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Instincts of a Fearful Body

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Chapter Eight: And the Winner is...
(Nobody. Nobody wins.)

Korra wasn’t concerned about security. It would be easy enough to sneak past them with the crowd and enter through the main entrance. It would be even easier to pickpocket a ticket off of the many people milling around the main doors. She peered down at them from the roof. Really now, security ought to know better than to let the crowd bunch up like that.

Security was a joke. Korra’s primary concern was getting spotted by Zaheer and Ghazan. She had picked the lock on the side door the Fire Ferrets had shown her, then kept working her way up until she found a window near the roof.

The night felt uneasy, the wind gusting and rattling a loose windowpane as Korra made her way to the great glass dome that covered the arena. She frowned a little as she approached the rattling windowpane. There seemed to be something stuck in the mechanism, holding it open just a bit.

She went to peer through and bumped the nose of her mask against the glass. “Ow,” she muttered. While visibility was decent, she was still getting used to wearing the thing.

Korra slipped the mask up and put her face to the glass so she could look through.

Her eyes widened. An Equalist was stationed at the edge of the sub-roof that encircled the arena just below the dome. He seemed to be using a tool to secure a large, rolled-up banner just a half step back from the ledge.

She slipped her mask back on and pulled the stopper out of the window. It creaked a bit as she opened it, but the Equalist didn’t seem to hear through the din of the arena’s crowd and the announcer’s excited voice.

Once inside, she carefully replaced the window block exactly as it was. Around the edge of the sub-roof, at regularly-spaced intervals, other Equalists were doing the same task as the one she’d already seen. Korra crouched back into the shadows and considered her options for a moment.

If she could hazard a guess, she’d assume that the Equalists meant to drop the banners at some predetermined signal once they made their big move, whatever it was. Korra didn’t want to call attention to herself, but she also needed to get closer to see the match. The other banner-setters seemed pretty absorbed in their tasks, and they were spaced pretty far apart. From a distance, Korra’s black stealth outfit was probably a decent match for their Equalist uniforms.

Korra kept her footsteps silent as she rushed up on the guard. He only struggled for a moment before her sleeper hold knocked him out. From there, it was simple enough to tie him up with the bolas she found in his belt. She cut off a bit of his sleeve to gag him.

The lights went off. Korra jumped for a second, then relaxed. This was part of the match. Down in the arena, the spotlights had converged on the ring announcer.

“Introducing the challengers,” he said, “The Fire Ferrets!”

Korra smiled as Mako, Bolin, and Sakari walked out. Bolin did some sort of trick with his pet before the spotlight on them went out.

The announcer sounded distinctly more enthused as he declared, “And their opponents, the four time defending champions, The Whitefalls Wolfbats!”

A spotlight appeared on the Wolfbats, who were dressed in some seriously bizarre wolfbat costumes. Korra raised an eyebrow. She wasn’t sure whether or not dressing after the moniker of your team was common, but she wouldn’t call herself a fan of the practice, personally. They looked ridiculous.

The crowd hushed as the teams set up for the match. Korra glanced around. Even the Equalistsaround the ring seemed to be focused down below. She wasn’t sure what cue they were waiting on, but since they weren’t looking at her, she might as well watch the match.

If she was lucky, maybe she’d get to see Sakari knock Tahno’s ass offstage.

The match started off well enough. Korra silently cheered on the Fire Ferrets, Sakari in particular. From the beginning, her sister seemed to be in top form. Korra grinned when she managed to knock the Wolfbats’ firebender back one zone.

From there, however, things quickly disintegrated. The Wolfbats pulled off a couple of nasty moves that looked pretty sketchy from where she was, but the ref didn’t call anything.

Then Sakari went off-balance suddenly, lifting her foot like the disc was moving under it. Korra whispered, “No,” when Sakari looked down. A breath later, Tahno hit her with a long arc of water that sent Sakari careening past Bolin in zone three and all the way off the stage.

Mako and Bolin played well, but defensively, until the clock ran out, leaving both of them right on the edge of zone three

Korra gripped the ledge and grit her teeth. She was too far away to honestly say whether or not the Wolfbats were outright cheating, but it certainly didn’t look like a fair match to her.

As round two started, Sakari seemed to have recovered from her bad knockout. She almost seemed to be playing better, dodging faster.

For a moment, Korra thought she saw hints of circle walking in Sakari’s stride. Mako and Bolin seemed to have regained their momentum as well, working in tandem to launch a series of attacks that knocked the Wolfbats back a zone.

