Korra went straight for her room. Her training with Izumi had ended early; apparently the Firelord had some important royal meeting to attend. Which meant that it was time for Korra to talk to Zaheer again. She figured if she harassed him enough times, he would eventually give her the information she wanted. And besides that, she had a brilliant new tactic she planned to try out today. She was going to be honest.
“Well, hello again, Korra,” said Zaheer when she found him under the tree.
Korra crossed her arms. “Fine. You were right last time, okay? I do want to know about P’li’s escape. How did Sokka, Zuko, Tenzin, and my father manage to subdue your group once and fail to do it that time?”
Zaheer shrugged. “There could be a number of reasons for that. Tenzin wasn’t able to arrive fast enough. Chief Sokka was obviously not at the second battle. I knew airbending.”
Korra’s hands tightened into fists. It was a sorry shame that punching someone’s face in the spirit world didn’t actually do anything.
“All right, I’m going to offer you an exchange, Korra.” He said it like some shifty merchant, the kind that put a bunch of fresh-looking cabbages at the top of a crate, only to hide layers of rot underneath. “I know what information you’ve been looking for, and I’m going to give it to you. Then I’m going to give you a second piece of information. You’re going to use this information to go on a specific mission.”
“Um, pretty sure that depends on what your ‘specific mission’ is,” Korra retorted, making quote marks in the air.
Zaheer laughed at her. It was infuriating. “Fair enough. All right then, after I tell you what you want to know, I’m going to tell you where you can find the combustionbender’s training facility. You’re going to go in there, and you’re going to destroy it.”
So that was it. Korra’s hands balled into fists. “I’m not killing anyone for you, Zaheer.”
“Did I say kill? You added that word, not me. I said destroy. I want it leveled. Decimated. I don’t want a hope of it ever being rebuilt.”
Korra nodded, and her fists unclenched. For a brief moment, Zaheer looked human to her. She saw a pain in his face as even he couldn’t shake the memories that were coming to him now.
“You planned to go after this place yourself, didn’t you?” Korra asked quietly.
Zaheer nodded. “I rescued P’li and re-taught her everything that should have been as basic as breathing. That she wasn’t an object, but a human being. Very few others like her had anyone to give them that lesson.” He narrowed his eyes. “So, congratulations, Korra. Your team of heroes that protected you from the Red Lotus allowed thirteen more years of suffering for countless innocent firebenders.”
“None of them knew!” Korra shot back. “If any of them had any idea that place was there–”
“Your naïveté would be cute if it didn’t hurt others. Lord Zuko was well aware the place existed. He used a weapon once, did you know that? He’s never been afraid to use any method to achieve his means, no matter how ruthless. Including bloodbending.”
Korra gasped. Zaheer rolled his eyes. “Yes, Korra, in my first battle with Zuko, he did use bloodbending on all four of us. It was, as far as I could tell, the first time he’d revealed it to both Tenzin and your father.” Zaheer exhaled slowly, allowing the memories of that battle to flow back to him. Like waves of water. Or drifts of snow.
The cold air of the Southern Water Tribe tundra whipped around Zaheer and his allies, but his body dripped with sweat all the same. His grin spread wide, making the cold air sting his exposed teeth. But he couldn’t stop smiling. He had them cornered. After a long and difficult battle, he finally had them cornered. Firelord Zuko, Water Chief Sokka, the Avatar’s father Tonraq, and the new leader of the Air Nation, Tenzin. Once they were taken care of, he’d have the young Avatar in his custody, her young mind ready to be molded to the truth of the Red Lotus. The helpless world leaders were trapped on a patch of thawed ground, surrounded by a small moat of Gazan’s lava. Next to Gazan, Ming-Hua threatened anyone who tried to move with one of her water whips, while P’li made her stand from a ledge above the whole group, readying one of her blasts if someone managed to escape.
To knock out, not to kill. She’d never kill again, she’d assured him. She’d defend him until her own death, but she’d never kill for him. Any blood would be on his own hands. He was okay with that.
He was about to signal Gazan to widen the lava, to shrink the area his enemies had to stand on. Then he noticed two of them muttering to each other. He narrowed his eyes, straining to hear them over the wind.
