I betrayed Avatar Aang.
I felt like I had no choice. It was my destiny; the goal of a lifetime of training and sacrifice. It earned me my father's praise and love, and finally ended the Hundred Year War. Aang would have understood. At least, that's what I kept telling myself.
To my nation, I was a hero. To the world, I was the villain.
The Fire Nation had succeeded in conquering the other three nations, and had consolidated them into the Phoenix Empire, the greatest empire to have ever ruled the world. To commemorate his victory, my father named the capital of this great empire, New Ozai. It was supposed to be a symbol of the Fire Nation's proudest achievement, but now I only see it as a mark of my greatest shame.
Even in death however, Aang's legacy lives on. There is a new Avatar born somewhere in the Water Tribes, I just know it. It is my duty to find her and help her bring balance to the world. I believe she can help me redeem my honor and that of my nation.
I believe she can save the world.
Flat arctic tundra stretched out for miles across the South Pole, chilled by the raging blizzard that tore through the land with freezing gale force winds. Thick flurries of snow accompanied the crescendo, descending from the heavy storm clouds that blocked off the warm rays of the sun. It was a harsh time of year for the area, and water tribesmen would usually spend this time taking shelter in their homes until the storm passed.
Amongst the icy plains stood a single compound, constructed several years ago. It was a dark and imposing structure, constructed from the finest refined steel and iron. In a land where there were few recognizable landmarks, the chimneys and smoke stacks of the compound were visible for miles around, spewing into the skies so much ash and soot that it looked like it was raining black snow.
On the steel walls of the compound, hung the crimson banner of the Fire Nation
For Senna and Tonraq, who had lost their bid to escape to the Northern Water Tribe months ago, it was an unbearable experience. Senna was pregnant with their child, and aside from the trauma and strain it was causing his wife, Tonraq found the fact that their daughter would spend her life in a prison particularly heartbreaking.
But with steely resolve, they were determined to make the best of it.
Their fellow inmates had prepared a bed for Senna to make her as comfortable as she could, and Tonraq found himself swallowing his pride as he was reduced to begging the Fire Nation soldiers for spare blankets and water. The guardsmen scoffed with indifference to their plight, but soon, they had scrounged up everything they needed.
It was here, during a howling snowstorm, where Korra was born.
"We have a child now." she said softly, clutching Tonraq's hand firmly as she caught her breath, their little baby girl peacefully sleeping in Senna's arms.
"Yes." Tonraq felt his heart swell with love and admiration for his wife, for her courage and strength in facing the dangers of this prison, and for the perfect daughter they had borne.
"I have to find a way to get her out of here..." Tonraq began seriously, "I have a responsibility for her future."
Senna brushed her hand softly against her husband's cheek in comfort. She was so beautiful, he thought.
"If...If only I had taken us North earlier, this wouldn't have happened." Tonraq's voice was heavy with regret, "She would have been among our people and would have more friends and playmates to grow up with. Now...it's just this dark cell."
"If you had, then you wouldn't have been the man I married." Senna whispered, her strength still drained. "You couldn't just leave our village knowing a Fire Nation fleet was attacking. Not when there were still those who couldn't be moved in time. You aren't the type to cut and run."
He nodded softly, stroking his wife's hair as well as running his finger alongside his daughter's cheeks.
"She deserves more than this." He said fiercely.
She placed her hand over his.
"And we'll make sure she gets it, but for now. Let's just enjoy this moment." She smiled warmly.
Not for the first time, Tonraq marvelled at how optimistic Senna could be, and how infectious her attitude was as well. He smiled, embracing his new family warmly. Despite being locked in an icy steel prison in the most desolate part of the world, at that moment, Tonraq couldn't help but feel like he was the luckiest man in the world.
Fire Nation prison camps were not the best places to raise a child. They ran purely on the goal of breaking down the spirits and resistance of their captives; whether it was by imprisoning earthbenders in steel cages, or purposely depriving waterbenders of water, nothing was too harsh or unorthodox for the wardens.
