Chapter Five: City of Plots and Secrets
(It's a Small City After All)
“The mecha suit interiors were delivered on schedule,” Asami said. She handed a stack of papers to her mother on her right without looking at her. “I’ve prepared a timeline of expected delivery waves.”
The papers circulated around the table. The Equalist leaders nodded as they skimmed down the report.
Amon didn’t look down at the paper. “Will they be done in time for our revolution?”
“Not all of them,” Asami said. She held back a sigh. Her mother had a habit of talking up their production capabilities when the reality was reasonable, but not quite that fast. “But a significant portion will be complete. More than enough for our needs and equal to what was requisitioned.” Though she couldn’t see his face, she could sense Amon’s displeasure. “The first two waves of production will be complete in time for our takeover,” she clarified. “and they are more than equal to our requirements. My risk analysis has estimated that anticipated mecha suit damages and losses in that first attack should be recuperated and exceeded by the third wave’s completion.”
Liu nodded. If it wasn’t a meeting, Asami sensed that he would have shot her a smile. “It sounds as though you’re right on schedule,” he said.
“Our underground production team is working round the clock,” Yasuko said.
Asami nodded, but it wasn’t quite true. They didn’t have enough workers to maintain that kind of pace and she refused to work them to death. The Equalist production team was, however, sleeping on-premises. That was close enough, and her mother was too busy to visit the factory personally, so it didn’t matter.
“Good,” Amon said. “Anything else?”
It wasn’t quite a real question. It was the sort of thing people said in meetings to get things moving on to the next topic.
But Asami cleared her throat. “Yes, actually.” She pulled out another stack of papers and handed them to Yasuko again. “I’ve compiled a list of fine-point notes on fighting benders of different styles. Most of the information is on the notes I’ve prepared, but it amounts to small tweaks an experienced chi-blocker could take advantage of. The notes feature shorthands to quickly diagnose a bender’s background based on their stance and quick takedowns or weak points inherent to that style.”
“This is… unexpected.” Amon’s voice bore a trace of surprise. “A curious field of study for an engineer to pursue.”
Asami felt her mother’s eyes on her and turned to meet her sharp gaze. “Indeed,” Yasuko said. “Where did you pick this up again?”
An image of Naga’s smiling face flashed into her mind, full of laughter and sharp perceptions. Asami pushed the memory of the girl aside. “I attended the pro-bending quarterfinal matches,” she said, “and took notes on my observations.” Granted, those observations hadn’t been made entirely alone, but they didn’t need to know that.
“Well done,” Liu said, flipping through her notes. He nodded, clearly impressed. The rest of the table seemed fairly interested as well, though her mother had yet to open her copy of the notes.
“I have a bit of additional research as well,” Asami said, stifling a yawn. Once Naga got her started thinking about it, the topic had been too interesting to resist looking into further. “To maximize usability, I did some supplemental research.” She pulled out a hefty report and slid it down the table to Liu. “I did a breakdown of some demographic information, specifically for your forces, Lieutenant. That should tell you where in the city you’re most likely to face benders hailing from certain schools of combat. I cross-referenced that information with what we already know about the triads to make a quick-reference list. It may not be helpful if our people are jumped in an alley, but for pre-planned strikes, I thought it might be of some help.”
“Potentially,” said the Director of Recruitment. He crossed his arms. “And it’s impressive, it really is, but I’m not sure how applicable it would be for my students.”
“Not yours, no.” Liu waved a hand. He was already several pages into her demographic report, glancing quickly between it and the bender style notes. “It would just complicate things for beginning chi-blockers,” he said, “But this will be an excellent course of study for my advanced students.” He inclined his head toward her. “Thank you, Asami,” he said.
“It’s impressive,” Amon said, though he didn’t sound especially pleased. “In the short time since you’ve taken up a position at this table, you’ve taken strong initiative towards furthering our cause.” He nodded an acknowledgement toward her. “Maintain that fervor,” he said. “Dangerous waters await us.”
He shifted his attention across the table toward a woman with graying hair pulled into a severe bun. “You are the Equalist finger on Republic City’s pulse,” he said. “We can all feel the energy shifting within the people of this city. What perspectives can you offer?”
“Tarrlok requires our attention,” she said immediately. “His task force began as a premature response, a way for him to get on the streets, pose for photos, and prove himself to be a small nuisance. In many ways, his premature response was a good thing for us, at least in the realm of public relations.” Her expression hardened. “Since his bust on one of our training facilities, however, this task force has proven more and more troublesome.”
“Our facilities haven’t been compromised a second time,” Liu said. Asami remembered he had been more than personally offended by the first raid’s success.
“No, but his crackdowns are coming down on unaffiliated non-benders now,” the older woman continued. “It’s a complete abuse of bending authority. To compensate for his own inability to land another blow on our movement, he’s responded by randomly and harshly enforcing the curfews.”
Someone farther down the table said, “Those have been in place for months now. They’re never enforced.”
“Well Tarrlok has decided that selective and outrageous abuses of the law are par for the course for the non-benders of this city.” The woman turned to Amon. “I understand that the takeover is coming, as is our action for the pro-bending finals. However, I would implore you, Amon, and the board, to consider more expedited action against Tarrlok.”
Asami’s hands clenched under the table. She felt her jaw locking and, with everybody else, her gaze swiveled down the table toward Amon.
More and more frequently lately, Asami found herself at odds with the movement. She would never admit it in this room, but she honestly couldn’t say she supported the full takeover. So many times, the Equalists had responded to stimuli moving to a further extreme, leaving her behind.
But this. This she could agree with. Tarrlok personified all the reasons she was an Equalist.
Everyone looked down the table, waiting on Amon’s word.
Amon nodded. “We will send a message.”
Asami smiled grimly. Allowing Tarrlok’s abuses to continue unabated… she couldn’t imagine it.
“We’ll take him,” Amon continued. “Vanish him into the night. Leave no trace, just enough hints to leave us credit.”
“When?” Liu asked, always business.
Amon considered. “After finals. Before the takeover.”
The conversation quickly shifted to listing necessary roles. Who would be on the strike team? Who would manage retrieval? Where would they move him?
Amon seemed uncharacteristically involved, but that was to be expected. Tarrlok wasn’t just another kidnapped bender, he was a politician.
