Author’s Note: In which the bad guys decide to grace us with their presence, there is action and girl talk (not necessarily in that order…)
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Nobody commented on Agni’s carrying Lia as they moved away from the Swamps with three Crystals in their possession. Truth be told, it was probably the most peaceful any of them had seen her look since they had arrived at the Spirit World. For her part, Lia did not stir even as they set camp by a river and did not wake until the sun rose the next morning. Even then her good mood seemed to continue, not the almost manic cheerfulness the others, especially Zuko, were used on seeing on her, but rather a serenity. Agni noted with satisfaction that the Fire Crystal, which had been acting erratically in response to its bearer’s turmoil, had also calmed, its surface settling on a rich, cheerful red.
For a few days this calmness reigned, the group wondering almost aimlessly, lacking any clues for the whereabouts of the last Crystal but for once not in a particular hurry either. Stories were exchanged from past adventures, the gaang bringing Ao and Agni up to speed with their war-related adventures and the two of them returning the favour with their own stories, and if the more embarrassing or funny ones always happened to include Lia in some capacity…it was hardly their fault!
Reality decided to intrude on their little bubble with the smell of salty air and the sound of waves crashing on the shore. When the ocean came to view they stopped and gazed in awe. The sea in the Spirit World is a lot different than what passes for sea in the mortal plane. One might even say that it was the original from which an imperfect copy was made. Every possible blue, green and purple (and some the gaang didn’t even know existed) swirled in perfect harmony, now calm and now thunderous, forming waves that crashed on the rocky shore, leaving behind them a booming sound like distant thunder. Aang summed up everyone’s reaction at the sight:
For once Katara took the lead, the water’s call amplified by the Crystal’s energy meshing with her own creating an insistent call at the back of her mind that urged her to joindanceswimragebeone with the ocean. Before the others had time to even reach the beach she was almost on the water’s edge.
“Katara wait up!” her brother’s annoyed voice broke through the haze and she stopped abruptly, not having realised how far ahead she had run. She turned sheepishly at the others.
“Sorry,” she called over the roar of the water. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“Not to worry,” Lia assured her, staying far from the water’s range. “It’s the Crystal. You’ll get used to it.” Katara looked at her confused.
“The Crystal wanted me to get in the water?” she said. She wrapped her arms around her middle uneasily when every Spirit in the group turned to look at her alarmed.
“What do you mean, get in the water?” Ao said cautiously, casting a wary glance around them. Katara frowned.
“It sounded like somebody was speaking to me,” she tried to explain. “I couldn’t make out the words but it felt like I should join the water?” She paused, realising how bizarre that must have sounded to her friends. Toph opened her mouth to say something when, out of nowhere, what looked like the older brother of the snake from Serpent’s Pass (only more spiky, bigger and a lot more angry) burst out of the water and lunged at them. The twin lightning bolts he received from Agni and Azula did little to deter it.
“Why is the ocean trying to kill us?” Sokka exclaimed as they scrambled away from the water’s edge. Toph pushed her bangs away from her face annoyed and sent a wave of sand at the general direction of the Serpent.
“Is this really the time for questions Snoozles?” she snapped and then yelped when somebody wrapped an arm around her waist and unceremoniously dragged her backwards.
“Is this really the time for snark Toph?” Zuko snapped back, having dragged the two of them just out of blast radius. “This thing is shooting the water equivalent of Combustion Man’s blasts!” That was all it took to get Toph to focus, switching from sand waves to pelting the Serpent with increasingly large rocks. Aang landed next to her, using his airbending to stir the boulders she was launching closer to the thing’s head. Katara was standing nearby, her face creased in concentration as she tried to use the ocean’s waves to drag the Serpent back inside the water. It should have been easy, yet it felt as though something was blocking her power…
The second wave (pun not intended) of attackers appeared with as much warning as the Serpent. They seemed to be materialising out of nowhere, a platoon of vaguely humanoid spirits with heads like praying mantises, armed with some wickedly sharp scythes. Suki, Sokka and Ao attacked them immediately since their more elemental-oriented companions where still focusing on the Serpent. Agni, the first to notice the additions to the fray, turned to Azula and Zuko.
“Help the others,” he said seriously. “Lia and I can handle this one.” The siblings gave him an uncertain look but moved to help their friends. Aang, Toph and Katara joined them shortly, having been told similarly by Katara. Confident that their companions could handle themselves, the two Fire Spirits moved closer to the Serpent. With no mortals near enough to be caught in the immediate blast the two pooled their powers to blast the Serpent. The result was a fireball with the temperature of a small sun that completely disintegrated the Serpent. Lia and Agni exchanged a smug look before joining their friends against the Mantis Spirits.
