Chapter Seven: A Leaf in the Wind
(The Hurt Means You're Learning)
“So in summary, the mechas are on schedule despite the manufacturing setback.”
Amon nodded, though his mask was looking to the side and not quite at her. “That is acceptable,” he said.
Asami inclined her head. “Thank you. I also have the report on Tarrlok’s mansion for you and the Lieutenant.”
Liu smiled tersely. “Good. We need to make a decision today on which location to use.”
The three of them were meeting in one of the Equalist safehouses downtown—the easiest one to get to from the factory, where Asami had spent half the night awake and trying to fix a manufacturing error on one of the machines. It wasn’t a large room, which left Asami standing a bit to the side of the door. Across from a table strewn with reports from various parts of the Equalist movement, Amon was leaning back in his chair. Liu, standing beside him, had been much more engaged during her explanation of the issue at the factory.
He was also more alert as Asami gave a quick rundown on what she’d gleaned from breaking into Tarrlok’s mansion. She did not mention that she’d had to leave the premises earlier than she’d have liked.
“You have my apologies for not delivering this information earlier,” she said. “I’ve been tied up monitoring our factories during this critical time of production.” And staying out with Naga, but they didn’t need to know that. As Asami finished her report, she stifled a yawn. Amon seemed bored enough with her information. She’d rather not give off the opinion that she shared his assessment.
“That’s fine,” Liu said. He stepped forward and picked up a paper off the table. “Frankly, it sounds as though there’s equal risk in either location. The fountain you mentioned in his front hall is on-par with the waterfall he has running behind his desk at town hall.”
“Could the surrounding area be a decisive factor?” Asami asked. “Town hall is well-spaced from other buildings, but fully accessible to any who might intervene with our operation. Tarrlok’s home is close to other mansions, somewhat, but has a retaining wall to help filter out interlopers.”
Liu nodded. “It might be. Thank you for offering your opinions.” He glanced over the paper again before setting it down on the table. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, actually. I have some additional information regarding the pro-bending arena, specifically some additional points of backstage entry and a potential cover for smuggling in our electrified gloves.”
“Perfect. What have you learned?” Liu’s smile was taut. The finals attack was his brainchild, and she knew the stress of organizing it was wearing on him. Hopefully her information could help alleviate that.
She pulled out a paper and slid it across the table to him. “I’ve made a map here of several alternate entry points. During my investigation, I took note of several windows which would be solid choices for our purposes. Our operatives should be able to get clean visuals on any police patrolling inside from these points. From there, taking them out should be easy.”
“This is very good,” Liu said. He tugged on his moustache. “I’ll probably re-route several of our rear infiltration teams to these points. The back doors in the towers are good, but offer zero visibility.”
Amon’s mask turned back toward her, though she couldn’t see his eyes in this low lighting. “When did you glean this information?” he asked.
Asami swallowed a lump in her throat. “Since my last report on the different bending styles, I decided there was more information still to be gathered from the pro-bending arena.” It had been an odd sort of decision, half-made by running into Sakari and having Naga as company, but a decision nonetheless. “I went back and gained access to the backstage area in order to do some more reconnaissance.”
Amon did not respond to her statement, but his mask turned away again. He seemed oddly pensive today.
“You said something about smuggling in our electrified gloves?” Liu set her map down on the table.
“Indeed,” she said. “I noticed while in attendance to the match that the popcorn buckets would be just large enough to hide a single glove within. It would allow our operatives to have them closer at-hand when it comes time for us to move.”
“How would you suggest sneaking them in?” Liu frowned. “We’d intended to sneak them in the back and organize a rendezvous within the arena to pass them off, so as to avoid security.”
Asami was briefly glad she’d stayed up half the night. The answer to that question had come to her sometime around three in the morning, while she was working on the steel rolling machine. “Play on the guard’s assumptions. They check people going in, but people tend to go in and out right near the entrance to meet friends. Send a few operatives inside to buy popcorn, then have them loiter near the gate and run out, away from the guards’ view, to meet up with another operative. They can quickly shove the glove in the bucket, then go inside together.” Asami smiled. “The guard thinks they’ve only seen someone with popcorn run out to meet someone, then run back, so they wouldn’t think to check the container.”
Liu was nodding. “It would spread us out somewhat, give us better coverage rates on the gloves. As things stand with the current plan, everything will fall apart if the one crate of gloves is uncovered or the one rendezvous is interrupted.” He gave her an approving smile. “Well done, Asami,” he said. “I’ll make the adjustments to our plan immediately.”
“There is one more thing,” Asami added. When she had Amon and Liu’s attention, she continued. “I have reason to believe that there is another party within the city with designs against Councilman Tarrlok.”
At this, Liu’s gaze narrowed. “Are they Equalist sympathizers? Opponents of some sort?”
Amon shifted his posture, but did not express further interest.
“I… cannot confirm,” Asami said, “though I suspect they are sympathizers.” Her thoughts drifted to Naga, who had yet to say one good word about the government of Republic City. Or of any of the places she’d traveled, actually. “If I were to guess, I would say they are an anti-government group of some sort.”
“How do you know?” Liu asked.
She paused a beat. “I saw another scout scoping out Tarrlok’s home,” she said. They didn’t need to know she knew the scout personally.
“Should we shift our plans, sir?” Liu turned his attention to Amon, who sat up slightly.
“Should they interfere, we will deal with them then,” Amon said. “Everyone will be equalized eventually.” He paused. “But it would be… disadvantageous to lose Tarrlok to another party. Taking him will send a message of fear to the city.”
“I will focus on moving our plans up so we can stage our attack as soon as possible after the pro-bending demonstration,” Liu said. “That way we will secure Tarrlok first.” He absently fiddled with his goggles for a moment. “It is time to finalize our strike location in any case,” he continued. “If the scout was looking into Tarrlok’s home, perhaps we should decide on City Hall instead.”
“No,” Amon said. “I have given the matter some more thought and, after hearing Asami’s report on the councilman’s home, I believe it to be the ideal location.” His voice shifted and Asami wondered if he was smiling behind his mask. “What better place for the mighty to fall than in their own home? It will send more specific message to Republic City, that even the most powerful benders, whether that power comes from combat prowess, money, or political clout, are not safe.”
His words seemed to ring in the small room, which was bare of decoration. Most of the Equalist safe houses were decorated with Amon’s image or other banners and propaganda pieces. In the areas frequented by high-level leaders, however, it was unnecessary.
Liu cleared his throat. “I will move forward on those preparations immediately.” He leaned down and made a note before glancing back up at Asami. “We’ll talk scheduling details later,” he said, “but can I count on you to join us for the strike on Tarrlok’s house?”
Asami felt her professional expression falter. She bolstered it and tried to keep her features smooth and unreadable. “Were my notes not to your satisfaction?” She’d drawn schematics and outlined four different ways into his house, along with her recommendations. Provided the team reviewed her documents, they really didn’t need her there.
She really didn’t want to be there.
“They’re excellent,” Liu said, “but in the absence of extenuating circumstances, I should like to be able to count on you that night.” He frowned slightly, and it wasn’t the frown of a superior officer so much as an expression an older sibling might make. He would want to talk about this later, she was sure of it.
“Thank you for the praise,” she said, inclining her head. “I was merely concerned for a moment. You’ll need to keep me abreast of your timing, but barring some catastrophic level of repairs needed after finals, I am available.”
Liu’s expression brightened. For a beat he seemed younger. Asami tried to remember how he looked before he grew his mustache.
Then the door opened.
Asami shifted into a combat stance as she whipped around to see who had entered. In the corner of her eye, she could see Liu and Amon startle.
She blinked. “Mother?”
Yasuko looked up from the papers she’d been reviewing. She blinked, surprised, then scowled. “So this is where you are! I have been looking for you everywhere, young lady,” she said. She smacked the pile of papers in her hand. “I came to drop these off, but I’m glad I found you. We have to assemble the factory report and I don’t have time to go hunting all over the city looking for you.”
