Korra stirred in the middle of the night. She was pretty sure she’d heard arguing. No one argued in her dreams. Either she didn’t remember them at all or she dreamed of someone trying to kill her. Her brain didn’t have much middle ground.
“Oh, and that’s going marvelously well, isn’t it?” The voice was sarcastic. Elderly, too. She thought at first it belonged to Zuko, but that didn’t make any sense. He had traveled back to the Fire Nation weeks ago. He had no reason to suddenly change course and show up at the Southern Water Tribe again. But then–
“Healing takes time, Zuko. Don’t go pressuring Korra. She’s had enough of that.”
Thanks, Katara, Korra thought.
She heard the light thump of someone laying their hand against the wall. “If I wanted to pressure Korra, I’d speak to her,” Zuko replied. “But I’m speaking to you.” His voice suddenly got lower. “You know it would help. And it doesn’t have to be permanent.”
Whatever Katara said after that, Korra couldn’t hear. Both of them had gotten down to a hushed whisper, with the most distinct sound being a random cough. Korra leaned forward in bed, trying to breathe as quietly as possible, until Zuko’s voice finally came back to normal levels.
“Let her learn it. It’s a useful skill for her to–”
“It will never be a ‘useful skill,'” Katara snapped. That was more than a little unnerving. So far, during their therapy sessions, Korra had cursed at Katara, called all her healing techniques useless and stupid, and basically dished out a whole bunch of crap that would’ve made any normal person punch her in the face by now. Katara always came back with that calm, reassuring voice of hers. Korra didn’t think the woman was even capable of getting angry. Apparently, she was wrong.
“…go visit her tomorrow,” Katara finally said, after another barrage of whispers. “Korra, I mean. I think it will do her good to see someone besides me. But please, please don’t bring up this topic with her. Can you promise me that?”
“I’ll do my best,” Zuko replied, after a strangely long pause. Then his footsteps moved down the hallway and faded away.
There was something inherent in Korra that hated being told no to anything. Once as a kid, she had kept her room spotless for months after her dad expressly forbade her from cleaning it. She’d only stopped when she’d finally caught on to his tactics and kept her guard up against all forms of cleanliness after that.
But no one had meant for her to overhear this time. So whatever it was that Katara had told Zuko not to talk about, Korra wanted that to be the first part of their conversation tomorrow.
The next morning, Korra shoved her collection of unanswered letters into her drawer first thing. Katara had seen them a few times, had asked her once if she’d replied, and after that, she’d been putting them out of sight anytime she expected company. Even moreso for someone she’d been fighting alongside, that her past self knew so well. Her arm felt heavy as she shoved the drawer shut. Even though she knew the poison was gone from her, it was like her muscles never got that message. A knock came at the door.
“Come in,” she grunted, trying to position herself so that it didn’t look like she’d been about the faceplant onto the floor. A creak of hinges, and then Zuko appeared at the door.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, pulling up a chair to her bedside.
“Okay.” She replied before he’d finished his sentence. She’d answered that question so many times now, she didn’t even hear herself speak the words anymore. It was like “hello” or “good morning”, the opening of the conversation each person had to spit out to each other before any real talk could happen.
She sat up and straightened against the head of the bed. Best to be blunt right off the bat. “What were you and Katara talking about last night?”
Zuko’s bushy white eyebrow raised in surprise. His knobby fingers twitched and he shifted uneasily in his chair. “We were… talking about you,” he finally said.
Korra wanted to scream. “I know that,” she said. “I meant, what were you saying about me. You were discussing some kind of… treatment.”
If Zuko had looked nervous before, this statement doubled the effect. Korra was a bit worried he might just stand up and leave. Thankfully, he didn’t. His fingers still twitched quite a bit, though, and he reached up and massaged his temples.
“Why don’t you tell me how much you heard and I’ll fill you in where I can?” he suggested.
That seemed fair enough to Korra. She repeated the conversation, as much as she could remember, and Zuko nodded thoughtfully at each point as if he had just been hearing it for the first time himself.
“So?” Korra asked when she’d reached the end and Zuko still hadn’t said anything.
The old man shrugged. “So what?” he asked.
Korra groaned. Did she have to spell everything out? Zuko might’ve been getting on in years, but he wasn’t senile. “So, what is the useful skill that you and Katara were going on about?”
Zuko’s gaze fell to the ground. She had to admit, she felt a bit guilty. Whatever it was, Katara had told him not to talk about it, after all, and here she was demanding he break his promise what, a whole twelve hours later? She had to admit though, she was relieved to see him meet her eyes again. “Well, I suppose Katara can’t hold it against me if I simply answered your question. The skill we were ‘going on about’ was bloodbending.”
