Zuko had a few theories about the limits of voidbending. He’d never had the chance to test any of them, but he supposed now was as a good time as any.
His captors were strategic about their hostage-keeping, at any rate. He and Nanami were both kept bound onto the mast of a ship, which was perfectly positioned in the middle of the Ember Island Bay. If the Avatar or the Fire Nation army made any moves, they would be well aware of it. And so would the dozen guards on duty guarding Zuko and Nanami right at this moment. Zuko tried to glance behind him. The poor girl was still gagged and pulled against the ropes now and again. She had to be exhausted.
Huh… exhausted. I wonder how voidbending works if the bender is asleep…
Just then one of the guards approached Zuko holding another gag. Zuko had very few resources at the moment, and he was not at all anxious to have another strike against him. He had, thankfully, picked up a few tricks from Uncle Iroh in his youth.
He craned his neck as if trying to struggle against the ropes and put on the most pathetic feeble old man expression he could muster. “Must you use that?” he asked in a raspy voice.
“Sorry. Orders,” the guard replied. Not unkindly. There seemed like there might be some genuine regret in his voice. Zuko could definitely use that. He made a hacking cough for good measure.
“Young man, I’m ninety-one years old. I can’t move a muscle right now, and with this flu I’ve been fighting, I’m barely able to get my voice above a whisper. You’re healthy, armed, and you could have a small army over here with a single call. You think I’m going to harm you somehow?”
The guard stepped back, looked down at the gag, then back at Zuko, and seemed to consider just how ridiculous his precautions were. A little hesitation was all Zuko needed.
“You seem like the ambitious type,” Zuko went on. “Yes, I can see it in your eyes. High rank in this operation, am I right?”
He wasn’t. The guard probably ranked slightly above the people in charge of cleaning the ship. But as Zuko predicted, he straightened like he was second-in-command. “High enough,” he said.
“Ah. Then I’m sure your leader shared with you why being near a voidbender has such a profound effect on me.”
The young man’s face fell. “He… didn’t exactly explain that, no.”
This disappointed Zuko. If his secret wasn’t out, he preferred to keep it that way. But he didn’t see too many options and if his plan worked, he’d be revealing his powers eventually, anyway. “Really? Well, you’re intelligent. Work it out. What sort of bending affects the body?”
“Um…” The guard glanced down at his own hands. “Bloodbending?”
“There’s a smart young man. I knew it. See, that’s why your boss values you. Yes, I’m a bloodbender. And I’ve been using that ability for quite a while to compensate for my injured body. I don’t have to tell you how skilled that makes me.”
The guard looked puzzled, then glanced down at his hands. He still gripped the gag in his left hand. “Um, I’m confused. Are you saying you are dangerous and I should gag you after all?”
Zuko laughed. Then he realized he hadn’t coughed in a bit, and added one of those in, too. “I’m saying that I have a lot of helpful information. I could share with you about how to use your own bloodbending to its full potential. Not to mention my vast knowledge of the nation you’re attempting to overthrow. And I confess, I am terribly afraid of pain. Why, a few good threats to slap me around, and I’m sure I would spill all sorts of secrets.”
“Oo, spill secrets. Do that.” The guard actually pulled up a nearby crate and took a seat.
Nanami mumbled something beneath the gag.
“You shut up,” the guard said and turned back to Zuko. “You were about to spill secrets.”
“Now, now. Slow down, young man. I think it’s best if we begin at the beginning, don’t you? Now, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but my mother Ursa was the granddaughter of Avatar Roku. That’s why firebending was so strong in our family, you see. Avatar Roku was married to a lovely and kind woman named Ta Min. They had a daughter named Rina, who was born in the year…”
The guard’s eyes were already starting to glaze over. Zuko decided to be optimistic and assume that Nanami’s eyes were doing the same. This might be easier than he thought.
Bolin’s head was pounding. Partially from Varrick’s wine, partially from the bright outdoors (seriously, why did the Fire Nation have to be so darn sunny all the time?) but mostly his head hurt thanks to Mako.
Yep. Good ol’ detective-man Mako, who never did anything wrong ever, had not approved of Bolin’s “public drunkenness” the night before. To emphasize this, he had given Bolin a droning lecture on the definition of “moderation” as soon as he woke up. Then, perhaps to drill the consequences into him just a little more, Mako insisted that a brisk walk would help clear Bolin’s head.
