Tag Archives: Iroh

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

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

Standard

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

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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.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Drill

Standard

Author’s Note: In which Aang finds out something, there are separations, Ozai’s Angels make a comeback and team names are discussed.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***The Drill***

As soon as the ship docked Katara, Sokka and Toph walked out hurriedly. The port had two exits: one that led outside the outer wall and one that lead inside Ba Sing Se. At Toph’s request they decided to walk around for a while before entering the city itself. The little earthbender didn’t seem at all enthusiastic about entering the huge city. As they returned to the port, Katara saw Aang’s glider in the distance. The airbender landed in front of them.

“Aang, what are you doing here?” she asked him surprised. “I thought you were looking for Appa.”

“I was; but something stopped me,” he answered worried. “Something big.”

“What’s so big that Appa has to wait?” Sokka asked surprised.

“You’ll see,” Aang said, leading them to the base of the outer wall. There he and Toph earthbended everyone on top of it. As they climbed up, a Fire Nation drill came into view. “That is,” Aang said, pointing at it.

“What are you people doing here?” a voice called from behind them as soon as they reached the top. “Civilians aren’t allowed on the wall,” the same soldier continued. Aang stepped forward.

“I’m the Avatar,” he introduced himself. “Take me to whoever’s in charge.”

 

They were immediately taken to the General, an old man who – Sokka was willing to bet – had never been in battle. He looked at his young visitors good naturedly.

“It is an honor to welcome you to the outer wall young Avatar,” he addressed Aang, “but your help is not needed.”

“Not needed?” Aang repeated shocked. They had a Fire Nation drill closing in on their wall and still thought they were safe!

“Not needed,” the General confirmed. “I have the situation under control,” he continued as he stood up. “I assure you, the Fire Nation cannot penetrate this wall.” The teens followed him out of the room in quiet disbelief. “Many have tried to break through it, but none have succeeded,” the man said proudly.

“What about the Dragon of the West?” Toph chimed in. “He got in.”

“Well…technically yes…” the General stammered. “But he was quickly expunged.” Toph seemed unfazed. “Nevertheless, that’s why the city is called Ba Sing Se. It’s the impenetrable city. They don’t call it Na Sing Se,” he laughed. “That means penetrable city,” he added sobering.

“Yeah, thanks for the tour,” Toph said sarcastically. “But we’ve still got the drill problem.”

“Not for long!” he assured them. “To stop it, I’ve sent an elite platoon of earthbenders called the Terra Team.”

“That’s a good group name,” Sokka said admirably. “Very catchy!”

 

They watched the Team as it was attacked and taken down by two very familiar petite figures. The General looked up from his spyglass.

“We’re doomed!” he cried. Sokka slapped him.

“Get a hold of yourself man!” he yelled.

“You’re right,” the General said, rubbing his check. “I’m sorry.”

“Maybe you’d like the Avatar’s help now?” Toph asked smugly.

“Yes please,” he said on a small voice. The four teens turned to study the drill. It was slowly but steadily approaching the wall.

“So the question is: how are we going to stop that thing?” Aang voiced everyone’s thoughts. Everyone turned expectantly to Sokka.

“Why are you all looking at me?” he asked uneasily.

“You’re the idea-guy,” Aang explained.

“So I’m the only one who can ever come up with a plan?” he whined. “That’s a lot of pressure.”

“And also the complaining-guy,” his sister added.

“That part I don’t mind.”

 

Meanwhile, at the port, Zuko, Lia and Iroh were almost done with the procedurals.

“So,” the terrifying lady at the booth said, “miss Lia, mister Lee and mister Mashi, is it?”

“It’s pronounced Mushi,” Iroh corrected her. She glared at him.

“You telling me how to do my job?” she asked.

“Uh, no, no!” he hastily amended approaching her. “But may I just say that you are like a flower in bloom. Your beauty is intoxicating.” She looked at him flattered.

“You’re pretty easy on the eyes yourself handsome,” she purred before stamping their passports. “Welcome to Ba Sing Se,” she added. Iroh turned to see both Zuko and Lia face-palming. Zuko snatched his passport from his uncle’s hand.

“I’m gonna forget I saw that,” he grumbled as they left for the station to catch a train that would take them inside the city.

 

Back at the infirmary of the outer wall Katara was using her bending to heal the men of the Terra Team. It didn’t seem to work.

“What’s wrong with him?” the General wondered. “He doesn’t look injured.” Katara bended the water away.

“His chi is blocked,” she explained. “Who did this to you?” she asked the soldier.

“Two girls ambushed us,” the man managed to say. Taking a few shaky breaths he continued. “One of them hit me with a bunch of quick jabs and suddenly I couldn’t earthbend and I could barely move. And then she cart-wheeled away.” Katara’s eyes widened.

“Tai Li,” she said under her breath. “She doesn’t look dangerous but she knows the human body and its weak points. It’s like she takes you down from the inside.”

“Ohohohohoh!” Sokka yelled suddenly.

“Yes?” his sister asked him unimpressed.

“What you just said. That’s how we’re gonna take down the drill! The same way Tai Li took down all these big earthbenders.”

“By hitting its pressure points!” Toph completed. They approached the window.

“We’re going to take down from the inside.” Aang summarised.

 

They moved out of the wall and as near to the drill as they could go unnoticed. Toph turned to the others.

“Once I’ll pop up some cover you won’t be able to see, so stay close to me,” She warned them. She made the earth erupt around them, creating a dust cloud. They ran inside it. Soon they were next to the drill. Toph created a hole on the ground in front of her.

“Everyone into the hole,” she ordered them. She jumped in last, closing the ground behind her. Underground it was pitch-black.

“It’s so dark in here, I can’t see a thing,” Sokka complained.

“Oh no! What a nightmare!” Toph said from behind him.

“Sorry,” he apologized awkwardly. They came again above ground and now they were right under the metal monster. Sokka pointed at an opening, probably left there for easy maintenance.

“There!” he said. He, Aang and Katara jumped inside. Toph though, didn’t follow them. “Toph come on!” Sokka called her impatiently.

“No way am I going into that metal monster,” she said decisively. “I can’t bend in there. I’ll try to slow it down out here.”

“Okay,” Sokka nodded. “Good luck.” Then he and Aang disappeared inside the machine, following Katara.

 

Inside pipes were crossing each other everywhere, with no apparent pattern. Sokka looked around.

“I need a plan of this machine. Some schematics that show what it looks like. Then we can find its weak points.”

“Where are we going to get something like that?” Aang asked him. Sokka smiled taking out his sword. He broke a pip, letting the steam come out and create a cloud.

“What are you doing?” Aang exclaimed worried. “Someone’s gonna hear us!”

“That’s the point!” Sokka explained. “I figured a machine this big needs engineers to run it. And when something breaks…”

“They come to fix it,” Katara completed. Indeed, soon a mechanic appeared, looking rather bored. Katara sneaked behind him and bended the steam, turning it into ice and freezing the man. Sokka snatched the blueprints out of his hand.

“This will do,” he said cheerfully. “Thanks!”

 

They moved to another engine-room, at a safe distance from the main corridors and opened the papers. Sokka studied them for a few moments.

“It looks like the drill is made of two main structures,” he concluded. “There’s the inner mechanism where we are now, and the outer shell. The inner part and the outer part are connected by these braces. If we cut through them, the entire thing collapses.” They nodded satisfied. That would do.

 

The train station was packed. Lia let her eyes wonder around, bored out of her mind. Normally she would do a few tricks with fire, just to pass her time, but even she wasn’t so reckless to do so here. So she refrained, sitting between Iroh and Zuko and scanning the crowd. Jet appeared through it suddenly. Lia felt Zuko tense next to her. She squeezed his arm warningly. He gave the tiniest nod as an answer.

“So, you guys got plans once you get inside the city?” Jet asked interested.

“Get your hot tea here! Finest tea in Ba Sing Se!” a merchant called. Lia shot to her feet.

“Jasmine, right uncle?” she asked, grateful for the distraction. The old man nodded delighted. “You Lee?” she asked Zuko.

“I don’t want any, thanks,” he answered absentmindedly.

“Suit yourself.” She shrugged, before going over the stall to get a cup of tea. She returned with the cup on her hand. Iroh took a sip and his expression turned from dreamy to insulted.

“Coldest tea in Ba Sing Se more like it!” He glared at the merchant’s direction. “What a disgrace!”

“Hey, can I talk to you for a second?” Jet asked Zuko. The prince sighed before following the other boy a little further. What did he want now?

 

Once they were out of earshot Jet turned to him.

“You and I have a much better chance of making it into the city if we stick together. You wonna join the Freedom Fighters?” he offered.

“Does the invitation include my sister and uncle too?” Zuko asked carefully.

“No,” Jet shook his head. “We need warriors and neither of them struck me as one. However, I don’t think you have to worry about the old man. I bet your sister can take care of him.”

“Then thanks,” Zuko said, “but I don’t think so. Besides you don’t want me in your gang.”

“Come on!” Jet tried to convince him. “We made a good team smuggling that captain’s food. Think of all the good things we could do for these refuges.” Yeah, like flooding cities, Zuko thought bitterly. He turned to leave.

“I said no.”

 

He returned to where Iroh was sitting. Lia had moved away and was talking to some people lightly. Zuko turned to see what Jet was doing and caught him glaring wide-eyed at Iroh. The Freedom Fighter turned and left, trying to look indifferent. Zuko tuned to his uncle, to see what the big deal was. The cup the old man was holding was steaming now. Zuko felt some of his old anger flair again. He knocked the cup out of Iroh’s hands.

“Hey!” Iroh exclaimed.

“What are you doing firebending your tea?” Zuko hissed. “For a wise old man that was a pretty stupid move.”

“I know you’re not supposed to cry over spilled tea…” Iroh sobbed. “But it’s just so sad.” Lia came back to them, fare welling some kids over her shoulder.

“What happened here?” she asked surprised noticing the spilled tea.

“I thought you’d watch over him,” Zuko told her angrily. “Now we’ll have to watch our backs even inside Ba Sing Se.” Lia rolled her eyes.

“Do you have any idea how huge this city is? And anyway, Iroh is an adult.” She gave a meaningful stare at the old man. “We shouldn’t be supposed to babysit him.” The old General just chuckled awkwardly.

 

Outside the ignorant city the huge drill was still approaching. Inside it, Katara, Sokka and Aang had just found the in-between section of the machine. Not that it was hard to miss… Sokka looked around awed.

“Wow!” he said. “It looks a lot bigger in person than it does on the plan. We’re gonna have to work pretty hard to cut through them.” He looked at the pillars supporting the construction.

“What’s this we-stuff?” Katara asked him annoyed. “Aang and I are gonna have to do the whole job.”

“Look, I’m the plan guy,” Sokka argued, “you two are the cut-through-stuff-with-waterbending guys. Together we’re team Avatar!” he concluded. Grumbling the two benders began working. Halfway through the pillar they paused, breathing heavily. The metal was obviously top quality, thick enough to exhaust even them quickly.

“Come on team! Don’t quit now!” Sokka called them from the side-lines. “We’re…” Katara almost waterwhipped him. “I mean…you’re almost there,” Sokka corrected hastily. Without any more distractions they cut through the pillar. It seemed to give way at first, but then the two pieces stuck.

“At this rate we won’t do enough damage before the drill reaches the wall.” Katara sighed.

“I don’t know how many more of those I have in me.” Aang said tired.

 

Suddenly a strange rumble was heard. The whole construction started to tremble.

“Did you hear that?” Sokka said excited. “We took it down. We’d better get out of here fast.” They rushed to the door. As they exited, a voice was heard.

“Congratulations crew,” a man’s smug voice was heard. “The drill has made contact with the wall of Ba Sing Se. Start the countdown to victory!” The three teens shared a disappointed look. Sokka run back to the cut pillar. He started pushing it.

“Come on, budge!” he commanded the metal desperately.

“This is bad, really bad,” Katara muttered.

“We put everything we had on cutting these braces but it won’t budge!” Sokka glared furiously at the pillar. “It’s taking too long!”

“Maybe we needn’t cut all the way through!” Aang exclaimed suddenly. He sprung to his feet. “Toph has been teaching me that you shouldn’t give a hundred per cent of your energy into any one strike,” he explained. “Sokka take a fighting stance. You’ve got to be quick and accurate. Hit a series of points and break your opponent’s stance. And when he’s riling back you deliver the final blow. His own weight becomes his downfall, literally.” Katara nodded in understanding, even as Sokka fell on his back after Aang’s quick demonstration.

“So we just need to weaken the braces instead of cutting all the way through.”

“Then I’ll go to the top of that thing and deliver the final blow,” Aang completed.

“And boom! It all comes crushing down!” Sokka said excited again.

“Everyone inside that wall, the whole world! They’re counting on us,” Aang said.

“The whole world minus the Fire Nation,” Sokka corrected him.

 

They went through pillar after pillar, cutting them halfway through. They had reached the last one and were almost done with it when suddenly Sokka yelled:

“Duck!” Aang did so just in time to avoid a blue flame that came towards him. They looked up to see Azula and her two friends. Azula shot another flame towards Aang. He ducked it again.

“Wow Azula you were right!” Tai Li said enthusiastic. “It is the Avatar! And friends.” She winked at Sokka.

“Hey!” he said smiling stupidly. Katara wordlessly dragged him away. Aang sent an air current against the three Fire Nation girls, distracting them enough for him and his friends to make an escape. When they reached a two-way corridor Aang halted.

“Guys get out of here.” He told Sokka and Katara urgently. “I know what I need to do.”

“Wait!” Katara threw him her pouch. “You need this water more than I do.” Aang nodded and took off.

 

The two Water Tribe siblings ran to a dead end. In front of them was a huge pipe.

“Slurry Pipe Line?” Katara read. “What does that mean?” Sokka managed to open it. Inside there was a mix of water and rocks.

“It means our way out,” he said satisfied. Mai and Tai Li appeared at the corridor on the other end of the corridor. Sokka and Katara slid inside the pipe in time to avoid the incoming darts and let the current drag them.

 

It led them on the back side of the drill; literally spitting them out, half-covered with slurry mud. Katara looked up in time to see Tai Li almost out of the drill too. Hurriedly she bended the water, preventing the slurry – and the pink-dressed girl – from exiting.

“Why don’t you try blocking my chi now circus freak?” she asked spitefully.

“Katara keep that up!” Sokka said excited. “The pressure will build up in the drill. Then when Aang delivers the final blow it will be ready to pop!”

 

Aang was standing on top of the head of the drill. He ran near the wall, halting on a safe distance.

“This looks like a good place Momo,” he told the lemur, perched on his shoulder. A rock landed on that spot. More followed as he jumped around to avoid them.

“General Shong, tell your soldiers to stop shooting rocks down here,” Aang yelled. More rocks came falling; the General had either not heard him or was ignoring him. Aang took out the water and started weakening the metal on the spot he had chosen.

 

At the other end of the drill Sokka continued “encouraging” his sister.

“Good technique little sister,” he said enthusiastically. “Keep it up. Don’t forget to breathe!”

“You know I am just sick and tired of you telling me what to do all day,” Katara snapped. “You’re like a chattering hog-monkey.”

“Just bend the slurry woman!” he yelled back. Katara wordlessly used her other hand to bend a slurry wave on her brother.

“You guys need some help?” Toph’s voice was heard.

“Toph, help me plug this drain,” Katara ordered. Together the two girls forced the slurry back inside.

 

Aang was exhausted. “What I’d give to be a metalbender,” he sighed. Momo suddenly screeched. Aang turned, just in time to deflect a wave of blue flames. Azula attacked again and again, and even though Aang used air, water and earth combined he was eventually knocked to the wall. The princess set him standing on the wall, preparing to deliver the final blow. Aang gained consciousness just then and hastily formed an earth glove, blocking Azula’s attack and pushing her back. She charged against him again, to be knocked off her balance by a wave of slurry. She fell on Aang, making both them slide off the drill. Momo rushed where Aang was sliding and grabbed him from the collar trying to make him fly. Aang used it to airbend himself back on the drill.