Yasuko, who normally jumped in to offer perspectives, seemed oddly uninvolved. Asami ignored her. Her mother had been acting coldly since their argument over Future Industries, priorities, and the pro-bending match. She knew Yasuko had met Tarrlok a few times on business, but if she wasn’t inclined to share any of that information there wasn’t anything Asami could do about that.
Eventually Liu frowned. “We’ll need observant members to do some reconnaissance on both his home and his office at city hall.” He tugged on his mustache. “I don’t have any intel on either, and we need to choose our strike location quickly.”
“I’ll do it,” Asami said abruptly.
The table turned to look at her, minus her mother. At this point in the meeting, Asami was almost used to it.
“We’ll need that to happen today, if we’re going to plan and carry out our strikes in time,” Liu said. “Are you sure you have the time?” His frown spoke to more than just the concerns of business, but she could assuage his concerns later.
Asami could see her mother turn and look at her finally. They were supposed to work together this afternoon, making a dent in their joint list of engineering projects.
But Asami didn’t really feel like playing the pet inventor, not when she knew they would only work on the projects her mother prioritized. She’d presented her own findings today, contributing as a member of the board, not as Yasuko’s daughter. She had her own research and her own projects that were valuable to the organization.
Briefly, she met her mother’s eyes. She couldn’t tell what Yasuko was thinking behind the mask of neutrality she wore, but she knew her mother would not approve of Asami breaking their normal schedule.
“I’m open,” she said. “Though I only have time to cover one location.” Taking an afternoon break was fine, but Asami did have stuff to get done.
“You can get Tarrlok’s house then,” the Director boomed. “One of my new recruits does the cleaning at City Hall. I’ll get in contact with her and we’ll get the intel on his office. As things stand, I can tell you Tarrlok consistently works late nights in his office.”
“This is perfect,” Liu said. He started taking brisk notes. “Once I receive the reports, I’ll compile a team and choose a night between finals and the takeover.” He glanced up at both Asami and the Director. “Whichever location we choose, I’ll want the recon for that place to come along with us, so either you, Asami, or your recruit from City Hall.”
The director nodded. Asami did too, after a beat. She hadn’t expected to tag along on the mission itself. There really wasn’t any backing out of it at this point, however.
She’d think about it some more. If she were really so uncomfortable, she would speak to Liu privately and ask him if she could sit this one out. And all this was only if they chose to do the strike at Tarrlok’s house anyway.
“Continue your preparations, Lieutenant,” Amon said. “But account for my presence as well. From the intelligence I’ve heard, Tarrlok is no armchair bending politician. Though I have full confidence in your abilities, I will be accompanying the team as well.”
Asami swallowed hard. For Amon to come along was even more unusual. There was also no backing out on her end if he was accompanying them. Still, this was better than playing the pet inventor back at home. If she got back early enough, she could work on her own projects in her private workshop.
She spent the rest of the meeting mentally reviewing what she knew about Tarrlok. She’d passed by his home a few times, but had never gone inside. Still, Asami was familiar with that part of town. She would have to drop by the house to pick up some stealth gear, but after that she could head right over. Asami was, as Amon had said, primarily an engineer. Asami didn’t wear the full Equalist chi-blocker garb much, but the prospect excited her. Whenever she did wear it, she felt capable and alert, ready to take action.
At least spying on Tarrlok was something she could say, definitively, was the right thing to do. Lately, that assurance seemed to be a rare commodity.
* * *
Breaking into benders’ houses was always the easiest. They always valued their own strength over spending money on better security, better locks, or anything that might actually prevent Korra from breaking in.
First: the retaining wall. Tarrlok’s home had a small, pretty courtyard contained by a decorative wall of interlocked stone and metal. She couldn’t just bend it, and even though she was certain Tarrlok’s guards didn’t stand a chance, Korra passed them by and circled around back. Lightly dragging her fingers along the stone, she eventually felt the back gate at the rear corner of the courtyard.
No waterbender would trap themselves behind a wall they couldn’t bend. Not without an escape.
To the average passerby, this just looked like another stretch of the wall. Standing right by it, however, she could see a pair of well-formed holes trying to pass themselves off as cracks in the mortar.
And what other key for a powerful waterbender but water itself? Korra casually pulled on her gloves while she waited for a few passerby to reach the end of the alley. Once they were out of sight, she quickly pulled out a tendril of water from her supply and split it, sending it into the cracks.
Inside, she could sense the water navigating a complex mechanism. Frankly, she wasn’t quite sure how it worked. Engineering wasn’t exactly her strong suit. She had, however, learned how to pick locks when she was ten.
A lock’s unlocked state was always set far away from its state of rest. It wouldn’t do for Tarrlok’s door to pop open in a rainstorm, and the advantage of water in this instance was its ability to fill organic spaces.
She guided her water upward, around several bends, until it reached a small chamber. Korra clenched her fist and froze it inside. The ice expanded and pushed the buttons. Leaning against the wall, Korra felt a small pop. She smirked as she let herself inside, drawing the water back out of the lock on the way. She pulled on a face covering as the door shut behind her.
After the wall came the house. Houses were her favorite part, actually. Under Zaheer and Ming Hua’s guidance, Korra had broken into and out of forts, palaces, storage barns, and battleships.
But houses were so ordinary and she’d never lived in one, not long-term. They were common, but foreign. Maybe that’s why she liked them.
Rich people’s homes were especially foreign to her. She usually wasn’t even sure what half the rooms in the house were for. They’d done a few undercover visits, posing as merchants and receiving a few tours, but Korra mostly just learned that The Red Lotus had an unintentional tradition of killing people in their front halls.
She waited behind a bush until one of the guards went by, making her rounds. She tailed the woman about halfway around the building to visually confirm that she went back to the front gate. She wanted to ditch the guard earlier, but this was one of Zaheer’s more insistent lessons. She thought out strategy in the meantime.
If Ming-Hua was taking point on Tarrlok’s assassination, Korra would want to scout out a staged route for her. P’li preferred Korra to pick a single vantage point she could aim from, and Zaheer needed the ability to get into close quarters as quickly as possible. Ghazan was as likely to sink the foundation in lava as he was to use the door, but Ming-Hua excelled moving from strong location to strong location, preferably with water nearby.