Despite the Fire Ferrets’ excellent showing, however, they were faring poorly against the Wolfbats’ growing repertoire of dirty tricks. Korra found herself seething as she watched several attempted headshots and even a broken up earth disc mixed in with Tahno’s water.

For a moment, she reached out her hand. Most benders didn’t have the ability to move the elements so far away from them, but most benders weren’t the Avatar. She could give the Fire Ferrets a hand and even out the match.

After a beat, she lowered her hand. It was a bad idea, and would potentially just get the Fire Ferrets in trouble for fouls they hadn’t committed. As it was, the ref seemed to have it out for them.

Korra heaved a sigh of relief when the match ended in a close tie. The Fire Ferrets hadn’t lost yet.

“Round two will be decided with a tie-breaker,” the announcer declared.

The referee tossed a coin in the air, but seemed to pause a moment before he revealed it. His hand twitched. Korra squinted. She wasn’t very good at sleight of hand, but she could recognize a cheat when she saw it.

“The Whitefalls Wolfbats win the coin toss,” the referee declared.

“Of course,” Korra muttered.

“What element do you choose?” the referee asked.

The blood drained from Korra’s face as Tahno tossed his hair and stepped forward. “C’mon, Sakari,” he called, “it’s time to quit playing in the kiddie pool.”

Sakari visibly startled at the sound of her name. Korra tried to imagine stepping up for a public one-on-one bout when she was thirteen. Her gut clenched as she watched her sister stride forward into the center circle.

They took up their stances and gauged one another for a moment. Tahno made a gesture that looked like an asshole way of saying, ‘give me your best shot’ and said something Korra couldn’t hear.

Before he’d withdrawn his arm, Sakari surged into action. A pair of blows arced toward Tahno, who dodged the first and captured the momentum of the second.

He ducked Sakari’s third blow and stayed low to the ground as he sliced his arm in front of him. Water swept Sakari’s feet out from under her.

As she scrambled to her knees, she kicked a hard thrust of water up toward his face. Tahno’s helmet flew off his head, but not before his own attacks landed solidly on Sakari’s shoulders.

She went spinning backward off the platform and landed heavily on the stage.

“Round two goes to the Wolfbats!” the announcer cried.

The crowd went wild, split between cheers and booing.

Korra hissed. If the opportunity arose, she would cherish the chance to meet Tahno in a dark alley and show him some serious waterbending. He was a bully, however talented.

Bolin helped Sakari to her feet while Mako stood in front with his arms crossed, glaring at the Wolfbats.

Korra attempted to calm herself and slip into the spiritual plane. There was a chance she could listen there and hear Bolin and Sakari’s quiet conversation.

Unfortunately, the requisite calm refused to make itself apparent. But Sakari gave Bolin a solid nod and the Fire Ferrets assumed their positions for the last round. They were down, 2-0. Unless the Fire Ferrets notched a total knockout, they would lose.

Round three felt doomed from the start. Emboldened by the referee’s apathy to their tactics, the Wolfbats engaged in more and more blatant cheating. Mako and Bolin managed a combo that knocked the Wolfbats’ earthbender into zone three, but then the ref dinged Mako for a completely nonexistent headshot foul and made him move back.

Sakari seemed a little slower, and Korra could tell she was favoring the shoulder she’d fallen on. Not long after Mako’s foul, Tahno and the Wolfbats’ firebender launched a series of attacks that pinned her against the ropes, then sent her spiraling offstage.

Korra seethed. Her face felt hot behind her mask. For a moment, she had the urge to turn and complain about the match to Asami.

Except Asami wasn’t there. Korra’s skin crawled. She’d almost forgotten about the real stakes of the finals match.

Right as the timer went off, the Wolfbats notched a dirty knockout that sent both Mako and Bolin out of zone two and into the water below. Korra knew better than to expect the ref to call the foul. Sakari had already swam to the platform and was leaning heavily against a pillar as she healed her shoulder.

“And the Whitefalls Wolfbats are the winners! Take a look at your champions, folks,” the announcer cried. “For the fifth time running, the Wolfbats are victorious!”

Korra bit her lip and muttered a few choice words. Then a spark caught her attention from the corner of her eye.

She’d noted the police standing at each of the doors. Now, she saw them convulse and drop to the floor. All around the arena, sparks flew. Several dozen audience members seemed to have smuggled in electrified gloves. Then the center platform of the stage began to drop.

The announcer was slow on the uptake, but Korra immediately recognized the Equalist plan going into motion.

