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Instincts of a Fearful Body

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Chapter Thirteen: Out of the Past
(and into the papers)

 

Morning light filtered through the window, carrying a sea breeze. In most ways, today was exactly like all the others Jinora spent working in the Air Temple Island library. Still, she found something unsettling about the distant crash of water this morning.

Putting her thoughts aside, Jinora hefted a tome under her arm and went searching for its place on the shelves. Most of the people who read the volumes at Air Temple Island were acolytes. Occasionally, the library saw visitors from the city itself, but the Republic City library tended to cover most people’s tastes. Jinora herself liked to visit to pick up novels to read. As much as she enjoyed historical and spiritual texts, she didn’t want to read them all the time, and that’s mostly what occupied the Air Temple’s library.

Placing the book in its spot, she paused. Gilded lettering read, ‘A Political History of the United Republic’ along the spine.

A chill breeze swept through the library. Jinora went to go shut the window.

The world didn’t seem to be particularly safe for political figures. At least not lately. Even before the Equalists took Councilman Tarrlok, Jinora had read newspaper accounts of other mysterious depositions. Different leaders around the world, most of them relatively minor or local, would vanish. Some turned up dead in their own front halls.

Her unease abated when Jinora shut the window. She normally liked letting some fresh air into the stuffy library, but at the moment it seemed more comforting to add some insulation from the outside world.

Her father tried not to alarm her, but the recent news gave Jinora pause. After Tarrlok’s kidnapping, Jinora had come to the quiet conclusion that nobody in Republic City could guarantee they were ‘safe.’

She went back to the stack of books to shelve, but found herself staring blankly at the titles.

Not even the Avatar had been safe, taken before Jinoa was born. Could she honestly say that anybody was?

Since the Equalists had started rising into public notice a year ago, it had become increasingly clear to her that the city was in crisis. Benders looked over their shoulders, nervous that the Equalists would take them next. Non-benders had grown skittish of the police since Tarrlok put his task force into effect.

Somewhere in the world, the Avatar was eighteen and completely absent from the world’s political and spiritual spheres.

Jinora took two scrolls to shelve with the older volumes.

She could not change the world yet, but she could keep working. Every hour spent in practice or in study was progress toward her mastery. And twice a week, that meant service hours in the form of library duty.

Since her grandfather had died, the world had been left with just one airbending master. And Avatar Aang had received his mastery at twelve, so why not her?

Resolution firmed, Jinora shook off the fears that rattled the windows and threatened to sweep through. If the only change she could make in the world, for now, was shelving books and scrolls, then she would shelve them as best she could.

“Uh, hello?”

A voice at the door startled her. Jinora whipped around to see an older teenager standing in the doorway. She looked vaguely familiar. Belatedly, Jinora realized the woman had probably come to the library looking for something. “Yes! Can I help you?”

“Heh, yeah, actually.” She walked in, looking around at the shelves. “I was looking for some information at the Republic City Library and they said I should check the Air Temple one instead.”

Jinora raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? What kind of information were you looking for?”

“Oh, uh, I need to read volumes four and fifteen of The Complete History of Avatar Aang and, um, I was looking for something on, uh, energybending?”

Odd choices, but it was nice to get to help someone look for something for once. “Sure thing,” she said, gesturing for the woman to follow her, “let’s get the histories first.” Most of the library’s patrons were acolytes, and they were generally able to find what they needed without her help.

On their way down the histories aisle, Jinora snuck another look at the visitor. The tattoos on her upper arms reminded Jinora of something she couldn’t place, maybe a Water Tribe design? It would fit with her hair and skin tone. “You seem kind of familiar,” Jinora said, “do I know you from somewhere?”

The woman nodded. “Mmmhmm. I came to Air Temple Island once and you were my tour guide. You probably lead a ton of those, so I’m not surprised you don’t remember me.”

“Oh!” With the added context, Jinora could almost place her. “I think I remember now. You asked really good questions when we were by the spinning gates?”

The woman chuckled. “I tried, anyway.”

Briefly, Jinora felt a strange sense, almost like vertigo. A beat later, she was able to place it as a spiritual feeling, like a disturbance on her spiritual plane.

Something about this visitor seemed… different.

She stopped walking when they reached the histories of Avatar Aang. The weird sensation stopped, reducing itself to a prickle at the back of her neck. “Here we are,” Jinora said, shaking off the feeling. “Let’s see… you’re lucky we have the volumes you want. One of the acolytes has been checking out the volumes three at a time for this project she’s researching.”

“Oh, that’s neat,” the woman said, “so, uh, how long can I take them out for?”

Jinora winced as she pulled out volumes four and fifteen. “You actually can’t,” she said. “The Air Temple library only allows residents of Air Temple Island to remove books and scrolls from the building. You’re welcome to come here and read whenever you need to, and I can pull the books you want and have them set aside for you so that nobody else can check them out.”

“Ah, hm.” The woman frowned. “I’d best get reading then.”

“I can hunt down some stuff on energybending while you do,” Jinora offered. “There’s a bench over in the corner if you want, or a desk over there.”

“Oh, thank you very much.” The woman flashed her a smile. “I’ll be reading over here if you find anything.”

Jinora watched her open both books almost as soon as she sat down at the desk. The woman definitely had something specific she was looking for.

They didn’t have a lot of information on energybending, mostly because there wasn’t exactly a lot that they knew. As far as Jinora knew, her grandfather was kind of the only known practitioner. Some of the super old histories bore mentions of similar practices, but they also talked about giant turtles and Jinora wasn’t exactly sure it was the same thing.

She was halfway through combing the spirituality section when she remembered that Avatar Aang’s personal writings were in their own special section. Jinora hadn’t read through all of them yet, but she was pretty sure she’d seen something on energybending.

It took her several minutes to skim through the scrolls and find the one she needed. Anticipating his passing, her grandfather had apparently spent the last few months of his life writing down his personal knowledge on various subjects. One of them was on energybending, though he didn’t seem to have much to say on the topic. It was, out of all the slim volumes, definitely the thinnest.

Jinora pulled the scroll and brought it over to her visitor. “Here you go,” she said. “Have you found what you were looking for in the histories?”

“Eh, for the most part,” she replied, shrugging. “It’s definitely fleshed out my understanding of certain situations, but I’m not sure I found what I need. I think I’m done with them though.”

