Tag Archives: Blue Spirit

Twilight of the Spirit World – The Temple

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Author’s note: In which there is tension mounting, deadlines approaching and a very evil cliffhanger, curtesy of the author.

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***The Temple***

Even with Katara’s healing abilities, Azula’s injuries caused the group to slow down its progress. This was not necessarily a bad thing considering that none of them had much of an idea where to go next. So far they had been following the trail of clues provided to them by their friends and allies. Now they found themselves at a loss. Nobody, not even Agni who was by far the oldest in the group knew where the Air Elementals resided, just that they were as flighty and elusive as their mortal counterparts had been. A quick trip to the Library for more clues was out of the question, what with Wan Shi Tong probably out for their blood. The parchments that Sokka had stolen proved to be more unhelpful than they had initially realised. They were written in such a complex code that none of them could make heads or tails of them.

 

The rendezvous time with the rest of the army was fast approaching, bringing with it nervousness, short tempers and an overall gloominess. Even Ao, who was probably the most careless in the group, seemed to be dragged down by the atmosphere. Lia had taken to not speaking unless absolutely necessary, seemingly convinced that she might admit something she should if she said more than five words at a time. It made the rest of the girls feel worse, since it was their prodding, no matter how well-meant, that had started it. The boys in the group, sensing the nervous tension, were walking on eggshells. It seemed that even the slightest thing might cause an explosion, although when it finally arrived it wasn’t quite in the way any of them expected.

 

Amongst the many things that Agni had not taught Lia was the art of pickpocketing. However, he lacked the manners (and some might say morals) to hesitate to “borrow” somebody else’s things. Which was how he ended up one night, long after everyone else had fallen asleep, shifting through Sokka’s parchments by the slowly dying embers. True he had had a quick look at them before, but they had been snatched out his hands by some of his more impatient co-travellers before he had a chance to really study them. And despite the tentative truce that had existed since their stint at the swamp the others were still a little wary of him. Add to that Lia’s sudden depression and Agni was determined to end the war brewing at the horizon at his own terms. Not at it would be easy. He had already studied half the parchments and even if he had an idea on how to decode the rest, the text did not seem to offer any help. Determined not to give up he picked another leaf and scanned the opening lines. His eyes widened and he read them again more carefully. Within moments he was frantically searching through his satchel for any sort of blank surface and –after finally finding a few loose leaves- scribbling down the text’s translation. It seemed like Sokka’s strange brand of luck had struck again.

 

The morning dawn grey, with the promise of storm clouds looming in the distance. The heavy weather didn’t encourage anyone to leave their tent bright and early but at last they all gathered around the rekindled campfire where Katara and Suki were teaching Azula how to cook. Lia and Toph sat next to them, fiddling with their crystals nervously. The quiet conversation between the girls stopped as soon as Agni approached.

“What do you want?” Lia asked warily, her grip tightening around the burgundy red crystal until her knuckles turned white. Her partner gave her an unreadable look before handing her a parchment.

“Courtesy of the Library,” he said simply before moving to stand a little away.

 

The redhead looked down on the page with a slight frown, her eyes skimming through the lines. Then, to everyone’s surprise, she swore loudly and jumped to her feet.

“We need to leave,” she said, hurrying to the closest tent and starting to pack. “NOW!” she barked when she realised the others were frozen to their spots.

“What’s going on?” Zuko asked her alarmed, moving to help her nonetheless. She waved the parchment she was still clutching to his general direction.

“We had the location of the Air Crystal all along,” she explained exasperated. “We just didn’t know it.” At these words the others jumped to their feet, breakfast forgotten completely and rushed to shove everything in their bags. As soon as everything was put away, and any sign of their campsite hidden or erased, the three Spirits formed a triangle around everyone else, pooling their energy together. A sphere of lightning blue energy crackled around the group for a moment before everything turned white.

 

When the world re-materialised around them they were standing near the edge of a cliff. In front of them was one of the biggest stone buildings anyone of them had ever seen. Built out of white and grey marble it towered and somehow blended with the heavy sky above. The wind seemed to batter at it from every direction and as they entered it they realised that not even the inside was safe. The deceptively solid walls were littered with small, almost invisible holes that left drafts rush in and created an eerie music in the air. Light drifted in sporadically as well, lighting the dust around them like little floating flakes of silver. Their footsteps echoed oddly inside the empty halls as they ran from one room to the next, desperately looking for any indication that the Air Crystal was still there.

“We need to go to the top,” Aang said suddenly, the only one in the group not breathing heavily. Sokka opened his mouth to add a comment but he could only wheeze for breath. He had never felt so starved for air even when Aang had flown Appa higher than usual.

“Closer to the element,” Azula managed to gasp in agreement as they hurried towards the large staircase that dominated the middle of the building.

 

By the time they reached the highest floor even Aang was struggling for breath. The grey-white crystal floating serenely in the middle of the room seemed to absorb all the air around it, the soft light it exceeded pulsing mesmerizingly with the short breaths everyone was taking.

“Well, hurry up Avatar!” Agni managed to say through gnashed teeth. He could feel his very essence being distorted by the uncontrolled energy and if Lia’s glazed eyes were any indication she wasn’t doing much better. Aang nodded once and moved closer to the crystal, swallowing down the nausea that almost overtook him as his hand wrapped around it. But before he could actually grab it, the Crystal zoomed upwards meshing itself with the ceiling high above them. The airbender had barely a chance to widen his eyes in surprise before a coil of energy shot from the opposite side of the room and hit him square in the chest.

 

Too late did they realise that the hall had another entrance and their pursuers had caught up to them again. Toph and Katara where the first to jump to action, their elemental attacks being enhanced by the crystals burning against their skins even as Azula and Suki dragged Aang out of the line of fire despite his loud protests. The others joined the melee, charging against their opponents who looked like amorphous masses of dark energy. However they seemed more ferocious than any previous Spirit the gaang had faced and they found themselves being pushed backwards. Aang, seeing his friends in trouble, jumped in the fray again and his air-based attacks seemed to have more of an effect on their opponents than anything else, forcing them to retreat towards the shadows once more. As the wind outside the building picked up even more a deep groaning echoed around them, almost as if the tower was in pain. Its echoes were drowned by the victorious cries that the group let, thinking victory in their grasp, and the cracking sounds that followed were swallowed by the wind.

 

Agni was the only one to notice when the stone surrounded them started to break, deep cracks appearing on the floor and spreading rapidly on the walls and ceiling. The others didn’t seem to notice, too focused on their enemy. Any words of warning died in his throat when a massive piece of the ceiling landed next to him, finally drawing everyone’s attention to the fact that they were in a more perilous situation than they had thought. To his surprise however everyone stood their ground, neither group willing to concede defeat. He saw Lia rise to the air, flying towards the Air Crystal, using the power of the one hanging around her neck –now dark like blood that had dried- to counteract the effects. She had almost reached the Air Crystal when a stray bolt of dark energy shot towards her, honing on her aura that was almost visible around her in the effort she was making. With a curse Aang forcibly summoned the Fire Crystal to himself, ignoring the pained scream that escaped the redhead as the energy emitted by her prize hit her, sending her plummeting to the ground. Aang rose to catch her even as the floor finally gave way under their feet and Agni used the Fire Crystal to blast their entire group out of the closest window.

