Zuko had returned to Ember Island. Izumi had gotten the word at breakfast that morning. Naturally, her first thought was that she was happy he was safe. It always made her nervous when he went wandering around the countryside without taking so much as a messenger hawk with him. Really, this was the modern era. Couldn’t he telephone her once in a while?
For now, Izumi sighed and leaned back in her throne. It was ugly and uncomfortable and clearly demonstrated her grandfather’s concern for scare tactics over common sense. In front of her, Korra finished the final round of bloodbending stances she’d been working through. She turned at looked at Izumi for approval.
“Your left foot was off in that last one,” Izumi said. “Do the set again from the start.”
“Seriously?” Korra snapped.
Izumi hardened her gaze. “Seriously.”
The Avatar groaned but started over just the same. Izumi barely watched her. Knowing exactly where Zuko was only made Izumi want to march over to Ember Island and tell him that he had started this mess with teaching Korra, and he ought to be the one to finish it. Izumi clearly wasn’t the mentoring type, anyway. If she was, why were her children so far away from her all the time? For the love of flames, even her own dragon detested her. She commanded well, she felt sure of that. Forming relationships, not so much.
“Are you even watching?” Izumi looked up from massaging her forehead to see that the Avatar had stopped moving through the stances. She straightened.
“I’ll thank you not to use that tone with me, Avatar.”
Korra gritted her teeth. “Look, I’m totally fine with repeating these exercises a ton of times if they’re actually useful, but lately it feels like you haven’t been teaching me anything new. If you think I’m ready–”
“You’re not ready. You get in the middle of a group of bloodbenders like you are now, and they’ll tear you apart. Run through the stances again.”
Korra didn’t. But she didn’t snap out anymore defiant snark, either. She simply stood and looked Izumi in the eye. “Your majesty,” she said. “I understand your concern for my safety. My other teachers have all done the same thing. But I’m not going to get up to your level or Zuko’s level in the time we have. At some point, we have to decide that I’ve learned enough and we need to take action. Sunport is still–”
“I already have troops moving into the surrounding area to prepare to retake it,” Izumi snapped. “And furthermore, my military decisions are none of your concern.”
Her harsh words did nothing to make the Avatar back down. If anything, they seemed to make a bad situation worse. “You don’t plan to use me at all, do you?” Korra snapped. “You just plan to keep me in the palace for my own safety while your stupid army goes out and does the fighting.”
“If you are angry at me because I value your safety, then I’m afraid I am unsympathetic,” Izumi said. “You may be quite used to battles where you and a few of your friends rush in and defeat enemies much more numerous than yourselves, but I for one don’t intend to test how long before your luck runs out. I will most certainly call you out if I have need of you, but I will not do so any earlier. Are we clear on that?”
Korra only grunted in reply. At first, Izumi thought she might have actually won the argument. Then she realized that her thinking had been far too optimistic.
“Fuse was right,” Korra muttered. “You’re so obsessed with proving what a strong Firelord you are, you’re afraid to accept any outside help.”
“Excuse me?” Izumi stepped up to Korra, only a few inches from her face. She didn’t have much height on her, but she adjusted her glasses and glared down to give Korra one last chance to back off. “If training sessions with that combustionbender are what’s causing you to act so disrespectfully, I can easily remedy–”
“Why are you so hard on her, anyway? Can’t you even understand how she feels? To have a power that everyone’s terrified of?”
Izumi opened her mouth to make a retort, but no sound came. It was infuriating. She’d spent her entire life with very few people ever really being able to read her. In fact, there had only ever been two. Now this snappy young Avatar and some strange combustionbender suddenly showed up at the palace and she became an open book?
Her silence at least seemed to finally get Korra to step down. She turned red and looked at the floor. “I’m… sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have said all that. Crap, my dad would kill me. And Tenzin. Tenzin would super-kill me.”
