The first time James was supposed to meet the Avatar, he skived off.
The Avatar was coming, his mother had told him, and they all had to be on their best behavior.
Of course, "Best behavior" were James's least favorite words, right after "No," "Because I said so," and "Sirius can't come with."
James didn’t see why being able to bend all four elements meant someone was worth meeting, much less putting on his Best Behavior for. (Not that he had found anyone yet worthy of Best Behavior. He wasn't even entirely sure what that meant.) To a nine-year-old boy, "bring balance" meant that the Avatar—some Earth kingdom ninny—existed to squash all of his fun. Or at least the fun he managed in between all the boring stuff his parents made him do as Prince of the Fire Nation.
With well-practiced maneuvers, which included Sirius distracting everyone by spouting off "uncontrollable" fire, James ducked the royal guards and ran off into the city. He met Sirius at their usual meeting place ten minutes later (near a statue that was probably of one of James’s ancestors, given his family’s self-obsession), and they continued their ongoing exploration of their neighborhood streets. Even though Caldera had hard, geographical limits—the crater on top of a dormant volcano, which only served as further evidence that James lived in the coolest place in the world—the Capital continued on at the base of the volcano, large enough to provide endless entertainment.
The guards didn’t so much find James as come running when he accidentally set fire to a merchant's cart. It was the man's fault, really. James had looked back over his shoulder, laughing that Sirius was never going to catch him in their game of Hide and Explode, and had run headlong into the cart. The merchant started shouting about his cabbages and threatening James with grievous bodily harm, and what else was James's body going to do but catch fire as a defense mechanism?
Fenwick lifted James to sit on his shoulders, took a sullen Sirius in hand, and escorted them back to the palace.
James's mum brushed the residual ash off him with one hand and sighed. Fenwick had to forcefully carry Sirius away, as usual, and James's mum crouched down, so her face was at James's level.
"You can't keep running away, James," she said. "You've got responsibilities."
“Responsibilities” was another one of James's least favorite words. He scowled.
His mum tugged him into the main throne room, stopping on the way to have a sharp word with the guard at the door about keeping an eye on her son.
The throne sat empty and forlorn, as it usually did, while James’s dad mingled with the crowd. Fire nobles were shamefully predictable in their wardrobe, all black and red and gold, and they all wore their hair in the same top knot, which made it hard to pick out any given individual. James, though, could always find his dad by listening for his distinctive roar of laughter, louder than any armadillo bear, and spotted him across the room talking to a large group of young adults.
A few musicians played somber music in the corner. His dad had tried to get them to lighten up a bit during rehearsal, but they’d taken it literally and set an erhu on fire. James’s dad had given up after that.
James’s mum dragged him across the room and introduced him to all sorts of annoying, old people who told James how big he was getting, and asked in condescending tones, "How old are you now?"
James glared. “Eleventy billion.”
They all laughed at his joke, which was better than them laughing at him because he was small.
His stomach started growling while his mum was in the middle of an unbearably long conversation about rebels. (James didn’t know what a rebel was, but it sounded like some sort of insect problem, the way they talked about it.) He yanked on her sleeve and said, right while the Minister for Something Really Boring was talking, "I'm hungry."
"Go get some food and come right back." She patted his shoulder and cast him a warning look before turning back to the Minister.
James picked a meandering route to the table full of food along the side of the room, the only decent part of these gatherings. Some adult called his name as he walked by, but James ignored him.
A girl stood at the table warily eyeing a fish cake, and he normally would have written off any other child as the offspring of a noble, but her existence demanded attention. He’d only ever heard about other hair colors besides black and brown, much less seen it in person, but hers was an unreal red.
"The fish cakes are really good – you should try one.” James sized her up. "Who are you?"
She smiled at him, licked the cake, and scrunched up her face. Still grimacing, she tucked her cake under a lettuce leaf on her plate, by all appearances hiding it, and said, matter-of-factly, "I'm the Avatar."
"You can't be the Avatar,” James said. “You're littler than me."
"I'm nine and I am the Avatar and I don't like you." She lifted her chin and marched off, her long hair flouncing behind her.
James rolled his eyes and piled his plate high with fish cakes. With that attitude, she probably was the Avatar, as obnoxious as he’d ever thought she’d be.
While he walked back to his mum, he bent a small burst of fire out of his finger and passed it over the cakes on his plate, just close enough to toast, not enough to burn.
“Did you meet the Avatar, then?” his mum asked when he returned to her. (Only after he’d double checked that the guards were, in fact, watching him closely.)
The worst confirmed, then. But who needed an Avatar, anyway. James certainly didn’t.
Balance was boring.
Things did not improve much upon their second meeting three years later.
"But, Mu-uuum." James grabbed his cloak off his bed. "I don’t like the Avatar.”
"You're going to lead this country someday, and you're going to need her help."
"She doesn't even like fish cakes."
James's mum stared at him from his bedroom doorway. "Liking fish cakes," she said after a moment, "is not a prerequisite for bringing balance to the world."
"Balance," James said under his breath.
"Mistress McGonagall says you need to improve your balance in many of your forms."
He waved a hand. "I'm great. Sirius says so."
"Sirius Black is not a firebending master."
“Is so. He can do this wicked cool thing where he bends with his tongue."
"I've seen it," she said flatly.
James scowled, but still joined his mother on her morning walk around the grounds. She claimed it was for exercise, but James had long ago concluded that she really wanted to keep an eye on her household.
Also she liked nicking pastries from the kitchen.
"The Avatar is not boring," she said as they turned a corner, "and she's joining your lessons."
"But they're private lessons."
"She’s only here for a week, and besides, you opened this door yourself when you insisted we let Sirius join you."
"Sirius doesn't count, he's my brother."
"Then think of her as your sister, if it helps."
"Yuck," James said.
Sirius wasn't bothered by the news that the Avatar would be joining them. Very few things bothered Sirius, when it came down to it.
The Avatar was already in the middle of warm-up exercises in the palace courtyard by the time James and Sirius showed up for their lesson. This time of year the rustling leaves overhead had turned the same brilliant maroon as her hair, making the courtyard look ablaze. She only paused for a moment when they arrived, and greeted them with a cool nod before resuming her form.
James and Sirius had shown up late for their first firebending lesson several years earlier, and McGonagall had calmly terrified the shit out of James by shooting a jet of flames right up to his face (but not quite) when he wasn't looking.
James had never been late again.
McGonagall showed up precisely on time, and wasted no time directing James and Sirius to practice their latest endeavor, some uninteresting breathing exercises, while she had the Avatar demonstrate what she’d already learned about firebending.
James peeked his eyes open to watch. She slid through a bunch of rudimentary poses, things James had learned ages ago. Then she held her hands near her chest, squeezed her eyes together, and—
Fire flowed out of her fingertips.
Not like fire normally moved, not jagged and quick, but smoothly, like water. The fire slid down around her hands, tightly wound, until it looked like she was wearing a mosaic of flames as gloves.
McGonagall’s eyebrows notched up a bit, and she nodded. “Well done, Miss Evans.”
“Thanks.” The Avatar’s cheeks went a bit pink. “My friend Mary helped with that one.”
The Avatar nodded.
“Potter could learn from you.”
James toppled sideways.
“Balance,” McGonagall called out.
“Balance,” James muttered, and climbed to his feet.
The next day McGonagall tried to get James to learn Evans’s glove trick. He initially refused, but McGonagall narrowed her eyes just so, and he relented. Or at least he feigned relenting, but really didn’t try hard at all to pick up the Avatar’s trick. It was dumb anyway.
“Don’t force it out,” Evans said. “Ask it to come out.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” James shook his hands a few times, letting small bursts of flames fly out of his fingers. “You can’t ask fire. You have to tell it what to do.”
“Only if you’re firebending like a firebender.”
“Which I am, so there.”
“Do it like a waterbender. Haven’t you ever seen someone bend water?”
James made a gagging noise.
McGonagall cleared her throat, in a manner James knew did not bode well for him. “Perhaps a demonstration is in order.”
Evans shot James an annoyed look while she walked over to the pond. Blades of grass poked up between her toes, and James hoped she slipped in the mud.
He had no such luck.
She slowly drew her hands up from her sides, and pulled with them a thin stream from the pond. The water glided through the air, and James couldn’t help but study the way it moved toward her, sinuous and clear, and enveloped her hands.
“See?” Evans drew her arms apart and tilted her palms to face toward each other. The water slid off of her hands, back into a long strand that formed a spinning circle in the air between her palms, sunlight refracting off the top. “Water works with you. Fire can, too, if you want.”
James had, at some point, apparently taken a step toward her. When he realized his error, he coughed and folded his arms.
“I’m gonna bend like my dad does.”
“Fine,” Evans said. “Be boring.”
James looked to Sirius for support, but Sirius had stopped watching. He’d sprawled out on his back in the grass, his hands under his head and his eyelids closed.
