Once they touched ground, Izumi quickly got to her feet, as did everyone else.
Of course, the large explosion drew attention. It would have been highly convenient if they could have somehow managed a silent explosion as part of the victory, but seeing as how Izumi was grateful just to be alive at the moment, she wasn’t about to complain.
It was clear the three bloodbenders who came running for them were only patrol and ready to react to disturbances. They all came in at the exact same time from three different angles. Izumi didn’t take up a fighting stance just yet, but she kept one hand raised just in case. Behind her, she heard Tenna groan in pain, while Bolin said something to reassure her. This was followed by a quick, “I’m fine, I’m fine!” The girl’s voice still sounded shaky, though. Maybe there was more than just physical pain there.
Considering she just saw one of her own kill himself, I’m impressed she’s standing at all.
As the bloodbenders closed in and formed a triangle around the group, Izumi recognized one of them as the guy who’d tried to stop them from seeing Tom-Tom to begin with. The other two were female and unfamiliar.
“What happened?” the guy barked. Then, to one of the women beside him, he snapped, “Go check on the boss! Now!”
“No need for that,” said Korra, stepping up to speak for the group in true Avatar fashion. “He’s dead.”
“What?” The woman’s voice sounded crushed, frightened. It only made sense. Tom-Tom was the wall between her and the punishment she’d endure for her traitorous actions. With him gone, she had good reason to be afraid.
“He was killed by his ally,” Izumi said. “He attempted to combustionbend at us, but the shot backfired.”
“The weapon failed?” the other woman gasped. Izumi gritted her teeth. That “weapon” nonsense was seriously grating on her. She couldn’t imagine how it was making Tenna feel.
Now it was Iroh’s turn to speak up. “Listen up,” he said, as if these three were his underlings and not those of the man who’d been trying to kill him. “Your leader has fallen. If you surrender the town quietly, we will make sure to treat you with mercy.”
“You think we’re going to surrender just like that?” the bloodbending man asked. “Tomas promised us everything — fortune, land, better lives for ourselves. And we know Lord Zuko’s already been taken to the boat. You’re the ones who’ve got something to lose here, not us!”
Iroh raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? I think you’re wrong about that. Because I’ve got a team of my finest soldiers from the United Republic alongside the entire Fire Nation army ready to move in and take this town back.” He narrowed his eyes. “You say you have nothing to lose. Do your lives count as nothing?”
The man, who’d had his hands up ready to start bending, now lowered them once again. “You… don’t command the Fire Nation army,” he said.
Iroh smirked. “Ah, that’s right.” He turned to Izumi. “Mother?”
“May I borrow your army to retake Sunport?”
“Of course, son. Just be careful, okay?”
“I will.” He turned back to the bloodbenders, full of confidence and authority. “Surrender. Now.”
The bloodbenders obediently put up their hands in surrender. Iroh smiled and cleared his throat. “We’ll require a boat, nothing too elaborate, you understand. Ah, and one of my lieutenants should have a certain young eel-hound with her that we’ll need to pick up.”
On their way to the dock, Korra kept playing fetch with Shadow much to everyone’s amusement. Tenna was grateful for the distraction. Shadow may have grown big enough to ride, but he still had tons of puppy energy and the attention-span of a gnat-fly. She would need him calmed and focused (or at the very least not inclined to investigate everything that moved) if she had any hope of controlling him during her mission to rescue Zuko.
The truth was, Tenna wasn’t just grateful for Shadow’s sake. To say that Mortar’s death unnerved her was putting it mildy. She hadn’t let anyone see her distress, of course. When the time came to board the little boat, now sporting a flag with the late Tom-Tom’s family crest, Tenna avoided joining everyone on deck. Instead, she slipped away under the pretense of darning her black mercenary leathers and equipping herself with a new dagger, water skins, lock picks, and other tools.
“I know you can do this,” Iroh was saying to Bolin when she re-emerged. “The army and I will stay here and make sure the citizens of Sunport are safe. You’ve got my great uncle’s motorboat to take out there. And these waters are well-known for eel-hounds. They shouldn’t suspect anything until you’re right near them.” He patted Bolin on the shoulder.