At the Fire Palace stables, Shadow greeted him with his usual puppy vigor, and Bolin laughed despite his migraine. The one positive about being dragged to the Fire Palace… he could visit with Tenna early. Maybe he could even help her with her work? Her shift would be starting soon, and she must have been feeling as miserable as he was. At least this way they could be miserable together.
He followed Shadow and was surprised to find Tenna already there, though not in her usual place preparing to do her usual work. She was resting in the shade of one of the barns, a damp towel on her head and a tray of tea by her side.
“Hey,” she said when she saw him coming. “You’re early.”
“So are you.” he noted. “No training with Korra today?”
“Tried,” Tenna said. Her voice quavered a little and Bolin saw her fight the urge to gag. “It didn’t go so well…”
Bolin grimaced sympathetically, recalling a certain pro-bending match that he had tried to fight stuffed to the gills with noodles…that hadn’t gone so well for him.
Tenna patted the ground, inviting him to sit. “How about you? You look like you’ve just been on the wrong side of a lecture. Mako give you a hard time this morning?”
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
“Just a hunch.” She had a look in her eye that made Bolin’s uneasy stomach turn. He had seen that look many times before over the years. No question… it was the ‘disagreed-with-Mako’ face.
“Was he rude to you? He was rude to you, wasn’t he? Aw, man! I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately.” He sat beside her, leaning his back against rough wood of the barn. “Ever since we got here, Mako’s been acting all paranoid and strange. Like this morning, after the lecture, he started asking me all these questions about you.”
Tenna raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”
Bolin cleared his throat. “To be honest, I… uh, can’t really remember.” He rubbed his forehead. “I told him to quit obsessing over your past so much. I mean, we didn’t exactly have the greatest past either, ya know?”
Tenna gave a sympathetic nod, then patted his hand. He turned it palm over and curled his fingers around hers. They stayed like that for a while, saying nothing. A moment of silence, perhaps, for the families they had both lost so young. Then Tenna cleared her throat and spoke softly. “Well, thank you for defending my honor, Bolin. It’s very touching.” She gave his hand a little squeeze before letting go.
Bolin smiled at her despite both his head pain and the new ache deep in his chest. “Anytime.”
She reached down and poured a fresh cup of tea. “Here. Griff’s family recipe.”
Griff’s family must enjoy the taste of sweat socks, thought Bolin as he sniffed at the brew. Maybe it tastes better than it smells? He took a mouthful and was quickly proven wrong.
“It tastes awful,” Tenna warned, a minute too late, “but it should help with your headache.”
“Mmommmmurfff…” Bolin mumbled then forced himself to swallow. Though his taste buds and his stomach lurched in protest, he gulped down the rest. He made a face when Tenna poured him another cup.
“It helps. Trust me,” she said kindly. Then a bit firmer, she added, “I’m on cup number five, by the way.”
Surprisingly, after about the fourth (or was it the four-hundredth?) cup, Griff’s miracle sock water did ease his head. “Thank you, Griff!” he called to the old stable hand.
Griff looked up from his task–crafting new riding tack for the eel-hounds–and smirked in an uncle-y sort of way. “I’ve been there a time or two. Just don’t make a habit of it, ya hear?”
“Yes, sir,” both Tenna and Bolin answered simultaneously.
The screech of a hawk sounded. Bolin looked up, catching the outline of the messenger hawk as it swept in to land on Griff’s workbench. It was a beautiful animal as far as messenger hawks went–bigger, too. Even its letter pouch was fancier then normal. It was embroidered with the royal seal. Odd, Bolin thought as Griff extracted a rolled envelope and examined the seal. Didn’t they usually use the messenger towers for that sort of thing?
“That’s the Firelord’s personal messenger,” Tenna said softly. Her posture had stiffened, and she had a queasy look on her face that he was pretty sure wasn’t from her hangover.
Even Griff looked visibly shaken, if such a thing was even possible. “Tenna. Bolin. I need you to take this to the Firelord. Immediately.”
Izumi kept the meeting small. Herself, Iroh, and both of their respective lieutenant generals. She invited the Avatar as well, against her better judgment. But Iroh did seem to be close friends with her, and the last thing she wanted now was to cause any friction between them.
