Chapter 1: The Stranger
Korra stepped out onto the bedroom balcony to observe the twilight skyline of Makapu City, the orange-red evening sun dying on the razor-sharp edges of the remaining skyscrapers skirting the horizon. A cool breeze shuffled her short, brown hair, bringing the smell of cooling asphalt and sea-salt from the city below. She took in a deep breath, savoring this rare moment of peace. Before long, the moon had begun to rise, fighting to cast its cold light against the last rays of day. As she watched Yue climb over the waters of her namesake, a soft, lilting melody reached her ears. It was ethereal, almost like someone crooning wordlessly into the evening air. Curious, but not alarmed, Korra closed her eyes and listened for the source of the music.
Mmm... there... from the gardens beneath the balcony.
Silently, she crept onto the ledge and hooked herself into a controlled descent down the wall. She landed softly, a breeze dissipating in the grass as she kicked off her boots. The cool dew made Korra's skin prickle with a delightful chill. As she settled into an Earthbending stance, she felt a heartbeat accompanying the music, deep in the rose labyrinth. She closed her eyes, letting the earth speak to her in time with the music. Korra broke her form and took a tentative step, then another, slowly walking heel-to-toe into the maze, following the fluttering heart as much as the music. With each step, the melody grew in complexity, abstracting and dissecting itself in the most delicious of ways. Korra found it difficult to use her seismic sense when the sudden flavor of mint and cold melons washed over her palate. Confused, she opened her eyes.
Before her stood a young man (woman?) pulling music from some sort of bowed instrument. The lady's (guys?) eyes were closed, seemingly lost deep within the new enigmatic melody. Korra watched their fingers dance along the ebony wood before catching a glimpse of a tattoo on the wrist wielding the bow. A bird?
This person had wild, short, black hair that swayed with their performance, and odd attire that accentuated their hips and shoulders. The face, however, was interesting: it appeared to have a mixture of longing, pain, and tenderness that made Korra's heart wrench with sympathy.
Quietly, the Avatar sat before the musician simply enjoying the music being freely given to the night air.
As the music drew to a close, Korra smiled and waved shyly, her throat dry from little talking. The young man widened her dark eyes, looked right into Korra's for an intense second, and then promptly fainted.
Alarmed, Korra rushed forward to catch the girl by his waist, just barely scooping up the instrument before it landed on the wet grass, the bow loosely clutched in the musician's hand. With a nervous whistle, the Avatar listened again, this time training her ears on the tell-tale thumps of Naga traversing the gardens.
Naga rounded the last corner of the labyrinth to find a strange person draped over her human (!!) Korra took a moment to let Naga figure out the newcomer: sniffing the messy hair (snort), the strange wood-thing (“Ah, Naga! Not for you, girl!”), and a good inspection of the face (“Good girl! I'm glad you approve!”). Pleased that she had done a good job, Naga allowed her master to load the stranger onto her back before instructing her to go back to the house.
After watching Naga and her cargo round the rosy corner, Korra inspected the instrument in her hands. The wood was warm from body heat, whether from her body or her own, she couldn't tell now. The face of the instrument held many marks, scratches and dents, yet the craftsmanship of the instrument was breathtaking, with curves reminiscent of a woman's figure. She blushed as images of her girlfriend rose to mind unbidden. Korra launched herself out of the labyrinth and back onto the balcony, where she found herself face to face with a suspicious and miffed Asami.
“Out for an evening stroll, my dear?”
She didn't sound pleased, which was nothing particularly new to Korra. They had been fighting lately, due to Asami always coming home late and Korra being absorbed with responding to natural disasters along the coast. Korra fidgeted, her thoughts subconsciously slipping into the music she had heard earlier, and to hoping that Asami didn't notice Naga coming in through the doorway with the stranger slung over her back.
“It's some sort of musical instrument. I found it down in the middle of the labyrinth.” Korra handed the instrument over to Asami for her to inspect.
She watched as her girlfriend regarded the wooden thing with mild curiosity, intent as she was on pressing Korra for more information, “And nothing else?”
Damn. Wait, why did she feel compelled to hide this information from Asami? Of all people? The Avatar fought the strange urge, the haunting melody still trailing along the edges of her thoughts, “Well, there was someone attached to it...”
Asami's slight scowl turned into a sly smile. Her tone remained hard, “I'm guessing it was that fellow I saw taking a nap on Naga's back? When I came in, he's got some weird stick thing tangled in his hands...” She looked up at Korra with a confused expression, “Why did you try to hide him from me? Did you let him into the garden?”
Him? Korra scratched her head, she was certain she had picked up a woman. Then again, it was hard to tell from afar...
“Asami, I think she's a girl.”
The heiress blinked slowly, “Girl, man, poodle-monkey, I don't care what they are. You didn't answer my question.”
Right. Focus. “Honestly, I just wasn't expecting you to be home this early, and I lost track of time. I found the stranger playing music in the garden when I was taking a break from training-” she turned towards Naga and gave a surprised shriek when she saw the stranger's head was up, dark eyes intently watching the avatar and the heiress. Silence began to steep the room.
“Uh...” Korra stepped forward, her memory of the foreign music evaporating along with the silence, “Hey, it's great to see you awake!”
The dark-haired stranger said nothing and just stared between Korra and Asami, gripping Naga's fur until her knuckles turned white.
Korra continued, wanting to clear the awkward air quickly, “What's your name? I'm Korra, this is Asami,” A small gesture over to her girlfriend, who bowed stiffly.
Again, no answer, save for the hardening stare.
Clearly offput by this stranger's prickly silence, Asami gingerly presented the instrument. The stranger's eyes widened.
“Is this yours?” Asami lured them forward and off of Naga with a stumble, the stick in her right hand twirling in a blur to avoid the floor. The motion made the two other girls jump. The stranger nodded, eyes never leaving the instrument in Asami's hands. Korra watched as Asami struggled to offer a smile, though her eyes still remained hard as stone as the stranger slowly approached them.
With a loud cough, Korra sidestepped neatly between the other two, giving the stranger a pleading look to match her stare.
“Please, tell us your name. I found you playing music in the garden. I really don't want to deck you for trespassing, but I must...”
Korra shook her head confused at the voice even more than the name. “Say again?”
A low growl accompanied the reply, “Nika, Nika Son Harald. Now, tell your wife to give me back my violin please.”
The heiress promptly handed the instrument over, brow lightly furrowed in a frown. Nika took the 'violin' with reverence, quickly strumming the four strings with a hum of approval before tucking it under her arm. The hardness in their eyes was gone, replaced with a softer, more apologetic look. All three let go of tense breaths as Nika bowed low at the waist.
“Thank you. If you please, I would like to leave now.”
Korra and Asami looked at one another uneasily. Besides being immediately branded as a couple by this total stranger - which was not something they wanted out in public just yet - Nika's demeanor was prickly, vague, and very aloof. It was well past sundown, and the nearest hostel was across the canal, a good jaunt and two ferry rides away. But to risk allowing a total stranger to stay in their home...
Korra spoke first, “O-of course, do you have a place to stay?”
Nika cocked her bushy brow, “Are you truly concerned?”
What sort of question was that? Korra frowned.
“Yes, actually. I don't recognize you or your surname.”
“Perhaps you simply have not been out in the city when I have.” What in the wide world?
Asami narrowed her eyes, her perfect red lips forming around harsh words, “Bull-hippo shit. You aren't from here. There's no 'Son Harald' name in Makapu, or any other city for that matter. So, tell me why and how you got on my property before I contact the police about more than just a trespasser...”
With a light sneer, Nika turned on his heel with a move towards the door, bumping directly into a very territorial polar bear-dog. He grunts in defeat, deciding that talking was better than being chew toy. “Fine. I'm not from here. I don't know where or when I am. Most of my stuff was stolen or scattered and I snuck onto your property to reevaluate my predicament.”
Korra scratched her head, still puzzled over Nika's murky words. Asami spoke up first, voice high and tense.
“Thank you for opening up. Can you please wait outside the door? I want to talk to... my wife... about how to help you out,” she added, “Please don't go anywhere, I can't guarantee that Naga won't chase after you.”
A brief silence, then a grunt, before Nika edged his way around an alert Naga and out the door. Korra shooed Naga into the hallway with Nika, slid the door shut and whirled on Asami. “What in the wide world was that?”
Asami tilted her head in mock innocence,“What?”
Korra made a few wild gestures, all of them as vague as Nika's answers. Finally she spoke plainly, “Aren't you a business woman?! I thought 'tact' was one of those things that you'd be good at!”
The heiress scoffed and waved an errant hand, “It's late, it's my property, and he stinks of deceit. I have half a mind to turn him out on his ass for his piss-poor behavior.”
Greatly disliking her girlfriend's acidic words, Korra rebutted, “Wouldn't you be nervous and scared if you were robbed and lost in this city? She-”
“Korra, HE talks in circles and generalizations! On top of that, he was wandering my gardens and failed to give us a real explanation on why he was here as opposed to a hostel or inn. For all I know, he could be some assassin hired by a competitor, or worse, hired by your-”
The Avatar shook her finger angrily under Asami's nose, “That is unfair and you know it! Besides, if they were an assassin, we'd be dead or fighting by now.” She sighed heavily and took hold of Asami's hands, voice pleading, “Let her stay the night. If you're really worried, I can leave Naga in her room to watch her.”
Both women stared each other down, unwilling to back down. Korra broke the stalemate with a gentle kiss to her girlfriend's knuckles.
“Babe, I need you to trust me on this one. Let her stay.” Her blue eyes widened, trying to convey her compassion.
Asami's face faltered, then fell in tired acquiescence. “Alright. But I want him out by morning.”
Grinning from ear to ear, Korra threw her arms around her girlfriend's neck accompanied with a sloppy kiss to her cheek. “Thank you for your hospitality. I'm sure Nika will appreciate your kindness. I certainly do.”
Before Asami could reply, Korra whisked out of the bedroom with a cool gust of air.
Nika was waiting lazily by the door, idly tapping her fingers along the instrument's strings. She had sunken into Naga's side, who had decided to nap on the job. Korra rolled her eyes and smiled stiffly, “Hey Nika. I see you've made a friend.”
The stranger gave a tired smile as she scratched behind Naga's right ear with the tip of her bow, causing the beast's leg to jump erratically.
Korra cleared her throat loudly and gently nudged her reluctant girlfriend forward.
“Ah, yes, would you please stay the night? I have a spare bedroom and shower... I suppose if you're peckish, I can have Lung bring you supper. Naga will keep you company for the night.”
The stranger looked up at Asami, briefly spellbound by something in her girlfriend's face. Korra could almost see the gears turning in the stranger's head.
Korra chimed in, trying to be helpful, “It has a great view of Makapu. You can see out into the city for miles! Plus, the gardens mute the city noise, so you don't have to worry about traffic waking you up! Also- “
Nika held up his bow hand, muttering thanks as he wearily rose to his feet. She looked the heiress dead in the eyes, her face straining a genuine smile.
“I'm not hungry, thank you. Though, I will take you up on your lodging offer. I promise to leave it better than I find it.”
The heiress' left eye twitched. “Please, follow me.”
In long strides, she took off down the hallway, leaving Korra and Nika half-jogging in her wake. After passing five ornate, red doors and turning left down a dark corridor, Asami stopped before the last door, heavy and unpainted. “Here we are,” she purred.
Korra furrowed her brow, “Asami, isn't this-”
“Yes, the spare room dear. Here you are, Nika. If you need assistance with anything, ring the bell on the bedside. Lung will come straight away to help. Goodnight.”
The Avatar watched her girlfriend pass by her back down the corridor, confused but unwilling to let it be. She bade Nika a hasty goodnight before taking off after Asami, leaving the stranger with Naga in the 'spare room'.
Korra found Asami just as she was entering her bedroom suite. She hissed indignantly, “Asami, you put her in your mom's old room?”
Asami whirled on Korra, her prim facade cracked with anger, “I am done, I am tired, and you strong-armed me into offering my home to a total stranger when all I wanted was to spend the few hours I have awake with you, alone. I think it would be best if you took the spare room tonight.” With that, she shut the bedroom door sharply behind her, narrowly missing Korra's nose.
Chapter 2: Critical Inquiry I
Recommended Track: Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5
Ch. 2 – Critical Inquiry I
The next morning found Korra in a foul mood soured by a cold bed. She had shot the breakfast bell off of its chain with a water lash, scalded herself with too-hot water in the shower, and had been up since dawn due to the horrid screeching sounds coming from Asami’s mother’s old room. When she had stomped down the hallway and banged on the door, Nika had not responded, and the high-pitched squeals only grew louder in an attempt to drown out her hammering.
Unwilling to break down the door in a rage, Korra instead lumbered down the stairs and into the dining room to find some sustenance and peace away from Nika's shrill morning routine. Instead, she found Asami taking her tea and breakfast while she primly perused the day’s paper.
She didn’t look up from her current article as she spoke genially, “Good morning, darling. Sleep well, I hope?”
The Avatar’s look darkened, her grumpiness over last night overriding any friendly reply, “S’fine.” She began making her way over to the serving table, which was laden with light fare and a silver pot full of hot tea.
“Seems like our guest is an early riser. Nika has been making some… interesting music for over an hour since sunrise. I’m hoping it’s just a practice routine, or else I may accuse you of having no musical taste,” she chuckled, turning the page of her newspaper with a soft crinkle, “However, if he doesn’t come down soon, he will miss breakfast before Chief Beifong gets here.“
Slam! A dent suddenly appeared in the serving table directly beneath Korra’s fist. “You called the police!? After we told Nika we wouldn’t??”
Another page crisply turned, “No. I called Chief Beifong and told her about a possible missing person trespassing on my property in the dead of night. Whether she comes alone or not is not under my control.”
Smoke coiled from Korra’s nose as she glared at Asami, indignant that her word had been broken but unwilling to say anything further. The heiress looked up from her paper briefly, her expression softening somewhat when their eyes met.
The heiress sighed, voice laden with guilt, “Look, you were right. We’re not dead or fighting, and so far, the worst Nika has done is facilitate a rather grumpy morning for the both of us. However, it would be best if he gets professional help finding his stolen items-“
“-and get out of your hair. I get it.” Korra finished with a growl, smoke billowing from her mouth.
A hot, heavy silence filled the room as the smoke began to dissipate through the open windows. Someone cleared their throat by the dining room entrance.
“Good morning, ladies.”
Both Korra and Asami whipped their heads toward the doorway, where Nika stood at the base of the stairwell. Awkwardly, the stranger continued forward, keeping her eyes on the two as she spoke, “I’m sorry to have caused a disturbance this morning. I’ll take my leave if-“
Asami interrupted with a fake smile, “Nonsense. You were promised food and a place to rest. The least I can do is follow through on my word. Please, sir, serve yourself some breakfast. Lung has prepared congee, eggs, and fruit, along with some jasmine tea.”
Korra scoffed and turned back to the serving table. She couldn't handle Asami's duplicitous nature sometimes. Then again, she thought, she wasn't acting much better, if last night was any indication. Maybe this is what Bolin meant when he said that thing about couples sharing behaviors after being together for a long while, good or bad...
Nika replied amiably, shaking Korra from her errant thoughts, “Thank you for your hospitality.”
He made his way over to the serving table, queuing up next to Korra, who was busily slopping food onto her plate before striding over to the dining table. She sat opposite Asami, a considerable distance between them. The stranger took his time selecting what to eat before joining the two ladies at the table.
As the three of them ate in relative silence, Korra stole glances towards Nika, still bothered about the shrill noises she had made while practicing earlier that morning. She did a double take when she noticed a silver pendant emblazoned with three spirals dangling at Nika’s neck. Korra nearly choked on her egg when she spoke suddenly, “H-ugh, ahem. Hey, Nika, what’s the symbol on your necklace mean?”
The musician looked down and shrugged, “It means a lot of things, the least of which is life, death, and rebirth.” She fingered the pendant idly before tucking it back under her shirt.
“It reminds me of the Air Nomad symbol. Are you some sort of wandering musician?”
Nika furrowed her brow as she paused, contemplating Korra’s words, “I, uh, no. I’m not sure I quite understand what an Air Nomad is, but yes, you could call me a traveling bard.”
Before Korra could inquire further, Asami’s butler, Lung, appeared in the doorway and announced loudly, “Lady Asami, a Detective Mako is at the door on behalf of the police department. Shall I escort-“
Asami cursed and set her paper on the table with heavy hands, rattling the porcelain and startling the other two diners. She quickly collected herself.
“Have him come in. He knows how to find the dining room.”
Lung bowed. “Very good, ma’am.” He left quicker than he came.
After a minute of uneasy silence, a tall man in a grey-gold uniform walked in from the dining room door, a flat cap under his arm and goggles dangling from his gloved hand. The other hand was loosening a red scarf around his neck as he sat himself down at the table without introduction.
Asami started indignantly, “I asked Chief Beifong-“
The detective held up a hand, “Let me stop you there, and allow me to explain. The Chief is currently caught up with a series of robberies that happened last night in the ‘Boroughs. She sent me here in her stead to come investigate the missing person query you put in this morning.” He then promptly ignored a furious Asami and looked to Korra. “Hey Avatar. How’s living in the limelight with Miss Queen of Progress over here?” He jerked a thumb at Asami, a crooked half-smile on his face.
The Avatar barked out a short, harsh laugh before replying sarcastically, “It’s like walking through a rose garden. Thanks for asking about our personal life in front of a complete stranger, Detective.”
“No problem,” he chuckled, procuring a notebook and pen from his uniform coat. The detective continued in a kinder tone, “I do care about how you two are holding out. Makapu, as a whole, still hasn’t changed its stance on-“
Asami cut in, voice hard as steel, “Why are you here again, Mako?”
With a sigh, the detective rolled his eyes and turned towards Nika, who had been looking uneasily between the newcomer and the two ladies who had ‘graciously’ hosted her the previous night. She looked as if she would jump out of her skin at any sudden movements, so Mako adopted what he liked to call his ‘copper voice’.
“Good morning to you. As you may have already figured out, my name is Detective Mako, and I’m with the Makapu City Security and Police Department,” here he opened his notebook and put the pen to the page, taking notes on Nika’s appearance and demeanor before continuing, “I’m here to find out if you may be one of the people in our missing persons file, and to get to the bottom of why you were trespassing on private property. Please understand that I am not paid to make judgments on who I interview, nor am I responsible for anyone’s outcome once this information is processed. I am here to gather what information I can, and that sometimes involves talking to people.” Here he made eye contact with Nika, “If you do not understand a question, please ask me to clarify, and be truthful in your statements. Does this sound agreeable?”
Nika, seemingly hypnotized by Mako, nodded dumbly and did her best to relax in her seat. The other two mumbled agreements, rolling their eyes as they watched the stranger fall for what they assumed was Mako’s good looks.
The detective, solely focused on the task at hand, continued, “Good. May I have your full name please?” His pen stood at the ready as he looked expectantly at Nika.
“Nika Son Harald.”
“Any special characters for that last name?”
“What characters do you use for your last name?”
“… Capital ess, oh, en, space, capital aych-“
Mako held up his hand, folded over his notepad, and handed her a blank sheet, along with the pen. “If you can, please write your name.”
Nika took a deep breath before accepting the paper and pen. The sound of scratching filled the air as she wrote her name. When she handed it back over, Mako’s brow wrinkled, his golden gaze following something busily on the page. He passed the notepad to Korra without a word, still focused on giving questions.
Korra's brow furrowed with deep confusion as she looked over Nika's work. Instead of writing, the page held a hasty but detailed sketch of two men in strange, archaic-looking armor standing side by side on top of what looked like a slain wolf. The taller of the two men held some sort of flag or standard; the shorter, holding the taller figure’s hand, brandished a sword dripping with the beast’s blood above his head. She pursed her lips. This poor fool was illiterate.
The detective hid a surprised expression as he made a motion for the notebook back, scribbling something before flipping to the next page. He looked back up at Nika, face unreadable, and nodded, “Thank you. Please, tell me how you came to Makapu City.”
A sigh, before a tentative reply, “I was on my way to a play at a symphony concert. I took a left turn onto what I thought was Howard Street and found myself in an unfamiliar alleyway.”
Howard Street? Korra mulled over the strange name as Mako continued his query, “Where was the concert located? Does the venue have a name?”
The stranger started rambling, “Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It’s located off of Cathedral Street, West Preston Street, and Park Avenue. Baltimore City, Maryland… United States.” Nika looked like she wanted to say more, but instead she licked her lips and took a shallow breath.
Mako held up his hand, his voice tight, “One moment.” His pen scratched madly into the paper, only pausing to flip to the next page. All three of them watched Nika intently. Even Asami, who had stubbornly been reading the news for most of the interview, had slowly lowered her paper so she could watch the unfamiliar names tumble out of Nika's mouth. As Mako wrote furiously, Korra suddenly found her voice, “Nika… those places… we don't recognize them. What country are you from? Earth Federation? Fire Nation? Water Tribe?”
Before the stranger could reply, Mako gave Korra a stern look, still scribbling in his notebook. “Please, leave the questions to me. I can only write so fast.”
The stranger decided to take the opportunity to try and eat some of her breakfast. Mako immediately looked to Nika, hand still and notebook at the ready, “As concisely as you can, please tell me exactly what happened after you found yourself in the strange alley.”
Quickly swigging some tea to wash down a mouthful of cold congee, Nika took a moment before she began speaking, “I slowly drove for a minute or two, taking care not to knock any property over, when I was accosted by three people in dark clothing. They had their faces hidden, but the one that spoke was big and masculine. He demanded that I stop and get out of my vehicle. When I didn’t, he stood back and thrust his arms out at me… I thought I was going to have something hit me, so I ducked behind my steering column. My car abruptly stopped- I must have hit something he threw, but I didn’t see him throw anything- and I bumped my head on the wheel. When I looked back up, one of the other two had hopped onto the hood of my car, pointing his fists at me like he was going to punch a hole in my windshield. I got spooked, unbuckled my seat belt, and ducked into the back seat. I was set on running: anyone crazy enough to stop a moving vehicle, let alone three people, is not worth dealing with. I took my violin and exited through the passenger door, and I ran for my life in the direction I came,” Nika’s tone wavered, “I… didn’t recognize anything around me. I just kept running. At each turn, I kept going right, hoping desperately that I would find myself in familiar territory, and I even tried going left several times… nothing made sense,” her tone broke, “Nothing makes sense…”
Mako interrupted softly, “Thank you, you can stop there. Please, go ahead and finish your meal. If its alright with you, I’m going to take Miss Asami aside for a moment and ask her some questions in private.” With that he got up stiffly from his chair and motioned for Asami to follow him upstairs, leaving Nika and Korra alone in a heavy, awkward silence.
Chapter 3: Critical Inquiry II
Recommended Track: Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E minor, "From The New World"
Addendum_2: I seem to have double posted this weekend. Sometimes this happens. It seemed appropriate for these two chapters, at least.
When Mako and Asami left the dining hall, Korra let loose a sigh of relief. She finished her breakfast in record time, not wanting to let her cold food go to waste. Afterwards, she looked over at Nika with a nervous grin.
Her face fell when she noticed the musician wiping away fallen tears, her free hand clutching her hair so hard her knuckles turned white. Nika stared blankly at her food as she forced her breathing into a regular pattern.
Korra, overcome with concern, spoke up, “Hey, its going to be okay. You’re in good company, even if my girlfriend is being... defensive. Mako is a fantastic detective, and he should be able to help you find your stolen stuff in no time. But if you're still not comfortable, you can always talk to me. I’m the Avatar- it’s my job to help people in need.” An awkward chuckle, followed by more silence as she saw that Nika’s mood did not improve.
“Nika… do you want to leave? I won’t stop you if you do, but I can't guarantee that you won't be followed.”
No response again, other than the musician’s shoulders slowly climbing to her ears in mounting stress.
“Okay… do you want me to show you around the city? Maybe take you somewhere you can have a nice experience?”
Nika mumbled something unintelligible.
“I’m sorry, what?”
A deep, shaky breath. “Somewhere quiet. No other people. I’ll talk, so long as I can ask some questions, too.”
The Avatar sat up straight, ready to move, “Sure thing. Do you need to get anything from the room? I can go get your stuff for you. I know all the shortcuts in this mansion, so it won’t take but a minute.”
Nika looked mildly puzzled, but nodded anyway.
“Great! Meet me in the middle of the labyrinth. Do you remember how to get back there?”
Another nod before the stranger got up from her chair and started walking briskly towards the open window. With little grace, she tucked and rolled out of the opening, landing into an ungainly crouch outside. Korra shrugged. Not everyone had her exceptional agility, after all.
Not wanting to waste any more time, Korra scrawled a note on a napkin with one of Mako’s abandoned pens, left it on the table, and followed her out the window. Nika had already disappeared behind the first rosebush wall when the Avatar launched herself four stories into the air and onto an overhanging balcony. From here, Korra continued forward stealthily, quietly peering through the ornate glass door into the bedroom before checking the handle.
Huh. Unlocked. Korra stepped inside quietly, letting the door swing without a squeak as she took in her surroundings.
This was Asami’s mom’s old bedroom; a partially abandoned room with a light layer of dust topping the dark, wooden furniture. Asami had already moved any of Yasuko's personal belongings to new locations in the mansion, but hardly anyone came around to clean this room, let alone live in it. Most of the furnishings were covered in white sheets; some, though, had been removed and were folded neatly on a covered chair nearby. Over on the bedside desk lay Nika’s violin and bow, along with a small black journal and what looked like a wallet stuffed with cards. She gathered the items together, double checking for anything out of place before she made her way back outside. After locking and shutting the door behind her, Korra took a deep breath and vaulted off the balcony. Just as she approached the ground, she blew down hard, allowing a gust of air to ease her descent before she landed. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she took off into the labyrinth after Nika.
She found the stranger standing in the same spot where she had found her the first time. The sun above revealed Nika to be frantically going through what she assumed to be the violin case, partially damp from morning dew. Korra jogged up and brandished the stranger's belongings, “Hey Nika, I’ve got all your things, I think.”
Nika whipped her head around, eyes wide in panic as she scrambled to get Korra to stop waving her precious instrument around like a rag doll, “Ah! Uh, thank you. Hold on, this case is almost dry-“
“I’ll handle that. We don’t have much time.” The stranger quickly took her items, a suspicious frown flickering across her face as she watched Korra assume a Waterbending stance. The Avatar made a series of flowing gestures away from the case, drawing several thin streams of water away from the soaked velvet. When she knelt to feel that no more moisture lingered inside the fabric, Korra looked up at Nika and grinned, “There you go! Perfectly dry.”
The musician’s jaw hung open for several seconds, utter shock cracking the frown she previously wore. In a low voice, she hissed, “Korra… what was that? What did you just do?!”
Korra replied hastily, mildly annoyed at Nika's ignorance, “I just bent the water out of your case, nothing weird. C’mon, we need to move before they realize we’re gone.”
Quietly sputtering gibberish under her breath, the musician deconstructed the shoulder rest from the instrument before stowing the lot away. When the last latch was secured, Nika stood shakily to her feet and gave Korra a nod.