Tenna drew in a slow breath. Ember Island was in their sights and she had to be at the ready in case Iroh’s strategy failed and she and Shadow had to put up a fight to get Zuko to safety.
She put on a convincing act, standing by the shore while Iroh prepped the boat, staring calmly out over the waves, and watching the sunset. But apparently it wasn’t convincing enough for Bolin. He stepped up beside her and rested one arm across her back. She ignored the slight twinge in her side, focusing instead on his voice as he muttered.
“I’m sorry, about your friend.”
“He wasn’t a friend. I barely knew him. Still…he didn’t deserve–” Her voice caught. P’Li didn’t deserve her fate either. Nor did the hundreds upon hundreds of ‘weaponized’ children who had broken even before they could receive their numbers. All of their deaths had been horrific and painful. Tenna knew this all along. Even back when she was under Jerkface’s thumb she had known, deep down, that she would probably die the same way. But she was to busy focusing on missions, on survival, to think about it then.
Or maybe… maybe that was just her excuse not to think about it. She didn’t have that option anymore. Not after what Mortar had been forced to do. Not now that she was more then a weapon. She swallowed hard. “That could have been me you know,” she whispered. “If you hadn’t helped me…”
Bolin’s muscles tensed. He moved his grip to her shoulders, slowly turning her to face him. His expression was serious.
“No. That would never happen.”
“How can you be so sure?” She hated how frightened she sounded. Like she was seven-years-old again.
Bolin ran his fingers through her hair, resting his hand on her cheek before tilting her face up so they were staring eye to eye.
“Because you’re tenacious.”
She leaned into his touch which was warm against her cheek. He was right of course. Even as a newly forged weapon she had been wild and stubborn. And though her outbursts had grown quieter as she grew older, her defiance hadn’t. She broke protocol for years by keeping Shouga as a travel companion. She shot at Crull when he tried to bloodbend her. And after Bolin brought her to the palace she blackmailed the Firelord, nearly killed the Avatar and tamed a dragon. Even now she was committing the ultimate defiance–not just forsaking her training to rediscover her humanity, but using that raining against the very man who she once called master. If there was ever a time to doubt herself, this was not it. Her friends were counting on her, risking their own lives, so she could carry out her mission. And that mission was to save Lord Zuko’s life.
“Thanks Bolin,” she said, bringing up her hand to rest on his, “I needed that.”
“Ah-hem,” someone coughed, deliberately loud, startling Tenna and Bolin apart. Mako (what a surprise) stepped into view. He was annoyed, Tenna could see. That said, he was actually trying very hard not to let it show which wasn’t like him.
“It’s time,” he said.
She and Bolin started to follow Mako to the dock where Izumi and Korra were already waiting with Shadow. The eel-hound gaaurreed a greeting to her as she approached. And still, she felt herself pause.
Bolin saw her hesitate and he quickly turned back.
“I know you can do this,” he assured her.
“I know,” she hesitated. “It’s not that.”
“Did you need something then? More supplies?” He indicated the dagger on her belt.
“No. I have everything I need.”
She drew a long breath and exhaled it slowly. The truth was there was one more thing she wanted. Something she had wanted for a while now but hadn’t known how to ask. Bolin was sensitive, still recovering from old wounds. She hadn’t wanted to push him. Or maybe she had had been afraid to. But now, with this battle before her… this was no time for fear.
“Actually, there is… one thing, Bolin.”
“What is–?” He barely got the words out before Tenna kissed him. She felt him tense with surprise, saw his eyes widen. Then… was that? Yes. The look in his eyes. The look she could never understand. She did now.
I love him, she realized as her eyes closed and he wrapped her in his arms. And he… he loves me, too.
Once the ship had left land, Korra found herself pacing endlessly about the deck. Asami would probably tell me to meditate or something, she thought. Asami was always giving helpful advice like that. “Calm down, Korra.” “Slow down and think before you smack that guy in the jaw, Korra.” And the classic, “No, Korra, bending stuff doesn’t solve everything.”
