Author’s note: In which there are travels, yet more revelations, reunions and Yours Trully makes an attempt at complex characterisation.
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***An Old Acquaintance***
They had decided that they would travel to the Sunset Mountain where Serious was last known to live on foot, seeing that Aang was quickly picking on Lia’s ability to affect distances. While most of the group was glad not to have to walk for endless days and weeks, it was a constant source of irritation for Toph, whose sense of direction was constantly messing up, leaving her disoriented and in a very bad mood. The first night they camped in another grassland and the earthbender’s first move was to make her earth tent, determined to bring some semblance of order in the otherwise chaotic world surrounding her.
“You’ll get used to it soon,” Lia tried to comfort her.
“I doubt it,” Toph grumbled. “How am I supposed to fight when I can’t be certain where everyone is?”
“You just need to figure out how to affect the distances yourself.” A mischievous smile flashed on the Spirit’s lips. “Aang’s got it already. Why don’t you ask him for a few private lessons?” The youngest pair in the group blushed while everyone else burst out laughing.
“So what kind of person is your teacher?” Suki finally asked when they calmed down. Lia looked down to her dinner.
“He’s…strange,” she finally said, choosing her words carefully. “Even now I can’t really say that I understand him, his motives and his actions completely. He liked to keep to himself a lot.”
“Did you and Agni both study under him?” Katara asked curiously. Lia shook her head.
“No, Agni came later. While I was under his tutelage it was just the two of us. I’ve actually only spoken to Agni a few times before the whole Sozin mess.”
“Then, where did he come from?” Zuko asked suspiciously. His older sister was hiding something and his gut told him that he would not like whatever it was when he found out.
“I wouldn’t know,” was the only answer he received.
The next morning they continued in silence, watching the landscape around them blurring softly every now and then. Suddenly everything lurched forward, causing them to lose their balance and fall to the ground as their surroundings changed at breakneck speed before Lia was able to stop it.
“Did it work?” asked a slightly dizzy but nonetheless excited Toph.
“You mean that was you?” Sokka exclaimed, rubbing the bump at the back of his head. “I thought you said you didn’t like abrupt changes.”
“There weren’t any mountains that I could feel nearby. I just thought it’d be nice to know how far they are,” Toph explained.
“Which somehow resulted in us landing in front of the mountains,” Azula commented, looking impressed at the imposing mountain range in front of them.
“Is this the right place?” Aang asked Lia. The Spirit opened her mouth to answer but Sokka cut in.
“Let’s see. Ash colored mountains, no soul in sight, an ominous atmosphere,” he sniffed, “and the smell of charcoal. I’d say we’re on the right place.”
“Sokka, really!” Katara told her brother disapprovingly.
“I know it doesn’t look like the most welcoming of places but there are some really beautiful sights if you know where to look,” Lia said nervously. She hadn’t imagined that the smell of charcoal – the result of a few training sessions gone overboard – would still linger. Zuko looked at the narrow path that snaked the mountains.
“I think we might want to do this the traditional way,” he said. “No blurring or hurrying through or someone might end up falling off.”
“Fine!” Toph sounded disappointed. Taking everyone off guard before had been pretty funny.
As they followed Lia’s lead, the group looked around curiously. The place looked like it had been burned down repeatedly, scorch marks and even small lightning craters littering the ground, no sounds other than their own footsteps breaking the silence.
“Is there a volcano around here?” Suki finally asked, unable to take the oppressive silence anymore.
“No,” Lia said sheepishly. “Most of these marks are training sessions gone wrong. I had some issues with control back then.”
“So this is where you trained?” Katara asked. “It doesn’t really look like a place you’d choose to stay.”
“You must have had a lot of issues…”Sokka snickered, earning smacks on his head by Zuko, Katara and Suki. To their surprise, Lia just shrugged.
“I did,” she admitted. “Zuko’s temper when you first met him was nothing compared to some of the tantrums I would throw.”
“For some reason I have a hard time picturing that,” Toph said dryly. “You might be a spitfire, but you never acted like a spoiled brat.”
“Are you saying I acted like a spoiled brat?” Zuko asked annoyed.
“I never said my tantrums were directed to someone else,” Lia said, hoping to diffuse the argument before it started. “For a very long time I did not like and would not accept the fact that I was to become a Fire Spirit.” She pointed at a particularly nasty burn mark on a crevice. “That was the result of another argument between A..Sirius and I about whether or not I was fit for the job.” Aang eyed the mark nervously. “Of course my temper has mellowed down over the years, so there’s no need to worry.”
