Fuse was still asleep on the same couch ten hours later. Izumi had not intended to walk up on her the exact moment she woke up, but it worked in her favor all the same. Her position had changed slightly; she had gone from lying on her stomach to lying on her back, and her mouth was open a tad more.
Fuse made a low muffled groan as Izumi attempted to walk past. “What the…?” She sat up and massaged her forehead. Her eyes scanned the room, probably a bit slower than they normally would. When she saw where she’d slept, and that Izumi was standing right beside her, she gasped. “I’m so sorry! I should have been back in the barracks last night. Did I fall asleep somewhere important?”
“Oh, no,” Izumi said, shaking her head. Any of Korra’s friends would say something amusing and clever right about now. Izumi couldn’t think of anything clever, so she compromised with exaggerated sarcasm. “Although, that is the sacred drunk Firelord sleeping couch, where only the Firelord may recline and only after extended periods of unreasonable alcohol consumption.”
She waited for Fuse to respond. It wasn’t a laugh, but it wasn’t a grimace either. She first narrowed her eyes as if Izumi trying to joke was such a strange thing, she needed extra time to process it. Then, when she finally decided she had heard correctly, she smiled.
“I appreciate milady’s… understanding.”
Izumi held up a hand. “Enough with the ‘milady’ bit, if you don’t mind. Between the war meetings with Iroh and the pressure of my council to make a move on Sunport, I’ve had more than enough formal greetings to last until my retirement.”
Fuse nodded, although she didn’t say anything either.
Well, Izumi reasoned, now was as good a time as any to move her into her new quarters. “Actually, if you do need a bit more rest, I can find a more comfortable place for you do it in,” she said.
Fuse eyed her skeptically. Probably expecting her to make another terrible joke, maybe about finding her a spot in the dungeon.
“I believe,” Izumi said carefully, “you’ve more than proven yourself here. I’d like to give you your own room.”
“I… my own…. are you serious?”
“Serious as my father,” Izumi said. Even if no one else appreciated the humor of that joke, Izumi knew all too well how true it was. “Come. Follow me.” Fuse did so.
The room that Izumi had decided to give Fuse was probably one of the most modest ones in the palace. It had a single bed, no canopy, with plain garnet curtains enveloping the windows. Beside the bed was a single wooden dresser, with a few decorative flames carved into its edges, but otherwise, nothing out of the ordinary. Fuse looked at the place like she’d stepped into some sort of childhood fantasy. She walked along the room’s edge, fingering the curtains, stroking the bed, her lips moving without words. Finally, she turned to face Izumi.
“Thank you, mi–” she paused in the middle of a bow, unsure how to complete the sentence.
“Izumi is fine,” Izumi said. Fuse gave her a look that read in no sane universe would ‘Izumi’ ever be fine, so she sighed and said, “Firelord if you must.”
“Firelord, then.” Fuse straightened out of the bow and tentatively took a seat on the bed, as if it might disappear once she treated it like a part of reality. It didn’t, and when she discovered this, she bounced up and down a bit. For a moment, Izumi remembered a young Iroh jumping up and down on that mattress when it was first brought in, then a young Zarah almost twenty years later. She didn’t want to end the happy memory. But her children were adults now. She had to keep reminding herself of that.
“There is… something else I need to ask you,” she said. Fuse’s relaxed movements ceased. Her guard rose up. Not that it had been completely gone before this. “I know this will be difficult to talk about,” Izumi said. “But the fact is that you were allies with the group that has captured Sunport. We are moving in, and I need any and all information you can give me on who is behind the attack and what their forces are.”
She could see Fuse analyzing her; they had had enough discussions over tea that she read the eye movements well enough. Perhaps she was trying to decide if this new room had not been a kind gesture, but just an attempt to get Fuse to talk. It wasn’t that, Izumi told herself. Then she wondered herself if it was true.
“I’m afraid… I can’t tell mi– I can’t tell you much, Firelord,” she said. “Only snippets of conversations that I overheard. I know that my– that Master Jerkface has some sort of involvement and that he sent a weapon out with a Fire Nation noble named Tomas.”
Master Jerkface? Izumi didn’t interrupt on this point, and only assumed this was another one of those things that Fuse and Bolin had discussed between them. The other name she couldn’t let go. “Tomas?” she asked. It couldn’t be… “Not Tom-Tom?”
Fuse shrugged. “I don’t know what other names he’s called himself. Tomas was the only name he went by when I saw him.”
“Wait a moment.” Izumi hurried over to the dresser. Being a room full of memories, she had stashed a few physical ones here, too. Specifically, photos of her family members. Even the ones she hadn’t seen for ages. She slipped a faded photo out of an envelope and handed it over to Fuse.
