Author’s note: In which there is philosophy, SHIPPING, and things don’t go wrong for once! Also, in which the author has a LOT of fun world-building.
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Next chapter: coming soon…
Unbelievably Wan Shi Tong didn’t hunt them down immediately, much to Sokka’s relief, although Lia had grumbled about the Owl joining the Council’s side out of sheer annoyance. Her frustration however was short lived and Toph was doing a great job of distracting her with questions about the Earth elementals and the Hidden City they were travelling to. The rest of the gaang would jump in with comments and questions every now and then with the exception of Agni, who remained silent for most of the trip.
Eventually the lush environment began to give way and the ground became rocky and dry. As they started climbing to a higher altitude the air too began thinning, as if the other three elements were shying away from the area. At the closing of the day they had reached a landing large enough to camp in and most of the group shuffled towards they sleeping bags, too tired to bother with dinner. Zuko took a few deep breaths, staring at the star-filled sky that seemed to press down on them.
“Am I the only one feeling light-headed?” Katara scooted closer to him, rubbing her temples.
“No, I feel it too. What’s going on?” Aang gave them a sympathetic look.
“The higher we go, the thinner the air gets,” he explained. “I remember when we first started learning to air glide. The instructors wouldn’t let us go over the clouds.”
“But it’ll pass, right?” Azula asked. Aang nodded emphatically.
“As soon as we climb lower,” he assured her.
Toph turned towards the rest of the group curiously. True, she too had felt a little light-headed when they had reached the clearing but it had gone away almost immediately. In fact the more she sat with her back against a conveniently placed rock the more energised she felt. Due to her earthbending she had always been more comfortable when she was surrounded by her element but this was new. Absently, Toph took one of her metal bracelets and started playing around with it. Her eyes widened in surprise when the material responded to the minutest metalbending. She could feel the impurities she manipulated as clear as if she was working with regular stones. So absorbed she was by her discovery that she completely missed the presence at her side.
“We’re very close to the City now,” Agni said quietly, as if trying not to startle her. Still, she turned sharply towards him, her concentration broken. “Easy there!” he said with a chuckle. “I thought you had heard me.” Toph settled a little.
“Nah,” she said, reforming her bracelet. “Too far away in my head I guess.” Then what he said sank in. “How close is very close?” Agni shrugged.
“I’ve never been,” he admitted. “But I can tell the energy is different here. I imagine we’ll be getting a visit by Oma or Shu either tonight or come morning.” Toph nodded in understanding and then raised an eyebrow.
“You are very social all of a sudden,” she said. Agni chuckled.
“I think Lily is too distracted right now to yell at me for talking to one of you.” He pointed towards the rest of the group were the girls were trying to teach Azula to cook, much to the amusement of the boys. Toph rolled her eyes at the ruckus they were making but nonetheless stood up to join the group.
“Somehow I don’t think this will make her like you” she called over her shoulder, drawing out the word ‘like’ more than it was probably necessary. Agni looked at her with wide eyes, too shocked to really form an answer.
In the morning the group woke to find that what last night had been a solid rock wall was now the entrance of a tunnel. Shaped out of hard, black rock, it stood out against the paler stones of the mountain. Sokka couldn’t help but comment:
“What is it with Elementals and impressive entrances?” Lia chuckled.
“We get bored?” she offered before moving towards the opening with quick steps. The others followed more hesitantly.
Almost immediately after they entered, the rock moved behind them, sealing the entrance and plunging them in darkness. The small flames that appeared on the hands of Zuko, Azula, Lia and Agni did little to break through the inky blackness surrounding them. The others huddled closer to them, even Toph who, although not bothered by the lack of light, felt intimidated by the almost claustrophobic atmosphere.
“Are we sure this isn’t a trap?” Katara asked hesitantly in a low voice.
“I don’t think so,” Aang shook his head. “There is the same strange energy here as was at Agni’s mountain.”
“And that is so reassuring,” Azula mumbled. To everyone’s surprise Lia let a breathless chuckle.
“Took the words right out of my mouth,” she told Azula before breathing deeply through the nose and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Elementals very rarely visited each other’s home domain and for good reason. The build-up of their personal energy, combining with that of the crystals caused an imbalance. Lesser Spirits didn’t really notice it, with the exception of those whose abilities were tied to one element or another and thus might find themselves temporarily stronger or weaker. In her case, it felt as though the entire mountain was pressing down her eardrums and she could feel the crystal pulsing against her breastbone as it tried to remedy the problem. A quick glance at her counterpart told her that he wasn’t faring much better. His face had grown paler during their walk and a slight grimace of pain flitted across his features.
