Izumi had once again changed out of her Firelord robes and back into commoner clothing. It did feel more comfortable, though of course, it meant more danger. As she pulled the crown from her head and carefully laid it on its stand in her room, she heard a light tapping. The door swung open without her visitor asking to enter, which meant it could only be one person.
“Hi, Dad,” she said.
Zuko smiled as he walked in. There was something in his left hand. A piece of paper, maybe? “Hello, there, Izumi. Going to scold me for being out of bed again?”
She shrugged. “Not this time. I have to save my energy if we’re going to make this plan work.” She pointed to the paper in his hand. “What is that?”
“Ah,” said Zuko as if he’d just now noticed it. “Well, while you were getting yourselves organized, I had a look through some old files of mine. I thought this might interest you.” He held the paper –an old photograph, as it turned out– up for Izumi to see. The edges were creased a bit, and she took it carefully so as not to make the damage any worse.
There were four people in the photo — one man, two women, and a child. One of the women was older, maybe in her early fifties or so. She had a scar on her face. Nothing like Zuko’s scar; it was long and thin, like it had been made by a blade. The younger woman was clearly the older one’s daughter; seeing them next to each other, it could have been a photo of some magic mirror that could look through time. The child was in the young woman’s arms. She looked to be about five, and also had a similar face to her mother and grandmother. She was reaching behind her to pet… was that a dragon?
In that moment, Izumi realized exactly what she was looking at.
“How…” Izumi stared in wonder at the photo. There was no doubt that it was Tenna reaching out to the dragon. Despite the fact that it had been almost two decades since the picture had been taken, she still had enough similarities not to be mistaken, especially around the eyes. “How did you…?” Izumi stuttered.
Zuko shrugged. “Us old people have our ways, now don’t we?”
I wouldn’t know, Izumi thought, carefully pushing her gray hair back over her shoulders. “Why don’t you be the one to give this to Tenna?” she asked. “Since you were the one who found it.”
“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Zuko. “I’m just a feeble old man, after all. Might drop it or something on the way. Or forget I even had it. Oh, look!” He stared at his hands as if he’d just now noticed their existence. “What was I holding just now? I don’t even remember.”
“Oh, stop it!” Izumi said, giving him a playful nudge on the shoulder. For all his seriousness in her childhood, Zuko always found a way be lighthearted around her when she became an adult. Zuko smiled and put his own hands on her shoulders. “Come back safely, my little firebird. I want to see my great-grandson with you at my side.”
She smiled and embraced him. “I’ll be back soon, Dad.” she whispered. “I promise.”
Korra was ready for action. More than ready, actually. All things considered, she’d displayed quite a bit of patience in this venture, if she did say so herself.
They went into the facility through one of the side entrances. The kitchen one, to be exact. It wasn’t the most remote exit, and certainly not the best option for their sneaking about, but Tenna said she knew this one best after working in the kitchens as long as she had. The lighting in the tunnel was terrible, though. Korra strained to see just a few steps in front of them, but all she could make out was–
What the heck?!
Korra suddenly realized that she was staring straight into the face of a small child. She came very near screaming out, “Why’s there a little kid here?” when she remembered that screaming would be a really bad thing right now. Meanwhile, the kid in question let out the smallest of squeaks and started to make a run for it. Tenna quickly stepped in, cutting off the child’s escape route and gently placing a hand over his mouth. Her finger pressed against her lips, not angry, but firm.
“Don’t. Scream,” she whispered. The boy (he couldn’t have been more than eight years old) looked around wide-eyed like screaming was exactly what he planned to do if only he could get this stranger’s hand off his mouth. But then his gaze fell to the tattoo on Tenna’s forehead. He studied her face a moment longer, confusion still in his eyes, but his body relaxed. He nodded, and Tenna slowly withdrew her hand.
“843,” the boy said with a tone of respect that Korra would expect from a sea slug vendor addressing Firelord Izumi. “How may I assist you?”
Tenna nodded back at him, as if approving his tone. The kid was trying very hard not to, but he couldn’t keep his confused gaze from flickering at Korra, not to mention at Bolin and Mako behind her. Korra didn’t even want to know what kind of panic it would have caused if Izumi was in view right now.
