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Instincts of a Fearful Body

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Chapter Twelve: Skeletons in the Closet
(Secrecy is a temporary status)

Mako woke up as the sun was rising. It had taken him several days to adjust to schedule of Air Temple Island, but there was something nice about waking up without the fatigue from a late night at the arena or the factory.

Across the room, Bolin sprawled across his bed, mumbling something in his sleep. Pabu had curled up above his head at some point in the night.

“Hey Bolin, time to get up,” Mako said, stretching until his back popped. “We’ve got more training today.” He moved about the room to get dressed, running through some basic stretches afterwards. As he looped his scarf around his neck, he glanced back at Bolin.

His brother was still asleep and had pulled one of the blankets over his head.

“Bolin, wake up,” Mako said.  “Come on. We’re working on the lightning drill today.”

Bolin finally rolled over and cracked open an eye. “It’s too early,” he grumbled.

“That was kind of the point,” Mako said. “Unless you want Ikki and Meelo running around while we’re working with lightning.”

Jinora’s siblings had been increasingly interrupting their afternoon practices, demanding to be let in on the “fun.” Mako didn’t mind a few lighthearted sessions, and it meant he could sneak in some self-defense lessons for them in the disguise of a game. However, the interruptions left him, Jinora, Sakari, and Bolin with little time to improve the formations they had been working on.

And since Sakari wanted to see if they could incorporate lightning-bending into their strategies, they had agreed on an early morning practice to avoid Ikki and Meelo.

“Alright,” Mako said when Bolin still hadn’t made an effort to move out of bed. “We’ll get started without you. Though it’ll be hard to practice a four-element defense with only three benders.”

“I’m getting up,” Bolin said, sitting up. He winced as the morning sunlight shot through the window onto his face. “Just give me a minute to adjust to the light trying to stab my eyes.”

Mako just shook his head with a chuckle and resumed his stretching while Bolin got ready for the day.

Sakari and Jinora were waiting in the dining room for them, chatting animatedly about some topic. It was probably one of the books Jinora was making Sakari read, which she seemed to do just so they could talk about it together. Both looked up and smiled at Mako and Bolin’s arrival.

“Finally,” Sakari said. “I was beginning to think that we’d just be working on air and water drills.”

“Hey, blame this guy,” Mako said, pointing at Bolin as he joined them at the table. The girls had laid out two plates for Bolin and him, and he pulled one in front of him. “He didn’t want to get up.”

“I only took like ten minutes longer than you to get ready,” Bolin protested.

They finished their breakfast with a few more teasing exchanges. Having regular meals was definitely one of the benefits to living on Air Temple Island. Mako didn’t even miss meat as much as he thought he would, though Bolin still complained.

When they were done eating, they made their way outside. As they headed down a hallway, Mako noticed that the door to Tenzin’s study was open down the hallway. It seemed that they weren’t the only ones getting an early morning start. He could hear a pair of voices inside.

“Something has to be done about Tarrlok’s task force,” a female voice was saying, irritation clear in the woman’s tone. “It’s been nothing but a nuisance since its creation, and the raids have been interfering with our police work. Tarrlok has yet to apprehend any leading member of the Equalists; all he’s done is disrupt people’s daily lives and cause unrest throughout the city. My men should be stopping crimes, not policing unreasonable curfews and acting as riot control at Tarrlok’s beck and call.”

“I agree with you,” came Tenzin’s response.

“Good. Then I’ll need your assistance in presenting a request before the Council to disband the task force.” A moment of silence followed. “We’ve had our…disagreements in the past, but I’ll need your help presenting this to the Council. As it is, I’m sure Tarrlok will still try to make it look like I’m merely jealous of his position as head of the task force. But if we present a united front…”

Whatever the woman had been about to say trailed off as she glanced up and caught sight of them lingering in the doorway. “May I help you?” she asked, a curt edge to her voice. She wore a police uniform, and it took Mako a moment to recognize the woman as Chief Lin Beifong.

Mako stiffened at the words. “Sorry,” he began. “We were just on our way outside.”

“Starting your training already?” Tenzin asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bolin responded.

“Tenzin, who are these kids?” Lin asked.

Tenzin rose and walked toward them. “This is my daughter, Jinora,” he said, motioning to Jinora first. “These two young men are Mako and Bolin, pro-benders. And this is Sakari, Chief Tonraq’s daughter and the Avatar’s sister. The three of them have been staying with us since the attack at the Pro-bending Arena.”

Lin’s eyebrows shot up faintly at Sakari’s mention.

Sakari huffed, glaring at Tenzin.  Mako knew that she was touchy about her family, particularly her sister, being brought up.

“Hey, it’s okay if she knows,” Bolin whispered. “Her mom is the Toph Beifong, who traveled the world with the previous avatar.”

Jinora also whispered, so quietly that Mako barely caught it, “Plus, she’s my dad’s ex, so she’s trustworthy even if it makes everything awkward.”

That statement caught Mako off-guard. He resisted the urge to glance between Tenzin and Lin, and he hoped that they hadn’t heard that last bit.

The words seemed to ease some of the tension in Sakari’s shoulders, though she still regarded Lin warily.

The telephone rang, halting any further conversation. Tenzin picked it up. “Councilman Tenzin speaking.”

A frantic voice came on the other side, loud enough that Mako could hear it from the office doorway. “Councilman, has Chief Beifong arrived yet? We have an emergency.”

Tenzin and Lin exchanged a worried glance as he passed the phone over. “What happened?” Lin asked, voice clipped and authoritative.

“Last night, there was an Equalist attack on Councilman Tarrlok’s house. The Councilman is missing.”

“What!?”

Mako’s eyes shot open at that. He swallowed. If the Equalists were attacking members of the Council, how long before Tenzin and his family were targeted?

“His Chief of Staff reported the attack this morning when he arrived and found the guards unconscious,” the officer on the phone said. “We dispatched officers to the premises and have not found a sign of the Councilman. Captain Saikhan is currently overseeing the investigation.”

“Get me Captain Saikhan on the line immediately,” Lin said.  She turned to the others and made a shooing motion with her hands. “Everyone, out of the room.”

“What?” Sakari asked. “But...”

