Zuko was quite disappointed. He had barely finished telling the tale of he and his friends’ journey through Forgetful Valley when the guard fell asleep. He’d have thought that would be one of the more interesting parts of his tale. Nanami had fallen asleep earlier than that; he’d felt his body slip back into his control a good ten minutes beforehand. But he also realized that after being battered around by Tom-Tom (that little brat was going to get it once he got out of here), and deprived of food and water for nearly half a day now, his command of bloodbending wasn’t quite as strong as before. He needed to conserve his strength. The first thing he needed was to untie these ropes. That was easy enough. The guard who lay snoring on the floor had a dagger tucked into the belt at his side. With some focus, Zuko used bloodbending to drag the man close enough so he could get a hold of the blade.
The next part was trickier. If Zuko cut the ropes and Nanami suddenly fell down, that would probably wake her up. The guard, he’d already observed, slept like a petrified lizard-hog. He couldn’t count on being that lucky with the girl who could instantly disable him. He swallowed, feeling the sides of his throat sticking together and concentrated on keeping himself and the girl sitting upright while he slowly worked the blade back and forth across the rope. Slicing his bonds got easier as he went, though sitting straight got more and more difficult. A little farther, and…
The dagger went through the last string of cord. Zuko sighed with relief and carefully placed the weapon on the ship’s floor. A breeze had picked up, rocking the ship back and forth. Nanami stayed asleep.
Zuko pulled himself loose from the tangled ropes and finally got a good look at the deck around him. The space was narrow, but long, and he couldn’t see any land behind them. Before them, however, the Great Gates of Azulon were just barely visible on the horizon.
So we’ve come that far already? Zuko thought. Being above deck was risky; there were probably sentries everywhere who would notice if he did anything too sudden or obvious. Leaning on the ship’s mast for support, he went through the bloodbending stance to gently pull Nanami away from the cut ropes. She stirred, but her body floated across the deck, farther away from him. A little bit more, and it wouldn’t matter if she awoke or not. He could escape from here and get her some help.
There was a huge crash. Zuko whirled around to see a man in Air Nomad robes dropping what appeared to be a large collection of kitchen pots onto the deck. The guard who’d fallen asleep yelped with shock, while Zuko quickly felt the effects of Nanami waking up. The numbness swallowed him, though at least this time, he had enough warning that he fell on his side and not his face. He hissed as his head smacked against the deck. This was getting incredibly frustrating. Not to mention, he had no back up plan.
He heard footsteps scrambling and strained his neck to see what was happening. The guard wasted no time in getting Nanami tied up once again.
The Air Nomad’s footsteps, however, were soft and methodical. He approached Zuko with complete indifference to the struggle going on around him, and clicked his tongue. “Oh my, I’m so clumsy. I really shouldn’t practice airbending our heavy kitchen supplies out here. I might… disturb someone.” The man shot a look of pure fury off to the side. From where Zuko had fallen, he didn’t have a full view of where the gaze was directed, but judging by the guard’s blubbering apologies afterwards, he had a good guess. The guard shuffled into view and Zuko caught sight of him re-tying Nanami to the mast. She bit him twice.
The Air Nomad approached Zuko and knelt over him, looking him up and down like an archer examining his fallen prey to see if it was dead.
“Not bad,” he said. “You’re resourceful, I’ll give you that. But I’m afraid I can’t let you leave yet.” He reached to his side and pulled a water skin from his belt, tossing it to the guard. “Give her a drink. I’m sure she’s thirsty.”
The guard caught the water skin, but looked thoroughly insulted at his boss’s suggestion. “Sh-she bit me!”
“Of course she did. You kidnapped her and then you were stupid enough to put your hand near her mouth. You deserved it. Now give the poor girl a drink. She’s a Fire Nation citizen, not royalty. Her time hasn’t come yet.”
The guard muttered something and did as he’d been commanded. The Air Nomad smiled. This man was not going to be fooled as easily as his subordinate. Still, Zuko felt if he could at least get him talking, perhaps he could get some information.