Patience was not in Korra’s nature, but she waited anyway, if only to credit her teachers. Once the guard was back where she belonged, Korra returned to studying the building for entry points, backtracking to a side door she’d passed earlier near one of the courtyard’s many ponds. That would be a good point for Ming-Hua to enter from.
A cursory test revealed the door was unlocked. She rolled her eyes. Trusting in walls made people careless of their homes, but at least it made her job easier. She slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her.
Glancing around, Korra took in Tarrlok’s enormous, obnoxious atrium and smirked. He had an expensive-looking water feature that ran the length of the room down the center.
“Nice room to die in,” she whispered to herself. “Another front hall job.”
She resisted the urge to swipe one of Tarrlok’s many Water Tribe artifacts, bone clubs and intricately carved necklaces, out of a nearby case. She had a particular weakness for Water Tribe things, since she’d grown up away from her culture, but she knew better than to steal on a mission. Most of it seemed to be in the Northern style anyway, which interested her less.
Korra’s footsteps made no sound as she went from room to room, making a mental map of the layout. She kept to the edges of the room, where the floorboards were less likely to creak, and away from carpets that might leave behind the depression of a footprint. P’li and Zaheer had taught her to step lightly until the very moment she needed to come down with force. Something about the silence in her stride made her smile. She’d tell them all about it once they came back from their missions.
Her skills would be part of what brought Tarrlok down, along with the rest of The Red Lotus’ efforts.
And, looking around his house, Korra disliked him more and more. She wasn’t quite the minimalist that Zaheer was. She was totally attached to her double bedroll in the apartment’s closet, but the extravagance in Tarrlok’s furnishings (Fire Nation silk on a set of hand-carved Earth Kingdom chairs?) was almost disgusting.
“Are Republic City’s taxpayers paying for this junk?” she mumbled, stepping around a display of Unagi vases from Kyoshi Island. The house seemed to exude richness, beyond even what a corrupt government could buy. If tax money hadn’t bought it, Korra had little doubt that the money was dirty some other way.
She finished making her rounds of the house and started making her way back to the atrium, plotting out a pair of alternate approaches that would suit Ming-Hua’s style.
Korra had just noted that Tarrlok’s house had some really interesting rafters when she heard footsteps. She ducked behind some ornate drapery and listened to the steps draw closer. Briefly, she felt thankful that Tarrlok had chosen a heavy, thick fabric that hid her well.
The newcomer stepped in, then paused. Korra kept her breathing level. She knew better than to hold her breath. The footsteps continued, but there was something odd about them. Her eyes narrowed. Though they’d sounded loud in the quiet house, the steps were actually rather light, too light to belong to a tall man like Tarrlok. In addition, though the person wasn’t as practiced as Korra was, they were clearly trying to stay quiet.
A smile tugged at the corners of Korra’s lips. Tarrlok really needed to stop spending money on his furniture and invest in better guards. Korra was not the only intruder in the house.
She waited until she could hear the steps drawing closer to the room’s other door. Unless the newcomer was walking through the doorway backwards, they would not see Korra as she peered around the drapes for a quick look at the intruder: an Equalist.
She recognized the chi-blocker’s costume immediately, but something else about the woman seemed familiar in the way she moved. She was tall and had a few loose strands of wavy black hair poking out of her hood.
Korra squinted. Was that Asami?
She lost the chance to continue analyzing the figure before she disappeared into the other room. Briefly, Korra debating just leaving. It was not safe to continue investigating the house if someone else was doing the same for some unknown purpose.
But how many tall lady Equalists had wavy black hair and walked like a businesswoman?
Korra extracted herself from the curtains and quickly followed after. She had to find out. It felt like torture to go slowly enough to stay silent, but if it wasn’t Asami... well, silence would be a priority. After an eternity, she’d circled around the edge of the room and made it to the doorway.
Peering through, Korra couldn’t deny it. The Equalist was wearing goggles that concealed her eyes, but Asami’s same shade of lipstick. Despite the hood, adorned with the red Equalist circle, Asami’s hair was recognizable as it poked out of the side.
A smile tugged at Korra’s lips. Asami even had the same notebook Korra had seen her using at the quarterfinal match.
Briefly, Korra debated calling out to her. Something along the lines of ‘fancy meeting you here!’ but it didn’t seem quite appropriate.
That and the bulky glove Asami was sporting on her right hand didn’t strike Korra as the kind of thing she’d like to be on the end of. It looked… weapon-ish. Despite their burgeoning friendship, Korra really didn’t know what Asami’s capabilities were.
Well, except that she could only walk so quietly. Maybe it came from too much time wearing heels?
Korra slipped away from the doorway without a sound, making her way around the house in the other direction. She just needed to secure one more escape route and she’d be up to quota for her scouting mission. Her training told her to leave, that she could come back later and finish, but she was almost done and it was only Asami.
She was in the middle of testing a window that had been painted shut when the hair stood up on the back of her neck. The window popped open under her hands. Korra hesitated a moment and the fearful anxiety grew. She listened to her instincts and slipped out the window in time to hear Tarrlok’s distant conversation with a guard outside the house.
He was supposed to be in a meeting for the rest of the afternoon. Korra sighed. At least she’d finished her scouting. She’d just figure out her last escape route option as she exited the property.
Korra kept low as she navigated the roof to a low point she’d noticed earlier near the garden shed. Still, the fear sense refused to dissipate. Irritated, Korra kept her breathing steady, trying to fight the irrational pressure in her chest.
She’d seen Tarrlok just yesterday, having gone with Ming-Hua to blend in with a crowd outside city hall and get a look at him. He hadn’t looked threatening, just sleazy. He was just another politician.
Korra clambered up the side of the garden shed and pressed a palm to her forehead. She could feel a vision coming on, edging in at the edge of her consciousness. It took almost all her concentration to suppress it as she leapt from the shed to the top of the wall.
The vision pressed against her concentration as she pulled herself up onto the wall itself. “Not now, Aang,” she muttered, wincing at her sudden headache. Perched on top of a councilman’s retaining wall really wasn’t a good time to stop and indulge in a flashback.
