Chapter 30: Harmonic Convergence
(Some things end. But other things begin.)
Because of Varrick’s fireworks, Bumi started his presidential speech late. “Sorry for the delay,” he said, stepping in front of the microphone. “I have been informed that the fireworks were set off by my campaign manager in celebration of my election to president. I want to apologize to everyone alarmed by the fireworks and reassure everyone that the man responsible is no longer my campaign manager. While I appreciate his enthusiasm in regards to my election, there is a reason we have laws about when and where you can launch fireworks, and he will have to take responsibility for breaking those laws.”
Asami doubted that a night in jail and the ensuing fine would prompt Varrick to rethink his actions, but at least he’d given Bumi a reason to distance himself from the shipping mogul.
“It’s an honor to be serving Republic City and the United Republic as their first president,” Bumi said. “I’ve always loved this city and seeing how much it has grown throughout my life has never ceased to amaze me. I’ve traveled all over the world, particularly during my time as a commander in the United Forces. While I’ve certainly seen my share of the world’s wonders, nothing has quite captivated me like this city. There is nowhere else that I could call home.
“Even as a kid I loved this city. When I was about this tall”—Bumi motioned to a height just below his chest—“I used to sneak off of Air Temple Island to visit the city and buy some of those red bean buns that they sell in that shop across from the post office. This was back before they built that statue of my father in Yue Bay, which was also a while back.” He paused, a contemplative expression taking over his face. “Wow, I’m older than I thought I was.”
A chuckle washed through the crowd.
“My age aside,” Bumi said when the laughter died down, “if I wasn’t sneaking over for the sweet buns, then it was to explore the marketplace or to ogle at all of the factories being built or to catch a ride on one of the streetcars. This city always felt so full of life and innovation, always growing and changing. I couldn’t tell you how many times I lost track of time and spent all afternoon wandering the city.
“My father and his friends had grand visions for The United Republic, and for Republic City especially. But visions take a lot of work and upkeep, and sometimes it’s easier to just kick back, put your feet up, have a cold drink, and just call it a day! It’s easier to get complacent and say that it’s all ‘good enough’ and I get that. I’ve seen the city through so many changes over the years, but recently she’s kinda settled in. Stopped improving herself.” Bumi punched a fist into his other hand. “I say, it’s time to envision some new visions and get back to work!”
The crowd applauded, and Bumi started getting on a roll. “I’m going to make Republic City a place that can be a home to all. A place that works for everyone here, with jobs for everyone too. Bender and non-bender alike.”
That brought a bigger cheer, and Asami’s heart swelled up a bit to see him there. A non-bender standing on the stage as Republic City’s president, elected by people who believed in him.
Asami released a sigh and tilted her head back, letting Bumi’s words and the cheers of the crowd wash over her. After the stress of tracking down and disabling the Equalist bomb, it felt nice to just rest.
Light flickered in the corner of her vision. Asami turned but saw nothing but the empty rooftops of the nearby buildings. Frowning, she narrowed her gaze, wondering what had caught her attention.
It couldn’t have been lightning. But not with the skies so clear. But then what…
“Everything okay?” Mako asked, glancing her way.
“Yes,” Asami said though the word didn’t sound certain leaving her mouth. “I just thought I saw—”
Another faint flicker, two short bursts in succession on a nearby roof.
“Saw that?” Mako said, eyes narrowed at the spot on the roof.
“Saw what?” Bolin asked, following their gazes.
Asami frowned. Had the police missed some of Varrick’s fireworks? Surely there wouldn’t be that many left over given the number he had initially launched. Besides, that flash of blue looked more like something electronic, not a firework. Something about the pattern of pulses looked familiar though.
She cursed. “It’s Equalist code.”
Asami tore away from Mako and Bolin, eyes landing on Xing standing guard several feet away. She had to let her know that there were Equalists on the roof, ready to--
Dark figures appeared on the edge of the rooftop above, moving toward the roof's edge.
Asami cursed again and reversed directions. There was no time to warn Xing, not when the Equalists were launching themselves at the stage.
A cry of alarm tore through the crowd as the Equalists leapt from the edge of the building. They wore form-fitting suits with tarp stretched between the arms and legs, allowing them to glide through the air. Asami only had a moment to marvel at the design before she continued shoving her way closer to the stage.
Around her, the police mobilized. A few officers managed to snag two of the attackers midair, but the remaining Equalists managed to dodge and evade with impressive agility. They must have practiced with the glider suits in the mountains outside of Republic City.
Asami reached the stage seconds before the first attacker landed. Though Bumi had adopted a fighting stance, Asami moved between him and the first Equalist. She deflected the blow by grabbing the man’s arm right beneath the electrified glove, jerking it up. A camera flash burst in the corner of her vision, but she ignored it to focus on her opponent. The reporters should be focused on fleeing to safety, not trying to photograph the fighting.
The Equalist jerked his arm free to attack Asami, but Bumi intervened, lunging toward the Equalist. Electricity shot through the man, and he crumpled to the ground.
Asami turned to face Bumi. “How did you—”
He held up a small box with electrified prongs at the end. It was the stunner that Asami had constructed in the prison during the Equalist break-in.
Bumi grinned. “I might have forgotten to turn this back into the United Forces. It’ll come in handy now. Want to borrow it?”
“Keep it,” Asami said, turning her attention to the next Equalist that landed on the stage. If her guess was correct, then those glider suits couldn’t be too padded in order to preserve aerodynamics. She twisted out of the way of the Equalist’s attack and lashed out with a jab aimed toward the chakra point in the woman’s right arm. The woman hissed, jerking her arm back. Before she could react further, Asami landed a few more well-placed blows that downed the woman.
“Hey Asami.” Bumi tossed her the stunner. “Cover me for a moment.”
“What are you planning?”
“I have to finish my speech.”
Bumi ignored her outburst and raced to the microphone stand. “Let me just squeeze in a few closing remarks while we evacuate the area. For those of you that voted for me, who believed in the future I’ve vowed to work for, thank you. Things are off to an incredibly rocky start, but I promise that I will continue to strive to be that president you see in me. That I will do all in my power to create a city that is home to all, bender and nonbender alike.
“And if you weren’t satisfied with the election results, then I’m sorry. I can only hope that you will give me a chance to prove my commitment to this city to you. Some of you have made your opinions--”
An Equalist attempted to attack Bumi while he was speaking, but Asami intercepted the attack and jabbed the man with her stunner, sending him to the ground.
Bumi flashed her a brief smile before turning back to the audience. “Abundantly clear. To those Equalists fighting now, if you truly think that mass violence is the only path forward, then know that this city will defend itself against you, and you will not win. It is my job to ensure the safety of the United Republic, and if you continue down this path, I will ensure that justice is served.
“But if even a part of you believes that there is another path, then I ask that you lay your weapons down now. No matter how trapped you might feel in the Equalists, it is not too late to break free. Know that I stand here today alive because a dear friend of mine, one who was once an Equalist, had the courage to turn her back on everything she knew just to do the right thing.”
Asami was so caught off-guard by the statement, that she almost missed the Equalist advancing on her right. A sharp, crackling sound raced by her, and lightning struck the Equalist. She glanced back to catch sight of Mako just beyond the edge of the stage, two fingers pointed toward the Equalist who had fallen. He gave her a curt nod.
Bolin vaulted onto the stage and raced to her side. “Let’s take care of these last two,” he said, nodding toward the remaining Equalists on the stage.
Asami nodded and took off toward them.
“If you can’t put your faith in me, that’s fine,” Bumi continued. “But put your faith in the people who voted for me. The citizens of Republic City who want a better future and who want to enact real change. While you will still face punishment for your crimes, you will be treated fairly and with mercy. Like my father, I too believe in the power of second chances. Let this new start for Republic City be a new start for you.”
Before Asami and Bolin could reach the remaining Equalists on the stage, the pair exchanged a glance and dropped to their knees. Both fumbled their gloves off.
“We surrender,” the one on the left said, bowing his head. “We’re tired of the hiding and all the fighting. We surrender.”
A beat passed.
“Well,” Bolin said, “I guess that works too.”
In the next breath, Mako leapt up and joined them onstage. The last handful of Equalists started to go down quickly after that.
Asami scanned each face as they fought, but didn’t recognize any of them. Even as the action began to slow, her worries only intensified. Where was Liu? Where were Kin or Gin, or any of the other elite fighters?
There were enough Equalists that Asami certainly didn’t know them all by face, but this group was almost painfully anonymous to her. Liu would never sit out an attack like this unless he had another role to play.
She was still searching for him amongst the faces when Bumi strode her way with a twitchy-looking police entourage. He glanced around at the former attackers now being placed under arrest or having a more pleasant post-surrender interaction with the police. “Well,” Bumi said, “that was more excitement than I wanted for my first speech. Aside from the Equalist attack, how did it go?”
“I thought it went well,” Bolin said. “The crowd seemed to like it at least. Most of them stopped evacuating after you started up your speech again.”
“Thanks for all your help this evening,” Bumi said. “I’m glad I had you to watch my back.”
“It was nothing,” Asami said. “I just wish I had caught the signs of the attack earlier.”
“You were pretty heroic regardless,” Bolin said. “I’m pretty sure I saw a photographer get a shot of you leaping onstage to protect Bumi.”
“The journalists should have been evacuating,” Mako grumbled.
“Don’t worry,” Bolin said, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m sure the journalists got a few good action shots of you too.”
“That is not the part I’m upset about!”
Asami chuckled at Mako’s miffed expression. “You were both indispensable tonight. Thank you for all your help. Both here and earlier with the bomb.”
“Bomb?” Bumi asked with raised eyebrows. “You’ll have to tell me that story over dinner. And speaking of which, I’m starving. What do you say we go out for a celebratory dinner? My treat. Gotta spend my new presidential salary on something.”
“Dinner sounds great,” Bolin said. “Street food does not fill you up. Though maybe let’s avoid sausages if possible.”
Asami rolled her eyes. “I told you: it’s just a preservative that makes the food last longer. Sausages are perfectly edible.”
“Yeah,” Bolin said, “but when you lead off with ‘this ingredient is used to make bombs,’ then sausages really just lose all of their appeal.”
“Well, I’d planned on heading back to The Noodle Shack,” Bumi said. “Same place we went last time, since I owe the owner for supporting my campaign. Plus, they’ve got plenty of vegetarian options for Tenzin.” His gaze scanned the square in front of City Hall, looking for Tenzin’s golden robes. Last Asami had seen, Tenzin had been directing civilians away from the square, repelling any Equalists who got too close with his airbending. “Just gotta pick up my little brother and check in with Lin before I head out. Make sure there aren’t any duties I have to finish first. How about we meet up at the restaurant in fifteen minutes?”
“Sounds good,” Asami said. “We’ll see you there.”
Asami started to convince herself to relax. It was time for the victory noodles. Mako and Bolin had started up a debate about where the best egg rolls could be found. The tension slowly began to drain from Asami’s shoulders as they started to stroll toward the noodle place.
Her eyes caught a flash of maroon and gray, loosely concealed by a drab cloak.
