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Instincts of a Fearful Body

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Chapter One: Welcome to Republic City
(Otherwise Known as Everything Wrong with the World)

“The Air Nomads lived communally, in temples, to mitigate their spiritual attachments to belongings and the things of the physical realm. Possessing a home is one of the most solid attachments people can have to this world, and the Air Nomads recognized that it was better, at least, to share it, to distribute that one attachment amongst all their community.

“When Guru Laghima was a young monk, he forsook even that connection and traveled abroad in the world, wandering as the nomads were wont to do. It was in the wild, away from even the meager trappings of the temple, that he was able to empty his spirit and release his earthly tethers.” Zaheer closed his eyes for a long moment, breathing in, then out. “Unlike the other Air Nomads, he never returned to the temples, recognizing freedom as the greater virtue than community.

“In his example, we travel the world together, forsaking the bondage of houses in favor of true freedom.” Zaheer paused. “However, sometimes the constraints of reality must infringe on spiritual ideals. It is for this reason that, for the duration of our stay in Republic City, we—”

“HAVE AN APARTMENT!” Korra ducked around Zaheer, throwing open the door. It slammed against the wall and she burst inside.

Zaheer turned to the side. A deep frown and furrowed eyebrows carved a slash across his forehead. “—are temporarily staying in—”

“—an apartment with actual beds!” Ghazan cheered as he sauntered in behind Korra. “Check this place out!” He dropped their bags on the floor, looking around with a broad smile.

Following at a much more sedate pace, P’li and Ming-Hua weren’t nearly as enthused as Ghazan, but Korra could tell they were happy to be there too. She flashed Zaheer apologetic smile as she took everyone’s bags and sorted them accordingly.

By the time she’d finished, Ghazan had thrown open all the screens. “Looks like a pretty sweet layout,” he said. “Wide halls and big windows.” He threw his hands out to the side. “Look at all this space!”

Zaheer cleared his throat. “A Red Lotus contact furnished the space for us with the basic necessities. The location is also purposeful. This neighborhood is central to all the areas we want to access, and the police presence here is generally light.” He paused, and Korra noticed his eyes slide toward P’li for a moment. She’d taken off her hood since coming inside, but it was generally difficult for her to travel freely without attracting notice. Police, in particular, made things problematic.

“As for the apartment itself,” Zaheer continued, “There are two primary sleeping areas. P’li and I will primarily reside in this one.” He gestured to one of the screens Ghazan had opened. “Ghazan and Ming-Hua, you two will be staying in that one.”

Korra tilted her head. “What about me?”

Zaheer nodded to one of the smaller screen doorways. “For the duration of our stay, it seemed appropriate to allow you a solitary space for rest.”

“I get my own bedroom?” Korra’s mouth dropped open. “Like my own, individual, one-person room? That’s mine?” She rushed over to the space. It was little more than a closet, but it was her closet. Just enough room for a bedroll, but that was all she could have wanted.

“Ownership is a concept you should avoid,” Zaheer said, voice tightening. Korra dropped her bag inside the room, a little guilty. “This is merely a transient space we are occupying for the time being.”

“And it has real beds.” Ming-Hua poked her head out of her and Ghazan’s room. “Zaheer, allow us our ‘earthly tethers’ for a few minutes. This is different—better—than squatting in abandoned buildings with leaking roofs. Let the kid get happy about her room. Let us be happy that we get to sleep on real beds. ”

Ghazan poked his head out over Ming-Hua’s. “And speaking of beds...” He winked.

Korra let go of her pack instantly. “Ew. Ew ew ew. I’m going on a walk.” She grimaced. “You guys can have fun together. I’m gonna explore the city.”

“I’ll go with you,” Zaheer cut in. He set his pack down in his and P’li’s room then came back into the common space. “I haven’t been to Republic City since before we recruited you to our cause. It will be good to refamiliarize myself with the area while I give Korra an initial lesson.”

“You’re really leaving so soon?” P’li frowned slightly.

A pause. Zaheer wavered before shaking his head. “It would not be prudent for Korra to wander alone this early.” Another pause. “Once she is more familiar with the city, she will be free to wander, leaving more time for... other pursuits.”

Korra winced. “Look, if you guys are gonna go at it, I may not even wait to fiddle with the door.” She glanced out the window and grinned. “There’s a fountain in the courtyard there. An emergency waterbender escape isn’t out of the question.”

Ming-Hua laughed at that. “Take a break, Zaheer. I’m sure Korra can figure it out on her own. It’s been awhile since the four of us had some time to ourselves.”

Zaheer’s mouth just tightened into a thinner line. “We’ll be back in an hour or so. Do recall that we are here on business. This is not a pleasure trip.”

“A pleasure trip?” Ghazan cracked up, but Zaheer didn’t even smile.

Korra made an exaggerated gagging motion as she followed him out the front door. “Have fun, hedonists,” she called back.

“We’re anarchists!” Ming-Hua and Ghazan called back, laughing.

*

“Republic City Park is a central feature of the city,” Zaheer said. “Unlike most places we’ve traveled, the city lacks open green spaces. Small towns and small cities tend to have them accessible at the edges, at least. Ba Sing Se is large enough that things get rather spread out. Here, however, there is the exact mix of size and density which makes spaces like this necessary.”

Korra peered around. “So the people here are just... hanging out? They aren’t here for any particular reason?” They’d come to the park around lunchtime; she could see people of all social classes milling around. Many of them had brought food. “Except maybe lunch,” she added.

“For the most part, no. The masses of Republic City have been fooled by their government into thinking that a brief visit in a park is a valid exercise in what few freedoms they have.” Though he kept his tone neutral, she could hear condescension in his voice. “If you are ever stopped, saying you are going to the park is a good stock answer during daylight hours.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”  Zaheer and Korra were dressed simply, as usual, to avoid attention. The idea of being stopped by the police seemed ridiculous in the sunny park, but Korra knew it was possible. Once they got down to Red Lotus business, they tended to stir the pot a fair bit more. She smirked. That was always the fun part.

Zaheer led them to sit on the side of a small hill. “Republic City is a prime example of everything wrong with the world,” he said. “The government has no oversight, and the council members exercise their authority without check. We have come here for a specific reason, to witness a certain response of the people as they reach out for freedom.” He smiled tightly. “Remember: New growth cannot—”

“—exist without first the destruction of the old.” Korra didn’t roll her eyes, but it took effort. “I know, I know.”

“If you knew, then you would know to listen.” His voice barely shifted, but Korra caught a thread of annoyance in it. “Right now, I want you to look out at the park. What do you see, what do you hear? What moves the people here? This, however pathetic, passes for their ‘free’ and ‘leisure time.’ What distracts them while they are here?”

“Alright.” They’d done exercises like this before. Korra tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear and relaxed into a meditation pose. The best way to relax herself into the atmosphere here was to try and detach from her body as much as possible.

It didn’t take any effort to hear the chatter of those passing by, but it took a few moments before Korra could truly listen to them. She didn’t try to catch whole conversations. Zaheer had taught how to listen to only the pieces people meant the most emphatically, putting their spirit behind their words.

“—lately the price has been outrageous, I—”

“—damnable taxes these days—”

“Did you hear about the Fire Ferrets?”

“—and at thirteen years old? A pro-bending prodigy!”

“—not sure about the council’s steps—”

“—regarding the Equalists. Everyone is—”

“I heard that on Air Temple Island—”

Korra blinked, slipping out of the listening mode. Before she could help it, her head swiveled around.

“What is it?”

She bit her lip. “Someone said something about Air Temple Island...” She kept her eyes down. “It distracted me.”

He regarded her with a measured gaze. “Airbending will come in time, Korra.”

“Okay, but, um, do you think we could maybe go? To Air Temple Island?” She smiled. “You could maybe find some Guru Laghima stuff. I could sneakily watch some airbending techniques.”

“Unfortunately, Tenzin knows my face too well. It would not be prudent for me to show myself there.” Zaheer tilted his head. “However... you could potentially go on your own, provided you were cautious. Spiritual preparation would also be wise. I’ll gather some poetry and other materials for you to read when we go back to the apartment.”

Korra grinned when he said ‘apartment,’ and Zaheer frowned at her. “Our temporary, transient abode,” he amended.

“Temp apartment, got it.” She nodded, but couldn’t quite keep the smile off her face.

“In any case,” he continued, “If I know Tenzin, the island is likely to be a place of spiritual tranquility and peace. Spiritual preparation will allow you to feel the island’s energy and be ready to absorb whatever lessons you can take from the place.” He smiled. “If you are open, you may receive some unintended lessons on airbending.”

Korra tried to imagine an island full of bald Zaheers quoting ancient airbender poetry. It was a little horrifying. “I’ll be sure to do my homework first,” she said. She cleared her throat. “As for the people, they seemed fairly interested in pro-bending.” Korra took care to keep her voice casual. “And speaking of field trips, it would probably benefit my other elements to visit the pro-bending arena here, I’ve been—”

“No.” Zaheer’s eyebrows drew together. “That is not a place that you should go. Guru Laghima once wrote ‘bending is a spiritual hand, reaching out to touch the world by its fingertips.’ While the Red Lotus is far from being above violence, it is always with a purpose. The crude sport of the arena is not bending’s intention, especially considering your role in the world.”

“Oh come on, Zaheer.” Korra sighed. “How can you even have an opinion on the spiritual connections of bending when you’re a non-bender?” She crossed her arms and faced back toward the path. Strangers walked by, occupied with their own lives. It was odd to think that, spending a few weeks there, she might see the same people more than once.

He seemed to find her comment amusing. “Bender or not, I am the spiritual leader of the Red Lotus. Does that satisfy your requirements for my holding an opinion?”

“Yes,” Korra grumbled.

“This place, Republic City, is a festering cesspool of the world. Founded by the former Avatar and his close friends, the oligarchy they created has continued, unchanged, to this day.” Zaheer snorted. “Even Aang’s son sits on the council, as though the ruling class could get less obvious about their stranglehold on the people here.”

“Sounds like a pretty clear-cut picture,” Korra said.

“I still want you to do another listening session,” he said. “Try to focus on what you hear that carries passion and is tied to the core problems of the city.”

“Sure thing.” She adopted a relaxed pose again and listened. For a few moments, the vague chatter of passersby overwhelmed her, but she focused her senses and shut out everything but the words people meant, what echoed louder to her spiritual perception. She still struggled to reach the spirit world consistently, but listening on a spiritual plane was more useful day-to-day anyway.

“—Tarrlok has gone too far! His task force—”

“—sure the council will address the issue. Benders—”

Korra kept her eyes open, but didn’t try to visually match speakers with those she could see. The listening would place voices closer or farther based on emphasis, not distance.

“—would never admit it, but Amon seems—”

“—our deeply fearless leader, Amon, will create a—”

“—just hope the city changes for—”

“—back to the way things used to be—”

Korra squinted as a bright light filled the park. She tried to raise her arm to cover her eyes, but found she couldn’t move. Then, as though she had never shut her eyes at all, the park reappeared around her, changed.

For a moment, she wondered if it had been attacked in the blink of an eye, but a moment of study showed that it hadn’t been destroyed, but was in the process of being built. Mounds of dirt replaced the shapely hills and simple planks acted as bridges over the stream. Korra whipped her head around to the left and saw a young woman with black bangs over her eyes slide down the very hill Korra had been sitting on.

Dirt covered her clothes and she moved with the confidence of an earthbender. The dark-haired woman grinned. “Taking a break, Twinkletoes?”

Turning to face where she was looking, Korra gasped. No sound or air came out, but the feeling was there as she found herself gazing at Avatar Aang. It could only be him, a perfect match to the pictures she’d seen. A scrappy beard was just beginning to grow in on his chin. His orange clothes were stained with mud, and he’d clearly been earthbending recently.

Just for a moment, Toph,” he said. “I wanted to take a look around and just sort of... take it in.”

Take what in?” the young woman, Toph, said. “A big pile of dirt and mush that we haven’t gotten to terraforming yet?”

Korra blinked and her viewpoint changed, as though she were standing next to Aang, looking at Toph.

I’m seeing what it’s going to be,” he said. “A city for all people, of all nations.”

Toph chuckled. “Old airbenders used to make a hobby out of baking, if you’ve told me right. But noooope, you’ve gotta make your pet project a whole city.”

Aang laughed and Korra felt a warmth in her chest. She could feel his love for the city, even the park she was sitting in. Even greater than that, she felt his hope and full-hearted belief in the place. It expanded, filling her vision with white again until she had to close her eyes again.

And, as though she’d never blinked, she was just Korra again, sitting on her spot on the hill, overlooking the park.

“Where did you go?” Zaheer could have been asking where Korra bought lunch, for all the interest he showed.

For a moment, Korra didn’t want to tell him about the vision. Reconciling Aang’s love for the city with Zaheer’s disdain was difficult. After a moment’s debate, she shrugged. “I was listening when... when I saw a vision of Aang and Toph.” Korra looked around, trying to match the landmarks from her vision to the current version of the place. “They were here, creating the park.”

“Ah. You will likely experience more visions, now that you are in a place he walked. It’s a place his spirit, in you, will find familiar.” He regarded her a moment, then stood. “While you were absent, I found something you should see closer.”

She stood and followed him. “Maybe the city isn’t as bad as we think so far,” she said after a few steps. “It’s... it’s kind of a fixer-upper, you know?”

Zaheer’s steps slowed. “Whatever Aang felt for this place, you must contrast and hold up to the reality of what he did here. The system he left is corrupt and the people suffer as their freedoms are limited more each day.”

Korra nodded. “I got you,” she said. Still, she couldn’t help a seed of optimism that seemed unwilling to leave.

“Speaking of which,” Zaheer continued, “we’ve come here in large part to witness the outcome of the Equalist movement here. They’ve been mobilizing for months and I have a sense that things are about to change, and drastically.”

“So not just another ignored group shouting into the void?” Korra raised an eyebrow. In their travels, they saw plenty of people oppressed and dissatisfied with their governments. Most of them did nothing more than grumble.

A fair distance across the park, however, a man shouting into a megaphone came into view. Standing on a stage with a decent crowd gathered, he was certainly doing more than passive complaining.

Zaheer nodded towards him as they walked. “The non-benders of this city would likely have muttered into their drinks for another few decades, maybe pushed for the eventual reform or two. They’ve recently come into a leader, however.” He jerked his chin back towards the man onstage. “Note the image on the poster,” he added. “This ‘Amon’ has changed the rules of the game. We’ve come to Republic City to watch him play.”

The masked figure on the poster looked out toward the crowd with authority. “If nothing else, he has a good poster designer,” Korra remarked. “Very charismatic.”

“Indeed,” Zaheer said. A mild smile flitted across his face before disappearing. “While we are investigating, pretend to be a non-bender.”

That was generally their status quo for disguises, so Korra shrugged. “Nothing to see here.”

“These people are reaching out for freedom, but it’s immature. They do not realize that they are running from the council’s oppression right into Amon’s control.” The contempt in his voice made his opinions more than clear. “They will not find freedom with their leader, but this is an interesting case study for you.”

He dropped his voice as they walked up to the stage. “We are seeking information and a way into their confidence. Act accordingly.”

Korra rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to be told that .

“Are you tired of living under bending tyranny? The bending elite of this city have forced non-benders to live as second class citizens! Join Amon’s movement! The Equalists will tear down the bending establishment!” The protester had a moderate audience who seemed to agree, though they kept looking around nervously.

Korra adopted a frustrated, determined expression as she drew close and shouted, “Yeah! Uh, down with the bending establishment!”

Zaheer turned and hushed her, looking around in a paranoid fashion. “Shh, we can’t speak like that in public. Not safely.” He tilted his head up to the protester. “Sir, are you safe, speaking out like this?”

The small man puffed up at that. He grimaced bravely. “Someone must speak the truth and call the people to action on Amon’s behalf! It is time to take back our city!”

The crowd murmured assent, though a few people left. Korra and Zaheer stayed for a few minutes, agreeing with his points. Zaheer adopted the role of the cautious one and Korra felt she did well playing the brash supporter. Even if she wasn’t the best at adopting an anti-bending role, Zaheer’s cautious follow-ups always made it sound as though Korra were being bold and revolutionary.

“Why doesn’t Amon come and rally us himself?” Korra asked eventually. “We deserve a leader who will stand with us, in danger and in safety!”

At this, Zaheer didn’t mitigate her statement or pull her back. She glanced at him briefly before focusing her gaze back on the protest leader. “Well?”

By now, the crowd had dwindled to only the most fervent protesters. The protest leader crouched and pulled a handful of flyers out from behind him. “Witness The Revelation tonight,” he said. He handed a set of four flyers each to the people still gathered. “Don’t let the information fall into the wrong hands.”

The flyers each bore a picture of Amon with an arm outstretched. Rays of light emanated from his palm. While striking, it had surprisingly little information, other than that ‘The Revelation’ was apparently at nine o’clock at night.

Korra was about to ask where she was supposed to go when Zaheer steered them away from the table with a hand on her shoulder. “Police are coming,” he said. “We should avoid them as much as possible.”

“But we don’t know where this event even is,” Korra pointed out.

Zaheer shook his head. “He gave each of the people gathered the same set of four posters. It’s common, in revolutions, to do things like this in code.” He flipped the stack of flyers over and thumbed through them as they walked back the way they came. After a moment, he held two of them together, edge-to-edge. “It looks like the four of them make a rough map. We have a map of Republic City back at the apartment to compare.” He leveled a glare at her when she grinned at its mention. “Let’s go back and see where we’ll be going tonight to further your education.”

“Man, not even one night off?” Korra groaned. “I get that it’s a business trip and all, but come on!”

He chuckled. “Once we get a little more settled and we’ve established everyone’s goals and agenda for our stay, you will have free time to accomplish and pursue your objectives at your own pace.” He paused. “Which, yes, means leisure time.”

Korra punched the air. “Yes!”

“Don’t forget that you agreed to spend some of that free time reading poetry.”

“Augh!”

 

* * *

 

Asami cut open the protective packaging and smiled down at the newly-machined parts. There was something wonderful about the smell of oil and metal that put her in a good mood, and she’d been wanting to get to this project all week.

Taking the pieces out one by one, she hummed to herself as she started attaching them to the motor.

The heat of the workshop made her sweat and the grease from the gears would take forever to leave her fingertips. Working alone, however, Asami couldn’t have been happier. She glanced over at a framed picture on the wall. Young, but with hair just starting to gray at his temples, Hiroshi Sato looked out over the workshop. He smiled proudly for the camera as he leaned against a pristine Satomobile.

“This is prototype three,” Asami said, glancing up at the photograph. “I’ve been reading through your old notes, and I think I had a breakthrough about the belt drive. We’ll have to see how this one runs.”

Asami pulled down her safety glasses and grabbed her torch welder. Sparks flew as she secured a piece in place. She loved all the engineering work she did, but it was in the solitary workshop, out back behind her house, that she felt most at home.

Her father used to work back here all the time. If he were still alive, instead of just a picture on the wall, Asami liked to think that he would still favor working here, as opposed to in the factory downtown.

Thinking about the factory made her grimace, however. She put it out of mind and continued her welding.

When it was time to take a break, she set her tools aside and wiped the sweat off her face. She didn’t even notice her mother until she turned around.

“Oh! Hello, uh, mother.” Asami nearly jumped, but kept the reaction in check. “How are you?”

Her mother’s laugh rang through the space. “Why so startled? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

Asami shook her head. “No, no. I was just focused on my work. I didn’t realize you’d come in.” She tensed slightly as her mother walked closer to the prototype engine. “I was reading through some of Dad’s old notes,” she continued. “I figured it was about time to work out an upgrade to the current Satomobile engine, so, um, yeah.”

A nod, approving. “It looks good.” Her mother looked at her with an appraising expression. “And all your other duties are spoken for? You’ve had a busy schedule lately.”

“Yes. I made sure to finish everything needed today before starting.” Asami nodded, but couldn’t quite summon a smile. It should have been a family moment. Asami, her mother, and her father in the picture frame. All engineers, all ambitious. Asami should have been pointing out the finer details to her mother, who could have mentioned something Hiroshi might have said, then offered a critique or two, maybe a new idea.

Her mother, in contrast, brightened with a genuine smile at Asami’s answer. “That’s great,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve taken a further interest in the Future Industries section of the family business, but it’s good to hear that you’re maintaining the family’s true priorities.

“That’s actually why I came out here to get you,” she said, gesturing for Asami to wash her hands and follow. “We need to talk about The Revelation tonight.”

Asami went to the workshop sink and started cleaning up. “What’s to talk about? Everything is rigged up on-location. I oversaw the lighting myself. It’s all on Amon for the event itself.”

“Asami, you need to stop thinking of yourself as merely an engineer.” Her mother’s voice took on a clipped tone. “You are my daughter. Amon is our force of personality, a spiritual leader who presents the masked face of our movement. Do recall, however, that our family has been Equalist since the day your father died. We have roots in this movement and you have a place there as more than a lighting technician.”

“I know,” Asami said. She dried her hands off and summoned a smile for her mom. “It’s just hard to break out of the mindset is all. I’m just... I feel most in-place when I’m just back in the workshop here, working on the next big Satomobile.”

Immediately, her mother stepped forward and wrapped her up in a hug. Asami blinked before returning it.

“It’s hard to split your time,” her mother said. “You are so devoted to Future Industries, but... the revolution is finally moving.” She stepped out of the hug and looked Asami in the eye. They were the same height. “More than ever now, the Equalists need us. Not just for our tech or for resources, but for our leadership.”

She glanced back at the prototype engine. “Technology for the common citizen is important. Right now, however, I need you to focus.” They started walking out the door. “After the revolution, there will be more than enough opportunity to improve the world with our inventions. As for the present, we have a meeting with Amon.”

“We?” Asami nearly stumbled.

“We.” Her mother’s smile caught the sunlight. “The Sato women are going to spearhead the dawn of a new age of equality. What could be a better invention than that?”

Asami smiled. “Social engineering is just moving people instead of parts.”

“Exactly. The Revelation will be a feat equal to the Satomobile. Tonight, we change the world forever.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: The Revelation
(Come for the Revolution, Stay for the Riot)

Asami followed her mother into the meeting room, squinting as her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. A single long table dominated the room, and most of the dozen chairs were occupied. Asami caught sight of a few familiar faces before her mother sat down. She quickly took a seat beside her, still a little unnerved to be attending the meeting at all.

Liu shot her a brief smile before turning back to Amon beside him.

“Thank you for joining us, Yasuko,” Amon said. He inclined his head further. “And I would like to extend a special welcome to Asami, Yasuko’s daughter.” Heads around the table swiveled in her direction with interest.

“Though she’s young, Asami has spent the past couple years helping her mother more and more,” Amon continued. “Recently, she’s completed several solo engineering projects for the Equalist cause. She’s a capable engineer and, as our plans move further into motion, I wanted to make it clear that both of the Sato women are available as a resource. Everyone at this table has their own role to play in our revolution, and we must work together as a cohesive unit to do so.”

His gaze moved away from her, taking with it the room’s attention. Asami relaxed slightly. She noticed Shenzu, the poster guy, smile reassuringly at her. She gave him a slight nod back. Aside from the two of them, the room was largely composed of older people.

“You have the most recent update on preparations for our demonstration tonight, Lieutenant?” Amon turned to the man at his right, who nodded.

“I do.” Unlike Amon, Liu removed his mask for meetings. “This afternoon I led a strike team into the Triple Threat Triad’s base. We collected several benders for the revelation, making sure the obtain a representative sample.”

“How many of each type did you take?” asked a gruff, bearded man across the table from Yasuko. Asami recognized him as the director of recruitment.

“Three firebenders, two earth, and two water,” answered Liu. A proud smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “Notably, one of those firebenders is Lightning Bolt Zolt himself, leader of the Triple Threat Triad. He should make for a good demonstration piece for the crowd.”

Asami raised an eyebrow and exchanged a glance with her mother. A surprised murmur rippled among those gathered.

“Very good, Lieutenant,” Amon said favorably. “His notoriety should play well for the audience. I’ll be sure to leverage that tonight.” He turned to Shenzu. “As for the audience itself, what can we expect by way of turnout?”

“I’ve received good figures from my distribution team,” Shenzu said. “Based on past attendance to non-publicized rallies, existing registered Equalists, and estimated engagement with this flyer campaign, we can expect between 1000 to 1500 in attendance tonight.”

“Excellent,” Yasuko murmured. The group as a whole nodded and smiled in approval.

Farther down the table, another woman made a comment about the number in attendance fitting the venue well, but Asami’s attention gravitated back towards the bearded man who had asked about the types of benders. He’d crossed his arms and seemed disgruntled.

Amon noticed as well. He directed his focus down the table, which shifted everyone’s gaze as well. “You seem concerned, Director,” he said.

“Yes,” the man replied. He rubbed at his beard. “I’m worried that, in that kind of crowd, we might have an incident with one of our hotheads. I address doubts when I come across them, but we have more than a few who are impatient at our pacing.”

“Will The Revelation tonight satisfy them?” Amon asked.

Asami looked down at her lap at the reminder. Amon’s powers chilled her to the bone, and she wasn’t even a bender.

“Hopefully,” the director replied. “But it will largely depend on crowd reaction. I know most of those in attendance will be sympathetic to the cause. Unlike previous rallies, however, not everyone there will be a confirmed Equalist. I could see some troublemakers causing a disturbance in the crowd if things don’t go according to plan. They want action and they want it now, not on our timeline.”

“I will keep the crowd more than engaged,” Amon said. His voice brooked no room for argument. “We will all take your concern into consideration, and keep our own people in line if we have to. There is no reason for us to rush now that we’ve reached this point.” He chuckled. “Besides. We are close enough now to the end. Even our most impatient revolutionaries should be satisfied.”

Liu cleared his throat. “Even so, we shouldn’t take any chances with the revelation. I propose we place a few trusted associates throughout the crowd, ready to respond if needed.”

Amon nodded. “A reasonable suggestion, Lieutenant. Do you have people in mind?”

“The director and I can mobilize several of our operatives who aren’t on protective duty tonight,” Liu said. He glanced down the table. “And I’d like to volunteer Asami as well.”

She blinked. “Me? I’m just an engineer.”

Beside her, Asami felt her mother’s shoulders move in a sigh.

“You’ve been through chi blocking training with everybody else,” Liu said. “And you have more than sound judgement.”

“Arrange it,” Amon said. “Let no interruptions  His tone closed the topic. “How is the electrified glove project progressing?”

Yasuko sat forward. “Very well. Asami and I finalized the last batch of test models last week. They’ve worked fine in the workshop, and I transferred them to the director several days ago.”

Amon shifted his attention. “How are they working with your recruits?” he asked.

“Very well,” the director replied. “I have a few notes, but they’re far improved from the first prototypes we worked with. Our lower-level chi blockers in particular should benefit from their addition to our forces. The glove is intuitive and requires far less training than a full course of chi-blocking.” He pulled out a paper and slid it across the table to Yasuko. “If you could look over a few of my last notes, I think they’ll be ready to put into full production.”

Yasuko glanced down, skimming the page, before sliding it over to Asami. “We’ll take care of it as soon as possible.”

The meeting moved on, addressing concerns and further future plans. Asami found herself engrossed with the notes on the electrified gloves, however. She had designed and tested them with her mother, but the two of them couldn’t put their inventions through the paces quite as realistically as was necessary.

Some of the notes were innocuous enough. Apparently the two nodes on the back of the glove were sticking out a bit and occasionally snagged on things. That was easily enough fixed.

Inconsistently incapacitates firebenders capable of lightning generation,’ however, was not a note she could divorce from the process required to discover it. She knew they took benders sometimes, usually triad members, for practice and demonstration.

But this wasn’t just chi blocking. This was her glove, the first project she and her mother had worked on together for the Equalist cause. And Asami didn’t like benders, but her skin crawled at the thought of someone on the other end of her glove. In the course of making them, Asami had certainly shocked herself on accident. She wouldn’t volunteer to repeat it.

She wouldn’t even volunteer bender-trash to repeat it. Over and over.

Her mother had attended Equalist meetings for years. Asami remembered when she’d come home talking about their latest lobbying plan. Even if it was for the same cause, kidnapping people felt distant from how things used to be.

At the end of the table, Amon stood up. Asami was half a step behind as everybody at the table stood up as well. “Let’s adjourn for now,” he said. “Stay aware and remember: we are on the brink of victory.”

Yasuko grabbed Asami’s elbow as they exited the room. “Do not sell yourself short as ‘just an engineer’ ever again,” she whispered. “Engineers make everything work. You are the reason the stage will lift Amon into the spotlights tonight, and we are the reason those gloves exist, providing safety and equalizing the playing field. You are an engineer, and you are on the road to being a leader because of it.”

Asami nodded. “Sorry,” she said. “I just wasn’t expecting Liu to volunteer me.”

Her mother’s expression softened. “He’s seen you grow up,” she said, “same as me. Sometimes it’s hard to look at you and realize how much you’ve grown, but Liu and I also have the best basis for comparison.” She smiled. “Take it as a compliment. You have a special task tonight at the revelation.”

“Yeah...” Asami summoned a smile.

“I would give anything to be there,” Yasuko said, voice tight with yearning. “Unfortunately, I’m probably the most public figure in the inner circle. I need to have a solid alibi as Future Industries’ representative tonight.” She sneered. “I would much prefer the company you’ll have at the revelation to the fools I’ll be pandering to at the gala event. Please make sure to enjoy it on my behalf.”

“Of course,” Asami replied. “I’ll tell you all about it once we’re both home.”

“As will I,” Liu cut in, smiling. “The next time I visit.”

“Oh Liu,” Yasuko said, turning toward him. “It’s really been too long. We should all get together and catch up after the revelation.”

“Sure thing,” he said. “And don’t worry, I’ll be sure to keep an eye on Asami.”

He went to ruffle Asami’s hair. She laughed and swatted his hand aside. For a moment, everything felt normal. Liu used to come over with Yasuko after their Equalist meetings, like an older brother who had moved out, but still visited sometimes.

Lately, he was too busy to do so. “I’m almost nineteen,” Asami said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t need a chaperone to be a part of the revolution.”

“I can give you a lift over,” Liu said. “Amon and I are about to leave, actually.”

Asami shook her head. “Oh, uh, no thanks.” She caught sight of her mother’s frown and added, “I think it would be best if I made my way to the factory by myself. It will give me a chance to enter with the rest of the crowd and start getting a read on the atmosphere.”

Yasuko nodded. “A prudent decision,” she said. She gave Asami a brief hug. “I’ll see you tonight. Stay safe. Tell me all about it.” She rested her arm on Liu’s shoulder a moment. “That goes for you too.”

“Yes, mother,” Asami said. For a moment, this felt normal too. Her mother could have been wishing her well before she went off to a party. That’s what normal rich girls did, she was fairly certain. She’d never been particularly close to any of them at the academy, and her mother had pulled her out for a more hands-on engineering education after a few months anyway.

“Asami,” Liu said, drawing her attention. “I’m serious about staying safe,” he said. “We’ve kept publicization fairly secure, but this is the largest event we’ve done yet. The chances of a police raid are still low, but higher than they’ve ever been.”

“I’ll be careful. You be careful up on stage,” she said as they started to part ways.

He chuckled. “There’s no safer place to be than beside Amon,” he said. “You haven’t seen him in action against benders before, but you will tonight. I don’t have a single worry.”

As she made her way to the side exit, Asami tried to ignore the pit in her stomach. Back in her workshop behind the house was a prototype satomobile engine that felt like where she ought to be.


* * *


“How do I look?” Korra stepped out of her closet and spun around. “Very Equalist? Such non-bender. Wow.”

Ghazan mock-clapped. “You look so nondescript, I wouldn’t have recognized you on the street.”

“It looks like you shrunk and dyed Ghazan’s clothes in the wash,” Ming-Hua said, flicking a few drops of water in Korra’s direction. “But it does seem pretty typical of the standard Republic City fashions we’ve seen.”

P’li glanced over from where she was making dinner. “Seems alright to me.”

Zaheer frowned. “You need to cover your tattoos.”

“What?” Korra pouted. “You made me cover them for the past three towns we’ve visited. Nobody is going to recognize them!”

“They’re a dead giveaway,” Zaheer said. “Recognizable marks like that are better than a mugshot.” He shot a glare at Ghazan.

Korra adjusted her sleeveless overcoat so it partially covered the tattooed bands on her biceps. “How’s this?”

“They’re still too visible,” Zaheer said.

Ghazan bounded to his feet and crossed his arms dramatically. “Oh no ! You’re not going out dressed like that, young lady!” He couldn’t keep a smile off his face, but the tone of voice was an impressive impression of Zaheer.

Everybody snickered. Zaheer didn’t seem amused. “She wouldn’t have anything covered up if someone hadn’t run off to help her get tattoos at fifteen.”

“Well they’re not going anywhere,” Korra cut in before Ghazan could reply. “So we’re gonna have to work with them.” She adjusted the overcoat again. The tattoos were mostly covered unless she raised her arms. “Better?”

Zaheer took a breath before just nodding. “That will do,” he said.

“Did it have to be so complicated?” Ghazan asked, flopping back down on the couch next to Ming-Hua.

“Maybe, but at least half the police force doesn’t know me by sight.” Zaheer smirked.

Ghazan sighed and sunk back into the couch. “Whatever,” he grumbled.

“Augh can we go ?” Korra smacked the door impatiently. “The Revelation isn’t going to wait for us before it starts!”

It took a few more minutes of banter, but they made it out the door eventually with dinner in-hand. Korra and Zaheer talked over the map of Republic City they’d referenced as they walked down to the factory neighborhood where The Revelation was marked on the map. The streets had mostly cleared, and those who remained seemed more interested in their conversations or their drinks to pay much attention to Korra and Zaheer.

During a lull, Korra asked, “So why does half the police force know Ghazan on sight anyway?”

Zaheer sighed. “It’s a long story, but the takeaway is that we were not always as consistently successful in our Red Lotus endeavors as we are now. Republic City was going through a period of transition and it crossed our minds to take advantage of the chaos to try and liberate Republic City a little.” A pause. “Things did not go according to plan.”

Korra waited a few beats, but he didn’t continue. “What happened?” she asked. “You can’t just say that and leave it at that!”

“Fine. In short: while Avatar Aang was away travelling with Katara and Sokka, we attempted to assassinate the then-Chief of Police, Toph Beifong.”

“Oh.” Korra grimaced. “So... how’d that go?”

“Not well.” Zaheer sighed. “Ghazan had hoped his lavabending would give him the edge, but he ended up injured with just about the entire Republic City police force on his heels, including Toph’s daughter, the current chief of police. Suffice to say, we’ve avoided the city for a while. Any officers our age or older are still likely to recognize Ghazan, unfortunately.”

“Yeesh. Why in the world did you think that would work out well? She’s a living legend, invented metalbending, all that stuff?”

“We were... very young,” Zaheer said at length. “Since then, we’ve shifted our objectives to be more targeted strikes. Taking out the chief of police wouldn’t have freed the people here.” He smiled. “That’s why we’re here now, to observe and enact a more... thorough dismantling.”

Korra grinned. “Sounds like a plan!”

Zaheer’s smile disappeared. “But on a serious note, avoid the police at all costs.”

“I got it.”

“In fact, you should avoid bending unless you’re on a mission,” he added. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time around the Equalist movement, and it would be disastrous for the wrong person to recognize you under those sorts of contradictory circumstances.”

“As equally disastrous as them recognizing my tattoos?” Korra chuckled.

Zaheer didn’t even crack a smile. “Yes.”

“Okay, okay, I will be careful. No bending. No police.” She huffed. “Anybody else to avoid due to facial recognition issues?”

“P’li, Ming-Hua, Ghazan, and I are known to Tenzin,” he said. “Making Air Temple Island an inadvisable destination. We’re also known to Tonraq, former-Councilman Sokka, and former-Fire Lord Zuko, but Sokka is dead and the other two are unlikely to show up in Republic City, so I don’t think we need to worry. Since liberating you from the South Pole, we’ve kept a relatively low profile.”

“Aww, you make it sound like the four of you got a kid and turned boring.” Korra winked. “I know for a fact I haven’t cramped your style that much. We still blow things up and you all still get laid.”

Zaheer chuckled. “And if the Red Lotus ever had a better scout or thief, I couldn’t name her.”

Korra glowed. “I learned from the best.”

A few minutes later, she nodded toward a factory in the distance. It was the only one still lit up, and small groups of people were all making their way to the entrance. “I think that’s the place.” She pulled out the flyer with the location marked on the back. “It’s the only conspicuously popular abandoned factory that would match the rough coordinates on this flyer.”

“Looks like it,” he said. “It must be difficult to advertise an event while trying to keep it a secret.”

She shrugged. “Whatever it is they plan on revealing, they can’t intend to keep it a secret after tonight, there’s bound to be too many people. Unless we’re all doing a group Equalist pinky promise, this is just how they want the news to get out.”

“An astute hypothesis,” Zaheer noted. “We’ll have to discuss our theories later.”

He took the flyer from her as they drew close to the door. Ahead of them, a few groups handed the doorman the same flyer before being admitted.

“This is a private event.” The doorman crossed his arms. “No one gets in without an invitation.”

Zaheer inclined his head as he held out the map-flyer. “We are honored to bear witness,” he said.

The doorman’s expression lightened. “The revelation is upon us, my brother and sister,” he said.

They made their way inside, walking past some rusty industrial equipment before the path led them to a catwalk that overlooked a dense crowd.

“Nice turnout,” Korra whispered.

Zaheer nodded. “Indeed, but I wonder how many here are committed members versus those who are merely curious.”

They walked down the stairs and Korra’s gaze gravitated towards the stage. Though currently empty, a huge reproduction of the flyer’s art dominated the backdrop. It really was a nice poster.

“Let’s find a place along the edge of the crowd.” Zaheer tapped Korra’s elbow to direct her. They eventually settled in a spot about halfway to the stage along the right side of  the crowd. Along the way, she thought she recognized one of the men near the protester’s stage in the park, but she couldn’t be sure. Their view of the stage was alright, but Korra briefly wished she could earthbend a small platform to stand on so she could see better. It wasn’t a feasible idea for obvious reasons.

Around them, the crowd whispered and murmured. Korra was about to try listening on the spiritual plane when the spotlights turned on, bathing the stage in light. An announcer’s voice rang out over the crowd.

“Please welcome your hero, your savior, Amon!”

The crowd around them cheered as a section of the stage floor slid open, spilling more light onto the stage. Korra and Zaheer clapped to fit in as she strained to see. After a moment, Amon and several uniformed Equalists rose into view, standing on a platform elevator.

Amon stepped forward to a microphone. The spotlights highlighted his white mask, which was just as striking in person as it was on the posters. He paused to let the crowd continue cheering for a few moments, then held out a hand to still them.

“My quest for equality began many years ago,” he said, taking the microphone from the stand. “When I was a boy, my family and I lived on a small farm. We weren’t rich, and none of us were benders. This made us very easy targets for the Firebender who extorted my father.”

Beside her, Korra heard Zaheer hum slightly as his eyes followed Amon across the stage. She glanced around. Everyone around them was completely focused on Amon.

“One day, my father confronted this man.”

Korra was about to turn her gaze back to the stage when she saw someone else who wasn’t looking up at Amon. A young woman about her age with wavy black hair had her eyes fixed on the floor, fists clenched.

“But when he did,” Amon continued, “that firebender took my family from me.”

Korra watched the young woman bite her lip before forcing herself to look up. Korra redirected her attention to the stage as Amon reached the critical part of his story.

“Then, he took my face.” Sympathetic murmurs rippled through the crowd. Korra and Zaheer exchanged a glance.

“I’ve been forced to hide behind a mask ever since.”

Another murmur ran through the crowd, this one edging into righteous anger. Korra glanced around. The young woman she’d noticed earlier had recovered her composure, but didn’t seem particularly engaged with Amon’s speech. Her gaze roved around the people around her. In contrast to everyone else there, she seemed unsurprised and unusually guarded. A moment later, the woman’s attention swept towards Korra’s direction.

Their eyes met. Korra blinked and pretended she’d only been looking at the woman briefly. Lessons from Ming-Hua on how to see without seeming to watch flickered through her mind for a moment before Amon started talking again.

“I’m here today to talk to you about bending. The council and the powerful benders of this city would tell you that bending brings balance to the world.” His voice grew harsh. “They are wrong. The only thing bending has brought to the world is suffering.”

He raised his hand, pointing out at the crowd. For a moment, Korra stilled, fearing his notice for a reason she couldn’t explain. “It has been the cause of every war in every era.” Another pause, this one heavier. “But that is about to change.

“I know you’ve been wondering, ‘What is The Revelation?’ You are about to get your answer.”

Korra glanced at Zaheer again, but his impassive expression gave her no cues to follow.

“Since the beginning of time,” Amon continued, “the spirits have acted as guardians of our world and they have spoken to me.”

Beside her, Korra felt Zaheer shift. His energy fluctuated in a way that she’d rarely felt before.

“They say that benders have abused their power. The Avatar is missing, an archaic concept the world has outgrown and discarded. In that absence, the spirits have chosen me to usher in a new era of balance.”

Heat flooded Korra’s face, shame and anger. Her heart felt so loud she expected the gathered people to turn and see her for who she was from its sound alone.

Amon’s voice turned cutting. “They have granted me a power that will make equality a reality: the power to take a person’s bending away, permanently.”

Shock ran through the crowd, which erupted into whispers and exclamations.

“That’s impossible,” Korra said, turning to Zaheer. “There’s no way.”

Zaheer’s impassive expression splintered into suspicion. “The spirits,” he murmured. “I have not heard of this...”

“Do you think he really...?” Korra bit her lip.

“I... cannot say,” Zaheer said. His attention remained locked on the stage.

“Now, for a demonstration.” Amon motioned to the back of the stage. The masked Equalists brought out a line of men with their hands tied behind their backs. “Please welcome Lightning Bolt Zolt,” Amon continued, “leader of the Triple Threat Triad, and one of the most notorious criminals in Republic City.”

The crowd booed and hissed as Zolt was brought up to stand beside Amon.

“Ah, boo yourself!” Zolt called out.

The other captives were herded along the back of the stage and forced to their knees, but Korra couldn’t tear her eyes away from Amon.

“Zolt has amassed a fortune by extorting and abusing non-benders, but his reign of terror is about to come to an end.” The man holding Zolt untied his hands. Korra raised an eyebrow.

“Now in the interest of fairness,” Amon continued, “I will give Zolt the chance to fight to keep his bending.”

The man who untied Zolt’s hands shoved him across the stage, but Zolt looked smug as he whipped around. “You’re gonna regret doing that, pal,” he said.

Zolt threw several fireballs toward Amon, who dodged them with nimble sidesteps as he moved forward. Drawing lightning into his hands, Zolt further closed the distance between them with a thrust, shooting lightning at Amon. Dodging again with a sidestep, Amon seized Zolt’s arm and pulled it in an arc, sending the lightning across the stage to the scaffolding above them.

Then Amon made a strange motion, placing one hand on the back of Zolt’s neck and the other on his forehead. From halfway across the factory, Korra could see Zolt’s body go stiff. His arm kept shooting lightning, but it started to fizzle out. The lightning shrunk back toward him, then lost enough power to be plain firebending. A moment later, even that extinguished completely.

Amon let go of Zolt, who flopped to the floor. Korra briefly wondered if he was dead before Zolt finally moved.

Amon stepped away and waited, eerily patient, with his hands clasped behind his back. Zolt struggled to one knee and threw a hollow punch at Amon.

No flames appeared.

Zolt overbalanced and toppled forward. His body slammed against the scorched stage floor with a thud.

“What, what did you do to me?” Zolt’s voice held none of his previous pride.

“Your firebending is gone,” Amon said, “forever.”

Korra took a step back reflexively. Zaheer grabbed her arm before she could take another. “Remember: we are non-benders. We are Equalist-sympathizers.” The crowd’s murmurs covered his whispers. She could barely hear him through the ringing in her head. “Stay focused.”

Korra’s eyes slid away from the stage. She found she couldn’t keep looking and her gaze turned to the crowd. Dozens of people around her bore grins and bright eyes as they looked up at the stage. The only exceptions were Korra, Zaheer, and the black-haired woman from earlier, who seemed the same as before: cautious and aware. She was the only person who didn’t seem surprised.

“The era of bending is over!” Amon declared. “A new era of equality has begun!”

He raised a fist. The crowd roared with cheers and applause. Korra whipped her head around to look at Zaheer with wide eyes. “Did the spirits give him that power?”

On stage, one of the Equalists yanked another bender to his feet, untied him, and kicked him forward to Amon.

“I don’t know,” Zaheer said. His voice wavered. “I need to go to the Spirit World immediately.”

“Now?” Korra glanced around. “This isn’t exactly a place I’d call safe to leave your body.”

“Now,” Zaheer snapped. “Guard me. You know how to reach me if I need to return.”

And with that, clasped his hands in front of his sternum, closed his eyes, and left. Korra felt his spirit leave and reached out with her own, creating a thin string of connection between them in case she needed to pull him back quickly.

She looked back toward the stage. The second bender didn’t fare much better against Amon. One of the Equalists tossed a water pouch forward with a laugh. It spread out in a puddle on the stage.

“This man is a gangster,” Amon said. “As a member of the Triple Threat Triad, he uses his bending to extort helpless non-benders. That ends today.”

The waterbender tried to bring the water up in an icy shield, but Amon vaulted over it easily. Just as with Zolt, he quickly maneuvered around to seize the back of his neck, then lower his other hand to the bender’s forehead.

The man’s body went stiff, then he fell down, limp. Unlike Zolt, he did not try to rise. He reached out a trembling hand to the puddle, clenched his fist, and let his hand drop to the stage. One of the masked Equalists dragged him offstage as the crowd cheered.

Korra felt a tremor in her arm. A bead of sweat ran down her forehead. She resisted the urge to call Zaheer back from the Spirit World.

They kicked forward the third man, an earthbender, and tossed a few rocks at his feet.

She averted her eyes this time. In doing so, she found herself looking right into the green eyes of the black-haired woman. Something about her felt odd, as though she, like Korra, was also some sort of outside in the audience. Something about them wasn’t fitting the target demographic.

A gasp from the crowd jolted them out of their focus on one another. Korra saw the other woman look back towards the stage right before she did too.

The earthbender was doing a paltry job of defending himself from Amon, but the real show was behind him. A pair of figures, faces obscured, had busted onstage from the back to seize the next bender being held in queue for Amon.

The taller infiltrator had brought more than a few rocks with him. He used quick, solid movements to keep the Equalists on stage at bay with a defensive perimeter. The shorter figure used an ice blade to slice the captives’ bonds and pulled him to his feet.

Around Korra, the crowd booed and hissed. The woman she’d been watching stepped forward, then stopped herself. The earthbender onstage seemed to take their escape attempt as motivation enough to redouble his efforts against Amon. “Get away,” he shouted. “It’s too late for me!”

The waterbender and earthbender dragged their friend off the right side of the stage with every Equalist but Amon in hot pursuit. Korra silently cheered for the benders as the three of them struggled to keep off the Equalists with distance attacks even as they made their way to a side door. Unbound and ready to fight, the rescued bender moved his hands in an arc to shoot lightning at the pursuing Equalists. Behind him, the waterbender was using quick water slices to cut open a lock on the side door.

Amon seemed entirely undisturbed by the escape attempt as he finally subdued the earthbender onstage, gripping the man’s neck and laying a hand on his forehead. It was only when the man dropped to the floor that Amon turned his attention to the escape attempt.

“It seems we have an interruption,” he said.

At that moment, several metal doors burst inward around the building’s perimeter. A dozen voices shouted, “THIS IS THE POLICE!”

The room erupted into chaos.

The Equalists immediately turned their attention away from the escapees, who took the opportunity to bust through the door and disappear. Korra seized Zaheer’s arm, trying to keep him upright as the panicked crowd surged around her.

She shut her eyes, struggling to push all the distractions away. People were screaming and stampeding around her, but she couldn’t leave without Zaheer. Her eyebrows furrowed together in concentration. Grasping the connection she’d established to Zaheer’s spirit, she yanked on it as hard as she could, sending a wave of energy down the line.

Someone clipped her shoulder, sending them tumbling to the ground. She struggled to her knees, suddenly more afraid of being trampled than of being arrested.

Kneeling gave her more grounding than standing, however. She closed her eyes and reached out, finding the connection faster than it took before. This time, she pushed herself to send a proper message, shouting, “ZAHEER GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!” down their spiritual line.

She pulled him into a sitting position and shielded his body from most of the blows of people running past, trying to escape.

The seconds it took him to return to his body felt agonizing. She knew it took a few beats, but the moment stretched out, longer and longer until his eyes opened with a snap.

“Police!” she shouted in his face. Around them, the chaos said everything she could have added.

Zaheer sprang to his feet. “This way!” he shouted, started for an exit.

The crowd had clustered around a door and were pushing through madly. Korra grabbed his hand and tried to muscle through. Right as they were close, however, the crowd swept Zaheer through the door, tearing his hand out of Korra’s.

She heard him shout, “Meet at the apartment!” before metalbending police forced the door closed.

Korra grimaced. Just her luck, that Ghazan couldn’t teach her metalbending.

She sprinted away, pulling her overcoat up. She silently vowed to make Zaheer take her to that metalbending teacher they kept talking about but never seemed to get to. Then she leapt and crashed through a window, rolling as she hit the ground outside.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Korra winced as she scrambled to her feet. The landing would have been easier with earthbending, but no bending meant no bending. She was as likely to be mobbed by the panicked Equalists around her as she was to get arrested by the police.

She picked an alley in the general direction of their apartment and ran for it.

“Metalbending,” she panted to herself. “New priority.” She would have quietly broken the ‘no bending’ rule in an isolated corner if she were able to make herself a new door.

Dashing down the alley, she pulled a sharp right turn and nearly ran into a brick wall. She quietly cursed and ran right back out, then picked another road.

All around her, the crowd of Equalists had dissipated into isolated groups of one to three people, every man for himself. Korra was in the process of trying to disappear down a sidestreet when she heard feet pounding behind her.

“Don’t let her get away!” A glance back showed a pair in police uniforms.

“Augh!” Korra put on a burst of speed and pulled a hard turn down the next street she came to. She took every second turn available, trying to lose them. Internally, she kept muttering, ‘no bending’ over and over, trying to resist the temptation.

Eventually, a turn did her wrong. She actually did run into a brick wall that time, and face-first to boot. Dazed, she stumbled to her feet right as the police caught up to her, panting.

“You’re under arrest,” one of them said. A fireball kindled in one of his palms. “Any attempts to resist will be met with force.”

Zaheer said no bending, but he’d also said not to get arrested. Korra bit her lip and weighed the two commands.

The officers took in her silence and lack of movement, then took a step forward.

In the blink of an eye, a figure dashed into view, disabling the police with a series of lightning-fast chi-blocks. The firebending officer barely managed to react before falling to the ground, stunned.

“Come on!” the figure called. Silhouetted in the dim lighting, Korra thought she recognized the silhouette as the young woman she’d noticed earlier in the rally.

She ran forward, jumping over the bodies of the police. Her savior led them back through a few alleys before she clambered over a few crates and dropped over a fence. Korra briefly debated parting ways at that point, but she didn’t know how many more police officers were out there, and she could reasonably assume that her savior wasn’t trying to get her arrested.

She dropped down over the fence after her.

“Come on,” the woman called, waving a hand. She stood in the doorway of what looked like a garage.

Korra glanced around once before running over. It looked like they’d broken into some private factory grounds. She caught sight of a logo made of half a gear before she entered the garage.

As soon as she was inside, the other woman shut the door behind her.

“Are you okay?” she asked, looking Korra over.

“I, um, yeah?” Up close, the young woman looked about her age. The dim lighting didn’t let Korra make out much more of her features, but she was clearly a little taller. “Thank you,” she said.

The other woman shook her head. She gingerly sat down. “It was chaos back there, but I saw them follow you into the alley. I knew it was a dead end, and I wasn’t about to let the police arrest an innocent non-bender like that.”

The events of the past few minutes seemed to catch up to Korra and hit her all at once. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah you... you had them on the ground before they even knew you were there.” Korra plopped down to the ground. Her cuts from the window protested the jolt. Korra distantly felt blood run down one of her arms. She hadn’t noticed them bleeding before. “Where did you learn chi-blocking like that?” If Korra was posing as a non-bender, it seemed like a super useful skillset to have. That and metalbending.

She blinked and dimly registered the blood was rushing to her head. “Are you an Equalist?” she asked, hazily.

The other woman tilted her head. “Um... we probably shouldn’t talk about that,” she said, “given current police attitudes.” A pause. “Hey are you sure you’re okay?”

“Y-yeah.” Korra nodded right as she started shaking. She was in a dark garage with a chi-blocker, an Equalist. An Equalist like Amon, who could take people’s bending away.

Korra resisted the urge to push away as the other woman stood back up. “Are you hurt?” the woman asked. She walked over and felt around for a moment before a single work lamp turned on over a bench.

Korra squinted in the sudden light. It did, however, give her 100% reassurance that her savior wasn’t Amon. She relaxed slightly. The woman looked down and frowned at the sight of her cuts. “Did you jump out a window?” she asked.

“Police bent the doors shut before I could escape.”

The woman’s lips narrowed into a tight frown. “I see. Not an easy choice then.” She turned around and rifled through a drawer, pulling out some bandages. “Let’s get those cuts cleaned out and wrapped up,” she said. “What’s your name?”

Korra blinked. “Name?” Not that most people knew the Avatar’s name was Korra, but Zaheer had her in the habit of using aliases in the towns they passed through. Everything was happening too fast though, and Korra hadn’t come up with one for Republic City yet. She reached through her memories and pulled up one that felt familiar. “I’m, uh, Naga.” She’d heard the name before somewhere, but couldn’t remember where it was from.

Korra held out her arm as the other woman knelt beside her. “I’m Asami,” she said. “Thankfully, it looks like these cuts are fairly shallow.”

Asami seemed fairly adept at treating minor wounds. Her fingers worked quickly to clean them and wrap them. Korra studied her as she worked in silence. The other woman’s motions were precise and deft; she moved in a way that spoke to practice and intent. Even after at least a mile’s run, Asami’s dark wavy hair was undeniably stylish; Korra bangs felt plastered to her face with sweat.

If she’d seen Asami on the street, Korra wouldn’t have thought she was an Equalist, but chi-blocking wasn’t the sort of skill you picked up on accident. And the stance she’d had during The Revelation was one of poise, ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice. Pretty features aside, Korra mentally marked Asami down as someone to be wary of.

Regardless, she was grateful for the rescue.

“Thank you,” she said as Asami finished applying her last bandage. “For saving me from the police and for cleaning me up.”

“It’s alright, Naga,” she said. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” A frown crossed her face. “There should have been better evacuation procedures in place for the rally,” she said. “The panic the police brought in was completely unnecessary if we’d been more prepared.” For a moment, Asami seemed troubled. She trailed off, deep in thought, before she looked back at Korra and seemed to remember she was there. “The sweep should have passed now,” she said. “Can you make it home from here?”

Korra bit her lip. “Um, I’m not sure if I can, actually.” She reviewed the major landmarks she and Zaheer had passed on the way to The Revelation. She wasn’t sure how far from the meeting place she’d traveled between running from the police and following Asami. “If you could get me to Central Station, or at least to the bridge near its east side, I can find my way.”

“I can do that,” Asami said, getting to her feet. She reached a hand down and helped Korra to her feet. “I think my adrenaline from that chase is finally starting to wear off.”

“Tell me about it.” Korra yawned. “I feel like I could fall asleep standing.”

They didn’t talk much as they made their way out of the factory grounds and through the back roads toward Central Station. After a few turns, Asami started using hand signals instead of whispering. Korra picked up on the code quickly enough, since they’d used similar gestures on Red Lotus missions before.

Now that the immediate police/Amon danger had passed, it was a little fun, actually. No objective but to get home, but it was a little like some of her scouting missions. The moon rose high in the sky as she followed Asami. All too soon, they were at a corner near Central Station. “This is your stop,” Asami said. Korra thought she saw her smile.

Korra stepped forward and placed a hand on Asami’s shoulder. “Thank you,” she said again. “I... would have been in a rough spot without you.”

“Anytime,” Asami said. “Try to avoid getting chased by the police, if you can help it.”

“No promises.”

Asami rolled her eyes. “Then call me up the next time you’re running from the police and I’ll try to clear my calendar.”

Korra laughed. “Sure thing, but we should try to arrange a more sedentary activity for the next time we meet. Or at least stretch before running.”

“Next time then,” Asami said, turning back down the alley. “Goodbye, Naga.”

Korra really wished she’d picked a better alias. It sounded like a dog’s name. “Bye, Asami.”

And with that, they both disappeared into the night.


* * *


“Were we followed?” Bolin glanced over his shoulder.

“Maybe,” Mako answered. His hands shook as he fumbled with his keys to the pro-bending arena. “I think we lost them though. Plus, most of the Equalists turned around to deal with the police raid.” His breath shook in a sigh of relief as he pulled the door open. “That was some lucky timing too. Another minute and I’d have been a goner.”

“You’re welcome,” Sakari said. She was still catching her breath as they started up the stairs inside the arena. “After we got the time and location, Bolin and I called in a tip to the police.”

“Good call,” Mako said. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he would have thought to do so if Bolin had been the one captured.

“The plan was,” Bolin said, “we’d hide out, wait to see you, and rescue you when the police busted in. Too bad they were taking too long.”

Bolin grabbed Mako’s arm when they reached a landing and pulled him into a hug. “No way I’m letting my big bro lose his bending.” Mako blinked, then returned the embrace.

“Thanks little brother,” he said. He turned to Sakari, who seemed to appreciate that they’d paused on the stairs. “And thanks you too, Sakari.”

She smiled. “Anytime. Why did they think you were a triad member anyway?” She inclined her head toward Bolin. “Bolin said you two left that nonsense behind.”

Mako rubbed the back of his neck. Even though Amon hadn’t touched him there, his skin was still crawling at how close he’d been. “I was working late at the factory,” he said, starting up the stairs again.

Sakari and Bolin started up the stairs after him. “Why?” Bolin asked. “You’ve been working late for months. We have enough for this season’s fee already.”

Hesitating on the next landing, Mako shrugged. “I... was hoping that, maybe, we could afford a celebratory dinner. You know, something special to kick off the season, since we can actually compete this time.” He flashed a small smile at Sakari, who weakly returned it.

“Mako...”

Bolin looked ready to pull him into another hug, so Mako turned and started up the next flight of stairs. “I got out of work to find Lightning Bolt Zolt and some Triple Threats trying to recruit lightning benders for their turf war.” Mako huffed. “Shady Shin kept following me and bugging me. I finally turned around to tell him to take his offer and—” Mako glanced at Sakari and adjusted his phrasing. “—find someone else to take it.”

He sighed as he pushed open the door to their floor. “That’s when the Equalists swept in, chi-blocking everyone.” His hands clenched. He hadn’t had time to get off one shot before they’d closed the distance and disabled him. “A minute later, they had us all tied up and tossed in a truck.”

Bolin shivered. “Well that’s only mildly terrifying and on top of the ‘take your bending forever’ bit.” He looked both ways down the hall before dashing over to the door to their loft. “Let’s get inside before I pee my pants.” He ducked inside.

Sakari and Mako followed at a more sedate pace, exchanging a look. Mako chuckled.

“Seriously, Bolin said, poking his head out of the doorway. “On the off chance any of those Equalists show up, there’s no better place to hold our ground than home sweet home.”

“Good idea,” Sakari said, taking a few bold strides over to the door. “It’s good to be home safe.”

Mako stopped and blinked at her. He glanced at Bolin, who was looking right back at him with a matching expression of surprise.

Sakari cleared her throat. “I mean, if it’s alright for me to stay...”

Bolin cocked an eyebrow at Mako. “I mean... she did save your ass, bro. Plus we’ve won two pro-bending matches together,” he said. “She’s the reason we made it to the quarterfinals.”

Mako took a deep breath. The 13-year old runaway had shown up and blown the competition out of the water, literally, at their waterbender tryouts. He had no hesitations about her abilities, especially after his rescue tonight, but she was another mouth to feed, another kid relying on him.

