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Instincts of a Fearful Body

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Chapter One: Welcome to Republic City
(Otherwise Known as Everything Wrong with the World)

“The Air Nomads lived communally, in temples, to mitigate their spiritual attachments to belongings and the things of the physical realm. Possessing a home is one of the most solid attachments people can have to this world, and the Air Nomads recognized that it was better, at least, to share it, to distribute that one attachment amongst all their community.

“When Guru Laghima was a young monk, he forsook even that connection and traveled abroad in the world, wandering as the nomads were wont to do. It was in the wild, away from even the meager trappings of the temple, that he was able to empty his spirit and release his earthly tethers.” Zaheer closed his eyes for a long moment, breathing in, then out. “Unlike the other Air Nomads, he never returned to the temples, recognizing freedom as the greater virtue than community.

“In his example, we travel the world together, forsaking the bondage of houses in favor of true freedom.” Zaheer paused. “However, sometimes the constraints of reality must infringe on spiritual ideals. It is for this reason that, for the duration of our stay in Republic City, we—”

“HAVE AN APARTMENT!” Korra ducked around Zaheer, throwing open the door. It slammed against the wall and she burst inside.

Zaheer turned to the side. A deep frown and furrowed eyebrows carved a slash across his forehead. “—are temporarily staying in—”

“—an apartment with actual beds!” Ghazan cheered as he sauntered in behind Korra. “Check this place out!” He dropped their bags on the floor, looking around with a broad smile.

Following at a much more sedate pace, P’li and Ming-Hua weren’t nearly as enthused as Ghazan, but Korra could tell they were happy to be there too. She flashed Zaheer apologetic smile as she took everyone’s bags and sorted them accordingly.

By the time she’d finished, Ghazan had thrown open all the screens. “Looks like a pretty sweet layout,” he said. “Wide halls and big windows.” He threw his hands out to the side. “Look at all this space!”

Zaheer cleared his throat. “A Red Lotus contact furnished the space for us with the basic necessities. The location is also purposeful. This neighborhood is central to all the areas we want to access, and the police presence here is generally light.” He paused, and Korra noticed his eyes slide toward P’li for a moment. She’d taken off her hood since coming inside, but it was generally difficult for her to travel freely without attracting notice. Police, in particular, made things problematic.

“As for the apartment itself,” Zaheer continued, “There are two primary sleeping areas. P’li and I will primarily reside in this one.” He gestured to one of the screens Ghazan had opened. “Ghazan and Ming-Hua, you two will be staying in that one.”

Korra tilted her head. “What about me?”

Zaheer nodded to one of the smaller screen doorways. “For the duration of our stay, it seemed appropriate to allow you a solitary space for rest.”

“I get my own bedroom?” Korra’s mouth dropped open. “Like my own, individual, one-person room? That’s mine?” She rushed over to the space. It was little more than a closet, but it was her closet. Just enough room for a bedroll, but that was all she could have wanted.

“Ownership is a concept you should avoid,” Zaheer said, voice tightening. Korra dropped her bag inside the room, a little guilty. “This is merely a transient space we are occupying for the time being.”

“And it has real beds.” Ming-Hua poked her head out of her and Ghazan’s room. “Zaheer, allow us our ‘earthly tethers’ for a few minutes. This is different—better—than squatting in abandoned buildings with leaking roofs. Let the kid get happy about her room. Let us be happy that we get to sleep on real beds. ”

Ghazan poked his head out over Ming-Hua’s. “And speaking of beds...” He winked.

Korra let go of her pack instantly. “Ew. Ew ew ew. I’m going on a walk.” She grimaced. “You guys can have fun together. I’m gonna explore the city.”

“I’ll go with you,” Zaheer cut in. He set his pack down in his and P’li’s room then came back into the common space. “I haven’t been to Republic City since before we recruited you to our cause. It will be good to refamiliarize myself with the area while I give Korra an initial lesson.”

“You’re really leaving so soon?” P’li frowned slightly.

A pause. Zaheer wavered before shaking his head. “It would not be prudent for Korra to wander alone this early.” Another pause. “Once she is more familiar with the city, she will be free to wander, leaving more time for... other pursuits.”

Korra winced. “Look, if you guys are gonna go at it, I may not even wait to fiddle with the door.” She glanced out the window and grinned. “There’s a fountain in the courtyard there. An emergency waterbender escape isn’t out of the question.”

Ming-Hua laughed at that. “Take a break, Zaheer. I’m sure Korra can figure it out on her own. It’s been awhile since the four of us had some time to ourselves.”

