The combustionbender lay in a pool of water while Korra’s hands moved in a rhythmic motion over her. Water curled and turned in intricate patterns over the woman’s body, but nothing seemed to do much good. Maybe Korra was losing her touch. She hadn’t exactly called on her healing abilities in a while. Her eyes fell to the tattoo on the woman’s forehead, and she tried not to shudder. The tattoo was slightly different from P’li’s; no red lines crossing behind the picture of the eye. But still, the thought of what it could do didn’t make Korra feel good.
Maybe she needed more bubbly, happy thoughts for the healing to go well?
Suddenly, the combustionbender stirred.
“Oh, geez, you’re awake!” Korra lost her concentration, and the water that had been floating a second ago now splashed into the pool. The combustionbender’s eyes opened, and she quickly stared around her at the strange location. With no wish to have a similar incident to the one involving a knife at Bolin’s throat, Korra tried to calm her down before anything else.
“It’s okay. You’re not in danger. Well, unless Firelord Izumi changes her mind, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got that covered–”
“I’m still in the palace?”
“Yes. You were injured, and I’m healing you. So hold still.”
The woman looked like she had no idea how to take this sort of an order but obediently settled back into the pool again. Korra took one of those cleansing breaths Katara always went on about and began to bend the water into waves and tendrils again. Its healing powers glowed beneath her fingers.
“My friend Bolin says you were nice to him when he was captured,” Korra said as the waves of water began flowing over the combustion bender once more. “He also said that you even made a move against one of the bloodbenders.”
The combustionbender shook her head. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she said quickly. “He was my master’s subordinate. I should not have attacked him unless ordered.”
Because orders are the only reason to attack or not attack someone? Korra had no clue how to continue that conversation. “So, uh… what are your orders now?” she asked.
The combustionbender’s gaze drifted past Korra, as if this was a very deep question that required long hours of consideration. “At the moment?” she said at last. “None. You have effectively captured me, and I have failed in my escape protocol…” she swallowed a little uneasily. “Therefore I have no further objectives unless my master takes me back.”
“Oh. All right, then.” Korra tried to focus on the water, even though it didn’t seem to be doing much good. “So, um… who are you, exactly? Bolin keeps calling you Sparky Sparky Boom Girl.”
“That’s not really my name.”
“That’s what I told him.” Korra forced out a laugh in an effort to hide just how tense she was right now. “Also, it’s really confusing because that’s what he called this other combustion bender we ran into a few years ago.”
“Which one?” It was the first time the woman had sounded a bit interested in anything Korra said. That was probably a bad thing.
“Um, her name was P’li. She… died in battle.”
The woman did not seem at all phased by this. She merely nodded like it was, at best, an interesting tidbit of information. “P’li? So she gave herself a human name. How…strange.”
If you ask me, this whole conversation is strange.
“Why is that?” Korra asked.
“Weapons don’t have names in the traditional sense like you humans. We called her Number 613.”
“Wait… you call each other by numbers?”
“That’s correct. I am number 843.”
Korra shuddered. She could see now why Bolin had been so unnerved. Just what sort of creepy society was this?
The woman must have sensed her disapproval. She spoke again, “if you prefer, we are given labels for the convenience of our handlers. 613’s was ‘Pike.’ Mine is ‘Fuse.'”
“I’ll call you Fuse, if that’s what you’re used to,” Korra said. “But I’m not calling you by some stupid number. That’s messed up.”
Before the woman could reply, Korra looked over the targeted injuries to check on her progress and still discovered that almost nothing had improved. “It’s also messed up how much trouble I’m having getting your ribs to heal!” She slammed her hands down to her sides, and the water fell once again. Fuse watched the childish display with indifference.
“Healing relies heavily on the subject’s chi flow,” she finally said. “Mine is distorted.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because that’s how one acquires combustion-bending.” She sat up in the tub, which had to hurt given her injuries, and leaned forward to give Korra a better angle at her exposed back. “It can still work, but you’ll need to direct your healing water a bit differently than you normally would. I’ll give you directions.”
“Um, okay,” Korra said with a nod. She readied her hands into a waterbending stance again.
“Very well. The earth chakra is completely blocked. Direct your energy at the sound chakra first.”
Korra nodded again, glad not for the first time that she’d had Katara as a teacher. The healing did start to go a bit easier, as Fuse had said, but it was still much more of an effort and more time-consuming. Korra felt like she had to yank the healing energy over Fuse kicking and screaming the whole way.
“Interesting…” Fuse mused partway through Korra’s work on the thought chakra. “You’re a bloodbender.”
“What? How do you– I mean, what makes you think that?”
Fuse shrugged. “I imagine that as the Avatar, you have the capacity to learn it, and also I can sense it in your movements. When my body resists your healing, you attempt, subconsciously perhaps, to gain its obedience through bloodbending.” She reached into the water and felt along the bandages covering her ribs. “It seems to be working, so perhaps it’s a useful technique.”