Asami felt her cheeks turn red. She generally tried to avoid referring to Yasuko as her mother within Equalist circles. Not that it was a secret. Everybody knew; Asami had practically grown up in the movement after all. It was just a little difficult to assert herself as an independent adult with contributions to make and duties to maintain when her mother was there, basically asking if Asami had finished her homework and why she was out so late last night.
Her throat felt tight and Asami coughed to fill the silence. “I, um, already assembled the factory report,” she said. Out of everything Yasuko had harped on, she could at least answer to that. “That’s why I’m here. I just delivered it.”
Yasuko’s scowl lightened into a tight frown. Another awkward silence descended.
“Yasuko,” Amon said. “What is so important so as to require you bursting in without knocking?”
“Though you are the face of our movement, a messenger blessed by the spirits,” Yasuko said, “I should think those of us on the leadership board would be above such trivialities.” Yasuko’s gaze narrowed, and Asami was glad that it was no longer directed at her.
“Yasuko, you have my utmost respect,” Amon said, shifting in his chair. “You have been an Equalist since the inception of our movement and sacrificed everything for us.” His mask seemed to glance toward Asami for a moment. “You’ve raised your daughter here with us.”
“Recognizing those contributions,” Yasuko said, “I had hoped that the expectations you place on the rabble for the purposes of crowd-management would be mitigated in favor of us actually getting things done.”
Asami wanted to take another step back, away from the space between Amon and her mother. A glance revealed Liu looked as awkward and torn as she felt. On the one hand, Amon was unequivocally their leader. He had stepped into a movement without end-goals and given them spiritual justification and the ability to enact real change though his abilities.
On the other hand, Yasuko had been here first. She had told Asami in private that she did not care for the authority brought by spirits. Amon’s ability to remove bending was remarkable, but it didn’t automatically indicate he was the ideal or best qualified logistical leader.
Liu cleared his throat, breaking the silence.
“In the interest of getting things done,” he said, “let’s move on. All of us have pressing matters to attend to.”
Yasuko nodded. “Indeed.” She turned, refocusing her attention on Asami. “I haven’t seen you in nearly two days,” she said. “You didn’t leave a note or indication as to where I could find you if you were needed. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”
Asami stiffened. Spending time with Naga had meant she needed to compensate for lost time in other areas of her life. “I have two factories to manage,” she said. “I have been focused on preparing for the finals strike, which is what I’ve been assigned to do. I realize that you’re focused on the second-wave strike preparations, but I’ve been justifiably busy.”
Her hand clenched involuntarily and Asami tried to rein in the frustration that Yasuko had awakened. No, she hadn’t seen her mother much lately. But for almost all of Asami’s life, her mother had consistently prioritized the movement over quality family time, for better or worse. Asami wasn’t here to get upset over that now, but she refused to bow to the hypocrisy of such a complaint.
“As the lead engineer, I value your dedication and recognize that your prescribed duties differ from mine,” Yasuko said, taking a step forward, “but I am the one who presents our reports. I have been unable to do so because you have been excessively lax in informing me of your schedule and keeping me informed of developments on your end of manufacturing.”
Asami’s face felt hot and her fist clenched tighter. She had averted her eyes to stare at a corner over Yasuko’s shoulder. It was too difficult to look at her mother directly, and looking at Liu or Amon was too much to consider in the moment. She was not a child, and while she still operated under her mother’s authority, she had performed her duties exceptionally well.
A distant part of her curled in on itself. She had assumed, or maybe hoped, that her mother’s concerns were more… personal than that?
“I will expect better of you in the future,” Yasuko continued. “You sit on the board now, but you still report to me.” She paused. “It would not be an issue for you to deliver your manufacturing status reports directly to Amon, but I need to see them first.” That bit of compromise delivered, she arched an eyebrow.
The expression was one Asami recognized instantly. Despite the chastisement coming, largely, from her position as Asami’s superior within the movement, this was the expression of a mother, asking for confirmation that she’d been understood.
Asami chafed under the conflation, but she nodded. “Understood, ma’am,” she said. “But I had additional information that required delivering.” Yasuko had been at the meeting where Asami had volunteered to gather intelligence on Tarrlok’s home. Even if she had disagreed with Asami taking the mission, she couldn’t argue with the fact that she had one.
The arched eyebrow furrowed. “Yes, I’m sure,” Yasuko said, “but whatever petty bit of information you’ve brought does not supersede the need for us to maintain the chain of command.”
At that, Asami’s tight mouth deepened into an outright scowl. She opened her mouth to respond, but movement from the corner of her eye made her stop.
Liu stepped around the table. “Both of you make huge sacrifices and notable contributions to our movement,” he said. “You’ve both come here today with valuable knowledge and information. If there are issues with perceived and actual chain of command, we will deal with them another time. For now, let’s maintain focus on our tasks for today.”
Asami was, frankly, still ready to snap. But a glance at Yasuko showed her mother nod in agreement. Asami relaxed her shoulders. She was ready, but that didn’t mean she had to. If her mother was ready to let it slide, then she was too.
“Just to confirm,” her mother said, “you have not been neglecting your primary duties for tertiary tasks?”
Asami didn’t look at her, but she could hear a bit of bite in her own tone. “Yes, ma’am. I haven’t stopped doing what I’ve been doing for months just because I’ve had alternate assignments in addition to the usual load.” Between her new duties and sneaking out to see Naga, she hadn’t slept much, but sleep struck her as borderline optional anyway.
“Good.” Yasuko glanced down at her notes. “Then since you’ve finished delivering your scraps, I want you to head back to the mansion and wait for me there.”
Asami’s eye twitched. “The information I’ve delivered is the farthest thing from scraps. I have worked hard, late nights putting these reports together and, and—“ She turned back to face front. “And I’m not even done yet.”
Yasuko scoffed. “Aren’t you?”
Her pulse was pounding and her face felt hot. “No. I was just about to deliver some, some incredibly crucial information to Amon.” Part of her wanted to pull back, to bow her head and let the insults go. But while she was Yasuko’s daughter, she was no longer a child.
Her hands clenched. “I have identified the Avatar’s sister.” The words slipped out before she had time to reconsider.
To her right, Asami heard Yasuko gasp, “What?”
Liu straightened up. “Where is she?” he asked.
On his chair, Amon sat forward. It was his first notable display of interest all morning. “Are you certain?” he asked, eyes flashing behind his mask.
Anxiety seized Asami’s stomach in a vise. Though she’d been arguing with her mother for several minutes, her throat felt suddenly dry as she nodded. “I’m certain,” she said.
The dynamic of the room shifted as Amon propped his head on one hand. “This is an interesting development,” he said. “I was unaware our missing Avatar had any family aside from parents. Who is she?”
“Her name is Sakari. She plays for the Fire Ferrets as their waterbender.” Asami’s voice sounded distant and foreign. She didn’t like the sound.
She would have stopped at that, stopped to avoid hearing her voice saying these things, but then Amon nodded his head for her to continue.
Asami bit her tongue and hesitated a moment. Amon tilted his head, expectant.
Her gaze dropped as she continued, “Sakari’s existence has been kept a secret from the general public. Her parents have been excessively protective of her since the Avatar’s kidnapping. The girl herself is a waterbending prodigy. I took note of her during my pro-bending observations.”
Amon hummed and sat back in his chair. “Fascinating possibilities,” he murmured.
Liu’s gaze moved from Amon back to Asami. “How in the world did you find this out?”
To the side, Asami heard Yasuko mutter, “How indeed…”
She cleared her throat again, but it did nothing for the dryness or the sweating of her palms. “I snuck backstage to compile that infiltration map,” she said. “While I was there, I eavesdropped on a confession; she was telling the other members of the Fire Ferrets—“ Mako and Bolin, two upstanding young men who had dragged themselves up from nothing… “—about who she was.”
