Author’s Note: First chapter and already things are heating up (pun unashamably intended)! New characters, new subplots, foreshadowing…. And a slightly sleep-deprived author, so I will keep this short.
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*** The Avatar Returns ***
The Spirit of Fire flew unseen over the glaciers of the South Pole, her attention divided between two very different boats and the conversations happening there. The first, the one that she had almost missed against the glare of the sun, was merely a fishing boat, carrying two Water Tribe teenagers. Closer to her was a rather small Fire Nation ship. On deck, a teenager listened impatiently to the instructions of an older man. Lia decided that the Water Tribe children would be more interesting to spy on. One can listen to General Iroh for only so long.
The children were out fishing, but judging by the lack of fish in their basket and the dejected, bored look on the girl’s face, they hadn’t had any luck. Lia floated over them, invisible, laughing to herself at the self-confident expression on the boy’s as he boasted to his sister.
“Watch and learn Katara. This is how you catch a fish.”
Katara paid him no heed, her attention focused on another fish. She glanced over her shoulder hesitantly, but her brother was busy mumbling to his target about all the different ways it would be cooked. Then, despite the biting cold she took her glove off and slowly moved her hand over the water.
That’s interesting, Lia thought. I didn’t think there were any waterbenders left here.
Maybe it was a sign of the changing tides. For a while she had been sensing the energies shifting, preparing for something big, something she could not quite put her finger on. Knowing that overthinking the subject would only give her a headache, Lia concentrated again on the pair. The boy – quite oblivious of what was happening behind his back – scolded his sister for being too loud. The next moment he raised his spear, effectively breaking the floating bubble where Katara had managed to trap the fish and getting himself drenched.
Immediately the two of them got into a loud argument over whose fault it was, neither noticing that their boat edged towards a big iceberg. Lia glanced at it absently and then glanced at it again. There was pure life-energy emitting from it, a beacon that drew her in, and suddenly she understood what the shifting tides had meant. She threw a look at Prince Zuko’s ship. They would meet again very soon. She only had to ensure that the Avatar was freed. Slightly at first, but then with increasing power, she heated a stream of water, creating a current under the siblings’ boat. They didn’t notice at first, too engrossed in their bickering.
Though she knew that they would have been drawn at the iceberg sooner or later, Lia couldn’t help but wince when their tiny boat crashed against the ice. She had been left too far behind to hear what they were talking about, but judging by the girl’s abrupt movements her brother (Sokka? She hadn’t quite caught his name) had made her mad.
I owe one to the kid, she thought as she flew closer to the Fire Nation ship, ignoring the sound of cracking ice behind her. She arrived just in time to see Zuko’s stunned expression. The release of the Avatar was quite an event what with all the light. She landed unseen as the boy turned to his uncle.
“Uncle, do you realize what this means?” he asked excitedly.
The older man merely looked disappointed: “I won’t get to finish my game?”
The Spirit of Fire giggled in a rather undignified manner at their exchange.
Her laugh was caught short when her protégé started yelling at the General. She frowned. Sure it had been three years since she had last talked to Zuko, but she had been keeping an eye on him and she hadn’t thought he would have changed that much.
Well, she berated herself, what did you expect? The poor boy is getting desperate and he probably thinks you deserted him! You really need to talk to him soon. If he keeps this kind of behaviour he will only land himself in trouble. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do for the time being. With a sigh she headed again to the iceberg, only to find it empty. Lia looked around confused. The Avatar and his bison had been in suspension for a hundred years. There was no way they would be able to fly around just yet. As if on cue she heard a bison groan. Turning towards the sound and saw Katara, Sokka and the Avatar (now what was his name? Avatar Roku certainly hadn’t liked it at first but had grown fond of the little airbender over time. It was something with “a”. Aka? Anga? Aang! That was it!) sitting on the bison that was lazily swimming. The twelve-year-old Air Nomad was openly staring at the waterbender. S uddenly bells of alarm started ringing at the back of Lia’s head. She had seen that smile before! The kid had a crush on Katara already! This is not good! she thought. Her premonitions were never wrong. The three children were talking to one another and after a while Aang turned his back to the others with a guilty expression.
The sun had nearly and so she returned to the prince’s ship. She had a boy to tuck in. Said boy, however, didn’t return to his room until late. She had dozed off, still invisible to mortals, when the door slammed open, and judging by the way Zuko threw himself on the meditation mat, he was in no mood for talking. Oh, well, she thought, it would have to wait.