“There’s something you’re not telling us,” Azula said seriously, looking at the redhead with a calculating look. “You’ve been dancing around any question that might come up about your past, and then suddenly you volunteer tidbits that make no sense.” Lia’s back stiffened and she turned to look at her friends. Indeed they were all giving her confused looks, agreeing with what the princess had said. After a moment of deliberation, she sighed.
“Ask Zuko,” she said resigned. “He knows a few things and the story I told him is not one I’d like to repeat.”
Immediately they all flocked around the Fire Lord, looking at him expectantly, while he sent Lia an exasperated look.
“Thanks a lot sister,” he told her, his voice dripping with sarcasm, before turning to his audience grudgingly and retelling the story he had heard nearly five years ago in a low voice. When he was finished, the silence that followed was thick enough to be cut with a knife.
“If I turn and see anyone looking at me with pity, I will not be happy,” Lia warned lightly, before chancing a look over her shoulder in time to see Aang schooling his expression. “It was a long time ago and I’ve made peace with what happened,” she said softly. “I’m not saying that I wouldn’t change the events if I could but I’m not constantly dwelling on it anymore.”
“Zuko looks like your brother,” Azula said slowly. “Is that why you decided to help him?”
“At first yes,” Lia admitted. Then she smirked. “But I think we can all agree that Zuko has the infuriating ability to be adorable occasionally.”
“I don’t!” Zuko exclaimed blushing.
“Yes, you do!” Katara and Lia said at the same time. Zuko’s protest went unhindered as everyone burst out laughing, the heavy atmosphere finally dispelling.
“There’s something flat ahead of us,” Toph said suddenly, breaking every one of their amused mood. Lia look around and nodded. There was more green than grey now around them, trees and grass making an appearance again.
“We’re almost there,” she explained. “We’ll probably see the house soon.”
“There’s a strange energy here,” Aang said, tilting his head on the side, trying to understand what he was that he was sensing.
“It’s life energy,” Lia explained. “Elementals influence their environment if they stay in a place for prolonged periods of time.” They turned on the last twist of the path they’ve been following to see a breathtaking sight. The plateau was surrounded by trees and the ground was filled with blooming Fire Lilies and Panda Lilies. Near the edge stood a small house made out of the same rock the mountains were. It was so simple it almost went unnoticed if it weren’t for the steam that rose behind it.
“There’s a hot spring behind the house,” Lia explained. “I don’t know about you, but I’ll certainly have a dip before we leave.”
“A hot spring sounds pretty good,” Katara nodded.
“But first let’s find that teacher of yours,” Zuko said, sending a look at Lia that clearly said I know you’re hiding something. The innocent smile he received as an answer did nothing to calm his suspicions.
The front door was open, so the group moved to a sparsely furnished living room. With a steadying breath Lia allowed her aura to spread through the building instead of repressing it, part of her hoping that her old mentor would have the decency to play along. Soon enough footsteps were heard approaching and a figure appeared on the door on the opposite wall. Out of all the people they had expected to greet them, the black-haired man was certainly the last. Azula and Lia reacted first, the princess taking a step back and the Spirit blasting him away. A red glow surrounded him and cushioned the fall. Agni sat up and rubbed his head, the glow receding to the crystal hanging around his neck.
“Is that a way to greet people?” he complained, perfectly aware of Lia’s fireball aimed at his heart. With a resigned sign he took the blood red crystal and offered it to her. “That is what you came for, right?” he said. When no answer came his way he moved closer. Instantly everyone tensed, hands going to weapons or bending positions. Agni simply tied the necklace around Lia’s neck and took a step back, looking satisfied at the crystal that had turned to a soft, rosy pink.
“I had hoped you’d be more subtle about this,” Lia said as she hid the necklace under her dress.
“And I had hoped you’d be happier to see me love, but we obviously can’t have what we want.” Agni’s smile widened when he saw who their audience consisted of. “The Fire Lord and the princess!” he exclaimed, moving closer to Azula, who in turn inched closer to her brother. “What a pleasant surprise! To what do I owe this unexpected honor?”
“Cut the theatrics Agni,” Lia snapped, turning to face him and the others. “You might have holed yourself up here, but if you knew that I was coming for the crystal, then you certainly knew why I need it.”
“Maybe I wanted to hear you say that you need my help?” the other Fire Spirit insisted undeterred.