Her footing wasn’t the best, but Korra decided to go with it and opted for a less-than-graceful descent. She slipped down the roof of the wall, catching the edge with her fingers before swinging down to the ground. She stabilized the ground beneath her feet with a bit of invisible earthbending, one of the only subtle tricks Ghazan had taught her.
The vision caught her then.
Twitching fingers flashed across her vision. Korra recoiled, or maybe that had been Aang?
Her body seemed distant, but she distantly felt herself stumble forward down the alley. Still, she felt Aang’s presence, like they were both reaching out a hand to stop… something, someone.
Instead of the alley she was running down, all Korra could see was a pair of eyes, wide and crazed. The pupils shrunk to dots and Korra felt Aang’s body seize before her vision flashed white
Back in the alley, Korra sloppily turned a corner, rubbing her eyes to dissipate the afterimage left by Aang’s vision.
Several steps later, her sight cleared up. She recognized Asami a beat before she crashed into her.
They hit the ground, and hard. Still, Korra wasted no time scrambling to her feet and settling back into a cautious stance. Did their odd rules of friendship still apply under these circumstances? “Uh, hey there, Asami.”
Asami was a hair slower in recovering, but she moved back in similar pose with her gloved hand extended. Her eyes narrowed behind her goggles. “Naga?”
“Oh, sorry.” Korra smacked a hand against her forehead before pulling her face-covering off. “Yeah, uh, it’s me.”
They regarded one another for a moment. Neither of them dropped their guard. But the fear-sense from before had vanished. Asami didn’t feel dangerous to Korra. She was the same person whose company she’d enjoyed at the quarterfinals match, the same girl who had patched Korra up after The Revelation.
Korra cracked the first smile. “We have to stop meeting like this,” she said, relaxing her stance.
Asami hesitated, then smiled back. “Yeah?” She lowered her glove. “You said you’d call me the next time the police were chasing you. You’re out here with a mask on and I don’t even get a heads-up?”
Korra’s laugh froze in her throat. “Wait, the police are here?”
“I could have sworn that’s why Tarrlok…” Asami frowned, then glanced around. “Nevermind. We should probably find somewhere else to catch up though.”
They fell immediately into the pattern from the night they met. Asami led the way, being more familiar with the streets. Korra followed, although she kept her wits about her. She trusted Asami enough to assume they weren’t going into a trap, but that wouldn’t stop someone from following them.
And if Asami glanced back at her a few times and noticed Korra keeping watch, well, she didn’t seem to mind.
Still, Korra wasn’t exactly sure how long the ‘innocent non-bender’ cover story was going to fly. Zaheer wasn’t exactly a model non-bender, and she was fairly certain that Republic City’s average citizen didn’t randomly don stealth clothing during the late afternoon.
She followed Asami around a few bends until they were tucked in a small alcove off an alley. “We should be good here,” Asami said.
“Seems cozy,” Korra said. They exchanged awkward smiles before they both started adjusting their outfits to look like normal street-clothing. Korra stowed her face-covering in her bag and put her hair back in its usual low ponytail.
“So what brings you to this part of the neighborhood?” Asami asked, pulling on the jacket she’d worn at quarterfinals with the gears on the shoulders. She sounded so excessively casual that Korra had to smile.
“Oh, you know.” Korra shrugged. “I just love going for jogs. I’m trying to get to know the city better. I like the wind in my face.” She winked.
Asami pulled her goggles off and fluffed her hair, which looked instantly fabulous. “Uh huh.” A smile played at the corner of her lips. Somehow, she still hadn’t smudged her lipstick. “I mean, I just love going for jogs with my face covered too. Really helps me air out my skin.”
“Is that what you were doing too?” Korra raised an eyebrow and met Asami’s gaze with a one-sided smile. “I hear that Councilman Tarrlok has a really great running path in his courtyard,” she said. “Or were you there on business, maybe checking if his floors need to be, ahem, leveled?”
That caused Asami to still. Her expression sharpened and Korra wondered if this was the end of the joking. A beat later, Asami tossed her hair over her shoulder. “If you were nearby, you should have said something,” she said, mock-offended.
Korra stifled a wince as she laughed, pulling the covers off her boots. She’d forgotten that Asami hadn’t known she was in Tarrlok’s house too. That was probably information she shouldn’t have revealed. “We’ll have to make reservations together next time,” she said. She flashed a smile at Asami, but couldn’t quite mitigate the tensions between them.
“That would be something,” Asami said. “I’d love to see what you can do.”
And Korra could hear a strain there, something that wasn’t entirely friendship and jokes. Asami’s smile had tightened, her eyes not as green without her goggles, but still narrowed.
“I’m just a girl who doesn’t like eating bugs while she’s out on a jog,” Korra said, stuffing the last of her outfit back in her bag.
“Are you?” Asami tilted her head, expression lighter. She made the question sound more philosophical than practical, and Korra got the sense that she wasn’t supposed to answer. If she were to do so, what could she say?
Heavy footsteps trampled in the distance. Korra glanced back toward the alley for a moment, then back to Asami.
Korra opened her mouth to say something, but the rumbling footsteps had begun to sound steadily closer. She said, “What’s that?” instead of answering Asami’s question, then stepped out into the alley just in time to see a gigantic white polar bear dog round the corner and start charging right toward her.
She had a split-second to get into a grounded stance and make a preemptive strike. On instinct she moved one foot back and lowered her center of gravity, but continuing from that to actually attack felt so wrong.
She couldn’t explain it, but a smile appeared on her face moments before the dog bowled her over.
An urgent nose sniffed Korra from head to toe before giving her a big lick across the face. That lick was quickly followed by another one, and another one, and another one.
Korra started laughing. Though the polar bear dog wasn’t pinning her down, she could hardly move under the onslaught of kisses. And, like with Asami, she didn’t feel threatened (even though this dog was huge and maybe Korra should have been). The animal clearly only meant her well, and Korra couldn’t bring herself to hurt anything like that.
“Are… are okay down there?”
Korra looked to the side to see Asami leaned down, looking caught between concern and amusement.
“Yeah, actually,” Korra said. She chuckled and reached up to ruffle the dog’s ears. “I’m an animal person, what can I say.”
Korra tried to look up at the new voice, but couldn’t see around the dog. Asami straightened up and turned toward the end of the alley.