Izumi’s face twitched. She was still rather irritated and no intention of letting any hint of a smile loose. “Well, far be it for me to want you to be ‘super-killed’, as you phrase it. But mind your tongue in my presence from now on, is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” Korra said. She made a low bow and turned her back as she went through the stances again. The Avatar’s words had not been entirely accurate, but they had contained enough grains of truth to make Izumi uncomfortable. The other thing that always bothered her around both Korra and Fuse, the part neither of them could ever see, was how much both girls reminded Izumi of her daughter.
I shut my children out. It wasn’t the first time she’d had the thought, though it hadn’t crossed her mind in a long time. She never had made the best attempts to mend things with her daughter, and she wasn’t sure it was possible to do so now. But perhaps she could at least start with mending things with the combustionbender and the Avatar.
At that moment, Izumi was jostled out of her thoughts by a loud battering on the door. Korra whirled around and took an earthbending stance as if she expected to blast an attacker off his feet. Izumi held up a hand.
“Calm down. I know that knock,” she said. Then, she called out, “What’s the matter, Griff?”
“It’s Flare again, ma’am!” the man’s voice called back, followed by a rough cough. “She’s out of her pen and causing all sorts of ruckus, and I ain’t got the stamina no more to chase after ‘er!”
Izumi groaned inwardly. It was bad enough her father ran around the countryside like he was half his actual age and rogue bloodbenders had to go around causing chaos in her kingdom, and she had to train an Avatar who was just as stubborn as she was. Now she had Flare to deal with.
“I’ll be right there,” she assured Griff, hurrying up to unlock the doors. “Korra, the rest of our training will have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Hang on a second,” said Korra, doing the opposite of what Izumi suggested and following along after her. “Who’s Flare?”
Izumi sighed. “Flare is my dragon. And she’s… temperamental.”
Instead of striking the Avatar with caution, the words made her grin. “A dragon? I want to meet her!”
“No, you don’t. Go back to your room,” Izumi commanded. She immediately winced, realizing just how much of a nagging mother she sounded like. Korra was the Avatar. And an adult besides. “Or… follow me if you want. It’s your choice. I simply bear no responsibility if your hair gets burnt off.”
Korra did not seem at all deterred by the suggestion and followed Izumi out the door.
The scene in front of Izumi made no sense whatsoever. Flare was out of the stable. Not the first time it had happened, but that wasn’t the strange part. The strange part was how the dragon was not currently destroying everything in sight. Instead, she had her iron jaws locked on the combustionbender’s left arm. Izumi’s first thought was that Flare was about to turn Fuse’s arm to a bloody pulp. Izumi spread her fingers, ready to call on her bloodbending to pull Flare’s mouth open. But before she could do so, she realized that the dragon was not biting down with her full force. She had her teeth on the chain and manacle on Fuse’s arm and wrist.
And Fuse was saying something. Izumi stepped closer to hear, and was vaguely aware of the Avatar doing the same. “… going to help you,” Fuse was saying. Calm, firm. The way a real mother should sound. “But right now, you need to stop this nonsense,” the combustionbender went on. “No more bullying your caretakers. Are we clear?”
A grunt from the dragon, and it released her arm. Actually released it. Izumi heard Korra breathe a sigh of relief, but she herself was too shocked to do the same.
Her command over Flare had always been a ruse. Flare was simply unable to tell others how Izumi got her under control. Fear. Flare detested even a bit of bloodbending used on her and she would quickly change her attitude if threatened with it. Fear kept the dragon from lashing out when Izumi got near. Not respect, and certainly not love.
Izumi took only the smallest step forward, not wanting to break the spell of trust that had started to form here.
“Amazing,” she whispered. Then, just a touch louder so that Fuse could hear, she called out, “When you are finished here, Fuse, the guards will show you to the sun room. I’ll have some tea prepared.”
The dragon tensed at her voice and Izumi quickly took several steps back, putting her gaze to the floor to show Flare she had no intention of starting a confrontation. The combustionbender would notice the action, she had no doubt. But that was something that could be explained at a later time.