A well-placed jet of fire from McGonagall had him on his feet and shouting about his hair in no time. James went over to commiserate, only looking back once—all right, twice—to watch Evans waterbend.
Firebending was the coolest. He didn’t need other kinds of bending.
It wasn’t enough that she was in his lessons. She was everywhere. His parents kept trying to shove her off on him, seating them next to each other at meals, and putting her in a room near his, and assigning James to be her guide.
Her blazing guide.
Like he didn’t have better things to do.
And the worst part was that people liked her. She asked them loads of questions that James didn’t want to hear about, like how they thought about bending and how they lived and ugh it was so dull James actually set his head on fire at one point to make her panic.
Unfortunately she saw through him within seconds, and bent a blob of water to drop on his head without blinking.
He actually smoked from his ears in response. He hadn’t done that since he was five.
He drew the line at letting her play with his friends. When Remus and Peter came over, they all ran off to play Fire Sages and the Volcano, and she demanded to join them. Sirius and James tried to give her the wrong location, but she insisted on following them to the remote corner of the Capital, instead of meeting them there.
James capitulated, and even offered to let her play the human sacrifice, but she refused. Remus—weak, soft-hearted Remus—traitorously gave her his role as assistant manager Fire Sage, and stepped up to place his back against the sacrifice tree.
And so what if she could stomp her foot and made the ground shake like the volcano was about to go off? That was just a cheap earthbending parlor trick.
James was the one who started a fire and made the flames burst up like a volcano.
And if the Avatar was stupid enough to show up to the Fire Nation without fire-resistant clothes, that wasn’t James’s fault. (He’d spotted right away that her clothes didn’t have the right sheen, but the fire had definitely been an accident. It definitely had not been built near her on purpose and he definitely hadn’t aimed for her. Not even a bit.)
She doused her clothes with some water she kept in a flask at her side, and then used waterbending to heal herself.
It was not cool, and it was even worse that Remus got all fascinated by her waterbending and dropped out of character.
James had sort of managed the fireglove by the time the week was up. Evans had learned loads from McGonagall, or so she said in their last lesson. James was working on a fire kick at the time, but he did overhear her asking McGonagall if she could write to her with firebending questions.
McGonagall agreed, and James stumbled.
Fire roared inside him, but he breathed out, letting the fire subside. She was annoying, obviously, but at least he was all but rid of her.
For now, at least.
She didn’t come back for a long time after that. Not that James minded.
He heard about her, of course. People loved talking about the Avatar. Especially if they’d met her.
“You’d think she was Fire Nation with that kind of spark!” some people would joke, only it was the worst joke James had ever heard in his life. She was not Fire Nation. Her eyes were green, for crying out loud.
He heard, after she’d left, that despite her lessons with him, she wasn’t in Avatar training yet. Not formally, anyway. She only travelled occasionally. When she did come back to the Fire Nation, she visited cities other than the Capital, and James thanked the stars for that, but mostly she seemed to stay at home.
Apparently she’d been identified at a young age. Not that James had tried to learn this. He’d got stuck in some exceptionally dull conversation between some high-ranking royals, and his mum’s firm grip on his arm kept him in place while they went on about how special she was, even for an Avatar.
“Shows tremendous potential,” they’d say. “Unprecedented earthbending skills. And she’s already learned some water and firebending!”
James could have thrown up.
When she turned sixteen, the age people usually learned they were the Avatar, they sent her to the Fire Nation to learn the next element in the cycle.
For months. Maybe years.
“She’s going to spend several months with us,” James’s dad said at dinner one night, “and then go study dueling in the eastern archipelago.”
James could not have cared less.
At least, not about the part after the Avatar left the Capital.
“Then she’ll come back here,” his dad added, and James choked on his drink.
The only good part about her coming back was that he’d mastered the fireglove trick since her last visit, plus loads of other great firebending forms. So she wasn’t that special anymore. He was probably leagues ahead of her by now.
James’s mum stopped by his room the morning of the Avatar’s welcome feast and fingered his short hair sadly.
“How will you put up your hair tonight?” she asked. “How will you wear your headpiece?”
Which was exactly why he’d run off and got it cut the day before – the gold headpiece he’d inherited was weird. Why did he need the fire emblem on his head? It wasn’t like anyone was going to forget they were in the Fire Nation, and then look at his head and be grateful for the reminder. Besides, tying his hair up didn’t work with his hair’s natural texture. As the servants had long ago discovered, not a single strand of his hair seemed interested in following the direction of its neighbors.
Short hair was freeing, and he liked the way his locks now sprung up and out every which way when he ran his hand through them.
“Headpieces are very last century,” he said. “That’s what all those royal women were saying when I was getting my hair cut.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Did they.”
“Yeah. Said they’re all, er, wearing hats now. Hats are back.”
He should have known not to try to mess with his mum.
A servant showed up right before the party with an awful, pointy red hat, and his mum gave James a grin that he’d seen in the mirror before.
“Hats are in,” she said innocently.
“Then where’s yours?” James asked.
“I’m so last century, I’ll keep my headpiece.”
James looked into the tunnel-like depths of the hat, and morbidly wondered if he could fit his whole arm in there.
“The headpiece or the hat,” his mum said. “Your choice.”
“Or else I lock down that secret passage you’ve been using under the library to get into the city.”
She swept out of the room, and James frantically dug through his wardrobe to look for the headpiece he’d so carelessly tossed in there earlier. (His back-up excuse was going to be that he’d lost it.)
Sirius swanned in not long after, looking more regal than James ever had, and found James desperately pleading with his hair to magically grow out.
“Plan backfired, then?” Sirius leaned against James’s bedpost.
“Whose hat is that?”
“Yours. My mum bought it for you. Happy very early birthday.”
“She’s got you, doesn’t she?”
James pulled on the ends of his hair. “So badly, Sirius. She knows about the tunnel.”
“Of course she knows about the tunnel. She uses it when she needs to go get a ‘real drink.’”
“What?” James squawked. “Then she’ll never close it off.”
“She could keep us out without hurting herself, though. She could post a guard and bribe him to only let her through.”
“I could counter-bribe.”
“You think any of the guards would pick you over her?”
“Point.” James sighed and let his hands fall to his sides. “I’m going to have to wear the hat, aren’t I?”
Sirius’s mouth slid into a smooth grin. “Yes.”
“Not a chance.”
“I hate you.”
The hat itched. It smashed his ears against his skull. And it was so tall, standing as upright as a military recruit.
It was a nightmare.
On the upside, it was just the Avatar’s dumb party, and she didn’t really merit dressing up for anyway.
He strode into the packed throne room with his head held high and a smile on his face. He definitely got some looks, but it was all about confidence.
“Ah, yes,” he said to the first person who dared to comment on his hat. “I’ve a friend in the Southern Isles who insists this is the fashion wave of the future. The near future, mind you, not the far-off, we’re-all-going-to-die-so-why-not-have-nice-hats future.”
The man nodded deeply, pondering James’s infinite wisdom.
James was even beginning to grow fond of the hat after a while. It gave him something to talk about besides the usual dry topics of “politics” and “the economy.” He kept inventing more ludicrous explanations for it, and didn’t stop until he finally got Sirius to burst out laughing. (“It’s encourages virility!”)
The woman they were talking to watched Sirius nervously.
“He’s quite ill,” James said. “In the head. I’m here to keep track of him.”
Sirius wiped his face of all expression. “It’s all I can do not to kill everyone on sight.”
The woman backed away slowly.
She paused as silence washed across the room, and everyone’s attention quickly turned toward the entrance.
Two guards on either side of the main door shot towering flames into the air, and the woman who’d just backed away from James stood on her toes to see over the crowd. James couldn’t help it – he craned his neck to see the entrance, where in walked—
That couldn’t be her.
That couldn’t be the Avatar.
She was stunning.
She couldn’t have been that pretty the last time James had seen her. He would’ve noticed. He had glasses, but wasn’t blind.
Had her hair been that red before? Had she had such a nice nose? She definitely hadn’t had those breasts the last time she visited. If he was sure of nothing else in his life, he was certain he would’ve noticed those if she’d had those breasts.
She was in Fire Nation colors this time, too, and that should’ve been weird with her hair but it was…appealing. Too appealing.
What was weirder was that she seemed a bit embarrassed by all the fuss. That, or she was very warm, based on the way her face had gone all red. James’s mum swept up and greeted her, and drew her away from the guards, and toward—
James in his stupid blazing hat that made him about a foot taller, and he was already so tall, there was no way she wouldn’t see him, and his mum was with her, he couldn’t take off the hat—
“And you remember my son James, of course.”
James would have to talk to his dad about making that gleam in his mum’s eye illegal.
“Hello,” James said, and his voice changed octaves between syllables. He cleared his throat and bowed. “It’s great to see you again. With my eyes. Er.”
