Actions

Work Header

Instincts of a Fearful Body

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Beginnings
(The Best-Laid Plans Start Somewhere)

 

Korra peeked open one eye and looked at Ming-Hua across the room. “And you’re sure he’ll be safe?”

Ming-Hua sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to be meditating?”

“I can’t focus!” Korra shifted her posture. “I keep worrying about Zaheer. What if something goes wrong and one of us should have gone with him?”

“We’ve talked about this. He was the only reasonable choice to go undercover. P’li is obviously a bender, Ghazan is too much of a recognizable criminal, you’re the Avatar, and I refuse to function without my bending anyway.” Ming-Hua rolled her eyes. “Zaheer is an actual certified non-bender. Wherever Amon is getting his ability from, Zaheer is safe.”

“Yeah...” Korra huffed. “I just wish I had something to do too. P’li and Zaheer are off being useful and I’m just meditating.”

Ming-Hua cocked an eyebrow. “You are now?”

Korra glared at her. “Well I was. Sort of.” She glanced down. “I was trying, anyway.” It was always harder to concentrate and focus on spiritual stuff while Zaheer was away. He had a way of making even the least spiritual places feel more connected. The apartment wasn’t exactly barren, but Korra wouldn’t have called it a spiritual hub either.

“Give it a few more minutes,” Ming-Hua said. “And don’t worry too much about P’li and Zaheer. We’ve all handled ourselves just fine for years without your help, oh great and mighty Avatar.”

“Yeah yeah.” Korra rolled her eyes, but there was enough playfulness in Ming-Hua’s tone to make her smile. “Back to meditation I go.”

“Good girl. Your uncle will be so proud.”

Ming-Hua and Ghazan only ever referred to themselves, P’li, or Zaheer as her aunts or uncles in jest, but it was a comforting mention regardless. Korra rolled her shoulders and settled back into her meditative pose with a few deep breaths.

Several minutes later, Korra reached a neutral point where her spirit was steady. The small noises of the house faded away and she could feel the barrier between herself and the spirit world thinning.

Reaching out for it, Korra tried to stay relaxed. Her even breathing felt like the ebb and flow of the ocean. She let the current carry her closer and closer until—

BAM!

Korra’s eyes snapped open to see Ghazan stroll through the slammed-open door.

“I’m back!” He flashed a smile at Ming-Hua, who scowled at him.

“We’re going to lose the deposit on this apartment if you keep opening the door like that.”

Ghazan kicked the door closed and shrugged. “I’m pretty sure Zaheer said we shouldn’t get attached to the apartment, so I’m not worrying about it.”

“Let’s try to keep the door attached to the apartment, even if we’re not.”

Korra buried her face in her hands. “Augh, I was so close!”

“Oh, whoops.” Korra looked up to see Ghazan looked mildly apologetic. “Are you meditating in here?”

She glared at him. “Well, I was.”

He raised his hands in a gesture of innocence. “Well you normally don’t mind an interruption to rescue you away from the boring sitting thing, but since you seem so attached to it today, I guess you won’t mind.” Ghazan smiled.

Korra exchanged a glance with Ming-Hua, who shrugged. She looked back at Ghazan and crossed her arms. “I won’t mind what?”

Ghazan reached into his overcoat and pulled out a pair of tickets. “If I find someone else to go to the pro-bending quarterfinal match with me!”

“What?!” Korra sprang to her feet. “You bought tickets!”

“Zaheer is off getting himself recruited by terrorists, so he won’t know that I took you. I just saw P’li off at the city limits. She’s off to interrogate people by staring at them until they pee themselves looking at her forehead, so she’s not around to tell him.” Ghazan took two big steps over to Ming-Hua and put an arm around her shoulders. “And you wouldn’t say anything, would you?”

Ming-Hua cocked an eyebrow. “Can you make it worth my while?”

“Absolutely.” Ghazan winked before turning back to Korra. “The squares are gone, so I’m getting you out of the house for some fresh air. All this stress over Equalist stuff isn’t good for you.” For a moment, genuine concern showed through his energetic front. Korra wondered if Ming-Hua had said something to him about the conversation she’d had with her the other night.

“You two get out of here,” Ming-Hua said, drawing Korra’s attention. “I’m gonna keep working on the plans for the Tarrlok strike.”

The heaviness that pulled at the edges of Korra’s spirit swelled for a moment. Worry and fear tugged at her attention before she forcibly pushed them aside. She summoned a grin and found it felt real after a moment of wearing it. “Sounds good,” she said. “Let’s go!”

*

Ghazan looked a little strange, wrapped up to hide his tattoos with a high collar and hood to hide his face. Still, he strode down the street with his usual direct pace. His grin was the same too. “You know, I was a pro-bender once,” he said.

Korra rolled her eyes. “You tell this story every time pro-bending comes up.”

Ghazan snorted. “Yeah, well, it’s a good one and I bought you tickets, so shut up and listen.”

“Whatever,” Korra said. She couldn’t help but smile as he got going, however.

“Republic City is the center of the pro-bending, but there are miniature circuits all over the world,” Ghazan said. “You were just a little kid, like four, but we were in this town and in order to get access to this party, we needed someone to pose as an invite-worthy guest.”

