Nanami’s lungs screamed at her as she ran. This was stupid; so incredibly stupid. She should have been trying to escape the fighting in Sunport, not sprint headlong into it. It wasn’t as if she had any particular loyalty to General Iroh. She was just a normal Fire Nation citizen. He should have been protecting her, not the other way around. Especially given how much danger his family had dragged her into already.
And still she was going in to see how she could help him. Maybe her hatred of the people who’d captured her outweighed her sense of logic and self-preservation.
She darted to the side of the street as a beam from a shaky old building fell into the middle of the road. She heard windows around her shatter, people yelling in fear and confusion. If this was how the great General Iroh got a crisis situation under control, the man was going to have a heck of a time when he was actually supposed to rule the Fire Nation.
As she watched the fleeing citizens around her, however, there was a certain pattern to them. Most seemed to be trying to get into buildings and board themselves up. Whatever else was going on, they expected some sort of fight in these streets and didn’t want to get caught up in the middle of it.
When she got a bit deeper into town, Nanami finally started to see the familiar uniforms of the Fire Nation army. But they weren’t doing terribly well.
Iroh himself and what appeared to be two of his top officers were trapped by a trio of bloodbenders. Each time of the firebenders made a move, a bloodbender forced their arm into a different angle, quite nearly setting one officer’s clothes on fire. The bloodbenders weren’t skilled enough to hold their victims for long, but the firebenders weren’t good enough to both resist the bloodbending and launch a proper attack. The group of six could go at each other all day until everyone collapsed from exhaustion and the city burned around them.
“Where’s Tomas?” one of the bloodbenders demanded in a shaking voice.
“I told you — he’s dead!” Iroh shouted back. His arm twisted unnaturally behind his back, and he cried out in pain.
“You’re lying! He can’t be dead! He had the weapon!”
Nanami sighed and decided to step in. Whatever else she thought of Iroh, she was still a citizen of the Fire Nation. If she could do something to save Harbor City, she needed to act.
“Hey!” she yelled, standing up from her hiding place behind a crate. The group of men turned to stare at her in confusion. She pointed to the bloodbender who was restraining Iroh. “If the man says your leader is dead, then he is, all right?” she yelled. “Quit hurting people and just give up!”
The man’s face hardened. He tightened his hand into a fist, and Iroh cried out in pain. Nanami glanced around to see curtains and shutters cracking open. Apparently they had quite an audience.
“And who are you, little girl?” the bloodbender spat. “You with him, then? You want the same treatment?”
Iroh’s knees gave out and he knelt on the ground. His skin was going pale. His two officers tried to help, only to be countered by the other two bloodbenders.
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” Nanami ran forward. The bloodbenders’ eyes widened in shock. She saw Iroh’s released from the man’s grip, knowing full well that it wasn’t just the element of surprise that had done. They were within her range now. Helpless.
“What do you think you’re doing, kid?” another one yelled. He reached his hand forward to stop her, and gasped when he realized his power had no effect. He came in next to him and landed a full hit on his jaw.
“You do not try to bloodbend me,” she said. “Are we clear?”
Now Iroh’s officers were getting back into the fight. Several of them tried to firebend at their enemies, only to look at their hands in dismay when they produced no flames. Nanami wanted to scream at them. Why were benders so obsessed with their powers that they couldn’t think of any other way to fight?
“I’m a voidbender!” she said to the officers. “Being near me takes out their bending as well as yours. You’ve got an opening, so use it already!”
Iroh was the first one to react. While the one who had taken Nanami’s hit seemed have recovered and was now trying to sprint out of her range, Iroh tackled him and brought him to the ground.
Without bending, Iroh and his men subdued the thugs within seconds. Years of military training versus some guys off the street who’d just been looking for a better life. It was hardly a fair fight.
Nanami rubbed her knuckle, a bit sore from where she’d thrown the punch. Better life or not, anyone who tried to bloodbend her still deserved a good knuckle to the jaw. She heard the people who’d been watching from their homes calling out to one another:
“Did you see what she did?”
“That was amazing!”
“She’s even better than General Iroh!”
Nanami blushed. So this was what it was like to have people actually recognize her abilities. She had to admit; she could see the appeal. Even if General Iroh shoved his weight around way too much. She cleared her throat and turned to him.
