All who sail off the coast ever more
Will remember the tale of the ghost on the shore
Rumors about the existence of the Painted Lady had been circulating in the Fire Nation since well before Prince Zuko's coronation.
Among the crowded markets and hot village streets, it was whispered that they were voices as old as the spirits themselves.
There were those who said she was a good spirit who visited men in times of need, invoked by the prayers whispered in the dark, in the desperation.
There were those who insinuated she was a beautiful woman with ice eyes and painted lips, who could give or take life with her touch.
Zuko had never paid attention to those legends - folk tales, myths to be told to children in the evening. Besides, he himself had become a legend years ago. All he had needed was a mask, and immediately his name was on the infamous lists of convicts throughout the Fire Nation.
This was the reason why, when the gossip about the Lady's return reached his palace, he preferred not to account for it, setting aside the reports of her nightly sightings in the long pile of papers he would pay attention to, sooner or later. He had far more pressing matters to deal with: the collapse of houses near the river due to flooding had brought an entire village to its knees.
The only thing that kept him sane in those days was Katara's presence in his palace. Not only she was a comfortable companion that filled his lonely evenings sharing a cup of wine with him, but she was also an invaluable help.
There were days when Zuko thought he had the whole world against him - days when his friends were far away and he was alone, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders. Days when the problems of the whole world reached his office, and the pile of papers grew and grew.
Zuko certainly didn't have time to listen to legends. Or at least, that was what he thought.
The first time Zuko's mind had suddenly returned to the mysterious woman was immediately after the collapse of those houses. He was planning to visit the site to find a solution to give those poor people a roof over their heads, count the injured and see the damage with his own eyes.
When he arrived in the village, the children were smiling.
The Painted Lady had visited them.
The Painted Lady had brought them food, had healed the wounded limbs of their fathers, the broken hearts of their mothers.
Then, she had disappeared into the mist, with the promise to return.
The women of the village had lit lanterns in her honour. The girls were singing songs to thank her, to invoke her help again.
Spirit of the mist, oh goddess of the dark waters.
There was an old man on the side of the road clutching a bowl of soup in his hands. He was crying. The Painted Lady had brought his wife back to life.
Princess of the river, oh Healer of the night.
A little girl grabbed his tunic and gave him a toothless smile.
"The Painted Lady has been here, I have seen her!"
Zuko smiled at her.
"Really? What was she like?"
"She was beautiful. She had blue eyes and a gentle smile."
The mother took her away, bowing to him and apologising.
Zuko would have liked to ask the girl more questions.
Who are you?
Was it a spirit? Was it a woman?
Who are you?
"Have you ever heard of the Painted Lady?"
Katara almost choked on her wine.
Entertaining after dinner had become a pleasant habit. They chatted over glasses of wine until the candles were consumed, until yawns replaced words, and then they returned to their rooms. It was a silent mutual agreement not to fuel the gossip that was already circulating about their relationship. Not that there was anything real about it, they both thought.
Katara's reaction did not go unnoticed by Zuko.
"Yeah, I heard about that." She told him finally, when the coughing stopped. "But that was a long
time ago, during the war."
Zuko nodded and looked at her uncertainly.
"They say she's back."
"I didn't think you believed in legends."
Zuko put down his glass and sighed.
"We both know that there are people behind the masked legends."
She told him shortly afterwards that she was tired, she wished him goodnight and she retired to her rooms.
When Zuko went to knock on her door before going to sleep, he received no answer.
The black clothes were stored in the back of his wardrobe, where no one could find them.
The mask was hidden underneath, a perfect copy of the one lying on the bottom of Lake Laogai.
He should not have had it with him, he knew that.
He had promised to let that part of his life go when he abandoned the mask in the waters of Ba Sing Se.
He dressed slowly, the swords on his shoulders, his hair carefully gathered. He put the mask over his face and looked at himself in the mirror. The image gave him back the grin of an old friend.
He climbed down from the window and left the Palace without anyone seeing him.