With the victory of the Fire Nation and the conquest of the Earth Kingdom, the prisons suddenly took a dramatic change. They were now converted into military internment and re-education camps rather than simple prisons, in order to raise the prisoners and their families into the next generation of colonials, loyal and subservient to the Phoenix Empire. In addition to that, Fire Nation dissidents were also thrown into these military camps, to train them into penal troops used as reserve units for the front lines.
Unsurprisingly, throwing a mixture of war criminals, Fire Nation convicts, and waterbending prisoners together in an enclosed space resulted in an unstable reaction. Fistfights between prisoners over food, blankets and water became commonplace, and the guards, bored by garrison duty, allowed them to have their fun, to an extent.
Growing up in a prison afforded harsh lessons. Every day was a struggle to survive. The meek ones were usually the first to go without water, food or shelter, they huddled to the sides like pariahs, no one willing to give up any of their belongings to them, and no one willing to ally with someone who wouldn't stand up for themselves.
The majority of the prisoners were broken, despairing - waterbenders who had long forgotten what it was like to feel the spray of the ocean waves crashing on their faces, or the chilling glow of the full moon that powered their spirits.
Tonraq, with his huge size imposing for most prisoners, avoided most of the harassment when it came to the distribution of food and supplies, the guards and prisoners preferring weaker, easier prey. He gave silent thanks to the spirits daily for that, considering he had a family to feed.
When they weren't doing drills in the prison, the men were put to work in the field, carving up the ice and laying down the steel foundations for the expansion of the Fire Nation colony in the South Pole. Every day, ships from the former Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation would drop by, delivering construction materials and much needed supplies for the camp. It was up to men like Tonraq to unload the supplies, as well as take part in constructing the new colony.
It was an exhausting work load, and it was further worsened by the fact that the prisoners only received bare sustenance rations, by the end of the day, everyone was too exhausted to even stand. The warden didn't care - in his mind, it was another effective method of crowd control and preventing rebellion.
The years had passed quietly, and they watched as Korra grew up before their eyes. She was tough and stubborn with a fiery personality. It was to Tonraq's relief that they had managed to affiliate themselves with another group of families- the husbands banding together to protect their children while the wives took care of the kids and the meals.
It was also here where Korra had a chance to finally make some friends, and he smiled with pride whenever he watched his little girl take charge during the games with the children - a natural born leader, with a strong will at that. During one of the last prison fights, Senna told him how Korra almost jumped out of her arms to rush and save her dad. Tonraq had managed to make his way to their cell, a bit roughed up, but otherwise fine.
"You stay here daddy!" She declared. "There're bad men outside. I'll save you- help you beat them up!" She rolled up her sleeves fearlessly, which put a smile to his face. His daughter was born to fight, he reflected with pride.
Other days, Tonraq received the worst of it. When it became clear that he was winning too many of the prison fights (all initiated by others), the warden decided to make an example of him to keep him 'humble'. He was locked in the freezer for over two days, leaving his family worried and starving.
He almost collapsed as he made his way back to the cell. Senna embraced him tightly, with tears in her eyes, while Korra hugged him even more fiercely.
"Please daddy...don't fight anymore. Don't leave. People get hurt out there." Korra said sadly, gripping his clothes tightly.
Tonraq felt a lump pushing in the back of his throat as he brushed Korra's hair, while Senna tended to his wounds. It broke his heart to leave them every day to work in the compound, but it had to be done. They were fortunate to not have seen what he knew was outside the cell walls. He saw the broken shells that this prison created out of its inhabitants, and he swore to the spirits that he would keep fighting to protect his daughter from it, for as long as he could.
The real surprise however, came when Korra turned seven.
A howling blizzard outside had taken out the prison's generator and furnace, throwing the entire cell block into darkness as well as cutting off the heat. The firebenders, having been through the drill before, started lighting up candles in their own cells.
Senna and Tonraq were expecting another cold freezing night without heat, but to their surprise, a bright orange flame danced in the air, temporarily lighting up the cell, and the shocked faces of both Senna and Tonraq.
Realizing what she had done, a look of joy and amazement etched itself on Korra's face. She was a bender!