“What is going on here?” Sokka finally cried confused. “Wasn’t your mentor supposed to have the crystal?” Agni laughed incredulously.
“You haven’t told them?” he asked Lia disbelievingly. His eyes searched the group, taking in their incredulous and confused expressions. “You haven’t even told your brother?”
“Tell us what?” Zuko asked suspiciously.
“I was her mentor.” Agni said smiling. “Sirius is one of the many names I’ve taken over the centuries.” Azula turned to Lia.
“You knew that?” she asked tensely the Spirit. Lia nodded.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Katara asked.
“Nothing I could have told you would have made this any easier.” Lia said tensely. “I promise you that he will behave himself. We can spend the night here and start searching for the next crystal in the morning.” The group exchanged an unsure nod before moving further inside the house. Zuko paused next to Lia.
“We need to talk later,” he said in a flat voice.
“Practice after you put your things away?” she offered, understanding this would be a tense conversation. With a final nod the Fire Lord left and Lia hurried out, purposely ignoring Agni.
They walked through the garden and Lia stopped next to the spring, studying how the melted rock formed shapes.
“You should have told them,” Agni said calmly, all traces of his previous amusement gone.
“They only know you as the reason behind the hundred year war,” Lia said in an equally calm, though colder voice.
“Is that it, or did you simply not want to bring up your past Lily?”
“Don’t call me that!” Lia snapped annoyed. Agni raised an eyebrow.
“You liked it,” he said.
“I was a silly girl back then,” Lia retorted. Agni looked at her silently for a moment before shaking his head.
“No, you weren’t,” he said softly as he turned to leave. “I’ll be coming with you,” he called over his shoulder before disappearing inside the house again.
“I was,” Lia insisted in a whisper, her thoughts at the day she was first offered the Fire crystal.
Lia let out the breath she had been holding and took a step back to admire her work. The water was still flowing at the hot spring but the previously roughly cut rock was now forming twists and twirls making it look like the rock was flowing as well. There was no particular pattern she had followed; she had just let her instincts take over, increasing and decreasing the heat to get the different textures and colors out.
“This is magnificent!” The voice of her mentor startled her and she turned to face him with a slight blush. It wasn’t often that she got any kind of praise out of him. Sirius nodded satisfied. “You have completely mastered fire,” he said moving closer to the young Spirit. So much younger than he was. But she was ready. The redhead watched him curiously as he revealed a deep red crystal, fashioned as a necklace. “This is yours now,” he told her.
“What is it?” Lia asked curiously, a hand outstretched towards the crystal.
“It is a little something to mark you as the Spirit of Fire. Every Elemental has one in their possession. It will amplify your powers and help you in any predicament you might land yourself.” Serious raised an eyebrow when, at this end of his explanation, Lia withdrew her hand.
“Could you hold on to it for a little while longer?” she asked hesitantly. “I don’t think I’d be able to handle more responsibility yet.” The other Spirit nodded and hid the necklace under his shirt.
“Very well,” he said. “I will keep it safe until you are ready to claim it.” He frowned at her serious expression. “Don’t look so formal Lily! Now you can actually travel around. Don’t tell me you haven’t been bored staying here, with only me for company.” Lia blushed a little at his teasing but nodded and hurriedly made her way to the house. It was true after all… She couldn’t wait to start exploring.
End of flashback
It hadn’t been long after that, only a few centuries that she had learned of her mentor’s true identity and had learned never to trust him again. The sound of footsteps shook her out of her reverie. Zuko came to stand beside her, tracing the engravings on the rock with his eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he finally asked. “Did you not trust me?” Lia bit her lips. Trust was a very delicate matter for both of them.
“It was not a matter of trust,” she said slowly, determined to choose her words as carefully as possible. “As long as I did not talk about it, then some part of me could remain convinced that it wasn’t true.” Zuko looked at her frowning.
“Why would you want that?”
“Why did you want Ozai to care for you? I had lost everyone I loved Zuko, and he guided me through the darkness. Of course I didn’t want to believe he was my enemy.” They both fell silent for a few minutes, their eyes once again trained on the water.
“Are you still up for that training session?” Zuko finally asked. Lia nodded with a soft smile, knowing that this was his way of telling her that he understood.
“I always am,” she said simply. Neither of them noticed Toph hiding behind the melted rock as they left. The earthbender dipped her feet in the warm water; hands firmly planted on the ground, and tilted her head towards the sky thoughtfully. Lia hadn’t been lying to Zuko, but then again she wasn’t saying the full truth either.