But still. He smiled. “Of course you can stay. Gotta pay you back somehow; no debts between teammates.” He paused, watching Sakari’s expression break into a broad smile. “Or family,” he added. “I’ve always wanted a little sister anyway.”

Sakari ran over and hugged him. He ruffled her hair and stuck his tongue out at Bolin over her head.

“Aw, whatever, Mako,” Bolin said, coming over to join the hug. “You’re not the only big brother around here anymore!”

Bolin tried to ruffle Mako’s hair, and he blocked it. The hug broke up into a series of mock-punches that further devolved into laughter.

Mako pulled back. “Come on Sakari, Bolin, let’s head inside. No point in hanging out in the hallway.”

She practically bounced as she followed him inside. And even if it meant one more mouth to feed, he found he didn’t mind it as long as it kept the kid happy.

A few minutes later, after he’d set up her bed, he saw her smile start to waver. Thankfully, he was able to answer her question before she could ask it.

“Yes, we’re sure,” he said. “You don’t ditch teammates or family. Otherwise I’d have kicked this bozo out a long time ago.” He jerked his head to Bolin, who pretended to be offended.

“Heeey,” he said, crossing his arms. “Well excuse me, I only saved your bending tonight, no big. But fine! Toss me out on the street!”

Mako rolled his eyes, but smiled. “Welcome to the Fire Ferrets, Sakari,” he said. “Permanent member now, trial over. Rest up now, lil sis. The quarterfinals are coming up. If everyone still has their bending tomorrow, we’re up early for practice.”

“Actually...” Sakari trailed off, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I was wondering if, since I’m an official part of the team and family now... if maybe my dog could sleep here too?”

Bolin turned to Mako with a smile. Mako held back a groan. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

Sakari pouted. Then Bolin pouted.

“She can be a guard dog,” Sakari said.

Mako rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Augh, fine! But just on the lower level.” He yawned. At this point, he’d been kidnapped from the factory over a day ago. “Let’s just get some rest.”

Sakari and Bolin cheered. Mako left them to go get the damn dog and hauled himself up the ladder to his and Bolin’s sleeping area.

Despite everything, he fell into a deep, contented sleep.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: Rebel Spirit
(Nobody Ever Does What They’re Supposed To)


“Are you sure  there’s nothing I can do right now?”

“Stop pacing,” Ghazan responded. “It’s distracting me from these fascinating newspapers from last year.”

Korra shot him a glare. “I’m serious,” she said. “Everybody else has something to do. I could, uh, try to find the Asami girl from yesterday?”

“To seek her out this soon would likely be suspicious,” P’li said. She didn’t look over from the candles she was lighting. “But that may be a prudent course of action later.”

“You did your duty last night,” Zaheer said, carrying a book and a handful of incense from his room into the common space.

Korra walked over to the window, examining the screen for tears and the edge of the frame for cracks. “What about the apartment? Will you be safe visiting the Spirit World so deeply?”

Next to Ghazan on the couch, Ming-Hua laughed and glanced away from the radio. “Korra, we’re living in the safest apartment in Republic City!”

“Yeah, but last night—”

“Is over.” Zaheer stepped in Korra’s path before she could start pacing again. “I am as troubled by Amon’s revelation as you are, but you are not in a state to accompany me to the Spirit World right now. Instead, it would benefit you to go over the core poetry of Guru Laghima.” He placed the book in her hands. “I want you to review the key passages on airbending, then meditate before going to Air Temple Island.”

Korra brightened. “Wait, you mean I can go today?”

Zaheer smiled. “I think you could benefit from some serenity,” he said. “Air Temple Island will be one of the safest places in the city, after this apartment, and we’re all going to be busy here. Blend in with the crowd and refrain from drawing attention to yourself.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Non-bender, act generic while gathering information.” After Amon’s revelation, Korra felt less inclined than ever to draw attention to herself, as a bender or otherwise. “You act like you don’t trust me.”

“We do,” Ming-Hua said, “but these are unfamiliar environs. Caution and reminders are just because we can’t give up being your teachers.” She smiled before returning her attention to the radio.

Zaheer sat down inside his meditative circle. “When you’re done meditating, head to the island. I believe they do tours, which would set you up with a basic understanding of the island as well as some additional history.”

“Gotcha.” Korra plopped down with the book on the smaller couch. She could hear Zaheer and P’li say a quiet goodbye before he slipped into the spirit world. She stuck her tongue out and made a face at the sound of them kissing, which made Ghazan snort.

A moment later, Korra felt Zaheer’s spirit depart from the physical plane. P’li sat down beside the circle with a book. Protection duty was essential, but it was generally less exciting than it had been the previous night.

She refocused her attention to Ghazan and Ming-Hua. “What are the two of you working on anyway?”

“Research,” Ming-Hua said, focused on the radio.

Ghazan finished making a note, then set his pen aside. “This Equalist movement is an interesting sideshow, and they may provide some interesting distractions, but our primary goal with this visit is to take out Republic City’s leaders and liberate the city.”

“Like... listen to this.” Ming Hua nudged Ghazan and he turned the radio up.

“—council voted to increase the size and scope of Tarrlok’s task force, as well as extending his charter. Councilman Tarrlok had this to say outside of city hall this morning!”

“Just listen to this Tarrlok guy,” Ghazan said. “What a slimeball.”

A smooth, political voice cut in. “I just want to reiterate that Amon, this terrorist, will be stopped. Everyone should feel confident in continuing business as normal. For several weeks, my task force has been monitoring and responding to Equalist activity. Regardless of Amon’s recent announcement, we do not intend to stop now. You can rest your confidence in me, Republic City.”

The newscaster continued, “The decision to extend Tarrlok’s temporary task force came after the police received a tip to a secret Equalist gathering last night from—”

Ghazan turned the radio back down. “Can you believe that guy? He’s basically the big fish of Republic City politics. Stomps on those who oppose him, locks up those who push back.” He smirked. “I’d like to take him out.”

“Aw, but it’s been so long since I got to have a real nasty waterbender fight,” Ming-Hua said. “From what you’ve said about this guy’s politics, I bet he fights dirty too. You know how much fun I have with those.”

Ghazan smirked before leaning over and kissing her on the cheek. “Fine, just make sure the scumbag suffers for me, alright?”

Korra rolled her eyes at them, but couldn’t quite keep a smile off her face. “Get a room already, but try to finish your explanation first.”

“Alright, alright.” Ghazan sat forward. “The research helps us put together the timetable of what actions we take when. You’re already familiar with our usual methodologies once we’ve made the schedule up, but the schedule itself is important. He tapped his finger against the pad where he’d been taking notes. “Hits need to happen in a specific order, combined with other actions, in order to get the citizens of Republic City to embrace their freedoms and act on the opportunities we provide.”

Korra blinked. This was a lot more paperwork than she was normally exposed to. “Sounds... fascinating. Call me when it’s time to scope out their houses. That’s more my speed.”

“Every mission has its boring parts,” Ming-Hua said, shrugging. “Like how you’re supposed to be working on your poetry right now?”

She sighed. “Yeah, yeah...” She went back to reading for a few pages. She was familiar with most of Guru Laghima’s work, if only because Zaheer never stopped quoting it.

Soooo she did more skimming than actual rereading, then meditated for about twenty minutes before she popped up to her feet. “I’m gonna head out now,” she said.

Ghazan, Ming-Hua, and P’li all leveled her with the same look.

“That was fast,” P’li said.

Korra grabbed a small purse of coins and crossed her arms. “I did the reading. I can quote poetry at you. Don’t test me.”

“Oh no, more poetry!” Ghazan recoiled in mock fear, then laughed. “Oh just get out of here already,” he said.

“Okay, see you, bye!” Korra didn’t wait for Ming-Hua or P’li to potentially disagree before dashing out the door.

She enjoyed a leisurely walk to the Air Temple Island ferry, receiving directions from a few helpful passersby. About halfway there, she fixed her overcoat so it sat properly instead of slouching to cover her tattoos. Zaheer wasn’t there to notice, and wearing it improperly was just annoying.

Nearing the docks, she stole a kebob out of the back of a food stand before blending in with a group of tourists on their way to the ferry.

“Naga,” she murmured under her breath a few times, trying to keep her alias in mind in case someone asked her name. Nobody did, however, and she arrived to the island after a few pleasant-but-empty conversations with a few other members of her tour group.

The island itself stood apart from Republic City in its design. Aside from a single tower, the buildings were primarily one level. Most of the island’s vertical structure came from the steep stairs leading up from the docks. Korra couldn’t help but note that the rocky seaside cliffs would make the island fairly defensible from assault from the water.

Stepping from the boat to the dock, however, analysis faded from her mind.

Everything grew light and, for half a second, she felt distinctly taller. And bald. A sea breeze cooled the back of her head, carrying with it the fresh scent of salt water. The step felt familiar, like coming home.

Then, as quickly as it began, the vision ended.

Korra stumbled slightly on her second step, but didn’t fall. She kept to the rear of the tour group, however, as they made their way to the island proper. ‘Blending in’ and ‘potential visions from past Avatar lives’ didn’t exactly mesh well.

With every step, however, the island felt more and more familiar, like it rose up to meet her feet. She felt a rush of warmth and fondness for the place and, after a brief hesitation, let herself fall into the feelings. Aang had clearly spent a lot of time here. His other flaws aside, she could sense there was something special about the island, that he’d invested a lot of his spirit here in building the place.

She was so caught up she barely noticed when they reached their tour guide. Granted, their tour guide was also rather short and looked like she was about ten, with a cute bobbed haircut.

“Welcome to Air Temple Island,” she said. “My name is Jinora, and I’ll be your tour guide. I have lots of interesting historical and cultural facts to share on our tour, and you are more than welcome to ask questions on the way if you want to learn more about anything I’m covering.” Her expression shifted slightly. “Before we get started, I’d like to offer a few frequently asked questions so we can move on.”

“I’m eleven years old. Yes, I am an airbender. Yes, I am Avatar Aang’s granddaughter.” She rattled off the answers from a place of clear practice. “No, I do not have my tattoos yet, because I am not yet an airbending master. No, I do not know when I will get my tattoos, that requires demonstration of mastery.” She took a breath and smiled.

Someone in the tour group raised their hand.

“I am a tour guide because members of the Air Nation, both acolytes and airbenders, are called to service and to study our culture’s history. This position is a way for me to exemplify and demonstrate those qualities.” She paused. “Are there any other questions before we start?”

Nobody raised their hand. Korra smiled. She rather liked the kid’s attitude already.

Jinora smiled. “Let’s get going then!” She turned and started walking up the steps. “The island was originally little more than a large rock in Yue Bay. Avatar Aang and former Police Chief Toph Beifong worked to terraform the island and make it suitable for habitation over the course of a week in the year 110 AG.”

About halfway up the stairs, someone asked Jinora why there were so many. Out of the group, not everybody was handling the climb quite as well as others were.

“That’s because Avatar Aang wanted to leave the island as close to its original height as possible,” she said. “In the past, the Air Nation resided in four temples in various remote locations. Most were inaccessible without airbending or the ability to ride a sky bison.” She chuckled. “Compared to that, Air Temple Island is fairly accessible while retaining the feeling of the original temples.”

The tour itself was fairly interesting. Korra was aware of most of the Air Nomad’s history, from conception to the genocide by the Fire Nation. It was fascinating, however, to see how those traditions had been reincorporated and reinvented by Aang on Air Temple Island.

Jinora was a fun teacher as well, clearly bright and enthused about the topic. She answered every question with ease, and more than kept Korra’s attention. Frankly, it was nice to get information on airbenders from someone who wasn’t Zaheer or one of his incredibly dry books.

And listening to Jinora was calming. Though an engaging speaker, she had a fairly steady voice that made everything feel normal.

“Here is where we’ll take a slight break from our tour,” Jinora announced eventually. “This is the training ground, authentically recreated from one at the Eastern Air Temple.” Korra stepped off to the side of the group so she could see a little better. Jinora gestured to an odd structure made of tall rectangular panels. “These are the airbending gates, designed to test a person’s proficiency in circular movement, the most fundamental aspect of airbending. The goal is to weave your way through the gates and make it to the other side without touching them.

“Please stay there.” Jinora stepped over to the spinning gates and raised her arms. Korra furrowed her eyebrows and watched the movement carefully as Jinora circled her bent arms in front of her body, sending a strong gust of wind toward the panels, making them spin.

After setting them spinning, Jinora quickly moved forward into them with her hands at chest-height. Korra studied her movements and tried to follow how she pivoted and moved her feet as she navigated through the gates.

A moment later, Jinora exited on the far side and walked back over. The tour group applauded. “Feel free to wander the training grounds for a few minutes,” she said. “We’ll be wrapping up the tour shortly. If you’d like to try a hand at the spinning gates, come get in line here with me.”

Korra desperately wanted to try her hand, but she’d been told too many times to blend in for her to ignore it now. The tour group dissolved and spread out. Korra followed behind a group heading to the gates, even though she didn’t plan on trying them out.

Jinora sent a mild gust of wind through the gates, setting them spinning at a much slower rate than she’d gone through them. The first volunteer from the tour group charged right in, made it past one gate, and promptly smacked his face on another.

Korra winced as she watched him repeatedly crash into them on his way through to the other side. Maybe not trying the gates was a good idea after all.

Jinora wore an expression of barely-concealed amusement as she gave the gates another spin for the next volunteer.

Korra could always try the gates out another time, maybe a windy night when they would be unused. She wandered over to stand next to Jinora. “You moved your feet in a really distinct way when you went through,” she said.

The younger girl looked up at her. “I’m glad you noticed,” she said. “Airbending depends on circular movements, which means there’s a lot of twisting and pivoting in the footwork.”

“Huh.” Korra rubbed the back of her neck. “With airbending involving so much, you know, time off the ground, I never thought the footwork would be as critical as that.”

“Oh absolutely.” Jinora perked up at the line of questioning and absently set the gates spinning again. “You have to flow with the movements of the gates, which means you have to be ready to shift and adjust your stance as you go.” She put up her hands like she did before going in. “You might not have been able to see, but I cycled which of my palms faced forward with every step.” She took a few steps in that stance, demonstrating what she meant.

Korra put her hands up. “Like this?”

“I’m afraid not.” Jinora chuckled and set the gates spinning again before turning back to criticize Korra’s form. “Don’t tuck your chin,” she said. “You’re not trying to protect your neck by putting your arms up, you want them up in part so you can sense and anticipate the gates by feeling how they push the air around you.”

Korra relaxed her shoulders and lowered her hands slightly. “Okay...” She adjusted her feet and took a few steps, trying to imitate the effortless circular walk Jinora had demonstrated.

“That’s better,” Jinora said. She smiled up at Korra. “You’re putting a lot more thought into this than most people do.” She glanced at the last volunteer going through the gates, a woman who promptly smacked into the first one and sheepishly wandered off without trying again.

“Oh well, it’s just really fascinating, how the airbenders move.” Korra shrugged. “You see plenty of waterbenders, earthbenders, and firebenders around. They all have their own styles, but I’ve never seen airbending before.”

Jinora circled her hands in front of her again, sending a fresh gust through the gates. Korra watched her hands intently. “Well now you have!” Jinora tilted her head. “Did you want to have a go at the gates?”

Korra wavered on her feet, but shook her head. “No thank you,” she said.

“Watch me one more time then,” Jinora replied, stepping over to the gates. Korra was glad she hadn’t pressed the issue, because it was hard enough to refuse the first time.

Now that she’d received a basic lesson on the form, it was much easier to follow Jinora’s movements. Korra kept her hands up and tried to mimic the steps as she watched them happen, but Jinora was very quick and the spinning gates made it hard to see her.

A moment later, she circled back around to where Korra was. “That’s incredible,” Korra said. “You’re an airbending master!”

Jinora winced. “Not yet,” she said. “Dad says I’m not ready for my tattoos, which are the mark of an airbending master.”

“Well you seem like more than a master to me.” Korra smiled.

Jinora seemed pleased at that. She glanced at Korra’s crossed arms. “So do your tattoos mean anything, or are they just decoration?”

Korra laughed. “I guess you could call them an expression of freedom,” she said. Even Zaheer couldn’t put up an argument when she and Ghazan came back with them. It was, after all, her body and she could get it tattooed if she wanted to.

“Huh.” Jinora opened her mouth to say something else, then winced at the sound of a high-pitched scream.

Korra turned with her toward the sound, which was coming from a pair of smaller children, a boy and a girl, who were zipping toward Korra and Jinora on a pair of spinning air balls.

“Hi Jinora!” The boy, who was shorter, hopped off his air ball and leaped toward Jinora’s head.

The older girl dodged deftly, with circular footwork. “This is Meelo,” she said. The other girl came to a stop beside them and immediately began talking. “And this is Ikki,” Jinora continued, louder. “They’re my younger siblings.”

Jinora took a breath and Ikki immediately filled the space with a ramble that started with, “So Jinora I know you’re busy with your tour group but I really really really wanted to tell you that—”

Korra smiled at the younger siblings before returning her attention to Jinora, who looked ruffled for the first time since the tour began.

“You guys, I am trying to be responsible! I’m running this tour, and—”

“Well you’re not talking to anybody right now!” Meelo picked his nose and squinted, skeptical.

Jinora’s eye twitched. “That’s because you two came up and interrupted! Before that I was talking to this nice woman, who was asking me about airbending—”

Ikki jumped up, flipping neatly over Korra’s head with a gust of wind. “You should ask me about airbending, I’m—”

“No ask me!!” Meelo spun his hand and jumped on another spinning air ball. “I’m the BEST airbender there ever—”

“Would the both of you stop it?!” Jinora stomped her foot.

Ikki and Meelo glanced at their sister, briefly. They were about to turn away again when Korra stepped forward. “Hey, so you two are both really great airbenders, right?”

Jinora opened her mouth to object, but Korra shot her a glance. Ikki ran around to stand next to Meelo in front of Korra.

“Totally!”

“I can be the best for you, pretty lady!”

Korra chuckled. “Well I’d really like to see some awesome bending. I like that air ball—”

“Air scooter,” Ikki interrupted.

“Invented by Avatar Aang when he was—” Jinora cut herself off when Korra held up a finger.

“I like your air scooters,” Korra continued. “But I’m really curious how fast they can go.”

“SUPER FAST!”

“Faster than Ikki’s!”

“How fast could you use them to race around the whole island?” Korra tilted her head.

Ikki frowned. “Umm...”

“Readysetgo!” Meelo spun himself a new scooter and took off.

A beat later, Ikki went racing after him. “NOT fair, Meelo! No headstarts just because you’re younger!”

In a few seconds, they were out of sight. Korra turned back to Jinora, who was looking at her in wonder. “How did you do that?” she whispered. “Are you an older sister too?”

Korra shook her head. “No, I’m an only child, but I’ve always liked kids.”

Jinora wrinkled her nose. “Why?”

Neglecting to point out that, at age eleven, Jinora was also  still a child, Korra hummed for a moment. “Guru Laghima once wrote that ‘Children are the truest incarnation of freedom.’”

Looking at her curiously, Jinora seemed suddenly familiar, as though Korra had known her forever. “That’s very wise,” Jinora said, “and you’re clearly more well-versed on Air Nation culture than most of our visitors, in addition to being observant of the airbending techniques.”

Korra regretted saying the quote; it was far too noticeable, too memorable. It had felt normal to her because she spent all her time around Zaheer. It wasn’t normal though.

She snorted. “Read it in a book once,” she said, brushing the compliment off. “So how old are your siblings anyway?”

Returning to that topic made Jinora sigh. “Ikki is eight. Meelo is six, and Rohan is our baby brother. He was born just a few months ago.”

Korra raised an eyebrow. “Another airbender?”

Jinora shrugged. “Not sure yet, but we think he might actually be a nonbender.” She smiled apologetically. “This has been a really great conversation, but I need to round my tour group back up.”

“Don’t let me stop you.”

Jinora turned away and started gathering her tour group back together. Korra was waiting with the others and mentally plotting which route she’d take to get back to the gates another time. Glancing around, however, she noticed a tall man in orange robes making his way toward them. Blue tattoos marked him an airbending master.

For a brief moment, Korra thought she was having a vision of Aang, but further study proved her wrong, especially as he came closer. She drifted toward the back of the crowd. He could only be Tenzin, which meant evading notice was of paramount importance.

“This is my father.” Jinora started to introduce him. “Tenzin is an airbending master and the youngest son of Avatar Aang.” Jinora took a breath to continue, but Tenzin cut her off.

“I’m terribly sorry, Jinora, but I just wanted to come and tell you I will be off the island on urgent personal business.”

Jinora frowned. She glanced briefly at the tour group before saying, “But you just got back from urgent council business.”

Tenzin’s smile tightened. He struck Korra as a rather serious person, not unlike Zaheer. “I’m afraid it can’t wait.” He waved briefly to the tour group. “I’m terribly sorry not to meet you properly, but I really must be going.”

Someone to Korra’s left held up a camera and called out, “One picture?”

Tenzin hesitated. Jinora opened her mouth. Before they could object, the flash went off. The bright light overwhelmed her vision as Korra squinted at Jinora.

And then she wasn’t squinting at Jinora, but an elderly airbender with faded blue arrow tattoos and a drooping white moustache. “Air is the element of freedom,” he said. All around them, the architecture looked like that of Air Temple Island, but as if it was suspended in the sky.

Korra stepped back, and the vision pulled her off to the side so she could see a young Aang sitting cross-legged across from the old master. “Air is the element of peace,” he said. Aside from his bald head, Aang looked and sounded remarkably like Jinora.

“Air is the element of fun.” The old man smiled serenely and winked.

Aang shifted how he was sitting. “Air is the element of... SURPRISE!” He whipped his arms around to fling a nearby pie right at the old man’s face.

But, as Korra looked to see it strike him, the old man wasn’t there. He effortlessly dodged aside and, with a simple flick of his wrist, sent a dollop of cream off the top of the pie right onto the center of Aang’s forehead.

“Monk Gyatso!” Despite being bested, Aang was laughing. “How did you know?”

The old man, Monk Gyatso, laughed. “Because, Aang, air is also the element of friendship.” Mischief twinkled in his eyes. “And I know you too well by now, my young friend, to be caught off guard by such trickery.”

Aang smiled broadly and Korra felt herself smiling too. Then everything seemed to grow paler and brighter until the vision changed.

She was flying through the sky—airbending!!—on a glider. Immediately, she tried to focus the vision on the sensation of airbending, on what that felt like to Aang, but it refused. The memory was so effortless for him, and his focus was on a small lemur flying next to him.

After another struggle to focus the vision on what it felt like , to airbend, she gave up and let the emotions wash over her. More than anything, she took away a feeling of fun and laughter, of effortless freedom that came from gliding.

She blinked and rubbed her eyes as Air Temple Island reappeared around her. For a beat, her feet on the ground felt oppressive and limited. Korra had fallen about twenty paces behind her tour group, and she jogged to catch up.

As she listened to Jinora’s last few comments, Korra couldn’t shake the implacable thought that Jinora was familiar, that Korra knew her beyond the nice conversation she had earlier.

Getting on the ferry and waving goodbye, she decided not to overthink it. She had past lives, but so did other people. If Jinora had a spirit she’d known in a past life, it wouldn’t be entirely unheard of.

Brushing off the connection couldn’t relieve Korra of the sadness she felt as the ferry pulled away. Leaving a friend, and leaving a place that felt, more than anywhere she’d ever been before, like it might have been home.

She tried to shift her mental paradigm as she thought of airbending. Less detachment, more freedom. She smiled out at the water and wished that Monk Gyatso had left behind some poetry to read too. It would have definitely focused more on fun and less on earthly tethers or whatever.

She shifted her feet, trying to commit Jinora’s steps to physical memory. She’d try them out once she got to the apartment and could practice properly. Until then, she enjoyed the sunny afternoon.

 

* * *

 

Asami yawned and glared up at the sun as she punched in her code on the side gate to the Future Industries factory. A beep sounded, and she pushed the door open. Compared to last night, the factory courtyard felt excessively normal.

Asami pushed the feeling aside just in time for her to start wondering if she’d see the Naga girl again from last night. Probably not. It was a large city, but... it had been nice to meet her, it had been uncomplicated.

She held back a sigh as she made her way to the smaller side garage. Helping Naga, she didn’t have to stop and second-guess herself. She’d just seen something wrong happening, stopped it, and been able to move on with relative simplicity.

She stepped into the garage and winced at the sight of the medical supplies on the floor. She’d forgotten to pick them up last night, but nobody seemed to have noticed them out yet. Asami picked them up and put them away just as a knock sounded at the door.

“Miss Sato?”

“Yes?” Asami turned toward the door and smiled politely as the factory manager walked inside.

Asami wasn’t especially fond of the woman, but her Equalist ties made her the ideal overseer for their factory operations, especially with their recent production schedule. “I’ve got the numbers for you,” she said. “I saw you out the window and came right over.” She handed a folder of papers to Asami.

“What are we looking like this month?” Asami asked, taking the folder and flipping through the reports.

“Suspicious and less than financially-stable,” the manager answered. “It’s for a good cause, but we’re having trouble keeping the factory viable with market production at half pace.”

“Are workers questioning things?” Asami asked.

“No. Saying the secondary factory will take care of the imbalance shuts most people up. The rest I just yell at until they get back to the assembly line.” Asami curled her lip in distaste at the image, but the other woman didn’t seem to notice. “Everything is justified under our cause, but it might behoove us to adjust the ratio a bit, make things a little less obvious.”

Asami nodded slowly. “I’ll speak to my mother about it,” she said.

“She’s in the main factory office in the other building,” the manager said, opening the door. “I’m gonna get back to the floor.”

Asami rushed forward and grabbed the door. “Wait, she’s here?”

The manager gave her a strange look. “Yes. I assumed you came to see her and discuss things.”

“Er, well, yes.” Asami really hated getting caught off guard. “I had just assumed I’d review these matters with her later.” That and Yasuko was off more often than not, lately, working on Equalist business in the underground bunker behind their house. To hear she was back in the office, doing Future Industries work, was heartening. Maybe getting the ratio adjusted wasn’t such a lost cause after all.

“I’ll head right over and discuss them with her,” Asami said. “Thank you for getting me the papers.”

The manager gave her a nod before they parted ways and Asami started hurrying up the stairs to the main office. She gazed out over the factory floor for a moment before continuing up from the landing. At the top of the stairs, her heart swelled at the sight of the name ‘SATO’ on the office door’s plaque.

Her mother hadn’t been the most involved lately, but Future Industries was a family company and they would continue it together.

She opened the door. “Hello, mother,” she said.

Yasuko looked up from a stack of papers. “Asami,” she said, “it’s good to see you.” She patted the table and Asami took a seat across from her. “I’m so sorry we couldn’t talk last night,” she said. “We both got back so late, and I disappeared this morning because I had an idea and I just couldn’t wait.”

Asami smiled wryly. “It’s a feeling that runs in the family,” she said.

Yasuko laughed. “We married for love. The genius was a convenient side bonus.” Her expression refocused. “Tell be about The Revelation. How was the reception? How did it go?”

“Well about halfway through, the police—”

Yasuko waved a hand. “I read the news. I know what happened, in a literal sense. I want to hear your impressions.”

Asami summoned a smile. “Well, the stage lift worked perfectly. The effect was dramatic and suited Amon’s introduction. The lights did well, and the mood was very cohesive with the crowd.” She thought back to the event a bit more. “Reception was positive. I didn’t catch sight of any hotheads who were at all dissatisfied with the revelation itself. I think Amon’s announcement met the fervor of even the most dedicated recruits.”

Her mother nodded, but her eyes studied Asami in a way that seemed to read something else out of what she said. She tilted her head. “Is it hard to hear Amon’s testimony?”

She hesitated before answering. “It’s... too familiar,” she said. “Even if it’s a story I already know, it feels too similar to ours. A dead father, a firebender...” She trailed off and sighed.

Yasuko got up from the table and walked around. Asami looked up right as her mother pulled her up into a hug. “I’m sorry it was hard for you,” Yasuko whispered. Asami hugged her mother tightly. “Sometimes it’s hard to be a part of a movement where I am constantly reminded of the night Hiroshi was murdered.”

They sighed in unison, then pulled back with matching sad smiles.

“I think of dad sometimes,” Asami said, “and wonder what he would be building, what he would be working on.” Most of her memories of her father involved him tinkering or building something, explaining what a tool was for, letting her make small repairs or asking her how she thought something should be fixed...

“If your father were here, he would be right in the thick of all this.” Yasuko gestured around her. “But he was taken from us that night, robbing you of a father, me of a husband, and the world of a genius.

“And that  is why we fight, Asami,” she whispered. “Because people like us deserve to live in safety. We deserve to keep our families together, our businesses safe from bending extortion.”

Asami stepped toward the table. “If dad were here,” she said, “he would be astounded at the leaps Future Industries has taken in the past twelve years.” She grabbed the folder off the table. “But right now our primary factory is struggling. It’s wonderful that we’re able to manufacture the mechasuit interiors here for the movement, but we’re behind on filling our forklift orders.” She pulled out a page with their projected expenses and handed it over. “We need to stop overproducing forklift interior units so we can get back on schedule for Future Industries’ production schedule.”

Yasuko was frowning, and Asami handed her the current month’s ledger. “It would just be temporary,” she added. “We could get right back to producing the mechasuit interiors at the end of the month, once the company is back on stable ground.”

Looking over the papers with a deep sigh, Yasuko closed her eyes. “I’ve pushed Future Industries to the limits of its financial and production capacity, trying to support the movement.” She met Asami’s eyes steadily. “And I know the company has suffered. I know we’re not as strong as we have been.”

Asami blinked as her mother put a hand on her shoulder. “We’re not lost yet,” she said. Her mother’s tone was far too resigned for comfort. “We just need to adjust our production for the month to recoup lost capital and make sure we meet this Earth Kingdom order.”

Yasuko walked them around to the other side of the table. “The future is... uncertain,” she said, gesturing for Asami to take a seat. “And you’ve only just started coming into more responsibility within the movement, but I think it’s appropriate to tell you that, frankly, Future Industries’ orders, from the Earth Kingdom or otherwise, won’t mean much by the beginning of the next month.”

“What?” Asami reached forward and pulled her mother’s paper’s closer, trying to figure out what Yasuko had been working on before she’d been interrupted.

“In Amon’s vision for the future,” Yasuko continued, “We won’t need to worry about filling business orders. The Revolution is upon us, truly now.” She smiled. “Future Industries is going to become a part of the  future, the Equalist’s future.”

“You’re... embezzling?!” Flipping through the pages, Asami started piecing together a false money trail. “We don’t have enough,” she said. “You can’t funnel this much to the Equalists, mother. If we don’t get this order filled we literally won’t have enough to pay the factory workers next month.”

“Asami...” her mother reached over and pulled the papers away.

“Dad wouldn’t want this,” Asami snapped. She snatched the top paper back. “From what you’ve said, we’re plenty funded for the revolution. We’re already supporting the tech production mostly out of our own pockets. What do you even—”

“Quiet.” Yasuko took the paper back from her, setting it neatly on top of the stack. “If you refuse to reprioritize, step back until you can see things with a clear head. The company is not  as important as our revolutionary agenda.”

Asami stood abruptly. “So father’s legacy isn’t—”

“—as important as avenging his death and overturning the system that took him from us?” Yasuko’s voice was cool. “No,” she said, “it’s not.”

Asami stared at her.

Her mother sighed. “Go cool off. Work on your own projects. We’ll head back to the house in an hour or two.”

Dismissed, Asami refrained from storming out of the room and shut the door behind her as gently and distinctly as possibly.

She didn’t look at the factory workers on her way out, unable to fathom that they might not be there in a month. Most of them had been working for Future Industries since her father had opened the factory. She knew dozens of them by sight, growing up running around and watching her parents’ inventions come to life under their hands.

Back in the garage, she calmed down slightly and let herself indulge in total focus on her work. Engineering was simple. There was a problem, and infinite ways to come up with a wrong answer. There were usually a few ‘right’ answers, and the process of determining which one was best was generally simple enough if you had education and determination.

She was in the middle of sketching a seventh option, a seventh path to the solution, when a knock sounded at the door. She turned and smiled when Liu walked in.

“Hey there Asami,” he said, smiling.

“Hey Liu!” She was happy to see him out of uniform for once. It was reaching the point where she felt she never saw him without the goggles on. “It’s so great to see you.”

“Same here,” he said, giving her a quick hug. “It’s nice to see you here in your natural element too.”

“What brings you out here,” she asked.

He waved some papers. Asami recognized them as some of the ones she’d scanned earlier. “Just picking up a few things from Yasuko to bring to Amon,” he said. “Budget stuff.”

“Oh,” she said. “Are you heading out now then?” It didn’t make sense for her to expect Liu to have some sort of loyalty to Future Industries. He’d joined the Equalists when he was seventeen or so. Just because he felt like an older brother, however, didn’t mean he actually  had ties to the company, or an investment in its future.”

“So what happened with you and your mom,” he asked, crossing his arms. “You’re both quietly fuming-while-still-being-productive in that way you both do.”

Asami smiled wryly at the observation. It was true. She set her project sketches in a drawer to work on later and nodded toward the door. “We have different priorities,” she said. “I value the company more than she does, while she thinks the movement is the only top priority to have.” Asami huffed. “I just want to live and work in a world where being a nonbender doesn’t matter, where it doesn’t set you off at some distinct life disadvantage.”

“That’s a world we can only live in if we win,” Liu said. “That’s what we’re fighting for, and...” He grimaced. “Sometimes that means sacrifices along the way.”

“I know,” Asami said. “I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.”

“What project were you working on when I came in,” he asked as they walked outside. She was glad of the subject change. “It didn’t look much like a car to me.”

“Just some prototype sketches,” she said. “I’ve got this idea for an invention and the basic science works fine. It’s just figuring out application and scale.”

Liu chuckled. “I’ll leave that stuff to you. My job is to hit people with sticks that go bzzt and make sure missions go well.”

They were nearing the gate when Yasuko ducked out of the main factory building. “Wait up a moment,” she called.

“Let’s walk back together,” she said, drawing closer. “Asami, are you available tomorrow afternoon through the evening? I need you to prepare and then monitor the next shipment of interiors to the underground factory.”

Asami shook her head. “I’m afraid I can’t, actually,” she said. “I’ve scheduled more observation time and tomorrow is the pro-bending quarterfinal.”

Yasuko stiffened. “Haven’t you done enough observation?” she asked. “Is there really a need to spend more time and money on that bender-glorifying trash entertainment?”

Liu stepped between them gracefully. “It’s extremely important work,” he said. “We need to collect more crowd dynamics observations to put the final touches on our plan for the finals match and Asami’s reports have been extremely useful so far.” He smiled. “Plus, pro-bending is the current dominant style employed by our bending opponents. Observing them is still the best way, short of actual combat, to learn how to counter their techniques.”

Asami nodded along, thankful that Liu had come to her defense. Frankly, she was still a little too upset to come up with something quite that eloquent. Plus, it wasn’t quite  a full breakdown of her justifications. “Thanks for clarifying,” she said to Liu, who gave her a brief smile. “I’m sorry I can’t monitor the prep,” she said. “I could head over right after the match, however, to supervise the shipment itself.”

Her mother took a deep breath. “I suppose that would be acceptable,” she said. “I’m glad we could find a compromise.”

Asami’s smile was starting to feel stretched and artificial, but she widened it anyway. In the pit of her stomach, she was starting to feel convinced that compromise only happened in certain directions, and Future Industries was on the wrong side of the line.

 

* * *

 

Mako kept his guard up: arms close, chin tucked. “Final assault,” he called out. “Are you ready?”

Bolin and Sakari got into defensive stances. Bolin called back, “Come at me bro!”

Mako grinned. He kept his bodily telegraphing to a minimum as he sent off a series of quick jabs, light fireballs that were less about a solid hit and more about speed. His training partners were drilling on linking dodge movements into retaliating attacks, so Mako kept up a steady stream of punches and the occasional kick to keep the rhythm varied.

His brother wasn’t the best at dodging. Solid and grounded in his stances, Bolin was more likely to buckle down and absorb the hit than to dodge out of the way. He’d come up firing strong when he did, but Mako wanted to see him try. He sent a few stronger fireballs Bolin’s way, to force him out of his stance.

Bolin responded with a series of discs that curved in the air to make dodging them a pain. Mako managed, but he shot his brother a grin.

Focusing more on Sakari, he sent off a volley of lighter attacks. She was short—easily the shortest pro-bender in the league—and that made her a small target. Mako ducked and rolled away from a joint response from Bolin and Sakari. After a few matches and practice sessions, he’d stopped holding back against her. Even if she was thirteen, she was a more than competent bender.

That and she was really  hard to hit. Mako sent off a series of quick jabs before following up with a harder cross. The younger girl didn’t hesitate as she flowed around the attacks and right into a response. Of course, if she took a hit, she was so light she’d almost certainly lose a zone.

Mako focused his attacks lower, trying to force Bolin into movement and get closer to hitting Sakari. Most bending happened at Mako’s shoulder-level in the arena, which meant Sakari barely needed to dodge if he didn’t adjust his attacks.

They exchanged volleys for a few minutes until Bolin and Sakari’s counter-attacks coincided to hit Mako at once. He flew backwards and landed on the pads with a grunt. “Nice work,” he called out, groaning as he got to his feet. “I think we can call it a day now,” he said. “You guys were on fire this session.”

Sakari pulled off her helmet. “Um... Mako?”

“I think you mean we were totally not  on fire,” Bolin cut in. “Except in this case that’s a totally good thing.”

Mako rolled his eyes. “Whatever,” he said. He smiled at them though. “Let’s get this place cleaned up so we can hit the showers.”

They started picking their equipment up so the space would be clean for the next team. “You’re really quick on your feet,” Bolin said to Sakari. “Did you even take a hit once this practice?”

“A couple,” she answered. “But I prioritize dodging over holding my ground and setting up more solid attacks like you do, so there’s a trade off.” She shrugged as she put some pads away. “I just know that, frankly, I can’t take much of a hit, so I try not to get hit.”

“Where did you learn, anyway?” Mako asked. “Your form is clearly coming out of traditional waterbending, but it’s not quite what I usually see.”

“You’re probably used to Northern Water Tribe style,” she said. “I’m coming out of the southern school of training.”

Mako put away the last target they’d used earlier and looked around the gym. Thankfully, there hadn’t been much to clean up. He waved his teammates over to follow him out the doors of the gym.

“So who were your teachers?” Bolin asked. He gestured between Mako and himself. “You already know we learned on the street.”

Sakari’s expression tightened. “I learned from my father,” she said, “and Master Kat—”

“THERE YOU ARE!”

Mako looked up to see a tall man in orange robes storming down the hall toward them. He exchanged a glance with Bolin and they wordlessly closed ranks in front of Sakari, crossing their arms.

“Is there an issue, sir?” Mako asked.

At a closer distance, it was clear the man was an airbender from his tattoos. That meant he was one of the councilmen, someone whose name Mako couldn’t remember. He generally didn’t pay much attention to politics.

“Who are—oh you must be the pro-benders.” The councilman said the term with disdain. He clearly wasn’t a fan. “Please stand aside.”

Mako swapped another look with Bolin. They didn’t move. Behind them, Mako could see Sakari shrink a little from the corner of his eye.

“I’m so glad I found you.” The man’s tone shifted to genuine concern as he addressed Sakari. “It’s time for you to go home now. Your parents are worried sick.”

Mako was halfway to turning to look at Sakari to see her reaction when she pushed up in between him and Bolin, glaring up at the man. “I’m not going back,” she said. “And I’m on the Fire Ferrets now. These guys are my family too.”

The man’s eyebrows had drawn together and he was looking a little red in the face, so Mako stepped forward and tried to keep his voice level. “Look, she came to us and we’ve been taking care of her since she joined the team, Master...?”

“Tenzin,” the man said stiffly. He still seemed to be processing events, his gaze shifting between Mako, Bolin, and Sakari.

“Master Tenzin,” Bolin cut in, drawing his voice out, “what is your relation to Sakari?”

“Well I’m not—” He cut himself off and adjusted his robes. “I’m a friend of her parents. They wrote to me several days ago, saying that she ran away and she might have come here. They’ve been scouring the Southern Water Tribe for her. It’s time she went home.”

Sakari scowled. “I’m not  going back just to get locked up again.”

Mako frowned. “Master Tenzin, she clearly doesn’t want to go with you, sir.”

“You can’t tear a family apart!” Bolin dropped to a crouch and pulled Sakari into a hug. “She’s our little sister now.”

Tenzin’s eye twitched. “Her family is in the south pole!”

Mako put a hand on Sakari’s shoulder. “Well she has family in Republic City now too. We’ll arrange a family reunion later, one that doesn’t involve anybody getting locked up.”

He glanced down at Sakari with concern, but she wasn’t looking at him. She’d crossed her arms and had leveled Tenzin with a determined glare. Mako recognized the expression from when Sakari had first walked into the training room to try out for the Fire Ferrets. He’d initially tried to discourage her from going into the one-on-one matches against the other waterbenders. She hadn’t backed down then, and he didn’t think she’d back down now.

“Your father has written letters in case I find you, hoping to reach out and explain.” Tenzin huffed. “When I realized you’d managed to join a pro-bending team, I thought it would be best to go after you on my own, but I’ve already sent an urgent missive back to your parents. They know where you are now, and I’m expecting an urgent reply. Your mother is heartbroken.” Tenzin took a step forward and Sakari stiffened, but didn’t step back. “How could you do this to them, Sakari? You know how devastated they were by your sis—”

“Thank you, Master Tenzin,” Sakari cut in, “for coming to check in on my whereabouts.” Her tone had shifted and she didn’t sound... ungrateful, exactly, but Mako wouldn’t have called her thankful. “Thank you for sending word to my parents and relieving their anxiety over my abrupt departure. I’ve only met you a few times, but I know you’ve been a good friend to my parents, especially after the issue with my sister.” She paused; Mako briefly wondered if talking about her parents was enough to make her change her mind.

Tenzin seemed to wonder the same thing. Mako could hear him holding his breath.

Sakari continued, “And it is with complete respect for you that I’m telling you I’m not going with you.”

Mako grinned and turned back to Tenzin just in time to see his jaw drop. Tenzin closed his mouth and cleared his throat. “Wait, Sakari, but—”

“I’m not going.” If Sakari could have further  crossed her arms, Mako was certain she would have.

Tenzin’s eyebrows snapped together. “Sakari, your parents are worr—”

“I’m aware.”

Staring at her in disbelief, Tenzin took another moment to gather himself together. Mako gave Sakari’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. Tenzin shook his head. “You are too young—”

“She’s only three years younger than me,” Bolin cut in. “And we were living on the streets before even that.”

Tenzin’s face was starting to grow red again. “You are a child,” he snapped, “and I am going to—”

“Republic City has no legal age of adulthood or pro-bending cutoff.” Sakari smirked.

“But... in the Water Tribes, it’s fourteen!” Tenzin crossed his arms. “You’re not fourteen yet, young lady.”

Mako took a half step forward. He didn’t want to threaten the man, but if he could come off as a bit intimidating, he wouldn’t complain. “Yeah, and this isn’t the Water Tribes, Councilman.” He crossed his arms. “Are you going to kidnap her or something?”

Tenzin seemed to swell up, his face going redder, before he sighed and deflated. “Spirits, I hope Jinora doesn’t end up like this,” he muttered. Squaring his shoulders, he continued at a conversational volume. “I will write to your parents immediately on what course of action you’ve chosen to take. I am, of course, not going to kidnap  you.” He shot an annoyed glance at Mako. “I would, however, like to make sure you know I am available to help, and I would like to remain a presence in your life.”

Now that he’d given in, Sakari’s shoulders slumped a bit. “Please, um, in your letter, tell them I don’t hate them?” She looked away. “I just needed to escape, and I didn’t see any alternatives to running away.”

Tenzin’s expression softened. “You’re welcome to write them yourself,” he said.

“No thank you.” Sakari’s mouth pulled into a tight frown.

“At least come to Air Temple Island to visit,” he said. “You can pick up your parents’ letter and meet my family. I have a daughter about your age.”

“Um, I guess that would be alright.” Sakari glanced at Mako and Bolin. They both nodded. “But only if I can take Mako, Bolin, and Naga.”

“Who is Naga?” Tenzin asked.

“My pet dog,” Sakari said. She had a completely straight face.

“Of course,” Tenzin said. He didn’t notice Mako exchange a smirk with Bolin, who was holding back a giggle.

“We drew the first slot for the quarterfinal match tomorrow,” Mako said. “So we’re going early and, one way or another, we’ll have some time after that. How about we head over afterwards?”

“Perfect.” Tenzin looked thoughtful for a moment before adding, “And... I will try to be there for your quarterfinal match tomorrow,” he added. “I still believe you should return to the South Pole, and I expect your parents to feel similarly, but I will support you and keep tabs on your... activities here in the meantime.”

Sakari smiled. “We’ll see you then,” she said.

“Until then.” Tenzin nodded and smiled. Mako thought it was still a bit stiff, but the older man seemed slightly less tense than earlier. The thought of him at a pro-bending match was still a funny image, however.

Tenzin disappeared back around the corner and Mako turned to Sakari. “You okay, kid?”

She nodded. “Yeah.” She glanced down. “Sorry about that. I didn’t think I’d be tracked down that quickly.”

“It’s not your fault,” Bolin said. He patted her shoulder. “He probably found out because we’re the ones who called in the tip to the police about the Equalist meeting last night.”

“Oh.” Sakari blinked. “That probably makes sense.” She wrung her hands slightly and Mako narrowed his eyes. The comment about being ‘locked up’ concerned him, but he wasn’t sure whether to take it literally or if it was just her being a rebellious thirteen year old.

Mako would ask about it later. “That was a fun diversion, but we’re all still sweaty from practice.” Bolin pretended to smell his armpit and threw a hand to his forehead in mock-distress. Sakari giggled and Mako rolled his eyes. “Let’s split up and hit the showers,” he said. “We can make dinner back at the loft when we’re all done.”

“Race you to the showers!” Bolin took off down the hall.

Mako took a couple steps after him, then paused and turned back toward Sakari. She was a determined, fiery personality, but she was just thirteen and looked smaller than usual. “You okay?”

For a beat, she looked considering, but her usual grin returned a moment later. “Just tired after a long practice, Team Captain.” She raised a hand and turned to head the other way down the hall. “See you for dinner.”

“See you for dinner.” He watched her a moment before heading after Bolin.

 

* * *

 

Korra cleared out space in the middle of the living room and put the radio onto a jazz station. Zaheer was out with P’li, trying to get him recruited with the Equalists, so he couldn’t criticize her forms.

She took a deep breath. Firebending came from the breath. Maybe airbending wasn’t so different. Breath and freedom. She’d left on a self-planned research trip, avoided one of the Red Lotus’ core enemies, and witnessed airbending firsthand. Here in the city, despite her fears, Korra had never been so free.

She recalled Jinora’s movements to mind and imitated how she’d circled her arms to set the gates spinning. She’d watched the airbender do the motion at least a dozen times.

Stance loose, elbows bent, Korra inhaled and imitated the move.

No airbending resulted.

She huffed and did it again, but to no avail.

She practiced the circular stepping, although it felt odd. Resisting the urge to tuck her chin proved more troublesome than she’d thought. She wasn’t sure what sort of motion to cap the steps with either, to take the technique and add some airbending onto it. Eventually, she came up with a drill involving six circular steps and finishing with the arm motion she’d seen Jinora use. It worked well in time with the jazz on the radio, and repetition made her body adapt to the strange stances.

And, as she practiced, the moveset felt better than the movements she’d tried under Zaheer’s direction. She couldn’t actually airbend, but it felt similar to the motions she’d experienced during visions from Aang. Familiarity was, if nothing else, a reason to think she was going in the right direction.

The radio buzzed, crinkling with static.

Korra finished out her move (still no airbending) and glanced over right as a familiar voice began speaking.

“My fellow Equalists,” the radio crackled, “this is your leader, Amon.”

She stepped back, eyes wide.

“As you have heard, the Republic Council has voted to make me public enemy number one, proving once again that the bending oppressors of this city will stop at nothing to quash our revolution.”

Korra clenched her fist and noticed that her hand was shaking.

“But we can not be stopped,” Amon continued, voice gaining strength. “Our numbers grow stronger by the day. You no longer have to live in fear.” He paused, and Korra felt a bead of sweat run down her forehead. “The time has come for benders to experience fear.”

The radio buzzed with static again for a long moment, then returned to the jazz it had been playing earlier. Korra stared at it, waiting for Amon to interrupt again.

The front door opened. Korra jumped.

Ming-Hua gave her a strange look. “Korra, are you alright?”

Trying to compose a more reasonable expression, Korra nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. “Y-yeah,” she said. “Just fine.” She crossed her arms.

Ghazan appeared in the doorway behind Ming-Hua. “What’s going on? Who isn’t fine?”

“I said I’m fine,” Korra snapped.

Ming-Hua exchanged a glance with Ghazan. “Give us a few minutes?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I’ll just be putting groceries away. Don’t mind me.” Stepping around her, he walked into the kitchen area.

“Step outside with me, Korra,” Ming-Hua said. She jerked her head in one direction before walking back out the door.

Korra hesitated, then sighed and followed her outside.

Their apartment was on the top floor of the building, which meant they had fairly decent access to the roof. Korra jumped and used the railing of the fire escape to vault herself up. Ming-Hua was sitting on the edge of the roof, looking out around the neighborhood.

“Did you hear that radio broadcast?” she asked Korra. “Ghazan and I paused outside someone’s window when we heard it come on.” She paused. “It must have been something to see him speak in person. The Equalist’s Amon is quite the orator.”

Korra shrugged and sat down beside her. “He’s got his theatrics down, that’s for certain.”

“Very convicted way of speaking too. He really believes everything he’s saying.”

Korra shivered. “He can back it up too.”

“It must have been something, seeing him last night. Zaheer described his performance with the benders before you got home.”

Korra grunted noncommittally. She didn’t really want to think about Amon or his unsettling abilities.

Ming-Hua tilted her head. After a long moment, Korra met her gaze.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” Ming-Hua said.

“I’m not afraid,” Korra said carefully, “but I can’t fight a power like that.” He’d dodged around the benders onstage so effortlessly. She’d grown up around unusual bending techniques and learned from the best, but she’d never seen someone move like that.

“You don’t have to,” Ming-Hua stated. “You’ll never have to face him alone. As in everything, the Red Lotus works together. Set aside his strange abilities, no matter their source. He’s just like any other dictator.” She shrugged. “He’s just not in power yet.”

“Do... do you think he will be?” Korra tugged on her ponytail. “Republic City’s council seems fairly dedicated to keeping his movement down.”

“Eh, they can fight it out all they want.” Ming-Hua smirked. “In the end, we’ll take out whoever is left, and probably thin the ranks along the way.”

Korra leaned against her shoulder. “Thanks,” she whispered.

Ming-Hua chuckled. “We live in the safest apartment in Republic City, remember?” She pushed back against Korra. “And you’ve got me, Ghazan, Zaheer, and P’li all watching your back.”

“And I’ve got yours.”

Below them and around them, Republic City spread out in all directions. Mountains encircled the city by land, leading right out to the bay to the west. She could even see a bit of Air Temple Island in the distance.

Korra took a deep breath and smiled. She knew the Red Lotus would change the city. It was odd to realize that the city had already changed her.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Beginnings
(The Best-Laid Plans Start Somewhere)

 

Korra peeked open one eye and looked at Ming-Hua across the room. “And you’re sure he’ll be safe?”

Ming-Hua sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to be meditating?”

“I can’t focus!” Korra shifted her posture. “I keep worrying about Zaheer. What if something goes wrong and one of us should have gone with him?”

“We’ve talked about this. He was the only reasonable choice to go undercover. P’li is obviously a bender, Ghazan is too much of a recognizable criminal, you’re the Avatar, and I refuse to function without my bending anyway.” Ming-Hua rolled her eyes. “Zaheer is an actual certified non-bender. Wherever Amon is getting his ability from, Zaheer is safe.”

“Yeah...” Korra huffed. “I just wish I had something to do too. P’li and Zaheer are off being useful and I’m just meditating.”

Ming-Hua cocked an eyebrow. “You are now?”

Korra glared at her. “Well I was. Sort of.” She glanced down. “I was trying, anyway.” It was always harder to concentrate and focus on spiritual stuff while Zaheer was away. He had a way of making even the least spiritual places feel more connected. The apartment wasn’t exactly barren, but Korra wouldn’t have called it a spiritual hub either.

“Give it a few more minutes,” Ming-Hua said. “And don’t worry too much about P’li and Zaheer. We’ve all handled ourselves just fine for years without your help, oh great and mighty Avatar.”

“Yeah yeah.” Korra rolled her eyes, but there was enough playfulness in Ming-Hua’s tone to make her smile. “Back to meditation I go.”

“Good girl. Your uncle will be so proud.”

Ming-Hua and Ghazan only ever referred to themselves, P’li, or Zaheer as her aunts or uncles in jest, but it was a comforting mention regardless. Korra rolled her shoulders and settled back into her meditative pose with a few deep breaths.

Several minutes later, Korra reached a neutral point where her spirit was steady. The small noises of the house faded away and she could feel the barrier between herself and the spirit world thinning.

Reaching out for it, Korra tried to stay relaxed. Her even breathing felt like the ebb and flow of the ocean. She let the current carry her closer and closer until—

BAM!

Korra’s eyes snapped open to see Ghazan stroll through the slammed-open door.

“I’m back!” He flashed a smile at Ming-Hua, who scowled at him.

“We’re going to lose the deposit on this apartment if you keep opening the door like that.”

Ghazan kicked the door closed and shrugged. “I’m pretty sure Zaheer said we shouldn’t get attached to the apartment, so I’m not worrying about it.”

“Let’s try to keep the door attached to the apartment, even if we’re not.”

Korra buried her face in her hands. “Augh, I was so close!”

“Oh, whoops.” Korra looked up to see Ghazan looked mildly apologetic. “Are you meditating in here?”

She glared at him. “Well, I was.”

He raised his hands in a gesture of innocence. “Well you normally don’t mind an interruption to rescue you away from the boring sitting thing, but since you seem so attached to it today, I guess you won’t mind.” Ghazan smiled.

Korra exchanged a glance with Ming-Hua, who shrugged. She looked back at Ghazan and crossed her arms. “I won’t mind what?”

Ghazan reached into his overcoat and pulled out a pair of tickets. “If I find someone else to go to the pro-bending quarterfinal match with me!”

“What?!” Korra sprang to her feet. “You bought tickets!”

“Zaheer is off getting himself recruited by terrorists, so he won’t know that I took you. I just saw P’li off at the city limits. She’s off to interrogate people by staring at them until they pee themselves looking at her forehead, so she’s not around to tell him.” Ghazan took two big steps over to Ming-Hua and put an arm around her shoulders. “And you wouldn’t say anything, would you?”

Ming-Hua cocked an eyebrow. “Can you make it worth my while?”

“Absolutely.” Ghazan winked before turning back to Korra. “The squares are gone, so I’m getting you out of the house for some fresh air. All this stress over Equalist stuff isn’t good for you.” For a moment, genuine concern showed through his energetic front. Korra wondered if Ming-Hua had said something to him about the conversation she’d had with her the other night.

“You two get out of here,” Ming-Hua said, drawing Korra’s attention. “I’m gonna keep working on the plans for the Tarrlok strike.”

The heaviness that pulled at the edges of Korra’s spirit swelled for a moment. Worry and fear tugged at her attention before she forcibly pushed them aside. She summoned a grin and found it felt real after a moment of wearing it. “Sounds good,” she said. “Let’s go!”

*

Ghazan looked a little strange, wrapped up to hide his tattoos with a high collar and hood to hide his face. Still, he strode down the street with his usual direct pace. His grin was the same too. “You know, I was a pro-bender once,” he said.

Korra rolled her eyes. “You tell this story every time pro-bending comes up.”

Ghazan snorted. “Yeah, well, it’s a good one and I bought you tickets, so shut up and listen.”

“Whatever,” Korra said. She couldn’t help but smile as he got going, however.

“Republic City is the center of the pro-bending, but there are miniature circuits all over the world,” Ghazan said. “You were just a little kid, like four, but we were in this town and in order to get access to this party, we needed someone to pose as an invite-worthy guest.”

“Why didn’t you guys just break in?” Whenever any of her guardians told repeat stories, she did her best to question and bother them on a different point each time.

“Because one of us needed to stay back with you and it was one of those towns where a single rich family basically owns the place and maintains a castle, complete with decent security. After liberating you, we were trying to lay low, so it’s really all your fault.” He elbowed her in the shoulder. “The plan was to get in as guests so we could take security down from the inside out before we took down the walls and opened the coffers up to the townspeople.”

She knew how the story went now. “The only problem was that—”

“—the only problem,” he cut her off, “was that the family’s son was apparently some minor earthbending underground champion.” Ghazan scoffed. “And he challenged me to a duel in the middle of the party. Apparently I forgot some minor rule while I was telling a story to the other guests. So I had to stop and take care of him before taking out security, which set us totally behind schedule.”

Korra elbowed him as they drew near the pro-bending arena gates. Security didn’t seem too tight, but it wouldn’t be prudent to talk about dinner party murders as they walked past the police, especially considering the danger of Ghazan being recognized.

If Zaheer wasn’t around, someone had to be the responsible one. Sort of. Even if she was doing something he would heartily disapprove of, Korra couldn’t help drawing on his lessons. She relaxed her pose and tried to let the alertness fade from her eyes. No looking around in her usual sweep, scanning for danger. She was just an average nonbending citizen, nothing special to note.

It was almost anticlimactic when the police barely glanced at them walking through, but that was kind of the point to begin with.

Ghazan finished up his story as they found their seats, but Korra barely heard him. She’d listened to pro-bending on the radio before, but she had never been able to imagine the splendor of the arena itself. From the dome to the playing field itself, it was an incredible structure.

There weren’t too many seats left open, but Ghazan had picked one of the least populated sections for them. It was too far back for Korra’s liking, but nobody was sitting immediately around them.

A familiar voice cut in a minute later to announce that the first quarterfinal match, the Fire Ferrets vs. the Black Quarry Boar-Q-Pines, would start shortly. Korra shot a grin at Ghazan, who chuckled and nodded back at her. Around them, the arena buzzed with excitement. Concerns about Amon and Equalists felt distant from Korra and from the people around them. Who could care about that when benders were about to beat the snot out of each other?

The announcer gave brief team bios as they athletes came onto the field. It basically came down to the Boar-Q-Pines being old and the Fire Ferrets being young and, notably, having the youngest pro-bender in the league.

Experience seemed to take the initial upper-hand as the match got underway. The Fire Ferret’s young, tiny waterbender was fast, but too light.

Korra glanced at Ghazan after a lucky shot knocked the small waterbender out of the ring. “They should put weights in her shoes,” she remarked. “It’d slow her down, but she might be able to take a hit if she did.”

He chuckled. “You used to be that small,” he said. “As proud as you are of those muscles, they’re a pretty recent development. She might gain some mass on her own in the next couple years.”

“And in the meantime?” Korra watched the Fire Ferret fire and earthbenders attempt a comeback, but fall just short of it before the round ended.

“In the meantime, she should focus on dodging.”

Korra snorted and let her eyes wander around the nearby crowd as the players prepared for round two. As she glanced down, however, Korra’s gaze caught on a head of gorgeous, wavy black hair. It seemed oddly familiar. A thread of anxiety pulled at Korra’s attention.

“No way,” Korra muttered.

“What was that?” Ghazan raised an eyebrow.

Korra tilted her head. “One sec.” She stood up and started making her way a few rows down.

Behind her, she heard Ghazan sigh. “No explanation, no hints. You’re too much like Zaheer sometimes.”

Once she’d moved down, she could see that the familiar hair belonged to a familiar face. Impulsively, Korra walked down the row and sat down beside her. “Hi there, Asami.”

The woman jumped as she turned to look back at Korra. “Oh!” Asami’s eyebrows shot up toward her hairline and she pressed her notebook to her chest. “Hello, Naga,” she said a beat later.