Her blood chilled as she listened to the announcer getting knocked out in his booth. Korra glanced nervously at the other Equalists stationed at the banners. One of them raised their head and started to turn toward her. She immediately ducked down and stared at the banner release.

From the side, her black outfit casually resembled an Equalist’s uniform, but the mask definitely did not.

Down below, Mako and Bolin were treading water. They seemed confused. Sakari had stopped healing her shoulder, but had kept the water on-hand.

Korra refocused on the stage as the crowd burst into frightened murmurs. Amon and six Equalists were rising up with the center platform.

Tahno took a step back. “What’s going on here, ref?”

“I don’t know!” The referee looked equally shaken.

Tahno took another step back, then grounded his stance. “Alright,” he said, “You want a piece of the Wolfbats? Be my guest!”

He sent a water whip zipping toward Amon’s face, but Amon dodged easily and raced forward. By the time the Wolfbats’ firebender and earthbender had launched attacks, Amon was already engaged with Tahno at close quarters.

Korra wanted to look away. The biggest advantage of benders versus non-benders was ranged attacks and maintaining control of the distance in combat. Tahno had lost that, which meant Tahno had lost.

She couldn’t look away though, not as the Wolfbats were easily subdued and pinned, waiting for Amon.

“Wait, please don't do this!” Tahno begged. “I'll give you the championship pot, I... I'll give you everything just please don't take my bending!”

Korra’s vision flashed with white and a series of images from Aang, mostly unclear. She saw a courtroom and an older man. His eyes twitched and he laughed. Then she saw an older Sokka arc his back in pain.

She came back to the present as Tahno hit the ground. Korra recoiled and tried to steady her breathing, tried to think of something useful to do.

Briefly, she tried to reach for the spiritual plane. If Amon’s power came from the spirits, surely she’d be able to sense something. As she watched the rest of the Wolfbats lose their bending, however, Korra felt nothing. She wasn’t sure if it was because she was too agitated to reach the spiritual plane or if there was just nothing to sense.

Korra glanced toward the Fire Ferrets’ side of the arena as the Equalists dropped the Wolfbats offstage. Her eyes widened at the sight of several Equalists surrounding Sakari. Mako and Bolin were still in the water.

A bit of motion in her peripheral vision distracted her. A beat too late, she recognized it as the banners dropping. She fumbled for the switch and pulled it, releasing her banner only a little late.

She turned to see if any of the other Equalists had noticed her slip just in time to spot three of them racing toward her. Either the banner had cued them in, or they’d just finally noticed she was wearing the wrong mask.

“Maintain distance,” Korra whispered to herself. She backed away from the ledge, glad that the mask hid the fear on her face as she kicked out a series of fiery arcs toward her attackers. She needed to deal with them quickly so she could get down to Sakari.

They all dodged the first arc, but her second managed to catch two of them and knock them back. The frontrunner just ducked and kept rushing forward, swinging a set of bolas.

Korra stomped a foot down, sending out a wave of fire along the floor. The Equalist jumped high above it and threw the bolas. Korra had already moved forward, under their trajectory. As the Equalist landed, she grounded herself and launched a fireball toward them.

It connected and send her attacker flying back, right into the maintenance box near where she’d entered the dome. She saw them slump and turned to focus her attention on the other two.

While she’d been fighting the first Equalist, they had spread out and were coming at her from a wide angle so she couldn’t hit them both at once.

She thought of Ghazan as she swept the floor in a kick that coated the space between her and the Equalists in a flash of fire. Lava-bending only worked with earth, but some of its combat strategies worked well enough with regular fire.

Sure enough, her attackers paused a beat. Korra charged one and took her out with a burst of fire. The Equalist hurtled through the glass dome and crashed to the roof outside.

Her last opponent had closed the distance between them and the fire died down. Korra felt a stab of anxiety as she parried a series of rapid-fire strikes. She did not want to get chi-blocked. She did not want the Equalist so close to her.

She leapt back toward the ledge with the banner to gain some space and sent a trio of fireballs toward her pursuer.

Then someone kicked the backs of her knees. Korra cursed herself as she hit the floor. She’d landed near the first Equalist she’d tied up, but hadn’t realized he’d woken up already. Still lying on the ground, he pulled his trussed legs back for another kick.

Korra rolled out of the way, just in time to dodge her other attacker. The fireballs hadn’t slowed them at all. As they turned to strike, she got to her feet in a circular fire kick and blasted them toward the ledge.

The Equalist teetered a moment. Korra’s heart stopped. She reached out a hand as her attacker lost their balance and fell backwards, down toward the stands below.

She raced to the edge, terrified that she’d see a still body crushed over the seats.

