Tag Archives: Appa

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Nightmares and Daydreams

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Author’s note: In which the main plot tries to make a come-back, tensions run high and there are hallucinations but no cactus juice in sight.

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***Nightmares and Daydreams***

Sokka looked up from his map to the small island. They had finally made it. Despite everyone’s complaints his scheduling had worked and they were in time for the invasion.

“This is it, the official rendezvous point for the invasion force,” he informed the others.

“How did you pick this place‌?” Toph asked. To her it was just another deserted island.

“Before we split up, my dad and I found this island on a map. It’s uninhabited, and the harbor surrounded by cliffs seemed like the perfect secluded place,” Sokka explained as everyone started rolling out their sleeping bags.

“Nice choice Sokka,” Katara praised him as she unbraided her hair. She looked around.  “And we’re here four days ahead of schedule.” Aang’s eyes shot open.

“Wait,” he sat up abruptly. “The invasion’s in four days?” The others shrugged unconcerned.

“Whatever,” Sokka shrugged. “That’s like…four days from now.” He yawned and lied down. “Let’s just calm down, and …” before he had time to finish his sentence he fell asleep.
“Sokka’s got the right idea Aang. We’re here, we’re ready…” Katara said lying down herself next to Zuko. Toph and Lia were already asleep. “The best thing we can do now is get plenty of rest,” the waterbender finished.

“I guess,” Aang agreed nervously before lying down himself.

 

A few hours later he shot up, breathing hard after a nightmare. He frantically looked around and sighted in relief.

“It was just a dream Momo, I still have my pants,” Aang said as the lemur approached him curious. He got up. “Well, I better keep training.” He approached a bush and started practicing his kicks. Momo shook his head and went right back to sleep. His human could be so weird at times…

 

The next morning everyone woke up to the sound of something hitting wood really hard. With the exception of a surprisingly alert Lia everyone else looked at each other confused. Katara stood up drowsily and approached Aang who was busy hitting a tree.

“Hey, how long have you been up‌?” she asked.

“A couple of hours,” he answered curtly and started circling the tree, trying various punches and kicks. “I got a lot more skills to refine if I’m going to fight Ozai.”

“You know there is such a thing as over-training,” Zuko said, lighting a fire to start breakfast. Aang didn’t seem to hear him and punched the tree again. The aftershock from the punch sent him to the ground. He was back on his feet in an instant.

“You don’t get it, do you?” he said, drawing circles around Katara. “My form is bad. I’m sloppy. And I still don’t know any fire bending, not even the basics!” Sokka shrugged casually.

“That’s okay Aang. The eclipse will block all firebending anyway, you don’t need to know any.” He looked up from his map. “Plus it’s a stupid element.” Lia sent a fireball to his feet, causing him to yelp is surprise before she stalked away. Sokka looked at Zuko confused. “What’s with her?” he asked. The firebender shrugged.

“Aside from the comment you just made?” he asked. Sokka didn’t seem to get it.

“Aside from that.” Aang spoke up again, before an argument could erupt between the two older boys.

“Okay, well, I still have to work on everything else. I’d better spend the whole day training.” He jumped on his airscooter and disappeared.

“Lia was up before us,” Toph said confused. “I thought she didn’t like waking up early.”

“She doesn’t,” Zuko agreed before standing up. “I’ll go find her. She’s probably just stressed.”

“Who Lia?” Sokka asked over his breakfast. “Why would she be?”

 

Zuko found his mentor on the edge of the island, meditating. Silently he sat next to her and joined the exercise. After a few minutes of silence Lia gave up. She opened her eyes and turned to her brother.

“This is the first time in so long that I’ve actually, physically, returned home. It feels so strange,” she admitted.

“So that’s what’s been bothering you?” Zuko asked. “But why now? You knew about the invasion plan all along.”

“I guess it’s only now that the idea hit home. It doesn’t even look like it did back then but I can’t help feeling it’s wrong for me to go back.” She turned to Zuko. “How can you handle it so calmly?”

“I’m not sure.” He looked at her helplessly. “I suppose I just keep telling myself it is the right thing to do.” He paused and thought for a second. “And I might have a chance to rescue uncle Iroh,” he added. That got a smile out of Lia.

“I suppose you’re right,” she said as she stood again and extended a hand to Zuko to help him stand. “Come for some practice?” she asked, sounding more like herself again.

 

Much later, long after everyone else was asleep, Aang came back to camp. Flopping down to his sleeping bag he yawned.

“Good night Katara. Good night Sokka. Good night Toph. Good night Zuko. Good night Lia. Good night Appa. Good night Momo…”

“Go to sleep already!” Toph yelled annoyed before he had a chance to add anything else. Wincing a little at her loud voice, the airbender turned on his side and tried to sleep. A few hours later he shot awake again, breathing hard from a nightmare. Wordlessly he approached some sleeping koala-sheep and started practicing again. His constant walking woke up Toph.

“Twinkle-Toes it’s the middle of the night. Go back to sleep.” She approached him, rubbing the sleep away from her eyes.

“But I forgot my pants and my math test!” he answered wildly. Toph sighted and encased his feet in stone, turning him to face her.

“You can worry about them tomorrow,” she ordered. “Now get some sleep. All this walking around made me dizzy.” She dragged him back to camp and into his sleeping bag before he had a chance to protest.

 

The next morning everyone woke up early, this time in yells. Aang shot awake from yet another nightmare and shook Sokka shouting:

“Sokka get up! I need to know what day it is!” The Water Tribe boy jumped up startled.

“What? Who’s talking?” he took his sword and promptly hit his head on the rock in front of him.

“Relax, it’s still two days before the invasion,” Toph sighed as everyone else woke up. Aang didn’t seem to hear her. He kept trying to get Sokka on his feet.

“Sokka, you’ve got to get up and drill your rock climbing exercises.”

“What?” Sokka looked at him confused.

“In one of my dreams, you were running from fire nation soldiers, trying to climb this cliff, but you were too slow and they got you,” the airbender explained frantically. Sokka jumped up, insulted.

“But that was just a dream! I’m a great climber.” Aang didn’t seem convinced. He pointed at a nearby steep cliff.

“Then climb that cliff. Climb it fast!” Sokka looked at the cliff, then back at Aang. The Avatar nodded encouragingly. With a sigh Sokka approached it and started climbing.

“Stupid Avatar. Stupid cliff. Stupid dream! I can climb fast!” he grumbled under his breath.

 

Aang turned pleased in time to see Toph ready to take a sip of water.

“Don’t drink that!” he yelled alarmed. Shocked Toph spit it out, all over Katara. Annoyed the older girl bended it away.

“Why?” Toph asked alarmed. “Is it poisoned?”

“In my dream, we were right in the middle of the invasion, and you had to stop to use the bathroom. We died because of your tiny bladder.” Aang turned to Lia, who was busy untangling her hair. “And you need to start wearing your hair up. In my dream, your hair got caught in a train, and…” he stopped when he saw the evil eye he was getting from the Spirit.

“Do you want to know what happened to everyone in my dream?” she asked annoyed. “Because it involved a lot of lightning being shot in our direction.” Katara saw Aang paling and continued in a softer voice.

“Aang, I know you’re just trying to help. But you really need to get a grip. You’re unraveling.” The boy sighed.

“You’re right. I’m losing my mind.”

 

Everyone gathered around for breakfast and to discuss what to do with Aang.

“It’s like every time I think about how stressed I am, I end up more stressed,” the boy said twitching. “I’m like a big, growing snowball of nerves!”

“Of course you are!” Sokka looked up from his project of making Appa some armor. “That’s because you’ve got to fight the Firelord, the baddest man on the planet, and you’d better win or we’re all done for.” This time both Lia and Zuko sent fireballs at him. “What?” he yelled annoyed.

“You’re not helping!” Katara yelled annoyed at her brother.

“What? It’s true! That’s the deal. He knows it!” Sokka insisted. She slapped him at the back of the head annoyed before walking up to Aang who was trembling from head to toe now.

“You know what?” she said good-naturally. “I’ve got just the thing! Get ready to be de-stressified!”

 

Katara led Aang to a hot spring she had discovered the day before. Lia followed them silently, hoping that whatever the waterbender was about to try would work on her strained nerves too.

“These yoga stretches can really do wonders if you do them in extreme heat,” the girl explained before assuming a stance. “Reach up,” she guided both her “students.” “Reach for the sun. Feel your chi paths clearing.” She changed her stance and Aang hurried to follow. “Now close your eyes. How are you feeling?” she asked gently.

“I feel really warm,” Aang said.

“Go on,” Katara prompted him.

“Like there’s this warm feeling all around me. This heat. Like I’m in the Firelord’s palace and he’s shooting a bunch of fireballs at me!” Panicked again he fell over.

“Maybe your stress is the kind you need to talk about,” Katara sighed disappointed.

 

Sokka was the next to try his “methods”. This time Lia didn’t bother to follow, having been calmed by the warm air from the springs. Aang was lying on the ground with his head resting on a koala sheep, while Sokka sat next to him, wearing his Wang Fire beard.

“Why don’t you get right down to business and tell me what’s been bothering you?” he asked in his fake-adult voice.

“You know what’s been bothering me!” Aang said annoyed. “I have to fight the Firelord in a few days.” Sokka nodded in understanding.

“Tell me more about this Firelord…” he said. “Why are you so afraid of him?”

“You said it yourself! He’s the baddest man on the planet! I’m supposed to defeat him and save the world.” Sokka nodded again.

“Life does feel that way sometimes, doesn’t it? Like we’re trying to save the world from evil?” Aang looked at him exasperated.

“Okay, but what can I do to feel better?” Sokka handed him another koala-sheep.

“Wanna try screaming into this pillow?” Aang tried but he felt just the same with before, along with a sneezing fit since he inhaled some of the koala-sheep’s fur.

 

Toph was the next to drag him away. She led him to a small platform of rocks she had made. Aang couldn’t help but sent a wistful glance a little further away, where Zuko and Lia were practicing uninterrupted.

“Alright,” Toph said, pushing him to the platform. “What you need is a good, old-fashioned back-pounding to relieve your stress.”

“Pound away,” Aang sighed. Toph took his words at heart and stomped her feet to the ground, causing separate pieces of the platform to rise and hit his back.

“Toph!” the boy yelped. “I think this is bruising me!” he fell of the platform.