Korra paused from her pacing and took a deep sigh. Maybe if she meditated into the spirit world, she could talk to Iroh. Not Iroh the-general-leading-them-into-battle-now Iroh, but his namesake. Zuko’s uncle. This was his nation at stake, after all. Surely he would have some words of wisdom for her.
She found a quiet corner of the boat, sat down cross-legged, and pressed her fists together. Reluctantly, she let her eyes close and her breathing slow. They were going to make it. They would find Zuko. Everything would be fine. She only needed to focus.
The sounds of waves crashing against the boat vanished, and Korra opened her eyes with a gasp. Looking around, she found herself sitting in a meadow of pink and purple puffballs. A strange mist emerged from the ground and she quickly got her feet.
I’m in the spirit world already, she thought, feeling pretty proud over the fact, I must be getting better at this. She slowly turned in a circle to get her bearings. It looked like she was standing on top of a cloud that stretched in all directions. To her great suprise (and excitement), a figure emerged from the mists that was most definitely Iroh. Korra stepped forward to greet him, only to be stopped in her tracks. Another figure stepped into view next to Iroh, and the sight of him made Korra’s blood run cold.
Zaheer! Seriously, what was it with this guy and bothering her so much? “Iroh! Look out behind you!” Korra yelled. She got ready to firebend at Zaheer, only to quickly remember that it wouldn’t work. She continued charging him, fist ready, and he easily avoided the attack by vanishing and reappearing on Iroh’s opposite side.
Iroh held up his hands. “Please, Korra. Calm down. I intended for him to be here.”
“Um, you what now?” Korra lowered her arms. This couldn’t be happening. She’d seen a lot of crazy things in the sprit world, but talking to one of her greatest mentors and one of her worst enemies at the same time? That was too much.
“There is a saying in the Fire Nation,” Iroh went on, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Zaheer massaged the bridge of his nose. “Everyone in the world says that.”
“Yes,” Iroh agreed with a grin, “but the people of the Fire Nation say it best.” He waved his hands, and a table materialized out of nowhere, along with a pot of tea on a burner and a set of cups. Zaheer eyed the setup as if he expected the teacups to attack him.
“I know there is much on your mind right now, Korra,” said Iroh. “And I apologize for coming to speak with you at such a time.”
Korra shrugged her shoulders and tried not to let on how insanely uncomfortable she was right now. “It’s… fine,” she said. “I mean, I’m sure whatever you have to say, it must be pretty important.”
“Indeed, it is,” Iroh said. He motioned again and the teapot floated into the air, hovering around the table and pouring a bit of its contents into each cup. The scent of jasmine was rich in the air, and a few spirit creatures appeared out of the clouds to sniff at the offering. “Please, sit,” he said.
Korra did. Zaheer did as well, making a point of being as far from Iroh as possible.
“Now then,” Iroh said, taking a sip from his cup. “Do you know how bending first came into the world?”
Really? It wasn’t that Korra didn’t trust Iroh’s judgment, but sometimes it seemed like he forgot just how quickly time was going by in the physical world. But, the sooner she answered his questions, the sooner the man would get to his point. “Sure. The lion turtles gave it to people.”
She expected Iroh to be pleasantly surprised at her knowledge, but instead he shook his head as if in pity at her ignorance. “They were indeed one source of acquiring bending. But they were not the only source.”
As he spoke, a silvery spirit that looked like a spider with a feline face crawled up and lapped at the tea that was probably meant to be Zaheer’s.
“Let me ask you this,” Iroh went on, “Which creatures were the original earthbenders?”
“The badgermoles, of course,” Korra answered.
“Very good. And the original airbenders?”
“The sky bison.”
“Excellent. The original firebenders?”
Iroh nodded. “And the original waterbenders?”
Korra opened her mouth to reply, but realized she didn’t have an immediate answer. Iroh waited patiently while her brain searched through her old history lessons.
“That would be… Tui and La, right?” she said. “The koi fish?”
“Correct,” Iroh said with a grin, “But you know their tale, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Korra said. “They were spirits that came to live permanently in the physical world.”
“Exactly. So, what do you think the sky bison, the badgermoles, and the dragons are?”
Korra’s jaw went slack. “They… came from the spirit world too?”