“The Avatar and these men have come to help our cause,” Tenna said calmly. “Where is Master Eagon?”
“In communications,” the boy replied immediately. “Awaiting word from Master Eli.”
“Very good. And what is the current inventory?”
Korra had no clue what that answer (or the original question) meant, but Tenna seemed fairly satisfied about it.
“Excellent,” she said. “I’ve just returned from the field with orders from Master. He instructed me to relay orders to all servants that they are to gather at safety point three until further notice. Go and deliver the message quickly.”
The boy made a deep bow. “Yes, Tier 1. As you order.” And with that, he scurried away down a whole different tunnel faster than a scared rat-viper.
“So…” said Bolin after the kid had disappeared into the shadows. “When you said ‘all servants’, you meant…”
“Anyone who’s not old enough or skilled enough to be a weapon.” She swallowed hard. “The children, in other words.”
Korra felt a bit ill. “So that ‘zero inventory’ thing?”
“Means there’s no recently-made weapons here. They’re all out in the field.” For just a moment, Tenna’s demeanor changed. Korra wouldn’t say she smiled per se, but her posture read relief.
“Well, nice plan to get the kids out,” she whispered, just to put a tiny bit of noise in the silence. “But are you sure he’ll believe you?”
“He wouldn’t have any reason not to,” Tenna replied. “Weapons aren’t trained to lie.” She hesitated, eyes darting between the path ahead of them and the path behind.
“Hey, you two mind doing me a favor?” she said. She was looking at Bolin only, so Korra wasn’t sure at first who the other person in “two” was. Then Mako stepped forward.
“Sure, what is it?”
Again, Tenna looked like she was debating about something. “Those kids… some of them might have only been here a few weeks. They might not know their way around or listen to directions. You should go and make sure they all get out safely.”
She’s trying to get rid of them, Korra realized. She wasn’t quite sure what Tenna expected to happen that she was fine involving Izumi and Korra in but not Bolin and Mako.
Because we’re going to have to interrogate this Jerkface Junior. She doesn’t want the soft-hearted guys to come.
Korra wasn’t sure if she should be happy or insulted that Tenna counted her as ruthless as the Firelord. She went with, let’s-think-about-that-another-time and watched as Bolin and Mako left.
Once they were gone, Tenna pointed down a different corridor, which was (surprise, surprise) as dark and foreboding as the one they’d just come through. “Now come on, we’ve got to move quickly if we want to get to communications on time.”
“What about this… Master Eagon?” Izumi asked from the back. “How can you be so sure he’ll give you the codes?”
Tenna started down the corridor and said without turning around, “You let me worry about him.”
There wasn’t much conversation after that. The strange trio walked in silence for several minutes — Tenna up front, Izumi behind her, Korra in the back.
Why does this place look so strange to me? Korra wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. No, actually, that wasn’t true. After everything she had seen, everything she had learned from Tenna so far, she had expected Eli’s torture facility to be more… well, torturous.
Instead, Tenna led her and Izumi up and out of the darkened entryway and through a large kitchen. From there, they emerged into an even bigger dining room with not a table, chair, or fork out of place. They went into an open, brightly-lit hallway with polished floors. As they continued down this hall, they passed by classrooms, training rooms, meditation rooms, even a library — each spotless and meticulously organized. Heck, even the air smelled antiseptic.
It’s almost too clean, if such a thing were possible. If Tenna was bothered, she didn’t show it. She moved with purpose down the familiar halls, like she was simply here to collect a forgotten item, not capture and interrogate another one of her former masters.
At the end of the hall, they came to the entrance for a stairway. Tenna pushed open the heavy door and they walked down two flights to another door. An oddly archaic-looking vault door made of heavy stone. Tenna felt along the wall, finding a concealed switch behind a loosened stone. The door ground its way open, revealing a dank pathway downward with spiraling stone steps.
Korra had an uneasy feeling now — the feeling she had expected to have at the start of this mission.
“The lover levels,” said Tenna, not looking back. Now Korra could hear the nervous tremor in her voice.
I can’t make her do this. She’s been hurt enough.