“Sorry, I forgot you have baby skin.” She paused thoughtfully. “Well there is one more thing we could try.” She stomped her foot again and a porcupine landed on her hand.  She showed it to him smiling. “Acupuncture.” Aang’s eyes widened in terror before he ran away screaming.

 

Aang limped back to camp some time later that night. Everyone else was already ready for bed when he plopped down on his sleeping bag. He turned to his friends.

“Thanks for everything guys,” he said.

“So, do you feel any less stressed? Ready for a good night’s sleep?” Katara asked hopefully. Aang looked up from his feet uneasily.

“I kind of think I sort of might slightly feel a little better,” he said nervously. Sokka yawned satisfied.

“Then our job here is done,” he said satisfied. The next moment he was asleep and the rest soon followed his example. Not for long though. The moon had hardly passed its midpoint when Aang woke everyone up again yelling in horror.

“What happened Aang?” Katara rushed to him worried.

“It’s the nightmares,” the boy explained trembling. “The just get worse and worse.” Sokka took out his fake beard.

“Looks like it’s time for another therapy session,” he said. Aang glared at him.

“No, that won’t help!” he snapped. “Nothing helps! There’s only one thing I can do. I’m going to stay awake until the invasion.” Everyone’s jaw hit the floor.

 

The next morning everyone woke up to see Aang waking around, his shoulders slumped as he tried to remain awake.

“Invasion. All aboard for the invasion,” he muttered to himself in a dull voice. Katara watched him worried.

“You don’t look so good.” She walked up to him. “You sure you can’t just lie down for a little nap?” His eyes gained a little light for a second as he gave her a panicky look.

“I told you, I can’t go back to sleep.”
Katara wasn’t the only one who was worried about Aang’s insomnia. Toph had found it amusing at first but now she was getting scared. The airbender’s normally calm vibrations were completely off and his ramblings didn’t sound right either. Hesitantly, something that was a first for her, she approached Aang.

“Come on Twinkle-Toes, all this staying up can’t be good for you,” she said casually.

“Actually staying up all night has given me some time to think,” he answered as they walked along the shore. “And I’ve realized some big things Toph.” The earthbender looked up curious.

“Really? What big things?”
“I see everything so clearly now…what really matters,” Aang continued contemplatively. “Why I’m really doing this. I’m doing it to save the world, but more than that. I’m doing it for the people I love…” His eyes grew distant and his voice trailed off. Suddenly he sprung to the side.

“Uh… Twinkle-Toes?” Toph asked, hoping to snap him out of it. He jumped straight again. “You really need a nap.”

“Sorry,” Aang rubbed his eye awkwardly. “I guess I kinda drifted off into a day-dream.”

“What was it about?” Toph asked.

“Uh… living underwater,” the airbender said hastily, wincing at the silly excuse. Thankfully Toph just shrugged and walked away.

 

“I’m telling you guys, we need to do something!” Toph insisted, “looking” over to where the rest of the gang was sitting. “If Aang continues like this, he won’t make it through the invasion.”

“Toph is right,” Sokka decided. “If Aang does not get some rest we might as well not take him with us tomorrow on the invasion.”

“Have you tried a pep talk?” Lia asked suddenly. She was still tense but had decided to push her inhibitions aside for now.

“You think it would work?” Zuko asked her doubtfully.

“It works on you…” she shot back with a shrug.

 

They found Aang sitting in front of Momo, trying to speak lemur. The boy laughed at something his pet said.

“Aang?” Katara called hesitantly. “We’re all starting to get a little worried about you.”

“You’ve been awake too long,” Zuko continued.

“And you’re acting downright weird,” Toph added, putting up her usual tough front. Aang’s eyes moved from one to the other as they talked to finally rest on Appa. His face turned blank as he fell into another daydream, not really listening to what the others said. Suddenly his face filled with horror and he ran up to Sokka.

“Sokka, what should we do‌?” he yelled.

“About what?” the boy asked confused.

“About that!” Aang pointed as Appa and Momo’s general direction and the gang turned to see their two pets growling at each other.

“Come on guys, we’re all on the same side!” Aang called to them. Appa and Momo ignored him. Everyone looked on as Aang’s eyes darted from one direction to another, hallucinating. Lia made a move to force him to snap out of it when he suddenly jumped.

“I just need a jump in a cold waterfall!” he yelled before running away. Lia sighed disappointed and turned to the others.

“Okay, who has Plan B?”

When the sun set Aang returned back to camp. He had spent the entire day hidden near the shore, trying to fight away the hallucinations. Looking up ahead he saw a mass of something fluffy and white. Skeptically he popped on it trying it for its softness.

“Oh look, another hallucination. An imaginary bed, made out of clouds,” he sighed.

“Hey! It’s real! We spent hours working on it!” Toph said from somewhere on the side.

“We made it for you,” Sokka explained. “A good night sleep will probably take the crazy away…we hope.” Aang frowned and jumped off the bed.

“Look, you guys keep telling me I need to sleep, but I can’t, the invasion’s tomorrow.”

“Aang…” Katara sighed.

“No Katara, there’s still so much I haven’t learned. I don’t need sleep. What I need is practice. Quick, hit me,” he ordered her, his eye twitching a little.
“I’m not going to hit you!” The waterbender took a step back.

“You want me to do it‌?” Toph asked excited. To everyone’s surprise Zuko stepped forward and grabbed Aang by the shoulders, forcing the younger boy to look at him.

“Listen, Aang. You’ve been training for this since Katara woke you up from the ice. I think I’ve seen your progress better than anyone else.” A snort came from Sokka’s direction, which earned him glares from everyone else. “You’re smart, brave, and strong enough.” Aang looked at the Fire prince, taken aback by the honesty in his voice.

“You really think so‌?” he asked.
“We all do. You can do this. You’re ready,” Sokka added.

“You’re the man, Twinkle-toes,” Toph added with a smile. Aang yawned.

“You know what?‌ I think I am ready.” Katara helped him to the bed they had made and for the first time in nearly a week Aang slept peacefully.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Painted Lady

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Author’s note: In which there are Spirit legends, alter egos, a crazy boatman and Appa’s acting skills finally come to light.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Painted Lady***

Sokka had stirred Appa to the nearest island. It was smaller than the previous one and so far they had not seen any villages under them. Aang and Zuko had woken up early and took turns in stirring Appa, while Sokka got his much deserved sleep. By the time everyone was awake the bison was swimming lazily in the murky water of a river they had found. Sokka sat at the edge of the saddle, trying in vain to catch fish. Aang shrugged of his suit and dived in the water, heedless of its suspicious colour.

“Momo!” he called before diving again. The lemur flew around trying to find him and after a few tries he managed to spot the airbender and landed on his head. Aang laughed.

“Ah! Ha ha, you found me, buddy!” His mirth died down when he noticed for the first time that the river had a sickly, green-brown colour. Nervously he jumped back on the saddle. “Hey guys, I think this river’s polluted.” He bended the dirt out of himself and on the rest of the gang. Everyone except Toph glared at him annoyed.

“Well, that explains why I can’t catch a fish around here. Because normally my fishing skills are…off the hook! Get it‌! Like a fishing hook‌?” Sokka grinned madly around, waiting for a reaction to his joke. Lia raised an eyebrow.

“Too bad your skills aren’t on the hook,” she said. Sokka scowled while everyone else laughed.

“It looks like we’ll need to go somewhere else to get food,” Katara said. Before she could add anything else a huge scroll unrolled in front of her feet. “Assuming that’ll fit into Sokka’s master schedule,” she finished wryly.

“Hm…it’s doable. But that means only two potty breaks today!” Sokka decided.

“Hey, maybe we can get food there,” Aang said pointing at a small village in the distance.

They got out of the river and found a small, secluded landing by a cave on the mountainside. Aang covered Appa with a blanket of turf.

“Now you look just like a little hill with horns. Bye buddy!” he fair welled his pet. They walked down the cliff and stood for a moment to survey the river below them. Toph looked around confused.

“I don’t feel anything. Where is this village‌?” she asked.

“It’s in the middle of the river!” Sokka explained, amused that anyone in the Fire Nation would live surrounded by water.

“Sure is!” a voice was heard from below. The teens looked down to see an old man with a boat. “My name’s Dock. Mind if I ask who you are‌?”

“We’re from the Earth Kingdom colonies,” Zuko said uneasily. This man looked insane.

“Wow…colonials!” Dock said enthusiastically. “Hop on; I’ll give you a ride into town.”

They rowed through the polluted water in silence for a while. Suddenly Katara asked,

“Why do you guys live on the river‌?”

“Because we’re a fishing town. At least that’s how it was before the factory moved in.” He pointed at a huge metal building. “Army makes their metal there. Moved in a few years ago and started gunking up our river. Now our little village is struggling to survive.” Zuko glared at the building as if wishing to make it disappear. The rest of the ride was filled with uneasy silence. When they reached the docks Aang smiled friendlily to Dock.

“Thanks for the ride!” he called as he ran to catch up with the others. Toph grabbed his arm.

“I can hardly feel any vibrations on wood,” she muttered.

Katara looked around with a sad expression. The village was at its last legs. People dressed in rags were sitting everywhere idle and many looked sick.

“Look at this place. It’s so sad. We have to do something to help,” she said.

“No, we can’t waste our time here! We have a bigger mission that we need to stay focused on. These people are on their own!” Sokka decided harshly.

“These people are starving, but you turn your back on them‌! How can you be so cold and heartless‌?” his sister fixed him with a glare.

“I’m not turning my back, I’m just being realistic!” Sokka said defensively. “We can’t go around helping every rinky-dink town we wander into. We’ll be helping them all by taking out the Fire Lord!”

“Sokka!” everyone hissed, looking around nervously. Toph grabbed the front of his shirt and yanked him to her level.

“Hey, loudmouth! Maybe we should be a little quieter when we talk about taking out the Fire Lord.” she whispered furiously.

“Come on, Katara, be reasonable about this. You know our mission has to come first.” Sokka insisted quieter, yelping as the earthbender roughly released him.

“I guess so,” Katara admitted reluctantly.

“Let’s just get what we need and go,” Zuko said neutrally.

They approached a counter and saw Dock sitting there.

“Hey, Dock. You work here too‌?” Sokka asked curiously.