Korra heard Ghazan snicker a few rows back and ignored it. He’d probably heard Asami call her by her ridiculous alias, but she knew he wouldn’t blow her cover. “Yeah, hey.” Korra paused, briefly stuck on what, exactly, she wanted to say to this girl. “It’s, uh, surprising to see you here.”

A faint flush colored Asami’s cheeks. “Oh, well, I hadn’t expected to see you here either.”

Korra blinked. “Oh yeah.” She tried to do the mental exercise where she tried to think of what a real nonbending-Equalist-sympathizer would say, but went blank. “It’s quite the quarterfinal lineup here, huh?”

Asami studied her a moment before replying, “Indeed. The teams have come a long way this season.” She studied Korra, eyebrows furrowed.

And for a moment, it seemed ridiculously silly to Korra. She was observing Asami, trying to figure out what front to put on. Asami was clearly doing the same.

Dangers aside, it felt unbearably ridiculous and overwrought for Korra to continue acting as anybody but herself, or at least mostly herself, in the moment. She relaxed on the seat beside Asami and flashed her companion a genuine smile. “I just hadn’t taken you for a pro-bending fan was all.”

Asami’s eyes flashed, with caution and (maybe?) fear, but Korra flapped a hand at her. “Not because of that,” she said. “More because you just struck me less as a sports type and more of a studying type. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong?” She tilted her head.

Asami stared at her, incredulous. Then, seemingly to her own surprise, a smile appeared on her lips. A moment later, she laughed. “I’m a bit of both, I guess,” she said. “I, ah, I keep active, personally, but my real pursuits are more in the bookish realm.”

They simultaneously turned back to the arena as the second round started. A few seconds in, Korra belatedly replied, “I kind of got that too. I mean, you seemed pretty engaged in the match before I showed up, but you also brought a notebook.”

She sensed, rather than saw, Asami frown. “What’s wrong with bringing a notebook?”

Korra shrugged. “Well, I can tell you I’m more of a sports person than a studying person, and I certainly didn’t bring a notebook.”

“Anecdotal.” Asami’s objection came with a ringing laugh that made Korra smile.

They watched the rest of round two together with only occasional quips. When the Fire Ferrets came out on top, Asami made a noise of approval.

“You favor their team?” Korra asked.

Asami opened her mouth, then seemed to think better of it. She was still hesitating on her reply when Ghazan called down to them from where he was sitting.

“Hey, Naga, who’s your cute ladyfriend? Come back up and sit with your uncle Naghaz.”

Korra blushed, because it really was a terrible alias so of course he’d decided to give himself a matching one. “Sorry,” she muttered to Asami, who seemed a bit pink as well. “Do you mind if I move back up to sit with my uncle Naghaz?” Korra held back a wince as she said the name, but she knew she wouldn’t remember it unless she made herself use it a few times. “He kind of bought the tickets,” she continued, trailing off to imply the sort of familial debt most people accepted immediately.

Sure enough, Asami nodded. “Of course, of course. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“You wouldn’t be intruding,” Korra said automatically. “Why don’t you sit with us.” She hadn’t meant to invite Asami along, but, at the same time, there was something irresistibly curious about finding the Equalist, seemingly very engaged, at a pro-bending match. That and Asami was good company thus far. “It’s just, you know,” she continued. “Family.” She shrugged. Korra really wouldn’t know, but Asami probably did.

Asami frowned. “Yeah,” she said, “family.” A beat later, she glanced back at the ring. “If you’re moving, you should probably do it before the third round.”

“Come with me then,” Korra said. She smiled before getting up to move back beside Ghazan. She was pleased to hear Asami following behind her.

She had just enough time to sit next to Ghazan do introductions (“Naghaz, Asami. Asami, Naghaz.”) before round three started. For this match, Korra’s gaze kept gravitating toward the Fire Ferrets’ waterbender.

“She’s just so small,” Korra muttered.

“Well, she’s thirteen,” Asami said absently. She’d relaxed enough by now that Korra could tell she’d gone back to properly watching the match. “She showed up playing for the Ferrets a couple matches ago. Waterbending prodigy that just came out of nowhere.”

Ghazan snorted. “I’m surprised she’s allowed to play, actually. Pro-bending isn’t exactly a gentle sport.”

“There were a few injunctions to remove her,” Asami said. “But apparently the council can make pointless laws about plenty of things while forgetting to regulate legal adulthood and professional sports.”

Korra and Ghazan snorted and replied in tandem, “Well, that’s government.” Despite the reply being an inside Red Lotus joke, Asami still laughed lightly.

“It’s cool to watch her play, regardless,” Korra said. She could recognize traces of Southern Water Tribe style in the waterbender’s footwork. Pro-bending was rather different from most traditional bending styles, but footwork was the hardest thing to change. She resisted the urge to mention it to Asami, but made a mental note to tell Ghazan later. He’d appreciate the observation.

The end of the match came fast and furious, with the Fire Ferrets’ youth and speed finally coming to the fore in a distinct advantage. Their waterbender and earthbender (a sturdy fellow who seemed oddly familiar) worked together methodically to gain ground. They’d just breached Zone One of the Boar-Q-Pines’ side when the bell rang and the Fire Ferrets were declared the victors.

Korra, Asami, and Ghazan cheered their win and immediately began a recap of the match. Korra smiled as she watched the team ride the moving platform back to their locker room. As they passed in front of a spotlight, it cast them in a hard silhouette. Immediately, she recognized them.

“Really?” She asked. Seeing them in silhouette, there was no doubt that the three Fire Ferrets were the same benders who’d broken out of the Equalist revelation rally, rescuing the firebender.

Thankfully, Asami and Ghazan seemed to think she was talking about a point in the recap.

Korra glanced around the stadium curiously, because seriously how many people from that rally were at the stadium today? It wasn’t exactly as though ideologies were checked at the door, just papers.

Curiouser still, Korra saw another familiar figure waiting back at the Fire Ferrets’ locker room: Tenzin, the airbending master she’d briefly seen at Air Temple Island. She returned to the conversation, but her mind kept wandering back to the Fire Ferrets and Tenzin. Even in the five seconds she’d met him, he hadn’t exactly seemed like the pro-bending type.

Asami started giving them the rundown on the next two teams up to play. Despite being an Equalist, she was knowledgeable about all sixteen teams in the lineup. Despite having a notebook, a peek showed that she’d taken zero notes during the Fire Ferrets’ match.

Korra wished she could talk out the contradictions with Zaheer, who had a way of making everything clear-cut. Even Ming-Hua would be nice.

But she couldn’t, and there was something strangely nice about not being able to. It meant she had to sit there, pretending to be normal and finding it wasn’t all that bad. She had even, somehow, made a friend, just maybe.

The conversation came to a lull as the next two teams came up. Korra was watching the Bau Ling Buzzard Wasps when the arena brightened. She squinted her eyes to focus before recognizing the feeling of a vision coming on. Her last thought, before the vision whelmed her senses, was that maybe her meditation was doing her some good after all.

She didn’t recognize Aang at first when he turned around. First off, he had a head full of black hair. Second, he was wearing a belt around his head as a headband, covering his forehead tattoo.

“Ta-Da!” he declared with a grin. “Normal kid!”

The vision brightened, then flashed white. As the light faded, Korra took in a scene of Aang, still disguised, talking to a similarly-dressed Fire Nation kid.

“We were on our way to play hide-and-explode. You wanna come?” The other boy seemed friendly and about Aang’s age.

Aang grinned. “I’d love to!”

The vision shifted and Korra saw them playing together in a series of quick shots. Korra could feel the vision starting to wrap up as it changed one more time.

“It just so happens that I know several classic Fire Nation dances. A hundred years ago, this was known as ‘The Phoenix Flight.’”

Aang proceeded to do a ridiculous dance that involved squatting and kicking at the same time. Around him, the Fire Nation kids cheered as they started to join in. He called to some of them by name, clearly kids he’d become friends with. They called him ‘Kuzon’ in response and he responded to the name as readily as his own.

Even in disguise, Aang had an energy and vivacity that seemed to infect the whole room. He got everybody dancing and laughing. The smile on his face seemed no less genuine than the smile she’d seen on him while he was flying.

Korra blinked and the vision ended. The second match was just about to start. She placed a hand over her mouth to cover a smile. She couldn’t help it. Korra held no illusions about the mistakes her predecessor had gone on to make, but all of Zaheer’s lessons felt distant compared to the person, especially the kid, that she felt in her visions. She rolled her shoulders, trying to return herself to the present.

Ghazan noticed the shift and gave her a searching look. Korra responded with a look to say she’d tell him later.

Then the match started. Korra’s whole body felt relaxed.

Asami asked, “Who are you rooting for, Naga?”

And the name didn’t feel so strange.

“Buzzard Wasps,” Korra replied. She’d missed the other team’s introduction.

“Oooh, I’m cheering on the Moose Lions,” Asami replied, a hint of teasing in her voice. “But we should cheer on Rabaroos together next match.”

Korra smiled. “Totally,” she said. “But until then, the Moose Lions are going down!”

“Not happening!”

The question of whether Asami would hang out with her for the rest of the quarterfinal matches seemed unnecessary. Korra relaxed into the assurance, the kind of assumption she would make about a friend.

* * *

“I honestly don’t recall your dog being quite this big!”

“You haven’t visited recently.” Sakari shrugged. “Polarbear dogs go through a drastic growth spurt several years into their lives.”

Tenzin didn’t quite scowl, but it was close. “I... hadn’t realized.”

Mako smiled and leaned further against the railing. With Naga aboard, there wasn’t much room on the boat taking them to Air Temple Island. Tenzin had apparently arranged one of the smaller, private vessels to take them over. Mako strongly suspected they would be placed on a tour boat to go back to the city. The current arrangements were... cozy.

“I haven’t seen you since you were a young child, Sakari,” Tenzin said. He seemed to be going for the fondness an uncle might display, but it mostly came across as apologetic.

“I went through a drastic growth spurt too,” she said.

Mako snorted. He glanced down the rail as Bolin guffawed. “You haven’t grown too much,” Bolin said.

Sakari huffed. “Well at least I have the potential to get taller. You’re too old to get taller now.”

Sakari and Bolin bantered back and forth for a bit about whether or not she’d grow to be as tall as Bolin. Mako just watched feeling a little too tired from the match to join in. He kept glancing back down toward Tenzin, who seemed a bit ruffled. Mako got the sense he didn’t hang out with a lot of young people. A minute later, however, he started to relax.

Mako still didn’t trust that he wouldn’t just pull some authority card and take Sakari out from under his and Bolin’s nose, but the man seemed decent enough.

Air Temple Island, however, was breathtaking. He’d always seen it out in the bay, but he’d never been there before. It had never seemed like the kind of place for dirty street kids. After he and Bolin moved into the arena, visiting the spiritual tourist attraction hadn’t exactly been a priority. But it really was beautiful. The architecture was unlike anything else in the city.

As they drew close to the dock, Mako could see two kids waiting there, one boy and one girl. They waved as the boat started to dock, yelling “Hi Daddy!” Tenzin raised a hand in response, though he was too occupied with the boat’s grumpy captain (who seemed a bit put out about Naga’s inclusion) to give them his full attention.

Before the boat had properly docked, Pabu took a running leap off Naga’s nose onto the dock. The moment he landed, the little boy shouted and started running off after him. Pabu ran around in circles before eventually hiding on top of the girl’s head.

Mako frowned as he clambered out of the boat. “Hey, leave Pabu alone you two.”

The girl with Pabu on her head smiled. “Oh, his name is Pabu? I think that’s great. He looks like a Pabu to me. Where did you get a fire ferret by the way? Aren’t they native to the Fire Nation? Does that mean you’re from the Fire Nation? You look kind of like you might be, but also not. Hm.” She stopped to take a breath, then tilted her head.

On top of her head, Pabu adjusted his posture and tilted his head too.

Mako blinked. “Uh.” He nearly stumbled trying to find his footing on the dock.

“This is Ikki,” Tenzin said, extricating himself from the boat. “My younger daughter.” He gestured to the first child Mako had seen chasing Pabu. “And this is Meelo, my older son.”

“Oldest boy! Best child!” Meelo had started yanking on Ikki’s arm, trying to reach Pabu.

Mako swapped a blank look with Sakari. She looked at him a little fearfully. Though she didn’t talk about her home much, she’d mentioned being rather isolated. Mako got the feeling she hadn’t spent much time around other kids, older or younger.

He moved to stand next to her right as Bolin pushed around Naga from the back of the boat. “Pabu! You made some new friends!” Pabu readily jumped off of Ikki’s head up onto Bolins’s shoulder. Bolin turned and smiled down at Ikki. “I rescued Pabu from a pythonaconda that was gonna have him for dinner. They’re actually native to the bamboo forests of the central Earth Kingdom and I’m not sure why they’re called Fire Ferrets. We’re not from the Fire Nation, but our mom was descended from Fire Nation colonists and that’s why Mako is a firebender. We look kind of not because our dad was from Ba Sing Se and that’s why I’m an earthbender.” Bolin finished the answers in one-breath and smiled.

Ikki considered Bolin’s answers for a moment, then nodded. “That’s acceptable.”

Meelo had stopped pulling on Ikki’s arm and was looking up at Bolin with respect. “You saved him from a super big snake,” he whispered.

Bolin smiled. “Sure did!”

“Now, Ikki, Meelo,” Tenzin took a step forward. “Thank you for waiting for me, but it’s time—”

Ikki cut him off. “Hey so did you help your brother save Pabu from the snake or—” She glanced back over toward Mako. She cut off mid-sentence and her eyes widened. “Ohmigosh, you must be Sakari!”

Sakari, normally outspoken, just nodded mutely and took a diagonal step so she was half behind Mako.

Before Ikki could come over and harass Sakari, Tenzin stepped firmly between them. “Sakari and her friends have come here for a very important reason, Ikki, Meelo. I need you two to find somewhere else to be for the time being.”

Ikki’s face fell and Meelo’s lip started trembling in the beginnings of a pout. Mako opened his mouth, intending to say something to stabilize the situation. He wasn’t quite sure what he was going to say when Bolin swept in. He plopped Pabu on Ikki’s head and grinned as he scooped Meelo off the ground with one arm.

“Why don’t you guys go on ahead,” he said. “I’m gonna hang here with the airbender kids.” He gave Meelo a light toss and laughed when the kid bent the air beneath his feet into a cushion before he hit the ground.

“Oh, well, thank you, Bolin.” Tenzin seemed pleasantly surprised.

While Ikki was occupied with petting Pabu on top of her head, Bolin took a few quick steps over toward Mako and Sakari. He gave her a quick side-hug. “I’ll be right down here when it’s ready to go, or if you need any more support hugs.” He shot her a warm smile, then turned to Mako. “If someone up that hill kidnaps her, I’m holding you accountable. Call me if you need backup.” He said it lightly, but Mako knew he meant it.

A moment later, Bolin was right back to playing with the kids, asking them to show him different airbending tricks.

Tenzin didn’t waste the opportunity, whisking Mako and Sakari up the long steps to the main part of the island. He gave a few brief descriptions and some history along the way, keeping the conversation light. Sakari seemed to relax as they got some distance between her and the other kids. She still kept a hand on Naga as they went, however.

As Sakari refused to part with Naga, Tenzin decided they should talk at a semi-secluded pavilion along one side of the island. Sakari seemed even smaller sitting with her back against the huge dog.

“Let me know if it’s time for us to go ahead of schedule.” Mako smiled at her while Tenzin quickly went inside to fetch the letters.

“It’ll be fine,” Sakari said, arms crossed.

“Okay,” Mako said. He leaned back against one of the support columns. Sakari didn’t seem to want to talk, so he just enjoyed the sea breeze until Tenzin returned.

“These are all the letters I’ve received from your parents since you went missing,” he said, handing them to her. “They wrote to me as soon as you disappeared almost two months ago.” The admonishing note that Mako disliked crept back into Tenzin’s voice as he sat down. “They’ve been worried sick,” he said.

Sakari, who had just started to open the first letter, closed it again. She looked right up at Tenzin and frowned, letting the silence go on for several uncomfortable seconds. “I didn’t go missing,” she said at length. “And I didn’t disappear. As I’m certain these letters say, I left them a note telling them both that I’d left and why. Don't act as though I ended up in Republic City by magic. I didn't go missing; I ran away.”

Mako blinked, then moved a step closer to Naga and Sakari to show his support of her statements. She glanced at him before levelling her gaze back on Tenzin.

For his part, Tenzin seemed to be containing a slightly temperamental response. He managed to suppress whatever his first response was, instead merely crossing his arms. “I understand,” he said stiffly. “these are all the letters I've received from your parents since you ran away then. The most recent was received this morning, in response to the message I sent saying that I’d found you.”

Sakari nodded as she opened the first letter back up and began to read in silence.

As she read through all the letters, Mako briefly wondered if they would be enough to change her mind. Though Sakari had held completely firm in her conviction to stay (or at least her decision not to go back) in the couple weeks he’d known her, he had to wonder if reading about her worried-sick-parents might cause a shift.

As she read through, her shoulders lowered and she seemed to soften somewhat. By the time she finished the last letter, Mako was honestly wondering if she’d be getting on a different boat off the island. Found family was all well and good, but she was thirteen, a kid. What kind of kid wouldn’t miss their parents?

She looked up after folding up the last letter. Mako stopped worrying. Though clearly moved, the usual determination he saw in her expression hadn’t faded in the slightest. “I’d like to write a letter to my parents,” she said firmly. “Can I do that here?”

Tenzin nodded. “I’d hoped you would ask, actually.” He smiled gently. “We’ll have to go inside for that. Would it be alright to leave Naga outside?”

Sakari hesitated, leaning further back into Naga’s fluffy fur. Then she nodded. “That’s fine,” she said. “Just for a little bit.”

“Right this way then.”

They left Naga behind in a courtyard and proceeded inside to a small writing desk. Mako looked around the interior curiously. The building was a very sparse style, but it felt more intentional than sparse by necessity. Mako and Bolin’s loft at the arena was sparse because they didn’t have the money to make it anything different.

Once Tenzin settled Sakari with a pen and paper, he seemed a bit fidgety about something. Sakari had settled into a rhythm of writing when he cleared his throat. “Sakari,” he said, “I just wanted to remind you that a great deal of your parents’ anxieties come from your sist—”

“I know! I know where they’re coming from,” Sakari snapped. She took a sharp breath and clenched her hand around the pen. “I’m more than well aware, Master Tenzin.” She brusquely turned back to her letter and continued writing.

Tenzin scrunched his moustache and looked as though he was about to address her tone when a knock sounded at the door. Sakari didn’t look up. Mako glanced at Tenzin and raised an eyebrow. The older man sighed and smoothed out his robes before stepping outside to speak to whoever it was.

While he was gone, Mako leaned against the writing desk. “So... is your sister why you ran away?” He didn’t want to push the issue, but he was dying of curiosity. That and, no matter the circumstances, he couldn’t fathom leaving Bolin behind... anywhere. For any reason.

Sakari wouldn’t quite meet his eyes as she sighed. “I don’t really want to talk about it right now,” she said. “But I can tell you later, another time.”

He wasn’t sure if she was being truthful or not, but he wasn’ about to push it. Also, if it were genuine, it was an answer he could respect. “Sure thing,” he said. “I’ll wait until you bring it up.”

Outside the door, Mako heard a small female voice that reminded him a little of Ikki. As he listened, he could hear Tenzin ask about a tour and a reply something along the lines of being good, but ‘not as good as yesterday.’

A minute later, as Sakari finished the letter, Tenzin opened the door. “Come in,” he said to the girl behind him. “Sakari, are you done?”

Sakari stood up and nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Just finished.”

“I’d like to introduce you to someone.” He stepped aside, revealing a girl who seemed older than Ikki, but younger than Sakari. “This is my eldest child, Jinora.” He gestured back to Sakari and Mako. “Jinora, this is Sakari, whom I’ve mentioned before, and Mako, her friend.”

Jinora took a step forward and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Sakari, Mako.”

She had none of the frantic energy that had radiated off of Ikki and Meelo. Mako sensed Sakari relaxing slightly beside him. “Hello, Jinora,” she said. A beat later, she folded her letter and handed it to Tenzin. “Here’s the letter,” she said.

“Thank you,” Tenzin said. The four of them stood awkwardly.

Sakari cleared her throat. “Have you ever met a polarbear dog?” she asked.

Jinora shook her head. “No. Have you ever met a flying bison?”

“Nope.” Sakari smiled. “Let’s head outside. I’ll introduce you to Naga.”

Tenzin stepped aside, then followed Jinora and and Sakari into the hallway. Mako fell into step beside him as they started making their way back outside. Jinora and Sakari seemed a bit mutually awkward, but friendly enough. Sakari hadn’t frozen up at least.

For all that she was a bending prodigy, she was still a kid. While Mako and Bolin had promised to be there for her, it would be good for Sakari to have a friend her own age.

“That pro-bending match really was something,” Tenzin said stiffly.

“Did you enjoy watching?” Mako raised an eyebrow.

Tenzin didn’t answer for a moment. “Sakari seemed to do alright dodging for the most part, but that one firebending blast knocked her right out of the ring.”

“That was a lucky shot,” Mako said. “I’ve been practicing with her and can tell you with absolute confidence that she can handle her own.”

Tenzin nodded reluctantly. “I have to say, I was impressed for the most part. I knew Sakari was a waterbender, but not the extent of her abilities.”

Mako chuckled. “You should have seen her at our tryouts. She just came in and BAM!” He stopped in the doorway and watched the girls walking into the courtyard where Naga was sleeping. He smiled at them before turning back to Tenzin.

The man didn’t look particularly enamored of the tryouts story. “Where is Sakari staying right now?”

“Bolin and I got a bed made up for her at our loft in the arena. It’s even got security, since the arena gets patrolled regularly.”

“What about food? Do you have enough to feed her?”

Mako crossed his arms. “I’ve got it covered.” He understood Tenzin’s concerns, but didn’t appreciate the implication that he couldn’t take care of her.

“And do you truly have it covered?” Tenzin’s eyebrows drew together. “If it’s a matter of money, I could see about having some—”

“I’ve got things under control.” Mako frowned.

“NAGA! NO!”

Mako whipped his head around to see the giant dog had knocked Jinora flat on her back. Sakari was pushing, with no result, against Naga’s head. The dog seemed to be sniffing Jinora intently.

Mako ran over and helped Sakari push Naga’s nose aside. “Hey, get off her!”

Frankly, Mako didn’t think his efforts made much of a difference. When Naga was done sniffing Jinora, she gave her a big lick and sat up.

“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry!” Sakari dropped to her knees to help Jinora sit up. “Are you okay?”

Jinora nodded mutely. She looked a bit ruffled, but no worse for wear. “Y-yeah.”

Sakari shot a glare at Naga before turning back to Jinora. “I think she likes you. But I’m so, so sorry about that.” Naga didn’t look especially sorry. She kept nudging Sakari’s elbow with her muzzle and looking between her and Jinora.

Jinora chuckled as got back up to her feet. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been bowled over by sky bison before.”

“Oh wow, I’ve only read about sky bison in books before.” Sakari pushed Naga off and rubbed her ears.

“Hey, I heard screaming, is everybody okay?” Bolin dashed around the corner with Ikki sitting on his shoulders and Meelo hanging on one arm. “What happened?”

Ikki catapulted off of Bolin’s head. “Hey! Why does Jinora get to hang out with Sakari?”

Meelo dropped off of Bolin’s arm and spun himself an air scooter before hitting the ground. “Bolin made us ramps to jump off!” he yelled, taking a quick loop around Bolin before he started off for Sakari.

Ikki reached her first. “So we never got to talk about your dog before because I got really distracted by Pabu, who is super cute. That isn’t to say that your dog isn’t cute, just that Pabu’s cuteness factor is so high that most other things just pale in comparison. So I guess I was wondering if I could meet your dog now.”

Sakari opened her mouth, but no words came out. She took a step back.

Mako and Tenzin started forward at the same time.

Before they could make it over, Jinora stepped forward. “Ikki, Meelo, this is Naga.” She gently turned their shoulders to focus on the polarbear dog. “Sakari and I are going to go look at bison, but until we get back, you can play with her.” She glanced back at Sakari. “Do you think they could use her as a ramp for their air scooters?”

Sakari blinked. “Sure,” she said. “What could go wrong?”

Mako wasn’t sure if she meant it sarcastically, but the airbender kids definitely took the statement literally. Jinora gave Ikki and Meelo a quick push towards the dog (who sniffed them, but not nearly as enthusiastically as she had Jinora) and turned back to Sakari. She nodded towards a gate out of the courtyard and the two girls started jogging away before the younger kids could notice.

Tenzin and Mako immediately picked up the pace to follow them. Mako spared a glance back for Bolin. “You got this, bro?”

“I’m good, I got it!” Bolin seemed slightly less than sure, but turned back towards the kids anyway.

Once they were out of sight of the courtyard, Sakari and Jinora slowed down a bit. Mako took the opportunity to tap Tenzin on the shoulder. “Master Tenzin,” he said, “Things aren’t perfect. The schedule is a little hectic and Sakari is gonna get bruises playing as our waterbender.” Tenzin’s frown deepened, but Mako kept going. “But things are as good as they’ve ever been lately. There’s food on the table every day. We have a place to crash. I probably don’t look like it, but I’m responsible. I’ve been looking after Bolin for years. I can handle Sakari, don’t worry.”

Tenzin’s disapproving expression softened. “You’ve been looking after your brother for how long?”

Mako shrugged. “Years. We’re orphans. That’s how it works on the street.” He smiled. “But look at us now: we’re off the street, making an honest living as pro-benders.” He paused. “I also work some hours at the power plant, just to supplement things.”

“You... you do seem to be a capable young man,” Tenzin said at length. “It would reassure me greatly if I could check in from time to time, but...”

“Not a problem,” Mako said. Plus, if Tenzin brought Jinora when he came to check on them, it would mean a bit more normal kid socialization for Sakari.

He smiled, watching Jinora introduce Sakari to a sky bison named Oogi. Jinora nearly fell over laughing when the bison gave Sakari a gigantic lick in greeting!

Mako chuckled. Beside him, Tenzin covered his mouth and laughed quietly.

“Do you want to ride him?” Jinora asked when Sakari recovered from the lick.

Sakari bounced on her feet. “Oh that would be so—” She stopped, then glanced back at Mako and frowned. “Sorry, Jinora,” she said, turning back. “That sounds really fun, but Mako, Bolin, and I haven’t had dinner yet.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “We should probably actually be heading out soon.”

Tenzin took a few steps forward. “You could stay for dinner here,” he offered. “Though I’m sure you know everything is vegetarian.”

Sakari turned and smiled at Mako. He shrugged back at her. It was his policy to never pass up a free meal, but if Sakari wanted to head out he wouldn’t try and make her stay.

“Let’s stay for dinner then,” she said.

“Sounds like a plan.” Mako smiled.

The four of them strolled back to the courtyard of the main building at a leisurely pace.

“Have you ever read about Avatar Aang’s adventures?” Sakari asked, tentative.

Jinora smiled. “He’s my grandfather! Of course I have!” She sighed. “I just wish we would take a trip to the south pole! I have so many questions I want to ask Gran-gran about what happened after they defeated the Fire Lord.”

Sakari smiled broadly. “Well... as it happens, I’ve talked to Master Katara about that stuff plenty! She’s my waterbending teacher!”

Mako raised an eyebrow at that bit of information (it would explain part of Sakari’s abilities, being trained by a world-famous waterbending master), but said nothing as Sakari and Jinora chatted amiably about Aang’s adventures. As they drew near to the main building, he turned to Tenzin. “Say, how about you and Jinora come out and watch our semifinals match,” he said. “The two of you could watch from backstage.”

Tenzin tilted his head and stopped walking for a beat. He nodded. “That sounds like a good plan,” he said.

* * *

“Okay, so that guy was totally trained in Northern Water Tribe style,” Naga said. “Watch his feet. Wait, there!” She pointed. “See the way he turned his ankle on that move?”

Asami leaned forward, following Naga’s gaze. She hadn’t noticed before, but there was definitely something there. “Okay, so what kind of implications does that have?”

“Well because of how Northern Style sets their stances, it leaves a hard tension along the calf that can be exploited by a hard, low sideblow.”

“Really...” Asami scribbled a note in her notebook. She’d never considered the advantages that could be exploited between different basic schools of bending, as opposed to just the differences between fire, water, and earth. She tapped a pen against her lips, then scribbled something else down. “But are the differences enough to take advantage of them without prior study?”

“I guess it comes down to the process of practicing identification and being able to reincorporate it on the fly,” Naga said, shrugging.

Asami glanced toward her and raised an eyebrow. “Does it now?” She couldn’t begin to guess where Naga had learned all of this. The way she talked, it was clearly more than pure theory. The more astute observations and technical discussions had snuck their way in, little by little, as the matches went on.

At first, they’d both tried to backtrack away from their obviously combat-minded perspectives. But... by the seventh match it was almost a game, pretending their discussion was focused solely on the match at hand.

Naga took on an innocent expression. She looked awkward, but her smile was genuine. “Maybe.”

“I’ll, ah, take that into account.” Asami smiled back, studying Naga closely. Despite knowing Asami was an Equalist, she hadn’t made a move one way or another with the information. She could tell the other girl was being generally honest with her, but she was clearly keeping a secret of some sort. Her eyes, blue and alert, studied Asami right back.

Their gazes met and they laughed. Asami didn’t feel threatened around Naga, which also made her wonder if she was overthinking things. Whatever her secret was, she’d been good company at the pro-bending match for the past several hours.

Naghaz cleared his throat. “Well you’ll have to excuse me, ladies. I have to go take a leak. I’ll be back in time for the last match.”

Asami chuckled, though Naga seemed a bit embarrassed by her uncle’s behavior.

“Sorry about him,” Naga whispered.

“That’s alright,” Asami said. “He’s got a lot of character.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Sorry for commandeering your family outing, by the way.”

“No, no,” Naga waved her off. “I was the one who approached you and invited you back. If I ended up talking to you more than my uncle, that’s alright. He’s pretty chill.”

Frankly, Asami wasn’t sure she’d met someone more laid back in months. She couldn’t tell if it was his real attitude or if she was just surrounded by disproportionately uptight people. Between Future Industries and her Equalist work, she didn’t meet a lot of laidback people. “He’s a nice guy,” she said. More than being genuinely funny in his own right, she found she liked him because of the obvious rapport he had with Naga. They were funny and genuinely relaxing to be around. He seemed completely tuned out from the discussion Naga and Asami were having, however. Did he know what Naga’s secret was? Wherever she’d learned this stuff, was it tied to her family, or completely separate?

Or was Asami just overthinking a stranger who knew some convenient trivia? She sighed.

“Say, are you busy after this?” Naga smiled. “Let’s grab some dinner together. I can only subsist on popcorn for so long.”

Asami smiled back instinctively. She was halfway to saying ‘Yeah’ when she remembered her obligations. Her mother would be expecting her to supervise the shipment. “Sorry,” she said. “I’ve got something I have to go take care of right after this last match.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you the next time I conveniently run into you then.” Naga frowned.

“Is it possible to schedule a random encounter?” Asami tilted her head. She wasn’t about to give Naga her full name and contact information, but she did hope to see the other young woman again sometime soon.

Naga snapped her fingers. “How about this: let’s meet up at the next pro-bending match? We could cheer on the Fire Ferrets and Rabaroos together in the semifinals.”

Frankly, Asami had no idea if she’d be able to sneak out to semifinals. She probably couldn’t justify another ‘research’ trip. “I don’t think that’s possible,” she admitted.

Naga’s face fell. Asami immediately regretted not being able to go.

“It’s not possible,” she continued, “because the Fire Ferrets and Rabaroos are playing one another in the semis.” She stuck her tongue out as Naga’s expression leapt from disappointment to indignant happiness.

“That was terrible.”

Asami laughed. “I know.”

“At the next match then?”

“Deal.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: City of Plots and Secrets
(It's a Small City After All)

 

“The mecha suit interiors were delivered on schedule,” Asami said. She handed a stack of papers to her mother on her right without looking at her. “I’ve prepared a timeline of expected delivery waves.”

The papers circulated around the table. The Equalist leaders nodded as they skimmed down the report.

Amon didn’t look down at the paper. “Will they be done in time for our revolution?”

“Not all of them,” Asami said. She held back a sigh. Her mother had a habit of talking up their production capabilities when the reality was reasonable, but not quite that fast. “But a significant portion will be complete. More than enough for our needs and equal to what was requisitioned.” Though she couldn’t see his face, she could sense Amon’s displeasure. “The first two waves of production will be complete in time for our takeover,” she clarified. “and they are more than equal to our requirements. My risk analysis has estimated that anticipated mecha suit damages and losses in that first attack should be recuperated and exceeded by the third wave’s completion.”

Liu nodded. If it wasn’t a meeting, Asami sensed that he would have shot her a smile. “It sounds as though you’re right on schedule,” he said.

“Our underground production team is working round the clock,” Yasuko said.

Asami nodded, but it wasn’t quite true. They didn’t have enough workers to maintain that kind of pace and she refused to work them to death. The Equalist production team was, however, sleeping on-premises. That was close enough, and her mother was too busy to visit the factory personally, so it didn’t matter.

“Good,” Amon said. “Anything else?”

It wasn’t quite a real question. It was the sort of thing people said in meetings to get things moving on to the next topic.

But Asami cleared her throat. “Yes, actually.” She pulled out another stack of papers and handed them to Yasuko again. “I’ve compiled a list of fine-point notes on fighting benders of different styles. Most of the information is on the notes I’ve prepared, but it amounts to small tweaks an experienced chi-blocker could take advantage of. The notes feature shorthands to quickly diagnose a bender’s background based on their stance and quick takedowns or weak points inherent to that style.”

“This is… unexpected.” Amon’s voice bore a trace of surprise. “A curious field of study for an engineer to pursue.”

Asami felt her mother’s eyes on her and turned to meet her sharp gaze. “Indeed,” Yasuko said. “Where did you pick this up again?”

An image of Naga’s smiling face flashed into her mind, full of laughter and sharp perceptions. Asami pushed the memory of the girl aside. “I attended the pro-bending quarterfinal matches,” she said, “and took notes on my observations.” Granted, those observations hadn’t been made entirely alone, but they didn’t need to know that.

“Well done,” Liu said, flipping through her notes. He nodded, clearly impressed. The rest of the table seemed fairly interested as well, though her mother had yet to open her copy of the notes.

“I have a bit of additional research as well,” Asami said, stifling a yawn. Once Naga got her started thinking about it, the topic had been too interesting to resist looking into further. “To maximize usability, I did some supplemental research.” She pulled out a hefty report and slid it down the table to Liu. “I did a breakdown of some demographic information, specifically for your forces, Lieutenant. That should tell you where in the city you’re most likely to face benders hailing from certain schools of combat. I cross-referenced that information with what we already know about the triads to make a quick-reference list. It may not be helpful if our people are jumped in an alley, but for pre-planned strikes, I thought it might be of some help.”

“Potentially,” said the Director of Recruitment. He crossed his arms. “And it’s impressive, it really is, but I’m not sure how applicable it would be for my students.”

“Not yours, no.” Liu waved a hand. He was already several pages into her demographic report, glancing quickly between it and the bender style notes. “It would just complicate things for beginning chi-blockers,” he said, “But this will be an excellent course of study for my advanced students.” He inclined his head toward her. “Thank you, Asami,” he said.

“It’s impressive,” Amon said, though he didn’t sound especially pleased. “In the short time since you’ve taken up a position at this table, you’ve taken strong initiative towards furthering our cause.” He nodded an acknowledgement toward her. “Maintain that fervor,” he said. “Dangerous waters await us.”

He shifted his attention across the table toward a woman with graying hair pulled into a severe bun. “You are the Equalist finger on Republic City’s pulse,” he said. “We can all feel the energy shifting within the people of this city. What perspectives can you offer?”

“Tarrlok requires our attention,” she said immediately. “His task force began as a premature response, a way for him to get on the streets, pose for photos, and prove himself to be a small nuisance. In many ways, his premature response was a good thing for us, at least in the realm of public relations.” Her expression hardened. “Since his bust on one of our training facilities, however, this task force has proven more and more troublesome.”

“Our facilities haven’t been compromised a second time,” Liu said. Asami remembered he had been more than personally offended by the first raid’s success.

“No, but his crackdowns are coming down on unaffiliated non-benders now,” the older woman continued. “It’s a complete abuse of bending authority. To compensate for his own inability to land another blow on our movement, he’s responded by randomly and harshly enforcing the curfews.”

Someone farther down the table said, “Those have been in place for months now. They’re never enforced.”

“Well Tarrlok has decided that selective and outrageous abuses of the law are par for the course for the non-benders of this city.” The woman turned to Amon. “I understand that the takeover is coming, as is our action for the pro-bending finals. However, I would implore you, Amon, and the board, to consider more expedited action against Tarrlok.”

Asami’s hands clenched under the table. She felt her jaw locking and, with everybody else, her gaze swiveled down the table toward Amon.

More and more frequently lately, Asami found herself at odds with the movement. She would never admit it in this room, but she honestly couldn’t say she supported the full takeover. So many times, the Equalists had responded to stimuli moving to a further extreme, leaving her behind.

But this. This she could agree with. Tarrlok personified all the reasons she was an Equalist.

Everyone looked down the table, waiting on Amon’s word.

Amon nodded. “We will send a message.”

Asami smiled grimly. Allowing Tarrlok’s abuses to continue unabated… she couldn’t imagine it.

“We’ll take him,” Amon continued. “Vanish him into the night. Leave no trace, just enough hints to leave us credit.”

“When?” Liu asked, always business.

Amon considered. “After finals. Before the takeover.”

The conversation quickly shifted to listing necessary roles. Who would be on the strike team? Who would manage retrieval? Where would they move him?

Amon seemed uncharacteristically involved, but that was to be expected. Tarrlok wasn’t just another kidnapped bender, he was a politician.

Yasuko, who normally jumped in to offer perspectives, seemed oddly uninvolved. Asami ignored her. Her mother had been acting coldly since their argument over Future Industries, priorities, and the pro-bending match. She knew Yasuko had met Tarrlok a few times on business, but if she wasn’t inclined to share any of that information there wasn’t anything Asami could do about that.

Eventually Liu frowned. “We’ll need observant members to do some reconnaissance on both his home and his office at city hall.” He tugged on his mustache. “I don’t have any intel on either, and we need to choose our strike location quickly.”

“I’ll do it,” Asami said abruptly.

The table turned to look at her, minus her mother. At this point in the meeting, Asami was almost used to it.

“We’ll need that to happen today, if we’re going to plan and carry out our strikes in time,” Liu said. “Are you sure you have the time?” His frown spoke to more than just the concerns of business, but she could assuage his concerns later.

Asami could see her mother turn and look at her finally. They were supposed to work together this afternoon, making a dent in their joint list of engineering projects.

But Asami didn’t really feel like playing the pet inventor, not when she knew they would only work on the projects her mother prioritized. She’d presented her own findings today, contributing as a member of the board, not as Yasuko’s daughter. She had her own research and her own projects that were valuable to the organization.

Briefly, she met her mother’s eyes. She couldn’t tell what Yasuko was thinking behind the mask of neutrality she wore, but she knew her mother would not approve of Asami breaking their normal schedule.

“I’m open,” she said. “Though I only have time to cover one location.” Taking an afternoon break was fine, but Asami did have stuff to get done.

“You can get Tarrlok’s house then,” the Director boomed. “One of my new recruits does the cleaning at City Hall. I’ll get in contact with her and we’ll get the intel on his office. As things stand, I can tell you Tarrlok consistently works late nights in his office.”

“This is perfect,” Liu said. He started taking brisk notes. “Once I receive the reports, I’ll compile a team and choose a night between finals and the takeover.” He glanced up at both Asami and the Director. “Whichever location we choose, I’ll want the recon for that place to come along with us, so either you, Asami, or your recruit from City Hall.”

The director nodded. Asami did too, after a beat. She hadn’t expected to tag along on the mission itself. There really wasn’t any backing out of it at this point, however.

She’d think about it some more. If she were really so uncomfortable, she would speak to Liu privately and ask him if she could sit this one out. And all this was only if they chose to do the strike at Tarrlok’s house anyway.

“Continue your preparations, Lieutenant,” Amon said. “But account for my presence as well. From the intelligence I’ve heard, Tarrlok is no armchair bending politician. Though I have full confidence in your abilities, I will be accompanying the team as well.”

Asami swallowed hard. For Amon to come along was even more unusual. There was also no backing out on her end if he was accompanying them. Still, this was better than playing the pet inventor back at home. If she got back early enough, she could work on her own projects in her private workshop.

She spent the rest of the meeting mentally reviewing what she knew about Tarrlok. She’d passed by his home a few times, but had never gone inside. Still, Asami was familiar with that part of town. She would have to drop by the house to pick up some stealth gear, but after that she could head right over. Asami was, as Amon had said, primarily an engineer. Asami didn’t wear the full Equalist chi-blocker garb much, but the prospect excited her. Whenever she did wear it, she felt capable and alert, ready to take action.

At least spying on Tarrlok was something she could say, definitively, was the right thing to do. Lately, that assurance seemed to be a rare commodity.

* * *

Breaking into benders’ houses was always the easiest. They always valued their own strength over spending money on better security, better locks, or anything that might actually prevent Korra from breaking in.

First: the retaining wall. Tarrlok’s home had a small, pretty courtyard contained by a decorative wall of interlocked stone and metal. She couldn’t just bend it, and even though she was certain Tarrlok’s guards didn’t stand a chance, Korra passed them by and circled around back. Lightly dragging her fingers along the stone, she eventually felt the back gate at the rear corner of the courtyard.

No waterbender would trap themselves behind a wall they couldn’t bend. Not without an escape.

To the average passerby, this just looked like another stretch of the wall. Standing right by it, however, she could see a pair of well-formed holes trying to pass themselves off as cracks in the mortar.

And what other key for a powerful waterbender but water itself? Korra casually pulled on her gloves while she waited for a few passerby to reach the end of the alley. Once they were out of sight, she quickly pulled out a tendril of water from her supply and split it, sending it into the cracks.

Inside, she could sense the water navigating a complex mechanism. Frankly, she wasn’t quite sure how it worked. Engineering wasn’t exactly her strong suit. She had, however, learned how to pick locks when she was ten.

A lock’s unlocked state was always set far away from its state of rest. It wouldn’t do for Tarrlok’s door to pop open in a rainstorm, and the advantage of water in this instance was its ability to fill organic spaces.

She guided her water upward, around several bends, until it reached a small chamber. Korra clenched her fist and froze it inside. The ice expanded and pushed the buttons. Leaning against the wall, Korra felt a small pop. She smirked as she let herself inside, drawing the water back out of the lock on the way. She pulled on a face covering as the door shut behind her.

After the wall came the house. Houses were her favorite part, actually. Under Zaheer and Ming Hua’s guidance, Korra had broken into and out of forts, palaces, storage barns, and battleships.

But houses were so ordinary and she’d never lived in one, not long-term. They were common, but foreign. Maybe that’s why she liked them.

Rich people’s homes were especially foreign to her. She usually wasn’t even sure what half the rooms in the house were for. They’d done a few undercover visits, posing as merchants and receiving a few tours, but Korra mostly just learned that The Red Lotus had an unintentional tradition of killing people in their front halls.

She waited behind a bush until one of the guards went by, making her rounds. She tailed the woman about halfway around the building to visually confirm that she went back to the front gate. She wanted to ditch the guard earlier, but this was one of Zaheer’s more insistent lessons. She thought out strategy in the meantime.

If Ming-Hua was taking point on Tarrlok’s assassination, Korra would want to scout out a staged route for her. P’li preferred Korra to pick a single vantage point she could aim from, and Zaheer needed the ability to get into close quarters as quickly as possible. Ghazan was as likely to sink the foundation in lava as he was to use the door, but Ming-Hua excelled moving from strong location to strong location, preferably with water nearby.

Patience was not in Korra’s nature, but she waited anyway, if only to credit her teachers. Once the guard was back where she belonged, Korra returned to studying the building for entry points, backtracking to a side door she’d passed earlier near one of the courtyard’s many ponds. That would be a good point for Ming-Hua to enter from.

A cursory test revealed the door was unlocked. She rolled her eyes. Trusting in walls made people careless of their homes, but at least it made her job easier. She slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her.

Glancing around, Korra took in Tarrlok’s enormous, obnoxious atrium and smirked. He had an expensive-looking water feature that ran the length of the room down the center.

“Nice room to die in,” she whispered to herself. “Another front hall job.”

She resisted the urge to swipe one of Tarrlok’s many Water Tribe artifacts, bone clubs and intricately carved necklaces, out of a nearby case. She had a particular weakness for Water Tribe things, since she’d grown up away from her culture, but she knew better than to steal on a mission. Most of it seemed to be in the Northern style anyway, which interested her less.

Korra’s footsteps made no sound as she went from room to room, making a mental map of the layout. She kept to the edges of the room, where the floorboards were less likely to creak, and away from carpets that might leave behind the depression of a footprint. P’li and Zaheer had taught her to step lightly until the very moment she needed to come down with force. Something about the silence in her stride made her smile. She’d tell them all about it once they came back from their missions.

Her skills would be part of what brought Tarrlok down, along with the rest of The Red Lotus’ efforts.

And, looking around his house, Korra disliked him more and more. She wasn’t quite the minimalist that Zaheer was. She was totally attached to her double bedroll in the apartment’s closet, but the extravagance in Tarrlok’s furnishings (Fire Nation silk on a set of hand-carved Earth Kingdom chairs?) was almost disgusting.

“Are Republic City’s taxpayers paying for this junk?” she mumbled, stepping around a display of Unagi vases from Kyoshi Island. The house seemed to exude richness, beyond even what a corrupt government could buy. If tax money hadn’t bought it, Korra had little doubt that the money was dirty some other way.

She finished making her rounds of the house and started making her way back to the atrium, plotting out a pair of alternate approaches that would suit Ming-Hua’s style.

Korra had just noted that Tarrlok’s house had some really interesting rafters when she heard footsteps. She ducked behind some ornate drapery and listened to the steps draw closer. Briefly, she felt thankful that Tarrlok had chosen a heavy, thick fabric that hid her well.

The newcomer stepped in, then paused. Korra kept her breathing level. She knew better than to hold her breath. The footsteps continued, but there was something odd about them. Her eyes narrowed. Though they’d sounded loud in the quiet house, the steps were actually rather light, too light to belong to a tall man like Tarrlok. In addition, though the person wasn’t as practiced as Korra was, they were clearly trying to stay quiet.

A smile tugged at the corners of Korra’s lips. Tarrlok really needed to stop spending money on his furniture and invest in better guards. Korra was not the only intruder in the house.

She waited until she could hear the steps drawing closer to the room’s other door. Unless the newcomer was walking through the doorway backwards, they would not see Korra as she peered around the drapes for a quick look at the intruder: an Equalist.

She recognized the chi-blocker’s costume immediately, but something else about the woman seemed familiar in the way she moved. She was tall and had a few loose strands of wavy black hair poking out of her hood.

Korra squinted. Was that Asami?

She lost the chance to continue analyzing the figure before she disappeared into the other room. Briefly, Korra debating just leaving. It was not safe to continue investigating the house if someone else was doing the same for some unknown purpose.

But how many tall lady Equalists had wavy black hair and walked like a businesswoman?

Korra extracted herself from the curtains and quickly followed after. She had to find out. It felt like torture to go slowly enough to stay silent, but if it wasn’t Asami... well, silence would be a priority. After an eternity, she’d circled around the edge of the room and made it to the doorway.

Peering through, Korra couldn’t deny it. The Equalist was wearing goggles that concealed her eyes, but Asami’s same shade of lipstick. Despite the hood, adorned with the red Equalist circle, Asami’s hair was recognizable as it poked out of the side.

A smile tugged at Korra’s lips. Asami even had the same notebook Korra had seen her using at the quarterfinal match.

Briefly, Korra debated calling out to her. Something along the lines of ‘fancy meeting you here!’ but it didn’t seem quite appropriate.

That and the bulky glove Asami was sporting on her right hand didn’t strike Korra as the kind of thing she’d like to be on the end of. It looked… weapon-ish. Despite their burgeoning friendship, Korra really didn’t know what Asami’s capabilities were.

Well, except that she could only walk so quietly. Maybe it came from too much time wearing heels?

Korra slipped away from the doorway without a sound, making her way around the house in the other direction. She just needed to secure one more escape route and she’d be up to quota for her scouting mission. Her training told her to leave, that she could come back later and finish, but she was almost done and it was only Asami.

She was in the middle of testing a window that had been painted shut when the hair stood up on the back of her neck. The window popped open under her hands. Korra hesitated a moment and the fearful anxiety grew. She listened to her instincts and slipped out the window in time to hear Tarrlok’s distant conversation with a guard outside the house.

He was supposed to be in a meeting for the rest of the afternoon. Korra sighed. At least she’d finished her scouting. She’d just figure out her last escape route option as she exited the property.

Korra kept low as she navigated the roof to a low point she’d noticed earlier near the garden shed. Still, the fear sense refused to dissipate. Irritated, Korra kept her breathing steady, trying to fight the irrational pressure in her chest.

She’d seen Tarrlok just yesterday, having gone with Ming-Hua to blend in with a crowd outside city hall and get a look at him. He hadn’t looked threatening, just sleazy. He was just another politician.

Korra clambered up the side of the garden shed and pressed a palm to her forehead. She could feel a vision coming on, edging in at the edge of her consciousness. It took almost all her concentration to suppress it as she leapt from the shed to the top of the wall.

The vision pressed against her concentration as she pulled herself up onto the wall itself. “Not now, Aang,” she muttered, wincing at her sudden headache. Perched on top of a councilman’s retaining wall really wasn’t a good time to stop and indulge in a flashback.

Her footing wasn’t the best, but Korra decided to go with it and opted for a less-than-graceful descent. She slipped down the roof of the wall, catching the edge with her fingers before swinging down to the ground. She stabilized the ground beneath her feet with a bit of invisible earthbending, one of the only subtle tricks Ghazan had taught her.

The vision caught her then.

Twitching fingers flashed across her vision. Korra recoiled, or maybe that had been Aang?

Her body seemed distant, but she distantly felt herself stumble forward down the alley. Still, she felt Aang’s presence, like they were both reaching out a hand to stop… something, someone.

Instead of the alley she was running down, all Korra could see was a pair of eyes, wide and crazed. The pupils shrunk to dots and Korra felt Aang’s body seize before her vision flashed white

Back in the alley, Korra sloppily turned a corner, rubbing her eyes to dissipate the afterimage left by Aang’s vision.

Several steps later, her sight cleared up. She recognized Asami a beat before she crashed into her.

They hit the ground, and hard. Still, Korra wasted no time scrambling to her feet and settling back into a cautious stance. Did their odd rules of friendship still apply under these circumstances? “Uh, hey there, Asami.”

Asami was a hair slower in recovering, but she moved back in similar pose with her gloved hand extended. Her eyes narrowed behind her goggles. “Naga?”

“Oh, sorry.” Korra smacked a hand against her forehead before pulling her face-covering off. “Yeah, uh, it’s me.”

They regarded one another for a moment. Neither of them dropped their guard. But the fear-sense from before had vanished. Asami didn’t feel dangerous to Korra. She was the same person whose company she’d enjoyed at the quarterfinals match, the same girl who had patched Korra up after The Revelation.

Korra cracked the first smile. “We have to stop meeting like this,” she said, relaxing her stance.

Asami hesitated, then smiled back. “Yeah?” She lowered her glove. “You said you’d call me the next time the police were chasing you. You’re out here with a mask on and I don’t even get a heads-up?”

Korra’s laugh froze in her throat. “Wait, the police are here?”

“I could have sworn that’s why Tarrlok…” Asami frowned, then glanced around. “Nevermind. We should probably find somewhere else to catch up though.”

“Agreed.”

They fell immediately into the pattern from the night they met. Asami led the way, being more familiar with the streets. Korra followed, although she kept her wits about her. She trusted Asami enough to assume they weren’t going into a trap, but that wouldn’t stop someone from following them.

And if Asami glanced back at her a few times and noticed Korra keeping watch, well, she didn’t seem to mind.

Still, Korra wasn’t exactly sure how long the ‘innocent non-bender’ cover story was going to fly. Zaheer wasn’t exactly a model non-bender, and she was fairly certain that Republic City’s average citizen didn’t randomly don stealth clothing during the late afternoon.

She followed Asami around a few bends until they were tucked in a small alcove off an alley. “We should be good here,” Asami said.

“Seems cozy,” Korra said. They exchanged awkward smiles before they both started adjusting their outfits to look like normal street-clothing. Korra stowed her face-covering in her bag and put her hair back in its usual low ponytail.

“So what brings you to this part of the neighborhood?” Asami asked, pulling on the jacket she’d worn at quarterfinals with the gears on the shoulders. She sounded so excessively casual that Korra had to smile.

“Oh, you know.” Korra shrugged. “I just love going for jogs. I’m trying to get to know the city better. I like the wind in my face.” She winked.

Asami pulled her goggles off and fluffed her hair, which looked instantly fabulous. “Uh huh.” A smile played at the corner of her lips. Somehow, she still hadn’t smudged her lipstick. “I mean, I just love going for jogs with my face covered too. Really helps me air out my skin.”

“Is that what you were doing too?” Korra raised an eyebrow and met Asami’s gaze  with a one-sided smile. “I hear that Councilman Tarrlok has a really great running path in his courtyard,” she said. “Or were you there on business, maybe checking if his floors need to be, ahem, leveled?”

That caused Asami to still. Her expression sharpened and Korra wondered if this was the end of the joking. A beat later, Asami tossed her hair over her shoulder. “If you were nearby, you should have said something,” she said, mock-offended.

Korra stifled a wince as she laughed, pulling the covers off her boots. She’d forgotten that Asami hadn’t known she was in Tarrlok’s house too. That was probably information she shouldn’t have revealed. “We’ll have to make reservations together next time,” she said. She flashed a smile at Asami, but couldn’t quite mitigate the tensions between them.

“That would be something,” Asami said. “I’d love to see what you can do.”

And Korra could hear a strain there, something that wasn’t entirely friendship and jokes. Asami’s smile had tightened, her eyes not as green without her goggles, but still narrowed.

“I’m just a girl who doesn’t like eating bugs while she’s out on a jog,” Korra said, stuffing the last of her outfit back in her bag.

“Are you?” Asami tilted her head, expression lighter. She made the question sound more philosophical than practical, and Korra got the sense that she wasn’t supposed to answer. If she were to do so, what could she say?

Heavy footsteps trampled in the distance. Korra glanced back toward the alley for a moment, then back to Asami.

Korra opened her mouth to say something, but the rumbling footsteps had begun to sound steadily closer. She said, “What’s that?” instead of answering Asami’s question, then stepped out into the alley just in time to see a gigantic white polar bear dog round the corner and start charging right toward her.

She had a split-second to get into a grounded stance and make a preemptive strike. On instinct she moved one foot back and lowered her center of gravity, but continuing from that to actually attack felt so wrong.

She couldn’t explain it, but a smile appeared on her face moments before the dog bowled her over.

An urgent nose sniffed Korra from head to toe before giving her a big lick across the face. That lick was quickly followed by another one, and another one, and another one.

Korra started laughing. Though the polar bear dog wasn’t pinning her down, she could hardly move under the onslaught of kisses. And, like with Asami, she didn’t feel threatened (even though this dog was huge and maybe Korra should have been). The animal clearly only meant her well, and Korra couldn’t bring herself to hurt anything like that.

“Are… are okay down there?”

Korra looked to the side to see Asami leaned down, looking caught between concern and amusement.

“Yeah, actually,” Korra said. She chuckled and reached up to ruffle the dog’s ears. “I’m an animal person, what can I say.”

“OH SPIRITS!”

Korra tried to look up at the new voice, but couldn’t see around the dog. Asami straightened up and turned toward the end of the alley.

Korra moved her hands under the dog’s chin to get her to stop licking constantly. That seemed to work well enough and she was able to crane her neck to see the girl as she approached.

“I AM SO, SO SORRY!” Light footsteps pounded closer. “She ran off and I couldn’t keep ahold of her.”

A water tribe girl came into view, about eleven or so. The idea of her keeping control of a dog this big was, frankly, hilarious. Korra chuckled continued petting the dog’s head. “It’s alright, kid,” she said. “Maybe help me up though?”

“Of course!” The girl knelt beside the dog and gave her a stern glare. “Get up,” she said, “Right now! You’re being a very bad polar bear dog!”

The dog seemed contrite, or as contrite as a giant dog could get. She whined and gave Korra one last nuzzle before pulling back and sitting beside the girl, whom she doubled in height. Despite this difference, the water tribe kid immediately started lecturing the dog in a stern whisper, pulling her muzzle back whenever she turned to look back at Korra.

Asami crouched beside Korra and held out a hand. “You alright?” she asked.

Korra nodded and grunted, “Yeah,” as Asami helped her up. Upon standing, she stretched and winced. “That’ll be a bruise in the morning.”

“What, your whole back?” Asami was half-smiling, but her eyebrows had drawn together in concern.

“Maybe.” Korra flashed her a smile before turning back to the girl and her dog. Upon getting a good look at the former, she frowned. “Hey,” she said, “You seem kind of familiar.”

The girl turned toward Korra and frowned. “I do?” She glanced between Korra and Asami and frowned. “I don’t think I’ve met either of you.”

Something about her features was definitely familiar. Korra frowned, trying to place her. She’d been all over the world and met kids from dozens of villages. She’d never been to the water tribes, specifically, but there were plenty of water tribe expat villages.

The dog leaned her head out and licked Korra’s hand. Without thinking, Korra started scratching behind her ears. “I’ve totally seen you before,” she said. “Are you from—“

Asami gave Korra’s hand a sudden squeeze, then dropped it. “I know where we’ve seen you!” she said, smiling broadly. “You’re Sakari. You play for the Fire Ferrets!”

The girl blinked, then smiled. “Oh yeah,” she said. “I am. I do.”

“There we go.” Korra nodded at Asami. “Nice job.”

“You’re welcome.” Asami shrugged modestly. “Anyway, I’m Asami.” She gestured to Korra. “And this is Naga.”

Sakari got a strange look on her face. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m Sakari and, uh, this is Naga?”

“Yes?” Korra frowned. “I am?” Well, she wasn’t, but she wouldn’t say that.

The dog moved forward and licked Korra’s cheek again with an urgent whine.

Asami blinked and put a hand over her mouth to cover a laugh. “Wait,” she said, “are you saying that your dog’s name is…”

“Naga?” Sakari frowned. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry, just… your dog is named Naga” Asami laughed and put a hand on Korra’s shoulder. “And my friend’s name is also Naga.”

“Oh!” Sakari giggled. “I get it now.” She held out a hand. “Nice to meet you, Naga. I see you’ve already met Naga.”

Korra shook her hand, fighting a mild blush rising in her cheeks. She knew her alias sounded a bit like a dog’s name, but she hadn’t thought she’d actually meet a dog with the same name. “Yeah,” she said, “we’ve made one another’s acquaintance.”

A bit of red caught her eye. Korra glanced over and realized that Asami’s hand on her shoulder was still holding the Equalist hood with the big red dot on it. She’d probably been about to put it away when the dog crashed into Korra. If this Sakari was the Fire Ferrets’ Sakari, then she had definitely seen the Equalist uniforms when she broke out of The Revelation.

Probably not a good connection for their new friend to make, though Sakari didn’t seem to have noticed the hood yet. Korra smiled and turned toward Naga. “You have a very, ah, enthusiastic dog.”

When Sakari turned to face the dog as well, Korra took the opportunity to slip the hood out of Asami’s hand and casually tuck it into the back of her own belt. Her eyes quickly met Asami’s before she returned her attention to Sakari.

“Yeah, she’s not normally this friendly with strangers,” the girl said. She gave no sign she’d seen Korra stash the hood in her belt. “I’m really so sorry about this, she’s never done this before. You probably just smell like meat or something.”

Asami stifled another giggle.

Sakari slapped a hand over her mouth. “Wait! Not that I’m saying you smell like meat!”

