Author’s Note: Before you dive in the story itself, here is some background you might want to know. I first started working on this story while I was at high school. A friend of mine introduced me to the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. Shortly after I watched the finale (and experienced fan-rage for the first time…) I also discovered fanfiction. In an effort to get over my disappointment about how the series ended and get some practice in long writing projects I started my own version of the series, resulting in a novel-length, slightly AU version of the show. The original story took around two years to complete (because school) and while I am moderately proud of the end result, I can’t help thinking that it could be improved. This is a revised and -at points- expanded version of the original which can be found here. If all goes well I will be uploading one chapter every Monday. I hope you enjoy this story as much I enjoyed working on it and if you have any suggestions on how I could improve, feel free to leave a comment. Also, if there is anyone out there thinking I’m making any kind of monetary profit out of this, please refer to the Disclaimer page.
* * * Prologue * * *
In the dark of the night a shadow was sneaking at the dark corridors of the Fire Nation palace. The young Prince Zuko ran through the dark corridors of the palace, mindful of the several guards patrolling. Every night, ever since his mother had disappeared a few weeks back, he would crawl out of his bed in the middle of the night and visit the turtleduck pond in the Fire Lady’s garden. There, he would light a single candle using his firebending. He would keep that little flame going for as long as he could, pleading with the Spirits to bring his mum back.
Tonight, like every other night before, he stood, dizzy with tiredness and lack of sleep, and headed disheartened back to his room. When the Fire Lady’s garden was once again empty, the candle lighted again on its own, its meagre flame dancing in the breeze. Sparks mixed with the falling leaves and the figure of a young woman appeared in the smoke. She strolled unnoticed through the halls, passing room after room, unnoticed by all those who crossed her path. She slipped in the prince’s room and smiled as she tucked the blankets tenderly around the sleeping boy’s frame. With a tender smile she whispered: “Your wish will come true little prince. Fire will see to it.” Out in the garden, the flame died out and she vanished.
* * *
Three years passed and the little boy named Zuko, now thirteen, was walking through the corridors of the Western Air Temple. The wound on his face throbbed in time with his pulse and he felt unbalanced without clear vision in his left eye. He reached an open courtyard and sat down against one of the more sturdy-looking pillars. Fishing around in his pocket, he took out a single candle. With the snap of his fingers he lit it, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths as he slipped into a meditative trance. It might seem hopeless and childish at this point but part of him could not help but cling to this little piece of routine from his childhood.
Despite his impatience, Zuko had always found meditation easy to practice. Slowly he let his surrounding melt away, being aware of the world around him only by the thinnest thread. It might seem very little, but it was quite enough to snap him back to reality as soon as he sensed another presence close. Rationally he knew it could only be his uncle, and yet it didn’t feel like the older man. Slowly, hesitantly, he opened his eyes to see a young woman sitting at the opposite side of the candle, looking at him thoughtfully. She couldn’t be more than eighteen, with long fiery red hair that fell like a waterfall down her back and warm golden eyes. She looked like she could have been born at the Fire Nation but there was something otherworldly in her air that made Zuko doubt they came from the same land.
She was sitting cross-legged directly in front of him, watching him intently. It was quite a stare but for some reason, her gaze didn’t make him feel uneasy. It felt almost welcome, familiar and although he knew he should probably find out what she wanted, Zuko was reluctant to end the silence. Finally she spoke.
“I could heal that” she said thoughtfully, and he knew that she was looking at smear of scar tissue across the left side of his face. “But ,” she continued, “that’s not your wish, correct?”
The prince looked at her incredulously. Of course he wished for the scar to heal. He didn’t believe it would though. The damage was too great. Seeing his expression, the woman smiled.
“I mean right now. You didn’t ask for my presence so that I could heal you. You’ve asked for the same thing every night for three years. Don’t you ever get tired? To be honest, I’m impressed. I haven’t met so tenacious a mortal in a while.”
“What do you mean mortal? Who are you?” Zuko demanded, suddenly finding his voice. He glared at her suspiciously. Could she be the Avatar? Could it really be that his quest would be that simple?
“Oh relax! I’m not the Avatar. I am from the Spirit World though. My name is Li-a.” She pronounced her name strangely, like each syllable was a separate word.
“What do you want from me?” Zuko asked tersely, adrenaline already rushing through his system as he prepared for a fight. Lia rolled her eyes.
“I should be asking you the same question. You’ve been requesting my presence for three years and now that I am here, all can you do is demand an explanation?”
Zuko was beginning to get angry. Spirit or not, this girl was unbelievably annoying, acting as if her mere presence was some great gift.
“I never asked for you.” He said standing.
Lia merely looked at the still-lit candle.
“You have been asking fire to bring you your mother. Well, I can’t begin looking without anything to go on.” She said in a softer tone as she rose to her feet. Zuko froze mid-step and spun to face her.
“You don’t mean you’re…” he stuttered.
“The spirit of Fire? At your service.” She smiled and took a small bow. The Fire prince snapped his heals together and his hands to his sides, so as to bow back, but Lia stopped him immediately.
“No need for formalities, I never liked them. So here’s the deal: I’m going to find your mother, and, because I like you and I think you’re cute, I’m going to teach you some aspects of firebending unknown to everyone else. Alright, kid?”