“You can sense bending on that level?” Korra asked.
“It was part of my training.” There was a long space of quiet, filled only by the sound of water sloshing back and forth. The more Korra heard about this woman’s “training”, the more it scared her. Was this what P’li had gone through, too? Not that there was any excuse for what that woman had done, but–
“So, then, what do you plan to do with me?”
Korra jumped a bit at the sudden sound of a human voice in the room, but kept talking without dropping any water this time. “Well, Bolin didn’t want to see you locked up,” the woman’s shoulders tensed at this word, “so I kinda came up with the suggestion that you could help train me once your injuries are better.”
Fuse rubbed her chin. “I am rather skilled in the art of predicting attacks based on the bender’s stances. I suppose I could teach you a bit of what I know.”
“Oh, I meant the sparky sparky boom thing. I wanna know how to defend against it.”
“Very well, then. That too.”
There was another long stretch of silence. Korra hated feeling this nervous and unsure of herself. She had enough of that when she was in the spirit world.
“Also,” she said, “and I probably should have led with this, but if you threaten any of my friends again, I will personally destroy you.”
Usually people cowered at Korra’s threats. It was the most satisfying part about making threats. Fuse only shrugged. “Fair enough. I appreciate the warning.”
Korra agreed to take Fuse to meet Izumi that evening, right after the both of them got a (well-deserved) rest. She had to admit, she wasn’t looking forward to the encounter. A part of her semi-wished that after she slept all afternoon, she would wake up and find that the scary combustionbender part was all a dream and Bolin had just invited over some nice airbending girl he met in town. Who made pastries.
As the sky changed from a cloudy afternoon gray to an purple evening fog, Korra yawned and ran her hands through her hair just enough to get it out of her face. She then threw on some clothes that didn’t quite smell like they needed to be burned in a fire, and opened the door to her room.
“You sleep late.”
“Ack!” Korra jumped a mile. Fuse was standing in the hallway, clean and dressed in uniform. Nope, it had not been a dream. This was definitely a combustionbender and not Korra’s imaginary pastry chef. “Geez, you startled me,” she said, gathering her senses and pulling the door shut behind her.
“Yes. I inferred that from the way you yelled and jumped backwards.” She glanced up and down at Korra’s –okay, she would admit– slightly disheveled attire. “You have a close personal relationship with the Firelord to dress so… casually for this meeting.”
Not caring to walk back in the room and fix herself up, Korra shrugged. “Yeah, that’s me and the Firelord. Best buds. Come on, let’s go. I want to get past the talking and onto the training part of this negotiation.”
Korra led Fuse confidently down the vast halls of the Fire Nation palace, only getting lost a few times. Even then, she kept up her stride and acted as if she’d totally meant to come this direction. She was pretty sure Fuse noticed, though. Especially when she passed the same guard twice.
“So, yeah… the Agni Kai chamber… right this way,” she said. At least she didn’t have to worry about getting the room wrong. A giant image of two firebending figures poised to set each other’s hair alight was engraved into the huge bronze doors.
The guard at the door nodded at Korra, curled his nose a bit at Fuse, then stood aside. With a gulp, Korra knocked lightly, then entered.
“There you are, Avatar,” came Izumi’s voice when Korra had barely stepped into the huge room. “I expected you an hour ago. You sleep late, it seems.”
“So I’m told,” Korra muttered, closing the door behind her. When no one else in the room spoke, she stepped aside so Izumi and Fuse had a clear line of eyesight to each other.
“Your majesty, this is Fuse, the woman I told you about. The, um… combustionbender that I’d like to have train me.”
Korra gave a polite bow, and Fuse followed suit. The room was largely open space, but with a huge, elevated throne for the Firelord to sit and observe whatever battle happened to be going on. Izumi used this to its full effect, towering over Korra and Fuse when she stood. She didn’t invite them out of the bow, either. But Korra wasn’t about to give herself a backache to stroke Izumi’s ego, so she straightened as soon as she started to feel uncomfortable.
Fuse stayed bowed.
Izumi stepped down from her throne and narrowed her eyes at Fuse. “Rise,” she ordered.
Izumi snorted. “You’re polite for an assassin.”
“I am not an assassin, milady. That title is for people who gain profit from killing others. I am only a tool and gain no profit from–” Izumi held up a hand, clearly trying to look unflustered, but not doing a great job of it.
“That’s enough,” she snapped at Fuse. “Tell me where you came from and why you attacked Sunport.”
Another nod. “Regrettably, I cannot tell you the location of my master’s facility as precautions have been taken to ensure I do not know it. As for Sunport, I was acting under contract to a man called Jarven. You’ll need to speak with him on the matter, milady.”
Based on Izumi’s expression, Korra was temporarily happy that the Firelord didn’t have any actual firebending skills. Something probably would have been in flames by now if she did.
