“Pike! Please, don’t go!” Fuse hated how frightened she sounded. Like the day she had first arrived. Part of her knew she was too old for that childishness. She was ten now. A forged weapon. Weapons didn’t show fear. Good weapons didn’t even feel fear.
Pike turned. “Fuse! What are you doing? You shouldn’t be here.”
She was right. It was well passed lights out. If any of the masters caught her sneaking about, she’d be whipped or thrown in the cells. Fuse had learned this lesson painfully well. Even still, she had to come. Pike was her overseer–her mentor. Perhaps her friend, even. The only one she had left in this place. And now she was being sent on assignment. Her last assignment if Master Eli had anything to say about it. He never completely trusted Pike.
Fuse gripped Pike’s wrist and held on. Pike’s eyes widened just a hair at her boldness–her defiance–but she did not lash out. Because Pike was defiant, too.
“Listen, Fuse. Master is sending me to serve a warlord. He knows it is a suicide mission. But,” her voice caught a bit, “I don’t want to die.”
Fuse swallowed. It was the first time she had ever seen real fear in her mentor’s eyes.
“You’re… going to break your contract?”
“I don’t know how, but I’m going to escape. And when I do, I promise I’ll find a way to destroy this place.”
Impossible. Unheard of. No weapons had ever dared such a thing. Fuse released her grip. Straightened. They held each others’ stares. Two kindred spirits fighting against the world.
“How can I help?” Fuse heard herself ask, oddly not as frightened now as she had been a moment ago. Pike gripped her shoulder.
Izumi stormed down the palace hallway. She had far too much to deal with right now. Korra, the great keeper of world balance, was acting like a spoiled child, her father was just going to reopen his wounds if he kept prancing around the palace like he did, huge numbers of her citizens were in danger, and the one person who might have the information on how to stop it was still unconscious.
She paused, leaned against the wall, and removed her glasses. Taking slow, deep breaths, she massaged her temples and tried to focus. There was nothing she could do to wake Tenna up faster. She needed to focus on what actions she could take now.
“Excuse me, your highness?” Surprised by the sudden voice, Izumi straightened and put her glasses back on. A servant stood beside her, a young woman wringing her hands like she was worried.
“Are you all right, your highness?” the servant asked. Izumi nodded, and the woman sighed with relief. “Pardon me for intruding,” she went on. “But our medics believe the young lady you brought in… the one named Nanami… that she is healthy enough to leave the palace. We were wondering where we should escort her.”
Nanami. Izumi had almost forgotten about her. Perhaps her powers could be useful in taking the combustion benders down. Not that she could open up a conversation on that sort of a note. The girl had already gone through quite enough.
Even so, with so many Fire Nation citizens in potential danger, it wasn’t an avenue she could easily close.
She found Nanami sitting on a padded bench just outside the medic’s quarters. The girl kept fingering her wrists and knuckles. It wasn’t until Izumi approached that she realized Nanami was shaking like a leaf and seemed to be trying, in vain, to hold her own body still.
“Hello,” Izumi said calmly. Nanami jumped a smile anyway. A bit of tension faded when she turned and saw who was addressing her, but not much.
“Your highness,” she said with a polite nod.
Izumi smiled and sat down next to her. Best to start off with something non-threatening. “I want to thank you for your help in our battle today,” she said quietly.
Nanami made a small smile, but did not look Izumi in the eye. “I appreciate that, your highness. But with all due respect, I think I’m ready to go home.”
Izumi frowned. This was not exactly how she wanted this conversation to go. “I completely understand. After everything you’ve been through the past few days, you must be pretty shaken up.”
Nanami laughed harshly at this. “Now there’s an understatement.” She glanced at Izumi for just a moment, and seemed to remember who she was speaking to. Then she was back to staring at her shaking hands, her voice low and even.
“I’m sorry,” she said, tucking a long piece of behind her ear. “It’s just that, I’m so good at putting up a brave front, people think I can handle anything. But the truth is, all I’ve wanted since Harmonic Convergence is live somewhere quiet. Somewhere safe. Where no one knows about this stupid power of mine.” She clenched her fists, the only thing that seemed to hold them still. Izumi’s heart stung for the girl and burned with frustration at the same time. Of course she wanted safety. Everyone wanted that. Didn’t she see how much the safety of others might depended on her right now?
