Tag Archives: Earth

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.

The maid and her two lovers

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A maid lived once, much beloved,

Of the ocean and the sun.

Long had the two in combat met

To win her tender favour.

Long had the maid despaired

Over her lovers’ strife.

One summer day, on the pebbled shore,

She stood and so she cried:

‘Oh Ocean, ever-tumbling, ever-lasting,

Much do I love thee!

Your waves embrace me in passion

Your currents lead me on a woman’s dance.

You ebb and flow, you follow

My lady Moon’s commands.

Your burning, salty breath heals

The sickness of my body.

How can I part from thee, beloved,

When all my inner self belongs

To thy passionate demands?’

The Ocean much swelled in pride

To gain such favour from the lovely maid.

But still the maiden cried and turned

Her flowing eyes to the sun.

‘Oh Sun, all-burning, all-revealing,

How can I not love thee?

Your gentle kiss and your caress

Warm my frost-covered skin.

Your smile is favour to my lady Earth’s

Bounty that feeds my kith and kin.

Thy love is distant, yet enduring,

Thy affection steadfast and true.

How can I part from thee, beloved,

Whose favour helps endure the winter months?’

The Sun hears and swelled with pride

At the maiden’s commendation.

But still the maiden despaired

At the fickleness of her own heart;

To have such worthy suitors

And yet unable to love one.

She wept and wept and wept.

Her tears painted her lover Ocean’s

Waters blue.

She wept and wept and wept.

Her tears were dried by her lover Sun’s

Rays as kisses soft.

All day and night the maid lamented

And in the coming dawn,

Her kith and kin came to the coast,

To find no maid; only a tree,

Prickly and gnarled with tears

Streaming from its leaves

And ever kissed by Ocean and Sun.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Crossroads of Destiny

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Author’s note: In which tensions run high, there is an epic showdown and any chance the canon had of rearing its ugly face ever is offered as tribute to Koh the Face Stealer (because he was cool and deserved more screen time!).

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Crossroads of Destiny***

Aang had flown to Chameleon Bay as fast as Appa could. There he didn’t even have to say a word. His worried expression spoke miles and Sokka followed him without questions. They had flown all night at a frantic pace and now they were able to make out Ba Sing Se’s walls at the horizon.

“So, what kind of trouble is Katara in‌?” Sokka finally asked, sounding more curious than worried.

“I don’t know,” Aang admitted. “In my vision, I just knew she needed help.” Sokka sighed.

“It would be nice if your Avatar powers could be just a little more specific from time to time,” he said frustrated. Suddenly a rumble was heard from the ground below them. “What is that‌?” Sokka exclaimed.

 

They leaned over the edge of Appa’s head to see a cloud of dust moving fast towards the wall. Every now and then a flash of green appeared through it. Aang brought Appa down, near the ground. From there they could make out now Toph clearly through the dust.

“Need a ride‌?” Sokka called to her. Toph was startled out of her concentration, stumbled and fell to the ground. Aang and Sokka winced.
Meanwhile, inside the city, Zuko and Iroh had arrived at the palace. They made their way towards the entrance.

“Many times, I imagined myself here, at the threshold of the palace. But I always thought I would be here as a conqueror…instead, we are the Earth Kings personal guests, here to serve him tea. Destiny is a funny thing,” Iroh chuckled. Zuko laughed back. For once he appreciated his uncle’s proverbs.

“It sure is uncle.”

 

After Toph had appropriately punched Sokka for startling her, she sat next to Aang, holding on him tightly as they flew.

“So how did it go with the Guru‌? Did you master the Avatar State‌?” she asked him curious. Aang hesitated and then smiled nervously.

“Yes! It went great with the Guru. I completely mastered the Avatar State!” he finally said and prayed that no one detected his lie.

 

The two firebenders were led to a small antechamber near the actual throne room. Iroh had set everything up and now was pouring himself a cup of tea, seemingly content. Zuko on the other hand felt on edge. Something didn’t feel right.

“What’s taking so long‌?” he finally asked

“Maybe the Earth King overslept,” his uncle guessed.

 

Suddenly several Dai Li walked into the room and circled them.

“Something’s not right,” Zuko whispered.

“It’s tea time,” Azula’s arrogant voice travelled inside the room. Zuko sprung to his feet at the sound of it. “Have you met the Dai Li‌? They’re earthbenders, but they have a killer instinct that is so firebender, I just love it!” she continued. Iroh stood calmly next to his nephew, the full cup still in his hands.

“Did I ever tell you how I got the nickname the ‘Dragon of the West’‌?” he asked his niece.

“I’m not interested in a lengthy anecdote, uncle,” she answered disinterested.

“It’s more of a demonstration really.” Iroh raised the cup to his lips and took a long sip. Zuko next to him saw his movements and smirked. Suddenly he ducked behind the older man’s back, right as Iroh exhaled a torrent of fire at the Dai Li.

 

Zuko blasted a hole in the wall and they ran away, Iroh still breathing fire at the Dai Li. Two agents tried to stop them with their rock gloves and missed. As they reached a dead end Iroh shot a bolt of lightning and jumped out of the hole, to land in a bush shaped like a bear. He looked up to see Zuko standing at the opening.

“Come on. You’ll be fine,” he called. Zuko didn’t move.

“No. I’m tired of running. It’s time I faced Azula!” he called back before disappearing. Iroh facepalmed in frustration.

 

Zuko turned to see the corridor blocked by the Dai Li and his sister.

“You’re so dramatic,” Azula remarked. “What, are you going to do, challenge me to an Agni Kai‌?”

“Yes! I challenge you!” Zuko shot back.

“No thanks!” she answered sweetly. Zuko raised his hands, making an impressive amount of fire to appear and sent it towards Azula. She didn’t make a move to block the attack, as two Dai Li made a shield out of the floor, before launching two stone gloves against him. Zuko stumbled and placed a hand to the floor to steady himself. It turned out to be a bad idea. A second later it was also trapped to the floor and he was struggling in vain to free himself. Azula smirked. Her older brother was always so predictable…

 

Katara had lost track of how long she had been wondering in circles inside the catacombs, under the palace. At first she had tried to find an exit, but it seemed like this place was an endless maze. Thankfully she had discovered a cave with an underground river so she wasn’t completely defenceless. Suddenly a rumble was heard from above. She looked up to see three shadowed figures standing at an opening.

“You’ve got company,” one of them, obviously a Dai Li, said as the third person went tumbling down to the cave. As the entrance sealed again the boy got to his knees and looked up at her surprised. Katara felt her jaw hit the floor.

“Zuko?”

 

The King had told Sokka, Aang and Toph that Katara was with the Kyoshi Warriors, so they had decided to check on their apartment first. Appa landed in front of it and they ran inside. The moment they opened the door, Momo ran to meet them, chattering as he climbed to Aang’s shoulder.

“Momo!” the boy exclaimed happy.

“There’s no one else here,” Toph said suspiciously.

“Katara is in trouble! I knew it!” Aang told Sokka.

“Oh, no!” Sokka said, remembering all the times Katara had been alone and got herself in trouble.

“Wait, someone’s at the door,” Toph said right before a knock was heard. She smiled. “I know who it is. It’s an old friend.” She opened the door to reveal Iroh. “Glad to see you again.”

“I need your help,” Iroh explained.

 

Aang felt his head was ready to burst. What on earth was going on?

“Iroh, what are you doing here?” he finally managed to ask.

“Princess Azula is here in Ba Sing Se,” Iroh explained entering the house. If possible, Aang’s eyes widened even more.

“She must have Katara,” he exclaimed worried.

“She has captured my nephew as well,” Iroh added. Aang frowned and crossed his arms.

“Then we’ll work together to fight Azula, and save Katara and Zuko.”

“Whoa there!” Sokka finally said. “You lost me at, ‘Zuko’.”

“Then we’ll work together to fight Azula, and save Katara and Zuko.”

“Whoa there!” Sokka finally said. “You lost me at, ‘Zuko’.”

“I know how you must feel about my nephew. But believe me when I tell you there is good inside him,” Iroh smiled pleadingly.

“Good inside of him isn’t enough. Why don’t you come back when it’s outside him too, okay‌?” Sokka said stubbornly. Toph raised an eyebrow.

“What’s your problem Snoozles? Zuko travelled with us. He’s part of the group,” she pointed out.

“Toph is right Sokka,” Aang said, speaking over the older boys protests. “Katara is in trouble. All of Ba Sing Se is in trouble. Working together is our best chance.” Said boy sighed. He hated when the others were right.

“I brought someone along who might be able to help us,” Iroh said satisfied.
Outside, a bound and gagged Dai Li was waiting. Toph trapped him between two boulders and Iroh pulled out the gag.

“Azula and Long Feng are plotting a coup,” he said immediately. “They’re going to overthrow the Earth King.”

“My sister!” Sokka said pointing his machete at his face angrily. “Where are they keeping Katara?”

“In the crystal catacombs of old Ba Sing Se, deep beneath the palace.” They didn’t need to hear anything else and they took off for the palace.

 

Zuko leaned against an overgrown crystal while Katara paced around getting more frustrated by the second.

