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Instincts of a Fearful Body

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Chapter Eleven: When Extremes Meet
(Crossfire Happens)

Korra’s feet made no sound as she ran to the corner of the alley, stopped, and checked the road. A sliver of the moon hung low in the sky, casting the street in a faint light. It meant her and Ming-Hua’s waterbending wasn’t quite as strong as usual, but Tarrlok would be equally affected.

And between the three of them, Korra suspected that she and Ming-Hua would win in a battle of technique.

Korra waited until a drunk passerby had stumbled past before waving Ming-Hua forward. Her teacher was silent as she followed Korra across the street, back into the dim light of another alley.

“Almost here,” Korra murmured. In the distance, she could see a pillar of smoke rising up toward the sky. P’li and Ghazan’s distraction to draw away the police was clearly going well.

“Good. My tolerance for sneaking around at night wanes with each passing year.” Ming-Hua snorted. “Can’t we just kill people during the daytime? High noon assassination, and maybe a nap afterward.”

Korra paused and glanced back. She raised an eyebrow. “Uh huh. Don’t even try to tell me you don’t like the thrill of the night mission, the high of the approach.”

Ming-Hua didn’t answer as they advanced another block. They were almost at the back entrance of Tarrlok’s estate.

“I won’t deny there is a draw,” Ming-Hua eventually answered, “Though I can’t say I’m as enamored as you are.”

Korra glanced at her oddly. “Huh?” She pulled a tendril water out of the leather pouch on her belt and fed it into the lock. They’d decided the best approach was to leave no trace. Leave the front gates untouched so as to leave the mystery of Tarrlok’s death as ominous as possible.

“The thrill. You’ve been going out a lot lately.” Ming-Hua leveled Korra with a look. “It must be nice to be getting so much use out of those stealth clothes.”

A chill ran up Korra’s back as she bent the water inside the lock. “What do you mean?”

Ming-Hua took a step closer so her shoulder nudged against Korra’s arm. “I know you’ve been sneaking out. I don’t need to be present to recognize your handiwork with the Task Force.”

Even distracted, Korra popped the lock open in short order. She’d dropped by at least once a day for a week to practice unlocking and relocking it. “So you know.” Korra kept her voice level as she started pushing the door open. Just because Ming-Hua knew didn’t necessarily mean that Zaheer and the rest did. Still, she’d be wise to start rehearsing how she’d explain things to them.

Thankfully, she didn’t anticipate needing the Blue Spirit mask so much once Tarrlok was out of the picture. The Task Force would fall apart without him.

“I do know.” Ming-Hua stepped up and bumped her hip against Korra’s. It was the equivalent of putting her arm around her shoulder. “I simply hope you will trust us, trust me, more in the future. Times are coming where we will need to rely on one each other and secrets get in the way of that.”

A smile twitched at Korra’s lips. “We’re just a big happy family here.”

Ming-Hua rolled her eyes. “Don’t get carried away. Are you ready for this mission?”

In answer, Korra forged ahead through the door and dashed to the hiding spot behind the shed she’d marked. It was their landing point for inside the estate. Here, they would wait for the guard to pass the kitchen service door and round the corner of the building before taking her out.

As Korra evened her breathing, she fought down a rush of pressure against her chest. She wouldn’t have to kill the guard, just incapacitate her. She’d done the same on other Red Lotus missions before.

The pressure in her chest refused to subside. For a moment, she wondered if she was getting lightheaded. Then it seemed as though the courtyard was lightening.

Finally, she recognized the pull of the vision and tried to resist it. White washed out her view before she could blink.

She recognized the twitching hands and the bulging eyes from before. Now, though, she saw the man they were attached to: A well-dressed man from the Northern Water Tribe.

Korra tried to push the vision away, but it persisted. She saw flashes of what looked like a courtroom. She recognized Sokka, who twitched and seemed to cry out in pain.

“Korra, what are you doing?”

Ming-Hua’s voice brought her back abruptly. Korra blinked and discovered that the guard had rounded the corner several paces ago.

She decided to skip the explanation in favor of rushing the guard. Her feet were less than silent on the grass, but speed was in her favor as the guard turned.

Korra opted for close-quarters and an elbow strike to the jaw. Her hit connected just as fire kindled in the guard’s hand. Korra watched the flame sputter as the woman went limp. She caught the guard’s shoulders on her way down and lowered her to the ground.

Once there, it was quick work to pull a length of cord out of her pocket and tie the guard’s hands behind her back.