Amon shifted in his seat and attention refocused on him. “I have a great deal of interest in this Sakari girl,” he said. “Though the world lacks an Avatar at the moment, that absence has left an opening for other symbols to take its place.” He tapped the side of his mask, as though making a decision. “A sister would be a suitable device,” he said firmly, then turned to Liu. “The Fire Ferrets are fighting in the finals match, correct?”
Liu nodded. “Yes sir.”
“I want this girl captured,” Amon said, “I will not remove her bending until a later time, but I want her in our custody for later.”
“Understood. I will ensure measures are taken then.”
“We can discuss it after Yasuko’s report.”
Amon turned to Asami’s mother. “Yasuko,” he said, “your networks are well suited for this sort of task. Several days after finals, once she’s in our grasp, can you have her status as the Avatar’s sister leaked to some reputable, unconnected reporter?”
Yasuko delayed a moment, then nodded. “I can do that,” she said.
The pit seemed to drop out of Asami’s stomach. Her hand trembled a moment. She wished she could reach out and take all the words back.
Then Amon turned to her. “Well done, Asami,” he said.
She balked at the praise, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“From the discussion earlier,” he continued, “it sounds as though you’re quite busy, so I won’t hold you here any longer.”
Part of her wanted to object, to say it was no problem. It took her a beat to recognize that she wanted to stay to hear the revised finals plan, to hear what they had in store for Sakari.
But even thinking about it sent a wave of nausea to her gut.
Asami bowed her head. “Thank you, Amon,” she said.
Her eyes didn’t seem to see anything as she turned and left the room. The doorknob felt strange under her hand, as though she’d never touched one before.
Walking down the hall, her footsteps seemed to echo far too loudly, reverberating through the building and far away from her.
Asami was similarly certain that the repercussions of her actions today would carry similarly.
* * *
When she was a kid, Korra used to call the Red Lotus’ meetings “circle time.” Sometimes they just sat in the dirt to talk things over. Today, at least, they had actual furniture, even a table too.
Ghazan and Ming-Hua shared the couch as well as his soup. He elbowed her side lightly to grab her attention, then smiled and offered her a spoonful.
Ming-Hua cocked an eyebrow. “I can feed myself, you know,” she said. Within the bowl, Ghazan’s soup swirled for a moment.
Korra wrinkled her nose when Ghazan winked. “I know, Babe,” he said. “I just like treating you is all.”
The two of them were the worst. When Korra was younger, she used to gag and make faces when they kissed.
Korra took a sip of her soup and glanced past them. In the kitchen, Zaheer and P’li were intent on one another. Their quiet conversation seemed serious, but they always looked pretty serious together. They were a private couple. What she could see of their relationship seemed intense. Korra always felt like she was interrupting something between them, even if it was just breakfast.
A minute later, Zaheer and P’li finished their conversation and came over to join the circle, with Zaheer sitting on the floor near Korra and P’li taking the remaining chair. Zaheer cleared his throat and waited a moment for everyone to focus their attention on him. “I’ll go first,” he said.
“My mission to infiltrate the Equalists of the city was successful,” he began. “Or at least the best as could be done on short notice. They seemed fairly aware of the possibilities for spies in their midst and had set in place several barriers to prevent traitors from being integrated into the organization.
“However, they were also clearly in need of manpower. After putting myself forward as a potential recruit, I quickly found a role in moving boxes I was forbidden to open.”
Korra snorted. “What was inside of them?” she asked. Orders like that were practically an invitation to a scout. She found herself leaning forward, curious to know more about this group that held Asami in sway.
Zaheer smiled thinly at her. “Various types of technology, most of it weaponry,” he said. “We moved crate upon crate of electrified gloves, which I deeply regret being unable to try out during my mission. Aside from the gloves, we helped move crates of wheels and gears and engine parts.
“As I am more inclined toward the spiritual than the mechanical, I was largely unable to glean useful information from their contents.” Zaheer rubbed the back of his neck. “As best I can determine, they are pulling together various puzzle pieces of machines for the purpose of constructing some whole from the parts at another location.”
“What about Amon?” Ming-Hua asked. “What’s his role within the organization? Figurehead or real leader?”
Ghazan winked at her. “I’d say he’s the face of the organization,” he said.
P’li groaned, and Ming-Hua bent a small stream of soup at his face.
Zaheer ignored him and continued. “I only met him once, but my assessment is that he is both a practical leader as well as a figurehead. Once, while I was eavesdropping, one of my superiors made reference to a ‘council’ of some importance. It makes sense. For a movement of their size, Amon could not possibly micromanage all the various facets he would need to.” Zaheer paused a moment. “Amon likely sits in charge of this council, as opposed to being one of its members.”
P’li crossed her arms. “What are you basing that on?”
“The cult of personality,” Zaheer answered immediately. “After my first couple days, we participated in a highly reverent ceremony where we all met him and were formally inducted as Equalists. He brushed each of our foreheads with a finger dipped in red paint. Even setting aside his ability, however he has it, my induction had us very clearly swearing our loyalty to him and, by extension, his Equalist cause.”
“And… his abilities…?” Korra trailed off, unsure what her question would be or what she even meant by it.
Zaheer seemed to understand anyway. “I saw no second demonstration, but his abilities are unquestioned within the organization. No whispers came to me about mirrors or tricks, no benders who were ‘in on it’ to facilitate the show.” He paused and something shifted in his expression. “During the ceremony, when he touched each of our foreheads, I felt a slight disturbance within my body at each of my chakra points. I cannot say quite what it was, though I suspect part of it was him somehow verifying that we were all actually non-benders.”
Korra shivered. She was sitting with three of the world’s most capable benders and possibly the most capable non-bending fighter, but the idea of Amon touching her forehead chilled her. It was the same point he’d touched when taking the bending at The Revelation.
“Would this be a good time to cut in?” P’li asked. “I wasn’t able to discover much about him, but perhaps it can complement what you learned.”
Zaheer nodded her onward and P’li continued. “He came to Republic City several years ago, taking great pains to mask his previous travels. I was unable to determine a definite place of origin, especially due to the mask. As best I can speculate, he may be partly of Water Tribe stock, if we can judge by the shade of his hands.”
“But you know what they say about assumptions,” Ghazan said, holding out one arm for a moment.
“Exactly,” P’li said. “Seeking the origins of his powers, I tracked down two victims to the north of here. Prior to his arrival in Republic City, he seems to have taken the bending of two rural Earth Kingdom citizens. The mode of operation was very similar as well. Though they’ve obviously mellowed out in the years since then, both benders fit the archetype of their towns’ local bullies.” P’li smiled thinly. “Then a mysterious traveller passed through and took their bending.”
“Wait, how does a story like that, two stories like that, stay a secret?” Ming-Hua asked. She pulled her legs up and sat cross-legged on the couch. “That sounds like news to me.”
P’li shrugged. “They were very rural villages. Also, the two benders in question were highly reluctant to talk about the experience.” Her eyes flashed in a bit of amusement. P’li had a way of staring at people until they felt like talking. “If they were half the bullies they claimed to be, I can understand that too. They lost the ability to win all the fights they’d been picking. It’s not exactly something I would advertise either.”
“What about news moving the other way?” Korra asked. “Even if their stories didn’t travel, what’s going on in Republic City right now is… noteworthy.”
P’li pursed her lips. “You guys don’t seem to understand how deep in the middle of nowhere I had to go for this intel. No running water. I had to sleep in mud once. These people are not exactly cosmopolitan news-junkies.”
Korra hunched her shoulders. “Sorry,” she said.
“It’s fine.” P’li sighed. “I only wish I could find out more. Amon covered his tracks well.” She sat up a little. “However, while I was at it, I was able to touch base with some Red Lotus contacts. We have a clear route to the Northern Water Tribe when it comes time for us to leave for Harmonic Convergence.”
Zaheer nodded. “Good thinking.”
Korra blinked and closed her eyes a moment, trying to remind herself that, as much as Republic City’s issues felt visceral and present, immediate and whelming, they ultimately weren’t. The Red Lotus would move on from here soon enough.
The thought raised a thread of panic in her gut and Korra stomped it down, refusing to think about reasons she might not want to leave the city.