“Why didn’t you guys just break in?” Whenever any of her guardians told repeat stories, she did her best to question and bother them on a different point each time.

“Because one of us needed to stay back with you and it was one of those towns where a single rich family basically owns the place and maintains a castle, complete with decent security. After liberating you, we were trying to lay low, so it’s really all your fault.” He elbowed her in the shoulder. “The plan was to get in as guests so we could take security down from the inside out before we took down the walls and opened the coffers up to the townspeople.”

She knew how the story went now. “The only problem was that—”

“—the only problem,” he cut her off, “was that the family’s son was apparently some minor earthbending underground champion.” Ghazan scoffed. “And he challenged me to a duel in the middle of the party. Apparently I forgot some minor rule while I was telling a story to the other guests. So I had to stop and take care of him before taking out security, which set us totally behind schedule.”

Korra elbowed him as they drew near the pro-bending arena gates. Security didn’t seem too tight, but it wouldn’t be prudent to talk about dinner party murders as they walked past the police, especially considering the danger of Ghazan being recognized.

If Zaheer wasn’t around, someone had to be the responsible one. Sort of. Even if she was doing something he would heartily disapprove of, Korra couldn’t help drawing on his lessons. She relaxed her pose and tried to let the alertness fade from her eyes. No looking around in her usual sweep, scanning for danger. She was just an average nonbending citizen, nothing special to note.

It was almost anticlimactic when the police barely glanced at them walking through, but that was kind of the point to begin with.

Ghazan finished up his story as they found their seats, but Korra barely heard him. She’d listened to pro-bending on the radio before, but she had never been able to imagine the splendor of the arena itself. From the dome to the playing field itself, it was an incredible structure.

There weren’t too many seats left open, but Ghazan had picked one of the least populated sections for them. It was too far back for Korra’s liking, but nobody was sitting immediately around them.

A familiar voice cut in a minute later to announce that the first quarterfinal match, the Fire Ferrets vs. the Black Quarry Boar-Q-Pines, would start shortly. Korra shot a grin at Ghazan, who chuckled and nodded back at her. Around them, the arena buzzed with excitement. Concerns about Amon and Equalists felt distant from Korra and from the people around them. Who could care about that when benders were about to beat the snot out of each other?

The announcer gave brief team bios as they athletes came onto the field. It basically came down to the Boar-Q-Pines being old and the Fire Ferrets being young and, notably, having the youngest pro-bender in the league.

Experience seemed to take the initial upper-hand as the match got underway. The Fire Ferret’s young, tiny waterbender was fast, but too light.

Korra glanced at Ghazan after a lucky shot knocked the small waterbender out of the ring. “They should put weights in her shoes,” she remarked. “It’d slow her down, but she might be able to take a hit if she did.”

He chuckled. “You used to be that small,” he said. “As proud as you are of those muscles, they’re a pretty recent development. She might gain some mass on her own in the next couple years.”

“And in the meantime?” Korra watched the Fire Ferret fire and earthbenders attempt a comeback, but fall just short of it before the round ended.

“In the meantime, she should focus on dodging.”

Korra snorted and let her eyes wander around the nearby crowd as the players prepared for round two. As she glanced down, however, Korra’s gaze caught on a head of gorgeous, wavy black hair. It seemed oddly familiar. A thread of anxiety pulled at Korra’s attention.

“No way,” Korra muttered.

“What was that?” Ghazan raised an eyebrow.

Korra tilted her head. “One sec.” She stood up and started making her way a few rows down.

Behind her, she heard Ghazan sigh. “No explanation, no hints. You’re too much like Zaheer sometimes.”

Once she’d moved down, she could see that the familiar hair belonged to a familiar face. Impulsively, Korra walked down the row and sat down beside her. “Hi there, Asami.”

The woman jumped as she turned to look back at Korra. “Oh!” Asami’s eyebrows shot up toward her hairline and she pressed her notebook to her chest. “Hello, Naga,” she said a beat later.

Korra heard Ghazan snicker a few rows back and ignored it. He’d probably heard Asami call her by her ridiculous alias, but she knew he wouldn’t blow her cover. “Yeah, hey.” Korra paused, briefly stuck on what, exactly, she wanted to say to this girl. “It’s, uh, surprising to see you here.”

A faint flush colored Asami’s cheeks. “Oh, well, I hadn’t expected to see you here either.”

Korra blinked. “Oh yeah.” She tried to do the mental exercise where she tried to think of what a real nonbending-Equalist-sympathizer would say, but went blank. “It’s quite the quarterfinal lineup here, huh?”

Asami studied her a moment before replying, “Indeed. The teams have come a long way this season.” She studied Korra, eyebrows furrowed.

And for a moment, it seemed ridiculously silly to Korra. She was observing Asami, trying to figure out what front to put on. Asami was clearly doing the same.

Dangers aside, it felt unbearably ridiculous and overwrought for Korra to continue acting as anybody but herself, or at least mostly herself, in the moment. She relaxed on the seat beside Asami and flashed her companion a genuine smile. “I just hadn’t taken you for a pro-bending fan was all.”

Asami’s eyes flashed, with caution and (maybe?) fear, but Korra flapped a hand at her. “Not because of that,” she said. “More because you just struck me less as a sports type and more of a studying type. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong?” She tilted her head.