“Firebender,” Korra muttered. She rolled the woman toward Tarrlok’s house and set her with her back to the foundation. This way, if anyone looked out the window, they would need to look straight down to see her.

Ming-Hua appeared at her side. “Better late than never, I suppose,” she said, pulling some water from the nearby pond as she did.

“I got her, didn’t I?” Korra stuck her tongue out as, together, they bent the water into ice and secured the guard to the building. It would melt eventually, but in the meantime she was unlikely to go anywhere. If she woke up too soon, she’d have to be very careful in how she let herself loose. Firebending against a building was generally not a great idea.

Ming-Hua didn’t answer, but signaled Korra to take point and move toward the entrance they’d agreed on. Korra started jogging around the building, Ming-Hua close behind her. The side-door to the atrium, a minor entrance so that servants could move in and outwithout clogging the main doorway, was their best entry point. The atrium had a large fountain in the center of the room which would allow Korra and Ming-Hua to draw water before they rushed Tarrlok’s quarters.

A minute later, they reached the door. Ming-Hua stood guard as Korra used some water to pop open the lock.  As she slipped through the door, a flash of white overtook her vision.

Aang was reaching out, struggling to move. He seemed unable to do so. The Water Tribe man from before was laughing triumphantly, hysterically.

“Korra,” Ming-Hua hissed.

“Sorry, sorry,” Korra whispered back. She could feel the pressure of another vision threatening to slip over her, but held it back. Now was not a good time, Aang. This was her first full mission. She’d wanted this since she was old enough to understand that sometimes her guardians left on missions where she couldn’t follow. Zaheer had explained that, sometimes, the only way to bring freedom to people was to remove it from others.

“You need to focus,” Ming-Hua said, shutting the door behind them. “What’s going on?”

Korra heaved a sigh. “Visions. From Aang.”

Ming-Hua looked irritated. She wasn’t spiritually inclined. “Well tell him you’re busy and to call again later.”

Scowling, Korra was about to reply when another vision intruded.

The Water Tribe man was smirking from his place on the stand. Someone, a lawyer?, was speaking. The vision kept jumping, making it difficult for Korra to understand the whole message.

“Yakone—ruled Republic City's criminal empire—managed to stay out of the law's reach—testimony, from dozens of his victims—using an ability—illegal—Bloodbending.”

The vision flashed back to an older Sokka’s face. He narrowed his eyes as Korra blinked.

Finding herself back in Tarrlok’s mansion, she clenched her fist. “He keeps sending me messages about some trial?”

“Tell him to take his corrupt justice system elsewhere.” Ming-Hua’s gaze was trained on the far doorway, across the atrium. “We’re taking matters into our own hands with a real criminal tonight.”

Korra smiled grimly. Tonight they were righting Aang’s mistakes. The council system was corrupt, overly favored benders, and left open the possibility for corruption from people like Tarrlok. The reminder pushed the next vision away from her, kept her focused on the present. “I’m ready.”

“Are you?” Ming-Hua’s voice sounded far away.

“I’m trying.” She felt the mental pressure again, but it felt fainter. She got the sense that Aang only had enough energy to send one more vision. Maybe he’d gotten the message. Maybe she was only connected enough to let one last one through. “Just gimme a second,” she muttered, closing her eyes and letting the vision take over.

She was back in the courtroom. The Water Tribe man, Yakone, was leering from the stand. The vision started in the midst of his lawyer speaking.

“—entire case—the make-believe notion that my client is able to bloodbend—at any time on any day.” A flash of white, and then Korra found herself trained closer on Yakone’s face. He seemed slightly familiar. “—bloodbending is an incredibly rare—only be performed during a full moon.”

As the vision closed, Korra felt the spiritual pathway dwindle, the connection with Aang fading for the time being. “The visions are over,” she whispered.

“Good, because he’s here.” Ming-Hua shifted to a crouch. “Get ready.”

Korra could hear footsteps coming from the other side of the atrium’s water feature. Her hair stood on end as she tried to shift back into her mission frame of mind.

They were here to remove Tarrlok from the world, to help bring balance to Republic City.

Whatever history lesson Aang had in store would just have to wait.

An eternity seemed to pass between the sound of each footstep. Korra could hear the sound of bare feet on wood and the swish of a robe. He was probably in his sleeping clothes.

The original plan was to take water from the atrium to augment their supply, then charge up on his private quarters. Korra had marked them as being the most isolated from the front gates, that way the guards stationed there wouldn’t hear.