Besides, if she held the meeting and didn’t invite Korra, she had a feeling the young Avatar might be waterbending the doors down when she found out. And that would just be messy.
“I propose we move in from the bay,” Iroh began. “Mother, you can then send your forces in from the mainland, and we take Sunport back by surrounding them.”
Izumi nodded thoughtfully, glancing towards a large tapestry on the far way that displayed the Fire Nation lands, outlines in yellow and gold threads on a velvet background. Not that anyone in the room needed a map to discuss the land they all knew so well.
“If that’s the case, then the sea forces should be prepared to deal with at least one combustionbender, while the land forces should expect to be met with several dozen bloodbenders,” she said. The two lieutenant generals looked confused.
“And where did your majesty get this information?” one of them wanted to know. Izumi averted her gaze and she tried to form a good answer and found to her shock she actually looked at Korra. Then, just to surprise her even more, Korra actually had a good reply.
“I’ve been doing some spying on the Firelord’s behalf,” she said. “I witnessed some of the enemy activity firsthand.”
Izumi never got the chance to find out if either of the lieutenant generals found this an acceptable excuse or not. At that moment, the door burst open.
“Hey, we’ve got something!” All conversation in the room ceased as Fuse and Korra’s friend Bolin came charging in. She was about to begin a lecture on how completely inappropriate this was. Then she noticed Tenna holding something in her hands.
“It’s a message from the bloodbenders in Sunport!” Bolin announced. “I think it’s an ultimate. Erm, ultimatum.”
The two of them slowed and walked up to the group. With the major leaders of the Fire Nation military all in one place, Tenna seemed struck with her past drillings of respect to authority.
“Your majesty.” She bowed low and held up a folded letter on his open palms. It had a wax seal on it; the emblem was the symbol of the Air Nomads. Not the modern one, Izumi noted, but one that had not seen the light of day for almost two centuries. She glanced around the room. No one else seemed to have noticed the symbol, and Izumi quickly gasped the paper is such a way that her hand hid it well as she broke the wax by crushing it in her palm.
Her mouth dry and palms moist, Izumi folded open the paper. She only needed to read the first eight words for its message to shatter her.
“If you want to see your father alive…”
There was more to it than that, of course. Rants about how the Fire Nation’s past crimes against the Air Nomads. A demand to open the Great Gates of Azulon for the kidnappers’ ship. But Izumi’s eyes fell to the part where they explained how they had managed to defeat and capture a master firebender like Lord Zuko.
They’ve got a voidbender.
As if on cue, one of the guards entered the room, panting and red in the face. “Your highness, an unknown ship is approaching the Gates of Azulon. What do you want us to do?”
“What flags is the ship flying?” Izumi asked in a whisper.
“Um… they appear to be Air Nomad flags.”
Izumi’s body stiffened. Any and all rational thought flew from her mind as she read the letter over and over. She’d never known her hands to shake so much. She even tried to use bloodbending to stop them. They stilled for a few brief moments, only to restart when she lost her concentration reading the letter again. All she could picture was her father, at some bandit’s mercy. The same bandit, it seemed, who had no issue with purchasing a human being and calling her an object. “Open the gates for them and let them pass.”
“What?” Iroh jumped up and grabbed the letter from Izumi’s hands to read it over for himself. The guard looked surprised but bowed nonetheless and hurried off to do as his Firelord had commanded.
“You can’t just let them through,” Iroh said, crushing the letter in his hands. At least he didn’t set it on fire. Just like her son to be the tactical one. But he didn’t know everything, didn’t realize just how defenseless his grandfather was right now. “Let my ships confront them. You won’t be able to defend yourself if you go yourself.”
“I disagree,” Korra said, standing up. “They might outnumber us, but your mother’s bloodbending skills are far more–”
“Korra!” Izumi snapped. The one time. The one time she might have agreed with Korra, the Avatar had to go be rash again. She fumbled for a way to undo the damage. She’d had near-misses with her son before. Surely she could think of some way to cover for this one.
Tenna glanced between the two of them with a look of disappointment, probably in Korra’s complete inability to glean what she shouldn’t have said.
Iroh stared at Korra muttering half-finished words. “I-I… my mother’s what?”
