My father keeps threatening to leave me at home if I make him late to one more social engagement. When we get to Councilman Tarrlok’s party, most of the guests have already arrived. I know it irks Daddy to be late, especially when most parties are actually conferences in disguise. And even though he sighs and grumbles when he finds me not yet dressed and covered in engine grease at the predetermined departure time, he accepts a kiss on the cheek instead of being forced to go to these things alone.
“Ming Lo,” I whispered to him covertly, as an overly made up socialite descends on us. “Huan’s second wife — got half the estate.” That’s all I have time to say before Ming has made her entrance and Daddy is kissing her cheeks. Hopefully it jogs his memory enough to know that Ming has lots of money and hates our competitor.
“Oh, Asami!” Ming exclaims. “Look at how beautiful you’ve gotten.”
What in the world is the correct response to that? I’d love to know. I banter back with some rubbish about how Ming is a vision of perfection, when in actual fact, all the makeup she’s caked under her eyes isn’t hiding the fact that she hasn’t slept a night without medicinal help since her public, drawn out divorce from the CEO of Cabbage Corp.
“Have you met her yet?” Ming asks. Typical top of the food chain bullshit — spirits forbid Ming actually be specific about who she means. No, no, better to force us to ask.
“The Avatar, of course!” she exclaims in a stage whisper.
Daddy and I exchange the briefest of glances. It certainly goes undetected by Ming Lo. But I do make sure to regulate my breathing. No telling which green-clad bastard can read my feelings through the stone floor.
“Is she here?” Daddy asks.
“Yes. She arrived with Councilman Tenzin about an hour ago.”
I scan the room and find my mark on the first floor: Avatar Korra. She is in a corner, apparently being berated by her chaperone. I take in the boiled red hue on the councilman’s bald head with some satisfaction. But it’s overshadowed by the Avatar herself. Everything about her screams spoiled, entitled brat. I would know — I went to the most expensive boarding school in the world. But even compared to heiresses and princesses, Avatar Korra is on a whole other level. At a gala ostensibly thrown in her honor, she’s slouching in a corner, arms crossed, rolling her eyes at one of the elected officials of the city.
While I’m not shocked to find that the Avatar is less than promised, there are a few things that stand out as I surreptitiously observe her. First thing is her age. Intellectually, I suppose I knew that we are around the same age. Hospitals still use the Avatar Eras on birth certificates; I was born in the last few months of the Era of Aang. But I’m still surprised to see that the great bridge between the mortal and spirit worlds is a teenager. I always expected the exalted Avatar to appear different — look different, act different, be different. But the Avatar is normal. (If hitting the gym seventeen times a week is normal.) There is no glowing aura, no supernatural sense of wisdom and tranquility. She’s just a girl.
“And did I hear you were dating a probender?” Ming asks, eyes flashing.
This time I don’t catch Daddy’s eyes.
“Yes,” I answer. “Mako, captain of the Fire Ferrets. He should be around here somewhere actually. The finalists for this year’s championships got an invite.”
Ming loves these little details and blathers on, asking for more, and promising me that she would do “all sorts of things” to these young, fit benders if she were two decades younger. I want to tell Ming that I’m sure plenty of the young, fit benders would love to be put in their place by an older woman, but then Daddy might choke on his cocktail, and we don’t need to deal with that kind of scene.
Eventually we shake Ming and start circling the Avatar’s vicinity. An introduction between the world’s savior and the richest people in Republic City is inevitable: it’s just good business. Councilman Tarrlok does the honors. It’s his party after all, and he can’t help but get involved.
“Avatar Korra,” he says grandly, making a show of it. “Have you met Hiroshi Sato, and his stunning daughter, Asami?”
I don’t miss the downward flick of Tarrlok’s gaze. Not in a million years, you three-braided creep, I think, while smiling toothily. We bow to the Avatar. She seems less than impressed.
“You really invented the satomobile?” are the first words out of her mouth.
“Yes, Avatar,” Daddy answers respectfully. “Among other things.”
“Ah, Sato.” Tarrlok claps Daddy on the shoulder in a way I know he hates. “So modest. Tell the Avatar about all the new gizmos you’ve got cooking up in your labs.” Behind Daddy’s back, Tarrlok winks at me.
I’d like to stick Tarrlok with one of the “gizmos” we’ve “cooked up.”
“I would love to show you our facilities,” Daddy says to the Avatar, which I think is overdoing it.