But, as Tarrlok walked into the doorway across the room and stopped, Korra shifted her rehearsal to plan B. Another front hall job, but at least they could tell Ghazan they’d tried to mix it up.

“I know someone’s there,” he said. “Trust me when I say you really don’t want to rob this house. Come out with your hands up and I’ll mitigate your charges.”

Korra was in the middle of wondering how the hell he knew they were there when she caught Ming-Hua’s smirk.

The smile was infectious. Korra found herself restraining laughter as Ming-Hua stood. The older woman could never resist the double-take.

“Your partner too,” Tarrlok said. Ming-Hua took a step forward, keeping a supply of water hidden behind her back, out of his sight. Korra could almost hear Tarrlok frown. “I said put your hands up—“

They didn’t have to plan the moment for Korra to know the signal. Right as Tarrlok said ‘hands,’ she burst into action with Ming-Hua.

Her first stream of water streaked across the room as shards of ice. He threw an arm up to deflect, giving Korra the chance to vault over the pool of water that dominated the center of the room, pulling a wave with her as she went.

Ming-Hua moved in-step with her on the move and they sent the water at him in a harsh blade.

Korra saw his wide, angry eyes for a moment before he deflected the attack and struck back. His response was more powerful than she would have guessed of him and she locked down her stance, settling in for the fight.

 

* * *

 

It took conscious effort for Asami not to glance over her shoulder more often than was necessary. Illustrious leader or not, Amon was an unsettling person to have at her back. She kept her eyes focused on the streets in front of her and breathed steadily to ease the tempo of her pulse.

Half a step behind her, Liu used hand signals to direct both Asami and the squad of Equalists behind them as they made their way down back alleys and side streets toward Tarrlok’s house. Amon followed at the rear of the group, his presence rolling forward as they went.

Asami stopped at the corner and nodded at Liu, who stepped forward and peered around with her.

Tarrlok’s estate was ringed by a wall. Not impassable, but inconvenient. A pair of benders—water and fire according to their colored armbands—guarded the front gate. Asami tensed. When she’d sat in on the planning meeting with Liu and Amon, she had advised that the strike team go over the wall at the northwest corner. It was closest to some other buildings and had a shed to facilitate them getting down on the other side.

His aura preceding him as he moved from the back of the group, Amon approached until he was just behind Liu. He held up a hand and Asami saw the chi-blockers behind him stiffen to attention. Amon flashed two fingers to indicate squad two, and then pointed forward.

At the meeting, Amon had rejected Asami’s suggestion and told Liu they were going through the front door.

Three chi-blockers rushed the gates, silent save for the small kick of dirt with each step. Only the firebender had time to react, yelping as he kicked out a horizontal wave of fire. While one chi-blocker subdued the waterbender with a series of strikes, the other two slid under the flames and released a volley of blows on the guard.

The flames petered out. Liu took point again and signalled for the group to move to the gates.

By the time they got there, someone on squad two had picked a key from guards and unlocked the gate. Asami helped drag the unmoving guards inside and someone else shut the doors behind them.

It had, in all, been less than a minute since they’d come in sight of the gate.

“Asami.” Liu called her name quietly and gestured for her to come over to where he was with another chi-blocker.

She could hear a gasp behind her as she walked toward him. Asami was glad she had a reason not to watch Amon take the guards’ bending, a distraction from confronting her own conflicts with the practice.

“San will scout with you. Confirm the route, then lead us in.”

Asami nodded. “Affirmative.” Her voice was steadier than her body felt. Her hands trembled a little as she and San started jogging toward Tarrlok’s home. She was only serving as point for the mission, but the fact remained that she was back in the field. Last time, at Finals, it hadn’t gone as well as she could have hoped.

She couldn’t have confirmed it, due to his mask, but Asami thought she felt Amon’s gaze on her back as she and San ran towards the mansion. Just before they got out of earshot, Asami heard the second guard’s gasp before her body, now bereft of bending, crumpled to the ground.

They circled around the house to the rear entrance by the kitchens. Asami had scouted a small service door there during her first visit to the house. It was on the opposite side of the mansion from Tarrlok’s quarters, but entering that way would enable them to do a full sweep (or close enough) of the house as they closed on their target.

The route there was the same as she remembered, even with the differences that darkness brought. The silver crescent of the moon provided enough light for them to navigate the rolling gardens of the estate. She could just make out the silhouettes of hedges trimmed in a wave motif. A cobblestone path curled around the house, leading to the kitchens.