“Maybe it’ll be in that scroll then?” Jinora smiled. “Do you want me to put the histories back for you?”

“That would be great, actually.” The woman flashed her a smile. “Thanks, Jinora.”

When she placed them back on the shelf, Jinora tried to place which eras of her grandfather’s life those two histories would cover. Volume four definitely covered the end of the hundred years’ war. She’d read that one pretty recently. It was more worn than volume fifteen, which wasn’t checked out as often.

Jinora actually wasn’t sure what that was about. She pulled it back off the shelf and paged through it, trying to place the events. It seemed to be about some minor incidents in the middle years after Republic City’s founding. Skimming seemed to suggest some drama about the council and a crackdown on organized crime.

For a minute, Jinora stood in the stacks and tried to connect the two volumes somehow. She couldn’t figure out what they might have in common, however, and placed volume fifteen back.

She was on her way to the study desk when a tap at the library window caught her attention. She chuckled when she went over and saw Bolin outside.

“Hey!” he shouted through the window. “Practice is starting soon. You coming out?”

“Oh.” Jinora glanced over at the desk, where the visitor was looking up at her with mild interest. “Uh, yeah.” Realizing that Bolin probably couldn’t hear her through the closed window, she nodded and held up a finger to tell him she’d be out in a minute.

“You’ve got… practice?” the woman at the desk asked.

“Oh, um, yeah.” Jinora rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m really sorry, but I kind of have to kick you out now. My library duties just ended, and I can’t stay late today.”

A brief frown touched the woman’s features, but if she was irritated she hid it well. “That’s fine,” she said. “Where do I shelve this scroll?”

Jinora glanced up from updating the library’s log. “I can get it,” she said. First though, she needed to record all the books and scrolls she’d finished shelving and which ones had been referenced or checked out by visitors to the library.

“No, really. I can put a scroll back, I promise.” The woman chuckled as she made her way to the cabinet by the library’s door. “You got it from over here, right?”

She peeked up and nodded. “Yeah, actually. Thank you!”

Jinora saw her open the cabinet and place the scroll in from the corner of her eye, right as she finished updating the log. Shutting the giant book, she made her way to the door.

“Mind if I walk with you partway?” the woman asked.

“That’s fine,” Jinora said. They started making their way out of the complex. “Are you heading back to the city now?”

“Yeah… so who are you practicing with? That voice didn’t sound like your father, or one of your siblings.”

“Oh.” Jinora blinked. She’d forgotten it wasn’t really public knowledge that the Fire Ferrets had moved to Air Temple Island. “Did you watch much pro-bending this past season?”

The woman shrugged. “I caught a few matches.”

“Because they lived in the arena, the Fire Ferrets had to find a new place to stay after the finals attack,” Jinora said, “and they ended up moving here, actually.” She didn’t need to explain to the stranger why the Fire Ferrets had ended up moving here. Sakari made it clear that she preferred her familial status to remain out of public knowledge. “I’ve been practicing more combat-adapted bending techniques with them.”

“Hmmm… that’s the team with the prodigy waterbender, right? Sakari? Is she okay?” The woman’s tone was a bit affected on the first question, and Jinora suspected that she already knew the answer.

But Jinora didn’t want to be rude, and it was innocuous enough. “She’s here too,” she said, “and she’s doing alright. It’s kind of nice to practice with someone the same height as me, actually.”

They reached the edge of the air temple complex, where Jinora needed to go right to get to the practice grounds and the visitor needed to go left to get down to the docks. “You should come back tomorrow morning,” Jinora said. “If you get here a bit earlier, you can have more time with that scroll.”

“I’m not sure I’ll have time,” the woman admitted as she started walking down the stairs, “but I’ll try! Thanks again for all your help.”

“Not a problem!” Jinora waved, then turned to the right and spun herself an air scooter so she could get to the practice grounds quicker.

As it zipped her along, she thought about how Avatar Aang had invented the air scooter, a new technique then, to secure his mastery when he was twelve.

The wind spun faster under her and zipped her along. She almost stumbled when she leapt off the ball and hit the ground running at the practice field.

Bolin ribbed her a bit for taking so long, but nodded when she said she’d been walking a guest out.

Jinora looked around cautiously as she sat down to stretch. “Where are Ikki and Meelo?”

Sakari winked. “Naga’s taking care of them. They should be well-occupied on the other half of the island with airbending-assisted fetch.”

“That actually sounds pretty fun.” Jinora giggled.

After a minute of stretching, they flew into action, dividing up to work on various techniques together. She smiled at Mako. “Ready?” she asked.

He nodded and rolled his shoulders. “Let’s give it another shot.”

They did some practice with all four elements in tandem, but it was easier to start off with two-element combos. One of their most recent additions revolved around managing the volatile combination of air and fire. If Jinora and Mako worked together, matching the commensurate level of wind with Mako’s blasts, they could create small fireballs that quickly surged into small explosions, then immediately dissipated. The result came with an impressive flash of light and a loud pop.

The first time they’d successfully balanced it, Bolin had yelped and slipped on some of Sakari’s ice. It was kind of funny, actually.

However, if Jinora didn’t control the gusts of wind just so, the air would extinguish the fire instead of feeding it. Bending with Mako was all about balance. Unlike water and earth, they didn’t need to reach to find their elements; Mako found fire at hand as easily as Jinora grasped the air.

“Alright Jinora, I’m ready when you are.” Mako held a bit of fire between his hands.

Jinora nodded and stepped in time with the movement on her hands, feeding a stream of air into the fireball. Mako’s focused expression didn’t shift as he moved the fire in a whirl with the air. Unlike Bolin, he didn’t crack jokes during practice. It was still fun to work with him though. Even when they were in the middle of a drill she could tell just how well the fire suited him and jumped naturally to his fingertips.

When the mixture of air and fire was just right, Jinora fed the airstream to the flames and Mako threw the fire away from him. Several paces out, it exploded with a flash of light and a loud boom.

“WHOO HOO!” Bolin shot them a thumbs up from the other side of the field. “I love explosions! I didn’t freak out at all this time!” From the looks of his clothes, he and Sakari were enjoying their mudbending entirely too much.

Jinora giggled as Mako shook his head. “Ready to try again? I think we can reduce the time by half if we get a little more practice in.”

They weren’t able to get it down by half, but they did manage some progress by the time they switched off partners with Sakari and Bolin. Thankfully, her friend had managed to get cleaned off from the mudbending section.