At that precise moment, a flurry of thoughts went through Senna and Tonraq's head. Was there a firebender in either of their family trees? Or perhaps Senna...Tonraq dismissed that thought instantly, ashamed it had even come to bear in his mind.
There was also a third option. One that was as exciting as it was dangerous.
Was their girl the Avatar?
But Avatar Aang had died had died ten years ago. Wasn't the cycle supposed to reincarnate the same year the previous avatar had died? Or at least, that was what Tonraq had thought.
Regardless, they decided it was best to keep it a secret. For Korra's sake.
It worked well enough, until one day, the Warden decided to have his men scrounge up the remaining prisoners who seemed to be the most defiant (and to him, defiant meant anything other than a broken spirited shell) to be made an example of. Before long, two firebending soldiers found themselves in Tonraq's cell, with orders to drag him off to the freezers.
As Senna pleaded for the guards to let her husband go, one of the soldiers suddenly screamed in pain as a burst of flame seared the back of his armor.
The soldier looked to his comrade in irritation, but his partner could only shrug his shoulders in confusion. It wasn't he who shot the blast.
Both men looked to the back of the room, their jaws dropping at the sight of a seven year old girl in water tribe prisoner's garbs producing a cartwheel of dancing flame.
"I'm a Firebender- you gotta deal with it!" She declared boastfully, crooking a finger at the guards as if inviting them to fight.
"Korra! No!" Senna jumped protectively in front of her daughter.
"I can take them!" Korra declared fiercely, and to that, the two soldiers burst into laughter at the ridiculous sight.
Senna found herself holding onto Korra tightly, even though her child begged her to let her go. The ridiculing laughter from the guards produced small tears in Korra's eyes as she found herself helpless in her mother's embrace.
Firebending children in the prison were nothing special, but what was unique about this was that this girl was clearly from the Southern Water Tribe, which had no history of fire bending colonials settling in with them until recently.
Eventually, one the guards made a snide comment regarding Senna, and Tonraq found himself vaulting towards the guard, blind fury etched on his face. After what seemed like an eternity, the guards called three more men to come and restrain him.
Senna accepted it all with the quiet dignity and courage that Tonraq had known her for, and if it meant keeping her daughter safe, the hostile and patronizing glares she received was a small price to pay.
It didn't take long before this 'miracle' firebender was brought before the warden of the internment camp.
"A firebender huh?" The warden, a middle-aged soldier with a mustache, watched Korra with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. Even colonials were looked down upon in the Fire Nation as second class citizens.
He watched Korra with fascination however, the little girl being held down by her shoulders by a soldier. It unnerved Senna the way the warden was looking at Korra.
He quickly turned to Senna and Tonraq.
"You should be proud. Your daughter is the first in what will be many generations of colonials that will populate the world for the glory of the Phoenix Empire. She is an example for all to follow."
"Please, don't take our daughter away from us! She is all we have left!" Senna pleaded, while several Fire Nation guards held her and her husband back.
The warden simply stroked his chin in contemplation.
"Sir...do you think it's the Avatar?" Another guard suggested in an unsure tone.
"No," The warden shook his head. "The Phoenix Lord killed the Avatar while he was in the Avatar State at Ba Sing Se years ago, the cycle is broken. Besides" the warden said confidently, "If you check the dates, it doesn't add up."
He grinned at Korra. "This is just our luck. It's good seeing the results of our colonial program coming to fruition. Your daughter will be my apprentice going forward."
"If you do anything to hurt her..." Tonraq began in a threatening tone as struggled against the guards.
"I am offering her a better life outside this pit you have come to call a home." The warden replied rudely. "If she does well enough, maybe she can earn your freedom too."
Senna and Tonraq watched in defeat as their daughter was taken away, knowing they weren't given a choice in the matter.
That night, they had imprisoned Korra in a special tower overlooking the compound. It was the first time she had been separated from her parents. The warden, overjoyed at having the chance to mold an elite colonial Firebender, quickly forgot the punishment he had for Tonraq.
That was small consolation for the couple as they watched the tower through the prison bars, only imagining how hard it was for their little girl. They didn't know if Korra knew it, but the chains that had been around her all her life had suddenly become more constricted.
It was also the night that the first rumblings of an earthquake shook the compound.