There was knock at the door. Not too loud, not too soft, almost polite. Izumi could recognize Fuse’s knock even without the faint jingle of chains that followed it.
Fuse opened the door and stepped inside. She had bathed since their last encounter, somehow managing to scrub away virtually all traces of the stables from her person. She was meticulously groomed too, as was befit for an audience with the Firelord.
“Milady wanted to see me?”
“Yes,” said Izumi, gesturing to the small set table by the southern window. “Will you sit?”
A redundant question. Fuse was too polite to refuse her invitation. She sat and waited for Izumi to do the same before unfolding her napkin and smoothing it on her lap. It was like watching the headmistress of Royal Fire Academy during etiquette classes. Not a single gesture or movement out of place. Not exactly the ideal mood for honest conversation.
“Please,” she said, trying to break the ice. “Help yourself.”
Fuse didn’t even blink. “It is customary for Milady to serve herself first,” said Fuse. It sounded like something Izumi had read out of a textbook once.
“Your etiquette is excellent. My old headmistress at Royal Fire Academy would have loved parading you in front of the class as an example.”
Fuse dipped her head slightly, right on cue. “That is very kind of you to say, milady.”
“Yes, well, you want to know a little secret?” Izumi lifted the teapot and, with a silent thumb-nose to her old headmistress, deliberately filled Fuse’s cup before her own. “I always hated those classes.”
Fuse gave the barest hint of a smile and relaxed her shoulders a hair. Izumi watched her lift her tea and inhale deeply. She then closed her eyes and nodded appreciatively before taking a sip.
Izumi cupped the mug in her hands, letting its heat warm her fingers. She sometimes marveled at how firebenders could reheat tea with their hands. Did they savor the heat like she did, or did they think nothing of it, since it was so easy for them to recreate?
“Your great uncle was quite the tea aficionado, wasn’t he?”
Izumi sat up with surprise. “You know about him?” Her father had never ceased to speak about Great Uncle Iroh, but she didn’t realize that anyone outside her immediate family knew the man quite as much. The siege of Ba Sing Se wasn’t exactly something that the Fire Nation tried to bring to the forefront of its history.
“Everyone knows the Jasmine Dragon,” Fuse said with a shrug. “My master is quite fond of the brand. I should know. I’ve lugged enough crates of tea around for the man.”
Izumi tried to bring herself to smile, but it wouldn’t come. “Does your master put you in chains as well?”
“Not at all, milady. He knows that a… that a weapon attacking him is unthinkable.”
She hesitated at the word “weapon”, Izumi noted. Because the word hurt? Or because she had started to think of herself has something more than that? Whatever it was, Izumi couldn’t look past the fact that even the man who had tortured and trained this girl didn’t chain her. What did that make Izumi, exactly?
I don’t kidnap children, she scolded herself. And trusting that you’ve brainwashed someone so well they would never turn on you is not the same thing as trusting the person themselves.
Still, she looked at the chains hanging from Fuse’s wrists, and her chest tightened. If she just had a good reason to go back on her agreement…
“I suppose your restraints make your daily duties in the stables a bit difficult,” she said, probably louder than she needed to. Especially when she considered that the hallway outside was empty.
Fuse shrugged. “Not particularly. Most of what I’m doing during the day is mucking stalls. The chains do not impede that.”
Izumi sighed. She considered the idea that Fuse entirely got her implications and wanted her to state her mind more clearly. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. “I’m simply saying,” she went on, “that it might seem a bit soft for me to remove your restraints without reason. Especially when you haven’t been here long enough to really prove yourself trustworthy. But, as I’ve clearly asked you to work, I cannot at the same time, restrict you in such a way that keeps you from working.”
“Ah. I see, then.” Fuse nodded, and Izumi still couldn’t tell if she had been oblivious or enjoying acting the part. “Well, Griff has stated that he would like for me to help with training the young eel-hounds, and handling them could be rather tricky in my current conditions.”