“Alright, let’s go. Follow closely and try to keep quiet.”
The pair snuck their way out to the opposite side of the labyrinth where they were met with a tall, platinum fence. Korra clicked her tongue in annoyance before turning to Nika, “Do you trust me?”
“So far, but can you please explain-“
“Hold tight to my waist.”
The musician blushed hard and backpedaled, “Excuse me?“
“Do you want to find answers now?”
Nika closed her eyes and took a deep breath, replying in a low growl, “Yes, please.”
“I promise I will tell you everything I can. But you have to wait until we get off of Asami's property. Right now, we have to get over this fence. Hold onto my waist.”
Korra held her arms open. Reluctantly, Nika stepped into her and brought her free arm around tightly around the Avatar’s waist. With her other arm, the musician clutched her violin case for dear life.
“Okay. Ready, I think…” Her face was fully flushed, and she avoided Korra’s gaze.
“On the count of three, I’m going to jump us over the fence. Keep your legs tucked and be prepared to land on your feet. One… Two… Three!”
Nika bit her lip hard to stifle a scream as Korra stomped hard on the earth beneath her, sending the pair flying in an arc over the fence and halfway down the street. The Avatar made a series of smooth, cyclical motions with her free arm, a cushion of wind flowing backwards against them to slow their descent. As soon as they touched down, Nika broke away from Korra, still blushing madly and spitting blood from her mouth.
Korra grimaced when she saw the musician’s face, “Sorry, I’ll help you with that later. Come on, it’s just a short jog this way.”
The run to the docks was uneventful, at least. Korra made sure to take the least traveled path through the city in order to make it there unnoticed, but had to slow down every so often to allow Nika to catch up. Even so, they made it to the pro-bending arena, currently closed to the public in preparation for the Pro-Bending Tournaments in several weeks. Korra snuck themselves through the service entrance, which was guarded by a nonchalant security officer who was more interested in his comic strips than his surroundings. Several flights of stairs and a few doors later, Korra slowed down at a rusty metal trap door and declared proudly, “Here we are! My thinking space; a safe haven. No one wants to find this place, since everyone thinks this room is haunted... I may or may not have something to do with that,” she opened the door and gestured with a flourish for the musician to enter first.
Nika slowly climbed up the stairs and peered inside. The room was on top of the arena, with large glass windows, clouded with age, facing in all directions of the horizon. The roof was low, but in the rafters hung strings of baubles and lights, woven between electrical cords and what looked like thick ship’s line. What furniture was there were mismatched, and consisted of mainly large cushions of various sizes, shapes and colors. There were some scrolls piled in a heap in one corner, a few candles in a row on a shelf in another, and something shaped like a large club wrapped in cloth tucked under one of the bigger red cushions. The musician hesitated briefly before finally stepping up into the room, allowing Korra to come up after her and shut the trap door with a click.
“Alright! Now we can relax.” Hoping her enthusiasm and change of surroundings would help Nika settle down, Korra made her way over to a small purple sitting cushion, stretching out her limbs as she sat.
The musician opted to take the red cushion hiding the club, setting the case down beside her in such a way as to block Korra’s view of the weapon. Nika took a shaky breath before asking in a low tone, “Where am I?”
Korra stated easily, “You’re inside the Pro-Bending Arena, top floor, in Makapu City, which is on the mainland.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Uh… to the south west, there are the Fire Nation islands. To the east and north, there is the Earth Federation. If you go south or north a long way, you’ll run into one of the Water Tribes. I don’t recommend going to either, especially after the war.”
Nika furrowed her brow, “War? Which war? The Syrian Civil War? The War on Terror?”
Korra frowned, matching Nika's confused tone, “The Lightning War. The Northern Alliance lost their assault against the Coalition and retreated back to the North Pole. It’s all over the newspapers, the radio, mover theaters… ”
The two of them regarded one another, thoroughly puzzled. Korra took a moment to properly size up Nika: short, black hair, closely shaved on either side of her head, dark complexion, deep brown eyes, androgynous, bottom-heavy build, thick forearms with well-kept hands. Her posture was good, even though she kept sinking into the red cushion, causing her to readjust her position every few minutes. The clothes she wore suggested a mobile lifestyle, and the overall color ensemble of the outfit hinted at Earth Federation-make, but the shoes were the strangest part of the outfit: black, soled in rubber, like cop shoes, and were laced to the ankle. Looking back up to the stranger's face, Korra gave a small start when she noticed how intently Nika was looking at her. The Avatar kept her face even, hoping that the other would ask another question before her dark gaze split her in half. After a moment, though, Nika shook her head, muttered more gibberish, and reached down to unzip the top of her violin case, retrieving the black journal and a fancy-looking metal pen. She flipped to a page and began taking what she assumed were notes, though she was doing it all wrong. Who writes from left to write in a horizontal line, anyway?
Korra broke the silence, unable to reign in her curiosity, “Can I ask you a question?”
Scribble-scribble. Nika's pen never stopped when she replied, “Go ahead.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but… were you born under a boulder? And what’s with the weird names? I’ve never heard of a name like ‘Howard’ or ‘Preston’.”
“They are American names. I’m from the United States of America. And as far as I’m aware, I stay relatively up to date on worldly matters,” Nika frowned, making a series of loops with the pen before dotting something and closing the book.
“Those aren’t names that I know of, Nika. Whatever ‘America’ is, I don’t think it exists here. Or any of the other things you mentioned, for that matter… The planet is a pretty big place, though, and so is the spirit world-“
Nika broke down into a fit of sobs, moaning about ‘things not making sense’, strings of harsh gibberish, and several audible curses that made Korra flinch. She probably should not have mentioned the spirit world thing.
The Avatar scooted her cushion closer to Nika, doing her best to console her from a polite distance. “Hey now, it’s alright, let it out… Here, let me get you some water.”
Korra got up and went over to a hook in the wall where some water skins were hanging. She took a full one, checked it for freshness, and brought it back to the weeping musician. Nika took a gulping breath before accepting the skin, taking a long pull from the container before wiping her mouth and wincing. Her hand came away from her face stained with some blood.
“Ah, right. Do you want me to heal that cut for you?”
A sniffle, then surprisingly, a soft chuckle, “I’m not sure what that entails, coming from you. I think I just need some disinfectant and a clean rag, if you please.”
Korra narrowed her eyes, “What do you mean, coming from me?”
Just as quickly as it had come, Nika's smirk twisted into a scowl, “You… you waggled your arms at my case and took the water out, you made the ground launch us over a fence, well over fifty feet in distance, and we didn’t die from impact. You refer to yourself as ‘the Avatar’, and you say it like it means something important. What is any of that and what does it mean!?”
Korra scratched her head and sat back, tiredly reciting the full title, “I’m Avatar Korra, Soon-to-Be-Master of All Four Elements, and Bridge to the Spirit World. I can bend all four elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Not very good with air yet, though I’m trying to practice constantly. My fire is a little rusty too, come to think of it…”
“What is ‘bending’, some sort of witchcraft? Or... no... the singularity didn't happen, did it? I'm not living in a computer, am I?” Nika’s voice was tinged with fear, her eyes darting between Korra and the scrolls in the corner of the room.
“What is a computer? And no, this isn’t witchcraft. It’s bending. Some people have it, some people don’t… How can you not know about bending?”
“Easy. Bending doesn’t exist where I’m from.”
The concept made Korra’s brain hurt and spirit falter. A place with no bending? At all? “What… how…?”
“There is no spirit world, as far as I can perceive with my senses, and no magic either. Some people believe in that stuff, but I tend to take a step away from beliefs with no grounds in reality,” she scoffed and shook her head, “whatever that means. I’m convinced. My cuck of a mate must have laced my lunchtime blunt…”
Korra blinked several times and pinched the bridge of her nose. Maybe she was going about this all wrong.
“What planet are you from? This is Earth.”
“…I’m also from Earth. Third rock from the Sun.”
“Yeah, in my solar system, we have eight planets, although a lot of people also believe there is a ninth, and really need to cool their chops and accept the facts given by people paid to map the stars for a living.”
“Scholars say that there are eight in ours, too. I forget where we are exactly in that order, but I know that we might be having a once-in-a-lifetime planet alignment event soon. Does that remind you of anything?”
“No, but there was a solar eclipse about a month ago. Did that happen for… this Earth?”
“No, we haven’t had one in five years, and the next one isn’t expected for another fifteen,” Korra grew impatient, frustrated at the similarities more than the incongruences between their shared information. She took a steadying breath before turning back towards the hooks in the wall. She selected another smaller skin and downed the contents, wiping the burning liquid from her lips before stoppering the lid. Rolling her neck, she counted to ten and let her mind settle.
Nika spoke up, “Do you know what’s outside this solar system?” The sound of writing and quick page turns came from her direction.
Korra replied without turning back around from the wall, “No, just the Void. Just more stars,” she turned back and sat next to Nika once more.
Without a word, Nika handed Korra the black journal to her, open on an image of a sort of map. She saw symbols and circles, all labeled in a sideways scrawl that made her squint. She counted nine circles, with the one on the far left of the page being the largest, and covered in cartoonish rays. Beyond the nine circles was a cloudy ring, and beyond that a strange scribble that was indicated to be travelling out of the ring of shadowy clouds. Nika pointed to this figure and spoke, “That’s the only thing my Earth has made that has gone further than our planets, beyond the Oort Cloud. It’s a satellite, a sort of beautiful gesture to the cold vacuum of space. There is mostly nothing outside my solar system, but our scientists made extensive maps of the stars we could detect, and even managed to map out the heat signature of the universe-“
Korra held up her hands, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not sure what that last bit was, but here’s what I can tell so far: you’re either absolutely insane, which doesn’t explain the instrument, or you somehow… were educated incorrectly. Which still doesn’t explain the instrument. Augh!” She threw her hands down in frustration.
Nika looked down at her instrument case, “My instrument? It’s just a normal violin.”
“Don’t say normal. Very little about you is ‘normal’.”
“I could say the same exact thing about you.”
The Avatar took a calming breath before replying, “Look, we diverged a long time ago from the question of me healing your lip. Let’s start with that, and we’ll continue our larger discussion later. Agreed?”
“…Okay. You can do it. Just… don’t turn my face inside out without pain meds, I really-“
“What? Ugh, spirits, no! It’s just Waterbending, only healing this time.”
“And that doesn’t turn my face inside out? My body is mostly made of water…”
Korra rolled her eyes, “That’s the point of water healing. Now hold still. This won’t hurt, most likely tingle where the wound is…”
With a gentle wave of her hand, Korra drew a stream of water from Nika’s canteen. It formed an amorphous blob around her hand before it began to emit a soft glow. The musician panicked and scooted back further into the large cushion. The Avatar stopped and waited.
Seeing that Korra wasn’t going to move any further and invade her space, Nika calmed down visibly and tentatively sat back up, leaned forward, and closed her eyes tight.
Korra sighed with relief and cupped Nika’s cheek, massaging the water back and forth across the lower half of her face. The warmth of her skin radiated even through the water, and the glow revealed the tight lines near her eyes start to slacken as the water continued to coax the wound shut. Once fully sealed, the Avatar drew her hand away and slung the water into a large bucket near one of the many windows. “There. All done.”
Without opening her eyes, Nika touched where her lip wound would have been. Instead, she found smooth skin. Her eyes opened, revealing an expression of pure awe. “Are you a god?”
Korra snorted a genuine laugh. “Oh, no. I’m just someone who wants to help. And who happens to know water healing techniques from the best teachers out there.”
“You must be a god. You’re full of it.”
“Full of what?”
A mischievous smile flickered across Nika’s face, “Full of shit.”
Korra quirked her eyebrow at the stranger, “I could say the same exact thing about you.”
Nika laughed heartily at that, leaning back in her cushion. Korra smiled, glad that she was finally starting to relax. She spied the three-spiral pendant dangling freely around the musician’s neck, jostled loose during their escape of Asami’s mansion. An idea struck her.
“Hey, if you’re feeling up for it, we should check out some of the popular sights. You’ve seen some of the Arena already, but you should see Air Temple Island. It has beautiful gardens and has some of the brightest scholar-monks I know of. I take my air bending lessons there with Master Tenzin. Maybe he might know where we need to look to find some answers. If not him, then perhaps Master Jinora… what do you think?”
The musician leaned her head back and sighed, seemingly reluctant to move. After a moment of silence, she replied, “I don’t know if I want to sleep again, or if I should get up and move. I’m still so confused as to how I even got here, let alone what all there is to see in this city.” An easy silence stretched thin between them as Korra waited for a clear answer, “Also, isn’t that detective going to be looking for us? I’m pretty sure you took me away from an official investigation.”
Korra shrugged meekly, “Honestly, I promised that I’d bring them back to you after I talked to you. At the very least, we’ll be meeting up with them sooner or later to get to the bottom of all this... 'America' business. Plus, Mako will probably want to know what your stolen stuff looks like so he can keep an eye out for it.”
Looking a little crestfallen, Nika regained her composure and sat back up in her cushion as well as she could. “Very well. I wasn’t expecting to see that property returned, but if there is a chance, I’d like to have a few more familiar things back in my possession. Plus, I’d like to meet your wife on better terms, and properly thank y'all for your help and hospitality,” the musician stood, gathering her case in her hand, “Let’s go see that Master Tenzin or Master Jinora you mentioned.”
“Awesome! Let’s- wait, why do you say ‘wife’?”
Chapter 4: Dark Reflections
Sorry for the delay, here is another chapter.
EDIT: Recommended Listening: Berlioz's 'Symphony fantastique', 1st Mvt
‘Off to show Nika the city. Will bring her back later. Korra.’
Mako turned the napkin over a few times to make sure he didn’t miss anything before passing it off to a very livid Asami. She eyed the writing, her gaze aflame.
The detective coughed, “Well… I suppose that solves that, then.” He started slipping into his trench coat, back purposefully to the heiress. As he turned to face her, Mako gave a start at the murderous look she had for him.
“You’re letting them go?!”
“She’s off of your property now!” Mako nearly bellowed, “Wasn’t that the whole objective of getting the police involved?” He angrily fixed his personal belongings and strode towards the door. For a moment he paused in the doorway, contemplating something. His tone was pained when he glanced over his shoulder at the fuming heiress, “Korra’s got this one covered, apparently. In the meantime, I’ve got other work I have to finish, and so do you.”
Lung softly shut the door behind him. Asami’s face broke immediately, brief frustration twisting her lips and knitting her brow. As quickly as her expression changed, she took a deep breath and willed the muscles in her face to relax. She reasoned to herself that Korra’s lack of affection and current flighty behavior were due to her frustrating emergency schedule, and that she just needed to find ways of engaging with her when they both weren't working. A pang of guilt hit Asami, deep and ugly.
Right. Working. It was all she did nowadays. She made her way to her study even as she lamented how little time she devoted to the rest of her life, her friends… Korra…
Asami took in her study for a moment: a stable, square room, lined with ceiling-high bookshelves on the left and right walls, and a messy drafting desk in the center of the room. The back wall was glass, pristine and clearly displaying the rolling cityscape of Makapu’s Bayou Bend District. Clean lawns, trimmed hedges, and crystalline waters that ran through the great public aqueducts that she helped to design two summers ago. She shuddered, thinking of the condition she found it in after Shelling Day.
Lung’s voice intruded from the doorway, “Milady, may I interest you in some more tea? I brought today’s agenda, and some new parcels. I think one of them may be that prototype you ordered.”
The heiress stood straight and shook the dust of memory from her thoughts, “Ah, yes please to both the tea and the mail. And have my roadster ready for me in 15 minutes. I have to travel to the far end of Dragon Flats Burroughs to bid on prime real estate before those buffoons over at World Source scoop it up.”
Lung pursed his lips and bowed, “Very well, milady.”
Detective Mako hooked a leg over his cycle and spun off in a huff, leaving a dark scrape with his back tire on Asami’s clean driveway. His thoughts never stopped even as he dodged traffic deeper into the city, earning honks from vehicles and angry shouts from people walking too close to the edge of the side walk. He didn’t notice them enough to care, just enough to not hit them as he sped past.
A brown haze settled over the city as the sun struggled to touch the inner streets of Makapu. The chill from the night before still clung to the corners of stone buildings, and along the walls of banks, hotels, and other grand monuments to business huddled the ragged multitudes of the destitute. More and more people had been flooding into Makapu since the storm season began, which, in and of itself, was a normal occurrence. What was abnormal was the staggering amount of folks displaced by this season's storms.
Mako’s exhaust pipe spat cool blue condensation as he pulled up to Nanny Bing’s, a dingy little family-run tea and bun shop that was well placed in the center of town, earning the establishment long lines in the morning in exchange for convenient morning fuel. Local gossip and news from provinces abroad suffused the crisp air around him. The detective looked perfectly idle, but mentally he was taking in as much as he could for later analysis while he shuffled along with everyone else in the queue. He timed himself well; the morning line was just finishing up, and he took no time at all selecting his drink and baked goods before paying and hopping back onto his bike. Closing his eyes, Mako took a few moments to relish the bliss of hot tea on a cold, autumn morning.
“News for you, sir? The front page is a doozy today!” A scraggly young man with a basket full of the day’s issue of The Daily Citizen brandished a rolled newspaper under his nose. Mako could make out a partial head line: “Avatar Korra crushes another Wave! Series of—"
The detective grumbled and dug a few yuans from his coat, giving the lad a decent tip before starting up his bike noisily. With a yelp, the newsboy jumped back as Mako peeled off down the street and into the Vineways District.
Here, Mako had to slow his pace in order to avoid clusters of thick, massive vines that grew from the corners of foundations and out of sidewalks into the streets. This side of town was no less busy than any other, but the folks that tended here were usually the artsy, spiritual, and/or crazy type, and every so often he would see some strange sculptures, random bursts of vine blossoms, or a vast wall mural that depicted vaguely philosophical imagery. Today, he wasn’t interested in exploring the hidden treasures of Vineways, but instead made a bee line for a tall building covered in wires, vines, and radio dishes. A bit of bright, fresh graffiti on the wall near the front entrance greeted him with, “Love and Music for All Nations” as he walked in.
A cacophony of silence greeted him as he continued into the main hall and down the hallway to the studio room in the far back. As he passed by various rooms, he could barely hear singers, pipers, a pipa player, and other musicians working through their routines as they waited for their air time to draw near. Mako walked quietly up to the black studio door, waiting to hear the trademark sting before knocking:
“-And that was Mecha and the Tanks, everyone! What a fantastic ensemble, all the way from Zhaofu, no less! You can see them for the next couple of months down at the Pro-Bending Arena where they will be giving some brassy support to our brave athletes at this year’s Annual Pro-Bending Championship! Call or mail in now to our studio here at The Bo-Bo Show for a chance to win tickets to the matches! And remember to tune in a little later for the sweet, dulcet tones of the all-famous Zhu Mann and her golden pipa!” A dinky theme song played as Mako finally rapped his knuckles on the door.
The voice from within boomed, “I’m working! What gives?”
“Makapu City Police. Open up.”
Scrambling noises accompanied swears as a series of locks could be heard disengaging from the door. A bright, green eye peered from the crack before opening fully, revealing a stout, muscular man in a green, crushed velvet suit.
“Hey, bro! It’s been ages!” the radio host enveloped Mako in a polar-bear hug, much to his brother’s chagrin.
The detective deadpanned as he halfheartedly hugged his brother back, “It’s been since last night, Bo.”
Bolin backed off and waved him in, “Sure, but in your line of work, every hour is a blessing! Can’t be sure if you’ll make it out of some of these street scuffles safely, you know?” Mako grunted in solemn agreement as he handed his brother the Nanny Bing’s package. “Aww, for me? You didn’t have to…” the boisterous man shoved a steaming meat bun into his mouth and promptly consumed it whole.
“You know why I’m here, Bo. The buns are just a formality,” Mako took out his notebook and went back to the previous night’s notes. “Do you have any new information?”
The radio host rolled his eyes as he stuffed another bun into his face, “You know, you could ask me instead on how my day is going. Or how I managed to land the world’s best pipa player to play during my happy hour segment. Or if you’ve heard anything from Asami or Korra lately. They’ve been awfully quiet since they moved in together...”
Mako pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger, “I’ll gossip with you later tonight, but right now I have a whole bunch of robberies to keep track of and not a lot of time to dilly-dally.”
With a dramatic sigh, Bolin rolled his eyes and spoke around his food, “Well… I did hear from Su Sheng that there were some gross buildings in Dragon Flats Burroughs that got bought up a couple days ago. Old warehouse, a flat, both adjacent to each other. Place hasn’t been bustling, but it went for a steep price. No contest for the bid, either. Word on the street is that it got bought up by Future Industries, but you and I both know that Asami is way too prim and proper to let that real estate lay in a-shambles like it is now, “Bolin leaned in, munching conspiratorially, “I bet you its one of the Triads making a land grab. Probably found some sucker to purchase the plot for them to keep it off-books.”
After a few minutes of scribbling, Mako snapped his notebook shut and sighed, attempting to relax into the cushy sofa in Bolin’s studio room. All of the evidence he and the Chief had been chasing for the last few months seemed strangely related. Each of the robberies he had inspected came up with the same information: dark-clad assailants, hidden faces, usually in small ambush groups that could hit and run quickly without much fuss. No one had been able to keep up with these guys in a pursuit, but there were now more frequent fights between gangs as tithes were coming up short. The Chief hoped that a circumstance would lead them to conclude that one of the gangs was up to the robberies, but Mako wasn’t so sure if it was an old enemy of the city or if the dark thieves were some new brigand band, fresh on the scene and making lots of trouble for everyone. Mako frowned, opened his notebook and scribbled: 'Finish retrieving account from Nika Son (???): compare with other accounts'.
Then there was this strange land battle between the business heavyweights of Makapu: Future Industries and World Source. Acres of war-torn land went for sale as cheap as ten yuans per square foot, but no one else in the private sector could even conceive of buying up the plots before the Biz Wigs began snapping them up. Then again, most of Makapu was facing poverty because of the war, and wouldn’t buy property since all that could be afforded was month-to-month housing. Seeing as the properties only started going for sale at the turn of autumn three weeks ago, Mako didn’t pay this 'money-measuring contest' much mind. Let the rich fight the rich, he thought bitterly.
Bolin waved a hand in front of Mako’s face, “Hellooo, Earth to Mako? I asked you a question.”
Mako jolted himself out of his reverie, “What? I didn't catch that, sorry.”
“I asked you if you would please get those two lovebirds to come to drinks with us tonight. Asami isn’t returning my calls, and Korra answers so infrequently that I'm starting to believe that she barely knows what a telephone is. There’s this spot that me and Opal scoped out that I think they’d find lovely. I know they definitely need some downtime.” Bolin slid a business card with a written address, “Get them to come along here at 7:30, and tell them they won’t regret it.”
The detective eyed the business card before stuffing it into his coat pocket. “Yeah, alright. I’ll see what I can do.” Mako made a motion towards the door, but stopped midway to ask, “Hey, Bolin, you know musical instruments, right?”
“Uh, yeah, why?”
“Do you happen to know what a violin is?”
Bolin shook his head slowly, "No... that sounds made up. Are you trying to play a cop trick on me or something?"
Asami stifled the fifth yawn of the morning, struggling to maintain her attention on the absolutely riveting product pitch that was being given by the blandest woman alive. It was a good product idea, something to keep the air clean as the city grew, but the drone of the woman’s voice was lulling, even meditative. A good monk voice, but a bad business voice.
Once she heard clapping, Asami sat back up in her chair and smiled politely at the presenter, “Thank you for your time. We will bring you back in when we have reached a decision. Please take this time to relax before our next meeting. I am sure we will be in touch to seal the deal with you.”
The plain woman bowed profusely as she exited the board room, leaving Varrick, Zhu Li, Asami, and Lu Teng alone to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
“Spirits, that was the most boring thing I’ve ever had to bear witness to!” Varrick groused as he attempted to balance a pen on the tip of his finger, “If I had known good business meant being bored to death for hours, I’d have stuck to smuggling!”
At that, Zhu Li made a sharp, soft hiss at Varrick, her eyes never leaving the information packet that the woman gave her at the start of the pitch.
Lu Teng chimed in, “While her delivery left something to be desired, I believe that the Air-Sponge might be worth investing in. Plus, it’s cheap enough to produce, so convincing our partners to implement larger versions of this technology to be fitted to metal refinery pipes won’t be difficult.”
The heiress took all this in, already sold on the idea but hazy on the price. “Lu, see if she is willing to sell them in batches, and offer an attractive alternative to whatever price break she offers. We’re gaining some money in these little investments, and while I’m all for innovative contractors and products, we need to land a solid quarter. There aren’t enough people buying Satomobiles, and Satoplanes are still too expensive to go to the private market. Zhu Li, did that bid come back approved from the Council Building?”
Zhu Li scanned through a nearby ledger, reading a brief note before replying, “Yes, and the Council voted to hand the Brackish Byway bid to World Source. I have also made motions to place bids on the next few developments, including Vineways, Trade Roads, and Sixth Ward.”
Asami’s mood darkened considerably. That Brackish bid was supposed to be a steal, but yet again, World Source underbid her company. At this rate, it would take a miracle to keep Future Industries afloat. She had to keep pushing quality over quantity, but there was so little money moving around the city’s economy that she might actually have to let some much-needed workers go at the end of the year. A shiver ran down her spine at the thought. She rubbed her temples briefly before calculating another executive salary cut in the margin of her planner.
She looked at her morning slots, grinning at a note she had left herself earlier. Well, at least she had that new Dragon Flats property from this morning’s live auction. That would give her a little wiggle room, once she could implement her new project there.
Varrick cut into her silent musings, “Oh, Asami, did that gear box prototype you ordered come in yet? The folks over at Gyrotech are expecting a reply yesterday! They left a telegram in my office, of all places. You’d better thank your lucky stars it didn’t get fed to my pet owl-cat! I hate memos, as Zhu Li here can attest,” he waved flippantly at the bespectacled woman, who continued reading documents without expression.
“Yes, and I will have an answer for them once I put the gearbox through its paces. I have a meeting with the Development team at one, we’ll cover testing then.”
Varrick rolled out of his seat and sauntered over to the door, Zhu Li quietly in tow. “Alrighty, well, I’m done bumming around this box. I’ll be playing around with electromagnets in the basement if you want to come see some truly amazing stuff. Not at all like those dull Air-Sponges.” He cruelly mimicked the bland presenter from earlier that morning, earning a groan each from Asami and Lu and a small chuckle from Zhu Li.
Once Varrick and Zhu Li had walked further down the hall, Lu Teng turned to Asami, a serious expression on his face. “Asami, I must confess something.”
Asami pursed her lips, expression worried, “Lu, the last financial advisor I had who started a conversation with those words found himself looking for a job in Ba Sing Se. Please consider your next words carefully.”
Lu Teng snorted with laughter, remembering the poor fool and his heartfelt confession from a couple years before. “Oh no, it’s nothing like that. Though, that was sort of funny to watch. No, it’s much more serious.” He gave her a hard look before she gave him her full attention.