“This is confidential police business,” Lin said, “not a discussion for children.”

Mako frowned. “I understand this call is a highly confidential matter, Chief Beifong,” he said. “But Bolin and I have been helping to watch after Tenzin’s children, acting as unofficial guardians. If the Equalists are beginning to attack Council members, then Air Temple Island could be one of their next targets.”

At those words, he glanced over at Tenzin and could see worry setting into the man’s features.  If Mako could get Tenzin on their side, he at least stood a chance in convincing Lin to let them stay.

“If Bolin and I are to help protect the people on Air Temple Island, then we need to be informed about any potential threats, especially the Equalists.”

Lin regarded him coolly before turning her attention to Tenzin.

“He…admittedly makes some good points,” Tenzin finally said.

Lin scowled, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Fine,” she finally said. “You two can stay.” She pointed at Mako and Bolin. “But I expect you to be quiet.”

“What about us?” Sakari asked, crossing her arms. “We’re part of this team too.” She stared Lin down, and tried to puff up her shoulders. With her small stature, the gesture had little effect.

“We’re done with this discussion,” Lin said, finality in her tone.

“But—”

“Don’t worry,” Bolin said with a reassuring grin. “Mako and I will fill you in on all the details later.”

Sakari attempted a glare that came across more like a pout.

“Why don’t you and Jinora get started on our training?” Mako said. “You two can be in charge of the drills today.”

Jinora placed her hand on Sakari’s arm. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll still get the information about what happened later. We can make Mako and Bolin do extra pushups when they show up.”

Sakari huffed. “Fine.” She linked arms with Jinora and the pair reluctantly left the room.

Though Chief Beifong’s flat gaze made it clear she didn’t appreciate their presence, she didn’t shoo Mako and Bolin away as they moved closer to the phone.

Shortly afterwards, a male voice came through the line. “Saikhan speaking.”

“This is Chief Beifong,” Lin said. “Along with Councilman Tenzin. What happened?”

“We’re currently piecing together the events from what few witnesses we have,” Saikhan said. “The guards posted at Tarrlok’s front gate reported that a team of Equalist chi-blockers ambushed them. After they had been incapacitated, they had their bending removed by Amon.”

Mako remembered his own experience at the hands of Equalist chi-blockers and suppressed a shudder. Thankfully Bolin and Sakari had arrived before Amon could have taken his bending.

“Two guards found in the kitchen pantry corroborate these details. They were taken out by a pair of Equalists and knocked unconscious, though it seems Amon was not present in their group. After that, it gets harder to piece together what happened as it seems there were no witnesses to Tarrlok’s fight against the Equalists.”

“Have you interviewed the other guards and servants?” Lin asked.

“We’re finishing up interviews as we speak,” Saikhan said. “Because of the late hour, the servants had either retired or gone home for the evening. So far the servants have reported seeing nothing. The attack could only have lasted a few minutes at most. Also, there may have been another intruder on the premises at the time of the Equalist attack. One of the guards was found partially frozen to the side of the house. Additionally, a pair of guards who had been patrolling outside reported that they had been responding to the sound of combat inside the atrium before they were ambushed by the Equalists.”

Lin frowned at that. “I want all of these interviews compiled into a report for when I get back,” she said. “I want as many details about the Equalist movement and this other intruder. Record all major damage and missing property. I will be heading to the crime scene as quickly as possible.”

“Yes, Chief. I’ll have that report ready for your arrival.”

Silence filled the room once the call had ended. A part of Mako couldn’t believe that Tarrlok was just gone. He had never personally met the Councilman, but he was under the impression that the man was a powerful force to be reckoned with.

And yet the Equalists had just invaded his house and abducted him with barely any resistance.

“I’m afraid that I’ll have to cut our discussion short, Tenzin,” Lin said, straightening as she set the telephone down. “Given Tarrlok’s abduction, I believe our concerns about the task force are no longer a priority.”

“Yes, the Equalists and their recent actions are certainly where our focus should be,” Tenzin said, shock still apparent on his face. He glanced at the picture of his family on his desk, concern in his eyes.

“I’ll have permanent guards stationed at City Hall and on the island,” Lin said. “My men and I will make tracking down information on the Equalist movements our top priority.”

Tenzin nodded. “And what do you make of the possibility of a third-party intruder?” he asked.

“My guess would be that the intruder is some kind of thief with bad timing,” Lin responded. “I will check with Tarrlok’s Chief of Staff to see if anything of value was stolen during the night.”

“Maybe the intruder is actually working with the Equalists,” Bolin said before frowning. “Do Equalists have bending allies? Or maybe one of the Equalists is secretly a waterbender?”

Both Lin and Tenzin regarded him with raised eyebrows. “I’m fairly certain that any bender trying to infiltrate the Equalists would be quickly discovered,” Lin said.

“The waterbender may not be allied with the Equalists,” Mako said. “But it’s possible that they were there for more than just theft. If some of the guards heard the sound of combat before the Equalists struck, then it’s possible that Tarrlok was already engaged in a battle with the first intruder.” He thought back to some of the less-reputable friends he and Bolin had met when they lived on the streets. “Thieves usually try to avoid straight-up fights.”

“It is possible,” Lin conceded. “Though this waterbender must think very highly of their skills if they faced Tarrlok alone. And if they had allies with them, we don’t have the evidence.  There’s also the matter of motive. While there are probably plenty of reasons someone might attack the councilman, he tends to be more popular with the bending population. The only bender who has actively stood against Tarrlok and his policies has been the firebending Blue Spirit. And even then, her attacks were centered more on stopping the task force than attacking Tarrlok personally.”

“The Blue Spirit could have waterbending allies,” Bolin said. “Or, or maybe even a waterbending sister. They could be a fire and water duo, kind of like how Mako and I have fire and earth covered.”

Something in Bolin’s words stirred a memory of flashing blue and silver. “I think the Blue Spirit had a Water Tribe knife,” Mako remarked. At Lin’s questioning look, he elaborated. “She used it to cut us free during the Equalist attack at the Pro-bending Finals. I didn’t really get a close look at it, but I remember that there were blue triangle motifs decorating the hilt.”