Asami stared at her, incredulous. Then, seemingly to her own surprise, a smile appeared on her lips. A moment later, she laughed. “I’m a bit of both, I guess,” she said. “I, ah, I keep active, personally, but my real pursuits are more in the bookish realm.”

They simultaneously turned back to the arena as the second round started. A few seconds in, Korra belatedly replied, “I kind of got that too. I mean, you seemed pretty engaged in the match before I showed up, but you also brought a notebook.”

She sensed, rather than saw, Asami frown. “What’s wrong with bringing a notebook?”

Korra shrugged. “Well, I can tell you I’m more of a sports person than a studying person, and I certainly didn’t bring a notebook.”

“Anecdotal.” Asami’s objection came with a ringing laugh that made Korra smile.

They watched the rest of round two together with only occasional quips. When the Fire Ferrets came out on top, Asami made a noise of approval.

“You favor their team?” Korra asked.

Asami opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of it. She was still hesitating on her reply when Ghazan called down to them from where he was sitting.

“Hey, Naga, who’s your cute ladyfriend? Come back up and sit with your uncle Naghaz.”

Korra blushed, because it really was a terrible alias so of course he’d decided to give himself a matching one. “Sorry,” she muttered to Asami, who seemed a bit pink as well. “Do you mind if I move back up to sit with my uncle Naghaz?” Korra held back a wince as she said the name, but she knew she wouldn’t remember it unless she made herself use it a few times. “He kind of bought the tickets,” she continued, trailing off to imply the sort of familial debt most people accepted immediately.

Sure enough, Asami nodded. “Of course, of course. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“You wouldn’t be intruding,” Korra said automatically. “Why don’t you sit with us.” She hadn’t meant to invite Asami along, but, at the same time, there was something irresistibly curious about finding the Equalist, seemingly very engaged, at a pro-bending match. That and Asami was good company thus far. “It’s just, you know,” she continued. “Family.” She shrugged. Korra really wouldn’t know, but Asami probably did.

Asami frowned. “Yeah,” she said, “family.” A beat later, she glanced back at the ring. “If you’re moving, you should probably do it before the third round.”

“Come with me then,” Korra said. She smiled before getting up to move back beside Ghazan. She was pleased to hear Asami following behind her.

She had just enough time to sit next to Ghazan do introductions (“Naghaz, Asami. Asami, Naghaz.”) before round three started. For this match, Korra’s gaze kept gravitating toward the Fire Ferrets’ waterbender.

“She’s just so small,” Korra muttered.

“Well, she’s thirteen,” Asami said absently. She’d relaxed enough by now that Korra could tell she’d gone back to properly watching the match. “She showed up playing for the Ferrets a couple matches ago. Waterbending prodigy that just came out of nowhere.”

Ghazan snorted. “I’m surprised she’s allowed to play, actually. Pro-bending isn’t exactly a gentle sport.”

“There were a few injunctions to remove her,” Asami said. “But apparently the council can make pointless laws about plenty of things while forgetting to regulate legal adulthood and professional sports.”

Korra and Ghazan snorted and replied in tandem, “Well, that’s government.” Despite the reply being an inside Red Lotus joke, Asami still laughed lightly.

“It’s cool to watch her play, regardless,” Korra said. She could recognize traces of Southern Water Tribe style in the waterbender’s footwork. Pro-bending was rather different from most traditional bending styles, but footwork was the hardest thing to change. She resisted the urge to mention it to Asami, but made a mental note to tell Ghazan later. He’d appreciate the observation.

The end of the match came fast and furious, with the Fire Ferrets’ youth and speed finally coming to the fore in a distinct advantage. Their waterbender and earthbender (a sturdy fellow who seemed oddly familiar) worked together methodically to gain ground. They’d just breached Zone One of the Boar-Q-Pines’ side when the bell rang and the Fire Ferrets were declared the victors.

Korra, Asami, and Ghazan cheered their win and immediately began a recap of the match. Korra smiled as she watched the team ride the moving platform back to their locker room. As they passed in front of a spotlight, it cast them in a hard silhouette. Immediately, she recognized them.

“Really?” She asked. Seeing them in silhouette, there was no doubt that the three Fire Ferrets were the same benders who’d broken out of the Equalist revelation rally, rescuing the firebender.

Thankfully, Asami and Ghazan seemed to think she was talking about a point in the recap.

Korra glanced around the stadium curiously, because seriously how many people from that rally were at the stadium today? It wasn’t exactly as though ideologies were checked at the door, just papers.

Curiouser still, Korra saw another familiar figure waiting back at the Fire Ferrets’ locker room: Tenzin, the airbending master she’d briefly seen at Air Temple Island. She returned to the conversation, but her mind kept wandering back to the Fire Ferrets and Tenzin. Even in the five seconds she’d met him, he hadn’t exactly seemed like the pro-bending type.

Asami started giving them the rundown on the next two teams up to play. Despite being an Equalist, she was knowledgeable about all sixteen teams in the lineup. Despite having a notebook, a peek showed that she’d taken zero notes during the Fire Ferrets’ match.

Korra wished she could talk out the contradictions with Zaheer, who had a way of making everything clear-cut. Even Ming-Hua would be nice.

