shifted uncomfortably, “but I was curious.”

“It was Lia who called you first so,” Zuko explained, rubbing the back of his head nervously. “Back on the ferry. And if the Avatar defeats my father, then I will be Fire Lord. So you’d better be used to people calling you Lady Katara.” The waterbender looked at him confused.

“But shouldn’t we be, I don’t know, married, for me to be considered the Fire Lady?” she asked.

“Well, yeah,” the firebender shrugged. “But the moment a member of the Royal Family is crowned and he is not married, then the nobles will begin pestering him about finding a bride.”

“But if there is a girlfriend…” Katara began, understanding his trail of thought.

“They treat her as the Fire Lady-to-be in order to press the situation. That is if they approve of the choice.”

“You think they’d approve of me?” Katara asked nervously.

“You shouldn’t be worried. The nobles have influence, that’s true, but they can’t directly affect the decisions. And their approval would be the least worry in my mind if we were to get married.”

“What would be your first?” Katara asked him, feeling a little weird that they were talking about marriage.

“Your brother,” Zuko answered. “He’d murder me before I had a chance to finish my sentence.” At the thought of Sokka’s reaction the two teens burst out laughing. A waiter approached Zuko.

“If you and your girlfriend are finished, I will bring the desserts,” he half-asked, half-proposed. Zuko nodded. The mention of Katara as his girlfriend made him feel warm inside. She didn’t seem to have a problem with the term either.

When they had finished eating they started walking around again, with Zuko leading the way. They had nearly reached the limits of the Lower Ring when he paused and turned to Katara.

“Are you ready for the surprise?” he asked her. She nodded eagerly. They approached a fountain in the middle of a big crossroad. Zuko’s face fell.

“It’s not lit!” he said disappointed. Katara looked around and noticed many torches, lanterns and candles around.

“It must be magical to see them all lit,” she said trying to comfort him. “I’m sure it would be beautiful.” Zuko had a set expression on his face.

“I wanted to show you the place as it should be and I will,” he said decisively. Motioning for her to wait, he took a step forward and closed his eyes concentrating. Even though he hadn’t done any actual firebending for quite some time now he felt the fire’s response immediately, as the candles sprung to life.

Katara took a sharp breath. It was indeed a magical sight. The flames illuminating the water making it look like liquid light.

“That’s amazing!” she breathed, walking up next to him. She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she whispered. She felt his hands creep around her waist and she looked up in anticipation. Zuko didn’t disappoint her. Pulling her closer he slowly met her lips with his.

Iroh had been looking curiously out the window, on the pretext of taking care of his plants. That didn’t discourage a sniggering Lia, who had long ago pointed out that the only reason they were both still awake was that they were waiting for Zuko. As she opened her mouth to tease Iroh once again, they heard the door opening. Zuko entered the room wordlessly although the dreamy look on his face was more than enough for Lia. Iroh on the other hand couldn’t resist the temptation.

“How was your evening prince Zuko?” he asked the boy. His nephew’s dreamy expression instantly turned into a scowl. He marched into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him. A second later the door opened a bit and Zuko’s face reappeared.

“It was nice,” he admitted quietly. The door closed, quietly this time, and the prince missed his uncle’s satisfied expression.

Inner Monologue

Standard

…And simply sitting on the sun, letting the breeze play with a few stubborn strands of hair that escape my bun is nice. It almost makes me wish I could capture the moment and live in it forever, with no worries, just the warmth and the peacefulness filling me in like never before and a pair of eyes studying me in an admiration I do not understand…At least the pose he made me sit on is comfortable… Peculiar, fascinating child-man…Walking back from work at the fields, the last thing I expected was being stopped by a complete stranger and asked to become his model. He said I was an everyday beauty, a part of Nature herself, ebony hair and golden skin (he doesn’t know of the sickly white I turn during winter) and eyes the shape of a teardrop and he would go on and on with his flattery if I hadn’t cut him off, asking what I was going to get out of this. He stumbled, probably did not expect someone to be more concerned about the mundane everyday struggles rather than “the eternal existence of a piece of art.” Regardless the money he’s paying is good. All I have to do is sit there in my work clothes -why would anyone care about those old things instead of that beautiful stitched skirt Mary gave me on my birthdate or the dress my mother made for my wedding I do not know- and stare at him unmoving and bored -thoughtful he says-. He has found this small field near the coast. No one bothers with it. It’s too near the sea to grow anything properly, but he finds it the perfect inspiration. Or so he thought until he wandered curiously further down to the beach. The view stole away any loud comments he might have had, all full of description and color. It looks the same to me, just a few rocks and lots of sand and the tide’s soft roar sending you to sleep like my old mother’s lullaby. How I wish I had children to sing the old songs to. He is an overgrown child; he comes from the city, the painter. I’ve heard that things are different there. Nessy was telling me the last time she was here that the house she works in does not even have a garden and yet it’s one of the best in town. Townsfolk is weird like that. So he makes me sit on the ground, my back to the water, only half-turned towards him so that the light will be “just right.” Then he spends the rest of the morning taking turns between staring through me and painting in his canvas. I have no idea what the painting itself looks like. He covers it the moment midday comes, insisting that he cannot work without the light hitting me “properly.” Then he returns to whatever he does the rest of his time and I rush back to my life and the chores that cannot be left undone because an artist -as he calls himself- wished to waste his mornings staring at me. Or through me. Jake worried that I spend too much time with him but the moment I brought home the first payment all his worries flew out of the window. This is the most either of us has ever made. We can finally make the repairs we needed in our house and even put a little on the side for when the good times are long gone. If I were to be honest (and I pride myself to be) I’d say it’s nice to be noticed. No one ever called me any kind of beauty and I never entertained the thought that I might be anything other than plain. Then this strange man stops me and declares that I would be the Muse for his latest work. I don’t know what a Muse is but his tone was nice so it must be something good. I wish Jake took the time to notice me. It’s been two years that we have been married and he spends more time in the fields and the tavern than with me. It’s not fair to compare the two men of my life and yet I do. Jake is sturdy; strong like the oak that he used to make our bed. The other is a child stuck to the body of a grown man with a tendency to drop things in the most inconvenient moments and places. What does he know of the real world? But then what do I know? I’ve never left our little spot in the world. I dreamed once, dreamed that a pirate like those of the old days would come and whisk me away. Then I woke up.