Lin nodded. “Anything else you can tell me about the Blue Spirit?”

Mako frowned. Most of his memories of that night had been focused on getting Bolin and Sakari safely out of the arena. “She was a bit shorter than Bolin, by about an inch or two. Athletic build. She wore a hood and a mask, so I couldn’t see any details about her face.” He glanced at Bolin to see if he had anything to add.

“She was really good at firebending,” Bolin offered. “And, uh, she was wearing black clothes. Though a lot of people wear black clothes, so that’s probably not very helpful.”

Lin sighed. “No, unfortunately, that doesn’t give us much to use when trying to identify who the Blue Spirit is. As of right now, her involvement in the events of last night are purely conjecture. If you remember anything else that might connect the Blue Spirit to this waterbending intruder, let me know. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a crime scene to investigate.”

“And I must alert the other council members of this news,” Tenzin said as Lin was leaving the room. He paused in the doorway and glanced back at Mako and Bolin. “I know that you don’t always appreciate Ikki and Meelo interrupting your practices, but if you could keep an extra eye on them today…”

“Of course,” Mako said.

“We won’t let them out of sights even if we have to chase them across the entire island,” Bolin said. “I mean, that’ll probably get tiring, but you can count on us.”

“Thank you,” Tenzin said before following Lin down the hallway.

“Come on,” Mako said, turning to Bolin. “Let’s go tell Sakari and Jinora what happened.” And then they’d really work on their formations. The Equalist threat loomed much closer over them, and he wanted the four of them to be ready if the worst came to pass.

 

* * *

 

“Korra, if you don’t move, then prepare to fight me.” Ghazan's eyes blazed as he stepped forward.

“Ghazan, we have to wait for Zaheer,” Korra pleaded. She raised her hands, palms out. “I don’t want to fight you.”

He crossed his arms, but didn’t take another step toward the door. “Then who do you want to fight, Korra?” he snarled. “You let yourself get tossed out of the fight against Tarrlok, even though he’s—“

“I didn’t ‘let’ myself get tossed anywhere,” Korra interjected. “We didn’t exactly have a contingency plan for Tarrlok being a bloodbender!”

Ghazan’s eyes twitched. “We are all masters of strange and uncommon bending practices,” he shouted, gesturing wildly to himself, Ming-Hua lying down on her bed, and P’li sitting beside her. “We trained you to adapt to chaotic battle circumstances and you let yourself get tossed out of the fight, leaving Ming-Hua by herself.”

He took another step forward and Korra grimaced. “I said I don’t want to fight, Ghazan,” she said, firming her stance. Her gaze flickered to P’li, but the other woman was impassive as she met Korra’s eyes. Since Korra had returned with Ming-Hua, P’li hadn’t left her friend’s side.

Ghazan had swung between focusing on revenge plots against Amon and blaming Korra for what had happened. At the moment, however, he seemed determined to combine them into one activity.

“If you don’t want to fight me,” he said, “then come with me and make it right. Track down Amon with me. We’ll torture him until he explains how he did this and how to fix Ming-Hua.”

The idea had its appeal. Fury simmered under her skin, threatening to rush over her whole body. Part of her wanted nothing more than to toss open the door and tear Republic City apart until she found Amon.

Then she remembered seeing his mask the night before. Her whole body had frozen, unwilling to move.

“I… I want to help,” Korra said slowly, “but I don’t think… we shouldn’t rush off yet. If that’s the plan, then we need to at least wait for Zaheer to get back from his mission with the Equalists.”

“The plan is out,” Ghazan snapped. “No more balancing crap. It’s time to break shit until Ming-Hua is healed. There are more important things than ‘the plan’ and one of them is family.”

Korra stiffened at the word. What did ‘family’ even mean? A half-dozen people flashed through her mind, none of whom were related to one another.

“We need to wait,” she repeated, “because… If we want to attack the Equalists, Zaheer is our best source of information.”

At this, Ghazan’s frantic energy stilled, somewhat. “He is…”

Korra heaved a sigh of relief and ignored the voice that said she was lying. She knew a better source, but she couldn’t reveal who. “He was helping them move equipment last night,” she said. “He’s our best bet at finding Amon.”

Farther up than Zaheer on the Equalist chain of command, Asami was a far better opening, far more likely to know where Amon was. But last night she’d saved Korra, dumped her in the fountain to keep the Equalists from seeing her.

Anger and exhaustion were about to boil over within her, but Korra owed Asami that one favor. She owed it to her friend not to give her up to the Red Lotus, just once to make them even.

“Ghazan…” P’li’s voice was low, but steady.

“Is she waking?” He walked away from the door immediately and crouched by Ming-Hua’s beside.

Korra’s shoulders lowered as she followed. Ming-Hua had briefly woken when Korra carried her into the apartment, but had fallen asleep again the moment she was laid down on the bed.

P’li didn’t acknowledge Korra’s presence as she moved aside to allow Ghazan more space.

Korra stood back and chewed on her lip as Ming-Hua shifted in her sleep. The older woman’s eyelids fluttered a moment before they stilled, half-open. Her expression seemed vacant, as if her spirit wasn’t fully inhabiting her body.

“Ming-Hua, are you awake?” Ghazan had discarded all the harsh tones from his voice. He laid a hand on her hip and leaned closer.

She nodded absently. “Yes,” she said. Her voice cracked.

Immediately, P’li reached for a glass of water they’d kept by her bedside. Ghazan slipped an arm behind Ming-Hua’s back and sat her up halfway.

Korra took a step back as P’li brought the water to Ming-Hua’s lips. There was a feeling in water that all waterbenders felt after training for a few years. Even if she wasn’t actively bending the water, it always felt alive to Korra’s touch. Water was change, was possibility. Even the slightest touch and waterbenders could sense the potential within.

Ghazan slipped one hand behind Ming-Hua’s neck to steady her as P’li tipped the glass forward.

For a beat, everything was fine. Ming-Hua swallowed some water and P’li and Ghazan exchanged a look.

Then Ming-Hua froze and yanked herself back from the cup. “No!” she yelled.

P’li pulled the glass back, but some water still spilled on Ming-Hua’s robe.