“I’m not Dock, I’m Xu. Dock’s my brother,” the old man said. The teens looked at each other confused.

“But we just saw you. You’re even wearing the same clothes. The only difference is your hat,” Aang insisted.

“Dock works on the docks, that’s why they call him ‘Dock’, and I work in the shop, that’s why they call me ‘Xu’,” the man corrected him merrily.

“I don’t get it,” Aang said, scratching his head confused.

“Me neither,” Xu agreed cheerfully. He took out a plate with half-rotten seafood. “What can I get you? ‌ Hey, I’ll give you a special deal. If you buy three fish, I’ll throw in a clam for free.” Even Lia turned a little green at the sight of the fish.

“We’ll just take the fish. Mind telling your brother we need a ride back to shore‌?” Sokka asked, taking out some money. Xu ducked under the counter and Dock appeared in his place.

“Hey, colonials. My brother says you need a lift!”

As they turned to leave a little boy stopped Katara, having identified her as the mother figure of the group.

“Can you spare some food‌?” he asked shyly. Sadly Katara knelt to his level and gave him one fish.

“I wish I could spare more,” she told him. The boy gave her a bright smile and ran back where his mother was lying sick.

Back at the camp Sokka took immediately out his schedule while Aang and Katara were trying to bend the water clean and Zuko and Lia set up camp.

“Our detour into town today has completely thrown off our schedule. It’s gonna take some serious finagling to get us back on track,” The warrior said seriously.

“Finagle away, oh schedule master!” Toph said from where she was lying on the ground.

“Well, for starters, it looks like we’ll need to wake up forty-three minutes earlier every day.” Zuko looked at him incredulously.

“Forty-three minutes,” he said. “Not forty or forty-five.”

“Look, we only have a few weeks to get to the Fire Lord in time for the invasion and the eclipse – which, by the way, only lasts for eight minutes. And we just lost a whole day. So if we want to make up the time and stay on schedule, we have to wake up early!” Sokka insisted, taking a sip of his dinner.

“Well, I’m not waking up early,” Toph and Lia said at the same moment. They looked at each other surprised.

“Or we could just cut out all off our eating breaks,” Sokka said.

“What?” Aang exclaimed.

“No way!” Katara said, handing out bowls at the same time.

“Forget it!” Toph stomped her foot, causing a tiny earthquake.

“I got it, how’s this‌? From now on, we’ll take food breaks and potty breaks at the same time,” Sokka said with an inspirational glint. Everyone looked at him surprised. “Hey, it might be gross, but it’s efficient. Either way, we have to leave here first thing tomorrow morning.”
After dinner Lia took out a piece of paper and began sketching, stealing glances at the river every now and then.

“What are you making?” Zuko asked her curious. She handed him the paper and the rest of the gang (minus Toph) gathered around him. The picture was that of a woman in a flowing red dress, wearing a wide hat with a veil and strange marking in her arms and face.

“It’s the Painted Lady,” Lia explained. “She is the protector of the rivers and rumoured to be a healer. I think mortals around here used to offer gifts and ask for her help. Much like the legends of the Blue Spirit in the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes.” She shared a look with Zuko.

The next morning everyone woke up to Appa’s groaning. Aang rushed to his friend worried.

“What’s the matter, Katara‌?” he asked the waterbender.

“I think Appa’s sick,” she said bending some water, trying to locate the problem.

“What, Appa’s sick? ‌ That’s awful!” Sokka bolted from his sleeping bag alarmed.

“Wow, Sokka, I didn’t realize you cared so much,” Toph said surprised. He looked at her aghast.

“Of course I care. I might as well just throw our schedule away now.” The gang glared at him. Gulping he rushed to hug Appa’s leg. “And I’m concerned because my big, furry friend doesn’t feel well,” he added his voice muffled from the fur.

“He must have gotten sick from being in the polluted water,” Toph speculated. “Last night’s dinner tasted funny.” Aang shook his head.

“He doesn’t look sick. You okay, buddy‌?” Appa rolled out his tongue. “His tongue is purple! That can’t be good. Katara, can you heal him‌?” The waterbender shook her head.

“It looks like he needs some medicine. Maybe we can find the right herbs in town,” she suggested.

They crossed the river again and stood for a moment surprised. Toph shook her head around, surprised by the new sounds she heard.

“Is it just me, or does this place seem different‌?” she asked no one in particular.

“Yeah, are the people…happier‌?” Aang said equally surprised. Katara smiled satisfied, seeing a few kids running by, playing and laughing. Zuko shot her a suspicious look. He had thought of going out last night to help the people but deemed it too reckless. Could Katara have done something like that?

They walked over to the market stalls. Dock was there and he waved madly when he saw them.

“Hey, Xu, what’s going on with everyone today‌?” Sokka asked curiously.

“Ah, something amazing happened last night. Food was delivered to our village by a mysterious and wonderful person…the Painted Lady.” The kids exchanged a glance. Dock mistook it as ignorance and continued. “She’s part of our town’s lore. They say she’s a river spirit who watches over our town in times of need. I always thought she was just a legend. Until now.” Sokka turned to Katara satisfied.

“See, we don’t need to help these people, they already have someone to help them.” He turned to Dock again. “All we need is medicine for our sick friend.” The old man shook his head sadly.

“Medicine‌? Sorry, all the medicine we have goes to the factory. That’s why there’s so many sick people in our village.”

“Looks like we need to stay another night so Appa can rest,” Lia said calmly. She too had some reservations about this Spirit. Sokka huffed.

“I guess you’re right. You got any more food to sell‌?” he asked Dock.

“Would you like the one-headed fish, or the two-headed fish‌?” the old man asked cheerfully.

“Two-headed!” Sokka decided hungrily. Everyone else made gagging noises. He turned surprised. “What‌ You get more for your money that way!”
That night Zuko waited until everyone was awake before leaving the camp. He was dressed as the Blue Spirit again. Surprisingly he had found his mask in his pack with a note. Don’t lose it AGAIN! He had heard Katara leaving a little earlier but given the nearly full moon he guessed she had gone to waterbend. Sneaking to the factory near the village he passed unnoticed from the guards and searched for the food storage room. He didn’t know enough of medicine to know what to do so he decided to play it safe. Stealing a small boat he waded towards the village.

A fog had risen in the lake but Zuko paid no mind on it. He left the sacks of food on the village centre and turned to survey the area. A blue glow appeared from one of the houses. Tensing, Zuko slipped to the shadows and waited. The figure of a woman dressed in the Painted Lady’s clothes appeared on the doorway. She walked to the edge of the docks and made her way to the edge of the lake. Zuko hurriedly followed her.

His feet had hardly touched the shore when she attacked him with a waterwhip. With the ease born after many fights with Katara he dodged before raising his hand in surrender. The Painted Lady stopped her attack and looked at him suspiciously.

“Who are you?” she tried to conceal her voice, making it deeper but it was unmistakeably Katara. Without taking of his mask he answered.

“A friend.” Katara walked towards him curiously. His voice was muffled from the mask he was wearing but sounded familiar.

“Do I know you?” she asked, placing a tentative hand on his mask. Zuko nodded. Taking courage Katara slipped off the mask, the moment he reached for her hat and took it off. With a gasp she drew back.

“Katara it’s just me!” Zuko told her hurriedly.

“You were the Blue Spirit?” she asked shocked. Zuko nodded.

“And you are the Painted Lady,” he said with a hint of admiration in his voice. “The role suits you.” With the same mischievous smiles they returned on the camp.

The next day Appa was still sick. The kids went back to the village, ignoring Sokka’s grumbling the entire time. On the familiar market stall they saw Dock.

“Hi, Dock. Is Xu around‌?” Lia decided to humour the man.

“Let me check…” he ducked and changed hats. “Hey there! Back again, are ya‌?” Toph slammed some money on the counter.

“We need more food. Our friend is still sick and we can’t leave until he’s better,” she explained.

“Oh, well, that’s too bad,” Dock said sympathetically. “Maybe if you guys are lucky, the Painted Lady will visit you in the night, and heal your friend.”

“And maybe she’ll cook us a midnight snack, and we’ll all have a sing-along,” Sokka said sarcastically. Lia nudged him.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Yeah, maybe!” Dock insisted. “You know, last night she visited us again. Healed most of our sick folks.”

“Is that why this place seems so festive‌?” Aang asked. They had even erected a statue for the Painted Lady.

“Yep, it’s all because of the Painted Lady,” Dock assured them in a reverent voice.

“Can you believe how much an entire village can be affected by one lady‌? I mean…spirit‌,” Katara said happily. Sokka waved his hand dismissively.

“Well, I hope she returns every night. Otherwise this place would go right back to the way it was,” he said.

“Why would you say that‌? Look how much better off these people are!” Katara insisted indignantly.

“Yeah, now, but without her they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves. If she really wanted to help, she would use her spirit magic to blow up that factory.” Sokka made a sound like an explosion. Aang shook his head.

“Spirit magic doesn’t work that way, Sokka. It’s more like…” he took a deep breath, “Woooooo….” The two boys giggled until they saw Lia glaring at them. “Of course not all Spirits are like that,” Aang added nervously. Katara stormed away annoyed. Walking up to Zuko, she exchanged a meaningful look with him. Tonight they had work.

Katara waited until Zuko had safely left before putting on her disguise. She stuffed turf inside her sleeping bag, making it look like a person before leaving quietly. Unfortunately Momo heard her. He jumped on Appa’s stomach, waking the boy.

“What’s the matter, buddy‌?” he asked sleepily. Spotting the form gliding away he shot standing. “It’s her! Hello, Painted Lady spirit!” he called loudly, running after her. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, but my friend’s sick and we’re on kind of a tight schedule.” Katara ignored him and picked up speed. “Wait, but I’m the great bridge between your world and mine. I know Hei Bai, we’re close personal friends.” They were in the village now and Aang continued running over the rooftops. “Heeeyy!!” he called and fell on a roof pole. Katara sighed in relief and ran to the factory. Zuko looked up alarmed when she stopped panting. She made a gesture, stopping his question before he said it. They both stiffened when they heard Aang a little away.

“My name’s Aang. I’m the Avatar. You know, you’re really pretty for a spirit. I don’t get to meet too many spirits, but most of those I do meet…not very attractive. And you look fami…” Aang stopped short when he saw the Painted Lady standing next to the Blue Spirit. “Zuko?” His eyes turned to the female figure as the prince took off his mask. “Katara!” he exclaimed. The waterbender looked up at him.