The hand over her mouth muffled her voice and Korra laughed. “No, it’s fine, really. I tend to get along with most animals.”

Naga pushed her nose against Korra’s arm and whined before butting her whole head against Korra’s shoulder.

Sakari strained, but managed to pull Naga back. “Stop that!” she said. She looked apologetically back toward Asami and Korra. “I’m so, so sorry, again. I didn’t mean to mess up your, uh.” She paused and tilted her head, clearly trying to figure out why Korra and Asami were together in the corner of an alley.

“We were just meeting up,” Asami interjected, voice smooth, “on our way to dinner together.”

The alley wasn’t quite the picturesque meeting place, but Korra nodded. Better to have a weak cover than no cover at all.

“Okay,” Sakari said. An odd smile played at the corners of her mouth. “Uh, were you two planning on going to the semifinal match together?”

Korra glanced at Asami before smiling. “Yeah, actually,” she said.

Naga pulled out of Sakari’s grasp and butted her head against Korra’s shoulder again, knocking her back a step. She licked Korra’s face twice and whined again, long and loud.

“Okay Naga you seriously need to stop that.” Sakari had to lean her entire body weight against the dog’s harness in order to pull her back, or at least to convince Naga to step back on her own accord. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “Anyway, if you two are going together, let me make it up to you for this whole thing.  I’ll have some comp tickets waiting for you at the box office.”

“That would be great,” Asami said. “I can’t wait to see you guys play again.”

At least Asami didn’t seem mad about Korra saying they were going together. Then again, Asami had said they were on their way to dinner, so maybe it didn’t matter all that much.

“If you’d like,” Sakari said, “you could even come backstage after semis are over.” She smiled. “We’ve drawn the first match slot and I have a friend visiting me right after ours, but I could show you around after semis close and you could meet the rest of the Fire Ferrets.”

“That sounds really cool, actually,” Korra said. She turned to Asami and tilted her head. “You in?”

Asami smiled. “Free tickets and a backstage pass? Of course I’m in!”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” Sakari said. Naga was straining to reach Korra again, but Sakari had placed herself between them and was pushing her back against the large polar bear dog. It seemed as though Naga’s reluctance to hurt Sakari by knocking her down was the only thing keeping her from going back to lick Korra’s face again.

In the distance, someone called Sakari’s name.

“Tomorrow then,” Asami said. Korra waved and a beleaguered Sakari waved back before she managed to push Naga around the corner and out of the alley.

Korra and Asami took a deep breath in unison.

“Well,” Korra said, trying to fix her dog-slobbered hair. “That was… something.”

Asami laughed weakly. “It was very strange,” she said. “I don’t suppose you know the dog somehow?” She returned her attention to her bag and resumed packing it up with her Equalist outfit.

“Nope.” Korra rubbed her neck. “I’ve most certainly never met a dog that big. Or a polar bear dog in general.” Korra had a habit of making friends with animals in whatever towns The Red Lotus passed through towns and villages. She would certainly have remembered such a creature. She had a bit of a weakness for dogs in particular.

She resisted the urge to share her first memory with Asami. It was her only memory from before The Red Lotus liberated her. Korra had been out in the snow, bundled up in a big, puffy parka. Despite this, she’d somehow managed to drag a tiny puppy home during a snowstorm. She couldn’t recall her parents’ faces, but she remembered feeling so proud for saving the dog.

“Um, could I have my hood back, by the way?” Asami held out her hand.

“Oh, sure.” Korra pulled it out of her belt and handed it over.

“Thank you,” Asami said, gazing down at the insignia for a moment. A beat later, she moved it to her bag, which seemed to store more than should have been possible. She didn’t look up at Korra. “The insignia slipped my mind.”

“No problem,” Korra said.

Asami finished packing up her Equalist gear. She sighed. “We should talk,” she said, voice tighter than usual. “Let’s make good on that cover story and go get dinner together?” It wasn’t a question, but Asami’s tone lifted at the end.

Korra smiled lightly. “That’s fine,” she said. She wasn’t expected back for a while. “I’m not really sure what’s around here though. And I’m feeling a little… not as clean as dinner would warrant.” Korra tugged at her overshirt.

“I know a place,” Asami said. The tension faded from her face. “They’ll let us get cleaned up, take care of everything, and give us a private booth to boot.” Before Korra could even object, Asami winked. “I’ll pay, since I gave our cover story.”

At that, Korra shrugged. She wasn’t expected back for a while, and passing up a free meal was unthinkable. “Let’s go then!”

*

“It’s just around the corner,” Asami said, walking a few paces ahead of Korra.

“Mkay.” Korra felt… off. They’d fallen back into their established walking habit, though Korra was not doing as well at keeping watch this time. Her headache had returned. She rubbed her temples and fell a couple steps farther behind Asami.

Then something dragged Korra’s gaze to the right. Her steps slowed and a brief glance turned into outright staring. The wall beside her bore a striking image of Amon, hooded and masked. He seemed to stare right out of the poster, right at her.

The red Equalist dot on the forehead of his mask seemed to swell and grow. Korra felt a stab of fear. She grasped for the feeling to quench it, but it remained out of her reach, growing and making a pit in her stomach. Yes: she had the strength of The Red Lotus, her family and mentors, behind her, but what if it wasn’t enough?

And when, exactly, had she started looking at Amon as someone she was responsible for at all, someone she needed strength to face and strength to stop?

Korra blinked. Amon’s face seemed to grow again. At the edges of her vision, she could see white creeping in. Anxiety curdled in her stomach as it arrived in full, and she hoped Asami didn’t notice she’d fallen behind.

Aang chased after a distant spirit, a graceful woman with a wide-brimmed hat and long, swoopy sleeves. “Hey!” he called out.

She didn’t stop. Aang ran into a pole.

The vision flashed forward, and Aang was face to face with the spirit. “You know you’re really pretty for a spirit,” he said. “I don’t get to meet too many spirits, but the ones I do meet… not very attractive.”

The spirit chuckled nervously, in a very un-spirit-like fashion. “Thank you, but—“

Aang squinted at her. “You seem familiar too.”

The vision flashed. A gust of wind knocked the ‘spirit’s’ hat awry, revealing Katara.

Immediately, the vision flashed again. Korra felt herself behind Aang’s eyes as he reached toward a blue-masked figure lying on the ground.

She blinked and Aang was sitting a bit away from the same figure, now unmasked. “If we knew each other back then,” he said, “Do you think we could have been friends too?”

Korra stumbled as her focus returned to her own body. She put a hand out against the wall by the Amon poster to steady herself. “I get it Aang,” she muttered. “It’s okay to use disguises to make friends. Masks are thematic. Whatever.” She closed her eyes and took a breath. At least her headache was gone.

Seriously though, the only clear visions she got were the ones she didn’t need clarity on. She’d made a friend; could he back off now? She still had no airbending instructions, and the twitchy eye bit from earlier hadn’t started to make any more sense in the meantime.

“Naga, are you alright?”

Korra looked up to see Asami’s eyebrows drawn together with concern. She summoned a smile. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just had a dizzy spell.”

Asami didn’t seem quite convinced, but she nodded. “Let’s get to dinner then. I don’t want you passing out from hunger.”

On cue, Korra’s stomach grumbled. She smiled ruefully. “That would be nice.”

Thankfully, the restaurant was just around the corner. Korra blinked as she took in the sight of the fancy building. She’d been to nice places before: a few upscale restaurants and a couple minor nobles’ estates. That was all on Red Lotus business though, always in the service of some mission.

It felt odd to walk inside ‘Kwan’s’ and not have some hidden agenda prepped. It also felt a bit strange to be so drastically underdressed. Asami whispered a few words to the front attendant, however, and they were whisked away to a back room. Someone thrust a dress in Korra’s arms, then shoved her back into a changing room with a small bathing chamber. She didn’t even have time to see what they’d given Asami.

The two of them chatted absently as they cleaned themselves and got dressed in adjacent stalls. Something about the activity felt excessively normal. Korra smiled to herself. She frequently acted as an average, unremarkable citizen, but rarely did the act carry past the surface.

On the one hand, it felt odd and out-of-the-ordinary. She knew her guardians would not approve of how far this outing with Asami had gone.

On the other hand, she was having fun and that was her right. She’d finished her job and she’d do her Tarrlok report when she got back to the apartment. They couldn’t preach freedom all the time if they weren’t willing to let her have some of it.

Despite the soap, she couldn’t quite get the dog slobber out of her hair. Eventually, she decided to let it go and just get dressed. It took her a moment to figure out how to put it on. The few dresses she wore were not ever this fancy.

Or this fitted. The clothing felt light without the weight of a knife strapped in somewhere, but there was literally nowhere for Korra to fit it where it wouldn’t show. Eventually, she settled for moving her knife (a small Water Tribe piece she’d stolen near Kyoshi) to her bag.

With that settled, Korra tugged the dress into place before opening the changing room door.

“You gonna be done soon, Asami?” she asked, walking over to a mirror.

Asami replied with some sort of affirmative, but Korra didn’t hear it because she’d caught sight of her reflection.

Normally, she was dressed plainly, kind of looking like a vagabond due to all the travel. Korra turned to look at herself from another angle. A pleased smile shone out at her from the mirror. She looked good.

“Naga? Hello… how do you like your dress?”

“Oh, sorry. Zoned out.” Korra rubbed the back of her neck. Her dress, which was light green, was sleeveless. She grinned at how it showed off her muscular arms. “I like it,” she said, “a lot actually.” Korra flexed at her reflection.

“Perfect,” Asami said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

A pair of attendants walked toward Korra with less-than-impressed expressions. One of them held out a cardigan and glanced disdainfully at her upper-arm tattoos. “Put this on,” she said. “And please hold still.” The other immediately walked behind Korra and started pinning up her hair.

“Ow!” Korra said, leaning away from the hair pulling. “I’ll pass, actually. To both of you.”

The cardigan-holder thrust it out toward her again. “Tattoos are not to dress code,” she whispered. “We cannot allow you in with those showing.” Her eyes flicked to Korra’s hair, and then she just raised her eyebrows, as though whatever criticism of Korra’s low ponytail she had, it wasn’t even worth vocalizing.

Korra rolled her eyes and snatched the cardigan away. “Fine.” She awkwardly shrugged it on over her shoulders as the lady behind her deftly pinned up Korra’s hair. It was actually done much quicker than she’d assumed it would be.

She peered in the mirror. “Wow. That was fast.” She smiled awkwardly at them. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” they responded in unison, before giving slight bows. “Do wash your hair more thoroughly at the first opportunity,” one of them said stiffly. Korra ducked her head. The polar bear dog slobber probably hadn’t left her with the best texture. “Is there anything else?”

Korra shrugged. The cardigan slipped down her shoulders, but she caught it before it revealed her tattoos. “Nope,” she said, chagrined as the attendants leveled narrowed eyes at her shoulders. “I’m, uh, fine for now.” She tugged the cardigan back into place for good measure.

They seemed to take that as a sign to leave. Korra waited until they were gone, then shrugged it back down a bit. She didn’t want to break dress code and get tossed out or something, but hiding her shoulders felt a bit like a crime, given that she was wearing a sleeveless dress. She’d just keep the cardigan place a little lower.

Behind her, a door opened. “I’m ready now,” Asami said. “Sorry I kept you waiting.”

Korra blinked. Her attendants’ efforts to tidy her up paled in comparison to what Asami had managed by herself. She’d touched up her makeup, fixed her hair, and was totally rocking the most gorgeous dress Korra had ever seen, a deep red number that set off Asami’s green eyes.

“Wow, you look, like, what.” Korra blushed and adjusted her bangs, trying to sort out her words. “I mean, you look super snazzy.”

Asami’s eyes twinkled at Korra’s bungled words, but she didn’t laugh. “Thank you. Are you ready for dinner?”

“Starving.”

A quiet request from Asami and the two of them were whisked off to a private booth. Korra raised an eyebrow when she looked at the menu. It didn’t have any prices on it. She quickly picked a Water Tribe (ish) dish and set the menu aside. More interesting than the food was her dinner partner.

She couldn’t just be an Equalist, or even one that Korra kept meeting under the strangest circumstances. From what Korra could tell, Asami had to be loaded.

Korra was used to adapting to new environments, to looking around and remembering her lessons in how to not look out of place. Still, it took no training to see that Asami was clearly at-ease here, which gave Korra pause. People with money, in her experience and in her lessons, were generally not part of ‘revolutions of the people’ and that sort of thing.

“You come here often?” Korra asked, sending a wink Asami’s way.

Asami chuckled. “I’m not normally asked that if I’m already sitting down with someone,” she said.

Not quite an answer, which Korra found simultaneously irritating and interesting. “I just meant that you seemed really familiar with the area,” Korra said. And Asami did seem that way. She knew how to navigate from Tarrlok’s to Kwan’s without pausing at intersections or stopping to think about it. “Do you live nearby?” It was an upscale neighborhood.

“No, I’m just fond of maps and knowing where I am,” Asami said. “I’ve also lived in Republic City my whole life. You pick up on things eventually.” Her expression shifted, became more polite.

“May I take your orders?” the waiter asked.

Korra pointedly looked at Asami so she could hear how the other woman ordered her food and could imitate the manners somewhat. No need to stand out where she didn’t want to.

When the waiter left, Asami’s gaze sharpened. “And despite being new in town, you seem to have made your way around the city quite a bit already,” she said. It was a compliment, but Korra didn’t miss the probe beneath it.

She shrugged. “I travel a lot,” she said. “It’s hard to keep towns and cities straight after a while, so I tend to wander. Sometimes I end up where I’m not supposed to be, you know.” She smiled. “I’m sure you’d understand.”

“On occasion,” Asami said dryly. “I generally stick to a few familiar places, actually.”

“So today is a less-than-ordinary day for you?”

Asami laughed and it made Korra smile. Despite their secrets and the odd game between them, Asami had a kind, genuine laugh. “Every day I see you is a less-than-ordinary day,” she said. “I mean, you saw me while I was on a walk, and then we run into a pro-bender with a polar-bear-dog? It’s just rather unusual, is all.”

“Mmmm.” Korra hummed, then tilted her head. She wasn’t quite sure how far to push things with Asami, but it couldn’t hurt to test the boundaries a little. “It’s a good thing Sakari didn’t notice your team uniform,” she said. “I have a feeling the rivalry wouldn’t make for a good match.”

Asami’s eyes darkened. “That sounds… unpleasant,” she said. “Thank you again for helping me out there. I try to avoid confrontations of… of that sort. As much as possible, really.”

“You’re more than welcome,” Korra said. “Maybe someday you’ll return the favor for me.” She tilted her head. “That last bit surprises me though. I generally thought that, um.” Even if they had a private booth, Korra didn’t trust that she could say the word ‘Equalist’ without someone overhearing. “That you guys, uh, didn’t exactly shy away from a fight.”

“Group politics do not…” Asami trailed off. She frowned to herself before resuming. “Do not necessarily reflect individual philosophies. Even within a seemingly homogenous group, variations on the theme exist.”

“Then forgive me for assuming,” Korra said, putting her hands up. “I think it’s the whole masks-and-uniforms thing that got me.” So far, she’d managed to avoid thinking of Asami as too much of an Equalist. Sure, she wore the uniform and apparently did recon missions, but… that didn’t mean she necessarily wanted all benders dead or stripped of their bending.

And Asami’s last answer, in particular, gave strength to that theory, so Korra liked it.

Asami smiled wryly. “I can understand that well enough,” she said. Her lips curved into a sly smile. “But do tell me: if I were to return that favor somehow, whatever could I be returning the favor about?”

Korra smiled and winced. She’d made a blunder on that one, and Asami had noticed but… whatever game they were playing, the stakes weren’t fatal. She collected herself for a casual shrug, tugging her cardigan back up a bit. “Oh, you know, I know a few people, I do favors sometimes. Research, that kind of thing.” Research. Recon. They were basically the same. “So what’s your day job, when you’re not going on… walks?”

“I’m a mechanical engineer,” Asami said plainly.

Korra blinked. “Wait, really?”

Asami chuckled. “Yeah, that part is pretty simple,” she said.

And it would have been such a simple lie, but Korra didn’t get the sense that Asami was lying at all, actually. Calling herself an engineer had come so naturally, and something about it seemed to fit well. She’d been so technically minded when they were talking at the pro-bending arena, dividing things up into systems and counter-systems.

Korra was about to ask another question when Asami’s expression shifted again, heralding the arrival of the waiter.

“Your food will be out shortly, Ms. Sato,” he said, inclining his head in Asami’s direction. “Thank you for your patience.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Korra noticed Asami startle, before saying, “Oh, yes, thank you.” By the time Korra looked over, however, her friend had stilled.

She didn’t say anything until the waiter had left. When he did, Korra turned and grinned. “So, Asami.”

“Yes, Naga?” Her voice was a bit stiff.

“Asami… Sato?”

Asami sighed. “That… would be me.”

“Asami Sato,” Korra said one more time. “It’s a good name.” She gagged. “Better than Naga,” she said, “But my family kind of has themed names, so.”

“Does that make you related to that dog we met?” Asami propped her chin on one hand.

Korra blushed. “No,” she said. “It’s just a coincidence.” She paused, remembering something. “Hey, wait a second. Sato… so is that connected to the satomobile or something?”

Asami looked at her oddly for a moment before saying, “Nope. That’s another coincidence, unfortunately.”

“Oh, sorry.” Korra tugged on her hair. “I bet you get asked that a lot.”

“Heh, yeah actually.” She frowned. “You’ve never been to Republic City before now, have you.”

It wasn’t a question. Korra shrugged. “I’ve been very near it before,” she said, “but no. I’ve never actually visited the city until now.”

“So… your family all traveled here together? Your Uncle Naghaz and…” Asami trailed off, prompting.

Korra did not supply any other names. First off, she’d already said so much to Asami that she probably shouldn’t have. She could get away with that, but it was rude to give people covers without checking what they wanted to be called first. She was six when P’li nearly took off Ming-Hua’s head for naming her ‘Sparky’ in a town they were passing through. Since then, everyone got to pick their own pseudonyms.

So no more names to give Asami. Korra refused to risk it.

Asami cleared her throat awkwardly in the silence where Korra should have answered. “Er, where are you and your uncle from?” she added, as though that had been her question from the start.

Korra frowned. She could give no honest answer to that question, even if she tried. “I’m just… from around,” she said lamely. She didn’t have a better answer on hand. Saying she was basically a homeless anarchist who traveled the world wasn’t an option.

Asami’s face fell a little, and Korra regretted that the conversation had turned to questions she couldn’t answer. “Then what brought you here?” Asami asked.

That, at least, was an easy one. “Oh, we came here because of the Equalist revolution,” Korra said. She smiled a bit awkwardly. It was true, just… potentially not the same truth to Asami as it was to Korra.

“Huh.” Asami scrutinized Korra for a beat, then blinked and smiled. “So… I guess you could use someone to show you around the city then, huh.”

Before Korra could answer, their food arrived. Korra gaped at the beautiful dishes, more delicately plated than anything she’d ever seen before. “This all looks so good,” she said. “I’m not even sure where to start first.”

Asami chuckled. “I’m pretty sure you can start eating wherever you like.”

Korra picked up her chopsticks, but hesitated before digging in. “That… would be nice actually,” she said, “Having someone to show me around the city.”

“I’d be more than happy to,” Asami said.

Korra smiled. “Okay, did you want to meet up tomorrow before the match maybe?”

“I’d like that. I’ll think of a good place to meet before we part ways.” Asami said. “But for now: tell me, my well-traveled friend, what’s the most exciting thing you’ve ever eaten?”

“Oh, do you want a list?” Korra grinned and leaned forward. “I’m not even sure I should tell you while we’re eating.”

Asami smirked. “Try me.” She took a delicate bite of food.

“Alright then.” Korra winked. “Let me tell you about the time my Uncle Naghaz and I visited Ember Island.”

It was a funny story, only a little gross, and it hit all the right beats. Asami laughed and only gagged once. The conversation was effortless; they stayed on easy topics for the rest of the evening. The food was delicious, maybe even amazing.

But what kept Korra there long after she should have been back at the apartment was Asami. Her friendship, her smile, and the slowly-addictive feeling of being completely and entirely normal.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: The Spirit of Competition
(Everyone is Their Own Worst Enemy)

“So… it’s an electrical stop signal? Like a radio wave?” Naga furrowed her brow.

Asami shook her head. “That’s a good comparison to make on the theory, but it’s more of a transient… electromagnetic disturbance,” she said.

Naga poked at her plate with her chopsticks. “That… does not make it any clearer to me,” she said, smiling self-consciously. “Sorry, I’m trying to understand, but I don’t have a strong background in, uh, science.”

“No, no, you’re doing fine.” Asami smiled back at her, trying to be reassuring. “In all honesty, this might not even work.” She sighed. “I’ve barely had time to work on this project. It’s kind of my pet invention.”

“It sounds cool,” Naga said, “from what I can understand of it. Like… a stop button you can aim.”

“Kind of.” Asami sighed. “Unfortunately, it’s not exactly useful to, uh, my organization.” Her lips tightened and she resisted the urge to glance around. This restaurant was far less discreet than Kwan’s, and while nobody seemed to be paying attention to them, Asami was inclined toward caution.

“I see.” Naga’s eyes made a quick sweep over Asami’s shoulder, taking in the diners around  them. The tables nearby weren’t especially populated, but an incautious mention would be unwise at best. Naga didn’t push the Equalist topic, which Asami appreciated. “What about it gets you going?” She asked instead. “Why is it so important to you, Asami the engineer?”

Asami blinked. She wasn’t sure. “Um…” She took a bite to buy her some time. She’d started working on it after she and her mother had finalized designs to re-use the forklift interiors as mecha tanks. There had been a lull in production time and Asami had immediately began working on a personal project without much aim in mind. “I guess I needed something that was mine?” she said. “I’m not really sure, to be honest.”

“That’s fine too. Sometimes you just need something that’s yours.” Naga smiled ruefully. “I get that.”

“Oh?” Asami tilted her head.

“Yeah?” Naga shrugged. “In my case it’s less that my project has no use and more like… it’s personally significant to me, but my guardians see a different purpose in it than I do.”

Asami decided not to pry after the ‘guardians’ bit, though she did file it away to ask about later. “Does their purpose for it bother you?”

Naga paused. Her lips tightened. “Not… even really that,” she said. “It’s more that… I guess I just want something that’s just mine for a change. I want this thing that is mine, that is just mine without it having to fit into some larger grand scheme of things.”

“Now that, I understand.” Asami reached a hand across the table to set on top of Naga’s.

Their eyes met. They smiled at the same moment, then withdrew their hands.

“We should probably get going to the match,” Naga said, glancing over Asami’s shoulder.

She followed her gaze to the clock. “Oh yeah,” she said, “I completely lost track of time.”

They cleared their dishes briskly, and something about Naga’s movements caught Asami’s attention. Clearing dishes was a small task, quickly and easily managed, but the other girl and Asami were making nearly identical motions at the same pace. It took her another moment of thought to even register why that was odd, to realize why it had caught her attention.

Asami moved that way because, reminded of a deadline, she’d shifted into focus. Without having to think about it, her movements shifted too, from loose to practical and controlled.

As they left the restaurant together, Asami watched Naga move. They’d spent plenty of time navigating the streets together, but the way things usually went, Asami led and Naga followed. She’d never had the opportunity to stop and just observe.

Slowing her pace, just enough to fall behind her friend, Asami found there was plenty to pay attention to.

She’d noticed, certainly, that Naga had a fit build. Paying more attention to it now, she could see the muscles on her forearms shift as she reached out and placed her bowl on the shelf to be bussed. The same motion, briefly, highlighted a triangle of muscle between Naga’s neck and shoulder, but as she pulled her arms back and turned around, the slouched overshirt covered it again.

“If we hurry, we should make the match, no problem?” Naga said, glancing back at the clock, then at Asami.

“Yeah,” she replied, “we’re not too far.”

“Let’s go then.” Naga set off for the door with a purposeful stride, but as Asami watched her hips, she noticed that even this walk was measured and steady. Most people, when they walked fast, had a certain amount of bounce in their steps, an excessive and wasted bit of motion. Yasuko had taught her that this actually slowed you down, in addition to other disadvantages like making noise and jostling anything you were carrying.

Asami had been taught how to walk: in heels, for combat, and for stealth.

As she followed Naga out the door, her eyes narrowed. Her friend was either an effortless natural at an unnatural stride, or she’d had lessons.

“So what sort of personal project are you working on?” Asami asked, pushing forward to fall in step beside Naga and shoot her a wink. “I know it’s not in engineering,” she teased.

Naga’s expression froze a moment before she laughed at the jibe. “Oh very funny,” she said. “Thanks for that.” She cleared her throat. “I can’t say much, but, uh, I’m supposed to be learning this thing right now.” Another pause, but this one seemed more natural. Naga’s pace slowed a beat and Asami read lines of frowns across her face. “It’s really important,” she continued, “and I’ve known… forever, that I’d have to figure it out eventually.”

“And your… guardians, they have a certain vision for this, uh, skill?” Asami prompted.

Naga nodded. “Yeah. And I’ve known that too, but now that I’m actually pursuing it on my own and stuff, I…” She trailed off, then chuckled. “I guess I’m sort of finding my own significance to it?” she said. “Suddenly the ulterior motives feel kind of stale.”

“I think I get the feeling,” Asami said. “It sounds like you’re in a complicated situation.” She reached out and wrapped her hand around Naga’s, giving it a brief squeeze. “I’m sorry it’s frustrating you.”

“Oh.” Naga blinked down at their hands, then looked back up at Asami. After a beat, she regarded her with a soft smile. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Asami said. Naga had very blue eyes. Asami was glad she’d chosen a Water Tribe place for dinner; Naga seemed to really enjoy the food. She’d been smiling a lot at dinner, but there was something different about the way she smiled at Asami now. It felt honest, despite their mutual secrets.

The moment felt so natural it took effort for Asami to pull her gaze away and another few seconds to catch her bearings. “This neighborhood is kind of interesting, historically,” she said.

“Oh yeah? What happened here?” They let go of one another’s hands in the same moment.

“About… twenty years ago, I guess, there was a massive fight here that completely destroyed the streets and a good chunk of the surrounding buildings.” Asami pursed her lips. “Notably, one of the benders was the then-chief of police. I believe the other was attempting to assassinate her. There are still people here who claim they saw the assassin lava-bending.”

Naga coughed. “Wait, did you say lava-bending?”

Asami nodded, pursing her lips. She was glad those sorts of gifts were rare. Regular benders put her off enough, let alone those with terrifying extraneous abilities. “It sounds impossible,” she said, “but the witnesses to the fight all corroborate that claim. In any case, between the assassin and his target, the whole neighborhood was laid to waste.”

“Were… were any of the bystanders killed in the conflict?” Naga’s voice had shrunk.

“I’m… not sure, actually.” Asami frowned. “I know there were multiple non-bender injuries, however.”

“That’s terrible,” Naga said. She seemed thoughtful. “So… Why is the failed assassination attempt historically significant?”

“Well, actually, it’s in the rebuilding that I’m more interested,” Asami said. “The benders involved were highly irresponsible of the costs to their conflict, but that’s basically standard bender operating procedure. That’s how those people are. In the aftermath, however, a team of engineers worked together to redesign how Republic City’s streets worked.” In fact, Asami’s mother had been one of them. She was still proud of that project.

“Previously, the streets were put together by earthbenders who locked stones of varying size together to create the street surface. This is a highly laborious process to do without bender labor, which drove repair prices up for non-earthbenders. The engineers looked into a way of creating completely smooth streets that didn’t use interlocked stones. Coincidentally, it meant that there weren’t already conveniently-sized blocks for earthbenders to pull out of the ground and hurl at one another.” Asami decided to stop her explanation there. She could get rather nerdy when engineering history came up, and she didn’t want to put Naga off.

Instead, however, her friend looked more interested than before. “And the rest of the city was redone with this new street design?” she asked.

“In phases, of course,” Asami said, “but yes.”

Naga tilted her head. “And the new design, the smooth streets, were those actually laid down by earthbenders or non-benders?”

She paused before answering. “A mix, actually,” she said. “The new streets were initially designed around earthbender labor, like the old ones, but the new design was much easier for non-benders to replicate with technology, so the streets are usually made with a mix lately.”

“Huh.” Naga seemed to have more thoughts on the topic, but didn’t seem inclined to voice them. They walked for a minute in a comfortable silence before Naga pointed up at a small park on a nearby hill. “So what can you tell me about this place?”

From the street, Asami could see a familiar grove of cherry blossom trees and the corner of a bench.  “Oh, it’s the most adorable little park,” Asami said. She staved off a frown. She hadn’t been there in… years? She wasn’t even sure. She used to walk nearby to go to her school. “There’s a small fountain there, and it’s not too crowded like Republic City Park.” If it wasn’t for the match, she would have loved to stop and show Naga around.

As it was, however, they already had plans. As Asami pointed out various landmarks and other spots along the way, her mind kept wandering. Due to her involvement in the Equalist movement, she hadn’t had time to visit most of these places in years. She couldn’t even remember her last proper day off.

Even earlier that morning, she’d been repairing mecha-tanks that had come off the assembly line with minor mechanical defects. Nobody on her assembly team had time to fix them, since they were under such a production rush.

In another life, maybe she’d be riding her scooter around without having to care about those things. Maybe she’d have crashed into Naga another way, and they’d just be spending their time together as friends, going to dinner, hanging out at parks, and being normal.

She believed in the movement. She’d been raised in the thick of it for over a decade. But in another life, maybe she’d spend more dinners laughing with friends and family instead of pouring over schematic drawings with her mother in silence.

Asami took a deep breath as they arrived at the arena, pushing the heavier thoughts away. It was one of her favorite buildings in the city, a beautiful combination of function and grandeur. Even knowing the Equalist plans for it couldn’t stem the energy she felt here.

“Let’s get popcorn,” Naga said after they picked up their tickets at will-call. She winked. “It’ll be my treat.”

Asami chuckled. “I’ve bought you two dinners, so I guess that’s fair.”

They chatted about players and their odds as they stood in line. In just a few days, Naga had become impressively knowledgeable about the circuit benders. They grabbed a large box of popcorn to split and checked their tickets.

Asami raised an eyebrow. “These are pretty nice seats,” she said.

It took Naga a moment to finish chewing the handful of popcorn she’d immediately shoved in her mouth. “Oh?”

“Yeah, we should say thank you to Sakari again,” she said, leading them to their section. “And stop eating all the popcorn before we sit down. You’ll eat it all before the match starts.”

“Sorry,” Naga mumbled around a full mouth.

“We just had dinner,” Asami said, teasing her as they stepped down their row. “How are you even hungry?”

Naga shrugged. “I’m always hungry,” she said. “I’m still growing.”

Asami paused as she sat down in her seat. “Wait, how old are you?”

“Eighteen.” Naga tilted her head. “How about you?”

“I’m nineteen.” Asami smirked. “You’re eighteen and still growing? Is that your excuse for being so short?”

Naga crossed her arms and sat up in her seat. “Hey, I’m not that short,” she said.

“Short enough to make a decent armrest,” Asami said, putting her arm up over on Naga’s shoulders. “There we go,” she said. “Lots of room to spread out now.”

Naga attempted to maintain an offended expression, but it cracked after a moment and she laughed before leaning her head on Asami’s shoulder. “Well, you’re tall enough to be a good shoulder-pillow, so I guess that’s fair.”

They sat together like that for a long moment, quiet despite the persistent chatter and energy of the arena around them.

Naga cleared her throat. “So, uh, are you doing anything after the match, Asami?”

“Umm…” Asami had already lied to her mother to cover the whole evening. She wouldn’t be due back until late, given her story about overseeing the midnight shift change at the factory. “No, actually,” she said. “I’m wide open.”

Naga pulled her head off Asami’s shoulder and smiled. “Wanna go, uh, do an activity together?”

“That sounds perfect,” Asami said. “Maybe I can show you that park.” Without thinking, she reached for the popcorn.

Naga whipped it away with impressive reflexes. “Hey! You said no snacking until the match started or else we’d eat it all.”

Asami grimaced. “I did say that, didn’t I.” Still, she definitely had longer arms than Naga did. “I’d better hold onto it then, just in case.” She lunged for the popcorn box and plucked it out of Naga’s hands.

“Excuse me, Ms. Sato,” Naga said, acting even further mock offended than before. “That was incredibly rude.”

“Was it?” Something about the popcorn container was incredibly distracting. Asami turned it around in her hands and moved it farther away from Naga, but mostly as a cover to see it from another side.

She generally had excellent visual-spacial reckoning. If her estimate was correct, the container would be a perfect fit to hide one of her electrified gloves inside, with just enough room for a convenient popcorn covering on top.

Guilt curdled in Asami’s gut. She wasn’t even assigned to plan the logistics of the finals arena attack. She didn’t have to think of this. She didn’t have to let this interfere with her evening.

Naga took advantage of Asami’s distraction to snatch the popcorn out of her hands. “HA! Got it!”

Before Asami could reply, the arena lights dimmed. Around them, the crowd roared.

“Republic City, are you ready for your pro-bending semifinals?”

The crowd cheered even louder in reply. Naga grabbed Asami’s hand for a moment, squeezing it in excitement before letting go. Asami found her gaze lingering on her friend even after the announcer went on to outline the night, which would include two matches, starting with the Fire Ferrets versus the Rabaroos.

Asami imagined explosions in the background of the announcements as he introduced the two teams they’d cheered on in quarterfinals.

Naga elbowed her. “Wave to Sakari,” she said, looking over as they rode the platform to the center.

Blinking, Asami collected her thoughts and put them firmly in a box. She took a handful of popcorn for good measure. She didn’t have to think about that and she wouldn’t. Not tonight. Raising a hand, she waved at Sakari, who seemed a bit preoccupied. A beat later, her gaze caught on Asami and Naga and she waved back at them with a smile.

“She’s a cute kid,” Naga said, grabbing a fistful of popcorn.

Asami nodded. “It’ll be interesting to see her play from so much closer up.”

The announcer continued, “Twelve teams have been eliminated and four advance into the semi-finals which get underway tonight!”

“Her bending style in particular,” Naga said. Asami raised an eyebrow at her as the announcer proceeded to introduce the two teams. “Just, in contrast to most of the pro-benders here, who are fairly contemporary” Naga continued. “From what I saw last match, Sakari is sporting a really traditional Southern Water Tribe background, but she seems to be holding her own alright.”

Asami’s eyes narrowed somewhat. More and more, Naga struck her as someone trained, from her observations to her stride. “She’s also a small target,” she replied.

Trained in what, Asami wasn’t sure. If she were to gamble, she’d bet Naga had fought benders before, which put her in a different category than most non-benders. From the musculature she’d glimpsed, Naga took some pains to keep in shape. Was she keeping fit for combat? Breaking into politicians’ homes?

Ding-ding-ding!

“WHOO! GO FIRE FERRETS!”

The starting bell and Naga’s cheer brought Asami back to the present. Pushing her thoughts aside, she allowed herself to get caught up in the match.

The Fire Ferrets took an early lead with a nice three-element combo, pushing the Rabaroos back by one zone. Asami raised an eyebrow as Sakari rushed forward, pressing the attack with a blast of water that sent the opposing earthbender almost back into zone three.

“I don’t remember her being this aggressive last time,” Naga said, voicing Asami’s same thoughts.

“Me neither, I wonder what the shift is about.”

Naga hummed noncommittally as they refocused on the match. The Rabaroos eventually managed a partial comeback, pushing Mako and Sakari back to their side of the stage. Bolin, however, held his ground long enough to deem the round a solid win for the Fire Ferrets.

“Any thoughts on her style so far?” Asami asked as the teams resettled themselves for round two.

Naga frowned. “Not really?” she said. “The kid is playing differently than last time, and it’s not really in keeping with any particular style.” She paused. “Unless angry is a style.”

Frankly, most benders struck Asami as angry most of the time. “I wouldn’t know,” she said. At least in the arena, it could be controlled, kept contained and observed.

Still, as the second round started, she had to reconcile the cute kid from the alley with the Fire Ferrets’ waterbender, who took an early lead and knocked the Rabaroos’ other waterbender into a post before she toppled off the back of the stage.

Asami could usually ignore the cognitive dissonance that came from attending a pro-bending match. She could imagine that bending was something the players picked up at the door, something that only existed inside of the arena. Because it was a great sport. The reality of bending outside of the arena was different. Pro-bending was fun to watch if Asami didn’t overthink it.

Unfortunately, however, Naga had her thinking about a dozen things at once.

Sakari pressed forward with another attack, but the opposing earthbender jumped forward, over her low shot, and hit her with a direct shot of double earth disks.

The whole audience seemed to wince as the slender thirteen-year-old tumbled backwards and flew off the back edge of the stage. Immediately, conversation surged around them as people commented on the play.

“She really is young,” Naga said, trailing off slightly. Asami glanced over and saw her frowning. “I can see why there are… concerns.”

“That’s the worst hit I’ve seen her take,” Asami said, “but I think it was more the fault of her play style this match than the sport being too rough for her.”

“That’s fair. I mean, if you’re up front throwing punches, you’ve gotta be ready to take a few of your own.”

“Mmhmm.”

The round ended with the Rabaroos narrowly scraping a victory. “It’s anyone’s match,” Asami said. “Though it will be interesting to see if and how Sakari comes back from that knockout.”

“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Naga said.

Asami could see Mako and Bolin pull her in for a huddle, where Sakari seemed initially recalcitrant, but eventually nodded her head in agreement with whatever the brothers were saying. Asami smiled faintly as it occurred to her that she would get to meet them later. That would be fun. She’d been appreciating their play style together for two seasons, and it was… nice to see family together, side by side.

The Fire Ferrets started round three as strong as they’d started round one, but Sakari seemed to be a bit more in check with the aggression this time. Bolin got knocked back a zone after a few blows, but so was the Rabaroos’ firebender. Regardless of the distance, Bolin sent off a series of solid retaliations that gave Mako and Sakari a chance to firm up their positions in zone one.

Despite her preference for them, Asami found herself wishing the Fire Ferrets would misstep, that Sakari might overextend herself and get knocked off again.

If they won this match, they would move on to finals.

And Asami would be attending finals, just not as an audience member.

A few seconds later, Mako and Sakari took advantage of Bolin’s cover fire to hit the Rabaroos’ with a dual element combo that sent all three over the back and into the drink.

The crowd went wild. Naga jumped to her feet, cheering and clapping.

Belatedly, Asami joined her, but she couldn’t quite still the cold sense of unease that had started to curl in her stomach.

This wasn’t the team she wanted to kidnap during finals.

 

* * *

 

“Mako, we DID IT!” Sakari was making the platform bounce as it transported them back to the locker room.

He chuckled. “I know, I was there too.” Frankly, he was relieved to see her expression had lightened.

She whipped her helmet off and nearly dropped it over the edge. Bolin caught it before she could. “Careful there,” he said.

Sakari took the helmet back and hugged it tight to her chest. “Sorry,” she said. “Thanks though.”

“Not a problem!” Bolin grinned.

Mako reached out and ruffled Sakari’s hair. He’d been worried when the kid seemed stormy all morning, but she’d tightened everything up enough to help get them to finals.

Finals. The thought had him smiling so broadly he could hardly believe it.

“Well done.”

Mako looked up and blinked when he saw Tenzin, standing next to Jinora and looking stiff, but not too displeased. He’d practically forgotten they were there watching.

“Thank you,” he said, smiling uncertainly. He wasn’t sure how Tenzin would react to seeing Sakari take such a bad knockout.

Jinora stepped forward and inspected a scuff on Sakari’s elbow pad. “Are matches always like this?”

“Always like… we win?” Sakari’s smile hadn’t faltered since the end of the third round. “Well, so far, yeah!” She proudly pointed her thumb to her chest. “At least since I’ve joined up, anyway.”

“You were so great,” Jinora said. “I was actually really impressed with how light you are on your feet. You dodge a lot, but it’s different from how I move and dodge as an airbender.”

“Yeah?” Sakari and Jinora quickly started a discussion on the differences between airbending and waterbending evasion.

Mako chuckled as he turned his attention back to Tenzin. “Between the two of them, they could start classes on dodging for lightweight girls,” he said.

“Frankly, that would be a useful class for far more than just lightweight girls,” Bolin interjected.

“Indeed,” Tenzin said. He seemed stiffer at the mention of dodging and Mako resisted the urge to facepalm. He really hadn’t meant to bring up a reason for Tenzin to think about the time Sakari hadn’t dodged and gone flying off the stage.

“So, two matches into the tournament,” Mako said. “Is pro-bending growing on you?” he asked.

Tenzin chuckled, and it was only a little dry. “Perhaps,” he replied. He paused, and his mustache twitched. “I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would, I must admit. As for the potential and actual dangers to Sakari, I am still somewhat concerned.”

Mako opened his mouth and Tenzin held up a hand to still the interruption. “However,” he continued, “she has demonstrated herself well-capable of handling the stresses inherent to this pursuit.”

“She really has,” Bolin said. “Seriously, we’ve mostly done training on adapting her skills for the arena, but she’s a fantastic waterbender, the best we’ve ever worked with.”

“Easily the best,” Mako added.

At that, Tenzin gave them a rare smile. “I can hardly complain about her training, lest I be caught disparaging my mother.” He cleared his throat. “In any case, she has my permission to continue playing.”

“Permission?” Mako raised an eyebrow.

“Blessing then,” Tenzin amended.

Behind him, Mako heard a familiar, annoying laugh. “Ooooh, good to hear little Sakari got her permission form signed.”

“What?” Sakari seemed to be caught in offended surprise.

Mako turned and leveled a glare at the door, where Tahno and the Wolfbats had just walked in. “Go shove it, Tahno,” he said.

“Oh, oh, this is too much,” Tahno said. He moved his helmet under one arm and fanned himself. “Mamma Mako, watching out for his growing nest.” Tahno sniffed the air. “Just be careful there. Kids smell.”

In the corner of his eye, Mako saw Sakari bunch her fists. Bolin half-stepped in front of her. “Save it for finals, Tahno,” he said. “At least, if we see you there.”

Tahno rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’m peeing my pants over here. See you at finals, or should I say, beat you at finals.”

At that, the Wolfbats walked (Tahno strutted) past them toward the platform. On the way, Tahno’s shoulder clipped Mako’s, but he didn’t rise to the bait.

“Let’s move to another room,” Sakari said once the announcer started narrating the Wolfbat’s introduction. Beside her, Jinora had shrunk back, but had put a supportive hand on Sakari’s shoulder.

“Sounds good to me,” Bolin said. His usual smile was struggling against a lingering scowl.

Mako hesitated before nodding and opening the door. “Let’s head out.” Part of him wanted to see the Wolfbats play, Tahno especially. But… he’d seen enough of their matches. No need to study any more, at least not that night.

They’d made finals. It was a good day and there was no need to ruin it watching Tahno’s smug face.

Sakari resumed chatting with Jinora as she led them to the Fire Ferrets’ usual practice room, but her high mood had clearly fallen a bit.

“Who was that deplorable young man?” Tenzin asked as they walked.

Mako sighed. “That was Tahno, the captain of the Wolfbats.”

“A captain?” Tenzin’s eyebrows shot up. “And will he be penalized or, or disqualified for such indecorous behavior toward an opponent?” Tenzin cleared his throat. “I understand that, perhaps, a bit of competitive jockeying and banter is to be expected, but that was entirely uncalled for.”

“Tell me about it,” Mako grumbled. “And no, he won’t get penalized or disqualified. You get disqualified for fighting outside the arena. One of Tahno’s favorite strategies, actually, is to goad his opponents in a public place.”

Bolin cut in. “He gets them all riled up so they throw the first punch in front of witnesses, then cries victim and gets them thrown out.”

Tenzin looked aghast as they entered the practice room. “That… that’s incredibly bad sportsmanship.” He huffed and straightened his shoulders. “I am glad to see that you and Bolin are above such shenanigans.”

Ahead of them, Mako could see that Jinora was doing a good job of keeping Sakari occupied. He half-heard her asking a question about their training targets as he punched Bolin’s shoulder and replied, “This guy here keeps us on the straight and narrow.”

“Aw, bro, you’re making me blush.” Bolin punched Mako’s shoulder back. “Just doing my part. You’re the one who keeps us fed.” With that, he smiled and wandered over to Sakari and Jinora, joining in their conversation about the Fire Ferret’s training routines.

A glance showed that Sakari had perked up a bit, but Mako could still sense something odd about her. “Hey, uh, Tenzin,” he said, “maybe it’s just me, but Sakari seems to be a bit off today.”

Tenzin furrowed his brow. “In what way do you mean?”

“Like… emotionally.” Mako frowned. “The way she played today isn’t actually representative of how she’s been playing. She’s not normally that aggressive.”

“Ah, I see.” Tenzin stroked his beard. His frown deepened. “I think I might have some insight, actually.”

“Yeah?”

“Indeed. This is a… troubling anniversary for Sakari, and it will be the first time she’s faced this day without being around her family.” His expression shifted. “I’m going to go try and talk to her,” he said.

“Oh, uh, alright.” Mako crossed his arms as he watched Tenzin stride over to Sakari, Jinora, and Bolin. Unlike Bolin, he did not insert himself smoothly into the conversation. The three of them stopped talking as Tenzin came in beside Sakari, placing a hand on her shoulder.

Mako couldn’t quite hear what Tenzin said. Something about how they should go talk and, “given what day today is.”

Sakari’s reaction, however, was immediate and loud enough. “I don’t want to talk about that right now,” she snapped. “Just because it’s some… some holiday of mourning back home doesn’t mean I want to take it with me, wherever I go!” She yanked her shoulder out of his hand and took a step back to glare at him.

Mako started walking over as Tenzin made another attempt. “Then… would you be more amenable to talking with Jinora about it? Perhaps I was wrong to insert myself into that conversation.”

Bolin glanced uncertainly between the three of them as Jinora grimaced. “Dad, we were already having a conversation.” She glanced at Sakari with concern. “If Sakari wants to tell me something, she’ll tell me.”

“Ah.” Tenzin tugged on his beard again.

A heavy silence descended on the group as Mako came over. “Hey, thanks for coming to support us, Tenzin and Jinora.” He managed a smile as they turned toward him. “But, uh, it’s about time we hit the showers.”

“Yes, ah, it’s time for us to go as well.” Tenzin straightened his robes. “Thank you for the invitation to watch the match tonight,” he said.

“Yes, thank you very much.” Jinora smiled up at Mako. “Um, would it be alright if we came to watch finals?”

Mako hesitated. If Tahno’s nastiness came to bear against Sakari, he especially didn’t want Jinora to have to see that. But… Sakari was well trained. He’d drill her on some of Tahno’s usual tricks before finals. It would be okay.

Bolin answered, “Sure thing!” before Mako could finish collecting his thoughts.

“I’d like that,” Sakari answered. She seemed quiet, back to the distance he’d noticed earlier.

Mako nodded. “Do you need someone to walk you out?”

Tenzin shook his head. “We can see ourselves out. Thank you for having us.”

Another silence fell as the Fire Ferrets waited for Tenzin and Jinora to leave. As soon as they went through the doorway, Bolin turned back toward Mako and Sakari.

“Soooooo,” he said, “Wanna talk about that awkward.”

Sakari frowned. “No but, I—“

Ding-ding-ding!

She gasped. “The match is over already?”

Mako’s smile tightened. Tahno really wasn’t messing around today. “Looks like it,” he said.

“Whoops,” Sakari said, half speaking to herself. “Out of time. Uh.” She rubbed the back of her head. “Yeah, I need to talk to you guys about something.”

Mako frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Uh, nothing is wrong-wrong,” she said. “I just kind of forgot to tell you that I met a pair of strangers yesterday and invited them to meet us backstage after the semis for a, uh, tour.” She paused, but when neither he nor Bolin responded, Sakari continued, “And, uh, semis are over.”

Mako pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why were you talking to strangers in the first place?”

“That’s not really a safe thing to do,” Bolin added. He paused. “Although you’ve basically travelled half the globe solo on your way to Republic City, but still.”

Sakari sighed. “When Naga got away from me yesterday, she totally crashed into this girl—she looked kind of Water Tribe—and pinned her to the ground.”

“Angry pinning?” Bolin asked.

“Happy pinning,” Sakari clarified. “Like… she wouldn’t stop licking her the entire time. It was super gross and kind of cute, but she was practically eating her in a friendly way and I needed to apologize somehow and then they recognized me from playing in quarterfinals and I sort of ended up inviting them.”

Bolin stroked his chin for a moment. “Did they root for us in quarterfinals?” he asked.

“I think so,” Sakari said.

Mako groaned. “Bolin, really? Not a priority.” He turned back toward Sakari. “That was really irresponsible, and you should have told us earlier,” he said. “What if they’re not safe?”

Sakari frowned and looked away, but Bolin cut in before she could answer. “Hey, bro. I know it sounds a bit sketch, but we’re here to protect her if things go south.” He smiled at Sakari. “In addition, Naga is an excellent judge of character and I’m always up for new friends. Especially ladies.” He paused. “How old are they again?”

“Same age as Mako, I’d guess?” Sakari shrugged.

“I’d love to meet a pair of ladies who come so highly recommended from Sakari’s dog,” Bolin said. He elbowed Mako slightly. “Don’t you want to meet your fans?”

Mako ran a hand through his hair. “Ugh, fine.”

“Yes! Thank you!” Sakari gave Mako a quick hug, then gave one to Bolin. She stifled a giggle as she did so.

“What’s that about?” Bolin asked, ruffling her hair.

“Oh, just.” Sakari giggled again. “They’re cute ladies, but I don’t think they’d be into you.” Bolin’s face fell, which made her laugh harder. “They seemed kind of into each other, if I’m any judge.”

At that, she blushed and fell into another case of the giggles.

“Well you’re not,” Mako said. “You’re thirteen. Stop giggling like that and go get your new friends.” He huffed as she ran toward the door. “You shouldn’t make assumptions like that anyway, not without asking first,” he called after her.

“Aw, no ladies for us this time, brother of mine,” Bolin said, slinging an arm around Mako’s shoulders. “But it’s been a while since we were, you know, social. We could use friends who don’t try to re-recruit you to the triads and end up getting you captured by Equalists.”

“That would be nice,” Mako said absently.

If a pair of ladies showed up in his life… that’d be nice, but Mako wasn’t even sure what he’d do about it. He was nineteen, a professional athlete, and not bad looking (if he was any judge), but he couldn’t seem to get a date. Or function around women in general, actually.

“Nice? That would be great!” Bolin gave Mako a shake. “You need to loosen up a little, Mako. Be open to new experiences, new people.”

Mako glanced at him before he started cleaning their helmets. “I’ll think about it,” he said.

And, as he worked on cleaning some of the sweat out of their helmets, Mako realized it was true. He would think about it. He’d consider it. If nothing else, maybe he could borrow a bit of Bolin’s optimism.

“For all we know, Sakari just met our two new favorite best friends!”

He just wouldn’t borrow too much of it.

 

* * *

 

The crowd pressed close around them and Korra reached back to grab Asami’s hand. “Stay with me,” she said.

“I’ll try,” Asami responded, half drowned out by the crowd. She gave Korra’s hand a squeeze.

The crowd around them seemed a bit put out by the second match’s abrupt ending. Korra could hear bits of comments and discussion as they made their way to the backstage door near the arena’s exit.

“—nasty match, was that really necessary—“

“—incredible shot! My money is on Tahno for—“

“Well Tahno has talent, I have to—“

“—interesting to see that finals match, I wonder—“

“—you see that shot? Totally illegal!”

Korra grimaced and reflexively held Asami’s hand a bit tighter. She hadn’t liked Tahno’s play style in the quarterfinals (Northern Water Tribe meets sleazy, she’d described it to Asami for her notebook) but she disliked him even more from the closer seats. He was flashy, aggressive, and, worst of all, really good.

Eventually, Korra and Asami made it to the door where Sakari was supposed to meet them.

“We made it here alive!” Korra grinned.

Asami smiled back, though she seemed a bit preoccupied. “Sometimes braving the crowd seems more dangerous than playing in the arena,” she said.

Korra shook her head. “I’d take the crowd over Tahno any day,” she said. “He plays nasty.”

“And yet in spite of that, or maybe because of it, the Wolfbats are the returning champions.” Asami wrinkled her nose. “Yet again.”

They shared a mutual expression of distaste before Korra realized they were still holding hands. It had been so nice she hadn’t even noticed. A mild blush colored her cheeks as she said, “So what are you most looking forward to going backstage for?”

Asami tilted her head. “I’m especially interested at seeing the overall layout of the arena behind the seats,” she said. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the public-access part that sometimes I forget there’s a whole facility here too. Training rooms, showers, storage, meeting rooms, all of that.”

Korra raised an eyebrow. It sounded almost as though Asami were talking about another recon mission. “That’s a very… engineer-type answer,” she said instead.

Asami chuckled. “I suppose it is,” she said.

They fell into a companionable silence, but Korra felt twitchy and couldn’t let it stand. She cleared her throat. “I’m not looking forward to seeing Sakari going head to head with Tahno,” she said.

Rather than rise to meet her in the conversation, Asami seemed to grow even more absent. “Yeah,” she said, gazing in the distance. “That… that’ll just be nasty.” She sighed. “It’s not going to be a good match.”

“Yeah…” Korra held back a frown and leaned against the door. Asami didn’t sound especially excited to go, which made it a bit awkward because, well, Korra had been hoping they could go together. This was, by precedent, an established way of hanging out. She sighed. Friendship was difficult. She could more easily pick the lock on this door than figure Asami out.

If they didn’t go to finals together, what excuse could Korra have to see her again? Did she need a reason, necessarily, to want to see Asami again? All she knew was that she wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet.

“Hey,” she said, “even if it’s not going to be a great match, I’d still like to go together if you do.”

She’d met dozens of strangers and put together just as many ad-hoc friendships that disappeared when the Red Lotus left town. Korra would be in Republic City for at least another few weeks. She refused to let go of Asami prematurely.

“Next match… that’s finals,” Asami said. She seemed troubled, and Korra got the sense she wasn’t looking for confirmation on that fact.

Still, she said, “Yep, that would be it. Last game of the season.”

Asami smiled, but weakly. She wouldn’t meet Korra’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Naga,” she said, “but this is the last match I can go to, actually.” Before Korra could say something, she hurried on. “I’m… I’m so glad I got to spend it with you, but I really can’t go to the next match with you.” A pause, and Asami’s voice took on an edged tone. “I’m not even supposed to be here!”

She glanced around, checking that nobody was listening, before she turned back to Korra and slowly met her gaze. “Naga,” she said, voice low, “you shouldn’t go to the next match either.”

“Why?” Korra searched Asami’s face for some hint besides regret. “What’s happening?”

Asami’s smile tightened. “It’s… just not a good idea,” she said. “It’s going to be nasty.”

“The match?” Korra asked, half hopeful.

Asami didn’t reply, and her silence said more than she had.

The door opened before Korra could say anything else. She leapt back to avoid it hitting her in the knee.

“Hi there,” Sakari said. She looked out of breath. “Sorry I’m late. I got kind of caught up.”

“It’s fine,” Asami said, smiling. And just like that she was back to normal. “We weren’t waiting long.”

Korra laughed. “We’re just glad you showed up.” She put on a smile to match. Asami wasn’t the only one who could pretend at being normal. Korra practiced every day.

“Good to hear,” Sakari said, and something in her voice sounded off, in the same way that Korra could half-hear Asami lying when she said it was fine. “Are you ready for your tour?”

“Born ready,” Korra said. “Let’s go.”

“We need to go pick up my brothers before we get the tour started,” Sakari said as they made their way down the hall.

“Brothers?” Korra asked.

“Mako and Bolin,” Sakari said. She smiled and it came more naturally than earlier. “We’re the Fire Ferret Family.”

“That’s cute.” Korra kept looking around as they made their way down the hall. The backstage was more spartan compared to the grandiose arena itself, but she liked it. Lots of clear signs to tell her where things were. Most recon missions weren’t nearly so helpful.

Asami chuckled, then blinked. “Wait, but... I didn’t realize Mako and Bolin had a sister...?”

“They do now,” Sakari said. “We adopted one another, kind of sort of.”

Korra smiled. “Found family is family still,” she said.

Sakari smiled back. “Absolutely.” She turned down a hall and threw open a door. “And here is the Fire Ferrets’ usual practice room in all its glory,” she announced.

Immediately, Korra liked the space. It was open and ready for serious bending practice. Targets and earth discs sat in stacks along the wall, ready for use. If she’d been alone, she would have been off and bending in an instant.

“And here are the Fire Ferrets themselves,” Sakari continued. She gestured to a pair of young men that Korra recognized from their build and recalled bending style. Mako was cool under fire with a contained, precise way of moving. Bolin had been bold and offbeat in his movements, clearly self-taught. Up close, Mako was serious with eyebrows to match. Bolin struck Korra as someone who probably balanced that out a bit.

Sakari turned and gestured back to Korra and Asami in the doorway. “Mako, Bolin, this is Naga, and this is Asami.”

Mako had been frowning, but at the introduction his mouth twitched toward a smile.

It was Bolin, however, who said, “Wait, you have the same name as Sakari’s dog?”

Korra’s face burned. “Yep, that’s me,” she said. “Polarbear dog girl.”

Worst. Alias. Ever.

She could have picked one of her old names! She had plenty.

Beside her, Asami seemed to find it funny. Korra smiled wryly at her.

Mako cleared his throat. “Before we get the tour started, I just wanted to say that we don’t, uh, normally do tours.”

He paused awkwardly and Asami stepped forward. “Thank you,” she said warmly. “It’s great to meet you, actually. I’m a big fan of the Fire Ferrets.”

Bolin grinned and opened his mouth to say something, but Mako elbowed him before he could. “That’s great,” Mako cut in. “Just... I just want it known that we don’t have a tolerance for any funny business here. No involvement with shady groups.”

Sakari rolled her eyes. “Mako, really?”

A bead of sweat rolled down Korra’s back. She quelled her nervousness. There was literally no way he could know about the Red Lotus. “Shady groups?” she asked. She glanced at Asami, who had frowned, but looked to be in control of herself.

Which was good. Because if there was ever a bad time to say, ‘yeah, actually I’m an Equalist,’ it was probably in the middle of a pro-bending training room, especially considering these pro-benders had actually fought against the Equalists at the Revelation when Mako was captured.

“Yeah, just.” Mako cleared his throat. “We’ve just had some problems with the Triads lately, so if you’re looking to cause trouble...” He crossed his arms.

Korra could have laughed with relief. Asami did laugh, but it was terse. “We’re not even benders,” she said, tone a bit stiff.

That seemed to relax Mako, but Korra felt a lump in her throat and fought to swallow it for a moment as she nodded along. After a beat, she managed to cough and add, “Yeah, no triads for us.”

“Then if we’re all in agreement, let’s get the tour started!” Bolin made a silly, sweeping bow and they set off.

Sakari started the tour in the gym, pointing out the various equipment and their uses.  Pointing to a net hanging from the balcony wrapping around the side of the wall, she said, “And this is where Bolin practices his earthbending.”

At the mention of his name, Bolin grinned and lifted two of the earth discs, launching them into the net.  “It’s good practice to keep me from getting too rusty.”

He winked and the group laughed. Even though she’d just met him, Bolin seemed highly unlikely to get rusty with his earthbending.

Korra’s gaze lingered on the earth discs as they moved on and her fingers twitched, and she fought down the urge to try out the exercise herself.  Part of her really wanted to learn some pro-bending tricks, but it really wasn’t the time.

Asami was looking around at everything as they walked around the gym, eyes lingering on the layout of the windows over the balcony.  “So do you have to share this training facility with all of the other teams, or are there other gyms inside the stadium?”  Though her expression was one of friendly curiosity, Korra could almost see her brain taking notes behind her eyes.  

Korra frowned.  Asami’s warning from earlier echoed in her head and pieces started to come together. The notes she’d been taking had been mostly about the benders, but Korra hadn’t been able to see everything she’d written. If she was looking for intel on the arena layout itself, did that speak toward some sort of Equalist intent? As the tour continued, Korra took note of where her friend’s gaze travelled, trying to figure out what she was planning.