Without warning light flooded the tunnel as an opening appeared right in front of them, leading to a straight drop a long way down. Aang, who had been closest to the opening, half-floated half-jumped backwards, frowning at how much effort airbending suddenly required. A deep, throaty laugh drew the group’s attention to their side, where a short, tan man with emerald green eyes and obsidian black hair now stood.
“I apologise for startling you,” he said in a friendly tone. “You can never be too cautious these days.”
“Are you Shu, the Earth Spirit?” Suki asked hesitantly. His comment about caution went both ways after all, and she hadn’t missed how the two Fire Spirits seemed to shy away from him. The man bowed slightly to her.
“Indeed I am, daughter of Kyoshi,” he answered. “Your arrival has been expected for a while now,” he continued, this time addressing the entire group.
“Then you will show us the way to the Hidden City?” Sokka asked excitedly. Toph huffed in exasperation.
“It’s a Hidden City alright…I can’t feel it even though I really want to.”
“You cannot see it little bender because it doesn’t stand out, but rather it is embraced by our element,” he said kindly. “Once we are closer you will understand.” Another gateway opened at his side and he motioned to the group to follow him. Toph was the first to cross the threshold, eager to find out what Shu meant and the others scrambled after her, the gateway disappearing behind them as soon as they had all crossed.
This new tunnel was much shorter than the previous ones and sooner than they’d imagined they emerged from yet another gateway, this one much more elaborate and carved out of marble. The sight that greeted them on the other side was unlike anything they had ever seen. Everything in the Hidden City was made out of different kinds of stones and metals. An explosion of colours surrounded them, as the warm sunlight fell on the gems inlet on the buildings’ walls and created small rainbows on the white marble roads. Spirits filtered on the streets, some walking, some flying, some using bizarre combinations of the two, but most of the carrying different kinds of parcels and baskets and all moving in the same direction. As Shu led them through, they paused and let them pass in respect, before turning back to whatever they had been doing, even as the first stirrings of a melody reached them from somewhere else in town.
Even though the City looked beautiful to the entire group, Toph felt that only she could truly appreciate its true magnificence. Each different type of rock, gem or metal gave off a different vibration and her own, unique way of seeing revealed details on their structures that were probably invisible to the naked eye. In a way, Toph thought, it was nice to be the one to see clearly everything. And not just in a metaphorical way either…. Reluctantly she brought her attention back to her friends and to where they were going. The street they were walking on felt as smooth and soft as silk under the soles of her feet and she bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud when she heard more than one pair of legs slipping and sliding, caught off-guard by the sudden loss of traction.
Finally they arrived at their destination, a temple in the middle of the City, built in the almost conical way that characterised the buildings in Omashu. At its entrance stood Oma, whose tan complexion, warm brown eyes and reserved expression did little to distract from her rich, deep green hair that cascaded down her back like ivy.
“Do all female Elementals have strange-coloured hair?” Zuko blurted out, blushing when the Elementals in question turned to him with equally unimpressed expressions. They gave each other measuring looks before Lia shrugged.
“I don’t see anything strange,” she said. “Do you?” she asked Oma. The earth Elemental shook her head.
“Not really, no,” she said before turning to address the entire group. “Welcome to the Hidden City. I must applaud your courage to stand by your friend’s side on a fight that isn’t your own. We are honoured to have you here and if you would follow us, we will take you to what you came seeking.” While she talked the group composed themselves from laughing quietly at Zuko’s expense and listened to her with serious expressions. When she finished talking Aang took a step forward, becoming the spokesman for the gaang.
“We thank you for your kind words and hospitality,” he said formally after a deep bow, figuring that if the Earth Spirits where anything like the earthbenders they would appreciate brevity. Indeed, Oma and Shu nodded in acknowledgment once and motioned to the group to follow them inside the temple.
The halls inside were lit by the same green crystal as the catacombs of Ba Sing Se, casting eerie lights on the obsidian walls. Before they could move further than the first hall, Shu turned apologetically to Agni and Lia.