Twilight of the Spirit World: The Ambush

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Author’s Note: In which the bad guys decide to grace us with their presence, there is action and girl talk (not necessarily in that order…)

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Next chapter: link

***The Ambush***

Nobody commented on Agni’s carrying Lia as they moved away from the Swamps with three Crystals in their possession. Truth be told, it was probably the most peaceful any of them had seen her look since they had arrived at the Spirit World. For her part, Lia did not stir even as they set camp by a river and did not wake until the sun rose the next morning. Even then her good mood seemed to continue, not the almost manic cheerfulness the others, especially Zuko, were used on seeing on her, but rather a serenity. Agni noted with satisfaction that the Fire Crystal, which had been acting erratically in response to its bearer’s turmoil, had also calmed, its surface settling on a rich, cheerful red.

 

For a few days this calmness reigned, the group wondering almost aimlessly, lacking any clues for the whereabouts of the last Crystal but for once not in a particular hurry either. Stories were exchanged from past adventures, the gaang bringing Ao and Agni up to speed with their war-related adventures and the two of them returning the favour with their own stories, and if the more embarrassing or funny ones always happened to include Lia in some capacity…it was hardly their fault!

 

Reality decided to intrude on their little bubble with the smell of salty air and the sound of waves crashing on the shore. When the ocean came to view they stopped and gazed in awe. The sea in the Spirit World is a lot different than what passes for sea in the mortal plane. One might even say that it was the original from which an imperfect copy was made. Every possible blue, green and purple (and some the gaang didn’t even know existed) swirled in perfect harmony, now calm and now thunderous, forming waves that crashed on the rocky shore, leaving behind them a booming sound like distant thunder. Aang summed up everyone’s reaction at the sight:

“Wow!”

 

For once Katara took the lead, the water’s call amplified by the Crystal’s energy meshing with her own creating an insistent call at the back of her mind that urged her to joindanceswimragebeone with the ocean. Before the others had time to even reach the beach she was almost on the water’s edge.

“Katara wait up!” her brother’s annoyed voice broke through the haze and she stopped abruptly, not having realised how far ahead she had run. She turned sheepishly at the others.

“Sorry,” she called over the roar of the water. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“Not to worry,” Lia assured her, staying far from the water’s range. “It’s the Crystal. You’ll get used to it.” Katara looked at her confused.

“The Crystal wanted me to get in the water?” she said. She wrapped her arms around her middle uneasily when every Spirit in the group turned to look at her alarmed.

“What do you mean, get in the water?” Ao said cautiously, casting a wary glance around them. Katara frowned.

“It sounded like somebody was speaking to me,” she tried to explain. “I couldn’t make out the words but it felt like I should join the water?” She paused, realising how bizarre that must have sounded to her friends. Toph opened her mouth to say something when, out of nowhere, what looked like the older brother of the snake from Serpent’s Pass (only more spiky, bigger and a lot more angry) burst out of the water and lunged at them. The twin lightning bolts he received from Agni and Azula did little to deter it.

“Why is the ocean trying to kill us?” Sokka exclaimed as they scrambled away from the water’s edge. Toph pushed her bangs away from her face annoyed and sent a wave of sand at the general direction of the Serpent.

“Is this really the time for questions Snoozles?” she snapped and then yelped when somebody wrapped an arm around her waist and unceremoniously dragged her backwards.

“Is this really the time for snark Toph?” Zuko snapped back, having dragged the two of them just out of blast radius. “This thing is shooting the water equivalent of Combustion Man’s blasts!” That was all it took to get Toph to focus, switching from sand waves to pelting the Serpent with increasingly large rocks. Aang landed next to her, using his airbending to stir the boulders she was launching closer to the thing’s head. Katara was standing nearby, her face creased in concentration as she tried to use the ocean’s waves to drag the Serpent back inside the water. It should have been easy, yet it felt as though something was blocking her power…

 

The second wave (pun not intended) of attackers appeared with as much warning as the Serpent. They seemed to be materialising out of nowhere, a platoon of vaguely humanoid spirits with heads like praying mantises, armed with some wickedly sharp scythes. Suki, Sokka and Ao attacked them immediately since their more elemental-oriented companions where still focusing on the Serpent. Agni, the first to notice the additions to the fray, turned to Azula and Zuko.

“Help the others,” he said seriously. “Lia and I can handle this one.” The siblings gave him an uncertain look but moved to help their friends. Aang, Toph and Katara joined them shortly, having been told similarly by Katara. Confident that their companions could handle themselves, the two Fire Spirits moved closer to the Serpent. With no mortals near enough to be caught in the immediate blast the two pooled their powers to blast the Serpent. The result was a fireball with the temperature of a small sun that completely disintegrated the Serpent. Lia and Agni exchanged a smug look before joining their friends against the Mantis Spirits.

 

They were right on time for that too since one of them, taking advantage of everyone’s momentary distraction caused by the blast managed to swipe his scythe on Azula’s side. The young woman fell on the ground with a cry of pain. Katara was instantly at her side, trying to step the blood flow, the battle too chaotic around them to allow for the concentration required for a healing session. Ao was on Azula’s side a moment later, destroying her attacker with a blast of spirit energy. The battle didn’t last long after this. With the addition of Lia and Agni the group was able to push back the Mantis Spirits, who fled the scene with their numbers severely diminished.

 

Once they were certain that no one and nothing else would attack them unexpectedly the group set up camp close to the battle site. A tent was set almost immediately and a worried Zuko, followed by an equally worried Ao, carried Azula inside. Katara stepped in behind them and shooed the two men away so that she could concentrate on her patient. With grumbles the two men went to join the others as they wearily finished setting the camp, a surprisingly haggard-looking Agni getting the fire going and slumping next to it. The others followed suit, none of them particularly in the mood for conversation. Lia rummaged through her satchel and produced a copper bottle that she passed wordlessly to the Spirit next to her. Agni popped it open and took a small sip.

“Sake?” he asked her amused. She shrugged.

“It’ll wake you up, won’t it?” she muttered, letting her hair fall forward to hide her expression. Her partner chuckled.

“True,” he said before taking another sip and passing the bottle back to her. Lia took it, closed the top again and chucked it to Ao. It startled his out of the stupor he had fallen since Katara had kicked him out of Azula’s tent but not enough to realise what was going on.

“Drink!” Lia half-ordered him in an exasperated tone. “You’re more high-strung than a freshly-made bow!” The Blue Spirit rolled his eyes and threw the bottle back.

“No, thanks,” he said sarcastically. “If the two of you are planning on drinking I’ll have to remain sober. The last time you,” he pointed at Agni, “got drunk you created a new flower. And if I remember correctly, you,” now he turned to Lia who cut him off hurriedly.

“Fine, fine don’t drink!” she said hurriedly. “No need to get all stroppy about it!”

“Defensive!” Toph said around a cough but before the conversation could turn into an argument Katara stepped out of the tent.

“How is she?” Zuko and Ao asked at the same time, before turning to look at each other surprised, although Zuko’s look was vaguely threatening. He had a sneaking suspicion he’d find himself in Sokka’s shoes soon enough.

“She’s fine and resting,” Katara reassured them before sitting next to Zuko. “Can somebody else cook tonight?” she asked tiredly.

“I’ll do it!” Suki offered, moving towards the bags with supplies they had. A simple stew would be easy enough to make.

 

It was a testament to how close the girls of the gaang that after dinner, and without having exchanged a word on the matter, they moved together, dragging a protesting Lia inside Azula’s tent. Toph entered last, shouting a “Girl talk!” to the stunned men’s general direction before shutting the door behind her. Inside the tent Lia sat down and rubbed her eyes tiredly, doing her best to ignore her friends’ expectant stares.