“What, Lu? What are you talking about?”
The grizzled advisor scratched the back of his head and spoke in a low tone, “We lost the Tangren shipment.”
Asami fought the urge to curse. “Okay… how did we lose an entire fleet of freight ships?”
“A huge storm rolled through Hot Spring Cove, and apparently kicked up enough water to send a tsunami up the channel. Smashed the whole fleet on the rocks,”
He paused, giving her a moment to let the information sink in, “Only a handful of the crew survived. Thankfully, a fishing boat found the survivors and have signaled to the harbormaster that they will be dropping them off within the hour.”
The heiress felt a weight being placed on her already heavy shoulders. With a shaky breath, she said, “Help me get a welcome party together. Get the families of who survived to meet their loved ones at the pier, and take stock of who didn’t make it and set aside their names. I will personally write their families a letter of apology. Make sure to calculate their compensation. I’ll handle talking with Ma over at Tangren later today.”
Lu Teng nodded and set to his tasks, leaving Asami alone in the empty board room. With a sigh, the heiress reached for a phone and dialed.
“Hello, operator? Please connect me to Air Temple Island. It’s urgent.”
Mako took off on his bike once again, leaving the vine-throttled neighborhood behind as he dug deeper into seedy territory. He was nearing Dragon Flats Burroughs, the source of most of the crimes he had been studying up to this point, and he hoped that the new information he had with him could get him closer to a suspect.
His bike sputtered to a stop in front of a run-down estate with a yard brimming full with grubby children and anxious caretakers. He checked his pockets to make sure that his valuables were accounted for before knocking on the rusted iron gate.
One of the caretakers, a frantic gray-haired woman in her late sixties, rushed up to the gate with a bludgeon in one hand and a screaming baby in the other. Mako cleared his throat.
“Makapu City Police, Detective Mako. I’m here to deliver this month’s donation from the Precinct,” Mako briefly flashed his badge before tucking it back into his coat. A couple of sharp-eyed kids watched as he chatted with the caretaker.
She harrumphed, adjusting the baby to rest more on her hip so she could brandish the bludgeon better, “You’re lucky I’ve known you since you was a pup, Mako. We ain’t allowed to let folks in no more, not unless they adoptin’ or they have an appointment. Getting tired of seeing these babes get caught up in the turf wars ‘cause they got ‘curious about Outside’,” Still grumbling about ‘meddling coppers’ and ‘damned Triads’, the caretaker opened the gate a crack and prepared herself for the stampede of children looking to escape. The detective just squeezed in as five orphans mobbed the two and tried to pry the bludgeon out of the caretaker’s hands before she could lay them about. She was much too strong or stubborn for that though, and instead shouted loudly and brandished the club over her head in a threat. The children screamed and scattered, half-excited and half-terrified of the old woman with a big stick.
Mako brushed himself off, checking his pockets to make sure everything was still in place, “Whew, thanks Mimi. Didn’t think I’d find myself back here after all these years,” He peered up at the stooping steeple at the top of the orphanage, “Huh, you guys never got around to fixing that? Guess things don’t really change around here, do they?”
Mimi ushered the detective into the building, shaking off a two-year-old who had decided to latch onto her leg for a free ride, “No, they don’t, as you well know, Mr. Detective,” she snidely remarked, “and I know for a fact that you haven’t changed either, Nosey. I seen you come in here four times since midsummer, after those shadowy hooligans started causin a ruckus. You’d better tell me why you’re really here, or I’ll set the three-year-olds on you.”
Hearing his old caretaker refer to him by his childhood nick-name and threaten him with bodily violence put Mako in a strange sense of nostalgia. He shrugged and replied amiably, “Yeah, no, I’m here to deliver funds from the Precinct. I’m not sure why you’d get the impression that I’d be here for anything different.”
The old caretaker cackled, yellowed teeth bare and bright in the pale light filtering from the grubby windows above, “Don’t give me that bull-hippo shit, boy. You’re here because you need to talk to Dozer, Mangy, and Scabb,” she shook a wrinkled finger under his nose menacingly, “You’re a bad influence on those kids, you know that? Giving them treats and cheating tips for little crumbs-“
Mako threw up his hands in mock innocence, “What, me? No, I’d never teach anyone how to be a vagabond. I’m an officer of the law!” He almost kept a straight face.
Mimi stared him dead in the eyes for a long moment before she turned on her heel and pressed a series of buttons. An electric buzz was heard, and a door on the far end of the main hall opened. The caretaker growled, “Make it quick, Nosey. And don’t let me catch you snooping around here again. These poor children have enough worries without you bringing police business into their miserable little lives.”
With a hasty thanks, Mako sped through the open door and took off to find the three miscreants. The halls here changed from a puke-green into a dull off-white marked with years of children’s dirty hands along the lower edges of the wall. Another caretaker was scrubbing the back wall, paying no mind to Mako as he sped past the little rooms. Walking through these halls as an adult brought up dim memories of being just like these kids: no mother, no father, no close relationships, just wits, know-how, and a strong right hook. He caught sight of a worn sign that read, ‘NO BENDING INDOORS’. Near the sign, he spotted the tell-tale scorch marks of an old fireball along the edges of the door frame leading into the mess hall. He chuckled to himself.
The screeching and chattering of hundreds of children assaulted his ears as he entered the mess hall. It was an overall gross affair, with food flying across tables from flicked spoons or game pieces scattering across the floor after one of the players pitched a fit. Instantly, Mako spotted his three targets by the back wall: a young boy with a sleepy look, an older girl with matted black hair, and another girl with scabs lining her bare knees and elbows. They were currently fielding a small crowd of children around a small spectacle. Once he got close, the crowd scattered.
The scabby girl piped up, “Aww, Mako, come on! They were just getting into it!”
Mako arched his brow at her, “Getting into what? Nothing too illegal, I hope.”
The girl with matted hair drawled, “Nah, they was just peepin’ at our genu-wine collection of glass marbles. We sell ‘em for a ha’-yuan apiece, and no return policy. After all, they are glass, and prone to shattering, right Dozer?”
At this, the lazy little boy winked slowly at Mako and made a fist. Somewhere in the room, a child screeched and cried, babbling about how he had broken his new marble on the ground. A couple of caretaker’s rushed over and soothed him as best as they could, shooting dirty looks in Mako’s direction when he got caught staring.
“What was the point of that?? You guys made that kid cry. That’s messed up!”
Mangy rolled her eyes dramatically, “That was just a demonstration. The kids that buy the marbles don’t really care, they’re in it because the ‘glass jaws’ get them into the infirmary where they can get candy and sweet meats from the nurses all day.”
Mako pursed his lips as he kept down a laugh. Yeah, nothing really changed at the orphanage. Mangy continued, rolling a blue marble between her thin fingers, “So, you’re not just here to visit us three rascals, are you?”
Immediately, Mako pulled out a small paper bag and handed it to Dozer, who sniffed at it before passing it off to Scabb. She doled out the contents to the other two: some warm buns from Nanny Bing’s, a few complimentary candies, and a small wad of yuans. Mangy looked over and whistled low.
“Wow, Detective, pulling out all the stops for us today? What sort of dirt you need?”
The detective shrugged nonchalantly, “That’s half up front. There will be more of that next week if you can find out who moved into the old canning warehouse a couple days ago.”
Mangy laughed, “It’s gonna take more than a bag of sweets and money to cover that tall order. You know we aren’t allowed outside of the orphanage until we’re sixteen.”
Mako nodded, unimpressed, “You’re right, but I know for a fact that you guys move through these blocks like water over stones. Matter of fact, you know how to get in and out because of yours truly,” He waggled his eyebrows comically at the children, earning him some giggles from the girls and a snort from Dozer.
“Yeah, yeah, the whole orphanage owes you that,” Scabb scoffed, “but we want something better than sweets.”
“Oh, and what’s that?”
The three children took on a serious look, “We want to be adopted, and we want you to do it.”
That put Mako in a tailspin of rushing thoughts. What? Really? Him, of all people? “You guys are funny, you know that?” He tried to play it off as a joke, but Dozer fixed him with an uncharacteristically sharp-eyed stare.
Scabb sounded desperate, “We’re serious, Mako. You know full well that this place is awful, stinky, and crowded, and that if we were to leave at sixteen, we’d probably end up in one of the gangs,” She looked scared all of a sudden, “You’re the only grown-up who talks to us. All the other parents that come through don’t give us the time of day. And we’re not getting any younger…”
The detective suddenly felt old and tired. After a moment of thought, he shook his head in defeat.
“I’ll see what I can do. Just get me as much info on what’s going on around Dragon Flats. I’ll be back same time next week."
Chapter 5: A Ray of Hope
EDIT: Recommended Listening:
'Morning Chant', if you'd like to hear what I would think would be close to Air Nomad chant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4PkLg_2clI
Sibelius' Violin Concerto
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Across Yue Bay, a low note thrummed the air.
Opal felt it in her bones, her very soul.
Another pealed across the island, rustling the trees and scattering nearby birds into the cloudy sky.
She settled into her meditation pose, feeling the warm air in her lungs hum against her ribcage as she sang. She felt the presence of every being around her draw breath as she now did.
Yet another note rattled the rafters, shaking light dust onto the shaven heads of scores of monks seated, all intoning the same chant that was passed down to them from nameless monks since the first Air Nomads roamed the Earth.
A slow melody formed, indistinct at first, but grew, organic and heartfelt. It carried far on the wind, greeting the ferry with music as it trundled through the gray waves. The ferry answered with its fog horn, heralding its approach to the nearby dock.
Opal closed her eyes and breathed evenly, letting the last note scatter to the winds. There was a moment of silence before the shuffling of feet could be heard from the far side of the room.
A deep, sonorous voice spoke, “Monks who have volunteered to help with tourists, please make your way to the docks. Those who have not yet finished chores, I strongly suggest you set yourselves to your tasks immediately. Today we will also be seeing a few refugee boats come in from Ember Island. Everyone else, please make sure that all of our guests are cared for and attended to. And, in general, please do not allow the tourists near the refugee compound. I do not want another… media incident.”
Opal didn’t bother opening her eyes. She knew Tenzin was staring at her.
He continued, “Thank you for attending this morning’s meditation. We will have a silent reflection after lunch, followed by the induction ceremony in the evening to welcome our new acolytes. I bid you all peace.”
The swishing of robes and soft chatter soon filled the hall as monks began making their way to their prospective tasks. Opal heard their voices even as she walked through the courtyard towards the docks with a few other monks. This island had a propensity to carry sound, so privacy was difficult to maintain. Tenzin’s less-than-subtle public scolding rattled around her head, though she did her best to thrust it from her mind. Honestly, the wise windbag was just a thorn in her side. She did what she wanted and got away with it anyway, mainly due to the fact that she was a Beifong, and that she also happened to be fairly clever when necessary.
She looked to the ferry full of gawking tourists and visiting family members of monks, bowing every so often and trying her best to not look bored. At the far end of the crowd, she spotted Korra, trying to look inconspicuous in a hooded cloak. Opal rolled her eyes.
For the most part, Korra’s disguise worked since she hid behind a particularly bewildered tourist toting an oblong case. The Avatar steered the tourist over to where Opal stood.
“Uh, hey Korra, what-“
“Shh!” The Avatar hissed in a low voice, “Not here! Meet me at the panda lily pagoda in five minutes.”
Opal scoffed indignantly, “Excuse you-“
“Alright! See you there!” Korra nearly ran off with the confused tourist, blending back into the crowd as they meandered down the path towards the main hall.
The young Beifong rubbed her bare temples, irritation settling uncomfortably under her skin. Today was going to be a trial for her.
After making a lame excuse to the other monks shepherding tourists, she jogged off in the direction of the pagoda, doing her best to not be seen by too many people. Making use of some air bending techniques, she muffled her movement until she reached the ‘agreed-upon’ meeting spot. Korra and the tourist were sitting on the benches near the thick vine wall. Opal sighed with relief. At least this place was fairly private.
Korra began, “Hey Opal, I need to call in a favor with you. This is-“
Opal held up a hand, a scowl on her lips. “Hold on. Before you explain anything, first, you’re going to greet me properly, you’re then going to introduce me to whoever this is,” she gestured sharply at the tourist, “and then, and only then, are you going to explain yourself. Now, let’s try that again.”
The Avatar groaned and rolled her eyes dramatically, “Heeey, Opal, how are you doing today?”
Opal replied cheerfully, a complete contrast to her stern demeanor before, “Oh, hey Korra, I’m so happy to see you! Who is your new friend here?”
Korra ushered the stranger towards Opal, “This is Nika, your twice-removed cousin from Ba Sing Se!”
Nika started, “Uh, what-“
Korra shushed her, “Yeah, uh, I ran into her while diverting that nasty earthquake earlier this spring,” The Avatar kept throwing Opal exaggerated winks, hoping to get her point across without actually saying it. She wasn’t having any of it.
“You know that’s not going to fly, right? You’d have more luck convincing people that she’s your long-lost sister, let alone another Beifong,” she considered something for a moment, but brushed the thought away in order to address Nika, “So, what did you do to get the Avatar to try and smuggle you into Air Temple Island?”
The stranger blinked in surprise before responding politely, “I was told I could talk to a Master Tenzin or a Master Jinora about where I am.”
Opal arched her eyebrow incredulously, “Well, I doubt you’d need the expertise of the Airbending Masters here for that information. You’re on Air Temple Island in Yue Bay-“
The Avatar interrupted, “No, Opal, I tried that, and she doesn’t even understand what the four nations are, let alone basic geography.”
Nika quietly harrumphed and stepped back, seeing clearly that she wouldn’t get a chance to get a word in just yet.
Opal slapped a palm to her forehead in frustration, “Look, Korra, I’m already in deep with Tenzin over the refugee camp incident. I have to lie low, pretend to be a good monk for a while, then I can maybe help you out with another refugee. At least, that's what I hope she is.”
“No, I don’t think she’s fleeing the warzone. Nika hasn’t got a clue what’s going on in the world, and doesn’t have a concept of what seems like super-basic information,” The Avatar begged, “Please, Opal, just see if you can slip her in with the other refugees, or better yet, the induction ceremony tonight!”
The young Beifong groaned, momentarily loathing her subconscious need and monk’s duty to help others. In the end, she relented, but on one condition: “Avatar Korra, you must come visit me and Bolin. No last-minute plans, no ‘Avatar stuff’, no running off into the wild. Bolin is hosting a party tonight and I want you to take Asami with you. You two are going to show up, and you both are going to have a great time.”
Korra gave a stream of noncommittal babble before taking Nika aside to speak privately with her. Opal rolled her eyes, clearly hearing low whispering from Korra.
After waiting a few more minutes, halfheartedly eavesdropping on the Avatar’s absolutely ludicrous plan of integrating this clueless stranger into the acolyte ceremony. She never heard what Nika said, but she guessed that she had resigned herself to whatever the pushy Avatar wanted her to do, as they both nodded and finally turned to face Opal.
The young Beifong held up a hand when Korra opened her mouth, her voice hard once again, “Korra, you have to say ‘yes’ to my condition, or else I’m telling Tenzin that you stole into the naughty section of the library last week to look up-“
Korra immediately hissed, “Shh! Okay, okay! I promise to take myself and Asami tonight to whatever shindig Bolin has planned. Is that good enough for you?”
Opal visibly brightened, “Why, I’m so excited you accepted my invitation! Be there at 7:30,” she slipped a business card from her robes, “and don’t be late.”
Korra took the card and stuffed it into her pocket before giving Opal the run-down of her plan.
“Okay, Nika here is going to try and blend in with the new acolytes in the ceremony tonight. I’ll talk to Pema to try and distract her while you sneak Nika into the women’s dormitories and get her a change of clothes. Try to help her memorize what she needs to know for the ceremony tonight, and see if you can get her a private room. Give her my old room, if it isn’t already in use,” Korra turned to Nika and clasped her shoulders, “Okay, if you need anything, Opal here is going to help you out. I’m going to try and get Master Jinora to come talk to you before the ceremony. Just… try to lay low for right now until I get back. Don’t do anything weird, alright?”
Opal giggled when she saw Nika do her best to withhold rolling her eyes at Korra. After another quick nod, Nika stood ready to follow the young Beifong. The Avatar grinned and hugged a reluctant Opal before bolting off.
A moment of quiet enveloped the awkward pair. Opal scratched her shaved scalp and coughed.
“So, uh… what’s that you’ve got there?” She gestured at the black, oblong case.
Nika glanced down and replied easily, “It’s my music instrument.”
The young Beifong cocked her head, instantly intrigued, “Oh? What do you play?”
Nika furrowed her brow, pausing before she replied tentatively, “It’s a bowed, stringed instrument.”
“Like a spike fiddle or something?” Opal found herself suddenly disinterested, a little put off by the stranger’s vague language.
“Oh. That’s neat.”
Some uncomfortable minutes followed before Korra’s loud voice carried itself over the black and white hedges. Opal sighed, “I guess that’s our cue. Come on, and be quick and quiet about it.”
The pair took off behind the hedges lining the adjacent courtyard, following the sound of the Avatar’s conspicuous chatter with Pema. Opal led Nika around to the back of the women’s dormitories, checking every few seconds over her shoulder for anyone paying attention to them. The monk approached an open window to the women’s wash room and gestured at Nika to climb through. Ungracefully, the stranger tucked herself into the space and through the other side, barely catching herself when she landed wrong in a wet patch on the stone floor. A couple of precariously perched wash buckets clattered to the floor, sending echoes throughout the room. Opal smacked her palm to her forehead for the second time. She hoped that she wouldn’t develop a red spot there later.
After successfully avoiding a few monks doing chores around the dormitory, Opal ushered Nika into Korra’s old room before shutting the door behind them. The monk rummaged madly around in the cramped closet nearby and procured a worn set of Air acolyte robes. She tossed these to Nika, saying, “Put those on. I’m afraid we don’t have time for a proper bath, but we can at least get you looking like you belong here.”
Without a word, Nika started disrobing, not even bothering to turn around.
Opal averted her eyes and exclaimed, “Oh, alright then, you’re just gonna do that. Okay. Great.” As she turned away, she smacked her hand to her forehead again. At least she wouldn’t have to explain away the communal bathing habits most monks had here.
After her initial embarrassment withered, Opal managed to sneak a couple of peeks at Nika while she wrangled herself into the acolyte robes. The stranger had dark skin like Korra’s, but held several scars and dark tattoos here and there that she wasn’t able to discern quickly. She was a bit pudgy, but had signs of dense muscle around the shoulders, arms, torso, and back, which was unusual but not unattractive. Her legs were thick, stout, and covered in hair, but the young Beifong blushed when she saw her ass.
Nika cleared her throat loudly, adjusting the robes a final time before regarding an oblivious-looking Opal, “Okay, what next? The induction mantra?”
“Hmm? Uh, yes, the mantra. It’s pretty short, so just take a seat and repeat after me…”
A grueling half an hour of Opal drilling the incantation into Nika’s head passed before a knock on the door made the pair jump out of their skins. Korra’s voice came through muffled, “Hey, are you guys decent? I’m coming in.” The Avatar slinked into the room through the half-opened door, sliding it closed behind her. She chuckled, “Ikki rescued Operation: Distract Pema when she complained that Meelo let a band of lemurs loose in her room. I’m going to go find Jinora now. How is Nika doing with the ceremony prep?”
The stranger immediately recited the mantra fluidly, only briefly stumbling over the last little bit before finishing with the adage, ‘May you find peace’.
Opal let loose a sigh of relief as Korra nodded at Nika, “That was pretty good! A lot better than when I attempted it. Took me the better part of two days to get it all down,” Korra then clapped her hands and smiled, “This is working out pretty well! I’ll be right back, hopefully with Jinora,” With that, Korra slipped back out of the room.
For a long while, the sounds of a broom sweeping the second floor overhead and the chirping of songbirds outside were the only things that permeated the room where Nika and Opal sat regarding each other. Some monks passing by the back window laughed at some joke the other had told, their footsteps fading into the island’s calm sonic ambience. The monk scratched her nose and stifled a yawn. The stranger shifted her weight on the bed so that she could lean back against the wall.
Opal spoke first, irritation seeping into her voice, “Alright. Let’s cut to the chase. Who are you and how do you know Korra?”
Nika replied evenly, “She found me trespassing in her wife’s garden.”
The monk snorted loudly, trying and failing to stifle her laughter. “Oh man, that’s one way to put it. I’m going to assume you mean literally since you’re still alive and breathing.”
“…Your assumption is correct. Would you like for me to continue?”
“Okay, sorry, keep going.”
Nika recounted her initial incident as Opal listened, her confusion growing with each sentence she uttered. Everything this stranger had to say held the implication of someone wholly foreign to the world they were living in, someone who lived in a fantasy. She was vaguely reminded of old tales of heroes and heroines who were transported through time to save the future, the past, or whatever. Opal really never liked reading fiction. At the end of Nika’s story, she had already made up her mind about the stranger.
“That’s… interesting. Hey, um, can I ask you a personal question?”
Opal rubbed her temples and took a steadying breath before asking, “Are you absolutely mad?”
To her credit, Nika stroked her chin thoughtfully and replied, “I mean, I wasn’t the one who thought of sneaking a complete ignoramus into a semi-isolated convent to try and get them to integrate into the local culture. So no, I think I know someone who holds that title.”
The young Beifong didn’t bother holding in her laughter at that, “Well, at least you have a decent sense of humor, mad woman or not.”
Nika shrugged and smirked, tracing errant circles on the top of the oblong case.
Opal watched the stranger’s fingers and considered her next words carefully, “Nika… if you say you’re not from here at all, could you tell me about where you came from?”
The smirk fell away from Nika’s face, an invisible weight forcing her shoulders to drop. She replied in a shaky voice, “If you please, I’d like to focus on the plan and wait for Master Jinora to get here. I’m afraid that if I talk about home now, I’ll be inconsolable for the next week,” A rogue tear escaped, rolling quickly down Nika’s cheek before being hastily mopped up by the hem of her robe. Nika sniffled a little, then did a double take and sniffed the robe loudly.
“Eugh,” she held the hem away from her face, “What were these things stored in?”
Opal leaned over, took a whiff, and grimaced, “Hay and body odor.”
Korra dashed across the island for the third time, scouring each hall and courtyard for any signs of Master Jinora. She was usually teaching beginner Airbending forms around mid-morning, but instead she was nowhere to be found: not the stables, the refugee camp, the baths, the library, the main hall…
It was then that a booming voice hailed her, “Korra! Thank goodness you’re here. I must speak with you,” Tenzin jogged down the path as panic gripped Korra’s being. Oh man, this could be bad.
The old master smoothed his robes as he came to walk next to Korra, “I just received a call from Asami. She said that a tsunami had smashed one of her fleets, and-“
Korra didn’t bother letting him finish. In a flash, she bolted towards Tenzin’s office, with the old master hot on her heels pleading with her to slow down and listen. The Avatar picked up the receiver of the telephone on his desk and dialed, “Hello, operator, connect me to Future Industries administrative building. Now.”
A few rings later, and a low, bored voice recited on the other line, “Hello, this is Future Industries main desk, how can I connect your call?”
“Can you promptly connect me to Asami’s office? She just contacted Air Temple Island and Avatar Korra is returning her call about a natural disaster.”
The voice yawned loudly before Korra heard another series of rings. The phone clicked, and a wave of relief hit Korra when she heard Asami’s voice.
“Master Tenzin? Can I help you?”
“No, this is Korra. I’m calling you about the tsunami Tenzin told me about-“
Asami’s voice rasped through the connection, “There you are! Where have you been since your stunt this morning?”
Korra winced, thinking quickly, “I’ve been over at Air Temple Island helping with the refugees. And if you’re going to ask, I dropped off the weirdo you were so worried about somewhere where she can get actual help. Also, Opal says that we are required to go to Bolin’s party tonight. Now, tell me about this tsunami.”
There was the sound of crackling over the line before Asami replied slowly, “That’s good, I suppose… We’ll address the party later. Anyway, I already got what I needed from Tenzin on the tsunami matter. The short story is this: One of my shipping fleets was destroyed by a massive storm, there were very few survivors, and now I’m currently writing condolence letters to the grieving families who lost their loved ones,” another uncomfortable silence suffused the connection, “Korra, this is the third major storm of the season, and we haven’t even gotten into the worst of it. I’m worried that something big is about to hit. I just have this bad feeling deep in my gut…”
Korra’s heart broke as she listened to the sorrow in Asami’s voice. Trying to be upbeat, Korra shrugged and said, “It could just be a bad breakfast. Those eggs were a little runny, you know.”
The Avatar was rewarded with a tired chuckle. It was something. Asami’s voice picked up in volume, “Before we get back to business, I want to say something to you. Privately.”
An indignant Tenzin was hastily ushered out of his own office. Korra returned to the receiver, “Okay, I’m alone. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for last night, and I’m sorry for this morning. I’m having a really hard time keeping Future Industries ahead of the disaster curve, even with some of the brightest people in Makapu supporting my every decision. It’s wrong of me to be taking out my anger on everyone else around me just because I’m terrified of what the future will bring. All I can do right now is damage control. And every time you leave, I’m worried that you won’t come back.”
Korra fought back a sob. After a beat of silence, she spoke, “Asami, what did you tell me when we were holed up in the submersible three years ago?”
The line crackled loudly, forcing Korra to pull the phone away from her ear for a moment. She just caught the tail end of Asami saying, “-with your tongue?”
“No, no, before that.”
“That you couldn’t bear the whole world on your shoulders?”
“That’s it. I’m returning that advice back to you. I love you so much, and we’ve been through nightmares worse than most anyone could ever think of. We can get through anything together. And if you need to talk about work, life, anything, please reach out and tell me. Don’t clam up on me, okay?” Korra paused, reflecting on her own actions, “…I’m sorry, too. I haven’t been emotionally available since the Northern Tribe retreated and the storms started up. I’ve been running around taking care of everyone else but you. I promise that I will spend quality time with you whenever we can. Call it even?”
Asami sniffled, making the phone line crackle loudly again, “Okay. We’re even, but I want us to talk about setting aside time to actually spend time with each other.”
“How about we worry about that tomorrow and we go to Bolin’s party tonight?”
Opal had snuck out of Korra’s old room in search of fresh acolyte robes. Apparently, young Korra was very lax about cleanliness. Unfortunately, the monk instead found herself staring down an unreasonably furious Tenzin right outside the women’s dormitory.
“Why are you not tending to the tourists?”
She did her best to not wring her fingers, which resulted in her leaving her hands twitching at her side. Think fast, Opal.
“I had to change out my under-things. I just started my cycle this morning-“
Her comment had the desired effect. The old master waved a hand, a frown still creasing his brow, “Alright, alright. You don’t need to go into detail. Finish escorting the tourists, then please report to the docks. There is a ship of refugees coming in the next five minutes. Please help them get accommodated and accustomed to the island.”
Tenzin shot her a stern glare, “Opal, I need you to focus on the important task at hand: getting those people fleeing the Ember Island warzone fed and housed. I don’t really mind if you skip out on escorting tourists, but I must insist that you be ready for helping the refugees. We’re all they have until they can get situated on the mainland.”