“Thanks Momo. I owe you one.” He patted the animal’s head, before rushing back to the small hole he had made. “Now all I need is…” a rock landed next to him. “Actually that’s what I need,” he said satisfied. He earthbended it to the shape of a spike and fitted it on the hole. Then he took off running, using the air-scooter to climb half-way up the wall, before running back down. Azula had just climbed back on the drill and tried to shoot him, but he avoided her by inches, instead sending her flying because of the impact created by the drill falling apart. Toph felt the tremble of the machine as it collapsed.

“Here it comes!” she yelled earthbending them to safety.

 

At the port the last train for the inner city of Ba Sing Se was ready to leave. Zuko, Lia and Iroh found seats near Yeng’s family. Iroh immediately started playing with little Hope. Zuko on the other hand was brooding, a deep frown etched on his face. Lia was waiting patiently for him to open up.

“Do you ever have a feeling that something bad is happening?” he finally asked her.

“Sometimes,” Lia admitted.

“What about now?” he insisted. The Spirit closed her eyes for a few moments, as if resting them.

“If anything happened it’s no danger anymore,” she said finally. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.” Zuko nodded, relaxing a bit. She was probably right.

 

On the outer wall four teens were watching the sunset. Sokka looked around excited.

“I just want to say, good job everyone today Team Avatar!”

“Enough with the Team Avatar stuff! No matter how many times you say it, it’s not going to catch on,” Katara said annoyed.

“How about… the Boomerang Squad!” he offered then. “See it’s good because it’s got Aang in it. Boomer-Aang,” he explained.

“I kind of like that one.” Aang admitted sheepishly.

“Let’s talk about this on our way into the city,” Katara said, turning to leave. Aang and Toph followed her.

“The Aang-Gang?” Sokka continued proposing names.

“Sokka…” his sister sighed.

“The Fearsome-Foursome!”

“You’re crazy!” Toph decided.

“Why? We’re fearsome!” Sokka insisted, running to catch up with them.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Full Moon Bay

Standard

Author’s note: In which there is shipping, bad past decisions come to light and Ba Sing Se looms ahead.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Full Moon Bay***

The sandbenders escorted them to an actual oasis, at the edge of the desert, a small lake and waterfall safely encased in rocks. They had been terrified by the Avatar’s display of power, because this had been one of the most silent trips Lia remembered. The moment they had stepped into the oasis, Aang had left the rest of the gang behind to meditate. After everyone had drunk their thirst away and Katara had filled her waterbending pouch, she and Zuko had left to spar, as they said. If it wasn’t for the occasional blast of fire in the distance, Lia would be seriously tempted to tease them to their deaths once they returned. As if on cue, Zuko’s laugh was heard from above them. Lia looked up to see him standing by the waterfall, looking behind him, in a mock-defensive stance. Katara appeared moments later and laughing pushed him off the waterfall. Zuko twisted in the air using his heat-bending (as Lia called it for simplicity’s sake) to land softly on the water, next to Aang, who had frozen himself and was now floating inside a block of ice by now.

“Waterbending bomb!” Katara called from where Zuko had stood moments ago, before she jumped.

 

The impact, doubled by the girl’s connection to her element, raised a huge wave that sent both Aang and Zuko to land next to Toph, and made anyone that wasn’t already, soaking.

“Sure!” Sokka said annoyed trying to dry the map he had been reading. “Five thousand year-old map from the Spirit library. Just splash some water on it.” Katara came out of the water wringing her hair dry. She looked beautiful to Zuko, who was trying resolutely not to stare too much or blush. So he was a teenager. Sue him!

“Sorry,” The waterbender said carelessly before bending the water out of the map. She caught sight of Zuko looking at her intently and blushed a little. He didn’t look at all bad in his swimsuit… Before these thought had a chance to develop – or Toph had time to notice her heartbeat – she hurried next to the others.

“So, did you figure out what route we’re going to take?” Aang asked Sokka. The self-proclaimed warrior spread out the map.

“Okay, we just got out of the desert so we must be somewhere around here. And we need to go to Ba Sing Se, which is here.” He showed the points on the map. “It looks like the only pass connecting the south to the north is this sliver of land called the Serpent’s Pass.”

“You’re sure that’s the best way to go?” Toph asked doubtfully.

“It’s the only way,” Sokka insisted. “I mean, it’s not like we have Appa to fly us there.” Lia smacked him on the back of his head. “What was that for?” he asked her annoyed.

“A little tact would be nice!” she told him, glancing meaningfully towards Aang.

“Lia, it’s okay,” Aang assured her calmly. “I know I was upset about losing Appa before, but I just want to focus on getting to Ba Sing Se and telling the Earth King about the solar eclipse.” Lia wasn’t convinced. She shot him a suspicious look, but let it go.

“Then to Ba Sing Se it is,” Sokka said decisively. “No more distractions.”

 

“Hello there, fellow refuges!” a cheerful voice was heard from behind them. They turned to see a man, his pregnant wife and their daughter. Zuko’s eyes widened. He was the man he had almost attacked when he had been traveling alone. Suddenly he felt glad for the self-control he had showed that day. Sokka on the other hand frowned at being characterized a refuge.

“So are you guys heading to Ba Sing Se too?” Aang asked.

“Sure are,” The man said. “We’re trying to get there before my wife Yeng has her baby.”

“That’s great!” Katara said friendly. “We can travel through the Serpent’s Pass together.” The family paled.

“The Serpent’s Pass?” Yeng said. “Only the truly desperate take that deadly route.”

“Deadly route?” Zuko said rolling his eyes. “Great pick Sokka!”

“Well, we are desperate,” Sokka said glaring at Zuko.

“You should come with us to Full Moon Bay,” Yeng’s husband said. “Ferries take refuges across the lake. It’s the fastest way to Ba Sing Se.”

“And it’s hidden, so the Fire Nation can’t find it,” she added. Zuko shifted uneasily at the mention of his Nation.

“Hm,” Katara said as if she was thinking it over. “Peaceful ferry ride or deadly pass?” she asked sending a look at Sokka. Lia giggled.

 

They walked together all the way to the bay. Zuko had introduced himself as Lee, saying that he and Lia were siblings. Much to Sokka’s surprise they believed his story. Once they were inside the port Katara looked around shocked.

“I can’t believe how many people’s lives have been uprooted by the war,” she said quietly.

“We’re all looking for a better life. Safe, behind the walls of Ba Sing Se.” Chin, Yeng’s husband said.

“Hey!” Lia suddenly exclaimed. “Look who’s here!” They turned to the direction she pointed. Zuko’s face brightened.

“Uncle!” he cried, hurrying towards the old man. Iroh turned surprised to see them approaching. As if to astonish him more, Zuko pulled him on an embrace.

“Oh! I love group hugs!” Lia said joining them smiling.

“What are you doing here?” Zuko asked smiling his uncle. “I thought you’d be in Ba Sing Se by now.”

“I had some errands to run first,” Iroh explained carefully. He had noticed the family that had obviously tagged along with the kids. “It seems we will be traveling together for now.” He took out a few papers. “I had passports made for you and Lia, just in case.”

“What?” Sokka asked. “We need passports? We don’t have any.”

“I have one.” Toph said. “I believe it will work for everyone.” Sokka looked at her uncertainly. Nevertheless they lined up to get tickets.

 

Zuko, Lia and Iroh took their tickets with no problem. They moved aside to wait for the rest of the gang. Aang made a movement towards the booth but Toph pushed him aside.

“I’ll take care of this,” she said placing her passport in front of the lady who distributed the tickets. “My name is Toph Bei Fong and I’ll need four tickets,” she all-but-ordered the woman.

“Oh!” the woman exclaimed astonished. “The golden seal of the flying boar. It is my pleasure to help anyone of the Bei Fong family.”

“It is your pleasure,” Toph said mater-of-factly. “As you can see I’m blind and these three are my valets.” Momo jumped on her shoulder.

“But the animal…” the lady began unsurely.

“Is my seeing-eye lemur,” Toph cut her.

“Well normally it’s only one ticket per passport but this document is so official, I guess it’s worth four tickets,” the lady decided. Toph took them and thanked her in the same cold voice.

 

They moved away, with Sokka sniggering at that lady’s expense:

“All right! We scammed that lady good!” Someone grabbed him roughly from behind. He turned to see a stern-looking girl on security’s uniform.

“Tickets and passports please,” She said.

“Is there a problem?” Sokka asked her nervously.

“Yeah, I got a problem with you,” she told him angrily. “I’ve seen your type before. Probably sarcastic, think you’re hilarious and let me guess, you’re traveling with the Avatar.” Sokka looked at her blankly.

“Do I know you?” he asked her.

“You mean you don’t remember?” she asked grabbing him by the shirt. “Maybe you’ll remember this.” She kissed him lightly on the check. Sokka’s face brightened.

“Suki!” he exclaimed hugging her.

“Sokka, It’s good to see you.” Everyone else approached.

“Guys, you remember Suki?” Sokka asked them glowing.

 

After a few introductions – Zuko and Lia used their real names, much to everyone’s surprise – they went over to a quiet terrace to catch up.

“You look so different without your make-up,” Katara remarked. “And the new outfit.”

“That crabby lady makes all the security guards wear them.” Suki explained. “And look at you sleeveless guy!” she said to Sokka, “Been working out?”

“I grab a tree branch, do a few exercises every now and then. Nothing major,” the boy said smugly. Katara shot him a disapproving look. Lia had been sitting on the side, looking down at the lines of people preparing for the journey. One particular fellow caught her attention. Something was wrong with him.

“I’ll be right back,” she whispered to Zuko, who had been sitting next to her. He was a little uneasy around the Kyoshi Warrior. His soldiers had caused quite a problem in her village.

“Are the other Kyoshi Warriors around?” Aang asked curiously Suki.

“Yes,” she nodded. “After you left Kyoshi we wanted to find a way to help people. We ended up escorting some refuges and we’ve been here ever since.” Momo jumped next to her, excited to see another familiar face. She laughed and patted his head. “Hi Momo! Good to see you too,” she said to the small lemur. “So, why are you guys getting tickets for the ferry?” she asked them. “Won’t you just fly across on Appa?” Everyone looked away unhappily.

“Appa is missing,” Katara explained. “We hope to find him in Ba Sing Se.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Suki said sincerely. “Are you doing okay?” she asked Aang. The boy looked up to see not only Suki, but everyone in his group – even Zuko – looking at him worried.

“I’m doing fine,” he said angrily. “Would everyone stop worrying about me?”

 

Suddenly Yeng’s voice was heard.

“Avatar Aang, you have to help us. Someone took all our belongings. Our passports, our tickets, everything’s gone,” she sobbed.

“I’ll talk to the lady for you,” Aang offered, jumping to his feet, grateful for the distraction.

“Wait!” Lia called before he had a chance to make another move. She approached them hurriedly, a few bags on her hands, dragging a man by his shirt. “Are these your things?” she asked Chin. The man nodded surprised. “Suki, I think this is job for you,” Lia said satisfied, shoving the man on the other girl’s feet.

 

They embarked on the ship that would take them across the lake with no further excitements for what was going to be a two-day trip. Suki had disappeared after she had locked the robber away.

“I can’t believe we won’t say goodbye to Suki,” Sokka whined for the thousandth time.

“I can’t believe you’re still whining about it,” Toph snapped at him.

“Wait! I’m coming too.” Suki caught up with them, dressed in her Kyoshi Warrior uniform. Sokka turned surprised.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked her worried.

“Sokka, I thought you’d want me to come,” she told him surprised.

“I do. It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Nothing. I’m glad you’re com…” Suki passed him before he had a chance to finish his word. Sokka looked at her worried.

 

The boat was packed with refuges, most of them families with small children. Everyone would take up a little space and set their things there.

“Now it’s only smooth sailing to Ba Sing Se,” Sokka sighed, as he plopped down on the deck. They had left Full Moon Bay half an hour ago. Yeng suddenly doubled in pain.

“Oh no!” she said fearfully.

“What?” Sokka asked.

“The baby’s coming,” she explained.

“What? Now? Can’t you hold it in or something?” Sokka asked.

“Sokka calm down,” Katara ordered her brother. “I’ve helped Gran-Gran deliver lots of babies back home.”

“This isn’t the same as delivering an arctic seal!” He was practically panicking now. “This is a real human thing!”

“It’s called a baby. And I helped to deliver plenty of those too,” his sister said unfazed. She was taking charge now. “Aang get some rags. Sokka water.” She turned to Zuko. “When they bring them, boil the water and clean the rags in it,” she explained. He nodded. The unexpected labour had shocked him too, but he found Sokka was over-reacting.

“Maybe uncle and Toph can go and ask for a proper meal,” he offered. “Yeng will probably need it.” Katara nodded appreciatively. She turned to see Suki and Lia already preparing a tent around the pregnant woman and her family.

“Come with me,” she told them calmly.

 

The labour was going normally, much to Katara’s relief.

“You’re doing great Yeng,” she said encouragingly to the woman. She turned her head towards the exit. “Sokka, where’s that water?” she yelled at her brother. “Now, get ready to push,” she ordered. “One, two, three, PUSH!” Sokka, who had just entered the tent, fainted. Suki and Lia shared an exasperated glance and dragged him out. He gained consciousness almost immediately. Toph and Iroh had just returned, looking very disappointed. After a while a baby was heard crying from inside the tent.

“It’s a girl!” they heard Katara exclaim.

“So, you wonna go see the baby, or are you going to faint like an old lady again?” Toph asked Sokka teasingly. He stood up, swaying a little.

“No, no! I’m good this time,” he said nervously. Iroh and Zuko followed them inside, passing Katara at the opening. Spotting Aang still sitting she called him.

“Aang, you have to come see this.” The boy entered the tent. Yeng was sitting in the middle of it, visibly exhausted, but glowing, holding her daughter. The baby was still crying, but more quietly now.

“She sound’s healthy,” Toph remarked.

“She’s beautiful,” Katara said in admiration.

“It’s so… squishy looking,” Sokka said scrutinizing the new-born. Zuko shot him a look.

“That’s the best you can do?” he asked him annoyed.

“What should we name her?” Chin wondered.

“I want our daughter’s name to be unique. I want it to mean something.” Yeng said. Aang felt his eyes watering. Katara was right. It was a magical scene.

“I’ve going through a really hard time lately,” he said quietly. “I thought it would be easier if I abandoned hope and bottled away my feelings. I was wrong. To see you so happy together, it made me hopeful again,” he said at the happy family.

“I know what I want to name our baby now,” Yeng said. “Hope.”

“That’s a perfect name,” her husband agreed softly.

 

They left the family to rest. Once outside, Katara turned expectantly to Iroh and Toph. They shook their heads disappointed.

“We talked with the cook,” Iroh explained. “According to captain’s orders everyone is served the same food.”

“No exceptions,” Toph added, mimicking the bossy voice of the man. Lia’s eyes narrowed.

“And where exactly is the kitchen?” she asked innocently. Zuko caught the undercurrent of her words and told her horrified:

“Oh no! There’s no point on going around stirring trouble.”

“Whatever you say. Blue,” she whispered the last part to him. Zuko looked at her for a long moment. He couldn’t risk to be revealed as the Blue Spirit, but maybe it would help. He still remembered how happy the villagers had been, to discover they had their money back.

“Anyway, I’m going to see if I can help anywhere,” Lia continued. “In a ship that big, I’m willing to bet that a healer can always help.”

“You’re a healer?” Suki asked her surprised. “But you’re a firebender.”

“I’m not as good as Katara, but I can help around.”

“Lia’s right,” Aang said. “We should probably see if anyone needs help.”

“What?” Sokka whined. “Can’t we ever get some rest?”

“Nope!” Lia said happily. They left, each one taking a different route, scattering around the ship.

 

Zuko and Iroh remained where they were, silently gazing at the horizon. Suddenly Iroh spoke.

“Who would have thought,” he started solemnly, “after all these years, I’d return to the scene of my greatest military disgrace, as a tourist,” he smiled hopefully at his nephew. Zuko had seemed to be more relaxed when he was near Katara, but when they had told them what the cook had said, he had returned to his old, frowning self.