“Going back to my intel,” Zaheer said, “it looks like the Equalists are gearing up for some kind of large-scale action. I heard speculation about a big shipment coming in from somewhere in the mountains, but was unable to learn more about its purpose. Careful questioning revealed that they’re anticipating a pair of these shipments, possibly revealing a pair of attacks.”
“Any details?” Ghazan asked.
Zaheer shook his head. “Only that the first is soon.”
A shiver ran down Korra’s spine. Concern for Sakari pressed against the back of her throat, making it difficult to swallow. She cleared her throat. “Actually,” she said, “I believe I can supply both the time and location. The pro-bending finals in two days.”
Everybody blinked at her in surprise. Zaheer’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know this?”
For a moment, Korra thought of laughter and sitting next to Asami with their shoulders touching. About Asami’s notebook and loopy handwriting. The taste of the dinner out they’d had together.
“Um, while you were with the Equalists, I’ve been focused on some investigation in my own right,” she said. “I met with the Equalist who helped me after the Revelation, completely by chance. Based on what she’s said or implied, I’m fairly confident in confirming that this upcoming attack will be a strike on the finals match.”
“It’s a reasonable theory too,” P’li mused. “Time, location, and motive. It would be quite the blow to strike.”
Zaheer’s gaze hadn’t left Korra’s face. “And where, exactly, did you meet your Equalist again? Completely by chance?”
Despite her best efforts, a blush stole across Korra’s cheeks. She’d been caught. “I was, uh, at the pro-bending arena for quarterfinals,” she mumbled.
She peeked up and saw Zaheer glaring at Ghazan, who looked only slightly sheepish.
Before Ghazan could say anything, Ming-Hua cleared her throat. “However she ran into the Equalist again, Korra continued to exercise a great deal of initiative in pursuing the lead. She’s collected useful information.” Ming-Hua smiled and Korra sat up a little straighter. “Also, should we decide to take some sort of action at the arena, it will be useful to have someone familiar with the arena.”
Zaheer regarded her for a moment before his gaze shifted to Korra. She stiffened slightly under his scrutiny, but kept her chin up. She’d made her own decisions regarding how to handle the Asami situation, not all of them motivated by the Red Lotus’ goals. Still, she’d stand by them.
“It would be useful, and the intelligence you’ve collected has already proved its merit.” Zaheer nodded once. “However, we will not be taking any action save observation.”
Korra’s gut clenched at those words. She couldn’t think of why, didn’t want to think about why that was troubling.
“We came to Republic City to observe Equalist action,” Zaheer continued. “They are, in their own fashion, fighting for freedom in Republic City. We will not take any action against them.”
Korra huffed. “But—”
“Ghazan and I will be in attendance at finals,” Zaheer cut her off, “since Ghazan seems to be in a habit of taking people to matches.”
“I thought this was supposed to be a lesson for me,” Korra argued. “How am I supposed to learn if I’m back here?”
He regarded her coolly for a moment. “I will deliver the lesson upon our return,” he said. “Your priorities and the next phrase of your training will become clear shortly.”
From his tone, Korra knew the matter was closed. Absolutely. She wasn’t sure what he had in store for her next focal lesson, but she found herself sulking a bit as the topic of conversation shifted to Tarrlok, the Red Lotus’ new government target. She took a couple steady breaths and brought her focus back as Zaheer was giving them a quick rundown on how curfews and Tarrlok’s task force were interfering with the everyday lives of people in Republic City, mostly the average non-bending citizens.
“Many low-paying jobs available to non-benders are focused around late hours,” he said. “Some cannot help but be out after curfew, placing themselves at the mercy of random police patrols.”
Korra rubbed the back of her neck, thinking of how she and Asami often parted ways late in the evening. “I haven’t had an issue dodging patrols,” she said, “but I’m far more nimble than the average citizen.”
“Indeed,” Zaheer said. “Many of the new Equalists I worked with were coming from a perspective of frustration. Several had been driven to seek out Equalist membership after being pushed over the edge by the curfews.” He turned to P’li. “Were you able to discover any information on his motivations or origins?”
P’li closed her eyes a moment. “Between researching Tarrlok and Amon, I found myself staring down a great many people who had nothing of worth to say to me,” she said. “Tarrlok’s trail is oddly clean. Almost artificially so. He traces back clearly to the Northern Water Tribe. He moved to Republic City directly as a moderately skilled tradesman with no living family to speak of. He apparently moved right to the city, with no stopover phase between here and the northern tribe.
“As for his origins there, as best I could tell he came from a fairly isolated family. They lived in some backwater area with little connection to the cosmopolitan or political centers.”
“Weird,” Ming-Hua commented.
“He clearly picked up a decent eye for antiques at some point,” Korra added.
“That’s the weird part,” P’li said. “Nowhere in his past does it suggest that he should have the skills he does. In his work with the task force, he seems to be a formidable fighter. But, in the rumors I picked up, neither his father nor his mother were waterbenders. No hint of wealth to buy private lessons or political savvy.”
“Did he fall in with the triads upon arrival?” Ghazan asked. “If he had some natural talent and not a lot of cash, gang recruitment would have been an easy option.”
“Frequently suspected,” P’li said, “but any connection has yet to be proven. He’s been almost unnaturally clean since arriving to the city. Nobody with any political will is willing to make such an accusation, given Tarrlok’s current level of power.”
Zaheer hummed a moment, considering P’li’s report. After a beat, he shifted his gaze toward Korra. “Did your scouting mission bring anything of note to your attention?”
“I mean, he’s rich and has good taste. His house is moderately secure, but not in a way that would bring us trouble.” Korra shrugged. “He’s a waterbender with a water feature in his front hall. That assassination practically writes itself.” Everyone around the circle chuckled and she smiled. “I’ve drawn up a couple approaches for the attack and a few more for both neat and messy escapes. It’s very much suited to Ming-Hua’s style. Shouldn’t pose any issues.”
Ming-Hua regarded Korra fondly. “It should be fun for us.”
Korra blinked. “Wait. Us?”
Around the circle, her family exchanged a series of glances. After a pause, Ghazan cleared his throat. “We’ve all been talking,” he said. “And, uh, it’s time.”
“You are no longer a child,” Zaheer said. “And with Harmonic Convergence, with your fully realized destiny, almost upon us, it’s time you took on the mantle of membership. From now on, you operate with an equal capacity to us as a team member.”
Ming-Hua nodded, catching Korra’s eye. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Korra. You’re more than ready.”
Korra’s heart seemed to swell in her chest and she felt a wavering smile curl the edges of her mouth. For ages, she’d wanted more than just scouting or thieving missions. This was her time.
“Your spirit needs to be ready to accept the burden and significance of taking the life of another,” Zaheer said. “It’s no matter to be taken lightly, as each person you kill is robbed of their freedom permanently. However, you know as well as any of us that Tarrlok is a stain on the world. With his freedom, he chooses to deny freedom to others.”
“It’s unacceptable,” Korra said. Her body trembled a little. This was the first real mission.
“Does he deserve to die?” Zaheer asked.
Korra nodded. “Absolutely, yes.” Frankly, they’d killed people for less. But, for her first full mission, he seemed a fitting target.
“Good.” Zaheer smiled thinly. “While Ming-Hua will be there, you are the primary for this mission. We expect you to take charge of it. You are the Avatar and it is your duty, the burden you place on your own freedom, to protect the freedom and balance of the world.”
Briefly, Korra thought of Asami. Talking abstractly about throwing the city and world out of balance didn’t feel as real as the threat Tarrlok posed to her and the other non-benders like her. Killing him would protect them.
“I will end him and, with him, his imbalance,” she said.
Zaheer nodded. “Good.”
Korra trapped the paper under the edge of her foot so the wind wouldn’t carry it away. “And from there we slip back out the rear gate, using the ice we left in place as a quick key. The alley on the left side has a sharp turn just a few steps in, which would cut visibility on any pursuers.”
Ming-Hua nodded. “Definitely the simplest escape route.”