The Avatar seemed a bit flummoxed, both by James’s statement, and by his god forsaken hat. Her eyes briefly flicked around to examine the headwear of the other people in the room before glancing over his hat again.
She returned his bow in the proper Fire Nation style, with her fist under her upright hand, and forced a smile. “I’m honored to be here. I remember the…hospitality your family has shown me in the past.”
James blinked – surely she wasn’t implying something, surely she wasn’t going to hold him against himself – but he didn’t get to ask about it because his mum kept talking.
“And who could forget Sirius Black.” James’s mum gestured toward Sirius. “If you thought he was trouble when he was a boy, I have good news: he’s much improved.”
Sirius, who’d been moodily staring off into the distance, turned toward James’s mum with a hurt expression on his face. “Oi!”
She winked at James and threaded her arm through the Avatar’s. “Come along, dear. There are so many people you need to meet….”
When they’d sunk into conversation with one of the more interesting people in the room, some woman who’d sailed alone around the Earth Kingdom, James turned to Sirius.
“I’m in love with her.”
Sirius gave him a flat look. “I’m aware you’re prone to hyperbole, James—”
“I’ve never been more insulted—”
“—but if you’re going to monologue now, I’m going to leave.”
“She’s beautiful. Did you see her?”
“No, I temporarily gouged my eyes out.”
“I mean, wow, she’s just—she’s just—wow.”
Sirius folded his arms. “If you don’t shut up about her, I’m going to murder some turtle ducks.”
“Liar. You’d never turn your back on them like that.”
“I wouldn’t normally. You’re making me question my standards of morality.”
“But did you see her?” James leaned to the side to see around a large man blocking his view of Lily. “She’s ridiculous. I’m speechless. I mean, obviously not entirely, I’m still talking, aren’t I, but you get the—”
He looked back to Sirius, but Sirius was no longer standing there. James spotted him sulking his way across the room.
Who needed Sirius, anyway. James had a mission to accomplish. And now there was no weight at his side, dragging him away from Lily and into juvenile pastimes like making up stories about headwear.
James snatched the hat off his head and let it fall to the floor—he’d build his own blazing tunnel into the city, it was worth it to not look like an idiot when he did this—and strode over to Lily, who was now engaged in what was probably a tedious conversation with one of the low-ranking nobles.
“Hel-lo,” he said, sliding up next to her and ruffling his hair with one hand. “D’you mind?” he said to the noble. “I’ve urgent business with the Avatar.”
The man noticeably swallowed. “Oh, not at all!” He all but ran off, and that was probably because now that he thought about it, James had once accidentally nearly killed that man—it wasn’t James’s fault, cliffs just sprung up out of nowhere sometimes, and there was that ostrich horse—but anyway, it didn’t matter.
“I just wanted to say,” James said, turning back to Lily after watching the man dart away, “that you—”
But she wasn’t there.
What was it with people and abandoning him tonight?
She was several steps away, and James ran to catch up with her.
“Hi,” he said, grabbing her arm.
“If you like your hand not frozen,” she said pleasantly, “I suggest you take it off me.”
“What? That’s so—” James snatched his hand back. “No need to be rude.”
She spun back toward him, speaking low enough so that only James could hear. “Look, I’m an adult now, and your parents can’t force us to spend time together. You don’t have to pretend to like me. I’ll have my own lessons, and you can have yours, and we won’t have to speak at all if we’re clever about it.”
“Not speak—but that’s so unnecessary, I really don’t know why you’d think that’d be called for, that’s just…silly,” James finished pathetically. “You’ve probably forgotten where everything is around here, and I wouldn’t want you to wander into the bathroom while someone else is in there because you thought it was your room, and, er, yeah.”
She regarded him blankly for a second. “I think I can manage to avoid that scenario on my own, thanks.”
She started walking away again, but he stuck to her side.
“I think we got off on the wrong foot—”
“An amputee would’ve had better footing. Your mum’s not here, you don’t need to pretend. Unless she’s blackmailing you—and I wouldn’t put it past her—in which case don’t worry. I’ll tell her you’ve been nothing but pleasant to me.”
“I’m more than pleasant. I’m charming. I have honor. I have wit.”
She whirled on him. “What you have is the absolute worst taste in hats.”
“That was my mum, and that wasn’t—she’s not blackmailing me. At least, not about you. About the hat, yes.”
Lily laughed sharply. “That I’m willing to believe.”
“This is just me. Here. Trying to talk to you. About…things.”
“What did you want to talk about? How much you despise me?”
“No, no, that’s so—kids are stupid, you know? So stupid, they can’t even see—what I mean to say is—”
“Did you leave the point you wanted to make inside that hat? There was certainly room for it.”
James waited for a few people to wander by. They took their time moving on – people were annoying that way, gawking at the Avatar when she was in the middle of an obviously fantastic conversation.
When they’d passed, James said, trying to keep his voice down, “What I wanted to say is that, er, among other things, you know, and there are a lot, and I’m not—I’m not being really good at words, but, er, basically, you’re beautiful.”
She stared at him.
He coughed into his hand.
She stared some more.
She must’ve invented timebending because the seconds had never ticked by at such an agonizing pace before. Continents moved faster than time did while he stood there like a twat.
At least he wasn’t wearing the hat for this unbearable moment.
Finally, he said, “Um.”
That seemed to shock her out of her stupor.
“Right,” she said slowly. “I’m not sure what Black had in mind when he made you say that—”
“Sirius—no, he had nothing—this is all me—”
“You don’t say.”
“—but you’re just—I was an idiot. A bit. A lot. Okay, sometimes. And you’re…beautiful.”
She tapped her foot. “My question stands: Your point is?”
She arched an eyebrow. “I’m supposed to believe you just came over here to compliment me.”
“Um. That is.” He hadn’t thought through this past the compliment.
He wasn’t blind, but he was short-sighted. Technically and metaphorically.
“I just…wanted you to know.”
She seemed to take a moment to process before responding. “Consider your message delivered,” she said, and made to turn around.
“But,” he said, and then he caught himself.
She paused. “But?”
“Nothing. I. I hope we get to. Er. Nevermind.”
She gave him one last confused look and walked away, and this time James didn’t follow.
Which was great, almost, because she did look really nice from behind, but also she’d left him. She thought he was weird and uncool.
She probably had a boyfriend. Some hulking Earth Kingdom dunce who barely talked at all, and therefore never said idiotic things like “It’s good to see you with my eyes.”
It wasn’t all bad, though.
She was going to be around for months.
Except things did not magically improve overnight.
Nor did things magically improve after two days. Or three. Or ten.
She was there, sure, but she hardly interacted with him when the opportunity arose. The solution, of course, was to make more opportunities for interaction.
But she didn’t watch when James practiced all of his best moves in the courtyard. He’d timed it so he’d be practicing when she came out from her room to go to her lessons, but she barely glanced at him.
He tried to get in on her lessons, but McGonagall had the temerity to laugh at his suggestion, saying the Avatar needed to learn some of the basics in peace before she let him “distract her by flailing about like a giraffe bear.”
That was almost offensive. James didn’t flail. And giraffe bears were amazing.
If he sat next to her at meals, she all but ignored him. If she was in her room when he knocked, she didn’t answer. He even debated joining the royal band after watching her heartily applaud one of their performances.
To cap it off, James didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. He’d never discuss it with his parents, and Sirius walked away whenever James complained about how unfair the Avatar was being.
“I mean, she’s got to befriend me eventually—wait, Sirius, don’t go—”
“No, Dad said that I shouldn’t, and also did I mention that Lily—no, come back, I need to talk to someone—”
“I’m not angry about that, I’m angry about—oi, I could’ve said something other than Lily, you don’t know!”
And Lily was as sneaky as a spider snake about it, talking to James to appease his parents when they were around, but never about anything more than the weather.
It wasn’t until he stumbled across something she wanted that he finally got her to properly pay attention to him for more than three seconds.
He hadn’t intended for her to find him doing it. All of his conveniently timed “practices” near her room involved forms that he was already really good at.
Fire propulsion was something he’d yet to master.
McGonagall didn’t really approve of it. Said it was beyond his level for the moment, and he had more important things to learn first. And she didn’t like that it was so flashy.
But the great thing about bending was you didn’t need someone’s permission to do it, or to try new things. All you needed was yourself and, in James’s case, a fire-proof area.
There was a nice concealed space behind one of the neighborhood lakes, in the shadow of the crater walls, where the water had long-ago retreated to expose the rock beneath. Sirius joined James because he was sane, unlike McGonagall, and was therefore fascinated by fire propulsion.
James had only seen a couple of people accomplish it in his lifetime. McGonagall had warned him about how dangerous it was, but she’d realized her error in admitting that as soon as James’s face had lit up.