Korra couldn’t help but think of her own anxiety when she had been forced to face Zaheer. How, even after half a year of soul-searching, it had still been one of the hardest things she had ever done. Poor Tenna had barely had the time to cope physically for this task, let alone psychologically.
“You don’t have to do this,” Korra said. “Just tell me where communications is. I’m sure Izumi and I can make this guy Eagon talk.” She pounded her fist in her hand for emphasis.
Tenna looked back at her, then to Izumi, reading their expressions.
“Korra’s right,” Izumi said. “Between the two of us, we’re more than capable of handling him.” She sounded worried–and not just Firelord worried–more like mom-ish worried. It surprised Korra to see just how much Izumi had taken Tenna under her wing.
Tenna shook her head. “No,” she whispered, wiping beads of sweat from her brow. “No. I need to see this through. For P’li, and the others… and for me, too.”
They continued down the spiral stairs, which were barely lit by lantern light. The further they went, the more Korra became aware of an odd heaviness in the air. There was a musty smell, like the old, forgotten, corners of a library mixed with damp stone, and was it… blood?
They reached the bottom. There was a hallway like before, lit intermittently with flickering lanterns. Tenna felt her way along the wall, counting rooms as they went. Most were too dark to see into, but occasionally Korra glimpsed the metallic reflection of metal tables with restraints or cages. One room had a small hearth built into the wall with a few dying embers still glowing inside. Korra could see a set of chains hooked to the ceiling and metal tables lined with acupuncture needles and other instruments, including a sinister-looking branding iron.
“Is this where–” the question escaped before she could stop herself.
Tenna nodded quickly and pressed on. “We’re nearly there. Just one more room to go…”
Halfway through a darkened entrance, Tenna lurched back and gripped the doorframe where she stayed like a treed cat.
“What is it? What’s in there?” Korra slipped passed her, half-expecting Eagon to come leaping out from the shadows. But no one did.
“The cells–” Tenna’s voice quavered. She pressed her forehead into the doorframe, her entire body tensed. “Just– give me a moment–” she painted between quickened breaths.
Izumi rested a hand on her shoulder. When she spoke her voice was calm, firm, and riddled with guilt. “We don’t have a moment, Tenna.” She lifted down one of the hallway torches and started inside, using the light to scout out other lanterns and light them as well. The room was reinforced stone–combustion-proof, soundproof, escape-proof. Heavy metal grates were arranged in neat rows along the floor. Korra peered down into one and felt her stomach turn. The ‘cage’ stretched down at least nine feet into darkness. And it was as about as wide across as an average man’s shoulders. Sitting, sleeping, eating–she couldn’t imagine how any of theses things could be done comfortably.
Her eyes stung. For Tenna and the other combustionbenders. But also in fury at the people who had built this awful place. No way was she going to let them win. She forced her eyes away. There was a pair of heavy doors on the opposite wall.
“You said communications was through he–”
One of the doors flew open sending out a blast of air that flung her aside. Korra managed to catch her balance just before fell backwards into one of the cells.
She shot back two fireballs and a stone before she registered Izumi’s voice scolding.
“Korra, stop! We need him alive!”
The airbender took full advantage of her hesitation, deflecting the fire away with air blasts and nimbly dodging the rock.
“The Avatar?” he gasped when he got a good look at her face. “No, no you shouldn’t be here. Father would never allow… unless…”
An unseen force yanked the young airbender off his feet, making him yelp.
“Unless we defeated him?” Izumi stepped forward, one hand just slightly raised. Just enough to control the shocked airbender without giving away her bending stance.
“The Firelord? So it must be true. Father’s dead. He’s dead and now you’ve come to undo everything!” His eyes darted frantically like a frightened animal. “843!” he called when he noticed Tenna at the door. “843! Protect me!”
When Tenna didn’t respond to his command, his eyes widened. “Initiate failsafe: authorization code Black Sun.”
Tenna had relaxed her grip on the wall and was breathing better. Each second she delayed seemed to heighten Eagon’s voice an octave. “Did you hear me? I said black sun! Black sun! Black sun! Black sun!”
Korra cocked her fist and punched him across the face. Eagon gasped and sputtered as blood trickled out of his nose.
“You… you struck me!”