“There’s another gym on the other side of the arena,” Sakari said, leading them out a side door into the hallway. “But we still have to fight to get the best time slots.”

From there, the tour proceeded past a few nearby rooms. When Sakari was unsure as to what something was (she’d apparently only been there for a few weeks), Bolin or Mako would step in to clarify. Bolin, in particular, seemed to warm up to Korra and Asami quickly enough, eagerly doing his best to answer the questions Asami had regarding the architecture. As to whether his answers were entirely correct, Korra had some doubts.

More notably, however, her suspicions about Asami only deepened as her friend continued to express interest in whether or not some windows could or could not be opened.

By the end of the hall, which had taken them about half the length of the arena (if Korra could judge) Bolin had mostly taken over Sakari’s tourguide duties. Sakari, for her part, seemed increasingly distracted and potentially anxious. Korra largely split her attention between watching her and Asami. Sakari seemed almost surprised when they stopped at the corner near an inconspicuous door.

“Oh, and here’s our apartment,” she said.

“You live here?” Asami asked.  She looked just a bit concerned at that, though it was hard for Korra to really judge her expression.

“Yeah,” Bolin responded.  “It means we don’t have to get up quite so early when we’re stuck with the morning practice times since we just have to go downstairs and up the hall.”

Mako, who had begun to relax as they continued the tour, tensed again with a frown. “Uh, I think the tour’s gone far enough,” he said.

“Aw, come on, Mako!” Bolin said. “Just a quick peek. Just at the downstairs.” He flashed a smile back at Korra and Asami. “We have the best view in Republic City,” he said.

“It really is wonderful,” Sakari said, summoning a smile. Compared to Bolin’s genuine enthusiasm, the girl was clearly forcing it a bit.

Still, Korra sort of collected beautiful views. She saw enough of them in her travels. Everywhere she went, from small villages to huge cities, had a place (or twelve) that claimed to be the best. “I’d love to see it,” she said.

Mako’s frown deepened.

“Just for a minute,” Korra said.

He sighed. “Fine.”

Bolin opened the door and they went up a couple flights of stairs. He paused at the top to unlock a door, then stepped inside to reveal an open, though sparse, room with impossibly tall windows. Korra gaped as she realized they must be inside one of the four towers that adorned the outside corners of the arena.

“Oh, wow,” she breathed.

“I know right?” Bolin gestured grandly to to the windows. “Here it is, the best view!”

Korra walked over, with Asami right behind her, and smiled as she looked outside. The apartment sported a grand view of the bay, Air Temple Island, and the Avatar Aang statue. Though Korra had been closer to all three when she took the ferry to the island, the up-close view hadn’t given her the sense of space and height she got now.

“It’s quite the view,” Asami said.

Korra nodded.

Sakari came up beside them. “It’s one of my favorite parts about being here,” she said.

Despite the positive statement, there was something melancholy behind her words. Korra frowned and debated with herself a moment, unsure if she should say something. She exchanged a look with Asami and made a decision.

“Hey, Sakari.” Korra put a hand on her shoulder, and the girl looked up. The tension on her face was even more pronounced up close. “Thank you for the tour,” she said. “It’s been really neat going backstage here and getting to see all this stuff, but you seem kind of off today.” Immediately, Sakari opened her mouth and Korra hurried on. “I just wanted to say that you don’t have to do this.”

“It’s fine,” Sakari said, voice clipped.

“Naga and I really don’t mind,” Asami said. “We can just head out, or we can reschedule for another time.”

Bolin cleared his throat. “I know you didn’t want to talk about it earlier, but if you want to talk about it now, that is also a possibility.”

Sakari sighed and fidgeted with her bangs for a moment. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “We talk about it every year and this year I wanted to just kind of carry on? I’m not home, so I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.” She took a deep, uneven breath, then sat down hard on the bench. “But... it actually kind of sucks, not talking about it or doing anything to process those feelings a little bit?”

Bolin sat down beside her and everyone else grabbed a seat on the nearby couch. “You mentioned a ‘holiday of mourning’ earlier,” Bolin said. “Did somebody pass away?”

Sakari shrugged. “I don’t know, actually. Maybe? I mean, might as well at this point.” She sighed. “We’re not even sure anymore.”

Korra was still struggling to parse out what Sakari had said when Mako cleared his throat. “So... someone may have died, but your family isn’t sure?” he asked.

Sakari looked out the window. She seemed tired. “I had a sister,” she said. A pause. “Have? Have a sister? It’s... complicated.”

“What happened?” Asami asked.

“I never knew her,” Sakari said, propping one leg on the seat so she could hug her leg. “She was kidnapped before I was born, fourteen years ago, so I never ‘had’ her, and I don’t know if I can say I ‘have’ a sister because... I don’t know her. I don’t really have her.”

Korra frowned. “Fourteen years ago?” she asked. Something about the statement unsettled her, but she couldn’t say quite what it was.

“Yeah, these evil people took her when she was just four years old,” Sakari continued. “We think we know why, but we’re not really sure. It... it’s kind of come to define my family. Apparently my own uncle was involved in some way too, but even that’s murky. He was found dead during the incident, apparently due to some disagreement he had with the other kidnappers? I’m not really sure.”

Sakari took a deep breath. “This is the anniversary of the day she was taken. Every year it’s kind of... anti celebrated, I guess? We take time and mourn and my parents tell me about her and try to imagine the sort of person she’d be if she were still with us. This is normally when we try and get some updated report about leads, but they’re basically all dead ends. There’s never good news or new news.”

She paused and made a face. “I guess I should probably mention that it’s also of historic significance? My uncle was kind of the chief of the Northern Water Tribe?”

A chill ran across the back of Korra’s neck. “Wait, really?”

Sakari nodded. “So this is also kind of the anniversary of the beginning of Water Tribe deunification, because my father became chief of the Southern Water Tribe right afterwards.” She ducked her head down. “I’m really sorry for not saying anything early, Mako and Bolin.”

“No, it’s... I can see why it’s complicated,” Mako said.

Bolin gave her a smile. “Not a problem,” he said. “Though I have to ask: does this make you a princess?”

Sakari smiled for the first time since she’d started talking about her sister. Something about the expression looked... oddly familiar. “No, that’s not how Water Tribe titles work,” she said. “At least not in the south.” Her face fell. “Back in the south,” she said, “I don’t really talk to strangers... ever,” she said, glancing up at Asami and Korra.

The motion made Sakari’s bobbed hair shift, and it occurred to Korra that they had the exact same wave to their hair. She banished thought as Sakari continued speaking. Lots of people in the Southern Water Tribe had slightly wavy hair.

“After the kidnapping, my dad became chief, but we retreated from public life as a family. I was born a little later, and my parents have always been... excessively protective of me. We don’t have a palace,” Sakari said. An edge of bitter humor crept into her voice. “But we do have walls. I barely left the compound as a child. The only people I really interacted with, aside from my parents, were my tutors and Katara, my waterbending teacher.”

“No wonder you ran away,” Mako murmured. He got off the couch and moved to give Sakari a hug.

Sakari immediately leaned into him and Bolin joined the both of them right after. “That would be the reason,” she mumbled. “I had to get out.”

“It’s not right to be kept in a cage,” Korra said. “You deserve to be free.” Her hand had clenched into a fist, but she refused to think about it.

Pulling out of the hug, Sakari’s blue eyes were watery. “I keep telling myself that,” she said. They were the same color that Korra saw in the mirror but most water tribe people had blue eyes and Korra’s particular shade was a common blue.

Asami reached across and put her hand on top of Sakari’s as Mako sat down on the floor beside the bench. “If I may?”

Sakari nodded and Asami squeezed her hand. “I understand how loss can... come to define a family,” she said. Her gaze drifted away. “When I was six, the Agni Kai Triad broke in. They killed my father.”

Korra put a hand on her shoulder as Asami continued. “Since then, it’s just been me and my mother. We get by well enough, but... it’s hard sometimes. I don’t remember much about my dad, and in many ways his memory has defined my life more than his presence did. We do the same thing, sort of... anti-celebrating the day he died.” She sighed and leaned into Korra’s hand. “And his death defined so much for us. It’s shaped my mother’s life choices and my own.” Her gaze met Korra’s and, for a moment, the Fire Ferrets seemed to disappear.

Benders had killed Asami’s father. This was why she was an Equalist, why her mother was also apparently an Equalist. She didn’t say as much, but Korra understood.

Korra squeezed Asami’s shoulder, and she gave Korra a quick smile before she continued speaking. “Lately though... I’ve been trying to make my own choices, kind of.” She smiled. “You probably already know this, but your family is going to have a really hard time understanding.”

Sakari smiled wryly. “Yeah, that’s accurate.”

“But you need to do what’s best for you,” Asami continued. “You can’t live in the past, forever holding on to a sister you never knew.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment. Sakari tugged on the ends of her hair, the same way Korra did when she was nervous. After another beat, she whispered, “Sometimes I wish she’d died instead. There would be closure, and no more wondering about whether or not we’ll ever see her again.” She sighed. “I’m never going to meet her, but there’s always that small hope, because she’s not dead. At least... we’re pretty sure she’s not dead.” Sakari rubbed her temples. “If she’d died, then our family could have moved on. The world could have moved on.”

Bolin rubbed a hand on Sakari’s shoulder. “Would it help if you, just in your own head, thought of her as dead? So you don’t have to wonder about what-ifs?”

Sakari chuckled, but without any humor in it. “She might as well be, for how far away she feels, but... not really. As ridiculous as it sounds, we... we’re actually pretty sure she’s not dead.”

“Um... may I ask how?” Mako tilted his head.

“No flash of light at the temples,” Sakari said.

Korra’s fists clenched. The hair on her arms stood on end.

There was no way.

“What do you mean?” Asami asked.

“My sister was—” Sakari paused. “My sister is the Avatar.”

For a moment, Korra felt as though she’d been dunked in a bucket of ice water. Her hand started to tremble, her breathing quickened, and her whole body tensed.

Then her training kicked in.

As though Zaheer was there, she could feel his spiritual presence. Her mental commands to relax her body and breath on counts of four came in his voice as she recalled her training. People talked about the Avatar sometimes. It was normal. It was okay.

No matter what they said, she didn’t need to worry about it.

From a distance, she heard Mako say something in reaction. He sounded surprised, but not alarmed.

Of course he wasn’t alarmed. They didn’t know who she was. She was safe.

No matter what anybody said, Korra was not to tell them her identity.

Bolin’s voice cut through, and Korra managed to parse out some of what he said. “Woah,” and something about, “She’d be eighteen now, huh.”

She felt absent from her body, and Asami leaning forward, out from under Korra’s hand, seemed to reach her at a delayed pace. She half-heard Asami say, “I just thought they were a few years late in revealing the Avatar.”

‘No matter what,’ Zaheer had trained her, ‘keep your reactions normal.’

If everyone else had responded with some sort of surprise, then that was the normal reaction.

“The Avatar, oh wow,” Korra said. Her voice sounded as though it were coming from underwater.

Korra longed for Zaheer’s ability to enter the Spirit World at will. She wanted to get away so bad. Being in her body felt like cause for panic, but no matter how she shoved herself away, spiritually, she could only get so far before running up against the blocks she always did.

And, as far as she got, Sakari’s voice seemed to cut through the distance, ringing in Korra’s mind like a clear bell. “I know she’s out there,” Sakari said. “Somewhere.”

Immediately, Korra scrambled to fit her spirit back into her body. She didn’t want to be far away anymore. She wanted to be present. She needed to be there with Sakari.

“If she were dead, the Avatar temples would have lit up,” she said. “The sages have some way of knowing when the cycle has changed, and it hasn’t. The new Avatar hasn’t been born in the Earth Kingdom yet.”

Settling back in her body, Korra’s spirit still felt agitated. She set her hands on her knees, struggling to maintain her composure. Thankfully, everyone seemed to be looking at Sakari.

Bolin said, “So that means she’s out there somewhere.”

“The Avatar,” Asami murmured. There was a depth of tension behind her eyes that Korra couldn’t parse.

Mako put an arm around Sakari and she whispered, “Korra.” She looked up from the floor. Her gaze met Korra’s.

For a moment, time seemed to stop. All the similarities between them, the familiar expressions from half-remembered faces, everything pressed against the inside of Korra’s body until she couldn’t stand it anymore.

She was looking at her sister.

And then time resumed.

Sakari’s gaze swept onward. She hadn’t even paused.

“I would have been fine growing up an only child,” she said, “but instead I grew up as a younger sister without anyone to balance it out.” She paused. “On the anniversary, I always feel the most alone.”

Korra cleared her throat. “I’m sorry you grew up so lonely,” she said. “I know something about not being able to make connections with people, and I know it can feel so isolating to grow up with an absence like that.” She struggled a moment, then managed a weak smile. “But I have some good news for you.”

Mako, Bolin, Asami, and Sakari all looked back toward her. “You do?” Sakari asked. Her voice sounded incredibly small.

“Yeah,” Korra said. “You’re not alone anymore, not at all.” She pushed herself to smile warmly. “Republic City loves you, and not because you’re anyone’s sister or daughter at all. They love you because you’re Sakari, everyone’s favorite waterbending prodigy.” Managing that, Korra felt stronger and more present. She needed to be present because she had stuff to say. “I saw a little girl in the audience dressed up as you today,” she said. “You’re basically a hero to all of Republic City’s little girls who want to grow up to kick some ass.” She gestured around her to the loft apartment. “You’ve found yourself a home here.

“And you are a little sister, no caveats” She nodded toward Mako and Bolin. “From what I can see, these two losers seem to be pretty good brothers for you.”

Mako and Bolin said, “Hey!” when she called them losers and Korra winked. The bravado felt hollow, but she had to do this, had to have something, some words to offer to Sakari.

“You’re not alone,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean you won’t feel that way sometimes, but... just remember that it’s going to be alright.”

Mako and Bolin leaned close against Sakari and she sniffled. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Korra said. Piece said, she could feel herself drifting away from the conversation again. She needed to get away, to be alone.

“Thank you all for being so understanding,” Sakari said.

“Of course,” Asami said. Korra couldn’t tell if Asami sounded distant or if it was just in her head.

“We’re here for you, kid,” Mako said. Bolin nodded.

Sakari chuckled. A tear rolled down her cheek, but the smile seemed genuine. “I, uh, hope you enjoyed your tour, Naga, Asami. Complete with pro-bender backstory.”

“We’re just glad you’re okay,” Asami said. Korra wasn’t sure when they’d started speaking for one another, but she found she didn’t mind.

Mako glanced out the window at the dark sky. “I think we should head to bed early,” he said. “Long day of practice tomorrow.”

Bolin stood up. “I’ll show you ladies out,” he said.

“Thank you,” Asami said. Korra repeated it, and her voice sounded strange in her own ears.

Then they were on their way out and Asami stopped to put a hand briefly on Sakari’s shoulder before continuing. Since Korra was largely taking her cues from Asami, she did the same.

It was an innocuous touch, just a light moment to show some support.

It took everything in Korra’s being to keep herself from pulling Sakari up into a tight hug, the kind of hug that could replace thirteen years of absence.

But the moment was over before she could even begin to imagine what that kind of hug would feel like, and Bolin had shown them out the door. He chatted absently as they made their way down the stairs, past the landing they’d entered at. At the very bottom of the tower was a plain door.

“Sorry it’s not as fancy as the main entrance, but this is the side door we use to get in and out for the most part,” he said. “It’s close to the apartment and all.”

“Fancy doors are overrated,” Asami said with a small smile.

“In any case,” Bolin continued, “I just wanted to say thank you, both of you, for your kind words to Sakari.” He smiled. “I know we only just met, but if you’re good to Sakari that’s good enough for me. If you ever want some free tickets or another tour, this time perhaps minus the backstory bit, just reach out and contact me or Mako.”

They said thank you, and then Bolin waved goodbye before he disappeared back behind the door to the arena.

Korra’s lockpicks felt heavy in the small pocket she kept them in on her belt. It would only take a minute, and she could pop the door back open, rush inside, and tell Sakari the truth.

No matter what anybody said, she was not to reveal her identity.

Korra rolled her shoulders and shuddered.

“That was... something,” Asami said. The two of them started walking back toward the city.

“Yeah.” Korra was very glad that walking was something she could manage without having to think about it.

They walked together in silence until they were a block back into the city. Asami paused at the corner and turned to face Korra. “We made plans to hang out together after the match,” she said. “But, um, I actually don’t think I can.”

Korra stifled her smile of relief because she didn’t want Asami to think she was happy about not hanging out with her. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s been a long night.”

Asami hesitated, then stepped forward and gave her a hug. “I had a really great time, Naga,” she said.

The hug lingered and, after a moment, Korra relaxed into her arms a little more. It was a nice hug, and she found her mind calming down in the process. Even with all the chaos, all the new knowledge, it didn’t seem quite so distressing with Asami’s arms around her.

If Korra struck up a brief tryst with some cute guy or girl in a passing town, she was usually a little more focused on kissing, so she didn’t do a lot of hugging. Silently, she, resolved to prioritize it more in the future.

Then Asami pulled back halfway and looked into her eyes with an intent gaze. “Please... don’t go to finals,” she whispered.

“What’s going to happen?” Korra paused, unsure if their friendship allowed a more direct question. “The Equalists are doing something, aren’t they.” By the end of the sentence, it wasn’t a question.

Asami averted her gaze. “I... can neither confirm nor deny,” she said, “but I really just want you to know that it’s a bad idea.”

Korra bit her lip. “Okay,” she said. Potential dangers to Sakari pressed at her mind, insisting on being acknowledged. Korra tried pushing them away, but was only half-successful. “Goodnight, Asami.”

“Goodnight, Naga.”

Asami gave Korra’s hand one last squeeze, then set off across the street. As Korra watched her go, she realized they hadn’t made any more plans to meet up. Though coincidence had favored their meetings so far, she didn’t think the odds were still with them.

As Asami turned a street, moving out of sight, the emotions Korra had pushed off, delayed and ignored, started coming to her in a flood. She stumbled down the street, fighting nausea as she made her way to the park.

It was only when she arrived that Korra realized it was after curfew. Police would be patrolling through, looking for loitering non-benders.

She didn’t have time to find another spot. Korra ducked behind a decent-sized bush and hugged her knees to her chest.

Almost immediately, tears began to flow.

She had a sister.

She had a sister, and the girl had been mourning Korra her whole life. Korra hadn’t even known she’d existed.

Her sister was a waterbender, and a damned good one. Korra smiled even as her tears tumbled over her cheeks and onto her lips. She’d watched her sister play in the arena, gotten to watch her go toe-to-toe with adult benders and (generally) come out ahead. Pride swelled up inside of her, and Korra smiled so widely she cracked her dry lips open.

She licked them and tasted blood and salt.

Of course Sakari was a bending prodigy. She hadn’t had anything else to do, locked up in some compound.

Alternate paths and histories flitted through her mind.

What if she’d found out about Sakari earlier? If she’d asked, would the Red Lotus have gone back to help liberate her too?

If they hadn’t, maybe Korra would have been able to break in and free her, introduce her to the freedom that she’d grown up wishing for.

What if Sakari had seen her and just known somehow? Would Korra be back at the arena now? Still sitting with her sister and crying together, but together?

If Korra had just told Sakari who she was, revealed her secret against all her training, against Zaheer’s instructions that echoed in her mind, would she be there now? Inducted into the family her sister had found for herself?

What if she’d never been liberated? What if she’d grown up with a younger sister in the South Pole, with no kidnapping to place them behind walls. They would have done bending practice together, and if Korra used fire or earth, Sakari would have crossed her arms and accused Korra of cheating, but they’d be smiling and laughing together and—

Korra stilled the fantasy. It was... so nice. It was almost too perfect. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, letting her ponytail tangle in the leaves of the bush. She unclenched her hands and let the alternate paths go.

They were not the ones she had walked or could walk.

The Red Lotus had liberated her. It was not a choice for her own personal happiness, although she could imagine no greater happiness than the freedom with which they lived and for which they fought.

It had been a choice for the whole fate of the world.

Harmonic Convergence was coming. Korra fought a shiver at the thought. She’d been training for this her whole life. For as long as she could remember, her teachers (mostly Zaheer) had tried to teach her of its importance. Only the Avatar could reunite the spiritual and physical worlds. Only the Avatar could release Vaatu and allow the world its proper balance between order and chaos.

Korra took a deep breath and tried to rebalance the narrative of her life. Sakari... was wonderful. She was brilliant and friendly and everything Korra could have wanted in a sibling.

But Korra had set her own parents aside. They were distractions, earthly tethers that would only keep her from fulfilling her spiritual destiny.

It had been hard, for a while, to let go of the concept of loving, attentive parents. She couldn’t remember them though, and eventually she’d managed to set the tether aside. She just had to set aside her new attachment to Sakari. Discovering her sister could not derail everything she’d worked for.

Except she’d never met her parents beyond hazy memories of smiles.

Sakari was vibrant and present. She was only a few blocks away.

Everything fell out of balance again. Korra buried her head against her knees and hugged them closer.

White edged in. Korra threw herself into the welcome distraction of the vision.

A series of short scenes came into view: Sokka and Katara bickering, then Sokka and Katara fighting together, covering each other’s backs. More shots of them, just... being siblings.

Korra saw a flash of Katara bending a stream of water at Sokka’s face. For a moment, her form was so much like Sakari’s that she had to close her eyes.

She opened them and then Sokka was older, with the scraps of a beard beginning to form. “She’s my sister,” he said, “She can more than protect herself. She’s a waterbending master!” He chuckled. “But as much as I can, it’s my job to try and protect her happiness. I just want her to be happy. She’s my little sister and I have to look out for her.”

The vision faded to white and Korra felt herself sigh as she opened her eyes back in the dim park.

“I get it, Aang,” she whispered. As much as her heart ached, it was comforting to have that familiar annoyance to lean on. “Family and little sisters. Look out for each other.” She sighed again. “How about that airbending?” She asked. Even her grumbling tone fell flat.

In the distance, she heard the clock strike far too late an hour.

Korra’s joints ached as she stood up and dusted the grass off her pants. She felt way too old for just eighteen.

“That’s what I get for living a couple thousand lifetimes,” she joked to herself.

It sounded hollow in the dark.

Korra shook her head and started jogging back to the apartment. She kept her focus on the street, keeping her ears alert and changing tracks whenever she heard a police patrol.

Soon enough she was back home. Her hand hesitated on the door. She’d hurried home only to find herself delaying.

She took a moment to prepare a good cover story, something with just enough info that she could communicate the information about the probable Equalist plans for the pro-bending finals. As she reviewed her explanation, Korra half expected that she would need to debate with herself on whether or not to tell them about Sakari.

When she came to that question, however, it was no debate.

She could do so little for her sister. She’d offered some words of comfort earlier, but couldn’t give her the truth.

As much as she loved Zaheer, P’li, Ming-Hua, and Ghazan... they brought chaos where they went. Freedom too, but chaos and disorder. Sometimes pain.

She would make Sakari no safer by introducing her into their plans.

And, at least for now, they had no reason to know. She could do that much for Sakari at least.

Korra opened the door and tugged on her hair. “Hey Ghazan, Ming-Hua. Sorry I—” She blinked. Zaheer and P’li were sitting on the couch, apparently returned from their missions. “Oh, hey,” she said. She blinked. They weren’t supposed to be back for another few days, at the very least.

“Welcome back, Korra!” Ghazan strolled over and leaned against the couch. “The family’s all here again.”

She swallowed past a dry throat as she shut the door behind her. “Yep,” she said. “Here we are.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: A Leaf in the Wind
(The Hurt Means You're Learning)

 

“So in summary, the mechas are on schedule despite the manufacturing setback.”

Amon nodded, though his mask was looking to the side and not quite at her. “That is acceptable,” he said.

Asami inclined her head. “Thank you. I also have the report on Tarrlok’s mansion for you and the Lieutenant.”

Liu smiled tersely. “Good. We need to make a decision today on which location to use.”

The three of them were meeting in one of the Equalist safehouses downtown—the easiest one to get to from the factory, where Asami had spent half the night awake and trying to fix a manufacturing error on one of the machines. It wasn’t a large room, which left Asami standing a bit to the side of the door. Across from a table strewn with reports from various parts of the Equalist movement, Amon was leaning back in his chair. Liu, standing beside him, had been much more engaged during her explanation of the issue at the factory.

He was also more alert as Asami gave a quick rundown on what she’d gleaned from breaking into Tarrlok’s mansion. She did not mention that she’d had to leave the premises earlier than she’d have liked.

“You have my apologies for not delivering this information earlier,” she said. “I’ve been tied up monitoring our factories during this critical time of production.” And staying out with Naga, but they didn’t need to know that. As Asami finished her report, she stifled a yawn. Amon seemed bored enough with her information. She’d rather not give off the opinion that she shared his assessment.

“That’s fine,” Liu said. He stepped forward and picked up a paper off the table. “Frankly, it sounds as though there’s equal risk in either location. The fountain you mentioned in his front hall is on-par with the waterfall he has running behind his desk at town hall.”

“Could the surrounding area be a decisive factor?” Asami asked. “Town hall is well-spaced from other buildings, but fully accessible to any who might intervene with our operation. Tarrlok’s home is close to other mansions, somewhat, but has a retaining wall to help filter out interlopers.”

Liu nodded. “It might be. Thank you for offering your opinions.” He glanced over the paper again before setting it down on the table. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes, actually. I have some additional information regarding the pro-bending arena, specifically some additional points of backstage entry and a potential cover for smuggling in our electrified gloves.”

“Perfect. What have you learned?” Liu’s smile was taut. The finals attack was his brainchild, and she knew the stress of organizing it was wearing on him. Hopefully her information could help alleviate that.

She pulled out a paper and slid it across the table to him. “I’ve made a map here of several alternate entry points. During my investigation, I took note of several windows which would be solid choices for our purposes. Our operatives should be able to get clean visuals on any police patrolling inside from these points. From there, taking them out should be easy.”

“This is very good,” Liu said. He tugged on his moustache. “I’ll probably re-route several of our rear infiltration teams to these points. The back doors in the towers are good, but offer zero visibility.”

Amon’s mask turned back toward her, though she couldn’t see his eyes in this low lighting. “When did you glean this information?” he asked.

Asami swallowed a lump in her throat. “Since my last report on the different bending styles, I decided there was more information still to be gathered from the pro-bending arena.” It had been an odd sort of decision, half-made by running into Sakari and having Naga as company, but a decision nonetheless. “I went back and gained access to the backstage area in order to do some more reconnaissance.”

Amon did not respond to her statement, but his mask turned away again. He seemed oddly pensive today.

“You said something about smuggling in our electrified gloves?” Liu set her map down on the table.

“Indeed,” she said. “I noticed while in attendance to the match that the popcorn buckets would be just large enough to hide a single glove within. It would allow our operatives to have them closer at-hand when it comes time for us to move.”

“How would you suggest sneaking them in?” Liu frowned. “We’d intended to sneak them in the back and organize a rendezvous within the arena to pass them off, so as to avoid security.”

Asami was briefly glad she’d stayed up half the night. The answer to that question had come to her sometime around three in the morning, while she was working on the steel rolling machine. “Play on the guard’s assumptions. They check people going in, but people tend to go in and out right near the entrance to meet friends. Send a few operatives inside to buy popcorn, then have them loiter near the gate and run out, away from the guards’ view, to meet up with another operative. They can quickly shove the glove in the bucket, then go inside together.” Asami smiled. “The guard thinks they’ve only seen someone with popcorn run out to meet someone, then run back, so they wouldn’t think to check the container.”

Liu was nodding. “It would spread us out somewhat, give us better coverage rates on the gloves. As things stand with the current plan, everything will fall apart if the one crate of gloves is uncovered or the one rendezvous is interrupted.” He gave her an approving smile. “Well done, Asami,” he said. “I’ll make the adjustments to our plan immediately.”

“There is one more thing,” Asami added. When she had Amon and Liu’s attention, she continued. “I have  reason to believe that there is another party within the city with designs against Councilman Tarrlok.”

At this, Liu’s gaze narrowed. “Are they Equalist sympathizers? Opponents of some sort?”

Amon shifted his posture, but did not express further interest.

“I… cannot confirm,” Asami said, “though I suspect they are sympathizers.” Her thoughts drifted to Naga, who had yet to say one good word about the government of Republic City. Or of any of the places she’d traveled, actually. “If I were to guess, I would say they are an anti-government group of some sort.”

“How do you know?” Liu asked.

She paused a beat. “I saw another scout scoping out Tarrlok’s home,” she said. They didn’t need to know she knew the scout personally.

“Should we shift our plans, sir?” Liu turned his attention to Amon, who sat up slightly.

“Should they interfere, we will deal with them then,” Amon said. “Everyone will be equalized eventually.” He paused. “But it would be… disadvantageous to lose Tarrlok to another party. Taking him will send a message of fear to the city.”

“I will focus on moving our plans up so we can stage our attack as soon as possible after the pro-bending demonstration,” Liu said. “That way we will secure Tarrlok first.” He absently fiddled with his goggles for a moment. “It is time to finalize our strike location in any case,” he continued. “If the scout was looking into Tarrlok’s home, perhaps we should decide on City Hall instead.”

“No,” Amon said. “I have given the matter some more thought and, after hearing Asami’s report on the councilman’s home, I believe it to be the ideal location.” His voice shifted and Asami wondered if he was smiling behind his mask. “What better place for the mighty to fall than in their own home? It will send more specific message to Republic City, that even the most powerful benders, whether that power comes from combat prowess, money, or political clout, are not safe.”

His words seemed to ring in the small room, which was bare of decoration. Most of the Equalist safe houses were decorated with Amon’s image or other banners and propaganda pieces. In the areas frequented by high-level leaders, however, it was unnecessary.

Liu cleared his throat. “I will move forward on those preparations immediately.” He leaned down and made a note before glancing back up at Asami. “We’ll talk scheduling details later,” he said, “but can I count on you to join us for the strike on Tarrlok’s house?”

Asami felt her professional expression falter. She bolstered it and tried to keep her features smooth and unreadable. “Were my notes not to your satisfaction?” She’d drawn schematics and outlined four different ways into his house, along with her recommendations. Provided the team reviewed her documents, they really didn’t need her there.

She really didn’t want to be there.

“They’re excellent,” Liu said, “but in the absence of extenuating circumstances, I should like to be able to count on you that night.” He frowned slightly, and it wasn’t the frown of a superior officer so much as an expression an older sibling might make. He would want to talk about this later, she was sure of it.

“Thank you for the praise,” she said, inclining her head. “I was merely concerned for a moment. You’ll need to keep me abreast of your timing, but barring some catastrophic level of repairs needed after finals, I am available.”

Liu’s expression brightened. For a beat he seemed younger. Asami tried to remember how he looked before he grew his mustache.

Then the door opened.

Asami shifted into a combat stance as she whipped around to see who had entered. In the corner of her eye, she could see Liu and Amon startle.

She blinked. “Mother?”

Yasuko looked up from the papers she’d been reviewing. She blinked, surprised, then scowled. “So this is where you are! I have been looking for you everywhere, young lady,” she said. She smacked the pile of papers in her hand. “I came to drop these off, but I’m glad I found you. We have to assemble the factory report and I don’t have time to go hunting all over the city looking for you.”

Asami felt her cheeks turn red. She generally tried to avoid referring to Yasuko as her mother within Equalist circles. Not that it was a secret. Everybody knew; Asami had practically grown up in the movement after all. It was just a little difficult to assert herself as an independent adult with contributions to make and duties to maintain when her mother was there, basically asking if Asami had finished her homework and why she was out so late last night.

Her throat felt tight and Asami coughed to fill the silence. “I, um, already assembled the factory report,” she said. Out of everything Yasuko had harped on, she could at least answer to that. “That’s why I’m here. I just delivered it.”

Yasuko’s scowl lightened into a tight frown. Another awkward silence descended.

“Yasuko,” Amon said. “What is so important so as to require you bursting in without knocking?”

“Though you are the face of our movement, a messenger blessed by the spirits,” Yasuko said, “I should think those of us on the leadership board would be above such trivialities.” Yasuko’s gaze narrowed, and Asami was glad that it was no longer directed at her.

“Yasuko, you have my utmost respect,” Amon said, shifting in his chair. “You have been an Equalist since the inception of our movement and sacrificed everything for us.” His mask seemed to glance toward Asami for a moment. “You’ve raised your daughter here with us.”

“Recognizing those contributions,” Yasuko said, “I had hoped that the expectations you place on the rabble for the purposes of crowd-management would be mitigated in favor of us actually getting things done.”

Asami wanted to take another step back, away from the space between Amon and her mother. A glance revealed Liu looked as awkward and torn as she felt. On the one hand, Amon was unequivocally their leader. He had stepped into a movement without end-goals and given them spiritual justification and the ability to enact real change though his abilities.

On the other hand, Yasuko had been here first. She had told Asami in private that she did not care for the authority brought by spirits. Amon’s ability to remove bending was remarkable, but it didn’t automatically indicate he was the ideal or best qualified logistical leader.

Liu cleared his throat, breaking the silence.

“In the interest of getting things done,” he said, “let’s move on. All of us have pressing matters to attend to.”

Yasuko nodded. “Indeed.” She turned, refocusing her attention on Asami. “I haven’t seen you in nearly two days,” she said. “You didn’t leave a note or indication as to where I could find you if you were needed. It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Asami stiffened. Spending time with Naga had meant she needed to compensate for lost time in other areas of her life. “I have two factories to manage,” she said. “I have been focused on preparing for the finals strike, which is what I’ve been assigned to do. I realize that you’re focused on the second-wave strike preparations, but I’ve been justifiably busy.”

Her hand clenched involuntarily and Asami tried to rein in the frustration that Yasuko had awakened. No, she hadn’t seen her mother much lately. But for almost all of Asami’s life, her mother had consistently prioritized the movement over quality family time, for better or worse. Asami wasn’t here to get upset over that now, but she refused to bow to the hypocrisy of such a complaint.

“As the lead engineer, I value your dedication and recognize that your prescribed duties differ from mine,” Yasuko said, taking a step forward, “but I am the one who presents our reports. I have been unable to do so because you have been excessively lax in informing me of your schedule and keeping me informed of developments on your end of manufacturing.”

Asami’s face felt hot and her fist clenched tighter. She had averted her eyes to stare at a corner over Yasuko’s shoulder. It was too difficult to look at her mother directly, and looking at Liu or Amon was too much to consider in the moment. She was not a child, and while she still operated under her mother’s authority, she had performed her duties exceptionally well.

A distant part of her curled in on itself. She had assumed, or maybe hoped, that her mother’s concerns were more… personal than that?

“I will expect better of you in the future,” Yasuko continued. “You sit on the board now, but you still report to me.” She paused. “It would not be an issue for you to deliver your manufacturing status reports directly to Amon, but I need to see them first.” That bit of compromise delivered, she arched an eyebrow.

The expression was one Asami recognized instantly. Despite the chastisement coming, largely, from her position as Asami’s superior within the movement, this was the expression of a mother, asking for confirmation that she’d been understood.

Asami chafed under the conflation, but she nodded. “Understood, ma’am,” she said. “But I had additional information that required delivering.” Yasuko had been at the meeting where Asami had volunteered to gather intelligence on Tarrlok’s home. Even if she had disagreed with Asami taking the mission, she couldn’t argue with the fact that she had one.

The arched eyebrow furrowed. “Yes, I’m sure,” Yasuko said, “but whatever petty bit of information you’ve brought does not supersede the need for us to maintain the chain of command.”

At that, Asami’s tight mouth deepened into an outright scowl. She opened her mouth to respond, but movement from the corner of her eye made her stop.

Liu stepped around the table. “Both of you make huge sacrifices and notable contributions to our movement,” he said. “You’ve both come here today with valuable knowledge and information. If there are issues with perceived and actual chain of command, we will deal with them another time. For now, let’s maintain focus on our tasks for today.”

Asami was, frankly, still ready to snap. But a glance at Yasuko showed her mother nod in agreement. Asami relaxed her shoulders. She was ready, but that didn’t mean she had to. If her mother was ready to let it slide, then she was too.

“Just to confirm,” her mother said, “you have not been neglecting your primary duties for tertiary tasks?”

Asami didn’t look at her, but she could hear a bit of bite in her own tone. “Yes, ma’am. I haven’t stopped doing what I’ve been doing for months just because I’ve had alternate assignments in addition to the usual load.” Between her new duties and sneaking out to see Naga, she hadn’t slept much, but sleep struck her as borderline optional anyway.

“Good.” Yasuko glanced down at her notes. “Then since you’ve finished delivering your scraps, I want you to head back to the mansion and wait for me there.”

Asami’s eye twitched. “The information I’ve delivered is the farthest thing from scraps. I have worked hard, late nights putting these reports together and, and—“ She turned back to face front. “And I’m not even done yet.”

Yasuko scoffed. “Aren’t you?”

Her pulse was pounding and her face felt hot. “No. I was just about to deliver some, some incredibly crucial information to Amon.” Part of her wanted to pull back, to bow her head and let the insults go. But while she was Yasuko’s daughter, she was no longer a child.

Her hands clenched. “I have identified the Avatar’s sister.” The words slipped out before she had time to reconsider.

To her right, Asami heard Yasuko gasp, “What?”

Liu straightened up. “Where is she?” he asked.

On his chair, Amon sat forward. It was his first notable display of interest all morning. “Are you certain?” he asked, eyes flashing behind his mask.

Anxiety seized Asami’s stomach in a vise. Though she’d been arguing with her mother for several minutes, her throat felt suddenly dry as she nodded. “I’m certain,” she said.

The dynamic of the room shifted as Amon propped his head on one hand. “This is an interesting development,” he said. “I was unaware our missing Avatar had any family aside from parents. Who is she?”

“Her name is Sakari. She plays for the Fire Ferrets as their waterbender.” Asami’s voice sounded distant and foreign. She didn’t like the sound.

She would have stopped at that, stopped to avoid hearing her voice saying these things, but then Amon nodded his head for her to continue.

Asami bit her tongue and hesitated a moment. Amon tilted his head, expectant.

Her gaze dropped as she continued, “Sakari’s existence has been kept a secret from the general public. Her parents have been excessively protective of her since the Avatar’s kidnapping. The girl herself is a waterbending prodigy. I took note of her during my pro-bending observations.”

Amon hummed and sat back in his chair. “Fascinating possibilities,” he murmured.

Liu’s gaze moved from Amon back to Asami. “How in the world did you find this out?”

To the side, Asami heard Yasuko mutter, “How indeed…”

She cleared her throat again, but it did nothing for the dryness or the sweating of her palms. “I snuck backstage to compile that infiltration map,” she said. “While I was there, I eavesdropped on a confession; she was telling the other members of the Fire Ferrets—“ Mako and Bolin, two upstanding young men who had dragged themselves up from nothing… “—about who she was.”

Amon shifted in his seat and attention refocused on him. “I have a great deal of interest in this Sakari girl,” he said. “Though the world lacks an Avatar at the moment, that absence has left an opening for other symbols to take its place.” He tapped the side of his mask, as though making a decision. “A sister would be a suitable device,” he said firmly, then turned to Liu. “The Fire Ferrets are fighting in the finals match, correct?”

Liu nodded. “Yes sir.”

“I want this girl captured,” Amon said, “I will not remove her bending until a later time, but I want her in our custody for later.”

“Understood. I will ensure measures are taken then.”

“We can discuss it after Yasuko’s report.”

Amon turned to Asami’s mother. “Yasuko,” he said, “your networks are well suited for this sort of task. Several days after finals, once she’s in our grasp, can you have her status as the Avatar’s sister leaked to some reputable, unconnected reporter?”

Yasuko delayed a moment, then nodded. “I can do that,” she said.

The pit seemed to drop out of Asami’s stomach. Her hand trembled a moment. She wished she could reach out and take all the words back.

Then Amon turned to her. “Well done, Asami,” he said.

She balked at the praise, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“From the discussion earlier,” he continued, “it sounds as though you’re quite busy, so I won’t hold you here any longer.”

Part of her wanted to object, to say it was no problem. It took her a beat to recognize that she wanted to stay to hear the revised finals plan, to hear what they had in store for Sakari.

But even thinking about it sent a wave of nausea to her gut.

Asami bowed her head. “Thank you, Amon,” she said.

Her eyes didn’t seem to see anything as she turned and left the room. The doorknob felt strange under her hand, as though she’d never touched one before.

Walking down the hall, her footsteps seemed to echo far too loudly, reverberating through the building and far away from her.

Asami was similarly certain that the repercussions of her actions today would carry similarly.

* * *

When she was a kid, Korra used to call the Red Lotus’ meetings “circle time.” Sometimes they just sat in the dirt to talk things over. Today, at least, they had actual furniture, even a table too.

Ghazan and Ming-Hua shared the couch as well as his soup. He elbowed her side lightly to grab her attention, then smiled and offered her a spoonful.

Ming-Hua cocked an eyebrow. “I can feed myself, you know,” she said. Within the bowl, Ghazan’s soup swirled for a moment.

Korra wrinkled her nose when Ghazan winked. “I know, Babe,” he said. “I just like treating you is all.”

The two of them were the worst. When Korra was younger, she used to gag and make faces when they kissed.

Korra took a sip of her soup and glanced past them. In the kitchen, Zaheer and P’li were intent on one another. Their quiet conversation seemed serious, but they always looked pretty serious together. They were a private couple. What she could see of their relationship seemed intense. Korra always felt like she was interrupting something between them, even if it was just breakfast.

A minute later, Zaheer and P’li finished their conversation and came over to join the circle, with Zaheer sitting on the floor near Korra and P’li taking the remaining chair. Zaheer cleared his throat and waited a moment for everyone to focus their attention on him. “I’ll go first,” he said.

“My mission to infiltrate the Equalists of the city was successful,” he began. “Or at least the best as could be done on short notice. They seemed fairly aware of the possibilities for spies in their midst and had set in place several barriers to prevent traitors from being integrated into the organization.

“However, they were also clearly in need of manpower. After putting myself forward as a potential recruit, I quickly found a role in moving boxes I was forbidden to open.”

Korra snorted. “What was inside of them?” she asked. Orders like that were practically an invitation to a scout. She found herself leaning forward, curious to know more about this group that held Asami in sway.

Zaheer smiled thinly at her. “Various types of technology, most of it weaponry,” he said. “We moved crate upon crate of electrified gloves, which I deeply regret being unable to try out during my mission. Aside from the gloves, we helped move crates of wheels and gears and engine parts.

“As I am more inclined toward the spiritual than the mechanical, I was largely unable to glean useful information from their contents.” Zaheer rubbed the back of his neck. “As best I can determine, they are pulling together various puzzle pieces of machines for the purpose of constructing some whole from the parts at another location.”

“What about Amon?” Ming-Hua asked. “What’s his role within the organization? Figurehead or real leader?”

Ghazan winked at her. “I’d say he’s the face of the organization,” he said.

P’li groaned, and Ming-Hua bent a small stream of soup at his face.

Zaheer ignored him and continued. “I only met him once, but my assessment is that he is both a practical leader as well as a figurehead. Once, while I was eavesdropping, one of my superiors made reference to a ‘council’ of some importance. It makes sense. For a movement of their size, Amon could not possibly micromanage all the various facets he would need to.” Zaheer paused a moment. “Amon likely sits in charge of this council, as opposed to being one of its members.”

P’li crossed her arms. “What are you basing that on?”

“The cult of personality,” Zaheer answered immediately. “After my first couple days, we participated in a highly reverent ceremony where we all met him and were formally inducted as Equalists. He brushed each of our foreheads with a finger dipped in red paint. Even setting aside his ability, however he has it, my induction had us very clearly swearing our loyalty to him and, by extension, his Equalist cause.”

“And… his abilities…?” Korra trailed off, unsure what her question would be or what she even meant by it.

Zaheer seemed to understand anyway. “I saw no second demonstration, but his abilities are unquestioned within the organization. No whispers came to me about mirrors or tricks, no benders who were ‘in on it’ to facilitate the show.” He paused and something shifted in his expression. “During the ceremony, when he touched each of our foreheads, I felt a slight disturbance within my body at each of my chakra points. I cannot say quite what it was, though I suspect part of it was him somehow verifying that we were all actually non-benders.”

Korra shivered. She was sitting with three of the world’s most capable benders and possibly the most capable non-bending fighter, but the idea of Amon touching her forehead chilled her. It was the same point he’d touched when taking the bending at The Revelation.

“Would this be a good time to cut in?” P’li asked. “I wasn’t able to discover much about him, but perhaps it can complement what you learned.”

Zaheer nodded her onward and P’li continued. “He came to Republic City several years ago, taking great pains to mask his previous travels. I was unable to determine a definite place of origin, especially due to the mask. As best I can speculate, he may be partly of Water Tribe stock, if we can judge by the shade of his hands.”

“But you know what they say about assumptions,” Ghazan said, holding out one arm for a moment.

“Exactly,” P’li said. “Seeking the origins of his powers, I tracked down two victims to the north of here. Prior to his arrival in Republic City, he seems to have taken the bending of two rural Earth Kingdom citizens. The mode of operation was very similar as well. Though they’ve obviously mellowed out in the years since then, both benders fit the archetype of their towns’ local bullies.” P’li smiled thinly. “Then a mysterious traveller passed through and took their bending.”

“Wait, how does a story like that, two stories like that, stay a secret?” Ming-Hua asked. She pulled her legs up and sat cross-legged on the couch. “That sounds like news to me.”

P’li shrugged. “They were very rural villages. Also, the two benders in question were highly reluctant to talk about the experience.” Her eyes flashed in a bit of amusement. P’li had a way of staring at people until they felt like talking. “If they were half the bullies they claimed to be, I can understand that too. They lost the ability to win all the fights they’d been picking. It’s not exactly something I would advertise either.”

“What about news moving the other way?” Korra asked. “Even if their stories didn’t travel, what’s going on in Republic City right now is… noteworthy.”

P’li pursed her lips. “You guys don’t seem to understand how deep in the middle of nowhere I had to go for this intel. No running water. I had to sleep in mud once. These people are not exactly cosmopolitan news-junkies.”

Korra hunched her shoulders. “Sorry,” she said.

“It’s fine.” P’li sighed. “I only wish I could find out more. Amon covered his tracks well.” She sat up a little. “However, while I was at it, I was able to touch base with some Red Lotus contacts. We have a clear route to the Northern Water Tribe when it comes time for us to leave for Harmonic Convergence.”

Zaheer nodded. “Good thinking.”

Korra blinked and closed her eyes a moment, trying to remind herself that, as much as Republic City’s issues felt visceral and present, immediate and whelming, they ultimately weren’t. The Red Lotus would move on from here soon enough.

The thought raised a thread of panic in her gut and Korra stomped it down, refusing to think about reasons she might not want to leave the city.

“Going back to my intel,” Zaheer said, “it looks like the Equalists are gearing up for some kind of large-scale action. I heard speculation about a big shipment coming in from somewhere in the mountains, but was unable to learn more about its purpose. Careful questioning revealed that they’re anticipating a pair of these shipments, possibly revealing a pair of attacks.”

“Any details?” Ghazan asked.

Zaheer shook his head. “Only that the first is soon.”

A shiver ran down Korra’s spine. Concern for Sakari pressed against the back of her throat, making it difficult to swallow. She cleared her throat. “Actually,” she said, “I believe I can supply both the time and location. The pro-bending finals in two days.”

Everybody blinked at her in surprise. Zaheer’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know this?”

For a moment, Korra thought of laughter and sitting next to Asami with their shoulders touching. About Asami’s notebook and loopy handwriting. The taste of the dinner out they’d had together.

“Um, while you were with the Equalists, I’ve been focused on some investigation in my own right,” she said. “I met with the Equalist who helped me after the Revelation, completely by chance. Based on what she’s said or implied, I’m fairly confident in confirming that this upcoming attack will be a strike on the finals match.”

“It’s a reasonable theory too,” P’li mused. “Time, location, and motive. It would be quite the blow to strike.”

Zaheer’s gaze hadn’t left Korra’s face. “And where, exactly, did you meet your Equalist again? Completely by chance?”

Despite her best efforts, a blush stole across Korra’s cheeks. She’d been caught. “I was, uh, at the pro-bending arena for quarterfinals,” she mumbled.

She peeked up and saw Zaheer glaring at Ghazan, who looked only slightly sheepish.

Before Ghazan could say anything, Ming-Hua cleared her throat. “However she ran into the Equalist again, Korra continued to exercise a great deal of initiative in pursuing the lead. She’s collected useful information.” Ming-Hua smiled and Korra sat up a little straighter. “Also, should we decide to take some sort of action at the arena, it will be useful to have someone familiar with the arena.”

Zaheer regarded her for a moment before his gaze shifted to Korra. She stiffened slightly under his scrutiny, but kept her chin up. She’d made her own decisions regarding how to handle the Asami situation, not all of them motivated by the Red Lotus’ goals. Still, she’d stand by them.

“It would be useful, and the intelligence you’ve collected has already proved its merit.” Zaheer nodded once. “However, we will not be taking any action save observation.”

Korra’s gut clenched at those words. She couldn’t think of why, didn’t want to think about why that was troubling.

“We came to Republic City to observe Equalist action,” Zaheer continued. “They are, in their own fashion, fighting for freedom in Republic City. We will not take any action against them.”

Korra huffed. “But—”

“Ghazan and I will be in attendance at finals,” Zaheer cut her off, “since Ghazan seems to be in a habit of taking people to matches.”

“I thought this was supposed to be a lesson for me,” Korra argued. “How am I supposed to learn if I’m back here?”

He regarded her coolly for a moment. “I will deliver the lesson upon our return,” he said. “Your priorities and the next phrase of your training will become clear shortly.”

From his tone, Korra knew the matter was closed. Absolutely. She wasn’t sure what he had in store for her next focal lesson, but she found herself sulking a bit as the topic of conversation shifted to Tarrlok, the Red Lotus’ new government target. She took a couple steady breaths and brought her focus back as Zaheer was giving them a quick rundown on how curfews and Tarrlok’s task force were interfering with the everyday lives of people in Republic City, mostly the average non-bending citizens.

“Many low-paying jobs available to non-benders are focused around late hours,” he said. “Some cannot help but be out after curfew, placing themselves at the mercy of random police patrols.”

Korra rubbed the back of her neck, thinking of how she and Asami often parted ways late in the evening. “I haven’t had an issue dodging patrols,” she said, “but I’m far more nimble than the average citizen.”

“Indeed,” Zaheer said. “Many of the new Equalists I worked with were coming from a perspective of frustration. Several had been driven to seek out Equalist membership after being pushed over the edge by the curfews.” He turned to P’li. “Were you able to discover any information on his motivations or origins?”

P’li closed her eyes a moment. “Between researching Tarrlok and Amon, I found myself staring down a great many people who had nothing of worth to say to me,” she said. “Tarrlok’s trail is oddly clean. Almost artificially so. He traces back clearly to the Northern Water Tribe. He moved to Republic City directly as a moderately skilled tradesman with no living family to speak of. He apparently moved right to the city, with no stopover phase between here and the northern tribe.

“As for his origins there, as best I could tell he came from a fairly isolated family. They lived in some backwater area with little connection to the cosmopolitan or political centers.”

“Weird,” Ming-Hua commented.

“He clearly picked up a decent eye for antiques at some point,” Korra added.

“That’s the weird part,” P’li said. “Nowhere in his past does it suggest that he should have the skills he does. In his work with the task force, he seems to be a formidable fighter. But, in the rumors I picked up, neither his father nor his mother were waterbenders. No hint of wealth to buy private lessons or political savvy.”

“Did he fall in with the triads upon arrival?” Ghazan asked. “If he had some natural talent and not a lot of cash, gang recruitment would have been an easy option.”

“Frequently suspected,” P’li said, “but any connection has yet to be proven. He’s been almost unnaturally clean since arriving to the city. Nobody with any political will is willing to make such an accusation, given Tarrlok’s current level of power.”

Zaheer hummed a moment, considering P’li’s report. After a beat, he shifted his gaze toward Korra. “Did your scouting mission bring anything of note to your attention?”

“I mean, he’s rich and has good taste. His house is moderately secure, but not in a way that would bring us trouble.” Korra shrugged. “He’s a waterbender with a water feature in his front hall. That assassination practically writes itself.” Everyone around the circle chuckled and she smiled. “I’ve drawn up a couple approaches for the attack and a few more for both neat and messy escapes. It’s very much suited to Ming-Hua’s style. Shouldn’t pose any issues.”

Ming-Hua regarded Korra fondly. “It should be fun for us.”

Korra blinked. “Wait. Us?”

Around the circle, her family exchanged a series of glances. After a pause, Ghazan cleared his throat. “We’ve all been talking,” he said. “And, uh, it’s time.”

“You are no longer a child,” Zaheer said. “And with Harmonic Convergence, with your fully realized destiny, almost upon us, it’s time you took on the mantle of membership. From now on, you operate with an equal capacity to us as a team member.”

Ming-Hua nodded, catching Korra’s eye. “I’m looking forward to working with you, Korra. You’re more than ready.”

Korra’s heart seemed to swell in her chest and she felt a wavering smile curl the edges of her mouth. For ages, she’d wanted more than just scouting or thieving missions. This was her time.

“Your spirit needs to be ready to accept the burden and significance of taking the life of another,” Zaheer said. “It’s no matter to be taken lightly, as each person you kill is robbed of their freedom permanently. However, you know as well as any of us that Tarrlok is a stain on the world. With his freedom, he chooses to deny freedom to others.”

“It’s unacceptable,” Korra said. Her body trembled a little. This was the first real mission.

“Does he deserve to die?” Zaheer asked.

Korra nodded. “Absolutely, yes.” Frankly, they’d killed people for less. But, for her first full mission, he seemed a fitting target.

“Good.” Zaheer smiled thinly. “While Ming-Hua will be there, you are the primary for this mission. We expect you to take charge of it. You are the Avatar and it is your duty, the burden you place on your own freedom, to protect the freedom and balance of the world.”

Briefly, Korra thought of Asami. Talking abstractly about throwing the city and world out of balance didn’t feel as real as the threat Tarrlok posed to her and the other non-benders like her. Killing him would protect them.

“I will end him and, with him, his imbalance,” she said.

Zaheer nodded. “Good.”

*

Korra trapped the paper under the edge of her foot so the wind wouldn’t carry it away. “And from there we slip back out the rear gate, using the ice we left in place as a quick key. The alley on the left side has a sharp turn just a few steps in, which would cut visibility on any pursuers.”

Ming-Hua nodded. “Definitely the simplest escape route.”

The wind tugged at Korra’s hair, pulling her gaze toward the bay. In the distance, she could just barely make out the tower on Air Temple Island. Nearby, she could see the upper spires that decorated the pro-bending arena.

Somewhere inside, the Fire Ferrets were probably practicing, making their own plans for finals and how to deal with different contingencies from the Wolf Bats. They weren’t aware of the Equalist attack that would follow.

Ming-Hua started talking again and Korra forced herself to focus. She leaned forward and and marked the map with strongholds, points of metaphorical higher ground that she or Ming-Hua could defend with relative ease.

“Korra… Korra!”

Korra sat up, blinking. “Yes? Huh?”

Ming-Hua frowned. “I’ve been trying to get your attention, girl.”

“Whoops, sorry.” Korra rubbed the back of her neck. “I, uh, I just got super focused on this.”

Arching an eyebrow, Ming-Hua didn’t seem convinced. “I would have said you seemed more distracted. I’m not Zaheer, but you seem… off.” She tilted her head. “Is it a spiritual issue, or do you want to talk?”

Korra paused. “I… no.” She shook her head. “I’m just a bit worried. I, uh, believe Tarrlok will be the focus of some sort of Equalist attack first.” Thankfully, in the moments after she said it, she realized it was a reasonable concern.

Ming-Hua considered her for a moment. She didn’t look entirely convinced that was the issue. “Then we’ll see about moving our attack up,” she said. “That way we’ll beat them to him.”

Korra nodded slowly. “That will work,” she said.

Ming-Hua hadn’t stopped frowning. “You still seem… off,” she said.

Rubbing the back of her neck, Korra sighed again. “My mind… is elsewhere,” she admitted.

“Then go.” Ming-Hua jerked her chin toward the bay. “Run off and find it, find your focus, and come back here when you’re ready to get back to planning.” Ming-Hua got to her feet.

Korra blinked. “Wait, really?”

“Yes.” Ming-Hua gestured to their papers with a foot. “Pack our maps up first, then head out. Take a look at the city for how it is and find a point to strengthen your resolve. Find an edge to keen your anger against and the focus will follow.” And with that, she hopped off the roof onto the walkway to their apartment, leaving Korra alone.

“I will,” Korra said to the wind. Her body moved automatically as she gathered their papers and moved them to the apartment. Something nagged for her attention at the back of her mind. She pushed it aside. She just needed to leave. Ghazan called out some joke on her way out the door, and Korra couldn’t even remember how she replied before she was gone.

Down the stairs and down a street, then another, and she made it exactly two blocks before realization caught up to her. She ducked down an alley and crouched in the dirt, trying to control her breathing.

The Equalists were launching a large-scale attack on the pro-bending finals. Something that required crates of supplies and weapons.

Korra wrapped her arms around herself and leaned against one of the buildings. Sakari was playing in the finals match.

Her sister was going to be a target of the Equalist attack.

A trickle of chill seemed run down her body, as if she were sitting underneath a dripping faucet. The tremble in her limbs stopped and Korra blinked away a tear as she took a deep breath.

Her sister was going to be directly in the Equalist line of fire, with Amon and his terrifying powers likely heading up the attack. Zaheer’s orders about staying away felt like nothing in the face of that. Korra could only do so much, but she couldn’t do nothing. Somehow, she had to find a way of protecting Sakari.

Briefly, Korra considered Asami Sato. She could… go to Asami. Somehow. She could track her down and demand… what? That Asami expose secret Equalist plans, betraying an organization to which she clearly felt loyal? Asami had seemed touched by Sakari’s story, but what if that wasn’t enough to move her sympathies?

Asami seemed to care for Korra. At least somewhat. If she knew Sakari was Korra’s sister, maybe that would make enough of a difference to afford her protection.

But Korra couldn’t admit that without confessing that not only was she not a non-bender, but she was also The Avatar, the most bending-y of benders.

Not an option.

Korra stood up.

“I never find solutions just sitting on the ground anyway,” she muttered to herself. At that, she smiled a bit. Because that meant she was seeking a solution. She would take some sort of action at finals and protect Sakari somehow.

She’d figure out the details later.

Korra quickened her pace. In the meantime, she would go out into the city and strengthen her resolve on killing Tarrlok. There were plenty of people to observe and plenty of reasons to hate him.

She walked aimlessly for a few blocks, watching the people around her. It wasn’t until she was walking along the waterfront that Korra noticed she had been unconsciously walking toward the pro-bending arena.

That wasn’t an issue though. Korra wandered the nearby streets, loitering and watching how the people went about their lives in the area. She kept to the edges of the streets, largely unnoticed. She watched the people and listened to the local gossip, especially tuning in to any talk about Tarrlok or the Equalists. At one point she even thought she heard the name ‘Sato,’ but by the time she located the speakers, they’d moved on.

Throughout her loitering, however, Korra always seemed to circle back around to a place with a view of the pro-bending arena. When she glanced over, her gaze would snap to the side door.

If Korra was remembering correctly, the Fire Ferrets would be getting out of practice soon.

She observed the people of the city half-heartedly as she slowly reconciled herself to the fact that yes maybe she was stalking the arena a bit. Maybe she wanted to see her little sister one more time before… before anything bad happened.

Her fists clenched. She had to do something. The anxiety from before welled up beneath her skin, urging her to take action somehow.

She glanced toward the arena and everything stopped as she watched three figures leave out the side door. Korra recognized Sakari, Mako, and Bolin immediately.

Sakari’s polar bear dog, Naga, came loping in beside them. As Korra started following them, walking down a parallel street, she made certain to keep her distance. It would be unfortunate if Naga were to scent her again. The brisk sea breeze coming in off the bay worked in her favor as she tracked the group to the pier.

