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|The Price of Pride|
Book 2: Hidden Powers
June 2, 2017
The Story So Far
Harmonic Convergence awakened new benders of all types -- including a large group of bloodbenders in the Fire Nation. Korra has also learned that Izumi herself is a bloodbender, having inherited the ability from Zuko. The Firelord is now secretly training the Avatar to defend herself against the art. Bolin and Mako are also staying in the Fire Palace. Mako is doing research into some mysterious attacks on Fire Nation villages while Bolin has rescued a combustionbender named Fuse from slavers and is trying to rehabilitate her. While Izumi is unhappy about the unexpected guest, she has agreed to allow Fuse to stay and help train Korra as long as the combustionbender is kept under strict guard.
Chapter 22: The Price of Pride
Sleep did not come easily to Korra that night. Or at all, really. She tried. Who wouldn't try to sleep when they had to deal with resisting bloodbending or avoiding explosions the next day? But every little noise jolted her thoughts away from rest and back to just how irritated she was. How dare Firelord Izumi treat her like some kid. She was the Avatar, wasn't she? She should've been front and center planning how to counter the bloodbenders, not sitting in Izumi's back pocket just in case the almighty Firelord decided to use her.
"So?" she could imagine Asami saying. "You're the Avatar. If you don't like how things are, do something to change them."
Korra pulled back the covers and sat up in bed. Imaginary Asami was right. She'd had it. She was sick and tired of being pushed around, never getting answers. Even Mako thought that Izumi was hiding something, though he'd yet to explain what. And when no one gave Korra answers, she went after them herself. No matter who it was she had to ask.
I just need to know that I can trust the royal family, she told herself. Maybe if I find out that Zuko really did everything he could to stop Zaheer, I'll feel better about Izumi.
The moon was still high in the night sky outside Korra's window. She had no clue what time it was. But it wasn't like the Spirit World had posted visiting hours. She crossed her legs, brought her fists together, and began her meditation. Maybe it wouldn't answer all her questions, but knowing at least that small bit had to help.
She knew she was improving her meditation skills when she actually opened her eyes and found herself exactly where she'd meant to land. It was a large tree, with violet and indigo and leaves, swaying beneath a mint-colored sky. Zaheer had said he spent most of his time here, and this evening was no exception.
He was leaning against the tree's royal blue bark, eyes closed. One opened when Korra approached him, but he said nothing. At first Korra just stood opposite him, maybe fix or six feet away, figuring he had to acknowledge her eventually. He didn't.
"Zaheer!" she said firmly. "I need to talk to you."
He opened both eyes this time and looked positively annoyed. Not unlike Izumi in that respect. "I get few precious moments of peace in the physical world," he said. "This place in my sanctuary. You come barging in here, disrupting that peace, and you expect I'm going to answer you?"
Korra grimaced. There she went as always, approaching the problem with brute force. It wasn't like she had anything to threaten Zaheer with if he didn't help her. He'd lost everything already.
"I'm... sorry for disrupting you," she forced herself to say. He smiled and straightened a bit. "But I wanted to talk. I want you to tell me about the time you broke out of prison. How did you do it? And break all of your old friends out too? I want to hear about that battle."
"No, you don't," Zaheer said, leaning back against his tree again. "You want a very specific piece of information about that battle. You don't want to hear how my allies and I were treated for thirteen in prison. You don't want to hear about my studies and countless futile plans to escape before I was gifted with airbending. And you certainly don't want to hear how Ming-hua almost died of dehydration or P'li of hypothermia..."
Korra twitched. She did everything she could to keep a straight face. Unfortunately, she wasn't Aang. How many times was that fact going to haunt her? Zaheer smiled.
"Ah, so it's something about P'li's breakout, then? Interesting. Well, I have nothing to tell you right now, Avatar. But come and try again sometime. I think I might enjoy your company after all." And with that, he vanished.
Fuse was already waiting inside Flare's stable when Izumi arrived. She wasn't surprised. Griff was a tough old bird but even he wouldn't pass up an opportunity to let Flare terrorize someone else for a change even if it meant giving a former criminal free run of his stables.
Fuse greeted her with a small bow as she entered but Flare tensed at her approach.