Korra moved her hands under the dog’s chin to get her to stop licking constantly. That seemed to work well enough and she was able to crane her neck to see the girl as she approached.
“I AM SO, SO SORRY!” Light footsteps pounded closer. “She ran off and I couldn’t keep ahold of her.”
A water tribe girl came into view, about eleven or so. The idea of her keeping control of a dog this big was, frankly, hilarious. Korra chuckled continued petting the dog’s head. “It’s alright, kid,” she said. “Maybe help me up though?”
“Of course!” The girl knelt beside the dog and gave her a stern glare. “Get up,” she said, “Right now! You’re being a very bad polar bear dog!”
The dog seemed contrite, or as contrite as a giant dog could get. She whined and gave Korra one last nuzzle before pulling back and sitting beside the girl, whom she doubled in height. Despite this difference, the water tribe kid immediately started lecturing the dog in a stern whisper, pulling her muzzle back whenever she turned to look back at Korra.
Asami crouched beside Korra and held out a hand. “You alright?” she asked.
Korra nodded and grunted, “Yeah,” as Asami helped her up. Upon standing, she stretched and winced. “That’ll be a bruise in the morning.”
“What, your whole back?” Asami was half-smiling, but her eyebrows had drawn together in concern.
“Maybe.” Korra flashed her a smile before turning back to the girl and her dog. Upon getting a good look at the former, she frowned. “Hey,” she said, “You seem kind of familiar.”
The girl turned toward Korra and frowned. “I do?” She glanced between Korra and Asami and frowned. “I don’t think I’ve met either of you.”
Something about her features was definitely familiar. Korra frowned, trying to place her. She’d been all over the world and met kids from dozens of villages. She’d never been to the water tribes, specifically, but there were plenty of water tribe expat villages.
The dog leaned her head out and licked Korra’s hand. Without thinking, Korra started scratching behind her ears. “I’ve totally seen you before,” she said. “Are you from—“
Asami gave Korra’s hand a sudden squeeze, then dropped it. “I know where we’ve seen you!” she said, smiling broadly. “You’re Sakari. You play for the Fire Ferrets!”
The girl blinked, then smiled. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I am. I do.”
“There we go.” Korra nodded at Asami. “Nice job.”
“You’re welcome.” Asami shrugged modestly. “Anyway, I’m Asami.” She gestured to Korra. “And this is Naga.”
Sakari got a strange look on her face. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m Sakari and, uh, this is Naga?”
“Yes?” Korra frowned. “I am?” Well, she wasn’t, but she wouldn’t say that.
The dog moved forward and licked Korra’s cheek again with an urgent whine.
Asami blinked and put a hand over her mouth to cover a laugh. “Wait,” she said, “are you saying that your dog’s name is…”
“Naga?” Sakari frowned. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry, just… your dog is named Naga” Asami laughed and put a hand on Korra’s shoulder. “And my friend’s name is also Naga.”
“Oh!” Sakari giggled. “I get it now.” She held out a hand. “Nice to meet you, Naga. I see you’ve already met Naga.”
Korra shook her hand, fighting a mild blush rising in her cheeks. She knew her alias sounded a bit like a dog’s name, but she hadn’t thought she’d actually meet a dog with the same name. “Yeah,” she said, “we’ve made one another’s acquaintance.”
A bit of red caught her eye. Korra glanced over and realized that Asami’s hand on her shoulder was still holding the Equalist hood with the big red dot on it. She’d probably been about to put it away when the dog crashed into Korra. If this Sakari was the Fire Ferrets’ Sakari, then she had definitely seen the Equalist uniforms when she broke out of The Revelation.
Probably not a good connection for their new friend to make, though Sakari didn’t seem to have noticed the hood yet. Korra smiled and turned toward Naga. “You have a very, ah, enthusiastic dog.”
When Sakari turned to face the dog as well, Korra took the opportunity to slip the hood out of Asami’s hand and casually tuck it into the back of her own belt. Her eyes quickly met Asami’s before she returned her attention to Sakari.
“Yeah, she’s not normally this friendly with strangers,” the girl said. She gave no sign she’d seen Korra stash the hood in her belt. “I’m really so sorry about this, she’s never done this before. You probably just smell like meat or something.”
Asami stifled another giggle.
Sakari slapped a hand over her mouth. “Wait! Not that I’m saying you smell like meat!”
The hand over her mouth muffled her voice and Korra laughed. “No, it’s fine, really. I tend to get along with most animals.”
Naga pushed her nose against Korra’s arm and whined before butting her whole head against Korra’s shoulder.
Sakari strained, but managed to pull Naga back. “Stop that!” she said. She looked apologetically back toward Asami and Korra. “I’m so, so sorry, again. I didn’t mean to mess up your, uh.” She paused and tilted her head, clearly trying to figure out why Korra and Asami were together in the corner of an alley.
“We were just meeting up,” Asami interjected, voice smooth, “on our way to dinner together.”
The alley wasn’t quite the picturesque meeting place, but Korra nodded. Better to have a weak cover than no cover at all.
“Okay,” Sakari said. An odd smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Uh, were you two planning on going to the semifinal match together?”
Korra glanced at Asami before smiling. “Yeah, actually,” she said.
Naga pulled out of Sakari’s grasp and butted her head against Korra’s shoulder again, knocking her back a step. She licked Korra’s face twice and whined again, long and loud.
“Okay Naga you seriously need to stop that.” Sakari had to lean her entire body weight against the dog’s harness in order to pull her back, or at least to convince Naga to step back on her own accord. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “Anyway, if you two are going together, let me make it up to you for this whole thing. I’ll have some comp tickets waiting for you at the box office.”
“That would be great,” Asami said. “I can’t wait to see you guys play again.”
At least Asami didn’t seem mad about Korra saying they were going together. Then again, Asami had said they were on their way to dinner, so maybe it didn’t matter all that much.
“If you’d like,” Sakari said, “you could even come backstage after semis are over.” She smiled. “We’ve drawn the first match slot and I have a friend visiting me right after ours, but I could show you around after semis close and you could meet the rest of the Fire Ferrets.”
“That sounds really cool, actually,” Korra said. She turned to Asami and tilted her head. “You in?”