It couldn’t be that dangerous, really. It was just fire. James dealt with fire all the time. The only new part was the hanging in mid-air bit. And that was the most appealing bit, the practically-flying bit.
James hadn’t quite figured out what the trick was, unfortunately. There was some balance of volume and heat and kicking off just right. Sirius had managed to get a few inches off the ground once, but then landed flat on his face. James had gone even further, and suffered even more on impact.
He’d told McGonagall he’d got injured trying to ride a giraffe bear.
The summer sun glinted off the lake and beat on James’s back. Glorious heat seeped through his shoes from the rock beneath his feet. The ground had been sun-baked when they’d arrived, and their practice only turned it scorching.
James was in the middle of attempting to propel himself forward, if not upward, when something rustled in the line of bushes hiding them from the city. His fire sputtered out, and he stumbled a few steps, ultimately catching himself on his knees.
The Avatar stepping through the bushes, watching him intently.
“Have you managed it?” she asked when she’d climbed all the way through.
“Er,” James said, suddenly very aware of the fact that he was dripping sweat, “not fully.”
“We’re working on it,” Sirius said.
She winced when she got closer to them, probably at the point where their practice had started overheating the ground, but she kept striding toward them. “By not fully, you mean?”
“We’ve hung in the air a bit, but that’s it.” James climbed to his feet and dusted off his trousers, still feeling off-kilter. She was here. Talking to him.
“Show me,” she said.
James wasn’t about to refuse.
Sirius looked like he might, but then he looked at James, sighed in a put-upon way, and gave in. They demonstrated the different techniques they’d tried and went over their theories. Her sudden entrance meant he hadn’t had time to panic in advance, and he found himself talking easily about bending.
When they’d finished their explanations, of course, she wanted to give it a go herself.
“Are you in Fire Nation shoes?” James asked.
Her mouth curved into a thin smile. “Ever since you set me on fire that one time.”
“Ah. Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Good.”
She gave propulsion a respectable effort, but she couldn’t get off the ground. Which wasn’t surprising – she simply didn’t have the necessary force yet, not at her relatively early stage of firebending.
“Tell me again what it looks like when other people do it,” she said.
Propulsion looked easy enough, he explained – the bender lifted himself in the air and jetted forward, all by the force of fire. Doing it was proving exceptionally difficult.
She quirked her mouth to the side and stared off for a moment, tapping her foot.
Then she broke into a smile and wordlessly darted past them, heading down to the side of the lake. With smooth, arcing arm movements, she funneled a long strip of water onto the ground, feeding it toward James. Sirius and James shared a confused look but said nothing. When the water was just about to lap at James’s feet, she twitched her wrists, the water nearest her hands freezing with a crackle. The cold dashed out along the track, leaving a long, glistening stretch of ice between them, a quickly-melting path over scorching rock.
She stepped confidently onto the ice and turned her back toward James. “You can’t really do water propulsion without standing next to a water source, but air….” She widened her stance, bent her knees, and twisted her torso sideways. She drew her hands back to cup them near her side, as though holding an invisible ball, and quickly pivoted toward the front again, pulling her hands toward the center of her chest, but with difficulty, like she was tugging something along with her.
She pushed, thrusting her hands out in front of her, and out of them burst an enormous gust of air that hurled her backwards across the ice like a comet, dirt flying in her wake.
It looked like tremendous fun, and James’s mind automatically started thinking through how to duplicate it with fire—
He left the thought aside for a moment to appreciate the problem in front of him. She hadn’t properly estimated the force needed. She was going to run out of ice track before she ran out of speed.
The moment her heels hit bare rock, she stumbled and fell backwards.
Right into James’s arms.
“Er, hello,” he said.
Of course he’d end up with Lily in his arms while he was drenched in sweat, smelling like a bull pig.
She jumped out of his arms and spun around to face him, beaming and watching Sirius and James for a reaction.
“Like that, right?” she said. “But with fire.”
“And with your feet in the air,” Sirius said. “That’s the most important part, actually.”
Sirius hated her on the principle of James fancied her, but based on the way he kept stealing glances at the track, he was willing to forgive her if she’d only let him have a go.
“But try it with fire on the ice.” She gestured toward the melting track. “You could at least get a feel for strength.”
She didn’t have to ask twice. James hopped up onto the ice and slid, almost falling. When he’d righted himself, he duplicated Lily’s position, crouched with his arms out. His fire would destroy the track, but Lily could make another one.
Lily and Sirius took several steps backwards, out of the range of fire, and James readjusted his position for a more balanced stance.
Her airbending form would have to be adjusted, of course. Fire was about pushing, not pulling, a command and not a request. He brought his arms close to his chest, focused on the fire itching to burst out of his hands, and pushed.
It was difficult to take in everything that happened in the next moment. The piercing chill that pressed through his shoes, the rush of air whipping over his ears, the roar of fire from his palms, the blur of landscape as it rushed by.
Within seconds his feet hit rock, and oh, comets above, he was an idiot, he’d literally just seen Lily deal with this problem, his head was going to slam against the rock—
But instead of crashing, he hung suspended in the air, supported by—wind. A strong, sudden gust shoved against his back, with enough force that James had to take a step to catch his balance.
He stayed that way for a moment, leaning forward with his arms spread in front of him, head hanging and chest heaving.
Then, reassured that he wasn’t about to die, he let out a whoop, jumping into the air and punching a short burst of fire out of his fist.
“Flameo!” James shouted.
Lily laughed while James dashed back to them, the rock where the ice track had been still steaming beneath his feet.
“That. Was. Brilliant!” He ran up and engulfed Lily in a hug, lifting her off the ground for a moment. “We’ve got to do it again.”
“All right,” she said, and he stepped back to see she’d gone red in the face. The sun was probably getting to her – the Earth Kingdom didn’t get this kind of heat.
James turned to Sirius and practically leaped onto him in another hug. “You’ve got to try it!”
“I will,” Sirius said, attempting to extricate himself, “as soon as you get your burning hands off of me.”
James released him and turned back to Lily. “Do it again!”
She acquiesced, and James watched in fascination as water slid through the air at her command. How could he have thought her boring? She was spectacular, coming up with the idea of the track, and combining bending types, and even devising a way to save them from falling onto the rocks.
She was ready again when Sirius hit the end of the track, arms arcing around to bend a catching wind.
“Thanks for not letting me die like that,” James told her as Sirius regained his balance.
“It’s only because they’d revoke my Avatar status if I let the prince die on my watch,” she said, trying not to smile. “Otherwise I’d have left you to your own idiocy.”
James didn’t get to respond because Sirius had run back to them, grinning wider than James had seen in months and pointing at Lily.
“You can’t leave the Fire Nation,” Sirius said. “It’s too important that we get to do this every day.”
“I’d tell you to just hire a waterbender, but I doubt you could lure any of them to live in this humidity.”
“I’m sure everyone else’s icebending is inferior to yours.” James’s heart pounded against his chest. If only she would stay.
A smile played at her lips. “Imposing rules on me, and after I’ve just given you such a nice present?”
“That’s the problem with good gift-giving,” James said solemnly. “The recipient might hold you hostage to get more presents.”
“Well, if I’m forced to stay,” she said, “I insist I get my own turtle duck pond.”
“Done.” James rubbed his palms together, letting out a stream of smoke. “Now, I command you to make another ice track.”
He took a step away from Lily, threw his arms out to try to catch his balance, and moved no further. Not by choice, but because the rock beneath him had swallowed his foot.
“I beg your pardon?” Lily said sweetly.
James brought his eyebrows together in a sad hippo cow look. “Please?” The ground spat his foot back up, and he cleared his throat. “Thank you. May we proceed, Your Avatarness?”
Sirius made a gagging noise, but Lily ignored it and said, “Since you asked so politely.”
They fell into a routine of sorts, spending long hours by the lake, sliding over ice and bending fire. Lily eventually moved on from air propulsion to fire, although none of them managed to leave the ground.
They did, however, learn control. How to move facing forward, how to start slowly, how to turn, how to gauge the power they’d need to get to the end of the track.
They also fell a lot.
Lily caught them with airbending—it never stopped feeling weird, being supported by air—and James was happy to catch her in his arms whenever possible. They still showed up bruised and scratched sometimes, and, when asked, attributed the injuries to dueling practice.
Every now and then they took breaks to wander out onto the fishing pier, where they cooled their feet in the water, tiny fish nibbling at their toes. One time, and one time only, James made the mistake of splashing Lily. He suffered a miniature tidal wave crashing over his head in retaliation, a wave that miraculously missed hitting Sirius and Lily on either side of him.
“I like you,” Sirius told Lily.
“Traitor,” James muttered, flipping his hair out of his eyes.
“Which one of us?” Lily asked, voice low with amusement.
“Both. All of you. You’re all traitors. I’ll have you all executed.”
Lily looked at Sirius and shrugged. “No choice, then, is there?”