“Why did they throw us in here‌? Oh wait. Let me guess. It’s a trap. So when Aang shows up to rescue us, your sister can finally have him in her little Fire Nation clutches.” She made claws with her fingers. Zuko sighed but said nothing. There was no point in trying to reason with her right now. When Katara didn’t get an answer she continued ranting. “Your sister’s a terrible person, you know that‌? Following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the world’s last hope for peace! But what would she care?‌ She’s the Fire Lord’s daughter. Spreading war and violence and hatred runs in the family.” Zuko’s expression darkened.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped before he could stop himself. Katara’s face reddened.

“I don’t‌! How dare you! You have no idea what this war has put me through. Me personally.” She turned her back to him, not wanting to let Zuko see her cry. “The Fire Nation took my mother away from me.”

 

Zuko snapped his eyes from the ground to the trembling form of the waterbender. She had never told him that before. Walking to her he placed his arms on her shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he said earnestly. He hadn’t meant to bring back painful memories. “That’s something we have in common,” he admitted. Katara stopped crying, surprised from what she had heard. He has never told me that before.

 

Several levels above them Toph raised an eyebrow impressed. She had expected the Dai Li to be lying.

“Well whaddya know. There is an ancient city down there, but it’s deep.” She motioned to the others to stand back and earthbended a small crater in the ground. Sokka looked thoughtful.

“We should split up,” he said. “Aang, you go with Iroh to look for Katara and the angry jerk…no offence,” he added hurriedly remembering that Iroh was indeed the jerk’s uncle.

“None taken,” Iroh assured him.

“And I’ll go with Toph to warn the Earth King about Azula’s coup,” Sokka concluded.

 

The two teams split and went on their ways. As they travelled further underground Aang kept stealing hesitant glance at the old man at his side. Iroh was known for his wisdom. Maybe he could ask him for advice regarding the whole Avatar State problem.

“So, Toph thinks you give pretty good advice. And great tea,” he said to the old man awkwardly.

“The key to both is proper aging. What’s on your mind‌?” Iroh asked him. Aang paused to deepen the tunnel they were in.

“Well, I met with this Guru who was supposed to help me master the Avatar State, and control this great power. But to do it, I had to let go of someone I love, and I just couldn’t,” he admitted a little shamefully.

“Perfection and power are overrated. I think you were very wise to choose happiness and love,” Iroh said calmly. He knew that the young Avatar would eventually have to come to terms with his destiny, but it couldn’t hurt to ease the child’s insecurity for a little while. Aang didn’t seem convinced.

“What happens if we can’t save everyone and beat Azula?‌ Without the Avatar State, what if I am not powerful enough‌?” he asked.

“I don’t know the answer,” Iroh admitted. “Sometimes life is like this dark tunnel. You can’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you just keep moving…” he paused as they entered the beautiful catacombs. “…You will come to a better place,” he concluded.

 

Sokka and Toph entered the throne room running. The coup had already begun, but thankfully the Dai Li hadn’t reached it yet.

“Thank goodness we’re in time!” he said urgently.

“In time for what?” the Earth King asked.

“Yeah, what are you in time for… cutie‌?” Ty Lee asked innocently, somersaulting in front of Sokka.

“Uh, I’m kinda involved with Suki,” he said awkwardly. Ty Lee raised an eyebrow.

“Who?” she asked

 

Toph blew her bangs annoyed and earthbended Ty Lee to the air. The Fire Nation girl yelped and landed on a badger mole statue.

“They’re not the real Kyoshi Warriors!” she explained. The Earth King gasped and Mai smiled grimly.

“Sorry to disappoint you.” She flung three knives at Toph, who created a shield of earth. She then kicked the shield towards Mai, but the knife-thrower jumped out of the way. Once she landed Toph knocked her down, shifting the earth under her feet.

 

Meanwhile Ty Lee snuck up at Sokka, giggling. The Water Tribe warrior heard her and ducked in time to avoid being paralysed. Ty Lee continued to chase him around the room, still laughing.

“Ooo, it’s like we’re dancing together,” she giggle excitedly.

“This fight is over,” Azula suddenly said. She had entered the room unseen and taken the Earth King captive.

 

Sokka and Toph raised their hands in surrender, frowning. Ty Lee jumped between them and disabled them. Momo tried to fly away, but a Dai Li saw him and trapped him in a stone glove. Azula pushed the Earth King away.

“Get them all out of my sight,” she ordered.

 

Katara had calmed down considerably, now that she had vented her bottled-up frustration out.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you before,” she said a little shamefully.

“It doesn’t matter,” Zuko assured her softly. But Katara wanted to explain.

“It’s just that for so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face, and now I realise that Azula’s would be much more suitable.” Zuko drew away from her, a hand covering self-consciously his scar.

“My face. I see,” he murmured. Katara’s eyes widened in realisation.

“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” She said hastily.

“It’s ok,” Zuko said in a flat voice. “I used to think this scar marked me. The mark of the banished prince, cursed to chase the Avatar forever. But lately, you’ve helped me realize that I’m free to determine my own destiny, even if I’ll never be free of my mark.” A thought crossed Katara’s mind.

“Maybe you could be free of it,” she said hesitantly.

 

Zuko spun to meet her eyes.

“What‌?” he asked hopefully.

“I have healing abilities,” the waterbender reminded him. He shook his head.

“It’s a scar,” He said bitterly. “It can’t be healed.” Katara reached and took out the vial her waterbending master had given her before she had left the Northern Water Tribe.

“This is water from the Spirit Oasis at the North Pole,” she explained. “It has special properties, so I have been saving it for something important. I don’t know if it would work, but…” She stepped closer to him, a hand lightly touching the scar. Zuko exhaled softly, before searching her eyes.

“Would you waste it on me?” he asked her.

“I don’t consider it a waste,” Katara said, as if reprimanding him. “But yes, if you want, we can give it a try.”

 

Zuko was torn. To be rid of his scar would be a dream come true. But Azula was here and it was only a matter of time before a battle broke out. A vial of magic water would be of greater use if someone was wounded. So he shook his head.

“Maybe it would be better if you kept it for now, just in case,” he told her. Katara smiled at him. She couldn’t help but feel proud for her boyfriend right now. She hid the vial again.

“Just so you know,” She told him. “I think you look more handsome with the scar.” Zuko smiled back.

“You’re certainly the first,” he told her, leaning in.

“I’m obviously the only girl around using her eyes.” She stood on her tiptoes, in anticipation for the kiss. A kiss that soon grew passionate, as Zuko pulled her body close to his own, his hand playing with her hair.

 

Then an explosion was heard near them. Katara curled instinctively against Zuko, as he embraced her even more tightly. Out of the dust Aang and Iroh appeared, both looking a little bit shocked on finding the two teens wrapped around each other, blushing.

“Aang!” Katara exclaimed, quickly moving away from her boyfriend.  She hurried to the Avatar’s side and hugged him briefly. Iroh was doing the same to Zuko, but the prince was only aware of the airbender glaring at him.

“Aang, I knew you would come,” Katara said smiling to her friend as she drew away.

“Someone had to save you,” he told her smiling proudly. Zuko snorted, but his uncle’s warning glance silenced him.

“Zuko, it’s time we talked,” he said sternly before turning to Katara and Aang. “Go help your other friends. We’ll catch up with you.” Aang hurried back to the tunnel, and Katara followed slowly. At the entrance she turned to look longingly to Zuko. He caught her eyes for a few moments, before turning to his uncle.

 

Iroh seemed to be measuring him, a look Zuko realised he had seen before, whenever an important decision would follow.

“Why uncle?” he asked hurt. Why do you still not trust me?

“You are not the man you used to be, Zuko. You are stronger and wiser and freer than you have ever been. And now you have come to the crossroads of your destiny. It’s time for you to choose. It’s time for you to choose good!” Iroh said. Zuko closed his eyes. There was no decision to be made now. He had made his decision a long time ago. Before he could tell his uncle that, the crystals erupted, trapping the old man. Zuko turned to a fighting position, as Azula and two agents approached.

“I expected this kind of treachery from uncle, but Zuko, prince Zuko…you’re a lot of things, but you’re not a traitor, are you‌?” she said plainly.

“Release him immediately!” he demanded angrily. Azula continued ignoring her brother’s words.

“It’s not too late for you Zuko. You can still redeem yourself.”

“The kind of redemption she offers is not for you,” Iroh interrupted.

“Why don’t you let him decide, uncle?” Azula said annoyed. She could definitely do without his interruptions.‌ “I need you Zuko,” she continued on a softer voice. “I’ve plotted every move of this day. This glorious day in Fire Nation history. And the only way we win is together. At the end of this day, you will have your honour back. You will have your father’s love. You will have everything you want.”

“Zuko, I am begging you, look into your heart and see what it is that you truly want,” Iroh said quietly. Azula waved the agents away and moved towards the tunnel Aang and Katara had disappeared into.

“You’re free to choose,” she called over her shoulder.
As soon as she was out of earshot Zuko turned to his uncle, his face resolute. He conjured a flame in his hand and moved closer to the crystal. With a look of deep concentration he began melting it. Noticing Iroh’s pleasantly surprised expression he smiled grimly.