“They’ll be other bloodbenders around the city, trying to keep their hold on it,” she said. “Let me come with you. I can help you take them down without your firebenders taking half the city down with them.”
It only took a brief exchange of looks between Iroh and his officers before he nodded his approval. “I accept your offer, young lady. And thank you.”
It wasn’t Korra who passed out from exhaustion on the ship’s deck. It was Izumi. She felt very embarrassed about it afterwards. As she came to, she saw the same sight that she’d seem before she fainted — Tenna was still out, but there was some color in her face now. The friends gathered around her looked relieved, not stricken with grief. So Izumi had to assume she had done her part well.
The Avatar noticed she was awake first and hurried over to her.
“I did it!” she said excitedly. “I can’t believe I did it. I’ve never pulled anything like that off before. Thank you so much for helping me. Are you okay?”
She was like a little child who couldn’t decide what sentence to get out first. Izumi nodded that yes, she was fine and slowly sat up. Extra slowly.
“Forget all that,” Mako was saying to Korra. “You gonna tell her or what?”
“Tell me?” Izumi said. Blast it, the world would be easier if it stopped spinning for a moment.
Korra looked embarrassed for a second, but quickly regained her childish grin. “Some of Iroh’s scouts reported to us a few minutes ago. They found Zuko.”
There were a lot of things that Izumi could have observed about her father when she first saw him. His long white hair was wet and matted; his bare arms and shoulders scratched up. His posture as he leaned against the tree where the eel-hound watched over him showed all his exhaustion; his hands lay limply at his sides.
But those were all observations that Izumi made later. The first thing she saw when she approached him was that his chest rose and fell, even as his lips pulled back in a wince with a few of the breaths. That he was alive.
Izumi couldn’t contain herself. She ran over and threw her arms around his neck; tears saturated her face.
“You’re okay,” she whispered. “You’re okay.”
“Of course I’m okay,” Zuko muttered. “I’m just sick of everyone treating me like a feeble old man.”
Izumi pulled back with a groan. “You are a feeble old man, Dad,” she said in a scolding voice, but inside she felt warm. A few of the tears welled up again. She got control of them better this time. “All the time you were gone, it ate away at me,” she said. “All I could think of was how I was about to lose you, too.”
Her father’s face softened. There was no need for her to elaborate further. He knew her pain. He had gone through the same pain himself. “Your husband was a good man,” he said after a brief silence.
She nodded and embraced him again.
Izumi had more trouble than she really thought she should getting her father to rest quietly in bed. She supposed in some ways it was a good thing that he had so much energy in his old age. At the same time, she didn’t 100% trust him to gauge his own strength, or lack thereof.
“Excuse me, your highness,” one of her servants said, tapping her on the shoulder. It wasn’t good timing. Izumi had dozens of maps laid out in front of her, trying to imagine how on earth she could gauge how real Eli’s threat had been. Where did she even start?
“Excuse me,” the servant said again. Izumi sighed, removing her glasses so that she could massage the bridge of her nose. “Yes, what is it?”
“Your father requests an audience with you.”
“Does he now?”
“Erm… that is… yes?”
Izumi sighed and put her glasses back on. She wasn’t she what she hoped to accomplish by pouring over these maps. The quickest solution to her problem was to wait until Tenna had recovered enough to sit in and advise on a war meeting. It probably would only be a few hours. But a few hours felt like an eternity. Maybe visiting her father would do some good. She stood up from her chair and followed the servant into the hallway.
Her father was not in his room where she had left him. Instead, he stood in the hall chatting it up with the Avatar. She couldn’t quite hear the topic from here, but Korra raised her arms in a dramatic fashion more than once. Izumi scowled. The last thing Zuko needed was Korra encouraging him. She approached the two of them, and to her surprise, Korra immediately turned to her.
“There you are!” she exclaimed. Then, she took a deep breath and blurted out quickly, “I know everything’s a little crazy right now, but if you don’t mind, Firelord Izumi, there’s something I need to speak with you about.”
“Is that so?” Izumi had a few guesses what Korra had to say, most of them related to how she should or should not have acted during the battle. She adjusted her glasses, ready to pass off any of Korra’s concerns or questions as efficiently as possible.
“It’s about the place where they… where they make firebenders into combustionbenders. I know where it is.”
