Author’s note: In which the author brings back a favourite character of hers, denial is also a river in the Spirit World and there is an addition to the Gaang.
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***A Blast from the Past***
Dawn found nearly everyone in the group wishing they could sleep in for once. They gathered in the front room of the house they had been given looking pale, tired and, in Lia’s case, more than a little hangover. Sokka’s eyes widened at the sight of the usually energetic Spirit trudging last in the room, dark circles under her eyes and hair framing her face limply.
“What happened to you?” he nearly yelled. Lia winced as his loud voice added to her headache.
“Less noise, more quiet,” she managed to mumble, massaging her temples. “And for the record, whatever I might have said last night best be forgotten.” Suki chuckled.
“What, you spill your secrets when you get drunk?” she asked.
“Then how come you’ve never mentioned it before?” Toph added disappointed. “Think of all the fun we’ve missed.” The redhead just groaned in response.
“See if I ever touch the stuff again…” she said before turning hopefully to Katara. “A little help for your soon-to-be-sister-in-law?” The waterbender rolled her eyes but healed the headache nonetheless.
“Why did you drink so much anyway?” she couldn’t help but scold the redhead. “You knew we wouldn’t be staying here.” Lia shrugged carelessly.
“It was worth it!” she said.
“Not like you said anything particularly embarrassing Lily,” Agni said from his place by the door. “Even drunk you wouldn’t say what your secret was.” Lia looked at him blankly for a moment, then some of last night’s memory decided to present itself. To everyone’s surprise she blushed.
“Of course!” she grumbled. “Of course you’d be the one to find me drunk out of my mind!” She took a deep breath. “I suppose it could have been worse.” She picked her bag and made for the door. Turning to face the rest of the gang, who were gaping at her relatively calm reaction, she raised an eyebrow impatiently. “Well? Are you coming or what?” Toph whistled impressed and waltzed over to Agni.
“I don’t know what you did last night but it sure mellowed her!” she said, punching him in the arm. “Good work!”
“Thanks, I think,” he answered, rubbing his arm. For a sixteen-year-old she sure was strong!
All teasing aside, the festival seemed to have siphoned at least some of the tension that had hung over the group before. Short conversations would break every now and then as they walked towards the city gates. The streets were mostly deserted, the city’s inhabitants clearly preferring to lie in after last night’s revel, although a few were out and about and they cheerfully waved at the group as they passed them. Under the early morning light the city’s colour seemed washed out, even the gems sparkling half-heartedly. Most surprisingly perhaps, when they arrived at the gate they had entered through the previous day, instead of the ornate marble arch, they found a plainer one, carved out of rough granite. Oma stood at the side, waiting for them with a soft smile. Surveying the still-sleepy expressions in some of their faces she chuckled.
“It seems you all had a good time last night,” she said. “I’m glad. And I have one last gift for you.”
“It’s not whatever Lia drank last night, is it?” Zuko asked, laughing at how the Spirit perked up at the prospect despite her earlier vow of abstinence. Oma shook her head smiling.
“No, I don’t think that would be of much help right now,” she said lightly. Then she grew solemn. “It has to do with your quest,” she said. “The location of the Water crystal.”
“You know where it is?” Aang asked eagerly. His face fell when the Earth Spirit shook her head negatively.
“No,” she said. “But I do know someone who does. Koh, the Face Stealer.” Aang involuntarily shuddered at the idea of dealing with the creepy Spirit again. The rest of the group also seemed weary, having heard Aang’s account of his encounter with Koh. Lia snorted at their expressions.
“Oh come on!” she said. “He’s not that bad!” The others gave her dubious looks. “He’s not!” Even Oma was looking at her surprised.
Clearing his throat awkwardly Aang turned to Oma, once again the spokesperson for the group.
“Thank you for all your help,” he said as formally as possible. Oma bowed her head in acknowledgement.
“I hope our next meeting is under better circumstances,” she said before opening the gate for them. “Fare well on your travels.” With one final nod the group passed through the gate, exiting at the bottom of the mountain. The gate closed behind them and disappeared.
“So since you are apparently friends with the Face Stealer, does that mean that you know where he lives?” Sokka asked Lia.
“Yup!” she said. “He’s on the swamps, pretty much as close to the in-between as you can get without actually leaving the Spirit World behind.” She gave Aang a look. “You know the place, don’t you?” The Avatar nodded.
“I ended up there the first time I crossed over, during the invasion of the Northern Water Tribe. But the area is very large,” he added worriedly. “Last time I had Hei Bai to guide me through. How are we going to find him now?” Agni didn’t seem very concerned.
“I’m sure he tells his friends how to find him,” he said lazily, causing everyone to stare at Lia expectantly. She frowned and everything around her blurred. A chorus of “Hey!”s caused her to settle down, their surroundings rematerializing to the place they had been standing.
“Well?” she asked irritably. “Do you want me to take you guys there or not?”
“A word of warning first!” Azula grumbled, letting go of Zuko, whom she had grabbed in order to keep her balance. She didn’t receive an answer so she took to glaring at the Spirit’s back instead. “What’s up with her all of a sudden?” she mumbled, receiving an equally confused look from her brother.