She watched Sakari bound onto the ferry like a natural. Briefly, Korra wondered if the girl had spent a lot of time on the water, living in the Southern Water Tribe. She knew a bit of Water Tribe custom, but would Sakari have learned to sail a boat if their parents had kept her hidden away?

Either way, she seemed much more at-ease on the boat than the captain, who kept glancing at Naga.

As the boat pulled away from the dock, heading to Air Temple Island, Korra made her way to a less-crowded walkway. She hopped the fence separating the road from the water and, when nobody was looking, dove beneath the waves.

She pulled a bubble of air around her mouth and briefly wished she could move air above the water the same way she could almost control it beneath the surface. But even that desire faded as she swam across the bay toward Air Temple Island. Waterbending felt good. The rush of power, of speed that came from moving under the water, seemed to wash away all of her concerns, if only for a little bit.

Whenever her family arrived at a new place, she kept to whatever identity Zaheer gave her. Non-bender was always the hardest though. Korra had been born to do this, to command the water as an extension of herself, just as Ming-Hua had taught her.

She arrived at Air Temple Island all too quickly. Briefly, she considered taking an extra lap around the island. Then she remembered Sakari and even the pleasures of waterbending seemed to fade to something trivial.

Korra pulled herself onto Air Temple Island around a corner from the dock, being careful to stay downwind from Naga’s sense of smell. She shrugged once she was all the way out of the water, pulling the water out of her clothes and off her skin and hair. It collected down her arms and she held it off her fingertips a moment before directing it back into the bay.

When Korra peered over the edge of a rock, she saw that Tenzin had come to greet the group with Jinora and her younger siblings. They talked for a few minutes before the little kids leapt onto Naga’s back and convinced the dog to carry them away, up the stairs.

Korra was pleasantly surprised when Mako and Bolin patted Sakari on the shoulder and departed for the main building with Tenzin, leaving Sakari and Jinora by themselves. Korra followed them at a distance until they wandered over to the spinning gates and stopped. When they seemed like they would stay for a while, she took the time to carefully navigate to a closer position in the woods. After a couple minutes, she was within earshot.

They’d gotten onto the topic of bending. Korra found herself quickly wrapped up in their discussion. Jinora was demonstrating the circle walking technique that Korra had seen earlier. From the bushes, Korra put her hands up in a similar open position and tried to think about freedom and negative jing.

The stance felt unnatural to her hands, which wanted to curl into fists. Fists felt more defensive. Korra took a breath. Airbending wasn’t about solid defense so much as evasion. She studied Jinora’s movements for another minute, watching as she limited her footprint of space as much as possible, only expanding it when she stepped farther away with the intent of showing Sakari how airbenders kept moving while under fire.

Sakari imitated this a couple of times and Jinora giggled a bit when she had to keep correcting her friend’s stance, which kept shifting too wide.

“You’re not trying to ground yourself, preparing to redirect attacks like a waterbender,” Jinora said. “It’s more like… you’re here for now, your stance is here for now, but if something comes your way you’ll just leave and pick a different spot.”

Sakari huffed. “It feels wrong to my body, picking a spot if I’m not going to at least dig in a little.”

Jinora snorted. “Isn’t water the element of change?”

“Let me try again,” Sakari said.

In the woods, Korra ducked behind a tree and tried to take Jinora’s airbending stance. She blanched. Her feet were too far apart. She tried to set the stance again, but this time fought the instinct to ground herself.

It felt unnatural. Korra had excelled at earthbending. She was naturally stubborn. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been able to stomp the ground and make it move.

Peering back around the tree, she was briefly disappointed to see they’d moved on from airbending; Sakari was demonstrating how to redirect another waterbender’s attack. Pulling water from a nearby pond, Sakari had it fly at her, then twisted and captured the water, redirecting its momentum and sending it lancing away from her. Korra recognized the move as one Sakari had used in the quarterfinal. It was a classic Southern Water Tribe move.

Here, she felt a stab of sadness. Sakari was facing the other way, but Korra could just make out how she was talking about her teacher and how she’d learned to move in her waterbending lessons.

Korra had learned from Ming-Hua, a skilled master, but a little unorthodox. Her mind wandered as she watched Sakari show off a couple more stances. Sakari and Korra seemed to have the same issues with the airbending stances, but they moved very differently in their waterbending. Would Korra stand like that if she had been trained in the Southern Water Tribe?

Separate from that, she felt a swell of pride for her sister. She was good. Korra wasn’t sure she’d call the girl a master, but she wasn’t sure what qualified people for mastery anyway.

As the girls trained, Korra was struck by how natural they were with one another. Korra felt… almost aggressively happy for her. After being isolated all her life, Sakari deserved a friend. And Korra had met Jinora before. She was a good kid.

For a moment, she wondered how the Equalists felt about airbenders. She shuddered and put the thought out of mind.

“Hey, let’s do it!” Sakari grinned.

Jinora tilted her head. “Are you sure it’s okay?”

“Absolutely.” Sakari took a few steps closer to the pond. “I want to see if I can hit you.”

At that, Jinora’s trepidation turned to a sly grin. “You can try,” she said. She leapt back a certain distance, carried by a gust of wind, and moved closer to where Korra was in the woods.

Korra ducked behind a bush, but Jinora’s attention was wholly focused on Sakari across the clearing.

“Ready?” Sakari called.

Korra rolled to the side and picked herself up a few feet over, looking for a different vantage point. By the time she made it there, their match had started.

Almost immediately, Sakari seemed to dominate the energy of their match-up, sending attacks in Jinora’s direction and setting the pace. However, all that energy cancelled out when it reached Jinora. Although a couple of the first strikes glanced by and almost hit her, the airbender quickly fell into a rhythm of dodging.

Here, Korra could see there was definitely something to that small-footprint approach. By making herself into a small, highly-mobile target, Jinora just needed to catch on to Sakari’s timing to completely negate her attacks.

After a minute, Sakari stopped. She was scowling and squinting suspiciously at Jinora.

Jinora took the opportunity to send a wide blast of air back at her, but Sakari easily pulled some water up and blocked the attack, then turned her shield into a sweeping offensive strike back at Jinora.

They continued this way for a while. Korra wished she had Asami here so she could borrow a notebook and take notes to look over later. Between being able to watch Jinora (an airbender!) engage in combat from up close and observe her sister’s bending was far more interesting than any of the pro-bending matches had been.

Eventually, Sakari launched a series of attacks that positioned Jinora just right for a final strike that landed and sent her sprawling.

As that happened, Jinora’s air blast turned and knocked Sakari into the pond.

Within seconds, Sakari scrambled out of the water. She bent the water from her clothes and hair in a smooth, one-handed motion, sending it back into the pond. She looked around frantically. Her gaze found Jinora and her expression seemed to catch between triumph and distress. “Jinora, I’m so sorry!” she yelled, rushing over to the airbender.

“I’m fine, it’s okay,” Jinora said, starting to get off the ground.

Sakari grabbed her friend’s elbow, helping her up. “You were dodging so much that I stopped holding back. I honestly didn’t think I would hit you.”

Jinora chuckled as she straightened up, then flinched and rubbed her arm. “I’ll have a bruise or two tomorrow, but I’m really okay.”

From her vantage point, Korra couldn’t see Jinora’s face, but Sakari didn’t seem especially convinced. “Are you sure?” She squinted, looking Jinora up and down, then grabbed her wrists. “You skinned your palms,” she said, “they’re bleeding a little.”

Jinora looked down at her hands and blinked. “Oh. I guess they are.” She paused, as though unsure what to do with that information.

Korra got the sense that none of the airbender kids were especially well-acquainted with hitting the ground. It made sense.

"Let me help," Sakari said. She waved a hand and bent a small bubble of water over from the pond. When it reached her, she concentrated on it for a moment, purifying the water. After a few seconds, she said, "Give me your hands."

Jinora hesitated, then held her palms out. Sakari divided the bubble of water into two and laid them over Jinora’s hands. Immediately, the water started to glow.

“Woah.” Jinora and Korra whispered at the same moment.

Sakari half-glanced at the woods where Korra was hidden before refocusing on Jinora. “I know how to heal, at least enough for this,” she said. “I learned from Katara, and she’s the best.”

“That’s so cool,” Jinora said, peering down at her hands through the glowing water.

Korra agreed, frankly. She wished she could get closer, but she really couldn’t chance it with how close they already were. Her muscles were already getting a little sore from holding so still. But… if Sakari had learned healing, then Korra would know how to heal if she’d been raised at the South Pole.

She looked down at her hands and sighed. She’d never received a vision of Aang using waterbending to heal. Not that he was being especially useful when it came to airbending, but it would have been interesting at least.

After a minute of healing, Sakari pulled the water back. “There you go,” she said. “Good as new.”

Jinora turned her hands over and peered at them curiously. “That was really interesting,” she said. “Thank you so much.”

Korra quietly sighed from the bushes. She wanted to learn so many things: airbending, metalbending, chi-blocking, and now healing? She didn’t have time for all the cool skills in the world! Why couldn’t the Red Lotus have found her an extra master or two?

Back in the clearing, Sakari was stammering over another apology for hitting Jinora. Eventually, Jinora turned and Korra watched a sly look come over her face. “It’s fine, Sakari,” she said. “Actually, I have a challenge for you to try.”

“A challenge?” Sakari perked up at that and followed Jinora over towards the spinning gates. The wind shifted, blowing Korra’s bangs back from her forehead. It was getting strong enough that the gates were already turning slowly, rattling when gusts came through.

Korra relocated to a better position in the woods as Jinora explained how they worked, then demonstrated in the same way she had for Korra’s tour.

“If you can make it through,” Jinora finished up, “that’s the basics of moving like an airbender.”

Sakari grinned. “Oh, I’ve totally got this!”

From the woods, Korra chuckled. “Good luck, kid,” she whispered.

Jinora had a grin on her face as Sakari jogged up to the gates. “Ready?”

“Ready!”

The first time, Sakari moved in like a waterbender, trying to flow with the rhythm of the gates. Except the gates didn’t really have a rhythm. After a couple of steps, she smacked into one, which quickly became four as they tossed her out.

Sakari immediately leapt to her feet. “Let me try again!”

Jinora shrugged. “Alright.” She set them spinning again.

The second time, Sakari seemed to be trying the circle-walking that Jinora had shown her earlier. She made it another step farther before getting tossed out and landing flat on her back.

“Again!”

Sakari tried a few more times with no notable improvements. Her temper, on the other hand, seemed to be rising. She stalked over to the gates and glared at them.

“Did you want to go again?” Jinora asked. She seemed to be hiding a smile.

Sakari kicked one of the gates, sending it spinning. “No,” she grumbled. She looked back at Jinora and squinted. “I’m getting the sense that this was a challenge you knew I wouldn’t win.”

Jinora stepped back and hunched her shoulders. “Oh, sorry, I may have thought it would be a little funny…”

Heaving a melodramatic sigh, Sakari walked over and gave Jinora a light push. Though Jinora was younger, they were the same height. “I guess it’s only fair,” she said. “We both have bruises now.”

Jinora’s shoulders fell back into place. She tugged at her hair. “I guess so,” she said.

Sakari was about to say something else when a rustling noise drew their attention. Over near the main building, a bush seemed to be highly agitated. Korra tilted her head, trying to figure out what was happening.

A beat later, Naga burst out from the bush. Ikki and Meelo were riding on top of her and although Meelo yelled, “CHARGE!” Naga had stopped abruptly. She put her nose in the air and sniffed urgently.

Korra leapt to her feet on instinct, trying to figure out why all her senses were telling her to run.

Then Naga put her nose down and looked right at Korra’s hiding place.

The wind had shifted.

Naga charged right toward her.

Korra turned and sprinted for the edge of the island, no longer caring about stealth. They probably weren’t looking at her anyway, given the charging polar bear dog.

She reached the edge and leapt off. In the seconds before she hit the water, Korra could still hear Naga behind her, struggling to catch up.

Then she hit the water and dove deep, using waterbending to get away from the area in case Naga decided to go for a swim and take the airbender kids along with her. Once she’d circled back around to where she’d landed before, she came up to the surface again.

Naga… Korra sat back against the rocky side of the island and closed her eyes. The dog was clearly drawn to her for some reason. She paused. Maybe… Naga recognized her, remembered her? Was it possible…

“No way,” Korra breathed.

Distantly, she remembered picking up a small white puppy in a blizzard, her first memory.

A few other memories of the puppy surfaced. Feeding the poor thing, wanting it to sleep in her bed, and maybe… maybe something about her parents not wanting her to keep it?

Maybe she’d named it too. Maybe that’s why the name ‘Naga’ felt familiar.

“So… it doesn’t just sound like a dog’s name,” Korra grumbled to herself. “It is a dog’s name. Great.”

Briefly, she imagined telling Asami her real name so Asami could stop using the wrong one.

Korra looked up, seeking a distraction. Out at the dock, she could see Mako, Bolin, and Sakari getting on a boat with Naga. Tenzin and a few shorter people, maybe his children, were gathered on the dock. She couldn’t see all that clearly.

But still. Korra got to her feet. An electric feeling ran through her veins. If they were all leaving, the gates would be unattended.

A stiff breeze tugged on Korra’s clothes and sent her hair flying.

*

 

After her third attempt, Korra stopped and recited some of Guru Laghima’s poetry. New bruises called for her attention, but she was used to focusing around minor injuries.

“I can do this,” she breathed, stepping forward with the next gust to enter the gates. Like Jinora had, she kept her hands up with her elbows close to her torso. Following the pattern of steps, as best she could remember it, Korra consciously kept her feet light, but she felt sluggish, just barely staying away from the gates.

They weren’t even spinning as fast as Jinora made them go. How was she supposed to make it through if she couldn’t stay ahead of them at half speed?

As soon as the doubt hit, Korra crashed into one. One gate quickly turned into three, then five. Then she was out on her ass again.

“Augh!” Korra clenched her hands. It would have been nice to set the spinning evil things on fire, but that would draw attention in a seriously bad way.

She stalked around to the other side. Airbending was about approaching from different angles, not just charging through. Korra took a deep breath, but it wasn’t steady. She unclenched her hands and tried quoting some Guru Laghima poetry to herself, but it felt even more awkward than before. Fruitless practices with Zaheer had led to no more airbending than she’d started with.

“A vision would be handy right now, Aang,” she murmured, closing her eyes. “Airbending. Freedom. Poetry. Circle walking and spinning gates. Whatever will make it click.”

For a beat, the air seemed to move between her fingers.

Korra’s eyes snapped open, but then she saw the gates moving. It was just the wind again. “Thank a lot,” she said. “You’re super inconsistent, you know that?” She charged towards the gates again, hoping to make up for technique with speed.

The wind shifted right as she entered and the first gate smacked her in the forehead.

Sprawled out, Korra sat up and glared. “Lots of handy visions telling me to make friends and be myself, but actual airbending instruction is awfully absent.” No response came but a softening of the wind. “I’ve been dedicated to freedom my whole life,” Korra said, getting to her feet. “What am I getting wrong?”

“Hello? Is someone here?” A familiar voice (was it Tenzin’s?) rang out from near the building.

Korra turned around and sprinted off the island again, this time staying underwater until she reached Republic City. Waterbending provided some level of peace, but she remained agitated as she wandered around, absently grabbing a cheap dinner from a street vendor.

When she’d passed by the arena three times, each time half-hoping to run into Sakari, Korra decided to head back to the apartment. Halfway there, she passed by a street-stand selling masks and paused. The seller was just starting to pack up, probably so she could get everything put away in time for curfew.

Korra blinked. The vision took her by surprise in a flash of white.

Aang was chained up. It felt wrong to see him imprisoned. The room was decorated in old-style Fire Nation designs.

Aang was struggling with his bonds when he looked up suddenly. Korra could hear noises coming from the hallway. Abruptly, the sounds of struggle stopped. Then came the sound of a key turning in a lock.

A figure in a blue mask ran in, brandishing twin swords. Aang screamed and flinched, but the newcomer merely cut his bonds. Aang pulled his arms back in surprise and his rescuer came closer and cut the other chains.

“Who are you? What's going on?” Aang asked, “Are you here to rescue me?”

He received no response, but the masked figure opened the door and motioned for him to follow.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes,’” Aang said, following after.

Korra blinked and glanced around to catch her bearings. Thankfully, Aang hadn’t sent her the vision in the middle of the road.

The mask merchant was still packing up. Korra jogged forward when she recognized the blue mask from her vision. “Excuse me!” she called. “Can I take a look at this mask?”

The merchant turned. She raised an eyebrow. “This one?” She pointed at the mask, which was blue with white features.

Korra nodded. “Yeah, uh, what’s its history?”

The seller handed it to her, then leaned back. “Well, it used to be much more popular than it is now. This is the mask that the evil water spirit wears in ‘Love Amongst the Dragons,’ an old Fire Nation play.” The seller tucked some hair behind her ear. “The play is a bit old fashioned, and it’s not very popular anymore, what with better relations between the Fire Nation and Water Tribes.”

“Huh, I’ve never heard of it,” Korra said. She turned the mask over in her hands. The details weren’t all identical to the one from the vision, but it was clearly intended to be the same character. “What made the water spirit so evil?”

“He cursed the dragon emperor to be trapped in a mortal form or something.” The seller shrugged. “Sometimes schools in the Fire Nation boroughs put the play on and I sell a few masks for it. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned design though.”

She felt an odd pressure from her spiritual plane, like she was being urged on.

“I’ll take it,” Korra said impulsively. She paid the woman and went on her way, not quite sure why she’d bought it.

Once she was around the corner, Korra ducked down an alley. She glanced around before looking down at the mask. She turned it over in her hands and looked at the inside of it. The eye holes seemed to glow a little.

She brought it up to her face and stepped into another vision.

Zuko chuckled. “My mother took us to see Love Amongst the Dragons every year,” he said. “My sister always made me play the evil water spirit when we played together.”

She blinked and it was Zuko again, but older. He looked about twenty, and was wearing the Fire Lord’s hairpiece. Beside him, Aang sipped some tea. He blanched and set it down. “You never did explain why you picked the Blue Spirit as your alter ego,” he said.

“Huh.” Zuko sipped his tea and frowned. “I chose the mask because it reminded me of old times,” he said. “I put it on that day when I rescued you, and time and time again after that, to act when banished Prince Zuko could not.” He smiled. “It felt thematically appropriate as I was chasing you too,” he said. “I was chasing the Avatar, trying to bring this spiritual figure down to the mortal plane. Ultimately, I discarded the mask when I was ready to merge the masked persona with myself, to reconcile the prince with the rebel spirit.”

Aang snickered. “We probably would have reacted a lot differently if you had showed up at the Western Air Temple wearing a mask like that,” he said.

Zuko rolled his eyes. “I immediately screwed everything up again when Azula showed up, but… at least at first, bringing those identities together was an act of discarding the prince part, not the mask part.”

The vision vanished and Korra found she was holding the mask tightly to her face. She lessened her grip, but didn’t take it off. Once the white light faded from her sight, she found she could actually see through it fairly well.

Tentatively, she tied it on. It fit snugly, though Korra would have preferred having a headband or hood on to cushion it a little more. She took it off and turned it around before stashing it in a pocket and starting to head home.

She noticed, tonight in particular, how people looked over their shoulder as they packed up shop. Curfew hadn’t even descended and the city felt jumpy.

Especially the guy walking about half a block ahead of her. Korra’s eyes narrowed as she watched him look around suspiciously. She recognized the body language. It was the way she walked when she was tailing someone, except Korra had been trained to do it less obviously.

Farther ahead of him was a nervous man who kept glancing around, but with no purpose. He seemed anxious, but without enough focus to realize he was being followed.

Sure enough, a block later she watched the suspicious guy hurry up and follow the nervous man down a narrow side street.

Korra jogged to catch up. Before she turned the corner, she found herself fingering the edge of the Blue Spirit mask. She hesitated, then peered around the corner.

The scene was weirdly predictable. Suspicious guy had pulled a rock out of the street and was bending it into a spike as he demanded the other guy’s money.

Korra slipped the mask on and burst around the corner with fire in her hands. It took only a few seconds to scorch the mugger’s boots and send him scrambling. He dropped the wallet as he ran away and Korra picked it up, then tossed it to the victim.

“T-thank you,” the man said, still trembling.

Korra resisted the urge to reply. She just nodded, then ran down the side street and ducked down a series of alleys until she wound up back on a main street.

She yanked the mask off her face and wiped the sweat off her brow. Her heart was pounding as she started back toward the apartment.

She couldn’t keep herself from smiling.

She picked up the pace, going from a fast walk to a jog, then an all-out sprint as she laughed into the wind.

For once, Korra felt like the Avatar.

She had been able to step in and help someone. It had been simple. Nothing complicated to solve. No need to kill anyone or stop and have an identity crisis over it.

She’d just done the right thing. It felt good and she laughed again as she slowed her pace. Still, the wind caught her hair and Korra’s fingers twitched to summon a fire in her palm. She’d picked fire on instinct. Earth would have torn up the street and she didn’t have any water on hand. It was fitting too, to subvert the ‘evil water spirit’ role with some firebending. Plus, it set an entirely separate identity for her to use as-needed.

The thought gave her pause. Korra smiled. She didn’t need to be dressed as herself to act as herself.

Korra checked that the mask was tucked in her pocket. Before heading inside, she glanced out at the bay. The light at the top of Air Temple Island was just barely visible.

Korra went right to her room when she got inside. She crouched and stashed the mask with a set of black stealth clothes. Before she went back to the main room, she smiled down at the supplies. It would be prudent, after all, to have a costume for attending finals. Zaheer had said that Korra couldn’t go, but he hadn’t said anything about spirits.

* * *

Asami rubbed at her eyes. She didn’t need a mirror to know there were circles under them. But, frankly, she wasn’t sure she deserved sleep after the meeting.

Briefly, she thought of Sakari. The kid was thirteen. Asami had dragged her into the Equalists’ spotlight.

She picked up a wrench and smashed it against her workbench before going back to making notes. She’d been using the wrench for that purpose for the past several hours.

When she finished making notes for her current round of testing, she found her mind a little clearer. Just a bit. The testing didn’t require an undue amount of focus, but it was distracting in its own right.

Across the workshop, she had a standard satomobile prototype idling. Aiming at it with her new invention, she grit her teeth and fired.

A prong shot out, trailing a fine wire behind it. When the prong hit the satomobile, it stuck to the surface. Asami hesitated a moment before pressing a second button.

Sparks flew where the prong was attached to the satomobile. Then the idling stopped.

Asami approached and wound the device back up. She gave the satomobile a quick inspection to make sure it hadn’t been damaged, then allowed herself a smile. The systems had stopped, but with no immediate damage to them.

That was the goal. It would have been simple enough to create a general-area device, something that would shut down all electronics in a certain radius. But anything like that would mess with her own equipment as much as an enemy’s.

What Asami wanted was something targeted. A device that would hit what it should and take out only the system she wanted it to.

The thought made her think of the Fire Ferrets. She’d been so angry in the meeting, but she hadn’t wanted them caught in the crossfire. She’d meant to make her mother back off, to push back against her.

She sat down on the dusty floor and set her invention down beside her. Asami buried her face in her hands. There was no reason to involve an innocent thirteen-year-old, bender or not. She would have been in plenty of danger anyway, playing in finals.

But no, Asami had to get her specifically targeted.

She wished she were at her workbench, so she could hit it with the wrench again. If her mother hadn’t challenged her, hadn’t just let Asami be, then she wouldn’t have said anything about Sakari.

Asami bit her lip. Her mother hadn’t made her say anything.

She needed to be responsible for her own actions.

Asami leaned her forehead against her knees. The Fire Ferrets were benders, yeah, but they lived at the arena. She hadn’t realized people lived there when the Equalists were plotting their attack on the place. It was home to at least three people.

Three decent people, benders or not. Mako and Bolin had taken the kid in and treated her like their own sister when they already didn’t have a lot. Naga hadn’t seemed to notice, but Asami recognized that it was an extremely modest living space, nice view aside.

The Fire Ferrets were more of an intact family than Asami and her mother were lately, now that she thought of it.

She didn’t want to see them hurt. It was bad enough that they’d be playing Tahno…

Asami blinked, then got to her feet. Amon and Liu were supposed to come onto the the main stage and take out the winning team. It was going to be the perfect display of equalization, to take the bending from the championship team in the moment of their big victory.

She couldn’t do anything for the Fire Ferrets if they won. Amon would have them and that was that.

But Asami honestly wasn’t sure who would win a match-up between the Wolfbats and the Fire Ferrets. Each team had their strengths and weaknesses. And of course she’d prefer the Fire Ferrets to win, but… knowing what was waiting for them along with that victory, Asami found herself hoping they would lose.

And if they lost, especially if it was a knockout, then Mako, Bolin, and Sakari would all be off-stage.

Maybe, just maybe, she could do something for them then. They were talented benders. Buying them a bit of time might give them a chance to escape.

Not a huge chance, but enough.

Asami would just have to ensure they lost, and badly. She started walking to the door, grabbing her coat as she went.

She could talk to Liu and get herself placed on the squad set to go after the losing team at finals. That would put her in a place to run interference, to maybe ‘let’ them escape.

At the workshop door, she hesitated and glanced back at her invention. It was her pet project, something that hit what she wanted it to, something that didn’t cause additional destruction, not even to its own target.

This was a plan that could easily get out of hand. It was one thing to have reservations with the directions the Equalist movement had taken. It was another to actively sabotage their efforts.

Asami pushed the door open. She would need subtlety. Nothing could be traced back to her.

The wind whipped at her hair as she made her way out of the factory complex and started heading toward the arena. She could help the Fire Ferrets, but only if they lost finals. As for ensuring that, well, a well-placed bribe with the referees, combined with the Wolfbats’ play style, would take good care of that.

 

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Korra muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd went wild, split between cheers and booing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

He frowned at her. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything would be fine.

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

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

“Nothing,” Asami said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Mako said.

The masked firebender only nodded toward the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Asami…”

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine,” she said. “Don’t sit up.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Asami said.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Would probably hold up the line though.”

“True.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: The Aftermath
(But the Dust Never Really Settles)

Korra woke up sluggish. She blinked away the blurriness in her eyes and squinted at the light filtering in under the closet door. It most definitely shouldn’t have been that bright.

She winced as she sat up in her bedroll and stretched, reaching for her toes. Part of her definitely wanted to lie back down, but she didn’t let it win. Her primary goal was to grab some food and get out the door to track down the Fire Ferrets.

She’d tailed them out of the arena, hiding before they met up with Naga. They got ahead of her then, but tracking the dog to their hiding spot was simple enough. By the time she arrived, Bolin and Sakari were already asleep, with Mako keeping watch. She hadn’t wanted to leave them, but it was enough to know they had a safe place, or at least a safe enough place. She suspected that the group would seek shelter on Air Temple Island. The Arena was both clearly unsafe and not in the best condition, considering the attack.

The trick to getting out would be getting out the door. Once dressed, Korra leaned against the closet door and stilled. She could hear a few voices in the apartment. All she had to do was make it out the front door without getting snagged aside for a conversation.

She opened the door. “Morning,” she said. Without hurrying, she started moving for the front door.

Ghazan said, “Good morning, sleepyhead,” and smiled. Around the room, Ming-Hua, Zaheer, and P’li all turned toward her.

Just a few more steps. Once Korra made it out the door, she could pretend not to have heard anybody trying to call her back.

“Korra, wait a moment,” Ming-Hua said.

Korra took the last three steps to the door and paused, turning around. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“We need to have a talk this morning.” Zaheer set down his tea.

Korra resisted the urge to cross her arms. “About what?” It came off a little defensive despite her efforts. She took a steady breath. So Zaheer wanted to talk. That didn’t mean that they knew she’d snuck out last night.

“I assumed you would want a recap,” Zaheer said. “Ghazan and I have been waiting to tell everyone about the Equalist attack until you woke up.”

Korra winced. “Oh yeah,” she said, “I, uh, forgot.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I guess I’m just not quite used to being a ‘full’ member of the team yet,” she said. It wasn’t quite a lie, but it wasn’t the reason she’d forgotten. The only reason she’d want a recap is if she hadn’t been there herself.

Thankfully, her guardians seemed the buy the excuse. P’li didn’t look up from her book as she gestured to a chair. “C’mon then,” she said.

Korra sat down and blinked. She hadn’t realized there were so many newspapers on the table. At a glance, it looked like every one of them was open to a page covering the Equalist attack.

“Last night Ghazan and I attended the final match of the pro-bending season,” Zaheer said. “We noticed some minor suspicious behavior on our way in. We later confirmed this to be part of the Equalist plot. From the beginning, however, there was definitely a tension in the arena. The match-up between the Fire Ferrets and the Wolfbats was not a friendly one.”

Zaheer went on to summarize the match that Korra had seen, with a few of his own perspectives. Of note was his opinion on the Wolfbats’ and Fire Ferret’s abilities: Korra nearly interjected when he named Tahno’s team the superior benders, regardless of the obviously bribed referees. Zaheer mentioned the one-on-one matchup between Sakari and Tahno as evidence of this point and Korra bit her lip.

Ghazan, at least, seemed to agree with her. He spoke more favorably about the Fire Ferrets and had clearly been bothered by the fixed nature of the match.

Korra kept her expressions controlled when they reached the topic of the masked bender.

“Even at a distance,” Zaheer said, “I recognized the Blue Spirit mask. It’s not an uncommon one, though Love Amongst the Dragons has fallen out of style lately. In any case, there was some sort of scuffle near the roof, above the stands. We weren’t at a good angle to see it, but we saw one of the Equalists fall and catch a banner. After that, the attacking firebender leapt from the ceiling and flew down to the Fire Ferrets’ side of the arena.”

“The firebender clearly has some firepower under her belt,” Ghazan interjected. When everyone else shot him an exasperated look, he held up his hands. “I’m serious. It takes a lot of strength to direct flight like that.”

Perhaps more important, it takes skill to safely land,” Zaheer mused. “We saw her land on the platform where the Equalists had apprehended the Fire Ferrets, but not as much after that. The view was unfortunately obscured. There was some sort of fight between the Blue Spirit and the Equalists. This eventually resulted in the Fire Ferrets escaping. The Equalists escaped shortly after, before the arena erupted into a frantic exit-rush.” His thin lips pulled into a frown. “We were unable to make it out before the Republic City police started a queue and insisted on checking everybody at the door.”

Ming-Hua furrowed her brow. “Ghazan, were you noticed?”

He shook his head. “I angled toward a line with a younger cop. Between that and my new facial hair, I don’t think they recognized me. It was fairly chaotic. Captain Saikhan wasn’t doing very well at maintaining order.”

“And Chief Beifong,” Zaheer said, “was up in the air. She went after Amon when he and the other Equalists took a wire up through the roof. They seemed to be escaping by airship. I’m not sure how that confrontation went, but Beifong didn’t make an appearance for the rest of the evening while we waited in line to leave.”

P’li was the one who leaned forward and raised an eyebrow. “Okay then, a packed night for sure. What are our takeaways from this?”

“The police are incompetent,” Ghazan scoffed.

“They lack an understanding of scope,” Zaheer amended. He hummed. “And I do not fancy their odds against the Equalists in the future. The attack was precise and well done, but the real advantage came from the staging. Amon arranged an event where everyone was hanging on his word.”

“Even with the firebender and Fire Ferrets fighting the Equalists down below?” Korra asked. She hadn’t been able to get a general sense of the crowd while she was fighting.

Zaheer considered a moment, then nodded. “There was a murmur, certainly, when she went flying by. But Amon didn’t even pause and, since she didn’t attack him, it didn’t derail things too much.” He considered for a moment. “Still, I would like to know more about the Fire Ferrets’ mysterious ally.”

Ghazan pulled one of the newspapers out from the stack. “And we’re not the only ones. Despite the crowd's fixation on Amon, our resident spirit vigilante got some mention from the press.”

Korra snatched the paper from him, and scanned for the information on herself. “It seems like a lot of people are aligning themselves with the spirits lately,” she said. “First Amon claims that’s where he gets his powers. Now this vigilante person is wearing a Blue Spirit costume.” She pointed to an article with a blurry photograph of her flying.

“Maybe vintage spirituality is in again,” P’li remarked drily.

“The people are looking for spiritual validation. Their leaders have neglected that need in building their cities and civilizations,” Zaheer said. “It’s merely more evidence of the trend. This is why we need to remain focused on Harmonic Convergence, even as we observe the situation here in Republic City.”

Korra ducked her head and focused on the newspaper, skimming over headlines to distract herself. She could explain everything to them later. They would understand then.

Some days she almost forgot Harmonic Convergence was coming. Which was pretty bad, since connecting the spiritual and physical worlds was basically her purpose for living, her destiny as the Avatar. It’s why the Red Lotus had liberated her, why they’d been traveling the world to show her its necessity.

But everything about the city was distracting. From the airbenders and the pro-bending to her sister and Asami Sato—

Korra stopped and blinked. Several pages into the paper, she’d caught sight of a familiar face by the headline, “Future Industries in Financial Trouble?”

Upon squinting, she realized it wasn’t Asami, but an older woman who looked remarkably like her.

“One more takeaway,” Zaheer said. “The Equalists are going to change the city for the better. Their chaos has already given birth to another exercise in freedom.” His gaze swept the group and Korra thought his eyes rested on her a beat longer but couldn’t be sure. “I am certain their actions will prompt more anarchy in the future.”

Korra thought about the non-benders she passed in the streets at night, hurrying home before Tarrlok’s task force descended to enforce curfew. Her lips tightened. Those people had missed the ‘increase in freedom’ memo unfortunately.

She would use her mask to help those people now, limit the impact of Tarrlok's corrupt government, and explain her Blue Spirit actions later. The Red Lotus would take out Tarrlok and Korra could explain everything then. Once they understood, they would approve and forgive her for the secrets.

The conversation started wrapping up. Korra’s eyes drifted back down to the newspaper in her lap. The article about Future Industries questioned some recent decisions by the woman in the photograph, apparently ‘Yasuko Sato.’

Most notable to Korra was a paragraph about the increasing role of Yasuko’s daughter, one Asami Sato. Korra’s eyes widened.

The conversation ended, but she barely heard it. She stood up and moved to the door, newspaper in hand.”

“Where are you going?” Ming-Hua asked.

Korra shrugged. “I dunno, I just really want breakfast out today. I like those Water Tribe fish balls they sell from a stall down the street.”

She vanished out the door and down the stairs before anyone else could question her. She checked that they hadn't followed, then peeked under the loose board she’d stashed her mask and stealth clothes under. She didn’t want them on her now, but they’d be easy enough to go back for later.

And she did drop by the fish ball stand, munching on the snacks as she read the paper. Making small talk with the stand-owner proved quite enlightening too. A few careful questions revealed to Korra that anybody from Republic City had a passing familiarity with the Sato family. Hiroshi: the inventive father, murdered too soon. Yasuko: the enduring mother who continued to run their company. Asami: the brilliant daughter, now inheriting quite the legacy of innovation.

And yes. The Satos were definitely connected to the Satomobile.

On her way to the manufacturing district, Korra tried not to beat herself up about that fact. There’s no way she could have known.

Thankfully, strangers she passed were especially helpful in directing her to the Future Industries factory. And by the time she arrived, Korra was pleased to see she recognized it as the place Asami had taken them the night they met at the Equalist rally.

She situated herself in a spot across the street to wait. Given that she’d kicked Asami in the face last night while rescuing the Fire Ferrets, it was only polite to try and check up on her.

Korra frowned. She was more than curious about what exactly her friend had been doing at finals, going after the Fire Ferrets with the Equalists. In particular, they’d seemed to be targeting Sakari, which worried her. Korra settled her back against the wall and hoped Asami’s answers proved satisfying.

* * *

Asami bit back a yawn and squinted to make the screw-head come into focus. Once it was clear, she tightened it a few turns, then gave the whole piece a shake.

It was mostly not coming apart. Kind of like her, actually

Asami yawned. She’d forced herself up this morning when the sun rose. She wouldn’t sleep well on the cot in her workshop anyway. After that, it had been natural to get right to work. And if she was maybe a little tired still, maybe a little sore with a serious black eye... well, at least she was still making progress.

The door to her workshop slammed open. “ASAMI!”

She jumped at the sound. “Mother?” She turned and saw Yasuko storm into the room. The door slammed shut behind her.

“What are you doing here? I swear you couldn’t get to where you’re supposed to be if I invented a car that took you there,” her mother snapped. “Why didn’t you come home? I waited up for you and worried about you.”

Asami blinked, making her black eye pulse. She should probably take something for that. “What?” She wasn’t sure how to process her mother’s anger. Nothing was making sense. Maybe she was more sleep-deprived than she’d thought.

Her mother’s glare broke as she came closer. Asami saw tears watering in her eyes. “I was so worried about you,” Yasuko said as she wrapped Asami in a tight hug. “When I heard things didn’t go as planned, I got so concerned about you.”

Asami blinked again. “Oh.” It took her a beat to relax into the embrace. “I… I’m fine, mother. Our mission failed, but I made it back okay.”

Yasuko pulled back and looked Asami over from head to toe. “Are you?”

“Yes.” Asami took a half-step back and crossed her arms. There was no way her mother could know about how Asami had attempted to sabotage the mission. “I did my best last night at finals. Things went badly off plan, but we got all our people home and that’s what matters. I’m just at the factory because it’s so much closer to the safe house than the mansion. I was tired.”

“Oh, I’m certain you did the best job you could,” Yasuko said, moving forward to put a hand on Asami’s shoulder. “I just want to see you and make sure you were okay.” With a gentle pressure, Yasuko guided them to go sit on a bench against the wall. “Now let me take a look under that bandage.”

Slowly, Asami relaxed against the bench. Her mother wasn’t suspicious. She was just… worried. Concerned about her. Caring for her. “Yeah,” Asami said. “I, um, cleaned it up earlier, but the swelling makes it look much worse than it is.”

Yasuko chuckled. “I’ll be the judge of that,” she said. She walked over to the workbench and pulled out Asami’s medical kit. “You know I don’t use the skill much anymore, but I remember collecting quite a few bruises in my chi-blocking courses.”

A smile tugged at Asami’s lips as she carefully pulled her bandages off. “I remember,” she said. As a child, she’d watched her mother’s lessons from the sidelines until she was old enough to take them herself.

“The media is butchering this portrayal. It's horrible,” Yasuko said. She touched Asami’s face gently, fingers skimming close to the cut from her goggles. “Half the newspaper articles I read this morning are portraying that… that firebending brute as some sort of hero.”

“Oh?” Asami watched her mother’s hands quickly snip a length of bandage and  apply some ointment to it. “I haven’t had the chance to read the papers yet today. What are they saying about our actions in general?”

She closed her eyes as Yasuko cleaned the area. “The reviews are mixed, but there are a few highlights. I noted the Republic City Post in particular. They said that, since the Wolfbats had so obviously cheated, that they kind of deserved to lose their bending.”

Asami opened one eye and tried to look over toward the door where the papers were delivered. “Oh, wow! Really?” Yasuko put a firm hand on Asami’s shoulder to keep her from moving.

“Not in so many words,” Yasuko said, “but the vibe was there.” She sighed, but the sound was lighter than it usually was. “Now all that’s left is to show them how all benders are, essentially, cheating at life. Once they see that, they will understand our mission.”

Asami didn’t reply. Once the wound was cleaned and dried, Yasuko went about applying a fresh bandage. Her mother hadn’t patched her up in years; it reminded Asami of scraped knees and the first time she’d burned herself soldering. Reminded her that this was how things were supposed to be. She relaxed against the bench again, unaware she had another layer of tension to shed.

She and her mother were speaking civilly. Yasuko thought she’d done her best. She wasn’t lambasting Asami for the mission having failed. Asami had Yasuko’s full and undivided attention as her mother pulled back and looked over the bandage she’d secured.

All it had taken was a couple injuries in the name of the cause.

Asami rubbed her arm and winced.

Yasuko frowned. “Are you sore?”

“A bit.” Asami shrugged. “This is the arm I landed on after getting kicked in the face.”

Yasuko’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I will have this ‘Blue Spirit’ if I have to drag her from the Spirit World myself,” she said. “Let me put some bruise balm there.”

“Okay,” Asami said. She rolled up her sleeve. “Do you think we’ll make another attempt on the Sakari girl?”

“Probably, but not soon,” Yasuko said. She shook her head in frustration. “I’m not sure why Amon seems to think she’s so important anyway, but I will defer to his judgement here.” She scooped out a small amount of the bruise balm and started rubbing it into Asami’s skin. “But let’s not talk about that now.”

“No?” Asami frowned. “Why not?” They always talked business. Equalist business or family business, not that the two were especially distinct lately.

“I want you to take the day off,” Yasuko said. Her gaze drifted toward the engineering project Asami had been working on when she walked in. “The rest of the day, anyway.”

Asami’s jaw dropped. “W-what?”

The late-morning light softened her mother’s features as it filtered through the skylight. “I want to apologize for being harsh with you,” Yasuko said. Her fingers were gentle as she finished applying the balm. “I have seen you too much as a comrade in the movement and not enough as my daughter lately. There are also moments I know I’ve treated you too much like my daughter and not enough as my comrade.”

She eyed the bruise, which was a fetching shade of violet, and wiped her hand clean before closing the balm. “With the Equalist movement so close to success, it’s been difficult for me to keep things in perspective. To remember that you are both my daughter and an adult. Both a comrade and my long-time student.

“This is everything we have fought for. We are so close and you know that this movement means everything to me.” She sighed. “But I don’t want you hurt. I want you to be safe and okay, even as you grow into being your own woman in the midst of our revolution.” Yasuko squeezed Asami’s hand. “I couldn’t be prouder of you, even if it’s hard for me to say it sometimes.”

Before Asami could find the words to respond, her mother stood up. “Go home,” she said. “Or take a walk. Whatever you need, but take the rest of the day off. We have a few days before the Tarrlok strike. Please, take some time to rest and heal.”

They gazed at one another for a moment. Then Yasuko nodded and turned. Her heels clacked on the floor as she strode toward the door.

As her mother reached for the doorknob, Asami tripped over the words, “I love you, mother!”

Yasuko paused. A tension dropped from her shoulders. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled. The expression was not warm, but it wasn’t as tight as usual. “I love you too, Asami,” she said. Then she left.

Asami cleaned up her workshop in a daze, glad of her habits. She had no attention otherwise for the world as she played her mother’s words over in her ears.

“What’s a day off?” she murmured to herself as she unlocked her scooter. Asami got on and turned the key, but wasn’t even sure where she was going as she drove out the factory’s front gates. She only made it ten seconds out before nearly crashing.

“Hi Asami!” Naga had practically materialized in the middle of the road.

Asami slammed the brakes and skidded, narrowly missing her friend. In fact, if Naga hadn’t dodged, they probably would still have connected. She steadied her scooter and put a hand up to her racing heart. Her daze evaporated.

“Naga? What are you doing here? Are you okay?”

Her friend had leapt out of the way and landed with one knee on the ground, but she quickly popped up. “I’m fine,” Naga said. Her eyes landed on Asami’s bandaged face with concern. “But you’re not looking too hot yourself. Are you okay?”

Asami blinked. “I have a day off,” she said. It didn’t even make sense, but she wasn’t sure how to explain everything to Naga, so she didn’t try. She glanced back over her shoulder at the factory gates. Her mother was likely going to be working for some time, and the window in the front office could see the goings-on in front of the gate.

“That’s, uh, that’s great, actually,” Naga said. “I was wondering if, uh, maybe you and I could spend some time together today.”

Getting Naga out of sight of the factory felt important for some reason. Between lack of sleep, soreness, and the conversation with her mother, Asami felt outrageously out of it. She got the sense that Naga and her mother wouldn’t get along. Despite meeting her at the Equalist Revelation, Naga hadn’t exactly been asking how to join the cause.

And, maybe, Asami was okay with that. But her mother wasn’t a fan of unknown factors.

Naga was in the middle of asking some long-winded question about how Asami’s eye was feeling, but this wasn’t a good place for them to catch up.

“Get on,” Asami said, interrupting.

Naga blinked.

“I said I’d show you around the city a bit more, right?” Asami pulled a second helmet out of the compartment under the second seat. She held it out. “Let’s go. Hop on.”

“Right now?” Naga took the helmet.

“Right now.”

Naga put it on and clambered on behind Asami. “I’ve never ridden one of these before,” she said. “Where, uh, where do I put my hands?”

“Wrap your arms around my waist,” Asami said. It would have been fine for Naga to just hold onto her shoulders, but if she’d never ridden a scooter before it was best to be safe.

Naga fit comfortably behind her and hesitated as she slipped her arms around Asami’s waist. “Like this?” She gave Asami a little squeeze.

She’d noticed that Naga had rather well-muscled arms, but the fact was a bit more noticeable in this position. Asami patted the back of Naga’s hand. “Yeah, uh, that’s good,” she said. “Let’s go.”

She started her scooter up and off they went, zipping down the road.

They’d made it a few blocks when Naga shouted, “So where are we going anyway?”

Asami could take them all over the city on her scooter, but she couldn’t deliver a coherent tour while doing so.

“Uh…” They’d ended up in a familiar neighborhood. Asami cast her eyes around, unsure what she was looking for until she found it. “A park,” she called back, turning left as she directed them to a familiar grove of cherry blossom trees.

Asami parked her scooter. “This is Sakura Park,” she said. “It’s the one we passed by the other day, when we were nearby for the semifinals.”

“Oh, okay,” Naga said. She looked around, probably trying to place where they were. “We’re just on the other side of it now, right?”

“That’s right,” Asami said. She looked out over the park. She hadn’t been here in ages. “I used to go to school near here,” she said, hanging her helmet on the handlebars.

Naga removed her helmet and stowed it under the seat. “I remember you saying that the other day. Where did you go to school?”

“Republic City Preparatory Academy,” Asami said. “But only until I was fifteen or so.” They started to walk down the path into the park.

“Why did you leave?” Naga asked.

Asami paused as she considered her answer. “My interests turned more toward mechanical engineering as I got older.  My mother thought a better use of my time would be studying with her personally. I kept up my general studies with a private tutor until I was eighteen, but stopped attending school.”

“Hm, that makes sense,” Naga mused.

“Why do you say that?”

A sly smile tugged at the corners of Naga’s lips. “It just makes sense. Of course you would be focused on engineering. Got that Sato family legacy to continue, huh?”

Asami almost chuckled. Then she remembered that Naga hadn't known about her family history and her blood ran cold. “Wait, what do you mean by that?” She wanted to smack herself. It had been awfully fortuitous to run into Naga right outside the Future Industries factory. She’d just been too preoccupied with her mother realize how convenient.

Naga reached out and squeezed Asami’s hand. “I mean, there was a feature in the paper this morning on the future of Future Industries. I figured there could only be so many ‘Asami Sato’s in the city. I posed a few questions to pedestrians. Turns out it's more than mere coincidence that connects you to the satomobile.”

Asami’s steps felt stiff as they walked together down a hill. She was glad the park was almost empty. The only other people there were sitting on a bench on the far side of the trees. “I… I am sorry to have lied to you,” she said. “I just wasn’t sure… we’d only just met and I generally don’t meet people who know me as an Equalist and then find out I’m, uh, the Asami Sato.” She cleared her throat. “It’s not exactly, um, good PR.”

Naga squeezed her hand again. “No apology necessary. I… I understand that sometimes you have to keep some secrets. I brought it up because I just wanted you to know that I know. That way you don’t have to keep it a secret  with me if you don’t want to. I’m here if you want to talk.”

After a beat, Asami leaned her shoulder against Naga’s. “That… might be nice,” she said. “I will consider it.”

They walked a few more steps, then Asami pulled away and Naga’s hand slipped out of hers. Above them, the clouds were forming dramatic shapes that spanned the Republic City skyline. Asami tried to remember the last time she’d simply been present enough to notice the sky. It might have been the last time she was out walking with Naga, but she couldn’t say for certain.

Naga cleared her throat. “So… how was finals? I mean for you personally? I, uh, read about the general sequence of events in the newspaper this morning.”

“You didn’t go?” Asami could hear the relief in her own voice. She hadn’t let herself think about it much, but she’d been hoping against hope that her warnings had made an impact on Naga. Her friend opened her mouth to say something else, but Asami turned and swept her into a hug. “Thank you for listening to me,” she said. “Thank you so, so much.”

Naga’s cheeks were slightly pink when Asami let her go. “Um, yeah.” Naga was looking at the ground and unsuccessfully trying to hide her blush. “That. Of course.” She cleared her throat again. “You clearly were in attendance though. How... how did that go?”

“Not great,” Asami said. “I was among those assigned to take out the Fire Ferrets and, uh, it didn’t go so well. But it’s okay. It’s actually fine.” Her thoughts drifted to her mother for a moment, approving despite Asami’s failure. “It’s probably for the best anyway,” she said. If they’d successfully apprehended Sakari, Asami wasn’t sure how she would have lived with herself.

“Hm.” Naga’s curiosity seemed sated, but only just. “Sounds like an... eventful evening on your end. So how was the match?”

“Rigged.” Asami pursed her lips. Bribing the refs had been effective, but that didn’t mean she’d enjoyed it. The results hadn’t been pretty either. “The match was dirty from the start. Someone must have paid off the match officials.”

“How bad did it get in the ring?” Naga asked.

Asami hadn’t exactly been watching the match, but she’d seen how Sakari, Mako, and Bolin had looked flying off the stage. She sighed. “The Fire Ferrets seemed to sustain at least one minor injury each round, if that gives you any indication,” she said. Asami’s fingers brushed the bandage under her eye before she ran a hand through her hair.

The motion caught Naga’s attention and her gaze locked on Asami’s injury. A complex flicker of emotion crossed her face, but Asami couldn’t identify it. “This is likely jumping forward in the evening’s events a bit, but what happened to your eye?”

Asami chuckled. “Oh. You know. I got kicked in the face later that night.” Naga winced and Asami added, “Whoops?”

Naga frowned. “‘Whoops’ doesn’t seem to cut it in this case.” She took Asami’s elbow and guided them to a bench. Once they were sitting, she gingerly brushed her fingers along the edge of Asami’s bandage. “I’m so sorry you were hurt,” she said. “Is it just a bruise, or are you cut…?”

Earlier that morning, Asami had picked out a new pair of goggles to add to her uniform. “Just a small cut,” she said. “My goggles mostly flew off my face when I was kicked.”

Naga’s hand shifted and cupped Asami’s cheek. “Can you go see a healer?”

Asami blinked. “A healer… as in a waterbending healer?”

Naga pulled her hand back. “Yes?”

“Um…” Asami resisted the urge to pull Naga’s hand back to her face. “I’ve never been to see a waterbending healer.”

She watched Naga stare at her blankly for a moment, uncomprehending. After a beat, Naga asked, “Why not? If you’re The Satos, then surely you can afford it.”

“It’s not a matter of price,” Asami said. “It’s a, uh, bender thing…”

If she hadn’t felt conflicted about the exchange herself, Asami would have found Naga’s expression humorous. Her friend had clearly forgotten to keep certain facts in mind. She stammered, “Oh, uh, yeah. That,” and cleared her throat.

Naga seemed to take the slip-up as a cue to continue, however. “Sorry for forgetting,” she said, “You just don’t… seem especially Equalist-y.” She glanced away as she muttered, “Not most of the time anyway. Pro-bending matches and all.” She chewed on her lip for a moment. “I forgot that small things like that would be significant.”

Asami pursed her lips. “I’m… a special case, in some ways.”

“Oh?” Naga tilted her head, but still didn’t look at Asami.

Around them, the park was bright with late-morning sunlight. The cherry blossom trees for which the park was named had just begun to bloom though it would probably be another week or two before petals overtook the park.. The people she’d seen earlier, on the other side of the park, had moved on out of sight. Despite the sight of buildings beyond the edge of the park, the two of them were as alone as they were likely to get.

“You’re not an Equalist,” Asami stated. Naga opened her mouth to respond and Asami raised a hand. “Let me finish. Answer later.”

Naga’s lips tightened into a frown, but she nodded.

Asami continued, “I knew from the start that you weren’t a part of the organization. What I meant is… you’re not philosophically an Equalist. You were at The Revelation, but not as a supporter, even a casual one. You haven’t expressed any interest in wanting to join, even though you’ve had a couple different openings to ask me about it.

“Maybe because you do work for… someone. Something.” Asami’s eyes narrowed. “I ran into you scouting Tarrlok’s house. You’ve probed me for information. Subtly, but still.” Naga’s eyes dropped. “Between your comments at the pro-bending matches and the slip just now about waterbending healers... I take it your group doesn’t have an issue with benders?”

Asami had intended to keep going, to list all the small pieces of evidence. But, when her statement stopped partway and turned into a question, she let it hang there. Yes, she wanted to air all her suspicions, to clarify all her points. But… if she got just one answer out of Naga, she wanted it to be this one. From the start, her friend hadn’t proposed anything overly in favor of bending. She hadn’t voiced much anti-bending sentiment either. The neutrality grated against the polarized world Asami lived in day-to-day.

Naga seemed to measure her words carefully before responding. “It’s… complicated,” she said. “We… we don’t have an issue, in particular, with benders. You’re right in saying that I’m not philosophically Equalist, but…” She trailed off and chuckled. “I don’t know, we kind of have a problem with everybody, it feels like sometimes. Not infrequently with benders, though that’s on an individual basis.”

Immediately, Asami thought of Tarrlok. You didn’t need to be an Equalist to have issues with him on an individual basis. “I see,” she said. Her list of evidence came back to mind, a dozen different pieces she wanted to ask Naga about. But… she had to prioritize. The cut on her face throbbed and she grimaced. “Do you have a problem with Equalists?”

Naga put a hand on Asami’s shoulder. “Oh no,” she said. “No no no, by ‘everybody’ I really meant more like… worldwide. We have a lot of issues with a lot of people.”

Asami was still trying to parse out that answer when Naga hurried onward. “We’re, um, we’re anarchists. Basically. We’re largely anti-government and anti-structure.”

“So…” Asami mused, “you don’t have an issue with the Equalists right now. You probably have more issues with, say…” She thought of the moment she ran into Naga a couple days ago as she was escaping Tarrlok’s house. “Councilman Tarrlok, the council in general, and the police?” She hadn’t missed how Naga’s eyes always tracked the metalbending cops they passed in the street, or how she stiffened a little under the security check outside the pro-bending arena.

“That’s fairly accurate,” Naga said. A smile twitched at her lips. “We’re for freedom,” she said, “above all things. We believe in freedom for all, no matter the cost.”

Freedom. Asami pondered the word a moment. It was a principle she could agree in, absolutely. She supported the freedom for non-benders to live without fear in a world set against them. That was the point of the Equalist mission. However… the point of Equalizing the world was not in freedom for all.

Though Naga had said she didn’t have an issue with Equalists, Asami could sense a distance in her friend’s words. Right now the Equalists were the rebels. After the takeover of Republic City, she wasn’t sure she and Naga would feel the same anymore. Frankly, Asami wasn’t even sure how she’d feel about the rebels becoming the government.

“May I ask you a question?” Naga asked.

Asami nodded.

“Do you have a problem with Equalists?”

Asami hesitated a moment, then leaned her shoulder back out from under Naga’s hand. “I have a lot of problems with Equalists,” she admitted, “it… it comes with the territory of working together in an organization.” Her mother’s face came to mind, as well as a dozen people within the organization whose personal philosophies were just… too extreme for her.

She didn’t want benders broken. She just wanted them to stop oppressing non-benders. Amon’s mask came to mind, and the glint of eyes she could sometimes see behind it. Was that too much to ask, or too little to demand?

Naga sat back and pulled one knee up to her chest. “I meant organization-level conflict. Personal conflict will always exist, no matter how well-balanced a group.”

Asami didn’t answer for a long minute. A chill breeze swept through, rattling the tree branches. Around them, the sounds of city bustle felt distant. The park wasn’t that large, but it felt as though they could be alone there, completely apart from the rest of the world. Just for a moment, an hour maybe.

Decisions loomed on the horizon like Republic City’s skyline, waiting to sweep her away with their necessity and conflict.

Asami had already defied her orders once in sabotaging the Fire Ferrets’ capture. The arrival of the masked firebender had been a convenient cover, but but the actions she’d taken still stood out as treason in her mind. She’d criticized her mother the other day for laundering money from Future Industries for the Equalist cause. Was Asami much better, taking funds from her personal account, to bribe the pro-bending referees on behalf of the Wolfbats?

“Sometimes,” she began to speak. She stopped and cleared her throat, unable to meet Naga’s eyes. “Sometimes causes change,” she found herself saying. “I have been a part of the Equalists since I was a child.” Now that the answer had started, it felt like the right one, even if it wasn’t a direct response to the question. “After my father was… was murdered, my mother was broken and completely distraught. I was just a child, six years old, and suddenly my world had collapsed.

“Joining the Equalists, helping found the Equalists, was part of what saved us and pulled us out. At first, it was just us and a few others. Liu was there almost from the beginning, seventeen and hurt like we were. The group became an extension of our family…” She trailed off. It hadn’t felt that way for years, but she couldn’t have said exactly when the change happened. Was it with the arrival of Amon, or the steady drift from ineffectual political protest to their current strategy of highly effective terrorism?

“If you could be anyone,” Naga said, “who would you be? What would you be out there doing, if there was nothing in the way, no rules you were breaking, none of that?”

Asami pursed her lips and tried to imagine a world in which she wasn’t an Equalist. Honestly, she wasn’t sure what she would do with such an abundance of free time. “I’m not sure,” she said, “but if I were to hazard a guess, it would probably involve a lot of engineering.” Her mind drifted to the last invention she was working on for herself. It was the only ongoing project left of a dozen she’d scrapped along the way for lack of time. Maybe, in some other life, she had more time for them.

But she wasn’t about to spend the morning reflecting on a life she didn’t live. At least not alone. Asami’s eyes narrowed. “And what about you? If you weren’t a… what, traveling anarchist?” She paused and Naga made a face that said, ‘close enough’ and nodded. “If you weren’t living that life, what would you be doing with yourself?”

Naga’s eyes shifted slightly, focusing on a spot over Asami’s shoulder. “I… I can’t say, but probably… probably just lessons of a different kind.” She shrugged. “I’d still try to help people…” She rubbed the back of her neck. Asami got the sense that her friend had a more specific vision in mind, but didn’t feel like sharing it.

“How would you help people?” Asami asked.

A smile quirked at the corner of Naga’s lips. “Any way I could,” she said. “I would stop ‘observing’ and get out there to actually help people…” she trailed off. Asami though she’d leave it at that, but then Naga’s gaze hardened. “I’d help non-benders—fellow non-benders who aren’t Equalists or anyone special—evade the curfew police and stay out of the fight.” She leaned forward. “Don’t you worry about them too? The average citizens caught in the middle here? The non-benders who can’t help but get lumped in with you guys?”

A gust of wind rolled through, cooler than before. Asami shivered. “Yes,” she said, “I do.” The words came out more terse than she’d intended, but she didn’t correct her tone. “I worry about them all the time, and that’s why I’m an Equalist. Once we’re done, once everything is as it should be, those people will be safe. The city will be in balance.”

Asami noticed Naga twitch at the word ‘balance’ before she sat back. “Do you… truly and honestly believe that the Equalist culminating action will bring balance?”

It took effort to fight the jerk response to say, ‘yes,’ without thought. But… Asami paused, and she thought about it. She had so many moral compunctions with the Equalists’ slow drift into extremism. With the kidnapping and torture they subjected to captured benders, mostly average citizens, could they call themselves a rebellion of the people? Even if they rid the city of benders, what was the end-result? The nations of the world surely wouldn’t stand for it.

They’d been out of balance since Amon joined. Under him, the Equalist agenda started spiraling farther and farther away from their original purpose. When she was a child, Liu had told her that he hated benders, sure, but more than that he hated how their world had been shaped to cater to them. At least at first, he hadn’t wanted equality by cutting down benders to the non-bender level. The Equalist goal was to raise awareness of inequalities so they could be fixed. The goal was to make society adapt and start treating non-benders the same as benders.