“Look around. We’re not tourist, we’re refuges.” He took a sip from the “soup”, to only spit it out disgusted. “Is this considered food? There is a woman that just gave birth and many small children on this ship. Can’t they give us something better? I’m tired of living like this, not being able to help these people,” he said. No, Iroh amended. He has definitely changed.

“Aren’t we all?” a voice said behind them. He was a young man, he couldn’t be older than Zuko, but like the prince he looked like a seasoned fighter. “My name’s Jet and these are my Freedom Fighters Smelarbee and Longshot.” Two younger teens appeared.

“Hello,” Zuko mumbled, going back to staring at the horizon. He couldn’t guess why this Jet-guy had opened conversation. He couldn’t be the only one complaining!

“Here’s the deal.” Jet continued. “I hear the captain is eating like a king, while us refuges have to feed of the scraps. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“What sort of king is he eating like?” Iroh asked curiously.

“The fat, happy kind.” Iroh’s mouth watered at the thought. “You want to help us… liberate some food?” Jet asked Zuko. The prince stared at the water. An image flashed through his mind’s eye.

-Flashback:-

“So” he had said slowly, trying to understand the Spirit’s strange moral guide, “if I helped us, but at the same time helped some people who also need it, you wouldn’t consider it wrong?”

Lia had shaken her head. “It would still be wrong, but the outcome would be worth it.”

-End Flashback.-

“I’m in,” Zuko said, wondering what Lia would say about it.

 

As if he had summoned her by thought, the Spirit appeared, with one small child on her arms and two slightly older following her running. She was laughing carelessly.

“Lee, tell them!” she told her brother pleadingly. “They don’t believe me when I say that the Knowledge Spirit is a giant owl!”

“Wang Shi Tong?” Iroh asked surprised. Where exactly had his nephew been?

“He can’t be!” the oldest of the kids, an eight-year-old boy said.

“And what do you think he looks like?” Zuko asked, kneeling next to him.

“He just can’t!” the kid insisted, obviously not having a better answer.

“Well he is,” Zuko said. “You should believe my sister when it comes to Spirits. She knows more than anyone about them.”

“Was the other thing she said true too?” the other kid, a girl of six, asked.

“What was it?” Zuko asked, stealing a glance at Lia.

“She said that the Blue Spirit broke into a tax-collectors carriage and robbed him, to return the money to the people they were taken by,” the little girl looked amazed.

“It’s true,” Zuko assured her. He turned to Iroh. “Uncle, you know many stories about the Spirits, why don’t you tell them a few?”

“I would be glad,” Iroh said with a giddy expression. Lia left the three children and followed Zuko a bit further, with Jet following.

“I thought you didn’t approve of the Blue Spirit’s actions,” Zuko half-said, half-asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t approve of some of his actions,” The Fire Spirit answered lazily. “Now, what were you two plotting?” she asked carelessly. Jet opened his mouth to deny it but Zuko spoke first.

“We’re going to get some real food for dinner,” he said carefully. One can never be too cautious. “Why don’t you come with us?”

“I’d love to, but I can’t,” Lia sighed. “It’s either me or your Lady girlfriend taking care of these little demons,” she smiled affectionately at the kids, “and she is far better as a healer than I am. So I took up the babysitting.” Zuko had blushed crimson when she had said “your Lady girlfriend”. “Besides,” Lia said standing, “I promised to tell them how prince Zuko kicked admiral Zhao’s butt, more than once.” She stretched the last words, before standing to leave. Zuko and Jet stared at her as she left. Both of them refused to believe, why someone would want to hear this particular story, but for quite different reasons. Jet found unbelievable that a story, even one for small kids, would have the Fire Nation prince as the good guy. Zuko didn’t understand how the kids had learned of it.

 

When night fell four shadows were quietly slipping on deck, effortlessly melding with the darkness. They found the kitchen easily; it was near the captain’s quarters. Zuko took one look inside and felt his stomach tighten with anger. There was plenty of food in there for everyone. Smelarbee stayed behind, keeping open eyes for any guards, as Zuko used his swords to open the door. He and Jet entered the room and set to work quietly. They had managed to pack enough for almost everyone when Smelarbee called: “Guards coming.” Longshot sent them a rope tied on an arrow. They sent back the food, before climbing down themselves. Just as the rope came down, a guard passed. Unnoticed the four teens left silently.

 

They handed out the food to the people with Lia’s help, before settling to eat themselves. Zuko briefly wondered where Katara and the rest of them were. He hadn’t seen them around.

“So Smelarbee, that’s an unusual name for a young man,” He absently heard his uncle saying.

“Maybe it’s because I’m not a man,” she spat. “I’m a girl!” She stood and left angrily with Longshot at her heels.

“Oh, now I see,” Iroh called behind her. “It’s a beautiful name for a lovely girl.” Lia laughed.

“This is better than what you said about Aang’s evasing maneuvering!” she told Zuko quietly. He looked at her blankly for a moment. Then the memory came back to him and he laughed too. As they stifled their laugh Jet sat beside them.

“From what I heard, people eat like this every night in Ba Sing Se. I can’t wait to set my eyes on that giant wall.”

“It is a magnificent sight,” Iroh agreed.

“So you’ve been there before?” Jet asked curiously.

“Once,” Iroh said solemnly. “When I was a different man.”

“I’ve done some things in my past that I’m not proud of,” Jet admitted. “But that’s why I’m going to Ba Sing Se. For a new beginning, a second chance.”

“That’s very noble of you. I believe people can change their lives if they want to. I believe in second chances,” Iroh shared a meaningful look with his nephew.

“Only second chances?” Lia asked suddenly.

“What do you mean?” Jet asked her curiously.

“This.” She said spreading her arms, as if to embrace the whole boat. “This is the third beginning I’ve had in my life. And even though it’s not the best, it’s the only one I’m proud of,” she added cryptically. Zuko looked at her worried. Before he could ask her anything, her face brightened. “Well look who’s here,” she said mischievously. The three men looked up to see a Water Tribe girl approaching them. Jet’s eyes widened.

“Katara?” he said disbelievingly.

 

The waterbender felt her smile freeze on her lips. What was he doing here? She immediately slid into fighting stance. Zuko and Iroh looked at them surprised. Lia on the other hand had a strange smile, as if she had seen this coming.

“What are you doing here?” Katara asked her voice more cold than the ice she could bend.

“Trying to start over?” Jet told her. He smiled hopefully at the girl. “I swear I’ve changed.”

“Tell that to another girl Jet,” Katara snapped at him, forming a few ice daggers and sending them at the boy. They didn’t have time to hit him. Mid-air they melted and fell like rain on the deck. The waterbender glared at the Fire Spirit. She hadn’t moved, yet her expression was far too innocent. “This is none of your business,” she snapped, before turning on her heel and storming away. Zuko ran after her immediately.

“You shouldn’t have seemed so hopeful,” Lia advised Jet indifferently. He was looking at her suspiciously.

“Are you a waterbender too?” he asked her carefully.

“To the contrary, you could say I’m the complete opposite of water. It’s usually far too cold for my taste.”

“So you’re a firebender?” Jet said his hand immediately on his swords.

“Of course not!” Lia said annoyed. “Why does everyone keep thinking of it? Just because I’m the complete opposite of water, doesn’t mean I’m a bender.”

“You’d better drop the subject Jet,” Iroh advised. “She’s just like her brother. When they get worked up, you can’t talk with them reasonably.” The young man nodded reluctantly. His gaze turned to where Zuko and Katara had disappeared.

“So they’re together?” he said a little disappointed. Iroh nodded.

“The magic of love,” He said dreamingly. Jet stood up.

“It’s getting late,” he said. “I’m going to sleep. Good night.” Once he was outside of earshot Iroh turned to Lia.

“That was a risky move you pulled,” he said sternly.

“It was more risky to let Katara kill him,” she answered yawning. “I think I’m going to sleep too.” She unpacked a blanket and curled up on her side. “Goodnight Iroh.”

“Goodnight my dear,” The old man told her and settled to wait for his nephew to return.

 

Zuko found Katara at the back of the ship, still trembling with fury. He hesitantly approached her, and put his hands on her shoulders. She twirled to face him, her expression softening only slightly, seeing who it was. She buried herself wordlessly in his embrace.

“Are you okay?” he asked her quietly.

“Does he know who you are?” Katara asked back worried.

“No, but why? How do you know him?” Zuko insisted.

“We came across Jet and his Freedom Fighters a little after the incident with the pirates.” Katara explained approaching the railing and looking down at the water. Zuko silently followed and stood behind her. “At first I was awed by his skills and the good he was doing,” she continued. “But things turned out to be different. There was a city nearby, controlled by the Fire Nation. Jet planned to flood it, so that he could drive the soldiers away. He wouldn’t even stop to consider the consequences this would have for the innocents living in the city. He almost succeeded.”

“Almost?” Zuko asked her, feeling his dislike for the boy rising. Katara nodded.

“Sokka didn’t trust Jet from the beginning. So he left and warned the people in town, to leave. Everyone’s live was saved.”

“You’re not telling me everything are you?” Zuko felt a little bad for pressing her, but he knew from experience that this kind of feelings should be talked out. Katara avoided his gaze guiltily. After what Lia had told her, how could she tell him she had liked Jet?

“It’s not nice, nor something I am proud of,” she said, trying to get out of the situation.

“It can’t be worse than anything I have done,” Zuko said calmly. “Please Katara, tell me?” The waterbender took a deep breath.

“It wasn’t just admiration I felt about Jet,” she began slowly. “He was the first boy I liked. And that’s why I hate him. Because he used this to convince me to help him with his plan.”

“But you didn’t know what he was going to do, did you?” Zuko asked her calmly. He was feeling the jealously burning in his stomach again but he refused to take it out on Katara. It wasn’t her fault.

“No!” she assured him vehemently. “I would never agree to something like that.” She cast him a worried look. Was he mad at her? She searched his eyes and although she saw a little hurt, he was looking her with trust and love. “What did you do?” she asked him hesitantly. Zuko smiled.

“Stole enough food to give everyone a proper meal,” he said. “I hope you don’t have any objections.” To his surprise Katara laughed.

“You’re talking to the girl who stole a waterbending scroll from pirates,” she reminded him.

“Right!” Zuko laughed. A cold breeze sent Katara snuggling next to him. He smiled at the girl. “Remember our fight at the North Pole?” he asked her.

“Uh-huh,” she murmured, resting her head on his shoulder. Zuko gazed at the moon.

“It was the hardest fight of my life,” he said quietly. Katara looked up surprised.

“Why?” she asked. She wasn’t that good at waterbending back then.

“I was worried I was going to hurt you accidentally,” the prince explained. “And to make matters worse, you were so beautiful, bending under the full moon, I wanted to kiss you.” The waterbender blushed. Then she shot him a mischievous glance.

“Like how?” she asked teasingly. Zuko leaned down to her.

“Like this,” he whispered before kissing her passionately. Katara kissed him back with equal passion, feeling like the whole world was spinning around her and Zuko was the only stable thing. When they broke away she smiled at him.

“I could get used to that,” she breathed before kissing him again.

 

Two decks lower, Sokka was staring at the moon. He felt confused. He knew Suki was more than capable of taking care of herself, and that his antics only annoyed her, but he couldn’t afford to lose her like he had lost Yue. He wouldn’t be able to take it. He heard footsteps approaching.

“It’s a beautiful moon,” Suki said quietly.

“Yeah, it really is,” Sokka sighed, remembering the princess that had become a Spirit. Suki took a seat next to him.

“Look,” she said. “I know you’re just trying to help, but I can take care of myself,” she told him softly.

“I know you can,” Sokka answered.

“Then why are you acting so over-protective?” the Kyoshi Warrior asked.

“It’s so hard to lose someone you care about. Something happened at the North Pole and I couldn’t protect someone,” he admitted. “I don’t want something like that to ever happen again.”

“I lost someone I cared about,” Suki said softly. “He didn’t die, he just ran away and I only had a few days to know him, but he was smart and brave and funny…” Sokka stood up.

“Who is this guy?” he asked annoyed. “Is he taller than me?” some part of his mind (the one that had Toph’s voice) told him that he was reacting like an overprotective boyfriend, but he couldn’t help it.

“No,” Suki said carelessly, “he’s about your height.”

“Is he better looking?” Sokka insisted.

“It is you stupid,” Suki said, standing up too exasperated.

“Oh!” Sokka said, feeling his self-confidence climbing a few steps. They stared at each other’s eyes and Suki leaned forward slowly. Before their lips had a chance to meet, Sokka turned his head.

“I can’t,” he said painfully. He couldn’t do this again.

“I’m sorry,” Suki whispered.

“No, you shouldn’t be,” Sokka turned and left. It was Suki’s time to gaze at the moon.

 

When Katara woke up the next morning, she saw Aang sitting at the railing, looking at the horizon. The city wall was beginning to appear beyond the early morning fog. She stood up and went over him, pausing only to cover Zuko and Toph, who had somehow managed to crawl out of their sleeping bags during their sleep.

“You’re up early,” She said to the boy, approaching him. “Are you okay?”

“You were holding hands with Zuko in your sleep,” Aang said colourlessly. He refused to look at her, instead glaring at the horizon. “What’s going on between you two?”

“I didn’t mean for you to learn it like this,” Katara said sadly. “But Zuko and I…” she trailed off hesitating. She didn’t want to hurt Aang.

“You’re in love,” Aang finished the sentence. “Do the others know?”

“Lia definitely and Toph probably does,” Katara said, feeling her cheeks bloom at the mention of the l-word. “I wanted to tell you once we reached Ba Sing Se, and found Appa.”

“About this…” Aang took a deep breath. “Maybe I should go ahead and look for him. You are safe on the ship and then once you get out of it, you will be inside Ba Sing Se, even safer.”

“That’s a good idea,” Katara agreed relieved. He had taken it much better than she had imagined. Aang opened his glider.

“Will you say goodbye to the others for me?” She nodded. “And tell Zuko that if he dares hurt you, not even the Spirit of Fire will be able to save him.” Katara laughed.

“I’ll tell him. See you soon Aang.” The airbender nodded once and then took off.

 

“What do you mean he left?” Sokka asked disbelievingly.

“Sokka, I told you! We’ll meet up with Aang inside the city. He just went ahead to look for Appa!” Katara explained for he thousandth time.

“Well, I hope he gives that big fuzz-ball a hug from me when he finds him,” Toph said cheerfully. Lia laughed, before returning to her packing.

“Are you going to help or what?” she asked playfully. Once almost everything was ready, Suki approached Sokka. They had been avoiding each other the whole morning.

“Sokka, it’s been really nice to see you,” she said. The warrior looked up.

“Whoa, hold on,” he exclaimed. “Why does it sound like you’re saying goodbye?”

“I came along because I wanted to make sure you made it through the lake safely,” she explained. “But now I need to get back to the other Kyoshi Warriors.”

“So you came along to protect me?” Sokka looked at her incredulously.

“Listen, I’m really sorry about last night,” Suki said blushing. “We were talking and saying things… I got carried away and before I knew it I…” Sokka didn’t let her finish, instead he leaned down and kissed her.

“You talk too much,” he told her, before kissing her again.

 

A little further, Zuko and Katara were saying their own farewells.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked him sadly.

“We’ll try to keep a low profile. We’re wanted men in both the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation.” He tried to sound careless. It didn’t really work, because now Katara was looking at him worried. “I promise we’ll be okay,” he told her.

“Can I come and see you once you settle?” Katara asked hopefully.

“Of course!” Zuko assured her. “Just look around for good tea. Uncle Iroh will probably be near it and…”

“And you’ll be near your uncle,” Katara smiled. She cast a careful look around her. No one was paying attention to them. She gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “Until we see each other again,” she whispered. Zuko was staring at her as she left.

“You are soooo in love,” Lia approached him smiling slightly, with Iroh right behind her. The old man waited for his nephew to deny it angrily, but he merely stood there smiling.