Opal’s shoulders sagged in defeat as she made her way back to the docks. She hoped that Nika could occupy herself for the next several hours.
The rest of the day seemed to get more miserable, in Korra’s mind. After finishing up her conversation with Asami, she touched base with Tenzin on where Jinora was (out on an info-caching mission with the Weather Bureau, apparently). She then listened intently on his reports of unusual storm activity along the Mo Ce Sea coast and the straits around Hot Spring Cove. There were no sightings of spirits amidst the storms, but that didn’t rule out the fact that around those same areas the spirit vines were growing thick.
When she first saw them on Ember Island, they terrified her. Massive rootlike structures broke the rocky ground, sundering houses and tossing ships aground like toys. Those villages and towns in the Fire Nation and the Greater Makapu Basin that had just seen the worst war since the 100 Years’ War now had to contend with wild, unruly vegetation overrunning their lives. None of the sages, not from Roku’s Island, The Air Temples, nor the White Lotus, could discern what to do about the intruding vegetation. The vines couldn’t be moved either, so most everyone ended up having to leave their homes. Korra had spent a year living there, communing with the nature, talking to people about seeing spirits, or just helping everyone to cope and relocate. On top of that, there were still factions of Northern-loyal mercenaries that had gotten separated from the initial assault across the southern islands. They had rooted themselves in places that were the hardest to reach, and extracting each of them was a daunting task that took another year and three months for her and the newly-formed Earth Federation Navy to complete. The Avatar wasn’t even sure that she managed to eliminate them all once she left for Makapu that winter, but the Earth Federation admirals had reassured her otherwise.
Now, Korra found herself helping with settling the refugees into the brimming compound on the far side of Air Temple Island. She felt guilty about not being able to save their homes and livelihoods, but until she could solve the problem of the spirit vines, they had no choice. Many of the refugees looked forlornly to her for support as she walked past, some of them recognizing her from her time in the warzone. Every so often she would stop to help out here and there, but she was intent on helping haul belongings from the ship to the compound quarters.
Inside the quarters, people clamored for space. Korra felt the walls close in on her as she made her way through the hall with her baggage load. Though any sick that were found were escorted to the infirmary by attending monks, a chorus of coughing, weeping, and wheezing permeated every room she walked by. She offloaded her cargo next to the slowly growing pile of luggage and started another trek, only to bump right into Opal.
Korra blinked, “Hey, Opal… uh, aren’t you supposed to be doing something?”
The young Beifong looked uncharacteristically grouchy, “Uh, helping people in need?”
“How about watching Nika?”
Opal nearly threw down the pail of fresh water she had in her arms, “Look, I can’t do two intensive jobs at once! Also, while I think your new friend is crazier than a hog-monkey, she also doesn’t seem to be the type to cause trouble. I’m sure she’ll be fine for a couple more hours.”
The Avatar was just about fed up with dealing with Nika as is. When Opal finished her tirade, Korra said, “Look, I’m sorry I just dumped her on you. But she really is like a-“
Over the din of the boarding house, a series of soft, high notes filtered in through the open windows. A melodic string formed, stilling the restless residents and causing the monks to stop in their tracks. Silence started to blanked the island, save for the ethereal music now streaming from the women’s compound. A few moments later, Korra heard Tenzin’s deep, agitated voice outside the building.
“Where is Korra? I need to speak with her. Now.”
Thank you all for reading so far! I've enjoyed posting this story, and I hope that you all enjoy what is here. I hope to post the next chapter before the weekend is out.
Chapter 6: Stream of Consciousness I
Recommended song(s): Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfx9gjOWR_w
Too Many Zooz - Maritza https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNmMHmpcg30
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Where is Korra? I need to speak with her. Now.”
Korra visibly paled when she heard the old master’s voice, the melon-sweetness of Nika’s faint music turning bitter in context with his worried tone of voice. Opal turned to Korra with a similar expression before darting off to another room, exclaiming loudly, “You’ve got this, Korra!”
Tenzin rounded the corner, concern carving deep furrows in his brow, “Korra, come with me immediately,” He didn’t bother looking to see if she had followed after.
As she jogged behind him, Korra thanked her lucky stars that they were not heading toward the source of the spellbinding music. However, Korra’s heart rate kicked up when she saw Pema, a pleading Opal, and a couple of other monks quickly heading towards the women’s compound.
Her anxiety plunged into deep worry when she saw that Tenzin had led her back to the old master’s office. Awaiting the two was a tall, severe woman clad in an iron suit, the Makapu City Police badge over her heart polished to a cold, bright shine. She regarded them with a serious look and slapped a stack of scrolls on Tenzin’s desk. The alien melody dogging Korra’s every step vanished as the door to the office clicked shut.
The tall woman’s voice grated as she spoke, “Another big storm has been sighted moving fast off of the Chain of Fire. Crescent Island reported critical damage to infrastructure and civilian homes, but they still have emergency power and water. Shang Hui hasn’t responded to our calls since noon today. Harbor Town sent aid, but they’ve also told us that they haven’t heard from the relief fleet in hours. Shu Jing Village will attempt their own outreach once the storm moves further north,” she paused to thoughtfully itch two ragged scars along the right side of her jaw, “The folks over at the Weather Bureau tell me that the typhoon is headed our way, and that it is moving incredibly fast for a storm of its size.”
Tenzin stroked his beard with trembling fingers, “How big is it, Lin?”
“Big enough to knock out Shang Hui and Crescent Island at the same time.”
Korra spoke up, “When did the Bureau say it will land?”
The chief of police paused briefly, her gaze flicking to the darkening skyline, “Anywhere between late tomorrow night and the following morning.”
Silence as thick as oil saturated the room. Lin exhaled first and looked to Tenzin, “Have you heard back from the White Lotus?”
“Yes. The Stone Fingers Unit will be arriving just before sunrise. All other units are handling their own crises. I hope they will be enough to help protect against the storm…” Tenzin shook his head, confusion etched in his face, “I don’t understand how we weren’t able to detect this thing earlier. The Southern Temple, Earth Federation Navy, and the Fire Nation Navy were as oblivious as we were, even with increased presence in and around the Sea. Did the Bureau give any possible point of origin for the storm?”
“They mentioned that there were several eyewitness accounts claiming that the storm appeared literally overnight right over Crescent Island. Some reported a strong, unceasing wind coming from the south west some hours before the storm appeared, but nothing else.”
The Avatar’s mind whirled. South west… where the warzone-vines grew thick. It was a rough theory, but worth investigating once the storm had been dealt with.
The chief’s heavy gaze slid to where Korra stood lost in thought, “Our main objective is to secure this bay for the storm to come. I’ve already sent out an order to shutter the city starting at noon tomorrow, and my officers are working overtime to get the homeless into storm shelters. I also have my Waterbenders and what’s left of the Makapu City Reserve Guard ready to deploy across the Bay to address the surge problem. If the channels get flooded, more than half of the city will be without power, clean water, and escape routes. “
The Avatar took a moment to let the information sink in as she studied the weather maps, silence once again claiming the room. Makapu City was built between two wide inlets, with the peninsula in between being generally lower ground than the surrounding landscape. If a storm of the magnitude described by Lin hit Makapu at full force, it would turn the city into an overflowing cup. No, they couldn’t just evacuate the people, shutter the city, and diffuse the storm surge. Makapu City had only just started serious rebuilding efforts since the end of the Lightning War. In its weakened state, this monster typhoon could easily wipe the place off the map entirely.
Finally, she spoke up, “We must intercept the storm. I will go with the Stone Fingers Unit at sunrise and sail with them past the southern side of Mt. Makapu. Tenzin, do you think you and your strongest Airbenders can assist us? With our combined effort, we can weaken the storm enough so that it doesn’t reach the mainland at full strength.”
Tenzin pursed his lips, wanting very much to argue against such a dangerous and risky endeavor with so few benders to help, but the look of steely determination in Korra’s eyes stilled any words of opposition he might have had.
“…I’ll see who is fit to assist. Of course, I’ll be going, but I need some Airbenders on this island should the initial dispersion fail to bring the storm to a manageable state,” Tenzin placed a heavy hand on Korra’s shoulder, expression softening, “I don’t want you to feel obligated to meet this thing head-on because you’re the Avatar. We could use your help in fortifying Yue Bay instead. Reconsider this.”
With a bittersweet smile, Korra enveloped the old master in a tight hug, his robes muffling her words somewhat, “Tenzin, I’m not doing this because I’m the Avatar. I’m doing this because I love the people who live here. And this city can’t take another brutal hit, not while it’s still trying to put itself back together,” she stepped back, wiping away some tears threatening to fall, “I’ll make sure we all return here safe and sound once the task is done.”
Bounding out the door on a torrent of wind, Korra sped toward the training compound. She grabbed a spare glider and ran ten long paces before launching herself into the early evening sky. Gravity tugged at her gut as she unfurled the glider’s wings, gaining lift and altitude as she bent the air around her. Soaring high above the bay, Korra could see fat, black clouds crouching far on the southern horizon. Those were not there earlier today, she thought grimly. Twisting the wind across the glider’s wings, she angled herself towards home.
The Satomobile engine spun to a stop as Asami rolled herself into her driveway. A long sigh escaped her lips as she rested the back of her head against the leather headrest, willing the tension away from her back and legs. She closed her eyes. Chief Beifong’s emergency telegraph was burned into her memory:
MASSIVE TYPE-5 TYPHOON HEADED TO MAKAPU CITY AND SURROUNDING MO CE SEA COAST.
ESTIMATED TIME OF ARRIVAL: SUNSET, TOMORROW.
BUSINESSES ARE REQUIRED TO SHUT DOWN, EFFECTIVE: NOON, TOMORROW.
ADVISE ALL TO EVACUATE NORTH/EAST TO HIGH GROUND.
A sudden gust of wind blew over her, mussing her hair. She heard Korra’s voice as she scrambled to right her long mane.
“Asami! There’s a storm coming. I’m sorry I-“
“I know, Korra. I know… Go save the world.”
The heiress’ heart sunk like a stone in her chest. She hated that she had spoken so quickly. She had said those same words so many times in the last three years that it had become a sort of subconscious reflex.
To her surprise, Korra opened up her mobile door and enveloped her in a warm embrace, kissing away tears that she didn’t realize had started falling down her cheeks. More tears followed as she buried her face into her lover’s shoulder.
They held each other like that for a long while, encased in each other’s fear and love. A soft breeze flowed around them, bringing the scent of rain and sea.
She didn’t remember getting out of the Satomobile or being led into the house, but after a while of what felt like aimless movement, Asami could feel cool, slick tile beneath her bare feet. Someone was drawing a bath nearby, and when Asami sniffled, the air felt hot and wet.
“Hey there, are you feeling any better? You kinda checked out there for a minute."
Korra was crouching near the tub, checking the temperature of the water. She was wearing only her wraps, allowing Asami a selfish moment to enjoy the way Korra’s smooth, dark skin contrasted beautifully against the worn, white bindings. She glanced around the bathroom, noticing that she was sitting on the bathing bench, and that she herself was completely nude. Outside the bathroom door, she saw both of their sets of clothes haphazardly tossed by the bedside.
Asami’s finally spoke, throat ragged from crying, “We didn’t do the thing, did we?”
A wry chuckle fell from Korra’s lips, “Ah, no, you were in no state for that. Now that you mention it though,” she grinned and waggled her eyebrows at her girlfriend suggestively, “There’s still plenty of evening left, if you feel up for it later.”
The heiress cleared her nose in a towel, hoping to also hide the rogue blush rushing across her cheeks.
Korra continued, “Thing is though, I stink. And I think you and I both need to relax more than anything,” she patted the steaming tub next to her, “Come soak with me.”
Still a bit wobbly from hard weeping, Asami walked over to her lover’s side, placing the tenderest kiss on her shoulder before slipping into the water. A sigh escaped her lips as her skin prickled delightfully against the heat of the liquid now surrounding her form. Asami let her eyes fall shut as she suffused her ears just beneath the surface of the water, cutting out the sounds of Korra discarding her under-wraps and amplifying the gentle sloshing in the tub. Soon, she found herself slipping into an uncomfortable slumber.
Faint booming noises filtered above her head, sometimes accompanied by flashes of murky yellow, red, and blue lights.
Her body told her she was going down, but when she looked up, she saw nothing but an abyss.
A sudden current tumbled her around as something BIG sank above (below?) her, jagged edges ripping through the water, threatening to snag and carry them up (er, down?) with them. A ship’s keel? A Satoplane fuselage? A chunk of floating fortress?
She willed her body to move.
No use. Her legs were oddly limp, and her right arm felt numb.
Her lungs began to burn.
She hoped she had enough oxygen in her lungs to float to the surface, wherever that was…
Suddenly, a bright red light appeared before her, forcing her to screw her eyes shut.
All around her a great rush of water pulled her forward, her good arm tucked around her head in a feeble effort to protect against further injury. A strong pair of hands grabbed her from behind, pulling her through a dense curtain of water and into a damp escape submersible. The squeaking whine of a hatch being sealed shut was the last thing she heard before she passed out.
Somewhere in the Void, a voice called to her, distant, warm, inviting. Korra…?
A desperate gasp of air, then a gush of swallowed and inhaled water rushed from her throat and onto the slippery deck. Asami blinked the stinging ocean water from her eyes as she greedily gulped air, the familiar scent of sweat, wood smoke, and wet stone infusing each breath she took.
"K-Korra? Is that you?” The heiress shivered in her soaked, ruined uniform as she looked behind her to see the Avatar coolly piloting the submersible with her Waterbending, deftly avoiding a forest of plane and ship guts until no more debris could be seen outside the forward viewing port. Once they were a safe distance from the battle, Korra rushed to Asami’s side.
"Asami!! Thank the spirits you’re alive!” She embraced Asami with vigor, causing the heiress to blush despite her current, painful state. Korra retracted to take in the heiress’ condition as Asami stared at the Avatar’s shirt, which was stained with large blotches of red.
“Korra, you’re bleeding!” she blurted.
Korra looked down, looked back at Asami and shook her head with worry, “No, you’re the one who’s bleeding. I’m surprised you’re even moving,” the Avatar began unbuttoning the front of Asami’s uniform, much to Asami’s initial dismay. At this, Korra sat back and gave her an annoyed grunt, “I have to extract the rest of the shrapnel from your arm.”
The heiress let the gravity of her situation sink in as Korra went on with extricating her from her soiled uniform. Korra continued in a matter-of-fact tone, “You literally have a piece of metal sticking out of your back that is longer than my hand. It's going to be a son-of-a-bitch to get out, too. At least its not in a visible place, ‘cause it’ll definitely scar up,“ Korra tore her sleeve off of her uniform blouse, rolled it into a cylinder, and proffered the wide end to Asami’s face, “I’m sorry. There are no painkillers in the first aid kit. Bite down, this is really gonna suck…”
Asami tried and failed to stifle screams of anguish as Korra quickly and carefully Metalbent shards of ship-iron from her right shoulder. Each agonizing minute dragged into what seemed like hours, leaving the heiress a shivering, sobbing husk once Korra declared her body was now much more intact and metal-free.
The Avatar took a moment to glance out the forward viewing port to make sure they hadn’t drifted into another battle zone before rummaging madly through the storage compartments in the submersible, tossing out a spare set of dark submariner togs, several dry towels, a full water skin, and an emergency ration tin. Asami watched numbly as Korra busied herself with toweling and clothing the heiress’ nude form before fixing a rough porridge out of the food bars from the survival tin and the water from the canteen. The Avatar then held the metal bowl in her hands, concentrated briefly, and then offered Asami a spoonful of the now-steaming bowl of porridge with a tired smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
Asami shook her head and said, “Put the bowl in my lap. I’ll use my left hand. You’ve done enough for me, I’d hate to cause you further-“
Korra held up a hand, suddenly irritated, “No, don’t say it. I’m tired of hearing that from you,” she then backpedaled, her rough tone wavering, “I mean, I’m sick of hearing it from people I care about. I’m just… I’m just happy you’re alive. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was surprised you were up and alert,” she hesitated, gazing down at her knees before finishing with a cracked voice, “I thought I was taking you back to Makapu for the last time,” her voice then turned dark and bitter, “but… you were the only one I could save. The air-fight, the torpedoes, the cannons… everything happened so fast… we were caught with our pants down, and I should have been able to-“
It was Asami’s turn to interject, her voice deep and ragged from the stress of her impromptu surgery, “Korra. They figured out how to avoid detection from our location equipment and they were able to lure us into an ambush. If anything, I am to blame for not upgrading the fleet’s stealth equipment. And for that, I have to live with the fact that, for all my work in keeping the Coalition war machine ahead of the Northern Alliance, I still cannot prevent every catastrophe with a flick of a switch or a turn of the wrench.”
The heiress tentatively reached for Korra’s hand and grasped it tight. She took her friend’s hand to rest in her lap and gently squeezed, rubbing a calloused thumb over scarred knuckles. Korra looked up at her, beautiful blue eyes unreadable.
Asami continued, voice pleading, “Don’t take this defeat personally. You may be the Avatar, but you’re still one person, one Korra. And now you can live to lead and fight for those who lost their lives today, knowing that I and any survivors will share in your burden… I will be here for you, no matter what happens.”
Korra scoffed and looked up in exasperation, tears beginning to pool at the corners of her eyes, “You just about died today. I was incredibly lucky to run into you floating by the wreck of the F.F. Burgeoning. I passed countless bodies, bits and pieces of soldiers I knew, crumpled hulls and shredded planes…” the Avatar shuddered, the weight of the day’s horrific events finally settling hard on her shoulders, “This war… I’m so tired of this carnage…”
The heiress tried to scoot closer to Korra but ended up flopping onto her lap sideways, giving the Avatar a slight spook and jostling the porridge in her hands, forcing Korra to set the porridge bowl down and right Asami beside her so that she could lean comfortably on the Avatar’s shoulder. Asami did her best to not blush madly at their proximity. Despite this war, why was she always this nervous around her friend?
Doing her best to hide the waver in her voice, Asami said, “I am too. I’m ready to go home. But… we can’t just yet. We need to regroup with your dad and make sure him and the rest of the Coalition fleet are okay. There will be more attacks and more war unless the North is stopped or until they take over the world. We need to be strong for Mako, for Bolin, for Tenzin and the Air Nomads, for your tribe, for your family, for our city, our world… and for each other.” she paused briefly before commanding, “Korra, look at me.”
A heavy sigh, then the Avatar turned her head to look Asami in the eye. Asami heart broke when she saw Korra’s face up close; her gaze was tinted with shadowy thoughts, there were deep circles under her eyes, and there was a fresh scar running diagonally across her throat. She had never noticed that scar before now. The heiress bit her swollen lip and used her good hand to gently smooth away a runaway tear from Korra’s cheek.
“Korra, you are amazing. You are the strongest woman I know, you are down-to-earth, you take things head-on, and you truly love the people around you, no matter who they are or where they came from. You’ve come a long way from being that bratty bending genius I met all those years ago.”
Korra chuckled dryly and leaned her head forward to meet Asami’s forehead in a light, playful headbutt. She kept her head propped up against the other, their faces uncomfortably close for Asami to not be able to hide her rising blush.
Asami continued in a softer tone, “You being the Avatar… that’s just incidental. Those stuffy sages may tell you all damn day that you must be detached from earthly desires, but I think that your attachments to this world are what make you an amazing person. Yes, it’s important that you learn how to get into the Avatar State,” at this, Korra’s eyes dipped down in shame, “but you shouldn’t have to beat yourself up, or have to give up who you are, or shun what you love in order to pursue that goal. It seems… wrong to me, somehow… In any case, you can’t bear the world on your shoulders. And… even though you had to save me today, I promise that I will be by your side until the bitter end, helping you to fight for what’s good in this world. I will follow you to the ends of this earth, even if I have to-”
The heiress moaned involuntarily when she felt soft lips caressing her own, interrupting her reverie. She brought her head above the water level, fully out of her own head and staring at her gorgeous, naked girlfriend who had cuddled up to her in the tub without her noticing.
“Mmm… how long was I asleep?”
Korra shrugged, jostling the relatively still water, “Eh, a couple minutes or so. You were shivering, so I decided to get in so you’d feel warmer again,” the Avatar winked roguishly, seemingly pleased with herself with the slick flirt she just laid out.
Asami rolled her eyes and gave an undignified snort, her mood buoyed by Korra’s cheeky comment, “Alright, I’ll give you that one. That was pretty good.”
“I’m full of ‘em!”
“Oh, I know you are. I’m reminded of that fact every time you’re around."
“Well, now you make it sound like I’m a killjoy,” Korra pressed herself against Asami’s side, wrapping her arms around her torso and propping her head on the heiress’ shoulder, furrowing and jutting her lips and jaw out comically, “I’ll have you know; I am a delight to be around. I am a fucking sweet treat!”
Asami laughed in earnest and cradled her arms around Korra, letting her hands errantly wander across the soft planes of muscle and curves that comprised Korra’s form. She internally marveled at how lucky she was to have someone like Korra around at all, and deeply regretted their petty fights over the last few months. Even though Future Industries was just making their margin, she could stand to delegate her work better, and allow time to be with Korra and her friends more.
Korra looked up at Asami, a tan finger tracing the curves of her pale abdomen, "Yuan for your thoughts?"
The heiress sighed and clung to her lover, nuzzling the top of her head, "Mmm... just thinking about the submersible again."
Korra perked up, "Yeah? What about it?"
Asami listened to the water lapping at their entwined bodies before replying seriously, "I'm thinking that I'm the luckiest woman on the planet to be loved by someone so wonderful as you. And... I'm worried sick over what I'd do if I lost you."
Asami felt Korra begin kissing tenderly around the curve of her breast, over her collarbone, at each scar along the side of her neck, and ending at her lips in a slow, sensuous kiss. She felt Korra stroke her cheek with wet fingers as she whispered, "I will always love you, my darling, and I will always come back to you."
The heiress took her free hand and held Korra's between them, their fingers threaded together as they simply basked in each other's presence. The only sounds in the room were their slow, even breathing, the cooling waters lapping at the edges of the tub, and the occasional splashing when they needed to readjust their snuggling positions. Once they had both gotten very pruny from soaking too long, they helped each other out of the bath and let it drain as they dried. As Asami toweled her hair dry, she mused, “Hey, you don’t think Bolin cancelled his party because of the typhoon, do you?”
Korra blew a light raspberry before replying, “Uh, no. When Bolin sets a date for a party, it happens, no matter what happens. I mean, he even had Kuvira’s birthday celebrated during Shelling Day! Now that was something…”
Opal groaned, not bothering to contain her frustration.
Nika, who understandably got bored after several hours of waiting on both herself and Korra, had decided it would be a great idea to do ‘muted practicing’, thinking that no one would hear her if she played quietly.
Well, she was wrong. Air Temple acoustics: 1, Opal: 0.
She suffered through several lectures, most of them from Tenzin (blah blah blah security risk blah blah needs to be taken to the infirmary blah blah blah why was she allowed on the ferry with that mystery case in the first place), a couple from Pema (she seemed more concerned about making sure Nika was properly settled in) and one short but harsh talking-at from her mom (...oof).
After a barrage of questions directed at Nika - who had sat, infuriatingly polite and neutral, answering all of them as directly as possible, exposing Korra’s ridiculously stupid plan and Opal’s involvement - the three elders had decided that Nika would remain on the Island under strict supervision during the duration of the incoming storm instead of returning to the station with Lin. Nika, her face unreadable, nodded and remained silent for the rest of the conversation.
The punishment for Opal for breaching security again? They decided that Nika needed to be properly introduced to the Temple and Makapu City as a whole. This meant that wherever she went, Opal had to keep Nika with her, teach her everything, and make sure she didn’t do anything suspicious until Tenzin got in touch with Jinora to figure out what in the wide world an 'America’ was.
That also technically meant that when she snuck out tonight for Bolin’s party, Nika either had to be with her the whole time, or she had to be asleep.
Opal ran a brush through her wig again, mind racing. She could take a chance and see if Nika would be ‘cool’ enough for a party, but she also really didn’t want to have to play babysitter if she could help it.
“You’ve been brushing that same spot for a few minutes, by the by.”
The young Beifong nearly jumped out of her skin, turning behind her to see Nika sitting on the edge of her bed, wiping some dirt off of the white stripe on her shoes with a damp cloth. She was back in her original clothes, albeit with a worn (but clean) blue fur jacket from Korra’s old belongings. She had pulled her hair back into a rough wolf’s tail and was sporting a black ring around her middle finger on her right hand. Her instrument case was with her, as usual, but set aside and ready to grab at a moment’s notice. Opal found herself blushing a bit, intrigued at how much Nika seemed to look like a handsome young man from one of the Water Tribes.
“So. I heard there’s a party going on tonight at an undisclosed location, am I right?” It sounded more like a threat to Opal than a question. The young Beifong narrowed her eyes slightly at Nika, who seemed too smug for Opal’s liking. The sleep option was off the table.
Opal replied, rolling with the verbal jab gracefully, “Oh yeah. There’s going to be a total shindig. Invites only, of course.”
Nika smiled devilishly, “Oh, is that right?” The stranger chuckled and examined the nails on her left hand, “Well, I suppose I’ll have to earn an invitation to this ‘shindig’, then?”
“I have to take you with me regardless,” Opal deadpanned, “I was going to wait until you were asleep, but you beat me to the punch.”
“Ah, well, that's convenient, then! But... if you had tried the other route, you would have had to wait a long while for that to happen. I play frequent bar gigs, so I’m used to late nights.”
Opal threw up her hands in defeat, giving up the thin veneer of their 'polite' conversation, “Look, I bet you’re a real nice person, but to tell you the truth, I don’t want to embarrass myself with you while we’re at this party. There’s gonna be a lot of folks there, and I feel like if I have to teach you what every little thing is, I won’t be properly engaged with my friends,” she paused, sighing, “As it is, I’m slated to stay here with you tomorrow morning instead of helping Korra and Master Tenzin with the storm. Which, ugh, you know what that is, right?”
Nika gave Opal a blank stare, “Uh, what’s a storm?”
Opal heartily resisted the urge to slap this fool.
The stranger couldn’t hold her poker face for long before cracking into a snickering fit, “No, no, I know what that is. There’s definitely a storm coming. The air was smelling like rain since this afternoon and the clouds on the horizon are ominous. Though, I’m going to go ahead and assume that it is a very bad storm, since both Korra and Master Tenzin are going to do… something about it, apparently...”
“They’re going to try and diffuse the storm,” Opal finished for her, “When there are enough benders in one place, especially Air and Waterbenders, being able to deflect and diffuse weather patterns is possible. Thing is,” she chewed on her lip nervously, “there are only a handful of Airbenders left in the world. Plenty of Waterbenders, but even with them a big storm can’t be fully dispersed…”
Opal shook herself from her musings when she spied the time on her bedside clock. They needed to sneak out now if they were going to be fashionably late.
The young Beifong readjusted the bob wig and sequined short dress she wore one last time before she looked to Nika, “Okay, we need to leave now. How are you with heights?”