He knew he would have found her there.
The mist had almost completely dissolved around her. Her burgundy dress touched the ground, her huge hat and long veils obscured her face and made her movements fluid. She seemed to be floating in the air.
Zuko surreptitiously watched her as she left portions of food outside the destroyed houses and moved on to the next one.
He followed her as she slipped silently through the camps and stopped at the feet of the wounded.
In the light mist he glimpsed a blue glow. The memory of hands on his chest soothing an excruciating pain became vivid in his mind.
"We both know that there are people behind the masked legends." He had told her that very evening.
He let her treat the wounded.
He let her comfort a crying child.
They would sing songs about her the next day.
He could almost hear the prayers on the mouths of the old men, the songs on those of the girls.
He waited for her halfway between the palace and the village.
She was beautiful, the legends were right, at least on that one.
Her skin was painted, bright colours on her dark skin. Her hair fell over her shoulders, her eyes shone in the night.
He thought back to the legends he had heard at court.
She could give or take life.
Zuko smiled under his mask. His thoughts went back to when, eyes reduced to two slits, she had threatened him to take his life. When, bright eyes brimming with tears, she had given it back to him. Instinctively he touched his stomach, where the indelible memory of that day rested.
It was at that moment that she saw him and paralysed on the spot. She tried to lower her head, to hide her features in the shadow of her hat, behind the multiple veils that made her float in the air.
"I should have realised sooner." He told her, his voice muffled behind his mask.
The girl tried to turn and walk away, but he was beside her in an instant, his footsteps silent on the leaves, and he grabbed her wrist.
When she heard her name, she stopped resisting and turned to look at him, eyes the colour of the ocean piercing the spectre on his face, penetrating the black shafts of the cracks and reaching straight to his soul.
The next day Zuko returned to the village. Katara decided to accompany him, in her blue clothes and braided hair. Zuko hoped no one would recognise her eyes or her gentle smile.
The girls were singing and dancing, the men were rebuilding the houses with sweat on their brows.
There were no more wounded in the village, but two women and a child had died in the collapse of the houses.
There was a man who wept silently as he lifted and nailed wooden beams.
He had Katara and only Katara to thank for the fact that those three people had been the only victims.
Katara was smiling at the girls and helping the women to pick up the debris.
Zuko felt a strange sensation in the pit of his stomach that he did not know and did not want to name.
That night he put on his dark clothes and mask again and waited for Katara under her bedroom window.
Katara took a step back and shook her head when she saw him.
This is not a good idea.
That was what he read in her gaze, but he extended a hand towards her just the same.
I want to be by your side. I want to protect my people by your side.
Somehow Katara understood his silent request, because she grabbed his hand and they walked in silence towards the village.
Thus rumors of the return of the Blue Spirit spread through the Fire Nation.
There had been no sightings of him for years. His memory had fallen into collective oblivion, but after a few days his name appeared again in the reports arriving at the palace.
The spirit of death, it was called.
It was said that he had returned to right the wrongs of the cruel.
Zuko smiled as he listened to those voices and thought of the freedom he felt at night when he ran to Katara's side, to right wrongs, to heal wounds, to give life and stop those who wanted to take it away.
On Katara's last day in the Fire Nation, Zuko helped her make sure all the arrangements were in order, signed and approved. She was to leave for a visit to the Earth Kingdom, where she would meet the Avatar and attend the council with the Earth King. And from there she would head North. She would then return to her home.
Zuko did not know when he would be able to see her again.
They dined together that evening. They drank wine until the candles were consumed.
They went then to their rooms, whispering a melancholic goodnight in the dimly lit corridors.
On the last night Katara spent in the Fire Nation, she and Zuko dressed the clothes of the Painted Lady and the Blue Spirit.
That night they had no wrongs to mend, no wounds to heal, no children to feed.
That night they wandered in the silent streets, in the shadows of the buildings, on the roofs of the city.
That night the Blue Spirit dropped his mask for the first time in the moonlight.