She heaved a sigh of relief when she saw that the Equalist had grabbed the banner during their fall. Not dead then.

But now wasn’t exactly the time to dwell on that. She’d figure out emotions later. Her priority was finding Sakari and making sure the Fire Ferrets got out of the arena.

She sprinted toward the ledge and jumped. For a breath, Korra relished the moment of falling. It was almost like flying, almost like airbending.

Then she punched her hands down by her sides and sent out a blast of fire behind her, controlling her trajectory and aiming right for Sakari and the Equalists around her.

* * *

Asami peered through the doorway, then pulled back. “The girl was knocked out earlier, so we’ll need to subdue her separately. She’s already out of the water.”

“It’s not a huge change of plan,” Liu said. He adjusted the set of his goggles. “I’ll shock the water to incapacitate the men. You can lead the rush on the girl.”

Biting her lip behind her mask, Asami was glad Liu couldn’t read her face. She paused a beat longer, then asked, “Can we switch?”

He frowned at her. “Why?”

“I… I’ve never run lead on a combat portion before,” she said. It wasn’t a lie. “Can you lead the others on Sakari? I’ll shock the water with my gloves.”

Voltage numbers rushed through her head. Liu didn’t know them well enough, but Asami knew that the gloves didn’t have the power to incapacitate Mako and Bolin for long, not at a distance like this. Liu’s kali sticks had a private generator. She’d designed it version herself.

If Mako and Bolin woke up soon enough, they could grab Sakari and escape. Maybe.

A spark caught the corner of Asami’s eye. She and Liu turned at the same time to glance through the doorway. Around the edges of the arena, sparks were flying.

Liu cursed quietly. “That’s the signal,” he said. “We need to move now.”

Before Asami could ask if they were switching, he’d signaled the retrieval team to follow him. “Hit the water with both gloves,” he said as he dashed through the door, the other Equalists behind him.

Asami kept her focus on the water as she sprinted through the doorway. Even still, she could see Sakari in the corner of her eye. Despite the surprise attack, she was (barely) managing to hold her ground.

Mako and Bolin had started swimming for the platform. Asami bit her lip again as she crouched by the edge of the water and sent a pair of shocks through her gloves. “Sorry,” she breathed.

The brothers convulsed and screamed for a moment before passing out. Asami grabbed the line from her belt and started to pull them in.

Behind her, she heard Sakari cry out. She turned to see that Liu had run a shock along some water on the floor. The girl crumpled and the retrieval team swept in to chi-block and secure her for transport.

If she’d been hit with one of Liu’s shocks, at her size, there was no way she’d wake up in time to escape. Asami huffed as she heaved Mako’s frame out of the water and onto the platform. If the boys woke up in time, she could let them overwhelm her and then go rescue Sakari.

Everything would be fine.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,” Asami murmured as she hefted Mako against a column.

“What was that?” One of the retrieval team appeared beside her and immediately started pulling Bolin out of the water.

“Nothing,” Asami said.

For a moment, it was quiet around them, save for Amon’s speech. He had taken out the Wolfbats while Asami’s group made their move. She allowed herself some bitter satisfaction at the thought of Tahno sans bending. If anyone deserved it, it was him. Him and the triads and anyone who used their powers to bully and oppress others.

She didn’t pay attention to Amon’s speech; she’d heard a couple others like it. They had just managed to heave Bolin’s bulky frame against the same column as Mako when Asami heard a strange noise from above, like a burst of fire.

She looked up and stared. Around the arena, the crowd burst into murmurs that briefly overrode Amon’s speech.

A masked firebender, clad in black, had leapt from the ceiling by one of the Equalist banners. Asami only knew she was a firebender because, a second after jumping, she’d sent out a powerful burst of fire behind her.

For a moment, Asami could only gape at the sight. The bender was using fire to direct her flight through the air. Even as she watched, incredulous at the sight, part of Asami was calculating and estimating the masked bender’s flight path.

Her blood ran cold. The bender was headed right for them.

“Dammit, they can fly too?” The Equalist next to Asami grumbled, reaching for his bolas.

Asami didn’t respond. The firebender was upon them.

Coming out of the sky like some sort of spirit, she landed on the platform bathed in flames. Three members of the retrieval team rushed her as she landed and were immediately thrown back by a powerful burst of fire that rolled out as she punched the ground.

For a beat, something seemed off about the pose. Asami could almost hear Naga in her ear, saying something about earthbending stances.

Then the firebender looked up and Asami watched the blue and white mask sweep across the platform and stop at Sakari. The bender rushed forward.