“What now?” she asked them finally. Azula, never one to beat around the bush, spoke first.

“What’s going on with you and Agni?” she asked, propping herself up against Katara’s shoulder to get a better vantage point.

“Absolutely nothing,” Lia answered firmly, already moving to stand up. Toph sent a slight ripple under the redhead’s feet and she was forced to sit down again.

“You’re lying,” she said flatly, none of her usual jokiness in her voice. “Being around you two is like being around Zuko and Katara, Sokka and Suki and Azula and Ao…”

“And you and Aang,” Azula added in a sing-song, steadfastly ignoring the blush that she knew had covered her cheeks.

“Whatever!” Toph exclaimed before turning towards Lia again. “Your heartbeats are in sync. Even when you’re fighting, you two never fall out of sync.” For a while it looked like Lia would not speak, even as the other pondered the implication of what the earthbender had said. Finally the redhead caved.

“Just because I love him, doesn’t mean I trust him!” she said. “Or he trusts me for the matter…” Toph was perhaps the only one not shocked by that admission.

“You…love him?” Suki stammered. “But…”

“You tried to kill him!” Katara finished her friend’s words. Lia shrugged.

“And he’s been a lying, manipulative bastard since the day I met him,” she said, this time managing to stand up.

“Well he’s certainly not acting like one now,” Toph said exasperated. “What does a guy need to do to get on your good books? Die for you?” Lia froze, one hand at the tent flap, as a very familiar vision flashed through her mind.

“That’s what I’m trying to stop,” she whispered, too low for the girls to hear, as she left them to discuss what she had admitted among themselves.

Twilight of the Spirit World – Closure

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Author’s note: In which some long overdue conversations happen, there is hard character development and the author wonders whether she should stop tormenting her characters…

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Next chapter: link

***Closure***

The first thing the group realised when they stepped through the thick mist was that Koh’s territory was an exotic paradise compared to what they were facing. The parchment-yellow and ash-grey fog that surrounded them thinned at places to reveal cracked rocks and skeletal trees. The sky and sun were hidden completely and the only light came from Zuko, Azula and Agni’s hands, the ruby crystal around Lia’s neck and the odd flash of light that appeared and disappeared without warning. Silence seemed to swallow them, not even their footsteps echoing. Nervously they huddled even closer together and hurried to catch up with Lia.

“Slow down, will you?” Ao said eventually, his voice resonating oddly, almost like the rumble of thunder. “If we end up losing we’ll waste even more time in here.”  Lia turned to look at him annoyed.

“It’s not my fault you can’t keep up,” she snapped. “We’re not going on a picnic, so hurry…” she trailed off, a look of fear flitting across her face. She clutched the crystal with one hand before turning on her heel and rushing forward again.

“This place reminds me of that swamp we ended up in before we met Toph,” Katara said suddenly. “You don’t think what Koh meant is that we’ll see the people we lost again?” She and Sokka exchanged a nervous look.

“I saw Toph,” Aang offered. “Maybe whoever we see will be here to help us?”

“These are the Mists,” Agni said grimly. “Only the lost walk them and the longer they stay the more they loose of themselves. I doubt they’d be of any help.”

“Then why would the Water crystal be here?” Azula asked him confused. To her surprise his answer was almost gentle.

“Who would dare to knowingly venture in a place like this?”

“You mean we’ll be affected too?” she asked scared. He pointed at the crawling tendrils of mists, tendrils that were more solid than they should probably be, that seemed to surround them like predators stalking their prey.

“If you listen carefully you can hear the lost,” he said before speeding up to walk next to Lia.

 

Toph was the first to understand what he meant. Her more sensitive ears caught the sound of the lost first and she visibly shuddered. It didn’t take long for the others to understand why. The deeper they moved the louder the voices became, unintelligible cries of agony, ecstasy and fury, all blending together so that it wasn’t clear if it was one person screaming or a multitude. Zuko blasted a few tendrils that moved too close for comfort and the mist seemed to retreat for a moment.

“I don’t think they like fire too much,” he remarked. Azula smirked, glad to be able to do something about the situation and she started using the tendrils for target practice, even as they continued to walk. She didn’t miss Ao’s appreciative look either. If her shots started becoming more elaborate, no one commented on it.

“It’s too quiet,” Suki said suddenly, causing everyone to pause. She was right. Nothing, not even the crackle of fire could be heard and even the tendrils had seemingly retreated. Then, with no warning, the fog descended and covered the group. They scrambled to keep hold of the person closest to them as cold fingers seemed to brush against their faces, chilling their breaths even as the air left their bodies. The retreat of the fog found them divided and further from each other than they realised.

 

Aang and Toph found themselves standing at the entrance of the Southern Air Temple. The airbender shuddered. It looked just as it had when he, Katara and Sokka had first visited it together and a part of him relived the terror and rage that he had first experienced there. Toph seemed to sense his turmoil.

“This is the Temple you grew up in, isn’t it?” she said quietly, the softness of her voice belaying the strength of her grip on his hand. Aang gulped.

“It is,” he said. “You know, even after meeting Zuko for the first time, even with Katara’s and Sokka’s warnings, I didn’t believe that the Air Nomads were lost until I came here. Why would the mist bring us here though?” Toph frowned and took a step forward, dragging him along.

“If the mist is made out of lost things then perhaps you need to find whatever it is you lost here. We’ll just have to start looking.”

 

Together they walked through the quiet and empty halls until they made it to what must have been an orchard once. Now the trees stood dry and half-wild, some of them having long fallen and rotted away.

“Do you think I can do it Toph?” Aang asked suddenly, leading his girlfriend towards a few steps and sitting there with her.

“You’ll have to be more specific Twinkle-Toes,” she said dryly. “I think you can do plenty of things.”

“Do you think I can revive the Air Nomads? Keep them from disappearing?” he paused and looked around. “It’s not just for the sake of the Avatar circle. I don’t want all the legacy that my people will have to be stories and ruins.”

“I don’t think things will be as dark as you think Aang,” Toph said seriously. “You ended the Hundred Year War…” Aang opened his mouth to interrupt her but she covered it with her hand. “Let me finish!” she chided. “Your story inspires people. There will be those that will wish to follow your way of living; the Air Nomads’ way of living. It will be slow going but we can restore the temples. And if you are worrying about the next Avatar not having an airbending master well…” she paused and blushed. “Our children are as likely to be airbenders as they are to be earthbenders.” Aang blushed as well at her words and smiled shyly. Suddenly the wild garden didn’t seem as unwelcoming as before.

“Promise me we’ll take it one day at a time together?” he said. Toph leaned against him.

“I promise,” she said.

 

Behind them the mist started to thin.

 

When the mist cleared Sokka and Suki found themselves, to their endless surprise, on a small boat in the middle of the ocean. The sky above them was cloudy and its reflection gave the water a strange milky-white colour. The couple looked around, trying to find the shore or, better yet, the way back to their friends. There wasn’t any wind and the only thing rocking the boat was their own movements. Finally Sokka exhaled in exasperation.

“How on earth are we going to leave this place?” he whined, flopping on his back and staring at the sky moodily. Suki nudged him with her foot.
“I thought you are the idea guy,” she teased him gently. “Why don’t you put that big head of yours to use?”

“This isn’t our world! Half the time I don’t even understand why things happen the way they do here!”