"Easy," crooned Fuse. She drew away Flare's gaze running her hands along the dragon's face as easily as one might embrace a friend. Jaws that could crush bone and breathe fire instead opened just enough to make a soft grumbling noise. Fuse shifted one hand to the top of Flare's snout. Izumi watched her dragon's eyes widen and then, gradually, go glossy.
Fuse gestured for Izumi to come closer. "It's okay. I have her."
Izumi approached again. This time Flare didn't tense or even move.
"How--" she started to question but stopped when she saw for herself. Flare had trusted the combustion bender enough to let her near her face and Fuse had, in turn, taken full advantage of one of dragonkind's more interesting weak spots.
"There are points inside the nose that trigger the release of chi when proper pressure is applied. It helps calm her," Fuse explained, to busy watching Flare for signs of distress to notice Izumi's change of expression. She realized her mistake quickly though, when Izumi didn't respond. "...but you already know this..."
"Yes. Though it's been so long I'd almost forgotten." Izumi admitted. She sighed a bit wistfully. "Kalos was the beast enthusiast. He told me the nasal point is an old dragon tamers' secret."
Fuse nodded. "Your husband must have been very wise."
"He was." A thought struck her. "Where did you pick up the technique, Fuse?"
The combustionbender was quiet for a moment. "Strange. I don't know. Maybe from my life before..." She stared off as if trying to recall something. Then her eyes grew wide and she winced.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes... fine. It's nothing. Let's continue."
It wasn't nothing, that was obvious. Izumi had hidden enough of her own pain from her children over the years to know the signs. Part of her was even tempted to press the matter. True, Izumi may not have been a shining example when it came to opening up to people, but at least she had Katara and Kalos to talk too when she needed over the years. Who did Fuse have?
But Izumi lost her chance. Fuse chose that moment to tug gently on Flare's nose and guide the dragon's head back around so that her scaly cheek was at eye level with Izumi.
This is the closest I've been to Flare without using my bloodbending. The realization sank like lead in her stomach.
She raised a hand to touch her dragon's scales, but stopped immediately when Flare flinched. "You trusted me to take care of you, and instead all I did was hurt you. I'm no better than my great-grandfather." Tears stung her eyes but she refused to her herself cry.
"You made a mistake," said Fuse softly. "That doesn't make you the same as him."
Izumi jerked up, feeling a single defiant tear escape and roll down her cheek. Don't tell me. Did I actually say that out loud? Shame washed through her. She hadn't felt this fragile inside since the day Kalos died and she hated it.
Fuse tightened her hold on Flare's nose. "Again," she said in an all-too-familiar tone. "It's time you start taking responsibility for your mistakes."
Wise words, thought Izumi with a hint of a smile. Perhaps it was time to start taking her own advice. She set her palm on Flare's cheek. Her scales were smooth and oddly warm to the touch. Gold, glazed, dragon eyes looked back at her.
"I'm sorry, Flare," she said. Tears bit at her eyes again and this time she let them fall. "For everything."
A leaf fell on Tomas' face and he brushed it away. Not that he was watching anything interesting right now. From his perch, he could see right into the police building. An officer at the front desk leaned forward, eyes wrought with concern while the sniveling girl in front of him dabbed her nose with a handkerchief.
"Slow down, ma'am," the officer said. "And then what happened?"
"Then he tried to grab me, officer. He was an old man, out of shape, so I fended him off easily enough, but..." The girl look worriedly from side to side, then leaned closer to the officer as if whispering some grand secret. "But I think he's got some tougher friends. I'm scared to go home at night."
Tomas groaned. Watching this ridiculous scene was agonizing. And it wasn't the first he'd seen today, either. The voidbender girl seemed to know she was being stalked and made it a point of going to areas with the biggest crowds. All day. For two nights in a row, she'd spent the evening at a friend's house. This police report was simply another one of her annoyances. As if the local police could do anything against a weapon, anyway.
Tomas grimaced. A tree branch had been poking him in the neck for almost an hour now, and his leg was asleep. He wished he could just tear this town apart and not have anyone notice. But, no. Patience. He had to be patient.
"...must have been terrifying for you," the officer said, licking up every word of her story like a trained dog. She sniffled a bit and dried some non-existent tears.
"Oh, it was! It was simply terrible. And I can't imagine why they would even be after a poor nonbender like me?"
"Some people are just sick in the head," the officer said, writing down her last few words with extra enthusiasm. Not to worry, ma'am. We've taken note of your report, and I'll make sure our town patrol keeps an extra close watch on your neighborhood tonight."