“Yeah, maybe,” she responds, picking at her incredibly spiritual fingernails.
“Sato, I actually do have a question for you…” Tarrlok swings an arm around Daddy and pulls him to the side. This always happens. Daddy can’t go anywhere without someone cornering him for a favor, a loan, or a pitch. I should accompany him and make sure he gets all his details right.
Before I can excuse myself from the Avatar’s company, her attention is piqued. It’s the first time I’ve seen her look remotely interested all night, and as I follow her gaze, I nearly break into laughter right there in the middle of the ballroom. The sight that has so enraptured Avatar Korra is none other than my boyfriend. In a suit I bought for him.
I get the absolute thrill of watching the Avatar watch Mako kiss me hello on the cheek.
“You met Korra,” he says.
The Avatar’s big blue eyes are nearly bulging out of her head. I smile even wider. “I just got the pleasure.”
“Asami!” Bolin’s voice comes from behind, just before he scoops me up into a hug. The Avatar’s frown becomes even more pronounced. “You’re here! Isn’t this so cool? Look at this food — it’s so tiny!”
Avatar Korra excuses herself. I guess she can’t handle the unbelievable bending brothers being excited by a mere mortal like me.
“I didn’t know the Avatar had a crush on you,” I say to Mako, once she’s gone.
Both him and Bolin choke on their food — Mako from terror, Bolin because he’s having a good, deep belly laugh.
“It’s sweet,” I say. This accomplishes two things. One, a boy like Mako will think I’m being sincere, and that wins me points with my boyfriend. Two, it minimizes Korra’s chances of ruining what I have going on. Mako isn’t here for sweet. From the things that boy has groaned into my ears late at night, I know Mako is looking for something with a little bit more… bite.
Daddy’s done with Councilman Horndog. Mako straightens up immediately in the presence of my father, his cheeks growing pink as if he too were reliving our nighttime activities. “Mr. Sato,” he says awkwardly.
Daddy nods in his direction. Daddy can get away with that kind of rudeness. After all, it’s pretty standard for fathers to find their daughters’ boyfriends unenjoyable. He leads me away from the bending brothers and we spend the next few hours making the rounds.
Honestly, it’s exhausting. And the idea of doing this for the rest of my life kind of sends me into a spiral. So when Daddy gets invited upstairs for whiskeys and cigars with the men, I sneak away to one of the deserted balconies for my own stress relief.
Smoking is the biggest secret I’ve ever kept from my father. I vacillate between wanting to confront him with the hypocrisy (he is right now smoking a cigar), and curling up into the fetal position when I imagine his anger if he ever found out. I get one between my lips and breathe in relief. It lasts all of five seconds.
“Stressful night?” asks an unfamiliar voice.
Fuck. I drop the cigarette to the ground and stomp it out but the damage is done. I turn around to face the person who will bring this devastating news to my father — and turn right into the face of Avatar Korra. Literally. She is right behind me. I step back, but I’m trapped by the banister. It’s cold metal touches the exposed skin of my back, making me shiver. The Avatar notices and cocks an eyebrow.
I bow my head like I’m supposed to and ask the oh-so-special teenager what I can do for her. Avatar Korra’s crooked little grin grows wider. But then she drops it, and sighs. “I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t do all that.” She gestures vaguely to the genuflecting and offering of services. “Mako and Bolin don’t.” Mako and Bolin are benders, but I’m sure the distinction hasn’t occurred to the Avatar.
Avatar Korra steps around me and leans her enlightened body against the railing. Her arms are totally bare but she doesn’t seem to notice the chill in the air. I catch myself wondering whether that’s an Avatar thing or a Southern Water Tribe thing, before I remember I don’t care and I should probably head back to the party.
“So…” she says. “Asami Sato.”
“Yeah?” Maybe I have a little bit too much attitude, but she started it.
“Careful, princess,” the Avatar shoots back. “Don’t want to let your mask slip.”
My mind races, but I follow the Avatar’s advice and keep my face fixed. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“I saw you,” the Avatar says, smiling. “Rolling your eyes when the cougar couldn’t see you. And you didn’t take Tarrlok’s advances either.”
So the Avatar isn’t as stupid as she appears. “I do what I can to keep Tarrlok in line.”
“You do you, but the next time he puts a hand on me, he’s gonna lose it.”
I can’t help it — I laugh. As if it were that easy. I work with machines every day that could crush Tarrlok. If it was a matter of violence, there would be no more handsy creeps left in Republic City. Avatar Korra isn’t pleased to be laughed at. I wonder if she’s ever been treated with anything but reverence before. It’s good for her.