As they approached the back entrance, Asami slowed her steps, listening for any indication that the guard was nearby. They were right in the path of one of the guards she’d spotted, but they apparently wasn’t on this section of their round yet. Satisfied that they were safe for the moment, she motioned her partner toward the door.

San produced a set of lock picks from the pouch on his belt and stuck one into the door lock. While he picked the lock, Asami stayed on watch, tensed for action. The guard was due to appear at any moment.

A minute later, the lock popped open.

He reached for the handle and Asami touched his elbow to get his attention and stop him. “Wait,” she whispered.

He tilted his head. “What is it?” he asked.

“Something isn’t right.” The gardens were quiet. Maybe too quiet. Asami shifted on her feet. “The guard... they should have come past by now.”

“Maybe... they just haven’t come around yet?”

Asami shook her head. “I recall it was a short route. If they haven’t come by yet, then something is off.” She knew there was supposed to be a guard here. Part of their role in clearing the path was making sure they left no one behind to alert the police.

“Hm.” She could see San’s mask shift as he frowned. “We’re either lucky tonight, or we’re really not.”

Asami pursed her lips and held up a finger for him to wait. Briefly, she peeked around the corner at the rest of the courtyard. It was completely empty. Not a guard in sight.

She shook her head as she returned to San. “No sign of the guard.” Maybe it was a trap. Maybe the guard had already spotted them, somehow, and snuck away. Maybe something else was going on. Asami fought the cautious urge to turn around and report back to Liu.

But she was supposed to be running point, making sure the route was clear so that the rest of the Equalists could approach undetected. It would be unnecessarily complicated to sneak six chi-blockers, Amon, Liu, and Asami all through at once, no matter how quiet they were. All Asami needed to do was confirm the path through the mansion was clear from their entry point to Tarrlok’s quarters.

Reasonable possibilities for the guard’s absence presented themselves to Asami’s thoughts, everything from bathroom break to patrol shuffling to someone’s sick day. Everything was possible. So long as the guard didn’t show up out of nowhere and call an alert, they would be fine.

Still. More dangerous possibilities flirted with her worries. Every sense on edge, Asami pushed open the door and slipped inside. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves.

The small foyer that welcomed kitchen deliveries was as empty as Asami expected. She paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the darkness, searching for anything out-of-place. Everything looked the same as she remembered, down to the placement of the pots on an overhead rack. Asami crossed the room, then paused at the door leading to the rest of the house, pressing her ear against the wood.

She could just barely make out the sound of footsteps on the other side. She pressed herself against the wall to the right of the door, so that she wouldn’t be immediately seen if it were opened. San followed her cue and ducked behind a serving cart pushed against the side of the room.

A pair of guards entered after a minute. “At least we’re getting paid for these unnecessary rounds,” one of the them grumbled. “Seriously, there was nothing here half an hour ago, and there won’t be anything—”

His words cut off as Asami lunged forward, striking the chi points along his back.

When the other guard turned to attack her, San leapt from his hiding place. The water that had begun to whip toward Asami splashed onto the ground as the second guard collapsed.

“We’ll hide them in the pantries,” Asami said, pointing out a door to their left.

Her partner nodded and helped her drag the two guards away.

They crept into the hallway afterwards. Asami kept her footsteps light as they skulked down one of the hallways. The sound of each step seemed amplified in the darkness even though Asami knew that she was barely making a sound. She followed her mental map, turning right when the hallway branched. They were only a few yards to the front entrance.  Once they determined that the way was clear, then they could report back to Liu and—

A loud crash shattered the silence, coming from somewhere near the front of the house.  If Asami strained her ears, she could discern the sound of water whipping through the air.

Behind her, San cursed. “Not an auspicious sign.”

A second crash followed suit seconds later, and the sound of waterbending combat grew louder.

Asami swallowed. “Someone else is here.”

Which was not good news. There was at least one unknown assailant facing off against Tarrlok, and the Equalists did not need any extra variables interfering with this mission.

Her pulse felt like it was pounding throughout her body. She had known that the Equalists were not the only group after Tarrlok, but surely—

Asami turned to address San. “Double back and alert Amon and the Lieutenant. Inform them that the way inside is clear, but that there are unknown hostiles inside. I’ll investigate the situation further to determine what we’re dealing with and rendezvous outside the front atrium.”

He nodded and took off running back the way they’d came.