Ghazan moved forward to wrap his arms around her. “Ming-Hua…”

She recoiled and pressed her back against the wall. “No, no, no,” she breathed, staring down at the water P’li had spilled on her.

“I’m sorry,” P’li said. She reached a hand out slowly, waiting so Ming-Hua had a chance to move before she rested the hand on her foot.

Ming-Hua’s expression shifted too quickly for Korra to follow: Rage, confusion, desperation, and, finally, a deep-seated emptiness.

Ghazan rested his hand on Ming-Hua’s knee. “Ming-Hua, I will do whatever you need me to do,” he said, voice feverish. “Anything you ask, anything you require.” He leaned forward and rested his forehead on the back of his hand.

Korra wished she could evaporate like water and vanish from the apartment. From the city, maybe even the world. She was a failure to this woman, who had raised her like a mother. She was an intruder to this moment.

Ghazan lifted his head and met Ming-Hua’s listless gaze. Something sparked in her eyes as she looked down at him.

Everyone jumped as the door opened.

“That took far longer than I anticipated,” Zaheer said as he walked in. He slipped out of his overcoat and shut the door behind him. Korra watched his eyes skim over the scene in the apartment and narrow. “What happened?” he asked.

Korra was steeling herself to go over the previous night’s events again when Ghazan leapt to his feet and stormed over to Zaheer. “What happened was that your info on when the Equalist raid would happen was worse than useless!” he yelled. “Ming-Hua and Korra showed up right before Amon did.”

Zaheer opened his mouth, either in shock or to ask a question. Ghazan did not pause to give him the chance. “And apparently Tarrlok is a bloodbender. He apparently made our Avatar here completely useless and put her out of commission while Amon swept in and took Ming-Hua’s bending!”

His yelling had brought him closer and closer to Zaheer, who now reached out and set a steady hand on Ghazan’s shoulder. “I understand that you’re angry right now,” he said, “but I need you to calm down while I figure out what happened.”

Ghazan stiffened. For a moment, Korra thought she felt a tremor in the apartment’s foundation.

Zaheer turned to Korra, though he did not let go of Ghazan’s shoulder. “What happened to Tarrlok?” he asked.

Korra swallowed hard and tried to find her voice. “A-Amon removed his bending, then the Equalists took him.”

Returning this focus to Ghazan, Zaheer squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “We will take action,” he said. “It will be swift and terrible to behold. Amon is going to pay for this, but right now we need to contain our emotions. This is a hitch, but we become worse than useless if we run off without a plan.”

Ghazan ripped his shoulder out of Zaheer’s grasp. “This is not just a hitch in the plan,” he snapped. “This is a complete plan-breaker. Whatever other objectives we had are nothing in the face of this attack.”

Korra glanced at P’li, but the woman’s face was impassive as she watched Ghazan and Zaheer argue. Ming-Hua’s eyes had closed, and she had laid back down.

“Our goals, both long and short-term, are not without purpose,” Zaheer stated. His voice was level, but Korra could see his eye twitching a little. “We are here to bring freedom to the city in anticipation of—“

“Stop acting like you’re above it all!” Ghazan yelled, giving Zaheer a small shove. “Don’t you care?!” He flung a hand back toward Ming-Hua. “We are effectively family, and you don’t even look like you give a—“

“Of course I care,” Zaheer cut in. His voice had started to take on an edge. He walked around Ghazan toward Ming-Hua. “But I also care about our mission, as the Red Lotus. It’s a mission you seem to be on the edge of abandoning entirely, just because you’re upset and destabilized in the moment.”

Korra took a small step back from the center of the room. She was glad Zaheer had moved, because Ghazan looked as though he was about to punch him. When he spoke, his voice dropped from yelling to a deadly snarl. “I swear to the Spirits if you tell me I need to ‘let go of my attachments’ or ‘earthly tethers’ or anything of the sort, I will bury you in lava.”

Seeming to take the words to heart, Zaheer waited a long pause before responding. “I am, perhaps, not in a position to understand the personal implications of this loss.” He regarded Ghazan with a measured look, cautious and expectant.

Ghazan’s temper abated, but only slightly. Contempt replaced anger in his voice as he sneered, “Of course you wouldn’t understand.”

Korra winced as Zaheer’s eye twitched. Her teacher was slow to anger, but wrathful when provoked. He’d been patient enough with Ghazan so far, but the other man was drawing close to the edge of ‘too much’ and Korra didn’t want to see what happened if he went over.

“I am sorry,” Zaheer said, “that I am not better equipped to understand this loss.” His voice was still level, but Korra could hear a rising tide behind it. “Under this circumstance, however, you try my patience, Ghazan, as I attempt to fathom why this setback has completely superseded years of planning. We came together for a purpose.”

For a breath, Korra thought Zaheer’s gaze flickered toward her, but she couldn’t say.

Ghazan growled. “I’m not sure how to make you understand without making it a personal bending demonstration.” He took a step forward.

Zaheer’s foot slid back and he settled into a combat stance, and not one of his usual ones. Korra felt a stab of recognition. The stance was the same on Asami had used in their chi-blocking lessons.

“Wait,” Korra said, moving forward. She didn’t know what she would do, but she couldn’t let this fight happen.

As they turned to look at her, Ming-Hua spoke from the edge of the room. “It would be like chopping off your hands.” Her voice cracked on the words, husky and uneven.

Ghazan immediately dropped his stance and ran back toward her. “Ming-Hua! I’m here,” he said, falling to his knees beside her bed.

P’li, who had been silent throughout Ghazan and Zaheer’s exchange, gave Ming-Hua’s knee a squeeze and stood up. She did not look at Korra as she made her way over to Zaheer. He fell out of his stance as she drew closer and they began to confer in hushed tones.

Feeling like an intruder on their exchange, Korra made her way back over to Ming-Hua. Ghazan’s face was rested against Ming-Hua’s lap, his arms loosely draped around her waist. Korra could faintly hear him whispering into her robe, a borderline incoherent stream of promises and questions, neither of which Ming-Hua addressed.

Korra awkwardly sat in P’li’s spot. She hesitated before resting a hand on Ming-Hua’s knee.