The wind tugged at Korra’s hair, pulling her gaze toward the bay. In the distance, she could just barely make out the tower on Air Temple Island. Nearby, she could see the upper spires that decorated the pro-bending arena.
Somewhere inside, the Fire Ferrets were probably practicing, making their own plans for finals and how to deal with different contingencies from the Wolf Bats. They weren’t aware of the Equalist attack that would follow.
Ming-Hua started talking again and Korra forced herself to focus. She leaned forward and and marked the map with strongholds, points of metaphorical higher ground that she or Ming-Hua could defend with relative ease.
Korra sat up, blinking. “Yes? Huh?”
Ming-Hua frowned. “I’ve been trying to get your attention, girl.”
“Whoops, sorry.” Korra rubbed the back of her neck. “I, uh, I just got super focused on this.”
Arching an eyebrow, Ming-Hua didn’t seem convinced. “I would have said you seemed more distracted. I’m not Zaheer, but you seem… off.” She tilted her head. “Is it a spiritual issue, or do you want to talk?”
Korra paused. “I… no.” She shook her head. “I’m just a bit worried. I, uh, believe Tarrlok will be the focus of some sort of Equalist attack first.” Thankfully, in the moments after she said it, she realized it was a reasonable concern.
Ming-Hua considered her for a moment. She didn’t look entirely convinced that was the issue. “Then we’ll see about moving our attack up,” she said. “That way we’ll beat them to him.”
Korra nodded slowly. “That will work,” she said.
Ming-Hua hadn’t stopped frowning. “You still seem… off,” she said.
Rubbing the back of her neck, Korra sighed again. “My mind… is elsewhere,” she admitted.
“Then go.” Ming-Hua jerked her chin toward the bay. “Run off and find it, find your focus, and come back here when you’re ready to get back to planning.” Ming-Hua got to her feet.
Korra blinked. “Wait, really?”
“Yes.” Ming-Hua gestured to their papers with a foot. “Pack our maps up first, then head out. Take a look at the city for how it is and find a point to strengthen your resolve. Find an edge to keen your anger against and the focus will follow.” And with that, she hopped off the roof onto the walkway to their apartment, leaving Korra alone.
“I will,” Korra said to the wind. Her body moved automatically as she gathered their papers and moved them to the apartment. Something nagged for her attention at the back of her mind. She pushed it aside. She just needed to leave. Ghazan called out some joke on her way out the door, and Korra couldn’t even remember how she replied before she was gone.
Down the stairs and down a street, then another, and she made it exactly two blocks before realization caught up to her. She ducked down an alley and crouched in the dirt, trying to control her breathing.
The Equalists were launching a large-scale attack on the pro-bending finals. Something that required crates of supplies and weapons.
Korra wrapped her arms around herself and leaned against one of the buildings. Sakari was playing in the finals match.
Her sister was going to be a target of the Equalist attack.
A trickle of chill seemed run down her body, as if she were sitting underneath a dripping faucet. The tremble in her limbs stopped and Korra blinked away a tear as she took a deep breath.
Her sister was going to be directly in the Equalist line of fire, with Amon and his terrifying powers likely heading up the attack. Zaheer’s orders about staying away felt like nothing in the face of that. Korra could only do so much, but she couldn’t do nothing. Somehow, she had to find a way of protecting Sakari.
Briefly, Korra considered Asami Sato. She could… go to Asami. Somehow. She could track her down and demand… what? That Asami expose secret Equalist plans, betraying an organization to which she clearly felt loyal? Asami had seemed touched by Sakari’s story, but what if that wasn’t enough to move her sympathies?
Asami seemed to care for Korra. At least somewhat. If she knew Sakari was Korra’s sister, maybe that would make enough of a difference to afford her protection.
But Korra couldn’t admit that without confessing that not only was she not a non-bender, but she was also The Avatar, the most bending-y of benders.
Not an option.
Korra stood up.
“I never find solutions just sitting on the ground anyway,” she muttered to herself. At that, she smiled a bit. Because that meant she was seeking a solution. She would take some sort of action at finals and protect Sakari somehow.
She’d figure out the details later.
Korra quickened her pace. In the meantime, she would go out into the city and strengthen her resolve on killing Tarrlok. There were plenty of people to observe and plenty of reasons to hate him.
She walked aimlessly for a few blocks, watching the people around her. It wasn’t until she was walking along the waterfront that Korra noticed she had been unconsciously walking toward the pro-bending arena.
That wasn’t an issue though. Korra wandered the nearby streets, loitering and watching how the people went about their lives in the area. She kept to the edges of the streets, largely unnoticed. She watched the people and listened to the local gossip, especially tuning in to any talk about Tarrlok or the Equalists. At one point she even thought she heard the name ‘Sato,’ but by the time she located the speakers, they’d moved on.
Throughout her loitering, however, Korra always seemed to circle back around to a place with a view of the pro-bending arena. When she glanced over, her gaze would snap to the side door.
If Korra was remembering correctly, the Fire Ferrets would be getting out of practice soon.
She observed the people of the city half-heartedly as she slowly reconciled herself to the fact that yes maybe she was stalking the arena a bit. Maybe she wanted to see her little sister one more time before… before anything bad happened.
Her fists clenched. She had to do something. The anxiety from before welled up beneath her skin, urging her to take action somehow.
She glanced toward the arena and everything stopped as she watched three figures leave out the side door. Korra recognized Sakari, Mako, and Bolin immediately.
Sakari’s polar bear dog, Naga, came loping in beside them. As Korra started following them, walking down a parallel street, she made certain to keep her distance. It would be unfortunate if Naga were to scent her again. The brisk sea breeze coming in off the bay worked in her favor as she tracked the group to the pier.
She watched Sakari bound onto the ferry like a natural. Briefly, Korra wondered if the girl had spent a lot of time on the water, living in the Southern Water Tribe. She knew a bit of Water Tribe custom, but would Sakari have learned to sail a boat if their parents had kept her hidden away?
Either way, she seemed much more at-ease on the boat than the captain, who kept glancing at Naga.
As the boat pulled away from the dock, heading to Air Temple Island, Korra made her way to a less-crowded walkway. She hopped the fence separating the road from the water and, when nobody was looking, dove beneath the waves.
She pulled a bubble of air around her mouth and briefly wished she could move air above the water the same way she could almost control it beneath the surface. But even that desire faded as she swam across the bay toward Air Temple Island. Waterbending felt good. The rush of power, of speed that came from moving under the water, seemed to wash away all of her concerns, if only for a little bit.
Whenever her family arrived at a new place, she kept to whatever identity Zaheer gave her. Non-bender was always the hardest though. Korra had been born to do this, to command the water as an extension of herself, just as Ming-Hua had taught her.
She arrived at Air Temple Island all too quickly. Briefly, she considered taking an extra lap around the island. Then she remembered Sakari and even the pleasures of waterbending seemed to fade to something trivial.
Korra pulled herself onto Air Temple Island around a corner from the dock, being careful to stay downwind from Naga’s sense of smell. She shrugged once she was all the way out of the water, pulling the water out of her clothes and off her skin and hair. It collected down her arms and she held it off her fingertips a moment before directing it back into the bay.
When Korra peered over the edge of a rock, she saw that Tenzin had come to greet the group with Jinora and her younger siblings. They talked for a few minutes before the little kids leapt onto Naga’s back and convinced the dog to carry them away, up the stairs.
Korra was pleasantly surprised when Mako and Bolin patted Sakari on the shoulder and departed for the main building with Tenzin, leaving Sakari and Jinora by themselves. Korra followed them at a distance until they wandered over to the spinning gates and stopped. When they seemed like they would stay for a while, she took the time to carefully navigate to a closer position in the woods. After a couple minutes, she was within earshot.
They’d gotten onto the topic of bending. Korra found herself quickly wrapped up in their discussion. Jinora was demonstrating the circle walking technique that Korra had seen earlier. From the bushes, Korra put her hands up in a similar open position and tried to think about freedom and negative jing.