“No, I don’t think so,” Asami whispered. She hugged a knee up to her chest. “Things… things got off-track at some point. Less about fixing societal problems and more about hate.” She closed her eyes. “And there is a place for hate. I hate ‘benders’ as a group because they discriminate against me and hurt me, because my father was killed by one.” She ran a hand through her hair, processing her feelings as she voiced them aloud. “But you know I don’t hate Sakari, Mako, or Bolin. I’m even glad that they got away. They’re good people, benders or not. I hate Tahno, but that’s because he’s a bully who abuses his powers for his own means. If he were a non-bender, I’d still hate him on virtue of him being an asshole…” She trailed off.

If her mother could hear her now… Asami shuddered to think of it.

“I’m not saying this is what you’re saying,” Naga began, “but, um, if you ever need an ‘out’ or something, if you ever need help with anything outside of your control… I would help you?” Her voice ended the statement on an upswing, but then she cleared her throat and continued firmly. “If you need to go, if your disagreements take you too far, I would help you get out,” she said. “Or if you just needed help with one thing you disagreed with them on. Anything.”

Asami’s first reaction was to disavow any possible inclination she had toward running. But… Naga had already seen through that. There was no point in pretending everything was fine. She sighed. “I… am in some ways disinclined to carry out our plans to their eventual extreme, but I have to trust in the plan.” She paused. “Thank you for the offer, I should have said. But… I don’t even know what this anarchist group of yours is about. If you helped me escape, where would I go?” Asami pulled her knee closer to her chest. “My whole life is wrapped up in this movement, for better or worse. My family, my job, basically all my acquaintances.”

“Except me,” Naga added. Though she brightened while she said it and flashed Asami a smile, the grin didn’t reach her eyes.

“Except you,” Asami said. “And… thank you, truly.” She chewed on her lip for a moment. “For you, Naga… you can tell me anything. No matter what.” She sat forward and put a hand on Naga’s shoulder. “Our friendship is… complicated. I’m not really in the position to make friends right now, but you and I have anyway and I don’t want to let go of that.”

Naga put a hand over Asami’s. “Me neither,” she whispered.

“You can tell me anything,” Asami said. Her smile tightened. “Even if it’s something the Equalists would disapprove of. Your secrets will be my secrets.”

After staring at Asami for a long moment, Naga opened her mouth. She breathed in, but words seemed to catch in her throat on the exhale. Asami saw something stir in her friend’s blue eyes, but the moment extended with nothing said.

Asami withdrew her hand and sat back. She turned and tried to focus on the park, but Naga occupied her thoughts. She resisted the urge to turn back and take the statement back. If it was something important, could she really trust herself not to say anything.

A harsh blush streaked across her cheeks. Asami hadn’t kept Sakari’s secrets, to disastrous effect. Who was she to claim she could keep Naga’s?

She only noticed Naga had moved closer when she leaned her head against Asami’s shoulder, looping a hand through her arm. “Thank you,” she whispered.

Asami’s muscles relaxed after a moment. She wasn’t sure whether she would be able to keep Naga’s secrets, but damn if she wouldn’t try, whenever her friend started sharing them with her. “You steady me,” she said impulsively. “When I’m around you, I remember that there’s more to life than just fighting all the time.”

It wasn’t until she said it that Asami realized that was her own sort of secret. She was still puzzling that when Naga cleared her throat.

Her voice seemed to catch on the wind, coming breathily to Asami’s ears. “When I’m with you,” she said, “I feel more free.”

They sat in comfortable silence for a long minute. Asami watched a distant figure cross from one side of the park to the other. Eventually, she asked, “Is that a secret?”

Naga nodded into her shoulder. “I think so,” she said.

Asami smiled and pulled her arm out of Naga’s grasp so she could loop it over her shoulders. “I won’t tell a soul.”

* * *

“Is this everything?” Mako wasn’t sure if he was relieved the packing was done or if the feeling was more like disbelief. Surely they owned more in the world than the small pile of boxes and patched bags by the door.

“I think so,” Bolin said, carrying over their one good pan. It had a dent in it, which was why the seller had agreed to lower the price. Pabu popped out of a box and scurried up to perch on Bolin’s shoulder when he packed the pan away.

Mako was almost sad to say the apartment didn’t look all that different, now that they’d packed up. He and Bolin had never been much for decorating, but he’d thought the place would look at least a little changed by their presence and, now, departure. Instead, the barren room just seemed to emphasize that they’d never really belonged there.

“I’m all packed,” Sakari said. She had even less. While he and Bolin had packed up the apartment, she’d spent the time repeatedly rearranging her rucksack, the same water tribe bag she’d brought to the city in the first place.

Mako bit his lip. He’d taken the kid into his care. From the weeks she’d stayed with them, she didn’t have anything to take away but her pro-bending uniform, carefully folded and placed on top.

Everyone jumped at the sound of a knock on the door.

Mako hand-signaled for Bolin and Sakari to align themselves along the inside wall as he approached the door. If an enemy came straight at him, they would be out of line of attack.

Mako kindled a bit of flame in his hand and braced his foot just an inch back from the door. In the corner of his eye, he saw Sakari pull a stream of water from the bottle she’d strapped to her belt.

“Who is it?” he called.

The visitor hesitated a moment before answering, as if they expected Mako to open the door first. “I’m a messenger from Tenzin,” she responded.

Mako heard Bolin and Sakari breath a sigh of relief. Before coming to the arena for their things, they’d stopped by the docks and sent word to Air Temple Island that they were safe after the attack on the arena, but out of a home. It stung his pride a bit to come begging at Tenzin’s door for help, but Mako knew it was the best course of action at the moment.

If no message had come back, either because they weren’t welcome or because Tenzin hadn’t fared so well after the attack, well, Mako would have figured out somewhere else for them to go.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to. Mako unbolted the door and extinguished the flame in his hand. He opened the a crack to reveal an air acolyte, one he distantly recognized from their last visit to Air Temple Island.

After a beat, he opened the door all the way. “Sorry for the caution,” he said. “Tenzin sent you?”

“Yes, and with the utmost haste,” she said, stepping inside. “He says the three of you are welcome to stay on Air Temple Island under the hospitality of his family and sent me, along with some others downstairs, to help move your things.”

Bolin gestured at the small pile. “We probably don’t need more help than you, actually.”

If the acolyte was surprised at their lack of belongings, she didn’t show it. “Are you ready to go then? Master Tenzin asked me to conduct you there with all haste as these are dangerous times.” She nodded toward Mako, and he smiled, glad she hadn’t taken his caution at the door personally or anything.

“I think so,” Mako said, glancing around the room as he picked up his stuff. Sakari had picked up her bag, but seemed anxious, bouncing on her toes. Mako frowned. “You okay kid?”

She nodded, paused, then shook her head and turned toward the acolyte. “Sorry Ms. Acolyte, but is Jinora okay?”

The words fell out in a tumble, but the acolyte seemed to understand well enough. She nodded. “Jinora is fine,” she said. “Though a bit shaken from last night. I do not know specifics.”

Sakari heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m ready to go.”

“Me too,” Mako said.

He glanced at Bolin, who was absently petting Pabu. His brother was looking the other way, across the place they’d called home for the past several years, the place he’d earned through honesty and perseverance. The view of Air Temple Island and the bay was great from here.

“Bro,” Mako called softly.

Pabu made a noise and tilted his head at Bolin, who turned back slowly. “I’m ready,” he said.

Mako didn’t believe him, but they had to leave anyway. “Let’s head out then.”

The acolyte led them downstairs, where Naga refused to let any of the acolytes touch her until Sakari introduced them. From there, it was a short enough trip to the docks, with their few belongings parceled out to the accompanying acolytes. Then everybody piled in a boat and they set off on their way.

As they approached the island, Mako recognized Tenzin and Pema standing on the docks and the dust clouds from three air scooters racing down the steps. By the time they arrived, the airbender children were all standing with their parents. Jinora leaned anxiously against her mother until she caught sight of Sakari, half-hidden behind Naga’s bulk.

Sakari started racing toward the airbender family even before the ship had finished docking.  She nearly tackled Jinora with her embrace, a stream of words racing from her mouth. Mako caught “Are you okay?” and “I was so worried” before turning his attention to Tenzin and Pema.

“Thank you so much for letting us stay here,” he said.

“It is no problem at all,” Tenzin responded.

“We were so worried when we saw that Equalist airship hovering over the arena,” Pema added.  “Naga raced off before we could stop her. I’m glad that you she found her way back to you unharmed.”

“We’re lucky she found us,” Bolin said. “Helped us make our dramatic escape.”

Mako managed a strained smile at that. He could do with a little less drama in his life. And fewer escapes too, while they were at it. He wasn’t sure how they’d have managed without Naga’s help last night.

Sakari and Jinora were still inseparable, speaking in hushed tones a few feet away.

Tenzin cleared his throat. “If you’ll follow us, we will show you to your new quarters.”

“Right.” Mako nodded and turned to retrieve his belongings only to find that the air acolytes were already in the process of carting them up the stairs to the temple. A part of him wanted to protest, but the others were already following Tenzin up the steps.

At the top of the stairs, Tenzin hesitated and exchanged a few quiet words with Pema. She corralled Ikki and Meelo with a few words, but failed to snag Jinora, who glared and looped her arm through Sakari’s at the suggestion she leave. Pema pursed her lips, looked at Tenzin for a moment, then sighed and started herding her children back toward the main building.

Tenzin turned to Mako and Bolin. “The two of you are welcome here,” he said, “but Sakari should really go home now, back to the South Pole.” He sighed. “Republic City is not a safe place at the moment, especially considering what I’ve heard about the events down below during the Equalist assault on the arena.”

Sakari opened her mouth to interrupt and Tenzin held up a hand. “Wait a moment,” he said. “I also have a letter for you. Your parents have written again. They are not able to easily leave the South Pole, considering your father’s position, but they will come north to collect you soon, if you do not return of your own volition.” He pulled an envelope out of his robes and held it out.

Snatching it, Sakari grimaced. She skimmed it for a few moments, then crumpled it up. “So when are Pema, Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo leaving?” she asked.

“What?” Tenzin blinked.

“We’re not,” Jinora said firmly.

“If it’s so dangerous here, then why aren’t you sending your family to the South Pole to be with Master Katara?” She crossed her arms. “And if my parents come to Republic City, I’ll deal with them then.”

Before Tenzin could respond, Mako cleared his throat. “If Amon wants to rid the world of benders, this tidy pile of the Last Four Airbenders would be quite the target,” he said.

He felt bad a moment later when Tenzin’s face paled. In the corner of his eye, Mako saw Jinora shrink back a little. He really hadn’t meant to suggest there was a direct threat to their family.

“Events… have not yet reached a point where I would send my family away from me,” Tenzin admitted. He tugged his beard. “Though… should it reach that point, could I count on you to go with them?”

Sakari’s mouth pulled into a deeper frown, and she seemed disinclined to agree with him until Jinora tugged her arm. She cast Sakari a questioning look.

“If it gets that bad, I would go with them,” Sakari said.

Tenzin nodded. “Thank you, Sakari.”

Bolin nodded. “And not to butt in here, but Mako and I would be up to go along too, help protect everybody.”

Mako smiled. “Definitely.”

A layer of tension dropped from Tenzin’s face. “Thank you both,” he said.

“The White Lotus guys on the island are cool and all,” Bolin said, “but having some extra security around, out of uniform, hanging out with the kids… see, we’re super useful to have around!” He grinned. “Undercover, and we don’t even need disguise mustaches.”

Tenzin chuckled before explaining to the group how the men and women slept in separate buildings on the island and dividing their party up. Mako wondered however, as Tenzin led him and Bolin to their room, if his brother’s suggestion had been a joke or a statement of security. Tenzin and the folks on Air Temple Island were nice enough, but Mako and Bolin had been tossed more than a few times when their usefulness dried up.

If guarding the airbender kids kept a roof over him and Bolin, Mako was more than happy to do it. Thankfully, they already liked the kids well enough, and it would basically be double-duty with protecting Sakari too.

Mako cleared his throat. “I’m a little concerned actually, with having Sakari so far away in the other building. Is she gonna be safe?”

Tenzin laughed outright. It was a strange sound. “Oh she’s very safe,” he said. “When Jinora found out the three of you were moving to the island, she insisted that she and Sakari share a room. Between the two of them, you  probably won’t find a more protected pair of 11 and 13 year olds.”

“You’re probably right,” Bolin said.

It was the work of a few minutes for the three of them to unpack Mako and Bolin’s belongings into the room. At first, Mako felt a bit self-conscious about their lack of property. But Tenzin didn’t express even the barest hint of judgement and then Mako remembered that the Air Nomads were kind of minimalist anyway. The room he and Bolin were sharing wasn’t the largest thing, but it easily fit all their possessions.

Tenzin hummed to himself as they finished unpacking. “I read the news and received a variety of reports last night after the attack,” he said. “So I must ask: what do you know about this… Blue Spirit who aided you last night?”

Mako and Bolin exchanged a glance, then shrugged in unison. “Nothing,” Mako said. “I mean, she was… maybe a bit shorter than Bolin?”

“She was a firebender,” Bolin added. “If we knew any more we’d be writing her a thank-you card.”

“Yes…” Tenzin mused. “Thank you. I am… concerned about the Equalist threat. I would be lying to say I was not also concerned about this Blue Spirit character, who seems to be a fan of former Fire Lord Zuko’s early work, but I am also grateful for her role in protecting you and Sakari last night.”

“Same,” Mako said. They started walking down the hall. “So what happened up the stands with you and Jinora last night?”

Tenzin’s steps faltered a moment, but he pressed on. “I was standing with Police Chief Beifong when we were ambushed by Equalists with electrified gloves.”

“That sounds uncomfortable,” Bolin said. “We didn’t even get hit directly and I can tell you that.”

“Indeed,” Tenzin said. “No direct harm came to Jinora, but… she was sitting in the stands right behind us.” He sighed. “The events from last night have… shaken her. My family has not been exposed to much direct violence, living as we do on the island.”

Bolin opened the door to the courtyard. “Makes sense.”

“It was incredibly frightening for her,” Tenzin continued. “As best I understand, she sat, frozen, after I went down. She came to my side at some point, as I woke up several minutes later with her clinging to me, crying.” He sighed again, deeper this time, and stopped walking. “May I ask the both of you a favor?”

Mako stopped walking and paused. “Sure,” he said.

Bolin nodded. “What can we do?”

“Since last night, Jinora has expressed interest in more… practical training.” Tenzin pursed his lips. “The two of you seem to be a natural fit  for such a course of study.”

“So… you want us to work with Jinora on pro-bending combat drills?” Bolin asked. A smile hinted at the corner of his mouth.

“Noooo,” Tenzin said. His frown deepened. “Just… advanced practical dodging techniques.”

Mako saw Bolin’s half-smile widen a little and he interjected before Bolin could push the issue. “We’ll be working with both the girls on a little more self-defense,” he said.

Tenzin’s shoulders dropped some of their tension. “Thank you,” he said. He tugged his robes. “Now, I need to get back to Republic City. The Council has a meeting and I suspect I will be arguing with Tarrlok from now until past dinnertime.”

They said goodbye and parted ways. Around the back of the main building, by the spinning practice gates, Mako and Bolin found Jinora sitting with Sakari. The girls had clearly been talking and, while they still seemed upset, Mako thought the both of them seemed a bit more settled.

“Hey you two,” Bolin said, sitting down beside them.

“Hey,” Sakari said. She leaned against his shoulder.

Mako sat down on Jinora’s other side. “You okay, kid?” he asked.

Jinora averted her eyes, but nodded.

Mako opened his mouth, but before he could start bringing up some sort of lesson, Sakari stood up. “We should practice together,” she said. She strode forward a few steps before turning around. The wind whipped her bangs to the side. “The pro-bending season is over, but the real fight is just beginning.”

Beside him, Jinora shrunk down and hugged her knees to her chest. “I doubt this is the last time we’ll be up against the Equalists,” she said. “I want to be ready. We should be ready.”

Bolin jumped up and slung an arm around Sakari’s shoulders. “Let’s get started on some drills then!” he said. “Next time, the Equalists won’t know what hit them.”

Mako’s heart weighed heavily as they walked toward the open training grounds. Jinora and Sakari were just kids. But, when he saw their expressions, it gave him pause. Mako remembered that face on himself, too young.

He’d give anything to keep them out of this situation somehow. And yet… they were asking him for instruction, for guidance and ways to fight back against a world that had it out for them.

Kids shouldn’t have to fight. Not outside of the arena. But he would never deny them the training to do so, not when they were asking for it.

“Alright, Jinora,” he said, “what are you looking for in this training. What do you want to get out of this?”

She paused, uncertain. After a long moment, her expression hardened. “I saw my father taken down, right in front of me. I was too shocked to move. I… I don’t ever want to freeze up again. If I’d been ready, I could have taken out the Equalist before he got to my father.”

“Reflexes and instincts,” Mako said. “Got it. Pushing past the freeze response.”

“If… if I’d protected him,” Jinora continued, “then we could have fought off the Equalists together.” She looked down. “I don’t want to fight alone.”

Sakari threw an arm over Jinora’s shoulders. “You won’t ever have to,” she said. “We’ve got all four elements now. The Equalists won’t see it coming!”

Jinora sniffled, but she was grinning. “I think we’re the first four-element team since my grandfather’s original Team Avatar,” she said.

“Then clearly, we’re destined for great things,” Bolin declared, ruffling both girls’ hair. “Let’s get practicing! Maybe by next pro-bending season, we can get you in as an airbender!”

* * *

Korra crouched on a rooftop, away from the edge so the streetlights wouldn’t catch her. Her fingers picked at the Blue Spirit mask and she had to resist the urge to put it on just yet.

She didn’t want to arbitrarily attack the police, anarchist or not.

As she watched the scene unfold below her, however, the possibility felt less and less arbitrary. Tarrlok’s task force had been called down on an after-curfew meeting of non-benders. They’d been gathering in the basement of a teriyaki shop for weeks now, according to the conversation Korra had eavesdropped on.

Apparently they weren’t Equalists either, which had intrigued her enough to investigate further. Unfortunately, the police seemed to have a heads-up about the meeting as well. While Korra was approaching the shop, she spotted some task force members closing in and moved to the roof to observe.

Her frown tightened as the task force, led by Tarrlok himself, signaled each other to break into the shop at three different points. They stayed silent inside for a long moment, followed by screams of terror as she heard them breach the basement.

Korra closed her eyes and scowled and she raised the mask to her face. As she tied it, white light started waxing through her closed eyelids.

She blinked her eyes open and found herself in a vision. A younger Sokka, maybe 15, was shaking his head. “No, we can't waste our time here. We have a bigger mission that we need to stay focused on. These people are on their own.”

Katara chased after him and grabbed his shoulder. “These people are starving! But you'd turn your back on them?” She put her hands on her hips. “How can you be so cold and heartless?”

Her view shifted, and Korra could see Aang approaching them.

“I’m not turning my back, I'm just being realistic. We can't go around helping every rinky-dink town we wander into.” Sokka’s voice firmed. “We'll be helping them all by taking out the Fire Lord.” The vision jittered, jumping to another point, and Sokka continued, “You know our mission has to come first.”

The next images came in flashes, bits and pieces that seemed to suggest a mysterious person was helping the town. The townspeople referred to ‘The Painted Lady’ as their savior.

When the vision steadied again, Korra could see Aang standing with a disguised Katara, who had hidden her face behind a broad hat and veil.

Aang’s jaw had dropped open. “You're the Painted Lady? But how?”

“I wasn't her at first, I was just trying to help the village.” Katara took the hat off. “But since everyone thought that's who I was anyway, I guess I just kinda became her.”

The vision jumped, and then Katara’s hat was on the ground. “I can't believe you lied to everyone, so you could help these people,” Aang said.

Katara looked down. “I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have…”

Aang’s voice brightened, and the vision drew Korra closer. “No, I think it's great! You're like a secret hero!”

The words lingered with emphasis before the vision faded out into white, then back to the nighttime streets of Republic City.

Korra grinned. “Glad to know you approve,” she whispered.

Down below, Tarrlok’s task force was corralling the non-benders from the meeting away from the building, using an earthbender to make barriers.

But they’d only left two to do that. The rest of the task force was still in the building, probably sorting through evidence and trying to fix it to look like they’d nabbed some Equalists.

Stopping an unfair arrest seemed like something a secret hero would do. Korra grinned as she checked her mask. The task force would never see her coming. And if they did, well, spiritual retribution was something she’d like them to think on a little bit, once they woke up.

She dropped down from the edge of the roof. Unseen earthbending silenced her landing. Fire kindled in her hands as she rushed up on the guards. The only warning they had was the widening eyes of the non-benders they were guarding, but the task force had proven itself more than capable of ignoring that segment of the population.

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Ten: Tales of Republic City
(There's Always Another Side to the Story)

Sakari blinked and found herself awake. Living on the road, she'd become a lighter and lighter sleeper. She stretched and stayed in bed a moment, taking in the room around her. Even after a couple days, Air Temple Island felt foreign to her.

She could hear the distant voices of acolytes getting ready for the day. A faint clink suggested toward breakfast prep. Droning underneath all this, the radio’s announcer was audible only as a wordless buzz. A light breeze tugged at the shutters to Sakari’s and Jinora’s room.

Sakari sat up as she glanced over at Jinora. Her sleeping friend was, for once, not tossing or turning. Still, it was time to get up. Sakari rolled out of bed and changed into her day clothes before sitting on the edge of Jinora’s bed.

She moved slowly, as smoothly as she could, when she put a hand on Jinora’s shoulder. “Hey sleepyhead,” she whispered. “Time to get up.” She gave Jinora a gentle shake.

Jinora startled as she woke. “Morning friend,” Sakari said, rubbing Jinora’s shoulder. Sakari couldn’t hold back a frown as she asked, “More nightmares?”

Jinora blinked and rubbed her eyes as she sat up. She yawned, then hesitated before saying, “I… I don’t think so, actually.”

Sakari smiled. “That’s great!” She’d been staying in Jinora’s room for three days. Every morning so far, Sakari had woken up and seen Jinora tossing and turning across the room. When Sakari asked about it, Jinora always mumbled a description of a nightmare about the Equalist attack.

“It… it’s strange to wake up without one,” Jinora said. A tentative smile crept to her face. “Thank you for being here for me,” she said.

“Absolutely.” Sakari nodded. She would fight every Equalist in the city before she’d let them anywhere near her friend ever again. “Let’s get up and get to breakfast!”

Jinora seemed reluctant to rush off, but the shadow of nightmares faded from her face as they made their way to the dining room and met up with everyone else for breakfast.

The vegetarian stuff was strange, but Sakari tucked in without hesitation. After she’d left the South Pole, traveling north hadn’t left her much room to be picky about her meals. She stuck her tongue out at Bolin across the table when she saw him nudge a root off to the side of his plate.

He stuck her tongue back out at her and turned beside him toward Mako, who was discussing a training idea for the four of them to do later.

Beside Sakari, Jinora was full-on ignoring Ikki, who was talking too fast for Sakari to follow. Meelo, on Ikki’s other side, had taken the opportunity to steal his sister’s food. When he caught Sakari looking at him, he grinned sheepishly.

Sakari still wasn’t quite sure how to interact with the younger kids. She hesitated a beat, then winked and smiled so he knew she wouldn’t tell. Meelo winked back, then finished removing a portion of Ikki’s food to his own plate.

At the head of the table, Tenzin fussed over Pema, but Sakari noticed he kept glancing at the clock on the wall.

Sure enough, just a few minutes into breakfast, Pema gave him a kiss on the cheek and Tenzin rose to his feet. “I’m afraid I must leave you,” he said. “I have a council meeting this morning, and it is one I cannot afford to miss.”

The airbender kids all got up to hug him before he left. Meelo used airbending to flip himself over the table and into Tenzin’s arms, and Sakari giggled.

“I hope your meeting goes well,” Mako said when Tenzin was at the door.

Tenzin nodded. “As do I,” he said. “Oh, and I heard you discussing a possible training idea?” Mako nodded. “Please be careful,” he said.

“Will do,” Bolin said, giving Tenzin a thumbs-up. Beside him, Mako nodded again.

“Thank you. I’ll see you all later today,” Tenzin said before leaving.

Sakari found herself quiet for the rest of breakfast. Joining the airbenders on Air Temple Island meant getting to join their family for a time, but it also meant accepting Tenzin as an adult authority figure, at least temporarily.

She didn’t trust adults. They generally tried to force their will on her, and she didn’t like that. She’d avoided them as much as possible on her trip north, relying on other kids and people around Mako’s age to get by.

But… despite initially trying to force her to leave, Tenzin was turning out to be okay. He was less stifling than her own parents were, and Mako always backed her up whenever Tenzin started getting too authoritative, which helped.

The rest of breakfast passed quickly enough. It ended a bit messily when Ikki realized that Meelo had taken her food though. In the ensuing chaos, Jinora tugged Sakari’s sleeve and signaled for them to sneak out.

They ran into Mako and Bolin outside. “Perfect timing!” Bolin said. “Looks like we’re pretty in-tune as a team already.”

“Let’s see how that works on the practice field,” Mako said. They started walking out towards the spinning gates. “We’ve been working on dodging and individual defense for the past couple days now, so I think we should mix it up today and start talking offense.”

“Mixed-element offense!” Bolin added. He was practically bouncing as he walked. “I’m so excited. We obviously bend together in the arena, but that’s different from bending in the street.”

Jinora frowned. “What’s the difference?”

Sakari said, “In the arena, you’re not supposed to do certain combinations of elements that are against the rules.” She grimaced as she thought of their match with the Wolfbats. “Like… you can’t mix rocks into water and use waterbending to chuck rocks at people.”

Mako motioned for them to stretch when they reached the training grounds. “Outside of the arena, there’s a lot more possibility, especially for water and earthbenders, who can do a lot more with the environment. Even something as simple as bending a puddle under someone’s foot can be a game-changer. Earthbenders can’t bend earth outside their zone in the arena. It cuts off a lot of possibilities.”

Sakari glanced over at Jinora, who was definitely more flexible than her, and tried to stretch farther, reaching past her toes. “So today is offensive bending combos?”

Mako nodded. “That and working with techniques we don’t use outside the arena. Waterbenders can’t use ice and firebenders can’t use lightning. We should try and practice with those more.

Jinora popped to her feet with a gust of wind. “So… how does that work with airbending?”

“We have no idea!” Bolin used a pillar of earth to vault himself to his feet. “That’s what we’re gonna try to find out!”

“Air and water!” Sakari leapt into a ready stance. “Let’s try it!”

The combination ended up creating a dense mist when Jinora’s air blast collided with some water Sakari was bending in the air.

“If it was summer, I would find this really refreshing,” Bolin said.

“Not summer yet,” Mako said, rubbing his arms. “That was actually kind of cold.”

Jinora ducked her head. “Sorry,” she said.

“It’s fine, no worries,” Mako said with a smile.

Mako and Jinora eventually figured out how to bend a steady stream of warm air, but it wasn’t much good aside from drying out their clothes, which had gotten a bit damp from the mist.

“I’ve got an idea,” Bolin said to Jinora as he finished drying off. “What if we mix earth and air, using the same combination that you and Sakari did to create the mist?”

Sakari frowned. “Wouldn’t that just put a lot of dust in the air?”

“Exactly!” Bolin said.

“Hmm, we probably can ,” Jinora said. “What would we try and use it for?”

“Diversion. An airbender or earthbender-controlled smokescreen.” Bolin wrung his hands together. “And this is totally poor sportsmanship, but in a real fight… Well, getting dust in people’s eyes generally impacts their ability to see and fight. A rough cloud of dust can make people double over coughing too…”

Everybody stared at him. Bolin rubbed the back of his neck. “Too much?”

“No!” Mako shook his head and put a hand on Bolin’s shoulder. “Just wasn’t expecting it from you, bro. They’re good ideas though.”

“Definitely,” Sakari added. “But… shouldn’t that be possible with earthbending alone? Is airbending really necessary to make that happen?”

“No, but it’ll probably help a lot,” Bolin said. “Bending tiny particles of earth like that is difficult for me to manage, especially when it’s dispersed into the air so much. I couldn’t be precise enough to do more than a general smokescreen effect, which wouldn’t help much if we want to target individual opponents. If I practiced with sand, I could probably do it on my own, but we don’t exactly have a ton here.”

“Plus, I imagine it’s just a really different way of bending,” Jinora mused. “I’m used to working in the air and manipulating currents and such. I’d assume that earthbending just feels a lot different.”

“You’d assume right!” Bolin said. “Let’s give it a try!”

Mako and Sakari stood off to the side and watched as Bolin stomped a foot on the ground, then jerked his arms upward. A dense screen of dust rose off the ground in front of him.

Jinora moved forward, arcing her hands as she started getting the dust moving. After a couple seconds, she’d made an effective moving smokescreen.

Bolin leaned over and whispered something to Jinora, who grinned and nodded. The two of them started expanding the reach of their smokescreen, whirling it around them.

Sakari squinted. “Is it just me or is it even harder to see through when Jinora has it moving like that?”

Mako nodded. “Not just you. I’m having trouble seeing them too.”

A couple of seconds later, Jinora and Bolin were entirely obscured.

The smokescreen shifted from whirling around them to pressing forward, toward where Mako and Sakari were sitting. Rather than dissipating the dust, the air currents seemed to only concentrate it. Or maybe Bolin was pulling more dirt into the air? Sakari couldn’t tell.

They weren’t exactly keeping the smokescreen localized either. Sakari stood up. “Let’s move a bit away,” she said.

Mako followed her lead. “Yeah, I like that idea.” They walked around to the other side of the pond. “Plus, I think it would be cool if we came up with a water-fire combination.”

“Yeah?” Sakari rocked on her feet. “What’re you thinking?”

“Mobility.” Mako stroked his chin. “All the other elements have a solid way of moving the bender around without losing offensive capabilities. You can surf around on water or slide on ice. The airbenders have their scooters and I’m sure a dozen other ways of getting placed quickly. Earthbenders can move rocks or dirt beneath them.”

“With firebending, you can launch yourself in the air or use it to kind of skim the ground,” Sakari pointed out. “Plus we both saw the Blue Spirit flying at finals.”

Mako nodded. “Yes, but those techniques aren’t good for moving and attacking. They take a lot of firepower and concentration. I was thinking we could come up with a way of leveraging the offensive capabilities of my firebending with the flexibility and movement speed possible with waterbending.”

Sakari reached an arm out to the pond and pulled a stream of water up towards her. “You might get wet,” she said.

Mako took up a stance and chuckled. “I can accept that,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Sakari grinned as they began. The Equalists wouldn’t know what hit them the next time they tangled with the Fire Ferrets.

 

* * * 

 

“Wow, you live here?”

Asami’s lips quirked into a smile as she parked her moped. “What, have you never seen a mansion before?”

Naga’s arms tightened around Asami’s waist as she laughed. “Don’t mistake me for some country girl, Ms. Sato,” she said. “I’m a certified mysterious world traveller!”

Since their talk in the park, Naga had been more open about her background. Not excessively open, of course. Most of it was embedded in jokes and hints, but Asami took note of each piece.

“I see,” Asami said as they dismounted the moped and removed their helmets. “Well how does it compare to those other mansions you’ve appraised?”

Naga pursed her lips as she genuinely considered the question. “Favorably, for the most part,” she said at length.

Asami paused at the door and looked around irritably. The Sato Estate was practically a palace. They’d entered the gates and parked in front of two sweeping staircases made of marble. “For the most part?” she grumbled.

“I didn’t mean it like that!” Naga said, following after Asami as she strode through the door. “I’m honestly just not much of a judge, to be honest? I’ve only ever been in a place like this when I’m either scoping it out or robbing it.”

They’d run into each other at Tarrlok’s estate for a reason… Asami filed that perspective away and smiled over her shoulder at Naga. “Let’s make it a bit more familiar for you then.” She winked. “You can steal that vase over there; I hate it.” The bird motifs weren’t terrible, done in shades of blue and green with red accents. But the egg-yolk yellow backdrop rendered the vase garish.

She gestured at the vase as they passed, and Naga wrinkled her nose. “Probably because it’s hideous. I would never steal that!”

Asami pressed a hand to her chest in mock-offense. “Naga! I am so offended!” She couldn’t keep the smile out of her eyes though.

They bantered as they walked, joking about what Naga was willing or not willing to steal and what Asami was okay letting go of. For the most part, Naga’s tastes seemed inclined toward items with bold geometric patterns. Unfortunately, the Sato Estate was more inclined toward items with soft, thin lines as decoration.

Asami was just apologizing for not having more stuff Naga would want to steal when they rounded a corner and practically ran into one of the maids.

“OH! Ms. Sato, I am so very sorry!” Tham fussed over Asami for a moment, checking even though they hadn’t actually run into one another.

Taking a deep breath to calm her racing heart, Asami composed herself. “It’s perfectly alright, Tham. That was my fault.” She frowned. “But what are you still doing here? I gave you the day off.”

“Yes, yes,” Tham said. “I was just on my way out.” Her gaze flickered over to Naga.

Asami winced. She’d have to explain her guest somehow. The whole point of giving all the maids a day off had been so she wouldn’t have to. “This is, uh, Naga,” she said.

“Asami was just giving me a tour of the estate,” Naga helpfully suggested.

Tham seemed slightly suspicious. “I see. I hope that it is all you expected, and more.” She gave a slight bow.

Asami was about to answer when Naga’s voice shifted, pulling in an element of charm. “It’s stunning, actually,” she said. “You must really work hard to keep it in this condition. I’ve been so impressed by how put-together and clean everything is.”

Tham softened toward Naga a bit. “We do our best,” she said.

Still, her eyes flickered between Asami and Naga, trying to ascertain the purpose of their trip. Tham was one of the more discreet maids, aware of their Equalist affiliations and supportive of the cause. She was also pointedly loyal to Yasuko.

It really wouldn’t do for Asami’s mother to find out what she’d been up to.

Asami slipped an arm around Naga’s waist. “I was just taking my… friend here to my private wing,” she said, lacing her voice with what she hoped was a mildly suggestive tone.

Naga stiffened under her hand as Tham regarded at her with renewed, but altered curiosity. “Ah, I see.” She smiled and gave a small, polite bow to Naga. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said.

“Uh, no. Yeah. Um, pleasure is my—I mean the pleasure is all mine?” Naga hunched her shoulders, a flush spreading across her cheeks. Her skin felt almost unnaturally warm under Asami’s hand.

It was the perfect cover. Asami could tell Tham was completely convinced, and rather amused, by the turn of events. When Asami leaned forward and requested that Tham not mention the liaison to Yasuko, the maid agreed with a wink.

Asami relaxed as they said their goodbyes and Tham passed them to leave. The maid had served their family for years. Despite her loyalty to Yasuko, she’d kept certain of Asami’s childhood secrets, even when those eventually grew into less-than-childish secrets.

Not that Asami had entertained a… visitor in quite a while. The movement had kept her too busy for such things.

“Soooo…” Naga drawled, her face finally returning to mostly the correct hue, “you prefer women?”

“Gender is a non-issue,” Asami said. “I only attended finishing school until I was fifteen, but that was long enough to figure things out.” She’d managed a couple fleeting romances with former classmates after that, but nothing lasting. Her schedule hadn’t permitted anything serious. Lately, it hadn’t allowed anyone at all.

“How about you?” she asked. “Any gender preferences?”

Naga shrugged. “Nope. I’m good with whatever.” The answer was casual, but she pursed her lips after, as though debating on another question.

Before she could ask, they made it to the training gym. If Naga wanted to ask something else, she could bring it up later. “Okay, are you ready?”

Patience and planning. Asami was not the fastest chi-blocker or the strongest. But, above all, she was strategic and in complete control of her body.

So she waited. It felt like an eternity as she let a second pass, then two.

Naga’s combat stance seemed... oddly familiar. Asami set the thought out of mind.

Naga’s expression shifted to slight confusion. Asami repressed the instinct to tense her muscles before moving.

She waited another breath.

Naga blinked.

In a flash, Asami was on her. She attacked with a flurry of blows up Naga’s left arm.

Before Naga’s arm could even go limp, Asami pulled back, ducking Naga’s right fist that quickly followed her.

“Woah!” Asami jumped back as Naga advanced with a kick. “Relax, I’m not going to do it again. That was just a demonstration.”

Naga stopped, though she still seemed guarded. Her blue eyes were wide with alarm, and Asami felt a little guilty for scaring her.

“A demonstration.” Naga said, rubbing her limp arm. “Yeah maybe let me know next time?”

Asami nodded. “Alright.” She took a step forward and Naga tensed, but didn’t back away. “I wanted to make sure you got, uh, the full experience, I guess.” She reached out for Naga’s elbow, but stopped when she leaned away. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said. “I’m going to explain what I did and where I struck.”

Regarding her with no small amount of suspicion, Naga eventually nodded. “Alright,” she said.

“Let’s sit down,” Asami said, hoping that sitting on the floor would de-escalate the mood somewhat.

Sure enough, Naga seemed to relax when they sat down and left their combat stances. “It feels… so strange. Like my whole arm is tingling, but also like I’m not in my arm? If that makes sense?”

“Actually, it makes perfect sense,” Asami said. “The way chi-blocking works is by, well, temporarily blocking the flow of chi in your body. By landing a series of quick, precise jabs against these pressure points, it essentially blocks your spirit from your arm. So… in a sense, you aren’t in your arm.”

Naga stared at her fingers with an intense expression. She seemed to be trying to move them through pure will.

As expected, they didn’t move. Asami continued, “When chi-blocked, you can’t move those muscles. Also, because the flow of chi has been disrupted, benders can’t make use of their abilities through the channels we’ve blocked.”

“Hm… It’s… a disconcerting feeling.” Naga shivered. “I don’t think I like it much.”

“Nobody does.” When she’d first started learning chi-blocking, Asami had been eight or nine. It hadn’t exactly been fun. Asami moved closer. “Okay, so now I’m going to show you the different pressure points in your arm and bring some of the feeling back.”

Naga frowned as Asami took her hand. “I didn’t think you could undo chi-blocking. I thought it had to dissipate on its own.”

“Restoring the flow of chi takes time. It’ll come back on its own eventually.” Asami began to rub at a spot on Naga’s forearm. “So benders need to wait it out before using their bending. However, restoring muscular control doesn’t actually take quite as long.” She pressed with her thumb until Naga’s arm jerked slightly.

“Is that one of the pressure points?”

“Yes.” Asami worked her thumbs against Naga’s skin, reaching for the pressure point to work out the muscular block. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I know how to undo the muscular portion, at least somewhat. Your arm will still tingle, but you should be able to use it in a few minutes if I work on each of the pressure points in your arm.”

Naga grimaced. “That kind of hurts.”

Asami shrugged. “It’s a pressure point. I’m not quite sure what you expected. While I’m working on it, let’s talk about how to find these points on someone else. The pain should actually help a bit, since it’ll cue you in to exactly where it is in your arm. The reason I chi-blocked you first was also so that you could feel the pressure point in contrast to everywhere else in your arm.”

Adjusting how she sat, Naga moved a bit closer to Asami and reached towards her with her right hand. “This pressure point is… here?” She placed two fingers against a spot on Asami’s forearm.

“Close,” Asami said. “Move your fingers up a bit and press again. Now left. No, my left.” She frowned when Naga moved too far. “Move back just a bit?” Naga followed her directions as she gave them, though an odd smile started creeping over her face. “A little over… there.” Naga pulled her fingers back to where they’d been. “Now try and press a little more against that spot.”

Naga shifted so it was her two knuckles pressing against the spot and applied more pressure. Asami felt a tell-tale tingle and smiled. “That’s the spot. I can feel it now.”

The weird smile widened and Naga suppressed a snicker.

“What’s so funny?” Asami’s knees bumped into Naga’s as she moved and started working on the pressure point on Naga’s bicep.

“Just… I was thinking about your maid.” Naga’s cheeks were turning reddening. “And how that dialogue probably sounded if there was someone listening at the door.”

A harsh blush stole over Asami’s face. “O-oh.” She ducked her head and focused on the bicep pressure point, which was actually fairly pronounced due to Naga’s musculature and tattoos. For some reason this just made Asami blush further.

Naga laughed outright and poked a couple of times at the pressure point on Asami’s arm. “You’re blushing,” she teased, sticking her tongue out. Then the poking turned to a soft brush of Naga’s thumb and Asami found herself paying more attention to the feel of Naga’s skin on her own than the lesson.

It had been a while since she’d entertained a visitor. She’d kept saying she didn’t have the time. Somehow, however, she’d certainly made time for Naga to come here and visit.

Asami dispelled the thoughts and shook her head. “You’re ridiculous,” she said. “Let’s stay focused. Can you feel where the bicep pressure point is? Here under my fingers?”

Naga nodded and moved her hand to Asami’s bicep, trying to find the same spot. “Direct me again?” she asked, then winked. “I promise not to make any more innuendos.”

Rolling her eyes, Asami agreed. “I’m sure you’ll make them in your head anyway, but make sure you’re paying attention. It’s much easier to locate the pressure points on someone sitting on the floor with you than on someone standing and attacking you.”

Determination flashed in Naga’s eyes and Asami could practically feel her friend shift into focus. “Got it. Let’s go then.”

 

* * *

 

Tenzin felt some of the tension fade, sloping off his shoulders the moment he saw his wife waiting on the dock. Somehow, she’d contrived to meet him with only a sleeping Rohan in tow.

She took one look at him when he disembarked the ferry. “I take it the council meeting didn’t go too well?”

He heaved a sigh as they began walking up the stairs together “Not in the slightest. I swear that Tarrlok is more preoccupied with his image than the good of the city.”

A smile twitched at Pema’s lips. “Moreso than usual, you mean?”

At that, Tenzin cracked a smile of his own. “I’m finding it more irritating than usual,” he said. “Because his priorities seem absolutely ludicrous at a time like this. The Equalists are growing bolder by the day and Tarrlok wants to go after that Blue Spirit vigilante because she’s been taking action against his task force and ruining his PR moments with the press. If there are no non-benders rounded up, there’s no photo to take.”

Pema hummed for a moment and shifted Rohan on her hip. “Personally,” she said, “I’m more inclined to thank her for how she intervened at the Finals match and saved the Fire Ferrets. But maybe that’s just me.”

Tenzin shook his head. “No, I am in agreement,” he said. “I am, perhaps, perplexed by her recent actions. She stood against the Equalists at her Finals debut, but since then has been devoted to preventing non-bender arrest.”

Lightly pressing her shoulder against his own, Pema’s aura calmed him. “Sometimes people are contradictory and perplexing,” she said. “Whoever this firebender is, she clearly has a lot of complicated views.”

“Indeed…” Tenzin tugged his beard, but relaxed into the silence with his wife. It wasn’t often that they were able to seize more than a few quiet moments together.

And on that note, he frowned. “Pema,” he said, “where have you stashed the remainder of our children?”

She brightened. “You’ll see,” she said. “Mako and Bolin can be fantastic babysitters without even realizing it.”

In the distance, Tenzin could hear sounds of bending and combat.

He resisted the impulse to quicken his stride and immediately go see what was going on. Speed-walking did not befit his station overmuch, and he would be able to see the practice yard when he and Pema turned the corner.

They entered the courtyard to an impossible view.

Bolin charged forward into a defensive stance and threw a small rock forward. He followed with an odd series of motions that split the rock in midair, scattering the pieces into a fine dust.

Jinora swept forward, propelled by an air scooter. She stopped by Bolin and began to whirl her hands, manipulating Bolin’s artificial cloud of dust into a smokescreen.

“Ooooh! Go Jinora!”

Tenzin had just enough time to take in Ikki and Meelo, cheering on the sidelines, before his attention switched to Sakari and Mako, who were charging forward.

“Now!” Mako shouted.

Sakari took the water she’d been levitating and swept it forward in an arc along the ground, right under Mako’s feet and into the cloud of dust.

But, instead of making him slip, the thin wave of water steadied at Mako’s heels and sent him careening through the smokescreen far faster than he could have run.

Tenzin couldn’t see through the dust, but he saw the flash of fire from Mako’s attack before Sakari swept the stream of water back to the center with them.

“Jinora!” Bolin yelled.

“Got it,” she responded, making a complicated series of unconventional gestures. Tenzin squinted, trying to figure out what she was doing with the air.

A beat later, the smokescreen condensed oddly, the air forcing the dust into an array of smaller sections.

And from there, Bolin stepped back in and brought his palms smashing back together. The dust sections coalesced into an array of pebbles, suspended in the air for a beat. Then Bolin punched his fists forward and Jinora stepped in and turned her hands, giving the air some spin.

The small stones rocketed forward. Bolin had given it power, but Jinora’s added turn set mass spinning.

The resultant attack hit the trees with a staccato series of thwacks.

Tenzin felt frozen for a long moment, then said, “I thought they were working on dodging.”

“They have been, the past couple days,” Pema said, stroking Rohan’s hair.

He huffed, watching carefully as the four benders regrouped and started an avid discussion about the techniques they’d used. “I am… concerned about this new focus on combat,” he said. “I was under the impression they’d mostly be working on evasive techniques.”

“Today they started on combining the elements for offensive and defensive techniques. It’s not just aggression, or I wouldn’t let Ikki and Meelo watch. They got going right after you left for your council meeting.”

It was lunchtime. Past lunchtime, really. “They’ve been at it that long?” he asked. “How long have Ikki and Meelo been watching?” The two of them kept interjecting their own comments into the discussion, but seemed to behaving well enough.

“As soon as they found out there was a show to watch.” Pema heaved a sigh. “I tried to keep them away at first, but they agreed to stay out of the way if it meant they could watch. And it’s only the last couple runs that they’ve managed to combine everything without Mako slipping or Jinora accidentally sending dust back in everyone’s faces. Ikki and Meelo have been rather entertained.”

“Hmm.” Tenzin pulled his beard. As they started the routine again, he was struck by the visual impact of seeing the four elements working together in tandem.

Had such a thing happened since his father had been alive? Zuko and Toph had worked together with Tenzin’s parents in a four-element team, back when they were younger. As time passed, it had happened less and less as their duties pulled them apart.

A smile touched his face. Jinora was the spitting image of Aang. He had the feeling her grandfather would have approved.

Sakari ran forward, sweeping in the same arc of water as last time, and Tenzin could see Katara’s training in how she held her hands.

He and Pema watched as the group finished their routine one more time. He managed to catch Jinora’s gaze before turning to leave. For a beat, her eyes widened. He smiled gently and nodded for her to get back to training.

The grin she returned was worth all the contradictions he could stomach. Even if she was mixing traditional forms with the Fire Ferrets’ pro-bending stances.

Tenzin put his arm around Pema’s shoulder as they started back toward the house.

“So… what did you think?” she asked.

He grasped for words adequate to express his feelings. Something to say that would capture how incredible this combination was, how this was the balance the world needed, the four elements in tandem when the Avatar was missing again. “She should be down in the South Pole,” he said instead.

“She should be,” Pema said, “but Sakari is definitely benefitting from her sojourn here.”

“I mean… we all should be.” Tenzin sighed as he opened the door. “Sakari should be in the South Pole, safe with her parents. We should all be down there too. It’s about the time when I would be teaching airbending to Korra.”

Pema shifted Rohan and put a hand on Tenzin’s back. “Life isn’t how it ought to be, but is it ever?” She pulled him closer. “So it’s not what what anyone wanted or planned. The Avatar will surface eventually. Sakari will return home. In the meantime, these wrongs have brought together something right and we are blessed by the spirits to see it.”

Tenzin couldn’t have resisted the smile that came over him if he tried. “You’ve been paying far too much attention to my spiritual rambling,” he said, leaning down to press a kiss to her forehead.

“Only because it’s from you,” she said.

 

* * * 

 

Pabu knew the scent Naga was looking for, even if he’d only met the brown-haired human once.

He wasn’t a big fan of the fire and dust that Mako and Bolin were making, so he wandered around the island until he got to the docks. The humans there were running around one of the boats like they did before the boat would leave. Pabu paused, looking at the boat.

Naga couldn’t leave the island without being noticed, but Pabu could. Maybe he could find her person. Sakari was also Naga’s person, but not her first person. Like how Mako was Pabu’s person, but Bolin was his most important person.

He wanted to make his friend happy, so he snuck out on the boat to see if he could find Naga’s missing person.

The city always felt big and kind of scary. It was safer since Bolin saved him, but Pabu kept to the edges as he tried to find the scent that Naga was looking for.

“Look, mommy! A fire ferret!” A small human started running toward him, arms outstretched.

Pabu already had a human. He did not need another one. He scampered around a corner and down an alley until the little human stopped following him.

He sniffed around the bits of trash on the ground, trying to catch a whiff of that scent, but all he could smell were other humans and animals. Not the one Naga was looking for.

Still, Pabu wasn’t going to give up. Naga’s missing person had to be somewhere in this city, so he just had to keep looking. Nose to the ground, Pabu set off down the alley.

Unfortunately, several blocks later, Pabu still had no scent to track. He glanced at the people walking by, trying to see if one of them looked like Naga’s person, but they all looked too similar. If he were a female human, where would he go?

A loud honk from the street scared Pabu, and he darted around a corner. He would go somewhere away from the loud, stinky cars.

Lifting his nose to the air, he caught the faint scent of cherry blossoms. Bolin had taken Sakari to a park with flowering trees, and Pabu had gotten to climb all over their branches. Sakari had really liked that park, so maybe Naga’s other person would too.

He took off racing down the street.

When he reached the park’s’ edge, Pabu could smell just the faintest trace of Naga’s person. He ran through the park, looking for the human. When he couldn’t see her, he scurried up a tree, looking out over the park. He watched all the people, looking for a flash of brown hair.

Near the gate ahead, he saw a human with long black hair climbing onto a small, narrow mini-car. She wasn’t Naga’s person, but she had been with Naga’s person at the arena. Maybe she knew where Naga’s person was.

Running as fast as his legs could take him, Pabu zipped down the tree and bolted toward the girl. She had just finished putting some round thing on her head when he reached her side.

She smelled like Naga’s person! Pabu brushed her leg to get her attention.

The human turned to face him and took off that round head-thing. “Hello there,” she said with a smile. She had a very friendly smile. “What are you doing here?” she asked, reaching down to pet him.

Her hand smelled like Naga’s person, so the brown-haired human had to be close.

Pabu squeaked, wishing he could speak human. Bolin always seemed to know what he meant, but he didn’t think this human would understand him very well.

He sniffed at her hand, nudging it with his head. He had to make sure he memorized the human’s scent.

“Did you get lost?” the human asked. Her eyes narrowed. “You kind of look like the Fire Ferrets’ fire ferret. What are you doing out here?”

Pabu sniffed the ground. He could smell Naga’s person now, heading away from the park.

He squeaked and nuzzled the human’s hand in thanks. He wished he could do more, maybe give her one of those flowers, but he had to leave before he lost the trail.

“Hey!” she called after him, but Pabu kept chasing the scent down the street.

The scent took him down several alleys once he had left the park behind. Pabu paused when the path branched and sniffed the path to his left, shadowing by the buildings around it.

The trail grew stronger! Pabu raced around the corner and squeaked. There she was! The brown-haired human that Naga was looking for!

She looked up when he squeaked. “Oh, hey there,” she said. She was working on putting fabric on herself, even though she was already wearing some. “What’re you doing out here, little guy?”

Pabu padded forward and sniffed her just to be sure. The new fabric smelled weird. It was very dark. But this was definitely Naga’s human. He squeaked and nuzzled against her hand.

She chuckled. “You’re cute, but I can’t take you with me.” She rubbed behind his ears, then pulled her hand back and rubbed it. “It’s still tingling,” she muttered. Looking around first, she lit a small fire in her hand. “But enough time seems to have passed.”

Pabu nosed at something on the ground beside her.

The human glanced over and picked it up. “It’s a mask,” she said. She held the object to her face and Pabu jumped back. Her face changed! A scary monster appeared!

Immediately, she put the object back down. Her face went back to normal. “Sorry,” she said. “It’s not exactly a pretty face.” She paused. “Not that my face is normally super pretty. I’m not Asami or anything, but I don’t normally have blue skin and scary fangs.” She reached out and scratched behind Pabu’s ears, which was nice.

It was so nice he almost forgot what he had to do.

When he remembered Naga, he tugged on her human’s fabric. He had to get her back to the island somehow! Then his friend would be happy!

“Hey there,” she said, “you’re cute but I can’t go with you.”

Pabu didn’t understand what she said, but he got the gist of what she meant.

He’d have to figure something else out. But... in the meantime, he could bring something back for Naga.

Nuzzling up under her hand, Pabu bit off a piece of the fabric she had on her arm.

“Hey!”

Before she could grab him, he darted off around the corner. The piece he’d taken wasn’t large, just a small rip, but it would be enough to bring home and show Naga, just enough to give her some hope and refresh the scent.

They would track her down again another time.

 

* * *

 

“He looks ridiculous.” P’li crossed her arms. “You really want to go out?”

Ming-Hua just smiled cheekily. “If I waited until Ghazan didn’t look a little ridiculous, we’d never go anywhere.” She shrugged. “And besides, we need to make sure he’s not recognized by the police.”

“Ideally, you shouldn’t attract their attention at all,” P’li said. “It’s just a date.”

“C’mon, Ming-Hua,” Ghazan called from the door. He tugged at his groomed mustache. “I’m ready to head out.”

“Ideally,” Ming-Hua said. “But you never know.” She winked and sauntered toward the door. “You take forever to get ready, and now you’re in a rush?” She bumped her hip into Ghazan as they walked out the door.

P’li could hear them bickering for a few moments longer as the went down the stairs. When the sounds faded, she turned her attention to Zaheer.

“You’re quiet,” she said.

“I’m focused.” He was sitting on their bed, newspapers spread out all around him.

“Take a break.” P’li stretched as she stood up and walked over. Even though the house was empty, she shut the screen behind her. “You’ve been reading all day.”

She could see his eyes racing to finish reading a line before he looked up at her. His eyes crinkled in a mild smile. “I meditated earlier too,” he said.

She chuckled. “Meditation for you is a given, like breathing. I would take more note if you stopped.”

He moved a newspaper aside so she could sit beside him on the bed. “I should hope you’d take note if I stopped breathing,” he said. “I have not yet discovered a way to transcend the requirement, but for now it’s critical for meditation.” He paused. “And for chi-blocking, apparently. I was instructed to do some breathing exercises in anticipation of my lesson tonight.”

P’li stiffened as she sat down beside him. “Tonight?”

He nodded. “It has taken a great deal of effort to strike the balance, but the Equalists have finally accepted ‘Yorru’ into an accelerated course of Equalist study. The main issue was trying to avoid appearing over-eager, but I was able to make my good qualities stand out without arousing suspicion.” An odd smile touched his face. “Tonight I’m heading out to begin my chi-blocking instruction.”

“That’s great news,” P’li said. It was a super creepy art, but she recognized that it was a useful one She frowned. “When do you need to head out?”

“Another hour or so,” Zaheer said. He leaned closer over a newspaper. “I can do some research in the meantime.”

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve worked enough. Take a break before you leave.”

He remained focused on the newspapers. “I think there might be some important leads in this paper,” he said.

P’li slipped her hand around to his other shoulder. “And they will be available to read later,” she said. She glanced down at the papers strewn over the bed. Her lip curled. “Wait. You’re reading the ‘Republic Enquirer’ for your leads? Isn’t that the tabloid that said Tarrlok and Amon were twin brothers?”

“No journalistic source is right all the time,” Zaheer said, “but we have to consider alternatives and think outside the box. Yes, some of these are wrong, but we have to think through how people are responding to the theories as if they’re true.” He picked up one paper and flipped through it. “For instance, some people in the city are sure to believe that the ‘Blue Spirit’ supports Amon’s spiritual authority.”

P’li squinted at him. “But Korra doesn’t…”

“Of course not,” Zaheer agreed. “But let’s play it out. How is she coming across to the city with her recent foray into vigilantism? What can we take from that?”

She withdrew her arm from his around his shoulder and picked up another paper. The headline ‘Are there two water spirits in the city?’ was accompanied by a pair of blurry photos of Korra in her Blue Spirit getup. “Uh, no,” P’li said. “There’s only one. We know that. We know who she is. The matter is settled.” She tossed the paper on the floor. “Next theory. I’ll clear this bed one by one.”

Zaheer massaged his temples. “Of course we know that, but let’s think about it: what’s to stop some other person in the city from buying a mask and going out on their own?”

“Common sense, I would hope,” P’li said. She picked up another paper and flipped to the section Zaheer had marked. “Young mustachioed man seen exiting the Sato estate at an indecent hour. Clearly Yasuko Sato’s scandalously young lover…?” she read. “You can’t be serious. Why do we even care?”

He took the paper before she could toss it on the floor. “I actually suspect I know who that is,” he said, pointing to the blurry photo. “I think this is the Equalist Lieutenant I’ve seen a couple times. He’s not my primary supervisor, but I’m almost certain I recognize his silhouette.”

Pausing, P’li found herself nodding. She wanted to discount the whole subject so they could get on with other pursuits, but Zaheer did have a point. “Okay that’s actually fair. So if it is him, then… assuming he’s not Sato’s lover, that would connect the Satos to the Equalists in some way.”

His lips quirked in a smile. “Exactly. And it would be the perfect complement to some crates I was moving for the Equalists, which I’m fairly certain were to frame Cabbage Corp. That and the Lieutenant frequenting the estate implicate Future Industries as the Equalists’ tech provider.”

She sighed. “Alright,” she said, “I’ll admit there’s some use to poring over the papers but…” She slipped her arm around him again and trailed her fingertips up the back of his neck. “We only have so much time with one another.” She pressed a kiss to his cheek and read ‘Wolfbats unaware referees were paid off! Are innocent!’ over his shoulder.

Zaheer turned into the kiss and met her lips briefly. “I suppose it wouldn’t be so terrible,” he murmured, “to pause for a moment.”

P’li shivered as she kissed him again. “Far from terrible,” she whispered, grabbing a paper around him.

The headline read, ‘Electrified Equalist glove found to have alternate sexual use!’ She tossed it on the floor with the others.

Zaheer’s hands settled on her waist. “Though I do think that the Enquirer has a point about the Republic City Post being in the pocket of the Equalists,” he said.

She didn’t respond, opting to gently press his shoulders down to the mattress and kiss him again, deeper this time. Trying her damnedest to distract his brilliant mind, to tether his spirit to the earth, to her, just a little bit longer.

 

* * * 

 

Liu watched the latest class of chi-blockers move through an advanced drill. While not all had mastered the technique yet, they all showed above average proficiency with the skills.

“Gin says that this class should be ready for field duty any day now,” the woman standing next him said. She nodded toward the instructor overseeing the class.

Liu nodded. “I want each of them assigned to a squadron by the week’s end then. Priority goes to the squads that see the most direct action or those short of fully trained chi-blockers.”

The woman nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“And how are the newer recruits coming along?” Liu asked. While Gin tended to handle the more advanced students, his sister Kin focused on the newcomers. Her infamous temper made short work of any bad habits or laziness.

“We ran some of the newer recruits through some basic drills,” Kin said. “Most were about average. We can train them to handle the gloves and basic equipment. Some have driving experience, so they may be screened for pilot duty. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the time to teach most of these any kind of advanced techniques.”

Liu nodded. He was grateful that the electrified gloves were very intuitive to use, so most people could easily adapt their fighting techniques to include it. It had taken Yasuko and Asami years to iron out all of the glove’s kinks, but the end result was more than worth it.

“Although,” Kin continued, gaze sharpening, “there are a few recruits whom we’ve started on an advanced training regimen.” She nodded her head toward a group of five who were watching Gin demonstrate one of the chi-blocking techniques on a training dummy.

“What are their names?” Liu asked. While it was impossible to know every Equalist by name, he tried to keep himself informed about the combatants, so he knew the strengths and weaknesses of each squad when it came time for deployment.

“Bao and Duong,” Kin said, pointing to the two tallest men. “They’re brothers who worked on the docks. They don’t have much formal combat training, but they have years of physical labor to hone their strengths and they’re both extremely disciplined.” Pointing to the much shorter girl next to them, Kin continued, “Yuna, who’s a dancer. She’s not very big, but all of her movements are very precise. She’ll need the advantage of chi-blocking in a fight.”