She and Sakari were working on a less combat-applicable technique, but it was still pretty cool.

“Are you ready?” Sakari asked.

Jinora nodded. “Let’s give it a shot.”

When Jinora had taken Sakari up on Oogi, they’d discovered they could work together to bend the clouds. It had been an exhilarating and exciting discovery.

Trying to make clouds on the ground was not so effortless.

Sakari pulled some water out of the pond and held it in the air, concentrating. Jinora started working her hands around, creating a gentle current of air to cycle around the circle of water. When the air was steady, she gave Sakari another nod, ready to incorporate the water vapor into the air’s movements.

Turning her wrists, Sakari tried to pull the water apart into vapor. It was hard for Jinora to understand the process, but her friend had described it as being the opposite of hardening water into ice. It was also, apparently, quite difficult. Jinora’s air ball caught a wisp of water vapor as a bead of sweat rolled down Sakari’s face.

It took several minutes to successfully incorporate the air and water, but by the end of it they’d managed to create a small cloud.

Sakari immediately sat down. “Okay, that’s enough cloud-making for today. Is it naptime yet?”

Jinora used the air to whirl their cloud in a circle. “I don’t think we can nap yet, but we can definitely call it a day on the cloud-making.”

Seeing that they were done, Bolin grabbed Mako’s shoulder. “Look, they did it!”

“Nice!” Mako jogged over. “I think that’s the biggest one yet.”

“It definitely is,” Sakari said. She’d dropped from sitting to lying on the ground.

“There’s gotta be a faster way to do that,” Bolin said. “Or at least a way that’s less exhausting for Sakari.”

“I would like that,” Sakari mumbled. The process had gotten less tiring with practice, but it was still far from being useful on a practical level.

Jinora frowned, pulling the cloud into a tighter formation. Its colors shifted depending on how dense she pressed the air and water. “I’m not sure how we could, but unfortunately it’s not really feasible for combat applications yet.”

Mako glanced up. “Could you practice with the ones in the sky? Last I checked, they come ready-made and free to use.”

Sakari weakly kicked his ankle, then sat up. “Yeah, but they kind of like being, you know, in the sky. We tried pulling one down on Oogi once and it didn’t wanna budge too much.”

“We’ll practice with that too,” Jinora said, reaching an arm down to pull Sakari up. Once her friend was on her feet, Jinora passed her their small cloud with a puff of wind. “I think if we could get some practice and some more volume, the cloud-bending could be really useful in a combat setting.”

“I can sense anything that’s in it,” Sakari said, pulling the cloud down near the pond so it enveloped the tips of some reeds. “And we can expand and condense it as needed to manipulate visibility.”

Bolin stroked his chin. “And as much as I like our dust-cover technique, Jinora, it kind of sucks trying to actually walk through it.”

“Yeah…” Jinora winced. Even with the two of them able to manipulate the dust cloud, she always ended up rubbing her eyes afterward, and her clothes got really dirty. The worst that happened when moving through the clouds was getting her clothes wet, and she and Sakari could both easily dry off.

Her father’s voice startled her. “I’m very impressed with all the ingenuity I see the four of you employing,” he said.

Jinora whipped around to see him walking over from the main building. “Oh, hi Dad!” He couldn’t normally attend their practices, and she was always a little nervous when he did. The combat techniques and combined bending they practiced weren’t exactly part of the traditional thirty-six tiers of airbending.

“Thank you, Master Tenzin,” Mako said. “Even though I offered to help teach Jinora more practical bending combat, I gotta say I think she’s taught us plenty too.”

Sakari flashed Jinora a smile and passed her the cloud in a spiral shape as Bolin added, “I already feel much lighter on my feet.”

Her father nodded. “It’s all a bit different, but I’m very happy for the four of you.” He met Jinora’s eyes with a warm gaze as she bent the cloud into two smaller ones. “You’ve put for the a lot of effort. I don’t believe there’s been a four-element team like this since my father was a young man.”

“That’s so cool,” Bolin said, practically bouncing. “Maybe when life gets back to normal, we can petition the pro-bending establishment to give airbending a place in the arena!” Bolin’s wide grin fell as Tenzin’s expression froze.

Jinora winced and exchanged a look with Sakari. She’s heard from her friend how badly her father had reacted when he’d found Sakari at the pro-bending arena. He wasn’t exactly a fan of the sport.

Mako chuckled and inserted himself in front of Bolin. “Uh… we just mean to say that your daughter has a prodigious level of skill. She’s a master airbender and it’s great to train with her.” Jinora’s gaze swept toward her father. His eyes flickered toward her, but he seemed impassive to Mako’s faux-pas. Mastery wasn’t as well-defined a concept with other bending arts; Mako probably didn’t even know he’d said something awkward. “We would not actually advocate for the inclusion of an eleven-year-old airbender in the pro-bending circuit. Sir.”

An awkward pause followed Mako’s hurried conclusion.

Then Jinora’s father laughed. She blinked and swapped surprised looks with Sakari.

“I highly doubt the pro-bending establishment would allow the Fire Ferrets to be the one team with four benders,” he said. “And I must admit I would be… less than thrilled at the prospect. Still, the idea does bring some amusing possibilities.”

“… It does?” Sakari asked. She crossed her arms.

“Well of course!” Tenzin chuckled. “Why, my father would retell this story whenever he needed to poke fun at Chief Beifong, the elder. He first met her at Earth Rumble Six, an underground earthbending competition. He was able to easily—and accidentally—defeat Toph—“

“He defeated Toph?” Bolin whispered.

“—who was even then a master earthbender, because the win condition was simply to knock the opponent off the stage.” Tenzin smiled. “I would not be the biggest fan of Jinora’s inclusion in the pro-bending circuit, but I suspect if she were allowed, she could win the championship single-handed. Airbending has a significant advantage in that form of contest.”

Jinora glowed with the praise. For a moment, she felt as though she could float away happy with her father’s admission and praise of her skill.

“Master Tenzin!” An alarmed cry from a White Lotus soldier broke Jinora’s reverie.

They all turned toward her as she ran over, a newspaper in hand. Jinora recognized the soldier as one of the ones who made frequent trips into the city.

“What is it, Sonam?” Tenzin asked, brows knit together.