The situation was more than Tonraq could bear, and with Korra being taken away, he knew that the time was right to enact his plan.
It was with surprise that one night, Korra awoke with a start; a hand quickly covered over her mouth in bed. Fearing the worst, she prepared to send a blast of flame into her assailant until a familiar voice silenced her.
"Shhh...it's me, honey." The voice whispered protectively.
"Daddy?" Korra widened her eyes in surprise, a multitude of questions flowing through her head. How did he get into the tower, and why was he here this late?
"Tonight's the night, Korra. I'm going to get you out of here."
Tonraq took a glancing look at the hallway, where a lone torch lit the steel corridor, revealing no guards in sight.
"I've been working with the miners in the camp for months now." Tonraq explained. "There's a tunnel we've constructed that could lead us out of the compound, but we have to be quiet."
Korra nodded with a yawn. "Alright I'll go with you daddy." She fell into her father's arms, dozing off.
"That's my little girl." Tonraq whispered proudly, deciding it was best that Korra remained asleep. He carried his daughter quietly through the hallways, until he finally reached the yard where the escape party waited.
His feet crumpled softly on the snow as he slipped past several sleeping Fire Nation guards, hoping their complacency was enough to give him the opening to reach the meeting point.
As he got there however, a shout in the darkness broke the silence.
Within an instant, the entire wall of the encampment light up with fire, revealing several dozen Fire Nation guards in combat positions. Tonraq watched with a heavy heart as he saw his fellow comrades tied up in a corner, Senna among them. Someone had betrayed their location.
At this point, the bright lights and sounds woke Korra up with a start, and she began crying.
"Well hello, my little prisoners." The Warden smirked darkly. "Fine night for a stroll isn't it?
In the end, the Warden sentenced Tonraq to a week in the freezer, along with several 'special' punishments. The next time Korra saw her father was a month later, and his once huge frame had been whittled down into a bruised and battered shell. He still maintained that defiant look in his eyes whenever the Fire Guards faced him, but he was too weak to do anything, other than simply work.
She never found out what they did to him.
Korra watched her father sadly, hoping to see a flash of the old strength in him. But he was simply worn out; the years in prison had finally taken its toll on his body and spirit.
The years passed by in the blink of an eye. Senna and Tonraq were permitted to visit their daughter once every week, while she was thrown in with training with the recruits. Considering the cruelty that the warden had shown them previously, they took this as a blessing, and they wondered if this partly had to do with how well Korra had performed under his tutelage. Still, they were worried about the influence he would have on their daughter, and there was always that fear that one day, Korra would come back as someone they would not recognize.
Against all expectations, (except those of her parents, who knew her best) fourteen year old Korra proved to be a natural firebender. Her instructors, as tough as could be found in the Fire Nation military, nodded with approval, as their pupil grew faster and stronger under their watch.
Excelling at firebending won her few friends; although the other colonial recruits, spurred by her example, began to look to her as a protector and friend, most of the Fire Nation recruits looked down at her despite her skill, as if the thought of a mere 'colonial' beating them was repulsive.
She ignored their jeers, even fought back when several of the boys attempted to bully and harass her, which resulted in all of them being punished.
Some of the trainers were petty and cruel, with an obvious bias towards their 'native' fire bending recruits than the colonials. They took more delight out of administering the punishment than any other people.
"Forty push ups. Now water tribe!" The drill instructor sneered at Korra as he placed a foot onto her back, applying more and more pressure as Korra struggled to finish her sets. The other boys, Fire Nation favorites, hooted as they watched her collapse under the heel of the man, sweat dripping down her bruised body.
"Never forget where your place is, water tribe, beneath my boot." The man smirked as he walked on, leaving an enraged and exhausted Korra on the ground.
Other trainers however, took their job seriously. They were neither warm nor encouraging towards her, but they were at least fair, and Korra respected that, even if she disliked their methods.
"The power in your firebending comes from your breath! Not your muscles! We will repeat this basic exercise day and night until you get it right!" The old master chastised his pupils, it greatly annoyed Korra to have to do the sets again, as she hated repetitive training.