She would know those colors in a pitch dark room.
Asami instantly pivoted toward the woman in the Equalist uniform and took on a defensive stance, scanning the roofline for silhouettes.
“Wha-” Bolin stumbled and nearly walked into Mako as his brother took a mirror stance to Asami’s half a beat later.
“No, wait, you have to listen to me, please!” The girl stumbled backward, empty hands held up in a sign of surrender. She let go of the cloak to hold out her hands, revealing a matching uniform to the ones the attackers had worn, complete with the tarp gliding wings.
Something about the desperation in her tone reminded Asami of when she had approached the United Forces with information about the Equalist assault all those months ago, knowing they had no reason to trust her word but hoping that at least one person would listen to her.
She took a step forward, motioning for Mako and Bolin to stay in place. “What do you need to tell me?”
“The attack on the square is just a diversion,” the girl said. “The Equalists have an elite squadron waiting to take out President Bumi once he arrives at The Noodle Shack.
“What!?” Bolin exclaimed.
Asami’s heart skipped a beat at the words. Could this be why Liu, Kin, and the other elite Equalist fighters weren’t present here? The Equalists had used diversions before, but to let so many of their own get captured just to set up a second attack? A third, if she counted the bomb. Did they truly distrust the presidency that much?
“And how do you know where he planned on going to dinner?” Mako asked.
“It was in his campaign mover,” the girl said. “That he would always go out for noodles to celebrate, and I can’t imagine now would be any different.”
Asami winced. Bumi had said something to that effect in the campaign mover they had filmed. At the time, it had seemed a good line to show how invested Bumi was in supporting local businesses and growing Republic City’s economy... It seemed the Equalists had gleaned some intel from the mover when they had been scouting in front of City Hall that night.
“I think they’re planning to take the restaurant staff hostage and lay a trap for President Bumi,” the girl continued. “You have to warn the President not to go.”
“And why tell us this instead of approaching him yourself?” Mako asked, eyes narrowed.
“Because I wasn’t sure they’d even listen to me in time,” the girl said, her gaze fixed on Asami. “But I knew if anyone would hear me out, it would be you. Because you were an Equalist once too, but you broke free. So you know what it’s like--”
“To put yourself at someone else’s mercy,” Asami said.
The girl took a deep breath. “I thought joining the Equalists was the only way to make things better for us non-benders. They were so persuasive at the rallies. But after everything, the attacks and the city takeover and going into hiding, I started to doubt. But I didn’t have the courage to leave, not until I heard President Bumi ask us to work with him even as we attacked him. I want to believe in that future the president speaks about so badly, so you have to warn him about the trap.”
Looking at the girl, Asami felt like she was staring into a mirror at the past version of herself. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Yuna,” the girl said. “My name is Yuna.”
“I believe you, Yuna,” Asami said.
Mako and Bolin exchanged a glance, one of their silent conversations passing between them. Then, both relaxed their posture. “We believe you too,” Bolin said.
Yuna’s expression brightened. “Thank you!”
“I’m worried about these potential hostages, though,” Mako said. “Even if we stop Bumi from going to the restaurant, the Equalists still have the restaurant staff captive to make demands.”
And of course, Bumi would walk straight into the trap if it meant he could spare the hostages inside.
“Yuna, do you know how many Equalists were participating in this surprise attack?” Asami asked.
“No more than ten, we’ve had heavy losses,” she said. “But they would have sent only the best fighters.”
With that number, it would have been easy for the Equalists to split up in smaller groups and evade detection while they made their way to a restaurant. But once together, even ten Equalists could easily take an entire restaurant hostage. Especially one as small as The Noodle Shack. Despite its acclaim, it really wasn’t a huge place.
“We have to tell Lin about this,” Bolin said. “Get the police involved to help with the hostages.”
“At least half the police force is already busy cleaning up this last attack,” Mako said. “By the time they get a response force together, the Equalists will probably realize that their plan has been discovered. And if that happens…”
If that happened, then who knew what would happen to the hostages?
Asami glanced up at Mako and Bolin and found that the concern on their faces matched her own. A plan took root in her mind even though she knew it wasn’t a good one. She took a deep breath to speak.
“Ten, huh?” Bolin asked. “That’s like, what, three each?” He started cracking his knuckles.
“Three and a third,” Asami said automatically.
“So three each and we team up on the leader,” Mako said.
“Their leader will be Liu,” Asami said, dread coiling in her gut at the thought of facing him again. She could hear the crackle of his kali sticks echo in her mind, and she remembered how the glint of his goggles had obscured his expression during their last brief meeting during the prison break. “And he’s not to be taken lightly.”
Mako frowned. “You mean the Lieutenant?”
“His name is actually Liu?” Bolin asked.
Lieutenant Liu. Asami had laughed with him over the coincidence right after Amon had gifted him the title. It had been a spot of humor in the rapidly militarizing Equalist movement. There was no humor to be found in the current situation.
“He was the one who trained me primarily,” Asami said. “And he has always made it his priority to see each mission accomplished to the best of his abilities.”
“We’ve faced him before and gotten away just fine,” Bolin said. His expression fell on Mako, and he winced. “Well, mostly.”
Mako’s expression hardened into resolute determination. “Well, I’ve always wanted a rematch after the last time. He’s not the only one who can use lightning.”
“You can’t be serious,” Yuna said, a frantic note entering her voice. “There’s only three of you, and--”
“We can take them,” Bolin said. “We’ve fought Equalists before and won.”
“If we want to resolve the situation quickly, then we need to go now,” Mako said. “The three of us can move much more quickly and quietly than a police force.”
“Yuna,” Asami said, before the girl could protest further. “You said you discarded your glove behind a dumpster nearby. Where exactly?”
After a moment, Yuna pointed to a side street several yards to their left.
Good. Asami hoped the electrified glove would still be there. Even though Yuna was far more petite than her, Asami should be able to adjust the glove’s fit.
“Yuna, do you see that group speaking over there?” Asami pointed to the far side of the plaza, where Bumi was speaking with Tenzin, Lin, and Iroh.
“With the President?”
Asami nodded. “You need to pass your message onto them as well. I promise that they will listen to you.”
Iroh had been willing to hear her out all those months ago when others in the United Forces had wanted to arrest Asami on the spot, and Bumi had never once held her Equalist past against her. And if Tenzin and Lin would have reservations, she knew that they would at least be fair to Yuna.
“And if that doesn’t work, tell them that Asami, Mako, and Bolin will vouch for you,” Bolin added.
“If we want to get those hostages out in time, we have to leave now,” Mako said.
Asami focused her attention on Yuna. “Can you tell them about the attack? And that the three of us have gone ahead to deal with the situation.”
Yuna clasped her hands tightly in front of her. Though she looked scared, she nodded. “I can do that.”
“Good, thank you. I won’t forget what you’ve done in telling us all this,” Asami said. “And I’ll make sure the others don’t forget as well.”
Yuna nodded and turned to leave.
A thought raced into Asami’s mind. “Wait, one last thing. What about my mother?”
“Your mother isn’t on this mission.”
“No, I know that. But do you know if she built any kind of weapons specifically for this attack?”
Yuna shook her head. “No, I wasn’t really privy to the details beyond that we would serve as a diversion so the second attack would be a surprise. Though I do remember overhearing her and the Lieutenant arguing about something before we left. I don’t know what it was about though.”
That her mother and Liu had been arguing about the plan worried Asami. What could Liu be planning that even her mother disapproved of?
She would have to think of it on their way to the restaurant. They couldn’t afford to delay any longer. “Okay, thank you for the information, Yuna.” Turning to face Mako and Bolin, Asami steeled her resolve. “Let’s get that glove and get going.”
* * *
P’li recognized Sakari on sight. She’d screened enough newspaper coverage the past few weeks for that. The short girl looked so much like Korra used to look at thirteen. The same beginnings of bulk, a somewhat square-ish build with real muscles yet to come, that paired oddly with the simultaneous arrival of puberty.
The family resemblance was astounding, even with Sakari’s shorter hairstyle. The girl even looked angry like Korra used to while she sweat through thankless firebending lessons with P’li.
“Korra!” Sakari shouted, leaping to her feet. She rushed forward a few steps, then stopped short as she registered that Korra was not alone.
Behind her, the second girl grabbed Sakari’s sleeve. “Watch out,” she said.
This girl, P’li did not recognize at first glance, though she seemed familiar somehow. Her face reminded P’li of an illustration she’d seen once of a young Avatar Aang. Her yellow robes marked her as one of the airbender children.
Instinctively, P’li moved to the side, flanking the group. Whatever threat they brought, she would be hard-pressed to address it standing behind Zaheer or Korra.
Korra stopped short, and P’li heard her breath catch. “Sakari? Jinora? What are you doing here?”
Zaheer strode forward, throwing an arm in front of Korra’s shoulders in caution. “Be wary, Korra. Spirits can take many forms.”
Sakari rolled her eyes, and P’li was reminded again of how much she disliked that age in Korra herself. Always rolling her eyes and making snippy comments. “I’m her sister, not some spirit pretender,” Sakari snapped. “And that’s simple enough to prove, because I *know* you, Korra.”
“I met you because of Naga, because she smelled you and came barreling down an alley after you. I liked you immediately, and was sorry my polar bear dog had knocked you over, and it was strange and absurd because you were using ‘Naga’ as an alias.”
P’li watched a sequence of emotions—concern, nostalgia, fondness, anxiety—flash over Korra’s face as she pushed Zaheer’s arm aside, but the important one was recognition. Even if she wasn’t already a dead ringer for Korra herself, there was no doubt that Sakari was who she said she was.
Flicking her gaze over to Zaheer, P’li could see him come to the same conclusion. He didn’t stop Korra as she pressed past his arm, and turned naturally with the gesture, incorporating her movement into his own step to the side. The shift in posture minimized the distance between him and Korra, kept them side-by-side. He had his calculating face on, and she could see the thoughts racing behind his eyes. If the girls were, indeed, who they claimed to be, how would that impact their plans and aims? Zaheer never lost sight of the plan.
“And that’s when I met your girlfriend, Asami,” Sakari added, triumphant. She seemed to take his quiet thinking as a concession.
Zaheer scoffed, “A girlfriend, Korra?” P’li noted in his expression a candid surprise, a certain incredulity.
Korra choked, triggering a coughing fit. “She’s not my girlfriend,” she managed to say with entirely too much conviction.
P’li was surprised to feel her own expression soften. She’d kept her distance from the girl, knowing her fate was to be used, to be a tool to re-shape the world. That often felt too close to P’li’s own past, to her own first destiny as a warlord’s personal weapon.
P’li had hardly been able to conceive of a different life until Zaheer had shown up. Hardly more than a child in age, he had somehow walked with a man’s purpose. She had loved him for liberating her, and then loved him for his ideals, before she realized she loved him for the very person that he was. And it had been in discovering her own capacity for love that P’li had first been able to conceive of herself as her own person. More than a weapon, or a tool. She was someone to consult and discuss with, not simply someone to aim and fire.