“You really thought I would betray Katara?” he asked. Before Iroh had a chance to answer, another voice was heard.

“I for one didn’t.” Lia stepped out of the shadows. She had arrived right on time to listen to the confrontation between the two royal siblings. She moved near the two men, motioning to Zuko to step back.

“This is going to take a while,” she said pointing at the half melted crystal.

“You need to go and help the others. I’ll take it from here.” Zuko nodded and hurried after his sister. Right before he disappeared at the tunnel he thought he heard his uncle’s voice.

“I’m really proud of him.”

“Me too,” Lia said,

 

Aang and Katara were running franticly towards the waterfall. They had to stop Azula and the Dai Li before it was too late.

“We’ve got to find Sokka and Toph,” Katara said worried to Aang. Before he could answer blue fire erupted in front of them, forcing them to an abrupt halt. Aang caught most of the impact and was knocked back. Katara called a wave from the river and sent it against Azula. The princess deflected it, but Katara attacked again, this time with a wave that Azula evaporated. Steam covered the battlefield for a few moments.

 

Suddenly two balls of blue fire came from one of the largest crystals. Aang and Katara bended a shield of water. Azula jumped and landed to another rock. Aang sent a shockwave on it, causing the princess to lose her balance. Paling a little, Azula jumped and landed between the waterbender and the Avatar. Taking a defensive stance she waited nervously for their next move.

 

Before anyone had a chance to move a blast of red fire landed between Aang and Azula. They both turned to see Zuko in a firebending stance. He was in the simple clothes he wore under his robe. His gaze slipped from his sister to Aang and finally Katara. The waterbender seemed the only one to have guessed which side he was taking. Ending the standstill, Zuko sent another steam of fire against his shocked sister.

 

At the prison Sokka watched suspiciously through the small window of the cell he, Toph, Momo and the Earth King were in. The corridor was empty.

“See any Dai Li agents nearby‌?” Toph asked.

“Nope,” he answered. “All clear.”

Toph moved from the wall she had been leaning in. She cracked her knuckles once and then metalbended the door, tearing it from its hinges. She ran out, followed by Momo while Sokka dragged the Earth King.

“I’m not leaving without Bosco!” the king cried as they ran.

 

Zuko continued shooting fire at his sister and she continued blocking each shot. Katara noticed Azula standing on some water. She gathered it with a sharp movement, causing the princess to trip and lose her balance. Zuko stole an impatient glance towards the tunnel. Where were Iroh and Lia?

“We need to get out of here!” Aang said nervously. The other two nodded and started to slowly back towards the waterfall.

 

Before they had a chance to move much the ground erupted under their feet. Katara was flung to the crystals behind them and knocked out cold. Zuko made a movement to attack his sister, but Aang stopped him.

“No! Go check on Katara!” Zuko opened his mouth to retort and promptly closed it as they were forced to duck another attack from the Dai Li that had just arrived. Without another comment he raced on Katara’s side. Aang focused again on Azula.

 

The princess smiled smugly and launched another attack to the Avatar. Aang airbended himself out of danger and landed behind her. He tried to surprise Azula with a waterwhip, but she dodged with her fire and attacked again. Aang made the crystals in front of him rise and shielded himself. Stealing a glance he saw Zuko standing in front of Katara, blasting away the rocks Dai Li sent against them.

 

Katara came back to consciousness and immediately called water to her forming a ring of watery tendrils around her and Zuko. He studied her stance for a few seconds before turning his back on her and mimicking. A second ring with eight fiery tentacles joined the one made of water forcing the Dai Li to back away a few steps. However they kept coming and the teens were tiring quickly.

“There’s too many,” Aang whispered desperately. Suddenly Guru Pathik’s words rang to his ears. The only way, is to let her go. The Avatar closed his eyes sadly.

“I’m sorry Katara.”

Turning his back to everyone and bended a small tent of crystals around him. He sat down and started mediating. Outside the battle came once again to a standstill. Azula took involuntary a step back as the small crystal tent began to glow. Katara smiled relieved as Aang hovered in the Avatar State. It was a short-lived relief. A flash of lightning shined and Aang writhed in pain as Azula’s shot hit him in the back.

Katara felt the tears run freely down her face as she watched her friend fall helplessly. She gathered all her water in a massive wave and holding Zuko tightly by the arm she sped towards the rapidly falling boy. Zuko caught Aang mid-air and passed him hurriedly to Katara as he stood between them and his sister and agents.

 

Before Azula had a chance to move a fireblast landed in front of her as Iroh and Lia appeared in the cave.

“You’ve got to get out of here! I’ll hold them off as long as I can!” Iroh called at the teenagers before attacking the Dai Li. Lia was already fighting with Azula. Deflecting a blast she looked inside the younger girl’s eyes searching for something, anything that would prove her theory wrong. Fierce gold glared back at her.

“You hope to stare me to defeat?” Azula smiled grimly. Lia blinked twice. She had been concentrating so hard she had forgotten she was actually fighting. Steadily she pushed the Fire princess away from the waterfall where Katara and Zuko were struggling to get Aang.

“No,” she said coldly to the other girl. “I’m giving you a warning. Don’t you dare come near my brother again.” A flash passed from Azula’s eyes and for a moment Lia saw a pair of much more ruthless and ancient golden eyes glare back at her.

“Your brother…” the princess whispered in strange voice. But before anything else could happen Lia had raced to the other end of the cave (in a speed that would challenge even Aang) and was flying after her friends. She gave one last look behind her shoulder to see Iroh surrendering.

 

They had stopped for as little time as possible to their apartments to gather some basic necessities. Zuko had nearly raced back to the catacombs when he realised that his uncle had been captured. It had taken Lia, Toph and a Katara close to tears to dissuade him from going. All of them where now on Appa, leaving the fallen city of Ba Sing Se behind them. Katara laid Aang gently on Appa’s back and took out the vial with the Spirit water. She sent a small guilty look at Zuko next to her who was sitting at the front, steering Appa. He had declined her offer fearing something like that would have happened. Sighing she reached and placed the small amount of water on Aang’s wound. It shone brighter than she had ever seen before as the healing took effect. Aang’s tattoos glowed and he opened his eyes for a few seconds. Katara smiled down at him, relieved he was still with them. As Aang fell back to unconsciousness she shifted him so he could safely rest, his head on her lap, while rested against Zuko. The firebender wrapped an arm around her, pulling her closer to him. The last thing Katara heard before sleep claimed her too was the Earth King’s words.

“The Earth Kingdom…has fallen.”

***End of Book 2 – Earth***

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Guru

Standard

Author’s note: In which there is calm before the inevitable storm, someone is in denial, Toph is even more awesome than usual and someone ominous makes a comeback.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Guru***

The next morning Katara shifted contently under the blanket. She had had a good night’s sleep and for some reason her bed was pleasantly warmer than usual. Opening her eyes she smiled, seeing Zuko asleep next to her. Zuko! Her eyes widened as the memories of the previous night kicked in. They must have fallen asleep next to each other. She blushed crimson. Iroh and Lia would tease them to their deaths…She frowned. Where exactly was that Spirit? Knowing her she wouldn’t have moved from Zuko’s side if she was in the city. Zuko shifted next to her and she lay completely still, afraid she might wake him. When he settled back into his slumber, Katara stood and straightened her clothing. She left the room to look for Iroh, determined to get some answers.

 

The old man was making tea in the kitchen. He looked up from his pot when he heard Katara entering.

“Ah, good morning my dear!” he welcomed her, smiling brightly.

“Good morning Iroh,” she answered a little awkwardly. He seemed to understand.

“When I came to check on you and Zuko you were sleeping so peacefully, I didn’t have the heart to wake you,” Iroh explained. “Would you stay for breakfast?”

“I would love to,” Katara smiled. Iroh rubbed his hands excitedly.

“Great! I wanted to try this new recipe and now I have an excuse to do so!”

 

Soon enough the overly sweet smell of whatever Iroh was making drew Zuko out of his room. Rubbing his eyes groggily he asked:

“What’s that smell?”  Iroh looked at him hesitantly.

“It’s jook,” he explained. “I’m sure you wouldn’t like it.” Zuko leaned over the pot and took a deep breath.

“Actually, it smells delicious. I’d love a bowl, uncle.” He smiled and filled a bowl. Turning to the table he saw Katara studying him and his smile only widened. He placed the bowl in front of her, before serving one more for himself.

“Thank you Your Highness,” Katara said, smiling too. She had never seen this side of Zuko before and she really liked it. She liked it even better when he kissed her on the cheek. Iroh looked at all this with a raised eyebrow.

“Now that your fever is gone, you seem different somehow,” he said suspiciously. Zuko shrugged.

“It’s a new day. We’ve got a new apartment, new furniture, and in a few days it’s the grand opening of your new tea shop. Things are looking up uncle.” Besides, he added in his head, Katara and I made up!