The next morning dawned bright and chilly. It was greeted by a disgruntled General Iroh who did not appreciate his nephew dragging him out of bed, thank you very much. That could have been partially the reason why he refused to teach the prince any kind of advanced firebending. That and the fact Zuko seemed to channel all his anger and frustration in his practice sessions. Lia took a seat to watch, thinking wistfully back to their old spars. There had been anger there too, but it had been controlled and mostly due to the fact that he couldn’t get the perfection he wanted right away. But this; this was new. Now Zuko was so angry he let his feelings control him. Saddened the Spirit watched as Iroh repeated sternly what she had explained to Zuko at the very beginning: Fire is all about breath, not brute muscle. He had obviously forgotten her advices.
Lia watched with a frown as Zuko executed some really simple moves entirely wrong, his movements entirely out of balance. He clearly understood his mistake, but still wouldn’t admit it, preferring to go through the drill without stopping while the day went on. At sunset he was still practicing, having enlisted a couple of soldiers to act as his opponents, but Zuko’s patience was long spent. He demanded learning a more advanced set of moves, using once again the Avatar as his excuse. Iroh refused at first, but eventually gave in. Lia shook her head at the pointlessness of all this. The oh-so-feared Avatar was a twelve-year-old who didn’t have even the most basic knowledge on any element, aside from air. And let us not forget his devil-may-care attitude. Zuko was in for quite a surprise.
Even though she thought of the prince like a younger – much younger– brother, Lia couldn’t help but think that a good dressing-down was long overdue. Zuko seemed to have stifled the caring boy he used to hide inside him altogether. This worried her. She wasn’t going to go back on her promises to him, but she would be really disappointed if they were waste on a miniature version of Fire Lord Ozai. Lia had kept an eye on the entire royal family and she really didn’t like the person the princess, Zuko’s little sister, was growing into either.
Her musings were interrupted by the sound of a missile. Instinctively she cast a shield over the young prince. She immediately realized that there was no real danger. The missile had been an alarm set off at the husk of a nearby abandoned ship. Still, she couldn’t help but roll her eyes as Zuko, glued to the telescope in an effort to catch a glimpse of his elusive opponent, commented: “Quite agile for his old age.” This was going to be fun to watch.
Lia, despite her temper and sharp sense of humour, wasn’t truly ruthless or cold-hearted. She had decided to grant Zuko’s wish mostly out of pity for the lonely boy. While they had trained together at the Western Air Temple, he had steadily grown on her and she eventually came to see him as the brother she used to have. But she was also the Spirit of Fire, and after years of watching history unravel, both in the Spirit World and the mortal planes, she’d become rather cynical. It had been a very long time since she had trusted anyone unequivocally, not thinking of any possible ulterior motives. Her decision to grant Prince Zuko’s wish and teach him, while about as altruistic as a jaded old soul could get, had gotten her in deep trouble back home. So far she had never had reason to regret it but now she found herself fearing that her good intentions aided to the continuation of the war.
The ship changed course abruptly, heading towards the settlement of the Southern Water Tribe. Zuko had gone below deck to prepare himself for battle. Still, in a bad mood after her brief introspection, Lia decided that she wouldn’t interfere at all, unless lives were threatened, but would have a talk, a rather long one, with Zuko tonight no matter what mood he was in. As the ship approached she took flight once again over it. Solemnly, she watched it crack the icy protective wall and heard the screams of the scared women and children. She saw Katara turning just before she entered the tent and paling. A toddler lay forgotten on the snow and the crack caused by the ship’s hull was nearing it fast. Katara ran towards it as Lia landed next to the child, forcing the ice to hold for just a little longer, long enough for the waterbender to scoop the little one in her arms and run to safety.
The ship had barely stopped before the hatch opened and Zuko, accompanied by two soldiers emerged, decked in full armour. Even though she disapproved of the very idea of the whole thing, Lia couldn’t help but feel pride for her student, seeing him send Sokka out of the way with two efficient moves. Her pride was short lived though, and replaced swiftly by curiosity the moment Zuko’s eyes rested on Katara. Over the years Lia had learned to read his aura as well as her own. He probably hadn’t even noticed himself, but the girl was beautiful and his subconscious was already rethinking his plan. Love’s in the air, Lia thought. Or will be soon, she amended when the prince grabbed an old woman standing next to the waterbender to use as an example of what the Avatar might look like. It didn’t take long for the actual Avatar to appear, and Lia couldn’t help her giggle at the way Zuko landed, having been shoved in the snow by a blur in orange.
Landing on the roof of a nearby igloo Lia let the circling boys absorb her attention. Zuko spoke first, disbelief evident in his voice:
“I’ve spent years preparing for this encounter. Training, meditating. You’re just a child.”
Aang looked at him surprised: “Well you’re just a teenager.”