“…no other choice, it seems,” Zuko was saying.
Sokka smiled. “Sorry, old friend. I did my best.”
“It’s been seventy years. You did all right. Don’t tell your sister about this.”
Zaheer’s smile vanished at once. They were planning something. He didn’t know what it was, but he had to move fast. He started to call to Gazan, to order him to let the lava swallow their captives. But suddenly, his voice failed him. He strained to shout again and again, but no sound came out. Was this some trick? Zaheer tried to raise his hand to signal Gazan, but his hand wouldn’t move either. It was as if he’d become frozen in place, and no matter how much his mind screamed at his voice and body, they refused to obey.
Bloodbending, he realized. His heartbeat sped up; he could feel it pounding in his ears. His muscles did not tighten in pain, as he’d heard bloodbending could do, but they refused to move all the same.
He had control of his eyes, still, and he looked up, desperate to see which of the leaders could possess such a power. Sokka or Tonraq, of course, since they were of the Water Tribe. But Tonraq looked shocked, searching around like he had no idea why his oppressors had backed down, why the lava around them was cooling.
Zaheer tried to look further up to catch sight of P’li, but he would need to lift his neck to see her, and that he couldn’t do now.
Get away, he wanted to scream at her. Save yourself and get away!
Sokka led the way across the cooled lava. He didn’t seem to be bending. Didn’t seem to be doing anything other than talking. Tonraq and Tenzin backed away from Sokka and Zuko with wide eyes and frightened expressions.
“What… what is this?” Tenzin was stuttering. He sounded like a confused child.
“Bloodbending,” Tonraq said coldly. “Chief Sokka, you had better have a good explanation for this!”
It wasn’t Sokka. Zaheer watched the water chief for any signs of bending, but there were none. He did notice Zuko’s stance, though. Hands open, palms upwards. It was easy for an untrained eye to miss. But Zaheer had P’li on his side. She didn’t let him miss things like that.
“Leave Sokka alone,” Zuko said. His voice did not shake; this was no effort at all. “And for heaven’s sake, call the white lotus members to restrain these criminals. I can’t hold them forever. And you up there!” He looked straight up. He’d seen P’li. “Get down here with your friends, or I promise, there will be consequences.”
Zaheer heard rustling, but couldn’t move. She would run. She had to run. She wouldn’t be foolish enough to stay behind for him.
“Let them go!” P’li’s voice called out. “Do it now or I shoot you!”
“Is that so?” Zuko asked. Zaheer felt his body yanked backwards. Like he was falling sideways. Then it stopped, as if he had rammed into an invisible wall. The nearby grunts of pain from Ming-Hua and Ghazan let him know the same thing had happened to them. All three were pressed against each other now. And the trio of them were right next to Zuko.
“Go ahead then, shoot me!” Zuko yelled. “Or get down here. But if you try to run, I will kill all three of them!”
Zaheer didn’t doubt it for a second. Someone who had so little concern for seizing control of a person’s body would have no qualms about ending a life. He heard P’li’s voice shake with her reply.
No, he’s not, Zaheer thought. You’re the one who’s refused to kill. You’re the one who’s bluffing.
Zuko let out a laugh. “I am the son of Ozai, the man who nearly destroyed two nations in his quest for power. And you think I’d hesitate to murder a single man to protect myself and the Avatar?” He motioned with his hand. Zaheer collapsed onto his knees. He felt his vocal chords vibrating, only he wasn’t the one controlling them. Against his will, his voice let out a cry as if in horrific pain. His hand moved up to clutch his chest. Only, the whole time, there was no pain. His chest was fine. The Firelord didn’t plan to hurt him, only to give the illusion of pain. But it was a powerful illusion. And it made P’li hesitate. She didn’t notice when Chief Sokka aimed his boomerang at her hand, the hand keeping her grip on the cliffside. Sokka’s blow struck home, and P’li cried out as she lost her balace. She started falling into Zaheer’s view, and this time, his chest really did feel as if it would explode. He was about to watch her die, to break her neck on the hard ground–
But then she stopped. Her body floated inches above the ground, her eyes closed.