 

A few days later Katara found herself wondering, for the umpteenth time, why Sokka would even consider staying in Ba Sing Se when he could go to Chameleon Bay. The war meetings she had to attend in his stead were long and boring, making her feel all stiff when she finally left the room. Besides, her only contribution was to help read some of her brother’s almost incomprehensible notes. Most of the time she could just watch as the generals discussed amongst themselves the strategy. Allowing herself to daydream, she thought of her life the last few days. She had all but moved into Zuko’s and Iroh’s place, being there most of the time. Much to the two teens’ glee Iroh had been hustling and bustling at the teashop, adding the finishing touches and left them to their own devices.

 

-Flashback:-

“I have to go down to the teashop children,” Iroh said, “When I’m back I’d like to find everything the way I left it.” He winked at the blushing teens. Not that he didn’t trust them, but you can never be too cautious.

“Of course uncle,” Zuko assured him glaring. What did he think they would be doing? As soon as the door closed both he and Katara breathed a sigh of relief.

“What does he imagine we’d do?” Zuko muttered, still glaring at the door. “Burn the whole building?” Katara giggled. She seemed to be laughing all the time lately.

“We could always go out you know,” she said cheerfully. “It’s a lovely day.” Zuko shrugged.

“As long as it doesn’t involve tea,” he mumbled before taking his girlfriend’s hand. “You know this place better than I do,”hHe told her. “Got any good suggestions?”

-End Flashback-

 

Katara smiled fondly at the memory. They had found a small quiet park and spent the day there, walking through the paths and just enjoying each other’s company. She was pulled out of her musings by General Hao’s voice.

“General Fong’s base will serve as the launching point of the attack,” he was explaining. “In exactly two months, the army and navy will invade the Fire Nation on the Day of Black Sun.” To illustrate his point he earthbended a few unit markers across the table, placing them directly in front of the Fire Nation capital. Momo decided that he didn’t like the arrangement and jumped on the map, scattering pieces all over the place.

“Or we could send in Momo to do some damage,” Katara chuckled as the lemur continued shuffling around the table. “Cause the…” she trailed off when she noticed the expressions on the generals’ faces. She sobered quickly. “Sorry.”

 

Hao snapped the pieces back in place wordlessly. Momo shrieked frightened and raced back to Katara’s shoulder.

“All we need is the Earth King’s seal in order to execute the plan.” He earthbended the scrolls with the plans towards Katara’s side of the table. The waterbender took them and stood up.

“I’ll get these scrolls to him right away. Thank you, General Hao.” She bowed before leaving the room with a quiet sigh of relief.

***

While Katara was having Ba Sing Se all to herself, Aang had just reached the Eastern Air Temple. Once upon a time this was the most populated of the Air Temples. But now… He spotted the figure of an ascetic, old man and guessing that was the guru he landed Appa nearby. He climbed the stairs to the small balcony the old man was apparently meditating on.

“Um, hello?” he called uncertainly. “You’re guru Pathik, right? The person who attached the note to Appa’s horn?”

“Indeed. I was a spiritual brother of your people, and a personal friend of monk Gyatso,” guru Pathik said without opening his eyes. Aang sat in front of him.

“In your note, you said you could teach me to gain control of the Avatar State. How?” he asked.

“You must gain balance within yourself before you can bring balance to the world. And the first step to gaining balance begins with this,” guru Pathik explained holding out a simple, wooden cup. “Drink up!” Aang took it hesitantly and took a long swallow. He spitted it out immediately.

“It tastes like onion and banana juice!” he exclaimed disgusted.

“That’s because it is,” Pathik said cheerfully. Aang sighed again. This was going to be a long week.

***

Aang was not the only one in an awkward situation. In a crossroads somewhere outside Ba Sing Se a strange carriage had been stilled for at least half an hour.

“I believe we need to go right!” Master Yu insisted for the thousandth time.

“What are you talking about?” Xin Fu scoffed. “The Bei Fong Estate’s this way.”

“I’m quite certain you’re mistaken.” Before Master Yu had time to add anything else, a loud banging was heard from the metal box they had been carrying.

“Hey! Can you two old ladies quit your bickering for a second? I gotta go to the bathroom!” Toph called urgently. Master Yu looked uneasy.

“Oh. Okay, but make it quick.” He stood and turned to open the cage. Xin Fu grabbed his arm.

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked frustrated. Master Yu’s eyes widened in realisation.

“Oh very sneaky Toph! Nice try, but you can’t trick me.” He bragged sitting down again.

“Let me out of here, so I can kick both your butts!” Toph screamed angrily. Xin Fu punched the wall of the box.

“Quit your banging! You might think you’re the greatest earthbender in the world, but even you can’t bend metal.” He called as the wagon began again. Inside the box Toph frowned.

Is that what you think?

***

The teashop had come out nicely, Zuko decided. Knowing his uncle’s love for curious, useless things he had been kind of worried, but the outcome was definitely better than he had dared to hope. Iroh, standing next to him, suddenly spoke:

“Who thought when we came to this city as refugees that I’d end up owning my own tea shop. Follow your passion Zuko, and life will reward you,” he advised. Zuko smiled cheerfully.

“Congratulations uncle,” he said. The last few days he had been on a ridiculously good mood, as Lia would have said. He felt a slight pang of loss at her absence, but suppressed it.

“I’m very thankful,” Iroh said.

“You deserve it,” Zuko said, a hint of his old bossiness in his voice. “The Jasmine Dragon will be the best tea shop in the city.” Iroh shook his head.

“No, I’m thankful because you decided to share this special day with me,” he said putting a hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “It means more than you know.” Zuko hugged him. Life was good at last.

“Now let’s make these people some tea,” he said enthusiastically, although inwardly he was wincing. Might as well do what he wants me to do for once.

“Yes! Let’s make some tea!” his uncle practically skipped to the kitchen to begin brewing.

***

Guru Pathik had guided Aang through unlocking the first three chakras successfully. Aang was beginning to wonder what the difficulty on the whole thing was. During the pep talk the older man had given him he had thought the whole process would be next to impossible. They were now inside a partially destroyed shrine, sitting under the watchful gaze of an Air Nun.

“The fourth chakra is located in the heart. It deals with love, and is blocked by grief. Lay all your grief out in front of you,” guru Pathik instructed him. Aang closed his eyes and his mind was transported to an endless plain covered with fog. Opening his eyes he saw Monk Gyatso and the rest of the Air Nomads appearing in front of him. Aang had barely time to smile at the vision before they disappeared in to thin air.

“You have indeed felt a great loss. But love is a form of energy, and it swirls all around us. The Air Nomads love for you has not left this world. It is still inside of your heart, and is reborn in the form of new love,” he heard Pathik’s voice. The cloud that used to be the Air Nomads took the form of Katara and Toph, dressed up for Earth King’s party. “Let the pain flow away,” Pathik said softly. Watching the young airbender’s face relax he smiled. “Very good!” he praised him.

“Can I have some onion banana juice please?” Aang asked wiping a few tears away.

***

Toph had been testing her idea for a few hours now with no success. She could feel the tiny pieces of Earth in the metal, but couldn’t get them to respond to her orders. Taking a deep breath, she stomped her foot against the whole once again.

“Come on metal…. budge,” she ordered through her teeth. Punching the wall again she managed to create a huge dent on the wall. Feeling her achievement she smirked triumphantly. “Whoo! Toph, you rule!” she praised herself before attacking her prison once again.

***

Katara loved her freedom as she walked through the streets of the Upper Ring, putting as much distance between the building where the generals were and herself as possible. As she passed in front of the Jasmine Dragon she paused.

“What do you say Momo? A cup of tea before we get back to the king?” she wondered aloud. Stepping inside she smiled at the waitress at the door. “Table for two please,” she said politely, while looking around for her boyfriend.

 

Zuko was standing near another table, obviously taking orders. He turned to his uncle’s general direction and called:

“Uncle, I need two jasmine, one green and one lychee.”

“I’m brewing as fast as I can!” Iroh called back cheerfully. Katara took a seat on a table near the counter, waiting for someone to come and take her order. Zuko saw her as he poured the freshly brewed tea on a pot and flashed her a grin. She smiled back as he hurriedly served his customers and came at her table.

“What would you like?” he asked in his most fake-polite voice. Katara stifled a giggle.

“A cup of today’s special for me and a few leechee nuts for my little friend.” Momo jumped on Zuko’s arms at the mention of his favourite treat. The boy laughed and petted the lemur.

“Sorry Momo, you’ll have to wait,” he said, handing him back to Katara. “I’ll be right back,” he told her.

 

Indeed, five minutes later they were sharing a pot of tea, since Iroh had decided to give his nephew a small break. Katara was describing how Momo had messed the generals’ map and how these men just seemed so unemotional to her.

“I mean honestly, they didn’t even say anything! They just glared,” she said. “Do they ever do anything else?”

“Aside from plotting? No,” Zuko told her, remembering the one war meeting he had attended. His expression darkened a bit and Katara looked at him surprised. He seemed fine a moment ago.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked tentatively. Zuko shook his head a few times and shook his head.

“Maybe some other time, when no one can overhear us,” he said and managed a smile. “You shouldn’t be talking about top secret meetings in teashops though.”

“I know I can trust you, to keep them secret,” Katara answered clamly, taking a sip of her tea.

***

Aang leaned back to admire the night sky over his head. Away from Ba Sing Se’s lights the stars could be seen clearly. He focused his attention again to the old man in front of him.