Zuko’s eyes narrowed in anger and he attacked. He was obviously more than a little rough around the edges, but Aang moved even more awkwardly. Lia was counting minutes. She knew the airbender was far too caring not to surrender. And so he did simply demanding that the village remain safe. Zuko agreed. This was what he would have done too and knowing how close his mind-set was to that of the “enemy” annoyed him to no end. Lia sneaked in the ship with the rest of the crew. Nobody noticed, but Zuko stole one last glance of Katara and seeing her close to tears made him frown. He hadn’t thought that the Avatar might have already made friends. But a blast of arctic wind against his face reminded him of the nasty scar that covered his right eye, and he banished any second thoughts immediately. He had the Avatar. He was going home at last. Pretty little Water Tribe girls didn’t matter.
As they left the Pole, Lia contemplated evolving the speech Zuko needed into a huge sermon. There were many things she had little patience for, but using someone’s culture against them, scored high on the list. Zuko’s gloating over Aang; she though, was way out of line. She followed him to his room but as she was ready to make herself visible, the Avatar entered. Lia bit back a curse. If the kid was this world’s only hope he really needed to work on his timing! As much his airbending was concerned however, he was really good. He momentarily knocked Zuko out with a swift wave of his staff and fled.
Lia really thought he was going to make it to freedom but as he set off in the air, the prince, who was not quite as knocked out as they had thought, jumped on him. They landed heavily on deck. Time sped up around Lia, whose bad feelings had returned. Before she knew it Zuko was falling off the side of the ship. She grabbed him mid-air and helped him steady himself on the anchor chain. He was looking around for his saviour so she let herself seen for a few brief moments: “We need to talk”, she told him sternly. Before Zuko had a chance to reply, or even nod, he was helped back on board by his oblivious Uncle.
That night the prince retired early, the Avatar’s escape and his ship’s condition weighing heavily on his shoulders. He entered his room and hastily locked the door. Then he looked around for his old friend… no associate, he corrected himself in his mind.
“I really thought you considered me a friend,” a voice from his bed called him. The room had been dark up until that moment, when little fires lit around the walls. Lia sat on the bed, looking angry and a little hurt, Zuko noted with surprise. Nevertheless he swallowed his emotions.
“What did you want to tell me?” he asked neutrally.
If possible, his non-reaction seemed to make her angrier: “Oh, I don’t know where to begin!” she said. “Maybe from the thing that scared me most. What do you think?” She stood up and stalked up to him, glaring at him straight in the eyes. “Now tell me,” she demanded threateningly. “What have you done to Zuko?”
“What?” the boy exclaimed surprised. “Lia, it’s me? What are you talking about?”
“You cannot be Zuko,” the spirit insisted. “I trained him for a year. I thought I knew him! He looked like you on the outside, sure; all tough and uncaring, but in reality he had emotions and kindness. You? You are nothing but an empty cell. Now tell me. What happened to you?” she finished in almost a whisper. The firebender looked at her icily.
“People change. And you haven’t seen me for nearly three years. I grew up.”
“In what? Tell me, did you really think that I’d abandon you?”
“I didn’t have to think about it. You made it obvious.”
“No I didn’t! You may not see me, but I watch over you. Didn’t you ever wonder who tucks you in every night? If I am to find your mother, I have to travel a lot, but still I watch out for you.”
“You don’t have to.” Zuko said turning his back on her. “I ceased to believe in dreams a long time ago. There is no need for you to feel compelled to act as if you can fulfil a childish wish.”
“But what if it isn’t just a childish wish?” she asked him quietly.
“IT IS!” he exploded. “My mother is dead. There is no way she could be alive. And even if she was she doesn’t care obviously! If she did I would have found her. She would have come to me!”
“Here?” Lia raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been searching the South Pole for a year and before that you were looking at the Air Temples. Even if she knew where you are, I doubt she would be able to reach you.”
“Which proves my point.” He lay down on his bed, his back still facing her. “Go Lia. I told you I don’t need you anymore. Go to your home. You can.”
Lia walked to the door. She became once again invisible and opened it. Before she stepped out she turned at him sadly and said: “But you still need me Zuko. You have so much to learn. And the original reason I came looking for you wasn’t for us to yell at each other. Your mother is alive. I know that for certain. All I have to do now is find exactly where she is.” With that she left.
Zuko stayed awake that night. In his mind, he replayed her words again and again. “You still need me Zuko. You have so much to learn. And the original reason I came looking for you wasn’t for us to yell to each other. Your mother is alive.” He twisted and turned unable to find peace with the nagging thought that had taken the only chance he had to ever see his mother again and burnt it to a crisp.