“Hold on,” Fuse said. A poor choice of words. She had meant for him to hold the saddle. But Bolin gripped her waist instead. She had to pause a second to catch her breath, which had fled for some reason.
“Right, then.” She patted Flare’s neck, raised her voice, and hardened it into a command. “Fly!”
Flare lifted onto her haunches, spreading her wings to the fullest. Then she pushed off. Air and the sound of wingbeats accosted them as Flare rose higher. For a split second, Fuse thought she heard Griff exclaim something like, “Well, I’ll be a panrilla’s uncle!” just before the stables shrank away.
Flare flapped harder, gaining speed. This time, Fuse caught a blurred glimpse of the palace’s central watchtower whizzing past as Flare tilted and made a wide turn. Below them, guards and palace workers alike scurried like ants, gasping and pointing.
Flare whipped around for another circuit, her turn tighter this time.
Bolin pulled Fuse in close, his shouts so loud they made her ears ring. “This–is–awesome!!”
“Higher!” Fuse ordered the dragon, though this time her command came out more like more like a child’s laugh. Flare surged upward, eager to oblige. No. Perhaps just eager to fly. No one could blame her. Flare had been grounded so long, Fuse could have commanded the dragon into the middle of a firefight and Flare would gladly go if only to stay airborne a bit longer.
Sad to say, Fuse was starting to know that feeling. The longer she stayed at the Fire Palace–every moment she spent with Bolin and Korra and Firelord Izumi or working with the animals–the harder it was to accept that she might have to give it up someday.
If Jerkface came calling, she wouldn’t have a choice. No more than Flare would if Firelord Izumi decided to betray her. Or could she? Flare would have all the freedom in the world if she actually managed to defeat her master.
Defeat her master. Could Fuse even dare such a thing? No. Of course not. Weapons were tools. They didn’t just up and fight the one who controlled them. No matter how much they wanted to.
But weapons didn’t do lots of things. They didn’t make friends, didn’t show compassion or give advice. They certainly didn’t think about things like love or what kind of future they might have. But Fuse… she did all these things. And more. Did that make her more than a weapon now?
Did that mean she could fight back? Could defeat her master?
Flare roared as if in answer to her unspoken thought. Her dragon voice was fierce and powerful, and it seemed to echo for miles. No one would take Flare’s freedom without a fight.
Behind her, Fuse felt Bolin yell in answer. Fuse had made a promise to him. She had sworn she’d never go back to her master, no matter what. At the time, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep that oath. But now… things were different. She was different. Fuse filled her chest and joined her voice with Flare and Bolin’s. She yelled until her throat was raw. Until tears stung her eyes.
“I’m never going back!” Dragon wings and rushing air drown out her words. She didn’t care. Let the wind carry them all the way to Jerkface. “Never! Never! Never!”
Miles from the capital and the Fire Palace, Flare touched down on a ridge of rock overlooking a lush valley.
“Wow…” said Bolin, almost breathlessly. “Check out that sunset!” He still had his hands around her waist. In the rush of flight, Fuse had nearly forgotten how close Bolin really was. She was aware of him now, though. Solid and strong and warm.
“It’s beautiful.” She glanced behind her. The soft orange and yellows of the sky washed over Bolin’s face and reflected like embers in his eyes. Like you, some part of her thought. The non-weapon part?
Flare sniffed the air, then bellowed. Not a thrill-cry this time. This was an alert noise.
“What is it, girl? Do you see something?” Bolin asked, patting the dragon’s neck fondly.
Fuse was already scanning the valley. “There.” She pointed. Off in the distance, rows of dark shapes moved in an orderly fashion. “Looks like Milady’s reinforcements have arrived.”
Bolin grinned. “Do you think they can see us from down there?”
“I’d say it’s a possibility… seeing as how we’re sitting on a dragon.”
Bolin laughed, then he stood up in the saddle, waved his arms frantically over his head, and yelled, “Hey, General! General! Up here! It’s Bolin from Team Avatar!”
“You know General Iroh?”
“Well, sure. He helped us protect Republic City.” Bolin waved harder. “Hey! It’s good to see you again!”
On the ground below them, a man in red gestured aside to a soldier near him who handed him something metallic. The man in red then raised his arms. Fuse caught a flicker of reflection–the end of a spyglass. He looked, startled back, looked again and then, miraculously, returned Bolin’s greeting with a small wave.
“Hey, look, he’s waving!” Bolin cheered. “Come on, wave back!”
Fuse did so, a less wildly than Bolin, and with a much more nervous smile. She could only imagine how she must have looked to General Iroh just then. A combustionbender and convicted criminal… riding his mother’s dragon. It made Fuse even more glad Bolin was there. Seeing her with an ally was one less reason for General Iroh to bring the entire weight of his troops bearing down on her. Not that Korra or the Firelord would let that happen…
“We should head back,” she said, signaling to Flare. “I’m sure Milady will want to know of her son’s arrival.”
Bolin nodded and sat back down. Then raised his voice and yelled down to Iroh, “Bye! See you back at the palace!” Flare followed up with a long, echoing roar before taking off.
Korra did not greet Iroh at his arrival. She would feel bad about that later. She would feel especially bad about spending the entirety of the event in the spirit world.
Then again, she had an unfinished conversation that needed taking care of.
She found Zaheer resting beneath his tree and like before, he looked bored at her arrival. She didn’t make any demands this time, though. She simply sat down and waited for him to speak.