But she couldn’t, and there was something strangely nice about not being able to. It meant she had to sit there, pretending to be normal and finding it wasn’t all that bad. She had even, somehow, made a friend, just maybe.

The conversation came to a lull as the next two teams came up. Korra was watching the Bau Ling Buzzard Wasps when the arena brightened. She squinted her eyes to focus before recognizing the feeling of a vision coming on. Her last thought, before the vision whelmed her senses, was that maybe her meditation was doing her some good after all.

She didn’t recognize Aang at first when he turned around. First off, he had a head full of black hair. Second, he was wearing a belt around his head as a headband, covering his forehead tattoo.

“Ta-Da!” he declared with a grin. “Normal kid!”

The vision brightened, then flashed white. As the light faded, Korra took in a scene of Aang, still disguised, talking to a similarly-dressed Fire Nation kid.

“We were on our way to play hide-and-explode. You wanna come?” The other boy seemed friendly and about Aang’s age.

Aang grinned. “I’d love to!”

The vision shifted and Korra saw them playing together in a series of quick shots. Korra could feel the vision starting to wrap up as it changed one more time.

“It just so happens that I know several classic Fire Nation dances. A hundred years ago, this was known as ‘The Phoenix Flight.’”

Aang proceeded to do a ridiculous dance that involved squatting and kicking at the same time. Around him, the Fire Nation kids cheered as they started to join in. He called to some of them by name, clearly kids he’d become friends with. They called him ‘Kuzon’ in response and he responded to the name as readily as his own.

Even in disguise, Aang had an energy and vivacity that seemed to infect the whole room. He got everybody dancing and laughing. The smile on his face seemed no less genuine than the smile she’d seen on him while he was flying.

Korra blinked and the vision ended. The second match was just about to start. She placed a hand over her mouth to cover a smile. She couldn’t help it. Korra held no illusions about the mistakes her predecessor had gone on to make, but all of Zaheer’s lessons felt distant compared to the person, especially the kid, that she felt in her visions. She rolled her shoulders, trying to return herself to the present.

Ghazan noticed the shift and gave her a searching look. Korra responded with a look to say she’d tell him later.

Then the match started. Korra’s whole body felt relaxed.

Asami asked, “Who are you rooting for, Naga?”

And the name didn’t feel so strange.

“Buzzard Wasps,” Korra replied. She’d missed the other team’s introduction.

“Oooh, I’m cheering on the Moose Lions,” Asami replied, a hint of teasing in her voice. “But we should cheer on Rabaroos together next match.”

Korra smiled. “Totally,” she said. “But until then, the Moose Lions are going down!”

“Not happening!”

The question of whether Asami would hang out with her for the rest of the quarterfinal matches seemed unnecessary. Korra relaxed into the assurance, the kind of assumption she would make about a friend.

* * *

“I honestly don’t recall your dog being quite this big!”

“You haven’t visited recently.” Sakari shrugged. “Polarbear dogs go through a drastic growth spurt several years into their lives.”

Tenzin didn’t quite scowl, but it was close. “I... hadn’t realized.”

Mako smiled and leaned further against the railing. With Naga aboard, there wasn’t much room on the boat taking them to Air Temple Island. Tenzin had apparently arranged one of the smaller, private vessels to take them over. Mako strongly suspected they would be placed on a tour boat to go back to the city. The current arrangements were... cozy.

“I haven’t seen you since you were a young child, Sakari,” Tenzin said. He seemed to be going for the fondness an uncle might display, but it mostly came across as apologetic.

“I went through a drastic growth spurt too,” she said.

Mako snorted. He glanced down the rail as Bolin guffawed. “You haven’t grown too much,” Bolin said.

Sakari huffed. “Well at least I have the potential to get taller. You’re too old to get taller now.”

Sakari and Bolin bantered back and forth for a bit about whether or not she’d grow to be as tall as Bolin. Mako just watched feeling a little too tired from the match to join in. He kept glancing back down toward Tenzin, who seemed a bit ruffled. Mako got the sense he didn’t hang out with a lot of young people. A minute later, however, he started to relax.

Mako still didn’t trust that he wouldn’t just pull some authority card and take Sakari out from under his and Bolin’s nose, but the man seemed decent enough.

Air Temple Island, however, was breathtaking. He’d always seen it out in the bay, but he’d never been there before. It had never seemed like the kind of place for dirty street kids. After he and Bolin moved into the arena, visiting the spiritual tourist attraction hadn’t exactly been a priority. But it really was beautiful. The architecture was unlike anything else in the city.

As they drew close to the dock, Mako could see two kids waiting there, one boy and one girl. They waved as the boat started to dock, yelling “Hi Daddy!” Tenzin raised a hand in response, though he was too occupied with the boat’s grumpy captain (who seemed a bit put out about Naga’s inclusion) to give them his full attention.

Before the boat had properly docked, Pabu took a running leap off Naga’s nose onto the dock. The moment he landed, the little boy shouted and started running off after him. Pabu ran around in circles before eventually hiding on top of the girl’s head.

Mako frowned as he clambered out of the boat. “Hey, leave Pabu alone you two.”

The girl with Pabu on her head smiled. “Oh, his name is Pabu? I think that’s great. He looks like a Pabu to me. Where did you get a fire ferret by the way? Aren’t they native to the Fire Nation? Does that mean you’re from the Fire Nation? You look kind of like you might be, but also not. Hm.” She stopped to take a breath, then tilted her head.