“Is this the man you saw?”
Fuse narrowed her eyes at the photo. “He was older than that, but yes. That’s him.”
“I see.” Izumi hands shook as she withdrew the photo. Why? She knew her uncle never wanted much to do with the family, but she had always passed it off as a personal quirk of his. He was a busy man, and knew how difficult running the Fire Nation was, so he had simply never made time and assumed her father didn’t have time to spare anyway. What could have made him so angry? She put the photo back in the drawer and nearly slammed it shut in her efforts to get her head clear.
“I understand all this is… difficult,” she said. “Thank you, Fuse.”
The combustionbender griped the bed sheets and breathed deeply. Then Izumi saw her smile. The second smile in less than an hour. That Bolin boy must have had some influence on her. “Actually,” she said. “It’s not Fuse anymore. My name is Tenna.”
“Tenna?” Izumi was surprised at first, then took a few moments to mull over the name. “It’s lovely,” she concluded. “You made a fine choice.”
At this, Tenna blushed. “I didn’t choose it,” she said. “But I did accept it. Thank you.” She bounced lightly on the mattress as if to solidify its place in reality. Then her body stiffened once again.
“There is something else you should probably know, Firelord,” she said quietly. “Tomas… was planning to capture your father.”
Izumi’s blood ran cold. “What?” she heard herself whisper.
Tenna shook her head. There was frustration there, anger at letting these memories sit so long. “I don’t know how he planned to do it. But my– Master Jerkface’s subordinates seemed quite sure that Lord Zuko had a weakness that would make his capture simple.”
“A weakness?” Her father only had two weaknesses that she could think of. One was his bloodbending, the other was his family. So unless this master of Tenna’s had discovered a secret that Zuko himself had kept hidden seven decades, she had to assume…
They’re going to go after Iroh’s son. After Kaja! It was the only thing that made sense. Iroh’s firebending was just as strong as his grandfather’s. And everyone had seen the Avatar protecting Izumi herself from an earlier attack. Perhaps Iroh’s wife was a possibility, too.
I need to double the guards around Kaja’s nursery. Izumi had started pacing now, her breaths only coming out a normal speed because she willed her body to do so. Around all the rooms Iroh and his family have been staying in.
“Firelord?” she vaguely heard Tenna saying behind her. Her head felt like it was underwater, reality far away and murky. “…Izumi?” Tenna asked again.
Izumi stopped pacing. She did not panic. That was not what a Firelord did. If her family was threatened, she would strike back with full force. But she still couldn’t shake the nagging thought from her mind, however unlikely, that Kaja was not a target at all. I need to get Dad to come home, she told herself. As soon as possible.
Mako felt like death as he trudged through the palace. He never did deal with sleep deprivation well, and he hadn’t caught so much as a minute’s rest after last night’s talk with Fuse… Tenna, whatever she called herself now. All he could do was go over all the information he’d gathered in his head over and over. His long days and nights at the library had eaten his brain, he was pretty sure on that. Right now, he needed to talk to someone sane.
Korra would do.
He found her outside her room, trying to pull on her boots and eat a peeled banana at the same time.
“No… Firelord meetings today?” he asked, walking up to her.
“Hmm?” Korra swallowed the rest of the fruit in one gulp and straightened up. “Oh, no, not today. Firelord Izumi says she has ‘too much going on’ to deal with me.” She shrugged and stretched her arms above her head. “Still have practice with Fuse, though.”
“Yeah, about her…” Mako said, looking nervously to the side. The hallway looked empty, but he figured he could never be too careful. “…and about Firelord Izumi, for that matter. I’ve been doing some research–”
“Yeah, I know. Fuse and I were theorizing that you died in the library and we might have to send the eel-hounds in to find your corpse.”
Mako scowled. “–and I think I found something… disconcerting,” he finished. “Do you have a few minutes?”
Korra’s humorous expression quickly dropped. “I’ll be a bit late for practice, but… I guess, if it’s that important.” She led him into her room. It was Korra’s, no doubt. She had clothes, supplies Asami had sent in from Republic City, and basically anything else that could make a room messy strewn across the floor. Still, the room was more spacious than Mako’s, and Korra was able to shove some clothes off a table and pull it to the center of the room without much effort. Mako pulled up a chair while Korra found a stool stashed in the corner.
“So, what’s up?” she asked.
“Okay, so right now I’ve got two working theories,” Mako began. He tried to spread some of his scribbled notes across the table, although it became painfully clear that he was the only one who’d be able to read them. He shuffled them back together and tucked them under the chair. “Based on all the evidence I’ve collected, my first theory is that a large of group of combustion benders are secretly working with a local herd of elephant-bears to attack innocent Fire Nation citizens.”