Korra froze. There was no smile on Zuko’s face as he said it, and now she knew why.
“You… you wanted me to learn bloodbending?”
“That was my suggestion, yes.”
I was wrong. The old man’s gone completely insane. “The same thing that Amon used to take people’s bending away? The same thing that Yakone and Tarrlok used to manipulate and terrify people? That’s what you thought I should learn?”
Just like Katara, Zuko showed no offence at her insults. He actually nodded like they were marvelously insightful. “As I said, it was merely a suggestion. You seem to take Katara’s point of view on the matter. She’ll be happy to know that.”
Korra leaned back in her bed. “I’m sorry,” she sighed. “To be honest, it’s not anything I ever thought about before.”
“Let me be clear,” Zuko said, fingers twitching once again as he leaned forward. “I think the ability is horrifically easy to abuse. I would trust it to very few people, especially ones your age. But I would trust you.”
Korra nodded to acknowledge him, but couldn’t think how to answer. Zuko wasn’t an evil person. If he brought up the idea, she was pretty sure he meant it in the best possible way. She tried to work her mind around the images she had of bloodbending, tried to imagine using it not to hurt people, but to get her feet to do what she wanted for a change.
“You think it would… get me walking again?”
“In my very non-medical opinion, I believe it would aid the process, yes. I wouldn’t expect you to stop your therapy, of course,” his voice got stern there, almost like Korra was getting scolded, “but I think getting out and about would help you immensely. You’ve been in here too long.”
Tell me about it, Korra thought. It wasn’t like she couldn’t leave. Heck, if she asked it, the whole village would probably march out and parade her wherever it was she felt like going. But that was just the problem. She didn’t want to need anyone. She’d had enough of that. Her eyes fell to the wall she’d pinned a few photos of her friends, too. She’d meant to fill it with lots more, but then the idea of seeing just how many photos accumulated while she refused to write everyone felt more depressing than anything else.
“Well, I guess the whole conversation is kind of moot,” she said. “If Katara won’t teach me, there’s not really anything I can do.”
Now, strangely enough, Zuko smiled. “Well, Katara wouldn’t be your teacher,” he said.
“Huh?” Korra wracked her brain trying to think who else Zuko could be talking about. Maybe Tarrlok had secretly taught bloodbending to Unalaq, Desna, and Eska? The thought of learning anything from the twins made her shudder. No matter how much they’d denounced their father, it didn’t change the fact that Eska had tried to kill her.
Zuko tried to kill your past self, too, idiot, she reminded herself. Then curiosity got the better of her. “Okay, um… who would be my teacher then? In theory, of course?”
“Of course,” Zuko said. Then the smile faded from his face. Whatever name he was about to give, he seemed very hesitant to let it go. “I would,” he finally said.
She must’ve heard that wrong. “Um, you would?”
He nodded. “That’s correct.”
“Okay, um, no offense, Zuko, sir, but I… don’t see how you would be able to do that. I mean, you know, the firebending and everything?”
“Ah, yes,” the old man said, as if he’d completely forgotten that. “Well, I have your past self to thank for keeping that ability.” He sat there watching her, hands folded on his lap, not giving the least indication that any of this was a joke.
“You’re serious,” Korra finally said.
“I generally am. Character flaw ever since my teenage years, I’m afraid.”
Korra scowled. She’d had quite enough of vague answers and whatever this game Zuko was playing was all about.
“Okay, prove it.” She crossed her arms. “Use bloodbending on me.”
He looked nervously at the floor. Figured. “Katara tells me you’re… having issues dealing with the trauma of some of your past battles.”
The words felt like someone jabbing at Korra with needles. Annoying in one or two blows. Really painful by the time she’d dealt with them a million times. “Oh, no,” she said. “No. You are not going to become one more person who tells me they don’t want to push me too hard. You said you could bloodbend, and you knew I wouldn’t believe you, so you obviously came in here expecting to do it.”
“I came in here excepting you hadn’t heard any of that conversation last night,” Zuko said. “Then I expected that once I told you, you’d have the same reaction Katara did and we would end it there. I expected this conversation to be over a good five minutes ago.”
He had a point there. Not that she would say so. “Well, you’re wrong, and it didn’t. So either prove you can do it or get out.” And let me sit around doing absolutely nothing again.