The airbender girl, Jinora, stepped forward. “We were able to figure out that you were coming here for Harmonic Convergence because I remembered your visits to Air Temple Island, and the library. I didn’t know who you were, but I knew I liked you from the very beginning. Your sister and I ran away to meet you here at the North Pole, because we needed to see you, and to convince you not to open the spirit portals.” An uncertain smile crossed Jinora’s face. “And I wanted to offer to be your airbending instructor.”
For a moment, P’li was not sure which notion offended Zaheer more: that the girls had come to stop Korra from reuniting the physical and spiritual worlds, or that Jinora was offering to be Korra’s airbending teacher. Absolute rage rolled off him for a breath before she saw him steel his expression once more. Even with P’li’s spotty connection to the spiritual plane, his fury was palpable through her link to him.
“We are resolute in our purpose,” he said icily, taking a step forward. “And while I’m sure Korra is glad to see you, we will not be swayed from our intentions.” Here, he put a hand on Korra’s shoulder.
“Opening the portals would spiritually unbalance the world,” Sakari said, “and it’s the Avatar’s purpose to keep balance in the world.” She smiled wobbly. “And I know you. I know you want to do the right thing. And you’ve been hidden away so you couldn’t help people, but now you can.”
“Korra,” Zaheer said. “I know that you know your destiny, and the plan.” This time, P’li could hear a growl in his voice.
Korra nodded, but seemed a bit absentminded, as though she were having a conversation within herself for a couple moments.
Turning toward the girls, Korra stepped out from under Zaheer’s arm, but did not put distance between them. “I don’t expect the two of you to understand,” Korra said, “but the path I’m taking is one that will bring a different sort of balance to the world. It would be different than before, but would start a new spiritual age.”
“This might be a bit contrarian, but what’s wrong with the current spiritual age?” Sakari asked.
“No, I’m legitimately curious,” Jinora added, shifting on her feet. “What is wrong with the present spiritual age?”
Korra chuckled, shaking her head. “I’m sure we could have lots of long conversations about it. And I really wish we could.”
Without warning, Korra leapt over their heads with a burst of airbending. “But I prefer action to conversations. And we can talk later.”
Caught off-guard, the girls moved quickly, but were unable to intercept Korra before she landed beside them and laid one hand on the spirit portal. “It is the job of the Avatar to bring and create balance in the world,” she said, voice warped by an otherworldly distortion as the portal opened.
Jinora was muttering, ‘No, no, no,’ under her breath as Zaheer clapped his hands together once, calling out, “Well done, Korra! Now be ready for the second one, and to remove Raava when the moment is right.”
Sakari looked grim and sad, but her stride was resolute as she stepped in-between Korra and the second portal. Jinora floated behind her, immediately taking a complementary stance.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Sakari said, “but we will do what we have to, if that’s what it takes to stop you from opening the second one.” She bit her lip, then added, “I’m sorry, Korra.”
P’li moved to Zaheer’s side as Korra took a reluctant stance.
“It will be to Korra’s distraction, and our ultimate disadvantage, for us to employ excessive force in this conflict,” Zaheer murmured to her. His gaze was fixed on Korra’s shoulder blades. “Just in case though, be prepared.” The corners of his lips tightened.
A catch seemed to insert itself, unbidden, in P’li’s next breath.
“But, Zaheer,” and here she trailed off a moment, watching Korra’s slow steps around the perimeter. The two small girls seemed as though they would hardly reach P'li's elbows, but they had steeled themselves around the second portal regardless.
“Zaheer, they’re *children*,” she finished. At that age, P’li had stood a head taller with shoulders weighed down by deaths uncounted.
At that age, Korra had learned firebending under P’li’s distant tutelage, and had excelled beyond reason. Korra consumed each lesson like a flame enveloping kindling, not understanding that she was intended to die.
“They’re only obstacles,” Zaheer said. “Be ready.”
P’li reached down, but could not find the readiness within her.
* * *
Ming-Hua leaned her shoulder against Ghazan’s and skimmed her eyes over the sheets of paper as he flipped through the folder.
At the sight of a header titled, ‘Omashu Incidents,’ followed by several different year dates, she raised an eyebrow.
“I’m impressed,” she said, “this really is much better than our usual dossiers.”
Ghazan nodded, flipping the sheet over. “Agreed. I’d forgotten half of this stuff, honestly.”
Across the table, Malina sipped her tea with modest grace. “The two of you do keep rather busy,” she said, “it’s natural that you might lose track of some of your numerous exploits.”
Ghazan flipped to a page with the header, ‘Republic City encounter with Toph Bei-Fong’ and grimaced. Ming-Hua cackled. “Oh that’s a nice photo! I want a copy of that one.”
Malina chuckled as Ghazan huffed and hurriedly flipped the page. “Feel free to keep it,” she said. “You won’t be surprised to know I have other copies.”
“Of course,” Ming-Hua said. “Ghazan, can you put that photo in my hip purse?”
“No,” he said, even as he did so anyway. “It’s a shame we don’t have some terrible photo of you getting your ass kicked by Katara. I would get that framed. I’d even buy a house just to have a wall to hang it on.”
Malina snorted. Even her snorts were lady-like. “The old hag still lives down in the South Pole healing bumps and bruises. Be my guest.”
“I’ve been too busy to indulge myself on ego trips,” Ming-Hua said. As Ghazan flipped to the next page, she frowned. They’d come upon the information Malina had on the Red Lotus’ specific travels with Korra, and the detailed dossiers no longer felt amusing. “How did you come by this... density of information?” she asked. “It’s impressive, to be sure.” Ming-Hua had the sense that Malina was someone who took a particular pride in her access and scope of knowledge.
Indeed, Malina seemed to preen, just slightly, under the compliment. “I have eyes and ears in many places,” she said. “But in regards to you two, I’ll admit that much of this is gleaned from my late husband’s files.”
Ghazan groaned. “Ugh, Unalaq! Of course. Tell that guy to ‘leave no records’ and he’ll make sure it’s all tagged with tidy keywords and filed in triplicate.”
Malina smiled thinly. “It took a bit of time to locate all his hidden records and a bit more time to decode his various ciphers, but it’s proven to be a healthy investment since then.”
“I imagine,” Ghazan said, taking a sip of his tea. “My belated condolences, by the way.”
Malina cocked an eyebrow. “For his murder?”
“For your marriage.”
This inspired a full-throated laugh from Malina, possibly the first authentic reaction from her since they’d started talking. Ghazan chuckled at his own wit, and Ming-Hua cracked a smile, but her thoughts were elsewhere. She was trying to parse a potential source from between the lines of the dossier pages.
Much of this could have come from Unalaq, gained during his temporary membership in the Red Lotus. Not all, however. Malina had other sources, and they were closer than Ming-Hua was comfortable with.
“Genuine inquiry for you,” Malina said, once her laughter had abated.
“Yes?” Ming-Hua cocked her head and bumped Ghazan’s shoulder slightly. He would understand her signal to back off a bit and let her own this next interaction.
“Which one of you actually killed him? His body was in too many pieces for the coroner to determine a proper cause of death.”
Ming-Hua felt Ghazan pull back, clearly feeling awkward. He was probably glad she’d signaled him that she’d take the question now.
Ming-Hua crossed her legs and settled a bit more comfortably in the chair. “Zaheer did,” she said.
Malina pursed her lips. “Oh?”
Ming-Hua bared her teeth in what might pass for a smile. “He can’t abide betrayal of the cause, especially the betrayal of comrades.”
“Hm.” Malina pondered this a moment, finishing her cup of tea. “Ideologues are so interesting. I bet he’s loved having a child to raise, someone to bring up in the right modes of thought.”
Ming-Hua said nothing and bent a sip of tea to her lips, waiting for Malina to finish her play.
“And how about you two. What’s it been like, raising my niece?” Malina set her teacup on the saucer with a particular delicacy.
Ming-Hua felt Ghazan’s gaze on her. He always wanted to talk and joke through tense interactions. Banter was his comfortable space.
Silence was comfortable for Ming-Hua. She was used to it, whether because people often expected her to be mute, or because she simply hadn’t been addressed much as a child. As though lacking arms meant she lacked a tongue, lacked thoughts to speak.
She had plenty of thoughts, and plenty to say, but knew also that there was an advantage to holding bits of knowledge in reserve sometimes. In silence, people would populate the empty space with their assumptions. And assumptions about Ming-Hua could be turned to her advantage.
“I hear she’s quite the handful,” Malina added. Her tone was almost conspiratorial, as though to three of them were all friends with same-aged toddlers. “But also memorable. It’s been a fascinating project, putting together a travelogue of your locations months or years later. People remember her well, which must be frustrating considering the circumstances. I’ll get a story 10 months later from a child whose ostrich-horse she calmed, or some farmer whose roof she helped patch for some spare change a year ago. Strong, lovable, confident. She seems to find friends everywhere she goes, and she’s gone quite a few places.”
That was Korra.
Ming-Hua cracked a smile. “She’s sociable to a fault. It would be a crime to keep her locked up somewhere. But sometimes it meant moving on sooner than planned, if some new friend had taken too keen an interest, or a nice family seemed ready to adopt her out from under us.”
Ghazan chucked and crossed his arms, leaning back in his chair. “Or we’d have to go because Korra spotted someone mistreating their animal and decided to steal and re-home it right out from under their noses.”
Malina mirrored Ghazan’s pose and raised her eyebrows. “I bet you two know more Avatar stories than I could fit in a folder,” she said.
“She’s been one of our longest-term projects, at this point,” Ming-Hua said. “And not one that can really be put on hold, or set aside for a moment.”
“And the spirits know I’ve wanted to sometimes,” Ghazan sighed. “But even still... probably the best project we’ve had. From the very best to the terrible...” and as Ghazan trailed off, Ming-Hua knew he was thinking of those dark weeks after her encounter with Amon.
And she’d had no words for it, not in the moment and not in the time since. Korra had, mercifully, evaded Amon’s hands that night. But if it had been a toss-up, if she’d had to choose which of them would spend those weeks shut off, cut off from their bending...
Ming-Hua would have thrown herself in front of Korra, would have spared her that fate every time. Even in the darkness... some part of her had been glad it was her, and not Korra.
“... and back to the very best all over again,” Ghazan finished.
Malina studied them as she poured a second cup of tea from the pot. As it steamed in her cup, Malina’s gaze flicked down, then back up to them again. “So she’s your daughter, is what you’re saying.”
Ming-Hua turned and met Ghazan’s gaze. Had they ever referred to Korra as such?
Had they ever needed to?
“We never wanted kids,” Ghazan began, “but—“
“What do you even want, Malina?” Ming-Hua snapped. “Can you cut to the point of our teatime here? We’ve usually started breaking bones at this point.”
Malina leaned forward and uncrossed her arms. “I want what you want: I want what is best for my niece, and the world, by extension. And as far as I can tell, that makes us unlikely allies in these unlikely circumstances. Because I have read my husband’s notes, and I know the purpose intended behind the Avatar’s kidnapping.”