The Painted Lady kissed him, the desperation tangible in the force with which her mouth moved against his.
They made love in silence, in an abandoned building.
Katara embraced him before boarding the ship.
The glances of the men on board did not go unnoticed by Zuko.
When Katara stepped aboard, there were many things that had not been said between them.
When Katara's ship set sail, they stood looking into each other's eyes for a long time, until she was far enough away that she could not see the tears in Zuko's eyes.
When Katara's ship disappeared behind the horizon, Zuko returned to the palace in silence, heartbroken, and remembering his hands on her skin, her lips on his neck.
Sightings of the Blue Spirit became more frequent in the following weeks.
He was said to be a tormented soul.
He was banished from the Spirit World, were the rumors of some.
Evil spirits took away his love, others said.
"I think the Painted Lady has left him." Said the innkeeper to no one in particular.
Zuko did not look up. He was in that isolated inn incognito, a cloak covering his face, sitting in a corner consuming his tankard of ale. He was not there to make conversation, nor was he there to seek company. It was just another way of escaping his life. Just another way to fill a void.
"What makes you think that?" A man near the counter asked him.
"The legends said they had returned to the human world together, but for the past few weeks there has been no sign of her." He paused dramatically, taking the time to dry the mug and place it back on the shelf.
"He, on the other hand..." He continued. "He is seen almost every night. They say he's still helping people, still righting wrongs. But every night he goes to the riverbank. He sits there and waits. He looks almost like a ghost."
At that point, he had captured the attention of everyone within hearing range. He liked that part. He liked telling stories and making people hang on his every word.
A woman urged him to continue the story.
"Is he waiting for the Painted Lady?"
The innkeeper nodded solemnly.
"Where did she go?"
"Nobody knows. No one knows why she left him behind."
The woman brought a hand to her heart.
"Did he love her?" A man, who until then had remained silent, intervened.
"Why do you think is he so tormented, sir?" The innkeeper then replied. "He was in love with her."
No one saw Zuko leave the inn.
"I have word from Ambassador Katara that she will be returning to the Fire Nation this week."
Zuko looked at his uncle, the cutlery suspended in midair, and swallowed.
"I know. She wrote to me a few days ago."
Iroh nodded slowly.
"Aren't you happy about her return?"
Zuko glanced at him, thinking that his uncle had some mysterious way of reading him, of peering into his soul.
"Of course I'm happy."
He hoped his heartbeats were not audible in the silence of the room. He put down the cutlery calmly, suddenly no longer hungry.
"When are you leaving?" He asked him, hoping to change the subject.
But Iroh smiled at him, looking at his nephew with the eyes of someone who seemed to know a truth unknown to most.
The following night the Blue Spirit went out into the meaner streets of Caldera City.
He prevented a woman from being beaten by a drunken man, leaving the unconscious man tied outside the door of an inn. He nodded at the woman, before disappearing into the darkness.
Later, he prevented one man from robbing another.
He returned to the banks of the river. He leaned against a tree, without taking off his mask.
He had only taken it off once.
He had taken it off to be kissed by her.
He had taken it off to make love to her.
And she was gone.
She would return the next day.
That morning at dawn a factory had exploded.
It had polluted rivers, destroyed homes.
Zuko found himself overwhelmed with paperwork. He went to the site to survey the damage.
This prevented him from waiting for Katara at the docks, as he would have liked to do.
Part of him couldn't wait to hold her again.
Another part of him dreaded the moment he would find himself in front of her eyes.
But Katara didn't give him time to dwell on such thoughts. Zuko immediately found her by his side in the village.
"I heard what happened, and I asked your staff to escort me here." She told him.
Zuko smiled upon hearing those words. It was Katara. She had obviously rushed there.
"It's good to see you, Katara."
Katara smiled in turn and blushed vaguely.
"I'm glad to be back."
She hugged him tightly. Zuko had not forgotten her scent for one day.
That evening they had dinner together.
After a few moments of hesitation, they had both managed to leave the awkwardness of long-lost friends behind them and were back to being the two usual old friends.