Still, Korra never gave up. She remembered all the sleepless nights her mother had endured waiting for her father to return from the construction sites and the prison compound, and he always came back, worn for the wear but the energy and drive still in his eyes. She would never forget that. It was the anger burning in her that gave her the strength to continue training, even if it meant aiding the very monsters that had thrown her parents in prison.
She would be strong for them. Like steel forged in brightest flame.
When the time came, she swore she would use what they taught her to finally free her family. Until then, she endured.
"I am First Lieutenant Qin," The drill instructor introduced himself to the line of recruits and prisoners. The entire line was a mix mash of firebending juvenile criminal, colonists, and the sons and daughters of the prison guards. To them, he looked every part his rank. Clean-shaven, a traditional fire nation top knot for his hair, and his red ceremonial armor lined with gold to show his status as an officer.
"Today, you will begin the first step in your journey of becoming proper Fire Nation soldiers. In addition to mastering the advanced arts of firebending, your instructors have picked you out as the brightest of the batch. Now, you will prove to me that you have what it takes to stand in that line."
"You are soldiers of the Fire Nation. Of the Phoenix Lord. Be proud warriors of fire, for today, you get a chance to show us what you are made of!"
Korra smirked, eager to get the exam over with, this was the moment she was waiting for, when she vowed she would earn her parents their freedom.
In the ten years of training she had endured since being separated from her family, Korra no longer resembled the scared little seven year old from before. She grew to be taller and stronger than her mother, taking after her father's hair and nose as well as her mother's brilliant blue eyes. She was also very fit, her muscles toned and well defined from years of hard training- not in the bulky bodybuilder sense, but in the athletic sense.
Dressed in the traditional light armor of a Fire Nation soldier, Korra had only two things that made her stand out from a regular grunt, the brown complexion of her skin, denoting her water tribe heritage, and the blue water tribe ornaments that tied her hair in a neat ponytail, with two hair pieces falling in front. Her trainers allowed that as a slight concession, for their warden's number one student.
"Every soldier, before passing on, must face an Agni Kai test. You may choose your opponent from any of these firebending instructors." The lieutenant gestured towards the three Firebending sergeants who had made the recruits' lives a living hell the past few years.
In the rough penal colony prisons, one could not be too sure of the quality of the recruits, so the idea was to see whether or not the recruits had the stomach and strength of will to fight back against their previous tormentors, and thus prove themselves worthy warriors.
Korra however, surprised everyone when she stepped up to the ceremonial fighting circle to announce her choice of opponent.
"I choose all three of you." She pointed at each of the firebender teachers with a fierce determination in her eyes, before assuming an aggressive firebending stance.
"All three?" The lieutenant asked shockingly.
"You're making a big mistake here water tribe, do you really expect to beat all three of us?" One of the sergeants growled at being mocked by the teenage girl.
Korra however, simply cracked her knuckles casually, almost beckoning them to come at her.
"Why don't you come over here and find out?"
Provoked, the three sergeants decided they had enough, and they attacked, eager to teach the teenager a lesson.
Watching from the stands, three Fire Nation masters observed the scene with avid curiosity. They had announced their arrival to the South Pole days in advance, and in preparation, the warden had arranged it so that they could witness firsthand the quality of his firebending recruits, and thus perhaps, look into approving his recent requests for more funding and reinforcements to build up the Fire Nation presence in the south.
All eyes in the balcony were on the arena however, as the three Fire Nation veterans charged at the young recruit, firing jets of flame at her as they ran. The recruit met the charge with her own, twisting her body to one side to avoid a jet of flame, while unleashing a fireball of her own.
At first, the three generals were concerned, the instructors were the best qualified firebenders in the South Pole, but the recruit attacked them head on, almost recklessly, there was no pattern to her movements, which were both fluid and brash- unorthodox to the masters, but they couldn't argue with the results.
She was holding her own.
A quick blast of flame quickly hit one of the instructors dead in the chest, knocking him down and out of the flight. Two other large balls of flame shot straight at her, but she countered it head on, dispersing it with a circular wave of her arms.