“When has that stopped you before from being brilliant?” a voice said from above them. A soft voice that Sokka recognised immediately and had him jumping to his feet searching frantically for its owner.

“Yue?” he called out hopefully.

 

Above the boat the clouds parted to reveal the moon and from it descended the former Princess of the Northern Water Tribe. She smiled at the pair kindly.

“It’s good to see you again Sokka,” she said, hovering in front of the boat, just out of reach. She turned to Suki. “And it is good to finally meet you Suki.” The Kyoshi warrior nodded carefully at the Moon Spirit, glancing quickly at Sokka, nervous at his tense silence.

“It is good to meet you too Yue,” she said at last. “I have heard a lot about you.” She fell silent again, not sure what else to say.

“Was it my fault?” Sokka blurted out, looking at Yue desperately. “Was there anything I could have done?” She looked at him serenely but sadly and shook her head.

“No,” she said at last. “This was meant to happen. It would have always happened.” Her expression crumbled for a moment. “But I am sorry to have caused you grief. I never meant to hurt you.” They looked at each other and for a moment all that could have been seemed to make the gap between them even greater.

“How could it have been either’s fault?” Suki broke the silence, looking at both Sokka and Yue sternly. “You were children trying to fix the problems the hatred of the previous generations caused. And from all the stories I’ve heard you both did more and sacrificed more than anyone had the right to ask of you.” Sokka looked at her stunned but Yue smiled.

“You are very wise Suki,” she said. “Take care of him for both of us.” Suki nodded quietly, a silent message passing between the two women. Then Yue turned to Sokka and place a palm on the side of his face. “Be happy,” she whispered before disappearing. Sokka turned to Suki and silently hugged her, the guilt of Yue’s death finally leaving him.

 

Around them the mist disappeared.

 

“This is too weird,” Azula said exasperated, looking around at the courtyard she had played in many times as a child. Next to her Ao was examining their surroundings curiously.

“This is where you grew up?” he said surprised. “How come you’re a warrior?” She turned to him in surprise and he took a hasty step back. “I did not mean to say that! But seriously, this place looks to comfortable!”

“You don’t look like a Water Spirit anyway,” Azula retorted, “so I guess nothing is at appears.” She gave him another look. “I still think your eyes are beautiful though.” She blushed as red as her tunic and slapped a hand over her mouth. Ao blushed too but he managed a flirty smile.

“Same goes to you princess,” he said. “I think I get it,” he added more seriously. “This is a place where truths are revealed. That’s why we can’t control what we say. Once we save reality as we know it, do you want to go traveling with me?” He groaned and banged his head against a nearby tree. “Great!” he muttered. “That’s exactly how I planned asking you.” To his surprise Azula laughed.

“Let’s save the world before we make any travel plans, shall we?” she said and reached for his hand. “Now how about I show you around and we look for an exit?”

 

Neither noticed the courtyard melting as they left it behind.

 

The clearing shook as yet another fireblast hit one of the few trees not to be burnt down yet. Lia doubled over, breathing heavily as she tried to conjure the energy to continue with her destruction of the landscape. Agni stood to the side, well out of her range, frowning worriedly. When the mist had first cleared they had found themselves in an idyllic clearing, one that belonged to the distant past, with trees and flowers that had not survived the shifts in spiritual energy that had caused the first benders to appear. When one more tree fell to the ground he decided enough was enough. He marched up to Lia and grabbed her hands just as she released her energy. It rippled between them for a moment before being absorbed by the crystal.

“This isn’t real,” he told her forcefully. “You’re gaining nothing by burning everything to the ground.” Lia tried to wrench her hands free.

“It’s my memories that conjured this place up,” she spat. “If I want to burn it I will.”

“Perhaps, but the memory will remain!” Agni shook her angrily, trying to get through before she began to truly panic. He had noticed the signs since she had realised that the fog would conjure memories back to life, but truth be told he wasn’t certain what might happen to Lia if she really managed to destroy one of her most important memories. He wasn’t very eager to find out either. Tightening his grip to force her to look at him he forced himself to speak calmly. “You cannot escape what has already been done. Let’s just try to find our way out, okay.”

 

For a moment it seemed like Lia didn’t understand what she was told. Finally she jerked her head in a sharp nod and pulled away, striding towards the edge of the clearing, doing her outmost to ignore the destruction around her. For once she didn’t object to Agni walking by her side. They had almost reached the edge when a childish voice, carried by the wind, caused Lia to freeze in place, all blood draining from her face. Agni wrapped an arm around her waist letting her lean against him as her breathing grew ragged and her hands started to tremble. The voice was louder now, coming closer, and Agni turned them both to face the burnt land just as a black-haired, brown-eyed boy dressed in green appeared. He couldn’t be more than ten years old and the only indication of his nature was the unearthly pallor of his skin. He took one look at them and with a bright smile threw himself to Lia’s embrace. In turn her trembling increased as she looked down to a face she had not seen in millennia.

“You’re dead,” she said hoarsely even as her arms moved to cradle the boy tightly. He nodded against her.

“I don’t mind,” he answered, his voice muffled from where he rested his face on her shoulder. He pulled back a little to look her in the eye and frowned, for the first time realising that his sister wasn’t exactly looking happy. “You…you can’t be blaming yourself?” he exclaimed in disbelief. Lia frowned and let go of him.

“I’m the very incarnation of fire, the thing that killed you Hisao!” she said angrily brushing a few tears away. “And even if I weren’t a Fire Spirit, I was your sister. It was my job to protect you, not the other way around!” Hisao bit his lip and then, more carefully this time, hugged his sister again, pulling her to sit on the ground.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “It’s okay to be sad.” His arms tightened around her as she started crying.

“I…just…miss you…so much,” she choked out. “It wasn’t fair!”

“I miss you too. But think of all the things that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t become a Fire Spirit.” Lia shook her head.

“Agni would have managed,” she said.

“Maybe I would have,” Agni said suddenly, kneeling on her other side. “But I wouldn’t have given to our people all that you gave them.” Lia looked up surprised. He managed a small smile and wrapped his arms around her too. “We are equals in everything and don’t you forget it!”

 

Tremulously, hesitantly, the tears seemed to slow down. Lia looked at her brother to find him watching with a hopeful expression.

“I’ll always miss you,” she told him. “And I will always be sad that I lost you the way I did. But I think I am ready to start moving on.” Hisao gave her a bright smile and stood up. All the wisdom drained from his expression as he turned threateningly towards Agni.

“And you treat my sister nicely mister!” he ordered the Spirit before giving the redhead one last hug and with a cheerful wave disappeared in the woods. Agni, still startled by that last comment had barely had time to recover when Lia leaned against him, turning to curl with her side against his chest as the emotional turmoil finally took its toll and she fell asleep.

 

A bright light covered them.

 

Katara and Zuko turned abruptly at the sound of footsteps behind them. They had been walking through ankle-deep water since the fog had transported them away from the others. Seeing nothing they warily turned to continue walking when the water in front of them started rippling. It rose and formed a figure that slowly condensed to a woman dressed in Water Tribe clothes. Katara took a step back in shock.

“Mum?” she whispered in disbelief. Kya opened her eyes and smiled lovingly at her grown-up daughter.

“It’s so good to see again sweetie,” she said, spreading her arms to embrace Katara. The waterbender didn’t any more encouragement. She rushed to her mother’s arms laughing and crying at the same time. When the two finally parted Kya looked at Zuko first and then Katara.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to this nice young man Katara?” she asked almost playfully. Katara blushed but moved to her boyfriend’s side.