“I don’t see why this is bad,” Zuko finally said.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Decisions

Standard

Author’s Note:  In which decisions are made, shippings are shipped and the canon is laid to rest.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Decisions***

Toph woke up first the next morning. For a few moments she remained lying motionless on the floor, taking in the vibrations around her. Sokka was sleeping outside of his sleeping bag, his arms and legs sprawled in every possible direction. Aang was curled into a small ball, with Momo sleeping next to him. Finally Katara… Toph paused disbelieving. She took her feet off the ground and then felt again the vibrations. It felt like the waterbender was asleep facing Zuko. The Fire prince was facing her too, their hands entwined. So they did make out last night! the little earthbender thought satisfied. Iroh was still asleep, judging from the rumble coming from his room, but Lia was already up and, if her nose was telling the truth, making breakfast.

 

The Spirit looked up from her work, when she sensed another presence near her. She smiled warmly at the petite girl entering.

“Good morning Toph. Did you sleep well?” she asked cheerfully. Toph looked at her suspicious.

“Why are you so friendly?” she asked.

“Why shouldn’t I be?” Lia shrugged. “I ceased judging people hastily a few thousand years ago. Besides,” she paused for a moment and lowered her voice to a whisper, “I kind of have a favour to ask you.”

“I knew it would be something like this!” the earthbender said angrily. “Every time someone acts nice to me it’s because they want a favour! Well bring it on! Should I also teach Sparky earthbending? He can’t be any harder than Twinkle-Toes!”

“I was actually going to ask you not to tell him or Sokka about Zuko and Katara. I don’t think they’d react well to the news.” Lia told her calmly, unfazed by the younger girl’s outburst.

“Oh.” Toph smiled sheepishly. “I acted like an idiot, didn’t I?” she asked.

“No, you acted like a twelve-year-old who is sick of being pushed around.” Lia ruffled Toph’s hair teasingly and ducked the answering punch with a chuckle. “By the way, how about a quick spar before breakfast?”

“You’re on!” Toph turned to exit the house but turned back immediately. “Oh, and about the lovebirds? I won’t tell, but if they want to keep it secret, they’d better wake up soon.”

 

Zuko woke up half-convinced that last night had been a wonderful dream. He had told Katara his feelings and that she had returned. He opened his eyes to see Katara’s peaceful face inches from his. The young man smiled spying their hands laced together. Nope! Not a dream after all! He leaned down and kissed the still sleeping girl lightly. Katara opened her eyes and smiled at him. It made Zuko’s heart flutter.

“Good morning,” she told him sleepily.

“Slept well?” Zuko asked her.

“Uh-huh.” Katara sat up and looked around. “Toph’s already up. That’s strange.”

“So is Lia,” Zuko added surveying the room. “They’ll probably be in the kitchen.”

The two teens went to the kitchen, to find it empty. They exchanged questioning glances. Where could the two girls be? As if to answer them a rumble was heard from outside. They rushed to the door to see Toph and Lia sparring furiously.

 

Toph noticed them first. “Well look who’s up!” she commented avoiding a few flames that nearly singed her tunic. “Had a good night Sugar Queen?” Katara blushed a little.

“Well, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to join us?” Lia asked, melting a rock Toph sent to her. “Toph and I against you two.” Zuko smiled at the challenge.

“You’re on.” The two pairs took stances and began. Zuko was immediately attacked by both Lia and Toph who seemed to have way to much fun ganging up on him. Katara came to his aid, driving the Fire Spirit away. The waterbender soon realized that her opponent was going easy on her, shooting comments to Zuko all the time.

“Use more heat and fewer flames,” Lia advised even as she ducked a waterwhip. Katara turned curiously and saw Zuko floating a little over the ground, a look of concentration on his face. Toph was looking around, obviously trying to understand where her opponent had disappeared. Zuko shot a blast near her, making the little earthbender jump. Lia smiled at her student, who was now approaching her with a challenging smirk. He sent a fire ball towards her. She caught it and sent it back to him in the form of a dagger. Zuko raised an arm to protect himself, but he had miscalculated the force and stumbled, landing on his ankle.

“Oh my goodness!” Lia rushed to his side worried. “I’m sorry Zuko. Did you get hurt?” Zuko was holding his ankle with a pained expression.

“I think I sprained it,” he muttered. Katara knelt next to him and moved his hands away softly. She took water out of her pouch and formed the healing glove. Zuko watched astonished as the pain steadily disappeared.

“We’d better stop for now,” Katara said. “It’s time for breakfast anyway.”

“Does this happen every time you spar?” Toph asked curiously.

“No, usually he just lands rather roughly.” Lia answered with a strained laugh. Zuko heard the tension on her voice and turned to her.

“Lia I’m okay, really. You worry too much.” His sister smiled.

“I guess you’re right. I was overreacting.” She turned towards the house and if there was still tension in the way she held herself, none of the teens commented on it.

 

Once inside, Lia went immediately to the stove. She wiped the ashes and some coal away, to reveal a metal box. Calmly she took it on her hands and opened it.

“What are you doing? You’ll burn yourself!” Katara exclaimed worried.

“She doesn’t have a problem,” Zuko told her reassuringly. Indeed Lia took out the freshly baked bread so calmly, as if it wasn’t much warmer than a stone.

“I’ve touched warmer things.” She said lightly. “Besides, you kids forget that I am Fire. Heat, ash, flamed…They don’t bother me.”

“You know,” Toph said mischievously, “I never thought that a spirit like Agni would be so… unspiritlike.”

Lia’s eyes darkened. “Don’t call me that,” she warned dangerously.

“Why?” Toph asked confused. She had sensed the threatening undercurrent.

“She just hates the name,” Zuko explained hastily.

“What name?” Sokka yawned entering. His face brightened seeing breakfast already served.

“Good morning everyone!” Aang called behind him.

“Good morning boys,” Lia greeted them, all previous bad mood forgotten. Sokka’s face fell, noticing her and Zuko for the first time. Toph looked around.

“Iroh isn’t up yet,” she noted surprised. “I thought firebenders rose with the sun.”

“The exceptions are those that make the rule,” Lia said wisely.

“We’d better wake him anyway,” Katara said. “He needs to eat something.”

“Yeah, before Snoozles over there devours the universe,” Toph laughed. Zuko stood up.

“I’ll go get him,” he offered.

 

He returned minutes later with Iroh. The old man smiled sleepily to everyone before sitting between Toph and Lia. He seemed to liven up a little when Lia passed him his tea. Zuko took his seat next to Katara. There was an awkward silence hanging over the table.

“So…” Zuko began awkwardly, “where are you going to go next?” Aang opened his mouth to answer, but Sokka cut in.

“Don’t answer him! He’ll probably be there waiting for us.”

“No I won’t!” Zuko protested. He turned to Aang. “I won’t be hunting you anymore.”

“Still, it’s classified.” Sokka insisted smugly.

“Actually we don’t know where we’ll go yet.” Katara glared at her brother, even as she smiled encouragingly to the firebender on her side.

“What will you guys do?” Aang asked still surprised that Zuko wouldn’t be after him anymore.

“This is a great question. Where do you go when you are wanted for different reasons from two different countries?” Lia pondered aloud.

“You could come with us.” Toph offered (Sokka choked on his shock.) “It can’t be any more dangerous than it has already has been for you or us.” Calmly she slapped Sokka in the back, causing him to splutter and take a couple deep breaths.

“It’s very kind of you my dear,” Iroh said gratefully, “But we wouldn’t want to become a burden to your friends.”

“We’ll discuss this later,” Katara said decisively, still eyeing her red-faced brother as if she expected him to explode. “Now there are things to be done. Toph, will you train with Aang again today?”

“Sure, come on Twinkle-Toes.” Toph sprung to her feet and dragged Aang outside with her, ignoring his protests. Katara turned to the rest of them. Before she had a chance to say anything Lia jumped in.

“I could spar with Sokka!”

“I’m not a bender! How can we spar?” the boy asked alarmed.

“With swords! Who do you think taught the prince over there how to duel?” the Sprit said as if it was obvious.

“Okay,” The warrior said, the challenge already shining in his eyes. Iroh stood up as well.

“I’m going to take a walk. It is fascinating how much nature clears the head.”

 

Once everyone else was out Katara began cleaning. Zuko made a movement to help her, but she pushed him back down.

“You’d better rest,” she told him. “I have never healed something like this before.”

“It feels fine,” Zuko objected.

“Still! You might accidentally strain it again.” They battled stares for a few moments before Zuko smiled.

“Are those healer’s orders?” he asked cheekily.

“Yes!” she answered exasperated.

“You know, you’re really cute when you’re angry,” Zuko told her all of a sudden, blushing as soon as the words left his mouth. Katara blushed and smiled shyly. She finished her chores quickly and they went to sit outside.

 

Sokka and Lia were still practicing in the distance. Sokka was obviously having a hard time. Iroh was nowhere to be seen, and neither were Toph and Aang.

“Seriously now,” Katara said, “why don’t you come with us?”

“Neither your brother nor the Avatar would welcome us. It would just add tension.”

“I don’t think Aang would be much of a problem. He needs to learn firebending eventually.”

“It’s still not so simple,” Zuko tried to explain to her. “I don’t know if uncle Iroh or Lia would want to come too. I don’t want to force it on them.”

“I don’t know about Iroh, but I have no objections about tagging along. Sokka is fun to mess around with.” Lia materialised next to him.

“Where is he now?” Katara asked the Spirit curious. Lia shrugged.

“He went to find the others. I’m sure I heard Toph yelling at him as I came back.”

Zuko looked at her uncertainly. “Do you think we should travel together?”

 

Lia stretched on her back, gazing at the sky thoughtfully. “It’s not as if we have anywhere to go,” she said thoughtfully. “And I’m willing to bet that Iroh has a few plans of his own. Maybe it would be better if we kind of let him in peace to do whatever he wants. It would also be good for Aang to know he has a firebending teacher. And I’m sure neither of you would have much of an objection.” She lazily raised her head to see the two teens avoiding each other’s gaze blushing. “I thought as much,” she remarked laying back down. “You’d better go talk with Iroh, Zuko. If he doesn’t have any objections, it will be only Sokka disagreeing.” The two teens shot her a look. She looked at them surprised. “What? Toph had been pestering Aang to let us come with you ever since they left the house! He’ll come around, even if it’s just to get away from her.”

 

Zuko rolled his eyes. He had gotten used to Lia’s way of thinking (not that he always understood her) and he knew she had a way of reading other people’s thoughts. But now he saw her through Katara’s eyes, and it sounded like a lot of nonsense. He stood up carefully. “I guess you’ll make me go and talk to him,” he said at the Spirit.

“No need. You’ve already decided it,” she told him cheekily. Zuko sighed and waved goodbye to the two girls, before leaving to find his uncle.

 

Katara glanced at the Spirit nervously. She didn’t know what to say to her now that they were alone, but they couldn’t just sit there not saying anything.

“You know, you made Zuko really happy yesterday,” Lia suddenly told her.

“Really?” Katara looked at her surprised. The other girl was now sitting, facing her with a serious expression.

“He’ll kill me for telling you, but he has been falling for you for quite some time now,” she said. Katara blushed.

“How long?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“Oh, he noticed you back at the South Pole alright, but it didn’t hit him before your little encounter with the pirates.” Lia laughed. “When I told him that that necklace of yours was a betrothal gift…” she was laughing so hard she could hardly breathe. Zuko’s horrified expression had been priceless.

“It’s been quite a shock for me too,” Katara said dryly. A thought occurred to her. ‘That’s why you said it was about time we talked?” Lia nodded. She had noticed how awkward the waterbender was acting around her.

“Katara, really, there’s nothing to be nervous about. Relax!”

“It’s just that…” the girl tried to explain.

“Would it be different if I hadn’t told you I’m a Spirit?”

“I guess.” Katara admitted. “I should be used on Spirits. La! I’m traveling with the Avatar. It’s just I have always imagined the Fire Spirit different.”

“If it makes you feel better I wasn’t always a Spirit,” Lia said. “Besides, the Spirit World is very much like the physical world. Anyway, would you ever imagine that Spirits as powerful as Tui and La would chose the forms of fish?”

“I guess not.” Katara said unsurely.

“How did you imagine me?” Lia asked curiously. Katara had started to relax, with the semi-normal conversation they were having.

“Full of flames,” She said jokingly. Lia winked. She stood up and moved away a little. She closed her eyes and suddenly she looked…different. Her eyes seemed older and her hair and dress danced in an invisible breeze, trailing sparks behind them and moving almost like actual flames.

“Like this?” she asked teasingly.

“Pretty much,” the waterbender said uneasily. Lia closed her eyes once more and the next moment she was back at her old self: still otherworldly but somehow more human.

“I rarely take this form,” she explained. “It’s not practical to go around in it. And to be honest with you, I don’t really like it.”

“Can you tell me about the Spirit World?” Katara asked curiously. “It sounds like an unbelievable place to me.”

“It is unbelievable at the beginning,” Lia said, sitting down. She hadn’t told stories to anyone for a long time.

 

Zuko walked towards the canyon. Sure enough his uncle was there. He sat comfortably on a flat rock chatting with Toph while Aang was practicing nearby. Sokka was nowhere to be found. Once he was near Toph called.

“Well, if it isn’t Sparky!” Zuko winced at the new nickname. At least it was better than “Zuzu”.

“Can I talk with you uncle?” he asked formally, ignoring the smirking earthbender.

“Of course,” his uncle stood puzzled and followed him back to the forest. They walked in silence for a few minutes. Iroh looked at his nephew surprised. It wasn’t like him to hesitate opening a conversation. Meanwhile Zuko was trying to think how to begin.

“Uncle, what are we going to do from here?” he finally asked. So that was it! Iroh knew that Zuko wanted to go with Katara. It surprised him that he hesitated.

“What do you want to do prince Zuko?” he asked the teen.

“I want to travel with Katara and the others, but…” Zuko looked at his uncle uncertainly. “I don’t want to force you or Lia to follow me.” Iroh smiled proudly. His nephew had come a long way over the last few months. It was time to let him go.

“I believe it is time to continue on separate paths,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Zuko looked at him alarmed.

“You and Lia will travel with the Avatar. It has been your destiny all along my nephew.”

“But what about you uncle?”

The old General smiled. “I will head to Ba Sing Se. I have some business to take care of.”

“What business?” Zuko insisted. What could his uncle mean by that?

“Oh, just old people’s stuff,” Iroh said indifferently. His nephew didn’t seem convinced. “I will explain everything to you in due time. But for now, do you agree with this arrangement?” Zuko looked at him for a long time before nodding. “Marvelous!” Iroh said satisfied. “Now, I think we should get back. A cup of tea before packing is necessary!”

 

Zuko followed his uncle exasperated. Even if the end of the world came, Iroh would invite it for a cup of tea before getting down to business. As they neared the house they heard laughter. Lia and Katara were still sitting outside the house talking. Or more accurately laughing. When they saw the two men approaching, they tried to stifle their giggles, to no avail.

“What’s so funny?” Sokka called, appearing at the clearing almost simultaneously with the two Fire Nation men. At his sight the two girls began laughing again.

“Zuko you have to see this one!” Lia called him, when she managed to catch her breath. She created a rather large circle of flames. Sokka’s face appeared in it.

“His name is Zhao,” the Sokka on the image said. “Middle-aged, big sideburns, bigger temper.” The image disappeared. Everyone but Sokka was laughing.

“This is the most accurate description of Zhao I have ever heard,” Lia declared. At this Sokka’s face turned from annoyed to smug.

 

Once they had caught their breaths Katara turned to Zuko. “So, what did you decide?” Zuko looked around uneasily.

“I would like to travel with you if you want me in your group.”

“I’m tagging along!” Lia rushed to add. Katara turned to Iroh.

“What about you General Iroh?” she asked. He shook his head.

“My place is not amongst all you young people,” he said. “I will continue on my own. But,” he winked at Katara, “I trust you to take care of my nephew.” The girl blushed.

“Absolutely…” Sokka began crossly.