Zaheer’s mouth just tightened into a thinner line. “We’ll be back in an hour or so. Do recall that we are here on business. This is not a pleasure trip.”

“A pleasure trip?” Ghazan cracked up, but Zaheer didn’t even smile.

Korra made an exaggerated gagging motion as she followed him out the front door. “Have fun, hedonists,” she called back.

“We’re anarchists!” Ming-Hua and Ghazan called back, laughing.

*

“Republic City Park is a central feature of the city,” Zaheer said. “Unlike most places we’ve traveled, the city lacks open green spaces. Small towns and small cities tend to have them accessible at the edges, at least. Ba Sing Se is large enough that things get rather spread out. Here, however, there is the exact mix of size and density which makes spaces like this necessary.”

Korra peered around. “So the people here are just... hanging out? They aren’t here for any particular reason?” They’d come to the park around lunchtime; she could see people of all social classes milling around. Many of them had brought food. “Except maybe lunch,” she added.

“For the most part, no. The masses of Republic City have been fooled by their government into thinking that a brief visit in a park is a valid exercise in what few freedoms they have.” Though he kept his tone neutral, she could hear condescension in his voice. “If you are ever stopped, saying you are going to the park is a good stock answer during daylight hours.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”  Zaheer and Korra were dressed simply, as usual, to avoid attention. The idea of being stopped by the police seemed ridiculous in the sunny park, but Korra knew it was possible. Once they got down to Red Lotus business, they tended to stir the pot a fair bit more. She smirked. That was always the fun part.

Zaheer led them to sit on the side of a small hill. “Republic City is a prime example of everything wrong with the world,” he said. “The government has no oversight, and the council members exercise their authority without check. We have come here for a specific reason, to witness a certain response of the people as they reach out for freedom.” He smiled tightly. “Remember: New growth cannot—”

“—exist without first the destruction of the old.” Korra didn’t roll her eyes, but it took effort. “I know, I know.”

“If you knew, then you would know to listen.” His voice barely shifted, but Korra caught a thread of annoyance in it. “Right now, I want you to look out at the park. What do you see, what do you hear? What moves the people here? This, however pathetic, passes for their ‘free’ and ‘leisure time.’ What distracts them while they are here?”

“Alright.” They’d done exercises like this before. Korra tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and relaxed into a meditation pose. The best way to relax herself into the atmosphere here was to try and detach from her body as much as possible.

It didn’t take any effort to hear the chatter of those passing by, but it took a few moments before Korra could truly listen to them. She didn’t try to catch whole conversations. Zaheer had taught how to listen to only the pieces people meant the most emphatically, putting their spirit behind their words.

“—lately the price has been outrageous, I—”

“—damnable taxes these days—”

“Did you hear about the Fire Ferrets?”

“—and at thirteen years old? A pro-bending prodigy!”

“—not sure about the council’s steps—”

“—regarding the Equalists. Everyone is—”

“I heard that on Air Temple Island—”

Korra blinked, slipping out of the listening mode. Before she could help it, her head swiveled around.

“What is it?”

She bit her lip. “Someone said something about Air Temple Island...” She kept her eyes down. “It distracted me.”

He regarded her with a measured gaze. “Airbending will come in time, Korra.”

“Okay, but, um, do you think we could maybe go? To Air Temple Island?” She smiled. “You could maybe find some Guru Laghima stuff. I could sneakily watch some airbending techniques.”

“Unfortunately, Tenzin knows my face too well. It would not be prudent for me to show myself there.” Zaheer tilted his head. “However... you could potentially go on your own, provided you were cautious. Spiritual preparation would also be wise. I’ll gather some poetry and other materials for you to read when we go back to the apartment.”

Korra grinned when he said ‘apartment,’ and Zaheer frowned at her. “Our temporary, transient abode,” he amended.

“Temp apartment, got it.” She nodded, but couldn’t quite keep the smile off her face.

“In any case,” he continued, “If I know Tenzin, the island is likely to be a place of spiritual tranquility and peace. Spiritual preparation will allow you to feel the island’s energy and be ready to absorb whatever lessons you can take from the place.” He smiled. “If you are open, you may receive some unintended lessons on airbending.”

Korra tried to imagine an island full of bald Zaheers quoting ancient airbender poetry. It was a little horrifying. “I’ll be sure to do my homework first,” she said. She cleared her throat. “As for the people, they seemed fairly interested in pro-bending.” Korra took care to keep her voice casual. “And speaking of field trips, it would probably benefit my other elements to visit the pro-bending arena here, I’ve been—”

“No.” Zaheer’s eyebrows drew together. “That is not a place that you should go. Guru Laghima once wrote ‘bending is a spiritual hand, reaching out to touch the world by its fingertips.’ While the Red Lotus is far from being above violence, it is always with a purpose. The crude sport of the arena is not bending’s intention, especially considering your role in the world.”