“Terrible. I’ll close my eyes and gag myself if I need to stay quiet.”
A blindingly fast glider-flight to the mainland and a short jog later, the odd pair found themselves blending well into the bustling city streets. People were rushing madly about from store to store, buying up what they could before the shops had to close at noon tomorrow. It led to an interesting feeling in the air, a heady mix of excitement, fear, and frivolity saturated the clear, lamplit night. Nika was doing a great job of looking like a normal city dweller, keeping her head forward and walking with purpose, though she always stayed two steps behind Opal so she could let herself be guided.
Hmm. Maybe Nika wasn’t as foolish as Korra made her out to be.
Their destination was a mildly ivy-throttled two-story establishment between Vineways and the Business Sector, a place charmingly called Chi’s Kitty. A couple minutes of sweet-talking the bouncers earned them both free entry to the watering hole. The interior was a svelte, organic affair, with lighting, décor, and architecture to match the vines growing throughout the structure. This was one of the first places to be built with the vines as oppose to around them, and thus made it out to be a fairly popular spot for most middle- and upper- class clients who liked to live a little on the wild side. The inclusion of nightly live music also drew plenty of attention, and tonight there was going to be a special performance from Zhu Mann accompanied by the house band.
As they made their way to the second-floor private room, Opal spied a pair of women sequestered in their own private booth, watching their loving gazes for each other with not a little envy. Places like this were incredibly welcoming to all kinds of clientele, which Opal was absolutely thankful for, but most women she knew or met were either taken or not… not like that. She loved Bolin, Bolin loved her, and they made love to one another in wonderful ways, and sometimes they liked sharing various partners, but… She sighed, trying not to slow down and ogle for too long while they ascended the stairs. Up here, there were three doors: two were restrooms, the other was the private party room. A tacky poster with a caricature of Bolin’s head haphazardly adorned the door, the sounds of mirth filtering through the heavy wood.
Opal knocked loudly and practically squealed, “Hey! Guess who it is?”
A cheerful man’s voice answered from behind the door, “Ooh, ooh! I love guessing games! Okay… so, you’re female, you’re loud and obnoxious, and yet you have a voice as sweet as panda-lily honey…”
The door swung back, revealing Bolin in a smart three-piece trimmed in green velvet, “Opal, my darling! And… friend! I was wondering when you were going to make it,” The sturdy man embraced the young Beifong and regarded the stranger with a happy, curious look, “And yes! The more, the merrier! What’s your name?”
Nika smiled, offering her right hand for a shake, “Nika. I met Opal at the Air Temple not too long ago. She was so very sweet, showing a lost ‘tourist’ around Makapu City,” Not totally untrue, but also vague, just like how Nika liked it. Opal rolled her eyes and shook her head, hiding a grin.
Bolin shook her hand with both of his and smiled like an owl-cat that had just caught a meal, “Ohh, you must be that Nika. I’ve heard a couple of strange stories from Korra and Asami about you,” He waggled his eyebrows at the stranger, “You should tell me a few of them later over a drink or two, if you’d like,” With a quick up-and-down glance at Nika and a sly wink and kiss to Opal, he stepped aside to let them in.
A chorus of cheers erupted from the long table in the center of the room, a host of Opal’s friends and some new faces greeting them as they came to sit at the food-laden oak slab. In the back, a three-part band played upbeat popular music, and all about were several attendants bringing all kinds of alcohol and food back and forth from the kitchen downstairs through a private service elevator. Opal regarded her current company: Bolin was chatting with everyone (all at once, somehow), Mako and Kuvira were trying to look relaxed while talking with another straight couple (Mako kept bending down every so often to whisper something to her that would make the pro-bender blush and slap the detective’s arm), Korra and Asami were happily half-talking, half-making-out (pretty hot, but a little gross), Varrick and Zhu-Li were jawing off at an unfamiliar gay couple nearby (mainly Varrick talking; Zhu-Li would punctuate his words with certain gestures or short comments), her cousins Huan, Wing and Wei were playing a Metalbender version of darts away from the table (Huan seemed more interested in making interesting patterns with the darts than competing with his sportsmen brothers), Zun and Rei were having an impromptu eating contest (the rest of Kuvira’s pro-bending team, pretty fun girls to be around), and lastly, Kya, Bumi, and a yellow-haired (Varri-dyed, probably) bespectacled stranger sporting a wispy beard (currently arguing over something to do with flutes and poisonous plants).
She sighed happily and sipped her sake, instantly at home in the commotion and bustle. She had almost completely forgotten about her new ball-and-chain when she heard a low belch from her right.
Nika cleared her throat loudly, setting an empty plate to her right and grabbing a cup of sake, “My goodness, excuse me. This is top notch gnosh n’ slosh, for sure. Though, I’d like to try something, give me a sec.”
The young Beifong watched, curious, as Nika poured herself a somewhat short glass of cold ale and then gingerly dropped the hot sake, cup and all, into the glass. A white foam threatened to overflow but just stopped short of the rim, earning a cheeky giggle from the stranger as she downed the lot in one smooth, quick gulp. With a satisfied smack of her lips, Nika set the empty nested glasses on the oak slab, pinky up in a comical gesture. She turned excitedly to Opal, eyes alight and a smirk on her face, “Want one?"
Stay tuned for part II
Chapter 7: The Gathering Storm
Found some interesting challenges to address in this chapter. Hope y'all like it. Hope to post more over the weekend.
Also, I've done some light editing to previous chapters, mainly grammar and flow issues. I highly encourage y'all to reread it if you feel inclined to do so.
After his guests had their fill of food, Bolin clapped twice, gathering the attention of his friends and the other party attendees. With his best showman’s smile, he gestured grandly at the stage and boomed, “Ladies and gents, I’m pleased to have you all here on this stormy night! I know the weather reports are pretty alarming,” the crowd rippled with dry chuckling, “but despite all that, you all came to celebrate the new season! Happy Autumn, everyone!” Here he paused to allow a round of applause to die down, “Now, before we get to our main event tonight, I’d like to address a few things…”
He giggled madly as he picked up a few blank parcels that were waiting nearby for this very joke. Amidst groans and raucous laughter, he comically scribbled on each package and called out, “First, for my dear brother, Mako, and his fiancée, Kuvira, for their future endeavors!” A chorus of applause accompanied a sheepish Mako as he quickly walked up and accepted a couple of rectangular parcels. Bolin snickered to himself as he gave his brother a hug, causing the other to stare at him suspiciously as he made his way back to his seat.
“Next, for my darling Opal!” Opal retrieved hers with a tipsy saunter to her step, no doubt aided by the several ‘sake bombs’ she consumed with Nika earlier that evening. She planted a loud kiss on his cheek and took her small parcel back to her bench. He watched the pair of them laugh over something Nika had said, momentarily distracted by how beautiful Opal was in the low light. Shaking himself, he continued smoothly, “and for the two most powerful and busy women I know of, Korra and Asami!” Bolin’s hug for them was a bit tense, but he gave them each a warm smile and sent them back to their chairs.
Bolin liked his little traditions, especially when it came to giving gifts. He insisted that each gift he gave was meaningful to the person they were given to and that it should be useful in some way. His gaze travelled to Opal in the back, watching her and her new friend coo over his little hand-made gift to her: a volcanic glass pendant of a bumblebee. He hoped she noticed the note tucked inside the box, and that she would say yes… but he’d get his answer after he finished his gift-giving.
Once he had distributed the last of his gifts, he straightened himself and declared, “Now, ladies and gents, I want you all to welcome to the stage, Zhu Mann and the Bo-Bo Show Band!”
As a small, wrinkly woman stepped into the limelight, Bolin lightly stepped through the crowd to join Opal and Nika at the table. He grinned and gave his girlfriend a peck on the cheek and whispered, “Hey babe, how was your day?”
She sighed happily and leaned into his chest, her lips brushing against his ear as she replied softly, “Incredibly trying, but it ended surprisingly well. I’m looking forward to giving Korra shit later for me being ‘punished’ for her sloppiness. Any exciting news to share?”
“Well, Mako has been snooping around Dragon Flats for some crafty thieves, Varrick almost has all the documentation from the war sorted and ready for publishing, Asami is eyeballs deep in consolation letters and business plans, and Bumi literally ran into a guy who Korra might find useful,” he jerked his head towards the yellow-haired man currently mystified by the performance, “Calls himself Dr. Fin. Says he’s really good with plants. But really, I’m glad you were able to sneak out of the compound tonight. The highlight of my week is getting to be with you.” The trilling of the pipa mimicked his fluttering heart.
Opal chewed her lip and let her hand slip onto his knee, “I’m always excited to be with you, Bolin. You’re my honey-sweetie, and I love you.”
Bolin leaned down and captured Opals lips in a loving kiss, then murmured, “My sun and moon. Hey uh… you didn’t happen to see a little thing in the box, did you?”
She shook her head and went to check, but his hand cupped over hers.
“Don’t… don’t worry about it just yet. Let’s read it together, after the show.” He watched as Nika turned towards them a little to reach for more sake, her voice joining the cheer going up for the first of many beautiful tunes played by the pipa master.
After Zhu began a more strident piece, he lowered his voice a little more, eyes on the back of Nika’s head, “I kind of want to know more about this ‘friend’ you’ve brought with you. She seems…”
“…Odd?” Opal finished for him, thankful that Nika was currently enraptured by the pipa player riffing on stage.
“Something like that, yeah. You know where she’s from?”
“She says she’s from ‘Baltimore City’, and apparently it’s a city in this country called ‘America’.”
The showman’s eyebrows shot up in a puzzled expression, recalling the conversation between Mako, Korra, and Asami he had ‘accidentally’ eavesdropped on earlier that evening, “Huh. Do you think they’re made up names?”
Opal shrugged, “I have no clue. Honestly, she isn’t saying more than that though, which isn’t very helpful, but… I don’t think it’s worth pressing just yet. She says she’s not ready to talk about home.”
Bolin pursed his lips with worry, catching sight of the instrument case under Nika’s seat, “Hmm... Any plans on getting her to open up?”
“I could try after she gets herself plastered. She’s already five drinks ahead of me,” she gestured to the growing collection of empty glasses next to Nika’s elbow, “but that’s no guarantee. I haven’t seen her wobble yet.”
After a moment of considering the crowd around him, Bolin shifted his weight so that he could silently step away from the table, muttering to Opal, “Don’t try too hard. I’m going to go see what Varrick is up to; I haven’t heard his voice in a while and I’m starting to get worried.”
The young Beifong pouted, but replied ruefully, “Yeah, that isn’t good. Make sure he isn’t spiking the punch with cactus juice or something.”
Varrick was not, thank goodness, doing evil at the punch table, but he did find him in a deep conversation about sciencey-stuff with the soft-voiced Dr. Fin right outside the private room door.
“…and that’s how you can teach an organism how to make whatever chemicals you want. I swear, man, it’s some of the most fascinating science I’ve ever come across. If you want, I can send you links to the papers,” Dr. Fin reached for a small, shiny device in his pocket that, when he swiped his thumb over the surface, glowed bright colors and displayed strange characters, “…Oh. Huh. I’m not getting any service. I guess I’ll have wait till I get outside to do that. In any case, I’m pretty stoked that I got lost on my way to one party and found this dope place instead,” He then proceeded to prod at the phone with his thumbs, making characters race across the screen instantaneously before he pocketed the glowing device with an audible ‘click’, “Life’s pretty exciting like that, sometimes, huh?”
Both of their jaws dropped, stunned at the casual use of such odd technology, but Varrick was quick to exclaim, “Dr. Fin, my man, you must be introduced to my esteemed colleague, Miss Asami Sato! I assure you that she can offer you a fine position at Future Industries-“
Dr. Fin interrupted, clearly flustered, “Oh, no, I’m not really looking for a new job. Thank you for the offer, though. Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to enjoy this awesome free concert,” And with that, he stepped quietly back into the private room.
The two of them stood in shock, occasionally staring between each other and the door. Bolin took a deep breath and did his best to contain his sudden anxiety, “Okay… so now there’s two people in there who have weird things: an ‘instrument’ case and that glowy-thing. I don’t like this. Something is off here.”
Varrick scoffed, eyes rolling towards the ceiling, “What’s so weird about an instrument case when that man that just walked away from me has the literal sun in his hand?! And I bet you he somehow stored his thoughts into it, even though everything it showed was total gibberish. Imagine what kind of things I- I mean, Future Industries- could do if we had our hands on something like that?!”
Bolin let Varrick ramble himself into the ground while he contemplated how best to untangle his two unexpected mystery guests. He could get Nika over to Mako so that he could possibly finish getting information from her, since he was already questioning her to begin with, and maybe get her to open the case so he could finally see what a ‘violin’ was, but Dr. Fin…
“Varrick, hold on a second. Did Dr. Fin say where he was from?”
Mid-tirade, Varrick replied in an annoyed tone, “He says he’s from a ‘Baltimore City’, wherever that is. I’m starting to think he’s a spy from World Source or-“
“Wait a second. That’s it!” Bolin turned to Varrick with glee, “We have to get Dr. Fin and Nika talking to each other. I bet you we’ll get some answers there. Come on.”
Back inside the private room, Zhu Mann’s performance came to a close as her last chords were met with deafening applause. Bolin and Varrick met back up with Zhu Li (who had been taking notes on Dr. Fin for most of the night, apparently). While Varrick dumped more information on her, Bolin spied Nika and Dr. Fin talking animatedly with a very confused Opal sitting awkwardly between them. That was easy.
He approached the trio, his showman’s charm back on, “Well, how’s our night been so far? Good, I hope?”
Nika smiled, genuine mirth in her voice, “Excellent! Didn’t expect to run into my old, crotchety roommate,” she reached over and playfully punched Dr. Fin’s shoulder, who raised his middle finger at her with a grin. Opal smiled wanly as she downed the rest of her drink, her eyes moving frantically between him and the door.
Bolin blinked unevenly before replying, “Ah. I’m… glad to hear that! Please, stick around for some more drinks and dancing. If you need anything at all, come find me, and I’ll help you out,” he bowed before pretending to meander over to Korra and Asami’s table near the stage. He stooped low and whispered urgently between them, “Hallway. Five minutes,” and stepped away smoothly to do the same for Mako and Kuvira. None of them got up immediately, but over time each managed to find their way out in the hall without arousing much suspicion.
All six of them regarded one another as Bolin spoke, “Alright. We need to address the elephant-koi in the room.”
“Those two weirdos,” Kuvira huffed, checking her nails for grime that wasn’t there, “I don’t even know why you even let them in here, Bo. Isn’t this a private party?”
“I mean, yeah… but I’m not going to say no to new people, that’s just bad party-form. Private just means that the whole town isn’t invited, you know?”
She shot back, “It’s a security risk, is what it is!”
Korra interrupted in an irritated tone, “Come on, Kuvira, the war is over. There’s no opposition left. You and I spent the whole year after the war cleaning up the stragglers, and anyone still clinging to my uncle’s rhetoric have sworn themselves to a lifetime of silence. The worst they could be is corporate thugs or gangsters, but they haven’t really done anything along those lines.”
Asami murmured, “Are they waiting for us to get comfortable? Let our guard down? I mean… now is a perfect time to take us by surprise.”
Mako pursed his lips, “We’re getting ahead of ourselves. What do we know about them? We know that they come from the same place – Baltimore City, America - and that they both know each other. One is a musician who says she got lost on her way to work, and the other is a plant doctor or agriculturalist who says he got lost on his way to another party. Unless they’re just really terrible spies, I highly doubt that they are involved with any possible threat, new or old,” He began flipping through his notebook and turned to the page with Nika’s sketch on it and showed it to the group, “Does anyone else recognize what this is? When I asked Nika to write her name, she did this instead.”
Kuvira arched her eyebrow, “Well, she’s illiterate, for one.”
Korra shook her head, “You’d think that, but no, she can write. She just writes in a way that can’t be read by us… Maybe it’s some sort of code?”
“She’s not stupid, either,” Opal interjected, “I’m pretty sure of that. She technically threatened me with blackmail so I would take her to the party. But maybe I shouldn’t give her too much credit, since Korra’s plan was stupid anyway.”
“Plan?” Asami arched an amused eyebrow at Korra, who scratched the back of her head and looked away.
“Yeah… I tried to get Nika integrated into the Temple so she could meet with Master Jinora… Sorry, Opal…”
“Save it for later, Korra. We’ll talk about that privately.”
Bolin winced and nervously patted Opal’s shoulder, “Remember, Opal, we need her alive for the morning, okay?”
Asami turned her attention back to the image and said thoughtfully, “You know, it sort of reminds me of a game my dad and I used to play with pictures. We would have a secret phrase that we would try to draw out in symbols or scenes that were homophonous to the hidden meaning.”
Opal chimed in, “Yeah, Huan and I played that game, too. So, let’s apply that here. What are the people in the picture?”
“Warriors, obviously,” Kuvira said, “and they just slew a beast.”
“Okay! Great! Write that down…”
After a few minutes of brainstorming, they came out with several outcomes, each seeming to describe roughly the same thing: something to do with a heritage of military or hunting prowess. Mako pinched the bridge of his nose, shaking his head, “Okay, well, that’s all well and good, but we still don’t know what ‘America’ is or what-“
The party door swung open, allowing Dr. Fin and Nika to stumble drunkenly into the hall, both singing loudly in gibberish with an arm slung over each other’s shoulders. They turned to the group, Nika speaking at them in a thick accent, “Эй, где я могу курить??“
The six of them blinked, stilling any conversation they were holding before. Asami spoke up, voice laced with confusion, “I’m sorry, could you please speak plainly?”
Dr. Fin piped up, words still mostly articulate, “He wants to know if there is an acceptable smoking area somewhere outside, and if so, the directions to such a place.”
Bolin frantically gestured back towards the party, “You can smoke wherever you want-“
Nika shook her head, letting it lol on her shoulders as she replied, “Нет, это чертовски отвратительно!“
“He says that’s unsanitary. I’m inclined to agree.“
The showman none-too-gently guided the pair back into the private room, exclaimng, “Nonsense, just smoke by the window if you’re so worried. It’s backstage, you’ll see it,“ He shut the door quickly behind them and turned to the group with a panicked expression.
Korra spoke first, “Look, if we can keep them in one place, or at least keep an eye on them, we can sort out this conundrum eventually. We won’t have any answers until we talk to them properly. There will be plenty of time for that once the worst of the storm is dealt with tomorrow,“ She turned to Mako, “Try to keep an eye out for Nika’s stuff while you’re out working tomorrow. I have a feeling that it might be able to help us understand where they came from.“
“Already on it. I’m going to double back over to Dragon Flats in the morning before I hunker down at the precinct. I need to make sure to get the rest of Nika’s testimony before we leave, though,“ he glanced over at Kuvira briefly, whose face was unreadable.
Korra turned to Opal, “Since you’re having to deal with Nika at the Temple, I’ll talk to Tenzin about Dr. Fin when I see him tomorrow morning. I’ll also see if I can’t get off your back for my stunt.“
Opal narrowed her eyes at Korra, struggling to hide a smile, “Alright. That doesn’t mean we aren’t still talking alone later.“
“Of course, of course...“
Asami took a moment to press something into the palm of Bolin’s hand with a whisper, “Thank you for throwing this party. I’m sorry I haven’t called back. Leave me a message with your break schedule tomorrow morning.“
The showman smoothly pocketed the object, grinned bashfully and gave her a bear hug, which she returned just as fiercely, “Don't worry about it. Just don’t forget: we’re here for each other for a reason.“
As the six of them allowed their conversation to devolve into friendly chatter over the next day's tasks, Bolin heard several piercing notes coming from the private room that wasn't Zhu Mann or his band.
"Guys, guys!" he put a finger to his lips, "Do you hear that?"
A silken tone, clear as crystal, mingled with sparkling plucked notes as Korra and Opal shared panicked expressions. The group stopped talking to one another, mystified by the new music.
Korra put an ear to the door, her face turning white, "Oh shit! Nika's playing!"
Bolin poked his head through the door crack, catching sight of Bumi, Kya, Varrick and Zhu Li, all of their attention glued to the stage. Looking down their line of sight, he spied Nika standing next to Zhu in the limelight, 'violin' in hand, cranking out a lightning-fast volley of notes as her bow blurred across the strings. He slipped in as stealthily as he could, Krew in tow, as the two of them traded musical blows with one another, the Bo-Bo Show band showing some strain as they tried to keep in time with their friendly duel. Both of them grinned from ear to ear as they bobbed and weaved through their candences, the audience looking on in sheer awe at the display of virtuosity. Every so often, Zhu Mann would play a phrase chock full of densely woven notes, only to be contrasted by Nika's shimmering runs as she gave an answer to every one of Zhu Mann's musical questions. Bolin noticed that, though Nika made some odd note choices, she was an exceptional improviser, and the tone she produced from her instrument was wholly rich and novel. The piece finished with Nika giving a dizzying flourish of notes that made her left hand fly up the neck of her instrument in the blink of an eye.
All of the onlookers let out a deafening roar, throwing calls for more as they clapped their hands numb. Bolin didn’t bother hiding his impish smile as he watched Nika bow with Zhu, then bowing low to one another before they lifted their instruments to play again.
Asami flopped back into the mattress, humming the duet melody out loud as she let her body unwind, “Oh, I haven’t danced like that in years... I’m going to need to make sure I stretch out before bed.“
Korra cast a sideways glance at Asami before shrugging out of her blouse, leaving her slacks on half-buttoned as she sauntered over to the bed, “And here you are, singing and dancing to the tune of someone you treated so poorly."
Asami's breath hitched when she caught Korra's accusing stare, the aggressive slope of her muscular shoulders, and the curve of her abs as they dipped into the waistband of her slacks; a perfect combination of upset and sexy. She struggled to keep her composure, even as she let her eyes wander across the sculpted hills and valleys of her lover's body. She found enough breath to let out a meek reply, her shame slowly sinking in, "You're right. I could have been nicer. It's still hard for me to trust after all that spying and double-agent work... during the war... ohh..."
A warm finger traced the edge of her collarbone, leaving what felt like a trail of sparks dancing in its wake. Asami leaned into the touch, exposing her pale neck, silently begging for more contact. She fought the urge to flinch as Korra loomed over, her eyes dark with desire. The heiress gulped, feeling her lower body bloom with sudden heat.
"Do you trust me?" Korra murmured as she sat on the edge of the bed before pulling her hand away from Asami's throat. The heiress found it hard to breathe, but found the strength to bring her arms around Korra's neck and roughly pull her into the bed, using the momentum to roll herself on top of Korra and straddle her hips. She gave a self-satisfied smirk as she swept her hands up Korra's chest, cupping her breasts briefly before continuing their ascent to Korra's throat. Korra sighed, letting her head fall back onto the bed as Asami swept her thumb over the fading scar still there, a remnant of the pain they had all endured years ago. Keeping her weight off of her arms as much as possible, Asami gently pressed the curve of her hand against her lover's throat, her skin prickling as she heard and felt her moan beneath her hand.
Asami leaned down, whispering against the shell of Korra's ear, "With my life. Now... do you trust me?" she wove her fingers with Korra's, bringing their arms above Korra's head. Her heart fluttered when she saw how Korra looked at her, eyes half-lidded with her lower lip caught between her teeth.
Her girlfriend craned her head up and kissed the tender curve of Asami's neck, smiling against her skin, "With my heart, body, and soul."
Mako held Kuvira close as they basked in the glow of their shared bliss, their clothes strewn about her normally pristine apartment. The veteran was still humming the infectious tune from the surprise duet. He smirked against her bare shoulder, bemused, “You still have that song in your head? Even after all we just did?“
Kuvira clicked her tongue in annoyance and turned around to kiss him possesively, replying, “It makes me think of you, and of happy times. Right now is a happy time with you.“
The detective buried his nose into Kuvira's hair, inhaling her intoxicating after-sex scent, heart fluttering with nervousness as he thought of a way to bring up his question. Before he could muster up the courage to say anything, Kuvira let out a tiny snore as her breathing evened out in dreamless sleep. With a sigh, he kissed the back of her head and tried to not think too hard about the three orphans and their request.
Opal re-read the note, tears brimming in her eyes.
Bolin looked up at her, propped up on his right knee, waiting with bated breath.
“Oh Bolin, I love you so much...“
His heart threatened to break.
“... Of course I’ll marry you, you big dork!“
Shouting with joy, the happy showman picked up the love of his life and spun her around, declaring to the night air, “I’m a big dork and she said yes!“
Down at the far edge of the pier with their legs dangling over the ledge, Nika and Dr. Fin drunkenly cheered in response to his jubilation, voices muffled by the stiff sea wind.
Bolin gingerly put her back down on the dock in dismay, “But what? Oh man, you’re really jerking my heart around here.“
“No, no, I just need to say... I have one condition.“
The showman insisted, “Anything for you, name it.“
“...you... you know how we share lovers?“
Bolin scoffed, “Yeah, duh! That’s not going to stop once we get hitched!“
Opal nodded, but finished timidly, “I honestly don’t care much for the casual flings. I want to share loves. I... I want us to be able to marry other people. While we’re together.“
He wasn’t sure what he was hearing, but he assumed the worst. He asked in a low voice, “Opal... if you don’t want to be with me, just say so-“
The young Beifong stomped her foot, suddenly indignant, “That’s not what I’m saying!“ She wrung her hands anxiously, “I’m saying that... that I want to be able to bring another person into our family if we love them like we love each other. And before you ask,“ she held up a finger to his lips, “no, I don’t want kids. Yet. And this goes for you, too. If you want to bring someone into our relationship, you can do that too. Is... is that okay?“
The dock beneath Bolin’s feet seem to sway as he stood, trying his best to process what he had just heard. The sound of water slapping against the soaked wood beneath their feet was deafening to him, causing him to run his hands through his hair in frustration. How could she ask something like that?! He felt Opal moving towards him, enveloping him in a soft hug that he barely registered.
“Opal... I... I need to sleep on this. You... should get those two back to the Temple... I’ll come by before the storm hits tomorrow.“
His heart murmured with confusion as he pulled away from Opal’s embrace and walked away, his thoughts weighed heavy with Opal’s words and broken fragments from the duet duel.
The early morning sunlight filtered through grey clouds and misty windows as Asami roused herself from slumber, letting each of her limbs extend as she stifled a yawn. Sleepily, she felt around the empty spot next to her, whimpering when she felt no warmth. A piece of paper tickled her fingertips as she grasped at her lover’s pillow, subconciously seeking Korra’s familair scent. She propped herself up on her elbow and groggily read the note, a soft, sad smile playing at the corners of her mouth. With another yawn, the heiress placed the note by her bedside and fully roused herself for her morning routine.