Asami smiled. “Free tickets and a backstage pass? Of course I’m in!”
“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” Sakari said. Naga was straining to reach Korra again, but Sakari had placed herself between them and was pushing her back against the large polar bear dog. It seemed as though Naga’s reluctance to hurt Sakari by knocking her down was the only thing keeping her from going back to lick Korra’s face again.
In the distance, someone called Sakari’s name.
“Tomorrow then,” Asami said. Korra waved and a beleaguered Sakari waved back before she managed to push Naga around the corner and out of the alley.
Korra and Asami took a deep breath in unison.
“Well,” Korra said, trying to fix her dog-slobbered hair. “That was… something.”
Asami laughed weakly. “It was very strange,” she said. “I don’t suppose you know the dog somehow?” She returned her attention to her bag and resumed packing it up with her Equalist outfit.
“Nope.” Korra rubbed her neck. “I’ve most certainly never met a dog that big. Or a polar bear dog in general.” Korra had a habit of making friends with animals in whatever towns The Red Lotus passed through towns and villages. She would certainly have remembered such a creature. She had a bit of a weakness for dogs in particular.
She resisted the urge to share her first memory with Asami. It was her only memory from before The Red Lotus liberated her. Korra had been out in the snow, bundled up in a big, puffy parka. Despite this, she’d somehow managed to drag a tiny puppy home during a snowstorm. She couldn’t recall her parents’ faces, but she remembered feeling so proud for saving the dog.
“Um, could I have my hood back, by the way?” Asami held out her hand.
“Oh, sure.” Korra pulled it out of her belt and handed it over.
“Thank you,” Asami said, gazing down at the insignia for a moment. A beat later, she moved it to her bag, which seemed to store more than should have been possible. She didn’t look up at Korra. “The insignia slipped my mind.”
“No problem,” Korra said.
Asami finished packing up her Equalist gear. She sighed. “We should talk,” she said, voice tighter than usual. “Let’s make good on that cover story and go get dinner together?” It wasn’t a question, but Asami’s tone lifted at the end.
Korra smiled lightly. “That’s fine,” she said. She wasn’t expected back for a while. “I’m not really sure what’s around here though. And I’m feeling a little… not as clean as dinner would warrant.” Korra tugged at her overshirt.
“I know a place,” Asami said. The tension faded from her face. “They’ll let us get cleaned up, take care of everything, and give us a private booth to boot.” Before Korra could even object, Asami winked. “I’ll pay, since I gave our cover story.”
At that, Korra shrugged. She wasn’t expected back for a while, and passing up a free meal was unthinkable. “Let’s go then!”
“It’s just around the corner,” Asami said, walking a few paces ahead of Korra.
“Mkay.” Korra felt… off. They’d fallen back into their established walking habit, though Korra was not doing as well at keeping watch this time. Her headache had returned. She rubbed her temples and fell a couple steps farther behind Asami.
Then something dragged Korra’s gaze to the right. Her steps slowed and a brief glance turned into outright staring. The wall beside her bore a striking image of Amon, hooded and masked. He seemed to stare right out of the poster, right at her.
The red Equalist dot on the forehead of his mask seemed to swell and grow. Korra felt a stab of fear. She grasped for the feeling to quench it, but it remained out of her reach, growing and making a pit in her stomach. Yes: she had the strength of The Red Lotus, her family and mentors, behind her, but what if it wasn’t enough?
And when, exactly, had she started looking at Amon as someone she was responsible for at all, someone she needed strength to face and strength to stop?
Korra blinked. Amon’s face seemed to grow again. At the edges of her vision, she could see white creeping in. Anxiety curdled in her stomach as it arrived in full, and she hoped Asami didn’t notice she’d fallen behind.
Aang chased after a distant spirit, a graceful woman with a wide-brimmed hat and long, swoopy sleeves. “Hey!” he called out.
She didn’t stop. Aang ran into a pole.
The vision flashed forward, and Aang was face to face with the spirit. “You know you’re really pretty for a spirit,” he said. “I don’t get to meet too many spirits, but the ones I do meet… not very attractive.”
The spirit chuckled nervously, in a very un-spirit-like fashion. “Thank you, but—“
Aang squinted at her. “You seem familiar too.”
The vision flashed. A gust of wind knocked the ‘spirit’s’ hat awry, revealing Katara.
Immediately, the vision flashed again. Korra felt herself behind Aang’s eyes as he reached toward a blue-masked figure lying on the ground.
She blinked and Aang was sitting a bit away from the same figure, now unmasked. “If we knew each other back then,” he said, “Do you think we could have been friends too?”
Korra stumbled as her focus returned to her own body. She put a hand out against the wall by the Amon poster to steady herself. “I get it Aang,” she muttered. “It’s okay to use disguises to make friends. Masks are thematic. Whatever.” She closed her eyes and took a breath. At least her headache was gone.
Seriously though, the only clear visions she got were the ones she didn’t need clarity on. She’d made a friend; could he back off now? She still had no airbending instructions, and the twitchy eye bit from earlier hadn’t started to make any more sense in the meantime.
“Naga, are you alright?”
Korra looked up to see Asami’s eyebrows drawn together with concern. She summoned a smile. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just had a dizzy spell.”
Asami didn’t seem quite convinced, but she nodded. “Let’s get to dinner then. I don’t want you passing out from hunger.”
On cue, Korra’s stomach grumbled. She smiled ruefully. “That would be nice.”
Thankfully, the restaurant was just around the corner. Korra blinked as she took in the sight of the fancy building. She’d been to nice places before: a few upscale restaurants and a couple minor nobles’ estates. That was all on Red Lotus business though, always in the service of some mission.
It felt odd to walk inside ‘Kwan’s’ and not have some hidden agenda prepped. It also felt a bit strange to be so drastically underdressed. Asami whispered a few words to the front attendant, however, and they were whisked away to a back room. Someone thrust a dress in Korra’s arms, then shoved her back into a changing room with a small bathing chamber. She didn’t even have time to see what they’d given Asami.
The two of them chatted absently as they cleaned themselves and got dressed in adjacent stalls. Something about the activity felt excessively normal. Korra smiled to herself. She frequently acted as an average, unremarkable citizen, but rarely did the act carry past the surface.