“Mum, this is Zuko,” she said. Kya looked at them silently for a moment, taking in the way they held hands and leaned into each other and the necklace that hung on Katara’s neck, a blue ribbon and a finely carved sunstone.

“It is nice to meet you Zuko,” she said finally, nodding her head in greeting.

“It is an honour to meet you ma’am,” Zuko answered, nodding respectfully back.

“Mum what are you doing here? We were told this is where the lost souls go.” Katara’s eyes widened in fear. She couldn’t bear to imagine her mother roaming this desolate place forever.

“Don’t worry dear,” said Kya. “This is also a place for lost things to be found. Just like I found you.” She reached under her parka and pulled out a brilliant blue crystal. “The Spirits wished to entrust you with this and I couldn’t miss a chance to see my little girl again. So offered to wait for your arrival so that I might give it to you.”

 

Katara extended her hand to take the crystal, her eyes widening as she became almost hyperaware of the water surrounding her. In front of her, her mother’s spectre started fading.

“Wait,” Katara cried. “I thought we’d have more time!” Kya shook her head.

“My time is over Katara. You know this.” By now she was a mere echo. “I love you sweetie. And tell your father and brother that I love them too.”

“I love you mum.” Katara whispered as her mother completely disappeared from sight. Slowly she pulled the chain from which the crystal hung around her neck and took Zuko’s hand.

“Are you okay,” he asked her hesitantly.

“Yes,” she answered, and to her surprise she said the truth.

 

Everything around them disappeared.

 

Aang and Toph thought they were the first to stumble out of the swamp and into clean air. To their surprise they found Agni leaning against a tree, with Lia wrapped protectively in his arms, fast asleep. Toph smiled softly. She didn’t need sight to tell that their hearts were beating in sync.

Twilight of the Spirit World – A Blast from the Past

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Author’s note: In which the author brings back a favourite character of hers, denial is also a river in the Spirit World and there is an addition to the Gaang.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***A Blast from the Past***

Dawn found nearly everyone in the group wishing they could sleep in for once. They gathered in the front room of the house they had been given looking pale, tired and, in Lia’s case, more than a little hangover. Sokka’s eyes widened at the sight of the usually energetic Spirit trudging last in the room, dark circles under her eyes and hair framing her face limply.

“What happened to you?” he nearly yelled. Lia winced as his loud voice added to her headache.

“Less noise, more quiet,” she managed to mumble, massaging her temples. “And for the record, whatever I might have said last night best be forgotten.” Suki chuckled.

“What, you spill your secrets when you get drunk?” she asked.

“Then how come you’ve never mentioned it before?” Toph added disappointed. “Think of all the fun we’ve missed.” The redhead just groaned in response.

“See if I ever touch the stuff again…” she said before turning hopefully to Katara. “A little help for your soon-to-be-sister-in-law?” The waterbender rolled her eyes but healed the headache nonetheless.

“Why did you drink so much anyway?” she couldn’t help but scold the redhead. “You knew we wouldn’t be staying here.” Lia shrugged carelessly.

“It was worth it!” she said.

“Not like you said anything particularly embarrassing Lily,” Agni said from his place by the door. “Even drunk you wouldn’t say what your secret was.” Lia looked at him blankly for a moment, then some of last night’s memory decided to present itself. To everyone’s surprise she blushed.

“Of course!” she grumbled. “Of course you’d be the one to find me drunk out of my mind!” She took a deep breath. “I suppose it could have been worse.” She picked her bag and made for the door. Turning to face the rest of the gang, who were gaping at her relatively calm reaction, she raised an eyebrow impatiently. “Well? Are you coming or what?” Toph whistled impressed and waltzed over to Agni.

“I don’t know what you did last night but it sure mellowed her!” she said, punching him in the arm. “Good work!”

“Thanks, I think,” he answered, rubbing his arm. For a sixteen-year-old she sure was strong!

 

All teasing aside, the festival seemed to have siphoned at least some of the tension that had hung over the group before. Short conversations would break every now and then as they walked towards the city gates. The streets were mostly deserted, the city’s inhabitants clearly preferring to lie in after last night’s revel, although a few were out and about and they cheerfully waved at the group as they passed them. Under the early morning light the city’s colour seemed washed out, even the gems sparkling half-heartedly. Most surprisingly perhaps, when they arrived at the gate they had entered through the previous day, instead of the ornate marble arch, they found a plainer one, carved out of rough granite. Oma stood at the side, waiting for them with a soft smile. Surveying the still-sleepy expressions in some of their faces she chuckled.

“It seems you all had a good time last night,” she said.  “I’m glad. And I have one last gift for you.”

“It’s not whatever Lia drank last night, is it?” Zuko asked, laughing at how the Spirit perked up at the prospect despite her earlier vow of abstinence. Oma shook her head smiling.

“No, I don’t think that would be of much help right now,” she said lightly. Then she grew solemn. “It has to do with your quest,” she said. “The location of the Water crystal.”

“You know where it is?” Aang asked eagerly. His face fell when the Earth Spirit shook her head negatively.

“No,” she said. “But I do know someone who does. Koh, the Face Stealer.” Aang involuntarily shuddered at the idea of dealing with the creepy Spirit again. The rest of the group also seemed weary, having heard Aang’s account of his encounter with Koh. Lia snorted at their expressions.

“Oh come on!” she said. “He’s not that bad!” The others gave her dubious looks. “He’s not!” Even Oma was looking at her surprised.

 

Clearing his throat awkwardly Aang turned to Oma, once again the spokesperson for the group.

“Thank you for all your help,” he said as formally as possible. Oma bowed her head in acknowledgement.

“I hope our next meeting is under better circumstances,” she said before opening the gate for them. “Fare well on your travels.” With one final nod the group passed through the gate, exiting at the bottom of the mountain. The gate closed behind them and disappeared.

“So since you are apparently friends with the Face Stealer, does that mean that you know where he lives?” Sokka asked Lia.

“Yup!” she said. “He’s on the swamps, pretty much as close to the in-between as you can get without actually leaving the Spirit World behind.” She gave Aang a look. “You know the place, don’t you?” The Avatar nodded.

“I ended up there the first time I crossed over, during the invasion of the Northern Water Tribe. But the area is very large,” he added worriedly. “Last time I had Hei Bai to guide me through. How are we going to find him now?” Agni didn’t seem very concerned.

“I’m sure he tells his friends how to find him,” he said lazily, causing everyone to stare at Lia expectantly. She frowned and everything around her blurred. A chorus of “Hey!”s caused her to settle down, their surroundings rematerializing to the place they had been standing.

“Well?” she asked irritably. “Do you want me to take you guys there or not?”

“A word of warning first!” Azula grumbled, letting go of Zuko, whom she had grabbed in order to keep her balance. She didn’t receive an answer so she took to glaring at the Spirit’s back instead. “What’s up with her all of a sudden?” she mumbled, receiving an equally confused look from her brother.