“But how can I pay you back?” the boy asked her desperately, decidedly ignoring the ‘cute’ part. “I have nothing that’s worth any value to give you.”
“Oh, a person can never be sure about the future. I only ask you to grant me a favour. When the time comes I will tell you what the favour is. Deal?”
For the next six months, while his uncle slept, Zuko sneaked out of bed and met Lia. She began by re-teaching him the very basics of firebending (much to his frustration). Once she was satisfied with his competence, she began to fulfil her promise concerning her so-called “super-secret” firebending techniques. There was a lot of theory involved, and talk of how the other three elements could be combined with fire to produce something greater. The Spirit promised a pouting Zuko that this would result in complete mastery of the firebending art. Zuko remained unconvinced, but nodded his assent if only to get her to stop glaring at him.
They began with air. It was maddening for Zuko, not being able to see the results of his bending. A few nights were left before he and his uncle would leave to begin the search for the Avatar. Much to his surprise, he realized that he didn’t want to leave the peaceful temple. They had planned to remain there only until he was healed enough to sail and then move on with the search, a search he was now reluctant to begin. “At least not,” he thought to himself, “before I know I’ve achieved something.”
When the prince arrived at the usual meeting point, he saw Lia already there, sitting by the fountain, staring absently at the water. She sensed his presence; she always seemed to do so. The Fire Spirit stood, smiling, as her student approached. They rarely talked, other than to exchange instructions, but both preferred it that way. Today, Lia decided to make an exception.
“So you’re leaving,” she said instead of a greeting.
“Yes,” Zuko looked at her guiltily, before he realised what was happening and slapped a mask of indifference over his features.
“It’s okay.” Lia assured him, seemingly unfazed by the abrupt shift of expressions. “We’ve completed the first cycle of our lessons anyway and it’s time for you to test yourself.”
“How?” He couldn’t help but feel a little nervous when he was the mischievous glint in her eyes.
“Nothing hard. Just float a little around the temple.”
“What? I’m not an airbender, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“You don’t have to be, and no, I haven’t forgotten, squirt. Haven’t you been listening? You just need to find a way to use your fire less… conventionally. It’s not always about blasting whatever is in front of you away. I’ll let you think about it for a while. We have all night.”
With that she took off, diving over the edge and floating away. She was challenging him and he wanted nothing more than to compete, but he still had to figure out a way to do so.
“Think Zuko,” he said to himself. “It probably has to do with heat; you’ve been playing around with hot air all these…”
His eyes widened with realization. It was a technique they had talked about, but never really tried. It involved great concentration since you had to warm the air around you enough to float but not too much so that you wouldn’t raise the temperature of the whole area. Even though he had tried and succeeded in floating for a few meters, he hadn’t gone to great heights or anything. It wasn’t that Zuko was afraid. It was merely that he was painfully aware of what would happen if he failed. But on the other hand he was going after the Avatar – the master of all elements who had probably been developing his powers for the last hundred years. He would be forced to take some risks eventually. The Fire prince took a breath, closed his eyes and let gravity drag him down.
When he opened his eyes he was floating uncertainly in the air. Zuko took a moment to savour the feeling. Then he remembered his ‘race’ with Lia. He darted towards the direction she had taken and soon flying felt almost normal and he was subconsciously copying her –increasingly difficult –tricks in the air. Two hours later, they landed, out of breath, at their starting point. Lia practically glowed as she turned to face him.
“I’m so proud of you, kid!” she said “As far as air is concerned I have nothing else to teach you.”
“But how? This was supposed… I mean I thought it would take years to master but one technique…” Zuko said surprised.
“I never said you would master air. That’s an airbender’s duty. But as far as you are concerned, well you are really, really good.”
Her smile was now sad. She looked through the pockets of her skirt and took out a small pedant with strange inscriptions. Lia handed it to her student.
“I want you to have this. I know you will be looking for the Avatar and maybe it will be a long time until we see each other again.”
“What is this?” Zuko asked scrutinizing the letter-like pattern on the small charm.
“It’s a simple protective spell. I have its twin. If the carvings turn red I know you’re in danger. If they turn black…” she paused for a moment and shook her head. “Let’s just hope that they won’t. Promise me you’ll keep it with you?”
Zuko swallowed a lump in his throat, telling himself that he was not touched, thank you very much. Lia was friendly, but that didn’t change the fact that she was a Spirit and he a mortal and what with her seemingly endless stream of teasing nicknames, he hadn’t thought she was taking him very seriously. He had assumed that he was just another way for her to pass her eternal life, a distraction. But now she wanted him to be safe. She even took precautions to ensure it. He didn’t dare to think about what this might mean.
“I consider us friends, you know.”
She had guessed his thoughts. She seemed to be able to sense whenever he needed reassurance and offer it openhandedly. Zuko smiled at her hesitantly.
“So we will be friends?” he asked.
“For as long as you can stand me.” She laughed full-heartedly. “Now go to bed. No point in being exhausted in the morning.”
Long after he had fallen asleep, Lia crept into his room. For the first time in years a small smile was in Zuko’s lips. She smiled a secret smile herself. As she tucked him in she contemplated the destiny she had seen laid out ahead of him. She would definitely make sure that the happiness he deserved would catch up to him. Never mind the consequences she would be facing in the process.