"Oh, thank you so much!" she said. The two flirted with each other for at least another ten minutes before the girl finally left. Got escorted back to her home and everything. But no matter. The officer had to leave at some point, and when he did, Tomas was ready to make his move. He slipped out of the tree, though his half-asleep muscles weren't quite up to the task, and it more came out as a fall.
"I'm going to murder that girl when I get my hands on her," he muttered as he made his way down the tree and back into the forest. They'd found an off-road path that led almost directly to the girl's home. No doubt she knew about it, but with the weapon on Tomas's side, neither was there much she could do about it. She wasn't importing the walls of Ba Sing Se in here anytime soon.
"I don't think that would be very useful," Tomas heard the weapon say. Were these things mind-readers too? Just what sorts of training did they give them?
"H-how... what wouldn't be very useful?"
"Murdering the target. Her bending would also cease, which would upset your plans."
Tomas went crimson. "I know that!" he hissed, and stomped forward. His leg went ankle-deep into a puddle. He kicked the puddle, but it only resulted in getting his clothes muddy, too.
They waited in the brush until nightfall. The town seemed to have more than its fair share of biting insects, though of course, the weapon made no complaint. Finally, Tomas saw the girl headed back to her house. Alone.
He had planned out the weapon's exact range, and he ordered it into the perfect position. Hidden, but no less capable of a lethal blow.
He went and knocked on the door first. He didn't expect her to answer, of course, but with all the people she'd had around her, it needed to look like a friendly visit. To his complete shock, she actually answered it. With a roll of her eyes, she tossed her black bangs to the side like they were way more of a concern than Tomas could ever be.
"I'm getting really sick of kicking you out of my house. I know you've been following me today. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't start screaming bloody murder and get every officer and neighbor in a ten mile radius over here."
Tomas smiled. "Because you don't want them all dead, that's why."
He reached into his pocket. It was the wrong pocket, which made him look really moronic when he had to feel around in the opposite pocket for what he was looking for. It had taken him a few days to get the photograph developed, but there it was. Both Tom-Tom and the weapon stood with a copy of the town newspaper from a few days before. The weapon's tattoo was clearly visible. The annoying smile on the girl's face melted away.
"You know your benders well enough, I assume?" Tomas said.
She nodded. "A combustionbender," she said quietly.
"Able to stand well out of your range and still do serious damage to your friends and home before you got close," Tomas advised. "Now, are you going to invite me in or not? This situation is going to start looking suspicious soon, and I do get a bit irritable when that sort of thing occurs."
She gritted her teeth, but showed him in just the same. Tomas even saw a patrol officer walking up the street as he went into the house. He smiled and waved. The officer paused and looked a moment, but seeing the girl inviting him in, gave a polite wave in return. Now that was how this sort of thing was supposed to work.
Once inside, the girl looked questioningly between Tomas and a set of wooden chairs and a table in the center of the room. He nodded his approval at a chair beside the window, the one that would still give the weapon a good clear shot at her head. She sat down without a word. Tomas preferred to stand.
"I'll explain this in small, simple words so that even a 'poor nonbender' like yourself can grasp it," he said, leaning forward on the table. The wood gave a satisfying groan beneath his weight. "I've got an important affair coming up, and there's someone who's bending would be... problematic if they were to attend. You come with us without a struggle, I ensure my affair goes smoothly, and you're returned here unharmed. Simple, yes?"
He could see her quivering with anger, eyes darting around the room for some way to escape this. It filled him with a warm, immense satisfaction when she came up empty.
"And everyone else in town?" she said, nails digging into her knees. "They're safe too?"
"Of course," Tomas said. As if killing a bunch of nonbenders would be worth the effort anyway. He reached for his belt, where he unhooked a coiled rope and a thick strip of white cloth. He placed both on the table in front of her. "The gag first, then bind your ankles," he instructed. "My weapon will then be in to inspect your work and bind your wrists."
She almost slapped him. He saw her arm twitch. Then he watched her hands move, slowly, obediently, to pick up the cloth. She gagged herself quite nicely, biting down on the cloth and making the knot behind her head good and tight. This was power, Tomas thought to himself. This was control. He could get himself drunk on it. And soon, very soon, he would be able to savor a taste far sweeter -- Zuko begging at his feet for mercy.