On the one hand, it felt odd and out-of-the-ordinary. She knew her guardians would not approve of how far this outing with Asami had gone.
On the other hand, she was having fun and that was her right. She’d finished her job and she’d do her Tarrlok report when she got back to the apartment. They couldn’t preach freedom all the time if they weren’t willing to let her have some of it.
Despite the soap, she couldn’t quite get the dog slobber out of her hair. Eventually, she decided to let it go and just get dressed. It took her a moment to figure out how to put it on. The few dresses she wore were not ever this fancy.
Or this fitted. The clothing felt light without the weight of a knife strapped in somewhere, but there was literally nowhere for Korra to fit it where it wouldn’t show. Eventually, she settled for moving her knife (a small Water Tribe piece she’d stolen near Kyoshi) to her bag.
With that settled, Korra tugged the dress into place before opening the changing room door.
“You gonna be done soon, Asami?” she asked, walking over to a mirror.
Asami replied with some sort of affirmative, but Korra didn’t hear it because she’d caught sight of her reflection.
Normally, she was dressed plainly, kind of looking like a vagabond due to all the travel. Korra turned to look at herself from another angle. A pleased smile shone out at her from the mirror. She looked good.
“Naga? Hello… how do you like your dress?”
“Oh, sorry. Zoned out.” Korra rubbed the back of her neck. Her dress, which was light green, was sleeveless. She grinned at how it showed off her muscular arms. “I like it,” she said, “a lot actually.” Korra flexed at her reflection.
“Perfect,” Asami said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
A pair of attendants walked toward Korra with less-than-impressed expressions. One of them held out a cardigan and glanced disdainfully at her upper-arm tattoos. “Put this on,” she said. “And please hold still.” The other immediately walked behind Korra and started pinning up her hair.
“Ow!” Korra said, leaning away from the hair pulling. “I’ll pass, actually. To both of you.”
The cardigan-holder thrust it out toward her again. “Tattoos are not to dress code,” she whispered. “We cannot allow you in with those showing.” Her eyes flicked to Korra’s hair, and then she just raised her eyebrows, as though whatever criticism of Korra’s low ponytail she had, it wasn’t even worth vocalizing.
Korra rolled her eyes and snatched the cardigan away. “Fine.” She awkwardly shrugged it on over her shoulders as the lady behind her deftly pinned up Korra’s hair. It was actually done much quicker than she’d assumed it would be.
She peered in the mirror. “Wow. That was fast.” She smiled awkwardly at them. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” they responded in unison, before giving slight bows. “Do wash your hair more thoroughly at the first opportunity,” one of them said stiffly. Korra ducked her head. The polar bear dog slobber probably hadn’t left her with the best texture. “Is there anything else?”
Korra shrugged. The cardigan slipped down her shoulders, but she caught it before it revealed her tattoos. “Nope,” she said, chagrined as the attendants leveled narrowed eyes at her shoulders. “I’m, uh, fine for now.” She tugged the cardigan back into place for good measure.
They seemed to take that as a sign to leave. Korra waited until they were gone, then shrugged it back down a bit. She didn’t want to break dress code and get tossed out or something, but hiding her shoulders felt a bit like a crime, given that she was wearing a sleeveless dress. She’d just keep the cardigan place a little lower.
Behind her, a door opened. “I’m ready now,” Asami said. “Sorry I kept you waiting.”
Korra blinked. Her attendants’ efforts to tidy her up paled in comparison to what Asami had managed by herself. She’d touched up her makeup, fixed her hair, and was totally rocking the most gorgeous dress Korra had ever seen, a deep red number that set off Asami’s green eyes.
“Wow, you look, like, what.” Korra blushed and adjusted her bangs, trying to sort out her words. “I mean, you look super snazzy.”
Asami’s eyes twinkled at Korra’s bungled words, but she didn’t laugh. “Thank you. Are you ready for dinner?”
A quiet request from Asami and the two of them were whisked off to a private booth. Korra raised an eyebrow when she looked at the menu. It didn’t have any prices on it. She quickly picked a Water Tribe (ish) dish and set the menu aside. More interesting than the food was her dinner partner.
She couldn’t just be an Equalist, or even one that Korra kept meeting under the strangest circumstances. From what Korra could tell, Asami had to be loaded.
Korra was used to adapting to new environments, to looking around and remembering her lessons in how to not look out of place. Still, it took no training to see that Asami was clearly at-ease here, which gave Korra pause. People with money, in her experience and in her lessons, were generally not part of ‘revolutions of the people’ and that sort of thing.
“You come here often?” Korra asked, sending a wink Asami’s way.
Asami chuckled. “I’m not normally asked that if I’m already sitting down with someone,” she said.
Not quite an answer, which Korra found simultaneously irritating and interesting. “I just meant that you seemed really familiar with the area,” Korra said. And Asami did seem that way. She knew how to navigate from Tarrlok’s to Kwan’s without pausing at intersections or stopping to think about it. “Do you live nearby?” It was an upscale neighborhood.
“No, I’m just fond of maps and knowing where I am,” Asami said. “I’ve also lived in Republic City my whole life. You pick up on things eventually.” Her expression shifted, became more polite.
“May I take your orders?” the waiter asked.
Korra pointedly looked at Asami so she could hear how the other woman ordered her food and could imitate the manners somewhat. No need to stand out where she didn’t want to.
When the waiter left, Asami’s gaze sharpened. “And despite being new in town, you seem to have made your way around the city quite a bit already,” she said. It was a compliment, but Korra didn’t miss the probe beneath it.
She shrugged. “I travel a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to keep towns and cities straight after a while, so I tend to wander. Sometimes I end up where I’m not supposed to be, you know.” She smiled. “I’m sure you’d understand.”
“On occasion,” Asami said dryly. “I generally stick to a few familiar places, actually.”
“So today is a less-than-ordinary day for you?”
Asami laughed and it made Korra smile. Despite their secrets and the odd game between them, Asami had a kind, genuine laugh. “Every day I see you is a less-than-ordinary day,” she said. “I mean, you saw me while I was on a walk, and then we run into a pro-bender with a polar-bear-dog? It’s just rather unusual, is all.”