Katara teased him about his long hair, grabbing a lock of it between her fingers.
"You look very good." She told him.
When, as she drew back, her fingers brushed against his skin, Zuko felt a shiver run through his body.
It was more painful to whisper goodnight to her at the door of her rooms.
He knew he would find her at the entrance to the village.
She was beautiful as always. Her bare arms, her painted lips - his heart leapt when he stopped to look at them, perhaps for a second too long.
"Are you following me, Blue Spirit?"
Zuko thanked the mask that hid the blush on his face.
"I've been waiting for you for a long time."
That night the Blue Spirit was the shadow of the Painted Lady.
He watched her tend the wounded, her hands glistening over their burned limbs.
He picked up the debris as she began to clean up the river.
It wouldn't have taken just one night, but he could tell from her expert movements that this wasn't the first time she'd done this.
How long had she been protecting his people in the silence of the night?
Why did she keep doing that?
He could almost hear the songs that would be sung the next day.
He watched as if bewitched at her fluid movements, her arms stretching and retracting like the tides.
The wide circles that lifted the water, that separated the liquid that poisoned them and threw it away.
She was healing that river as well as the hearts of his people.
It was almost dawn when she took his hand and redeemed him as if from a dream.
They returned to the palace when the first rays of sunlight appeared.
That night the Blue Spirit had not lowered his mask.
In his few hours of sleep, Zuko dreamt of losing her.
She had gone away, far away. She had left him on the banks of the river with a kiss blown on his lips and had floated up into the sky, enveloped in her veils. A trace of paint and an infinite melancholy remained on Zuko's mouth.
When he went to the first meeting of the day, he was almost afraid not to find her there.
Maybe her ship had sailed in the early hours of the day and nobody had bothered to warn him.
Or maybe she had run away.
But Katara was waiting for him in the hall, in her blue robes and her hair braided in the style of her Tribe. She smiled when she saw him.
It took six days to clear the river and to treat all the injured.
During the day, the Ambassador and the Fire Lord were increasingly tired.
During the night, they put on their masks and ran to the aid of those in need.
It was not yet dawn when they finished their work, the last night.
They could have come back earlier and rest: they had an important meeting the next day.
They did not.
They remained silent on the other side of the river, the mist now gone, far from the world of the living, the sleeping.
The Painted Lady unfastened his mask slowly.
She looked into his eyes and caressed his scar before kissing him.
When Zuko opened his eyes again, he thought for a moment that he would see her floating towards the sky, but she was still there.
"I didn't want to leave." She told him, just a breath away from his mouth, her voice trembling. "I didn't want all this time to pass before I came back."
Zuko kissed her with the same desperation as the first time.
"Then don't go away anymore."
The next morning Zuko woke up in a different room from his own.
His dark clothes laid on the floor. His mask rested on them.
Katara slept by his side, her bare skin still painted.
The legends of the Painted Lady and the Blue Spirit merged into a single myth.
They were said to live together on the riverbank - each a shadow of the other, spirits invoked in the night who only came out into the open when they heard the prayers of the desperate.
They were said to be the ghosts of two lovers.
"She has returned to heal his heart." The innkeeper said one day. The customers' attention was all on him. They hung on his every word.
"She was in love with him too, then?" A man asked, his beer mug still in mid-air.
The innkeeper nodded, as if to confirm a fact he had witnessed at first hand.
Rumors of sightings of the Painted Lady and the Blue Spirit became increasingly rare, but if there was a cry for help, it was always heard.
The mist thickened and the floating figure of the Lady came to listen to their prayers.
Spirit of the mist, oh goddess of thr dark waters.
Princess of the river, oh Healer of the night.
The Blue Spirit was always at her side - his swords protected her and helped her to right ancient wrongs.
Blue Spirit, oh shield of the heaven.
Demon of the night, oh protector of the weak.
They were ghosts of two lovers; they were spirits invoked in the night.
No one ever saw the one without the other.