The door to the balcony opened with its usual metallic squeak, though Fire Lord Izumi did not so much as turn her head at the noise. Instead, her eyes were fixed to the south, towards the lip of the crater, beyond which lay the switchbacks down to the Royal Plaza. She was seated, her left arm resting on a small table with a pai sho board carved in its middle, absentmindedly twirling one of the tiles in between her fingers. Just next to her elbow lay the message she had been handed over an hour ago—a transcribed wire from the United Republic.
Despite it being the news she had been waiting for, after thanking the red-faced communications operator who delivered it, Izumi had placed it on the table and did not touch it for a quarter of an hour. At last, when it had seemed shameful to hide from it for any longer, she forced herself to read the scrawled translation. Her relief had been immediate; her son was alive. And yet, the rest...
“I thought I’d find you out here,” a familiar voice said. “I came as soon as I heard about the wire.”
“I’ve been out here all morning, Dad,” she said. From her periphery, she saw Zuko lower himself into the empty chair on the other side of the table.
They sat in silence for a solid minute, until at last he said, “Is it war?”
“Republic City has been reclaimed. Amon has fled, and the Equalists are on the run.”
“And Iroh?” There was a catch in his voice.
Izumi set the pai sho tile down and turned to study her father’s face. He looked older than she remembered, and even his scar did little to mask his tension. There was good reason for it; the last anyone in the Fire Nation had heard of her second-born, he had sailed his division of the United Forces into an Equalist ambush. “Your grandson is alive,” she answered simply. “And a hero, at that. He single-handedly destroyed a fleet of aircrafts, which allowed the reinforcements to safely retake the city.” It was good news, by all accounts. Yet somehow she couldn’t seem to take joy out of it.
Zuko looked as though he were searching for words. At last, he managed, “Dorisu and Eimi should be told.”
She gave a small nod. “Eimi has been already, but Dori’s in a meeting with the treasurer. I’ve arranged for her to be informed once it concludes.”
He studied her face. “There’s bad news too,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
Izumi picked up the message and handed it to her father. She watched him closely as he read, trying to recall the words from memory herself. Tenzin sounded practically frantic, and it was no wonder: despite the threat of the Equalists being neutralized, the First Division of the United Forces was smashed, numerous benders had their abilities stripped, and Amon escaped. Worse still, his victims included the entire police force and the Avatar, who had been left with only her airbending.
The mysterious Equalist leader had been revealed to be the son of one of Republic City’s most notorious crime bosses. Though surely no sane person would follow him after learning that, the idea of a powerful bloodbender capable of such damage going missing was past unsettling.
“The Avatar!” Zuko cried as he got to the bottom of the message.
“Do you think the bloodbending could be undone?” The last part of Tenzin’s message said that he was on his way to the South Pole, where his mother would look at Korra.
“I don’t know...maybe on the full moon. But if anyone can heal her, it’s Katara,” he answered, absentmindedly moving his hand to his chest.
“She still has her airbending,” she pointed out. “That’s more than Lin can say.” It had been some time since she had seen her ‘cousin,’ though Izumi held a certain fondness for Toph’s eldest daughter. Lin was twelve years younger, but had a seriousness about her, even as a child, that Izumi had always found endearing.
“Still, is that enough for the Avatar?” Zuko shook his head. “I wonder if her ability to enter the Spirit World may have been severed.”
Izumi picked back up the pai sho tile again, rubbing her thumb against it. “Whatever the case, she will remain our spiritual leader. We can’t change what happened to her. All we can do is focus on the other matter.” She nodded towards the message her father had placed back on the table.
“Tenzin’s requested your presence in the city.”
“Along with Chief Unalaq and Earth Queen Hou-Ting.”
“To rule?” he asked, raising his eyebrow.
She sighed. “That’s the implication, isn’t it?”
“It's officially ‘to discuss options.’”