“This is the last chakra isn’t it?” he asked.

“Yes. Once you open this chakra, you will be able go in and out of the Avatar State at will. And when you are in the Avatar State, you will have complete control and awareness of all your actions.” Aang smiled in anticipation.

“Let’s do this.”

“The thought chakra is located at the crown of the head. It deals with pure cosmic energy and is blocked by earthly attachment. Meditate on what attaches you to this world.”

 

Aang closed his eyes and in his mind Katara appeared immediately. She smiled at him as Pathik continued talking.

“Now, let all of those attachments go. Let them flow down the river. Forgotten.”

Aang opened his eyes shocked.

“What? Why would I let go of Katara? I….I….I love her.” The moment the words left his mouth they felt wooden. Nevertheless he didn’t think over it.

“Learn to let her go, or you cannot let the pure cosmic energy flow in from the universe,” the Guru explained. Aang frowned.

“Why would I choose cosmic energy over Katara? How could it be a bad thing that I feel an attachment to her? Three chakras ago, that was a good thing.”

“You must learn to let go,” Pathik insisted firmly. Aang opened his mouth to retort, but the Guru raised his hand. “Let me tell you a story: Years ago a young Spirit came to this temple. A hard decision lay ahead of her.”

“What kind of decision?” Aang asked curiously.

“She had to decide between her attachment to her world and what she felt was right to do. We had some long discussions before she came to her decision.”

“And what did she decide?” Pathik looked at the young Avatar sternly.

“To do the right thing and let go.” Aang looked away, deep in thought.

***

Katara entered the throne room cheerfully. The newly arrived Kyoshi Warriors guarded the now-empty throne.

“Hi girls!” she greeted them cheerfully. “Once you are done with your shift, you should really go try that new teashop, “The Jasmine Dragon”. Suki, you must remember Zuko, he and his uncle are running it. Once the rest of the gang is back, maybe we could do a gathering there.” She looked around. “Where is the Earth King? We need to tell him that the orders for the invasion are ready.” The three girls stood up.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be sure to let him know.” Katara’s eyes widened, recognizing the voice of the Fire Nation princess. Before she had a chance to react, Ty Lee jumped behind her and paralyzed her. Katara fell helpless to the ground. She could only hear in horror as Azula said:

“So, Zu Zu’s in the city too. I think it’s time for a family reunion.”

***

Aang looked up resolute.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t let go of Katara.” Guru Pathik shook his head.

“Aang, to master the Avatar State, you must open all the chakras. Surrender yourself.” The Avatar bit his lip, torn. Then he took a deep breath. He knew he had at least to try.

“Okay, I’ll try,” he said hesitantly.

 

A vision of a starry sky appeared in front of his eyes. The stars were moving around him at blurring speeds as the image of Katara appeared smiling and glided away. The stars stood on their position.

“Let the pure cosmic energy flow,” Pathik advised.

In front of Aang the Avatar Spirit appeared, along with trail of light connected him with his current incarnation. As Aang started walking towards him, his tattoos began to glow. He entered a sphere the Spirit created out of the spiritual energy surrounding them.

 

Suddenly another vision crossed his eyes. Katara was locked up in a small room, crying for help. Determined Aang leapt out of the sphere and ran to her. Thus he broke the connection and snapped rapidly out of his trance.

“Katara is in danger!” he cried, jumping to his feet. “I have to go.”

“No Aang!” Guru Pathik called alarmed. “By choosing attachment, you have locked the chakra!” Aang froze shocked. “If you leave now you won’t be able to go into the Avatar State at all!” Aang stood for a moment and then he ran to Appa, never once looking back. Pathik watched him go mournfully.

“You were right,” he whispered. “He wasn’t ready.”

“I wish I was able to be of more help,” a feminine voice said from his side. “I still haven’t repaid you for your guidance.” The old man turned to the Spirit.

“It was an honour to assist you,” he said humbly. “But why you came back here? It certainly wasn’t to warn me about the Avatar’s immaturity.” She shook her head.

“No,” she admitted. “The tranquillity of this place had always helped me to clear my thoughts. I learned lately some really interesting facts that seem to tie together in a rather unexpected way. Just by breathing the air here my thoughts now are clearer.”  She walked to end of the plateau. “But I need to return to Ba Sing Se too. I fear I’ve been gone for too long.” Guru Pathik shook his head in understanding.

“I hope I will see you again child.” She bowed in respect to the old man.

“I hope so too.” Then she disappeared.

***

Xin Fu was finding his patience unravelling rapidly. The brat’s whining had stopped, but it had given itself to a pounding that began and ended several times. Suddenly a loud clang was heard and the whole wagon shook. He stopped abruptly, waking his fellow traveller and they rushed to the back of the wagon.

“It’s another one of her tricks!” Master Yu said as they gaped to the empty cage.

“There’s a giant hole in the box. How’s that a trick?” Xin Fu retorted annoyed.

“It’s not!” Toph was heard behind them. “It’s the real deal!”

 

The two men turned to see the petite form of the earthbender standing a little away. With a few earthbending moves she threw them inside the cage, before bending it shut. Jumping on the roof of it she stomped her foot.

“I am the greatest earthbender in the world! Don’t you two dunderheads ever forget it!” Diving to the ground again she started running back to the direction of Ba Sing Se, the ground also moving to give her extra speed.

***

The teashop had closed for the day, so Zuko was surprised to hear feet approaching the front door as he cleaned up. A well-dressed man appeared and walked towards Iroh.

“A message from the royal palace.” He said respectfully. Worried Iroh scanned through the lines, paused and then read it again.

“I…I can’t believe it,” he managed to say.

“What is it uncle?” Zuko asked him worried too.

“Great news! We’ve been invited to serve tea to the Earth King!” he practically skipped back to the kitchen triumphantly. Zuko watched him go with a slight smile. He didn’t remember seeing his uncle so happy since the Siege of Ba Sing Se. It was definitely a wonderful turn of events they had come to this city.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The Earth King

Standard

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

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

*** The Earth King ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” Toph shouted scared.

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

“Sorry!” she called over her shoulder.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

 

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

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

 *          *          *

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

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

“A little warning next time!” he whined.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He has a good point,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Avatar?‌ You’re the Avatar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Katara…” he whispered before passing out again.

 

 *          *          *

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

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

“What do you mean?” she asked.

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

 

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

 *          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“First time flying?” Toph asked him flatly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well. You have my support.”

 

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

“Your Majesty. I apologize for the interruption.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What…what’s happening‌?” he asked.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Toph approached Aang blushing.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Lake Laogai

Standard

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

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Lake Laogai***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sokka and Katara were playing cards when Aang returned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Ju Dee,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re lying,” she said simply.

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

“He’s not lying,” she announced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out in the street Sokka had already began planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Dai Li‌!” Katara said alarmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, just an idea!” he said nervously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it! Lake Laogai.”

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll help you if you help me.”

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I not‌?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I must do it.

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

Katara hates me.

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

But…

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Aang,” He said quietly.

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

 

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

“This isn’t good,” She said gravely.

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

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

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

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

“He’s lying.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Appa!” Aang called delighted.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Flashback-:

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

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

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

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

-End Flashback-

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

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

 

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

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

Standard

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

***Tales of Ba Sing Se***

The Tale of Toph, Katara and Lia

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

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

“I’m ready,” she said groggily.

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

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

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

“Do I have to?” she whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s great!” Katara breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks!” Toph answered happily.

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

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

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

“Good one!” her friends praised her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am?” Toph asked disbelievingly.

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

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

The Tale of Zuko:

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

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

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

“What?” Zuko exclaimed horrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – The King’s Ball

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Author’s note: In which the plot rears its head again but the shipping remains strong, Sokka is incredibly oblivious and Zhao’s Earth Kingdom counterpart enters fashionably late.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The King’s Ball***

The gaang had arrived in Ba Sing Se to find things much more different than they expected. That was what Katara was thinking one morning during their fourth week in the city. Everyone was discouraged to say the least, waiting impatiently for Ju Dee to tell them when they would finally see the King. Their hostess on the other hand avoided the subject like the plague. Despite their disappointment they had started making a routine of their everyday life. Aang would train with Toph, and less regularly with Katara. Sokka made plans for an invasion, improving them with each revision. What Katara was most thankful for though, was that they didn’t ask her too many questions about her absences. She would sneak out and go on the Lower Ring almost every day, helping at the teashop, walking around the streets with Zuko or simply sitting with him on the roof talking about whatever came to their mind.

 

The air was warm when, still half-asleep she went outside the house to gather the newspaper. The night she had stayed after the teashop had closed to help tidy the place and had returned home very tired. She took a look at the title of the paper and immediately felt sleep leave her mind. She rushed back inside.

“I’ve got it!” she said excited. “I know how we’re going to see the Earth King!”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Toph asked. “One doesn’t just pop in on the Earth King,” she mimicked Judy.

“The King is having a party next week for his pet bear,” Katara explained.

“You mean platypus bear?” Aang asked.

“No, it’s just says bear,” Katara said uneasily.

“Certainly you mean his pet skink bear,” Sokka guessed.