“Oh come on, Zaheer.” Korra sighed. “How can you even have an opinion on the spiritual connections of bending when you’re a non-bender?” She crossed her arms and faced back toward the path. Strangers walked by, occupied with their own lives. It was odd to think that, spending a few weeks there, she might see the same people more than once.

He seemed to find her comment amusing. “Bender or not, I am the spiritual leader of the Red Lotus. Does that satisfy your requirements for my holding an opinion?”

“Yes,” Korra grumbled.

“This place, Republic City, is a festering cesspool of the world. Founded by the former Avatar and his close friends, the oligarchy they created has continued, unchanged, to this day.” Zaheer snorted. “Even Aang’s son sits on the council, as though the ruling class could get less obvious about their stranglehold on the people here.”

“Sounds like a pretty clear-cut picture,” Korra said.

“I still want you to do another listening session,” he said. “Try to focus on what you hear that carries passion and is tied to the core problems of the city.”

“Sure thing.” She adopted a relaxed pose again and listened. For a few moments, the vague chatter of passersby overwhelmed her, but she focused her senses and shut out everything but the words people meant, what echoed louder to her spiritual perception. She still struggled to reach the spirit world consistently, but listening on a spiritual plane was more useful day-to-day anyway.

“—Tarrlok has gone too far! His task force—”

“—sure the council will address the issue. Benders—”

Korra kept her eyes open, but didn’t try to visually match speakers with those she could see. The listening would place voices closer or farther based on emphasis, not distance.

“—would never admit it, but Amon seems—”

“—our deeply fearless leader, Amon, will create a—”

“—just hope the city changes for—”

“—back to the way things used to be—”

Korra squinted as a bright light filled the park. She tried to raise her arm to cover her eyes, but found she couldn’t move. Then, as though she had never shut her eyes at all, the park reappeared around her, changed.

For a moment, she wondered if it had been attacked in the blink of an eye, but a moment of study showed that it hadn’t been destroyed, but was in the process of being built. Mounds of dirt replaced the shapely hills and simple planks acted as bridges over the stream. Korra whipped her head around to the left and saw a young woman with black bangs over her eyes slide down the very hill Korra had been sitting on.

Dirt covered her clothes and she moved with the confidence of an earthbender. The dark-haired woman grinned. “Taking a break, Twinkletoes?”

Turning to face where she was looking, Korra gasped. No sound or air came out, but the feeling was there as she found herself gazing at Avatar Aang. It could only be him, a perfect match to the pictures she’d seen. A scrappy beard was just beginning to grow in on his chin. His orange clothes were stained with mud, and he’d clearly been earthbending recently.

Just for a moment, Toph,” he said. “I wanted to take a look around and just sort of... take it in.”

Take what in?” the young woman, Toph, said. “A big pile of dirt and mush that we haven’t gotten to terraforming yet?”

Korra blinked and her viewpoint changed, as though she were standing next to Aang, looking at Toph.

I’m seeing what it’s going to be,” he said. “A city for all people, of all nations.”

Toph chuckled. “Old airbenders used to make a hobby out of baking, if you’ve told me right. But noooope, you’ve gotta make your pet project a whole city.”

Aang laughed and Korra felt a warmth in her chest. She could feel his love for the city, even the park she was sitting in. Even greater than that, she felt his hope and full-hearted belief in the place. It expanded, filling her vision with white again until she had to close her eyes again.

And, as though she’d never blinked, she was just Korra again, sitting on her spot on the hill, overlooking the park.

“Where did you go?” Zaheer could have been asking where Korra bought lunch, for all the interest he showed.

For a moment, Korra didn’t want to tell him about the vision. Reconciling Aang’s love for the city with Zaheer’s disdain was difficult. After a moment’s debate, she shrugged. “I was listening when... when I saw a vision of Aang and Toph.” Korra looked around, trying to match the landmarks from her vision to the current version of the place. “They were here, creating the park.”

“Ah. You will likely experience more visions, now that you are in a place he walked. It’s a place his spirit, in you, will find familiar.” He regarded her a moment, then stood. “While you were absent, I found something you should see closer.”

She stood and followed him. “Maybe the city isn’t as bad as we think so far,” she said after a few steps. “It’s... it’s kind of a fixer-upper, you know?”