Ming-Hua still bore the vacant expression from before, but her spirit seemed to have come into focus slightly with Ghazan’s presence.

Korra couldn’t place it, but now that things were quiet, she thought she could feel something… different about Ming-Hua now. Something she hadn’t noticed before when carrying her home. She frowned and closed her eyes, trying to reach a lower meditative state. She didn’t need to meditate into the Spirit World to get a sense of the spiritual energies here in the room.

The trying was the hard part. Korra always tried when the trick was to let herself fall into it, to find the part of her that rushed and make it still. If she could step away from the part of herself that naturally resisted the stillness, she would tumble into the meditation naturally.

After a minute, she found it. Or maybe it found her. Stilling the frantic energy, she opened her eyes to find the room changed.

And… there! She could see, now, the shift in Ming-Hua. A faint blue remained, but… tempered and restricted. The other woman’s spirit had shrunk and grown faint, but Korra could still see the waterbending within her. Something was blocking it from spreading past the very core of Ming-Hua’s being.

Reaching out a spiritual hand, however, she found herself unable to grasp it. Her touch seemed to slip past the blockage no matter how she tried.

Frustration threatened to toss Korra from the meditative state, so she stopped her efforts and sat in silence with herself, listening to the tides of the world around her.

The spiritual listening came naturally after that. It magnified the spoken words around her, whichever ones most resonated with the spirits of the people who spoke them.

Ghazan’s whispers became clearer and more immediate.

“Whatever you need… anything… I’ll kill him… Anything for you…”

Near the door, Zaheer and P’li’s whispered conversation made its way to her in bits and pieces.

“Our mission here has shifted.”

“I know, Zaheer, but… need to be sensitive…”

“…nothing I could lose… make me lose sight of the mission…”

“…not as strong as you…”

Ghazan’s voice cut back in. “What do you want me to do… I promise I will make it right…”

Ming Hua’s response cut across the room, both on the spiritual and the physical planes. “Stay,” she said, “please.”

Ghazan put so much of his spirit behind his response that the words seemed to reverberate and echo across Korra’s meditative listening: “I will not leave your side.”

Korra made one more failed effort to reach out for Ming-Hua’s spirit before she began to withdraw from the meditation. As she did, she could hear Zaheer’s voice one last time.

“…watch him… when I’m not here…”

Korra opened her physical eyes and saw Zaheer kiss P’li, then start heading over. She stood up, not keen to occupy the same small room with both him and Ghazan.

As she walked through the small doorway that marked Ghazan and Ming-Hua’s room, Zaheer caught her elbow and guided her toward the kitchen. “A word, Korra.”

She nodded stiffly. “Of course.”

“I simply want to clarify the series of events, as you were the one there.” He turned and met her gaze steadily in the kitchen. “Can you explain, from the beginning of Tarrlok using bloodbending, what happened last night?”

Korra nodded, though a bead of sweat rolled down her back. Zaheer was more likely than P’li and Ghazan to notice the exclusion of Asami from the narrative, more likely to realize she was leaving something out. Still, she recounted the events as truthfully as she was willing.

It would be much simpler to give Asami up. But no matter how Ming-Hua asked, Korra knew that Ghazan would leave her side if he knew there was a guaranteed meeting with one of the Equalists from the night before.

Korra thought of the spark in his eyes, the simmering nature of his spirit. She owed Asami too much to give her up to that rage.

At least not yet. Korra refused to allow herself to feel that anger. Not now.

As she smoothed her own temper into check over those feelings, Zaheer considered the story she’d told him. He frowned. “Korra… are you afraid?”

“What?” Korra shook her head. “Of course not.”

“You may tell me,” he said, regarding her steadily. “From your account, it sounds as though you froze up rather badly when Amon entered the atrium. You mentioned several bodily reactions that prevented you from intervening when he turned his attentions to Ming-Hua.”

Korra couldn’t maintain his gaze. “I… I tried to move, so hard.” Her shoulders slumped. “But I absolutely failed to protect her.”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Fear can be a force more paralyzing than bloodbending,” he said. “but to overcome it you must own it and acknowledge it. Only by addressing it can it be overcome.”

“I… okay.” Korra nodded.

He squeezed her shoulder and glanced over to Ghazan and Ming-Hua’s room. “I noticed you stirring on the spiritual plane earlier,” he said. “May I ask your perspective?”

“Of course,” Korra said. “I… I can’t tell much, but I think Ming-Hua’s bending is still… within her, in a way.” She frowned. “I can’t reach it. Something seems to have contained it, or maybe just reduced it. It’s hard to say.”

Zaheer’s eyebrows drew together and he hummed in contemplation. “I will see what I can observe, myself.”

“Tell me what you see?” Zaheer seemed a bit puzzled at her words, and Korra cleared her throat. “I… I know Aang had the power to take someone’s bending away. Energybending is, er, is thought to be the Avatar’s power alone.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Maybe… maybe I could learn how to give it back?”

“To do so would be quite the spiritual feat,” Zaheer mused. “I do not think it’s impossible, but I doubt it will come easily.”

Korra laughed humorously. “Well, it is me. I’m probably the least spiritual Avatar ever.”

“There are also different types of spirituality,” Zaheer countered. He gave her a brief hug. “Pursue that road, if you choose.” Meeting her gaze steadily, he said the next part seriously. “But I would advise you not to tell the others what you’re working on.” His eyes flickered toward the room where Ghazan, Ming-Hua, and P’li were. “It’s a great hope, but I would not like to see that expectation sour. If you tell them it’s possible and then fail, I do not see that going well for you.”

Ghazan’s rage multiplied with Korra’s imagination of his disappointment. It was not a pleasant vision. She didn’t fancy P’li’s judgement and scorn either. Worse than both, however, was the idea of giving Ming-Hua hope, then dashing it on the ground.

“I won’t say a word,” Korra said.

“Good.” He nodded. “In the meantime, I’m going to try and smooth things over.”

Korra wished him luck, and he made his way over to the room.

As everyone shifted their attention to him, she slipped out of the apartment.

Korra wasn’t even sure where she was headed. She had hours to burn before her meeting with Asami, but she knew she couldn’t spend them there with the others. She needed space to process everything and maybe find a solution.