She held out a newspaper and Tenzin took it. “The cover story of the Republic City Post,” she said. “It hit the stands late this morning, but I don’t think they’ll have any problems selling it out.” Sonam’s eyes flashed toward Sakari.

Jinora felt a pit of dread drop into her stomach. “What’s the headline?” she asked.

Her father’s face lost all traces of his previous humor as his eyes skimmed down the front page.

The cloud whirled around Sakari, small spirals that reflected nervousness. “What happened? Did the Equalists take someone else?”

Mako stepped forward. “Was there another attack?”

“Nothing like that.” Tenzin’s face tightened. “But it’s still bad news, I’m afraid.” He hesitated, then held the paper out. “I’m sorry, Sakari.”

The Republic City Post headline read, ‘Still No Avatar, But Secret Sister Discovered! Fire Ferret’s Sakari is a Water Tribe Runaway!’

The cloud fell to the ground as water, splashing around Sakari. “H-How did they find out? I…” Whatever Sakari tried to say next caught in her throat.

Jinora turned and swept her into a tight hug as Mako took the paper. She watched him skim down the article. “It just says… unnamed but reliable sources,” he said.

“Hardly anybody even knows I exist,” Sakari whispered. “Not even in the Southern Water Tribe…”

Bolin put an arm around Sakari and Jinora as he read the article around Mako’s shoulder. “They don’t seem to have too much actual information on you from the south,” he said. “Just that your dad is the chief and your parents kept you a secret.”

To the side, Jinora was dimly aware of Sonam telling her father that she’d run the paper across the bay as soon as she could, but that the next boat in would likely have reporters.

“Let’s get inside,” Jinora said, gently tugging Sakari’s shoulders. Her father would instruct the White Lotus to intercept any reporters. If one of them snuck by, however, it would be better to stay away from the island’s public areas.

They said hurried goodbyes to her father, who left in the other direction to deal with the issue.

As they made their way inside, however, Jinora could feel Sakari start to simmer with anger. Her hand was trembling in Jinora’s own by the time they made it to the dining room. If her friend had been another type of bender, Jinora was fairly certain she’d have caught fire by now.

“Who was it?” she said abruptly. “Do you think it was that woman Tenzin told the other day?”

Mako frowned. “Chief Beifong? No way. She has no reason to do that.”

“And she’s Toph’s daughter,” Bolin added. “She would never do anything bad!”

“Then who was it?” Sakari ran a troubled hand through her hair. “There’s only a handful of people who know. Even... even those two women from the arena, even that doesn’t make any sense. It’s been weeks since they found out, and Sonam said the paper was delayed in printing this morning, like it was fresh news.”

Jinora didn’t know who Sakari was talking about, but her reasoning seemed sound. “We don’t know yet, but we’ll figure out who it was eventually.” She put a hand on Sakari’s shoulder.

“Sakari half-heartedly shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t matter who leaked it anyway,” she mumbled. “It was bound to happen eventually.”

Mako frowned. “Hey, Sakari—”

“I’ve been trying to make myself into someone on my own here,” she cut him off. “I traveled half the world to get here, just me and Naga, and I got to choose who that person was.” She sat down heavily against the wall and Jinora sat down beside her with Mako and Bolin. “I’ve never gotten to do that before. In the Southern Water Tribe, I was just ‘The Avatar’s Sister’ to everyone that knew me. All, what, five people?”

Sakari’s shoulders slumped. “Now whoever I am doesn’t matter. I’m just back to being defined by a missing person again.”

Jinora moved to the side so she could take Sakari’s hand in her own and meet her eyes. “Who you are definitely matters,” she said, “because that’s who you are to yourself. Whether the Avatar is around or not, you still have your own story and your own journey and at all points of it, you’re still Sakari.”

A mild smile touched Sakari’s face and Jinora squeezed her hand in response.

“Think about the last book Jinora loaned you,” Mako said. “The world may define the Avatar as the main character, but you don’t have to accept that.”

Bolin put his arm around Sakari’s shoulders. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think you should.” He put his other hand to his eyebrows, like he was looking off in the distance. “I don’t see her around anywhere, which kind of sucks, but we’ve been managing well enough with her so far.”

The smile on Sakari’s face grew a bit. “Only well enough? We made it to finals, didn’t we?”

Jinora smiled as Mako chuckled and ruffled Sakari’s bangs. “We sure did, kid. In no small part thanks to you.”

At that, Jinora was relieved to see Sakari practically glow with pride. After a moment however, the positive reaction seemed to temper itself. She bit her lip, then said, “Can I ask you guys a favor?”

“Of course!” Bolin ruffled her hair further, nearly knocking it out of the short ponytail she had it in for practice.

Mako nodded his agreement and Jinora smiled at her. “What is it?” she asked.

“If… if we do get word… Of her, of Korra’s whereabouts or something like that…” Sakari swallowed hard. “Would you help me find her? I know that as soon as we know something, that means that Tenzin and my dad and everyone else will know too, probably, but… I don’t want to sit around waiting for the adults to bring her home. I want to track her down and drag her back into my story.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jinora said. “No matter what.”

Mako nodded. “I’ve always wanted to be a detective. If we get a hint, let’s go ferret her out.”

“Retrieval mission is a go,” Bolin said, grinning.

Even though she wasn’t any bigger than Jinora, Sakari somehow managed to sweep the four of them into a group hug. “Thank you,” she said. “With a team like this, she’d better watch out.”

 

* * *

 

Korra made a small detour on her way back to the apartment. The scroll she’d stolen from the Air Temple Island Library wasn’t something she’d want to be caught with at the apartment. She’d only had a little time to peruse it before Jinora had to go, but Aang’s writings on energybending were clearly going to be key to understanding the art.

Checking that she wasn’t being watched, she stashed the scroll with her Blue Spirit mask. Her other reason for taking it had been concern for the library’s safety. Korra wasn’t sure what exactly the Equalists planned for it, but it seemed prudent to keep the text she needed out of their hands.

Climbing the stairs to the apartment, Korra listened carefully. Lately, fights were more common than not. When she couldn’t hear anything abnormal though the door, she let herself in.

P’li, Ghazan, and Zaheer were all standing in the middle of the living room. They immediately stopped talking and looked up when she came in.

For a moment, everything was quiet. Korra stepped inside, feeling out-of-place, and shut the door behind her.

“Where have you been?” Zaheer asked, voice clipped.