“Nope,” Sirius said, and shoved James off the pier.
James came up from the depths spluttering, only to have another wave knock him sideways.
“Traitors,” he coughed when he managed to right himself. “But I have decided to be lenient. No executions.”
“Such a kind and generous prince we have,” Lily said.
“The kindest.” Sirius nodded and gestured toward James. “Shall we repay his kindness?”
“Oh, most certainly.”
James really should have expected that next wave.
He never should have let them become friends.
James had hoped that with Lily getting along with him and Sirius so well at practice, he might be able to move on to spending some time alone with her. But she was always so busy, eating meals or talking to people or, mostly, training with McGonagall.
From the glimpses he caught of their practices, Lily was advancing exceptionally quickly through the firebending forms. James had heard that sometimes the Avatar struggled with other elements, but if that were true, Lily’s most challenging element clearly wasn’t fire.
Or it was, and she was just ridiculously gifted.
The thought made James feel sheepish, and he went off to work his own forms. Admittedly his normal practice had become a bit lax in his quest to master fire propulsion. Which was completely worth it, but still.
If only Lily’s progressing firebending skill could have helped them with fire propulsion. She was nearly as good as James and Sirius at bending across the ice track, had even tried to jump in the air while she did it, but none of them managed to stay aloft.
Inspiration didn’t strike James until one of the Fire Sages was on the hunt for him one day, wanting to go over some dreary military business. By this age, his parents and the Sages had discovered most of his hiding places. It didn’t help that the royal palace was sparse by design, with only pillars and the occasional bit of furniture to hide behind. In James’s opinion, there were too many locked doors in the palace, particularly the locks on all the secret tunnel doors.
There was nowhere he could go that they wouldn’t look, and the Sage was going to find him any minute now and talk him to death—
Unless James disappeared into plain sight.
He’d always thought the military helmets were silly. The mask coverings, etched into an inhumanly neutral expression, must have been suffocating and blinding, and the helmet edges had so many points on them (what if they fell onto someone and stabbed them?). But now he fully appreciated their value as he ordered a guard to surrender her helmet.
“Not a word,” James said in his most ‘I am the prince and somehow the circumstances of my birth mean you must obey me’ voice.
The guard nodded frantically, her ponytail bobbing.
James marched off with the helmet on his head, eventually walking right past the Sage.
He should have thought of this years ago.
But he’d never have passed before, hadn’t been tall or broad-shouldered enough to look the part. He didn’t feel like an adult at sixteen, but apparently he looked enough like one to fool everyone else.
It was funny, how his best ideas usually came to him when he most needed them. If only he could find the same inspiration for fire propulsion, but he couldn’t force a scenario—
Or could he?
“I’ve got it,” he told Sirius and Lily at the lake the next day, holding out a piece of parchment. “Lily, I need an ice track like this.”
She took his drawing and examined it. “Why would we—oh, that could be fun.”
“Not just fun.” James shucked off his tunic, the fabric snagging on his glasses. “I’m going to force myself into figuring this out.”
Sirius, who had not seen the drawing, and who seemed to be somewhat alarmed that James’s idea involved removing articles of clothing, took a pointed step backwards.
James rolled his eyes. “I’m going to propel myself off a jump over the water, not instigate an orgy.”
Sirius nodded and tugged off his shirt. “That’s all right, then.”
“I’d make a comment about how unfair it is that I can’t take off my shirt,” Lily said, “but I expect only filthy responses from you two.”
James pressed a hand to his bare chest. “Why, Avatar Lily, what must you think of me and Sirius.”
“We’re fire nobles,” Sirius said, very seriously. “Do you think our minds live in the gutters?”
“Our minds live in the highest towers, Avatar Lily.”
“I had to have a new tower built to accommodate my mind and its utter lack of sordid humor.”
“And I moved in with him.”
Lily’s foot slid forward ever so slightly, and James and Sirius both stumbled backwards as the ground beneath them shifted violently.
He really needed to start anticipating multiple types of bending from her. He was so used to dealing with normal people, and so used to seeing her bend fire and water, it was easy to forget she was from the Earth Kingdom.
She stood with her arms crossed and her eyebrows lifted, the picture of a composed Avatar. “Are you going to jump, or what?”
It had seemed like such a simple, brilliant idea on paper.
But now, faced with an ice ramp nearly as tall as he was, James began to doubt his idea.
Unforgiving rock lined the bottom of the lake, after all, and it wasn’t a particularly deep lake, and he had no idea if this would actually work—
“Flameo, hotman!” Sirius shouted.
Nothing had ever inspired confidence in him as much as Sirius’s cheers. Well, confidence and competitiveness. Sirius would never let him live it down if he backed off now. And Sirius had a long memory.
“Flameo!” James said, and he pushed off before he lost his nerve, his fists angled low behind him.
He’d had Lily build a long, straight track with plenty of room for acceleration, and he’d definitely needed it, he thought as he rocketed forward, picking up more speed than he’d ever allowed himself before, jets of fire blazing out of his hands. The jump grew dauntingly large as he approached, and soon it was only a few feet away, and then his feet were sliding up it and he wasn’t slowing down at all, he’d thought he’d might but he just kept going—
The ground fell away beneath him, and James soared through the air, the red roofs of the neighborhood arrayed before him, windows glinting in the sun, trees swaying in the breeze, smoke drifting out of chimneys.
James had one brilliant, clear moment as he reached his apex, when he could see the palace in the center of the crater, ringed by clean, white walls, and to the north the market that sold the best charred meats, and to the east the plaza where the cabbage man (whom James strangely kept running into) kept his cart.
His city had never looked so beautiful.
Then the plummet began.
Oh, comets, he was going to die, just crash to the bottom of the lake and crack his skull open, and none of Lily’s bending could bring back the dead, even if she was the Avatar, and he’d never even got to kiss her and he was going to die—
He strained his limbs, willing out every ounce of fire that he could find within the depths of his body, anything to keep him from plunging into the lake below, but he was almost there now, and he was going to—
He was slowing down.
A firestorm raged beneath him, shooting out of his feet and his hands and even a bit out of his nose, but he was slowing down, unless that sensation was just a side effect of impending death, like time standing still—
His feet never touched the lake.
James squinted down into the swell of fire beneath him, steam rising from the lake around its edges, and laughed.
He leaned forward.
There was a trick to it, a crouch to the legs and an angle of his fists and a—a lightness he hadn’t been able to pick up on just from watching others.
He was as light as air.
He flew toward the shore, fire still roaring and the water rippling around him. He glided over the ground and looped twice around Sirius and Lily, who were both cheering him on, before touching down in front of them.
He couldn’t stop laughing, couldn’t even focus on the way Lily’s arms wrapped around his shoulders—his bare shoulders, oh, all right, he could spare a thought for that—his mind too dazed by the memory of all but flying.
At some point Lily let go of James to bend a new ice track, and Sirius was already lining up in place by the time James returned to his senses.
“Any advice?” Sirius asked.
“Nah,” James said. “You’ll be fine.” He couldn’t articulate what he’d felt, how he’d moved—he’d simply done it. Sirius would get it, too.
Sirius nodded and shot off along the new track without hesitation, and James marveled at how much speed he picked up. Had James really gone that fast? That looked, dare he say it, almost dangerous.
He only stopped watching Sirius because Lily had leaned in sideways to nudge her shoulder against his. She glanced up at him, her face lit up in an ecstatic smile—comets and asteroids, she was beautiful—before she looked back at Sirius.
James looked back in time to watch Sirius launch off the ramp and over the water, fire blazing behind him. At the peak of his arc, Sirius shouted in joy, his call echoing off the crater wall. Then, of course, he started to fall. James could see him struggling as he dropped toward the water, the flames around his feet burning brighter.
“Bend your knees!” James called, although he had no idea if Sirius could hear him.
A hand clasped James’s, and he should’ve known it would be Lily’s—no one else was nearby—but he still had to double-check that the hand was, in fact, hers.
He gripped back, fiercely glad he wasn’t watching this alone. Sweat had turned both their palms slick, but he didn’t care, and hopefully she didn’t either.
Sirius was still falling. Maybe it wasn’t as straightforward as James had supposed, maybe James’s instincts had picked things up quicker than Sirius’s could—
James could pinpoint the moment Sirius figured out the trick. His descent slowed until he hung in mid-air, only inches from the lake’s surface. He stayed there for a moment, probably as stunned as James had been, and then he slid forward.
James and Lily raised their entwined hands at the same moment, both letting out a shout.
Sirius made a lap around the lake, his laughter carrying across the water, before returning to James and Lily. Lily pulled her hand away as he approached, and for once James wished Sirius would go away.
Sirius wasn’t one for hugs, but he bounced on the balls of his feet. “There is a trick to it—”
“I know,” James said, “but I couldn’t explain it—”
“Yes, but your legs—”
“And your fists—”
“Like flying—you’re so light—”
Lily cleared her throat. “Boys?”