“Your clothes… they aren’t the modern Air Nomad robes,” Zuko observed.
“Ah, you noticed that? Yes, my group does tend to stick to our old ways. Unlike the new airbenders that idiot Tenzin is leading, we value our history.” He got within inches of Zuko’s face. “My name is Eli, by the way. You might like to know that.” He reached for his belt again, this time pulling a second water skin and taking a long, loud drink for himself, wiping his lips on his sleeve when he had finished. Zuko pressed his dry lips together.
“Airbenders… who survived the massacres of the hundred year war?”
“Not all of us lived at the temples all the time, you know. And when we heard of the genocide going on there, we would have been fools to return. No armies, nothing to fight back with. All we could do was survive and wait.”
He took another drink, then closed the water skin and returned it to his belt. “Ah, that is refreshing. Now, I see no reason to beat around the bush about anything. Zuko, for your father’s crimes against my ancestors and your own attempts to murder my fellow airbender, Aang, I sentence you, your family, and your nation to death.”
No. That’s impossible. Zuko gritted his teeth. There was nothing in the man’s accusations he could deny. His family had committed atrocities unparalleled in history. And for the first fourteen years of his life, he’d followed in Ozai’s footsteps perfectly. Nothing, not even seventy years of trying to make peace, could erase that. But for this single man to have some way of destroying the entire country? It had to be a lie. Please, let it be a lie.
“You’ve… a right to be angry,” Zuko said carefully. “And a right to want revenge. But the Fire Nation now isn’t like what it was before. You can’t hold its current citizens responsible for what happened back then.”
“Oh, I can’t, can I? I believe I can do whatever I want. And to be perfectly honest with you, what I want right now is to watch this nation that built itself up on my ancestors’ blood suffer exactly what we suffered. I want to see every one of them destroyed. I want to give them the same level of mercy your family gave mine.”
“You’re sick, you know that?” Nanami snapped. “You’re insane!”
Neither the airbender nor the guard answered her. Zuko strained his neck, but just as before, his body refused to obey. Does Tom-Tom know what this man is? He couldn’t imagine his brother-in-law knowingly working with an airbender of any kind. Which meant that Tom-Tom was probably no safer than any Fire Nation citizen right now. And Izumi and Iroh were probably in the worst danger of all.
I have to protect them. Zuko winced, fighting tears. He’d been able to hold back before, thinking that somehow, he’d get out of this. But he didn’t see an exit anymore. And even with all the lives at stake, all his could think of was his own family. There had to be some way out… if he could use bloodbending for even a second–
The Air Nomad watched his struggle with a satisfied grin. Above them, the sun broke through the clouds, its fierce rays blinding Zuko momentarily. Still, he felt the hot breath of his captor as the man leaned down to whisper, “I’ve learned a few tricks myself, you see. And I know that even a bloodbender as skilled as you can’t use your powers if you’re dehydrated.” He straightened and nodded to the guard again. “Make sure he stays facing the sun and keep any water away from him. We’ll be at the gates soon.”
They certainly would, given the brief glimpse Zuko had gotten of their surroundings when he’d stood. But how did he plan to get through? And why haven’t the gates been lit yet?
The guard must have nodded an assent to his leader’s command, because Eli said nothing else as he walked away.
Bolin watched as Mako attempted to unfurl a map of the Fire Nation for everyone to see. The map was very disobedient and kept re-curling on itself. As he struggled, Bolin leaned against a chair, whistling. He’d found himself doing that ever since he was a kid. Generally when he was nervous about something. When he feared for his life, Bolin figured he made the best whistling earthbender in Republic City. “So, um… the Firelord’s a bloodbender,” he said in a shaky voice. “That’s… that’s pretty strange. Huh, you guys?”
“Not really,” Tenna answered. “I knew about it weeks ago. The Firelord simply threatened to imprison and possibly execute me if I told anyone.”
“Oh. That wasn’t nice.”
“It wasn’t. But, in her defense, I’d been threatening to kill you on palace grounds the day before.”