Zuko’s eyes darted back and forth as he seemed to wrestle with himself. “I have ground rules,” he finally said, more serious than she’d ever heard him before. (And that was saying a lot for Zuko.) “No one uses the technique on anything other than the person they’re training with. You announce clearly what you plan on doing and confirm the other person is all right with that. So, in this case,” he pointed to Korra’s still-crossed arms, “I’m going to uncross your arms and let your hands rest on your knees. Is that fine with you?”
“Um, sure, it’s fine,” Korra said, tightening up her arms a bit.
Zuko nodded. “Very well, then.” His fingers twitched and he rotated his wrist by the smallest fraction. But then, in perfect sync, Korra felt like her arms were floating. Without any signal from her, they uncrossed just as Zuko had said, and both her hands came to rest palms down on her knees. Then, suddenly, the floating sensation left her, and she felt their weight once again.
“H-how?” She couldn’t even think of what to say. She’d seen Zuko firebend countless times. How was this even possible? Did Aang somehow have the ability to just grant extra bending at will? She’d never come close to doing anything like that.
“Korra? Korra!” She looked over to see Zuko’s eyes wide, his skin growing pale. “Korra, are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said quickly, holding up her hands as if to prove they still worked as normal. “I’m sorry, it just… really took me by surprise.” She shook her head, going over the memory in her head once more. “It was strange. It didn’t feel like when Amon or Tarrlok used it on me. I mean, it was weird, don’t get me wrong, but…” she lifted her hands, searching for the right word. “It didn’t feel like an attack.”
Zuko nodded, clearly relieved. “It makes sense. Amon and his brother were sloppy. And they both had very little practice.”
“Um, how much practice have you had, sir?”‘
“Well, I imagine only slightly less practice than Toph has had with seismic sensing,” he said. Then his finger twitched again and he lifted his hand as if holding something up for her to see. “Katara told you about our battle with Azula, I assume?”
“Um, which one?”
“Fair point. Our agni kai for the throne during Sozin’s comet.” Korra nodded, and Zuko continued, “Azula struck me with her lightning during that battle and I failed to redirect it properly. Since then, this,” he rotated his wrist and his hand came to rest on his lap once again, “has been my only way of moving anything beyond my hands or neck. Aang was the one who transferred Katara’s ability to me. I can’t use any other form of waterbending, and she can no longer use bloodbending.” He looked thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Though I’d venture to say, she hasn’t missed it terribly much.”
Korra was stunned. She could barely stutter out her words. “Y-you’re moving through bloodbending?”
“For seventy years?”
“Has it been that long? Well, then, yes, I suppose so.”
Korra shook her head, reconsidering the idea that maybe this conversation and last night’s conversations were both crazy dreams. Or that Bolin had snuck her something tainted with cactus juice. He’d suggested that as an energy booster once. She’d been cautious of any edibles he sent her way ever since.
“Hang on,” she said, struggling for a hole in Zuko’s story. “Bloodbending’s been banned for decades. You were there when Katara banned it.”
“More than that,” he said. “I was on the council that voted to ban it.” He finally seemed to sense that his vague answers were about to drive Korra completely insane and added, “I had the dissenting opinion.”
Korra shook her head. At this point, she didn’t care if something was insane or not. She wasn’t even sure she would care if this whole thing turned out to be a juice-induced hallucination after all. If Zuko’s plan had even the tiniest fraction of chance to help her, she planned to take it.
“All right, then. Let’s do this.”
“Now, hold on just a moment,” said Zuko, putting his hands up as if in defense. “You asked who would’ve been your teacher, and I answered your question. I never said I would–”
“Never said you would what? Actually teach me when I asked?”
“I–I–” Zuko sighed. “Korra, to put it in even the nicest terms, if I teach you bloodbending specifically against your doctor’s orders, Katara will have my neck.”
“Katara’s not the Avatar,” said Korra. She pounded the bedside table. She’d pounded it many times growing up, and it always gave a good strong crack. This time, however, her weakened punch sounded more like a muffled thump. “Katara’s not the Avatar,” Korra repeated. “She’s there to make suggestions, but I should decide what treatment I try. And I want to try this. Please.”
She watched Zuko’s face soften.
“I imagine your father won’t be fond of this either,” he said. “And if word of this gets to him, I’m sure my welcome at the Southern Water Tribe will be quickly worn out.”
Oh, I didn’t think of that. Korra felt a bit guilty about that. Okay, more than a bit.
But then Zuko smiled. “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time in my life I’ve been unwelcome here. I suppose if I’ve been allowed back after nearly burning the place down, I might still have a chance after teaching the Avatar some illegal bending.” He stood up. “Let’s begin your first lesson.”