Zaheer finally stopped standing there with his arms crossed and sat down with everyone else. “All bending comes from inside those portals,” he said, leaning forward onto the table, “but the two worlds affect each other.”
“Yes,” Iroh said, like he and Zaheer had just planned this talk out. “As humans advance both our technology and our bending, new spirits are born into the spirit world to reflect that.” He motioned to the spider spirit, which looked up and purred in their direction. “This little one, for example, if he were to take a physical form, would be a natural metalbender. However, in spirit form, he can do more. He could pass right through a human and grant metalbending to them.”
A spirit just granting bending out of nowhere? Some years ago, Korra might have balked at the idea. But so much had changed since then. “Like… what I saw in my flashback to Wan,” she said. She then quickly realized that Iroh and Zaheer probably had no clue what she was talking about, but continued thinking aloud all the same. “Some aye-aye spirit took over a human for a few seconds. He left, but the human looked different… like he had some of the spirit’s physical traits.”
“Such things did not just happen in the distant past,” said Iroh, “In fact, only a few years ago, a rush of spirits passed through humans, leaving behind bending in people who had none before.”
Korra’s eyes widened. “Harmonic convergence?”
“Exactly. You opening the portals motivated the spirits to try to reconnect with humans in the most basic way they knew how. The sky bison exited first, but others soon followed in their footsteps, including this little one.” He motioned back to the spider, which had emptied the cup. It yawned and curled its legs into what Korra could only assume was a sleeping position.
“Yes, it was all beautiful and majestic,” Zaheer said. “Except that harmonic convergence ultimately caused even more friction among humans. And it’s been causing spirits to leave the physical world and retreat to their home world.”
Korra glared at him. “Right. And none of that friction was caused by you, right?”
The look on Zaheer’s face told her he was more than aware of his own part in all this and hated himself for it. “You’re looking to blame me, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. Kuvira ravaged the spirit-and-human relationship with her weapon. And now these airbenders are using their gift to attack the Fire Nation, just as Sozin did to their people over a century ago. If this keeps up, the spirits might permanently give up on humans and fully retreat to their old world.”
“Right, I get it,” Korra said with a groan. “Defeat this evil airbender guy and take back Sunport or awful spirity stuff will happen. If you’d stop talking to me, I could leave and do this faster.”
“Korra.” Iroh stood up from the table, lines of worry eating away at his usual carefree expression. “It is not just Sunport the man is after. I fear for the safety of my entire nation.”
“H-How…? What is he planning to do?” Korra asked.
Iroh shook his head sadly. “I don’t know. All I know is, the spirits closest to the Fire Nation are very uneasy right now. They sense there is going to be a terrible tragedy. Many have fled the physical world already.”
“Funny how spirit world stuff is always conveniently vague,” Korra muttered.
“Funny how the bridge between worlds has no respect for spirits,” Zaheer countered.
“You know, I don’t even know why you’re here!” Korra said, standing up and stamping her foot. It didn’t make much of a sound, considering they were on a cloud, but it felt satisfying all the same. “Did you just tag along to annoy me?”
“I have a stake in this, too,” Zaheer said, seemingly perfectly content to keep sitting at the table. “If the spirits fully retreat from the spirit world, there will be no more entering for humans, except through the portals.”
“You mean, no more meditation into the spirit world?” Korra asked.
Zaheer nodded. “I sensed the same thing Iroh did, and when he mentioned contacting you, I asked to come as well. The spirit world is the only thing giving me an anchor… some semblance of sanity in that prison.”
So you came for purely selfish reasons, Korra wanted to say, but kept quiet. Instead, she turned to Iroh. “I promise, I’ll do whatever I can to stop this.”
“You may not be able to,” Iroh warned. “Even if you rescue the Fire Nation, our relationship with the spirits may not be mended. The result could be the same.”
Korra walked away from the table, her back to both men. She’d had enough worrying about the what ifs. Enough talking in general, actually. “It doesn’t matter. I still have to fight like I plan to win everything back.” And with that, she vanished from the spirit world and returned to her body in the physical one. The shore they had left what seemed like a moment ago was far behind them. It wouldn’t be long now.