“Yes!” his sister finished. Sokka looked ready to have a seizure.

“What?” he yelled at Katara. She merely pushed him away, unfazed.

“Aang needs a firebending teacher,” she simply said.

“She’s right Sokka,” Aang’s voice was heard. He and Toph had returned. The airbender turned to the firebender and the Fire Spirit. “You are welcome to come with us,” he said with a hesitant smile.

“Okay! Now this is settled let’s start packing,” Lia said, rubbing her hands eagerly.

“Oh, right! My opinion doesn’t matter at all,” Sokka grumbled, stomping back to the house.

 

Aang thought it would take them more than usual to pack with two extra people. But to his amazement it took less. Zuko and Lia made a good team and they seemed to collaborate perfectly with everyone else. Sokka seemed to be the only one having serious trouble. He would glare at the prince with every chance he had. But even he couldn’t remain angry, seeing the amounts of food they packed. Finally the time came for farewells. The teens wished goodbye to Iroh and took off. The old General stood looking at the bison until he disappeared at the horizon. Then he left with a secret smile. He had some old friends to meet.

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Bitter Work

Standard

Author’s note: In which painful lessons are learned, Sokka is the butt of this week’s joke and the shipping is not implied anymore! -cue the (not so) inner fangirl screams-

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

*** Bitter Work ***

When Iroh woke the next morning dawn was just breaking. He felt weak, but in surprisingly less pain than he thought he ought to be. He tried to rise but he couldn’t. With a grunt he turned his head to take in his surroundings. On his side Zuko was asleep facing him. Even now he had a worried expression etched on his face. Next to him slept Lia. She was using his nephew as a cushion, something Iroh found adorable. They could easily be passed for siblings, if it wasn’t for the Spirit’s red hair. Such a scene would never unfold between Zuko and Azula. He was feeling more and more tired by just thinking all this through, so he drifted back to sleep. The next time he woke was by the smell of tea and the sound of quiet conversation.

 

Zuko had woken up early, feeling a strange weight resting on his stomach. Opening his eyes cautiously, he saw Lia sleeping soundly. Uncle Iroh also seemed asleep. Zuko stood up carefully, trying not to wake his friend. Lia mumbled in annoyance at the shift but she went right back to sleep, snuggling deeper inside the sleeping bag. She reminded him of a cat, curling next to the fireplace to get warm. He decided to go check on the provisions she had stored. Hopefully there would be tea there too. If nothing else could wake his uncle, tea would. To his surprise, he wasn’t the first to rise from bed. Katara was already in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. She was having trouble with lightning the fire, he noted smiling.

 

Katara had been trying to light the fire for fifteen minutes now, to no avail. Just as she was about to give up and let the others figure out breakfast, the stove sprung to life. Startled she turned to see Zuko leaning against the doorway.

“I thought you could use some help,” he said casually. “By the way is there any tea?”

“Thanks,” Katara hastened to say. She looked around at the cupboards. “I didn’t have time to check through all of these. You like tea for breakfast?” she asked curious.

“Not really,” Zuko shrugged. “But it is the only thing that would convince uncle Iroh to wake up.” He couldn’t believe he was having an actual conversation with her at last. Even if it was only about his uncle’s drinking habits. He went over to some cupboards and started looking over them. Katara silently started to do the same on the other side of the wall. They met in the middle, their hands lightly brushing as they tried to open the cupboard the same time. Both teens flushed red and then burst out laughing at each other’s expression. Zuko opened the cupboard, still chuckling. Sure enough, inside it, there was everything they would need for a cup of tea.

 

Lia found them, still in the kitchen, half an hour later. They sat by the stove, talking and comparing their travels. When she entered, Zuko was listening with interest about Katara’s fight with Master Paku. The Spirit hated to disturb them, but she was a much better choice than Sokka or – Spirits forbid – Aang. She coughed loudly. The two teens jumped startled. Zuko relaxed immediately upon seeing her and Katara followed his example.

“I thought it would be better for you to know,” Lia said mischievously. “Aang has just woken Sokka and,” she paused for a moment, unsure about the other girl’s name. “The little earthbender too. Prepare yourselves.” As if to prove her words, Aang entered the kitchen.

“Today is the day! Can you believe it?” he was so ecstatic he didn’t notice Zuko sitting close to Katara, studying him with a bemused smile. “After all that time searching for a teacher, I’m finally learning earthbending!” Sokka stumbled in the kitchen behind the Avatar. He had a serious case of bedhead and his expression didn’t lighten even when the smell of breakfast reached him. Katara sighed.

“Aang I know you are excited,” she said handing him and her brother their breakfast, “but you needn’t have woken Sokka. You know he hates it.”

“Sorry,” Aang smiled sheepishly.

“Good morning earthbending student!” Toph yelled entering.

“Good morning sifu Toph,” Aang said equally laud.

“You never called me “sifu” Katara,” the waterbender observed with raised eyebrows.

“Well, if you think I should…” Aang started.

“Never mind!” Katara cut him off smiling as she handed Toph her plate. She shot a questioning glance at Lia. “Won’t you eat something?” she asked her.

“No, thanks,” the Spirit declined. “I’m rarely hungry.”

“Okay…” Katara said unsure.

 

Sokka nearly buried his head inside his plate, obviously not quite awake yet.

“Sorry Snoozles,” Toph told him sarcasm dripping from her words, “we’ll do our earthbending as quietly as possible,” she whispered. Zuko laughed upon hearing this. He remembered his few fights with earthbenders as nothing but noisy. Sokka stood, still muttering under his breath and retreated back to his sleeping bag.

“So what move are you going to teach me first?” Aang asked eagerly. “Rock-the-land? The Trembler? Oh, maybe I can learn to make a whirlpool out of land!” He didn’t notice Katara’s wince at the mention of the last trick.

“Bad memories?” Zuko whispered to her concerned. She nodded.

“Let’s start with move-a-rock,” Toph proposed calmly.

“Okay! Sounds good, sounds good.” Aang followed her outside. There was a small canyon twenty minutes from the house. Toph led him there, mindful of Iroh, who had still to awaken. Sokka, still wrapped in his sleeping bag had taken a seat near them to watch the lesson. Upon Aang’s first failed attempt to move a rock he snickered.

“Rock beats airbender,” he announced, more to himself.

 

Back at the house Lia had shooed Zuko and Katara out of the kitchen in order to clean up. The two teens went back to Iroh’s room carrying the tray with the tea along.

“Is she always like this?” Katara asked curiously Zuko.

“More or less. It makes you forget how powerful she really is,” Zuko shrugged. “Why did you wince when the Avatar mentioned the whirlpool?” he asked her back.

“When we first arrived to the Earth kingdom, we were supposed to meet with this General, who would provide us with an escort to Omashu. This man was obsessed with the Avatar State. He convinced Aang to try to trigger it, in order to lead an invasion to the Fire Nation.” She stopped, realizing what she had just said and to whom.

“I guess it didn’t work out,” Zuko said tonelessly.

“It didn’t,” Katara hurriedly assured him. “Finally the General resulted to attack Aang in order to force him into the Avatar State. When neither this worked, he trapped me into a whirlpool of earth. He freed me only when Aang went out of instinct into the Avatar State. But then he was impossible to control. He destroyed the whole courtyard, before he snapped out of it.”

Zuko looked angry. “So you’re telling me that this man purposely endangered you, in order to secure a weapon against the Fire Nation? He would make quite a pair with Azula.”

“Who’s Azula?” Katara asked him confused.

“My sister,” he answered bitterly.

“She is traveling with two other girls. One that throws darts and one that could paralyze me and take my bending away,” Katara told him. “Do you know them?”

“Their names are Mai and Tai Li,” Zuko explained. “They have been friends with Azula since childhood.”

 

Their heads shot up when they heard a groan from the bed. Zuko was immediately at his uncle’s side.

“Uncle?” he asked seeing the old man waking. “You were unconscious. Azula did this to you. It was a surprise attack.”

“Somehow that’s not so surprising,” Iroh commented, trying to sit up. Zuko took a cup from the tray.

“I hope I made it the way you like it,” he said hesitantly. He had never made tea before. Katara saw Iroh taking a sip and trying to stifle a disgusted expression. She stood and approached them not wanting Zuko to notice it.

“That was very… bracing.” Iroh looked up from his cup and saw her. “My dear,” he said. “I think I should be thanking you.” Katara blushed.

“It was nothing. I will just need to check on the wound one more time and then I will leave you two in peace.”  Zuko moved to make way for her, as she peeled off the bandages from Iroh’s wound, and bended water from a small basin she had brought, to form the healing glove. The wound was doing better than she had thought and she was finished quickly. She put the bandages back into place and left to go watch Aang’s lesson.

“Such a wonderful girl,” Iroh commented.

“She really is,” Zuko agreed in a whisper. He turned his attention back to Iroh, studiously ignoring Iroh’s teasing look. “So uncle, I’ve been thinking, it’s only a matter of time before I run into Azula again. I’m going to need to know more advanced firebending if I want to stand a chance against her. I know what you’re going to say,” he added hastily. “She’s my sister and I should be trying to get along with her.”

“No, she’s crazy and she needs to go down.” Iroh said seriously. “It’s time to resume your training,” he added.

 

Meanwhile Katara had found the rest of her friends. A laughing Sokka informed her of Aang’s failed attempts before leaving to hunt. His sister couldn’t see why. There was plenty of meat in the house. She approached Toph and Aang.

“Maybe there’s a different way!” Aang was still hyper from excitement. “What if I came at the boulder from a different angle…?”

“No!” Toph cut him. “That’s the problem! You’ve got to stop thinking like an airbender. There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickily trick that’s gonna move that rock.” She shoved him to the ground to underline her words. “You’ve got to face it head on. And when I say head on, I mean like this!” She smashed the boulder with her head and started to go away in a huff. Katara ran after her.

“I’ve been training Aang for a while now,” she said to the impatient girl. “He really responds well to a positive teaching experience. Lots of encouragement and praise. Kind words. If he’s doing something wrong, maybe a gentle nudge on the right direction.”

“Thanks Katara.” Toph said sweetly. “A gentle nudge? I’ll try that.”

 

The waterbender wandered away from them ignoring the yells that echoed behind her from Toph and the occasional yelp from Aang. She was at loss of what to do. Aang and Toph were having their lessons, Sokka had disappeared to hunt, and there were no jobs to be done. She thought of returning to watch Zuko practice. Maybe they could spar a little. She halted as soon as she thought that. She was already thinking of the prince as a part of their team. They had barely spent a day together, yet she had noticed that she was opening up to him. That very morning they had sat together, sharing stories of their lives. They had already created a bond and Katara noticed surprised that she didn’t have a problem with it. Maybe they could even be friends… Or something more, a tiny voice on the back of her head whispered. The girl blushed furiously. She was so deep in thought; she didn’t notice she had returned to the small forest near the house. She didn’t even hear the sound of running water. Which resulted in her falling into a small stream. Katara smiled. She had just found what she was going to do today.

 

Sokka was perched on a tree near the forest too. He knew they had enough provisions thanks to Lia, but he wasn’t going to trust a Fire Spirit – one that was friends with Zuko of all people! Today’s breakfast had tasted a little funny. Under him, he saw a small cub passing. Sokka tried to tell what kind of animal it was, but he couldn’t.

“You’re awfully cute,” he said to himself, “but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.” He watched it approaching. “Just a bit closer…” He jumped screaming from the tree, to feel the earth giving way on the spot he landed. The cub neared him curiously. Sokka tried again to strike it, only succeeding to sink more on the narrow hole.

“You are one lucky little meat-creature,” he told the cub furiously.

 

Zuko and Iroh moved from the bedroom to the kitchen, where Iroh brewed a fresh pot of tea, before he began to instruct his nephew. Lia was leaning on the doorframe, listening curiously. It had been a long time since she had heard Iroh instructing Zuko, what with her travels and all.

“Lightning is a pure form of Fire,” the old man began, “without aggression. It is not filled with rage and emotion the way any other firebending is. Some call lightning the cold-blooded fire. It is precise and deadly, like Azula. To perform the technique requires peace of mind.” Iroh wondered whether his nephew was ready for such a step. Lightning didn’t suit his temperament at all.

“I see,” Zuko observed. “That’s why we’re drinking tea. To calm the mind.”

“Oh yes good point,” Iroh said cheerfully. He heard Lia laugh quietly from behind him and sobered hastily. “I mean, yes,” he said more seriously.

 

They moved outside to continue. Lia had followed them silently, watching their every move closely. It made Iroh a little uneasy.

“There is energy all around us,” he continued nevertheless. “The energy is both yin and yang, positive energy and negative energy. Only a select few firebenders can separate these energies. This creates an imbalance. The energy wants to restore balance and in the moment the positive and negative energy come pressing back together, you provide release and guidance, creating lightning.” He motioned Zuko to pull back and once the boy did, he produced a lightning shot.

“I’m ready to try it,” Zuko said impatiently.

“Remember, once you separate the energy, you do not command it. You are its humble guide. Breathe first.” Iroh went to sit back with Lia.

“He is not ready yet,” she told him grimly.

“I know,” Iroh answered. “But he needs to understand it himself.”

They saw Zuko mimicking his uncle’s movements, but instead of producing lightning, he was blasted back. He tried again and again to no avail. Finally Zuko lost his patience.

“Why can’t I do it?” he asked both his uncle and Lia. “Instead of lightning, it keeps exploding in my face! Like everything always does,” he added bitterly. Iroh opened his mouth to say something, but Lia stopped him. She walked to her student and placed a hand on his shoulder. Iroh studied her curiously.

“Stand up Zuko,” the Spirit told him calmly. The boy did as asked. “I want to show you something.” She stood right behind him and placed both hands on his shoulders. “Now, when I tell you, you will repeat the movement, okay? Just the movement. Don’t try to produce lightning.” Zuko nodded. He felt Lia taking a slow, deep breath and, “Now.”

 

He felt an unearthly calm wash through him. It emptied his mind, leaving him feeling cold. He repeated fluently the movements and was surprised to see lightning springing from his fingertips. Once the move was finished, Lia let go of him. The flow of emotions returned like a tidal wave, making him feel dizzy. She steadied him.

“That’s the price you have to pay to produce lightning; this emptiness. I don’t think you are ready to practice such a move regularly, without it affecting you,” she explained to Zuko. “Originally lightning was taught to grown adults, as the last step before receiving the title of a master.”

“She’s right,” Iroh added. “You won’t be able to master lightning unless you deal with the turmoil inside you.”

“What turmoil?” Zuko yelled at Iroh’s direction.

“Don’t you yell!” Lia snapped at him. “You know exactly what he’s talking about. Spirits above! I thought I was going to explode, holding all those feelings and thoughts back!” Zuko bowed his head. They were right of course.

“I apologise uncle Iroh,” he said bowing.

 

The scene reminded vividly to Iroh of that storm they had encountered on their ship. He had seen his nephew losing his hold and always marvelled at how he hadn’t fall into the sea. Now he had his suspicions of how it had happened, as well as for the reason behind Zuko’s improved attitude the following days.

“I know! I’m going to teach you a firebending move that even Azula doesn’t know. Because I made it up myself,” he said in a flash of inspiration. Lia smiled approvingly.

“Come on prince Gloomy,” she called affectionately the prince, nudging him with her shoulder. “I know you’re curious about it!” Zuko turned smiling slightly.

 

Somewhere else, inside the forest Sokka was losing his patience. He was stuck in that hole for hours, with his would-be lunch sitting comfortably on his head.

“You probably think I deserve this, don’t you,” he said at the cub. “Look I’m sorry I hunted you, but that’s just the natural order of things! Big things eat smaller things. Nothing personal. But this time it didn’t work out that way.” The little animal snuggled on his head and fell asleep. Sokka sighed. “I admit it; you’re cute. Okay you convinced me. If I ever get out of this there will only be a karmically correct, vegetarian existence for me. No meat. Even though meat is so tasty.” He sniffed, holding back tears at the thought. The cub jumped of his head and ran off. It returned moments later with an apple on its mouth.