Korra pulled out a packet of tea leaves. “You guys sent me to get this from the pharmacy, remember?”

Ghazan strode over and snatched the packet from her. “You were on a quick errand and were gone for over two hours. Where the hell were you?”

“I was just… out?” Korra tried to catch Zaheer’s eyes, but he seemed oddly preoccupied. If she could get him to understand that she’d been on her energybending quest, he could cover for her to the rest of the Red Lotus.

P’li stepped forward, gently taking the packet of tea leaves from Ghazan. She laid a hand on his shoulder before he could shout at Korra again. Leveling Korra with a steady gaze, she said, “You went to contact her, didn’t you.”

It wasn’t a question.

Korra felt the pit of her stomach drop out, and she wasn’t even sure if she was guilty. “I literally do not know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Who do you think I contacted? Why?”

Ghazan huffed. “Do you think we’re stupid, Korra?”

“No, but I think you’re being ridiculous right now,” she snapped back. Tensions had been running high for the past few days, but she was starting to reach her boiling point. “I went off to run the errand. The pharmacy with that tea is all the way by the docks. So yeah, it took some time, especially since I had to check several on the way. Now you’re accusing me of… something? I don’t even know what I’ve supposedly done!”

At that, her guardians exchanged several looks with one another. Korra couldn’t understand the silent conversation, but it seemed like they were discussing whether or not to believe her.

“I don’t think she knows,” Zaheer said, a moment later.

“How could she have missed it?” Ghazan said.

P’li sighed and walked back to the table. She plucked one of the newspapers up, roughly folded it, and tossed it at Korra.

“What does this have to do with anything…” Korra grumbled. She unfolded the paper, a copy of the Republic City Post, and blinked.

Sakari, in her pro-bending uniform, was on the front cover. The headline: 'Still No Avatar, But Secret Sister Discovered! Fire Ferret’s Sakari is a Water Tribe Runaway!'

“What!?” Korra blinked and read it again. “No… This can’t be.”

Somehow, the press had gotten ahold of Sakari’s secret. Someone must have leaked the information to the post.

The news must only have reached Air Temple Island right after she’d left. There was no other explanation.

Zaheer stepped toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. “We know this must be a shock.”

“What?” Korra felt dumb, just repeating the word as she skimmed the article. It was mostly about Sakari, but reading how the post addressed the Avatar’s absence was equally disconcerting.

“Okay.” Ghazan deflated somewhat. “Okay you’re right, she clearly didn’t know.” He stepped forward. “I’m sorry for snapping Korra, we just… we thought that you’d seen the news. And that… you were late because you’d run off to go see her, since she’s your sister.”

Several emotions swept through Korra at once. First came a strange catharsis from hearing someone else refer to Sakari as her sister. It was a truth she’d whispered to herself, but had yet to hear from someone else’s voice.

Then came alarm and fear. Korra had been reacting to the news, the fact that Sakari’s identity had been leaked to the public. Clearly, however, the Red Lotus had interpreted her reaction differently because they didn’t know she knew.

Korra tried to imagine how she’d react if she’d only just found out Sakari existed. How had she felt that night after the arena?

“I have a sister,” Korra whispered. She moved to go sit down on the couch and the others followed her. “Like… right here in Republic City.”

When P’li sat down beside her, it occurred to Korra that she did have one question. She looked across the table at Zaheer and met his eyes. “Did you know?” she asked. “Did you know she existed?”

Zaheer met her gaze steadily, then nodded. “Somewhat,” he said. “We have not been back to the Southern Water Tribe since liberating you, but some Red Lotus agents reported their suspicions. It seems the girl was kept a secret in the palace, separated from the rest of the world.”

“We were unable to confirm much aside from rumors that she did exist,” P’li continued.

“I see…” Korra propped her elbows on her knees. “I… I would like to meet her,” she admitted.

Zaheer sighed. “In time. Now is not… an opportune moment.”

Ghazan huffed. He had not yet sat down. “That’s an understatement,” he muttered, walking over to P’li. She silently passed the tea packet back, now that he wasn’t in danger of crushing it, and he went into the kitchen.

“We need you here, Korra,” P’li said. “Here and now. Not there.” She sighed. “Family is a complicated beast. On the one hand, they are supposed to be those closest to us. On the other hand, our families can often make terrible decisions for us with little oversight.”

Korra nodded mutely. She knew that P’li had been kidnapped by a warlord when she was a kid. Instead of trying to free her or looking for someone to help do so, P’li’s family had chosen to accept the warlord’s bribe to stay silent about the kidnapping.

“Just because someone is your family doesn’t mean they have your best interests at heart,” Zaheer said. “Your own family, complicit in the world’s system of unbalanced power, would have raised you in a compound not so dissimilar to this Sakari girl. The proof is in her upbringing, really. They would have kept you separate in order to indoctrinate you into their philosophies and keep you ‘safe.’” He smiled slightly. “We liberated you so that you might experience true freedom. We are not your family, but with us you have seen the world.”

Korra nodded and sighed. “I know… but… that’s my parents. That’s the White Lotus and Master Tenzin and all of those people. Sakari is just a kid. She’s thirteen. She may be confused or something but like… she can’t not have my best interests at heart. She probably just wants to meet me…”

When she looked up, Korra saw Zaheer and P’li having a silent conversation. A beat later, Zaheer pursed his lips. “When things have calmed down,” he said, “we will help you arrange a meeting with the girl. We understand that this is important to you.”

Korra nodded. “Yeah. That’d be great… just…” She sighed. “I guess I was wondering… couldn’t we liberate her too?”

She hadn’t been able to spend much time in Sakari’s company, but Korra could easily imagine her at ease with her Red Lotus guardians. Her quick wit and bending prowess would be a natural fit into their family. And even if Sakari was a bit cautious at first, Korra could explain everything to her in time.

Zaheer and P’li stared at her blankly. Korra could hear the clinking noises of Ghazan making tea in the kitchen.

“You know… because this has been such a good life for me,” Korra continued, “I guess I was just thinking that we could help her too. And yeah, then we could be together.” She shrugged. “I just found out I have a sister. Of course I want to meet her. Of course I want to be a part of her life.”

Whatever sort of practice they were doing on Air Temple Island, with Mako, Bolin, Jinora, and Sakari, Korra had no doubt it was something she wanted to be a part of. But if she couldn’t be there, maybe she could figure out a way of getting Sakari here.