Ming-Hua found she could not look at Ghazan, though she saw him turn toward her from the corner of her eye. Reaching down, she summoned the expression she wanted instead of the one she felt. She tossed her head, and knew there was a dangerous flash in her eyes as she said, “What about it? Do you recall who we are? We aren’t your usual teatime guests.”
“Precisely.” Malina steepled her fingers together. “That’s why I invited you. This struck me as an absolutely invaluable networking opportunity.”
Ming-Hua found that she couldn’t maintain her ‘distant assassin’ expression and closed her eyes as she took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m done. This one is crazy, Ghazan. You know I can’t deal with crazy.”
“So when Zaheer kills Korra, will you go back and still be able to be a happy anarchist family together again?” Malina’s voice had returned to the cutting tone, no false brightness anymore. “Vaatu will wander the earth, and full chaos will reign. Korra will be dead. Is that the world you two want to live in? Is that *your* ideology?”
Ming-Hua stayed silent, trying to think faster, think harder, figure out what Malina’s angle was so she could redirect and navigate her own route forward. And besides, Korra was going to try to remove Raava from herself, remove the ‘Avatar’ part from the rest of her spirit. Malina didn’t know that, but Ming-Hua did. There was a chance that Korra would find the perfect path of compromise forward, and then Zaheer wouldn’t—
She jerked away at the sound of Ghazan’s voice, crashing through all her thoughts.
“No,” he said again. “I want a lot of changes in the world, but not that one.”
It was as though he’d tossed a boulder into the stream of her thoughts, which whirled and eddied around his statement in surprise.
She thought to qualify his words, adjust his statement, find a more particular path forward that might obscure their true purpose just slightly.
But he was her (fake) husband, and she could feel his thoughts trudging along beside her own, in the direct manner he embodied. And... when she stopped trying to make it fit perfectly, she did agree.
“What he said.” Ming-Hua tossed her head in his direction, and Ghazan responded by putting an arm around her shoulders.
He was her rock, always. Whatever path their winding stream took from here forward, he would be beside her whenever they weren’t fighting back to back. As long as he wasn’t just watching her with that love-struck look while she was doing all the fighting.
“I have a deal for your mutual consideration,” Malina said. She leaned back in her chair. “It includes a boat ticket afterward, on the condition that Korra doesn’t board with you. I have a personal escort on standby who can rush you to the pole, with zero interference from any lingering checkpoints, guaranteed. Mounted, you can be there before half the hour has passed.”
“What do you want in return?” Ming-Hua asked. The words felt strange on her tongue. Quid pro quo with the regent of the Northern Water Tribe wasn’t their usual strategy.
“Let me know if you’re interested in what I have to offer, and I’ll let you know the price.” Malina smiled mildy. “Or you could stick to your original plan and... kill me? Torture me? You’ve been having tea with me for a while. The palace will be surrounded by now, and even benders of your formidable skills would be hard pressed to make it to the pole in any reasonable amount of time.”
Ghazan barked a laugh. “Is that what you think?”
Malina inclined her head. “Indeed.”
He turned his gaze to Ming-Hua. Without words, he asked her what their decision was.
Ming-Hua closed her eyes for a breath, and opened them to her decision.
* * *
The Noodle Shack was a small restaurant in a converted warehouse near the docks. The current shop owner’s father had established the place to serve sailors during the early days of Republic City. While most businesses had relocated closer to downtown and the main warehouses had been consolidated into a different section of the docks, the Noodle Shack had weathered the changes in its original location.
The owner had rambled about this in between takes as they filmed Bumi’s campaign mover, even giving them a tour of the small building. The first floor housed the restaurant proper while the second floor served as storage. Asami tried to recall as much of this information as she could as they raced toward the Noodle Shack, half-formed battle plans circling in her mind. She fiddled with the electrified glove around her left hand though she knew there wasn’t anything else she could do to adjust the fit without her tools. She would just have to hope they ended any fights quickly enough that the awkward fit didn’t hamper her.
Mako and Bolin led the way, taking a series of shortcuts through side streets and back alleys. As they ran, Asami relayed quick profiles of the Equalists’ top fighters.
“You’ve faced Liu before,” she said, “so you know his fighting style. The best thing to do is keep out of range of his kali sticks. I know keeping your distance will be harder indoors, but that will give you the best advantage against him.
“Then, there’s Kin and Gin, the two Equalists we spotted in the crowd when we showed Bumi’s campaign mover.”
“I remember them,” Bolin said.
“Gin’s attack mainly rely on his strength, though he is faster than you would expect from him. But his sister is by far the larger threat. She’s a skilled chi blocker and one of the fastest and most acrobatic fighters.”
“And has a personal vendetta against you,” Mako said.
Asami took a steadying breath as they rounded a sharp corner down an alley she must have overlooked a dozen times during her trips throughout Republic City. This would be the perfect opportunity for Kin to get a second chance at killing her.
A few steps ahead, the brothers exchanged a glance. “So we take her out first,” Mako said.
Bolin punched his opposite palm. “Mako and I’ll give her the bending brothers one-two combo before she can get close to you.”
Asami managed a smile at their support. “Sounds like a plan.”
The other seven members of the team Asami was less certain of, but she still relayed what information she could. The Equalists had some standard moves shared among their best fighters, and some of the strategies involving electrified weapons or chi blocking would be the same regardless of the fighter.
At some point, apartments and stores had turned into shipping offices and warehouses. The buildings began to space out, and the trio had to stick to the shadows to keep themselves hidden. They reached the docks before Asami could finish her analysis. She pulled to a stop behind Mako and Bolin, hidden in the shadow of an alleyway.
A few warehouses stood in this area, most housing spare ship parts. Several yards down the road stood a two story warehouse with several windows added to the first floor and a string of electric lights hung haphazardly halfway up the building. A rickety sign hung over the door, and Asami could just barely make out the characters that read “Noodle Shack.”
From this distance, nothing about the restaurant looked amiss. The downstairs windows were brightly lit, and Asami could make out a handful of figures moving about inside. However, she was too far away to see whether the figures belonged to the restaurant’s usual staff or disguised Equalists.
“We need a better vantage point,” Mako said, eyes scanning the area around the Noodle Shack. “Come on, let’s see if we can get on top of one of the neighboring warehouses.”
They circled around the back of the nearest warehouse and approached the Noodle Shack. As they neared, Bolin used his bending to launch them onto the roof of a nearby building. Asami took a moment to steady herself when she landed, then joined Mako and Bolin at the edge of the roof.
From this new angle, she had a better view inside the restaurant. A waitress stepped into view, wearing the blue, short-sleeved robe that was part of the staff uniform. Asami didn’t recognize her face, but her heady makeup, along with the reflection of light off the window, obscured her features.
Asami waited for another minute, but none of the other staff moved close enough for her to get a view of their face. From what she could see, there didn’t appear to be any customers in the building. Had Bumi reserved a private dinner, or was it just a slow night? She had been focused on other details in the final days of his campaign.
“Well?” Bolin asked, glancing toward her.
“I don’t recognize anyone,” Asami said. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t Equalists.”
“They’re doing a good job staying away from the window,” Mako muttered, scowling as another staff member stepped into view to sweep the floor, back turned to them. “And we don’t have all night to scope the place out.”
Asami tore her gaze from the window and took in the rest of the warehouse housing the restaurant. She wished she had paid more attention to the storage area above the restaurant. What had the owner told them about the second floor during their brief tour?
“The owner said that they don’t really use the south side of the storage area, right?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Bolin said. “They only really use the area by the stairs. But he did say they might have to expand seating to the second floor if Bumi’s campaign brought them more customers.”
Asami nodded, studying the south side of the building. A stack of pallets rose halfway up the wall, just beyond the edge of the front lights. It looked like there was a pair of windows a few feet above the pallets, just big enough for them to crawl through. “We could sneak in through there to see if there are any signs of an Equalist break-in.”
“We don’t really have much else of a choice,” Mako said. “We can’t just wait around if there are hostages.”
They slipped off the roof and around to the side of the Noodle Shack. Asami climbed the stack of pallets first, stretching her hand up to check the window.
The window opened in, the pane of glass sliding silently beneath her fingertips.
Asami glanced back at Mako and Bolin with a frown. If the window wasn’t locked, then what were the odds that someone had sneaked in before them?
A moment of silence passed between them. “Only way to go is forward,” Mako finally said, motioning for Asami to enter.
She slid easily through the window, landing lightly on her feet on the other side. A few boxes, containing dried seaweed if the characters on the outside were correct, had been piled up a few feet away, so she ducked behind them.
To her left, nestled in the back corner, were the stairs leading down to the restaurant. She could just barely make out the murmur of conversation if she concentrated on the sound rising from the kitchen, but the words were too faint for her to catch any of the words.
Mako and Bolin followed behind her. Their steps were heavier than hers had been, and even though Asami knew they didn’t make much noise, it felt like the sound of their landing blasted through the storage area.
“See anything out of place?” Mako asked, giving the room a quick scan from behind their cover.
Asami shook her head, letting her gaze fall about the room. Various crates and bags of rice and flour blocked them from direct view of the stairs. Against the far wall were shelves lined with cutlery and cookware, and opposite them a line of cheap wooden screens blocking off most of the right half of the storage area.
Her eyes narrowed as she took those in. The owner had mentioned something about using part of the second floor to store miscellaneous items that wouldn’t fit in his home since he didn’t need that much storage for the restaurant. If he didn’t check that half of the storage area regularly…
A loud creak coming from the direction of the stairs interrupted her thoughts, and she slipped around to the other side of the seaweed box along with Mako and Bolin. Someone climbed the steps, the lack of lighting making it impossible for Asami to discern any specific features. However, she could tell that the person was tall and gangly, moving with an awkwardness that suggested a recent growth spurt. The person hoisted a bag of flour into his arms with a grunt before turning to slowly descend the stairs.
Asami frowned. Nothing about the boy’s movements had suggested any kind of martial arts training and there had been a distinct lack of awareness of his surroundings. None of the discipline and acuity that the Equalists’ best fighters possessed.
It could have been elaborate acting, but why keep up the charade in the empty storage area? Why even bother with retrieving a bag of flour if the Equalists were planning on taking out Bumi upon his arrival?
“Didn’t look like much of a fighter,” Bolin muttered.
She swallowed. “He wasn’t an Equalist.”
All this time, they had been expecting the Equalists to have taken the restaurant staff hostage and filled in their roles for when Bumi arrived. Disguising their spies as employees was part of how the Equalists had infiltrated the Pro-Bending Arena and City Hall successfully all those months ago.
But those had been much larger venues. The noodle shack wasn’t a shack any longer, but Bumi was enough of a regular to probably recognize most of the staff on sight. That could disrupt the trap before it was sprung. But if this wasn’t a disguise and replace operation, that meant...
“The Equalists haven’t made their move yet,” she breathed. Relief and anxiety flooded her veins. Nobody had been hurt yet. But the yet hung in the air, filling the moment with tension.
“Maybe they... changed their mind?” Bolin ventured optimistically.
“Or they’re here on the second floor with us right now.” Mako’s tone darkened. “It’s like you said, this is so conveniently deserted. Easy to access, and has easy access and vantage to the ground floor.”