“Hi, Aang,” she said guiltily.

You’re the Painted Lady‌! But how‌?”

“I was just trying to help the village. But since everyone thought that’s who I was anyway…I guess I just kind of became her.”

“So you two have been sneaking out at night‌…” realisation dawned to him. “Wait…is Appa even sick‌?” he asked. Zuko also turned also curious to Katara. Appa had looked sick, but it was awfully convenient.

“He…might be sick of the purple berries I’ve been feeding him, but, other than that, he’s fine,” Katara said with a small smile.

“I can’t believe you lied to everyone so you could help these people,” Aang said in a flat voice.

“It was the only way Aang,” Zuko jumped in. “There was no way we could convince Sokka and these people needed us.”

“No, I think it’s great! You’re like secret heroes,” the airbender hurriedly assured them. The two older teens shared a look.

“Well, if you want to help…there’s one more thing we have to do,” Katara said pointing at the factory. Aang looked at the huge building and then back at them.

“You want to destroy this factory‌?” he asked incredulously.

“Sokka was just kidding, but he was right. Getting rid of this factory is the only way to help these people permanently,” Zuko explained.

It didn’t take long to convince the Avatar. The promise of mayhem and doing good at the same time was irresistible. Zuko took the lead and guided them to the heart of the factory. With an impressive amount of water and firebending they overheated the main generator of the plant. Seeing the metal having turned almost white Zuko motioned the others to run out. They ran on a few guards that were promptly knocked out and made it to the entrance just in time to avoid the explosion.

By daybreak they made it back to camp. Aang was still laughing on their accomplishment but Zuko shushed him quickly.

“You want to wake up Sokka?” he hissed. It was too late for that. Everyone was already up.

“Hi! Sokka! We were just…out on a…morning walk!” Katara stammered surprised. Her brother looked unconvinced.

“Oh, really‌? A morning walk‌?” he picked Katara’s sleeping bag and shook out the grass she had stuffed in. “I know you’re the Painted Lady. I know you’ve been sneaking out at night, and I know you’ve been lying about Appa and feeding him purplising tongue berries!” Toph stuck out her tongue, now purple.

“Sorry guys,” Lia told them apologetically. “I didn’t think it would take you that long.” Sokka glared at her before returning to berating his sister.

“Katara, what you did put our whole mission in jeopardy. We’re leaving right now.” She and Zuko went gloomily to pack their staff. Sokka turned to Aang.

“And how long did you know about this‌?” he asked accusingly.

“Hey, I just found out this morning!” the airbender said before flying to Appa.

They were almost ready to leave when the sound of engines filled the air.

“What’s going on‌?” Toph asked, “looking” around wildly.

“Fire Nation soldiers are heading to the village,” Lia explained, her eyes widening in alarm. Sokka rounded up at Zuko.

“What did you do‌?” he hadn’t forgotten the fact that he had been with Katara when they returned.

“Sokka I started it!” Katara exclaimed. When her brother turned his glare at her, she shifted uneasily.

“We…kind of destroyed their factory,” she mumbled.

“You what‌!” Sokka yelled.

“It was your idea!” she yelled back.

“I was joking,” Sokka said incredulous. “I also said to use spirit magic and made funny noises. Did you even think this through? The army’s gonna blame the villagers. They’re headed there right now to get revenge.”

“Well, what were we supposed to do‌?” Zuko asked getting angry.

“Leave! Do nothing!” Katara had lowered her head at her brother’s scolding but snapped it up again.

“No. I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me.” She turned her back to everyone. “I’m going down to the village, and I am gonna do whatever I can.” She began to stomp away. Sokka felt everyone’s stares on him. With a sigh he ran after his sister.

“Wait. I’m coming too,” he said. Katara raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you didn’t want to help,” she said dryly.

“You need me, and I will never turn my back on you,” Sokka said simply. Zuko and Lia shared a look of understanding.

“Oh Sokka!” Katara smiled touched and hugged him. “You really do have a heart.” Aang sniffed a little and turned to Toph.

“He really does have a heart, doesn’t he‌?” he asked her. The earthbender just rolled her eyes and punched him.

In a matter of minutes Lia and Sokka had come up with a plan to save the village. Everyone had taken his or her position; Lia and Zuko at the village in case firebending occurred, Aang under the docks to provide the special effects and Sokka, Toph and Appa on a cave nearby. Zuko pressed his lips tight together in anger as General Mung kept praching around.

“I thought we could live as neighbours, in peace. But I guess I was wrong. You steal our food, our medicine…and then you destroy our factory.” Dock’s head popped out of the crowd.

“We didn’t do any of that!” he disappeared, to appear again as Xu. “Yeah, the Painted Lady brought us food. She’s the one that healed our sick, not your medicine.” General Mung spared him a pitying look.

“Oh, right, the mysterious Painted Lady did it. And I suppose she drew the army emblem on your containers, too. This is a town of thieves and liars!” he sent a fireblast to a nearby house, setting it on fire. Zuko tensed but didn’t move. “Where’s your Painted Lady now‌? We’re going to cure the world of this wretched village.” He signalled his soldiers to follow his example. Two of them tried to set a few boats on fire, but a current appeared out of nowhere and blew it out. They lighted it again and again it was blown out.

Mist started to rise, accompanied by an eerie tune. Lia, with a sudden inspiration, added a low chanting to the mix. The soldiers looked around nervously.

“Look at that! Where’s it coming from‌?” one asked.

“I don’t know.” Another one said. “Something strange is going on.” A low growl was added to the noise.

“It’s the Painted Lady. She’s coming,” a little boy whispered excited.

“There’s no Painted Lady!” the General snapped nervously.

“What is that sound?” another soldier asked spooked.

The sound was Appa’s growls accompanied by Toph smashing a boulder to the ground and Sokka playing the flute. He nodded to Katara and she moved to the lake. Parting the mist, the figure of the Painted Lady appeared and rushed towards the village with the help of waterbending. Katara landed softly at the docks and calmly approached the soldiers.

“Do something!” General Mung ordered them. The men approached timidly, only to be blasted away by Aang’s airbending. “Stand your ground!” Katara waterbended two of the jets on a nearby cliff without even looking at them. Before she had a chance to do more damage the soldiers climbed on the remaining jets and took off. The General looked at them astonished for a second before scowling to the ethereal figure in front of him. “I’ll take care of you myself.”
He sent an arc of fire against Katara. Before it had a chance to touch her two things happened. Aang sent her flying in the air and Zuko manipulated the fire to come back and blast in front of the General’s feet. While on air Katara bended the water and sent General Mung into the lake. She landed in front of him and gave him her infamous glare.

“Leave this village and never come back,” she ordered him, her voice full of command and power. He swam away terrified until a jet ski appeared and he climbed on it. Sokka and Toph rowed the village as Aang, Zuko and Lia came out of their hiding places. The villagers took no notice at them as they applauded the Painted Lady. The little boy walked up to Katara smiling.

“I knew you’d come!” he said.

“Thank you!” Dock exclaimed approaching them. “Me and my brothers really owe you a lot.” He looked at her and his eyes widened. “Hey, wait a minute! I know you! You’re not the Painted Lady, you’re that colonial girl!” The boy also seemed to recognise her.

“Yeah, you’re the lady that gave me a fish.”

“You’ve been tricking us. You’re a waterbender!” Dock continued accusingly.

“She’s a waterbender! How dare you act like our Painted Lady‌?” a villager shouted.

Katara looked at them surprised. A moment ago they were glad she had interfered and now they looked ready to attack her. She hung her head disappointed. Before things had a chance to escalate Zuko and Sokka stood in front of her protectively. They spared each other a surprised glance before turning to glare at the villagers.

“Maybe she is a waterbender, but she was just trying to help you. Because of her, that factory won’t be polluting your river, and the army is gone,” Zuko said angrily. Sokka nodded his agreement.

“You should be down on your knees thanking her,” he added. Katara placed a hand on their shoulders, silencing them.

“Guys, it’s okay.” She turned to the villagers. “I shouldn’t have acted like someone I wasn’t, and I shouldn’t have tricked you. But I felt like I had to do something. It doesn’t matter if the Painted Lady is real or not. Because your problems are real, and this river is real. You can’t wait around for someone to help you. You have to help yourself.”

“She’s right, but what should we do‌?” Dock asked confused.

Toph’s voice popped out of the crowd.

“Maybe we can clean the river,” she suggested. Dock brightened.

“Yeah, we can clean the river!” He turned to Katara. “Thank you. You know, you’re not so bad for a waterbender.”

“You wouldn’t mind keeping that a secret, by the way, would you‌?” Lia asked.

“No problem. Keeping my mouth shut is a personal specialty. My brother Xu, on the other hand, hoo! He’s a blabbermouth.” Lia sighed. No living with this guy!

“So, Dock, are you gonna help us clean‌?” Katara asked. He shook his head.

“No, ma’am. I’m going to get my other brother, Bushi. He loves cleaning rivers.” He switched hats again. “Alright, I’m Bushi! Let’s get some river cleaning done.”

“Aha, I knew it!” Aang exclaimed triumphantly. “I knew you were the same guy. You’re the shop owner and the boat guy.”

“Oh, you must be talking about my brothers, Dock and Xu,” Bushi said.

“No, I just saw you! You switched hats and called yourself a different name!” Aang insisted exasperated.

“Oh, you know who does that‌? My brother Dock.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “He’s crazy!” Aang looked at him ready to have a nervous breakdown.

The rest of the day was spent with river cleaning. Sokka mumbled a little about getting behind schedule but eventually got down to work with the rest of them. Katara, Toph and Aang used their bending, much to the delight of the children who were impressed to see a waterbender and two earthbenders at work. By the time the sun had set the river was clean and healthy-looking again. Everyone was too tired to take off when the work ended so they camped for a last time near the village. Katara sneaked out to play with the water. It felt nice to bend it now that it didn’t resemble mud. Suddenly a figure appeared before her. The Painted Lady gave the waterbender a thankful smile.

“Thank you,” Katara heard her say before she disappeared.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Earth King

Standard

Author’s note: In which the bad pun is not made by the author for a change, Zuko goes through character development AGAIN, Lia fullfills a promice and Katara sucks at giving someone the silent treatment.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

*** The Earth King ***

Sokka looked around him. Katara and Toph were sitting on the ground near Appa, while Aang was still clinging to the bison’s fur.