“I’ll be happy to have my guards personally escort you home,” Izumi said. “Or anywhere you would like to go. But I have to ask first — we know that Eli and his airbenders are planning a massive attack on the Fire Nation. If you would be at all willing to come with us–”
Nanami furiously shook her head before Izumi was even halfway done her request.
“Please don’t ask me that. I protected your father, didn’t I? I got the boat to shore. I even helped your son gain the upper hand at Sunport. Haven’t I done enough?”
“I…” Izumi’s words caught in her throat. What was she going to do? Tie the poor girl up and drag her along? Treat her like a weapon? It wasn’t an option. No matter how useful Nanami would have been, Izumi would have to find a way to go on without her.
“Yes,” she said. “You’ve done enough. And thank you.” And with that, she rose and summoned the guards to take Nanami home.
Stay alive. P’li’s voice echoed pulling Tenna from sleep gasping. She was tucked in a clean bed in a quiet room–her room, as she recalled. It was hard to move. She felt like she had been trampled by a komodo rhino–no, a whole herd of komodo rhinos. She sat up slowly, aware of a tightness in her side. Not painful, but not normal either. Tenna pulled the covers away and lifted the satin nightgown to get a better look. She drew a sharp breath. Stretching diagonally from navel to ribs was a slender silver scar. She inspected it with her fingers, tracing the wound path. Combined with the internal bleeding that her fatigue hinted at…
The wound should have been fatal. She shuddered deeply. What had happened before Eli’s ship came crashing down? Most of that battle was still a blur in her head. Though considering she had nearly died, Tenna wasn’t exactly in a hurry to remember it.
She rose on wobbly legs and dressed. Griff’s wife Kira had made her new clothes–a sleeveless crimson tunic top laced in the front, black slacks, and sturdy boots embossed with the Fire Nation insignia in gold. Tenna lost her balance trying to pull on her footwear and staggered into her end table yelping. A glass of water trunked noisily to the carpet.
Her door flew open, making her startle back and bang the dresser again, knocking over a decorative vase of flowers sent by Griff.
“Flames, Bolin, you scared me.” She hastily scooped up the mess on the floor. Bolin said nothing. That wasn’t like him. His eyes were damp and puffy. He looked on the verge of crying.
“It’s just…” His voice cracked. “It’s just so good to see you.”
He came over and enfolded her in his arms and she embraced him back, savoring his warmth. He leaned his head down and rested his forehead gently against hers. “I love you, Tenna. I almost didn’t get to tell you. I love you.”
Tenna felt her eyes sting. She buried her face in his neck. “I love you too, Bolin.”
Tenna wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way. Minutes? Hours? And she didn’t care. Not until she heard a light knocking and opened her eyes to see Mako peeking in just around the doorframe.
“Glad to see you’re finally awake,” he said.
Odd, he actually seemed to mean that. Or maybe she was still a little delirious. She pulled out of Bolin’s embrace and raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yeah.” He stepped inside, cleared his throat, and rubbed his hair. Then he tried to start again. “So, listen, Tenna. I… I owe you an apology. It’s obvious you and Bolin love each other, and I shouldn’t have tried to force you apart.”
Bolin cocked his head. “Wait, you tried to what?”
If Mako looked ashamed before, he was double now. “I’m sorry, bro. I thought I was protecting you. But I see now that I was wrong. You’re old enough to make your own choices.” He glanced Tenna’s way again. “I just got so caught up in your past, I didn’t want to see the person you are now. Considering what Bolin and I went through as kids, I, of all people, had no right to do that.”
He trailed, waiting for a response. Tenna stayed quiet, if only to watch him squirm just a little longer.
“Soo…” he took his hand from his hair and extended it cautiously. “How about it? Can we start over?”
Of course, you blasted fool. She did not say this. Someone had to keep Mako on his toes.
After an appropriately long moment, she shook his hand. “I suppose I can forgive you.” And here she finally humored him with a small smile. “Especially now that Bolin and I are…” she had to think a second, not actually knowing the proper term. ” …more than friends?” she questioned.
Bolin rubbed his hair, blushing all the way down to his collarbones. “The word you’re looking for is ‘boyfriend.'”