“Hey! Looks like my karma is already paying off!” He tried to reach the apple, but he couldn’t with his hands literally glued inside the hole. Instead his boomerang fell of its sheath. “Now come back boomerang,” he ordered it frowning. Spirits I must have the worst luck in all four Nations.

 

Sokka and Zuko weren’t the only ones facing problems. Aang had quickly realized that earthbending was much harder than it looked. His airbender mind-frame was getting in the way of truly understanding the new technique. Besides training with Toph was so much different than training with Katara. Katara was lenient with him, never too tired to explain something again and again. Toph on the other hand yelled at him whenever he did something wrong. She was tough and expected him to pick up her attitude immediately. Finally Aang gave up and went to find Katara. She took one look at him and understood the situation. They were practicing waterbending together now, talking their – or more accurately his – problems over.

“You know this block you’re having is only temporary, right?” Katara asked him.

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Aang passed her back the water they were bending. He was still embarrassed from being yelled at by Toph.

“You do realize that’s the problem, do you?” Katara insisted. “If you face this issue instead of avoiding it…”

“I know, I know, I know! I get it, alright? I need to face it “head on” like a rock. But I just can’t do it. I don’t know why I can’t but I can’t,” he blurted out angrily.

“Aang, if fire is the opposite of water, then what is the opposite of air?” his waterbending sifu calmly asked.

“I guess it’s earth.”

“That’s why it’s so hard for you to get this,” she explained. “You’re working with your natural opposite.” Aang looked at the water thoughtfully. “But you’ll figure it out. I know you will.” While she was talking she cut a small reed from behind her. She threw it at him. “Think fast!” she ordered. Aang quickly raised a wave in front of him, cutting the piece of wood in two. “Excellent!” Katara praised him. “You have the reflexes of a waterbending master.”

“Thanks Katara.” Aang bowed on her. “Sifu Katara,” he added.

 

Iroh took a long stick and started sketching in the dirt. This would need a longer introduction than lightning. He took a look at the teenagers sitting in front of him. Zuko had a look of serious concentration on his face, while Lia a bemused expression, as if she was trying to guess his words before he said them.

“Fire is the element of power,” Iroh began, sketching the symbol of fire. “The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will and the energy to achieve what they want. Earth is the element of substance,” he continued, again sketching the element’s symbol. “The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring. Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom.”

“They also had a great sense of humour,” Lia added. Iroh laughed at her remark.

“Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them through anything.” Zuko’s thoughts turned to Katara. These things described her well.

“Why are you telling me these things?” he asked confused nonetheless.

“It is important to draw wisdom from many different places,” General Iroh explained. “If you take only from one place it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements and the other Nations will help you become whole.”

“All this four elements talk is sounding like Avatar stuff,” Zuko remarked.

“That’s because the combination of all elements on one person is what makes the Avatar so powerful,” Lia explained. “You shouldn’t be surprised. Remember our lessons?”

“You see, the technique I’m about to teach you, is one I learned by studying the waterbenders,” Iroh concluded. Zuko’s face lightened. Whatever it was that uncle Iroh was going to teach him, was bound to be interesting.

 

They started practicing with some basic blocking moves. While they repeated the sequence Iroh continued explaining:

“Waterbenders deal with the flow of energy. A waterbender lets his defence become his offence, turning his enemy’s energy against him. I learned a way to do this with lightning.”

“You can teach me to redirect lightning?” Zuko had never thought it possible.

“If you let the energy in your own body flow, the lightning will follow. You create a pathway through your fingertips, up your arm to your shoulder, then down into your stomach. The stomach is the source of energy in your body. It is called the sea of chi. Although,” he chuckled, “in my case it is more like a vast ocean. From the stomach you direct it up again and out the other arm. The stomach can take a critical amount of energy, but you must not let the lightning pass through your heart, where the damage could be deadly. You may wish to try a physical motion, to get a feel of the energy’s pathway like this.” They tried the movement a few times.

“Now are you focusing your energy? Can you feel your own chi flowing in, down, up and out of your body?” Iroh asked.

“I think so,” Zuko answered, still concentrated on the move.

“Come on,” Iroh said. “You’ve got to feel the flow.” Lia giggled seeing the old man making wave-like movements with his arms.

 

Half an hour later Iroh stopped his nephew. “Excellent!” he praised him. “You’ve got it.”

“Great! I’m ready to try it with real lightning!” Zuko said, sounding very much like Aang had that very morning.

“What?” Lia exclaimed.

“Are you crazy?” Iroh asked incredulous. “Lightning is very dangerous!”

“I thought that was the point,” Zuko insisted. “You teaching me how to protect myself from it.”

“But I’m not going to shoot lightning at you!” his uncle insisted horrified. “If you’re lucky, you won’t have to use this technique at all.” He walked away. Zuko turned hopeful at Lia.

“I never use lightning,” she told him gravely. “Besides, your uncle is right. You know the movement. You don’t have to prove anything.” A distant rumble was heard from the canyon.

“Well if you won’t help me, I’ll find my own lightning.” Zuko stormed off furious.

 

Katara returned to the house at almost sundown, thinking that everyone would be there already. Instead she found Iroh gazing worriedly at the darkening horizon and Lia pacing restlessly.

“What happened?” Katara asked worried. “Where is everyone?”

“Beats me!” Lia said. She looked furious. “But I know what I will do once I get my hands on Zuko. Nobody storms off like this into such weather alone. I swear I’m going to prevent him from bending for a month if he returns with so much of a scratch!”

The waterbender looked questioningly at Iroh.

“My nephew has some very set ideas on some topics,” the old man explained wearily. “Things turned out to be very different than what he thought and he refused to accept them.”

“Sokka’s missing too,” Katara said. “I’m going to find Aang and start looking for them.”

“I’ll go look around town,” Lia decided.

 

Katara raced to the canyon. Aang was sitting on a rock, his back to her.

“Aang, have you seen…” she tried asking him but he interrupted her.

“Meditating here!” he said, still annoyed with Toph.

“It’s important,” she insisted. “It’s almost sundown and Sokka and Zuko are missing. I think we should search for them.” Aang turned towards her in worry.

“We’ll find them faster if we split up. I’ll go search the forest and you go back to the house in case they return.” Katara nodded and took off again.

 

Toph, Aang and Sokka finally returned just as the sun set on the horizon. Katara had prepared dinner quickly and now was worried sick. Iroh was in no better condition. He didn’t want to think what his nephew would do in order to find lightning. Finally the trio arrived at the entrance.

“You found him!” Katara cried, feeling only a tiny little bit relieved. She hugged her brother, checking him for injuries.

“The whole time I was in that hole,” Sokka told her reflecting. “Not knowing if I would live or die. It makes a man think what’s really important. I realized…”

“Hey Katara, look what I can do!” Aang jumped in. He took an earthbending position, but she stopped him.

“Not now Aang.” She turned to Toph. “Do you know where Zuko is?” she asked.

“No clue Sugar Queen,” the earthbender said carelessly. “Can we go eat now?”

“Yes,” Katara said a little sadly. “Get inside. Dinner is ready.” They all entered the house.

 

Katara had just served Iroh when Lia returned. She looked exhausted.

“Hasn’t he returned yet?” she asked out of breath. Her face was almost ashy with fatigue.

“No. Where could he be?” Katara asked. She noticed the colour of the Spirit’s face. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“We must head in to the heart of the storm…” Lia muttered sitting next to a bewildered Sokka and then leaping right back up on her feet again. “I have to go find him.” Katara pushed her back down.

“No you don’t,” she ordered. “You stay here, rest and eat something. I’ll go find him.” She turned to Toph. “Don’t let her leave.”

“No problem.” The tiny earthbender had too sensed the tiredness in the other girl’s movements. Katara put on her cloak. “I’ll be back soon,” she promised.

 

The storm got worse the farther she went from the house. From the canyon earlier she had noticed a small cliff that seemed to loom higher than everything else.  Zuko would probably be there. No one had thought to search the rocky area. The storm was at its peak when she climbed to the top of the cliff. Indeed Zuko was there. From Katara’s point of view it seemed as if he was kneeling in front of the raging storm. Suddenly, she realized that he was sobbing. Hesitantly she approached him, unsure of what his reaction would be, and put a hand on his shoulder.

“What do you want?” he asked her harshly.

“What are you doing here?” she asked him back.

“Proving to myself what everyone else seems to know. That I’m a failure,” he said bitterly. Zuko didn’t understand why he was confiding in Katara, but he found he couldn’t stop the words.

“How could you be a failure?” the girl asked him in disbelief.

“Multiple reasons – take your pick.” The prince said with a humourless laugh. “I will never be the crown prince my father wanted. My sister will always best me at firebending. It took me sixteen years to understand what a monster my father is. Uncle Iroh will soon tire of me and leave me and so will Lia. I don’t even know who I am supposed to be and you…” he trailed off. They were now standing close, facing each other. Zuko had stopped crying but was still trembling. He turned away.

“What about me?” Katara asked him quietly.

“It doesn’t matter.” He answered still refusing to face her. “You don’t care anyway.”

 

What Katara did next surprised them both. She forced him to turn and face her, placing a hand on each side of his face.

“Zuko look at me.” She told him urgently. “You’re wrong. I care about you and you’re definitely not a failure.” He still refused to meet her gaze, so she did the only thing she could think of. She stood on her tip-toes and kissed him. Zuko was so shocked that he didn’t react at first. Katara broke away almost immediately, blushing crimson.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, turning to leave. What was I thinking, kissing him? she thought, close to tears. He obviously doesn’t like me. She felt a hand taking hold of her own. Katara caught Zuko’s unreadable expression just before he leaned down and kissed her.

 

It was as if they had been doing this forever. Zuko’s hands went immediately to the small of her back, pulling her closer. Katara felt hers move out of their own free will to each side of his face. Through the haze of her mind she could hear the small voice cheering. When lack of air became evident they pulled away.

“I think I’m falling in love with you Katara.” Zuko whispered trying to catch his breath, still holding her close. Said waterbender felt the teenage girl inside her wanting to squeal in delight. She didn’t though. Instead she snuggled closer to the boy’s warm body and said something she had been refusing to believe for a long time: “I think I’m falling in love with you too.”

 

They just stood there while the storm raged around them. Finally a thunderclap broke the spell. They pulled away smiling shyly at one another.

“We should go back. Everyone will be worried,” Katara said reluctantly. She didn’t want to leave his warm embrace.

“Let’s go then,” Zuko answered equally reluctant taking her hand once again.

 

The walk seemed to them to last mere seconds. Before they entered the house, Zuko paused and tuned Katara to face him.

“Do you want them to know?” he asked her hesitantly.

“No, not yet,” she answered unsurely. “Sokka and Aang will go crazy.”

“Then there is something I should do before we go in,” he said kissing her again. Katara felt him smile through the kiss. When they broke away she bended the water out of their clothes and hair and gave him another shy smile.

“Let’s go home.” Zuko told her, smiling back the biggest smile of his life.

 

Once they entered Toph opened her mouth to say something. Lia, spying the mischievous twinkle on the other girl’s eyes, quickly put her hand over the earthbender’s mouth.

“About time you two talked!” Lia cried out over Toph’s muffled protests.

“What do you mean ‘talked’?” Sokka asked her. Lia studied him for a moment before spreading her arms in the air and saying dramatically:

“I’m a Spirit! I’m supposed to say stuff that doesn’t makes sense!”

“That’s true,” Zuko said taking a seat next to Lia, with Katara on his other side. “Half the things you say are nonsense.”

“And the other half?” his ‘sister’ asked.

“You only understand it when it’s too late.”

“Gee! Thanks for the vote of confidence!”

Everyone laughed as the firebender and Fire Spirit continued their bickering, much like normal siblings would.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Chase

Standard

Author’s Note: In which the canon is shifted sideways, there is shipping and teenage hormones and a favour from way back is asked.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Τhe Chase***

That night Zuko and Lia camped within the forest again. Once the fire was set and food was being cooked, Zuko asked her the question that had been bothering him ever since she had lashed out at the town’s people.

“Why did you ask me if I was mad at you?” he questioned curiously.

“When I returned uncle Iroh told me you wanted to continue alone. I was going to respect your wishes, but had to make sure you’d be okay.”

Zuko tugged the small charm from under his shirt. “Wouldn’t this keep you informed?” he asked her.

“It would, but if I was too far away, I wouldn’t be able to get to you in time. Besides,” she added thoughtfully, “danger is subjective.”

“What about uncle?” Zuko asked her again.

“Oh, he’s probably tracking you down, helping whoever he finds on the way,” Lia told carelessly. “Did you expect anything else?”

“I guess not,” he answered smiling.

 

Later that night, Zuko was awoken by a strange noise. He turned to see Lia diving her hands inside the fire, pulling the flames out to the sides, as if trying to create a flat surface. Once she succeeded she muttered a few words under her breath and the flames tuned white. From Zuko’s point of view it was as if she was staring intently at the bright whiteness, but then pictures started to appear and disappear rapidly. He had time to make out a metal tank, a half-moon like cloud, the outline of a young girl dressed in green and finally an abandoned city in flames. There was much more, he was willing to bet, because Lia stopped the conjuration, looking rather grim.

“This is not good,” she whispered to herself. She closed her eyes for a few minutes, obviously re-picturing the images she had seen. Slowly a smile started to form on her lips. She opened her eyes. “But it could be worse!” she said louder.

“What did you see?” Zuko asked her. Lia raised an eyebrow.

“The reason that you’ll to be traveling alone for a few hours tomorrow – I have a small job to do.” She saw his disappointed look. “I promise by midday I’ll be finished! Come on Zuko! One would think you can’t survive without someone around to listen to your complaints!”

“And what do you suggest I do?” he asked her, irate.

“Look for tracks from a tank. That lovely, little sister of yours is looking for Aang personally.”

“How come she’s doing it alone?” Zuko looked at her disbelievingly. Lia shrugged.

“Beats me!” she said also confused.

 

Not very far from Zuko’s campsite Katara found herself exhausted. First she had to set camp nearly by herself – the boys weren’t much of a help. As soon as that was done, she had had to dismantle everything and store it away on Appa’s back. A metal tank-like…thing had appeared on the horizon and was quickly gaining on them. Aang, not wanting to get in a fight when it was nearly dark, had got everyone on board and flew to a nearby forest to hide. As if their mysterious stalker wasn’t enough, there was the latest addition to the group: Toph the blind earthbender who had tagged along to teach Aang. Katara didn’t know how to treat the younger girl. The earthbender refused to open up and let herself become a true member of the group. She preferred to stay on the sidelines, neither in nor out. The waterbender’s motherly instincts were working overboard around her, and, besides, she wasn’t sleeping well at nights. Her thoughts kept returning to Zuko. She was worried for the Fire Prince, although she couldn’t figure out why. She decided sleepily that once she had a decent night’s sleep, she would seriously think over the issue.

“Land, sweet land!” Toph exclaimed as soon as her feet hit the ground. She honestly hated flying. “See you guys in the morning!”

“Actually can you help us unload?” Katara tried for the third time the same evening.

“Really? You want me to help unload Sokka’a funky-smelling sleeping-bag?” Toph asked incredulously. Behind her Katara heard Sokka smell his sleeping-bag and making a disgusted noise.

“Well, yeah. That and everything else,” she told Toph annoyed. “You’re a part of our team now and…”

“Look I didn’t ask you to help unload my stuff,” the twelve-year-old girl said equally annoyed. “I carry my own weight.”

“That’s not the point! Ever since you’ve joined us you’ve been nothing but selfish and unhelpful.”

“What? Look here Sugar Queen; I gave up everything I had to teach Aang earthbending, so don’t you talk to me about being selfish.” She created a tent out of the ground with an angry movement and stormed inside.

“Sugar Queen?” Katara repeated in disbelief. The tent closed completely as an answer. “Did you just slam the door in my face? How can you be so infuriating?” She knew she acted childishly, but Toph always managed to punch her buttons.

“Okay, okay,” she heard Aang say, “you both need to calm down!”

“I’m perfectly calm!” she yelled at him.