“We… can see about arranging it,” Zaheer said at length. “After Harmonic Convergence.”

P’li gave him a sharp look, but Korra couldn’t figure out what she meant by it. She smiled at him. “Thank you, Zaheer,” she said. “Thank you thank you!”

“The details may change,” P’li cut in. “We don’t know exactly how this will play out.”

“But the plan stays the same,” Zaheer said. He smiled across the table at Korra, but his eyes drifted over to look at P’li. “We always have a plan.”

 

 

* * *

 

Asami pulled her jacket close as she followed her mother onto the airfield. Though the city itself had mostly warmed to spring temperatures, the mountains hiding this Equalist base were surrounded by snow.

“We have sentries posted to alert this base of any approaching vehicles,” Yasuko was saying as she led Asami to the large hangar in the center of the airfield. Five branching runways traveled from the hangar to the cliff’s edge. “In addition, I’ve deployed an invisible fence around the perimeter in case any intruders attempt to infiltrate the base.”

Asami let her gaze wander around the edges of the airfield, lingering on the metal poles spaced around the perimeter. The voltage they carried would be enough to knock out most people. Combined with the airfield’s remote location, that electric fence would make attacking this base almost impossible.

“I wanted to make sure that you were familiar with this base and the biplanes,” Yasuko said, opening the doors to the hangar. “I’ll likely need your help in keeping the biplanes functional. I trust you’ll be quite impressed when you see them.” A proud smile stretched across her face.

It was a little odd. Yasuko didn’t smile often, but Asami had seen that same expression when they had released their first updated Satomobile model together.

She’d also seen it when they had finally created a working electrified glove, and again when they were holding the first field-test results.

Asami forced her lips into a smile as she stepped inside... and promptly gasped at the rows of biplanes. Polished metal plates and gleaming rivets caught the light and reflected curved shapes along the hangar walls. “These are incredible, mother,” Asami said. She wandered closer to one, inspecting it from different angles. The planes were sleek in design, accented in red, with a three-blade propeller. Her gaze turned to the wings, analyzing their structure.

A part of her wondered exactly how much her mother had embezzled from Future Industries to construct these plans, but she forced the thought aside. Asami was good at mental math, but didn’t trust herself to handle equations of that size.

Yasuko beamed at the praise. “It took a few models to find the right aspect ratio for the wings,” she said. “But I am confident that these biplanes will perform in a variety of combat situations, including high-alpha maneuvers. I have no doubt that we will have the superior air power. We moved the pusher engines to the top of the wings to improve the plane’s ability to dive bomb if need be. Underneath the wings, we can load four torpedoes in addition to the bombs stored beneath the plane’s body.”

Asami froze at the words, unable to swallow the bitter taste in her mouth.  Her eyes fell to the torpedo racks, and she couldn’t help but start calculating just how much destructive power a single plane contained.

She turned her gaze down the rows of planes sitting in the hangar and frowned at the number of them. “Do we really have this many pilots among our numbers?” she asked. Equalist membership had grown in the wake of Tarrlok’s oppressive laws, but there were very few registered pilots in Republic City.

“We’ve been training several former delivery drivers as pilots,” Yasuko said. “And many of the engineers also volunteered to undergo pilot training as well if need be.”

Asami frowned at that, turning to face her mother. “I was under the impression that the biplanes were only to provide air cover for our ground forces.” Even as she spoke the words, they tasted of ash.

“That was the original plan,” Yasuko said, walking over to one of the planes, “when we thought we were going to have fewer pilots than we do. But after reviewing the numbers, we realized that we will have enough pilots to launch a decisive offensive against the United Forces. One of our spies at City Hall will call in a distress signal to the United Forces and give us their estimated time of arrival. She’ll also pass on false information about the timing of our attack to lure their navy into a trap. Our pilots will swoop in and take out the ships when they reach the bay. The attack should quickly turn the tide in our favor.”

Her mother opened one of the plane’s engine hatches and started fiddling inside. She might have said something else about how they’d handle the next wave of the United Forces, but it was lost in the maelstrom of Asami’s thoughts.

If the Equalists launched nearly all of these biplanes at once, fully equipped, they would decimate the United Forces’ navy. Even deployed in waves, the attack would be devastating.

A naval ship was more than just the soldiers on board. There would be sailors, engineers, cooks, and various other crew members. Hundreds of noncombatants, bender and non-bender alike, killed in a matter of seconds.

Asami swallowed. “Surely we could use the fact that we will have air superiority to force the United Forces to retreat or surrender?” She tried to keep pleading out of her tone as she spoke. If she could just reason with her mother, then maybe... “We could use the biplanes and mecha tanks to force the United Forces into a corner. Force them to surrender, since we’ll have taken over the capital of the United Republic…”

“They would never agree to our demands,” Yasuko said. She pulled a small gear out of the engine hatch and held it up to the light. “The Council, the city, and the United Forces have made it clear time and time again that they will continue to place benders above non-benders. For our movement to succeed, we have to make our attacks decisive. We have to show our enemies our true strength.”

Asami wanted to say something in protest, but the words froze in her throat.

Yasuko shook her head and pocketed the gear, then pulled out a new one to replace it. “When we destroy the first wave of the United Force’s navy, we will send a loud message to all benders that we will not rest until they have submitted to our rule and agreed to be equalized. The fight will be ours from the first strike.”

“But that’s…”

Too extreme? A part of Asami wanted to laugh at that thought. Because individually kidnapping benders and forcibly stripping away their bending wasn’t extreme? Building an army of mecha tanks and supplying the Equalists with a range of weapons wasn’t?

The Equalists had turned extremist long ago, and Asami couldn’t say when the shift from political movement to militant terrorism had occurred.

“This attack is necessary if we wish to turn the tide of the battle in our favor quickly,” Yasuko added absently. “Instead of a long, drawn-out battle, we’ll eliminate the brunt enemies in one fell swoop and minimize casualties on our side.

Looking at Yasuko, Asami wasn’t even sure when the shift in her mother had occurred. She remembered her mother’s wearied but determined smile years ago after a piece of legislation on non-bending rights had been pushed aside by the Council yet again. It was hard to reconcile that memory with the jaded engineer and Equalist leader standing before her.

“I understand,” she said, the words ringing hollow in her ears.