Asami watched him leave before letting out a shaky breath. No way, there was no way that Naga’s group had chosen the exact same night to plan their attack on Tarrlok.  The odds for that were so absurd that it was almost laughable.

But improbability did not always equate impossibility.

First things first, she’d have to analyze the situation further. Just because Naga’s group had some kind of interest in Tarrlok did not mean that they were the intruders. But if Naga were here…

Asami swallowed. She couldn’t make plans to account for Naga’s presence until she confirmed that Naga was here in the first place.

Steeling herself, she raced toward the front atrium. The growing sounds of combat hid any noise her footsteps might have made. When she neared the atrium, she slowed her pace and crept toward the side door leading inside. On the other side, she could hear water and ice colliding into the walls. Heart racing, she placed her hand on the door and cracked it open.

Tarrlok was facing off against a woman with flowing dark hair across the atrium, near the entrance to a sitting room. A large fountain complete with its own waterfall took up most of the wall to Asami’s right, opposite the front entrance, and its long pool extended down the middle of the room, separating Asami from the fighting. Tarrlok pulled water from that pool to counter his assailant’s attacks.

It took Asami a moment to realize that the woman did not have arms. Instead, she lashed out with watery appendages ending in icy blades. The ferocity of her attacks forced Tarrlok back another step into the sitting room.

That viciousness was not the force one used when they wanted their opponent kept alive.

A second wave of water joined the woman’s a beat before another figure leapt into view, clad in dark clothing. Something about her build was painfully familiar, but it was only when the figure shifted to the side, moving to flank Tarrlok, that Asami understood why.

Her breath left in a rush, and she took a step back in shock.

It was Naga. She’d partially covered her face with a cloth mask, but Asami could still recognize her friend in the stance and the low ponytail that whipped behind her as she lunged around Tarrlok.

Asami pressed a hand to her chest to try and slow its beating. The scene in front of her didn’t make any sense. She peeked her head through the doorway a fraction more, trying to see if there was another waterbender where Naga had come from, but she only saw the tapestries and display cases lining the long walls.

Had the armless woman sent the second wave to catch Tarrlok off guard? Was there another waterbender in the room that she couldn’t see?

The woman had pressed Tarrlok back another foot, and Naga closed in from the right. Her friend had said that she fought with a knife, but Asami couldn’t see a weapon in Naga’s hand. Instead she planted her feet, stance eerily mirroring her waterbending partner.

“No.” Asami’s fingers clenched tight on the doorknob. In an instant, she tried to remember if Naga had ever directly said she was a non-bender.

Around Naga’s partner, an array of sharp icicles rose up from the water pooled on the ground. Naga had just begun to imitate the other woman’s motion when Tarrlok twitched.

“Enough!” he shouted. Tarrlok’s features darkened, and he threw out both his hands, fingers splayed.

Naga’s entire body seized up, limbs moving at unnatural angles. She let out a gasp of pain and struggled against some invisible bond, like a puppet rebelling against its strings.

Asami stared at Tarrlok, unable to process what she was seeing for a moment.

Bloodbending. A chill rushed down Asami’s spine, and she had to swallow past the lump in her throat. Bloodbending was only possible during a full moon, she thought. Asami had learned about the forbidden art from her self-defense instructors, one of the many reasons waterbenders were more dangerous during a full moon.

She’d noted the silver sliver on her way in. The Equalists had waited purposely until the moon was just a crescent to take out Tarrlok, so that his power would have waned with the moon’s shape.

In the midst of the anger and fear, a thread of deep frustration wove itself into her chest. Of course Tarrlok was a bloodbender. It was not enough that he terrorized non-benders and abused his power by conventional means. The metaphor was also literal: he could bend others to his designs against their will, one way or another. Full moon or not.

Tarrlok clenched his fist and Naga screamed in pain. He reached toward the other woman and grimaced as she sent a volley of icicles his way. Despite his twitching fingers, he couldn’t seem to grab hold of her the same way he’d grabbed Naga.

Irritation written across his face, Tarrlok grimaced and tried bloodbending the other woman one more time. When she aimed another slash of water toward him, he grunted and spun around to avoid her attack, then threw one hand out in Asami’s direction.

Naga flew backwards across the atrium. Her body twisted through the air before she landed in the shallow pool in the center of the atrium. Naga skipped across the surface of the water and tumbled off the ledge on the other side. Her head struck the stone wall and she crumpled, limp, to the ground.

Asami bit back the cry that leapt up her throat as she watched her friend’s still body hit the tiled floor. For a moment, her ears rang and Asami felt frozen, forever attached to the doorframe at the edge of Tarrlok’s atrium.