Asami pinched the bridge of her nose. “They could wait until Bumi arrives, then swoop down to the first floor without alerting any external guards.”
Silence fell. The three of them exchanged wary glances.
“That would be bad,” Bolin said. “But how do we know for sure?”
“Um.” Asami’s mind raced, trying to figure out how to verify the theory. If the Equalists were holed up on another part of the floor, they were sure to move this way, toward the entrance to the first floor, once Bumi arrived. But the better idea would be to head them off before they were about to strike. And wherever they were, it was probably a fairly defensible position. They’d have scouted the location ahead of time, unlike Asami. Any of them moving through the area would be more likely to get caught in an ambush than to pull off the reverse.
“Actually, I’ve got an idea.” Bolin moved forward without waiting for a response, and Asami’s hand grasped vainly at the tail of his shirt as he rolled to another stack of boxes to hide behind.
Then, across the room, a small clay lid lifted itself off of an earthenware jar and made a small clattering sound when it landed on the floorboards. Bolin, one hand outstretched, flicked his hand in small gestures, and the lid started to thonk-thonk-thonk its way across the floor, and toward the far side of the attic.
Asami realized then that his new position was for a better angle. He’d be able to keep his eyes on the lid longer, and guide it farther down the hallway.
They watched in silence as the lid walked itself farther and farther away, sounding remarkably like footsteps under Bolin’s precise movements. Each ‘thonk’ felt like the ticking of a bomb, closer and closer to exploding.
The lid was almost out of sight when they heard a creaking footstep.
Bolin flattened out his hand, and the lid fell soundlessly to the floor, instantly invisible among the detritus of the cluttered attic.
From behind a row of screens, a pair of shadowy figures emerged. Equalist fighters. Adrenaline flooded Asami’s body. Being right was such a curse sometimes.
The two Equalists moved closer, scanning the attic carefully. A small clatter sounded from the corner opposite Bolin, to Asami’s left. The Equalists immediately pivoted that way, and Asami saw Bolin’s hands lowering from the corner of her eye as another clatter sounded.
Mako tapped Asami’s forearm, then flashed her three fingers when she glanced at him. She nodded. Count of three to take them out. They’d be facing away from them while they investigated the corner. Asami pointed to the Equalist on the left, then to herself. Mako nodded and pointed to the one on the right.
They were getting closer to the corner, where they would quickly discover there was nothing.
Mako flashed her two fingers. Asami tensed herself. Mako counted down to one finger, and then it was time to go.
She and Mako moved in tandem to take out the pair of Equalists. She charged up on the one on the left, and Mako advanced toward the one on the right. A solid blow to the back of the Equalist’s neck stunned him, and his legs buckled. As Asami moved to catch the man to lower him gently to the ground, however, the weight of the man shifted her electrified glove, and her thumb caught against the internal switch. Electricity shot through the man, and his groan was lost in the crackle that reverberated through the small space.
Asami bit back a curse as she heard more shuffling from the other side of the screens. So much for stealth.
One of the screens was moved, and a familiar woman stood on the other side.
Asami froze at the sight of Kin.
“Well, well,” Kin said after a moment’s pause. “This is quite the surprise.” Then, she charged forward. No hesitation. Though it was too dark to see her expression, Asami could picture the razor-thin smirk pulling across her face.
A line of fire burst into life between her and Kin, forcing the other woman to leap back to avoid getting burned. She landed beside Gin, who rested a hand on her shoulder to steady her.
Mako stepped forward to stand at Asami’s right. Bolin joined on her left, and she took strength in the fact that the two were there to fight beside her.
“I would be mindful of your fire if I were you.” The voice that spoke was Liu’s. He emerged from behind one of the further screens, a strange object strapped to his chest. In his hand, he held a small device. His thumb hovered over the button atop the device. “Unless you want this entire building going up in flames.”
Asami sucked in a sharp breath. It was a bomb.
She should have known that her mother would have acquired enough supplies for more than one bomb. It had been foolish to assume the threat was done once they had found the one downtown.
Beside her, Mako grit his teeth. While he didn’t drop his fighting stance, he did extinguish the flames between them and Kin.
She shot forward several steps, but a barked order from Liu halted her movements.
Heavy footsteps sounded up the stairs, and the owner of the Noodle Shack came into view, holding a heavy wooden club in one hand. “What is going--” His words cut off with a sharp gasp when he caught sight of the Equalists.
“Might want to evacuate downstairs,” Bolin said. “Got an Equalist infestation.”
“Ah ah, I wouldn’t move too fast.” Liu waved the detonator in his hand. “I have a very volatile bomb here, and I’ve been told that flour is quite explosive under the right circumstances.”
The owner’s eyes darted around in a panic. Asami wondered if he was counting the sacks of flour around them.
“So,” Liu continued, “we’re all going to play nice and do what I say now... understand?” He relaxed his finger from the detonator’s trigger slightly and the whole room took a collective sharp breath.
Bolin shifted, moving his hands in a sharp jerk. Two earthenware bowls flew off the shelf behind Liu, crashing into his back. The force was enough to send him staggering forward, the detonator slipping from his hand.
Asami and Mako darted forward toward the detonator. In her peripheral vision, she caught sight of Kin and Gin moving as well. She dropped into a slide to reach the detonator first, hand closing around the slim device.
Kin was upon her in an instant, slamming her leg down in a drop kick that Asami just barely managed to roll out of the way from. The next kick caught her in the hip, sending a jolt of pain up her side.
Mako summoned a flash of fire in Kin’s face, the flames only there for a second. But it was enough to pause the woman’s attack as she instinctively shielded her face, a growl of frustration torn from her throat.
Gin closed in as Asami was scrambling to her feet, but Bolin intervened with a barrage of pottery shards that kept him away from Asami.
As soon as the fight broke out, the owner had raced down the stairs, shouting orders for his staff to evacuate.
“Kin, Gin.” Liu’s sharp tone cut through their fight, and he gave a curt nod in the direction of the stairs. “Stop them.”
Kin visibly bristled. “You can’t be serious.”
“That’s an order.”
With a snarl, Kin tore herself from the fight. “Best make sure the staff can’t interfere.” She and Gin raced after the owner.
Asami started toward the stairs, but Mako threw out a hand to stop her. “Bolin and I will protect the staff. You handle the Lieutenant.”
“Are you sure?”
“If he’s got a bomb, that limits what Bolin and I can do,” Mako said.
“Okay.” Asami nodded. “Good luck.”
The brothers took off after Kin and Gin, Bolin using the earthenware shards to keep Liu at bay. As they descended down the stairs, only Asami and Liu were left.
A moment of silence passed between them. “Somehow I’m not surprised to see you here, interfering with our plans yet again.”
Asami said nothing, hands clenched into fists at her side. While she had seen him briefly during the Equalist prison break, he’d had no words for her then. The last time they had spoken had been in the Equalist biplane hangar. That moment felt like a lifetime ago.
Liu had carried himself as a stranger then too.
“I assume you were the one to foil our original plot with the bomb downtown. You and your mother always thought along similar tracks.”
She swallowed, taking a halting step forward. “Liu…”
“If you’re hoping to reason with me, then save your breath.” In one smooth movement, Liu drew his kali sticks. And though he didn’t activate the electricity on them, the action was no less charged. “As I told you before, I have no words for a traitor.”
Asami gritted her teeth and shoved the detonator into the pocket of her pants. “You won’t accomplish anything here. Bumi won’t come, and even if you did kill the president, what would that do? What purpose do you have for continuing to fight?”
“I’ll start by taking back that detonator,” Liu said before lunging forward.
She jumped back out of the range of his first strike and twisted to the side to dodge the second. The third she blocked with her glove on instinct, catching the kali stick.
For a moment, both of their eyes locked on the glove before Liu hastily disengaged. Asami could feel her pulse pounding. If she accidentally activated the electricity on her glove again…
Liu must have seen the conflict in her expression for he charged in again as Asami fumbled the glove off, chucking it to the far corner of the attack. The edge of his strike caught her in the side, and she staggered backward, just barely dodging the next blow.
He had an advantage with his weapons. Asami’s gaze darted about the attic, taking in the layout of the space and the items laying on the shelves. Anything that could give her an advantage to this fight.
Her eyes landed on a steel ladle resting haphazardly atop one of the crates. It would have to do.
She rushed toward it, Liu hot on her heels. He moved into an attack as she seized her makeshift weapon, pivoting to block the attack. Shockwaves raced up her arms from the force of his blow. Two more strikes followed in quick succession, and she just barely deflected each attack. With his next strike, he easily swept the ladle from her grip. As he moved into a fifth strike, she ducked to to left, intent on slipping past him.
Liu anticipated her move, his kick colliding with her hip with enough force to send her toppling over.
Asami barely managed to get her arms beneath her to break the fall. Liu’s kick had landed in the exact same place as Kin’s earlier attack, and she could feel a bruise settling in the area. Movement in the corner of her vision showed Liu looming over her, kali stick raised to strike her. With a grunt, she just barely rolled out of the way, feeling a rush of air as his kali stick drove hard into the floor.
As she scrambled to her feet, she caught flashes of orange outside. Mako’s firebending. He and Bolin must have taken their fight outside. If only she could do the same, but Liu had maneuvered them so he was closer to the stairs. She’d be hard-pressed to lead their fight downstairs.
The shrill wail of a siren cut through the air. From outside, Asami heard “This is the Republic City Police. We have you surrounded. Come out with your hands up.”
Opposite her, Liu snarled.
She met his gaze, both of them breathing heavy from the fight. “Liu, enough,” she said. “I have the detonator. It’s over. You can’t run anymore.”
“You’re right,” he said, an unsettling grimness to his tone that sent a chill down her spine. “There will be no running from this.” His gaze settled on the bomb on his chest, and he shifted the grip on his kali stick, thumb inching toward the switch to activate the electricity.
Terror pulsed through her. “Don’t, you’ll die!”
“You sound like your mother.”
Asami breath hitched, and a beat of silence passed between them.
“Yasuko was against this plan. She was so convinced that she could take out the new president without losing any of our members. She expounded all the ways her technology could deliver the bomb to its intended location and detonate it without a single Equalist put in harm’s way. But I knew there were too many variables left to chance. All it took was one sewer worker in the wrong place, one miscalculation in her design, or”—his eyes met hers—”one daughter who always thought too similarly to her mother for the plan to be foiled. Unlike your mother, I knew that sometimes it takes a human element to ensure a mission’s success. If I have to die for this cause, then so be it.”
“You’re not dying for anything here. Your mission failed--”
“I will not be their prisoner!”
The force of his declaration killed the protests in her throat. It felt like a chasm separated them instead a few feet, that distance increasing with each millisecond. She swallowed. “Liu, don’t do this.”
“Go back to your bender allies, Asami,” he said. “Unless you intend to go up in flames as well.”
She knew then that nothing she could say would change his mind. There were so many things she wanted to say, the words tangled up in the knot of emotion lodged in her throat, tied too tightly together for any one to escape.
“Go.” He spat out the command, a cold finality to his tone.