The stance felt unnatural to her hands, which wanted to curl into fists. Fists felt more defensive. Korra took a breath. Airbending wasn’t about solid defense so much as evasion. She studied Jinora’s movements for another minute, watching as she limited her footprint of space as much as possible, only expanding it when she stepped farther away with the intent of showing Sakari how airbenders kept moving while under fire.
Sakari imitated this a couple of times and Jinora giggled a bit when she had to keep correcting her friend’s stance, which kept shifting too wide.
“You’re not trying to ground yourself, preparing to redirect attacks like a waterbender,” Jinora said. “It’s more like… you’re here for now, your stance is here for now, but if something comes your way you’ll just leave and pick a different spot.”
Sakari huffed. “It feels wrong to my body, picking a spot if I’m not going to at least dig in a little.”
Jinora snorted. “Isn’t water the element of change?”
“Let me try again,” Sakari said.
In the woods, Korra ducked behind a tree and tried to take Jinora’s airbending stance. She blanched. Her feet were too far apart. She tried to set the stance again, but this time fought the instinct to ground herself.
It felt unnatural. Korra had excelled at earthbending. She was naturally stubborn. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been able to stomp the ground and make it move.
Peering back around the tree, she was briefly disappointed to see they’d moved on from airbending; Sakari was demonstrating how to redirect another waterbender’s attack. Pulling water from a nearby pond, Sakari had it fly at her, then twisted and captured the water, redirecting its momentum and sending it lancing away from her. Korra recognized the move as one Sakari had used in the quarterfinal. It was a classic Southern Water Tribe move.
Here, she felt a stab of sadness. Sakari was facing the other way, but Korra could just make out how she was talking about her teacher and how she’d learned to move in her waterbending lessons.
Korra had learned from Ming-Hua, a skilled master, but a little unorthodox. Her mind wandered as she watched Sakari show off a couple more stances. Sakari and Korra seemed to have the same issues with the airbending stances, but they moved very differently in their waterbending. Would Korra stand like that if she had been trained in the Southern Water Tribe?
Separate from that, she felt a swell of pride for her sister. She was good. Korra wasn’t sure she’d call the girl a master, but she wasn’t sure what qualified people for mastery anyway.
As the girls trained, Korra was struck by how natural they were with one another. Korra felt… almost aggressively happy for her. After being isolated all her life, Sakari deserved a friend. And Korra had met Jinora before. She was a good kid.
For a moment, she wondered how the Equalists felt about airbenders. She shuddered and put the thought out of mind.
“Hey, let’s do it!” Sakari grinned.
Jinora tilted her head. “Are you sure it’s okay?”
“Absolutely.” Sakari took a few steps closer to the pond. “I want to see if I can hit you.”
At that, Jinora’s trepidation turned to a sly grin. “You can try,” she said. She leapt back a certain distance, carried by a gust of wind, and moved closer to where Korra was in the woods.
Korra ducked behind a bush, but Jinora’s attention was wholly focused on Sakari across the clearing.
“Ready?” Sakari called.
Korra rolled to the side and picked herself up a few feet over, looking for a different vantage point. By the time she made it there, their match had started.
Almost immediately, Sakari seemed to dominate the energy of their match-up, sending attacks in Jinora’s direction and setting the pace. However, all that energy cancelled out when it reached Jinora. Although a couple of the first strikes glanced by and almost hit her, the airbender quickly fell into a rhythm of dodging.
Here, Korra could see there was definitely something to that small-footprint approach. By making herself into a small, highly-mobile target, Jinora just needed to catch on to Sakari’s timing to completely negate her attacks.
After a minute, Sakari stopped. She was scowling and squinting suspiciously at Jinora.
Jinora took the opportunity to send a wide blast of air back at her, but Sakari easily pulled some water up and blocked the attack, then turned her shield into a sweeping offensive strike back at Jinora.
They continued this way for a while. Korra wished she had Asami here so she could borrow a notebook and take notes to look over later. Between being able to watch Jinora (an airbender!) engage in combat from up close and observe her sister’s bending was far more interesting than any of the pro-bending matches had been.
Eventually, Sakari launched a series of attacks that positioned Jinora just right for a final strike that landed and sent her sprawling.
As that happened, Jinora’s air blast turned and knocked Sakari into the pond.
Within seconds, Sakari scrambled out of the water. She bent the water from her clothes and hair in a smooth, one-handed motion, sending it back into the pond. She looked around frantically. Her gaze found Jinora and her expression seemed to catch between triumph and distress. “Jinora, I’m so sorry!” she yelled, rushing over to the airbender.
“I’m fine, it’s okay,” Jinora said, starting to get off the ground.
Sakari grabbed her friend’s elbow, helping her up. “You were dodging so much that I stopped holding back. I honestly didn’t think I would hit you.”
Jinora chuckled as she straightened up, then flinched and rubbed her arm. “I’ll have a bruise or two tomorrow, but I’m really okay.”
From her vantage point, Korra couldn’t see Jinora’s face, but Sakari didn’t seem especially convinced. “Are you sure?” She squinted, looking Jinora up and down, then grabbed her wrists. “You skinned your palms,” she said, “they’re bleeding a little.”
Jinora looked down at her hands and blinked. “Oh. I guess they are.” She paused, as though unsure what to do with that information.
Korra got the sense that none of the airbender kids were especially well-acquainted with hitting the ground. It made sense.
"Let me help," Sakari said. She waved a hand and bent a small bubble of water over from the pond. When it reached her, she concentrated on it for a moment, purifying the water. After a few seconds, she said, "Give me your hands."
Jinora hesitated, then held her palms out. Sakari divided the bubble of water into two and laid them over Jinora’s hands. Immediately, the water started to glow.
“Woah.” Jinora and Korra whispered at the same moment.
Sakari half-glanced at the woods where Korra was hidden before refocusing on Jinora. “I know how to heal, at least enough for this,” she said. “I learned from Katara, and she’s the best.”
“That’s so cool,” Jinora said, peering down at her hands through the glowing water.
Korra agreed, frankly. She wished she could get closer, but she really couldn’t chance it with how close they already were. Her muscles were already getting a little sore from holding so still. But… if Sakari had learned healing, then Korra would know how to heal if she’d been raised at the South Pole.
She looked down at her hands and sighed. She’d never received a vision of Aang using waterbending to heal. Not that he was being especially useful when it came to airbending, but it would have been interesting at least.
After a minute of healing, Sakari pulled the water back. “There you go,” she said. “Good as new.”
Jinora turned her hands over and peered at them curiously. “That was really interesting,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
Korra quietly sighed from the bushes. She wanted to learn so many things: airbending, metalbending, chi-blocking, and now healing? She didn’t have time for all the cool skills in the world! Why couldn’t the Red Lotus have found her an extra master or two?
Back in the clearing, Sakari was stammering over another apology for hitting Jinora. Eventually, Jinora turned and Korra watched a sly look come over her face. “It’s fine, Sakari,” she said. “Actually, I have a challenge for you to try.”
“A challenge?” Sakari perked up at that and followed Jinora over towards the spinning gates. The wind shifted, blowing Korra’s bangs back from her forehead. It was getting strong enough that the gates were already turning slowly, rattling when gusts came through.
Korra relocated to a better position in the woods as Jinora explained how they worked, then demonstrated in the same way she had for Korra’s tour.
“If you can make it through,” Jinora finished up, “that’s the basics of moving like an airbender.”
Sakari grinned. “Oh, I’ve totally got this!”
From the woods, Korra chuckled. “Good luck, kid,” she whispered.
Jinora had a grin on her face as Sakari jogged up to the gates. “Ready?”
The first time, Sakari moved in like a waterbender, trying to flow with the rhythm of the gates. Except the gates didn’t really have a rhythm. After a couple of steps, she smacked into one, which quickly became four as they tossed her out.
Sakari immediately leapt to her feet. “Let me try again!”
Jinora shrugged. “Alright.” She set them spinning again.