Reaching back to her Avatar connection yielded no help. The connection to Aang from the night before, so urgent then, felt distant and more absent than anytime since she’d arrived in Republic City.

“Where is your guidance now, Aang,” she whispered, “since it was so urgent last night.” If he hadn’t been distracting her with visions, maybe she and Ming-Hua would have had more warning that Tarrlok was in the atrium.

Aang didn’t respond. Not even the slightest shift on Korra’s spiritual plane.

“Just like an airbender to cut and run,” she muttered, rounding a street corner.

When fuming at Aang lost its novelty, Korra started making her way to the Republic City library. If she had time to burn before meeting Asami, she might as well spend it doing research.

The thought of meeting Asami started anxiety curling in Korra’s gut. If she had time to burn, it would likely benefit her to spend some of that time managing her emotions on the matter while she was at it. If she’d just lied to her guardians to keep her friend safe, it wouldn’t do to set Asami on fire out of anger the moment she saw her.

 

* * *

 

Even though she was working on a few hours of sleep, Asami felt a restless energy coursing through her. She’d left the mansion as early as possible that morning, but been unable to avoid her mother, who subsequently insisted on accompanying her to the manufacturing district. On the way there, Yasuko read aloud every single newspaper account of Tarrlok’s kidnapping.

Normally, Asami wouldn’t have minded her mother rehashing Equalist victories. Honestly, it was par for the course.

But every small reminder grated against her efforts to put the previous night out of her mind. Asami found some success shutting herself in her workshop and testing her electromagnetic disturbance invention. There was something darkly satisfying about hooking up the prongs and being able to completely shut down the target device with a button press.

Eventually, even that lost the ability to distract her, and Asami found herself unable to properly focus even on paperwork. Future Industries ledgers were being more and more of a wreck due to the funds Yasuko kept funnelling to their Equalist manufacturing. Fudging the numbers was almost impossible at this point.

When she finally admitted to herself that no more progress would be made, Asami headed out for the park. The sun was still a hand’s breadth from setting, but Naga was already there when Asami arrived.

Naga leapt to her feet from the bench where she was sitting, but didn’t say anything. A dozen different greetings flashed through Asami’s mind, from, “I’m glad you showed up, I was worried you wouldn’t,” to, “At least you were honest about showing up.”

Both possible statements curdled guilt in Asami’s stomach, which just made her angry. In the end, she closed the distance between them without saying a word.

Looking down at Naga, Asami found she couldn’t read her friend’s face very well. Lines of tension kept Naga’s expression taut and wary, but her eyes held a vulnerability that Asami recognized. Whatever her friend’s lies, it hadn’t been all lies.

Asami just hadn’t been able to tell the difference until now.

She turned on her heel and started walking down the path to Naga’s right. Her friend fell into step beside her without breaking the silence. Despite their height difference, Naga kept pace with Asami without noticeable effort.

They needed a quiet place to talk, somewhere Asami could be reassured they weren’t being overheard. She knew the park had a few more isolated corners. Asami recalled taking a couple of her school-romances here to kiss in the relative privacy that the dense groves of trees offered.

Thinking about that in Naga’s presence felt uncomfortable, so Asami forced the thought aside and quickened her pace.

Even then, Naga easily kept pace beside her. Their steps seemed to sync up without effort, and the silence felt comfortable despite the tensions in the air. They’d done this often enough on their various jaunts through the city: walking side by side, the backs of their hands brushing together every few steps.

It was so compatible and familiar that Asami gritted her teeth. Dammit, but after everything they’d gone through, they shouldn’t be comfortable with one another. They walked into the clearing in the middle of the grove and Asami spun around to face Naga down.

The two of them shouldn’t fit, but they seemed to mirror each other, even in the tension.

That Naga was a bender made so much sense now. Asami could see it in the set of her legs and her friend’s muscled arms. Their conversations about bending techniques at the pro-bending arena fit perfectly into the studies of a waterbender. Her friend’s low ponytail was a nondescript hairstyle, but would keep her hair out of the way during a fight. When she’d been teaching Naga about chi-blocking, her friend’s default stances were all waterbending ones.

The evidence made Asami want to yell. In their conversations at the arena, Naga had given her all the pieces she’d needed to realize later.

“You’re a waterbender,” Asami snapped. She’d meant it to be an accusation, but her voice jerked higher on the last syllable, making it more of a strangled question, a harsh plea that maybe she was wrong.

Naga inclined her head, but met Asami’s gaze steadily. “I am a waterbender,” she said.

The ready admission gave Asami pause, but only for a beat. “I’ve poured over our conversations in my head,” she said, “Every word I could remember, every moment your lie was relevant.” She regarded Naga with a steady gaze. “And I think what pisses me off the most is that you’re probably standing there thinking to yourself that you never technically lied to me. As best I can recall, you never actually said you were a non-bender.”

“I never did,” Naga said. “You assumed, and I never corrected you.”

“But you did make statements that corroborated my assumptions,” Asami snapped. “You said stuff that implied it, that you knew would maintain the lie.”

At this, Asami saw a ripple of anger disturb Naga’s cool demeanor. Her friend had been quiet and calm up to this point, but the force keeping her that way seemed to be waning.

“I did,” Naga said, a new edge to her voice. “Because as much as I was grateful to you, curious about you…” Naga grimaced. “Spirits, as much as I just genuinely liked you as a person, I couldn’t let you know I was a bender because you were an Equalist.”

On the last word, Naga’s voice seemed the rip through the air. The calm demeanor she’d been maintaining started to crumble and Asami saw, for the first time, that her friend was angry with her as well. Asami’s eyebrows drew together. “Oh is that it!” She stepped toward Naga. Behind her friend, the reddening sunset sky felt like the conversation’s first blood being spilled. “This whole time you sat there and smiled, letting me think you were an ally. Really, you’ve been judging and hating me for what I am the whole time.”

“I haven’t, actually.” Naga rolled her eyes. “But can you hear yourself? Now that you know what I am, you’re doing your damnedest to catch up on the judgement and hatred you didn’t know you owed me.”