“I can see that…” Aang moved away from her quickly and nervously.

 

They didn’t bother to set up their tents after this little scene. Everyone climbed into his or hers sleeping bag and that was it. Unlike the boys, Katara couldn’t fall asleep.

“The stars are beautiful tonight,” she commented loud enough for Toph to hear. “Too bad you can’t see them Toph!” The girl responded with an earth wave. Katara was launched in the air and landed on her brother.

“Hey, how’s a guy supposed to sleep with all this yelling and earthquaking!” Sokka yelled.

“That thing is back!’ Toph said alarmed, all previous annoyance forgotten for the moment.

“Oh no! How far away is it?” Sokka buried himself in his sleeping bag. “Maybe we can close our eyes for a few more minutes.” His voice was heard muffled.

“I don’t think so Sokka.” Aang said spying the smoke approaching. They were soon in flight again.

 

“Seriously, what is that thing?” Katara asked scared.

“And how does it keep finding us?” Toph added.

“I don’t know.” Aang turned to face them. “But this time I’m going to make sure we lose them.” There were a few rocky cliffs around them. They found one that was high enough and Appa landed heavily on it.

“Okay, forget about setting camp,” Sokka muttered, crawling inside his sleeping-bag again. “I’m going to find the softest pile of dirt and fall asleep.”

“That’s good, because Toph wasn’t going to help anyway,” Katara said venomously.

“Oh, I didn’t realize baby still needed someone to tuck her in bed,” Toph snapped back.

“Come on guys. We’re all tired and we don’t know what or who is after us,” Aang covered his head with his coat, too tired himself to be the peacemaker.

“It could be Zuko,” Katara said thoughtfully. Aang though she sounded a little too hopeful about the prospect. “We haven’t seen him since the North Pole,” she continued.

“Who’s Zuko?” Toph asked confused.

“Oh, just an angry freak with a ponytail who’s tracked us down all around the world,” Sokka informed her before burrowing his head into the dirt.

“What’s wrong with ponytails, ponytail?” Katara felt slightly offended on Zuko’s behalf. Inside her head she viciously stamped down the little voice telling her exactly why…

“This is a warrior’s wolftail,” her brother pointed out.

“It certainly tells the other warriors that you are fun and perky!” she teased him.

“Anyway, whoever is tracking us, can’t find us here, so please shush!” Momo jumped worried on Sokka’s chest. “Now Momo, shush! Sleepy time!” Sokka refused to open his eyes. That didn’t discourage Momo. Everyone sat up except for him. Sokka merely buried his head once again and whined. “Oh no, don’t tell me!”

“This is impossible. There’s no way they could have tracked us!” Aang said incredulous.

“I can feel it with my own two feet!” Toph insisted. Aang ran to the side and saw the weird tank approaching them.

“Let’s get out of here,” Katara ordered worried.

“Maybe we should face them, find out who they are.” Aang was unsure. “Who knows? Maybe they are friendly.”

“Always the optimist,” Sokka sighed.

The tanked stopped to reveal three girls riding giant lizards.

“It’s those three girls from Omashu,” Katara said, now truly scared.

“We can take them,” Toph said confidently. “Three on three.”

“Actually Toph, there’s four of us,” Sokka reminded her awkwardly.

“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t count you. You know, no bending and all…”

“I can still fight!’ Sokka yelled.

“Okay,” Toph amended. “Three on three plus Sokka.” She sent a few piles of earth on the girls. They dodged them easily.

“Okay, we found out who they were. Now let’s get out of here!” Sokka ordered nervously, making a bee-line for Appa.  They rushed to follow his example and soon they were once again airborne.

 

The next morning Zuko woke alone. It took him a few moments to register where Lia was. When the previous night’s events came to his mind he frowned. What was Azula doing after the Avatar, alone? It didn’t make any sense to him. I guess I’ll find out soon, he thought as he set off in search for tracks. He found them soon enough. Along the trail there were a few bits and pieces of white hair. Zuko guessed it belonged to the Avatar’s bison. By midday he was getting impatient. The tracks seemed endless.

“Time to change course.” Lia appeared next to him half-walking half-floating.

“Took care of your errands?” he asked her icily. Zuko was getting tired of the never-ending nothingness. Lia shrugged good-naturedly.

“You will be grateful for this later. Anyway, there is an abandoned city nearby. You will find there both your sister and Aang.” She paused thoughtfully. “Isn’t there a proverb for this kind of things?” she asked.

“You’d better ask uncle.”

 

She had said nearby but the setting sun was painting the sky orange by the time they arrived. Hearing voices ahead Zuko dismounted silently. He and Lia approached the main road from the shadows. Lia whispered with her rarely heard stern voice, “The same deal, okay?” Zuko nodded. He wouldn’t have it any other way. After all it wasn’t the Avatar he was after this time. They heard Azula’s condescending voice:

“Do you really want to fight me?” Before Aang had a chance to answer, Zuko cut in. “Yes,” he said. “I really do.”

“Zuko?” Aang exclaimed startled.

“I was wandering when you’d show up Zuzu,” his sister asked.

“Zuzu?” Aang giggled under his breath. Azula noticed Lia, who had silently moved and was now backing up her brother.

“And you brought company too? Marvelous!” the princess continued. Lia lowered her arms a little and gave her a long look.

“You know,” Lia said, “you just proved wrong two things I’ve always believed about princesses.”

“And what would these be?” Azula asked curious.

“Firstly that they ride something better than an oversized lizard and secondly that they dress a tiny little bit more stylishly,” the Spirit said mischievously. Zuko and Aang laughed at this. Azula frowned dangerously.

“You’d better back off Azula.” Zuko warned his sister, slipping into a bending stance, all previous mirth gone.

“I don’t think so.” She answered falling into a stance too. Aang hastened to follow their examples.

 

Zuko measured his two opponents, trying to decide where the first hit would come from. The Avatar was obviously exhausted, unlike Azula. Indeed she fired first. Zuko blocked the hit, but the impact sent him flying against a wall. Azula aimed her next fire bolt to Aang. The boy took off on his air scooter, trying to avoid the flames, while Lia called the majority of them to her. The blue flames twirled around her and seemed to intensify, flaring white for just one moment, as she sent them to Azula’s direction. The princess dodged them and charged at the Avatar, running on the roofs. She jumped to him, but Aang managed to avoid her again. Whipping up another air scooter he approached Zuko. He preferred him to his sister as an opponent. To his surprise though, the other boy didn’t try to attack him. Both he and Lia were shooting flames at Azula. The latter was growing frustrated. She had to fight the Avatar – who wouldn’t stand still for a second – her brother and his mysterious friend. That girl unnerved her. She was merely moving her arms, not even falling into the simplest stance, yet it was as if she was talking to the fire surrounding her. And she obviously had a lot of time to practice with her brother. They backed each other perfectly.

 

Aang took advantage of her distraction and ran inside a house, with Azula hot on his heels. The girl nearly fell, as there was no floor left, but managed to keep her balance somehow. Zuko, who came running immediately after her, wasn’t so lucky. Azula saw him fall, slow down and land perfectly. He rushed to his feet. His sister concentrated on shooting flames at the Avatar, who dodged them. Then she felt someone pushing her roughly. She turned to see Lia waving goodbye at her with a cheeky smile. Azula landed next to her brother, though much less gracefully. Zuko smirked.

“Crash landing?” he asked her teasingly. She sent a blast at him. He was knocked out as he landed on the road. Lia’s expression darkened and she turned to Azula. She sent a huge ball of fire at the younger girl, missing her by an inch. Having pushed the princess at a safe distance she returned to Zuko, feeling more presences approaching.

 

The first thing Katara saw when she reached the city was the mysterious young woman she had seen at the North Pole, kneeling over the prince. She looked up for a moment motioning her to enter a house. She did, in time to send a waterwhip and prevent the girl from Omashu – who, she now realized, resembled Zuko terribly – from burning Aang. With another whip she freed the boy. Then she ran for her life. Sokka appeared from another ruin and blocked Azula’s way with his machete, giving Katara a chance to summon more water from her pouch. Together the three of them started to circle the princess.

 

Meanwhile Lia was still trying to wake Zuko. As he opened his eyes a shadow fell on them.

“Uncle?” Zuko mumbled, not really awake yet.

“Get up,” Iroh ordered him. Together with Lia, he helped his nephew on his feet. They surveyed the battle. Katara, Sokka and Aang were giving Azula a field day. Suddenly the land slid from under her feet, causing her to lose her balance. The petite form of a girl dressed in green appeared.

“I thought you guys could use some help,” Toph said cheekily.

“Toph!” Katara called smiling. “Thanks.” Together they ran after Azula. The princess was beginning to rethink her whole plan. Even without her brother and his friend they were too many for her to handle on her own. She looked over her shoulder to check if they were gaining on her. It was a wrong thing to do, and she fell right on Iroh. She backed away slowly until her back hit a corner. They had trapped her, leaving no exit.

“Well look at this,” she commented, sweeping her eyes on them. “Enemies and traitors all working together. I surrender. I’m done. I know when I’m beaten.” She raised her hands on the air. “You caught me. A princess surrenders with honor.”

No one lowered their guard. Iroh let his gaze slip from Aang to Toph, trying to decide which one Azula would find easier to hit. His niece caught his gaze. Moving suddenly she hit him instead. Even as the old man fell unconscious to the ground, the teenagers sent their combined powers against her. Aang cleared the smoke from the resulting explosion, to discover that Azula had disappeared. Zuko rushed to his uncle’s side, refusing to believe what had just happened. He felt Katara approaching behind him.

“Zuko, I can help,” she told him with earnest worry in her voice.

 

Zuko almost declined her offer. He only wanted them to leave him and his uncle alone. He was helpless and couldn’t stand, no refused to think, that Iroh might be dead. This was all the Avatar’s fault. The prince was ready to yell at them, but before he had a chance a hand was set firmly on his mouth, silencing him. A very grim-looking Lia was kneeling next to him. She forced Zuko to look at her and whispered:

“You owe me a favor.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” he spat.

“I ask it now. I want you to let Katara help Iroh.”

Zuko looked at her for a long moment before nodding. He turned to the waterbender: “Please,” he said quietly.

 

Katara – who had been staring at Lia, surprised – jerked and hastily knelt next to the fallen General. She took out her water, forming a healing glove, and placed it on the wound. Once the water was back on her pouch Zuko looked at her anxiously. She smiled warmly.

“He will be fine. He’ll probably wake up sometime tonight or tomorrow. I will need to check on him again though, once he’s awake.”

“Thank you” Zuko mumbled looking at the beautiful girl next to him with awe. Katara blushed a little.

“There is a little abandoned hut nearby, by the woods,” Lia offered. “We could stay there and be safe.”

The Spirit and the Water Tribe girl shared a look.

 

“Sokka, come here” his sister called him.

“What? Why?” the warrior whined, still shooting suspicious looks at Zuko.

“You, Zuko and I will carry…” she trailed, realized she didn’t know the old man’s name.

“Iroh,” Toph said. She had paled when she felt her old friend falling.

“Thank you, Iroh on the saddle. We will have to stay together until he is well enough to travel.”

“Katara, what are you talking about?” Aang asked aghast.

She put on her “mother face”: “You can either do so or just drop us there and then leave. Because. I. Am. Staying.”

“So am I!” Toph added. Sensing everyone staring at her she shrugged. “What? He gives good tea and even better advice!”

“Sounds like Iroh to me.” Lia whispered to Zuko as she stood up. Sokka noticed her for the first time.

“Who are you anyway?” he asked her suspiciously.

“I’m Lia.”

Sokka looked at her expectantly. “And?”

“You don’t want to hear my entire life story. Trust me at least on this; it’s longer than it seems.”

“Sokka now it’s not the time for this!” Katara snapped. “Come help us!”

 

Knowing better than to argue with the waterbender, the two boys of Team Avatar did as she asked. Together the three teens managed to put Iroh safely on Appa’s saddle. Zuko hurried immediately to sit next to him. He took out a blanket from his backpack and covered his uncle. Katara blushed recognizing it. It was the blanket he gave her the night he had tried to bribe her with her mother’s necklace. The same thought seemed to cross his mind too, because he met her gaze and gave her a shy smile.

 

Lia sat next to Aang giving him directions, while Toph and Sokka were right behind them. Katara sat by them at first, but as soon as they were in the air she scooted nearer Zuko. They sat in awkward silence for a while, not really knowing what to say. Finally Zuko gathered enough courage to speak.

“Why did you help us?” he asked looking at the girl, who was currently bandaging Iroh’s wound. She looked up.

“I may be a waterbending master, but I’m also a healer. I couldn’t let him die. Besides that girl was right.”

“She’s my sister,” Zuko told her bitterly.

“Oh.” Katara had a feeling that there was more on this than he let out. “But we did team up in the end. And I would never leave a part of my team suffer,” she explained.

“So what, we are a team now?” he was surprised.

“I won’t force you to join if that’s what you fear,” she assured him. “But you have to admit that it sounds better than ‘enemies with benefits’.”

 

Despite his worries Zuko smiled weakly. Katara couldn’t help but notice how much more handsome he looked when he was smiling. Admittedly he also looked much better with short hair, more mature and serious. It made her feel secure to be near him. She remembered when he had held her…The memory made her blush and she turned quickly to stare at the front.

 

Meanwhile Zuko thought. He had been certain that Katara wouldn’t be any friendlier than her brother or the Avatar. But she seemed to genially care. He had seen her blush before she had time to turn. The thought of Katara caring made his heart grow and Zuko turned back to his uncle smiling faintly.

 

They soon arrived at the forest. What Lia had called a “hut” was in reality a small abandoned house.

“I’ve had it stocked. There are enough provisions for a few weeks,” she explained. At the mention of food Sokka seemed to glow. Zuko turned to Lia surprised.

“So that was your job! You knew this would happen?”

“I knew we’d end up here all together. Not the reason. It’s not as if future reveals everything to me!”

“Of course.” Zuko bowed his head.

“I saw that smile!” Lia hovered back to the saddle to help him. Katara laughed at their argument.

“Come on kids,” she called them. “We need to get Iroh inside.”

 

Zuko’s face turned serious immediately. He silently moved to help Katara, with Lia following him. They moved inside and placed Iroh on the first room with a bed they found.

“Hey!” Sokka called. “That’s my bedroom!”

“And why would that be?” Zuko asked, crossing his arms.

“It’s the one closest to the kitchen.” Sokka said as if it was obvious. “See?”

“Oh, I do see,” Zuko said raising an eyebrow. “It’s your stomach speaking. Never mind.”

“Sokka let at him be,” Katara scolded him.

“Don’t take the jerkbender’s side! There’s not another bed in the house!”

Katara opened her mouth to yell at him, but Zuko cut in.

“What did you just call me?” he said narrowing his eyes.

“Well no offence,” Sokka saif in a tone that suggested offence was very much intended, “but judging by historical evidence Fire in general is a jerk. So you’re a jerkbender.” His satisfied expression faltered a little when he saw three glares set on him. Zuko exchanged a look with Lia and she nodded. He turned to the warrior, smiling threateningly.

“Did I mention,” he asked, “that Lia is often called Agni?”

“You are named after the Spirit of Fire?” Katara asked wide-eyed.

“Actually…” Lia began.

“You are the Spirit of Fire!” Aang finished, standing  at door with Toph, his eyes wide with realization. Every single member of team Avatar was staring at her. Lia merely threw her arms in the air.

“Finally the great bridge between our worlds gets it.” She turned to Zuko. “It didn’t take you that long.”

“How can a Spirit be helping him?” Sokka asked incredulous.

“I have my reasons.” Lia narrowed her eyes. “And you young man risk some really nasty burns if you don’t shut up. Now…” she said to everyone. “If you’ve got nothing to do here, you’d better go get some sleep. You are all dead on your feet.”

 

They all disappeared on the rest of the house, only Katara stealing a glance behind her. She paused for a moment at the doorframe, opened her mouth as if to say something, but decided against it and left. Zuko took a seat next to his Uncle. Night had fallen and the older man hadn’t stirred. Lia took pity on the boy. She sat next to him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

“He’s going to be okay. Katara is really good at healing and Iroh is strong. He’ll make it.”