After bathing and dressing herself, Asami sipped strong tea as she reviewed her schedule at her home office desk, now adorned with a framed photograph of the Krew after Shelling Day. She let her eyes rest on the figures in the picture, lingering on Korra’s goofy grin, marred by grime and a few seeping cuts. She was shoving a slice of cake into Kuvira’s face, who had given the camera the best look of disgust ever captured on film. The heiress chuckled, seeing her own figure mingled with Mako, Bumi, Opal, Kya, Bataar Jr., and Bolin behind Korra and Kuvira in mid-laugh. She saw Su Yin, Eska, and Desna not too far off, stuck in eternal laughter. Her fingers brushed over the last three. Not the most flattering position for any of them, but it was an honest moment of mirth during a truly dark day in the war.
As Asami turned back to her storm preparation checklist, her thoughts lingered to Korra’s storm-diffusing mission with the White Lotus, and to the strange people that had appeared in the last two days. Her brow furrowed as a sour feeling in her gut settled in.
She picked up the reciever of her phone and dialed up Air Temple Island.
Mako groaned, pleading through the rusty bars, “Please, Mimi, let me in! I really-“
The old caretaker rattled the iron gate with her bludgeon, effectively silencing him with a clang, “No! You try an‘ come twice in one week, and during an evacuation of all things?! Unless yer here to help the orphanage get to the north side of the mountain, you’d best step off, young man!“
The desperate detective dragged his hands across his face, his gaze momentarily flicking towards the open window where he could see Scabb, Mangy, and Dozer making faces at him.
“Look, okay, I’ll help you evacuate, but I want to talk to you about-“
Mimi barked as she opened the gate a crack, “Ain’t nothin‘ to talk about if we all drown. Get your ass in here and start loading the kids into the buses. We’ll talk when we gotta hunker down.“
As Mako squeezed his way through, he countered, “I have to stay at the precinct during the storm. I won’t be-“
“Then you can wait until we have either been swept away or survived the storm! Now you’d better start wrangling babes, or I’ll string you to the lead bus with your own guts!“
Mako’s shoulders fell as he muttered, “Yes, ma’am,“ then quickly set about herding groups of cackling children into the rickety buses they used for infrequent field trips. Most of the children were excited about ‘storm-camping in the mountains‘, but some of the wiser ones made sure to stick close and comfort the few who were truly scared of the coming storm. He spied the three miscreants he had come for in the first place start to make a beeline for him from the play yard, so he met them halfway as he pretended to queue them in with the other kids.
Mangy sucked air through her teeth and smiled cheekily, “What’s good, Detective Nosey? Solve your ten-yuan mystery yet? Maybe... have a reply for our request?“ Scabb itched at her elbows nervously while Dozer sucked his thumb, lazy stare trained on Mako expectantly.
The detective’s throat bobbed as he straightened his collar, “Look, I still need to talk to my betrothed about-“
Scabb scrunched up her nose and squealed, “Eww, Mako has a girlfriend!“
Mangy rolled her eyes dramatically, “Duh. He knows we need a mom, so he probably hired her or something... or however that adult stuff works.“
Mako scowled, losing his patience, “I will talk to my fiancee soon. I’m going to be spending the storm with her at the precinct, so-“
Scabb taunted in a sing-song lilt, “Mako an‘ Fiyan-say, sittin‘ in a tree-“
“Enough!“ he snarled, temper snapping like dry tinder.
The three orphans (and the fifty or so other orphans around them) immediately stopped what they were doing and looked at him in shock and not a little fear. Mako did his best to reign in his anger, and continued in a slow growl, “Everyone get onto the buses in an orderly fashion. There will be no pushing, shoving, spitting, or bending. You all will listen to the caretakers, and you will follow their instructions,“ he looked back down at the cowering Mangy and Scabb, while Dozer looked on, unimpressed, “You three will especially be on your best behavior.“ He then proceeded to continue corraling the now obedient children onto the bus, keeping close to Mangy, Scabb, and Dozer as they boarded.
As Mangy stepped into the bus, she brushed by him roughly and sneered, “You’d better have an answer for us when you come by next time, or you’re not gettin‘ any more info out of us or any other orphan, for that matter. Later, Nosey.“
He stayed at the orphanage until each bus had left, leaving half of the caretakers and himself to finish storm-proofing the orphanage. Several of the caretakers took up Earthbending stances and made pushing motions. Thick slabs of stone rose around the building, effectively boxing the entire orphanage in a hemispherical dome. Mako and the rest of the caretakers combed the orphanage one last time for stragglers before the dome was sealed shut.
Mako sighed heavily and trudged back to his bike, thinking of ways he could break his predicament to Kuvira. While he genuinely did want children, and was absolutely fond of the three miscreants, he also wasn’t so sure Kuvira was ready for such a commitment. She was career driven, and had fallen headlong into the gruesome world of Pro-Bending after she retired from ten years of active service. But, he knew the three of their quirks already, so managing their shenanigans would be relatively simple for him to do, and teaching Kuvira the same shouldn’t be too difficult. Well, it wouldn’t hurt to ask Kuvira if she’d be up for adopting...
He reached into his coat pocket for his smokes, instead finding a piece of crumpled paper tucked neatly between his wallet and his smoking case. A small smile graced his lips as he lit his cigarette and fired up his engine.
Asami tapped her fingers impatiently on her steering wheel, wishing desperately that she had taken her bike that day. Those who had vehicles were currently swamping the evacuation routes, leaving for the high country outside the city in crawling droves, which forced her to take some ‘semi-legal‘ shortcuts through alleyways in order to get over to the ferry in a timely fashion. As she was coming up from the ship yard (having finished helping shutter her company’s warehouses), she noticed that those who lacked a vehicle were being moved by either police transport or by charitable farmers. She noticed several sky bison flying overhead, no doubt ferrying more people into the mountains. At a stoplight, she inspected the sky, frowning at how dark and sickly it had turned.
After an hour of grueling traffic, Asami finally pulled into the ferry and parked her Satomobile on the flat deck, a chill saturating the whipping winds now skating across Yue Bay. While the ferry went underway with its solitary cargo, she watched flashes of faraway lighting along the southern horizon, the heavy black clouds overhead threatening a deluge.
Bolin came into view, tapping on her passenger-side window rapidly, “Hey! Let me in! This wind really sucks!“
With a start, Asami unlocked her car and let him in, exclaiming, “Oh, hey! I didn’t see you get on board at all, how did you-“
“I’ve been on the ferry since mid-morning.“
Asami took a second to properly look at Bolin; he was disheveled, normally crisp suit wrinkled, hair in dissaray, and bags under his usually cheery eyes. He slouched in the bucket seat, fishing around for something in his jacket pocket as he muttered under his breath. She reached over and patted his arm, “Hey, are you alright?“
Bolin snorted, sniffling loudly, “Yes. And no. I asked Opal for her hand last night.“
The heiress began, fearing the worst, “Oh, Bolin, did she say-“
“She said yes. But, she says that she also wants it to be an... open marriage?“
Asami gave him a sideways glance, neatly tucking her disdain behind her mask, “Why are you so surprised? Aren’t you two ‘like‘ that anyway?“
“Yeah, well, but-“
“Then what’s the issue?“
He grunted in frustration, “I just... I thought I was enough for her. I feel like, after what she told me last night, that I somehow wasn’t giving her the love she needed,“ he angrily stuffed a smoke between his lips, prompting Asami to crack a window when he sparked it up, sending shreds of bluish smoke into the rippling winds outside. The heires wiggled her fingers in his direction, whereupon Bolin passed the cigarette over and let her take a few delicate puffs. The howling wind outside marred any silence in the smoky cabin as they sat in contemplation.
Asami spoke first, tentatively, “Bolin, I don’t think Opal is ready to settle down yet. That's just my opinion, but the way you two behave sometimes-“
Bolin huffed, a cloud of smoke venting from his nostrils, “Behave? Explain.“
“Hmm. Well... Bolin, you two are excellent for each other. We all know this. But maybe your current, ah, 'lifestyle' together isn't something that can be sustained in a marriage," she turned fully towards him, her face etched with concern, "I mean, do you need me to talk some sense into her?"
“No, no, don't do that,“ he buried his hands in his face, moaning, "Oh spirits, the look in her eyes when I walked away from her..."
The heiress pursed her lips. Seeing Bolin this distraught shook her to her core, especially over something so taboo as polygamy. Everyone knew and generally accepted Bolin and Opal's little escapades to be 'youthful exploration', but it seemed to her that they had finally come to a sort of head. She decided that she definitely wasn't able to help him get to a conclusion, as her own relationship with Korra was only just getting better and was nowhere near as complex as the issue Bolin now faced. Instead she threw her arm around his shoulder and said, “Look, why don't you talk to her during the storm. Hash it out. Maybe try spending more time with her in the future. In the meantime," she reached into his pocket and retrieved another cigarette for herself before reaching back and grabbing a dark bottle from under his seat, "you're going to help me with this at some point tonight, and I'm going to kick your ass in Pai Sho while we finish it between us."
Outside the car, the fog horn blared, signaling their approach to the Temple docks.
Looking a little more spirited, Bolin sat up in his seat and pinched the cigarette butt out between his fingers and stuffed the filter into his pocket. Asami rolled them off the ferry and onto the island, parking the car in the stone shed by the shore. The rain began to pour as they hustled their way into the main temple complex, leaving them half-drenched and dripping as they walked to Tenzin’s office.
They found Pema already there, bouncing Rohan on her knee and listening to the long-range radio intently, sweeping through frequencies expertly even as Meelo and Ikki argued loudly over who was going to deflect the most rain that night. She turned to them and grinned tiredly, “Ah! There you are! Thank goodness, I need to change Rohan and these two need to get back to their rooms!“ The two in question bolted out of the office, still squabbling between themselves. Bolin struggled to stifle a giggle.
Asami gave Pema a warm hug and cooed at Rohan, “Who’s the cutest little Airbaby? Who?“ She smiled as she was rewarded with happy babbling.
Pema chuckled and gestured over at the desk as she readjusted Rohan on her hip, seriousness seeping into her voice, “I left a transcription of the correspondence between us and Korra’s ship. They’ve managed to work their way towards the weaker side without incident, but they found out that the storm is too massive to try and tame. They’re going to try and deflect it so that it might spin harmlessly across the bay.“
Asami chewed her lip nervously, “What are the chances that that will work?“
Pema looked downcast, “Small. I just hope they make it back safely at this point.“
Korra lashed out with her left arm, whipping the harshness of the biting rain away from her face. She did her best to keep her right shoulder to the wall as she made her way to the prow of the airship, the howling winds threatening to rip her feet off of the deck. Behind her were a handful of White Lotus Waterbenders and a couple of Airbenders, similarly struggling against the torrent of their combined elements. Several other ships similarly flew, each armed with a motley crew of seasoned Waterbenders and strong Airbenders. Korra looped an arm around a protruding foothold, using her free hand to grab a signal light from her vest and flash orders at the neighboring ship. She squinted through the sheets of rain and saw an answering flicker from the opposite deck. They were in position.
The Avatar gave a few brief hand signals before slapping the side of the airship. Her group answered back with a metallic tattoo, then checked their safety lines before assuming bending stances.
Korra took a deep breath and began shaping the air in front of her, gasping when she felt the sheer strength of the winds through her chi. It was nearly impossible to bend, but she felt the Airbender next to her groan in agony. With a shout, Korra redoubled her efforts, feeling the wind abate somewhat as the man next to her struggled to catch his breath.
This storm was absolutely vicious. Approach from the water was a suicide mission, and it was hit-or-miss by airship. She thanked her lucky stars that her girlfriend designed these dirigibles against such dangers. If they had been on any other airship, they would have been torn to shreds hours ago.
A flash of murky red light caught Korra’s attention, somewhere directly below the airship. For a moment, the storm clouds cleared from beneath them, revealing a roiling green sea whipped to white peaks by the harsh wind. Someone had sent an emergency flare from a grey sliver struggling against the towering waves.
Korra signaled to her group again, adjusted her goggles, and untethered herself from the safety line. Frantic banging ensued, but Korra payed them no mind; there was a ship in trouble down there, and she had to try and save them.
She opened her palms towards the opposite railing, feeling the metal in her gloves tug her body forward as she slid herself across the platform. Grabbing hold, she swung herself over the edge and let go, using Airbending to tumble down and away from the airship.
Halfway down, she opened up the sides of her gliding suit, angling herself so that she could swoop lower towards the distraught ship. It looked like a Fire Nation Navy ship, but... the colors were off... Squinting through the rain, she could make out bright white characters along the side of the ship, not unlike the ones Nika had in her notebook-
Her eyes widened as she spotted several ribbon-like figures harrasing the top of the ship deck. Spirits!
Korra angled herself towards a break in the waves, diving deep before shooting herself back out of the water and onto the ship’s deck, her knee buckling under her as a wave buffeted the ship upwards. As she took stock of the deck, she saw several men dressed in white uniforms attempting to flee the angry spirits. The Avatar sunk her feet into the deck and stomped her way up to the nearest spirit, leaving a trail of boot-shaped dents behind her.
Up close, these spirits looked vaguely human, even wearing ghostly uniforms of long-dead sailors or soldiers. They pursued their corporeal quarry with a viciousness she never saw in most other spirits she met. She called out, “Spirits! Listen to me! I am the Avatar, and I-“
A translucent old raider lashed out at her with a crooked hand, making her stumble back and grit her teeth. Hard way it was, then.
Doing her best to still her pounding heart, she inhaled deeply and drew as much water around the ship as she could. A rolling curtain of water began to rise around the edges of the ship, causing the sailors on board to panick even further and hit the deck. With a hoarse yell, Korra summoned as much positive energy as she could, pumping it through the continuously circulating ring of water. It began to glow, sending a low hum through the stormy air, giving the offending spirits pause before they dissipated into thin air.
A shout of confused joy came from the soldiers, Korra grinning madly, just as a massive wave crushed her against the deck, knocking her out cold.
Chapter 8: Torrents I
WARNING: This chapter contains explicit drug use. Reader discretion is advised.
Recommended Listening: All Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, starting with Sonata No. 1 in g minor
This is relatively short, and since I'm through with school at the moment, I expect to update more frequently. Thank you for your time and patience, everyone!
Opal sniffled and threw her balled up handkerchief at the far wall of her bedroom. The rain and wind outside rattled against the windows, drowning out most of her weeping. She was halfway thankful that none of the other monks came by to check on her, but she was also mildly upset with herself that, after she found out that Bolin was weathering the storm out on the Island, she found herself unwilling to go over and confront him.
The events from his proposal last night bounced around her skull, taunting her with distorted memories and that nasty little voice in her head telling her that she had asked too much of him, all while she wrestled with her strongest fear of losing him. Frozen with terror and anxiety, she ended up moping about her room for most of the afternoon, thinking of how best to talk to him, maybe figure out some sort of compromise...
A tentative knock at her door gave her a start, causing her to rub her eyes frantically for tears before answering, “Yes, who is it?”
Nika’s voice came through, muffled, “It’s me. I need to ask you something. Are you busy?”
Opal’s mood darkened a bit. She really didn’t feel like helping out the stranger right now, but found herself opening the door for her anyway. Nika stepped through, dressed in clean acolyte robes, and sat herself on the edge of Opal’s cot. As usual, she had her instrument case by her side, and she set this by her feet as she stretched her arms above her head lazily, seemingly oblivious to Opal’s red, puffy eyes and troubled demeanor.
Impatiently, Opal sighed and shot a withering look at Nika, “Before you get too comfortable, what’s your question?”
With a yawn, Nika laid back onto the cot and hummed amiably, appearing unconcerned at the edge in Opal’s voice, “Oh, I’m curious to know if you might be able to teach Dr. Fin and I how to read and write the native script. He isn’t convinced that he’s no longer in Baltimore, and I’m hoping a little lesson might get him to ease into the idea that he is someplace quite different, as opposed to being convinced that he’s tripping out on drugs or having a strange dream. And honestly, I could use some convincing, too. I don’t think my body and brain have quite caught up with each other as far as what ‘real’ is, especially after all that drink last night,” Here, Nika pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep, shaky breath, muttering gibberish in a long exhale.
Wearily, Opal ran a hand over her face, doing her best not to slap her palm to her forehead in the process, “Look, I’d love to, but I’ve got other things on my mind right now. Can we do this another time? Either that, or I can introduce you to one of the other monks here who would be more than willing to help.“
“I’d rather you teach us. Besides, it seems like you need distracting right now,” Nika sat back up and stared Opal directly in the eye, her dark gaze as sharp as a razor, “You’ve been crying in here for the last three hours. Despite being plastered last night, I do somewhat remember listening in on what happened between you and your boyfriend. Have you talked to your friends or family about it yet? If not, you really need to-“
Opal exploded, a sudden gale whipping loose objects around her, “No! This is something I can’t let my family or anyone else know, and the people who do know are busy or unhelpful,” the winds around her died down, leaving the room a mess and Nika cowering on the cot in fear.
Plus, she thought to herself, both Asami and Mako had already warned her ages ago about keeping up this ‘swing couple nonsense’ with Bolin for too long. They called it immature and greedy, respectively. Opal scowled to herself, another breeze threatening to rip through the room.
After a beat of thick silence, Nika spoke up in a low, shaky voice as she reached for her instrument, “…If you’re just going to whine and throw crap around with your stupid air-wizardry, then I’m going to leave you to it. I figured that if you could focus on something unrelated, it would help you calm down-”
All at once, Opal’s temper broke, sending bric-a-brac, pillows, blankets, Nika, and Nika’s instrument case flying around the room. The audacity of this… this interloper! “You help me?! That’s a laugh! You barely understand anything, let alone what you think my troubles are!” The winds abruptly stopped, dropping everything carelessly to the ground. Nika’s instrument case landed behind the young Beifong with a heavy thud.
Stunned silence reigned in the little disheveled room. Nika had been knocked back to the far wall, her arms raised around her head, obscuring her face. Opal closed her eyes and took in several deep, slow breaths, willing her body to stop quivering with rage.
Before the young Beifong could react, Nika moved like lightning. The stranger roughly shoved her to the side, gathered up the instrument case, and booked it out of the room without another word, leaving Opal alone with more than just a mess on her hands.
“Ha! I win again! Bottoms up, Bo!”
Bolin groaned as he downed his glass of Fire wine and winced. Asami cleared the board and started resetting the game pieces, her grinning face tinged pink with an alcoholic blush. She chortled to herself before looking to the drunken show host, “Another game? I’ve got another bottle in the ‘mobile if you want to keep going.”
Past a very wobbly Bolin, Asami spied a shadow lurking behind the door to Tenzin’s office. Brow lightly furrowed, she called out playfully, “Ikki, quit spying. Why don’t you come in here and play some Pai Sho with us? I think Bolin needs a break,” As if on cue, Bolin belched loudly and fell backwards onto the floor, snoring before his back hit the ground. The heiress giggled and put a stray sitting cushion beneath his head before staggering over to open the door.
She couldn’t contain her gasp as she was greeted by the sight of Dr. Fin, dressed in the strange, many-pocketed clothes he wore the night before. He looked a little… off. The heiress peered into his face without bothering to hide her suspicion; his blue eyes were mildly bloodshot, his pupils were abnormally large, and he seemed engrossed by something on her face. Though highly inebriated, she did her best to straighten herself up and put on a more presentable mask, her tone cooling somewhat, “Oh… Dr. Fin. I didn’t know you were on the Island. Can I help you?”
In his soft, sing-song lilt, he replied, “I dunno about helping me out, but I am interested in that invitation to learn and play this ‘Pai Sho’ game. I can’t access most of my research since this storm knocked out the cell towers, so I’m just having a good time wandering around this cool place,” he leaned in and whispered, causing the heiress to lean away from him slightly, “Also, I’m sort of surprised that this temple even exists. I’ve done a lot of field work around the Chesapeake and I’ve never noticed this island before. I wonder how long this place has been here…”
Without waiting to be invited in, Dr. Fin meandered into the room and openly ogled everything; the wall of scrolls, the telephone on Tenzin’s desk, the long-range radio station by the window, and the Pai Sho board. The heiress watched, mildly curious, as he gingerly picked up a lotus tile and flipped it deftly through his fingers like a coin. He cocked his head at Bolin’s supine form and said quietly, “Hey, uh, does he need to be moved to a bed or something?”
Shrugging her shoulders, Asami replied, “I would, but he’s incredibly dense. I’d like to not have to drag him through the temple in this state, plus,” she moved the Pai Sho table away from the passed-out show host, “he sleeps like the dead. Leave him there, he’ll wake up in an hour or so.”
Dr. Fin made a face and shrugged before plopping himself down on the ground, eschewing a sitting cushion. While Asami finished setting up the board, Dr. Fin retrieved his strange little rectangle from his pocket and frowned at something displayed on its glowing face, muttering, “I need to charge my phone. You wouldn’t happen to have an Android cable, would you?”
The heiress’ busy motions stilled, her brain processing the words she just heard. He was making less sense than that musician did when they had first met. She decided to go ahead and play along as best as she could, hoping to milk as much information from him without giving too much away on her end. She didn’t want to have to deal with another ‘Nika situation’ if she could help it. After blinking several times, she started, “No… no, I don’t have one of those, sorry,” she stole a glance at the device in Dr. Fin’s hand, her mind racing as she attempted to quickly change the subject, “Do you know how to play Pai Sho?”
Dr. Fin shook his head, “Haven’t the foggiest. Would you please walk me through it?”
Thankful for an untroublesome distraction, Asami guided the yellow-haired man through some basic plays. He asked little and listened a great deal, seemingly absorbing her words like a dry sponge in water. Before long, they had begun a simple game, the heiress doing her best to make easy moves for him to try and puzzle out. Though she pulled her punches, she did note that he was an incredibly quick study, and had managed to pull off a rather intricate play that netted him half of the board. The heiress had to scramble to retake the board and ultimately win the game.
Upon starting the second game, Dr. Fin asked in his quiet voice, “Asami, right?... Miss Asami, how would you define ‘aspect’?”
Taken aback, Asami struggled to hide her confusion as she moved her first piece into place, brow furrowed in a thoughtful frown, “Well, Dr. Fin… I would define ‘aspect’ as a feature that can be used to describe a given subject. Why do you ask?”
Dr. Fin moved his piece, ignoring her question and continuing in an amused tone, “Oh-kay. What would you define ‘perspective’ as?”
Asami’s upper lip twitched. She replied, keeping her voice even as she finished her next turn, “’Perspective’ is the point at which one views a given subject. Now why-“
He interrupted, excitement creeping into his voice as he stole one of Asami’s pieces in a play for board control, “Nice! I’ll take that. Anyway, with that in mind, how would you define ‘purview’?”
Mildly frustrated that he had taken over the line of questioning (and a good portion of her side of the board), she took a deep breath before calmly retaking her position, earning her a surprised murmur from Dr. Fin. As he studied his next move, the heiress coolly replied, “’Purview’ is a range of understanding that can inform perspective, and how one comprehends an aspect,” She gave him a rather smug smile as he looked up at her, his head nodding in approval.
Dr. Fin hummed tunelessly under his breath, apparently taking in her words as well as the Pai Sho pickle she had put him in. As he did so, she picked up the nearly empty bottle of Fire wine she and Bolin had started a while back and handed him Bolin’s cup to use. After refilling both glasses, she raised hers to him before taking a sip, murmuring thoughtfully, “You ask some pretty interesting questions. What sort of doctor are you, again?”
In an infuriatingly bored tone, Dr. Fin replied simply, “I’m a doctor of being a biochemist.” With a smooth move of a fire tile, Asami found herself back on the defensive as he continued, “So how, then, would you define ‘aspective’? Or better yet, how about ‘prespect’?”
Asami took a deep breath and counted to ten while she placed her next piece, willing her frustration into the back of her thoughts as she formed a rebuttal, “What are you on about?”
“Oh, I’m on LSD, and I’m about to win this round.”
The heiress blinked at the board, noticing that he had, indeed, won the game. She squinted at the tiles, then at Dr. Fin, who sat there with a stupid smile on his stupidly bearded face. This little shit-stain had managed to sidetrack her! She angrily downed her glass of wine and began preparing a new game.
He continued, unperturbed, “To answer your earlier question, I’m asking because I think that it is important to have clearly defined language, and that sometimes messing with prefixes can be insightful and fun.”
She stopped moving pieces and studied him closely. This man was definitely an intellectual, if an incredibly exasperating one. Suddenly he guffawed loudly, making Bolin snort and mumble something before rolling over in a rattling snore. Asami tilted her head as she finished preparing the board, “What’s so funny?”
“Your face… oh, that’s the face Nika gives me when he’s considering between taking pity on me and smashing a chair over my head,” he chuckled and downed his glass of wine, his eyebrows shooting up in surprise at the flavor, “Ooh,” he smacked his lips in appreciation, “this is delightful! And so is this game, and your kind company. Thank you for teaching me, and indulging me in my silly questions.”
Looking for any excuse to end… whatever it was she just had with him, she spoke too quickly, “Yes, this has been a very… interesting discussion. Say, I’m going to go and grab another bottle of wine. I’ll be right back.” Doing her best not to topple over in her inebriated state, she nearly bolted out of the door and towards the stone shed, relishing the cold rain beating down on her hot skin and wishing it would wash away the sour taste of defeat.
On her way back to the covered walkway, alcoholic beverage in hand, she spent some time (and several towels) drying off. As she wrung her hair free of excess rainwater, she saw Nika storming up the path, her instrument case brandished like a weapon before her and her expression full of barely contained fury. Asami sidestepped as the musician rushed by and exclaimed, “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Nika snarled and continued onward, “Not anywhere near temperamental wind sorcerers, that’s for sure.”
Dr. Fin poked his head from behind the office door with a quip, “Nika, I’m pretty sure you’re one of those. Are you saying there’s a copy of you running around here? If so, you-“
“Don’t! Start. Percy Allister Finnigan.”
The yellow-haired man grimaced and pushed his spectacles back up his nose, doing his best to not cower under Nika’s murderous glare, “Oh-kay. You wanna learn a new game? Asami showed me how to play this thing called ‘Pai Sho’.”
“Later,” the musician growled as she moved past him and down another corridor, “I’m going to go practice.”
Dr. Fin made a series of babbling noises as he darted down the hall, hot on Nika’s heels, “Ooh, what are you going to work on?” Before Asami could hear a reply, they had moved out of sight, their voices muffled by the driving rain surrounding the complex.
With a sigh of relief, Asami made her way back to the office, where she was greeted by the sight of Bolin rubbing his eyes and looking about, still clearly drunk, “Hwherrwhatnow? Who was shouting? I was having such a lovely dream, and now I have a headache…”
The heiress shook her head and helped him up, “Don’t worry about it. Here, why don’t we go find some food, and then we’ll check the radio,” she paused and glanced over at the station, lips pursed in mounting worry, “We haven’t gotten a reply back since we switched off with Pema. Maybe we can get lucky in a bit, see if they’re in a clear patch to receive our call.”
Bolin mumbled in agreement as he let himself be led towards the kitchens. They found Pema sleeping in her favorite chair by the warm hearth and several baskets of fresh buns on a counter nearby. Moving as quietly as two drunks could, they plucked a few morsels each from the nearest basket and made their way back to the office, where they promptly bumped into a very distraught Opal.
The show host floundered and hid himself behind Asami, who was giving the capricious monk a hard, knowing stare.