“Oh. Right.” She sighed.
Odd. She should have felt completely at ease. She was alive and safe. She had made peace with Mako, had a promising future in the movers, and had a boyfriend who loved her as much as she loved him. And she had defeated Master. He could never hurt another innocent Fire Nationer again.
Only… he could. Eli had taught the technique of ‘weapon’ forging to his son, Eagon. And he had a plan to unleash his weapons across the nation. Flames, had he actually executed that plan? She hated to ask. Almost didn’t want to, knowing drudging up her past would shatter the frail peace she had finally found. But if she didn’t… more innocent people would die, and the Fire Nation would burn just like her home.
“Mako,” she finally found her voice. “What happened to the other combustionbenders?”
Mako looked uneasy again. Not a good sign. “We… don’t know. Firelord Izumi’s called a meeting with General Iroh, Lord Zuko, and Korra but we were sorta hoping you’d have information on that.”
Tenna sank down on her bed feeling sick inside.
“I don’t know how much help I’ll be. Eli didn’t make a habit of sharing sensitive information with his tools. I lived in his facility almost my entire life, and I don’t even know where it is.”
“Oh,” said Mako, a bit more hopeful. “Don’t worry about that. Korra knows.”
Tenna felt her jaw slacken.
“Wait…what?” Bolin piped up. “How the heck does Korra know?”
Mako looked embarrassed, like he was just now realizing that, perhaps, he should have shared this information earlier. “Um… Zaheer told her.”
“Zaheer!” Bolin gasped. “Why would–When–Okay, now I’m just confused.”
Zaheer? Why did she know that name? “Wait, the freedom fighter P’li ran off with?”
“He wasn’t exactly a freedom fighter,” Bolin corrected. “More like a terrorist. He killed the Earth Queen and tried to do the same to Korra.”
“Oh.” Tenna wasn’t sure what else to say. P’li always did have her own way of doing things. Not that that justified going around murdering world leaders or the Avatar. Wasn’t killing people the whole reason she had tried to escape her contract?
Tenna shook her head. None of that mattered now. Bad choices aside, P’li had kept her promise. She had found a way to destroy the facility. And that way was Tenna.
“Well, I can’t say much for Zaheer, but P’li trusted him. And I trust her judgment. At least in this.” She stood. Took a breath. Then looked resolutely at the two brothers. “Well, we better not keep Izumi and the others waiting.”
The tea that was brought in was only the finest the Fire Nation had to offer. Naturally, it was a brew invented by her son’s namesake.
Izumi had taken down the location information that Korra had offered and promised that she would arrive at a decision on what to do with that information after a careful and detailed discussion with Tenna. She was unsure at first how soon this would be possible, given the extent of Tenna’s injuries. As it turned out, however, Korra was as skilled a healer as she had bragged and although Tenna certainly didn’t look in the best of shape, she was up and about and certainly eager to talk.
“Well, first things first,” Izumi said. Her father had insisted on pouring the tea, and she felt awkward speaking as he did it. Steam and the scent of peppermint tickled her nostrils. Around the table sat Iroh, Tenna, Korra, Bolin, and Mako. Zuko served each of them before taking his own place at his daughter’s side. She cleared her throat. “Now, we all heard Eli’s threat to unleash his combustionbenders on the Fire Nation. Now we need to determine that threat’s merit. How many combustionbenders are there exactly?” She turned to Tenna.
“I was the last successful survivor,” Tenna replied. “So… eight hundred forty-three. Minus Mortar.” She swallowed hard. “And P’li.”
Izumi felt a ping of sympathy for Tenna, but at the same time, a fierce anger burned in her chest. Her son got the words out before she did.
“So you’re telling us that at this moment that there are eight hundred forty-one combustionbending assassins out there just waiting to attack innocent citizens?”
His words hurt. Izumi saw Tenna flinch as she tried to keep her cool. “No. I’m telling you there are eight hundred and forty-one abused Fire Nation citizens out there that will have no choice but to attack unless we do something.”
Iroh sighed and leaned back in his chair. “All right, then. What do you suggest exactly? Send out my entire army to go hunting for these people who have been specifically trained not to be found?”
“It would be better plan than just sitting here,” Korra snapped.