“Not for you being a bender!” Asami’s hands clenched into fists. “For the fact that you lied about it! You let me think you were something you’re not and let me talk myself in circles like an idiot while you sat on the truth.”

Naga’s temper abated somewhat at that. She frowned and stepped closer, but not in a threatening manner. “And if I had told you, could we have become friends then? Would you have spoken to me at all?”

Asami bit her lip. Of course she wouldn’t have, but that didn’t mean she regretted the times they had spent together in friendship.

“Honestly, probably not,” she said. “But I didn’t have that choice. You did. You got the chance to choose to be my friend.” Despite intending the words to cut, Asami found her resolve softening as she said them.

Naga, a bender, had chosen her friendship despite knowing Asami was an Equalist.

Her words only seemed to incense Naga, however, who stormed around to lean heavily against the back of the bench. “I did choose you, and look where it got me.” She sighed roughly. “After what happened last night with… after that, I don’t know if I can choose you anymore.”

Naga’s expression went vacant. For a beat, Asami knew they were both back in Tarrlok’s house. Tarrlok was being carried away. Amon was approaching the armless woman, complimenting her on her waterbending skill.

Unlike Tarrlok, she hadn’t roared or gone for theatrics. She’d just said, “please,” before Amon said he didn’t grant requests.

Asami had trembled when the woman dropped to the floor. Some benders didn’t deserve to be stripped of the ability.

A terrible possibility dropped like lead into Asami’s stomach. The man Naga had introduced as her Uncle Naghaz shared her skin tone. The woman didn’t much resemble Naga, but if they were both waterbenders… “She… she wasn’t your mother, was she?” Asami forced herself to look up from the ground.

Naga blinked at her, face blank with confusion. Relief flooded Asami’s veins a beat before her friend confirmed it. “No, she’s not my mother,” Naga said.

An audible pallor settled over their conversation with the shift in topic. For a long minute, neither of them said a word. The sky flushed and soared a dozen hues of gold. Naga didn’t seem to notice. Asami couldn’t find it in herself to care for the sight.

“I… what happened to her was wrong,” Asami managed. “I’m sorry.”

Naga’s lips tightened. Her expression hadn’t softened. “She’s raised me since I was four,” she said. “She’s been like an aunt to me, my teacher, my friend, my confidant.”

“I’m sorry,” Asami repeated, with feeling.

“Augh!” Naga pushed up and away from the back of the bench, storming around toward Asami. “I’m glad you’re sorry, I genuinely am! It would be pretty sick if you weren’t. And I know I’ve lied to you and hurt you, and we can deal with that later. Right now I need to know if there’s a cure. Is there a way to restore bending that Amon has taken?”

Asami bit her lip. The possibility had been broached years ago, during some board meeting before she’d grown up enough to attend them.

Yasuko had come home crowing with triumph. “This is the beginning of the end,” she’d declared, sweeping Asami up in her arms. “We finally have a way to level the playing field for good. We finally have a way to make the world equal.”

She’d explained Amon’s powers, decreed to him by the spirits. It had sounded beyond the impossible.

“Can they get their bending back after?” Asami had asked.

Yasuko had never seemed happier to her than in the moment she smiled and answered, “No, no they cannot.”

Asami took a step back, away from Naga. “If there’s a cure, it’s not one we know.”

The clearing seemed to darken faster than the sun ought to be setting. Naga tore her gaze away from Asami. “I think I hate what you are,” she said. Her voice had gone quiet, but no less heated.

“I think I hate what I am too,” Asami whispered. “But at least you knew,” Asami muttered, unable to meet Naga’s eyes. She backed off and paced around the edge of the clearing. “However you feel about Equalists, at least you knew I was one. You had the option to walk away at any time. You knew from the beginning; I didn’t hide that. Even now, you have the option to walk away from this. I… I have no such luxuries.”

Naga walked over to the bench and sat down heavily. “You do,” she said at length. “You are the master of your own destiny, Asami. The cost of that control might just be higher than you’re willing to pay.”

Asami didn’t turn around. “What about the costs of friendship?” she asked.

“What about them.”

“Are they worth it?” She walked closer to the edge of the clearing and put her hand on a tree. “Is this worth it when all we seem to have done is hurt one another?”

Naga laughed bitterly. “Is that all we’ve done? We’ve smiled and laughed together. I lied to you, yes. I hid something vital from you, but my friendship wasn’t a lie.”

Asami looked over. “Can I trust you?”

All of Naga’s anger seemed to have drained from her body and the set of her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I am sorry.”

A grim smile tugged the corners of Asami’s lips. “We’re both sorry,” she said.

Naga tilted her head. “Are we both friends?”

Asami regarded her across the clearing. Sunset had stripped the colors from the sky and rendered the copse around them in varying shades of shadow. Briefly, it occurred to her that it would be handy if Naga was a firebender instead, to give them some light.

She crossed the clearing.

Naga stiffened as Asami drew close, pursing her lips. Her eyes studied Asami cautiously as she sat down.

As they sat beside one another, gazes locked, Asami felt herself relax. The tension fell out of their silence and, with mild chagrin, Asami realized they’d come back to where they’d started. The quiet was comfortable, despite everything.

She watched Naga mirror her reactions as her friend’s shoulders dropped. A few moments later, even the somber set of their expressions lifted. Not much, but Asami detected the slightest lilt of a smile at the corners of Naga’s lips and a softness in her eyes that had vanished while they were talking.

“We are,” Asami said. “We are friends.”

“Just friends?”

A sudden flush rushed across Asami’s face. She met Naga’s eyes and realized the other woman had watched Asami gazing at her lips for longer than was generally acceptable.

Before Asami could summon her wits for a response, Naga stretched and rolled her shoulders. And Asami had to admit the sight was an attractive, distracting one. “I have been less than prudent,” Naga said, “in matters involving you.” She sighed. “For a lot of reasons. You’re a good person, Asami. I sincerely believe that. You’re also a good friend. And… and a lot of other stuff.”

Naga’s burst of courage and honesty seemed to be waning. She shrugged awkwardly and gestured vaguely with one hand. “And… you’re just really great and part of why I’m upset is that… I know I should have backed off before now. But I didn’t and I didn’t want to and I’m kind of angry with myself for letting those feelings get in the way.”

