“Bloodbending is largely a matter of keeping the body under your influence moving.” Zuko had not been joking about starting their lessons right away. Korra was out of bed now, sitting in chair identical to Zuko’s, the two of them facing each other in the center of the room. Other than that, though, nothing had changed.
Zuko held his hand open and created a small flame. It danced between his fingertips. Korra reached out a shaky hand and she could feel its warmth. Zuko lowered the flame into her waiting fingers gently, like someone passing over a baby hamster seal for her to hold. She cradled it.
“You must maintain a certain amount of firebending to keep the flame lit,” he explained. “The same holds true for bloodbending. Drop your concentration and you could do some serious damage.” He waved his hand and the warm flame vanished from between Korra’s fingers. All that remained was a puff of smoke.
“Got it. Don’t think about other stuff too much. I can handle that,” she said.
Zuko nodded. “My… last student hated these sorts of analogies. She wasn’t a firebender, so she said they did nothing but confuse her.”
Korra shrugged. She wanted to know who his last student was, how many students he’d had exactly, but decided not to ask. “Well, you’ve got an advantage teaching the Avatar, then,” she said. “What’s next?”
Zuko turned out to be not that different from many of her other teachers. Namely, he was fond of talking about the theory of something long before he let her have any real experience with it. He gave incredibly long and inane lectures about the structure of the human body. Within a couple days, Korra had memorized the names of more muscle groups than she knew pro-bending teams.
“When you’re aiming to defend yourself, focus on the leg muscles and arm muscles,” Zuko told her during one lesson. “It will stop your opponent from bending and it’s far easier than trying to focus on the entire body.”
“If that’s true, then why teach me all this other stuff?” Korra asked. She was feeling particularly annoyed that day. Zuko had scolded her for forgetting where the soleus muscle was and Bolin had been worrying in his last letter if she had moved to Air Temple Island without telling anyone. She really needed to write him back on that.
Zuko narrowed his eyes at her. “You need to know exactly what you’re holding in your hands when you use this technique,” he said sharply. Then he shook his head. She knew that look. Tenzin gave it to her all the time, especially when they were doing meditation exercises. It was the look that said, “Korra is completely hopeless and will never get this right.” Usually it only made her more determined to try again, but in this case, it felt like a crushing blow. She could only take so much failure.
Zuko’s eyes softened. “Perhaps my point would be better made with a demonstration,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I’d like you to attempt to hold your breath.”
“‘Attempt?'” Korra asked. She knew she’d been failing a lot lately, but at least that seemed doable.
Zuko nodded. “With your permission, I am going to make your lungs move against your attempts. Is that acceptable to you?”
Korra felt a cold sweat form over her, but nodded anyway. “Y-yes. That’s acceptable.” She then did as Zuko had asked, took a long breath, and held it. Or tried to, anyway. As soon as she tightened the muscles in her lungs, she felt them instantly relax. The breath came out as a slow, relaxing exhale that would have let her pass any of Tenzin’s breathing exercises with ease. Her lungs filled with air and exhaled slowly once more before she found she could control the muscles as normal again.
“You’ve mastered firebending,” Zuko said. “You know how dangerous it is, how quickly it can get out of control. This is so much more. You cradle a person’s very life when you use bloodbending. Never forget that.”
Over the next few weeks, Zuko finally began to let Korra attempt some actual bloodbending. It was much more work than she thought, like going to pick up a hand weight that looked so small and easy only to find out it weighed as much as an polar bear dog.
“And you do this every day?” Korra asked when she’d failed to keep her arm aloft for more than a few seconds. It had been very tempting just to lift the arm with her own muscles, but somehow she had a feeling that wouldn’t help her train and Zuko would probably notice.
“Well, I was rather pathetic at it to begin with,” Zuko said with a laugh. “Katara and Mai had to walk me through my coronation. A bit embarrassing in retrospect, I suppose, but I really was doing the best I could at the time.”
“‘Mai?'” Korra asked. “Who’s that?”
Zuko stopped smiling for a moment and gazed into the distance, looking every bit of his ninety years. “Izumi’s mother,” he clarified quietly. “She died quite young. The history books tend not to mention her.”