Then Naga stirred, only slightly, but it was enough. Relief washed over Asami and her mind started working again. Time seemed to slow as her thoughts started racing.

She needed to warn the Equalists about Tarrlok’s bloodbending. San would be leading them to the front door of the atrium to rendezvous with her. If she didn’t make it in time, Liu would lead the others into the mansion without any idea of the true danger awaiting them. Tarrlok would incapacitate them all if they came in unprepared.

Her eyes flashed to Naga, still crumpled on the ground, but breathing. When the Equalists came in, they would see her almost immediately, unconscious and lying in a puddle of water, in no condition to fight or run.

Asami blinked. Looped across Naga’s body, resting at her waist, was a leather pouch decorated with blue Water Tribe designs.

Asami’s eye twitched, but she refused to dwell on the possibility. Not yet. She could get the truth later.

Her eyes flickered over to Tarrlok and the other waterbender. Their attention was fixed on each other, and Tarrlok seemed to be having difficulty restraining the other woman with his bending. She lashed out with a curved blade of ice, forcing Tarrlok to redirect his attention to his defense. They were on the other side of the atrium, and the fountain separated Naga from the rest of the fight.

The fountain itself was ostentatious, and Asami lived in a mansion. To her right, a huge waterfall took up the entire wall and emptied into a deep pool. She could hardly make out the feature in the dim lighting.  A shallow section of the pool stretched out into the center of the atrium, dividing the room.

Asami looked back at Naga and her eyes fell on the water pouch again. For a beat, she was so angry she almost ran to the front door. If Amon found Naga, he would only hurt her if she was a bender.

If Naga had been lying to her this whole time...

The sounds of Tarrlok’s fight seemed distant and slow. For the long space between two heartbeats, Asami wondered if she would stay in this moment, this decision, forever.

Naga started to roll onto her side and groan in pain.

Asami’s body sprung into action, dashing forward to her friend. Her mind caught up a moment later. Her friend needed help. If she moved quickly enough, she could hide Naga and still make the rendezvous at the front door.

 

* * *

 

Korra’s head struck stone and she saw white.

For a moment, she wasn’t sure where she was. The street before her was deserted of people. Around her, around Aang, the wind whipped. His eyes glowed bright, despite the daylight.

The Avatar State.

She blinked, and then she was looking down at Tarrlok, no, at _Yakone_, encased in rock in the middle of the road.

Aang reached out his hands, one to Yakone's forehead and one to his chest. The motion seemed familiar in some way. “I’m taking away your bending. For good.”

Another bright light flashed, growing until it overwhelmed the scene and washed Korra’s vision back to normal.

She blinked in the darkness of Tarrlok’s house as she tried to force her body into movement. It refused. Her ears were ringing, and although she could distantly hear  Ming-Hua’s continued fight with Tarrlok, she couldn’t make out much more than the general sounds. “Bloodbender,” she muttered, “I get it now. Thanks, Aang.

“Tarrlok, the bloodbender…” Gloved hands and a soft, bitter voice pulled her shoulders forward and granted Korra something to focus on.

“Yeah,” she said. “Over there.”

“I can see that, Naga.” The voice shook. One arm slipped under her knees and the other went behind her back. “You need to shut up now. We’ll take care of him.” Something about the musculature was familiar. Toned, but not overly built. It occurred to Korra that she could have found all of the chi-blocking points on these arms fairly easily.

In the other room, she heard Tarrlok roar with rage. Apparently he was still having trouble bloodbending Ming-Hua.

Korra squinted as she was picked up, trying to return the dark vision to her eyesight. There was only one person who called her by that name, at least only one she was likely to run into while at someone else’s house. She recognized Asami, despite the Equalist mask, from the crack in her goggles where Korra had kicked her in the face at Finals.

“We have to stop meeting like this.” Korra flashed a smile at Asami. Her head felt fuzzy and her body wasn’t quite cooperating. She managed to turn toward the sounds of combat and distantly saw Ming-Hua and Tarrlok, blurry shapes in frantic motion.

Asami was moving to the head of the room, where the fountain was largest. “Naga, you owe me answers later, and I will have them. Right now though, Spirits take you, you will be still and silent if you value your life. Don’t move and trust me.”