They were right on time for that too since one of them, taking advantage of everyone’s momentary distraction caused by the blast managed to swipe his scythe on Azula’s side. The young woman fell on the ground with a cry of pain. Katara was instantly at her side, trying to step the blood flow, the battle too chaotic around them to allow for the concentration required for a healing session. Ao was on Azula’s side a moment later, destroying her attacker with a blast of spirit energy. The battle didn’t last long after this. With the addition of Lia and Agni the group was able to push back the Mantis Spirits, who fled the scene with their numbers severely diminished.
Once they were certain that no one and nothing else would attack them unexpectedly the group set up camp close to the battle site. A tent was set almost immediately and a worried Zuko, followed by an equally worried Ao, carried Azula inside. Katara stepped in behind them and shooed the two men away so that she could concentrate on her patient. With grumbles the two men went to join the others as they wearily finished setting the camp, a surprisingly haggard-looking Agni getting the fire going and slumping next to it. The others followed suit, none of them particularly in the mood for conversation. Lia rummaged through her satchel and produced a copper bottle that she passed wordlessly to the Spirit next to her. Agni popped it open and took a small sip.
“Sake?” he asked her amused. She shrugged.
“It’ll wake you up, won’t it?” she muttered, letting her hair fall forward to hide her expression. Her partner chuckled.
“True,” he said before taking another sip and passing the bottle back to her. Lia took it, closed the top again and chucked it to Ao. It startled his out of the stupor he had fallen since Katara had kicked him out of Azula’s tent but not enough to realise what was going on.
“Drink!” Lia half-ordered him in an exasperated tone. “You’re more high-strung than a freshly-made bow!” The Blue Spirit rolled his eyes and threw the bottle back.
“No, thanks,” he said sarcastically. “If the two of you are planning on drinking I’ll have to remain sober. The last time you,” he pointed at Agni, “got drunk you created a new flower. And if I remember correctly, you,” now he turned to Lia who cut him off hurriedly.
“Fine, fine don’t drink!” she said hurriedly. “No need to get all stroppy about it!”
“Defensive!” Toph said around a cough but before the conversation could turn into an argument Katara stepped out of the tent.
“How is she?” Zuko and Ao asked at the same time, before turning to look at each other surprised, although Zuko’s look was vaguely threatening. He had a sneaking suspicion he’d find himself in Sokka’s shoes soon enough.
“She’s fine and resting,” Katara reassured them before sitting next to Zuko. “Can somebody else cook tonight?” she asked tiredly.
“I’ll do it!” Suki offered, moving towards the bags with supplies they had. A simple stew would be easy enough to make.
It was a testament to how close the girls of the gaang that after dinner, and without having exchanged a word on the matter, they moved together, dragging a protesting Lia inside Azula’s tent. Toph entered last, shouting a “Girl talk!” to the stunned men’s general direction before shutting the door behind her. Inside the tent Lia sat down and rubbed her eyes tiredly, doing her best to ignore her friends’ expectant stares.
“What now?” she asked them finally. Azula, never one to beat around the bush, spoke first.
“What’s going on with you and Agni?” she asked, propping herself up against Katara’s shoulder to get a better vantage point.
“Absolutely nothing,” Lia answered firmly, already moving to stand up. Toph sent a slight ripple under the redhead’s feet and she was forced to sit down again.
“You’re lying,” she said flatly, none of her usual jokiness in her voice. “Being around you two is like being around Zuko and Katara, Sokka and Suki and Azula and Ao…”
“And you and Aang,” Azula added in a sing-song, steadfastly ignoring the blush that she knew had covered her cheeks.
“Whatever!” Toph exclaimed before turning towards Lia again. “Your heartbeats are in sync. Even when you’re fighting, you two never fall out of sync.” For a while it looked like Lia would not speak, even as the other pondered the implication of what the earthbender had said. Finally the redhead caved.
“Just because I love him, doesn’t mean I trust him!” she said. “Or he trusts me for the matter…” Toph was perhaps the only one not shocked by that admission.
“You…love him?” Suki stammered. “But…”
“You tried to kill him!” Katara finished her friend’s words. Lia shrugged.
“And he’s been a lying, manipulative bastard since the day I met him,” she said, this time managing to stand up.
“Well he’s certainly not acting like one now,” Toph said exasperated. “What does a guy need to do to get on your good books? Die for you?” Lia froze, one hand at the tent flap, as a very familiar vision flashed through her mind.
“That’s what I’m trying to stop,” she whispered, too low for the girls to hear, as she left them to discuss what she had admitted among themselves.