Liu was almost done tying up Sakari. “We have to hurry,” Asami said. She and the other Equalist worked together to tie Mako and Bolin to the post as another pair of Equalists ran forward to meet the firebender, gloves raised.

“Please no,” Asami whispered. She’d sabotaged some of the retrieval team’s gloves so that Mako and Bolin had a chance to escape.

Asami held her breath as the glove sparked, then died. The firebender seemed to hesitate a moment, surprised it hadn’t worked. Then she came in with a sweeping kick and a burst of fire that sent her opponents tumbling hard across the platform and into the water.

“Finish securing the benders. I’ll take her out.” The chi-blocker who had been helping Asami took off running. No glove meant there was nothing to sabotage. Maybe he could disable the firebender.

But the masked fighter seemed determined to maintain distance. She flipped and whirled, leaving trails of fire on the ground as she refused to let the chi-blocker get any closer. A few seconds later, the firebender had knocked him into a column, hard. He slumped and didn’t move.

In the corner of her eye, Asami saw Liu pick up Sakari and move her to the doorway. They were ready to mobilize and escape.

The bender glanced that way, then turned away from Sakari and charged at Asami next.

Asami flexed her gloves and pushed down her fear as she stepped forward to meet the bender. Immediately, the firebender tried to control the distance, sending out a sweeping cascade of fire.

Asami ducked under it and maintained momentum. The firebender sent out another set of fireballs, but Asami kept moving. If her opponent wanted her to be far away, then Asami’s priority was to disrupt that strategy.

In a matter of moments, she was in range. Her gloves weren’t sabotaged. She slid forward and moved to shock the bender, who just barely dodged out of the way. The motion was delayed, as though she hadn’t expected Asami’s gloves to actually work.

She recovered quickly, however. A set of punches, followed up with an elbow strike that nearly clipped Asami’s jaw and sent a wave of fire where her face had just been.

The move left the bender overextended. Asami reached out to shock her, sparks flying off her glove. Right before she could strike, the bender pivoted.

Asami felt a hard blow across her face and felt her goggles fly off, but didn’t feel herself hit the ground.

She came back to consciousness a moment later. It could only have been a moment, because Asami woke up staring at a blue mask crouched over her. The bender was close enough that Asami could see her eyes matched her mask. Asami couldn’t move for another long second, but she blinked and noticed her hands felt empty.

Before she could retaliate, the bender pulled back and kicked her into the water. The blow wasn’t hard, but Asami seemed to drift farther from the platform than she should have.

Her head hurt so bad. Swimming back felt impossibly slow, like she was swimming through molasses.

Ahead of her, the rest of the retrieval team was closer to the platform, but not close enough to help Liu as the firebender turned her attention to him.

Having set Sakari by the door, Liu was rushing toward the firebender. She seemed to wait longer this time, letting him get closer before she struck. They sparred back and forth for a moment, well-matched and moving too fast for Asami to follow.

Then, strangely, Liu slipped on some water on the platform.

He hit the ground and rolled, but the firebender was a step ahead of him, sending a massive wave of fire at his new spot and sending him sprawling backwards.

The masked bender glanced at Sakari’s tied form by the door, then rushed back to Mako and Bolin. Asami realized they’d woken up and felt glad and conflicted as the firebender pulled out an odd, hooked knife from her boot and cut their bonds.

“Thank you,” Mako said.

The masked firebender only nodded toward the door.

Asami heard Bolin say he would grab Sakari as the three of them started running for the door.

Asami was almost at the platform when they reached Liu. Mako and the masked firebender didn’t say a word, but fell into a decent attack pattern almost immediately.

Liu was holding his own, but the series of blows was keeping him occupied enough that Bolin could duck past. As Asami pulled herself out of the water, she saw him pick up still-unconscious Sakari and call back to Mako, “Bro, we gotta go!”

Asami bobbed in the water as she pulled herself up onto the platform. She blinked and missed some crucial move from the masked firebender. By the time she could follow the fight again, Liu had been knocked back and Mako had retreated to the door. Two of his fingers were outstretched.

“No!” Asami scrambled, but she was too far to do anything but watch as a bolt of lightning left Mako’s fingers and connected with Liu’s body. She watched him convulse for a moment, then fall to the ground.

“How’s it like on the receiving end?” Mako called as he turned on his heel and sprinted out.

Bolin vanished through the doorway, carrying Sakari. Mako wasn’t far behind him. Asami dimly registered the masked firebender backing through the door, covering their escape.