Korra raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, that one didn’t seem too plausible to me, either,” Mako said, rubbing the back of his head. “But my only other theory is that Firelord Izumi is a bloodbender, and that makes just as much sense.”
For some reason, Korra straightened in her seat at this suggestion. Weird. He didn’t think she got creeped out so easily. “Why don’t you tell me what it is you’re trying to find an explanation for, and I’ll see if I can help you from there,” she said.
Mako nodded. “Well, the thing is, I’ve been noticing a string of attacks on small villages in the Fire Nation. They’re spaced pretty far apart, but they’re… they’re too regular to be random. I think they were planned. Connected.”
If Korra looked uncomfortable before, it was twice as bad now. “Are there survivors in these attacks?”
“No,” said Mako, shaking his head. “Whatever hits these villages, no one is left. The official reports say it’s just bands of barbarians or bandits, but…” He swallowed hard. What he was about to say next would be treason from any Fire Nation citizen. “But the regularity of it makes me think that maybe the Firelord knows something about it.”
Korra took the suggestion exactly as Mako predicted she would. Not well. “Firelord Izumi doesn’t know anything. I’m sure of it.” She shook her head, massaged her temples.
“I know what those attacks are,” she said quietly. “They’re from this group that creates combustionbenders. They attack the villages and kill the adults. The children, they take and train to be ‘weapons.’ Like Fuse called herself.”
“How… do you know this?” Mako narrowed his eyes. “Wait, is this a story Fuse told you? Because I’m not sure she’s trust–”
“Will you lay off of her!” Korra snapped, pounding the table again. She seemed to realize it was already taking a lot of abuse at her hands and leaned back a bit. “Look, I’m not saying that everything she’s done has been great. But I feel like you’re just looking… hoping, even, to discover she’s got some grand plot to destroy us all.”
“Why would I want someone to have a grand plot against us all?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Mako. Maybe because you’re afraid to let Bolin get involved with a girl again this soon after Opal?”
Bullseye. Not that Mako would say it, of course, but he was pretty sure the sentiment was written all over his face. “So what if I am? I’m his brother. I’m supposed to look out for him.”
Korra groaned. “Bolin’s his own person, Mako. I know you grew up protecting him, but you can’t do that forever. He’s an adult now.”
Mako’s whole body shook with her words. Ever since they’d lost their parents, Mako always felt like a substitute parent to Bolin. Responsible. The one who had to jump in and pulverize anyone who tried to hurt his little brother. But Korra was right. It wasn’t like that now. “I just… don’t want him to get hurt,” he finally said.
“Fuse won’t hurt him,” Korra said. “I know you haven’t gotten much chance to talk to her. I haven’t gotten nearly as much time as I would like. And maybe her and Bolin’s relationship is still destined for disaster. But I know she cares about him.”
Korra cleared her throat, looking guiltily at the floor. “Also, she didn’t give me that story about the kidnappers. Zaheer did.”
“Zaheer?!” Mako jumped up from his chair. His knee smacked the table in the process, almost knocking the whole setup over.
“Well, don’t yell at me!” Korra said, but Mako was far past following that request.
“Don’t yell at… Why would you contact Zaheer?”
“I was… I thought… arg!” Now Korra stood up. She actually did knock the little stool she’d been sitting on over, though the table stayed in place. “It’s hard to explain, but I… I was worried. I kept thinking about P’li’s escape and wondering if Lord Zuko… if he did all he could to prevent it.”
“What?” Mako had no idea how to take that. Out of all the people Korra would randomly decide to mistrust, Lord Zuko seemed the least likely target. “So… you thought he let the Red Lotus get away on purpose?” he asked. “Why would you think that?”
“Look, the point was, he didn’t,” Korra said. “And I’ve been feeling guilty about this all night. Zuko’s been nothing but supportive of me, and I still didn’t trust him.” She stared up at the ceiling. Mako glanced up, too, but if it was somehow bestowing some Avatar wisdom to Korra, he wasn’t privy to it. “I guess,” Korra slowly continued. “I guess all I’m saying is, don’t judge people based on outside information. Get to know them. Judge them for yourself. Does that make sense?”
Mako nodded. This was unusually insightful coming from Korra, and he wasn’t sure what other response to make to it. “I think I get what you’re saying,” he said. “But if Firelord Izumi doesn’t know about these attacks, then someone needs to tell her right away.”
“Good luck with that,” Korra said. “They’re planning to move on Sunport tomorrow. I barely caught a glimpse of her yesterday, and I’m the Avatar.”
“I’ll find a way,” Mako said, sounding way more confident then he felt. He glanced sheepishly at the ground. “But… while I’m waiting for that war meeting to end, I think I need to talk to Bolin.”