“Or his armadillo bear?” Toph offered.

“Just bear,” Katara insisted.

“This place is weird,” Toph decided a little creeped out.

“The palace will be packed,” Katara continued with her train of thought. “We can sneak in with the crowd.”

“Won’t work,” Toph tossed dismissively.

“Why not?” the older girl asked her.

“Well no offence to you simply country folk, but a real society crowd would spot you a mile away. You’ve got no manners,” Toph concluded.

“Excuse me?’ Katara asked offended. “I’ve got no manners? You’re not exactly lady Fancy-Fingers.” As if to prove it, Toph burped.

“I learnt proper society behaviour and chose to leave it,” the earthbender explained. “You never learnt anything. And frankly, it’s a little too late now.”

“Aha!” Sokka suddenly exclained. “But you learnt it. You could teach us!”

“Yeah, I’m mastering every element,” Aang added. “How hard can manners be?” He shot standing and wrapped a curtain around him like a cloak. “Good evening mister Sokka Watertribe;” he began bowing respectfully. “Miss Katara Watertribe; Lord Momo of the Momo Nation; Your Momoness.” Sokka joined the game talking in a false grown-up voice.

“Avatar Aang how do you go on?” they began to bow to each other until they crashed their heads together.

“Katara might be able to pull it off, but I’m not so sure about you two,” Toph said reluctantly.

“But I feel so fancy,” Sokka insisted rubbing his head.

“Besides,” Toph continued, “we lack two very important things: invitations and escorts.”

“What do you mean escorts?” Katara asked her surprised.

“It’s the fancy word for a date,” Toph explained sighing. “We need a least one boy who already knows this stuff.”

“And where are we supposed to find one?” Sokka asked frowning. Katara’s face brightened.

“I know!” she said rushing to the door. “I’ll be back later. Toph can you begin teaching them?”

“Okay,” the little earthbender said with a sly smile. “Just because I want to see who your date will be,” she called after the waterbender. Katara slammed the door feeling her cheeks heating up.

 

“…And that’s how things are.” Katara concluded putting down her cup. The teashop was closed today, so she had met with Zuko and Lia in their apartment. Iroh had left the three teens on their own, after brewing them a pot of tea. Lia had a thoughtful expression on her face.

“So what’s your idea?” she asked the other girl.

“Well, I was wondering if you could help me find some invitations,” Katara said hesitantly. Lia smiled standing up.

“No problem. I’ll drop by one of these days to give them to you.” She went over to the door and turned her head. “Three invitations for pairs, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” Katara told her with a grateful smile. Once the Spirit was out of earshot Zuko turned to his girlfriend surprised.

“Why three pairs?” he asked her. She looked at him awkwardly.

“I was wondering if you could come too. Like Toph said we need a boy that will know what he’s doing. And you are a prince. Don’t tell me that you don’t know about these things.” Zuko shifted uneasily.

“I do,” he admitted. “But what will Sokka or Aang say…” he caught sight of her expression. “What?” he asked suspiciously.

“Remember at the ferry when Aang left earlier than us?” Zuko nodded. “Well he happened to wake up before me and…” she took a deep breath. “He saw us holding hands in our sleep.”

“How did he take it?”

“Better than I had thought,” Katara said, recalling the Avatar’s reaction. “But he told me to tell you that if you hurt me, not even Lia will be able to save you.” Zuko laughed.

“If I did hurt you, I would go myself and ask him to punish me.”

“So this means you’ll come?” Katara looked at him pleadingly. “Please.”

 

Zuko looked at her, biting his lip thoughtfully. He was having a hard time saying no when she was looking at him like this. At last he sighed.

“Fine,” he grumbled admitting his defeat. Katara kissed him enthusiastically.

“I guess Lia will come too,” Zuko said. “Someone will have to keep an eye on Sokka.”

“You’re right!” Katara laughed. “If she could keep him under control when he was drunk, I don’t see why she wouldn’t be able to do so during the party.” She stood up.

“Won’t you stay a little more?” Zuko asked her disappointed.

“I’m sorry, but I need to get back.” Katara didn’t sound very enthusiastic about the concept. “Will you walk me to the station?” she asked him.

“As if I wouldn’t.” Zuko said under his breath standing as well. The waterbender didn’t hear him. Smiling to himself he moved silently behind her and scooped her in his arms laughing when she yelped surprised.

“Put me down Zuko!” Katara ordered him trying to sound stern and to stifle her giggles at the same time.

“What will you give me to do so?” the price asked her still laughing.

“Nothing. Put me down!” she told him stubbornly.

“Then I won’t.” he answered sounding equally stubborn. Katara sighed, knowing he was more than capable to keep holding her like that for a while.

Fine!” she grumbled. “What do you want?” Zuko paused seemingly thinking about it.

“How about one more kiss?” he asked her finally.

“Okay,” Katara sighed. Zuko put her down and twirled her to face him, still not letting her go. Katara kissed him quickly on the lips. Then she looked at him expectantly.

“What?” he asked her.

“Won’t you let me go?” she asked him frustrated.

“You didn’t give me a kiss.”

“What? I did!”

“No you didn’t”

“Did!”

“Didn’t”

“Did!”

“Didn’t!”

“Di…” before Katara had a chance to continue their banter Zuko pressed his lips on hers. Like every other time they kissed she immediately relaxed and kissed him back. Suddenly they heard the door open. They broke away hastily right as Iroh entered the room winking at the two flushed teens.

“I thought I heard you two arguing but apparently I was mistaken,” he said acting as if nothing happened.

“I…I was just leaving,” Katara stammered.

“Until next time then, my dear,” the old man told her, completely ignoring the glare he was receiving from Zuko. As the waterbender left the house, he wordlessly followed her slamming the door behind him.

 

When outside they both breathed a sigh of relief. Iroh wouldn’t reprimand them, but his teasing would be worse. Zuko and Katara walked towards the train station chatting and comparing their lives so far. Before they entered the station Katara dragged Zuko into a nearby alley. There she kissed him fully on the lips. When they broke away she gave him a Happy now? look. Zuko laughed.

“I’ll try to come tomorrow,” Katara told him smiling herself.

“I want you to tell me how exactly Toph is teaching them. Too bad I can’t see this myself.”

 

Zuko’s words rang in her ears when she heard a loud crash as she opened the door to their house. Sokka was on the ground, a few heavy-looking books next to him.

“What happened here?” the waterbender asked surprised. Her brother looked at her helplessly.

“Toph says we must learn to dance without dropping these books from our head,” he whined. “It’s impossible!”

“No, it just needs good balance,” Aang defended his earthbending teacher. Katara raised an eyebrow.

“I suppose you woudln’t have much of a problem with it,” she commented helping Sokka to his feet.

“Let’s see how you will do Sugar Queen.” Toph handed her a few tomes. Katara balanced them on her head and took a few steps cautiously. The books didn’t fall. Toph nodded approvingly.

“That’s how it’s done,” she said. “Did you have any luck with the invitations?”

“Yes,” Katara answered trying a few dance moves. “We’ll have them one of these days.”

“And your date?” Toph insisted.

“My escort,” Katara corrected her. “I took care of that too.”

“Then we just have a week for you to learn society manners and to find dresses.”

“And something for the boys to wear,” Katara added. “Let’s go shopping tomorrow morning.”

“Okay.” Toph agreed. The prospect of shopping didn’t thrill her. “Now let’s continue with our lesson…”

 

– A week later: –

Sokka and Aang were dressed in the stuffy, formal outfits the girls had picked for them. They had been waiting for Katara and Toph for almost an hour now.

“Katara what’s taking you so long?” Sokka finally yelled frustrated.

“Relax Sokka,” Aang advised him although he felt a little impatient himself. “Girls always take their time to get ready.”

“How much time? We’ll be late!” A door opened behind the stressed Warrior. Katara and Toph appeared wearing formal Earth Kingdom light green kimonos. They had styled their hair with flowers and had even put some make-up on.

“What do you think?” Katara asked as they stepped into the light. Aang was gaping at them. Who knew that Toph would look so pretty in a formal dress?

“Wow!” he told her. “You look…”

“You’re date’s here,” Toph cut him talking to Katara.

“What date?” Sokka asked alarmed.

 

Katara rushed to the door. Outside Lia was waiting wearing a dress similar to Katara’s, only hers was dark green and beside her, stood Zuko looking incredibly nervous. Lia moved inside, casually greeting everyone, while the secret couple halted at the entrance. “You look beautiful,” Zuko told her nervously. Why am I feeling so nervous? he wondered, a little annoyed with himself. Katara blushed lightly.

“Thanks,” she said kissing him on the cheek. They moved inside. Lia must have just finished explaining why they were here, because Toph was laughing at Sokka’s expense. Sokka’s frown deepened when he saw Zuko.

“Why isn’t he wearing the same clothes as me and Aang?” he asked looking accusingly at the Prince.

“Because he, unlike you two, doesn’t need his sister to pick a decent outfit for him to wear,” Lia said not bothering to turn and look at him.