On top of her head, Pabu adjusted his posture and tilted his head too.

Mako blinked. “Uh.” He nearly stumbled trying to find his footing on the dock.

“This is Ikki,” Tenzin said, extricating himself from the boat. “My younger daughter.” He gestured to the first child Mako had seen chasing Pabu. “And this is Meelo, my older son.”

“Oldest boy! Best child!” Meelo had started yanking on Ikki’s arm, trying to reach Pabu.

Mako swapped a blank look with Sakari. She looked at him a little fearfully. Though she didn’t talk about her home much, she’d mentioned being rather isolated. Mako got the feeling she hadn’t spent much time around other kids, older or younger.

He moved to stand next to her right as Bolin pushed around Naga from the back of the boat. “Pabu! You made some new friends!” Pabu readily jumped off of Ikki’s head up onto Bolins’s shoulder. Bolin turned and smiled down at Ikki. “I rescued Pabu from a pythonaconda that was gonna have him for dinner. They’re actually native to the bamboo forests of the central Earth Kingdom and I’m not sure why they’re called Fire Ferrets. We’re not from the Fire Nation, but our mom was descended from Fire Nation colonists and that’s why Mako is a firebender. We look kind of not because our dad was from Ba Sing Se and that’s why I’m an earthbender.” Bolin finished the answers in one-breath and smiled.

Ikki considered Bolin’s answers for a moment, then nodded. “That’s acceptable.”

Meelo had stopped pulling on Ikki’s arm and was looking up at Bolin with respect. “You saved him from a super big snake,” he whispered.

Bolin smiled. “Sure did!”

“Now, Ikki, Meelo,” Tenzin took a step forward. “Thank you for waiting for me, but it’s time—”

Ikki cut him off. “Hey so did you help your brother save Pabu from the snake or—” She glanced back over toward Mako. She cut off mid-sentence and her eyes widened. “Ohmigosh, you must be Sakari!”

Sakari, normally outspoken, just nodded mutely and took a diagonal step so she was half behind Mako.

Before Ikki could come over and harass Sakari, Tenzin stepped firmly between them. “Sakari and her friends have come here for a very important reason, Ikki, Meelo. I need you two to find somewhere else to be for the time being.”

Ikki’s face fell and Meelo’s lip started trembling in the beginnings of a pout. Mako opened his mouth, intending to say something to stabilize the situation. He wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say when Bolin swept in. He plopped Pabu on Ikki’s head and grinned as he scooped Meelo off the ground with one arm.

“Why don’t you guys go on ahead,” he said. “I’m gonna hang here with the airbender kids.” He gave Meelo a light toss and laughed when the kid bent the air beneath his feet into a cushion before he hit the ground.

“Oh, well, thank you, Bolin.” Tenzin seemed pleasantly surprised.

While Ikki was occupied with petting Pabu on top of her head, Bolin took a few quick steps over toward Mako and Sakari. He gave her a quick side-hug. “I’ll be right down here when it’s ready to go, or if you need any more support hugs.” He shot her a warm smile, then turned to Mako. “If someone up that hill kidnaps her, I’m holding you accountable. Call me if you need backup.” He said it lightly, but Mako knew he meant it.

A moment later, Bolin was right back to playing with the kids, asking them to show him different airbending tricks.

Tenzin didn’t waste the opportunity, whisking Mako and Sakari up the long steps to the main part of the island. He gave a few brief descriptions and some history along the way, keeping the conversation light. Sakari seemed to relax as they got some distance between her and the other kids. She still kept a hand on Naga as they went, however.

As Sakari refused to part with Naga, Tenzin decided they should talk at a semi-secluded pavilion along one side of the island. Sakari seemed even smaller sitting with her back against the huge dog.

“Let me know if it’s time for us to go ahead of schedule.” Mako smiled at her while Tenzin quickly went inside to fetch the letters.

“It’ll be fine,” Sakari said, arms crossed.

“Okay,” Mako said. He leaned back against one of the support columns. Sakari didn’t seem to want to talk, so he just enjoyed the sea breeze until Tenzin returned.

“These are all the letters I’ve received from your parents since you went missing,” he said, handing them to her. “They wrote to me as soon as you disappeared almost two months ago.” The admonishing note that Mako disliked crept back into Tenzin’s voice as he sat down. “They’ve been worried sick,” he said.

Sakari, who had just started to open the first letter, closed it again. She looked right up at Tenzin and frowned, letting the silence go on for several uncomfortable seconds. “I didn’t go missing,” she said at length. “And I didn’t disappear. As I’m certain these letters say, I left them a note telling them both that I’d left and why. Don't act as though I ended up in Republic City by magic. I didn't go missing; I ran away.”

Mako blinked, then moved a step closer to Naga and Sakari to show his support of her statements. She glanced at him before levelling her gaze back on Tenzin.

For his part, Tenzin seemed to be containing a slightly temperamental response. He managed to suppress whatever his first response was, instead merely crossing his arms. “I understand,” he said stiffly. “these are all the letters I've received from your parents since you ran away then. The most recent was received this morning, in response to the message I sent saying that I’d found you.”

Sakari nodded as she opened the first letter back up and began to read in silence.