“Oh yeah,” mused Bolin. Funny how things had turned out.
“I knew something was up with Korra and the Firelord, but I didn’t quite expect this,” Mako said. He slid his hand along the side of the map, giving himself a nasty paper cut along the palm. “Ow!”
Bolin winced. “Aw, geez. I’m sorry, bro,” he said. He then floated some rocks from a nearby turtleduck fountain onto the paper to weigh it down.
Iroh, who up until now had been having some kind of private chat with his mom, now walked over to join their group.
“My mother has agreed to come with us,” he announced, “but I would still prefer we not reveal her power unless we have to. Korra and the two of you will be at her side at all times. If any bloodbending needs to happen, she will attempt to assist you without drawing attention to herself.”
He pointed to the island on the map while Mako nursed his hand. Bolin nodded like he had some grand plans he was comparing to General Iroh’s suggestions. He usually found that nodding got him through tough conversations pretty well.
“The mission has two parts,” Iroh said. “First is to infiltrate Sunport. We take out their leader,” his fists tightened, “but we do it quietly, so as not to endanger the hostage.”
Bolin swallowed hard. It was weird watching Iroh trying so hard to distance himself from the situation. That was why he only said stuff like “the leader” and “the hostage.” As opposed to “my great uncle” and “my grandfather.”
“When the leader is dealt with,” Iroh went on, “we’ll need to acquire a boat that bears whatever flag or emblem this group uses to identify themselves so that we have a safe approach.”
“So… no riding in on a dragon?” Bolin asked. It was the best suggestion he could think of, and he was tired of being quiet.
Iroh’s eyebrow twitched. “No, Bolin, no riding in on a dragon. Now, here is where we enter the second stage of our attack. While the main troops remain in Sunport to ensure the citizens safety, myself, the Firelord, the Avatar, and you two,” he made a dismissive motion to Bolin and Mako, “will draw the attention of the enemy boats. Your mission,” he pointed to Tenna, “is to try to separate the voidbender from Zuko. I assume they’re bound together. She may be able to make a run for it if the binds are cut.”
“Understood,” said Tenna, unflinching. No doubt about it. She was in weapon mode.
Mako raised an eyebrow. “She’s probably under heavy guard,” he said. “Take away bending, and a dozen trained soldiers still have a pretty good advantage over one unarmed girl.” He was being all detective-y, choosing his words carefully to question Iroh’s plan and Tenna’s skill without actually questioning.
Iroh nodded. “I’m aware of that, but it’s still our best chance.”
Tenna fixed Mako with an unwavering stare, clearly not fooled. “I’ll be fine.” She paused and steepled her fingers. “There is also… another option. I could end this quickly by killing the voidbender, Depending on how close she is to Lord Zuko, I might be able to take her out from a safe distance away.”
Bolin winced. Mako frowned. After everything they’d gone through, was that still how Tenna thought?
“My grandfather would never want that,” Iroh said. “Not even to save his own life. My mother and I feel the same.”
Bolin looked back at Tenna and saw that she was smiling. “I know,” she said quietly. “That’s what I admire about your family.”
Bolin tried to smile to, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. This didn’t feel like it had a very good chance of success. With all the bloodbenders swarming around Sunport, did they really think they were going to walk in and find whoever was in charge of the operation that easily?
Even more so, with Korra and Bolin both coming along, did anyone think this was going to happen quietly? Bolin appreciated the confidence everyone seemed to have in him, but even he had to admit, he didn’t had a good track record with the sneaky stuff.
Then never mind how they were going to disguise the Firelord and get her through…
Unless they didn’t disguise the Firelord.
“Oo, guys! Guys!” he said, raising his hand. “I’ve got an awesome idea.” The table of dignitaries didn’t look especially thrilled with being addressed as “guys”, but they gave him their attention just the same.
“Okay, I know I’m a bit biased on this one,” Bolin began, holding one hand up. “But I think I’ve got a really good idea for how to get us straight to this evil Tom-Tom guy. It’s called,” he flashed a mischievous grin, “acting.”