“Mmmm.” Korra hummed, then tilted her head. She wasn’t quite sure how far to push things with Asami, but it couldn’t hurt to test the boundaries a little. “It’s a good thing Sakari didn’t notice your team uniform,” she said. “I have a feeling the rivalry wouldn’t make for a good match.”
Asami’s eyes darkened. “That sounds… unpleasant,” she said. “Thank you again for helping me out there. I try to avoid confrontations of… of that sort. As much as possible, really.”
“You’re more than welcome,” Korra said. “Maybe someday you’ll return the favor for me.” She tilted her head. “That last bit surprises me though. I generally thought that, um.” Even if they had a private booth, Korra didn’t trust that she could say the word ‘Equalist’ without someone overhearing. “That you guys, uh, didn’t exactly shy away from a fight.”
“Group politics do not…” Asami trailed off. She frowned to herself before resuming. “Do not necessarily reflect individual philosophies. Even within a seemingly homogenous group, variations on the theme exist.”
“Then forgive me for assuming,” Korra said, putting her hands up. “I think it’s the whole masks-and-uniforms thing that got me.” So far, she’d managed to avoid thinking of Asami as too much of an Equalist. Sure, she wore the uniform and apparently did recon missions, but… that didn’t mean she necessarily wanted all benders dead or stripped of their bending.
And Asami’s last answer, in particular, gave strength to that theory, so Korra liked it.
Asami smiled wryly. “I can understand that well enough,” she said. Her lips curved into a sly smile. “But do tell me: if I were to return that favor somehow, whatever could I be returning the favor about?”
Korra smiled and winced. She’d made a blunder on that one, and Asami had noticed but… whatever game they were playing, the stakes weren’t fatal. She collected herself for a casual shrug, tugging her cardigan back up a bit. “Oh, you know, I know a few people, I do favors sometimes. Research, that kind of thing.” Research. Recon. They were basically the same. “So what’s your day job, when you’re not going on… walks?”
“I’m a mechanical engineer,” Asami said plainly.
Korra blinked. “Wait, really?”
Asami chuckled. “Yeah, that part is pretty simple,” she said.
And it would have been such a simple lie, but Korra didn’t get the sense that Asami was lying at all, actually. Calling herself an engineer had come so naturally, and something about it seemed to fit well. She’d been so technically minded when they were talking at the pro-bending arena, dividing things up into systems and counter-systems.
Korra was about to ask another question when Asami’s expression shifted again, heralding the arrival of the waiter.
“Your food will be out shortly, Ms. Sato,” he said, inclining his head in Asami’s direction. “Thank you for your patience.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Korra noticed Asami startle, before saying, “Oh, yes, thank you.” By the time Korra looked over, however, her friend had stilled.
She didn’t say anything until the waiter had left. When he did, Korra turned and grinned. “So, Asami.”
“Yes, Naga?” Her voice was a bit stiff.
Asami sighed. “That… would be me.”
“Asami Sato,” Korra said one more time. “It’s a good name.” She gagged. “Better than Naga,” she said, “But my family kind of has themed names, so.”
“Does that make you related to that dog we met?” Asami propped her chin on one hand.
Korra blushed. “No,” she said. “It’s just a coincidence.” She paused, remembering something. “Hey, wait a second. Sato… so is that connected to the satomobile or something?”
Asami looked at her oddly for a moment before saying, “Nope. That’s another coincidence, unfortunately.”
“Oh, sorry.” Korra tugged on her hair. “I bet you get asked that a lot.”
“Heh, yeah actually.” She frowned. “You’ve never been to Republic City before now, have you.”
It wasn’t a question. Korra shrugged. “I’ve been very near it before,” she said, “but no. I’ve never actually visited the city until now.”
“So… your family all traveled here together? Your Uncle Naghaz and…” Asami trailed off, prompting.
Korra did not supply any other names. First off, she’d already said so much to Asami that she probably shouldn’t have. She could get away with that, but it was rude to give people covers without checking what they wanted to be called first. She was six when P’li nearly took off Ming-Hua’s head for naming her ‘Sparky’ in a town they were passing through. Since then, everyone got to pick their own pseudonyms.
So no more names to give Asami. Korra refused to risk it.
Asami cleared her throat awkwardly in the silence where Korra should have answered. “Er, where are you and your uncle from?” she added, as though that had been her question from the start.
Korra frowned. She could give no honest answer to that question, even if she tried. “I’m just… from around,” she said lamely. She didn’t have a better answer on hand. Saying she was basically a homeless anarchist who traveled the world wasn’t an option.
Asami’s face fell a little, and Korra regretted that the conversation had turned to questions she couldn’t answer. “Then what brought you here?” Asami asked.
That, at least, was an easy one. “Oh, we came here because of the Equalist revolution,” Korra said. She smiled a bit awkwardly. It was true, just… potentially not the same truth to Asami as it was to Korra.
“Huh.” Asami scrutinized Korra for a beat, then blinked and smiled. “So… I guess you could use someone to show you around the city then, huh.”
Before Korra could answer, their food arrived. Korra gaped at the beautiful dishes, more delicately plated than anything she’d ever seen before. “This all looks so good,” she said. “I’m not even sure where to start first.”
Asami chuckled. “I’m pretty sure you can start eating wherever you like.”
Korra picked up her chopsticks, but hesitated before digging in. “That… would be nice actually,” she said, “Having someone to show me around the city.”
“I’d be more than happy to,” Asami said.
Korra smiled. “Okay, did you want to meet up tomorrow before the match maybe?”
“I’d like that. I’ll think of a good place to meet before we part ways.” Asami said. “But for now: tell me, my well-traveled friend, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever eaten?”
“Oh, do you want a list?” Korra grinned and leaned forward. “I’m not even sure I should tell you while we’re eating.”
Asami smirked. “Try me.” She took a delicate bite of food.
“Alright then.” Korra winked. “Let me tell you about the time my Uncle Naghaz and I visited Ember Island.”
It was a funny story, only a little gross, and it hit all the right beats. Asami laughed and only gagged once. The conversation was effortless; they stayed on easy topics for the rest of the evening. The food was delicious, maybe even amazing.
But what kept Korra there long after she should have been back at the apartment was Asami. Her friendship, her smile, and the slowly-addictive feeling of being completely and entirely normal.