Liu wasn’t getting up. That meant she was in charge. Panic pressed in on her as she tried to process the decisions she needed to make. Amon’s speech was ending, familiar words coming to a close in the background. The arena seemed to echo with too many sounds, all pressing in.

Three members of the retrieval team had gotten out of the water. They started dashing for the door, going after the Fire Ferrets.

“Stop,” Asami called. She looked around, trying to get a headcount on their people as she ran over to Liu. “We’ve lost them,” she said. “Mission priority is a clean extraction. Escape plan B.”

Behind them, she heard the glass dome shatter. Amon would be leaving soon, and with him, their cover. The stadium was under control, held in sway by the Equalists at the exits. Once he left, it would be chaos and they would be trapped in an arena filled with people who either hated or feared them.

She divided up roles in 20 seconds. Two to carry Liu, two to carry another unconscious Equalist, and someone to run rearguard as Asami led them out.

The stadium seemed to tremble as they sprinted down the halls. If someone had told Asami it was an earthquake, she would have believed it. A steady rumble all around them marked trampling feet running for exits. They were going to be cutting it pretty close on a clean escape.

She bruised her shoulder bursting out the side door where they’d parked their van. So much of her hurt that she hardly noticed. They tossed Liu and the other unconscious member inside. Before the doors were even shut, they were barreling down the road, away from the arena.

Asami slumped against the side of van and closed her eyes. Her mission, to let the Fire Ferrets escape, had been a success. But she had never meant it to cost the Equalist mission so badly.

“Asami…”

Her gaze snapped to Liu, lying on the floor. “Don’t sit up too fast,” she said. He immediately tried to. She put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Don’t,” she warned.

He glared at her a moment, then lay back. “Did we get her?” He blinked and squinted, as though just now seeing her properly. “What happened to your goggles?”

“The girl escaped,” Asami said. Her sigh was relief and regret in equal measure. “And my goggles…” she touched her face and winced. Her hand came away with a bit of blood where the goggles had cut into her. “They must have flown off when that firebender kicked me in the face.”

“Are you okay?” Liu looked like he was about to sit up again, so Asami put a hand on his shoulder again.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Don’t sit up.”

He relaxed again. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said. “What matters is that you got us out when we needed to escape. You did well.”

Guilt churned in Asami’s gut as the truck rattled them on their way to a safe house. Part of her was certain that the Fire Ferrets would have escaped no matter what she did. The masked firebender’s interference had been absolutely catastrophic to the Equalists’ plans.

Asami had gotten them out, but her intent from the beginning had never been their success. She had just gotten lucky that the masked firebender had shown up with the same goal and covered her intended sabotage.

“We’ll get her another time,” Liu grunted, closing his eyes.

“Yeah,” Asami said.

She wasn’t sure whether or not she meant it.

* * *

Mako slowed his pace as they rounded a corner. “Wait, where did she go?”

“I dunno. We’ll thank her later.” Bolin hadn’t slowed down at all. He glanced back at Mako urgently. “Bro we gotta go.”

The masked firebender was still nowhere in sight. She’d followed them out the door and covered their escape through the past couple of hallways. Then she’d vanished. Mako hesitated a beat before he put on a burst of speed and caught up with his brother. No time to look now. No time to think now.

Bolin kicked open a side door and ran through, then skidded to a halt. Mako narrowly avoided crashing into him. “I thought we had to go?” Mako snapped.

Then he followed his brother’s gaze upward. Hovering in the sky above the arena, a giant airship had blocked out the stars in the night sky.

Mako felt his heart racing. They had been so close. So close to losing everything all over again. The ground seemed to tremble beneath his feet for a moment and he wondered if they were setting off another bomb. He’d heard the pro-bending stage blow just as they were running out.

Then he realized the shaking ground felt more like… footsteps?

Naga rounded the back corner of the arena, dripping wet with Pabu riding on top of her head.

“Good Pabu! And good Naga!” Bolin declared. “Didn’t we leave her with Ikki and Meelo?” Bolin asked.

“Who cares,” Mako said. They’d left her on Air Temple Island so the finals crowd wouldn’t bother her. Apparently she hadn’t stayed there. “I have never been so happy this dog doesn’t listen.”

It took them a moment to get Naga to stop sniffing Bolin and Sakari frantically, but they eventually managed to clamber on Naga and get her running before the arena started to empty.

Mako still wasn’t sure how to steer the dog. Frankly, he wasn’t sure how Sakari did. But Naga seemed to understand him well enough. He took them north along the bay, past the docks and ferry to Air Temple Island.