“And this… contract of yours. Is it–”
“No longer valid, milady. I have been repossessed, if you would care to call it that.”
“We would not care to call it that,” Korra cut in, but Izumi held up her hand again.
“I understand your aim is to teach the young Avatar how to counter combustionbending.”
“If that is what milady requires, yes.”
Izumi stroked her chin. “Very well then. We will have the training sessions here every morning starting tomorrow. I will oversee them. Should you prove to be a danger to the Avatar or myself in anyway, you will be immediately imprisoned. Do these terms suit you?”
Korra felt a blast of fury inside her, but held it down. Instead, she looked at Fuse. The woman who had been so calm and impassive suddenly looked uneasy. Almost pale. Her voice shook a bit as she said. “Yes. The terms suit me just fine.”
As Korra and Fuse walked out of the room, discussing what to try out first, Izumi took a seat at her throne once again. The idea of training the Avatar to face combat with combustionbenders was no doubt a total waste of time. Izumi did not know all the details of the strange tattoo she’d seen in all the photos of known combustionbenders, but it was quite clear to her that the technique involved some sort of specialized training. The odds were not likely that Korra would face another combustionbender in the battle to retake Sunport. The odds that she would have to counter bloodbending, however, were very high indeed. Korra had been doing better than Izumi expected, but she still needed more time to hone her skills. Time without guards or nosy brothers asking questions about what the Avatar and the Firelord talked about all day long. Training with this combustionbender might be the perfect cover.
This is all your fault, Dad, she thought, massaging her forehead. You’re the reason I have to be so guarded all the time.
She didn’t know why she felt this anger at her father, exactly. But the thought had haunted her ever since she’d been a teenager. Aang was the Avatar. He and her father and their allies had saved the world. Surely they could have done something to prevent her from being born a bloodbender.
Ah, but that was just fire over the furnace now, wasn’t it? At least she had her one comfort, the same thing she drew on every time she felt like this. Her children did not inherit this cursed ability from her. Iroh proved it early on; his firebending skills were unmatched. He’d been trained by his grandfather, of course. Izumi and Zuko might not have seen eye-to-eye, but that didn’t mean she was going to deny her son the best firebending teacher she could give him.
Then there was her daughter, the true nonbender of the family. Izumi counted on her fingers. Iroh had just celebrated his fortieth birthday, so his sister would be turning twenty-four soon. Only a few years older than the Avatar. Maybe that was what made training Korra so difficult. It reminded Izumi every day that she had her own daughter, somewhere out in the Fire Nation, and that their relationship was broken.
She rested her head against the back of the chair and thought of her own childhood, the memories she could never push away.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Look what I learned how to do!”
A young Izumi ran through the palace halls, heart pumping like a butterfly-sparrow. She’d been practicing for weeks to make sure she’d gotten the technique just right. Daddy was kind, but he could be a bit of a perfectionist, especially when it came to her special power. But today she had it. Today she would impress him.
“Daddy? Where are you?” She peered around one corner after another, only running into stupid guards who asked her if she was okay and if she needed anything. It was annoying. They never asked her daddy those questions. Probably because he was a grown-up. When she was a grown-up, too, then they’d know she could fend for herself.
“Daddy! There you are!” At last she found him in one of the study rooms. He had a pot of tea, freshly brewed jasmine by the scent of it, and he was looking over some boring-looking records.
“Daddy, I learned something. Will you watch, Daddy?”
He laughed and pushed his work away. “Of course. What is it?”
Izumi licked her lips. She’d practiced countless times, of course, but always in her room alone. This was her first time having an audience. She closed her eyes, hoping that it would help calm her nerves. Then she focused all her energy and moved her arms and hands in the way Daddy had showed her. Only instead of focusing just on her feet as she often did in practice, she focused on her whole body. She imagined it lifted up off the ground. And it happened. It actually happened. She grinned.
She waited for the praise, the gasp of awe at how much she’d accomplished. He did gasp, but it was not followed by any compliments.
“Izumi, you mustn’t do that out the open. Stop this instant!”
She did stop. Her feet came back to the floor with a dull thump. Her eyes burned with oncoming tears. What had she done wrong? Why didn’t he like it? “But… I practiced, Daddy. I worked really hard.”
His face softened. “I’m sure you did, my little phoenix. But we’ve talked about this before. You only practice that power when I’m training you, understand? No other time.”
“But why?” It had been an innocent question the first time she’d asked it. A curiosity. But now it was just painful. Because no matter how many times she pleaded for an answer that made some sense, he never gave it to her.
“Because…” His eyes searched the room. Endless stands of books and scrolls surrounded them. Like that ancient library with the giant owl that she’d read stories about. But Daddy had a look like even if he searched every scroll, every page, he’d never find a satisfying answer. “Because you could hurt someone,” he finally said. She stopped asking questions after that. She’d also stopped trying to fly.