The second time, Sakari seemed to be trying the circle-walking that Jinora had shown her earlier. She made it another step farther before getting tossed out and landing flat on her back.
Sakari tried a few more times with no notable improvements. Her temper, on the other hand, seemed to be rising. She stalked over to the gates and glared at them.
“Did you want to go again?” Jinora asked. She seemed to be hiding a smile.
Sakari kicked one of the gates, sending it spinning. “No,” she grumbled. She looked back at Jinora and squinted. “I’m getting the sense that this was a challenge you knew I wouldn’t win.”
Jinora stepped back and hunched her shoulders. “Oh, sorry, I may have thought it would be a little funny…”
Heaving a melodramatic sigh, Sakari walked over and gave Jinora a light push. Though Jinora was younger, they were the same height. “I guess it’s only fair,” she said. “We both have bruises now.”
Jinora’s shoulders fell back into place. She tugged at her hair. “I guess so,” she said.
Sakari was about to say something else when a rustling noise drew their attention. Over near the main building, a bush seemed to be highly agitated. Korra tilted her head, trying to figure out what was happening.
A beat later, Naga burst out from the bush. Ikki and Meelo were riding on top of her and although Meelo yelled, “CHARGE!” Naga had stopped abruptly. She put her nose in the air and sniffed urgently.
Korra leapt to her feet on instinct, trying to figure out why all her senses were telling her to run.
Then Naga put her nose down and looked right at Korra’s hiding place.
The wind had shifted.
Naga charged right toward her.
Korra turned and sprinted for the edge of the island, no longer caring about stealth. They probably weren’t looking at her anyway, given the charging polar bear dog.
She reached the edge and leapt off. In the seconds before she hit the water, Korra could still hear Naga behind her, struggling to catch up.
Then she hit the water and dove deep, using waterbending to get away from the area in case Naga decided to go for a swim and take the airbender kids along with her. Once she’d circled back around to where she’d landed before, she came up to the surface again.
Naga… Korra sat back against the rocky side of the island and closed her eyes. The dog was clearly drawn to her for some reason. She paused. Maybe… Naga recognized her, remembered her? Was it possible…
“No way,” Korra breathed.
Distantly, she remembered picking up a small white puppy in a blizzard, her first memory.
A few other memories of the puppy surfaced. Feeding the poor thing, wanting it to sleep in her bed, and maybe… maybe something about her parents not wanting her to keep it?
Maybe she’d named it too. Maybe that’s why the name ‘Naga’ felt familiar.
“So… it doesn’t just sound like a dog’s name,” Korra grumbled to herself. “It is a dog’s name. Great.”
Briefly, she imagined telling Asami her real name so Asami could stop using the wrong one.
Korra looked up, seeking a distraction. Out at the dock, she could see Mako, Bolin, and Sakari getting on a boat with Naga. Tenzin and a few shorter people, maybe his children, were gathered on the dock. She couldn’t see all that clearly.
But still. Korra got to her feet. An electric feeling ran through her veins. If they were all leaving, the gates would be unattended.
A stiff breeze tugged on Korra’s clothes and sent her hair flying.
After her third attempt, Korra stopped and recited some of Guru Laghima’s poetry. New bruises called for her attention, but she was used to focusing around minor injuries.
“I can do this,” she breathed, stepping forward with the next gust to enter the gates. Like Jinora had, she kept her hands up with her elbows close to her torso. Following the pattern of steps, as best she could remember it, Korra consciously kept her feet light, but she felt sluggish, just barely staying away from the gates.
They weren’t even spinning as fast as Jinora made them go. How was she supposed to make it through if she couldn’t stay ahead of them at half speed?
As soon as the doubt hit, Korra crashed into one. One gate quickly turned into three, then five. Then she was out on her ass again.
“Augh!” Korra clenched her hands. It would have been nice to set the spinning evil things on fire, but that would draw attention in a seriously bad way.
She stalked around to the other side. Airbending was about approaching from different angles, not just charging through. Korra took a deep breath, but it wasn’t steady. She unclenched her hands and tried quoting some Guru Laghima poetry to herself, but it felt even more awkward than before. Fruitless practices with Zaheer had led to no more airbending than she’d started with.
“A vision would be handy right now, Aang,” she murmured, closing her eyes. “Airbending. Freedom. Poetry. Circle walking and spinning gates. Whatever will make it click.”
For a beat, the air seemed to move between her fingers.
Korra’s eyes snapped open, but then she saw the gates moving. It was just the wind again. “Thank a lot,” she said. “You’re super inconsistent, you know that?” She charged towards the gates again, hoping to make up for technique with speed.
The wind shifted right as she entered and the first gate smacked her in the forehead.
Sprawled out, Korra sat up and glared. “Lots of handy visions telling me to make friends and be myself, but actual airbending instruction is awfully absent.” No response came but a softening of the wind. “I’ve been dedicated to freedom my whole life,” Korra said, getting to her feet. “What am I getting wrong?”
“Hello? Is someone here?” A familiar voice (was it Tenzin’s?) rang out from near the building.
Korra turned around and sprinted off the island again, this time staying underwater until she reached Republic City. Waterbending provided some level of peace, but she remained agitated as she wandered around, absently grabbing a cheap dinner from a street vendor.
When she’d passed by the arena three times, each time half-hoping to run into Sakari, Korra decided to head back to the apartment. Halfway there, she passed by a street-stand selling masks and paused. The seller was just starting to pack up, probably so she could get everything put away in time for curfew.
Korra blinked. The vision took her by surprise in a flash of white.
Aang was chained up. It felt wrong to see him imprisoned. The room was decorated in old-style Fire Nation designs.
Aang was struggling with his bonds when he looked up suddenly. Korra could hear noises coming from the hallway. Abruptly, the sounds of struggle stopped. Then came the sound of a key turning in a lock.
A figure in a blue mask ran in, brandishing twin swords. Aang screamed and flinched, but the newcomer merely cut his bonds. Aang pulled his arms back in surprise and his rescuer came closer and cut the other chains.
“Who are you? What's going on?” Aang asked, “Are you here to rescue me?”
He received no response, but the masked figure opened the door and motioned for him to follow.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” Aang said, following after.
Korra blinked and glanced around to catch her bearings. Thankfully, Aang hadn’t sent her the vision in the middle of the road.
The mask merchant was still packing up. Korra jogged forward when she recognized the blue mask from her vision. “Excuse me!” she called. “Can I take a look at this mask?”
The merchant turned. She raised an eyebrow. “This one?” She pointed at the mask, which was blue with white features.
Korra nodded. “Yeah, uh, what’s its history?”
The seller handed it to her, then leaned back. “Well, it used to be much more popular than it is now. This is the mask that the evil water spirit wears in ‘Love Amongst the Dragons,’ an old Fire Nation play.” The seller tucked some hair behind her ear. “The play is a bit old fashioned, and it’s not very popular anymore, what with better relations between the Fire Nation and Water Tribes.”
“Huh, I’ve never heard of it,” Korra said. She turned the mask over in her hands. The details weren’t all identical to the one from the vision, but it was clearly intended to be the same character. “What made the water spirit so evil?”
“He cursed the dragon emperor to be trapped in a mortal form or something.” The seller shrugged. “Sometimes schools in the Fire Nation boroughs put the play on and I sell a few masks for it. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned design though.”
She felt an odd pressure from her spiritual plane, like she was being urged on.
“I’ll take it,” Korra said impulsively. She paid the woman and went on her way, not quite sure why she’d bought it.
Once she was around the corner, Korra ducked down an alley. She glanced around before looking down at the mask. She turned it over in her hands and looked at the inside of it. The eye holes seemed to glow a little.
She brought it up to her face and stepped into another vision.
Zuko chuckled. “My mother took us to see Love Amongst the Dragons every year,” he said. “My sister always made me play the evil water spirit when we played together.”
She blinked and it was Zuko again, but older. He looked about twenty, and was wearing the Fire Lord’s hairpiece. Beside him, Aang sipped some tea. He blanched and set it down. “You never did explain why you picked the Blue Spirit as your alter ego,” he said.