As she read through all the letters, Mako briefly wondered if they would be enough to change her mind. Though Sakari had held completely firm in her conviction to stay (or at least her decision not to go back) in the couple weeks he’d known her, he had to wonder if reading about her worried-sick-parents might cause a shift.

As she read through, her shoulders lowered and she seemed to soften somewhat. By the time she finished the last letter, Mako was honestly wondering if she’d be getting on a different boat off the island. Found family was all well and good, but she was thirteen, a kid. What kind of kid wouldn’t miss their parents?

She looked up after folding up the last letter. Mako stopped worrying. Though clearly moved, the usual determination he saw in her expression hadn’t faded in the slightest. “I’d like to write a letter to my parents,” she said firmly. “Can I do that here?”

Tenzin nodded. “I’d hoped you would ask, actually.” He smiled gently. “We’ll have to go inside for that. Would it be alright to leave Naga outside?”

Sakari hesitated, leaning further back into Naga’s fluffy fur. Then she nodded. “That’s fine,” she said. “Just for a little bit.”

“Right this way then.”

They left Naga behind in a courtyard and proceeded inside to a small writing desk. Mako looked around the interior curiously. The building was a very sparse style, but it felt more intentional than sparse by necessity. Mako and Bolin’s loft at the arena was sparse because they didn’t have the money to make it anything different.

Once Tenzin settled Sakari with a pen and paper, he seemed a bit fidgety about something. Sakari had settled into a rhythm of writing when he cleared his throat. “Sakari,” he said, “I just wanted to remind you that a great deal of your parents’ anxieties come from your sist—”

“I know! I know where they’re coming from,” Sakari snapped. She took a sharp breath and clenched her hand around the pen. “I’m more than well aware, Master Tenzin.” She brusquely turned back to her letter and continued writing.

Tenzin scrunched his moustache and looked as though he was about to address her tone when a knock sounded at the door. Sakari didn’t look up. Mako glanced at Tenzin and raised an eyebrow. The older man sighed and smoothed out his robes before stepping outside to speak to whoever it was.

While he was gone, Mako leaned against the writing desk. “So... is your sister why you ran away?” He didn’t want to push the issue, but he was dying of curiosity. That and, no matter the circumstances, he couldn’t fathom leaving Bolin behind... anywhere. For any reason.

Sakari wouldn’t quite meet his eyes as she sighed. “I don’t really want to talk about it right now,” she said. “But I can tell you later, another time.”

He wasn’t sure if she was being truthful or not, but he wasn’ about to push it. Also, if it were genuine, it was an answer he could respect. “Sure thing,” he said. “I’ll wait until you bring it up.”

Outside the door, Mako heard a small female voice that reminded him a little of Ikki. As he listened, he could hear Tenzin ask about a tour and a reply something along the lines of being good, but ‘not as good as yesterday.’

A minute later, as Sakari finished the letter, Tenzin opened the door. “Come in,” he said to the girl behind him. “Sakari, are you done?”

Sakari stood up and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Just finished.”

“I’d like to introduce you to someone.” He stepped aside, revealing a girl who seemed older than Ikki, but younger than Sakari. “This is my eldest child, Jinora.” He gestured back to Sakari and Mako. “Jinora, this is Sakari, whom I’ve mentioned before, and Mako, her friend.”

Jinora took a step forward and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Sakari, Mako.”

She had none of the frantic energy that had radiated off of Ikki and Meelo. Mako sensed Sakari relaxing slightly beside him. “Hello, Jinora,” she said. A beat later, she folded her letter and handed it to Tenzin. “Here’s the letter,” she said.

“Thank you,” Tenzin said. The four of them stood awkwardly.

Sakari cleared her throat. “Have you ever met a polarbear dog?” she asked.

Jinora shook her head. “No. Have you ever met a flying bison?”

“Nope.” Sakari smiled. “Let’s head outside. I’ll introduce you to Naga.”

Tenzin stepped aside, then followed Jinora and and Sakari into the hallway. Mako fell into step beside him as they started making their way back outside. Jinora and Sakari seemed a bit mutually awkward, but friendly enough. Sakari hadn’t frozen up at least.

For all that she was a bending prodigy, she was still a kid. While Mako and Bolin had promised to be there for her, it would be good for Sakari to have a friend her own age.

“That pro-bending match really was something,” Tenzin said stiffly.

“Did you enjoy watching?” Mako raised an eyebrow.

Tenzin didn’t answer for a moment. “Sakari seemed to do alright dodging for the most part, but that one firebending blast knocked her right out of the ring.”

“That was a lucky shot,” Mako said. “I’ve been practicing with her and can tell you with absolute confidence that she can handle her own.”

Tenzin nodded reluctantly. “I have to say, I was impressed for the most part. I knew Sakari was a waterbender, but not the extent of her abilities.”

Mako chuckled. “You should have seen her at our tryouts. She just came in and BAM!” He stopped in the doorway and watched the girls walking into the courtyard where Naga was sleeping. He smiled at them before turning back to Tenzin.

The man didn’t look particularly enamored of the tryouts story. “Where is Sakari staying right now?”

“Bolin and I got a bed made up for her at our loft in the arena. It’s even got security, since the arena gets patrolled regularly.”