“I missed you more than you’ll ever know buddy,” the Avatar murmured, his head buried in the tuft of hair on bison’s forehead. Momo landed next to him, hugging Appa too. The bison licked them off of his face, looking equally glad.

“Look, we escaped from the Dai Li, we got Appa back, I’m telling you, we should go to the Earth King now and tell him our plan. We’re on a roll,” Sokka suddenly proposed confidently. Katara shot him a disbelieving look.

“One good hour after weeks of trouble isn’t much of a roll,” she said dryly.

“We can build on it,” her brother insisted. “If we want to invade the Fire Nation when the eclipse happens, we need the Earth King’s support.”

“What makes you think we’ll get it‌?” Toph said critically. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but things don’t usually go that smoothly for our little gang.”

“I know, but I’ve got a good feeling about this. This time will be different.” Sokka’s confidence didn’t seem to work.

“Sokka, Long Feng is control of the city,” Katara said unconvinced. “His conspiracy with the Dai Li is too powerful. I think we should just keep flying and leave this horrible place behind us.”

“I’m with Sweetness. I’ve seen enough of Ba Sing Se. And I can’t even see!” Toph exclaimed raising her arms dramatically.

“But now that we have Appa back, there is nothing stopping us from telling the Earth King the truth about the conspiracy and the war,” Aang said suddenly. Sokka flashed a bright smile and put an arm around the other boy’s shoulder, glad for the support.

“See? Aang’s with me. It’s the whole reason we came here in the first place, we have to try.”

“Well, I guess if the Earth King knew the truth, things could change,” Katara admitted, still hesitant. Toph rose to her feet and approached Sokka.

“I don’t trust the new positive Sokka,” she said gravely. “Long Feng brainwashed you, didn’t he?” she yelled accusingly.
Aang turned towards the shore, in time to see three ships moving in the distance.

“That’s probably the Dai Li searching for us,” Sokka said frowning. He turned to Katara. “So?” he asked her expectantly.

“‌ Let’s fly!” the waterbender said decisively.

 

Appa was flying, glad to be in his element for the first time in a month. Aang was sitting solemnly in front. Hearing to Toph’s voice he turned worried.

“Can we please buy a new saddle?‌ Riding bareback is terrifying!” the earthbender yelled before burying her face into Appa’s fur. In front of them the palace appeared. Sokka pointed at it.

“There it is! That whole thing is the palace. The Earth King’s chambers should be in the centre.”

“We have to be careful,” Katara said thoughtfully. “Long Feng’s probably warned the King that we’re coming.” Her brother shot her an incredulous look.

“Why would you assume that‌? If you ask me, I think we’re just gonna sail right in….Ahhh!” he yelled seeing a huge boulder coming flying towards their direction. Appa dived to avoid it, growling.

“What was that?” Toph shouted scared.

“Surface to air rocks!” Sokka yelled back alarmed. “More coming!” he said as rows of boulders came at them.
As the Earth Kingdom soldiers continued their attacks Aang was staring ahead of him, concentrating on manoeuvring Appa between the flying stones. He earthbended one into dust without even looking and shot to his feet as another boulder – the size of Appa – came at them. He cut it clean to two pieces using his staff before making Appa dive towards the ground. In front of them, a whole battalion was waiting, riding on their ostrich-horses. Aang leaped at the leader, creating a mini earthquake. The shock wave tossed the soldiers in every direction. The rest hopped off Appa and raced towards the courtyard’s stairs, where another wave of earthbenders appeared. They sent a bunch of head-sized stones at the kids, only to be swiped away by Aang and Toph. Katara took soldier after soldier out with her waterwhip. She winced when some of them groaned in pain.

“Sorry!” she called over her shoulder.

Yet another wave of earthbenders appeared at the top of the stairs. They sent two huge badgermole statues against the gaang. With a simple move Toph created an igloo from the pavement. The moment it stopped raining stones and dust she toppled the ground, domino-ing the soldiers and leaving them pinned.

“Sorry!” Katara called as they rushed past. “We just need to get through to see the Earth King!”
As they reached the top of the stairs, more soldiers came running from the corridors. Aang and Toph took earthbending stances and turned the enormous staircase into a slide. As the guards were sliding down helplessly, Toph and Aang bended an elevator platform from the floor and began ascending.

“Seriously, we’re actually on your guys’ side!” Sokka called to the soldiers that continued falling. His shoulders fell. “Sorry,” he said sheepishly, realising the pointless of his words.

 

Reaching the top of the stairs another dozen of guards approached them. Toph and Aang bended stone walls and pushed them back. Finally the kids entered the palace and Sokka took the lead.

“In there!” he called pointed forward. Rushing through the hallway they entered a large room with four hallways. Toph stomped her foot and pinned several of the guards to the ceiling.

“Toph, which way to the Earth King?” Sokka asked her. She raised an eyebrow.

“How should I know? I’m still voting that we leave Ba Sing Se,” she snapped. Sokka shrugged and started opening doors, while the others kept the guards distracted. In the third one he saw a woman standing in front of a mirror.

“Burglar!” she screamed shocked, before tripping on her dress and falling – face-first- on the floor.

“Sorry,” Sokka closed the door behind him. “Wrong door.”

 

Meanwhile, at the Lower Ring, Zuko and Iroh were walking back to their apartment. Zuko felt like he was about to collapse. All his thoughts were tangled together and the only thing he could do was to force his feet to keep walking. Entering the apartment he let his swords fall to the ground, his only thought being sleep. Behind him Iroh said pleased:

“You did the right thing, letting the Avatar’s bison go free.” Zuko rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his head.

“I don’t…feel right,” he managed to say before everything blurred and he fell to the ground unconscious. Iroh turned alarmed by the noise and rushed worried to his nephew’s side. Recognising the symptoms he sent a silent prayer for Lia to return soon.

*          *          *

On the other side of the Earth Kingdom Lia willed her pounding heart to calm down as she walked through the alleys of the small village. The things the people there had told her proved her vision true. Indeed, a woman from the Fire Nation had come six years ago. She lived in a small house, near the shore, making money by selling her paintings. No one knew anything about her past or who she was.

 

Taking another calming breath the Spirit knocked the door. This is ridiculous! she scolded herself. There’s no point in feeling so edgy! The door opened and the sweet face of Ursa appeared, looking at the redhead in front of her questioningly. Lia smiled and bowed in greeting.

“Lady Ursa?” she said. The older woman’s face turned from confused to worried. Before she had a chance to retreat inside her house Lia continued. “I come on behalf of your son.”

 *          *          *

Looking around him Sokka sighed. They had practically wrecked the room and still not found the way to the Earth King’s throne room. Deciding it was worth one last try he climbed over the mountain of wreckage and felt his jaw drop.

“Now that’s an impressive door!” he whistled gaping at the two huge, gold doors. “It’s gotta go somewhere.” He jumped to the other side and sprinted towards them. Landing a flying kick, he only succeeded in falling in front of them. Sharing an exasperated glance Aang and Toph earthbended the doors – and Sokka in the process – out of the way. The warrior landed on his face…again… and sat up rubbing his head.

“A little warning next time!” he whined.

 

The rest of the gang entered the throne room, blatantly ignoring the still grumbling Sokka. At the far end, the Earth King was seated at an impressive throne. He feels far too young and soft for this job, Toph thought curiously. Before anyone had a chance to talk Long Feng and a line of Dai Li appeared, standing protectively in front of the King.

“We need to talk to you!” Aang said urgently.

“They’re here to overthrow you,” Long Feng said persuasively to the King.

“No,” Sokka interfered. “We’re here to help.”

“You have to trust us,” his sister added. The Earth King stood up aggravated.

“You invade my palace, lay waste to all my guards, break down my fancy door, and you expect me to trust you‌?” Toph raised an eyebrow.

“He has a good point,” she said.

“If you’re on my side,” the King continued, “then drop your weapons and stand down.” Aang nodded at the others and they dropped their stances.

“See?” the Avatar said smiling widely. “We’re friends, your Earthiness.”

 
The King’s frown didn’t falter. That was sign enough for Long Feng. He motioned his agents and they sent their stone gloves at the startled teens.

“Detain the assailants,” The Head Dai Li ordered.

“But,” Sokka said confused, “we dropped our weapons. We’re your allies.”

“Make sure the Avatar and his friends never see daylight again,” Long Feng continued unfazed. The Earth King looked up at Sokka surprised.

“The Avatar?‌ You’re the Avatar?”

“Uh, no.” Sokka pointed towards Aang as best as he could while cuffed. “Him,” he explained.

“Over here!” Aang called, waving his hands before letting them be cuffed again.

“‌ What does it matter Your Highness?” Long Feng insisted.‌ “They’re enemies of the state.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” the Earth King agreed hesitantly. Suddenly his bear approached Aang and started licking him. The boy giggled happily. “Though Bosco seems to like him,” he added happily. “I’ll hear what he has to say.” Long Feng frowned as Aang approached the throne.

“Well, sir,” the Avatar began, “there is a war going on right now. For the past hundred years, in fact. The Dai Li’s kept it secret from you. It’s a conspiracy to control the city, and to control you.”

“A secret war‌! That’s crazy!” the Earth King exclaimed.

“Completely!” Long Feng hurried to add. Aang glared at him.

“Long Feng didn’t want us to tell you, so he stole our sky bison to blackmail us,” he continued. “And blackmail is the least of his crimes, he brainwashed our friend!”

“All lies,” Long Feng assured the King. “I‘ve never even seen a sky bison Your Majesty. Frankly, I thought they were extinct.” The King sat back on his throne.

“Your claim is difficult to believe, even from an Avatar,” he said.

“These hooligans are part of an anarchist cell that my agents have been tracking for weeks. If you listen to them, you’re playing right into your own destruction,” Long Feng told him quietly. The Earth King sighed.

“I have to trust my advisor,” he told the children.
The Dai Li made a move to take the kids away when suddenly Sokka was struck by one of his inspirations.

“Wait, I can prove he’s lying,” he said enthusiastically. “Long Feng said he’s never seen a sky bison. Ask him to lift his robe.”