 

Of course this meant that Sokka was grumbling under his breath for the whole way to the palace. Lia felt like she was back at the desert. At least, she noted satisfied, Aang is staring at Toph and not Katara. In front of the gates there was a reasonable queue of guests.

“See?” Sokka glared at his sisters. “I told you we’d be late!”

“Oh, relax Sokka!” Katara snapped at him. “There’s no point in being the first to arrive.”

 

It took them twenty minutes to get inside the palace. When they arrived at the hall where the party was being held, they felt their mouths drop. It wasn’t just the size of the room, which was an impressive one anyway; it was mainly how many people had been invited. Many were sitting at the huge table that was placed in the middle, but still the room was almost packed. Aang looked around discouraged.

“How are we going to find the Earth King in here?”

“We’d better split up and look for him,” Sokka suggested.

“But we don’t even know what he looks like!” Katara reminded him. Sokka shrugged.

“You know: royal, flowing robe, fancy jewellery…” they took a look around them.

“That could be anyone!” Aang said.

“I don’t think the King is here yet,” Zuko said thoughtfully.

“Why would you say that?” Toph asked him.

“There are still guests arriving,” the prince explained. “If here it is anything like the Fire Nation, the guests arrive much earlier than their host. We’ll just have to wait.”

“And what do you suggest we do while waiting?” Sokka asked dismissively.

“We could dance,” Aang said. He bowed to Toph. “May I have this dance?” he asked her formally.

“It would be an honour,” she answered at the same tone. They walked away at the dance floor, with Zuko and Katara following right after them. Sokka looked worried at Lia.

“I hope you don’t want us to dance,” he told her. She smiled reassuringly.

“No, I’m no good at this type of dancing.” She looked around casually. “Why don’t we find a nice quite place to sit? All this noise is getting to my head.”

 

They found a quiet table near the doors that were now closed. Once the dance was over, the two pairs approached them. Aang took a jug and a few glasses and served everyone. Toph’s eyes widened suddenly.

“Wait!” she said in disbelief. “What is…?” Before she had time to finish her sentence, Judy appeared.

“What are you doing here?” she asked them worried. “You all have to leave immediately or we’ll all be in terrible trouble!”

“Not until we see the King,” Sokka said firmly.

“You don’t understand,” Judy said gravely. “You must go!” She tried to push him towards the door, but only managed to make him bump into Aang. Aang lost his step and the jug he was holding overturned and splashed a lady that was near them. The woman turned shocked to see who did it.

“Sorry! No, don’t shout!” Aang pleaded sending hastily an air current to dry her.

“The Avatar!” the woman exclaimed giddily. “I didn’t know the Avatar would be here!” Many heads turned towards Aang’s direction. He waved awkwardly.

“You keep their attention while we’ll look for the King,” Sokka hissed to him. Aang nodded.

“Watch this everybody!” he called, flying to the table. There he waterbended the wines from different glasses and started doing tricks with them, while everyone was looking in awe.

 

Thankfully he didn’t have to do it for a long time. Soon the palanquin οf the Earth King appeared. Sokka spied the figure inside and turned to call Aang. The Avatar turned and approached the other end of the table doing the air scooter.

“Greetings Your Majesty,” he called. Sokka turned to inform the others, but before he had a chance to find them, two Dai Lee agents seized him silently. Two more did the same to Katara and Toph. Lia and Zuko were still standing near the doors, looking over everything unnoticed. Lia saw a few Dai Lee agents entering from a side door. They had obviously not noticed them but she decided not to take any chances. Taking Zuko’s arm she concentrated and transported them to the apartment that had been granted to the Avatar. He looked at her surprised.

“Why did you do that?” he asked her.

“There were suddenly too many Dai Lee for my taste,” Lia explained. She took out the small charm that was only now losing its red colour. She showed it wordlessly to Zuko.

“But what about the others?”

“The others are not wanted. I’ll go to see what the Dai Lee want with them, but you’ll wait here,” she half-proposed, half-ordered. Zuko plopped down in a chair.

“Okay,” he said. There was no point in arguing with her. Lia nodded once and disappeared.

 

Aang stopped in front of the Earth King’s bodyguards. A middle-aged man appeared from behind them.

“Avatar Aang it is a great honour to meet you,” he said in a measured voice. “I am Long Feng, Grant Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and head of the Dai Lee. I’d like to talk to you. Your friends will be waiting for us in the library.” He turned and Aang followed him surprised. Unknown to both a certain Fire Spirit followed them unseen.

 

Once the library doors closed behind them Sokka tuned angrily to Long Feng.

“Why won’t you let us talk to the King?” he asked. “We have information that could defeat the Fire Nation!”

“The Earth King has no time to get involved with the political squabbles and the day-to-day management of the military,” Long Feng answered.

“This could be the most important thing he’s ever heard,” Aang insisted.

“What’s most important to His Majesty is maintaining the cultural heritage of Ba Sing Se. All his duties rely to issuing decrees to such matters. It’s my job to oversee the rest of the city’s resources, including the military.”

“So the King is just a figure head!” Katara said surprised.

“He’s your puppet!’ Toph accused.

“Oh no, no!” Long Feng hastened to assure them. “His Majesty is an icon, a god to his people. He can’t soil his hands with the hourly changes of an endless war.”

“But we found out about a solar eclipse that would leave the Fire Nation defenceless,” Sokka tried again. “You could lead an invasion and…”

“Enough!” Long Feng ordered standing. “I don’t want to hear your ridiculous plan. It is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se, that the war not to be mentioned within the walls. Constant news about an escalating war would lead the citizens of Ba Sing Se into a state of panic. Our economy would be ruined, our peaceful way of life, our traditions would disappear. In silencing the talk of conflict, Ba Sing Se remains an orderly peaceful utopia. The last one on earth.”

“You can’t keep the truth from all these people,” Katara said horrified. “They have to know.”

“I’ll tell them,” Aang threatened. “I’ll make sure everyone knows.”

“Until now you’ve been treated like an honoured guest, but from now on you’ll be watched every minute by Dai Lee agents. If you mention the war to anyone you’ll be expelled from the city.” Long Feng turned to face the fireplace. “I understand you’ve been looking for your bison,” he turned back towards the teens. “It would be quite a shame if you were unable to complete your quest.” As he took a seat again the flames behind him livened up for a moment. Katara looked at them surprised to see their apartment pictured inside them for a moment. Then she understood. There could only be one person that could make something like this happen.

“Now Ju Dee will show you home,” Long Feng said as the door opened again. A woman they had never seen before appeared.

“Come with me please,” she said.

“What happened to Ju Dee?” Katara asked feeling a shiver pass down her spine.

“I’m Ju Dee,” the woman said. “I’ll be your host as long as you remain in our wonderful city.”

 

The ride home was a silent one. The moment they were inside the apartment everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Something was seriously wrong in this city.

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sokka said, “but I’m going to bed.” He yawned.

“We’re not alone Snoozles,” Toph said icily. Zuko and Lia appeared from the shadows.

“Sorry guys, but this trick only works with close distances,” Lia explained.

“So that’s why the Dai Lee didn’t find you!” Aang said wide-eyed.

“It wouldn’t do any good if they did,” Lia said indifferently going over to the door. “It was some party though…” she laughed to herself quietly.

“Will you stay for the night?” Katara asked them. Zuko shook his head.

“We’d better return home. Uncle Iroh will already be more worried than is necessary.”

“Okay!” Sokka said with a smile that rivalled Ju Dee’s plastered on his face. “Nice to see you and all that stuff, but goodbye!” he swept them towards the door, banging it after them. They heard Katara yell, “Sokka!” before Lia transported them back to the Lower Ring.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – A Whole New World

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Author’s Note: In which there is fluff and shipping because the plot needs a break and the author likes the occasional fanservice.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***A Whole New World***

It’d been a week since they had arrived in Ba Sing Se and a week since Katara had last seen Zuko. Since Ju Dee had mentioned that the newest arrivals were sectioned off in the Lower Ring, Katara had been thinking of ways to sneak out and find him. Today she had finally managed to set her plan in motion. The previous evening she had casually told Sokka and the others that she was going shopping – something that never failed to discourage them – and she had left early enough to avoid Ju Dee tagging along as her “attentive” host.

 

The train had taken her to the outskirts of the Lower Ring and from there she had taken to wondering around the streets, looking for any place that would possibly serve tea. By midday she had found none. Katara sat by a small spring tired and disappointed. The Lower Ring was a lot larger than it looked. Where would she find them? She watched absentmindedly as a few kids played with their earthbending ball nearby. Suddenly one of them kicked a rock with more strength than was needed at another kid, grazing his arm. Worried, his friends gathered around him and helped him to the spring to wash it. Without thinking Katara approached them.

“Let me help you,” she offered to the injured boy. He looked at her disbelievingly.

“How?” he asked suspiciously.

“Give me your arm,” Katara said forming the healing glove on her right hand without missing a beat. She touched the boy’s arm healing it instantly. The kids were now looking her like she was some kind of Spirit or something.

“Thank you,” the boy said in a friendlier tone. He looked at her searchingly. “Are you lost?” he asked finally.

“Kind of,” Katara admitted sheepishly, her hopes going up again. “I guess you know the Lower Ring very well.”