“I’m so sorry,” Korra said quickly and went back to practice.
“Now… picture yourself walking towards Naga.”
Korra gripped the bars at either side of her, feeling the metal press into her skin, so tight it could have been grinding into her palm for all she knew. Katara’s voice was soft and patient as always. Korra mostly ignored the words and focused on the tone, picturing the reassurances like a soft gentle music behind her.
She had this. She was sure of it. Every day that she practiced with Zuko, she felt her confidence creeping back into her. She’d even taken a few steps on her own. Of course, that had largely been because she’d been using bloodbending to assist her, so in her mind, it didn’t quite count. Not yet, anyway.
But today was the day. Today she’d finally take those steps on her own. She imagined Katara’s proud face, the look of happiness on her mother and father’s faces as well. And she imagined Naga. Warm, soft Naga, waiting loyally for her at the end of this short walk. Just a few more steps. It didn’t matter that each of them felt like they were attached to something twice her weight. Just a few more steps…
Her foot slipped. It had slipped in practice with Zuko many times before, and she’d always caught herself. The trouble was the method she used to catch herself. Without giving a second thought as to where she was, Korra motioned with her hand. Her foot steadied itself and she kept walking. At last, Korra felt the knob at the end of each bar and opened her eyes. There was Naga, panting happily. For a second, for the briefest most wonderful second, Korra felt all her frustrations so far vanish, her arms and legs felt their normal weight again as she fell onto Naga’s furry chest. The polar bear dog nuzzled her.
Then the happy moment faded. “You caught yourself,” Katara observed. She did not sound happy.
“Yeah, isn’t that a good thing?” Korra asked, turning to face her teacher. Maybe she walked perfectly on her own, but she’d gotten most of the way there. Please don’t take this victory away from me, she thought. I need it more than ever right now.
“What have you and Zuko been talking about when he visits?” Katara said sharply.
“He tells me what’s going on in the world. The guy’s been practically everywhere.”
“Korra, I might not have seismic sensing, but I can tell when you’re lying. Zuko taught you bloodbending, didn’t he?”
“Only a little,” Korra retorted, and of course, immediately regretted it.
Katara’s face hardened. “I don’t blame you for wanting a shortcut, Korra. But there’s nothing good that can come of learning that awful technique. Zuko knows that. He shouldn’t have even mentioned it to you, let alone given you lessons.”
“I asked him for those lessons!” Korra snapped. It was getting hard to stand now; her legs felt shaky. Still, she leaned on Naga and kept on her feet. “And obviously some good can come from it, because Zuko uses it all the time.”
She thought it was a pretty good argument, but Katara seemed to disagree. “Zuko uses bloodbending because he needs to. It’s not the same–”
“Maybe that’s what I need, too!” Korra snapped. “I don’t understand you at all, Katara! I finally walked across a room today, and you’re acting like I did something wrong.”
Katara shook her head sadly. “Listen to me. I believe that the best possible solution is the one that gets you moving as much as you can on your own, without the need for any bloodbending at all. The second Zuko can’t bend, he collapses. Is that what you want?”
“When could he not bend?” Korra asked. She could think of times when waterbending would be weakened, but no time when it would vanish completely. Katara winced a bit, as if she’d said something she really hadn’t meant to.
“Never mind,” she said. At least, she walked over and brought Korra’s wheelchair to her. Korra tried to make it look like she could’ve gone without it, but relief surged through her quivering muscles as she sat down. “I’ll be frank,” Katara said quietly. “I understand your reasoning, and I don’t hold it against you. But I won’t have that power used here. If you plan to bloodbend again, you’ll have to finish the recovery process on your own. I’m also going to make sure Zuko heads back to the Fire Nation as soon as possible.”
“What?” Korra was totally on board with everything Katara was saying right up until that last line. “Katara, it’s not Zuko’s fault. I asked him to. He didn’t even want to tell me any–”
“It’s not up for discussion,” Katara said. Korra grunted in response and wheeled herself out of the room.