“What about food? Do you have enough to feed her?”

Mako crossed his arms. “I’ve got it covered.” He understood Tenzin’s concerns, but didn’t appreciate the implication that he couldn’t take care of her.

“And do you truly have it covered?” Tenzin’s eyebrows drew together. “If it’s a matter of money, I could see about having some—”

“I’ve got things under control.” Mako frowned.

“NAGA! NO!”

Mako whipped his head around to see the giant dog had knocked Jinora flat on her back. Sakari was pushing, with no result, against Naga’s head. The dog seemed to be sniffing Jinora intently.

Mako ran over and helped Sakari push Naga’s nose aside. “Hey, get off her!”

Frankly, Mako didn’t think his efforts made much of a difference. When Naga was done sniffing Jinora, she gave her a big lick and sat up.

“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry!” Sakari dropped to her knees to help Jinora sit up. “Are you okay?”

Jinora nodded mutely. She looked a bit ruffled, but no worse for wear. “Y-yeah.”

Sakari shot a glare at Naga before turning back to Jinora. “I think she likes you. But I’m so, so sorry about that.” Naga didn’t look especially sorry. She kept nudging Sakari’s elbow with her muzzle and looking between her and Jinora.

Jinora chuckled as got back up to her feet. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been bowled over by sky bison before.”

“Oh wow, I’ve only read about sky bison in books before.” Sakari pushed Naga off and rubbed her ears.

“Hey, I heard screaming, is everybody okay?” Bolin dashed around the corner with Ikki sitting on his shoulders and Meelo hanging on one arm. “What happened?”

Ikki catapulted off of Bolin’s head. “Hey! Why does Jinora get to hang out with Sakari?”

Meelo dropped off of Bolin’s arm and spun himself an air scooter before hitting the ground. “Bolin made us ramps to jump off!” he yelled, taking a quick loop around Bolin before he started off for Sakari.

Ikki reached her first. “So we never got to talk about your dog before because I got really distracted by Pabu, who is super cute. That isn’t to say that your dog isn’t cute, just that Pabu’s cuteness factor is so high that most other things just pale in comparison. So I guess I was wondering if I could meet your dog now.”

Sakari opened her mouth, but no words came out. She took a step back.

Mako and Tenzin started forward at the same time.

Before they could make it over, Jinora stepped forward. “Ikki, Meelo, this is Naga.” She gently turned their shoulders to focus on the polarbear dog. “Sakari and I are going to go look at bison, but until we get back, you can play with her.” She glanced back at Sakari. “Do you think they could use her as a ramp for their air scooters?”

Sakari blinked. “Sure,” she said. “What could go wrong?”

Mako wasn’t sure if she meant it sarcastically, but the airbender kids definitely took the statement literally. Jinora gave Ikki and Meelo a quick push towards the dog (who sniffed them, but not nearly as enthusiastically as she had Jinora) and turned back to Sakari. She nodded towards a gate out of the courtyard and the two girls started jogging away before the younger kids could notice.

Tenzin and Mako immediately picked up the pace to follow them. Mako spared a glance back for Bolin. “You got this, bro?”

“I’m good, I got it!” Bolin seemed slightly less than sure, but turned back towards the kids anyway.

Once they were out of sight of the courtyard, Sakari and Jinora slowed down a bit. Mako took the opportunity to tap Tenzin on the shoulder. “Master Tenzin,” he said, “Things aren’t perfect. The schedule is a little hectic and Sakari is gonna get bruises playing as our waterbender.” Tenzin’s frown deepened, but Mako kept going. “But things are as good as they’ve ever been lately. There’s food on the table every day. We have a place to crash. I probably don’t look like it, but I’m responsible. I’ve been looking after Bolin for years. I can handle Sakari, don’t worry.”

Tenzin’s disapproving expression softened. “You’ve been looking after your brother for how long?”

Mako shrugged. “Years. We’re orphans. That’s how it works on the street.” He smiled. “But look at us now: we’re off the street, making an honest living as pro-benders.” He paused. “I also work some hours at the power plant, just to supplement things.”

“You... you do seem to be a capable young man,” Tenzin said at length. “It would reassure me greatly if I could check in from time to time, but...”

“Not a problem,” Mako said. Plus, if Tenzin brought Jinora when he came to check on them, it would mean a bit more normal kid socialization for Sakari.

He smiled, watching Jinora introduce Sakari to a sky bison named Oogi. Jinora nearly fell over laughing when the bison gave Sakari a gigantic lick in greeting!

Mako chuckled. Beside him, Tenzin covered his mouth and laughed quietly.

“Do you want to ride him?” Jinora asked when Sakari recovered from the lick.

Sakari bounced on her feet. “Oh that would be so—” She stopped, then glanced back at Mako and frowned. “Sorry, Jinora,” she said, turning back. “That sounds really fun, but Mako, Bolin, and I haven’t had dinner yet.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “We should probably actually be heading out soon.”

Tenzin took a few steps forward. “You could stay for dinner here,” he offered. “Though I’m sure you know everything is vegetarian.”

Sakari turned and smiled at Mako. He shrugged back at her. It was his policy to never pass up a free meal, but if Sakari wanted to head out he wouldn’t try and make her stay.

“Let’s stay for dinner then,” she said.