And with that, she dumped Korra feet-first into the deep end of the fountain. Asami pressed Korra’s shoulders down for a few seconds after she entered the water, keeping her from immediately splashing and standing up. Korra’s face was exposed enough for her to breathe, however. The head of the fountain was about four feet deep, enough for Korra to crouch and stay relatively out of sight. “Don’t. Move.” Asami’s eyes flickered up, toward where the front door was. “Amon is here,” she said.

Before Korra could gather her senses enough to ask a question, Asami dashed away from the fountain to the front of the room.

She opened the doors, and it was almost like a stage cue. Amon stood on the other side, hands clasped behind his back and line of chi-blockers arrayed behind him. The mustached Lieutenant Korra had fought as finals stood at Amon’s right hand.

Korra sunk a little lower in the water as fear gripped her heart into a frantic beat. Now was not a good time to be a bender. Definitely not a good time to be a bender.

Through the wide doorway, she could see Tarrlok and Ming-Hua still fighting. He reached out a twitching hand and now Korra recognized the motions that Yakone had used.

Unlike before, however, the gesture took more effect on Ming-Hua. She dropped to her knees. Water still surged around her, however. She twisted her torso and a stream of water shot out toward Tarrlok. Trying to maintain his bloodbending hold, he barely managed to dodge.

“You may have some fancy tricks,” Ming-Hua taunted. Even brought to her knees, she hadn’t lost a bit of her power. “But I think we both know who the better waterbender is!”

Tarrlok didn’t reply, but redoubled his efforts in response.

Neither of them were aware of the group that had just walked in the door.

Korra wanted to cry out, to warn them, to get Ming-Hua out of there, but fear only gripped her tighter as Asami greeted Amon and pointed toward the doorway. Korra couldn’t hear her, but recognized the status report for what it was.

She could even tell the very moment Asami said ‘bloodbender.’ The Equalists behind Amon stiffened and the Lieutenant’s eyes narrowed.

Amon, for his part, displayed no reaction. No tilt of the head or stiffening in the shoulders. He put a hand out to move Asami out of his way; she stepped aside before he could touch her.

As he approached the doorway, he flashed a series of hand signals. The chi-blockers behind Amon surged forward in formation. The six of them split into two teams of three and charged in.

They hit Ming-Hua first, closer to the doorway and facing away from it. Trapped on her knees from Tarrlok’s bloodbending, she couldn’t dodge or pull back from the series of blows along her spine and collapsed to the floor.

Tarrlok made good use of his extra reaction time, releasing his hold on Ming-Hua and seizing the chi-blockers in his grasp. One of them, the fastest, almost reached him. The chi-blocker’s gloved fingers stopped just short of Tarrlok’s forearm pressure point.

“You fools,” he hissed. “You’ve never faced bending like mine.” Still, holding that many people in his grasp was clearly trying. Tarrlok barely managed to stop the Lieutenant when he entered the doorway, kali sticks drawn.

The tense air seemed to chill as Amon stepped into Tarrlok’s view, Asami behind him.

“Amon,” Tarrlok hissed.

Amon’s voice was cooler than she’d heard it at finals or at the revelation. “It is time for you to be Equalized.”

“I’m not like the other benders you’ve faced,” Tarrlok shot back. The line seemed to lack the bravado it should have carried. He twitched his fingers and grit his teeth.

The chi-blockers crumpled to the floor. Even the Lieutenant, leaning heavily against the doorframe,  slid slowly to the floor. Asami, the farthest away, fell to one knee before collapsing.

Amon remained standing, unaffected.

Korra’s eyes widened.

Tarrlok gasped. “No,” he whispered. He shifted his stance and the set of his fingers, reaching out again. His whole body tensed, and his fingers trembled. Around her, Korra could feel the water in the fountain shift and pull, like with a slow tide.

Korra’s heart pounded in her ears as Amon’s stride slowed, but did not stop. The sound of his footsteps, steady and ominous, echoed across the room.

Tarrlok took a step backwards. Korra didn’t blame him. “What… what are you?”

Amon’s voice seemed to chill the water around her. “I am the solution,” he said. His steps quickened. He closed the final paces between him and Tarrlok and seized his arm. In an instant, he’d twisted Tarrlok around until he was standing behind him. He jabbed his right hand at the base of Tarrlok’s neck and lowered his left toward Tarrlok’s forehead.

Korra ducked down, unable to watch. She pulled her head all the way under the water, holding her breath as she heard Tarrlok scream. The sound was muted, but only slightly, by the water around her.

The shift and roll she’d felt in the water, a side effect of Tarrlok’s bloodbending efforts, stopped. The water stilled.