“Her um… fund-raising skills?” Korra tried. More angry glares at her. This time, from pretty much everyone in the room.
It was time for Izumi to step up. “Iroh,” she said, trying to take on that firm, mothering tone; the kind she used when explaining why a prince could only keep certain company or why he had to keep up his firebending skills no matter how grueling the training. “Iroh, I know this sounds strange, but I promise there are reasons–”
“Reasons?” Iroh said. “Is what Korra said true? You became a bloodbender at Harmonic Convergence and didn’t tell me?”
Her stomach felt sick. She had a perfect out now. Yes, he would be angry with her, but she could find excuses for the last four years — he was living far away, she was busy with ruling the country, they simply hadn’t had much time to communicate and anyway, how would she have brought it up? But every excuse sounded more and more pathetic in her head. And none would do her any good if he ever discovered she’d been lying not for four years, but his whole life. For once, just once, it felt like she should share her secret. Fully and completely.
“That is not what Korra said,” she answered, her voice quiet and distant now. “Korra said I have bloodbending skills, and I do. But it has nothing to do with Harmonic Convergence.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her mind felt like a dam ready to burst. And she was the one delivering the fatal blow. “I was born a bloodbender, Iroh. Because I inherited it from your grandfather.”
“That doesn’t… you mean my great-grandfather?” Now her son looked less stunned and more plain confused. Then he seemed to realize the absurdity of his statement, and shook her head. “No, he was a firebender, too. You’re not making any sense, Mother.” Izumi grunted with frustration. How was this so hard?
“Sit down for a moment,” she said. “And I’ll explain.”
She did explain. She explained the powers she’d been born with, why she’d chosen to hide them. She explained how her father was able to possess the abilities of both a firebender and a bloodbender. And finally, she explained why he needed them.
“That’s why I had to let their ship pass,” she finally said. “It’s why I have to go confront these people myself. Your grandfather is completely helpless right now. If we don’t get in there–”
“He’s not helpless. Quit saying that!” Korra snapped. All eyes turned to look at the Avatar. She seemed surprised, as if she’d meant to keep all those words silently inside her head. “I’m… not saying he doesn’t need our help,” she said in a much more normal tone. “I’m sure he does, and we’re going to give it to him. But that’s not the same thing as being helpless.” Her eyes floated across the room, gazing over the portraits of the past Firelords as if they too were in the room listening to her. “I don’t know what he’s feeling right now. I only know how I felt after Zaheer poisoned me. And I was so sick of being labeled as helpless. The days I believed it were the worst days of my life.” Her fists tightened. “I’m sure Lord Zuko is doing whatever he can on his end to escape. We’ll do the best we can to finish the job. I think we can all agree on that, right?”
She looked around the room. Everyone nodded at each other. It was an odd group, to be sure. The Firelord, her son, the Avatar, a combustionbender, and two boys from the streets of Republic City. Well, it wasn’t the strangest team in history. And Izumi would do all she could to make it succeed.
“I don’t blame you if you hate me for keeping my secret from you,” she said quietly to Iroh. “But I’d beg you to set aside your anger until your grandfather is safe. ”
“I do want to talk later,” Iroh said. “About what this… might mean for my family. For my son.” Izumi nodded. She wished she could take it away, that fear that her grandson might carry the same burden as her one day. A shame wishing didn’t make reality.
“But I’m not angry,” Iroh finished. Then he gave her a small smile. “I love you, Mother.”
“I love you, too,” she whispered back. As she tried to hold back the tears of happiness and relief, Izumi heard a strange sound. It was some sort of sniffled. She thought at first it was a sound she’d been making subconsciously. Then she turned to see Bolin, with eyes full of tears, wiping his nose on his sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered. “But this is just so… so… can we have a family group hug?”
Tenna raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t their family,” she pointed out.
“Oh, right.” He sniveled and rubbed his nose again. “All right, then. Family and friend group hug!” He didn’t wait for everyone’s approval, just sort of pulled the group of them altogether. Tenna and Mako were unfortunate enough to be up against Bolin’s tear-stained cheeks, but neither of them complained about it. In fact, if Izumi hadn’t been so distracted with the tornado of feelings in her stomach right now, she might have even said Tenna was blushing.