With a shuddering breath, she forced herself to turn away and run for the nearest window.
Outside, she caught sight of Kin and Gin racing back inside, Mako and Bolin in pursuit. “Stay back!” she yelled, hitching a foot up to the windowsill.
“What—” Bolin started to shout back.
There wasn’t time to explain. Asami launched herself out of the window, trusting Mako and Bolin to catch her. For a split-second, as she hung in the air, it occurred to Asami that this might have been a bad idea. But before the thought could linger, Bolin had met her halfway, propelled by a pillar of earth. Mako helped steady their landing as they hit the ground, and Asami gasped, “Liu’s detonating the bomb. We have to get out of here.”
Twin expressions of alarm crossed their faces and they took off at a sprint toward the hastily-erected police perimeter.
The explosion roared behind her, the force of it enough to knock her off her feet even from several yards away. Flames erupted from the restaurant, rapidly consuming the building. The second floor had been utterly decimated, and the first was barely in better shape.
So much destruction contained in one bomb. If Bumi had been eating dinner there, he would have died instantly.
Just like Liu had.
Around her, the police were mobilizing, forming a perimeter to prevent people from approaching the building. Lin was speaking into the radio of one of the police cars, barking instructions to the fire department.
It took Asami a moment to register the hands on her arms, dragging her out of the middle of the street away from the explosion. She glanced up to find Mako and Bolin watching her with matching expressions of concern.
“You okay, Asami?” Bolin asked.
“I--” The words caught in her throat. “I’m not hurt. I--” She blinked rapidly, trying to ease the burning of her eyes.
The brothers sat her down at the side of a warehouse, cushioning her between them. “It’s over,” Mako said. “Finally.”
A sob clawed its way out of Asami’s throat before she could stop it, and she hunched her shoulders up, trying to keep that wellspring of grief inside her.
“Hey.” Bolin turned to face her fully, a hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head.
Bolin frowned and nudged her shoulder, concern bleeding through his expression. “Asami?”
“He’s dead. I can’t believe--I didn’t actually think he’d--”
“The Lieutenant?” Mako asked, a hint of confusion furrowing his brow.
“He…” It took a great deal of effort to force the words out. “Liu was like my brother.”
Mako and Bolin went still on either side of her, but she couldn’t find the energy to lift her gaze and see whatever expression they were sharing. “He was with the Equalists from the start. He taught me how to fight. And I knew he wouldn’t listen, knew he only saw me as an enemy at the end...but I still thought--”
She was pulled into a crushing embrace between them.
“I’m so sorry,” Bolin said. “I can’t imagine having to fight Mako. And if I had to lose him like that…”
Asami choked back another sob. “He let me go. He could have just killed us both. I wouldn’t have been able to stop him. But he didn’t. He waited until I cleared the building before--”
They tightened their hold on her. “It’s okay if you need to cry,” Bolin said. “We won’t judge you.”
“We know what it’s like to lose family,” Mako added.
Asami bowed her head and let the tears fall, grateful to have Mako and Bolin act as a temporary shield to the rest of the world for now. She cried for the teenager she had met all those years ago, hungry for justice against the family he had lost to bending violence. The young man who had taught her to fight, whom she had shared jokes with while he helped Yasuko fine-tune her inventions.
And she also cried for the man she had stood against at the airfield and here. Mourned the stranger Liu had become and the bond that no tool could repair.
By the time her sobs had subsided, the fire department had arrived and were busy dousing the flames. It seemed that most of the employees had been safely escorted away from the area, and many of the officers had dispersed once the situation was under control.
Lin stood a few yards away, discussing something with one of the firefighters. She kept the three of them in the corner of her gaze, and Asami imagined that she would want to speak with them before the night was over.
Slowly she extricated herself from the hug.
“We should probably get back to Air Temple Island,” Bolin said, rising to his feet. He offered her a hand, and she let him pull her up. “Assuming we can still get a ride this late.”
“I think Chief Beifong wants to speak with us first,” Asami said.
Already, Lin was ending her conversation with the firefighter and heading toward them.
“We’d better report in,” Mako said, standing to join them.
Asami dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve and hoped that she was at least presentable enough.
“That was reckless, chasing after those Equalists on your own,” Lin said by way of greeting. “You should have come to me with that news right away and waited for us to create a plan so you weren’t rushing in blindly.”
“We thought the Equalists were holding the staff hostage,” Mako said. “We didn’t think there would be time to wait any longer.”
“And we did stop the assassination attempt,” Bolin added. “Plus, all of the restaurant staff got away safely.”
Liu hadn’t escaped, and the Equalists they had knocked unconscious would have been caught in the blast as well. But compared to what would have happened had Yuna not warned them about the attack, the outcome could have been much more dire.
“While that is true,” Lin said, “I still need reports on what transpired from all of you.”
Asami’s shoulders slumped. The thought of having to recount Liu’s death…
Lin gave them a once-over. “But I would rather make it back to a bed sooner than later. It’s been a long night, and I can get your official statements tomorrow. I trust that shouldn’t be an issue.”
“That’s fine,” Mako said.
“Thank you, Chief Beifong.” Bolin’s voice was heavy with relief, giving him an odd formality.
Lin nodded once. “Then you should head out to the docks. Tenzin should be waiting with a ferry to escort you back to Air Temple Island. But before you go”—she pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to Asami—“Bumi wanted you to have this.”
Asami unfolded the note and read it by the light of the fireball Mako created. It took a moment for the characters on the page to make sense. Her eyes widened. “A presidential pardon?”
“What!?” Bolin exclaimed, grabbing the note from Asami to read it himself.
“That’s incredible,” Mako said.
“Keep in mind it won’t be official until tomorrow when we can get the proper paperwork filed,” Lin said. “But after all of your assistance these past weeks, especially tonight, you’ve more than earned your freedom. Congratulations, Asami.”
Bumi had pardoned her. Starting tomorrow, she would no longer be under house arrest. She wouldn’t have to report in to Xing, wouldn’t be confined to Air Temple Island without a guard. The situation felt a bit surreal.
“We can talk over the next few days about getting your family’s property transferred back to you,” Lin said. “But for tonight, you all need to get to sleep. Now get back to Tenzin.” She narrowed her eyes. “And this time, no detours.”
Lin nodded curtly and returned to where she could oversee the situation.
They headed toward the docks, a comfortable silence passing between them. After a moment, Bolin turned to face her. “So, Asami, got any ideas how you want to celebrate your newfound freedom? Anything you want to do once you’re out of house arrest?”
That was the question, wasn’t it? Asami hadn’t really let herself make long-term plans. Ever since her arrest, she had been focused on getting through each day. Assisting the police and the United Forces to atone for her actions with the Equalists. But now, her entire future had opened back up again. She could go wherever she wanted, would soon have her inheritance back so she had actual money to spend on food or accessories or tools or whatever she wanted. The thought was daunting.
A near-hysterical laugh bubbled out from her throat before she could stop it.
Mako and Bolin both stopped to look at her. “Asami?” Bolin asked.
“Varrick is going to be furious when I start the contract negotiations all over again,” she gasped out between laughs.
The brothers snickered. “Yeah, I imagine he won’t be too happy,” Bolin said.
“Considering he’s under arrest for his little fireworks display earlier, I don’t think he has much of a leg to stand on,” Mako retorted. “I would love to see his face when you hand him your new contract.”
“I should visit him while he’s in jail just to personally deliver the contract to him,” Asami said, remembering how he had first accosted her on Air Temple Island. “I bet he’ll love that.”
The three of them exchanged glances for a moment before dissolving into laughter.
The laughter quickly turned to yawns, and Bolin gave an exaggerated stretch. “Let’s get back to the ferry,” Bolin said. “I don’t know about you, but I could really use a bed right about now.”
“A bed sounds wonderful,” Asami said.
As the ferry came into sight, exhaustion seemed to wash down her grief, if only for a moment. There was a safe bed waiting for her, and eventually even a return home. They’d saved Bumi, who was going to be an excellent, if unorthodox, president.
There was a bright future ahead.
And, when she eventually drifted off to sleep that night, a final thought crossed her mind. Korra had said she would return to Republic City. If nothing else, Asami had done her best to make it a place Korra would want to return to, and a place she herself could live and call home.
* * *
The Spirit World felt strangely bereft of weather. No strong wind, almost no sense of temperature. The crisp snow and ice of the North Pole felt worlds away now against this backdrop of stark stone.
Still, Korra felt sweat beading on her skin as she pulled off her parka. Disbelief and fear played over Sakari and Jinora’s faces before her, but something else too. The set of Sakari’s jaw reminded Korra of something she’d seen in the mirror before.
The second portal would not be as simple to reach. Her earlier trick relied on their surprise at Korra’s airbending, but that would only work once.
Without overthinking it, Korra rushed forward with a series of earthen strikes. Air and water felt like inviting turnabout, and she found herself strangely shy to use fire.
In unison, Jinora and Sakari flipped out of the way, with Jinora deflecting the rocks using a blast of air.
“Stand aside, Sakari,” Korra called over. “Jinora, even if you don’t understand my reasons, trust that I’ve thought this through and this is how I’m fulfilling my role as the Avatar.”
The girls didn’t drop their stances in the least. “We don’t want to fight you, Korra, but we will stop you,” Sakari shouted back. They seemed as equally set on their decision as she was.
Korra’s hands felt heavy, as though they’d turned to rocks themselves, weighing down her arms. Still, she pushed her mind to strategize and find a way around.
To the side, Zaheer clapped his hands together. “This is your *destiny*, Korra! You can end the cycle forever, just make it through now!”
Shutting off her mind, Korra moved forward and changed tracks. Sending off a volley of light fireballs, she followed them up by trying to catch Jinora’s feet in the stones on the ground. A grounded airbender was a neutralized threat.
She’d almost managed to catch Jinora when Sakari came out of the edge of Korra’s vision with whipping water strikes.
Korra dodged them, but lost track of Jinora in the process. Despite all the circumstances, she found herself smiling. Sakari was good, probably as good as Korra had been at that age. Korra had watched Sakari in the pro-bending arena and liked her combat style then. To face her now was exhilarating, filling a missing space of some sort.
If they’d grown up as sisters, Korra and Sakari would have sparred like this.
As if it was a tutoring session, Korra pulled Sakari’s strikes from the air, using their momentum to redirect them back toward her sister as disks of ice.
(She would not send pointed icicles at Sakari, but the disks could land solidly without risk of cutting her.)
On her other side, Jinora had begun weaving her steps into a complex pattern as she advanced, pressing her arms forward to funnel a blast of air toward Korra, pushing her away from the portal.
Korra took the force of the blast head on, placing her hands together to force the air apart, then bringing her arms back to send the air after the disks she’d just hurled at Sakari.
The air caught them, speeding their flight. The shift was enough that Sakari found herself just barely behind the last disk, which clipped her in the side and knocked her off-balance.
That was enough for Korra. As Sakari spun and tried to catch her balance again, Korra stomped on the ground and sent a pillar of earth to catch one of Sakari’s feet, holding her fast to the ground.