Sirius shoved his hands in his pockets, but his grin belied the affected, relaxed slouch he slipped into. “Yes, Mum?”
“Did you want me to earthbend you a grave?” she asked. “I don’t insist on only putting dead people in them.”
Sirius smirked at her, and James nodded toward the track.
“Go on, then,” James said. “Join the club.”
After bending herself another track, Lily copied James’s and Sirius’s stance, her fists angled behind her and arms close to her sides.
“Flameo!” Sirius called.
She flashed a smile at them. “Flameo!”
Eyes facing forward again, she took a deep breath and set off. All seemed well at first: she had the same force Sirius had used, the same speed. Her form looked good, solid, and she was just about to hit the ramp—
“What in blazes—”
James started, letting out a strangled cry, and whipped around to find McGonagall climbing through the bushes behind him.
He barely had time to register her furious expression before Lily shouted behind him. And not in the fun, “I can’t believe this is working” way Sirius had done.
This was a terrified shout.
He spun around but Lily was nowhere in sight. She should have been in the air, but there were only ripples on the lake—
A single word blotted out all of James’s other thoughts: No.
He bolted toward the lake. “Lily!”
“She got distracted,” Sirius said, running at his side, “lost power right at the end—”
James splashed into the water, his soaked trousers slowing him down, but he pressed on. The ripples were so close to the shore, it wasn’t very deep there, and she hadn’t come up yet, she had to be okay—
A sudden current picked up against James’s legs. The water in front of him began to bubble, the shadow of something large looming beneath the surface—
A whirling ball of air rose from underwater, sending rippling waves across the lake, and James struggled to keep his balance. Lily hung inside the middle of the ball, like a rag doll on her back, her eyes open and filled with blinding white light.
James swallowed and managed to take a few fumbling steps back.
The ball of air floated toward the shore, and James hurried to follow it, nearly knocking over Sirius in the process. Now safely above land, the spinning winds died down to lower Lily onto the ground, her arms and legs askew and her hair fanned out behind her.
McGonagall reached Lily first and sank to her knees. She began checking Lily’s head, and James couldn’t see, but McGonagall made a noise, a distinctly not good noise.
He finally made it out of the water and joined McGonagall at Lily’s side. Sirius followed him, but James had eyes only for Lily, and that was—that was blood on her head, oh, fiery, blazing, burning comets.
Lily’s chest sprung upright, her eyes now back to normal and her throat choking out water. James, who’d been leaning over her, arched backwards to avoid a head collision. While he caught his balance, McGonagall wrapped an arm around Lily’s shoulder and held her close.
“It’s all right, dear.” McGonagall stroked Lily’s wet hair out of her face in between coughs. “Get it all out.”
Lily drew her knees up to her chest and started to wrap her arms around them, but she flinched and bit back a cry, holding one of her arms delicately out in front of her.
“My wrist,” she said, and began to cry.
James wanted to do something for her—anything—but McGonagall was there and he couldn’t heal and he was so useless right then.
Sirius tugged on James’s arm until James yielded and stood up.
“C’mon,” Sirius said. “Let’s go get a palanquin.”
Her wrist wasn’t broken, thankfully. The royal healers did what they could, but as one of them reluctantly admitted, Lily could probably do a more effective job with waterbending healing anyway.
McGonagall had dispatched Sirius to inform James’s parents what had happened, but James had refused to go with him. He lingered in the corner of the infirmary while McGonagall and Lily spoke with the healers, and trailed after them when they returned to Lily’s room.
McGonagall opened the door for Lily, but didn’t enter herself, turning instead to James.
“I’ll return shortly,” McGonagall said. “Your parents will need reassurances, and who knows what Black told them.”
James tried to smile but couldn’t quite manage it.
“I realize you’re well-intentioned,” she said, “but please, don’t do whatever it is that you would normally do with Black under similar circumstances.”
He ducked his chin, perfectly aware of the incident she was referencing (an unfair comparison, really, since Lily’s legs were fine and James had learned his lesson about fire crutches). “No, I—I won’t. I’m not going to let her get hurt again.”
When he glanced up, McGonagall’s face had softened. “It was an accident, James.”
“Yeah,” he said distantly.
“She’s hardier than you think.”
“I doubt that. I think she’s pretty hardy already.”
The corners of her mouth turned up. “Sharp boy. Now get inside.”
Unlike most rooms in the palace, the heavy drapes over Lily’s windows had been tied to the side, letting sunlight flood over her bed. The fire emblem tapestry on the wall was standard issue, the bedding the nicest kind available but still of Fire Nation origin and color. The only personal effects he could see sat in a row on her desk: a pockmarked rock, a blue disc with the water tribe emblem, and a small, framed drawing.
Lily sat cross-legged on the edge of her bed, bending a small disc of water in circles over her wrist. He’d forgotten what her hair looked like down. She always wore it in a top knot, but now it fell in straggled waves around her shoulders. Unkempt, perhaps, but it didn’t detract from how pretty she was.
For lack of a better option, James leaned back against the edge of her desk. “Can you properly fix it?”
She shook her head. “It’s better, but it’s not fixed. I’m not that good at healing yet.”
She’d apparently had better success with the wound on her forehead, which had already begun to scab over.
“I’m so sorry,” James said for the hundredth time.
“Shut up,” she said, also for the hundredth time.
“It was my shouting—”
“I should’ve stayed focused, it was my mistake—”
“I made you slip—”
“I’m so sorry—”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay—”
“Of course I was okay, it was just McGonagall, she surprised me—”
“You couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t help wanting to protect—” She broke off and looked away, a blush stealing across her cheeks.
James looked anywhere but at her because his mind seemed to have stopped mid-step.
He didn’t want to hope that meant what he thought it meant, didn’t want to build himself up on false pretenses, but he couldn’t help it when a sliver of optimism slipped past his defenses.
“It’s okay,” his mouth said. “I care about you, too.”
He watched her while his mouth moved, unaware of what was coming out until he heard himself.
Her face burned almost as red as the drapes.
It could have been worse, really. He hadn’t totally exposed himself, hadn’t potentially ruined their—well, friendship wasn’t quite the word. Or was it? He thought it was, but friendship had to be agreed upon by both parties, and she hadn’t said anything….
This was much too complicated.
He might not have been able to save her from her injuries, but he could save her from having to respond to the confession he’d sprung on her.
“It was weird,” he said, one hand ruffling up his still-short hair, “seeing your eyes light up that way.”
She lifted her chin and shook her head back, appearing to compose herself. “I wouldn’t know,” she admitted, smiling a bit, which James hoped was a thank-you for the topic change. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Next time you could try looking in the mirror. I mean, if it happens often enough. Have you, er, done it a lot?”
“It’s only happened a few times, but I don’t remember them. I get all—I’m not myself.”
“That sounds kind of terrifying.”
“It…it is, in a way.” She rubbed her injured wrist with her good hand. “It’s strange. There are other people inside me.”
People talked about the Avatar incessantly, but the specifics of her powers weren’t part of the common lore. Like everyone else, he knew else that the Avatar had past lives, but he’d assumed she couldn’t access them.
“Are they,” he said, and then frowned. “They don’t talk to you, do they?”
“Oh. Oh.” James sat up straighter. “That’s…..”
“I know. They don’t appear a lot, though. Only when I—when I need them.”
“They are and aren’t me. But I can’t imagine not having them there with me all the time. They give advice, you know. It’s…nice.”
Having thousands of ghosts or whatever hidden inside himself did not appeal to James at all. It seemed like it would get awfully noisy. And he certainly wouldn’t sign up for one adult, let alone thousands, constantly and silently monitoring his actions.
“Can’t imagine what you need advice about,” he said. “Getting to travel around the world, learning all kinds of bending, not being tied down. Must be fun.”
“I need plenty of advice, trust me.” She normally held herself with such confidence, an attitude that dared others to deny her her birthright status, but she suddenly looked like—well, a sixteen-year-old girl. James’s chest tightened.
“I guess everyone needs advice,” he said. “I happen to be brilliant, though, and never need any advice at all.”
She smiled faintly. “Some of us aren’t so lucky.”
Once more he couldn’t do anything for her. She probably did need help, even more than he did, but only because she had a bigger job in front of her. He was just a prince without a clue what he was doing, much less with any idea what she should do.
He picked up the drawing on her desk, the wooden frame much paler than any of the trees that grew in the Fire Nation. Two young girls stood in front of a well-dressed couple, all smiling cheerfully.
“I didn’t know you had a sister,” he said.
“Petunia.” She stood up and joined James in leaning against the desk. “She can be…difficult, to say the least.”
James studied her sister’s horse-like face. “I would’ve thought you’d be the troublemaker.”
