Author’s note: In which we’re once more in countdown mode, the author incorporates LoK elements for the heck of it and the pressure is on like you wouldn’t believe it…
Previous chapter: link
Next chapter: link
Lia was gone for that day and most of the next. When she returned to where the others had made camp she was pale, quiet and had swapped her dress for armour. The crystal hung visible against her breastplate, its colour nearly black. She regarded the group silently for a few moments, before Zuko noticed her and stood up, a worried question ready on his lips. Lia shook her head, cutting him off and addressed the whole group instead.
“The army has been gathered. I can take us all there if you are ready.” Her answer came in a series of uneasy nods. Everyone stood, breaking camp and preparing their weapons. Once they were ready, they approached the Fire Spirit. “Form a circle around me,” she said. “It will be easier to transport everyone this way.”
“You sure you don’t need help with the teleporting?” Ao asked her concerned. Over the centuries he had faced his fair share of battles, and Lia’s almost mechanic behaviour, combined with Agni’s absence didn’t fill him with confidence. It was always hard to keep track of a companion in the midst of a fight, harder yet when said companion didn’t have a clear enough mind to take care of themselves. Lia shook her head.
“I’ll be fine,” she told him and the next moment they were standing at the edge of the largest and most chaotic camp any of them had ever seen.
Spirits of all shapes and kinds, some human-looking, some less so, hurried around, forming in battalions, putting on armour and sharpening weapons. Some searched for friends or lovers in other groups, wanting to have a few last moments of peace before the uncertainty of the fight started. Different incarnations of the Avatar walked through the different groups, some joining them, some simply pausing to exchange of few words. The gaang stared slack-jawed at the gathering for a moment before they realised that Lia was already walking towards the centre of the camp and hurried to follow her.
As they walked amongst the different Spirits they noticed that most of them seemed to group by characteristics or abilities. A large group of dragons flew overhead, some carrying warriors on their backs, roaring in acknowledgement when they saw Lia. A group of Spirits that seemed to be carved out of precious stones, greeted Toph enthusiastically as she passed by, making the earthbender blush slightly and hide behind her bangs. In a different section, one suspiciously covered in mist and studiously avoided by most Spirits, Koh sat, calmly observing the chaos around him, and Sokka could have sworn he saw Hei Bai pass by, carrying baskets of weapons in his back.
For all the noise and voices and new sights however, no one could ignore that under all that they could still hear, almost to quiet to register, a similar noise dimly coming from the enemy camp. Perhaps not surprisingly Zuko was the first to break the silence. He caught up to his sister and turning to face her he asked,
“Where exactly are we going?” Are you alright? he’d rather ask. Will you be alright once this is over and we return to our world? But he knew Lia would never answer him openly in front of everyone and so chose to stick to a more neutral ground. Lia gave him a quick glance and then turned to face forward again, although she spoke up for the benefit of the group.
“Just a little further ahead. There is a meeting going on. We are trying to come up with a strategy and I am sure your experience with…unconventional methods of war craft will be useful. From behind them they heard Sokka, Suki and Azula immediately starting to brainstorm, with Ao and Aang offering their thoughts at points. Taking advantage of their distraction Zuko turned to Lia again.
“Will you be alright?” he asked her quietly. She turned to look at him surprised, her hand going reflexively to cover the crystal.
“I always am,” she told him softly, but didn’t resist when he pulled her to a quick hug.
Ahead of them, around a large table almost completely covered in papers, stood a group of Avatars, Roku included, Oma, Shu, Yue, La, and, to the gaang’s surprise, Agni, dressed in black armour and looking more grave than anyone remembered seeing him since he had started travelling with them. By unspoken agreement the group broke, everyone heading towards their elemental counterparts, with Aang and the non-benders staying with Ao. It caused no small amount of stares when Lia took her place next to Agni, even though she refused to look at him. Instead she turned her attention to Kyoshi who was standing opposite of her.
“Any news on the Air elementals?” she asked in a measured tone. If the female Avatar was surprised at their arrival she did not show it.
“No,” she said instead. “We hope this means that they are choosing to remain neutral on the matter.”
“What of the Air crystal?” Sokka asked. “We do not have it but the tower was pretty much destroyed so…”
“Without the Air elementals there is no way of knowing whether the Council managed to take the crystal or not,” Roku said frowning.
“What about the plan you told us about Roku?” Aang jumped in. “How are we going to awaken the Avatar Spirit?” An uneasy looked was swapped by the older Spirits. True that had been the plan since the beginning, but it was one rife with risks.
“It is not as simple as you may imagine,” La said finally, his voice similar to waves crashing on the shore. “The Avatar Spirit is the Spirit of Life, birth from the union of Raava and Vaatu, Order and Chaos. It cannot be controlled or predicted. Moreover, it would severely diminish our forces.” Azula looked at him with a frown.
“How so?” she asked, leaning against the table.
“It would require the combined energy of all the Avatars together to awaken it,” Avatar Kuruk explained. “If we follow this course of action we cannot participate in the battle. Our side will be deprived of at least a thousand warriors.”