As Korra was sending a second strike, Jinora followed up with a larger air blast, knocking Korra’s aim askew and almost knocking her off her feet. Only catching her momentum into a handspring kept Korra from falling on her ass. Unfortunately, the handspring also moved Korra farther from the portal.
“Korra, now is not the time to play,” Zaheer shouted. “Stop holding back.”
Korra could hear in his voice that he was becoming impatient. And when Zaheer became impatient, he would take care of matters himself.
“I’ve got this,” she called back, dashing forward as Jinora hopped off an air scooter to Sakari’s side. Her airbending wasn’t helping to loosen the stone cuff on Sakari’s ankle, but Sakari’s ice blade strikes would get it loose shortly.
Korra rushed forward as the girls whispered furiously. If she caught them now, while Sakari was partly incapacitated and Jinora was trying to help her, she could neutralize both girls without hurting them.
As she drew closer, the girls made a series of movements that Korra couldn’t follow and a dense fog fell over the plain.
It was as if Korra had walked into a cloud. She couldn’t see more than two steps in front of herself. Sakari and Jinora couldn’t be more than a dozen paces away, but they had entirely disappeared.
Korra slowed her stride, but did not stop. Whirling her body, she sent a blast of air in the direction she’d last seen the portal.
But somehow, the cloud seemed to deaden and absorb her blast into itself. This was no idle air and water, floating in the sky. It was an extension of Sakari and Jinora’s willpower, and as Korra reached to pull the water from the air, she could almost feel Sakari pull it back.
Then Jinora’s feet landed between Korra’s shoulder blades and Korra discovered that dirt had a different taste in the Spirit World.
“Sorry, Korra,” Jinora said. “We’re just really dedicated to not having the world end.”
Korra saw Jinora disappear into the cloud as she lifted her face off the ground.
“I’m not ending the world,” Korra spat as she hopped back to her feet. She would definitely feel that bruise tomorrow.
“Time is up. We’ve waited long enough.”
Korra whipped toward Zaheer’s voice. Jinora had vanished into the same direction she heard him from now.
“Zaheer, no!” Dashing forward, she saw his last strike just as it hit the top of Jinora’s spine.
Chi-blocked, the girl collapsed to the ground as the fog began to fall.
“Get to the portal,” he shouted at her. “Time is running out!”
The fading cloud exposed Sakari, who was just wrenching her foot out of the ice-weakened stone.
Korra’s shoulders swiveled toward the portal, but she couldn’t turn her eyes away from her sister. Zaheer was on Sakari in an instant, seizing her into a rough arm-bar.
“Now, Korra!” He roared.
Sakari whirled in his grasp, trying to break free.
To the side, Korra thought she heard P’li say, “They’re just kids, Zaheer!”
The portal and harmonic convergence fell away from Korra’s mind. Raava rose like a sudden tide within her, and Korra felt her eyes flicker with light for a moment before she seized back control.
“No!” She shouted, and it was toward both Zaheer and toward the absolute burning rage within her. “Let her go now!”
Zaheer had a vein bulging in his neck. “I will let her go when you have completed your destiny. They are here as distractions, Korra, making you forget who you are and why you are here! Remember who I raised you to be.”
In his grasp, Sakari was not playing the captive role well. She repeatedly pitched her strength against his, trying to break the locked hold on her arm.
The moment before it happened, Korra saw Zaheer’s eyes narrow, and she saw Sakari straining with her teeth bared. Either she pushed too much, or he tightened the hold. Korra’s eyes were on Sakari’s as their struggles reached a peak.
The crack of Sakari’s arm breaking seemed to cut the air straight to the bottom of Korra’s lungs.
From the ground behind her, Korra heard Jinora shout Sakari’s name. To the side, P’li said something that sounded like, ‘Zaheer, we were only kids.’ Zaheer’s snarl fell into an exhale of exertion. And Sakari’s scream choked itself halfway and melted into a sob.
Korra’s priorities crystalized.
Her body almost seemed to fly on its own accord, slicing the air as she rushed toward Zaheer trailing waves of flame. His eyes widened, reflecting the light, and he dropped Sakari’s body with a thud and leapt away.
Zaheer was agile in his retreat, winding in a circular path as he dodged the fire and stones that Korra seemed to shed in her path. Still, it was a retreat nonetheless. Korra refused to allow him to close the distance. His usual non-bender tactic was to shift a fight from long-range to close-range, to eliminate the bending advantage.
“Korra! Stop!” He had been shouting at her almost nonstop, but she only seemed to hear him now, as he tried to pivot closer once again.
This time, Korra repelled him with a flurry of icicles, always herding him away from Sakari and the others. “No,” she said, and Ravva’s notes of light reinforced her voice. “I am not yours to command any more.”
His shoes skidding in the dust, Zaheer touched a hand to the ground and steadied himself. From somewhere in his robes, he pulled a wicked knife and threw it with a deadly precision at Korra’s heart.
She blinked, and time slowed. In all the years they’d traveled together, Korra had never once seen this knife. Not in combat training or around their many campfires. In fact, it occurred to her, Zaheer had never once trained her how to respond to a thrown knife.
Raava’s instincts moved her limbs anyway, whirling a tight sphere of air around her, then growing it outward with exponential acceleration. The knife’s course diverted, slicing past Korra just off to the side. Then the force of the wind pushed farther out, catching Zaheer and ripping him off his feet and slamming him into a boulder farther back still.
Korra kept her arms moving through the motions, keeping Zaheer pinned to the rock as she advanced. The differences in their capabilities were clear. Zaheer was the most deadly non-bender she’d ever met, likely one of the most dangerous in the world. But he could not stand against The Avatar.
With efficient motions, Korra summoned restraints of stone to pin him in place.
“I will not be forced into any decisions,” Korra said. “The actions I take will be my own, from this moment forward.”
Zaheer wrenched his neck outward, desperately pulling his body against the restraints. “You will not end the cycle then,” he spat. “Just one more Avatar seduced by the power of their birth, heedless of the unbalance they bring to the world.”
“Yes,” she said. She turned her back and started walking back toward the portals and the tree of time.
She heard him struggle one more time against her restraints before he called out, “P’li! Now is the time.”
Immediately on guard, Korra pivoted and took a defensive stance toward her firebending teacher. But on meeting the woman’s eyes, she was surprised to find them soft. P’li had never looked at her that way before.
“Zaheer...” P’li seemed to breathe his name with a depthless sadness. “We were only children.”
Then P’li turned away and Korra followed suit. Though Korra had never understood the taller woman once in her life, she understood now that something had been altered between them. She was no threat for now. Korra’s pace quickened as she jogged back to the portal. Sakari had made her way to Jinora, and had her friend’s head propped in her lap while she cradled her broken arm.
Korra almost felt bad as the girls met her gaze with relief, then with panic as they watched Korra stop in front of the second portal.
“Korra, wait!” Sakari winced and cried out as she tried to scramble to her feet, but couldn’t move without jostling Jinora.
Jinora shouted something that Korra didn't catch as she pressed her hand to the portal and opened it.
"I'm creating a new age of balance in the world," Korra said. "This is my choice as the Avatar."
No dramatic sacrifice of your identity then? Raava's voice sounded in her head as the portal opened.
I'll ponder the identity crisis later, Korra thought back.
She stepped back from the portal as the planets aligned.
"No, no, no, no, no," Jinora moaned. She seemed to be desperately trying to wiggle her fingers.
"Just stay here," Korra said, walking toward them and keeping her eyes on the Tree of Time. "I'll try to keep the fight away from you both." A band of light arced from each portal and met in the middle.
Korra paused briefly and took Sakari's good hand. "You did good, kid," she said, meeting her sister's gaze. She guided Sakari's fingertips to the spot on Jinora's arm that Asami had shown her. "Rub here gently to help end the chi block a bit faster."
Sakari seemed to be caught without words for once, just nodding numbly and doing as Korra had instructed.
Meanwhile, the pillars of light above each portal bent together, uniting in an arc in the air above them. Lightning flashed as the colors shifted, and a purple pall came over the sky. The lighting began to intensify its focus on the Tree of Time, and then a burning red light concentrated itself on Vaatu’s hollow within the tree. All light disappeared for a moment before a blinding white flash followed.
The first thing Korra could see, once her vision cleared, was the dark silhouette of Vaatu sweeping out of the tree.
Once upon a time, Korra had thought her role as the Avatar would be to release both him and Raava in this moment. She’d been raised on faith in chaos’ inherent superiority in the world. Faced with Vaatu himself now, she could feel the differences between him and Raava within her.
Korra had seen the world. She didn’t know what ‘home’ meant, but she knew that there wasn’t a place she’d walked that would benefit from this spirit’s freedom. She placed herself in front and readied her stance. Her legs didn’t feel quite steady as they should be.
Vaatu arched against the sky. “Raava,” he called her, “nothing could stop this moment. Harmonic Convergence is upon us again.”
“I know,” Korra said, “I opened the portals. But now you’re going right back in that tree again.” She could feel Raava shifting within her, readying for the fight. Somehow, that steadied Korra’s feet.
Vaatu roared, and his dark tendrils flashed as he reared back, then swept toward Korra in a charge.
Raava seemed to fill her spirit from the ground up this time. The Avatar State welled up as though it were coming from the very dirt of the Spirit World below her.
She leapt into the air in a swirl of wind, passing over Vaatu as he swept below her, then crashed down on his back in a rush of fire. He recovered impossibly quickly, his body twisting and re-forming around her blow. She followed up with stacks of stones and jets of water, which he dodged easily, his body almost liquid in how it shifted and twisted.
He struck at her with sharp, precise blows. She parried with fire and earth, but his strikes only came faster. He seemed to be made of light, with no weight or resistance behind his motions. In contrast, the elements that Korra bent to her defense seemed to move half a beat behind her arms and legs.
She needed to go on the offense.
Flipping backwards to avoid another attack, Korra summoned fire beneath her feet as she came in for her landing. Her feet never touched the ground. She launched a huge spiraling blast of fire at Vaatu with both arms and immediately followed behind it, punching through his body on a wave of fire and air.
She could see purple light glowing at the frayed edges of his body, but the damage didn’t stop Vaatu from turning around his own series of whip attacks while he repaired the damage.
Korra dodged backward again as Vaatu smashed the place she’d been standing. But before she could redirect her momentum, Vaatu reared back and summoned a dark energy beam, striking Korra right in the chest.
She crashed into a boulder and Korra felt the Avatar State slip from her grasp as she tumbled to the ground.
“No! Korra!” In the background, Korra could hear Sakari shouting.
Vaatu laughed, and dove toward her in another charge. Korra could barely feel her hands, but pulled herself into another light leap, sweeping herself up on an unsteady whirlwind. She just barely dodged Vaatu’s swipe.
Then his tail clipped her right leg, and Korra lost hold of her airbending and crashed to the ground. Palms digging into the dirt, Korra grit her teeth. She was more exhausted than she'd thought. As her mind tried to force her muscles into movement, her body felt sluggish. Too slow.
Vaatu was coming back for a followup strike and Korra braced herself. She wasn't going to be able to dodge this one.