“You coming to the tournament this week? Gonna see me and Mako crush the Wolf Bats?”
It’s a clumsy attempt to make me jealous of her connection to my boyfriend. I see it a mile away.
“I can’t wait,” I say brightly. “I’ll be rooting for you!”
Avatar Korra eyes me suspiciously but doesn’t know how to respond. The Avatar has spent her whole life training in the four elements, meanwhile I was studying at the Royal Fire Academy for Girls, which provides every student with a minor in Catty Bitch. There is no way Avatar Korra is outdoing me in that department.
Now, here’s the hard part: I’m torn by my desire to be anywhere else and my absolute need for nicotine. I decide to go for the chemicals and prop another cigarette between my teeth. Avatar Korra’s eyes follow my every move, so there is no hiding it from her when my lighter craps out in my hands.
“I got it,” she says, and snaps her fingers. The flame that pops up is tiny but I have to do real work to keep from jumping backwards. I lean in, instinctively sheltering the flame from the breeze, and inadvertently cupping the Avatar’s hand. As I suck in the heat, I realize how intimate this is, how close we are — how Avatar Korra is biting her bottom lip?? I step the hell away from that as soon as the tip catches, and the Avatar seems to feel self-conscious for the first time all night.
“Umm, can I have a drag?” she asks.
I have a sneaking suspicion about what will happen when I hand the cigarette over, and I am rewarded a few seconds later with the sights and sounds of the most powerful bender in the world nearly coughing up a lung.
“You don’t smoke,” I observe objectively. The great Avatar is unable to respond as she bends over the railing, hacking and wheezing. It is a little much. “Spirits,” I swear. “Just like… airbend it out.”
“Can’t do that,” Avatar Korra coughs.
I’m about to launch into a line of scientific inquiry — air is air, whether it’s inside a person’s lungs or outside, right? The condition of being inside a human body should not change the air so fundamentally that it can’t be bent. Which also gets me thinking about some brutal techniques airbenders could employ to end someone’s life. Which gets me thinking about asphyxiation. Which eventually leads me to the conclusion that I need to extricate myself from this conversation and get back to the party.
“Shit,” the holy one says. “Can you keep a secret?” She’s eyeing me like she’s sizing me up for a fight.
I can think of approximately twenty secrets I’m keeping at the moment, least of which is the cigarette between my fingers. Then it dawns on me.
“Oh,” I say, “you can’t airbend — like at all.”
The Avatar glares at me then turns abruptly to the harbor. I figure she’s looking at the four hundred foot copper version of herself (with less hair and less boobs) and wondering how she let down her past life so badly.
“But you’re the Avatar,” I point out.
“Yeah, I know.” Now she’s getting snappy.
“Bending all four elements is kind of your claim to fame.”
When the Avatar turns to me I worry that I’ve pushed her too far. Obviously, I am trying to annoy her, get under her skin, even trying to make her question herself. But when she turns to me, I see a flash of anger in her eyes that makes me worry she might actually hit me. Here. On a balcony. At Tarrlok’s gala.
“Better than being a spoiled little girl spending all of daddy’s money.”
Oh, she did not just.
The Avatar grimaces, or perhaps it’s meant to be a coquettish smile. “All the money in the world can’t stop your boyfriend from thinking about me when he’s alone at night.”
The floor drops out from underneath me. Weirdly I find myself smiling? I could say it’s a clever tactic to let the Avatar know that nothing she can say will phase me. But really I’m thrilled. Here’s the thing: I’m younger than every guest at this important people party by a lot — and not one of them can test me. I haven’t had a real competition, with someone who can throw down, in years. Avatar Korra wants to play rough, and she has absolutely no idea how savage I can be.
“Aw, honey,” I say. “You think he’s alone at night?”
Her eyes narrow.
“But.” I step in closer than when we were lighting my cigarette. I enjoy watching the Avatar stumble backward, away from me. “When you’re alone tonight, you can picture what we’ll be up to. Maybe that’ll help ease the tension.”
I wink, drop the cigarette, and turn on my heel. Game, set, match.
“Asami!” My father is clearly ready to get the hell out of this party. “Where have you been?”
His eyes track my path backwards and see the Avatar emerging from the balcony. His face shows alarm. “With the Avatar?”
I lean in close, and whisper: “You’d better give our friend a call. I have some information I think he’ll be very interested in.”