 

In the end there wasn’t much blurring and teleporting that day and when they set up camp that night the mountain was still visible in the distance. The walk had done little to improve Lia’s mood and she had fallen to a brooding silence, ignoring the light chatter of her friends. Instead of joining the others around the fire, she sat a little further away, scowling at the fact that the others were slowly growing more comfortable with Agni’s presence, even including him in their conversation. The crystal heated up against her collarbone in reaction to her unsettled emotions as she vainly tried to figure out exactly what was that had set her on edge all day. It had to do with last night, that much she was certain, but the night was foggy in her memory. No matter what Agni had said earlier, she knew she had revealed something that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming from the shadow-covered trees nearby. Before anyone else had much of a chance to react she was on her feet and hurtling a fireball in the direction of the sound. The shadows just behind the spot her fire landed condensed to a human shape with a face reminiscent of Zuko’s old Blue Spirit mask, and at last materialised to a man dressed in black, with a royal blue cloak and hood that he pushed back to reveal a face with sharp features and electric blue eyes. Recognising him, Lia smiled in delight and practically jumped in his arms.

“Ao!” she exclaimed, pulling away a little to look in his eyes. “It’s been ages! How did you find us?” He shrugged lazily –as best as he could with his arm around her shoulders-.

“Word of you going around and causing trouble has spread. I figured I’d come and see what all the fuss is about,” he said.

“There’s more people here you know,” Azula cut their reunion. “Are you going to introduce us or what?” Lia stepped away with a laugh.

“Sorry about that,” she said, turning to face the group. “Everyone, this is Ao, the Blue Spirit.”

“Yo,” Ao nodded in acknowledgment to the introduction before taking a seat between Azula and Lia and joining the group’s conversation.  Distracted as they were by their exchange of stories, nobody noticed that Agni, who had at first been amused at Lia’s reaction towards all things unidentified, was frowning deeper by the moment as he observed the friendship between Lia and Ao. After their exchange party he had thought that maybe the redhead had decided to call a truce but apparently he had been wrong.

 

Regardless of Agni’s frustration Ao’s addition to the group managed to relieve some of the tension if only because he knew how to distract Lia when her mood seemed to take a turn for the worse. He listened with amusement as she recounted how she had talked Zuko into taking up the Blue Spirit as an alias for a while and would have probably talked about sword-fighting techniques with Zuko and Sokka for the rest of the day if their arrival at Koh’s domain didn’t interrupt them. Everyone quieted down as they took in their surroundings. The place seemed even more desolate than Aang remembered, tendrils of mist winding around the trees like clawed hands.

“Do we need to go in there?” he asked, pointing at the cave entrance and looking about as eager as Lia had looked in front of the Library.

“We’re in his front yard,” Toph pointed out. “He probably knows we’re here already.”

“Doesn’t mean he’ll come out,” Suki said, her hand nervously resting against the fans hanging from her belt. Lia shook her head and marched towards the entrance, although she didn’t step into the shadows either.

“Koh!” she called instead, leaning casually against the wall and ignoring Aang’s hurried instruction of the “no emotion” rule. “Are you going to keep us waiting all day or are you going to crawl out.”

“I can hear you quite well without the screaming,” Koh’s smooth voice came from the shadows, followed by the Spirit itself. He observed the group before him, completely ignoring the amused redhead at his side. “Let us dispense with the formalities. I have no interest in adding any of your faces in my collection.” A few hesitant expressions of relief appeared.

“Isn’t that just grand!” Lia said, moving to join the others as they slowly approached. “Oma said you know where the Water crystal is. Don’t suppose you’ll tell us.” Koh’s face shifted from his customary Noh mask to that of an old, annoyed-looking human.

“I am not here to provide trivia,” he said, his voice unchanging and contrasting eerily with the age face he sported.

“But you’ll make an exception just this once?” Toph asked in a sugary-sweet voice that made everyone look at her bewildered. Koh focused his eyes on her, taking note of her sightless eyes in interest.

“Not quite,” he said finally. “There is no love lost between me and the Avatar,” he paused and looked at Aang knowingly, “and I have already aided him once with no recompense. Why would I do it again?”

“Because if you don’t there’ll be even less people stumbling in on your domain and it will become harder to collect faces?” Azula offered only half-joking. Koh appeared to consider her point. In the end he sighed and shifted back to the inscrutable Noh mask.

“The mists of this swamp conceal all things sought by Spirit or mortal,” he said, almost as if reciting from an old text. “All that is hidden is revealed within them to those brave enough to enter.” Without another word he turned and returned to his cave, leaving the group to stare at his retreating back confused.

“Does that mean that the crystal is somewhere in the swamps then?” Katara asked hesitantly. Zuko took her hand, feeling uneasy but staring at the mist-covered terrain in front of them determined.

“I suppose there is only one way to find out,” he said.

“You don’t mean…” Sokka trailed off when he saw Zuko heading towards the swamp and sighed. “Of course you do.”

“It’s not like we have much of a choice,” Aang reasoned, although he didn’t look particularly eager to enter the swamp either.

“Well, let’s go then!” Lia pushed forward, bypassing Zuko and Katara and pretty much diving in the mist. Her voice came out muffled. “The sooner we find the crystal, the sooner we can get out of here.”

 

One by one the mists swallowed the group until nothing was left to mark their passage. In the shadows Koh chuckled knowingly.

“All that is sought and all that is hidden,” he mused, “all that has been covered by the mists of the past.”

Twilight of the Spirit World – The Festival

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Author’s note: In which there is philosophy, SHIPPING, and things don’t go wrong for once! Also, in which the author has a LOT of fun world-building.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: coming soon…

***The Festival***

Unbelievably Wan Shi Tong didn’t hunt them down immediately, much to Sokka’s relief, although Lia had grumbled about the Owl joining the Council’s side out of sheer annoyance. Her frustration however was short lived and Toph was doing a great job of distracting her with questions about the Earth elementals and the Hidden City they were travelling to. The rest of the gaang would jump in with comments and questions every now and then with the exception of Agni, who remained silent for most of the trip.

 

Eventually the lush environment began to give way and the ground became rocky and dry. As they started climbing to a higher altitude the air too began thinning, as if the other three elements were shying away from the area. At the closing of the day they had reached a landing large enough to camp in and most of the group shuffled towards they sleeping bags, too tired to bother with dinner. Zuko took a few deep breaths, staring at the star-filled sky that seemed to press down on them.

“Am I the only one feeling light-headed?” Katara scooted closer to him, rubbing her temples.

“No, I feel it too. What’s going on?” Aang gave them a sympathetic look.

“The higher we go, the thinner the air gets,” he explained. “I remember when we first started learning to air glide. The instructors wouldn’t let us go over the clouds.”

“But it’ll pass, right?” Azula asked. Aang nodded emphatically.

“As soon as we climb lower,” he assured her.

 

Toph turned towards the rest of the group curiously. True, she too had felt a little light-headed when they had reached the clearing but it had gone away almost immediately. In fact the more she sat with her back against a conveniently placed rock the more energised she felt. Due to her earthbending she had always been more comfortable when she was surrounded by her element but this was new. Absently, Toph took one of her metal bracelets and started playing around with it. Her eyes widened in surprise when the material responded to the minutest metalbending. She could feel the impurities she manipulated as clear as if she was working with regular stones. So absorbed she was by her discovery that she completely missed the presence at her side.

“We’re very close to the City now,” Agni said quietly, as if trying not to startle her. Still, she turned sharply towards him, her concentration broken. “Easy there!” he said with a chuckle. “I thought you had heard me.” Toph settled a little.

“Nah,” she said, reforming her bracelet. “Too far away in my head I guess.” Then what he said sank in. “How close is very close?” Agni shrugged.

“I’ve never been,” he admitted. “But I can tell the energy is different here. I imagine we’ll be getting a visit by Oma or Shu either tonight or come morning.” Toph nodded in understanding and then raised an eyebrow.