“Uh, where are we going?” Bolin asked once Mako turned Naga down a side street to take them inland.

Mako could feel Sakari begin to stir as she woke up. “We’ll go to Tenzin tomorrow. Maybe we can seek shelter with him,” he said. “Tonight… I don’t know if it’s safe there or not.” Nowhere felt safe, but he didn’t say that to Bolin. He paused at an intersection, trying to make sure he remembered the turn. “We’re gonna crash in that old spot of ours off the manufacturing district. Remember the one with the overhang?”

Bolin hesitated a beat. “Yeah,” he said, “I remember.”

When they dismounted, Mako glanced back with a grimace. Hopefully nobody had been following them; Naga had left a trail of droplets almost all the way to their hiding place.

Bolin leaned Sakari against a wall and started clearing out trash and debris from their onetime squat. “Well, at least nobody else has been staying here?” Bolin sounded like he meant it to be jovial, but it just made things sound more sad.

Mako opted not to reply and walked a quick perimeter around the spot. All their old traps, stacked objects and tripwires to alert them if someone bumped into them, had worn out ages ago. Most of them weren’t reparable, but he rigged up a couple as best he could.

He couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched, but there was nothing he could do about it, so he let it go. He wasn’t about to leave Bolin and Sakari chasing a feeling.

Walking back to them, Mako was struck by the contrast of their pro-bending uniforms with their surroundings. Sakari and Bolin practically glowed in the dark with how clean and light their outfits were. It made him want to rub dirt in them, to disguise the three of them somehow.

He and Bolin had always dressed in darker colors for a reason. Mako sighed. “I hope we’re able to go back and get our stuff from the arena tomorrow,” he said.

“Yeah,” Bolin said. “That... that was something else. The Equalists...” He shivered, and Mako didn’t think it was entirely from the cold. “Amon...”

Mako slumped to the ground. “I can’t take any more close calls,” he said. “This is the second time now.”

“It’s a good thing that firebender showed up,” Bolin said. “Those ropes were loose enough we could have gotten out, but I don’t know if it would have been in time...”

“Me neither,” Mako admitted. “Who do you think it could have been? She was really good.”

Bolin considered. “Yeah but... she wasn’t fighting like a pro-bender. We would have recognized somebody else from the circuit.”

“Maybe,” Mako said. He took a breath to say something else, then stopped when Sakari stirred. He moved and knelt down beside her. “Hey kid,” he said, “You okay?”

She groaned. “I feel like… I got the whole arena dumped on top of me.” At the sound of her voice, Naga dropped to the ground and bumped her muzzle against Sakari’s hand.

Bolin chuckled. “Well that’s why lightning isn’t allowed in pro-bending.”

Sakari absently pet Naga for a moment. “What happened?” she asked in a small voice.

Mako met Bolin’s eyes. “There was… there was an attack,” he said. “The Equalists attacked the arena. One of them shocked the water before Bolin and I could get to the platform.” He clenched his jaw. “And then when I woke up, they’d tied us to a post.”

“But that’s when the spirit mask firebender showed up,” Bolin interrupted. When Sakari looked confused, he continued, “When we came to, there was this firebender in a blue mask who was totally kicking Equalist, uh, butt. She’d taken almost all of them out by the time we came to.”

“Anyway,” Mako cut back in, “she cut us loose and the two of us took out the last guy. Bolin grabbed you and we ran out of the arena.” He ruffled the dog’s ears. “Naga and Pabu found us promptly, of course.”

“Of course…” Sakari absently touched her wrists and frowned. “Was… was I tied up too?” she asked.

Mako hesitated a beat, then nodded. “They had you tied up separately from us,” he said. “I’m not sure why.” It had looked almost as though… the Equalists had wanted to take her? Bolin cast him a look, probably thinking the same thing.

Sakari put a hand to her head. “I remember they came out of nowhere. I… I tried holding them off, but one of them had these sticks? He ran a shock through some water on the floor. I think.” She frowned. “And there were sparks flying all around the arena, way above us?”

“We saw that from the water before one of the Equalists shocked us,” Bolin said.

“Wait, is Jinora okay?” Sakari grabbed Mako’s sleeve. “She was watching the match with Tenzin, remember!”

Mako froze. Sakari’s wide eyes looked desperate for confirmation, but he couldn’t give it to her. “I… I have no idea,” he said. He didn’t know if Tenzin was okay either. “Tomorrow we’ll go to Air Temple Island and figure things out.”

“Tomorrow?” Sakari made to sit up. Bolin put a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “Tonight, we all need to rest. You especially.”