Yasuko nodded and began describing more of the biplanes’ features, pointing at different parts as she did so. Her words sounded like gibberish in Asami’s ears.

Every time she looked at the planes, she could see them soaring over the bay, loosing their torpedoes on the unsuspecting ships.

When the explanation lulled, Asami plastered her best apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, mother, but I really need to get back to my factory and finish my work there.”

“I was hoping you would have more time to inspect these planes with me,” Yasuko said.

Asami swallowed. “The last batch of mecha tanks is finishing up. But I’ll look over the blueprints on the biplanes that you sent me to make sure I know how they work.”

“All right,” Yasuko said, giving Asami a small smile. It did nothing to ease the tension coiling in Asami’s gut. “I wish you could stay longer and help me out here, but I know you have your own duties to finish up before our attack.”

“I’ll see you later,” Asami said, turning to leave.

“Oh,” Yasuko called as Asami started for the exit. “Make sure to pick up a copy of The Republic City Post  on your way back to the factory. A certain story was finally leaked to the news in preparation for our plans, so I thought you’d like to see it.”

Asami frowned. Her mother’s words carried a sense of foreboding, but she couldn’t think of what story she should be anticipating. Honestly, the amount of propaganda they discussed in council meetings was astounding. “I’ll go check it out then,” she said.

The trip from the base back to the city took far longer than Asami wanted it too. Her arms and shoulders shook faintly as she drove, but she kept a tight rein on her emotions. She just had to make it to her workshop and process everything.

The Satomobile rumbled under her. It was one of her family’s oldest models; her father had designed this one himself. It pre-dated the new road-building techniques and had a fairly robust suspension as a result. Winding down the rickety mountain roads, it was a better transportation choice than some of their newer models, designed for the comforts of a more modern Republic City.

Asami wore her thumb against a polished bit of leather where Hiroshi used to hold the wheel. If he were still alive, was this the direction he would want for their family? What about the city or Future Industries?

Her thoughts chased themselves in circles until she was back in the city proper. Navigating to the manufacturing district, she hopped out of her car on one of the many streets that served as hubs for factory workers to gather on breaks.

A small crowd was mingling around one of the newsstands. Asami approached and found that the stack of Republic City Post  copies had almost sold out—and this appeared to be the second printing. The story Yasuko had mentioned was major news then.

“It’s been such a crazy week for news,” the vendor was saying to another customer as Asami paid for the newspaper. “First Councilman Tarrlok goes missing and now it turns out that the Avatar’s sister has been in the city for months now.”

“What?” Heart racing, Asami stared at the front page in growing horror.

‘Still No Avatar, But Secret Sister Discovered! Fire Ferret’s Sakari is a Water Tribe Runaway!.’

Asami stepped away from the newsstand. “No...”

She distantly heard the vendor respond, “Oh yeah! They delayed the release this morning to print it!”

They had failed to capture Sakari during the Finals, and the Equalists had lost track of her after that. She should have been safe from their schemes for the moment. All the attention had been focused on the upcoming attack. Why focus on one thirteen-year-old girl?

Someone jostled Asami as they reached for one of the newspapers, breaking her out of her thoughts. She glanced down and found the paper shaking in her hands. Folding it back up and gripping it tightly, she started off toward her workshop at the factory. She felt like a machine held together by only a few loose screws, ready to fall apart at any second.

When the factory gates came into view, Asami sped up her pace. She spared only a moment to greet the manager on duty, who informed her that production was moving as scheduled. Thanking the woman, Asami turned and headed toward her workshop.

Once inside, she tossed the paper away and collapsed to the ground. A part of her wanted to scream in frustration, but all she did was sit there with her face buried in her knees.

Was this where she finally drew the line? The biplane assault would slaughter hundreds of people in a vicious surprise attack. She could picture the damage done by the torpedoes and bombs all too clearly, and the image left her chilled.

The attack would harm more than just the United Forces as well. Innocent civilians just trying to live their lives would be affected by the invasion. They could lose their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives. Already the Fire Ferrets had lost their home to an Equalist attack. How many other families would be hurt by this invasion?

At the thought of the Fire Ferrets, Asami’s gaze fell on the newspaper on the floor, and she reluctantly picked it back up. The Fire Ferrets, and Sakari in particular, would once again be in the Equalists’ sights. Though she didn’t want to read the article, she owed Sakari that much. Sakari’s situation was entirely her fault after all.

For such a big headline, the article itself was rather terse. It only briefly touched on her parents, Chief Tonraq and Senna, from the Southern Water Tribe. There was even less information about her missing sister. Just that a source revealed that the Avatar’s name was Korra. (And now that she thought about it, that conversation with Sakari must have been where she heard the name “Korra” before.) The rest of the article focused on Sakari’s pro-bending accomplishments and insinuations that her prowess was due to her lineage as both Water Tribe royalty and a member of the Avatar’s immediate family.

She studied the picture of Sakari in her pro-bending uniform and frowned. Though the photo was a bit blurry, she couldn’t help but think that Korra—Asami’s friend Korra—and Sakari really did resemble one another. It was more than them both being from the Water Tribe too. They had remarkably similar facial features, particularly with the shape of their eyes.

Korra. The Avatar’s name was Korra.

Her breath left in a rush. That her friend shared the same name as the Avatar had to be coincidence. She wasn’t very familiar with what names were most popular in the Southern Water Tribe, but surely there were multiple Korras in the world.

And yet as she continued to stare at the black-and-white image of Sakari, she kept imagining how similar a younger Korra would look, especially if Sakari had longer hair.

Asami read through the article again. It mentioned that the Avatar vanished fourteen years ago, when she was four. That would put the missing Avatar at eighteen years of age, close to Korra’s age.

She’s raised me since I was four. She’s been like an aunt to me, my teacher, my friend, my confidant.

Korra’s words about her waterbending mentor came back to Asami. The Avatar had gone missing at age four, and Korra had been taken in at age four. The name and age she could pass off as coincidence, but the timing of Korra’s “adoption” couldn’t be brushed off so easily.

Then there was the time she and Korra had learned of Sakari’s relationship to the Avatar. They had both been shocked at the news, but Korra had been uncharacteristically dazed during and after the conversation. Perhaps Asami was projecting some of her suspicions onto the memory, but she didn’t think Korra would have reacted so strongly if there wasn’t some kind of connection between her and Sakari’s story, if it wasn’t personal.