He looked at her. “But what if he doesn’t?” he asked her in a small voice. For a moment Lia found herself looking at the child Zuko had been when she had first seen him.

“He will. If you believe it, he will,” she assured him firmly, stubbornly blinking back tears. She smiled faintly at a thought. “I can’t wait to see Sokka’s expression in the morning. I bet that he will be bracing himself for an inferno.”

“Not to mention the Avatar,” Zuko added rolling his eyes. “You were right. For such a spiritual person it did take him long to figure it out.” He closed his eyes fighting exhaustion. The battle with Azula and the previous days of hardship had really drained him. But he had to remain awake. He forced his eyes open again. Lia looked at him sternly.

“You need to sleep too, you know. I promise I’ll wake you if something happens.”

 

They battled stares for a few moments, before Zuko turned, defeated. He took his shirt off and unrolled his sleeping bag. As he turned back, he sensed movement and looked up to see a nervous, blushing Katara standing at the door. She had let her hair down for sleep, he noted. She looked beautiful.

“I just came to check on Iroh,” she stammered still staring at Zuko. “Come and wake me if anything happens.” With one last nervous glance she disappeared.

“That was interesting…” Lia said. Zuko looked at her nervously. Unlike Katara she wasn’t staring at him, he noted with relief.

“Why was she looking at me like that?” he asked her confused.

Lia huffed annoyed at his ignorance: “She likes you!” she told him throwing her hands in the air. Zuko felt his face heat. Lia had never lied to him. His last conscious thought before he fell asleep was, Could this be true?

Avatar: The Spirit of Fire – Return of the Blue Spirit

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Author’s note: In which there is a day-early update because… internet and the lack thereof, Zuko pulls a Robin Hood…kinda, Lia is sassy and the author is impatient to get to the next few chapters.

Previous chapter: link

Next chapter: link

***Return of the Blue Spirit***

When Iroh had first met Lia, the Fire Spirit, he had expected her to be much more…well… serious. It turned out that she had not exaggerated when she said she was her element exactly. One only had to sit through her lessons with Zuko to understand. She would be extremely calm and patient, explaining things over and over again, even having Zuko use her as a target from time to time. But when they concluded with a spar her power and fierceness would come out. She was cunning and would use the most peculiar combinations of moves to fight. When Iroh had pointed out to his nephew, Zuko had agreed.

“I know,” he had said, “it’s as if she’s dancing her way to victory,” and judging by the way she won almost every time, he couldn’t object. But the thing that amazed him the most on her was the fact that she merely led her student. She didn’t expect Zuko to copy her style, preferring to let him develop his own, unlike most firebending masters.

 

Iroh was thinking over these things upon their entrance on a small town. Despite the provisions she had provided them with, the red-haired Spirit – for she wouldn’t go around on her mortal form anymore – had no money. She had left to look for a job that wouldn’t slow them down. Next to him Zuko looked like he was asleep. Iroh scrutinized him for a moment before taking out his hat and pointing to the people passing by. He knew he wouldn’t gather much but they couldn’t expect everything from Lia.

“Spare some coins for weary travellers?” he asked for the thousandth time. The man gave him a few copper ones. Once he was out of earshot Zuko turned to his uncle.

“This is humiliating. We’re royalty.” He turned his face to the other side, his expression hidden under his hat. “These people should be giving us whatever we wanted.”

“They will, if you ask them nicely,” Iroh said in a teacher’s voice. A beautiful girl passed by. “Spare some change for a hungry old man?” he asked in a weak voice.

The girl took pity on him. “Oh, here you go.” Iroh smiled at her.

“The coin is appreciated, but not as much as your smile,” he said winking. The girl laughed blushing. Zuko face-palmed.

 

The next person to pass by was a soldier. There was something in his smile that made the prince tense.

“How about some entertainment in exchange for… a gold piece?” he asked.

“We’re not performers,” Zuko told him icily.

“Not professionals anyway,” His uncle cut in cheerfully. He set his hat aside and stood singing “The girls of Ba Sing Se.”

“Come on, we’re talking a gold piece here!” The soldier said taking out his sword. “Let’s see some action. Dance!” He swung the sword low, forcing Iroh to jump around to avoid being cut.

 

Zuko’s eyes narrowed. He knew that he couldn’t afford to begin a fight, but this man was certainly asking for it, treating his uncle like that. Just when his was ready to take his own swords out, the soldier stopped. Laughing he said,

“Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner. Here you go!” he tossed the coin to the ground. As he turned to leave he bumped on Lia. Before he had a chance to complain he was met by her infamous glare. The man gulped audibly and hurried to leave.

“Such a kind man,” Iroh commented.

“He really was,” Lia said taking a seat next to them.

“What are you two talking about?” Zuko said angrily. “He really needs to be taught some respect!”

“Maybe it was the wrong word,” Lia sighed taking out an expensive-looking purse. “But how else can you describe someone going around with a full purse?”

Iroh’s eyes widened going from the purse to the mischievous glint in her eyes. Zuko laughed. “In this case, I’d call him an idiot for getting in your way.”

“He paid for his mistake handsomely, so I hold him no grudge,” Lia said lazily.

“You know stealing is wrong I hope,” Iroh reprimanded the two laughing teenagers. The Spirit shrugged. “As long as you do something good with the things you’ve stolen, I don’t see the immorality. Besides, some people just deserve to be robbed.” She took out the money and put it in her backpack. Then she burned the purse.

 

They rose and started walking through the city. Before they had time to go much further the soldier appeared again, this time accompanied by some officials. Lia took a look on them and hissed to her companions: “I’ll take care of this.” The soldier pointed at her accusingly.

“There she is! She stole my purse!” Lia looked at the officials confused, her face the picture of innocence.

“I’m sorry,” she said innocently. “But what is going on?” The old men took a look on her and shook their heads.

“Don’t worry my dear,” their leader told her kindly, “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” He gestured at the raving man. “Have you seen this man before?”

“Why, yes! I bumped on him, please accept my apologies for it sir, while I was returning to my family.” She gestured at Zuko and Iroh. “These are my brother and uncle. We are refuges from the northern Earth Kingdom. I’m a healer and was looking around for a small job, in order to gather some money.”

The men seemed interested now. “You say you are a healer. Did you find a job?” one of them asked her.

“Unfortunately no,” Lia sighed in disappointment. Then she looked at them hopefully. “Maybe you know someone in need of my services?”

“It’s true that we are in desperate need of a capable healer in the soldiers’ infirmary. If you could have a look on them. They seem to be sick, but we cannot understand the reason of it.”

“I’d be honoured to help.” Lia bowed gracefully.

“You are willing to let that little minx near the soldiers?” the troublemaker asked. “I just told you she robbed me!”

“Now, now!” the official said again. “How could this innocent girl rob you? She was out looking for a job.”

“She fell on me on purpose!”

“That might have been true.” Zuko suddenly cut in. “Both my sister and I hold our uncle in high esteem. Right before Lia came, this man was abusing that sword of his.” He looked calmly at the men. “If my sister hadn’t acted so, I might have done something… irrational, to teach this man some respect.”

“I see.” The leader nodded approvingly at the “siblings”. Zuko supressed a smirk. It was just too easy. “Then if you would follow us, I believe you would be a great help to your sister.”

“I’m coming with you,” Iroh said. “I always thought tea being a good medicine in itself.”

 

The infirmary was on the edge of the town. Inside the ward the men were lying on their beds, their faces a sickly green colour. Lia took a look at them and turned to the general in charge with a suspicious look.

“Have they been eating fish lately?” she asked approaching one victim.

“Yes, we have been near the shores and it was easier to find fish than meat.”

Lia shook her head. She turned to her “brother” and “uncle”. She gave Iroh a mixture of herbs. “Uncle, could you brew this? If there is not enough for everyone I have more. Lee, I want you to go and buy some rice.” She gave Zuko some money. “Get enough for everyone.” The men went away to carry out her orders.

 

By sundown the soldiers were feeling much better. Lia left them with strict orders not eat any fish for a few months and continue with just rice for the next three days. The General had paid them handsomely for their help. As they left the town, Zuko felt a plan formulating in his mind. Once again Lia’s comments were ringing in his mind. “As long as you do something good with the things you’ve stolen, I don’t see the immorality.”

 

Nearly a week later, Lia found herself sitting in the tree. She had defended the virtues of stealing half-jokingly, but Zuko seemed to have taken her words to heart. She had seen him sneak out last night, carrying a small packet in his hands. A packet she knew very well, being the one who had given it to him in the first place: the Blue Spirit’s mask. She wasn’t surprised with his decision. If there was one thing Zuko hated, it was being dependent on someone else. Taking up his alter ego again was a way of fending for himself. She respected this, but her protégé would not get away with this without at least one lecture.  

 

Right on time! Lia thought, seeing the Blue Spirit approaching, holding a basket full of goods.

“Out for a stroll, Blue?” she asked climbing down the tree. Zuko, who had kneeled to hide the mask, jumped and hit his head on a branch. Rubbing his head he turned towards her.

“Do you really have to scare me? I was gathering some provisions. We’re low on food.”

Lia pointed at the mask. “How stupid do you think I am?” she asked him disappointed. Zuko shot her a questioning look. “Forget it! I just hope that you also did some good while shopping.” She turned to leave.

“You know,” he called after her, “the man who had them won’t really need them. And even if he did, we need food more.”

Lia didn’t answer.

 

Frustrated, Zuko returned to the cave they have been staying in. He threw the food he had gathered at his uncle’s feet.

“Where did you get these?” the old man asked surprised.

“What does it matter where they came from?” Zuko asked back, already moving away. Iroh shot him a suspicious look before taking a bite from a pastry and leaving a content sigh. Zuko heard him as he went to look for his mentor and smiled slightly. At least someone appreciated his efforts.

 

He had been shocked at Lia’s reaction. He expected her to laugh and congratulate him, after all she was the one who had stolen first. She did. But she stole from a worthless jerk who needed to be taught a lesson, a small voice on the back of his head reminded him. He frowned. Now his conscience was against him too. He looked up when he heard the unmistakably noise of fire. In a clearing, Lia was practicing some moves. To Zuko they seemed easy, but the concentrated look on the Spirit’s face told him otherwise. He stood hesitantly to the side, not wanting to disturb her. Nothing in her movements or her face gave away that she had noticed him, she had her back turned anyway. So it surprised him when she talked.

“What I want you to understand Zuko, is that you can’t just go around robbing people. Until now the Blue Spirit was wanted for helping the Avatar. People thought of him with admiration and awe. Do you want these feelings to be reduced to fear for a bandit?” She still wouldn’t look at him, as she continued her moves.

“We can’t afford to stay in every town, looking for jobs,” Zuko tried to reason with her. “Sooner or later someone would recognize uncle Iroh or me.”

“Stealing is not an option either,” Lia glared at him having turned sharply.

“What do you suggest then?” Zuko raised his voice. “You gave me the example by stealing that jerk’s money. What good came from this?”

“I knew he would run to the officials as soon as he noticed. I also knew that their soldiers were sick. But what General in his right mind would let an unknown girl, who claims to be a healer, help him? Don’t you consider what happened at the infirmary a deed good enough?” the Spirit was now raising her voice too. Zuko seemed thoughtful.

“So,” he said slowly, “if I helped us, but at the same time helped some people who also need it, you wouldn’t consider it wrong?”

Lia shook her head. “It would still be a wrong action, but the outcome would be worth it.”

 

A few days passed and no one spoke of the miraculously found goods. Iroh sensed a tension between the two teens, but neither of them talked about it. Zuko seemed to be doing some serious thinking, meditating for long hours, sometimes all night long. The same time Lia would disappear for hours to reappear visibly tired but never talking about her excursions. Zuko accepted silently the fact that when she would have news she would tell him and Iroh didn’t pry.

 

Now she had left again and Zuko, dressed as the Blue Spirit, was watching over a carriage. It reminded him more of a wooden box but he didn’t really care for whimsical thoughts at that point. Inside sat the tax collector, probably counting the money he had gathered. Zuko felt his stomach tighten. He had seen the village this money was taken from. The people were already poor enough. He silently moved and knocked out the driver. Then he broke the roof of the “box” to see inside the man hugging the chest with the taxes as if it were his first-born son. Seeing the terrifying mask of the Blue Spirit glaring at him he hastily raised it, for his robber to take it. Zuko did so and disappeared silently.

 

The village was a short walk from where he had ambushed the carriage. Stealthy he moved from house to house, returning the money. To his surprise a good amount of gold and silver pieces was left on the chest. Zuko hid his mask and went over to the market to buy food. He had almost left when his eyes caught a wonderful decorated tea set. He smiled slightly, already imagining how happy his uncle would be seeing it.

 

To his surprise Iroh wasn’t at the cave when he returned. Shrugging Zuko lit the fire and spread the different packets and sacks on the walls. He then sat to wait for his uncle’s return. The old man appeared a while after. Taking a look at the nearly full cave he said evenly:

“Looks like you did some serious shopping.” He knelt to examine the teapot better. Seeing how expensive it looked he asked suspiciously. “But where did you get the money?”

“Do you like your new teapot?” Zuko asked instead of answering.

Iroh sighed, realization hitting him. “To be honest with you, the best tea tastes delicious whether it comes on a porcelain pot or a tin cup. I know we has some difficult times lately,” he said coming to sit next to his nephew, “we’ve had to struggle just to get by, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is a simple honor in poverty.”

“There’s no honor for me without the Avatar,” Zuko said stubbornly.

“Zuko, even if you did capture the Avatar I’m not so sure it would solve our problems. Not now,” Iroh tried to make him understand.

“Then there is no hope at all,” the boy said bitterly, turning to leave.

“No Zuko!” the old General had awoken inside Iroh. “You must never give in to despair. Allow yourself to slip down that road, and you surrender to your lowest instincts. In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself. That is the meaning of inner strength.”

 

Lia’s story passed through Zuko’s mind. He turned to look at his uncle hesitantly. He talked from experience and the prince knew it. The cave felt packed all of a sudden. He needed air and space to think over his uncle’s advice. As he walked inside the forest he silently wished he and Lia were on speaking terms. He had admittedly chosen the worst possible timing to argue with her. Now he was presented with such a dilemma and he had to make the choice alone. Zuko knew he couldn’t consider himself wise enough to do so. That was why – even though he hid it – he valued his uncle’s opinion so much. But, he thought, maybe he should begin making some right decisions alone. Maybe that was what Lia thought too and that was why she had disappeared.

 

He walked through the forest for hours, trying to think over every possible aspect of his decision. He was still not sure about the rightness of it, but he felt he had no other choice. He approached his uncle who was packing something.

“Uncle, I thought a lot about what you said.”

“You did?” Iroh said hopeful. “Good, good.”

“It’s helped me realize something,” Zuko continued. “We no longer have anything to gain by traveling together. I need to find my own way.” He walked away, already rethinking his decision. He hadn’t wanted his uncle to feel bad. But he just couldn’t go on not knowing his own strengths and weaknesses.

“Wait!” he heard Iroh calling. The older man silently passed him the reins of the ostrich horse. Zuko mounted and left with a last look.

 

Iroh sat back by the fire. He knew this day would eventually come. Zuko had to find his own destiny, something on which he would only slow him down. This knowledge didn’t make the separation any easier though. Of course Iroh would never let his nephew go out there alone. He decided to wait for Lia to come and inform her about what had happened and then he would set off. As if he had summoned her, the Spirit appeared before him. She looked around worried.

“Where’s Zuko?”

“He left.” Iroh said grimly. “He needs to find his own destiny.”

Lia nodded saddened. “You’re going to track him down, won’t you?” she asked.

“Of course! Won’t you do the same?” he looked at her alarmed.

“I’ll keep an eye on him, but will not interfere. He would hate me if I did. It’s time he grew up anyway.” Iroh sighed. The Spirit was right, but Zuko was his nephew. He decided not to appear either, but when his nephew would need him, he would be there.