Korra shook out her hand. “Now that I have your attention, we’re here for the abort code for your father’s mission. Give it up and I’ll ‘try’ and convince Firelord Izumi to let you walk out of this building alive.”
“Abort code…” Eagon seemed to ponder the words. Then he laughed. It was a demented laugh, half crazed with fear. “So you don’t know it! Father’s plan can still succeed!”
Korra reached forward, gripping the front of his robe in her fist but that only made Eagon laugh harder.
“Go ahead! I’ll die before I let you destroy my father’s life’s work!”
“No.” Tenna spoke. Her voice was soft and dangerous and it sent a cold shiver down Korra’s back. “You’re not getting out of this that easy.” She motioned for them to follow. “Bring him.”
They followed Tenna’s lead back to the room with the hearth. Eli struggled as best he could the whole way, which wasn’t much. Mostly he just yelled threats and lectured them on how the Fire Nation was nothing but a bunch of murderers. Izumi shut him up after that, refusing to let his mouth move again until Korra metalbent the dangling shackles around his wrists and ankles.
“Just you wait! Soon your entire nation will burn–” Eagon cursed with equal parts fear and rage.
Tenna, meanwhile, moved about the little room plucking increasingly wicked-looking instruments from tables and putting them on a tray. Then she signaled to Korra to stoke the flames in the small hearth.
When Eagon saw this, something in his demeanor changed. “Wha… what are you doing?”
“Give us the code, Eagon.” Tenna growled. Her eyes burned with an entire childhood’s worth of rage. “I will not give another warning.”
Eagon swallowed. “Let me go, you worthless piece of scrap! I command you!”
Tenna picked up the branding iron, studying it for a second before placing it and several of the sharper instruments deep into the flames.
Eagon looked to Izumi. A hint of frenzy showing in his eyes along with his fear. “No! you can’t let her!”
“Why not? We Fire Nationers are all just a bunch of murderers. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes! N-no! I–”
Now his eyes fixed on Korra. “Avatar! Avatar, please! I’m one of the last of my people… think of the wisdom I can share! The culture–”
Korra made a fist and nearly struck him again. “Culture!” she spat. “If Aang were here, he’d be ashamed by what you’ve become!”
Tenna drew the hot iron from the flames and blew on it, making the tip glow a molten orange.
Eagon screamed and thrashed as she drew near. “No! N-no! Please!” he gasped as Tenna gripped his jaw and held it. Eagon looked at her with pleading eyes. “Please… he was my father. I didn’t have a choice–”
“Wrong!” Tenna jerked the iron forward, bringing it less then an inch from the tattooed arrow on Eagon’s head. “You could have chosen to protect your friend instead of branding me like a piece of meat! You could have chosen to stand up for what you wanted instead of cowering in your father’s shadow! For flame’s sake, Eagon! You could have chosen to do the right thing for once in your pathetic life!”
“…You’re right.” His whimper was barely audible. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”
Tenna threw the iron across the room shattering it against the far wall. “Then do it now! Give us the abort code!”
Eagon wept. Streams of tears ran down his face, mixing with the blood still oozing from his nose. “Second wind!” he wailed. “The code is ‘second wind’!”
“I’ll go to communications,” Izumi said and quickly left the room.
Tenna stepped away from the sobbing man, her face a blend of relief and nausea. Korra followed behind as she went back into the cells and stopped by one grate in particular.
“It’s finally over,” Tenna whispered, looking down into the darkness.
Korra gripped her shoulder. “You weren’t really going to hurt him, were you?”
Tenna shot her a look. “Of course not. Eagon was a child. He had no more choice in any of this then I did.” She sat on the heavy grate. Probably the closest she had ever come to it willingly. Korra sat beside her.
“Well, you almost had me fooled.”
Tenna smirked at that. “Just practicing for my new career.” She breathed out, inhaled, and breathed again. Each breath seemed to smooth some of the anxiety off her face. “Izumi told me she’s going to have troops waiting here when the other combustionbenders arrive. Hopefully many of them can be helped like I was.”
“And what about you?”
“Me?” Tenna sat back, then after a pause, she stood and brushed herself off. “I’m going to move on. And live my life.”