They regarded one another, the rain now thundering hard on the walkway roof. Bolin tried to slip away, but the heiress held him by the wrist in a vice grip, preventing any comfortable escape.
Asami began with feigned concern, noting telltale stains of tears on Opal’s cheeks, “I gather that you’ve been having a difficult time. Have you sorted yourself out yet?”
Bolin wailed and slurred, “Salami, don’t-“
Opal interjected, her voice tinged thick with mock jollity, “Oh no, that’s quite alright, Bolin. If Miss Sato wants to know something, she’ll get it by hook or by crook. Isn’t that right, Princess?”
With as much disdain as she could muster, the heiress walked past Opal, keeping Bolin in tow, “You are absolutely correct. However,” at this, she glanced down her nose at Opal, “Unless you want to attempt to fix your infidelity problem with Bolin right this instant, I suggest you wait until both of you have sobered up,” Asami then led Bolin over to the radio and sat him down in the chair, where he numbly picked up the receiver and started sweeping the bands for a signal.
The young Beifong stood outside the doorway, a torrent of air barreling through the hall in response to her building indignation. Asami, noticing the sudden gust of wind, marched out of the office and shut the door behind her, leaving Bolin preoccupied and alone.
Opal stared down the overprotective heiress before her, taking deep breaths and once again trying not to send this bitch flying off the Island with her own personal tornado.
She started, “First of all, I’m not cheating on Bolin, we-“
Asami’s face cracked with uncharacteristic rage, the smell of Fire wine heavy with each word she spat out, “Don’t give me that bull-hippo shit! I told you that this would happen! You had every chance to wrangle in your sick appetites, and now you’ve gone and broken my best friend’s heart because you don’t want to give up some stupid dream of being passed around like a filthy-“
“Best friend?! That’s rich, even from you, Princess! You’ve barely talked to him since you’ve locked yourself away in your silver tower,” Opal had to laugh, knowing full well that Asami really didn’t have much to stand on with that fact, “You know what, you’ve barely talked to me since you found out about our arrangement-“
“You mean your depravity.”
The young Beifong narrowed her eyes, seriously contemplating how much air it would take to launch Asami as far into Yue Bay as possible. A strong gust of wind blew in from the open walkway, spraying both of them with now-freezing rain. They both shivered, their mounting anger dissipating somewhat.
Opal spoke first, turning away from the heiress, muttering, “I don’t need to explain myself to you. Like I said before, you’ll get what you want eventually. You just won’t get it from me.”
As Opal turned to walk away, the sound of Nika tuning her violin permeated the heavy veil of rain, causing her to stop in her tracks. It sounded like she was in the main hall. Asami heard it too, apparently, as she was now walking towards the noise, muttering, “Spirits above, when does she not play that damned thing? People are trying to rest…”
Not wanting to be beaten to the punch, Opal darted ahead, her steps aided by the wind. They both rounded the corner and found themselves at the main hall, a huge, circular room topped with a huge dome. The ceiling was built to amplify whatever sound was within. It was empty, save for Nika, who was right in the middle, her case open at her feet and her instrument on her shoulder, and Dr. Fin, who was in the process of plugging his ears with what looked like brightly colored foam. The pair ducked behind a column each, stealthily watching the two weirdos interact.
Nika unzipped the top of her case and procured a worn blue book covered in strange script. Without preamble, she handed the book over to Dr. Fin, who opened it up and asked, “So, where are you starting?”
The musician gave a curt reply, still checking the strings in warbly pairs, “First page. I’m going through the whole manuscript.”
Dr. Fin’s eyebrows shot up as he blinked in surprise, “Oh, wow. The whole thing?” He leafed through the book and scratched his head, “Won’t that take several hours?”
“More than several. I’m taking all repeats.”
The yellow-haired man whistled low, “Oh-kay. I hope you aren’t going to ask me to hold it up for you. Do you need me to find a stand or something?”
Without another word, Nika reached deeper into the top pocket of her case and pulled out what looked like a bundle of black wires. Opal cocked her head as she watched Nika hand the thing to Dr. Fin, who unfolded the contraption into what looked like a portable podium. Dr. Fin sat the book down on the stand and turned it to the first page before backing up. As the musician positioned herself, Dr. Fin reached into his pocket and produced a small tin, the contents of which he rummaged through with a single finger. The young Beifong saw Asami crane her head to see what exactly he was messing with, which turned into an unnecessary effort, as he clearly pulled out what looked like a badly rolled smoke and a strip of paper no bigger than her pinky.
When Nika caught sight of the items in Dr. Fin’s hands, she snorted and allowed herself a little smile, “You really know how to pack a pocket party. Mind if I get some of that?”
The yellow-haired man replied, “Of course. I mean, I was expecting to share this with Maxim at his party, but I guess circumstances led me to use it now. Besides, his get-down is probably over.” He tore off a tiny square of the paper and offered it to Nika, who, with her hands full, opened her mouth and let him place the thing on her tongue.
Working the bit of paper off of her tongue and in between her lower lip and bottom teeth, Nika rolled her head slowly as she replied, “Percy, don’t forget that it’s been a full day since you’ve found yourself here. Also, you’ve been tripping for about that long, too. You should probably take a break from Lucy.”
“Well, I would, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m stuck out here with no internet during a hurricane on this secret temple-island somewhere out in the middle of the Chesapeake.”
At this, Nika gave her friend a weary smile and said gently, “Like I said earlier, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. I was stone-cold sober when I found myself here, and while I had my suspicions about somehow getting drugged into a strange dream-world-coma, the moment I saw what some people can do here…” Here Opal saw her shake her head, a pang of guilt stabbing her in the gut, “…Let’s just say to never get them angry. Almost got my livelihood smashed because of someone else’s bad day.”
The young Beifong caught Asami’s sideways glance and scowled.
Dr. Fin spoke up, his fingers flipping the ugly smoke around his fingers like a miniature baton, “I have yet to see this ‘bending’ you mentioned being done by anyone. Either that, or I’m way too blitzed to tell what reality is and what isn’t,” he paused to pull out a small, colorful lighter and spark up the smoke. The acrid smell dispersed quickly through the hall, causing both Opal and Asami to crinkle their noses and recoil. He took a few puffs before holding it up to Nika’s lips, who took a hearty drag that made her cough and exclaim, “Whoo, Nelly! That tastes like home, all right.”
“Yeah… home…” Dr. Fin took the smoke back and puffed thoughtfully, “Man, I hope my dog is okay in this weather. He hates being alone like this. Gets super restless, barks up a storm,” he waggled his eyebrows at Nika, “Get it? ‘Cause there’s a storm-“
“Yes, yes, Percy, very clever.”
“… You know, Nika,” Percy mused, his tone turning a shade serious, “You’re usually pretty good at getting un-lost, especially in the Baltimore area. If you’re telling me that we aren’t there anymore, I’m ninety-five percent positive that you know what you’re talking about.”
“The other five percent being that its some vivid fever of a trip and we are somehow sharing the same dream?”
Percy nodded sagely and produced a single, perfect smoke ring.
Nika continued in a softer tone, idly darting her bow through the center of the ephemeral ring, “While I admit that we’re both pretty lost, I am very glad to have run into you while doing so. At least we know each other, and I don’t have to keep my guard up with you,” she shuddered, “That Asami is a steel sepulcher of a woman, and Opal is literally the winds of wrath incarnate…”
The young Beifong hung her head in shame at that. Her behavior lately was definitely not monk-like, and most certainly not like ‘the leaf’ that Master Tenzin keeps lecturing on about.
“But,” Nika continued, “I’m getting the sense that nearly everyone I’ve met here has suffered a great loss of some kind. I keep hearing stuff about a ‘Lightning War’, and apparently it was a recent event, and that this ‘Makapu City’ had been directly assaulted as a result,” she twirled her bow around her pinky, lost in thought, “… I get the feeling that both women are incredibly sweet people, but I haven’t gained their trust enough to see that side of them yet. It’s understandable. They don’t know me from a can of paint, and I’ve got one hell of a resting bitch face.”
Percy perked up, spouting randomly, “You mean to tell me that to play Opal, all I need to do is tap five and she destroys all creatures? They can’t regenerate?” At this, Opal blinked several times in confusion as Asami struggled to hide a giggle at the strange, silly statement.
Opal heard Nika sigh in exasperation, but the musician said nothing more as she placed her bow to the string and set her fingers on the fingerboard. Dr. Fin immediately fell silent and found a reed mat nearby to lounge on.
Once again, Nika played her violin with the same entrancing tone as before, but this time it was dense, slow, and contemplative. The melody was sometimes difficult to pick out amongst the forest of chords she played, but the combined clusters of notes set a very serious and meditative tone to the whole performance. Opal spied Dr. Fin beginning to nod off, leading her to assume that this tune was some sort of lullaby from their homeland.
Any doubts she had towards what Nika was and where she came from vanished as she and her once-hated companion both sat at the base of their respective pillars, both deep in thought as the music filled the hall with its eerie, lonesome harmonies. From her left, she heard Asami sniffle.
“I’m sorry… I’ve been such a terrible friend,” she heard her barely whisper.
Opal leaned her heavy head back onto the pillar and released a quiet sigh, “I’m sorry, too. I know you’re just trying to help out Bolin, and the rest of the city, for that matter,” she let her tears fall freely as she closed her eyes, her heart tugging this way and that as the music flowed over them like a healing spring, “I just… I just can’t imagine my life without him, but I also don’t want to keep swinging around like we normally do.”
Asami tilted her head away from the pillar, watching Opal closely in the dim light, waiting for her to continue.
The young Beifong mopped up her tears with the hem of her sleeve, “I… I want to be able to love him and other people at the same time. I know I can. But now, I don’t know if Bolin is up for that sort of commitment. You were right, in a way…” she glanced over at Asami with a wry chuckle, “… about how swinging around gets old.”
Asami shook her head and gave Opal a small, sad smile, whispering back, “Opal, you’re a woman full of love. I’ve never seen anyone care so hard about the people she loves as much as you do… I just want the both of you to be happy together. I admit that I don’t understand your desire to be married to more than one person, but I can say that I can definitely see where it came from.”
At this, Opal giggled, remembering some of the spicy gossip from the older monks about her mom, Pema, and Master Tenzin.
Asami also chuckled and settled into the pillar. For a long while, they sat in peace, contemplating the complex-sounding music filling the air. The heiress then stretched her hand out towards Opal, long fingers contrasting starkly against the dark flagstones, “… While I have been rather absent from everyone, including Korra,” Opal saw Asami’s eyes dart down to the floor in apparent humiliation, “…you should know that, though we often butt heads over something or another, I care about you and your well-being... I just want you to make the right choice. And… I’ll do my best to do better by you and the rest of my friends.”
Opal let her eyes fall shut, burying the shard of discontent towards Asami deep within her. Hearing that from her gave the young Beifong a little peace of mind, but that resentful voice in her head whispered promises of strife to come. Pushing the voice away, Opal reached out and let her fingers brush against Asami’s lightly-scarred knuckles. Heaving another soft sigh, the young Beifong leaned her head back against the pillar and allowed Nika’s music to carry her mind far away, feeling herself drift into a deep, peaceful sleep.
Chapter 9: Torrents II
WARNING: This chapter contains graphic scenes of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
This one is a shorty. Stay tuned for more later this week!
Recommended Listening: All Bach Sonatas and Partitas, starting with Partita No. 2 in d minor
Mako rubbed his reddening eyes and yawned, flicking the ash from his cigarette into a waterlogged ashtray. The spray from the heavy rain splattered against the pavement below, sending a white mist rolling down the street before the entrance to the Precinct. He turned over the crinkled piece of candy wrapper Mangy had slipped him earlier that day, mulling over the note:
‘Find the Antique Dealer. <3, Domasc’
Behind him, someone slid the balcony door open, and a set of heavy footsteps came to join him in watching the pitch-black storm roiling over the darkened city skyline. Mako slid the note back into his pocket and puffed on his smoke, humming the party duet under his breath.
Kuvira reached over and took the still-burning smoke from his fingers and took a long drag before dashing it into the ashtray with a hiss, “Nothing on the scanner so far. Beifong is attempting to catch a nap while she can, though I can’t tell if she’s actually sleeping or not…” She glanced behind her, presumably looking at the Chief, who was undoubtedly dozing in her office chair.
"She sleeps with her eyes open,” Mako murmured, feeling around for his smoke case in his coat pockets, “My guess is that she gets it from her mom.”
His fiancée gave him an amused chortle, her gaze still set on the darkened city streets. The sound of the rain slapping the side of the building picked up in speed as a particularly strong gust of wind blew water under the balcony, causing the both of them to shiver and draw closer to one another.
The detective was incredibly thankful that Kuvira was with him that night. Being cooped up in a stale building with nothing but paperwork and a cranky Beifong was not how he wanted to spend the storm, but all told, the night was relatively free from distress calls (save for a few officers getting stuck in high water near the Market district), and every so often Kuvira would pull him into a supply closet, complaining loudly about needing to ‘discuss tactics’.
The Precinct and the various temples around the city had done a quick job of relocating everyone away from the flood zones, and while he worried about stragglers in the low points around town, he knew that he and the rest of the evacuation effort did all they could to get as many people out of the city as possible. Another vicious wind picked up, smashing more rain against the roof in a deafening roar.
Back in the office, the radio buzzed, “… five-oh-four, reporting from Xun Clinic. Code eight, I repeat, code eight! Anyone there, over?”
Without delay, both Kuvira and Mako bolted back into the musty room, causing Chief Beifong to start out of her chair in an instant. The pro-bender quickly donned her old Coalition armor as Mako picked up the receiver, “This is one-six-one, copy five-oh-four. What’s the situation, over?”
The line crackled in and out, the storm marring the connection with thick interference, “… trapped inside… ice barring the doors and windows… suspects using the storm as… fording several mismatched vehicles… towards Vineways down Aang Memorial… six-five-one and three-eight-two unresponsive… quickly can you get here, over?”
The Chief impatiently waved at Mako for him to hand over control of the radio. When he did so, she barked into the receiver, “This is Badgermole. Sit tight, five-oh-four, we will be there as soon as possible, estimated five minutes. Work on getting free from that building, and make sure to get as much info on-“
A loud hiss spiked the radio, causing the three of them to wince in pain. Mako narrowed his eyes at the thing as a raucous brass band number blared over the tinny speaker, drowning out any previous communication. Someone was jamming the signal.
With a colorful string of curses, the Chief slammed the receiver down on the desk and threw on her slicker, “Mako, get the Rumbler running. Kuvira, stay here and man the radio. We need to be on that pavement yesterday.”
The veteran’s thick brows knitted together, but whatever snarky comment she wanted to give, she bit it back and gave the chief a grunt instead. Obediently, if begrudgingly, Kuvira sat behind Beifong’s desk and fiddled with the radio, attempting to get any sound other than the mocking band now filling the room with eerily-cheery dance music. With a quick peck on his fiancée’s cheek, the detective took off towards the parking garage in a sprint.
Mako hopped into a huge monster of a vehicle, affectionately named the Rumbler, on account of its squat posture, angular body, and an engine strong and loud enough to send the machine plowing through citadel walls with nary a scratch. He cranked the ignition, feeling the platinum-clad beast roar to life beneath him. Beifong, close behind, quickly slid into the passenger seat and started up the onboard radio as they took off out of the garage and into the stormy streets. It was almost impossible to see through the sheets of dense rain, but their progress was not slowed; the wide tires and Mako’s expert driving skills prevented them from hydroplaning as they sped down water-choked streets towards Xun Clinic. Beifong cursed the whole way, still struggling to get any radio signal besides music or static.
Upon their arrival, they saw that the entire hospital had been encased in a ball of ice, easily several inches thick and growing fast due to the pouring rain and a hidden Waterbender, possibly several. Squinting through the rain-clogged windshield, Mako spotted several faint tail lights in the distance, rounding the corner down by the border between Vineways and the Business district. He exclaimed, “There, chief! That has to be them!”
Beifong growled, glancing momentarily at the ice-encrusted building to their left, “Keep heading after that convoy. I’m going to deal with this frosty party favor. Don’t engage-“
A massive spike of ice shot forward from the wet pavement, knocking the Rumbler back to a skidding halt. Thankfully, the spike had not impaled the armored vehicle, but the engine had stalled and was unwilling to turn over. Both Mako and Chief Beifong shook themselves of their whiplash and looked around for a culprit, finding nothing but heavy rain. A flash of lightning preceded a peal of thunder overhead, whereupon Mako saw two shadowy figures wielding water in large arcs heading in their direction.
The chief ducked and rolled out of the vehicle without preamble, the jammed radio blaring a frantic number as she shot her cables towards the Waterbenders in an attempt to slow their assault. The closest assailant brought their water stream around to bear, forming a fast-growing wall of ice that caught the ends of the cables within. Beifong snarled and ripped the wall asunder, retracting her cables before the other Waterbender could trap the ends in a second wall. The three of them squared off: two black-clad Waterbenders soaked in their element against one very angry Beifong.
Mako struggled with the Rumbler, trying to get it to start back up as quickly as possible. Quickly losing patience with his lack of progress, he dipped under the steering column and unceremoniously ripped out a panel, exposing the wires connecting the ignition to the rest of the machine. With well-practiced small gestures, he exposed one of the wires and sent a controlled jolt of electricity into the system. He smirked when he heard the engine catch and rumble in time with the thunder overhead. Still grinning like a madman, he stomped on the accelerator and sent the heavy metal beast directly at the two distracted Waterbenders, running one over completely with a sickening crunch and sending the second flying several yards back and into a light post. He let the vehicle roll in neutral as Beifong lashed herself to the side of the Rumbler and reel herself back into the cabin, her expression somewhere between gratitude and rage.
“Damnit, detective! We need suspects, not bodies!”
“Sorry, Chief,” he shouted, getting back up to speed as he dodged debris that had started flying down the street from the escalating typhoon winds, “They just happened to be in the way of a police vehicle during bad weather. You know how hard it is to stop this thing.”
Beifong snarled and started working the onboard radio, “Once we catch these assholes, we’re going to have a talk about your reckless behavior.”
He frowned and said nothing as he skidded around a vine and into the next district, clipping a large corner out of a boarded-up liquor store, sending brick, mortar, and smashed bottles of cactus juice flying across the street as they closed the distance between them and the motley train of vehicles ahead. Mako counted five: three ancient Satomobile models and a Cabbagehauler towing an alien-looking grey vehicle. He squinted in frustration, narrowly missing chunks of street that had been bent in their direction from the passengers in the Cabbagehauler. They were definitely those thieves he had been chasing for the last several months, and it looked like they were moving their ill-gotten product towards the series of abandoned warehouses between Vineways and Dragon Flats.
The chief barked, “Keep driving! Don’t stop for anything!”
A massive sinkhole opened up beneath them, Beifong frantically bending the earth around them in an effort to keep it out of the way of the careening Rumbler. Mako gasped as he felt gravity tug hard at his core and the rainy scenery turned to rolling walls of earth, driving forward through the fast-forming tunnel that the chief struggled to keep open as they sped under the street. The sound of the mighty engine echoed all around him, rattling the cabin. Or was that the earth coming down on them overhead?
Grunting with effort, Beifong shouted, “On three, I want you to ignite the boost. Ready? …. Three!!”
Unable to contain an excited whoop, Mako punched a button near the radio that made the Rumbler’s engine scream, shooting them forward and up an earthen ramp. The windshield cracked where loose stones had smacked against the front of the vehicle, but the debris was quickly washed away by the now-present wind and rain. The street opened up around them, spewing them forward and up in an arc before landing with a thud, the Rumbler’s tires struggling to gain traction as Mako swung the beast from side to side. They had managed to overshoot the vehicle train by several yards, causing the whole line of vehicles skidding this way and that.
A low rumble beneath them caused Beifong to urge, “Pull over and follow me! We can’t let them escape!”
With a steaming squeal, Mako slid the Rumbler to a halt and got out of the vehicle. The freezing rain stung his skin as he caught sight of the disrupted vehicle train; the Cabbagehauler and its cargo were stuck in the sinkhole that had been the direct result of Beifong’s masterful Earthbending. One of the old Satomobiles crashed into the side of a bank on their right, sending a bright orange fireball into the rainy sky. The other two had stalled out and its passengers were now fanning out around the stuck Cabbagehauler, arms raised in bending stances.
Eight against two. Mako smirked. In his mind, this wasn’t even a contest.
Two of the thieves bolted towards him, their combined effort sending a wave of icy water in his direction. The detective ran directly into the wave, aiming low and wreathing himself in deep-red flames. He exited the wall of water with ease, rolling into a spinning Fire-kick that sent the two surprised Waterbenders flying back into the sinkhole. Three other thieves had blocked his wild assault with walls of earth, while two others shouted and rushed forward, crippling the ground beneath his feet and forcing him to Fire-leap upwards, his scarlet flames licking the earth where he once stood. Before he could land, Beifong’s cables shot out from somewhere behind him and wrapped the two Earthbenders, reeling them towards the Rumbler like a pro-angler catching prize fish.
The three remaining thieves panicked and started to run away from the two officers in opposite directions. “Oh, no you don’t!” Mako shouted, sending a blood-red fireball in their direction, managing to catch one thief on fire and singing the other two as they took off down separate alleyways nearby. The one on fire screamed hoarsely and rolled frantically about on the ground, quickly quenching the flames that engulfed him, but giving the detective enough to catch up to them and aim his flaming fist over the theif’s head.
Mako roughly picked the burned thief by the collar and ripped his hood open, exposing a confused boy panting for breath, probably no older than eighteen. Slightly perturbed, the detective brought the boy close to his face and growled, “Where are you taking this stolen property? Tell me now, or I’ll have your barbequed ass served at Kwong’s Cuisine.” Out of the corner of his eye, Mako saw Beifong drag the stragglers out of the alley and back towards the Rumbler.
The boy sputtered, trying to backpedal out of Mako’s grip, “I-I-I dunno, I just joined up yesterday!”
The detective snarled and brandished his red flame in the boy’s face, “Joined what?! Are you working for the Antique Dealer? What gang is this?”
All of a sudden, the boy’s eyes rolled back into his head, his body convulsing. Mako dropped the boy with a surprised yelp, watching in horror as the boy’s limbs contorted, his screams of pain ripping through the stormy air. As quickly as it happened, the boy went limp and didn’t get up.
Before Mako could utter an expletive, he felt his own limbs move of their own accord, searing pain arcing through his body as he watched one of the Waterbenders he knocked back stagger out of the sink hole with their arms raised.
The Bloodbender cackled, taking her time as she stalked towards him in no particular hurry, “Good job, detective! You’ve done your homework. Seeing as your life will end very soon I don’t see why I can’t enlighten you-“
A sound like a massive thunderclap echoed above their heads, the Bloodbender’s grip on him immediately gone as he fell to the ground gasping for breath. Red liquid dripped from his face and hair. Panicked, he looked up and saw the prone form of the Bloodbender and promptly vomited.
There was a bloody hole as big as his fist in the back of her head, bits of hair, bone, and brain scattered around them in a gory spray. He wiped his mouth and looked frantically around, just catching the glint of glowing green goggles on the top of the bank roof nearby as they ducked behind the wall. Limbs shaking in shock and cold, he gathered his will together and roared, feeling chi boil in his gut. With a smooth gesture, he let loose a wildly arcing lightning bolt that struck the spot where the interloper once was, knowing full well that it was all in vain.
His strength sapped, Mako sank to his knees and stared numbly at the corpses in front of him, watching the rain wash away the gore into a gutter nearby. A firm but gentle hand fell on his shoulder.
“Come on, detective,” Beifong murmured, eyes trained on the spot where the interloper once was, “Time to clean up. We got what we came for.”
His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton as he let Beifong lead him back to the Rumbler, taking the passenger seat while Beifong took the wheel. She started the engine but didn’t roll forward, the radio still playing upbeat music as they rested.
Heaving a great sigh, Beifong leaned over and turned the radio down and looked over at Mako, studying his face for a moment as the radio crackled into static. Kuvira’s voice shouted over the bad signal, “…one-six-one, calling all units to respond, over!”
Mako’s head snapped up, the chief’s hand shooting out to snatch up the receiver. In a hoarse voice she replied, “This is Rumbler oh-three-two, reporting in. Code four, for now. Have you contacted the other units, over?”
“Affirmative. Four-oh-five has breached the ice wall and are headed your way, and six-seven-oh is en route to relieve them of their post. All other units have touched base and are holding positions, over.”
Beifong leaned her head against the back of her seat and muttered back into the receiver, “Send over unit three-five-six as well. We have a great deal of evidence to haul in, over and out.”
The detective remained silent the whole time, rolling the recent events in his head. Someone calling themselves ‘The Antique Dealer’ was moving stolen goods. For what purpose, he still didn’t know, but now he at least knew where to search next.
“Chief, I need you to drop me off at the old canning factory off of Sucheng Street and Kayak Avenue.”
The chief blinked and gave him a concerned glare, “Detective, you are in no state to do anything-“
Mako roared, a small gout of red flame erupting from his mouth as he spoke, “I’m fine! I wasn’t even hurt! We need to catch these motherf-“
“Mako!” Beifong barked, “You have been injured! Your nose is bleeding and you’re as pale as a sheet. As soon as the other units get here, we are going back to the Precinct and you are going to rest. That’s an order.” She cast her hard gaze outside the cracked windshield, watching the storm whip debris around them, “There’s no sense in running out in this weather right now. We have the suspects knocked out in the back, and we have their vehicles. Let the other officers chase your ghosts, for now.”
Within moments, the sound of sirens filtered down the street as several patrol vehicles skidded to a halt around the scene. Beifong got back out and gave orders to the perturbed officers while Mako slipped in and out of consciousness, the image of the Bloodbender’s brains splattered on the pavement seared into his memory.
Bolin woke up with a start, the radio crackling by his head stabbing his alcohol-soaked brain like a thousand little knives. Wincing, he grabbed the receiver and tuned the dial, trying to pick up a clear signal. After a couple of minutes of frustrated fiddling, he picked up on Tenzin’s worried voice, “… Air Temple Island, the storm is too strong and we are docking at Makapu Island until the worst passes. Anyone there, over?”
The show host groaned and replied in a thick voice, “This is Air Temple Island, I read you loud and clear. What is your current position, over?”
“Bolin! Thank goodness. We are three miles out from Makapu Island. Almost everyone is safe…” Tenzin sounded horrible. Bolin furrowed his brow, feeling either the alcohol or his instincts stir his guts into a tangled mess.
Bolin didn’t wait for the old master to finish as he asked, “Tenzin, what’s going on? What is this ‘almost everyone’, over?”
Static ruled the line before Tenzin replied, voice deep with worry, “We lost three airships and… Korra is missing. She apparently flew off the side of our airship to go and save a ship in distress, but she hasn’t come back or sent up a signal flare. We spent hours scouring the waters, but we can barely operate in this severe of a storm. For now, we will weather over here and continue our search when the storm abates. What is the condition of the Island, over?... Bolin?”