“You are very social all of a sudden,” she said. Agni chuckled.

“I think Lily is too distracted right now to yell at me for talking to one of you.” He pointed towards the rest of the group were the girls were trying to teach Azula to cook, much to the amusement of the boys. Toph rolled her eyes at the ruckus they were making but nonetheless stood up to join the group.

“Somehow I don’t think this will make her like you” she called over her shoulder, drawing out the word ‘like’ more than it was probably necessary. Agni looked at her with wide eyes, too shocked to really form an answer.

 

In the morning the group woke to find that what last night had been a solid rock wall was now the entrance of a tunnel. Shaped out of hard, black rock, it stood out against the paler stones of the mountain. Sokka couldn’t help but comment:
“What is it with Elementals and impressive entrances?” Lia chuckled.

“We get bored?” she offered before moving towards the opening with quick steps. The others followed more hesitantly.

 

Almost immediately after they entered, the rock moved behind them, sealing the entrance and plunging them in darkness. The small flames that appeared on the hands of Zuko, Azula, Lia and Agni did little to break through the inky blackness surrounding them. The others huddled closer to them, even Toph who, although not bothered by the lack of light, felt intimidated by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere.

“Are we sure this isn’t a trap?” Katara asked hesitantly in a low voice.

“I don’t think so,” Aang shook his head. “There is the same strange energy here as was at Agni’s mountain.”

“And that is so reassuring,” Azula mumbled. To everyone’s surprise Lia let a breathless chuckle.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” she told Azula before breathing deeply through the nose and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Elementals very rarely visited each other’s home domain and for good reason. The build-up of their personal energy, combining with that of the crystals caused an imbalance. Lesser Spirits didn’t really notice it, with the exception of those whose abilities were tied to one element or another and thus might find themselves temporarily stronger or weaker. In her case, it felt as though the entire mountain was pressing down her eardrums and she could feel the crystal pulsing against her breastbone as it tried to remedy the problem. A quick glance at her counterpart told her that he wasn’t faring much better. His face had grown paler during their walk and a slight grimace of pain flitted across his features.

 

Without warning light flooded the tunnel as an opening appeared right in front of them, leading to a straight drop a long way down. Aang, who had been closest to the opening, half-floated half-jumped backwards, frowning at how much effort airbending suddenly required. A deep, throaty laugh drew the group’s attention to their side, where a short, tan man with emerald green eyes and obsidian black hair now stood.

“I apologise for startling you,” he said in a friendly tone. “You can never be too cautious these days.”

“Are you Shu, the Earth Spirit?” Suki asked hesitantly. His comment about caution went both ways after all, and she hadn’t missed how the two Fire Spirits seemed to shy away from him. The man bowed slightly to her.

“Indeed I am, daughter of Kyoshi,” he answered. “Your arrival has been expected for a while now,” he continued, this time addressing the entire group.

“Then you will show us the way to the Hidden City?” Sokka asked excitedly. Toph huffed in exasperation.

“It’s a Hidden City alright…I can’t feel it even though I really want to.”

“You cannot see it little bender because it doesn’t stand out, but rather it is embraced by our element,” he said kindly. “Once we are closer you will understand.” Another gateway opened at his side and he motioned to the group to follow him. Toph was the first to cross the threshold, eager to find out what Shu meant and the others scrambled after her, the gateway disappearing behind them as soon as they had all crossed.

 

This new tunnel was much shorter than the previous ones and sooner than they’d imagined they emerged from yet another gateway, this one much more elaborate and carved out of marble. The sight that greeted them on the other side was unlike anything they had ever seen. Everything in the Hidden City was made out of different kinds of stones and metals. An explosion of colours surrounded them, as the warm sunlight fell on the gems inlet on the buildings’ walls and created small rainbows on the white marble roads.  Spirits filtered on the streets, some walking, some flying, some using bizarre combinations of the two, but most of the carrying different kinds of parcels and baskets and all moving in the same direction. As Shu led them through, they paused and let them pass in respect, before turning back to whatever they had been doing, even as the first stirrings of a melody reached them from somewhere else in town.

 

Even though the City looked beautiful to the entire group, Toph felt that only she could truly appreciate its true magnificence. Each different type of rock, gem or metal gave off a different vibration and her own, unique way of seeing revealed details on their structures that were probably invisible to the naked eye. In a way, Toph thought, it was nice to be the one to see clearly everything. And not just in a metaphorical way either…. Reluctantly she brought her attention back to her friends and to where they were going. The street they were walking on felt as smooth and soft as silk under the soles of her feet and she bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud when she heard more than one pair of legs slipping and sliding, caught off-guard by the sudden loss of traction.

 

Finally they arrived at their destination, a temple in the middle of the City, built in the almost conical way that characterised the buildings in Omashu. At its entrance stood Oma, whose tan complexion, warm brown eyes and reserved expression did little to distract from her rich, deep green hair that cascaded down her back like ivy.

“Do all female Elementals have strange-coloured hair?” Zuko blurted out, blushing when the Elementals in question turned to him with equally unimpressed expressions. They gave each other measuring looks before Lia shrugged.

“I don’t see anything strange,” she said. “Do you?” she asked Oma. The earth Elemental shook her head.

“Not really, no,” she said before turning to address the entire group. “Welcome to the Hidden City. I must applaud your courage to stand by your friend’s side on a fight that isn’t your own. We are honoured to have you here and if you would follow us, we will take you to what you came seeking.” While she talked the group composed themselves from laughing quietly at Zuko’s expense and listened to her with serious expressions. When she finished talking Aang took a step forward, becoming the spokesman for the gaang.

“We thank you for your kind words and hospitality,” he said formally after a deep bow, figuring that if the Earth Spirits where anything like the earthbenders they would appreciate brevity. Indeed, Oma and Shu nodded in acknowledgment once and motioned to the group to follow them inside the temple.

 

The halls inside were lit by the same green crystal as the catacombs of Ba Sing Se, casting eerie lights on the obsidian walls. Before they could move further than the first hall, Shu turned apologetically to Agni and Lia.

“I’m afraid you two will have to wait here,” he said. The two Fire Spirits nodded in understanding and Lia even managed to give Zuko a reassuring smile in answer to his concerned look before the gaang followed the Earth Spirits deeper in the temple. As soon as they were out of sight she slumped against the wall, taking deep breaths through the nose. The Fire crystal could do little to counteract the effects the build-up of the Earth crystal’s energy was having on her and a similar thump from the opposite wall told her that Agni was not faring much better. His face was sweaty and his eyes had dulled, almost like he was feverish but he said nothing. Lia bit her lip hesitantly. If she felt as horrible as she did, then how could her partner be feeling, without the crystal shielding him. With a deep breath and telling herself that she would probably regret it immediately she let the Fire crystal float between them, and it glowed a fiery red as it struggled to shield both of them. Lia let her head fall to her knees as gravity seemed suddenly to double, even as she heard Agni’s breathing ease a little. Closing her eyes, she wished that Oma and Shu wouldn’t have any elaborate ceremonies before entrusting their crystal to one of the group.

 

Meanwhile the others had reached the main chamber of the temple, a room bare of anything other than the glowing emerald crystal floating at its exact centre, orbiting around itself. The Earth Spirits each placed a hand on Toph’s shoulders and gently led her towards the crystal.

“I can see it,” Toph whispered, almost hypnotised as she raised a hand towards the crystal.