Asami reached out and took Naga’s gesturing hand. “I understand,” she said. “I… I haven’t been very prudent either, for much the same reasons.”

The sparse moonlight filtering through the trees highlighted Naga’s face in profile. Under the cover of darkness, Asami let herself indulge in the attraction, just for a moment. She’d resisted admitting it to herself for so long that it felt like letting go of a breath she’d been holding. Her eyes lingered on the curves of her friend’s lips, on the shape of her nose. When Naga turned to face her, the moonlight just barely caught in her blue eyes.

Naga’s hand was warm in hers. Without quite thinking it, Asami reached out and held Naga’s hand with both of hers.

“Now isn’t a good time,” Asami whispered.

“I know,” Naga whispered back. “I can’t any more than you can.” Her other hand covered Asami’s.

They were both leaning closer, drawing nearer to one another on the bench.

Asami shook her head and smiled. “The city is about to start falling apart around us, and here you are distracting me.”

“I will find you when the dust settles,” Naga said. “We are still friends, against all the odds.”

“If you don’t find me, I will find you,” Asami replied, squeezing Naga’s hands in her own. “We’ll figure us out later?”

Naga tilted her head to the side. “When the fallout is over… will we be able to?”

It felt like less of a theoretical question and more of a practical one. Asami drew away until only their fingertips were still touching. “The coming days… will not be good ones,” she said.

“I can take care of myself,” Naga offered.

“That’s not the issue.” Asami met her gaze flatly. “I’m well aware of that now,” she said.

Naga at least had the grace to look away. “I will also be taking care of more than just myself,” she murmured.

“If you keep your heads down, you should be fine,” Asami said, trying to hurry back to safer conversational territory. Not that the impending Equalist takeover was that much better. “There… there will be a sweep of the city. Do the people around where you’re staying know your bending status?”

Naga shook her head.

“Just… stay inside. Let the trouble pass you by.” Asami couldn’t meet Naga’s eyes. She’d managed enough cognitive dissonance to ignore this part of the plan in her thoughts, at least so far. She found she wasn’t capable of putting the innocent benders—innocent people—out of her mind now.

This takeover would strip many of them of their bending and hurt more than that.

It wasn’t until Naga spoke that Asami realized she’d fallen silent, lost in her thoughts, for too long. Their fingertips had slipped out of contact while Asami’s mind drifted.

“If I could shape the world,” Naga whispered, “everyone could live together equally. Truly equally. Non-benders and benders alike, without fear, without shame. Without prejudice. We are all born with different abilities, the same as we’re born of different lineages, but… the world doesn’t have to be set into structures that emphasize and deepen the divides between people.” She sighed, closing her eyes. Asami could just barely make out her expression in the dark. “Peace and balance are possible while maintaining freedom.”

They sat another minute in the dark, in the silence and the quiet noises of the park around them. The sound of distant Satomobiles pressed in, a reminder that this small peace between them would draw to an end.

The world outside was waiting.

“Let’s go.” Naga stood first, holding out her hand.

Asami took it without hesitation. Together, they walked out of the trees and along the path until it came to a fork. Naga slowed her steps and Asami came to a stop beside her.

Briefly, she fought the desire to know where Naga was staying. She could look into who was doing a sweep of that neighborhood and ensure she was safe.

She put down the temptation to ask. It was likely better for her not to know.

That question quickly birthed another one, however. Naga turned to Asami with her mouth open, likely to say good bye. Asami cut her off before she could speak.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

Naga blinked. Even in the dim light, Asami could see her expression had frozen. A mild panic moved behind her eyes.

“The truth this time,” Asami added. Naga had moved to let go of her hand, but Asami gripped it tighter and stepped closer.

Still, Naga didn’t reply. She dropped her gaze and licked her lips.

Asami put her other hand on Naga’s shoulder. “Please,” she said. “I deserve this much. If you… if we are… friends, at all. And if we might be, later… Please tell me who you really are.”

She was close enough to hear Naga swallow hard, to see her eyelashes flutter in the darkness as she slowly raised her head to meet Asami’s eyes.

“I’ve used various aliases over the years,” she said, voice slow, “but my name is Korra.”

“Korra…” Asami turned the name over her tongue. It felt familiar, but she couldn’t place where she’d heard it.

She smiled. For now, she was just glad to see the truth on her friend’s face. Korra seemed hesitant, almost fearful. Her lips were poised to say something else, but Asami could tell her from her eyes that Korra hadn’t decided what exactly she was going to add.

“Thank you, Korra,” Asami said. She felt her expression soften as she said the name again. “It suits you,” she added. “The name. This truth.”

She wasn’t sure, but Asami thought she saw Korra blush. “O-oh. Thank you…”

Standing together, Asami resisted the urge to lean closer. The moon was dim, their bodies close. Asami had pulled Korra over by her shoulder, but never let go. Their hands were clasped, and Asami could feel Korra’s other hand hovering above her waist.

Asami bit her lip. Her judgement had been far from ideal. Even now, the reasons they’d voiced against starting… something—whatever the two of them might be—felt distant.

Korra’s hand slipped out of her own and she wrapped her arms around Asami in a tight hug. “Goodnight, Asami,” she whispered. “I’ll find you after.”

“If I don’t find you first,” Asami shot back. She returned the hug warmly, letting her body relax against Korra’s. For a moment, everything was okay. She could allow herself this indulgence, this space and time to just be and to be happy.

Their bodies fit together in a way that made Asami wish she could extend the contact. If it was in her power, she’d push the whole outside world away and live in this moment, away from the contradictions and responsibilities and decisions that threatened to sweep in and wash her away.

Even the thought of them, the barest reminder, was enough to make her let go. Asami stepped back slowly, letting her fingertips linger at the edge of Korra’s robe for as long as possible.

Their eyes met and locked, but Asami couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t cheapen the moment. Since they’d been so comfortable in silence together, however, it seemed right enough to retreat there now.

She took a step back, then another.

Korra didn’t move as she watched Asami turn to leave the park. Asami refused to look back until she reached the entrance she’d come from. When she reached the gate and looked back, Korra had vanished.