“Aside from Tenzin, all the Councilmen are missing. The policemen don’t have their bending, and even the military suffered a great blow. Not to mention,” she said, her eyes searching her father’s face, “a radical bloodbender managed to successfully topple the government, even if it was just for a short time. These summons can only mean one thing: Tenzin intends for us to take control of the city.”
Zuko looked away. “That would call the entire Republic into question. And yet...the Council could not protect its people, as it was meant to.” He turned back, placing a hand on the table. “You must see that there are other options.”
Izumi directed her gaze back over Caldera City. “Of course I see that. And each is less promising than the last."
“When Avatar Aang, Earth King Kuei, and I formed the United Republic, it was a compromise. It was to reflect the will of the people in the colonies—our people.”
“The people of the United Republic, Dad. We can’t keep our fingers in this pot forever.”
"It was our war that created those colonies. It is our burden."
"For how long? The Equalist threat is neutralized; your grandson, a prince of the Fire Nation, neutralized it. You would have me govern in the Republic, even now?"
"I would have peace. I would have a government that once again protects its people.”
Izumi met her father’s gaze. His imploring look was almost too much for her to bear. “It is not for us to determine."
“Who else is there? The military? Its citizens?” Zuko reached across the table and touched her hand. “Izumi, for too much of my life, I have seen how easily people can be led. My uncle was the most honorable man I’ve ever known, and even he fought my great-grandfather’s war for years. There’s too much at stake. This is a conversation we cannot afford to sit out."
"I never said I intended to." She moved away from his touch. "But you cannot deny that this is a national issue for the Republic."
“It’s a national issue for a country that reflects on us. For a country that exists because of us.”
"Not every social ill is the fault of the war."
"Is that so?" There was a sharpness in his voice. "Our family pillaged this world, Izumi. When is it that you feel we earned such absolution as to be able to close our eyes now?"
Izumi frowned. She needed no reminder of their legacy. "You know that's not how I view the matter. We still pay reparations to the Air Nation, and gladly so." She sighed. "We also formed the United Republic so as to govern itself—an answer for the wrongs we committed. They will always be our allies, but I cannot go there and take charge under the false pretense that my grandfather was somehow to blame for the rise of a radical revolutionary nearly three quarters of a century later."
"No," Zuko agreed solemnly. "The blame lies with me. It was my ideas that failed.”
“Dad,” she said, suddenly feeling guilty for withdrawing her hand, “you couldn’t have foreseen this. You couldn’t have predicted a world where benders of all origin would team up and seek to exploit nonbenders.”
“No, but it was my responsibility to establish a government that could adjust with changing needs.” He shook his head sadly. “You have to make this right again. There can’t be another Amon.”
"What am I supposed to do?” Izumi asked sharply. “March our troops through the city until every triad has been eliminated?”
For a moment, Zuko was silent. But when he spoke again, his voice was pained. “If the United Republic falls apart, all the troops in the world won’t be able to put it back together, though I guarantee you they’ll be the ones called upon to try. Even I nearly re-engaged us in war over these colonies.” He pushed his chair back from the table and slowly rose. “It is up to you to fix my mistakes. You’re right; we can’t stop everyone with bad aims. But we can temper the response and prevent more blood from being spilled. It’s our duty to understand and protect people from their own passions. My duty...and now yours. I wish I could take back these burdens I've passed to you, but you are the only one who could ever handle them. The truth is, I'm an old man, Izumi. I'm an old man.” With that, he turned and walked back inside the palace.
Izumi remained where she was sitting, deep in thought. Whether for five minutes, or another hour, she could not have said. Finally, she rose and called for her guard stationed just on the other side of the door.
“Yes, Fire Lord?” she asked when she appeared, pausing to give a small bow.
“I am heading to my throne room. Please tell High General Shirou that his presence is requested.”
“Very good,” the sentry answered.
“And one more thing,” Izumi said. “Send word to High Admiral June: ‘prepare the fleet.’”