This was years of pent up frustration and anger unleashed, and in another life, she probably would have felt sorry for these losers. But not today. Not after what they did to her and her parents.
Both firebenders charged her, unleashing two solid streams of flame at her as they ran. Korra swerved to the side, nimbly dodging three of the streams while punching one of them away. She felt the heat and adrenaline coarse through her veins as the heat blast dissolved in front of her. Despite spending her life in a prison, it was these moments, when she was free to practice her forms and use her agility, that she truly felt free.
Her focus was quickly resumed as another firebender did a sweeping jump kick at her, unleashing a wheel of flame in the process. Korra however, caught him off balance, doing a forward quick roll to avoid the flame. She also tripped her opponent up in the air with her foot just as he was about to land, causing the man to stumble as he landed.
Now was her chance.
She rushed her opponent, while blocking another fireblast from behind, unleashing a huge blast, she knocked her opponent into the air, landing unceremoniously in a smoking heap on the roof of the balcony where the masters watched.
"She lacks restraint." One of the firebending masters, a well built elder with a white beard and moustache and goutee, remarked dryly with disapproval.
"Since when was that a quality we've needed from our soldiers?" The warden defended his protégé, knowing full well that Korra was putting on a good show for him in front of his superiors.
"She's strong, I'll give her that," the other master, an elderly, portly man with a large white beard, replied reprovingly. "She truly has the spirit of fire in her. I've never seen such raw talent and power. Not since Lady Azula." The mere mention of the name brought a slight flinch to the the assembled masters.
"A little bit of refinement is all she needs." the third master agreed. Of the three, it was obvious that he was the swordsman of the group, as he sported a ceremonial Fire Nation jian at his side.
"Can she be controlled? Restraint is no issue with me," the first master inquired, "But it is discipline that our armies need."
"If it's discipline, we won't have an issue, I've made arrangements for her to ensure her cooperation." The warden assured them, a dark grin etched on his face.
"I've very curious to see what else she has to offer," The second master mumbled cryptically.
The final firebending instructor, his eyes filled with hatred, circled Korra like a hawk, his stance aggressive and poised.
"You won't get out of this alive water tribe, I'll burn that stupid grin off your face." He made it out like a threat.
Korra however, didn't reply, she was in the zone, eyes focused and bursting with determination to take down her target. In the typical Fire Nation way, she attacked first, unleashing a massive fire blast into the man's face before his attack went off.
The firebending sergeant instinctively tucked his arms in to block, and that was what Korra was waiting for. Grabbing the man's hands, she split apart his block, knocking him backwards, then using his knee as a prop, jumped over his shoulder to leap above him. As she floated above him, she turned and did a spinning kick his way, unleashing another stream of flame which engulfed the man.
Dazed, the last drill sergeant stood for a split second, before finally collapsing onto his back, unconscious and smoldering.
"Hmph. Chump." Korra gave the smoking sergeant a taunting gesture, as if repaying him for the humiliation and degradation of the few ten years.
After finally reveling in her victory, she turned to face the three masters, their faces stern with contemplation.
She could hardly wait. All her life she had been told that to make the Fire Nation army was her parent's ticket to freedom, now, all she needed was to pass this firebending test, and her life would be set.
The three firebending masters looked like a bunch of grumpy old men to Korra. Two of them seemed to regard her presence with utter indifference. It was only the man in the middle, whom the warden had been whispering to, who seemed to take the most interest in her fight. Hopefully, she thought, he could be the ticket to escaping the horrible compound.
"The masters have reached their deliberations," the Warden announced, "Let me be the first to congratulate our first graduate: Private Korra, Second Class."
"WHOO-HOO!" she took off her helmet in celebration and then realizing perhaps that it wasn't the best idea to be so blunt in front of the masters, she quickly recovered herself and bowed in respect. "I mean, thank you, for believing in me."
The first firebending master raised his eyebrow at the gesture, but Korra decided to ignore it. She had so much good news to tell her parents, she couldn't wait until tomorrow.
For the first time in her seventeen years, things were finally looking up.
A/N: An idea that's been popping in my head for a while, let me know your thoughts :)
Huge thanks to Ninja-curry-girl for beta'ing this!