“I’m afraid you two will have to wait here,” he said. The two Fire Spirits nodded in understanding and Lia even managed to give Zuko a reassuring smile in answer to his concerned look before the gaang followed the Earth Spirits deeper in the temple. As soon as they were out of sight she slumped against the wall, taking deep breaths through the nose. The Fire crystal could do little to counteract the effects the build-up of the Earth crystal’s energy was having on her and a similar thump from the opposite wall told her that Agni was not faring much better. His face was sweaty and his eyes had dulled, almost like he was feverish but he said nothing. Lia bit her lip hesitantly. If she felt as horrible as she did, then how could her partner be feeling, without the crystal shielding him. With a deep breath and telling herself that she would probably regret it immediately she let the Fire crystal float between them, and it glowed a fiery red as it struggled to shield both of them. Lia let her head fall to her knees as gravity seemed suddenly to double, even as she heard Agni’s breathing ease a little. Closing her eyes, she wished that Oma and Shu wouldn’t have any elaborate ceremonies before entrusting their crystal to one of the group.
Meanwhile the others had reached the main chamber of the temple, a room bare of anything other than the glowing emerald crystal floating at its exact centre, orbiting around itself. The Earth Spirits each placed a hand on Toph’s shoulders and gently led her towards the crystal.
“I can see it,” Toph whispered, almost hypnotised as she raised a hand towards the crystal.
“Earthbending has always been for you as natural as breathing because you understood its true meaning,” Shu explained, a hint of pride colouring his voice as he addressed her.
“That is why you are the right person to safeguard the crystal until our world is safe again,” Oma continued softly. “Not since the time we walked amongst the mortals has there been someone whose understanding of earthbending is as complete as yours.” Hearing these words seemed to snap Toph out of her daze and she shook her head.
“I am great at earthbending,” she agreed, “but I do not have complete understanding of it. There are still many things I want to experiment with.”
“And you have both the vision and the ability to do so,” Oma said. “Earth is not static and there will always be new things to discover. That however doesn’t subtract from what you have already achieved.”
“The crystal chose you because it felt your affinity for it,” Shu said as the emerald stone attached itself to Toph’s headband. “It might enhance your abilities but not to a great extent. You see, that is the paradox of the elemental crystals. They do not truly enhance your powers. Rather they highlight what was already there.”
They did not linger at the now-darkened chamber but hurried back to where they had left Lia and Agni. They found them sitting on opposite walls, Agni seemingly dozing and Lia looking at the ceiling bored. She slowly turned her head towards them and moved to stand.
“What took you so long?” she grumbled, her voice startling Agni into opening his eyes.
“Can we go now?” he mumbled, sounding as moody as the redhead. Shu chuckled.
“I apologise for the uncomfortable wait friends,” he said. “But perhaps you might delay your departure until the morning? There is a festival tonight and it might the last chance any of us has for merriment for a while.” Aang’s face practically lit up at the prospect of a party and the others seemed pretty enthusiastic about the idea.
“Might as well,” Agni said carelessly. “I’m starting to get used to the thin air you locals breathe anyway.”
Shu had other duties to see to, so Oma led the group to a small house, where they could leave their packs and freshen up for the party. She left them with directions on how to reach the area where the festival was taking place and smiled as she heard the girls of the group loudly and enthusiastically order the boys to hurry up and get ready in one of the smaller rooms so that they could have the larger ones to themselves. Since none of them had planned on coming across any sort of celebration during their travels, getting ready mostly consisted of washing off the dust they had gathered on the road and touching up on hairstyles, before hurriedly leaving the house and following the –now louder- sound of music and laughter to another area of the City.
When they reached the square where the festivities were being held they saw that more of the green crystals were hung everywhere, intermingled with candles that shone through gems, bathing everything in a rainbow of colours as night fell. In one corner a group of Spirits were playing songs and in another tables were set with foods and drinks. Sokka’s eyes zeroed on the food and, grabbing Suki’s hand, he made a beeline for it.
“We’ll see you guys later!” he called over his shoulder. Suki laughed at her boyfriend’s antics, but she followed him willingly enough.
“Sokka has the right idea,” Katara said, eyeing the crowd of Spirits that seemed to grow bigger by the minute. “It will be hard to keep track of everyone with so many people around. How about we just meet later in the house?” Azula nodded in agreement.
“Sounds good,” she said. “That way everyone can do what they want.”