Out of nowhere, a storm of icicles struck the dark spirit, hurling him aside in the single breath before he reached her. Korra took the time to push herself off the rock and whipped around, looking for Sakari. She shouldn’t be bending like that with her broken arm, however much Korra had needed the save.
“Don’t you know you don’t have to do everything alone?”
Korra’s heart stopped at the sound of Ming-Hua’s voice, then seemed to swell to bursting as she saw her mentor running forward with Ghazan at her heels.
“Hey kiddo,” he called out, “Sorry it took so long. We eventually negotiated the use of the express route with some convenient escorts.”
Behind them, a pair of dark-haired waterbenders came through the portal, their steps in-sync and their faces expressionless. Korra vaguely recognized her cousins from some Red Lotus profiles.
Before Korra could parse out the logistics of their presence, she found herself dodging another blow from Vaatu. Her legs no longer felt quite as dead and tired. It was as if Ming-Hua and Ghazan had brought an hour’s rest with them, and Korra was fresh for the fight once more.
With some backup, the odds were back in Korra’s favor.
Ming-Hua seemed to glide with an ethereal grace, her signature water whips trailing as she struck at Vaatu with impossible precision. Ghazan’s rougher movements complemented hers in every way. Seeing him bending beside her, the influence her waterbending had on his lavabending style was obvious. Less obvious to Korra was where Ghazan had managed to find a marble post at least twice the length of his body, but she didn’t stop to question it as he plunged it like a javelin through Vaatu’s body.
Her twin cousins were even deeper in-sync, matching each strike against Vaatu with uncanny matching gestures. Korra didn’t overthink it as she slid in beside them, layering her firebending along with their waterbending as they sliced and pressed Vaatu closer and closer back toward the tree, hemming him in from all sides.
Avatar Korra, now is the time. Raava spoke within her, and Korra found she could now hear the voice as a source of strength. It was hard to imagine why she had ever fought against this presence, which was so clearly and deeply a part of her very being.
“Yes, now,” Korra said aloud. The voices of ten thousand years of Avatars echoed behind her words. They were as much one with her as Raava was. She closed her eyes, and opened them to light.
But unlike when fighting Amon, Korra did not lose herself within the rage of noise, light, and the Avatars before her. She was The Avatar, always.
But she would be Korra, first.
Ming-Hua, Ghazan, and the twins fell back as she advanced. The elements twisted behind her hands, then took hold of Vaatu in a moment. A whirling cage of water trapped, then orbiting stones to seal him. Fire jumped easily from the arc of her hands, as it always had. And then air.
Korra was not yet a master airbender. She could not find within her the precise motions to control the focused hurricane that began to whirl around Vaatu. But The Avatar, the Avatars of lives past, surged within her. Korra could feel Aang’s hands within her own, guiding the motions and the power. Behind him, she could feel the control of every Avatar all the way back to Wan himself.
The sphere of air tightened, and sealed the cage whirling around Vaatu. With deliberate steps, Korra guided the spirit back toward the tree. He shouted and hurled words back at her, but she didn't need to hear any of them.
“I am Avatar Korra,” she said. “And I’m sealing you away for another 10,000 years.”
The tree glowed as she returned Vaatu to his place within it, and his shout grew and intensified, and then was silenced.
As she watched Vaatu settle within the Tree of Time once again, Korra briefly realized that this meant no more hiding. In a world of anarchy and chaos, an Avatar could vanish into the crowd and hide from the eyes of the masses. In aligning herself with Raava, Korra was not just choosing to be The Avatar, but also to be seen as The Avatar.
There would be no more masks. No more hiding.
As the light of the Avatar State faded from her eyes, Korra took a breath. It had not drained her as it had in the past. Instead, she felt renewed and strengthened.
She turned to face the clearing.
Her eyes went first to Sakari and Jinora, supporting each other near the southern portal. The chi-block seemed to have faded, and Jinora was fashioning an orange makeshift sling for Sakari. While battered, the girls seemed to be alright.
Ghazan and Ming-Hua were standing together nearby. She was leaning against his shoulder, and he had an arm around her waist. They looked at her proudly, but she could see a distance in their eyes.
The twins were engaged in a whispered exchange. Korra found she didn't care to speculate on whatever they were obviously plotting. Any further challenges she would tackle later.
Her eyes slide to the back of the field. Zaheer had vanished from the rock she'd sealed him to, and P'li was nowhere to be seen.
"Korra!" Sakari and Jinora were making their unsteady way toward her. "There's still time to seal the portal." Jinora’s voice and feet wavered, but Sakari seemed to be steadying her friend with her one good arm.
Korra leapt and used some airbending to carry herself over. The portal stretched above her, a pillar of light bending to connect the North and South poles at the peak of the arc.
She’d been liberated for this day, to reunite the physical and spiritual worlds as the Avatar. Zaheer had known that the only way for her to make this choice was if he’d raised her to understand true freedom, to believe in the liberation that could only come from chaos, from the dismantling of power structures and the elimination of rules.
Korra’s feet ached as she walked toward the portal. Her entire body was beginning to tremble, now that the fight was over. The fights. How many had she had by now?
Was she still in a fight now?
Even Raava’s presence shone every bit as battered as Korra felt.
’I’m glad you decided to keep me around, Avatar Korra’
A smile twitched the corners of Korra’s mouth. ’Just for a bit,’ she said. ‘Something like the next ten thousand years or so.’
Korra’s feet seemed to pulse as she stopped in front of the portal. Walking was, somehow, less painful than just standing. It had always been easier for Korra to be in motion. Inaction always felt worse.
’I’ll be glad to spend the time with you,’ Raava replied. ‘But I wonder, how do you plan for the world to spend that time?’
Korra sighed. Her eyes seemed to be burning out as she stared into the light. Behind her, Jinora and Sakari were saying… something. She wasn’t focused on them.
’I want to reunite the worlds… but I don’t know if I want it because that is my true instinct as the Avatar, or if I want that because that’s what I was raised to believe by Zaheer.’ Korra hesitated. ‘I was taken, and I was told what to believe. I don’t know that I can trust myself to know what is right.’
’Making decisions is no easy burden… but by choosing to affirm yourself as the Avatar, you have chosen the burden of being a decider. Regardless of how you were raised or what you were taught, the burden is yours. Is ours. I will remain with you regardless of how the physical and spiritual worlds are connected. I am with you regardless of whether or not you are their bridge.’
Behind Raava’s words, Korra felt the weight and the trust of 10,000 years of Avatars. Her past lives. Aang’s energy shone from the front, and she felt his assent.
’We trust your decision. This is your burden, and we will remain with you, no matter what you choose.’
Korra turned around. “I’ve decided to keep the portals open,” she said. When Sakari opened her mouth to object, Korra held up a hand. “I know this will bring unprecedented change, and I cannot predict everything that will come. But Harmonic Convergence has caused a shift in the planet’s energy.” She looked toward Jinora. “Can you feel it?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Jinora nodded. “I think I do. The world will not be the same.” Though hesitant, Jinora had begun to look toward Korra with more confidence. “Will you guide the world into this new spiritual age as the Avatar?” A note of challenge rang in her voice.
Beside her, Sakari gazed at Korra with such intensity that Korra had to avert her gaze. An unspoken question hung in the air. Would Korra remain and be Sakari’s sister in this new world?
In the background, Korra saw her twin cousins whispering to one another.
Korra turned toward Ghazan and Ming-Hua. “I… I’m going to need to go back with them. To face the world as their Avatar.”
“Fourteen years of mystery is a respectable amount of time to build up the anticipation, I think.” Ghazan cracked a smile. “I expect you’ll do a fair amount of dismantling existing power structures, even if you have to become one.”
Ming-Hua did not smile, did not frown. She simply met Korra’s eyes for a long moment. “If you make yourself hard, the pressure will crack you like a stone,” she said. “Remember to bend and flow.”
“I couldn’t possibly forget the basics when you’re the one who taught them to me.” Korra looked away. She’d lost Ming-Hua when Ming-Hua lost her bending, and she’d only just gotten the other woman back in her life.
Ghazan cleared his throat, saving Korra from saying anything further. “As part of the deal that brought us here, we have tickets on the first ship out of the blockade. And, uh…” Ghazan cleared his throat. “We weren’t exactly the most polite gala guests, so we’d really like to catch it.”
To the side, Korra heard Sakari’s breath catch. “What happened at the gala?”
“Nothing I don’t think your aunt anticipated.” Ghazan glanced Sakari’s way and did a double-take. “Wow, she looks a lot like you up close.” He flashed Korra another grin. “Good luck being a big sister to that one. You have a lot of time to catch up on, and we both know you were a terror at that age.”
Korra laughed and covered her face with one hand. It was absolutely true. She also used the movement to discreetly clear a tear that was welling up in one eye. “How will I find you two again? How will I keep track of you?”
Ming-Hua shook her head. “Don’t try. We’ll find you.”
Korra just nodded, not trusting her voice to say anything. They wouldn’t have any problems finding her if needed—they had plenty of experience tracking down public figures.
And then it was time to depart. The twins (her… cousins? Korra would have to stop thinking of them as faces from Red Lotus dossiers) had mounts and sleds waiting on the other side of the northern portal.
Ming-Hua and Ghazan took one mount in a different direction, toward wherever their boat awaited.
Korra helped Sakari and Jinora settle themselves comfortably into the back of a sled. After a moment’s hesitation, Korra opted to sit with them instead of taking her own mount. She didn’t need to keep herself apart from them, or the world anymore. She was returning to the world to become its Avatar… but that also meant she could be just Korra.
Sakari and Jinora seemed remarkably quiet on the ride back. It occurred to Korra that, for once, there was no need for her to cram a lifetime’s worth of words into her next conversation with Sakari. From now on… they would have time.
A whole new life awaited them all.
She would learn how to be Sakari’s sister, and how to serve the world as its Avatar.
Maybe she would even learn to be a cousin and a niece to the twin strangers driving the sled and their mother, who had brought Ming-Hua and Ghazan to her in her hour of greatest need.
Korra’s chest ached. She would meet her parents soon. And learn how to be a… daughter?
An image of Ming-Hua, Ghazan, Zaheer, and P’li came to her mind, and Korra gently, but firmly, set them aside. There would be room in this new spiritual age to learn a new concept of family as well.
Ming-Hua and Ghazan were safe, or as safe as they ever were.
Zaheer and P’li… didn’t have to matter for now. She would figure out what to do about them later, if she had to.
Finally, Korra’s mental eye returned to Asami Sato. Her thoughts relaxed, and she found herself drifting off to sleep as the sled pulled them through the snow back to the capital of the Northern Water Tribe.
There would be speeches and reunions, introductions and apologies to make. But Korra would return to Asami and Republic City. There would be no more hiding. It wouldn’t be simple, but she would be free to make the life she chose for herself, next to the people she chose for herself. Nothing would stop her now.
Korra’s body fell into a deep sleep, grateful for the rest, but her spirit roamed restlessly through her dreams, eager for the next day, and the opportunities of the new age.
* * * End Arc Two * * *