“Huh.” Zuko sipped his tea and frowned. “I chose the mask because it reminded me of old times,” he said. “I put it on that day when I rescued you, and time and time again after that, to act when banished Prince Zuko could not.” He smiled. “It felt thematically appropriate as I was chasing you too,” he said. “I was chasing the Avatar, trying to bring this spiritual figure down to the mortal plane. Ultimately, I discarded the mask when I was ready to merge the masked persona with myself, to reconcile the prince with the rebel spirit.”
Aang snickered. “We probably would have reacted a lot differently if you had showed up at the Western Air Temple wearing a mask like that,” he said.
Zuko rolled his eyes. “I immediately screwed everything up again when Azula showed up, but… at least at first, bringing those identities together was an act of discarding the prince part, not the mask part.”
The vision vanished and Korra found she was holding the mask tightly to her face. She lessened her grip, but didn’t take it off. Once the white light faded from her sight, she found she could actually see through it fairly well.
Tentatively, she tied it on. It fit snugly, though Korra would have preferred having a headband or hood on to cushion it a little more. She took it off and turned it around before stashing it in a pocket and starting to head home.
She noticed, tonight in particular, how people looked over their shoulder as they packed up shop. Curfew hadn’t even descended and the city felt jumpy.
Especially the guy walking about half a block ahead of her. Korra’s eyes narrowed as she watched him look around suspiciously. She recognized the body language. It was the way she walked when she was tailing someone, except Korra had been trained to do it less obviously.
Farther ahead of him was a nervous man who kept glancing around, but with no purpose. He seemed anxious, but without enough focus to realize he was being followed.
Sure enough, a block later she watched the suspicious guy hurry up and follow the nervous man down a narrow side street.
Korra jogged to catch up. Before she turned the corner, she found herself fingering the edge of the Blue Spirit mask. She hesitated, then peered around the corner.
The scene was weirdly predictable. Suspicious guy had pulled a rock out of the street and was bending it into a spike as he demanded the other guy’s money.
Korra slipped the mask on and burst around the corner with fire in her hands. It took only a few seconds to scorch the mugger’s boots and send him scrambling. He dropped the wallet as he ran away and Korra picked it up, then tossed it to the victim.
“T-thank you,” the man said, still trembling.
Korra resisted the urge to reply. She just nodded, then ran down the side street and ducked down a series of alleys until she wound up back on a main street.
She yanked the mask off her face and wiped the sweat off her brow. Her heart was pounding as she started back toward the apartment.
She couldn’t keep herself from smiling.
She picked up the pace, going from a fast walk to a jog, then an all-out sprint as she laughed into the wind.
For once, Korra felt like the Avatar.
She had been able to step in and help someone. It had been simple. Nothing complicated to solve. No need to kill anyone or stop and have an identity crisis over it.
She’d just done the right thing. It felt good and she laughed again as she slowed her pace. Still, the wind caught her hair and Korra’s fingers twitched to summon a fire in her palm. She’d picked fire on instinct. Earth would have torn up the street and she didn’t have any water on hand. It was fitting too, to subvert the ‘evil water spirit’ role with some firebending. Plus, it set an entirely separate identity for her to use as-needed.
The thought gave her pause. Korra smiled. She didn’t need to be dressed as herself to act as herself.
Korra checked that the mask was tucked in her pocket. Before heading inside, she glanced out at the bay. The light at the top of Air Temple Island was just barely visible.
Korra went right to her room when she got inside. She crouched and stashed the mask with a set of black stealth clothes. Before she went back to the main room, she smiled down at the supplies. It would be prudent, after all, to have a costume for attending finals. Zaheer had said that Korra couldn’t go, but he hadn’t said anything about spirits.
* * *
Asami rubbed at her eyes. She didn’t need a mirror to know there were circles under them. But, frankly, she wasn’t sure she deserved sleep after the meeting.
Briefly, she thought of Sakari. The kid was thirteen. Asami had dragged her into the Equalists’ spotlight.
She picked up a wrench and smashed it against her workbench before going back to making notes. She’d been using the wrench for that purpose for the past several hours.
When she finished making notes for her current round of testing, she found her mind a little clearer. Just a bit. The testing didn’t require an undue amount of focus, but it was distracting in its own right.
Across the workshop, she had a standard satomobile prototype idling. Aiming at it with her new invention, she grit her teeth and fired.
A prong shot out, trailing a fine wire behind it. When the prong hit the satomobile, it stuck to the surface. Asami hesitated a moment before pressing a second button.
Sparks flew where the prong was attached to the satomobile. Then the idling stopped.
Asami approached and wound the device back up. She gave the satomobile a quick inspection to make sure it hadn’t been damaged, then allowed herself a smile. The systems had stopped, but with no immediate damage to them.
That was the goal. It would have been simple enough to create a general-area device, something that would shut down all electronics in a certain radius. But anything like that would mess with her own equipment as much as an enemy’s.
What Asami wanted was something targeted. A device that would hit what it should and take out only the system she wanted it to.
The thought made her think of the Fire Ferrets. She’d been so angry in the meeting, but she hadn’t wanted them caught in the crossfire. She’d meant to make her mother back off, to push back against her.
She sat down on the dusty floor and set her invention down beside her. Asami buried her face in her hands. There was no reason to involve an innocent thirteen-year-old, bender or not. She would have been in plenty of danger anyway, playing in finals.
But no, Asami had to get her specifically targeted.
She wished she were at her workbench, so she could hit it with the wrench again. If her mother hadn’t challenged her, hadn’t just let Asami be, then she wouldn’t have said anything about Sakari.
Asami bit her lip. Her mother hadn’t made her say anything.
She needed to be responsible for her own actions.
Asami leaned her forehead against her knees. The Fire Ferrets were benders, yeah, but they lived at the arena. She hadn’t realized people lived there when the Equalists were plotting their attack on the place. It was home to at least three people.
Three decent people, benders or not. Mako and Bolin had taken the kid in and treated her like their own sister when they already didn’t have a lot. Naga hadn’t seemed to notice, but Asami recognized that it was an extremely modest living space, nice view aside.
The Fire Ferrets were more of an intact family than Asami and her mother were lately, now that she thought of it.
She didn’t want to see them hurt. It was bad enough that they’d be playing Tahno…
Asami blinked, then got to her feet. Amon and Liu were supposed to come onto the the main stage and take out the winning team. It was going to be the perfect display of equalization, to take the bending from the championship team in the moment of their big victory.
She couldn’t do anything for the Fire Ferrets if they won. Amon would have them and that was that.
But Asami honestly wasn’t sure who would win a match-up between the Wolfbats and the Fire Ferrets. Each team had their strengths and weaknesses. And of course she’d prefer the Fire Ferrets to win, but… knowing what was waiting for them along with that victory, Asami found herself hoping they would lose.
And if they lost, especially if it was a knockout, then Mako, Bolin, and Sakari would all be off-stage.
Maybe, just maybe, she could do something for them then. They were talented benders. Buying them a bit of time might give them a chance to escape.
Not a huge chance, but enough.
Asami would just have to ensure they lost, and badly. She started walking to the door, grabbing her coat as she went.
She could talk to Liu and get herself placed on the squad set to go after the losing team at finals. That would put her in a place to run interference, to maybe ‘let’ them escape.
At the workshop door, she hesitated and glanced back at her invention. It was her pet project, something that hit what she wanted it to, something that didn’t cause additional destruction, not even to its own target.
This was a plan that could easily get out of hand. It was one thing to have reservations with the directions the Equalist movement had taken. It was another to actively sabotage their efforts.
Asami pushed the door open. She would need subtlety. Nothing could be traced back to her.
The wind whipped at her hair as she made her way out of the factory complex and started heading toward the arena. She could help the Fire Ferrets, but only if they lost finals. As for ensuring that, well, a well-placed bribe with the referees, combined with the Wolfbats’ play style, would take good care of that.