It took all of Izumi’s internal control to keep her face impassive. She wasn’t Zuko’s sobbing little girl anymore right now. She was the Firelord, calm and in control. “This seems an odd time to deliver that information, but go ahead,” she said. “Where is it?”
Korra kicked at the ground a bit. “It’s… it’s in the Fire Nation. Not far from the capital, actually. And it’s been there for a while.”
“Define ‘a while.'”
Now Korra looked uncomfortably in Zuko’s direction. He was keeping his expression unreadable as well, Izumi noted. Which meant he knew exactly what Korra was talking about. “It’s been there, as far as we can tell, since Ozai’s reign.”
Izumi’s stomach tightened. This couldn’t be true. Crime happened, of course; it could never be eliminated completely. But if the small glimpses Fuse had revealed about this place were true, and if it had really been established back when her grandfather sat on the throne…
“The facility’s routinely attack villages, make it look like a massacre,” Korra went on. “But the truth is, they come for the kids. The young firebenders. They’re the ones who can be molded into combustionbenders. Mako has data for the attacks going back a few decades, if you want–”
“A few decades?”
Izumi wanted nothing more than to run away right now. After rescuing Tenna and Zuko, after surviving attacks from both Tom-Tom and Eli, she should have felt at least a sliver of victory. Now all she felt was the crushing weight of the Firelord’s crown on her head. She had a duty to protect her citizens. How could someone have been hurting so many of them, for so long, right under her watch?
Her father looked at her like he felt the same weight. “Izumi, please understand. I looked for this place, too. I didn’t know what it was exactly, but I knew it had to exist. I knew the man I had hired to kill the Avatar wasn’t born with that tattoo on his forehead.”
“For how long did you search, Dad?” Izumi snapped, her fists tight. She’d always trusted his judgment. He couldn’t have let her down. Not on something as huge as this.
Zuko’s expression hardened, his voice grew as firm as her own. “Until I had, what I thought at the time, were more pressing matters to attend to. We saw no combustionbenders for a long time. I assumed that somehow, someway, the place had been destroyed. And the United Republic had begun to form. What was I to do — help this new nation or search for some mystery facility that might not even exist anymore?” He shook his head. “I should have looked for it again, I know that. But don’t judge me for making the decisions that I thought were best for my nation at the time.”
Izumi felt her frustration at her father ebb way. Of course he had done everything he could for his nation. So had she. This was no time to be questioning his past actions or hers. The two of them were supposed to stand together, to show the strength of the Fire Nation royal family. It was the Avatar who was always questioning authority, who always thought that she knew better than people older and wiser than her.
“I think there’s something you owe me and my father an explanation on,” Izumi said, turning sharply towards Korra. “If both of us failed to locate this place, despite our extensive knowledge of the Fire Nation, how do you suddenly know where to find it?”
The Avatar was hoping this question didn’t get asked; it was written all over her face. Childish as it was, Izumi took a certain amount of pride in that. She was not the only one here who was getting caught in uncomfortable circumstances. “The thing is, I… I spent some time talking to Zaheer. He told me where the place was, and I promised I would help destroy it.”
“And why would you contact Zaheer?” Izumi asked.
“I shouldn’t have, I know,” Korra said. “But it was driving me nuts. I couldn’t sleep. I… I wanted…” She looked guiltily in Zuko’s direction. “I wanted to know whether or not you ever used bloodbending against the Red Lotus.”
“Use correct wording, Korra,” Zuko said without hesitation. “You wanted to know if I valued my secret over your safety.”
So that’s what they were talking about when I approached, Izumi thought.
Korra looked down. “I… yes, I guess.”
Zuko nodded. “I trust you found the answers to your satisfaction?”
Korra nodded again, barely making any eye contact at all. “Yes.”
“If you got your information from a criminal like Zaheer, I will, of course, have to look it over thoroughly before I consider acting on it,” Izumi said. “In the meantime, I have more pressing matters to concern myself with, not the least of which are rebuilding Sunport and finding out just how legitimate Eli’s threat was.” She turned to leave, not even sure where she would walk to. But right now, she wanted nothing more than to be away from this conversation, to somehow return to a mental place where she and her father hadn’t failed their country so completely.
“You can’t just let this go!” Korra grabbed her. Actually grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back. Did the gall of this young woman know no limits?
Izumi acted without thinking. With a flick of her fingers, she forced Korra’s grip to loosen. Korra gasped in surprise at the use of the bloodbending and did not fight it.