“Obviously a serious issue,” Izumi said, nodding. “I will tell the guards that when you are in the stables, you are to be unrestrained.” She thought for a moment. “Mealtimes as well. We are a civilized society, and many people consider chain clinking at the table to be quite disruptive.”
“Do they now? It is kind of milady to educate me in such high society matters.” She finished her mug. “Is that all you wanted to discuss, milady?”
Izumi hesitated. There was no sense in delaying it any further, she supposed. She refilled Fuse’s cup.
“No, actually, there is one other matter…” her voice trailed. Part of her hoped Fuse would finish her sentence. That she wouldn’t make Izumi admit the issue outright. But judging from the earlier conversation she knew that wasn’t going to be the case.
Izumi tried to speak but the words stalled in her throat. Why was this so hard?
But she already knew why.
A Firelord who can’t control her own dragon. How weak I must look.
Fuse raised her eyebrows, as if she had heard the thought. She set down her teacup and looked Izumi square in the eye.
“You’re not weak, milady. Dragons are powerful, dangerous animals. Blue dragons are especially difficult to handle. Only a handful of past Firelords managed to tame them, and they had a distinct advantage. Being the world’s original firebenders, those dragons instinctively saw them as their own kind. Because of your circumstances, there was no level ground with Flare. You had to build up her trust from nothing. That kind of bond takes years of constant work… not an easy task when one is also being groomed to rule a nation.
“It’s still no excuse for how I treated her.”
“I agree. Your current handling method is…” She paused a long time, no doubt having difficulty thinking of a polite word. “…unacceptable,” she finally finished. And though Fuse did well keeping her tone steady as always, Izumi could see a distinct flicker of rage in her eyes.
“Right.” Another long pause. Izumi was doing it again. Waiting for Fuse to simply finish her thought for her and suggest aloud what she was having so much trouble asking herself. Another sure sign the combustion-bender was starting to reclaim her humanity–namely her human pride.
“Perhaps, since you seem to have such an affinity with her… you could… enlighten me on some better handling methods.”
Fuse smiled. A real smile, this time. “I’d be glad to. We can start tomorrow if you wish.”
Izumi nodded. “Then please meet me in the stables as soon as you’re finished your training with Korra.” She wiped her mouth, rose from the table and bowed. “I should get back to my duties, but thank you for the tea, milady. We should do this again.”
Izumi smile and stood up, only to have her quiet interrupted by the door bursting open behind her. A guard rushed in and bowed low. “Your highness. Forgive my interruption, but we’ve had reports of more towns being hit by bloodbenders. The local authorities are powerless.”
Izumi’s face hardened. Gone was the woman who sat drinking tea with a friend. She was the leader now, the one who made the tough decisions.
“I want to set up a phone call with the towns’ police chiefs as soon as possible,” she demanded, starting to walk with the guard towards the door. “Is there any word on my son’s arrival?”
“Hmm?” Fuse said behind her, almost too quiet to hear. The tone was accusatory, only mild curiosity. Izumi had told only a select group about Iroh’s impending visit. But that was where her mother’s instinct had taken over. The fewer people who knew that Iroh and his family were on their way, the less chance of an attack.
The guard took no notice of Fuse or her and Izumi’s unspoken exchange. “We know that General Iroh left early yesterday morning, your highness. No word on yet on his arrival.”
“It’s not unreasonable,” said Izumi. “I wouldn’t expect him for another day or two. What about my father? Did he accept my invitation to come stay at the palace until the crisis at Sunport is resolved?”
The guard looked very uncomfortable at this question. “I’m afraid Lord Zuko’s exact words were, erm, ‘if you think you’re getting this old man back on that dragon after galavanting around for eight weeks straight, you’ve got another thing coming, young lady.'” He made several long bows. “My apologies, your highness.”
Blast it, Dad! Be reasonable for once in your life and get back here! “I see,” Izumi said aloud. And she did everything she could to make her voice sound neutral.