There was some muttering from Tenzin. Zaheer wanted to cry out to her. Just to call her name. But still, he couldn’t move.
“It’s all right; she’s only fainted,” Zuko said. His fingers twitched, and P’li was lowered safely to the ground.
“I’ve signaled for the White Lotus,” Tenzin announced. “They’ll be here soon.” He looked over Zaheer’s fallen group. “Are you going to explain any of this, Firelord Zuko?”
“Ask your mother,” Zuko said. “She’ll explain it all, I’m sure.”
Back in the present, in the spirit world, Zaheer pulled himself from his memories. It wasn’t much of an escape. His body now was still the same as it had been back then. A whole world out there, and he was trapped.
“Satisfied now, Korra?” he asked. “Tonraq and Tenzin swore to keep Zuko’s secret, of course. And who was I or anyone else going to tell? We were being sent off to isolated prisons. And besides that, we were all a bunch of raving lunatics. Who would believe us?” He grinned. “As for our second battle, do you really think any of us would be so foolish as to get within range of a known bloodbender? Ghazan battled Zuko from a safe distance. I believe he prevailed using an ancient technique known as hit your enemy with a rock.” Zaheer smiled, but Korra did not find any amusement in the joke. “Well, now, I believe I’ve fulfill my end of our little bargain. Time for you to fulfill yours.”
“I’ll fulfill it when I’m good and ready,” Korra retorted. Zaheer didn’t argue with her. She sounded ridiculous, and they both knew it. Because she was going to do exactly what Zaheer had asked of her. As the Avatar, as Fuse’s friend, there was no way she could do anything less.
“Now then,” Izumi said, directing the attention of everyone in the war room to a large map nailed to the wall. The map showed the city of Sunport at its center with about a fifty mile radius around it. Izumi pointed at the middle of the map, feeling a bit like a schoolteacher. Her audience certainly acted like students. One of lieutenants even covered a yawn.
“As you can see,” she went on. “Sunport is located in a vital position so close to the water. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that Ember Island might be these ruffians’ next target. If you’ll look at the reports in front of you,” here she specifically motioned to the lieutenant who’d been yawning, “you will see that our latest findings do not seem to show any intention of expansion. While this is positive news on its surface, I think we have to question why this gang would not seek to increase its hold.”
A woman clad in sergeant’s attire raised her hand. Izumi nodded for her to speak. “Do we have any way to get some insider information about what they’re doing there?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Izumi said. “But I believe we may be able to get some spies into the area to gather such information. And possibly even seek out a route to evacuate the innocent civilians before we plan a full-out attack.”
“There’s no way you’d be able to evacuate a whole town and not have the people who’ve taken over the town notice.” That was Iroh’s voice. She didn’t have to look up to know that. He stood at the back of the room, arms crossed, surveying everyone in front of him. Several of his underlings turned to look at their leaders, while others simply nodded their heads in approval.
“I believe we should assess the situation first,” Izumi said. “Or need I remind you, General, that this is not the United Republic. I make the final decisions here.”
“No reminders necessary, your highness.”
Izumi winced. She hated when her son called her that. She was pretty sure he knew it, too. “Then it’s settled,” she said. “We will send spies to see if there is anyway to get civilians out first. When that report returns, we will plan our next move. Dismissed.”
There was some general muttering as the sea of red uniforms began to ebb from the room. Izumi felt more than a little uncomfortable as she watched them leave. In the back of her mind, she couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps she did have some insider information she was simply not aware of. Fuse had been working for the very people they were now trying to take down.
Of course, Izumi had seen the way the combustion bender had reacted when reminded of even a bit of her past — she’d almost murdered the Avatar right in the Fire Nation palace. And besides that, Izumi had asked her some basic questions already. Their enemy seemed to have done a pretty thorough job of keeping Fuse ignorant of their plans. That was a closed door, and trying to pry it open anyway was only going to cause more pain.
Izumi pushed a piece of graying hair out her face. She couldn’t be completely down. She had expected the meeting to go on much longer than it had, giving her a bit of open time. Time enough, perhaps, to try riding a dragon.