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.