In the end there wasn’t much blurring and teleporting that day and when they set up camp that night the mountain was still visible in the distance. The walk had done little to improve Lia’s mood and she had fallen to a brooding silence, ignoring the light chatter of her friends. Instead of joining the others around the fire, she sat a little further away, scowling at the fact that the others were slowly growing more comfortable with Agni’s presence, even including him in their conversation. The crystal heated up against her collarbone in reaction to her unsettled emotions as she vainly tried to figure out exactly what was that had set her on edge all day. It had to do with last night, that much she was certain, but the night was foggy in her memory. No matter what Agni had said earlier, she knew she had revealed something that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming from the shadow-covered trees nearby. Before anyone else had much of a chance to react she was on her feet and hurtling a fireball in the direction of the sound. The shadows just behind the spot her fire landed condensed to a human shape with a face reminiscent of Zuko’s old Blue Spirit mask, and at last materialised to a man dressed in black, with a royal blue cloak and hood that he pushed back to reveal a face with sharp features and electric blue eyes. Recognising him, Lia smiled in delight and practically jumped in his arms.
“Ao!” she exclaimed, pulling away a little to look in his eyes. “It’s been ages! How did you find us?” He shrugged lazily –as best as he could with his arm around her shoulders-.
“Word of you going around and causing trouble has spread. I figured I’d come and see what all the fuss is about,” he said.
“There’s more people here you know,” Azula cut their reunion. “Are you going to introduce us or what?” Lia stepped away with a laugh.
“Sorry about that,” she said, turning to face the group. “Everyone, this is Ao, the Blue Spirit.”
“Yo,” Ao nodded in acknowledgment to the introduction before taking a seat between Azula and Lia and joining the group’s conversation. Distracted as they were by their exchange of stories, nobody noticed that Agni, who had at first been amused at Lia’s reaction towards all things unidentified, was frowning deeper by the moment as he observed the friendship between Lia and Ao. After their exchange party he had thought that maybe the redhead had decided to call a truce but apparently he had been wrong.
Regardless of Agni’s frustration Ao’s addition to the group managed to relieve some of the tension if only because he knew how to distract Lia when her mood seemed to take a turn for the worse. He listened with amusement as she recounted how she had talked Zuko into taking up the Blue Spirit as an alias for a while and would have probably talked about sword-fighting techniques with Zuko and Sokka for the rest of the day if their arrival at Koh’s domain didn’t interrupt them. Everyone quieted down as they took in their surroundings. The place seemed even more desolate than Aang remembered, tendrils of mist winding around the trees like clawed hands.
“Do we need to go in there?” he asked, pointing at the cave entrance and looking about as eager as Lia had looked in front of the Library.
“We’re in his front yard,” Toph pointed out. “He probably knows we’re here already.”
“Doesn’t mean he’ll come out,” Suki said, her hand nervously resting against the fans hanging from her belt. Lia shook her head and marched towards the entrance, although she didn’t step into the shadows either.
“Koh!” she called instead, leaning casually against the wall and ignoring Aang’s hurried instruction of the “no emotion” rule. “Are you going to keep us waiting all day or are you going to crawl out.”
“I can hear you quite well without the screaming,” Koh’s smooth voice came from the shadows, followed by the Spirit itself. He observed the group before him, completely ignoring the amused redhead at his side. “Let us dispense with the formalities. I have no interest in adding any of your faces in my collection.” A few hesitant expressions of relief appeared.
“Isn’t that just grand!” Lia said, moving to join the others as they slowly approached. “Oma said you know where the Water crystal is. Don’t suppose you’ll tell us.” Koh’s face shifted from his customary Noh mask to that of an old, annoyed-looking human.
“I am not here to provide trivia,” he said, his voice unchanging and contrasting eerily with the age face he sported.
“But you’ll make an exception just this once?” Toph asked in a sugary-sweet voice that made everyone look at her bewildered. Koh focused his eyes on her, taking note of her sightless eyes in interest.
“Not quite,” he said finally. “There is no love lost between me and the Avatar,” he paused and looked at Aang knowingly, “and I have already aided him once with no recompense. Why would I do it again?”
“Because if you don’t there’ll be even less people stumbling in on your domain and it will become harder to collect faces?” Azula offered only half-joking. Koh appeared to consider her point. In the end he sighed and shifted back to the inscrutable Noh mask.
“The mists of this swamp conceal all things sought by Spirit or mortal,” he said, almost as if reciting from an old text. “All that is hidden is revealed within them to those brave enough to enter.” Without another word he turned and returned to his cave, leaving the group to stare at his retreating back confused.
“Does that mean that the crystal is somewhere in the swamps then?” Katara asked hesitantly. Zuko took her hand, feeling uneasy but staring at the mist-covered terrain in front of them determined.
“I suppose there is only one way to find out,” he said.
“You don’t mean…” Sokka trailed off when he saw Zuko heading towards the swamp and sighed. “Of course you do.”
“It’s not like we have much of a choice,” Aang reasoned, although he didn’t look particularly eager to enter the swamp either.
“Well, let’s go then!” Lia pushed forward, bypassing Zuko and Katara and pretty much diving in the mist. Her voice came out muffled. “The sooner we find the crystal, the sooner we can get out of here.”
One by one the mists swallowed the group until nothing was left to mark their passage. In the shadows Koh chuckled knowingly.
“All that is sought and all that is hidden,” he mused, “all that has been covered by the mists of the past.”