The idea of Korra being the Avatar felt ludicrous, but it could explain so much. Why Korra knew so much about different bending styles and forms. Why her fighting style easily switched between different forms. Why she hadn’t really spoken about her personal life or history, aside from allusions to continuous travel.

Why travel so much if there was nothing to hide?

Asami closed her eyes. If Korra was the Avatar, how did that fit into everything?

Even from the start, there was something off about her. Asami would have been immediately suspicious of a stranger who demonstrated so much knowledge of different bending forms if not for the fact that she’d met Naga at the Equalist Revelation. She had been convinced of her assumption that the woman was a non-bender and had learned about the different bending forms for self-defense. But only a bender could have that much specialized knowledge.

Most benders would only have that knowledge of their own form though. Would the Avatar be more likely to know about the other bending arts?

In their chi-blocking lesson, Korra had initially started with a certain style of stance. In hindsight, Asami would label it a waterbending stance. As the lesson went on, however, Korra’s footwork changed and adapted depending on what they were doing. Was it evidence of being able to switch between different styles of bending?

Asami stilled. At the beginning of the lesson, Korra had hesitated before saying she fought with a knife, but she did have one. It had seemed familiar too.

Asami sat up and tried to focus. She had let too many hints pass her by to forget now. Korra had said her knife probably resembled the ones they’d seen at Tarrlok’s house, but that wasn’t it. Asami actually thought she’d seen the knife after the run-in at Tarrlok’s house.

For some reason, her mind was placing it at the pro-bending arena, but that didn’t make any sense. Korra had been sitting with her in the stands both times they went. Asami would definitely have remembered her pulling a knife out.

So she must have seen the knife during the Pro-bending Finals. She closed her eyes, searching her memories for that flash of blue and silver. The only time a knife could have been used during that fight was when the Blue Spirit vigilante had cut Mako and Bolin free.

Asami swallowed, letting the implications wash over her. During her confrontation with the masked firebender, there had been a moment, right after the goggles had been kicked from her face, when the battle had seem to pause around them. The Blue Spirit had held back after that even when tossing Asami into the water. The other Equalists had not fared as well as she.

And despite the mask, she’d seen the firebender’s eyes. They were blue, the same shade as Korra’s.

This, she knew without a doubt, because she’d spent an inordinate amount of time lately looking into her friend’s eyes. They matched the Blue Spirit’s as certainly as they matched Sakari’s.

Asami leapt to her feet, only half-aware that she was pacing the length of her workshop. Korra being the Blue Spirit explained how the firebender had been so prepared to ambush the Equalists at the finals match. She knew of the attack through Asami’s warning, and she had also been on the backstage tour. She would know the best places to sneak inside. And if she had seen Asami’s face after kicking off her mask and goggles, she would have recognized her friend and known to hold back her attacks.

If Korra was the Blue Spirit, then she had to be the Avatar. A part of Asami didn’t want to believe it, yet she could find nothing to contradict the theory. There were too many coincidences, too many pieces of evidence that now fit neatly together concerning Korra.

Asami sighed and collapsed into the chair by her workbench.

Okay. So Korra was the Avatar.

The missing Avatar was hiding in plain sight in Republic City, attending pro-bending matches and making friends with an Equalist. Fighting against the Equalists and Tarrlok’s task force as a masked vigilante. Wishing for a world where everyone—bender and non-bender alike—could live in peace and freedom.

In a way, her friend’s wishes were similar to the what the Equalists had originally fought for before years of frustration, political inactivity, and Amon’s agenda had taken over and transformed the movement into something Asami no longer recognized.

The Equalist movement wasn’t going to return to the those previous ideals. The extremism had permeated the entire organization from the newest recruits to the highest leaders. Asami couldn’t keep lying to herself and pretend that if she kept her head down and followed orders that things would be okay. They hadn’t been for some time, and she had to accept that.

She buried her face in her hands. The corners of her eyes burned, but she refused to let the tears fall. She couldn’t go through with this plan. Taking over Republic City and ambushing the United Forces would result in hundred of casualties. So many people would have their lives destroyed or disrupted in the chaos, most of them innocent civilians. And her machines were part of that, machines that she had either designed or helped design. It was her responsibility to put a stop to it.

But she couldn’t do it alone. It was one thing to sabotage the finals mission. Disable a few gloves and manipulate the situation to give the Fire Ferrets a fighting chance.

It was quite another to stand against the entire Equalist army where there were mechanics to fix any sabotage attempts and even more fighters ready to take her out if she was caught.

No, if she was going to oppose the Equalists, she needed allies. Asami briefly considered the metalbending police, but she crossed them out. The police were already stretched out thin enough following the dissolution of Tarrlok’s task force. They simply didn’t have the manpower to take out the Equalists. Any attempted raid would only end with the police captured and stripped of their bending.

To fight an army, she would need an army. If she could warn the United Forces about the threat posed by the Equalist biplanes, give them information on the exact type of firepower they’d be facing, she could help level the battlefield. The United Forces were her best bet at quelling the Equalist threat. They would have the numbers necessary to keep the Equalists at bay.

But the Equalists would still have the advantage in terms of technology. Asami knew that the gloves, mecha tanks, biplanes, and other weapons were designed to be efficient and durable. If the United Forces couldn’t find some way to combat or disable those weapons, they would have a difficult battle…

Asami turned slowly to stare at the electromagnetic disturbance device sitting on her workbench. The United Forces would need some way to disable the Equalist technology, and she had spent the past few weeks designing a portable device that could do just that. Whenever she had been frustrated by her work or problems within the Equalist movement, she had poured her energy into modifying the device.

Perhaps she had been subconsciously breaking free from the Equalists all this time.

Her first successful test had proven the device capable of halting a satomobile. Stopping a mecha tank or a biplane wouldn’t be too different, just a shift in scale.

Jumping to her feet, Asami began gathering the tools and materials that she’d need to construct a a few additional devices. She could bring them with her when she went to warn the United Forces, proof of her sincerity in stopping the Equalists. They would probably not take kindly to her arrival, but she would get them to listen to her. She would have quite a number of Equalist secrets to leverage.

She only had a few days. And she would need to take care to keep her mother or Liu from discovering her plans. With the preparations for the attack on Republic City, it would be difficult. The challenge paled in comparison to her newfound determination. For the first time in months, she was finally doing the right thing.