Zaheer’s steps slowed. “Whatever Aang felt for this place, you must contrast and hold up to the reality of what he did here. The system he left is corrupt and the people suffer as their freedoms are limited more each day.”

Korra nodded. “I got you,” she said. Still, she couldn’t help a seed of optimism that seemed unwilling to leave.

“Speaking of which,” Zaheer continued, “we’ve come here in large part to witness the outcome of the Equalist movement here. They’ve been mobilizing for months and I have a sense that things are about to change, and drastically.”

“So not just another ignored group shouting into the void?” Korra raised an eyebrow. In their travels, they saw plenty of people oppressed and dissatisfied with their governments. Most of them did nothing more than grumble.

A fair distance across the park, however, a man shouting into a megaphone came into view. Standing on a stage with a decent crowd gathered, he was certainly doing more than passive complaining.

Zaheer nodded towards him as they walked. “The non-benders of this city would likely have muttered into their drinks for another few decades, maybe pushed for the eventual reform or two. They’ve recently come into a leader, however.” He jerked his chin back towards the man onstage. “Note the image on the poster,” he added. “This ‘Amon’ has changed the rules of the game. We’ve come to Republic City to watch him play.”

The masked figure on the poster looked out toward the crowd with authority. “If nothing else, he has a good poster designer,” Korra remarked. “Very charismatic.”

“Indeed,” Zaheer said. A mild smile flitted across his face before disappearing. “While we are investigating, pretend to be a non-bender.”

That was generally their status quo for disguises, so Korra shrugged. “Nothing to see here.”

“These people are reaching out for freedom, but it’s immature. They do not realize that they are running from the council’s oppression right into Amon’s control.” The contempt in his voice made his opinions more than clear. “They will not find freedom with their leader, but this is an interesting case study for you.”

He dropped his voice as they walked up to the stage. “We are seeking information and a way into their confidence. Act accordingly.”

Korra rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to be told that .

“Are you tired of living under bending tyranny? The bending elite of this city have forced non-benders to live as second class citizens! Join Amon’s movement! The Equalists will tear down the bending establishment!” The protester had a moderate audience who seemed to agree, though they kept looking around nervously.

Korra adopted a frustrated, determined expression as she drew close and shouted, “Yeah! Uh, down with the bending establishment!”

Zaheer turned and hushed her, looking around in a paranoid fashion. “Shh, we can’t speak like that in public. Not safely.” He tilted his head up to the protester. “Sir, are you safe, speaking out like this?”

The small man puffed up at that. He grimaced bravely. “Someone must speak the truth and call the people to action on Amon’s behalf! It is time to take back our city!”

The crowd murmured assent, though a few people left. Korra and Zaheer stayed for a few minutes, agreeing with his points. Zaheer adopted the role of the cautious one and Korra felt she did well playing the brash supporter. Even if she wasn’t the best at adopting an anti-bending role, Zaheer’s cautious follow-ups always made it sound as though Korra were being bold and revolutionary.

“Why doesn’t Amon come and rally us himself?” Korra asked eventually. “We deserve a leader who will stand with us, in danger and in safety!”

At this, Zaheer didn’t mitigate her statement or pull her back. She glanced at him briefly before focusing her gaze back on the protest leader. “Well?”

By now, the crowd had dwindled to only the most fervent protesters. The protest leader crouched and pulled a handful of flyers out from behind him. “Witness The Revelation tonight,” he said. He handed a set of four flyers each to the people still gathered. “Don’t let the information fall into the wrong hands.”

The flyers each bore a picture of Amon with an arm outstretched. Rays of light emanated from his palm. While striking, it had surprisingly little information, other than that ‘The Revelation’ was apparently at nine o’clock at night.

Korra was about to ask where she was supposed to go when Zaheer steered them away from the table with a hand on her shoulder. “Police are coming,” he said. “We should avoid them as much as possible.”

“But we don’t know where this event even is,” Korra pointed out.

Zaheer shook his head. “He gave each of the people gathered the same set of four posters. It’s common, in revolutions, to do things like this in code.” He flipped the stack of flyers over and thumbed through them as they walked back the way they came. After a moment, he held two of them together, edge-to-edge. “It looks like the four of them make a rough map. We have a map of Republic City back at the apartment to compare.” He leveled a glare at her when she grinned at its mention. “Let’s go back and see where we’ll be going tonight to further your education.”

“Man, not even one night off?” Korra groaned. “I get that it’s a business trip and all, but come on!”