“What?” the minister said appalled. “I am not disrobing!” Aang and Sokka shared a look. Aang took a deep breath and sent a mini typhoon towards the minister, blowing his robes to cover his head. A big bruise appeared on one of his legs.

“ Right there!” Aang exclaimed. “Appa bit him.”

“Never met a sky bison, huh?” Sokka said smugly. Long Feng pushed down his robes annoyed.

“That happens to be a large birthmark. Thanks for showing everyone,” he said.

“Well, I suppose there’s no way to prove where those marks came from.” The Earth King said hesitantly.

“Of course there is!” Sokka insisted, sounding even smugger.
Appa was brought inside immediately. It took only one glance on his teeth to prove it.

“Yup, that pretty much proves it,” the Earth King decided. The kids exchanged triumphant grins. “But it doesn’t prove this crazy conspiracy theory,” he continued. Before Sokka would begin complaining again the Earth King decided. “Though, I suppose this matter is worth looking into.”

 

Iroh looked at his nephew worried. He had known this moment would come since he had discovered Zuko’s affections for the waterbender. It had been part of the reason he had abandoned his quest for the Avatar, but Iroh wasn’t certain whether his nephew had never had second thoughts.

“You’re burning up. You have an intense fever,” he said quietly, placing a wet cloth on the boy’s forehead. “This will help cool you down.”

“So thirsty,” Zuko muttered deliriously. He tried to stand up only to be pushed back down again by his uncle. The old man turned and filled a small cup with water.

“Here’s some clean water to drink. Stay under the blankets, and sweat this out.” Zuko drained the cup before snatching the bucket that was next to Iroh and drinking right from it. He felt as if he was on fire on the inside.

“Katara…” he whispered before passing out again.

 

 *          *          *

It was hours later when Lia stopped talking, her mouth dry. She had recounted everything that had happened the last six years. Ursa had heard of course of Zuko’s banishment, and she had worried herself sick not knowing what had happened to her son.

“It’s so hard to believe how much pain has come to our family,” she said pouring them some tea. “I never thought Ozai would change so suddenly so much.” Lia looked up interested.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Before the siege of Ba Sing Se, Ozai was more warm and human,” Ursa explained. “He would play with Zuko and Azula, teach them small firebending tricks, much like Iroh did with Lu Ten. As the siege dragged on, he became more cold and distant. At first I thought he was just stressed about the outcome of the war, but then that audience came and…” she took a steadying breath. “It was as if some other person had taken over his place: a calculating, cold man I had never seen inside him before.”

 

Lia was deep in thought. The siege of Ba Sing Se seemed awfully important all of a sudden. It was as if someone had cursed the royal family, tearing it apart and letting the most ruthless to rule. And if Ursa was right, Ozai’s change of heart was almost timed with his nephew’s death. The Fire Spirit raised an eyebrow. Now that reminded her of an old friend…

 *          *          *

It has been said that the day the Earth King would use public transport would be the day the world ended. It definitely looked like it, judging by the looks on the passengers’ faces.

“So, this is what a train is like.‌ I didn’t realize it would be this…public,” the Earth King commented. Katara looked at him surprised.

“So you’ve never been outside the Upper Ring before‌?” she asked

“I’ve never been outside of the palace,” he corrected her cheerfully. “Now that’s the way to travel.” He said pointing at Aang who was flying alongside the train on Appa. “So, may I ask where we’re going‌?” he asked the kids.

“Underneath Lake Laogai, Your Kingliness,” Sokka informed him. “To the Dai Li’s secret headquarters. You’re about to see where all the brainwashing and conspiring took place.”
The shores of the lake look so innocent. Awfully innocent, Katara thought with a bad feeling. Toph earthbended the platform, like she had done the previous time, but only a few stones appeared.

“It’s gone!” she said surprised. Sokka’s shoulders slumped.

“Oh, don’t tell me” he took a deep breath and forced a smile. “That’s ok, still got my positive attitude.”

“The Dai Li must have known we were coming and destroyed the evidence,” Katara concluded.

“That seems awfully convenient,” the Earth King said suspiciously.

“Hey, if anything, this proves the conspiracy exists even more,” Sokka said desperately. The Earth King frowned.

“Long Feng was right; this was a waste of time. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to the palace.” He turned to leave. Katara suddenly looked up.

“The wall! They’ll never be able to cover that up in time!” Aang smiled at her before airbending himself in front of the King.

“If you come with us to the outer wall, we can prove to you that the secret war is real!”

“No Earth King has ever been to the outer wall. I don’t have any more time for this nonsense,” the Earth King said annoyed.

“If you come with us, this time you can ride on Appa,” Sokka offered.

 

This offer seemed to do the trick. In a few minutes everyone – including a terrified King and his personal guard – was in the air.

“First time flying?” Toph asked him flatly.

“It’s both thrilling and terrifying,” the Earth King said breathlessly. She gave him a small smile.

“Yeah, I hate it too.” The King smiled back before sobering.

“I have to be honest with you. Part of me really hopes that what you are telling me about this war…isn’t true,” he said seriously.

“I wish it wasn’t,” Aang whispered as they flew to the outer wall.
Soon they were right outside the city.

“It’s still there!” Aang said, pointing at the wreckage of the drill.

“What is that?” the Earth King whispered horrified.

“It’s a drill,” Sokka explained. “A giant drill made by the Fire Nation, to break through your walls.” They landed on the wall itself. The Earth King braced himself against the railing, trying to take in everything.

“I can’t believe I never knew,” he whispered shaken. Suddenly Long Feng and two Dai Li appeared.

“I can explain this, Your Majesty,” he said trying to find a believable excuse. “This is nothing more than… a construction project.”

“Really?” Katara said crossing her arms. “Then perhaps you can explain why there’s a Fire Nation insignia on your construction project.” She pointed at the huge piece of junk metal.

“Well, it’s imported of course. You know you can’t trust domestic machinery,” Long Feng said. Noticing the stares he was receiving he frowned. “Surely you don’t believe these children, instead of your most loyal attendant‌!” he exclaimed. The Earth King frowned.

“Dai Li, arrest Long Feng. I want him to stand trial for crimes against the Earth Kingdom,” he ordered. The two agents exchanged a quick glance before handcuffing their former leader.

“You can’t arrest me. You all need me more than you know!” Long Feng shouted as they dragged him away.

“Looks like Long Feng is “long gone”!” Sokka called after him. “Ha…Oh, yeah, I’ve been waitin’ to use that one,” he said, wiping a tear of laughter from his eyes.

 

By night time they had returned to the palace. The Earth King was devastated.

“I want to thank you, young heroes for opening my eyes. All this time, what I thought was a great metropolis, was merely a city of fools, and that makes me the king fool.” He buried his head in his hands. “We’re at war, with the Fire Nation.”

“That’s why we came to Ba Sing Se, Your Highness. Because we think you can help us end the war,” Sokka said stepping forward.

“We don’t have much time. There’s a comet coming this summer. Its energy will give the fire benders unbelievable strength. They’ll be unstoppable,” Aang continued.

“But there is hope,” Sokka took over again. “Before the comet comes, we have a window of opportunity. A solar eclipse is coming. The sun will be entirely blocked out by the moon, and the fire benders will be helpless.”

“What are you suggesting, Sokka‌?” the King asked.

“That’s the day we need to invade the Fire Nation. The Day of Black Sun.” The Earth King looked at them hesitantly.

“I don’t know. That would require moving troops out of Ba Sing Se. We’d be completely vulnerable.”

“You’re already vulnerable,” Sokka insisted. “The Fire Nation won’t stop until Ba Sing Se falls. You can either sit back and wait for that to happen, or take the offensive, and give yourself a fighting chance.” The King looked at the teens who were waiting for his answer anxiously.

“Very well. You have my support.”

 

Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of one of the Five Generals. The man bowed deeply in front of the throne.

“Your Majesty. I apologize for the interruption.”

“This is general Hao, He’s the leader of The Council of Five. My highest- ranking generals,” The Earth King explained.

“We searched Long Feng’s office. I think we found something that will interest everybody,” the general explained.

 

They moved to the office of the former Grand Secretariat. A guard placed a box in front of the Earth King and left.

“There are secret files on everyone in Ba Sing Se. Including you kids,” general Hao said.

“Secret files‌!”Aang said surprised. The Earth King picked up a scroll and read the name out loud.

“Toph Bei Fong.” He handed the scroll to the little earthbender, who wordlessly handed it to Katara. The older girl opened it and scanned through the lines.

“It’s a letter from your mom. You mom’s here in the city, and she wants to see you.” Toph’s face lighted up before shaking her head.

“Long Feng intercepted our letters from home‌ That’s just sad,” she said pityingly.

“Aang,” The Earth King said, handing the next scroll.

“This scroll was attached to the horn of your bison when the Dai Li captured it,” general Hao explained.

“It’s from the Eastern Air Temple,” Aang said with a bright smile.

“Is there a letter for me and Sokka by any chance‌?” Katara asked hopefully.

“I’m afraid not,” The King said softly. Noticing the sad expressions on the Water Tribe siblings’ faces general Hao spoke up:

“But there is an intelligence report that might interest you.” He handed the last scroll to Katara.

“A small fleet of water tribe ships…” the waterbender read aloud.

“What?‌ That could be dad,” Sokka exclaimed. Katara continued reading.

“Protecting the mouth of Chameleon Bay… Led by Hakoda. It is dad!”
“You should know this is not a natural sickness. But that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying tea,” Iroh said calmly to the sick teen. Zuko looked at him scared.

“What…what’s happening‌?” he asked.

“Your critical decision,” Iroh explained grimly. “What you did beneath that lake…it was in such conflict with your image of yourself that you are now at war within your own mind and body.”

“What’s that supposed to mean‌?” Zuko managed to ask through a coughing fit.

“You’re going through a metamorphosis, my nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful prince you were always meant to be,” Iroh said, mopping the sweat from his nephew’s forehead, as he slipped back into unconsciousness. Inside him though, the old general had decided that if the fever didn’t break before the morning, he would go seek Katara.

 

“I can’t believe it.” Aang said, looking up from his scroll smiling. “There’s a man living at the Eastern Air Temple. He says he’s a Guru.” Sokka looked at him confused.

“What’s a Guru?‌ Some kind of poisonous blowfish‌?”

“No, a spiritual expert. He wants to help me take the next step in the Avatar journey. He says he can teach me to control the Avatar State,” Aang explained eagerly.