She glared at them a moment. Mako was reminded of the faces Bolin would make when he told his brother it was bedtime, back when they still lived on the street.

“Fine,” Sakari said. She yawned. “Tomorrow…” The burst of energy she’d had seemed to disappear completely. She settled into a spot and closed her eyes.

Mako and Bolin sat in silence until her breathing evened out. The furrowed eyebrows, however, did not relax.

Bolin put a hand on Mako’s shoulder. “I’ll take first watch, bro,” he said.

Mako shook his head. “I couldn’t sleep right now anyway, so I might as well stay up. You sleep first. You’ve always been able to fall asleep whenever.”

Bolin argued with him another minute before shaking his head and curling up on the ground next to Sakari. Pabu settled himself in between the two of them and promptly fell asleep.

“Never thought we’d end up back here,” Bolin murmured after a beat.

“Me neither.” Mako leaned his back against the wall and tugged off his pro-bending gloves. He preferred firebending without them anyway.

After a minute, he buried his face in his hands. Everything had fallen apart so fast. They’d dropped from the center of Republic City to the streets. Again.

He looked over at Bolin and Sakari and clenched his hands. He’d sworn to himself that Bolin would never have to sleep in the dirt again. Even if they took shelter with Tenzin at the Air Temple tomorrow, Mako wasn’t sure how quickly he could forgive himself for the failure.

A chill breeze swept through. The streets were colder than he remembered.

* * *

“Everybody! Remain calm as you are processed through the line!”

Ghazan snorted and leaned closer to Zaheer. “Somebody should tell Captain Saikhan to take his own advice,” he whispered. “The guy looks like he’s likely as not to have an aneurism before the night’s over.”

Zaheer raised an eyebrow. The two of them shuffled forward in line. “That would be quite entertaining, actually.”

“Would probably hold up the line though.”

“True.”

They took another two slow steps forward. Ghazan sighed. The police investigation of all exiting attendees was even slower than their sloppy security check on the way in.

“They’re not gonna find anything anyway,” Ghazan muttered. “This attack was well-planned and clearly the Equalists had a way of getting their tech in.”

“It stands to reason they’d have a way of getting it out, along with their people,” Zaheer replied. “But pay attention to how the police treats the crowd here. Then, in particular, how the crowd responds.”

Neither was good. Ghazan didn’t particularly appreciate Zaheer making the already-unbearable line into a teachable moment, but he did watch for a minute. “Yeah, it’s shitty,” he murmured. “But c’mon. We’re expecting that.” He elbowed Zaheer a little as they stepped forward. “Let’s talk about the unexpected. What about the blue-masked firebender, eh?”

They had watched, almost fascinated, as a woman sitting near them pulled a scarf over half her face, then seemed to summon an electrified glove out of nowhere to subdue the crowd. Amon had came out of the stage and done his whole routine. It was interesting enough to see in person, but Ghazan’s attention had shifted focus partway through to the firebender that flew to the Fire Ferrets’ defense down below. Their view of that match hadn’t been great, but Ghazan had seen enough to recognize the vigilante for who she was.

Zaheer didn’t respond. Ghazan elbowed him again. “She seemed… familiar?” He winked. Part of him was proud that Korra had found a way of getting involved anyway. But for now he wanted to know what Zaheer was gonna do about it.

“We shouldn’t talk about that here,” Zaheer said. “Later.”

“Do you think she’ll get home before us?” Ghazan asked.

Zaheer ignored him for a minute. Eventually he said, “Given this line?” The two of them chuckled and shuffled forward again, aiming slightly for one of the younger guards who seemed to be processing people faster. “Almost certainly.”

Ghazan ducked his head when Saikhan passed by. It wouldn’t do to be recognized tonight. Around them, the press of the crowd became more agitated with the captain’s presence. He clearly wasn’t a calming influence.

“Do we confront her about it?” Ghazan asked.

Zaheer’s eye twitched. “We will talk later,” he said. “But… no. In fact, this is an interesting case study for seeing where she stands and how she responds. I’m curious to see where she aligns herself given her new freedom in Republic City.”

Ghazan frowned. “If you say so,” he said. “But I would be wary about leaving these impulses unchecked for too long. I don’t want her to get into too much trouble.” Amon’s powers, demonstrated on the Wolfbats tonight, had been a significant warning. Ghazan resisted the urge to shudder.

“There may come a time when it will be advantageous to bend this new role of hers to our own purposes, but for now we will let her be.” Zaheer smiled. “Republic City could do with a little more chaos.”