The receiver was left dangling on its cable as the show host dashed out of the office and towards the kitchens, looking agitatedly for Asami and dreading her mood once he broke the news to her. Once he was in the corridor, he heard Nika’s mournful music playing loud and clear from the main hall, and soon after, spotted Opal and Asami passed out behind the pillars leading within. He skidded to a stop, fumbling with his thoughts. Should he wake her up, only to fret? Or should he let her rest?
His eyes slipped over to Opal, guilt threatening to climb up his throat. He gave a small burp, tasting bile. No, that was mostly the hangover, but…
Looking around, he grabbed some spare towels nearby and covered both women, stopping briefly to lay a gentle kiss to the young Beifong’s forehead. She murmured something unintelligible and sighed, a small smile creeping onto her sleeping face. He didn’t feel much better, but seeing Opal at peace somewhere in Dreamland buoyed his resolve.
No, he’d let the two of them sleep. There would be time for bad news once they woke up. Instead, he went back to the office and sat back by the radio, letting the static continue to rake across his ears while he waited for another clear signal.
Mako moaned and rolled around the cot, his body burning from the inside out and his mind wracked with pain. Kuvira rushed to his side, a hot bowl of broth in one hand and a look of concern etched into her features, “Whoa now, love. Let’s not roll off the bed.”
She sat in a chair close by, placing the broth on a nearby desk as she used the back of her hand to check his temperature. He saw her wince and mutter, “That is one doozy of a fever you’ve got there. I’m going to need you to try and sit up. Do you need help?”
He shook his head and slowly crept his back up against the wall, letting his fiancée prop another spare pillow behind his back. Mako started, “The thieves, where-“
“Shh, love,” Kuvira chided as she took up the broth and offered him a spoonful, “Eat first, talk later. You gave me a heart attack when Beifong dragged you in here half-conscious.”
Not in any position to argue, the detective sighed and let Kuvira dote on him, his limbs leaden and useless. For a long while, silence reigned, with only the clinking of the spoon against the porcelain bowl and the sound of the dying storm rattling the roof over their heads.
Kuvira began in a semi-amused tone, “So, I noticed the little love note in your pocket. Do you need to tell me anything, hmm?”
In spite of himself, Mako rolled his eyes at her and snorted, “No, that’s just a lead on the theft case. I can’t say much more than that until it’s solved, I’m afraid.”
“Then who is ‘Domasc’? Are you allowed to tell your jealous betrothed that?”
Mako nodded weakly, “They’re some plugs I get info from every so often.”
The veteran quirked an eyebrow at him, “’They?’”
“Hmm,” Kuvira hummed thoughtfully, dipping the spoon back into the broth and offering it to Mako, which he gladly sucked down.
While she fed him, Mako contemplated his burning question, and decided that now was as good a time as any.
She stirred the broth idly, “Yes, darling?”
With a heavy sigh, the detective muttered, “I want kids. Do you want kids?”
Kuvira blinked in surprise, setting the bowl down as gently as she could with her suddenly shaking hands. After taking a deep breath, she slowly started, “Mako… we’ve talked about this a while ago. I can’t bear you any children, and I’m not exactly the motherly type.”
He shook his head, brow knitted in frustration, “I know, I know. I’m just… we can adopt. There are so many little ones with their lives dashed by the War, and-“
She raised a finger to his lips, a sparkle in her eyes, “I love you. I would be more than happy to start a family with you. But only on some conditions.”
His heart leapt with joy, “What is it? Name it, I’ll do anything.”
“I want to meet whoever we’re adopting first, I want us to get married, and I want to buy a house. Our teeny apartment is not big enough if we want to grow.”
Thankful that they were far from any eavesdroppers, Mako nearly jumped from the cot and showered his love’s face with kisses, muttering affirmations and doing his best to keep tears of relief from his eyes.
Chapter 10: I The Vagrant
Sorry for the long delay. This one forced me to make a tough call, but here it is.
The sun sank lower into the red-orange sky, impaling itself over the jagged skyline as a stiff wind picked up from the Chesapeake Bay. With it came the stench of hot concrete, fried seafood, and soaked garbage, which passed over Victor’s head, causing him to sneeze and snort in disgust. Though the wind stank to high heaven, it brought a pleasant coolness from the Atlantic that tickled the short hairs on the sides of his head and neck. He relished the cool air while breathing shallowly, feeling his short ponytail flap about in a sudden gust.
He shifted back and forth on his feet as he waited for the Metro to come around; by his reckoning (and by the official schedule), the bus should have arrived by now, but of course, it was at least ten minutes behind or more. Around him waited similarly impatient folk, others slowly filtering into the little, dingy awning. There were only two benches, and as an old lady struggled to climb the incline ramp to the stop, Victor got up from his seat and offered it to her. With thickly accented thanks, she sunk into the bench, making it look more like a cozy couch more than a poorly-designed public seating area. Sighing with boredom, he sat on the curb with a couple other young urbanites who were sharing a smoke between them, adjusting the violin case on his back so that it wouldn’t protrude and trip passersby. A few buses rounded the corner down the street, causing a general hubbub as half of the folks waiting at the stop clamored to queue up for the first bus pulling in. Victor double checked the numbers: three, eleven, twenty-one… ah, in the back, his number five.
As he boarded, he took a casual glance around to check out who was riding with him that evening: an old couple speaking German loudly at each other (tourists, judging by the fanny packs and walking shoes), three raucous men talking smack about anything and everything (Johnny, Brandon, and Ty, getting off their shift at the Inner Harbor, no doubt), and in the back sat what looked like a homeless veteran, complete with a ratty GI-issue duffel over their lap, ill-fitting Naval fatigues, and a filthy black jacket with the hood drawn completely over their face. Victor frowned a little, missing his usual old Romanian fortune-teller that liked to talk at him until the cows came home, but shrugged to himself and sat alone by the window.
The bus attendant mumbled something over the intercom before pulling out into traffic and setting off, the various hills and dips in the city streets making the ride feel like a bouncy castle on wheels. Victor settled into his seat and pulled out his music for tomorrow’s recital, letting his eyes trail over the notes as he imagined himself going through the gestures. Every so often his concentration would break due to the moving scenery or the sounds of folks entering and exiting the bus. With a sigh, Victor stuffed his sheet music back into his case and decided to do mental practicing when he wasn’t so distracted by his surroundings.
Before long, the scenery outside changed from densely packed city streets soaked in the setting sun’s orange glow to forested suburbs, the golden edges of the last light of day playing across sparkling mansions in a flash before they, too, passed by. By this point, most everyone had gotten off of the bus. Victor frowned as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end; he casually glanced towards the back of the bus, spotting the vagrant looking away from him and towards the window. On they rode, past ivy-covered colleges, car-choked strip malls, and a funeral train on its way in the opposite direction, and yet the vagrant stayed in the back of the bus. Darkness began to claim the region as the sun sunk behind the horizon line, dipping the suburbs into purplish shadow. The street light timers hit all at once, illuminating the oncoming bus stop in harsh, bright light.
The intercom crackled, “-Timonium, last stop. Transfers take 16 towards Wessex or 31 towards Towson. This bus is no longer accepting passengers. Good night.”
Trying his best to make it look like he wasn’t in too much of a hurry, Victor mumbled his thanks to the tired bus driver before making a beeline towards the car park nearby. He spotted his ride instantly in the empty lot; his Caroline, a battleship-gray beast of a Challenger, complete with that little divot in his front bumper that he never could quite fix ever since…
No… No, that was just a weird dream.
He was going too fast and ran into a garbage can on Tyson Street and must have gotten a concussion from stopping too hard. At least, that’s what his therapist had insisted. However, his doctors told him that he hadn’t sustained any sort of visible injury, but that he was clammy and running a worryingly high fever. They told him that he was hallucinating from illness, and had sent him home with a prescription of Ibuprofen and mandatory rest.
But… the dream felt real. He remembered the taste of intensely-spiced liquor, the smell of lit candles and old parchment, the sensation of handwoven linens beneath his fingers… Hell, just after the crash, he had found his phone, laptop, violin case, and personal journal were suddenly chock-full of meticulous notes, photographs, and sketches of a city by the bay full of strange sorcery, duplicitous spirits… and familiar faces. He shook his head, clearing away thoughts of brightly colored robes fluttering in the wind.
As he unlocked his car door, he heard the sound of someone walking up behind him. Already unnerved, Victor rushed into the drivers’ seat and started up the engine with a roar, looking about to see who had followed him. He scowled as he spotted the vagrant quickly approaching the car.
Victor’s heart hammered against his ribcage, but his foot remained on the brake. His logical mind screamed at him to get out of there, but before he had a moment to shift into gear, the vagrant had gotten several feet away from the car and threw back their hood, revealing choppy brown hair and a very familiar face set in a wide smile, eyes sparkling like an Atlantic sunrise.
The musician blinked once, then twice; his foot began to shake, still jammed hard on the brake pedal. His mind raced endlessly, the work of months of therapy and mental conditioning shattering like a thousand panes of glass as he sat there, gasping like a beached fish.
It… it couldn’t be… can’t be…
Victor cast about, frantically searching the rest of the parking lot, halfway hoping that he was about to get mugged by hidden assailants. At least he’d be able to explain that to the cops without earning himself another surprise trip to Johns Hopkins.
A loud knock on his car window caused him to yelp, forcing him to confront the all-too-familiar face beaming at him from behind the glass. Victor cracked the window and let his hand slip smoothly into the nearby door compartment, placing his hand around the grip of the monkey wrench he kept there for on-the-spot car repairs. Or sneak attacks.
He lowered his voice as he scowled at the stranger, trying to sound as unfriendly as possible, “Keep your distance. What do you want?”
Bless her heart, she looked like his words hurt quite a lot. Confusion filtered into her gaze as she backed away, “Oh… I’m sorry… I thought you were someone I knew… So sorry for following you. Have a good night.”
Victor’s heart felt like it was about to burst out of his chest, his mind recoiling in panic as he subconsciously scanned his surroundings. This was way too close to how his weird dream-concussion-fever-thing started. But this time, he felt like he knew who this person was, despite the clamoring voices in his head telling him otherwise, that he was simply going mad from the strangeness of it all. He could almost hear Dr. Mattheson admonishing in his sing-song tone, ‘It takes you, too, to control your thoughts…’
For a long while, the only thing that registered in Victor’s brain was the idling of Caroline’s engine and the all-too-familiar woman now turning away from him. He watched the vagrant shuffle slowly towards the bus stop, the late 13 bus just now pulling into the station. As he watched her, he remembered – yes, remembered, not imagined- when he was carried into the air, tucked in that woman’s arms, sailing into a world he knew absolutely nothing about. He had asked her for help, and give or take some bumpy interactions, she had helped him.
She hadn’t turned him away, not like he just had.
Sighing loudly to himself, Victor whipped Caroline around and skidded to a halt by the bus stop, causing the vagrant to whip around before she could step further. The musician rolled down his window and barked, “Hey! Miss! I know a cheap shelter that you can stay at for the night. Do you want directions or are you okay with me giving you a ride there?”
For a moment, her expression was clouded with doubt. Understandable. He was a strange man offering a ride to a lone woman. He let her puzzle it out as the bus driver waved impatiently at the vagrant to get on quickly, her gaze flicking back and forth between himself and the bus driver. Finally, she bowed to the bus driver, stepped off the bus platform, and walked towards Caroline, a noticeable spring in her stride.
Victor really hoped his memory was right as the vagrant shoved her belongings and herself into the passenger seat. He quickly glanced her up and down and instantly regretted his decision; this woman was ripped from head to toe. He was absolutely fucked if she wanted to make him do something against his will. As soon as she shut the car door, the musician rolled out of the lot and into the spot-lit suburbs. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her sneakily staring at him as he drove onto I83. His brow furrowed in concern, eyes still on the road. After a moment of this, she muttered something under her breath and settled into her seat with a dejected expression.
She spoke first, “I really am sorry about following you. You really look like this person I know from behind… The name’s… Cadence. I’m headed into town to look for a job.”
The musician caught himself listening intently to the way that the woman’s voice sounded. It felt like a long-forgotten memory, a word on the tip of the tongue, tasting of wood smoke, roses, and a clean sea breeze. Her name didn’t seem to fit, though; it slipped out of her mouth like steam escaping a vent.
He cocked his head and glanced at her briefly, trying his best to not grip the steering wheel too hard. Tomorrow was his first solo performance since his accident, and he hoped with all his might that this was all some beautifully horrible dream that he could sweat out during his workout routine in the morning.
“I’m Victor. Nice to meet you, though I wish it were under better circumstances,” A stretch of silence as he accelerated around a slow, run-down van with its hazards on, “and uh… cool. Thank you for telling me. What sort of work do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Her reply was curt and grumpy, “Odd jobs, mostly hard labor. Just… just take me to the shelter. I’ll figure myself out from there.” She remained silent but on edge, constantly sneaking glares at him, a pensive look on her face.
Victor shrugged and hid a grimace. He was crazy, mistaking some hitchhiker as that terrifyingly powerful elementalist he dreamed up after the crash. Or… during the crash? It was all so fast… but the memories, the notes… Percy…
The minutes passed by in silence as they continued their drive. Victor struggled with his temporal problem as his passenger relaxed enough to stare out at the dark scenery flying by, a faraway look in her eyes. He stole a few glances every so often, his mind flipping back and forth between trusting medical professionals or trusting a pile of weirdly detailed notes on a place that didn’t exist. A part of him chided himself for even having to think about such a seemingly easy decision.
In an effort to save himself from thinking about his answer-less riddle, he spoke up to his passenger, “Hey, I’m going to play some music. Let me know if it’s too loud, or if you don’t like it.”
She gave him a tired half-shrug and continued staring out the window.
Victor tapped a few buttons on Caroline’s dash screen and tried to relax back into his seat and let Miles Davis soothe his nerves. Baltimore’s skyline loomed large and grim as they approached their exit. He checked the time; half past eleven. Ammy was about to call and ask where he was.
Like clockwork, his phone went off. He quickly silenced it after he saw Cadence jump a mile out of her seat, on high alert once again. He mumbled an apology as he slowly pulled them into the lot of the Marian House and pulled into an empty space near the entrance. Victor sighed heavily and regarded the steadily growing line of homeless women and children seeking entry into the shelter as a handful of volunteers methodically passed out blank forms to those waiting.
“Well, it looks like this place is filling up fast. Might want to hop in line now if you-“
“Hold it right there, Victor. Why do you have Nika’s instrument?” Cadence jabbed a thumb behind her towards the violin case nestled snugly behind his seat.
Hearing his old name made Victor’s head spin. Then, something clicked into place; an important part of the temporal puzzle he had been missing all along. He just needed to call her out, to be absolutely certain of her identity…
A part of him still wanted to kick her to the curb in a fit of panic, but instead he summoned his courage, took a deep breath, and turned to face her with a faux-incredulous expression, “Hang on, now. That’s my instrument, thank you very much. Paid for it, fair and square.”
She narrowed her eyes spat back, “I haven’t known her for very long, but I’m absolutely certain of one thing: that girl would sooner part with her left leg let alone her instrument! I’m not buying what you’re selling me, mister!”
Victor egged her further, waggling an accusatory finger at her, “Well, I’m not scoopin’ what you’re poopin’, missy. I don’t believe for one second that you’re who you say you are, Miss ‘Cadence’. Are you running from something? Did you get on the law’s bad side?”
Too quickly, the other retorted, incensed, “Oh yeah? Who’s deflecting now? You know, I don’t really think you are who you say you are, either. I especially don’t think you got that instrument by legitimate means.” Cadence glared daggers at Victor, a fist clenched hard against Caroline’s dashboard, “Now, you tell me where you got Nika’s instrument or I’ll knock your block off so hard it’ll punch a hole clean through the roof of your pretty little ‘mobile.”
Almost there, Victor thought, just enough to make her mad, but not so much as to actually drive her to do bodily harm. He was really toeing the line, here. He continued aloud, forming his next words carefully, “You know, I don’t think your wife would approve of marring such a beautiful vehicle-“
Victor yelped as ‘Cadence’s’ fists clutched hard at his collar and brought his face uncomfortably close to hers, which was currently etched with rage and wreathed in black smoke that had begun to fill the cabin. Through gritted teeth, she growled, “I. Don’t. Have. A. Wife… Yet!”
The musician giggled like a madman despite his current predicament. Bingo! In a rasp, he kept pushing her buttons, throwing all caution to the wind, “I bet you it’s because you’re afraid that Asami will say no.“
“Why you little!-“ His biting statement made the vagrant back off immediately, her face going through a myriad of expressions before settling into wary confusion, “…How do you know that name?”
Victor looked her right in the eye, doing his best to convey sincerity, “I can’t rightly forget someone like your wife. Or someone like you, Avatar Korra. Believe me, I’ve spent a small fortune over the last few months trying to do just that.”
He let Korra study him closely, searching for something familiar. Slowly, he saw her head tilt in realization as she leaned back, releasing him from her grip. Victor didn’t bother hiding the massive breath he had been holding in, feeling a weight slip from his shoulders as he did so.
Korra started, voice small, “… Nika? Is that… is that you? How are you here? And how did you get inside a man’s body??”
Victor guffawed in spite of the tense atmosphere, “Ha! That’s a thought. No, this,“ he gestured at himself, “is the result of another small fortune being spent. Not long after I got back, I started hormone therapy back up, and-“
“Got back? Got back from where? My home?” Korra’s voice mounted in rising panic.
Victor’s phone rang again, causing both of them to jump. He cursed; it was Ammy again. And somehow, a string of missed texts from Frankie. He really needed to get back with them soon, but he needed to sort out Korra first.
“Look,” he started, letting his tone settle into a calmer lilt, “You figured out who I was, I figured out who you were. Let’s leave it at that for right now, because I can’t answer your questions with any confidence until I get my old notes back out. Those are back at my house,” he tapped the dash screen’s digital clock for emphasis, “Plus, it’s late, and the shelter is going to close soon, if it isn’t full already. Also… Ugh, I can’t tell you how tortuous it has been to have a memory of a place I can’t prove ever existed. Not until now, possibly… “ he studied her face again, triple checking every curve, scar, blemish, and beauty mark, assuring himself that she was indeed Korra, “If you really are Cadence, a down-on-their-luck vagrant worker, then by all means, I’ve completed my end of the bargain by driving you here. You can get on with your life and forget that you ever met a crazy fucker like me. But… if you really are Korra, you’ll humor me with one question that you must answer correctly before we head back to my place.”
Korra crossed her arms across her chest, “I don’t feel like I really have a choice here, but whatever. Shoot.”
“What did I draw in Mako’s notebook the very first time I met you?”
Korra replied with a scoff, her voice trailing as the strangeness of the situation began to sink into her, “Easy! You drew two men standing on a dead wolf… with one holding a sword and the… other a standard… Huh.”
Victor arched an eyebrow at Korra, who had numbly slumped in the bucket seat, “So… you still want to stay at the shelter? Forget this ever happened?”
The Avatar snapped her head back up at the musician, a fire in her bright blue eyes, “No. I’m coming with you, whether you like it or not. If you managed to make it back here, your home, then there’s a chance I can get back to mine,” she ran her hands through her hair, guilt and anxiety playing across her features, “It’s been three weeks since the storm incident. Three weeks! And no clear way back! I can only imagine what’s gone on since I’ve been missing from home…”
Victor went ahead and started up the engine and rolled back out into the street, angling himself towards home a second time that day. “Like I said, we can get a better understanding after we get to my notes. In the meantime, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he paused to merge back onto I83 and get up to speed, “…Why don’t you tell me how you got to Baltimore? I imagine it was an interesting time for you.”
Korra scoffed as she ran her fingers through her short hair again, leaving them tangled in her tresses as she leaned against the passenger window, “’Interesting’ doesn’t even cover half of it. The ship I ended up saving had somehow come from these United States of America, but had somehow managed to… I dunno… magically ‘appear’ itself in Yue Bay during the storm. I flew onto the ship, easy-peasy, calmed down some spirits, aaaand then I got knocked out by a massive wall of water,” she looked a little ashamed at this, “When I came to, some of the sailors were gathered around me, cheering and going on about me being their ‘lucky charm’ or ‘guardian angel’,” she closed her eyes and smiled, “…Those were the nicest days I’ve spent so far on this Earth. Some of the crew thought I was some ‘genetically-enhanced-super-spy’, but others were convinced that I was ‘a goddess born from the storm’. They showed me a bunch of stuff, like what a cellphone was, what an ‘Internet’ was,” she shuddered, “and one of them even showed me how to hold and play a, uh… a guitar! That’s it. The crew generally treated me well, even sent me off with a set of clothes and some survival stuff!” She gestured at the duffel proudly, “I still haven’t gotten through all of the things that are in here yet!
“The captain took me aside after I made a full recovery, and when he noticed that I ‘didn’t remember anything’ or didn’t have identification papers, he insisted that, while he was forever grateful for saving him, his ship, and his crew, he couldn’t allow me to stay on the ship, and would have to drop me off at the closest port and have someone on shore escort me to their hospital on base. He also said a whole bunch of things about ‘immigration office’ and ‘work visa’, but I’ll admit, it really went over my head. I mean, if you want to live and work somewhere, why should you be restricted by what sort of papers you have? Anyway, I turned down his escort offer in favor for directions to Baltimore. At that, he seemed surprised, but he said he wouldn’t stop me if I went, but then then insisted that I, at least, get a whole bunch of shots from the onboard doctor. Something about ‘immunizing against disease’… Oh, and by the way? Your world’s version of medicine sucks. Those shots got me sick for three days straight!”
Victor chuckled at Korra’s candid outbursts, mulling over the information, “Sounds like you made some seriously good friends on that ship, if they didn’t immediately report you to their higher-ups. Plus, hey, free vaccines! You got very lucky there.”
“Yeah, no kidding!” Korra acridly shot back, her temper flaring, “But now I sort of wished I had that escort, because as soon as I got into Philadelphia proper, some gang of punks tried to ‘relieve me of my heavy-looking bag’, so I ended up having to ‘relieve them of their stupidity’,” she flexed her fingers and chuckled to herself, “Sank them up to their necks in concrete for the police to find. Ended up having to make my own shelters while I searched for honest work at first, but, then the cops started sending out hounds at night… And then sketches of me started popping up on community and park billboards. That’s when I started moving south in earnest. I hopped a freight train that shot straight to Pennsylvania Station, and I sort of just… lost myself for a little bit. Keeping a roof over my head started getting harder to do without doing major damage to infrastructure, which, by the way, also sucks here… Not even room enough to bend half a foot of concrete without upending a powerline or sewer pipe… Over the next couple of weeks, I just worked. Did my best not to bend anything, since that seemed to freak out anyone that saw it. Some landscaping here, some demolition there…” Here, Korra turned to Victor with a miffed expression, “Okay, real quick, why exactly do I need a ‘state-issued I.D.’ or a ‘high school diploma’ to work almost any job in this country? Who’s brilliant idea was that?”
The musician pursed his lips to hide a wry smile as he slowed down for his last exit, turning right from the ramp and into a sleepy neighborhood thick with tall pines and maples. He started, “That was a while back in this country’s history, but in a nutshell, employers need ID so you can prove to them that you’re, uh, you, and that you’re a citizen of this country, so that they’re able to track your income so the government can levy taxes based off of what you make each year, and uh… Honestly, that would honestly be a better question for my wife. She’s paid to know stuff like that, and can probably give it to you without much bias. And fewer errors.“
He stopped when he saw Korra immediately lose interest in his words, instead perking up at his last statement, wringing her hands through her hair, “You got hitched since you got back?? Turned into a man, then got married… What in the wide world… How many months did you say you’ve been back, again?”
Korra slumped back into her seat, mumbling over mental math and counting on her fingers. Victor took this time to pull up his home number on Caroline’s dash screen.
Ammy and Frankie’s smiling faces popped up on the screen as the phone began to ring, causing Korra to fall silent and watch the glowing dash screen curiously.
The phone clicked and Frankie’s frantic voice rattled off over the car speakers, “Fucking finally! Christ on a bike, Vicky, where are you? Ammy was about to call the five-oh on your ass. No texts, no calls, no nothin’??”
Victor winced and apologized, “I’m so sorry love, I should have called back sooner. I’m literally five minutes away. Could… could you put me on speaker phone? I need to give y’all a heads up.
“Ugh! Fine. But you should turn down your car stereo, fair warning.”
“Uh, okay…” Victor adjusted the knob just as he heard Ammy’s thunderous tirade begin filtering through the speakers.
“-worrying us half to death! Do you know how many assaults have happened in the Inner Harbor since last week? Do you?! Or do you have your head shoved so far up your-“
Frankie’s voice became more prominent over Ammy’s venting, “You should just get here soon, Vicky. I can’t get her to stop throwing a bitch fit.”
The musician raised his voice over the din, “Look, I’m bringing an old friend of mine over for the night. I haven’t seen them in ages, and they’re… they’re sort of down on their luck right now.”
Victor heard Frankie protest as Ammy growled into the receiver, “We live here too, you know. Could have given us a heads up, asked us about what we might possibly be going on and whether or not we can even host anyone for a night. But instead-“
“Ammy, I literally just ran into her at the bus stop. That’s why I couldn’t call you back. Look, I’m pulling into the driveway now. Let’s just hash it out in the open.” Victor didn’t wait for a reply and hung up just as he rolled to a stop behind his wife’s red Rogue.
Silence stretched through the cabin as the two of them sat, Korra awkwardly twiddling her thumbs and looking anywhere but at the musician. Victor moved first, turning to the Avatar, “Listen carefully. When you talk to Frankie, I suggest you say ‘No’ to anything she asks you to do. Answer any question how you like from her, but don’t agree to help her with any task. Also, don’t bother lying to Ammy. She knows when someone is telling tales. It’ll confuse the hell out of her for a while, but she’s… somewhat clued in on what happened to me. She, and my therapist, are the only people I’ve told about you or your home,” he sighed, then opened up his door and retrieved his instrument from the back, “I guess I’m going to have a long talk with Frankie here in a bit…”
“Should I stay in the car or…?”
Victor shook his head, feeling incredibly tired all of a sudden, “No, come on in. I’m not having you sleep out here in the chill. Not that I think it would bother you, but… I’m sure this will work out. Let me do most of the talking.”
A powerful voice boomed from the front door of the house, “That’s right, Victor Son Harald. You’re gonna talk, alright. You’re going to talk right the fuck now.”
The pair whipped their heads around to see Ammy in all her furious glory, wine-red hair like fire flowing behind her and the collar on her normally immaculate business blouse askance and undone. Frankie, that cheeky little mynx, was hot on his wife’s heels, neon pink flip-flops slapping comically against the pavement, her toothy grin devilish at the supposed verbal lashing he was about to receive. Victor cleared his throat and forced himself to look his wife in the eye, a wave of relief washing over him when he saw that she was primarily angry at him and not his surprise guest. He started, “Look, I know you were both worried, and I’m sorry. I should have called. I usually call back pretty quickly if I decide to stay out late, and I know that you two worry a lot when I’m out and about downtown. Just… here, I want you to meet my friend, Korra.”