“She doesn’t cause trouble, she just…she doesn’t care much for being the Avatar’s sister.”
He looked up at Lily. “Jealousy?”
Lily fiddled with one of the desk’s drawer handles, and spoke in an affected, disinterested voice. “She doesn’t like bending at all, really. Thinks it’s unnatural.”
The smile etched on Petunia’s face in the drawing now looked false and stretched.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said.
“I know.” Lily sighed. “She’s…anyway. And my parents aren’t even benders, so when I’m home…it’s nice to have the other Avatars around, even if they don’t always talk to me. They understand it. Being the Avatar, I mean.”
That, at least, might have been some consolation to having constant companions.
James set the frame back on the desk. “I guess they get it better than I ever will.”
“They’ve lived it, so they do, but that doesn’t mean—that doesn’t mean you can’t.”
His cheeks felt warm and his heart raced, and he wished he hadn’t given up the picture, unsure of what to do with his hands now. “Good. I mean, we have to be friends, since you’re you and I’m me, and I’d hope to—to try.”
“We don’t have to be friends.”
He was such an idiot. First the confession about caring, and now presuming they were friends….
“No, er,” he said, “I didn’t mean we have to be, I don’t want to put words in your mouth—”
“No, we’re friends,” she said, and he didn’t need anything in his hands now, not with the soothing knowledge that she considered him a friend. “That’s not what I—I meant we chose it.”
“Oh. Yeah.” One hand ruffled up his hair while his heartbeat returned to a more normal pace (although not quite normal – he was still alone with a pretty girl in her bedroom, after all). “We did choose it.”
She rubbed her wrist again. “I mean, I’m glad we’re friends, and not just because you’re the prince. Although it’s certainly a perk, in some ways.”
“Oh, with Riddle, and all that.”
Lily stared at him. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“I’m, er, personally a fan of puzzles.”
“No, Riddle, he’s—in the Earth Kingdom, he’s a bender, hates non-benders—ringing a bell at all?”
“Now that you say that, several things I’ve heard make a lot more sense.”
If pressed, he might’ve explained that what he’d heard at meetings had to do with some secret code that needed to be cracked. But in retrospect, a vengeful bender gave everything more context.
“You’re the prince,” she said.
“I skip a lot of meetings,” he said vaguely.
“I’m getting better!”
He was going to more meetings than he had the year before, but technically he was invited to more of them, too, now that he was sixteen. He knew he should go and listen and participate—his dad often went on about how he’d personally been begging to attend those sorts of meetings at sixteen—but they were so…. He usually told people boring, but that wasn’t entirely it.
“He’s the reason they identified me so early,” she said, “and I’m going to have to deal with him someday if he keeps going on as he has, and I’ll need friends.”
“But you have Earth Kingdom friends, right? They can help.”
“Some of them I’m not sure would really—I don’t know that I could rely on them when it came down to it. They say things that make me wonder…. But the Earth King himself is refusing to recognize Riddle as a threat. I need friends in other places, too. Just in case.”
He almost asked why she would have to deal with Riddle since she was just sixteen, but that didn’t matter, did it? People had been expecting her to solve problems her whole life. They loved discussing how Avatars past had fixed things or made them worse. One interaction with the Avatar could change the course of a village’s history.
People would talk about Lily hundreds of years from now. Thousands, maybe, depending on what she did.
People expected James to do things, but he’d got off easy. Lily had the whole world waiting for her to fix their problems.
Selfishly this made him feel much better about his own life and problems, but it paled in comparison to how much he yearned to do something for her. She was always supposed to do things for everyone else. It only seemed fair that he return the favor.
“Well,” he said. “I’m definitely going to the meetings tomorrow. You need friends, after all, and I am one, I guess, so I’ll—I’ll be the friend you need.”
She smiled up at him. “Thank you.”
A kiss would have been well appreciated, of course, or even a hug, but savoring her smile was far from settling.
He didn’t fall in love with Lily. The act of falling had lost its appeal after Lily had fallen into the lake and almost drowned.
He preferred to think he stumbled into love. Stumbling was often as scary as falling, the fearful half-second before he could gauge whether he’d recover. Stumbling was just as unintentional, just as unexpected as falling. But stumbling meant he might have a chance to catch himself, might spare himself pain and injury.
Maybe he would’ve seen it coming if she hadn’t been forbidden to bend for two weeks, would’ve spotted the wrinkle in the rug that would trip him up. As it was, it caught him by surprise.
Lily spent her healing period practicing breathing exercises and reading bending theories, which would have driven James into a volcano out of boredom, but Lily didn’t seem to mind. She sat under a tree in the courtyard writing letters to her friends and family, while James tried to convince the turtle ducks to do his bidding. (“I’m telling my parents the Prince of the Fire Nation wants turtle ducks to fetch him things,” she said, and he splashed her with water, for once smug in victory. Or at least he had been until she pushed him in.)
When Lily’s wrist had finally healed, McGonagall let her try fire propulsion again, provided McGonagall supervised. Lily shot James a nervous, giddy smile as she stood crouched at one end of the ice track, and took off.
Naturally she nailed fire propulsion on the first try, and in the moment when she came flying off the lake toward him, the moment when she somehow twirled, fire dancing around her feet and her hair flaring around her, looking every inch a sprite sprung from flame, his heart stumbled.
When she landed gracefully in front of him—always gracefully with her, it had to be the airbending—and threw her arms around him in a hug, he hesitated.
She’d hugged him several times that summer, but now he had a secret. A secret all of three seconds old, but a secret nonetheless.
If she noticed he didn’t entirely return her enthusiasm, she didn’t show it. He hoped she’d failed to pick up on it at all, too caught up in her joy over mastering a new skill.
He had to tell her he loved her.
He’d told her she was beautiful. He’d told her he cared for her, and she hadn’t seemed to mind that.
But this was different. This was love. Four letters that he had never even uttered to Sirius because Sirius knew how James felt, and because Sirius would burn his ears off rather than talk about something like that.
James could not tell her. Not telling sounded brilliant for three seconds of its own, until he realized that if he never told her, she would probably marry her hulking Earth Kingdom boyfriend. The boyfriend that James had invented, yes, but by this point James had compared himself to Slate so many times—because what else would he be named—that it was almost like Slate was real.
Slate was caring and thoughtful and calm and had almost certainly never set Lily on fire. Slate was tall and had bulging muscles like the rocks he so easily tossed around. Slate gave sage advice and wore sage-colored clothing and probably cooked a lot with sage to keep up the theme.
Slate was too good, that man. James couldn’t compare.
Sure, James had a kingdom, but Lily wasn’t the sort of girl who was impressed by that sort of thing. Unlike Slate, James would never be muscular. He knew – he’d tried. Exercises aside, he would always be a thin, lanky man, and he certainly had no sage advice to offer. Also he’d never learned to cook.
Cooking was probably important to Lily. She was picky. She didn’t like fish cakes.
Lily flew off the ramp again and again, and she always looked so wondrously happy after she’d managed it. She kept adding dance-like moves into her gliding, and it wasn’t fair that she could improvise like that.
Well, except for the part where she was the Avatar. James would take the cosmic trade-off of less responsibility for less firebending power.
Unless it meant sparing Lily the pain, of course.
He spent weeks torn between his options. He longed to be with her when she was around, more than once answering a question at a meeting with a blank stare and a mind full of blazing red hair.
But when he and Lily finally did meet up by the lake, or at meals, or in the courtyard, the words “I’m in love with you” lay like kindling in his mouth, ready to fire off at the slightest spark, and focusing on not letting his secret slip drove him to distraction.
The days grew shorter, but Lily’s trainings only lasted longer. Between her practices and James’s princely responsibilities, the number of fire propulsion practices dwindled.
There was one upside to time marching on: Remus and Peter returned exhausted from summer term at boarding school. Sirius had been sent away with them in the spring, but he’d simply hitched a ride back to the Capital, and James’s mum had taken pity on him. Remus and Peter, at least, were sympathetic to James’s plight.
“She’s leaving in a few weeks,” James lamented. “She’ll be gone for months and she might meet someone else there and come back married for all I know.”
“You think on a remote island with only two firebending masters,” Remus said, “during which time she’ll be focusing on training even more intensely than she is now, she’ll find time to marry one of them.”
“Or some poor shipwrecked sailor who washes ashore,” James said, pacing around his bedroom, “and she has to clean his wounds and we all know what that leads to, Remus.”
“Less scarring?” Peter asked, mocking James because he was apparently a cruel, heartless bastard.
“This is no time for jokes. I’m in love.”
“That’s the joke.” Sirius squashed James’s pillow on top of his head. “Please,” came his muffled voice. “Can we talk about something else?”
“No.” James rested his shoulder against his bedpost. “I think we need to take a vote….”
The vote ended in a tie because his friends found the idea of a tie hilarious, and he didn’t even know why he was friends with them, really.