“Of course!” the kids looked at her proudly.

“Then, can you take me at the best teashop here?” she asked them, standing up. The kids talked quietly amongst them for a few moments and then the boy she had healed turned to her.

“Follow us,” he told Katara, taking her by the hand to drag her along.

 

They led her through back alleys to another part of the Ring. Then they stopped in front of a humble looking teashop.

“There’s an old man and his nephew and niece working there,” one of them explained. “The old man makes the best tea in Ba Sing Se!” Katara smiled at the kids.

“Thank you,” she told them.

“No problem!” they chirped back her before disappearing to the streets. Katara took a deep breath and entered the teashop.

 

The inside was just as poor as the outside. As she took a seat on a table near the door a smiling man, probably the owner, approached her.

“Welcome to ‘The Hot Teapot’,” he greeted her. “May I suggest today’s special?”

“Yes,” Katara said shyly. “I’ll have that.” She looked around discreetly, trying to catch a glimpse of a familiar face. She saw none. Sighing she turned to look outside the window.

 

Iroh had been busy all day, brewing pot after pot of today’s special mix. Serving a cup he turned to see which one of his “helpers” was free. Lia was washing some cups on the back side with Zuko drying them, unnoticeably using his firebending.

“Nephew, could you serve this cup?” Iroh called. “It’s for the table next to the window.” Silently Zuko took the cup and moved to the dining room.

“Could you brew one more cup?” Lia asked Iroh suddenly.

“Of course,” he said confused. “But why?” Lia shrugged.

“Just take a look at who’s sitting at the table,” she said non-commitably. The old man did as asked and smiled a knowing smile.

“I think he should take the afternoon off,” he said using the same tone as the Spirit.

 

Katara heard the footsteps approaching her and turned to see a young man bringing her a cup of tea. Her heart began to beat faster. Zuko had obviously not noticed her, so she turned her head to the other side to avoid being recognized.

“Enjoy your tea,” she heard him mumble gloomily.

“I think I’ll enjoy it more if you join me,” she said turning her head to face him. She lowered her voice. “What do you think Zuko?” she asked.

 

Zuko was ready to decline the girl’s offer, when he paused. It had probably had to do with the fact that he had been thinking of Katara the whole week, but that girl’s voice really sounded like the waterbender’s. He felt his eyes widen as the girl called him by his real name and turned to smile at him. It was Katara. He smiled back taking a seat next to her. Thankful that the room was empty right now, he leaned and gave her a swift kiss on the cheek.

“I would love to,” he said, blushing lightly.

 

They sat in silence for a little, enjoying each other’s company, when Lia appeared carrying another cup of tea.

“I thought you’d like to take the afternoon off,” she said indifferently to her brother. “It’s good to see you again Katara,” she added, smiling at the younger girl.

“Good to see you too Lia,” the waterbender smiled back.

“What do you mean I can take the afternoon off?” Zuko asked his sister surprised.

“Well rush hour will begin soon. I’m sure you two don’t want half Ba Sing Se knowing you’re together. So why don’t you take a walk around?”

“But,” Katara began hesitantly, “won’t you get in trouble with your employer?”

“Iroh will take care of him,” Lia said carelessly. “Now go!” she ordered them, half-dragging them out of the teashop.

 

Once outside the firebender and the waterbender looked at each other surprised and then burst out laughing.

“I didn’t even get to try my tea!” Katara said in mock frustration.

“Now you have a reason to come back tomorrow,” Zuko told her, hoping he didn’t sound too hopeful. He took her hand. “Come with me. I know just the place to go.” Katara followed him curiously as he led her back towards the apartment where he lived.

“Where are we going?” she finally asked him. Zuko noticed her nervous glance and shook his head.

“We won’t go inside. It’s the roof we’re going,” he tried to assure her, most certainly not blushing at the implication of taking his sorta-girlfriend back to his house. “It’s just up these stairs,” he said motioning towards them.

 

Once they had climbed them he opened the door that led to the roof. Bowing grandly he said:

“After you my lady,” Katara bowed back trying to stifle her giggles.

“My lord,”  she answered cheekily and stepped out with Zuko right behind her. “Wow!” she breathed taking a look at the view.

“Yeah,” Zuko said taking her hand once again. “I sometimes come out here when I can’t sleep. The city looks beautiful at night.” Katara turned to look at him. He was paler than usual. She gave him a worried look.

“Please tell me that this doesn’t happen regularly,” she scolded him. Zuko sat down avoiding her eyes. Katara sat next to him silently, looking at him expectantly. He sighed.

“Why can’t I lie to you?” he asked her ruefully. “I missed you and I couldn’t simply look around Ba Sing Se for you. So I came here hoping to see what you were seeing from your window.”

 

Katara wordlessly hugged him. He hugged her back, leaning down to face her. She was staring back up at him with a small smile on her lips. She brought her hand to his face bringing his lips down to meet hers. He willingly kissed her back bringing her to rest on top of him. When they broke away they were both breathing heavily.

“I missed you too,” she whispered. “I dreamed of you every night and after these dreams I would sit by my window looking at the moon and hoping you saw it too.” She snuggled next to him as they lay looking at the city below them. “Tell me how your days have been,” she asked him.

“You mean after the shock I got when uncle Iroh flirted with the lady at passport control? I guess it’s been okay. We have an apartment, we have jobs, and no one is trying to kill us. It’s just that…” he trailed off.

“Just what?” Katara prodded him gently.

“I don’t know how to explain it. I just feel empty. I miss the days when we were traveling around. Even when we were just trying to escape Azula, I felt like I had a purpose. Now there’s nothing for me. I can’t even firebend. I haven’t bended since our spar after we got out of the desert.” He sat up gazing angrily at the horizon. “What am I doing here Katara?” he asked the girl next to him.

“I understand how you feel,” the waterbender told him. “You feel imprisoned, suffocated by what others force on you. Look at my life in Ba Sing Se. We are supervised all the time by this woman, Ju Dee. She says that she is our hostess, but in reality she is monitoring every move we make. I had to form a whole plan, just to sneak out of the house and come here. I honestly can’t wait until we find Appa and talk to the Earth King!”

“You mean you haven’t talk to him yet?” Zuko looked at her in disbelief. “I thought that Sokka would be preparing plans for an invasion right now!”

“He probably is, but I doubt we’ll ever see them set into motion. We are supposed to wait for a month to see the Earth King, and even when we do, I’m not so sure he would be interested in war.”

“Why would you say that?”

“The only thing any official seems to care about here is the city’s cultural inheritance. Even speaking about the war is forbidden. The city seems perfect, but in reality it’s nothing more than a fancy prison!” Katara was now glaring at the sky too.

“At least we can talk to each other about these things,” Zuko tried to cheer her up. “Imagine if you were alone here.”

“Or if I couldn’t come to the Lower Ring to see you.”

“What have you told your brother to let you come here?” Zuko asked her curiously. She gave him a guilty smile.

“That I was going shopping. He hates being dragged from shop to shop while I’m looking for dresses.” Zuko laughed.

 

They stayed on the roof talking and kissing from time to time until the sun started to set. Katara sighed.

“I have to go back,” she said sadly. “They’ll start to worry if I’m late and return without any shopping.”

“When will I see you again?” Zuko asked her sad.

“I don’t know. I’ll try to come every other day.” Katara kissed him softly. “I want to stay Zuko; I really do, but…”

“Hey,” he cut her softly. “I know. Don’t worry. At least now I’ll have something to wait for.” He stood and helped Katara to her feet. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the train station. It’s not safe around here at night.”

 

They walked in silence until they reached the station. Katara turned to face Zuko unsurely. He was looking as awkward as she felt, not really knowing what to say.

“Soooo…” she began.

“I guess I’ll see you around,” he said, mentally kicking himself.

“Yeah.” Katara turned a little disappointed. “Good night Zuko.” She started to walk away. Don’t let her leave like this idiot! his mind screamed at him.

“Katara wait!” he hurried after her. She turned to look at him surprised. “Until we see each other again,” he whispered before kissing her one last time.

 

When Katara returned at their apartment at the Upper Ring, she found everyone eating dinner. Sokka looked at her surprised.

“You’ve been out all day and bought nothing?” he looked incredulous. Katara shrugged.

“I didn’t find anything I really liked and the shops that had actually good clothes were far too expensive. I liked wandering around though. What did you do today?”

“Toph and I practiced earthbending today!” Aang said cheerfully.

“And scared the wits out of Ju Dee when she started reminding them of the rules considering earthbending inside the walls,” Sokka added gleefully. He, Aang and Toph laughed.

“I hope you didn’t do anything… permanent,” Katara told them disapprovingly.
”No, that would be too much fun,” Toph said in what she obviously thought was a reassuring way. It wasn’t.

“I hope you’re right,” Katara sighed as she stood to gather the dishes. She was in far too good a mood to reprimand them right now. Besides she had to plan how she would sneak out again soon.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – City of Walls and Secrets

Standard

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

Last Chapter: link

Next Chapter: link

***City of Walls and Secrets***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Finally the carriage stopped in front of a modest house.

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

“A month?” Sokka whined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“War? Scared? What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good night my nephew.”

 

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