Izumi groaned inwardly and took a long, slow drink of her tea, even though it was still too hot and burned her tongue. She hadn’t expected the Avatar to keep quiet the whole time, but a few moments without childish outbursts would have been welcome.
And, of course, her son played right into them. “In case you haven’t noticed, my men are still trying to clean up the mess at Sunport.”
“And in case you haven’t noticed,” said Korra, pounding the table, “none of that will matter if the place gets blown to pieces again!” She winced and turned to Tenna. “Sorry. No offense.”
“None taken,” Tenna said with a shrug.
“Well, what about Korra’s plan to destroy the facility?” Bolin piped up. Now Izumi was listening. The earthbender had offered some crazy ideas before, but they had an oddly high success rate. “Jerkface–I mean, Eli–was supposed to give the order for the attack,” Bolin went on. “But he’s dead now. With him gone and the place destroyed, maybe the combustionbenders will try to live normal lives?”
Izumi shook her head. So much for the boy concocting another brilliant scheme. She’d have to settle for admiring his eternal optimism.
Tenna reached over, sympathy now in her face, and patted Bolin’s hand. “It’s not so easy,” she said. “These air nomads have taken over eighty years and four generations to perfect this plan. They won’t just give it up, especially now that they’re so close to succeeding.” The word “succeeding” for the atrocities that were about to happen seemed to shake her a bit, as it did Izumi. Tenna recovered quickly enough and continued, “As soon as word gets out that their leader is dead, the new one will just pick up right were he left off. If the combustionbenders were told to standby until a battle order is given, they’ll wait as long as necessary. It’s what we were trained to do. Obey orders without question…regardless of personal risk.”
Izumi sighed and placed the teacup on her plate. She looked to her father, but even his usual determination and optimism had drained from his face. She tried to calculate how many troops they could spare from Sunport to start running around the entire Fire Nation trying to find these combustionbenders. And if even one of them eluded her, the consequences of that–
“It’s a shame we can’t just order them to stop.”
It was Mako who had spoken. The buzz of thoughts in Izumi’s mind went suddenly quiet as she stared at him, awestruck by the sheer obviousness of his suggestion. The rest of the table seemed to be doing the same.
“What did you just…?” It can’t be that easy. Can we really do something like that? She stared at Tenna now, the only one who seemed to be capable of formulating a response to Mako’s suggestion.
“Can’t believe I didn’t… the abort code. Mako, you’re a genius!”
“I am?” Mako seemed caught between flattered and disbelief.
Now the spell of silence was broken and everyone wanted to talk at once.
“Wait, what code?” asked Korra.
“Are you saying there’s a way to stop this?” demanded Iroh.
“Can I be a genius too?” Bolin wanted to know.
“Enough!” Izumi slammed her hand onto the table, quickly calling the meeting back to order. She nodded at Tenna to continue.
Tenna took a long, slow breath. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. Eli had a code system he used to communicate with us in the field. In case a mission was changed. If a mission was canceled or if we failed, our protocol was to return to the facility as soon as possible using whatever means necessary. That’s why I tried to escape so hard the first time, even with my injuries.”
“And you know the code that will cancel the attack?” Izumi asked. She tried to keep her voice calm, even though her whole body tightened with anticipation. She felt her stomach sink as Tenna shook her head.
“Only Eli and the other airbenders knew the codes, and they were changed for every mission. We were never told them until right before shipping.” She cleared a nervous tremor from her throat. “They were neutral phrases. Simple things that wouldn’t seem out of place in a messenger hawk pouch or in a newspaper.”
“Or broadcasted from a radio tower,” Mako added on.
The room fell suddenly quiet again. A radio tower. Of course. Mako’s ability to see the obvious through the chaos really did seem borderline genius, as much as Izumi hated to admit it.
“I can grant you access to the radio towers easily enough,” she said. “But we need to find another airbender. One who also knows Eli’s abort code for this mission.”
“And we need to make him talk,” Korra added on. She looked especially pleased at this idea, even going so far as to pound her fist into her open palm. Izumi had to wonder if any evil airbenders Korra got her hands on would speak up or simply be left unconscious.
“No worries there,” said Tenna as she stood up from the table. “I know just the one.”