“Now, let me see if I remember where we left off,” he said, steepling his fingers. “Ah, yes, you wanted to know something about P’li’s escape. But, realistically, don’t you want to know what happened before that? What her life was like before her imprisonment?”
No, I don’t, Korra screamed in her head. She felt like she needed some sort of medal for keeping her mouth shut. But she already knew much more than she wanted to about how the combustionbenders had been trained. The last thing she wanted was for Zaheer to give her all the gory details about a woman that one of her allies had killed. About a woman he’d loved.
“There’s a training facility…” Zaheer began. “They attack villages, murder the adults, and take the children to make it look like a complete massacre. But the children survive. They’re given the tattoo to direct their chi energy down a forced, distorted path. It’s horrifically painful, and many die in their teens.”
You tried to kill me in my teens, Korra thought bitterly. In a horrifically painful way, too. But still, she kept silent. This was Zaheer’s vengeance. For P’li’s death. For Korra’s survival. Let him have it if that was what he needed. She still won, in the end.
“Now,” Zaheer went on. “It might interest you to know that this training facility tortures its prisoners mentally as well as physically. They are trained to forget they are even human, given the names of objects rather than people. P’li’s name was–”
“Pike. I know,” Korra snapped. So she wasn’t that great at keeping silent. She could only put up with so much.
Zaheer’s eyebrows raised. “So you heard already. Interesting. Do you know who gave her her human name?”
“Um, her mother?” Korra said, doing a lousy job of holding back the sarcasm. To her surprise, instead of lecturing her on her insensitivity, Zaheer slowly shook his head.
“I don’t know what her parents ever called her. And she didn’t remember, either.” He tilted his head back, breathing deeply, as if inhaling memories.
“We’re going to make the world a different place. A better place. Just wait and see.” The sun was high and the open meadow was everything a place of freedom should be. Zaheer held Pike’s hand and walked her all around. They stomped around on thick bunches of clover that felt like pillows beneath their feet. Well, Zaheer did, at any rate. Pike had to be dragged behind. She never stepped, never spoke, never did anything he didn’t suggest in the first place. It was infuriating. There were few times he wished he was a bender more than when he saw her face. Because he didn’t just want to command an army to destroy that place that dehumanized her. He wanted to rip it apart personally.
But one thing at a time. He couldn’t set his sights on petty vengeance. Not to begin with, at any rate. The biggest targets had to be hit first. Once the world was free of its oppressing leaders and its old-fashioned Avatar, then he could concentrate his energy on the lower-ranked individuals who had caused so much pain.
He stole a glance back at Pike, who was standing there passively, as always.
“What do you think? Who should be our first target, then? The Earth Queen? The Firelord?”
She shrugged. “You told me earlier that you wanted to wait until Lord Zuko passed the crown to his daughter before targeting the Fire Nation.”
“Yes, yes. But what’s your opinion..
Her body tensed. “I don’t… have an opinion,” she said hesitantly. “I’m just a–“
“No!” he snapped. She winced a bit, like she expected retribution. He breathed calmly and spoke softly. “No, don’t call yourself a weapon. Please.” He took her hands and looked up into her eyes. So much beauty buried beneath those years of abuse. “You’re a human being,” he told her, like he’d told her a hundred times already. “You must think of yourself that way. This world is your rightful place as much as anyone else’s.”
She nodded, but looked like this information was too good to be true for her. He wished he could find a way to convince her. Then the thought came to him.
“I want to stop using that awful name they gave you,” he said. “What’s your real name? The one your were born with?”
She narrowed her eyes as if deep in thought, but suddenly she gasped and they widened again. She stepped back from him, massaging her forehead.
“I can’t remember,” she told him. “They made us forget. Anything with our life… we were hurt if we tried to remember. I don’t want to think about it anymore.”
His chest seized with sadness for her. Not even a name. Well, he would fix that.
“All right, I’m going to give you a name then,” he announced.
She cocked her head at him. “You are?”
“Yes, I am.” Zaheer quickly realized that he didn’t actually have any names in mind. He dug his heel into the clover as he thought. Then, he bent down, plucked one the blossoms up, and released it, letting it dance through the air and out of his reach. No longer tethered.
“P’li,” he finally said. The name sounded correct to him. He repeated it, and she nodded, repeating it back like a strange new taste. “The first sound of the old name that you’re cutting away,” he explained. “And ‘Li’ for your beauty and strength..
Then she smiled. It was such a rare thing in her; he watched as long as he could. “Thank you. It’s mine now. It’ll always be mine.” She stroked the side of his face. “Just like you.”
Zaheer felt his stomach seize and clenched his jaw. He would not shed tears in front of the Avatar. Not even for P’li. The goal was to show the Avatar the pain she’d caused, not to elicit her sympathy. He wanted her to hate him and herself in equal measure.
“My earthly body must be returned to,” he said. “I’m afraid that’s all I have to say to you today. Try coming back another time.”
“Hey, wait, you didn’t even–” Korra reached out, but just like the last time, they spoke, Zaheer vanished in front of her. She grunted in frustrated and almost kicked a few purple mushrooms around to vent her anger. Then she remembered this was the spirit world. Kicking around anything, no matter how inanimate it seemed, usually ended with pain. She collapsed onto the ground and covered her eyes. Maybe it was good that Zaheer had left. The last thing she wanted him to see what that she’d been crying, too.