“Earthbending has always been for you as natural as breathing because you understood its true meaning,” Shu explained, a hint of pride colouring his voice as he addressed her.

“That is why you are the right person to safeguard the crystal until our world is safe again,” Oma continued softly. “Not since the time we walked amongst the mortals has there been someone whose understanding of earthbending is as complete as yours.” Hearing these words seemed to snap Toph out of her daze and she shook her head.

“I am great at earthbending,” she agreed, “but I do not have complete understanding of it. There are still many things I want to experiment with.”

“And you have both the vision and the ability to do so,” Oma said. “Earth is not static and there will always be new things to discover. That however doesn’t subtract from what you have already achieved.”

“The crystal chose you because it felt your affinity for it,” Shu said as the emerald stone attached itself to Toph’s headband. “It might enhance your abilities but not to a great extent. You see, that is the paradox of the elemental crystals. They do not truly enhance your powers. Rather they highlight what was already there.”

 

They did not linger at the now-darkened chamber but hurried back to where they had left Lia and Agni. They found them sitting on opposite walls, Agni seemingly dozing and Lia looking at the ceiling bored. She slowly turned her head towards them and moved to stand.

“What took you so long?” she grumbled, her voice startling Agni into opening his eyes.

“Can we go now?” he mumbled, sounding as moody as the redhead. Shu chuckled.

“I apologise for the uncomfortable wait friends,” he said. “But perhaps you might delay your departure until the morning? There is a festival tonight and it might the last chance any of us has for merriment for a while.” Aang’s face practically lit up at the prospect of a party and the others seemed pretty enthusiastic about the idea.

“Might as well,” Agni said carelessly. “I’m starting to get used to the thin air you locals breathe anyway.”

 

Shu had other duties to see to, so Oma led the group to a small house, where they could leave their packs and freshen up for the party. She left them with directions on how to reach the area where the festival was taking place and smiled as she heard the girls of the group loudly and enthusiastically order the boys to hurry up and get ready in one of the smaller rooms so that they could have the larger ones to themselves. Since none of them had planned on coming across any sort of celebration during their travels, getting ready mostly consisted of washing off the dust they had gathered on the road and touching up on hairstyles, before hurriedly leaving the house and following the –now louder- sound of music and laughter to another area of the City.

 

When they reached the square where the festivities were being held they saw that more of the green crystals were hung everywhere, intermingled with candles that shone through gems, bathing everything in a rainbow of colours as night fell. In one corner a group of Spirits were playing songs and in another tables were set with foods and drinks. Sokka’s eyes zeroed on the food and, grabbing Suki’s hand, he made a beeline for it.

“We’ll see you guys later!” he called over his shoulder. Suki laughed at her boyfriend’s antics, but she followed him willingly enough.

“Sokka has the right idea,” Katara said, eyeing the crowd of Spirits that seemed to grow bigger by the minute. “It will be hard to keep track of everyone with so many people around. How about we just meet later in the house?” Azula nodded in agreement.

“Sounds good,” she said. “That way everyone can do what they want.”

“And that means Twinkle-Toes and I are dancing,” Toph said determinedly, grabbing Aang by the collar and dragging him off closer to the music, where a few couples were already dancing. Azula, Zuko, Katara and Lia chucked at the antics of the youngest members of their group. Azula turned to the others and gave a smile.

“I think I’ll go exploring,” she said in almost childish excitement. For all the doom and gloom prospects of their quest and even with Agni’s presence stirring up unpleasant memories she had found herself loving every moment of their travels on the Spirit World.

“Have fun Zula,” Zuko told his sister before turning his attention to the remaining members of their team, only to find it short one member.

“Wow,” Katara told Lia, also noticing Agni’s absence for the first time. “And I though you moved silently.” The redhead scoffed and made a shooing gesture at them.

“Well, go on!” she told them teasingly. “Away with you! Go find a dark corner and enjoy each other’s presence or whatever it is you kids call it these days. I know you want some alone time.” Zuko and Katara –sporting matching blushes and guilty smiles- didn’t need to be told twice before they disappeared into the crowd, holding hands tightly. Lia surveyed the scene for a moment longer from where she stood before moving towards the drinks. Early she had spotted a few bottles of one of her favourites and she fully intended to indulge herself.

 

Agni found her a few hours later, after he had to navigate through a group of particularly giggly tree Spirits, sitting on a staircase, cradling an empty bottle and sporting a particularly thoughtful expression. Wherever her mind was traveling, it returned back to reality as soon as he came within view of her. Her eyes focused on his intently and she waited until he was close enough to hear her before speaking.

“I’m drunk,” she declared with all the gravity of a royal decree. Agni chuckles and stooped to pry the bottle from her loose hold.

“I can see that,” he told her teasingly. “I didn’t realise you were that bored. Do you want me to help you pass the time?” For a few moments she seemed to consider his offer before she shook her head.

“Naaaah,” she said with a giggle and she leaned closer to him. “Do you want to know a secret?” she asked in an excited whisper. Agni couldn’t resist leaning closer too, having missed seeing her so relaxed around him, even if it had taken a bottle of strong alcohol to get her to that stage.

“What secret?” he whispered back in a conspiratory tone. Lia raised her finger, as if to underline the importance of what she was about to say, took a dramatically deep breath and declared:

“I can’t tell you! It won’t be a secret then!” She burst into another round of giggles and stumbled to her feet. Agni laughed and wrapped an arm around her waist, steading her against him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and smiled. “But I will dance with you,” she told him sweetly. “I like it when we dance. We’re not fighting then.” Agni’s smile softened and he shifted his hold so that he could softly sway them both with the music.

“I like it too when we are not fighting,” he told her quietly. Lia leaned almost completely against him and closed her eyes.

“Then let’s not fight anymore,” she said sleepily. Agni started to answer but caught himself when he saw she had fallen asleep. With a bittersweet sigh he gathered her in his arms and made his way back to the house they had been given. At least one of them would sleep peacefully tonight.

 

While the couples of the group where having their moments, Azula had wondered to the far end of the square, taking in the sights idly. A few friendly Spirits invited her to dance with them and she joined them for a few songs, catching sight of Sokka and Suki swaying a little further away for a moment, before a rather large Spirit shaped like a radish passed between them and she lost them. Eventually she retreated to the edge of the impromptu dance-floor to catch her breath. A strange jingling noise caught her attention and she turned to see a small collection of gemstones trembling on an earthen dish held by a Spirit that looked like a kindly grandmother.

“My, my!” the Spirit said. “You must have quite the future to make the stones so excited! Would you like to know more?” Azula looked at her surprised but moved closer nonetheless.

“How would I do that?” she asked curiously.

“Just pick a stone dearie. I’ll do the rest.” The Fire princess scrutinised the collection in front of her carefully. A silver-blue gem caught her eye and her hand moved towards it involuntarily. She picked it up and handed to the old Spirit.

“Well, what do we have here? Lightning and travelling and adventures in your past and present and future. You’re a special girl for sure! What else? Oh, I see a nice gentleman too and you’ll be meeting him very soon.” She looked up to smile at Azula who seemed a little overwhelmed by the torrent of words that had met her. “Keep an eye out for the one in blue,” the old Spirit said. “He will give you your dreams if you let him.”

“What do you…” Azula began to ask but trailed off when she realised that the fortune-teller had disappeared before her eyes. Pocketing the stone she walked away, pondering what she had just heard in her mind.

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.

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***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 – 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.