He chuckled. “Once we get a little more settled and we’ve established everyone’s goals and agenda for our stay, you will have free time to accomplish and pursue your objectives at your own pace.” He paused. “Which, yes, means leisure time.”

Korra punched the air. “Yes!”

“Don’t forget that you agreed to spend some of that free time reading poetry.”

“Augh!”

 

* * *

 

Asami cut open the protective packaging and smiled down at the newly-machined parts. There was something wonderful about the smell of oil and metal that put her in a good mood, and she’d been wanting to get to this project all week.

Taking the pieces out one by one, she hummed to herself as she started attaching them to the motor.

The heat of the workshop made her sweat and the grease from the gears would take forever to leave her fingertips. Working alone, however, Asami couldn’t have been happier. She glanced over at a framed picture on the wall. Young, but with hair just starting to gray at his temples, Hiroshi Sato looked out over the workshop. He smiled proudly for the camera as he leaned against a pristine Satomobile.

“This is prototype three,” Asami said, glancing up at the photograph. “I’ve been reading through your old notes, and I think I had a breakthrough about the belt drive. We’ll have to see how this one runs.”

Asami pulled down her safety glasses and grabbed her torch welder. Sparks flew as she secured a piece in place. She loved all the engineering work she did, but it was in the solitary workshop, out back behind her house, that she felt most at home.

Her father used to work back here all the time. If he were still alive, instead of just a picture on the wall, Asami liked to think that he would still favor working here, as opposed to in the factory downtown.

Thinking about the factory made her grimace, however. She put it out of mind and continued her welding.

When it was time to take a break, she set her tools aside and wiped the sweat off her face. She didn’t even notice her mother until she turned around.

“Oh! Hello, uh, mother.” Asami nearly jumped, but kept the reaction in check. “How are you?”

Her mother’s laugh rang through the space. “Why so startled? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

Asami shook her head. “No, no. I was just focused on my work. I didn’t realize you’d come in.” She tensed slightly as her mother walked closer to the prototype engine. “I was reading through some of Dad’s old notes,” she continued. “I figured it was about time to work out an upgrade to the current Satomobile engine, so, um, yeah.”

A nod, approving. “It looks good.” Her mother looked at her with an appraising expression. “And all your other duties are spoken for? You’ve had a busy schedule lately.”

“Yes. I made sure to finish everything needed today before starting.” Asami nodded, but couldn’t quite summon a smile. It should have been a family moment. Asami, her mother, and her father in the picture frame. All engineers, all ambitious. Asami should have been pointing out the finer details to her mother, who could have mentioned something Hiroshi might have said, then offered a critique or two, maybe a new idea.

Her mother, in contrast, brightened with a genuine smile at Asami’s answer. “That’s great,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve taken a further interest in the Future Industries section of the family business, but it’s good to hear that you’re maintaining the family’s true priorities.

“That’s actually why I came out here to get you,” she said, gesturing for Asami to wash her hands and follow. “We need to talk about The Revelation tonight.”

Asami went to the workshop sink and started cleaning up. “What’s to talk about? Everything is rigged up on-location. I oversaw the lighting myself. It’s all on Amon for the event itself.”

“Asami, you need to stop thinking of yourself as merely an engineer.” Her mother’s voice took on a clipped tone. “You are my daughter. Amon is our force of personality, a spiritual leader who presents the masked face of our movement. Do recall, however, that our family has been Equalist since the day your father died. We have roots in this movement and you have a place there as more than a lighting technician.”

“I know,” Asami said. She dried her hands off and summoned a smile for her mom. “It’s just hard to break out of the mindset is all. I’m just... I feel most in-place when I’m just back in the workshop here, working on the next big Satomobile.”

Immediately, her mother stepped forward and wrapped her up in a hug. Asami blinked before returning it.

“It’s hard to split your time,” her mother said. “You are so devoted to Future Industries, but... the revolution is finally moving.” She stepped out of the hug and looked Asami in the eye. They were the same height. “More than ever now, the Equalists need us. Not just for our tech or for resources, but for our leadership.”

She glanced back at the prototype engine. “Technology for the common citizen is important. Right now, however, I need you to focus.” They started walking out the door. “After the revolution, there will be more than enough opportunity to improve the world with our inventions. As for the present, we have a meeting with Amon.”

“We?” Asami nearly stumbled.

“We.” Her mother’s smile caught the sunlight. “The Sato women are going to spearhead the dawn of a new age of equality. What could be a better invention than that?”

Asami smiled. “Social engineering is just moving people instead of parts.”

“Exactly. The Revelation will be a feat equal to the Satomobile. Tonight, we change the world forever.”