Distantly, it occurred to Korra that Tarrlok had known she and Ming-Hua were there through bloodbending. He must have lost track of her when Asami dumped her in the fountain.

Korra pulled her head out of the water to breathe at the same time the Equalists groaned, pushing themselves off the ground.

Staying silent, Korra slowly lifted her head enough to see over the edge of the fountain. Her eyes widened when she saw Amon standing in front of Ming-Hua, crumpled on the floor.

Korra’s breath caught in her throat.

“Who are you?” the Lieutenant asked, making his way to stand by Amon’s side. “Who sent you?”

Behind them, a trio of chi-blockers picked up Tarrlok and started to carry him from the room.

Ming-Hua did not answer.

The Lieutenant looked toward Asami. “Is she a member of this other group?”

Korra read hesitation all over Asami’s body. Her shoulders, held stiff. Her stance, guarded. “I… cannot say,” she answered at length.

“It does not matter.” Amon’s voice cut in before the Lieutenant could say more. He took a step forward and his mask tilted in contemplation. “I’m impressed. Tonight was a display, it seems, in rare and unusual waterbending.” He walked around her prone body. “It is almost a shame, to take the bending of someone so ingenuitive.”

“No,” Korra whispered. She cracked and trembled on the word, trying to force her knees to rise. She couldn’t let this happen.

Ming-Hua’s quiet voice came clear and steady. “Please.”

Korra’s body refused to listen. Her heart pounded in her ears and a roaring filled the rest of her hearing as Amon lifted Ming-Hua up from the ground. He rested a hand on the back of her neck.

“I am not in a position to grant requests,” he said, lowering his other hand to her forehead.

Korra’s body still refused her orders, trembling instead of leaping forward.

Her body only moved with she bent her head, unable to watch.

Unlike Tarrlok, Ming-Hua did not scream. Even underwater, Korra could still hear her strangled gasp. It sounded like a last breath.

“Let’s move out,” Amon said. Korra heard a thump as Ming-Hua hit the floor.

“What about the woman?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Leave her. There is no point in killing a messenger when we need her to carry the Equalist threat back to whoever she works for.”

Korra refused to lift her head. If she stayed underwater, then maybe the world would return to how it had been before she went under. Her lungs burned and her joints ached as she held herself under the water as long as she could stand it. The sound of pouring water mimicked the rush of blood in her ears.

Distantly, she heard retreating footsteps and the front door shutting.

Raising her head above the water, Korra couldn’t tell her tears apart from the rivulets that ran down from her hair. Her limbs were like lead as she slowly climbed out of the fountain. It would have been the work of an instant to bend the water from her clothing and body, but she couldn’t make herself do so.

She’d taken a single step towards Ming-Hua’s prone frame when the front door flew open, crashing into the wall. A frigid blast of air swept in, chilling Korra in her soaked clothes.

The cold slowed her reflexes, but she managed to take a combat stance just in time to recognize the intruder as Asami. Before Korra could decide whether Asami was an enemy or not, her friend had closed the space between them.

Asami seized Korra’s shirt, and the height difference between them seemed to multiply. Korra stumbled backwards and Asami bore forward until Korra was pressed against the harsh edge of the fountain. She loomed over Korra, eyes narrowed behind her goggles. “I will have answers, Naga.” With her other hand, she grasped the leather water pouch strapped to Korra’s hips. “Tomorrow. Sakura park, at sundown. You will meet me there and tell me the truth.”

Asami’s trembling fist clenched Korra’s shirt tighter. For a moment, Korra wondered if Asami was going to punch her. Anger and betrayal and something headier rolled off Asami in waves, almost as paralyzing as Amon’s terrifying aura.

“T-tomorrow,” Korra stammered. Her voice sounded foreign.

“The truth,” Asami snapped. She yanked on Korra’s water pouch, then dropped it with disgust. A beat later, she released Korra’s shirt.

Their gazes remained locked on one another for a long moment.

Asami turned and ran. She slammed the front door behind her.

Korra wanted to drop to her knees. Everything had gone so wrong. As her eyes swept away from the door to Ming-Hua, resolve filled her muscles. She pushed away from the fountain and approached her teacher.

Ming-Hua’s unconscious frame seemed smaller than she ought to be. Korra kept her mind focused as she picked up the smaller woman. They had a plan for emergency escape. She followed the route out of Tarrlok’s house, out the back door, and onto the streets of Republic City and the remnants of Spring’s last chill.