“And I can’t believe we know where our dad is now,” Katara said, putting up a smiling face. For some reason she had this bad feeling twisting around her heart all day.

“I know what you mean,” Toph said. “My mom’s in the city, and from her letter it sounds like she finally understands me.”

“This is all such big news. Where do we even start‌?” Sokka wondered. His sister sighed.

“I hate to say it, but…we have to split up.”

“Split up‌?” Aang exclaimed. “We just found Appa and got the family back together. Now you want us to separate‌?”

“You have to meet this Guru, Aang,” Katara insisted. “If we’re gonna invade the Fire Nation, you need to be ready.” Aang smiled.

“Well, if I’m going to the Eastern Air Temple. Appa and I can drop you at Chameleon Bay to see your dad,” he offered. Sokka frowned.

“Someone has to stay here with the Earth King and help him plan for the invasion. I guess that’s me,” he said, standing up resigned. Katara stood up too. She didn’t know what her bad feeling was about, but it had to do with Ba Sing Se. There was no way she’d leave the city without finding out.

“No Sokka, I know how badly you want to help dad. You go to Chameleon Bay. I’ll stay here with the king.” She said. Sokka did a small happy dance before hugging her.

“You are…the nicest… sister…ever,” he managed to say. Katara pushed him back smiling.

“Easy there, big brother. Though you’re right, I am.”

 

The next morning found them at the great courtyard in front of the Earth King’s palace. Toph was patting Appa affectionately when she felt Aang approaching.

“Toph, I need to tell you something,” he said hesitantly. She looked at him curiously. His heartbeat was double its normal rate.

“What is it Twinkle Toes?” she asked. Aang blushed.

“I think I…” before he had a chance to finish his sentence, Sokka jumped in. Toph really wanted to punch him to the South Pole and back.

“Alright! Who’s ready to get going on our little men-only man trip‌?” the warrior said, gripping the surprised Avatar in a head lock.

“Aang and Sokka, I wish you good journey.” The two boys turned, Aang still in a headlock. “Ba Sing Se owes you its thanks, and we look forward to your return.” Smiling they bowed to the King. A guard suddenly appeared.

“Your Majesty. There are three female warriors here to see you. They’re from the island of Kyoshi.”

“That’s Suki!” Sokka said shocked, freezing half-way through climbing to Appa’s side. He slipped back to the ground.

“You know these warriors‌?” the Earth King asked them.

“Oh yeah.” Sokka said standing. “The Kyoshi warriors are a skilled group of fighters, trustworthy too. They’re good friends of ours.”

“Then we shall welcome them as honoured guests,” the King said satisfied.

 

Toph approached Aang blushing.

“Wait, Twinkle Toes,” she said before throwing her arms around the surprised boy. She kissed his cheek quickly before turning red and running to hide behind Katara.

“I’m really gonna miss you guys,” she said, regaining her cool.

“Me too,” Katara added, smiling at the idea of the two youngest benders together. They hugged each other, before rushing to Sokka for a proper group hug.

“Ahhh! Great! That’s enough! Ok, we love each other,” the warrior said embarrassed before patting their heads. “Seriously.”

 

Soon the sky bison was flying once again. Sokka turned satisfied to Aang.

“You see Aang? A little positive thinking works wonders. We got the King on our side, we got Long Feng arrested, and when we get back, Suki’s waiting for me.”

“Yeah, girls are waiting for us,” the Avatar said dreamily. “Thanks positive attitude.” Sokka continued cheerfully.

“Everything’s gonna work out perfectly, from now on and forever.”
On the Upper Ring Toph stood hesitantly in front of the door of a big, impressive house. Taking a deep breath she knocked, only to find the door open. She stepped into a big room, completely empty of any furniture.

“Hello?‌ Mom?‌ Anyone home‌?” she called. Walking into the centre she looked around suspiciously. Suddenly a big metal box dropped from the ceiling, trapping her inside.

“Hey!” she called frightened. “Who do you think you’re dealing with‌?” Xin Fu and Master Yu stepped out of the shadows.

“One loud mouth little brat who strayed too far from home,” the first said.

 

Katara walked alone through the streets of the Upper Ring. It felt so strange knowing that she would be on her own now. A few days ago she would be elated, but now it seemed to her pointless. She missed Zuko, but her pride refused to let her go to the Lower Ring. If he wanted to talk to her, he would have to do it the hard way.

 

As she approached the house she was surprised to see a lone figure knocking the door.

“Can I help you?” she called coming closer. Iroh turned, relief evident on his face.

“Katara! Thank the Spirits!” he waited until she was near. “I need your help,” he explained.

“What happened?” the waterbender asked worried. Could someone have found out who they were?

“It’s Zuko,” Iroh said, watching the worried expression on the girl’s face turn to a guarded one. He continued nevertheless. “He’s seriously ill and had been asking for you in his delirium. I was hoping that your presence might help him.” Katara was torn. On the one hand she was still hurt by Zuko’s lack of trust. But this wasn’t a reason to refuse him her help. She hadn’t done so even when they were enemies.

“I’m coming,” she said decisively. Iroh’s face showed his relief. Now he’d have a chance to see why these two weren’t on speaking terms anymore.

 

They walked in silence for a while, deep in their thoughts. When they passed the train station Katara looked surprised.

“Won’t we go on the Lower Ring?” she asked confused.

“We just moved on the Upper Ring,” Iroh explained. “I have my own teashop here now.” He stole a glance to Katara. “I suppose you had already argued with my nephew when this happened. May I ask why?”

Might as well learn something, Katara thought. “I came to the teashop one day and saw it being repaired. When I asked Zuko about it he wouldn’t tell me,” she said out loud. “I told him that when he was ready to talk openly with me I would be waiting.” She hesitated for a moment. “What happened?” she finally asked. Iroh didn’t speak for a long moment.

“It is my fault actually,” he eventually began. “At the port we had a brief encounter with your friend, Jet. While Zuko was talking with him, I heated my tea with firebending. He must have noticed, because the night before you and my nephew argued, he barged in accusing us of being firebenders. Zuko fought him off so that I wouldn’t have to firebend and betray our identities, but it was the teashop that suffered the consequences.” Katara’s face was clouded.

“This doesn’t explain why Zuko wouldn’t tell me,” she insisted as Iroh opened the door to the new apartment.

“Maybe he didn’t want to distress you,” the old man said tentatively. “After all you were quite upset when you crossed paths with Jet at the ferry.” Katara nodded. She could see the logic behind it.

“Where is he?” she asked. Iroh guided her to a door at the far end of the apartment.

“Do you need anything?” he asked her. He had never witnessed a waterbender heal. Katara nodded negatively before entering the room and closing the door behind her.

 

Zuko was laying on his bed, tangled in another fever-dream judging by the tossing and turning he was doing. Whatever anger she still felt disappeared instantly as Katara knelt next to him. Taking his face in her hands she drew out water and formed the healing glove. Placing it on his forehead she willed the fever to go away. Slowly Zuko’s breathing became steadier. Katara leaned his head softly back on the pillow and brushed a few strands of hair away from his closed eyes. She let her hand wander absentmindedly on his face, thinking of what Iroh had just told her. Wouldn’t she have done the same if she was in Zuko’s position? Sighing she made a movement to withdraw her hand, when she felt a larger one keeping it in place. Startled she looked down to see Zuko wide awake looking at her in disbelief. She gave him a weak smile.

“Feeling better?” she asked him softly. Zuko nodded. Katara made a movement again to stand up. “I’ll let you sleep,” she said. To her surprise Zuko’s grip tightened.

“Don’t go,” he managed to say. “I’m sorry.” Katara sat back down and brought their joined hands to her lips.

“There is nothing to be sorry about,” she told him. “Iroh explained to me what happened. I would have probably done the same if I was in your position,” she admitted. Zuko smiled at her hesitantly. She smiled back. “I missed you,” she continued, leaning forward. Zuko pushed himself up and their lips met halfway. Pulling her next to him, the prince gathered Katara into his arms, holding her close.

“If there is one thing I like about fighting,” he whispered before bringing her face near his again, “it’s making up.”

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Lake Laogai

Standard

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: link

***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.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – City of Walls and Secrets

Standard

Author’s Note: In which Ba Sing Se is not what it seems, Zuko lands himself the worst job ever, Iroh lands himself the BEST job ever and possibly the most annoying character in the Avatar canon is introduced.

Last Chapter: link

Next Chapter: link

***City of Walls and Secrets***

The train the newly-christened gaang was riding in was an amazing example of earthbending. Completely made of stone but still able to be moved by only two earthbenders. Still the trip was lengthy and tiring. Aang had dozed off for a while next to Katara, while on the benches opposite to her Sokka and Toph were also battling sleep. Katara was wondering if Zuko, Iroh and Lia had made it safely inside the city. Absentmindedly she looked out of the window.

“Look! The inner wall!” she said shaking Aang. “I can’t believe we finally made it to Ba Sing Se in one piece.”

“Hey, don’t jinx it!” Sokka said nervously. “We could still be attacked by some giant explosive Fire Nation spoon or find out that the city has been submerged to an ocean of killer shrimp.”

“You’ve been hitting the cactus juice again?” Toph asked him.

“I’m just saying; weird stuff happens to us.” As if to prove his words a creepy looking man appeared out of nowhere and sat between them. Aang wasn’t looking so enthusiastic.

“Don’t worry Aang. We’ll find Appa,” Katara tried to assure the Avatar.

“It’s such a big city,” he said discouraged.

“He’s a giant bison. Where could someone possibly hide him?” Sokka wondered going over to them. Their heads hanged out of the window as they crossed the tunnel and finally entered the city. Katara felt her heart drop to her stomach. The ocean of buildings seemed to expand endlessly. Where would they find Appa? And how could she even meet Zuko in there? It would be impossible to find him.

 

They left the train at the central station. Toph sighed. She hated being in Ba Sing Se.

“Back in the city. Great,” she muttered gloomily.

“What’s the problem?” Sokka asked her. “It’s amazing!”

“Just a bunch of walls and rules. You wait. You’ll get sick of it in a few days,” she answered. Aang took out his bison whistle.

“I’m coming for you buddy,” he whispered gazing at the city. Behind them the train left again. As they turned to look at it, a woman approached them smiling widely. Something in her smile made chills run through Katara’s spine.