“Do we have a choice?” Toph asked, before the conversation turned to calculating the odds. That never helped.
“What do you mean child?” Oma looked at her like she could already guess the earthbender’s next words.
“Do we have an alternative plan? Anything other than charge blindly and hope for the best.” Toph shrugged. “I’m usually all for the head-on approach but in this case…”
“Toph is right,” Lia said. “At this point we do not have a choice. We do not know exactly what the Council has in store, but if it is anything like those blasts they used when I first returned, well, we cannot afford to hold back.” She gave Aang a sharp look, already guessing where any opposition might come from. “They will definitely not.” The airbender didn’t look happy, but didn’t contradict her either.
“It might be best if this…” Zuko paused, uncertain of what awakening the Avatar Spirit might entail. He continued nonetheless. “Close to the camp. Then in case everything goes wrong we will have one last line of defence.”
“For whatever good it might do…”Agni muttered but gave an approving nod to the Fire Lord. “But you are correct. If it comes down to it we will at least have enough time to send you children back and seal any passages between our worlds.”
“What do you mean, seal the passages?” Aang asked alarmed. Agni gave him a grave look.
“We cannot allow the Council’s bid for rewriting how the universe works. One way or another they will need to be contained.”
“But to completely seal the gates…” Yue looked hesitant, and most of the other elementals nodded in agreement. “This has never happened before. How do we know it will not cause a worse disaster to the mortal realm than what we are already facing?”
“Yue,” Lia spoke up for the first time, turning to face the youngest Spirit present, “you and I both know better than anyone that the mortals always find a way to survive, and even prosper, at the most adverse of circumstances. We will have to trust that this trend will continue.” Another round of nods, some more confident than others, rippled across the table. Katara took a deep breath and spoke for the entire gaang.
“What do you need us to do?” she asked decisively.
Each one of them was assigned to a different battalion, though there was little doubt they would sooner or later find each if only because after all these years they tended to gravitate together. Around them the warriors were beginning to line up in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Toph and Aang were the first to separate, with the earthbender roughly pushing her boyfriend towards the barrier the other Avatars were slowly forming, with explicit instructions as to where he was to take her for a date as soon as they won the battle. Aang, knowing better than to disagree with her, enveloped her in a tight hug and moved to join his other incarnations. Toph paused only to punch Zuko to the arm and wolf-whistle at Sokka and Suki who were kissing (“It’s for good luck!” Suki exclaimed with a blush.) before joining the gemstone Spirits.
Getting over their slight embarrassment, Sokka and Suki waved at the reminder of the group and joined a group near the middle that seemed to be formed mostly of Spirits formed out of what could only be described as solidified energy. They didn’t try to put their thoughts to words, both firmly of the belief that a casual farewell was the best way to ensure you’d find someone on the other side of the battle.
Azula embraced her brother and Katara tightly, her throat too tight for words. Ao moved to stand to her side, their affinity with lightning making them the perfect long-range offensive. Zuko looked at them both sternly, one hand firmly wrapped around Katara, the other pointing at them warningly.
“Look after each other,” he ordered them. His eyes focused on Ao. “Once this is over, we two need to have a talk.”
“Zuko!” Azula exclaimed, indignant embarrassment overpowering the pre-battle nervousness. Ao however simply nodded and took her hand.
“That we do Fire Lord,” he said with a slight inclination of the head before he led Azula away to where they’d be stationed.
Katara chuckled softly, shifting so that she could face Zuko.
“Did Sokka pull a stunt like this with you?” she asked idly. Zuko shook his head.
“No, he was too afraid of Lia’s reaction, so close to our encounter with the Combustion Man, remember?” The waterbender nodded, a concerned look passing through her eyes.
“Lia will be alright, right?” she said hesitantly. Zuko sighed and tightened his grip.
“I don’t know,” he admitted quietly. “I wish she would talk to me instead of hiding away.” Katara pecked him on the cheek comfortingly.
“We’ll get through this battle,” she said strongly. “Then we’ll make sure she is really alright.” Zuko wasn’t sure things would work quite that well, they never did with their little group, but, with the pre-battle hush slowly falling over the entire battlefield, he nodded once. Together they moved towards the front lines, with the other close-range warriors.
While these last minute conversations and promises were happening, Lia stood at the very edge of the battlefield, eyes closed, as she concentrated on the shifting energies around her. So deeply she was in her meditation that the sudden flare of energy right next to her seemed like a small star. She opened her eyes and turned to face him. Agni’s expression was almost mournful as he stood there, his hands rigidly on his sides like he was forcing himself to not embrace her. For an endless moment they looked at each other silently.
“You know that I love you, right?” Agni finally said in a resigned tone. “It doesn’t matter how often we scream at each other or you try to kill me, it doesn’t change anything.” Lia parted her lips to say something but he cut her off. “Don’t. I just wanted you to know for certain. Just in case.” With these words he turned to leave, completely missing the way her expression crumbled in despair. Wordlessly Lia turned once more forward to face the battlefield, refusing to let her tears fall.