Izumi felt a twinge of guilt, but she’d set her hair aflame before she admitted to it. “I am grateful for your help today, Avatar,” she said coldly. “But do not presume to lay your hands on me without my permission again. Is that clear?”
Korra’s brows furrowed; her muscles tensed. She was not someone who would be put down for long. “See, this is exactly the kind of attitude that could have avoided a lot of damage in Republic City!” She waved her hand wildly in the general direction of somewhere beyond the hallway. “Instead of fighting Kuvira, you decided to hide in your little palace and pretend like there weren’t any problems. Because when the problem isn’t actually hurting anyone close to you, it’s easier to pretend it’s not there!”
“Do not attempt to manipulate my emotions just so you can keep your promise to a criminal!”
Zuko coughed loudly. Not even so much a couch as he simply repeat “A-hem!” three or four times at the top of his voice. When he had both Izumi and Korra’s attention, he dusted off his clothes before speaking. “That’s quite enough of this bickering. I believe this is the time when my uncle would strongly recommend everyone sit down and have a nice pot of tea.”
You were bickering, too, Izumi wanted to tell her father. But of course, she couldn’t. “We were all planning on meeting in the war room as soon as Tenna is feeling well enough,” she said, sounding as cool and official as she could muster. “Why don’t I have some tea sent down and the Avatar can meet us there?”
Zuko nodded, and impressively enough, so did Korra. She still did quite a bit of childish stomping as she headed off to the war room, but Izumi couldn’t judge her too much for that. If she had been the one leaving this conversation, she might have very well done the same thing.
Zuko looked her over, a hint of disapproval written in his old face. “You seem… frustrated,” he finally said.
She groaned. “Of course I’m frustrated. I’ve potentially got one of the biggest terroristic threats in the history of the Fire Nation to deal with, the Avatar can’t seem to think about anything except this business with the combustionbenders, and you just want to sit around sipping tea.”
Zuko nodded and stroked his beard like these weren’t the raving of his frustrated daughter, but rather some wise and insightful Air Nomad proverbs.
“Perhaps the three aren’t unrelated,” he said.
She wanted to scream. Apparently the look of her face made it clear, too.
Zuko actually chuckled. “You know, when I first became Firelord, I was so focused on doing the best for our nation that I didn’t allow myself to see how others could help me. I was always thinking I had to do everything on my own.”
Izumi sighed. “So you’re saying I’m exactly like you?”
“We have our similarities,” Zuko said. “Though, I see myself in young Iroh, too. You know, he sounds just like me at that age.”
“You’ve said that a million times, Dad. I’m telling you, you’re imagining it.”
“Hmm…” Zuko stroked his beard again. “Probably. But enough about that for right now. I think it’s my turn to ask some prying questions.” He put his hands behind his back. “I know how I came to learn of the combustionbenders. How exactly did you get involved with them?”
“Well, the one who rescued you was brought here by the Avatar,” Izumi replied. “Quite without my permission, I might add.”
“I see,” Zuko said. “But she’s helping us voluntarily.”
“She’s broken away from her training,” Izumi said. She tried to push away everything Korra had said, tried ignore that feeling in her gut that if she had just been a better Firelord, Tenna and so many others like her wouldn’t have suffered.
“So what happens to her after this?” Zuko said. “Does she try to go back to her old life, before she was captured?”
As painful as it was, Izumi had to admit that she wasn’t sure how feasible that would be. “She doesn’t remember much of her old life at all. She told me…” Izumi tried to pull back the details that Tenna had mumbled in her alcohol-inspired state. “Her mother and grandmother were firebenders. Her grandmother raised dragons…”
“Dragons?” Zuko’s eyebrow lifted curiously.
“Yes,” Izumi said with a nod. “She had… some sort of wildlife sanctuary for hatchlings. The father wasn’t a bender, though. Some sort of herbalist.” She shook her head. “That’s all she was able to tell me.”
“Hmm,” Zuko said stroking his beard. “I wonder if… yes, I’m sure I have it somewhere.” He started to wander off down the hallway again. If he were’t in such a feeble state, Izumi very well might have slapped him.
“Do the words, ‘stay in bed’ mean nothing to you?” she sighed.
“Not a thing, I’m afraid,” Zuko said cheerfully as waved at her without turning around.