The days slipped away and he was losing his opportunity but he couldn’t tell her. What if she laughed at him, or worse, told her parents? Or worse yet, McGonagall?
McGonagall, who had already shared far too many knowing looks with James when she caught him staring at Lily. (He had to keep reminding himself that gaping at someone was a dead giveaway, and also generally in poor taste.) He couldn’t tell if McGonagall was rooting for him or not – she didn’t help him by suggesting he tutor Lily, for example, but she didn’t intervene either. Or at least, James hadn’t overheard her telling Lily to stay away from the flailing prince.
(All right, so he had flailed in front of McGonagall, once, but she harped on about it way too often.)
He didn’t even know what he’d say if he did decide to confess. Saying the wrong thing might alienate her, and that would be the worst, losing her companionship entirely. And left to its own devices, his mouth probably would have said something asinine like, “I love you with my, er, heart.”
Writing down ideas, though, turned out to be a terrible idea. Sirius found his drafts and howled with laughter, and James couldn’t bear to churn out another version and risk someone else seeing it.
Lily’s last day in the Capital didn’t so much creep up on James as stampede him like an elephant rhino. And like a stampede, he’d darted aside, hoping it wouldn’t follow.
He was not so lucky. No miracle saved him from the sun rising on her last day.
McGonagall had assigned Lily to spend her remaining time relaxing. Duel training in the archipelago was nonstop, after all – Lily would have to be prepared for an attack from the masters at any time, day or night. Every firebending child knew the dueling masters’ mantra of constant vigilance.
James would go, too, in a couple of years. He was still working on an excuse, possibly something about tiger monkey flu, which wasn’t a real thing but certainly sounded like one.
He didn’t get to spend much of Lily’s last day with her. She was too busy saying goodbye to everyone else, and meditating by the courtyard pond, and assuring James’s parents that she could manage duel training at sixteen.
It wasn’t until after dinner, while the servants cleared dishes, that she beckoned him over.
“Show me something fun,” she said. “Something I can remember when I’m exhausted and miserable.”
He grinned, his heart hurling itself against his chest (she’d come to him). “You’ve come to the right person.”
He led her through the city, but she kept stopping and look at shops and restaurants—“Is that a live octopus?” she asked—and James kept pulling her along, even daring to grab her hand once or twice—“Not for long. Come on, we don’t want to miss it!”
Through the winding city streets, past enticing smells and shouting merchants, past a glistening pond and couples out for an evening stroll, until they’d reached the edge of the crater, where James pushed aside a bush to reveal a faint footpath on the ground.
“I did make the right choice,” she said, mirroring his smile, and stepped onto the path.
The trail zigzagged up the inside of the crater, the city growing small beneath their feet. They paused to catch their breath at one point and turned back to take in the rooftops below. Across the crater lay the lake they’d practiced next to, calm in the evening cool.
He cast a sideways glance and caught the fond look on Lily’s face. He’d long thought of it as his city, but he’d be more than happy to share it with her.
The top edge of the crater curved inwards in large, jagged points, and Lily and James pressed onwards until the path stopped a valley between two of them. Several steps more and they would tumble down the side of the dormant volcano.
Normally James stood near the edge to watch, but Lily took in her surroundings and slid one foot forward, in one smooth motion extending the ground out beneath them into a small outcropping. They sat down with their feet dangling over the edge and the island spread out beneath them. A few villages dotted the rocky slopes leading down to the ocean, which sparkled in the distance, the sun quickly dropping to meet it.
A cool breeze swept up the side of the volcano and made Lily shiver.
“Nearly autumn,” she said quietly.
He hummed in response.
Lily kicked her feet out and let them drop back down. “It’s been a great summer. Really great.”
“The best one I’ve had,” he admitted.
She glanced over and slanted a smile at him. “Mine, too. Much better than that time you set me on fire.”
He scoffed. “You’ve no evidence that was intentional.”
“Other than you cackling evilly afterwards?”
“Cackling—I don’t cackle. I have a very hearty, masculine laugh.”
Her smile turned sly. “I heard you giggle once, when that turtle duck rubbed its head against your hand.”
James leaned back and rested his palms on the rock. “Here’s your next letter drafted for you – Dear parents, did you know that I’m a filthy liar?” He grinned at her. “But if I giggled then, it sounds like it would’ve been the most justified instance of giggling that has ever existed.”
Her smile faltered, and she gripped the edge of the outcropping. “Giggling isn’t a crime. You should be grateful you’ve got something to laugh about.”
“Well,” James said, thinking of nothing other than drawing another smile out of her, “I like to think of myself as a bit funny on occasion. Every five days, maybe. A bit like clockwork.”
She turned toward him, the corners of her lips twitching. “You do think highly of yourself, don’t you?”
“You don’t think I’m funny? I’m wounded.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“As well you shouldn’t.” He sat up again, brushing his palms on his trousers to get the dirt off. He couldn’t properly look at her right then, not when she’d basically complimented him. His cheeks were burning too much, a type of fire he couldn’t control. “Sirius is going to be so upset when you’ve left.”
“Oh, Sirius is going to be upset, is he?”
“Of course. No more ice track.”
He knew she was smiling, even though he still couldn’t make himself look at her.
“He can propel himself without the track now,” she said.
“Yes, but he’s thinking of starting a, er, gambling ring. Based on ice track sports.”
The words he’d wanted to say to her had disappeared. Something about how she was clever and brave and fun. That he couldn’t imagine someone better suited to being in charge of bringing balance to the world. But that was so dull and cliché and he was hopeless.
“And what about you?” she asked after a moment.
“I…also really enjoy the track. And intend to profit from his venture.”
Her smile was gone now. “But are you going to be upset?”
“I’m a prince.” He tried to say the words he’d prepared, the ones he’d agonized over, but she was right there and wanting to know what he felt and it was too much risk. She was the Avatar. “I’m used to disappointment.”
Now he sounded cold and ruthless. There had to be some middle ground of saying he cared without overexposing himself.
“But I will—I’ll be as upset as the situation warrants.”
She exhaled sharply, sounding exasperated. “You think you’re so blazing coy, don’t you?”
A rock seemed to have lodged in his throat, and he cleared it. “Coy? No. Wise? Infinitely.”
Her shoulder bumped into his. “You think I don’t know.”
Oh, she knew. She knew she knew she knew and she was going to let him down gently so he wouldn’t pine for her while she was gone.
“Clueless, Lily, that’s what I am right now. Oh, look, it’s time!”
The sun had nearly vanished behind the horizon by now, only a sliver of bright orange still lingering above the waves.
Lily made a pleased noise next to him, and James turned to watch her watch the sunset. Her mouth slanted into a slow, absent smile, and then it broke as she sucked in a breath.
He wasn’t looking at the horizon, but he’d seen it plenty of times – the brilliant crimson light that flashed when the sun finally disappeared, like the last guest at a party, unwilling to admit things had come to an end.
“What was that?” she asked
She turned to him, and he hurriedly looked away, gesturing toward the water.
“There’s a reef in the bay there, something about the angle of the sun and the angle of where we are…I’m not clear on the details.”
“It’s beautiful, in any case. Thanks for showing it to me.”
“I told you you chose right.”
She laughed, just a small one that never seemed to fully make it out of her chest.
He didn’t want to ever get up off of this rock, ever wander back into the city and back into his life. He wanted to sit here with her, with the breeze gently blowing her hair out of her face, and make her laugh over and over again.
But as strong a firebender as he was, he couldn’t make the sun stop rising every morning. When they saw the sun again, she’d have to leave.
The words came at last, or at least as close as he was going to get to his original plan.
“I am going to be upset when you leave.” He studied his lap. “Of course I am.”
“I told you, James. I know.”
A hand was on his shoulder, and he looked up at her and she was right there, inches from his face, her green eyes luminous in twilight.
She kissed him.
She really did have to be a timebender because he could have sworn he lost a moment in there somewhere, because she was kissing him and then she wasn’t and it was all over so soon.
He had not been kissed before. He had nothing to compare it against, but his only complaint was that it had been so short.
She leaned away from him but still watched him closely.
“Thank you,” he said numbly.
She tilted her head back and laughed. “Thank you? You can talk forever about hats, but one kiss and all I get is thanks?”
“It’s always good to be polite, you know. Manners aren’t appreciated enough these days, I swear, some of the nobles’ children—”
He could not speak anymore because she was kissing him again, and he was getting the hang of it, really. He’d always been a quick study. Her hand came up to rest on his shoulder and his landed on her waist.
Yes, she would be leaving in the morning. Yes, he had plenty of other things to occupy his time when she was gone. There were budgets to settle and diplomats to appease and, apparently, madmen to be stopped in the world.
But they would find a way.
Even if she hadn’t been an earthbender, she could have moved mountains.
He could only try to do the same for her.