“Sounds like a plan.” Mako smiled.

The four of them strolled back to the courtyard of the main building at a leisurely pace.

“Have you ever read about Avatar Aang’s adventures?” Sakari asked, tentative.

Jinora smiled. “He’s my grandfather! Of course I have!” She sighed. “I just wish we would take a trip to the south pole! I have so many questions I want to ask Gran-gran about what happened after they defeated the Fire Lord.”

Sakari smiled broadly. “Well... as it happens, I’ve talked to Master Katara about that stuff plenty! She’s my waterbending teacher!”

Mako raised an eyebrow at that bit of information (it would explain part of Sakari’s abilities, being trained by a world-famous waterbending master), but said nothing as Sakari and Jinora chatted amiably about Aang’s adventures. As they drew near to the main building, he turned to Tenzin. “Say, how about you and Jinora come out and watch our semifinals match,” he said. “The two of you could watch from backstage.”

Tenzin tilted his head and stopped walking for a beat. He nodded. “That sounds like a good plan,” he said.

* * *

“Okay, so that guy was totally trained in Northern Water Tribe style,” Naga said. “Watch his feet. Wait, there!” She pointed. “See the way he turned his ankle on that move?”

Asami leaned forward, following Naga’s gaze. She hadn’t noticed before, but there was definitely something there. “Okay, so what kind of implications does that have?”

“Well because of how Northern Style sets their stances, it leaves a hard tension along the calf that can be exploited by a hard, low sideblow.”

“Really...” Asami scribbled a note in her notebook. She’d never considered the advantages that could be exploited between different basic schools of bending, as opposed to just the differences between fire, water, and earth. She tapped a pen against her lips, then scribbled something else down. “But are the differences enough to take advantage of them without prior study?”

“I guess it comes down to the process of practicing identification and being able to reincorporate it on the fly,” Naga said, shrugging.

Asami glanced toward her and raised an eyebrow. “Does it now?” She couldn’t begin to guess where Naga had learned all of this. The way she talked, it was clearly more than pure theory. The more astute observations and technical discussions had snuck their way in, little by little, as the matches went on.

At first, they’d both tried to backtrack away from their obviously combat-minded perspectives. But... by the seventh match it was almost a game, pretending their discussion was focused solely on the match at hand.

Naga took on an innocent expression. She looked awkward, but her smile was genuine. “Maybe.”

“I’ll, ah, take that into account.” Asami smiled back, studying Naga closely. Despite knowing Asami was an Equalist, she hadn’t made a move one way or another with the information. She could tell the other girl was being generally honest with her, but she was clearly keeping a secret of some sort. Her eyes, blue and alert, studied Asami right back.

Their gazes met and they laughed. Asami didn’t feel threatened around Naga, which also made her wonder if she was overthinking things. Whatever her secret was, she’d been good company at the pro-bending match for the past several hours.

Naghaz cleared his throat. “Well you’ll have to excuse me, ladies. I have to go take a leak. I’ll be back in time for the last match.”

Asami chuckled, though Naga seemed a bit embarrassed by her uncle’s behavior.

“Sorry about him,” Naga whispered.

“That’s alright,” Asami said. “He’s got a lot of character.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Sorry for commandeering your family outing, by the way.”

“No, no,” Naga waved her off. “I was the one who approached you and invited you back. If I ended up talking to you more than my uncle, that’s alright. He’s pretty chill.”

Frankly, Asami wasn’t sure she’d met someone more laid back in months. She couldn’t tell if it was his real attitude or if she was just surrounded by disproportionately uptight people. Between Future Industries and her Equalist work, she didn’t meet a lot of laidback people. “He’s a nice guy,” she said. More than being genuinely funny in his own right, she found she liked him because of the obvious rapport he had with Naga. They were funny and genuinely relaxing to be around. He seemed completely tuned out from the discussion Naga and Asami were having, however. Did he know what Naga’s secret was? Wherever she’d learned this stuff, was it tied to her family, or completely separate?

Or was Asami just overthinking a stranger who knew some convenient trivia? She sighed.

“Say, are you busy after this?” Naga smiled. “Let’s grab some dinner together. I can only subsist on popcorn for so long.”

Asami smiled back instinctively. She was halfway to saying ‘Yeah’ when she remembered her obligations. Her mother would be expecting her to supervise the shipment. “Sorry,” she said. “I’ve got something I have to go take care of right after this last match.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you the next time I conveniently run into you then.” Naga frowned.

“Is it possible to schedule a random encounter?” Asami tilted her head. She wasn’t about to give Naga her full name and contact information, but she did hope to see the other young woman again sometime soon.

Naga snapped her fingers. “How about this: let’s meet up at the next pro-bending match? We could cheer on the Fire Ferrets and Rabaroos together in the semifinals.”

Frankly, Asami had no idea if she’d be able to sneak out to semifinals. She probably couldn’t justify another ‘research’ trip. “I don’t think that’s possible,” she admitted.

Naga’s face fell. Asami immediately regretted not being able to go.

“It’s not possible,” she continued, “because the Fire Ferrets and Rabaroos are playing one another in the semis.” She stuck her tongue out as Naga’s expression leapt from disappointment to indignant happiness.

“That was terrible.”

Asami laughed. “I know.”

“At the next match then?”

“Deal.”