“Hello,” she greeted them on a honeyed voice. “My name is Ju Dee. I have been given the great honour of showing the Avatar around Ba Sing Se. And you must be Sokka, Katara and Toph. Welcome to our wonderful city. Shall we get started?”

“Yes,” Sokka said conspiratorially. “We have information about the Fire Nation army that we need to deliver to the Earth King immediately.”

“Great!” Ju Dee said on the same cheerful voice. “Let’s begin our tour, and then I’ll show you to your new home here. I think you’ll like it.” She turned signalling them to follow her.

“Maybe you missed what I said,” Sokka told her annoyed. “We need to talk to the King about the war. It’s important. ”

“You’re in Ba Sing Se now. Everyone is safe here,” Judy assured them. The four teens stared at her. The drill was still fresh in their memories. These people had been so close to getting invaded by the Fire Nation, yet they still believed themselves untouchable by the war.

 

They boarded a carriage half listening to Ju Dee’s babbling about the “wonderful city”. They were now crossing the poorest area of Ba Sing Se.

“This is the lower ring,” Ju Dee was saying.

“What’s that wall for?” Katara asked curious.

“Oh, Ba Sing Se has many walls. There are the ones outside protecting us, and the ones inside that help maintain order,” their guide explained. “This is where our newest arrivals live, as well as our craftsmen and artisans; people that work with their hands. It’s so quaint and lively.” A few men glared at them as they passed. “You do want to watch your step though,” Ju Dee added uneasily.

“Why do they have all these poor people blocked off in one part of the city?” Katara asked disapprovingly.

“This is why I never came here before,” Aang said. “I always heard it was so different from the way the monks taught us to live.” As they turned to leave the marketplace, Katara swore she had caught a glimpse of red hair.

 

Zuko walked absentmindedly around the market. Lia and his uncle had wondered off, each one on their own business. He didn’t know what to do, so he just wondered around, his thoughts on Katara. The city was huge. How could they find each other? Iroh approached him carrying a big vase with flowers. Zuko sighed inwardly. Here he goes again! he though grimly. More useless shopping. Iroh caught sight of his nephew’s glare.

“I just want our new place to look nice, in case someone brings his lady friend,” he said mischievously. Zuko shook his head.

“This city is a prison,” he said as they walked. “I don’t want to make a life here.” He missed the days he travelled around the Nations. Settling down in this city, now of all times, sounded like a nightmare.

“Life happens wherever you are,” Iroh told him wisely. “Whether you make it or not. Now come on, we need to find your sister. I found us some new jobs and we start this afternoon.”

“What kind of jobs?” Lia asked, materialising next to them. She was once again wearing Earth Kingdom clothes. Zuko found it strange how the greens and browns contrasted to her red hair. She looked just like a Fire Lilly.

“At a tea shop of course!” Iroh looked at her incredulously.

“Of course,” she sighed. “Are there any other jobs? I guess it’s a good thing the apartment I found is the same way the tea shop is.”

 

On another part of the city Sokka was trying with all his might not to start yelling. This Ju Dee-woman was simply unable to shut up and hear what the people around her said. They were now in a much better neighbourhood than the Lower Ring.

“This is the Middle Ring of Ba Sing Se,” she was saying now. “Home to the financial district, shops and restaurants and the university.”

“Yeah we met a professor from Ba Sing Se University. He took us to an ancient underground library where we discovered some information about the war that is absolutely crucial for the King to hear!” he stretched the last words hoping to gain her attention. Her smile didn’t falter a bit.

“Isn’t history fascinating?” she exclaimed. “Look! Here is one of the oldest building in the Middle Ring; Town Hall.” The carriage stopped and she stepped out of it without another word. Sokka turned to the others incredulous.

“Is that woman deaf?” he asked. “She only seems to hear every other word I say.”

“It’s called ‘being handled’” Toph informed him. “Get used to it.” They looked at each other disappointed. Ba Sing Se turned out to be much different than they had imagined.

 

The teashop was a small, badly-lit building. The man who owned was obviously glad to have hired a tea-maker and two waiters at the same time. Judging by the looks of this place he had been doing everything by himself, rather unsuccessfully. He gave them aprons and then scrutinized them satisfied.

“Well, you certainly look like official tea-servers. How do you feel?”

“Ridiculous,” Zuko muttered under his breath. Lia was thankfully the only one who heard him and elbowed him subtly on the side. Iroh on the other hand was trying, unsuccessfully to tie his apron.

“Does this possibly come to a larger size?” he asked finally. The man nodded.

“I have some in the back,” he said. “Have some tea while you’re waiting.”

 

As soon as he left Iroh took an experimental sip and made a disgusted face.

“This tea is nothing more than hot leaves’ juice!” he said insulted.

“Uncle, that’s what all tea is,” Zuko reminded him rolling his eyes.

“How could a member of my own family say something so horrible?” Iroh glared at his nephew and then at the teapot. “We’ll have to make some major changes around here.” He emptied the pot outside the window. Lia giggled.

“I think someone has just found his paradise,” she said conspiratorially to Zuko.

“He’s the only one,” the teen muttered back.

“Oh just wait and see…”she whispered absentmindedly.

“See what?” Zuko prodded her. Lia shrugged.

“I don’t know. It just came to me to say this.” She paused for a moment. “I think though, that you’d better keep an eye on the girls you’ll be serving. You never know.”

 

“The Upper Ring is home to our most important citizens.” Ju Dee continued her babbling tirelessly. “Your house is not far from here.” They were passing an impressive building.

“What’s inside that wall?” Katara asked curious.

“And who are the mean-looking guys in robes?” Sokka added noticing a few men glaring at them.

“Inside is the Royal Palace,” Ju Dee explained. “Those men are agents of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se. They are the guardians of all our traditions.”

“Can we see the King now?” Aang asked impatiently.

“Oh no!” Judy laughed. “One doesn’t just pop in on the Earth King!” She obviously missed the disappointed looks the kids shared.

 

Finally the carriage stopped in front of a modest house.

“Here we are! Your new home.” Ju Dee announced. A man appeared at the door and handed her an important looking scroll. “More good news. Your request for an audience with the Earth King is being processed and should be put through in about a month. Much more quickly than usual.”

“A month?” Sokka whined.

“Six to eight weeks actually.” They entered the house, looking around. It really was a nice apartment, not overly-decorated but not poor either. “Isn’t it nice? I think you’ll really enjoy it here.”

“I think we’d enjoy it more if we weren’t staying for so long,” Sokka insisted. “Can’t we see the King any sooner?”

“The Earth King is very busy running the finest city in the world, but he will see you as soon as time permits.” Ju Dee said in a tighter, but still bright smile.

“If we’re going to be here for a month, we should spend our time looking for Appa,” Aang said thoughtfully, looking out of a window.

“I’d be happy to escort you wherever you’d like to go,” Ju Dee offered immediately.

“We don’t need a babysitter,” Toph told her frostily. She stood and headed for the door.

“Oh I won’t get in the way,” Ju Dee assured her blocking her way. “And to leave you alone would make me a bad host. Where shall we start?”

 

They went once again to the Lower Ring. Judy led them to what seemed to be a huge pet store.

“I’m sorry but have never heard anything about a flying bison,” the owner told them. “I didn’t even know there were any.”

“If someone wanted to sell a stolen animal without anyone knowing where would they go?” Aang asked.

“Where’s the black market? Who runs it?” Sokka asked interrogatorily. “Come on, you know!” The man looked nervous. Ju Dee nodded “no” to him behind Sokka’s back.

“That would be illegal,” the owner finally said nervously. “You have to leave now. Your lemur is harassing my birds.”

 

Next they tried at the Ba Sing Se University. They found a lone student sitting near the gates and immediately started questioning him.

“I’ve never seen any sandbenders or nomads around here,” he said. “You should ask Professor Zei. He teaches the class on desert cultures.”

“Right,” Sokka said with the same interrogator face. “And which of your professors could we ask about the war with the Fire Nation.” The student stole a glance at Ju Dee. She nodded negatively.

“I don’t know. I’m not a political science student,” he said rising hastily. “I have to get to class.” In his haste he stumbled on his feet and feel to the ground.

 

After that and with exhaustion and tiredness weighing them down, they decided to call it a day. The carriage dropped them in front of their house, with Ju Dee inside it.

“Well,” she said, “I’m sorry no one has seen your bison. Why don’t you go get some rest? Someone will be over with dinner later.” With these parting words she left. The kids were left standing uneasily on the doorstep. Sokka looked at the house opposite of their own, to see a man hastily moving away from the door.

“Hey, come with me,” he told the rest of them. They knocked the door and an old man opened them.

“You’re the Avatar!” he said with a bright smile. “I heard you were in town. I’m Pong.”

“Nice to meet you Pong,” Aang said pleasantly.

“So Pong, what’s going on with this city?” Sokka asked. “Why is everyone here so scared to talk about the war?” Pong’s smile faltered.

“War? Scared? What do you mean?”

“I can feel you shaking,” Toph pointed out evenly.

“Look I’m just a minor government official. I waited three years to get this house. I don’t want to get into trouble.”

“Get in trouble with who?” Katara asked. He hastily shushed her.

“Listen, you can’t mention the war here. And whatever you do, stay away from the Dai Li.” With these parting words he banged the door on their faces.

 

Night fell quickly. They had gone to their apartment, where Lia had immediately set on making dinner, something Zuko was thankful for. She was now inside the room that would serve them as a bedroom, making the beds.

“Would you like a pot of tea?” Iroh suddenly asked his nephew.

“We’ve been working on a teashop all day,” Zuko answered from the couch he was resting, glaring at the ceiling and not even bothering to mask the whine in his voice. “I’m sick of tea!”

“Sick of tea?” his uncle repeated aghast. “That’s like being sick of breathing!” he turned his attention back on the stove. “Have you seen our spark-rocks to heat up the water?” Lia opened the door.

“I have them here,” she said, passing them to Iroh. “I’m going to call it a night.” She continued, yawning. “Good night everyone.”

“Good night my dear,” Iroh called after her. Zuko simply stood up.

“Good night uncle,” he said following the Spirit.

“Good night my nephew.”

 

Later that night, while everyone else was asleep, a boy in the Lower Ring and a girl in the Upper Ring sat by their windows, looking at the moon, and wondered when would they see each other again.