“And that means Twinkle-Toes and I are dancing,” Toph said determinedly, grabbing Aang by the collar and dragging him off closer to the music, where a few couples were already dancing. Azula, Zuko, Katara and Lia chucked at the antics of the youngest members of their group. Azula turned to the others and gave a smile.
“I think I’ll go exploring,” she said in almost childish excitement. For all the doom and gloom prospects of their quest and even with Agni’s presence stirring up unpleasant memories she had found herself loving every moment of their travels on the Spirit World.
“Have fun Zula,” Zuko told his sister before turning his attention to the remaining members of their team, only to find it short one member.
“Wow,” Katara told Lia, also noticing Agni’s absence for the first time. “And I though you moved silently.” The redhead scoffed and made a shooing gesture at them.
“Well, go on!” she told them teasingly. “Away with you! Go find a dark corner and enjoy each other’s presence or whatever it is you kids call it these days. I know you want some alone time.” Zuko and Katara –sporting matching blushes and guilty smiles- didn’t need to be told twice before they disappeared into the crowd, holding hands tightly. Lia surveyed the scene for a moment longer from where she stood before moving towards the drinks. Early she had spotted a few bottles of one of her favourites and she fully intended to indulge herself.
Agni found her a few hours later, after he had to navigate through a group of particularly giggly tree Spirits, sitting on a staircase, cradling an empty bottle and sporting a particularly thoughtful expression. Wherever her mind was traveling, it returned back to reality as soon as he came within view of her. Her eyes focused on his intently and she waited until he was close enough to hear her before speaking.
“I’m drunk,” she declared with all the gravity of a royal decree. Agni chuckles and stooped to pry the bottle from her loose hold.
“I can see that,” he told her teasingly. “I didn’t realise you were that bored. Do you want me to help you pass the time?” For a few moments she seemed to consider his offer before she shook her head.
“Naaaah,” she said with a giggle and she leaned closer to him. “Do you want to know a secret?” she asked in an excited whisper. Agni couldn’t resist leaning closer too, having missed seeing her so relaxed around him, even if it had taken a bottle of strong alcohol to get her to that stage.
“What secret?” he whispered back in a conspiratory tone. Lia raised her finger, as if to underline the importance of what she was about to say, took a dramatically deep breath and declared:
“I can’t tell you! It won’t be a secret then!” She burst into another round of giggles and stumbled to her feet. Agni laughed and wrapped an arm around her waist, steading her against him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and smiled. “But I will dance with you,” she told him sweetly. “I like it when we dance. We’re not fighting then.” Agni’s smile softened and he shifted his hold so that he could softly sway them both with the music.
“I like it too when we are not fighting,” he told her quietly. Lia leaned almost completely against him and closed her eyes.
“Then let’s not fight anymore,” she said sleepily. Agni started to answer but caught himself when he saw she had fallen asleep. With a bittersweet sigh he gathered her in his arms and made his way back to the house they had been given. At least one of them would sleep peacefully tonight.
While the couples of the group where having their moments, Azula had wondered to the far end of the square, taking in the sights idly. A few friendly Spirits invited her to dance with them and she joined them for a few songs, catching sight of Sokka and Suki swaying a little further away for a moment, before a rather large Spirit shaped like a radish passed between them and she lost them. Eventually she retreated to the edge of the impromptu dance-floor to catch her breath. A strange jingling noise caught her attention and she turned to see a small collection of gemstones trembling on an earthen dish held by a Spirit that looked like a kindly grandmother.
“My, my!” the Spirit said. “You must have quite the future to make the stones so excited! Would you like to know more?” Azula looked at her surprised but moved closer nonetheless.
“How would I do that?” she asked curiously.
“Just pick a stone dearie. I’ll do the rest.” The Fire princess scrutinised the collection in front of her carefully. A silver-blue gem caught her eye and her hand moved towards it involuntarily. She picked it up and handed to the old Spirit.
“Well, what do we have here? Lightning and travelling and adventures in your past and present and future. You’re a special girl for sure! What else? Oh, I see a nice gentleman too and you’ll be meeting him very soon.” She looked up to smile at Azula who seemed a little overwhelmed by the torrent of words that had met her. “Keep an eye out for the one in blue,” the old Spirit said. “He will give you your dreams if you let him.”
“What do you…” Azula began to ask but trailed off when she realised that the fortune-teller had disappeared before her eyes. Pocketing the stone she walked away, pondering what she had just heard in her mind.