Liu watched as the girl repeated the strike that Gin had just illustrated. He could see her dancing background in the elegance of her movements, and she replicated the technique almost perfectly. The determination in her eyes reminded him of Asami when she got absorbed in one of her engineering projects. Liu had no doubt that this girl would prove just as focused in her training.

Kin pointed next to a tall woman with a honed physique. “I’m told you’ve met Hayun already as she has a background in swordplay.”

Liu nodded. While the electrified gloves had proven more than sufficient in dealing with benders and could be given to members with little combat experience, the Equalists always welcomed members who had experience with different weapons. He was sure that Yasuko and Asami could develop some kind of electrified sword for Hayun to use.

“And the last is Yorru,” Kin said. She indicated the remaining man. He seemed reserved in appearance but was clearly listening to everything Gin had to say. “He doesn’t say much, but I suspect that he has some prior combat experience. I haven’t been able to judge exactly how much.”

Liu watched Yorru step forward and go through the series of attacks that Gin had outlined. Though not a perfect imitation, the poses had a great sense of flow. The man was clearly at-ease in a combat environment.

Kin nodded in approval and gestured to him. “You see what I mean?”

“I do... I would be shocked to learn he had zero combat experience.” Liu regarded Yorru for a moment, trying to place his style, which was precise, but flowing. “He always has the next stance in mind,” Liu said. “Before he even starts a move, he knows what the next one is, and he’s keeping it in mind.” Or something like that. Liu strongly favored practical fighting over theoretical fighting.

“He actually listens when I explain the drills, which is more than can be said for most of the newcomers.” Kin scowled. “Every batch, there are those idiots who think they can just put on the gloves and start zapping benders. I’m going to have to spend the next few weeks working them to the bone to make sure that they don’t get themselves killed in their first battle.”

“And that’s why you’re assigned to work with the new recruits,” Gin said, walking over to them. His class was busy working through the latest drill that he had demonstrated. He briefly saluted Liu.

Liu nodded in greeting. “Put those five on an accelerated training program then,” he told Kin. “Keep me informed of their progress as we’ll need as many men and women in the field as possible.”

“Understood,” Kin said.

Liu turned his attention to Gin. “Good job on your latest mission. The story of Cabbage Corp’s ties with the Equalists made every paper.”

Gin smirked. “It was child’s play sneaking those gloves and supplies into the warehouse. An anonymous tip to the police set things up nicely.”

Framing Cabbage Corp had been quite ingenious, taking all suspicion off of Future Industries for the moment. Yasuko had been “speechless” to learn of her rival’s involvement with the Equalists. All of her interviews stressed her disbelief in Lau Gan-Lan’s involvement in such “illicit activities” and was deeply concerned for the fate of all the innocent employees whose jobs were now in jeopardy.

Liu was always impressed with how well Yasuko handled interviews, keeping herself removed from any suspicion. He had sacrificed maintaining a civilian identity years ago; putting up with bender-sympathizers took more of his patience than he cared to donate.

“Though our mission at Cabbage Corp wasn’t the only news that made the papers today,” Gin grumbled.

Liu scowled, already knowing where this was headed. He had thrown the paper away after reading about “The Blue Spirit: Republic City’s Masked Hero.” Apparently the firebender who attacked them during the Pro-Bending Finals had decided that attacking non-benders wasn’t enough and had turned her attention to attacking Tarrlok’s task force.

“We’ve been fighting Tarrlok’s task force ever since its formation, but not one of the papers sided against it until a bender takes action,” Gin continued. “Typical bending rubbish. Not once did they ever cover our attacks on Tarrlok’s task force in favorable terms. But now half of the papers are praising this bender for resisting such oppressive laws targeting non-benders. Where were these non-bending sympathies when Tarrlok imposed his ridiculous curfew laws? Not one of them spoke up then.”

“Everyone knows that the papers are firmly within the Council’s hands,” Liu said. “They wouldn’t dare criticize any of the Council’s decisions unless they had some kind of hero to hide behind.”

Knowing that didn’t make reading any of the articles praising the masked firebender easier. The papers may be eager to portray the ‘Blue Spirit’ as some kind of hero, but Liu remembered all too well the fury of her attacks. He wasn’t going to forget the panic in Asami’s eyes, blood welling up from the gash above her nose, when he had awakened in their getaway truck.

While she had handled their retreat exceedingly well, he could tell that she was still a little freaked out over how badly the mission had gone.

If he ever encountered that firebender again, he would make sure to land in a few blows for Asami.

“I’ve even heard some citizens regarding her as some kind of hero,” Kin was saying. “Just this morning, I heard a woman commenting about how good it was that they had such a powerful ally to defend them. It took all I had not to laugh in her face.”

Liu’s expression turned grim at that. Bending allies would play along until you crossed some invisible line, and then they would turn on you in a second. He had seen it happen time after time during the early days of the Equalist movement. Proposals and bills that never made it to the Council’s attention. Protests shut down with barely a mention in the paper. Any non-bender who foolishly believed that this masked vigilante was on their side would only encounter disappointment.

“This vigilante is only looking out for her own personal gain,” Gin said. “Either she’s looking for fame or she’s part of some power play against Tarrlok. Protecting non-benders has nothing to do with this.”

“Her fame will be short-lived,” Liu said. “Amon will meet her eventually and she’ll be Equalized like all the other benders.”

Anything else he had to say about the matter was stalled when the door to the training room flew open. A young man in civilian garb, with an Equalist mask covering the lower half of his face, raced inside. “Tarrlok’s task force is raiding that closed restaurant several streets down. He might conduct a more thorough search of the area if he realizes that it’s just a decoy.”

Liu scowled. After the task force had raided one of their chi-blocking training facilities in the Dragon Flats borough, they had been forced to take extra precautions to avoid a second incident. All facilities had evacuation drills planned and recently they had begun staging decoy gatherings to divert the task force’s attention from their true facilities. It seemed that Tarrlok and his men had taken the bait.

“How many members of the task force did he bring?” Liu asked the scout.

“About twenty task force members. There’s also a police airship, but I don’t know how many officers are on board.”

Too many men to risk any kind of frontal assault. But they could certainly pick a few benders off to make things more difficult for the task force.

The students had all stopped their lessons, waiting for his orders. He addressed Kin first. “Have your students go through the evacuation drills. This will be good experience in case they come under attack during an actual raid.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” she said. She barked out several orders to her students, telling them where equipment needed to be stowed and where the backup gloves were if they were needed.

Liu turned his attention over to Gin. “Pick five of your best students and have them follow me. Let’s see if we can take out a few benders before the night’s over.”

Gin nodded with a grim smile and turned to gather his students.

Liu adjusted his goggles and made sure that his kali sticks were ready if he need be. As much as he might enjoy taking out every single member of Tarrlok’s task force, he knew that a hit-and-run attack would be more prudent given their numbers.

Besides, the Equalists would be taking out Tarrlok very soon, so any grievances against the councilman could wait until then.

He waited until most of the class had dissipated before exiting the building. The task force was not on their street, but he could see one of the police airships hovering overhead, spotlight illuminating an area several blocks from them. Liu turned to address Gin and the other five chi-blockers. “Spread out and keep to the back alleys. This is a hit and run operation. When I give the signal, attack the nearest task force members and then retreat. Try and draw more after you, but don’t be reckless. I should not have to say that getting arrested will not help our cause. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” the chi-blockers chorused.

Liu slipped into the shadows of a nearby side street and made his way toward the raid. The presence of the airship kept him from climbing onto the roofs, but he still moved through the back streets quickly. He found a spot behind a restaurant sign several yards from the raid. The task force was preoccupied with searching the building in question, an old restaurant that had stood vacant for almost a year.

“If you can’t find anything, then search the building more thoroughly,” Tarrlok was telling one of the task force captains, irritation obvious in his voice. “Three different witnesses saw Equalists enter this building, so they have to have been using it for some purpose.”

The captain nodded and motioned for some of the benders to follow him back inside.

Liu smiled at that. He took a moment to survey the scene and was pleased to see that nearly half of the benders present were still searching the old restaurant. Most of those outside seemed focused on their raid and not their larger surroundings.

Catching Gin’s gaze across the street, Liu signaled an attack. Without waiting for Gin’s response, he drew his kali sticks, thumb hovering over the button that would electrify them.

The two task force members closest to Liu never had a chance to react to him. He lunged forward, jamming his kali sticks into their backs. Both cried out and crumpled to the ground.

Several yards down, Gin and his chi-blockers sprung into action. Five more benders fell before the task force realized it was under attack.

They mobilized quickly though, launching into a series of counterattacks aimed at the chi-blockers. Liu watched as a waterbender near him shifted forward before sending a whip of water toward him. He easily dodged the water’s trajectory and closed the distance between them before the waterbender could strike again.

He smirked as the bender collapsed. Those notes that Asami had provided were proving quite useful.

Tarrlok himself moved into action, bending water into a rapid whip aimed at one of the chi-blockers further from Liu. His attack collided with enough force to knock the woman off her feet.

Thankfully another chi-blocker was nearby to drag her back up.

“Fall back!” Liu yelled, zapping another task force member who got too close. The Equalists knew these back streets far more intimately than the task force. They could easily take out a few more benders before disappearing into the night.

Tarrlok was shouting orders to capture them. Above, Liu could spy a few metalbending officers descending on their cables.

He didn’t waste any more time lingering in the area. Noting the three task force members charging him, Liu pivoted and darted down an alleyway. He kept to the shadows, turning corners at every opportunity to make it harder for his pursuers to launch an attack.

Spying an intersection ahead, Liu reached for the smoke grenade on his belt. He threw it to the ground behind him, smirking as the smoke billowed up into the street. Combined with the darkness, the smoke obscured Liu’s form from the benders. He took the opportunity to slip behind a pile of crates and pull himself onto the roof. While the police airship was still hovering in the area, its spotlight was currently following a trail south of him.

Liu would have to trust that Gin and his chi-blockers would evade arrest.

Below him, he could hear the task force members grumbling as they tried to locate him. Liu held perfectly still, pressed against the side of a chimney to keep himself from view.

After a few minutes, he could hear the sound of their voices drifting away. He planned to remain in place for a little bit longer when a shout down the street came from the task force.

They marched back into sight, dragging a young couple behind them. The man’s shirt was halfway unbuttoned, and the woman was pulling her cardigan back over her shoulders.

“What are you up to at this hour?” one of the task force members demanded.

“Just, just walking my girlfriend home,” the man stammered.

“Curfew began over an hour ago,” another one of the task force said, a note of suspicion creeping into his voice.

“We weren’t doing anything wrong!” the woman shot back.

“Such as attacking the task force with your Equalist allies?” the first bender asked.

“What!?” Both members of the couple seemed shocked at the accusation.

Liu tightened his grip on his kali sticks. Tarrlok’s task force had lost any semblance of due process in the weeks since its formation. He shifted his weight in preparation to jump.

“Let’s take them in for questioning,” the first bender continued. Whatever he was about to say was lost when Liu dropped down, jabbing his kali stick hard into the man’s back.

The couple used the distraction to turn and flee. Although Liu moved to engage the second bender, he couldn’t keep the third from pursuing the couple.

A bright flash of orange and a billow of heat shot down from the sky between the couple and the bender. In seconds, the man was on the ground unconscious.

Liu finished off his opponent with a well-placed strike of his kali stick.

Straightening, he turned his attention to the source of the orange flash. The masked firebender from the finals attack stood calmly a few yards away, crouched in a defensive stance.

Liu’s grip on his weapon tightened, and he adopted his own fighting stance. It would be easy to charge forward and start a fight. A large part of him wanted to return the favor from the finals attack. She didn’t have the element of surprise this time, and he wasn’t burdened with trying to escape with a hostage in tow.

The sound of more task force members approaching reminded him that now was neither the time nor the place for this.

He straightened. “I haven’t forgotten our encounter at the arena,” he said. “Today doesn’t make us even, but I don’t have time to deal with you right now.”

The Blue Spirit nodded curtly before leaping up onto a nearby roof, her firebending propelling her upward.

The light from the fire seemed to have caught the attention of the nearby task force members because he could hear them yelling something about pursuing her.

Liu sighed as he slipped down a dark side street. He’d have time for revenge against the vigilante later. For now, he had other tasks to attend to. Seeing Tarrlok in action reminded him that for all the man’s odious qualities, he was a powerful fighter. He would have to make sure that all of his fighters, especially Asami, were ready to defend against advanced waterbending techniques.

 

* * * 

 

“How did you like dinner?” Ghazan asked.

Ming-Hua considered for a moment. “It was a bit bland, but we’ve both had worse.”

He grinned and slipped an arm around her waist. “I’m glad you liked it.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I think I will anyway.”

“You always do.”

They walked together for a minute in a comfortable silence. Their steps seemed to naturally draw them down an alley. Ghazan glanced both ways before earthbending a pillar to lift them to the roof. He quietly returned the dirt to its place while Ming-Hua settled herself in a comfortable spot leaning back against the chimney.

“May I ask you something?” Ghazan asked as he sat down beside her.

“You will anyway, so go ahead.” She softened her voice a bit, so he knew it was fine.

He rolled his eyes. “Was the bun too much?”

Earlier that afternoon, Ghazan had shown up at the apartment with his shoulder-length hair in a bun and some disguise makeup on. He’d even procured a nicer set of clothes to wear. Sweeping a bow, he’d asked her out to dinner.

And he’d looked ridiculous, but she’d agreed to go with him because he was her ridiculous partner.

She shook her head. “It was just right. I think your hair looks nice in a bun.” A smile quirked at her lip. “Besides, then we double matched. Names and hair.”

He groaned. “I can’t believe you did that. The waiter didn’t even ask what our names were. You didn’t even have to.”

Ming-Hua leaned against his shoulder and he slipped his arm around her. “I know, that, ‘Naghaz,’ but it’s more fun that way, throwing a little chaos into your perfectly planned date.”

“Plans change. We always adapt.” Ghazan pulled his hair out of his bun and scoffed. “But I’m going to call you ‘Nag-Hua’ for the rest of the week.”

She twisted around and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

They sat together, her curled against him with Ghazan’s arm around her, for a while. The wind tugged at Ghazan’s loose hair and it tickled her nose. She let it do that a while before turning and itching her nose against his shirt.

In the distance, she could hear the sounds of a raid. Probably Tarrlok’s Task Force, after some gathering of Equalists, real or imagined.

“This can’t last forever,” she said. The wind seemed to snatch her words away before she quite heard them herself.

“Yeah,” Ghazan said, “the makeup is already coming off and we’re gonna have to—“

“No. This… this moment. Here in Republic City.” She leaned heavily against him.

He hesitated a long moment before replying, “Well… we have to go home eventually. Everyone will be waiting for us.” A strain entered his voice, and she could tell he didn’t want to talk about it.

“And just how long will ‘everyone’ be waiting?”

He didn’t respond.

“Harmonic Convergence is approaching,” Ming-Hua continued. “We need to talk about the implications. You and me. Our happy little anarchist family won’t stay this way forever.”

His arm tensed around her, but he didn’t pull away. “Yeah, I know…”

She sighed and opened her mouth to say something else, but he kissed her before she could.

“Not tonight though?” His voice held a strain she didn’t normally hear. He didn’t normally let her hear it. “Plans change and chaos will always come through. We always adapt. As long as we have each other, it’ll be okay.”

Twisting her body, Ming-Hua straddled Ghazan’s lap so she could face him directly. “Yes, but we will talk about this another time.” She held his gaze a long moment before her eyes dropped. “If… if our plans change, I want to make sure you and I are on the same page.”

Ghazan stilled. Pulling her gaze back to his, she knew he understood.

He nodded. “We will talk another time.”

Ming-Hua leaned in for another kiss and he slipped his arms around her waist. As long as they were together, she could trust that everything would be okay.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: When Extremes Meet
(Crossfire Happens)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Korra, what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Korra,” Ming-Hua hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A minute later, the lock popped open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asami swallowed. “Someone else is here.”

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

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

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

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

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

But improbability did not always equate impossibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

Korra’s head struck stone and she saw white.

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

The Avatar State.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” she said. “Over there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amon,” Tarrlok hissed.

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

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

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

Amon remained standing, unaffected.

Korra’s eyes widened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Korra’s breath caught in her throat.

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

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

Ming-Hua did not answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the woman?” the Lieutenant asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Text

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Starting your training already?” Tenzin asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bolin responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What!?”

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

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

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

“What?” Sakari asked. “But...”

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

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

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

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

Lin regarded him coolly before turning her attention to Tenzin.

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Mako said.

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone jumped as the door opened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghazan’s whispers became clearer and more immediate.

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

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

“Our mission here has shifted.”

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

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

“…not as strong as you…”

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

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

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

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

“…watch him… when I’m not here…”

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

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

She nodded stiffly. “Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… okay.” Korra nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t say a word,” Korra said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about them.”

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

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

Asami looked over. “Can I trust you?”

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

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

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

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

She crossed the clearing.

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

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

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

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

“Just friends?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naga shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

The world outside was waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a step back, then another.

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

Chapter Text

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jinora took two scrolls to shelve with the older volumes.

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

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

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

“Uh, hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman chuckled. “I tried, anyway.”

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

Something about this visitor seemed… different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because they lived in the arena, the Fire Ferrets had to find a new place to stay after the finals attack,” Jinora said, “and they ended up moving here, actually.” She didn’t need to explain to the stranger why the Fire Ferrets had ended up moving here. Sakari made it clear that she preferred her familial status to remain out of public knowledge. “I’ve been practicing more combat-adapted bending techniques with them.”

“Hmmm… that’s the team with the prodigy waterbender, right? Sakari? Is she okay?” The woman’s tone was a bit affected on the first question, and Jinora suspected that she already knew the answer.

But Jinora didn’t want to be rude, and it was innocuous enough. “She’s here too,” she said, “and she’s doing alright. It’s kind of nice to practice with someone the same height as me, actually.”

They reached the edge of the air temple complex, where Jinora needed to go right to get to the practice grounds and the visitor needed to go left to get down to the docks. “You should come back tomorrow morning,” Jinora said. “If you get here a bit earlier, you can have more time with that scroll.”

“I’m not sure I’ll have time,” the woman admitted as she started walking down the stairs, “but I’ll try! Thanks again for all your help.”

“Not a problem!” Jinora waved, then turned to the right and spun herself an air scooter so she could get to the practice grounds quicker.

As it zipped her along, she thought about how Avatar Aang had invented the air scooter, a new technique then, to secure his mastery when he was twelve.

The wind spun faster under her and zipped her along. She almost stumbled when she leapt off the ball and hit the ground running at the practice field.

Bolin ribbed her a bit for taking so long, but nodded when she said she’d been walking a guest out.

Jinora looked around cautiously as she sat down to stretch. “Where are Ikki and Meelo?”

Sakari winked. “Naga’s taking care of them. They should be well-occupied on the other half of the island with airbending-assisted fetch.”

“That actually sounds pretty fun.” Jinora giggled.

After a minute of stretching, they flew into action, dividing up to work on various techniques together. She smiled at Mako. “Ready?” she asked.

He nodded and rolled his shoulders. “Let’s give it another shot.”

They did some practice with all four elements in tandem, but it was easier to start off with two-element combos. One of their most recent additions revolved around managing the volatile combination of air and fire. If Jinora and Mako worked together, matching the commensurate level of wind with Mako’s blasts, they could create small fireballs that quickly surged into small explosions, then immediately dissipated. The result came with an impressive flash of light and a loud pop.

The first time they’d successfully balanced it, Bolin had yelped and slipped on some of Sakari’s ice. It was kind of funny, actually.

However, if Jinora didn’t control the gusts of wind just so, the air would extinguish the fire instead of feeding it. Bending with Mako was all about balance. Unlike water and earth, they didn’t need to reach to find their elements; Mako found fire at hand as easily as Jinora grasped the air.

“Alright Jinora, I’m ready when you are.” Mako held a bit of fire between his hands.

Jinora nodded and stepped in time with the movement on her hands, feeding a stream of air into the fireball. Mako’s focused expression didn’t shift as he moved the fire in a whirl with the air. Unlike Bolin, he didn’t crack jokes during practice. It was still fun to work with him though. Even when they were in the middle of a drill she could tell just how well the fire suited him and jumped naturally to his fingertips.

When the mixture of air and fire was just right, Jinora fed the airstream to the flames and Mako threw the fire away from him. Several paces out, it exploded with a flash of light and a loud boom.

“WHOO HOO!” Bolin shot them a thumbs up from the other side of the field. “I love explosions! I didn’t freak out at all this time!” From the looks of his clothes, he and Sakari were enjoying their mudbending entirely too much.

Jinora giggled as Mako shook his head. “Ready to try again? I think we can reduce the time by half if we get a little more practice in.”

They weren’t able to get it down by half, but they did manage some progress by the time they switched off partners with Sakari and Bolin. Thankfully, her friend had managed to get cleaned off from the mudbending section.

She and Sakari were working on a less combat-applicable technique, but it was still pretty cool.

“Are you ready?” Sakari asked.

Jinora nodded. “Let’s give it a shot.”

When Jinora had taken Sakari up on Oogi, they’d discovered they could work together to bend the clouds. It had been an exhilarating and exciting discovery.

Trying to make clouds on the ground was not so effortless.

Sakari pulled some water out of the pond and held it in the air, concentrating. Jinora started working her hands around, creating a gentle current of air to cycle around the circle of water. When the air was steady, she gave Sakari another nod, ready to incorporate the water vapor into the air’s movements.

Turning her wrists, Sakari tried to pull the water apart into vapor. It was hard for Jinora to understand the process, but her friend had described it as being the opposite of hardening water into ice. It was also, apparently, quite difficult. Jinora’s air ball caught a wisp of water vapor as a bead of sweat rolled down Sakari’s face.

It took several minutes to successfully incorporate the air and water, but by the end of it they’d managed to create a small cloud.

Sakari immediately sat down. “Okay, that’s enough cloud-making for today. Is it naptime yet?”

Jinora used the air to whirl their cloud in a circle. “I don’t think we can nap yet, but we can definitely call it a day on the cloud-making.”

Seeing that they were done, Bolin grabbed Mako’s shoulder. “Look, they did it!”

“Nice!” Mako jogged over. “I think that’s the biggest one yet.”

“It definitely is,” Sakari said. She’d dropped from sitting to lying on the ground.

“There’s gotta be a faster way to do that,” Bolin said. “Or at least a way that’s less exhausting for Sakari.”

“I would like that,” Sakari mumbled. The process had gotten less tiring with practice, but it was still far from being useful on a practical level.

Jinora frowned, pulling the cloud into a tighter formation. Its colors shifted depending on how dense she pressed the air and water. “I’m not sure how we could, but unfortunately it’s not really feasible for combat applications yet.”

Mako glanced up. “Could you practice with the ones in the sky? Last I checked, they come ready-made and free to use.”

Sakari weakly kicked his ankle, then sat up. “Yeah, but they kind of like being, you know, in the sky. We tried pulling one down on Oogi once and it didn’t wanna budge too much.”

“We’ll practice with that too,” Jinora said, reaching an arm down to pull Sakari up. Once her friend was on her feet, Jinora passed her their small cloud with a puff of wind. “I think if we could get some practice and some more volume, the cloud-bending could be really useful in a combat setting.”

“I can sense anything that’s in it,” Sakari said, pulling the cloud down near the pond so it enveloped the tips of some reeds. “And we can expand and condense it as needed to manipulate visibility.”

Bolin stroked his chin. “And as much as I like our dust-cover technique, Jinora, it kind of sucks trying to actually walk through it.”

“Yeah…” Jinora winced. Even with the two of them able to manipulate the dust cloud, she always ended up rubbing her eyes afterward, and her clothes got really dirty. The worst that happened when moving through the clouds was getting her clothes wet, and she and Sakari could both easily dry off.

Her father’s voice startled her. “I’m very impressed with all the ingenuity I see the four of you employing,” he said.

Jinora whipped around to see him walking over from the main building. “Oh, hi Dad!” He couldn’t normally attend their practices, and she was always a little nervous when he did. The combat techniques and combined bending they practiced weren’t exactly part of the traditional thirty-six tiers of airbending.

“Thank you, Master Tenzin,” Mako said. “Even though I offered to help teach Jinora more practical bending combat, I gotta say I think she’s taught us plenty too.”

Sakari flashed Jinora a smile and passed her the cloud in a spiral shape as Bolin added, “I already feel much lighter on my feet.”

Her father nodded. “It’s all a bit different, but I’m very happy for the four of you.” He met Jinora’s eyes with a warm gaze as she bent the cloud into two smaller ones. “You’ve put for the a lot of effort. I don’t believe there’s been a four-element team like this since my father was a young man.”

“That’s so cool,” Bolin said, practically bouncing. “Maybe when life gets back to normal, we can petition the pro-bending establishment to give airbending a place in the arena!” Bolin’s wide grin fell as Tenzin’s expression froze.

Jinora winced and exchanged a look with Sakari. She’s heard from her friend how badly her father had reacted when he’d found Sakari at the pro-bending arena. He wasn’t exactly a fan of the sport.

Mako chuckled and inserted himself in front of Bolin. “Uh… we just mean to say that your daughter has a prodigious level of skill. She’s a master airbender and it’s great to train with her.” Jinora’s gaze swept toward her father. His eyes flickered toward her, but he seemed impassive to Mako’s faux-pas. Mastery wasn’t as well-defined a concept with other bending arts; Mako probably didn’t even know he’d said something awkward. “We would not actually advocate for the inclusion of an eleven-year-old airbender in the pro-bending circuit. Sir.”

An awkward pause followed Mako’s hurried conclusion.

Then Jinora’s father laughed. She blinked and swapped surprised looks with Sakari.

“I highly doubt the pro-bending establishment would allow the Fire Ferrets to be the one team with four benders,” he said. “And I must admit I would be… less than thrilled at the prospect. Still, the idea does bring some amusing possibilities.”

“… It does?” Sakari asked. She crossed her arms.

“Well of course!” Tenzin chuckled. “Why, my father would retell this story whenever he needed to poke fun at Chief Beifong, the elder. He first met her at Earth Rumble Six, an underground earthbending competition. He was able to easily—and accidentally—defeat Toph—“

“He defeated Toph?” Bolin whispered.

“—who was even then a master earthbender, because the win condition was simply to knock the opponent off the stage.” Tenzin smiled. “I would not be the biggest fan of Jinora’s inclusion in the pro-bending circuit, but I suspect if she were allowed, she could win the championship single-handed. Airbending has a significant advantage in that form of contest.”

Jinora glowed with the praise. For a moment, she felt as though she could float away happy with her father’s admission and praise of her skill.

“Master Tenzin!” An alarmed cry from a White Lotus soldier broke Jinora’s reverie.

They all turned toward her as she ran over, a newspaper in hand. Jinora recognized the soldier as one of the ones who made frequent trips into the city.

“What is it, Sonam?” Tenzin asked, brows knit together.

She held out a newspaper and Tenzin took it. “The cover story of the Republic City Post,” she said. “It hit the stands late this morning, but I don’t think they’ll have any problems selling it out.” Sonam’s eyes flashed toward Sakari.

Jinora felt a pit of dread drop into her stomach. “What’s the headline?” she asked.

Her father’s face lost all traces of his previous humor as his eyes skimmed down the front page.

The cloud whirled around Sakari, small spirals that reflected nervousness. “What happened? Did the Equalists take someone else?”

Mako stepped forward. “Was there another attack?”

“Nothing like that.” Tenzin’s face tightened. “But it’s still bad news, I’m afraid.” He hesitated, then held the paper out. “I’m sorry, Sakari.”

The Republic City Post headline read, ‘Still No Avatar, But Secret Sister Discovered! Fire Ferret’s Sakari is a Water Tribe Runaway!’

The cloud fell to the ground as water, splashing around Sakari. “H-How did they find out? I…” Whatever Sakari tried to say next caught in her throat.

Jinora turned and swept her into a tight hug as Mako took the paper. She watched him skim down the article. “It just says… unnamed but reliable sources,” he said.

“Hardly anybody even knows I exist,” Sakari whispered. “Not even in the Southern Water Tribe…”

Bolin put an arm around Sakari and Jinora as he read the article around Mako’s shoulder. “They don’t seem to have too much actual information on you from the south,” he said. “Just that your dad is the chief and your parents kept you a secret.”

To the side, Jinora was dimly aware of Sonam telling her father that she’d run the paper across the bay as soon as she could, but that the next boat in would likely have reporters.

“Let’s get inside,” Jinora said, gently tugging Sakari’s shoulders. Her father would instruct the White Lotus to intercept any reporters. If one of them snuck by, however, it would be better to stay away from the island’s public areas.

They said hurried goodbyes to her father, who left in the other direction to deal with the issue.

As they made their way inside, however, Jinora could feel Sakari start to simmer with anger. Her hand was trembling in Jinora’s own by the time they made it to the dining room. If her friend had been another type of bender, Jinora was fairly certain she’d have caught fire by now.

“Who was it?” she said abruptly. “Do you think it was that woman Tenzin told the other day?”

Mako frowned. “Chief Beifong? No way. She has no reason to do that.”

“And she’s Toph’s daughter,” Bolin added. “She would never do anything bad!”

“Then who was it?” Sakari ran a troubled hand through her hair. “There’s only a handful of people who know. Even... even those two women from the arena, even that doesn’t make any sense. It’s been weeks since they found out, and Sonam said the paper was delayed in printing this morning, like it was fresh news.”

Jinora didn’t know who Sakari was talking about, but her reasoning seemed sound. “We don’t know yet, but we’ll figure out who it was eventually.” She put a hand on Sakari’s shoulder.

“Sakari half-heartedly shrugged. “I guess it doesn’t matter who leaked it anyway,” she mumbled. “It was bound to happen eventually.”

Mako frowned. “Hey, Sakari—”

“I’ve been trying to make myself into someone on my own here,” she cut him off. “I traveled half the world to get here, just me and Naga, and I got to choose who that person was.” She sat down heavily against the wall and Jinora sat down beside her with Mako and Bolin. “I’ve never gotten to do that before. In the Southern Water Tribe, I was just ‘The Avatar’s Sister’ to everyone that knew me. All, what, five people?”

Sakari’s shoulders slumped. “Now whoever I am doesn’t matter. I’m just back to being defined by a missing person again.”

Jinora moved to the side so she could take Sakari’s hand in her own and meet her eyes. “Who you are definitely matters,” she said, “because that’s who you are to yourself. Whether the Avatar is around or not, you still have your own story and your own journey and at all points of it, you’re still Sakari.”

A mild smile touched Sakari’s face and Jinora squeezed her hand in response.

“Think about the last book Jinora loaned you,” Mako said. “The world may define the Avatar as the main character, but you don’t have to accept that.”

Bolin put his arm around Sakari’s shoulders. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think you should.” He put his other hand to his eyebrows, like he was looking off in the distance. “I don’t see her around anywhere, which kind of sucks, but we’ve been managing well enough with her so far.”

The smile on Sakari’s face grew a bit. “Only well enough? We made it to finals, didn’t we?”

Jinora smiled as Mako chuckled and ruffled Sakari’s bangs. “We sure did, kid. In no small part thanks to you.”

At that, Jinora was relieved to see Sakari practically glow with pride. After a moment however, the positive reaction seemed to temper itself. She bit her lip, then said, “Can I ask you guys a favor?”

“Of course!” Bolin ruffled her hair further, nearly knocking it out of the short ponytail she had it in for practice.

Mako nodded his agreement and Jinora smiled at her. “What is it?” she asked.

“If… if we do get word… Of her, of Korra’s whereabouts or something like that…” Sakari swallowed hard. “Would you help me find her? I know that as soon as we know something, that means that Tenzin and my dad and everyone else will know too, probably, but… I don’t want to sit around waiting for the adults to bring her home. I want to track her down and drag her back into my story.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jinora said. “No matter what.”

Mako nodded. “I’ve always wanted to be a detective. If we get a hint, let’s go ferret her out.”

“Retrieval mission is a go,” Bolin said, grinning.

Even though she wasn’t any bigger than Jinora, Sakari somehow managed to sweep the four of them into a group hug. “Thank you,” she said. “With a team like this, she’d better watch out.”

 

* * *

 

Korra made a small detour on her way back to the apartment. The scroll she’d stolen from the Air Temple Island Library wasn’t something she’d want to be caught with at the apartment. She’d only had a little time to peruse it before Jinora had to go, but Aang’s writings on energybending were clearly going to be key to understanding the art.

Checking that she wasn’t being watched, she stashed the scroll with her Blue Spirit mask. Her other reason for taking it had been concern for the library’s safety. Korra wasn’t sure what exactly the Equalists planned for it, but it seemed prudent to keep the text she needed out of their hands.

Climbing the stairs to the apartment, Korra listened carefully. Lately, fights were more common than not. When she couldn’t hear anything abnormal though the door, she let herself in.

P’li, Ghazan, and Zaheer were all standing in the middle of the living room. They immediately stopped talking and looked up when she came in.

For a moment, everything was quiet. Korra stepped inside, feeling out-of-place, and shut the door behind her.

“Where have you been?” Zaheer asked, voice clipped.

Korra pulled out a packet of tea leaves. “You guys sent me to get this from the pharmacy, remember?”

Ghazan strode over and snatched the packet from her. “You were on a quick errand and were gone for over two hours. Where the hell were you?”

“I was just… out?” Korra tried to catch Zaheer’s eyes, but he seemed oddly preoccupied. If she could get him to understand that she’d been on her energybending quest, he could cover for her to the rest of the Red Lotus.

P’li stepped forward, gently taking the packet of tea leaves from Ghazan. She laid a hand on his shoulder before he could shout at Korra again. Leveling Korra with a steady gaze, she said, “You went to contact her, didn’t you.”

It wasn’t a question.

Korra felt the pit of her stomach drop out, and she wasn’t even sure if she was guilty. “I literally do not know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Who do you think I contacted? Why?”

Ghazan huffed. “Do you think we’re stupid, Korra?”

“No, but I think you’re being ridiculous right now,” she snapped back. Tensions had been running high for the past few days, but she was starting to reach her boiling point. “I went off to run the errand. The pharmacy with that tea is all the way by the docks. So yeah, it took some time, especially since I had to check several on the way. Now you’re accusing me of… something? I don’t even know what I’ve supposedly done!”

At that, her guardians exchanged several looks with one another. Korra couldn’t understand the silent conversation, but it seemed like they were discussing whether or not to believe her.

“I don’t think she knows,” Zaheer said, a moment later.

“How could she have missed it?” Ghazan said.

P’li sighed and walked back to the table. She plucked one of the newspapers up, roughly folded it, and tossed it at Korra.

“What does this have to do with anything…” Korra grumbled. She unfolded the paper, a copy of the Republic City Post, and blinked.

Sakari, in her pro-bending uniform, was on the front cover. The headline: 'Still No Avatar, But Secret Sister Discovered! Fire Ferret’s Sakari is a Water Tribe Runaway!'

“What!?” Korra blinked and read it again. “No… This can’t be.”

Somehow, the press had gotten ahold of Sakari’s secret. Someone must have leaked the information to the post.

The news must only have reached Air Temple Island right after she’d left. There was no other explanation.

Zaheer stepped toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. “We know this must be a shock.”

“What?” Korra felt dumb, just repeating the word as she skimmed the article. It was mostly about Sakari, but reading how the post addressed the Avatar’s absence was equally disconcerting.

“Okay.” Ghazan deflated somewhat. “Okay you’re right, she clearly didn’t know.” He stepped forward. “I’m sorry for snapping Korra, we just… we thought that you’d seen the news. And that… you were late because you’d run off to go see her, since she’s your sister.”

Several emotions swept through Korra at once. First came a strange catharsis from hearing someone else refer to Sakari as her sister. It was a truth she’d whispered to herself, but had yet to hear from someone else’s voice.

Then came alarm and fear. Korra had been reacting to the news, the fact that Sakari’s identity had been leaked to the public. Clearly, however, the Red Lotus had interpreted her reaction differently because they didn’t know she knew.

Korra tried to imagine how she’d react if she’d only just found out Sakari existed. How had she felt that night after the arena?

“I have a sister,” Korra whispered. She moved to go sit down on the couch and the others followed her. “Like… right here in Republic City.”

When P’li sat down beside her, it occurred to Korra that she did have one question. She looked across the table at Zaheer and met his eyes. “Did you know?” she asked. “Did you know she existed?”

Zaheer met her gaze steadily, then nodded. “Somewhat,” he said. “We have not been back to the Southern Water Tribe since liberating you, but some Red Lotus agents reported their suspicions. It seems the girl was kept a secret in the palace, separated from the rest of the world.”

“We were unable to confirm much aside from rumors that she did exist,” P’li continued.

“I see…” Korra propped her elbows on her knees. “I… I would like to meet her,” she admitted.

Zaheer sighed. “In time. Now is not… an opportune moment.”

Ghazan huffed. He had not yet sat down. “That’s an understatement,” he muttered, walking over to P’li. She silently passed the tea packet back, now that he wasn’t in danger of crushing it, and he went into the kitchen.

“We need you here, Korra,” P’li said. “Here and now. Not there.” She sighed. “Family is a complicated beast. On the one hand, they are supposed to be those closest to us. On the other hand, our families can often make terrible decisions for us with little oversight.”

Korra nodded mutely. She knew that P’li had been kidnapped by a warlord when she was a kid. Instead of trying to free her or looking for someone to help do so, P’li’s family had chosen to accept the warlord’s bribe to stay silent about the kidnapping.

“Just because someone is your family doesn’t mean they have your best interests at heart,” Zaheer said. “Your own family, complicit in the world’s system of unbalanced power, would have raised you in a compound not so dissimilar to this Sakari girl. The proof is in her upbringing, really. They would have kept you separate in order to indoctrinate you into their philosophies and keep you ‘safe.’” He smiled slightly. “We liberated you so that you might experience true freedom. We are not your family, but with us you have seen the world.”

Korra nodded and sighed. “I know… but… that’s my parents. That’s the White Lotus and Master Tenzin and all of those people. Sakari is just a kid. She’s thirteen. She may be confused or something but like… she can’t not have my best interests at heart. She probably just wants to meet me…”

When she looked up, Korra saw Zaheer and P’li having a silent conversation. A beat later, Zaheer pursed his lips. “When things have calmed down,” he said, “we will help you arrange a meeting with the girl. We understand that this is important to you.”

Korra nodded. “Yeah. That’d be great… just…” She sighed. “I guess I was wondering… couldn’t we liberate her too?”

She hadn’t been able to spend much time in Sakari’s company, but Korra could easily imagine her at ease with her Red Lotus guardians. Her quick wit and bending prowess would be a natural fit into their family. And even if Sakari was a bit cautious at first, Korra could explain everything to her in time.

Zaheer and P’li stared at her blankly. Korra could hear the clinking noises of Ghazan making tea in the kitchen.

“You know… because this has been such a good life for me,” Korra continued, “I guess I was just thinking that we could help her too. And yeah, then we could be together.” She shrugged. “I just found out I have a sister. Of course I want to meet her. Of course I want to be a part of her life.”

Whatever sort of practice they were doing on Air Temple Island, with Mako, Bolin, Jinora, and Sakari, Korra had no doubt it was something she wanted to be a part of. But if she couldn’t be there, maybe she could figure out a way of getting Sakari here.

“We… can see about arranging it,” Zaheer said at length. “After Harmonic Convergence.”

P’li gave him a sharp look, but Korra couldn’t figure out what she meant by it. She smiled at him. “Thank you, Zaheer,” she said. “Thank you thank you!”

“The details may change,” P’li cut in. “We don’t know exactly how this will play out.”

“But the plan stays the same,” Zaheer said. He smiled across the table at Korra, but his eyes drifted over to look at P’li. “We always have a plan.”

 

 

* * *

 

Asami pulled her jacket close as she followed her mother onto the airfield. Though the city itself had mostly warmed to spring temperatures, the mountains hiding this Equalist base were surrounded by snow.

“We have sentries posted to alert this base of any approaching vehicles,” Yasuko was saying as she led Asami to the large hangar in the center of the airfield. Five branching runways traveled from the hangar to the cliff’s edge. “In addition, I’ve deployed an invisible fence around the perimeter in case any intruders attempt to infiltrate the base.”

Asami let her gaze wander around the edges of the airfield, lingering on the metal poles spaced around the perimeter. The voltage they carried would be enough to knock out most people. Combined with the airfield’s remote location, that electric fence would make attacking this base almost impossible.

“I wanted to make sure that you were familiar with this base and the biplanes,” Yasuko said, opening the doors to the hangar. “I’ll likely need your help in keeping the biplanes functional. I trust you’ll be quite impressed when you see them.” A proud smile stretched across her face.

It was a little odd. Yasuko didn’t smile often, but Asami had seen that same expression when they had released their first updated Satomobile model together.

She’d also seen it when they had finally created a working electrified glove, and again when they were holding the first field-test results.

Asami forced her lips into a smile as she stepped inside... and promptly gasped at the rows of biplanes. Polished metal plates and gleaming rivets caught the light and reflected curved shapes along the hangar walls. “These are incredible, mother,” Asami said. She wandered closer to one, inspecting it from different angles. The planes were sleek in design, accented in red, with a three-blade propeller. Her gaze turned to the wings, analyzing their structure.

A part of her wondered exactly how much her mother had embezzled from Future Industries to construct these plans, but she forced the thought aside. Asami was good at mental math, but didn’t trust herself to handle equations of that size.

Yasuko beamed at the praise. “It took a few models to find the right aspect ratio for the wings,” she said. “But I am confident that these biplanes will perform in a variety of combat situations, including high-alpha maneuvers. I have no doubt that we will have the superior air power. We moved the pusher engines to the top of the wings to improve the plane’s ability to dive bomb if need be. Underneath the wings, we can load four torpedoes in addition to the bombs stored beneath the plane’s body.”

Asami froze at the words, unable to swallow the bitter taste in her mouth.  Her eyes fell to the torpedo racks, and she couldn’t help but start calculating just how much destructive power a single plane contained.

She turned her gaze down the rows of planes sitting in the hangar and frowned at the number of them. “Do we really have this many pilots among our numbers?” she asked. Equalist membership had grown in the wake of Tarrlok’s oppressive laws, but there were very few registered pilots in Republic City.

“We’ve been training several former delivery drivers as pilots,” Yasuko said. “And many of the engineers also volunteered to undergo pilot training as well if need be.”

Asami frowned at that, turning to face her mother. “I was under the impression that the biplanes were only to provide air cover for our ground forces.” Even as she spoke the words, they tasted of ash.

“That was the original plan,” Yasuko said, walking over to one of the planes, “when we thought we were going to have fewer pilots than we do. But after reviewing the numbers, we realized that we will have enough pilots to launch a decisive offensive against the United Forces. One of our spies at City Hall will call in a distress signal to the United Forces and give us their estimated time of arrival. She’ll also pass on false information about the timing of our attack to lure their navy into a trap. Our pilots will swoop in and take out the ships when they reach the bay. The attack should quickly turn the tide in our favor.”

Her mother opened one of the plane’s engine hatches and started fiddling inside. She might have said something else about how they’d handle the next wave of the United Forces, but it was lost in the maelstrom of Asami’s thoughts.

If the Equalists launched nearly all of these biplanes at once, fully equipped, they would decimate the United Forces’ navy. Even deployed in waves, the attack would be devastating.

A naval ship was more than just the soldiers on board. There would be sailors, engineers, cooks, and various other crew members. Hundreds of noncombatants, bender and non-bender alike, killed in a matter of seconds.

Asami swallowed. “Surely we could use the fact that we will have air superiority to force the United Forces to retreat or surrender?” She tried to keep pleading out of her tone as she spoke. If she could just reason with her mother, then maybe... “We could use the biplanes and mecha tanks to force the United Forces into a corner. Force them to surrender, since we’ll have taken over the capital of the United Republic…”

“They would never agree to our demands,” Yasuko said. She pulled a small gear out of the engine hatch and held it up to the light. “The Council, the city, and the United Forces have made it clear time and time again that they will continue to place benders above non-benders. For our movement to succeed, we have to make our attacks decisive. We have to show our enemies our true strength.”

Asami wanted to say something in protest, but the words froze in her throat.

Yasuko shook her head and pocketed the gear, then pulled out a new one to replace it. “When we destroy the first wave of the United Force’s navy, we will send a loud message to all benders that we will not rest until they have submitted to our rule and agreed to be equalized. The fight will be ours from the first strike.”

“But that’s…”

Too extreme? A part of Asami wanted to laugh at that thought. Because individually kidnapping benders and forcibly stripping away their bending wasn’t extreme? Building an army of mecha tanks and supplying the Equalists with a range of weapons wasn’t?

The Equalists had turned extremist long ago, and Asami couldn’t say when the shift from political movement to militant terrorism had occurred.

“This attack is necessary if we wish to turn the tide of the battle in our favor quickly,” Yasuko added absently. “Instead of a long, drawn-out battle, we’ll eliminate the brunt enemies in one fell swoop and minimize casualties on our side.

Looking at Yasuko, Asami wasn’t even sure when the shift in her mother had occurred. She remembered her mother’s wearied but determined smile years ago after a piece of legislation on non-bending rights had been pushed aside by the Council yet again. It was hard to reconcile that memory with the jaded engineer and Equalist leader standing before her.

“I understand,” she said, the words ringing hollow in her ears.

Yasuko nodded and began describing more of the biplanes’ features, pointing at different parts as she did so. Her words sounded like gibberish in Asami’s ears.

Every time she looked at the planes, she could see them soaring over the bay, loosing their torpedoes on the unsuspecting ships.

When the explanation lulled, Asami plastered her best apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, mother, but I really need to get back to my factory and finish my work there.”

“I was hoping you would have more time to inspect these planes with me,” Yasuko said.

Asami swallowed. “The last batch of mecha tanks is finishing up. But I’ll look over the blueprints on the biplanes that you sent me to make sure I know how they work.”

“All right,” Yasuko said, giving Asami a small smile. It did nothing to ease the tension coiling in Asami’s gut. “I wish you could stay longer and help me out here, but I know you have your own duties to finish up before our attack.”

“I’ll see you later,” Asami said, turning to leave.

“Oh,” Yasuko called as Asami started for the exit. “Make sure to pick up a copy of The Republic City Post  on your way back to the factory. A certain story was finally leaked to the news in preparation for our plans, so I thought you’d like to see it.”

Asami frowned. Her mother’s words carried a sense of foreboding, but she couldn’t think of what story she should be anticipating. Honestly, the amount of propaganda they discussed in council meetings was astounding. “I’ll go check it out then,” she said.

The trip from the base back to the city took far longer than Asami wanted it too. Her arms and shoulders shook faintly as she drove, but she kept a tight rein on her emotions. She just had to make it to her workshop and process everything.

The Satomobile rumbled under her. It was one of her family’s oldest models; her father had designed this one himself. It pre-dated the new road-building techniques and had a fairly robust suspension as a result. Winding down the rickety mountain roads, it was a better transportation choice than some of their newer models, designed for the comforts of a more modern Republic City.

Asami wore her thumb against a polished bit of leather where Hiroshi used to hold the wheel. If he were still alive, was this the direction he would want for their family? What about the city or Future Industries?

Her thoughts chased themselves in circles until she was back in the city proper. Navigating to the manufacturing district, she hopped out of her car on one of the many streets that served as hubs for factory workers to gather on breaks.

A small crowd was mingling around one of the newsstands. Asami approached and found that the stack of Republic City Post  copies had almost sold out—and this appeared to be the second printing. The story Yasuko had mentioned was major news then.

“It’s been such a crazy week for news,” the vendor was saying to another customer as Asami paid for the newspaper. “First Councilman Tarrlok goes missing and now it turns out that the Avatar’s sister has been in the city for months now.”

“What?” Heart racing, Asami stared at the front page in growing horror.

‘Still No Avatar, But Secret Sister Discovered! Fire Ferret’s Sakari is a Water Tribe Runaway!.’

Asami stepped away from the newsstand. “No...”

She distantly heard the vendor respond, “Oh yeah! They delayed the release this morning to print it!”

They had failed to capture Sakari during the Finals, and the Equalists had lost track of her after that. She should have been safe from their schemes for the moment. All the attention had been focused on the upcoming attack. Why focus on one thirteen-year-old girl?

Someone jostled Asami as they reached for one of the newspapers, breaking her out of her thoughts. She glanced down and found the paper shaking in her hands. Folding it back up and gripping it tightly, she started off toward her workshop at the factory. She felt like a machine held together by only a few loose screws, ready to fall apart at any second.

When the factory gates came into view, Asami sped up her pace. She spared only a moment to greet the manager on duty, who informed her that production was moving as scheduled. Thanking the woman, Asami turned and headed toward her workshop.

Once inside, she tossed the paper away and collapsed to the ground. A part of her wanted to scream in frustration, but all she did was sit there with her face buried in her knees.

Was this where she finally drew the line? The biplane assault would slaughter hundreds of people in a vicious surprise attack. She could picture the damage done by the torpedoes and bombs all too clearly, and the image left her chilled.

The attack would harm more than just the United Forces as well. Innocent civilians just trying to live their lives would be affected by the invasion. They could lose their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives. Already the Fire Ferrets had lost their home to an Equalist attack. How many other families would be hurt by this invasion?

At the thought of the Fire Ferrets, Asami’s gaze fell on the newspaper on the floor, and she reluctantly picked it back up. The Fire Ferrets, and Sakari in particular, would once again be in the Equalists’ sights. Though she didn’t want to read the article, she owed Sakari that much. Sakari’s situation was entirely her fault after all.

For such a big headline, the article itself was rather terse. It only briefly touched on her parents, Chief Tonraq and Senna, from the Southern Water Tribe. There was even less information about her missing sister. Just that a source revealed that the Avatar’s name was Korra. (And now that she thought about it, that conversation with Sakari must have been where she heard the name “Korra” before.) The rest of the article focused on Sakari’s pro-bending accomplishments and insinuations that her prowess was due to her lineage as both Water Tribe royalty and a member of the Avatar’s immediate family.

She studied the picture of Sakari in her pro-bending uniform and frowned. Though the photo was a bit blurry, she couldn’t help but think that Korra—Asami’s friend Korra—and Sakari really did resemble one another. It was more than them both being from the Water Tribe too. They had remarkably similar facial features, particularly with the shape of their eyes.

Korra. The Avatar’s name was Korra.

Her breath left in a rush. That her friend shared the same name as the Avatar had to be coincidence. She wasn’t very familiar with what names were most popular in the Southern Water Tribe, but surely there were multiple Korras in the world.

And yet as she continued to stare at the black-and-white image of Sakari, she kept imagining how similar a younger Korra would look, especially if Sakari had longer hair.

Asami read through the article again. It mentioned that the Avatar vanished fourteen years ago, when she was four. That would put the missing Avatar at eighteen years of age, close to Korra’s age.

She’s raised me since I was four. She’s been like an aunt to me, my teacher, my friend, my confidant.

Korra’s words about her waterbending mentor came back to Asami. The Avatar had gone missing at age four, and Korra had been taken in at age four. The name and age she could pass off as coincidence, but the timing of Korra’s “adoption” couldn’t be brushed off so easily.

Then there was the time she and Korra had learned of Sakari’s relationship to the Avatar. They had both been shocked at the news, but Korra had been uncharacteristically dazed during and after the conversation. Perhaps Asami was projecting some of her suspicions onto the memory, but she didn’t think Korra would have reacted so strongly if there wasn’t some kind of connection between her and Sakari’s story, if it wasn’t personal.

The idea of Korra being the Avatar felt ludicrous, but it could explain so much. Why Korra knew so much about different bending styles and forms. Why her fighting style easily switched between different forms. Why she hadn’t really spoken about her personal life or history, aside from allusions to continuous travel.

Why travel so much if there was nothing to hide?

Asami closed her eyes. If Korra was the Avatar, how did that fit into everything?

Even from the start, there was something off about her. Asami would have been immediately suspicious of a stranger who demonstrated so much knowledge of different bending forms if not for the fact that she’d met Naga at the Equalist Revelation. She had been convinced of her assumption that the woman was a non-bender and had learned about the different bending forms for self-defense. But only a bender could have that much specialized knowledge.

Most benders would only have that knowledge of their own form though. Would the Avatar be more likely to know about the other bending arts?

In their chi-blocking lesson, Korra had initially started with a certain style of stance. In hindsight, Asami would label it a waterbending stance. As the lesson went on, however, Korra’s footwork changed and adapted depending on what they were doing. Was it evidence of being able to switch between different styles of bending?

Asami stilled. At the beginning of the lesson, Korra had hesitated before saying she fought with a knife, but she did have one. It had seemed familiar too.

Asami sat up and tried to focus. She had let too many hints pass her by to forget now. Korra had said her knife probably resembled the ones they’d seen at Tarrlok’s house, but that wasn’t it. Asami actually thought she’d seen the knife after the run-in at Tarrlok’s house.

For some reason, her mind was placing it at the pro-bending arena, but that didn’t make any sense. Korra had been sitting with her in the stands both times they went. Asami would definitely have remembered her pulling a knife out.

So she must have seen the knife during the Pro-bending Finals. She closed her eyes, searching her memories for that flash of blue and silver. The only time a knife could have been used during that fight was when the Blue Spirit vigilante had cut Mako and Bolin free.

Asami swallowed, letting the implications wash over her. During her confrontation with the masked firebender, there had been a moment, right after the goggles had been kicked from her face, when the battle had seem to pause around them. The Blue Spirit had held back after that even when tossing Asami into the water. The other Equalists had not fared as well as she.

And despite the mask, she’d seen the firebender’s eyes. They were blue, the same shade as Korra’s.

This, she knew without a doubt, because she’d spent an inordinate amount of time lately looking into her friend’s eyes. They matched the Blue Spirit’s as certainly as they matched Sakari’s.

Asami leapt to her feet, only half-aware that she was pacing the length of her workshop. Korra being the Blue Spirit explained how the firebender had been so prepared to ambush the Equalists at the finals match. She knew of the attack through Asami’s warning, and she had also been on the backstage tour. She would know the best places to sneak inside. And if she had seen Asami’s face after kicking off her mask and goggles, she would have recognized her friend and known to hold back her attacks.

If Korra was the Blue Spirit, then she had to be the Avatar. A part of Asami didn’t want to believe it, yet she could find nothing to contradict the theory. There were too many coincidences, too many pieces of evidence that now fit neatly together concerning Korra.

Asami sighed and collapsed into the chair by her workbench.

Okay. So Korra was the Avatar.

The missing Avatar was hiding in plain sight in Republic City, attending pro-bending matches and making friends with an Equalist. Fighting against the Equalists and Tarrlok’s task force as a masked vigilante. Wishing for a world where everyone—bender and non-bender alike—could live in peace and freedom.

In a way, her friend’s wishes were similar to the what the Equalists had originally fought for before years of frustration, political inactivity, and Amon’s agenda had taken over and transformed the movement into something Asami no longer recognized.

The Equalist movement wasn’t going to return to the those previous ideals. The extremism had permeated the entire organization from the newest recruits to the highest leaders. Asami couldn’t keep lying to herself and pretend that if she kept her head down and followed orders that things would be okay. They hadn’t been for some time, and she had to accept that.

She buried her face in her hands. The corners of her eyes burned, but she refused to let the tears fall. She couldn’t go through with this plan. Taking over Republic City and ambushing the United Forces would result in hundred of casualties. So many people would have their lives destroyed or disrupted in the chaos, most of them innocent civilians. And her machines were part of that, machines that she had either designed or helped design. It was her responsibility to put a stop to it.

But she couldn’t do it alone. It was one thing to sabotage the finals mission. Disable a few gloves and manipulate the situation to give the Fire Ferrets a fighting chance.

It was quite another to stand against the entire Equalist army where there were mechanics to fix any sabotage attempts and even more fighters ready to take her out if she was caught.

No, if she was going to oppose the Equalists, she needed allies. Asami briefly considered the metalbending police, but she crossed them out. The police were already stretched out thin enough following the dissolution of Tarrlok’s task force. They simply didn’t have the manpower to take out the Equalists. Any attempted raid would only end with the police captured and stripped of their bending.

To fight an army, she would need an army. If she could warn the United Forces about the threat posed by the Equalist biplanes, give them information on the exact type of firepower they’d be facing, she could help level the battlefield. The United Forces were her best bet at quelling the Equalist threat. They would have the numbers necessary to keep the Equalists at bay.

But the Equalists would still have the advantage in terms of technology. Asami knew that the gloves, mecha tanks, biplanes, and other weapons were designed to be efficient and durable. If the United Forces couldn’t find some way to combat or disable those weapons, they would have a difficult battle…

Asami turned slowly to stare at the electromagnetic disturbance device sitting on her workbench. The United Forces would need some way to disable the Equalist technology, and she had spent the past few weeks designing a portable device that could do just that. Whenever she had been frustrated by her work or problems within the Equalist movement, she had poured her energy into modifying the device.

Perhaps she had been subconsciously breaking free from the Equalists all this time.

Her first successful test had proven the device capable of halting a satomobile. Stopping a mecha tank or a biplane wouldn’t be too different, just a shift in scale.

Jumping to her feet, Asami began gathering the tools and materials that she’d need to construct a a few additional devices. She could bring them with her when she went to warn the United Forces, proof of her sincerity in stopping the Equalists. They would probably not take kindly to her arrival, but she would get them to listen to her. She would have quite a number of Equalist secrets to leverage.

She only had a few days. And she would need to take care to keep her mother or Liu from discovering her plans. With the preparations for the attack on Republic City, it would be difficult. The challenge paled in comparison to her newfound determination. For the first time in months, she was finally doing the right thing.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen: Turning the Tide
(Shifting waters only drown some) 

The airship pressed forward, into the sunlight. Yasuko smiled. Underneath her feet, she could feel the distant engine pulsing and whirling. Familiar calculations teased the edges of her thoughts as she watched Republic City appear just beyond the mountains.

“We’re here,” she murmured.

The corners of a picture frame pressed against her leg through her pocket. She didn’t need to pull it out to see Hiroshi’s face. Her husband had not lived to see this moment, had not even lived long enough to imagine its necessity. But Yasuko, and Asami too, had seen the movement through to this point. They had honored his memory.

The morning sun reflected off Yue Bay and Yasuko closed her eyes against the light for a moment.

She heard measured footsteps draw up beside her. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know it was Amon. When the light had lessened, she glanced to the side at him.

“Yasuko,” he said in greeting.

She nodded. “Amon.”

Side by side, they watched the airship rolling toward Republic City. At the edges of her vision, Yasuko could see the rest of the Equalist’s airship fleet bearing down alongside theirs.

“I’ve dreamed of this day for so long,” she said.

“Yes,” Amon said, “the time has come for the Equalists to claim Republic City as their own.”

It bothered Yasuko, as it sometimes did, that he referred to their movement in the third person—‘as their own’ instead of ‘as our own’—but she set it aside. In the minutia of phrasing, it didn’t matter. Amon was accustomed to speaking to the masses, appealing to the undecided and such.

“What’s the status on the council?” she asked.

“All secured, minus Tenzin,” Amon answered. “We just got radio confirmation. He escaped and made it to police headquarters.”

“Plan B then?” Yasuko had thought capturing Tenzin on a rooftop unlikely from the start.

“Indeed. Our operators are on standby, waiting for him to send his wire to the United Forces. Once it’s out, we’ll cut the lines and move in. Chief Beifong and Councilman Tenzin should be secure within the hour.”

Yasuko nodded. “Sounds as though we’re right on schedule.” She had been curious, at first, about Amon’s fixation on the council. As the ruling body of the United Republic, they were obviously of some importance. Time seemed to reframe his interest as a fixation on Tarrlok himself, even after they’d captured the councilman. Amon had ordered the man be kept under total solitary confinement.

She’d been mildly curious to see if he’d treat the other members of the council with the same odd hand, but it seemed thus far as though he didn’t care so much for them. The exception was Tenzin, but their plans for the airbenders placed him in a different category altogether.

An aide approached with news, so Yasuko and Amon retired from the window to the planning room. Consulting aides and reports, they updated a map of Republic City, noting which quadrants of the city were secure and which ones were demonstrating strong groundswell bender resistance. Special markers were placed to note the position of different squadrons and important Equalist leaders.

Despite the excitement, Yasuko felt she could hardly focus.

This map, these changes. She couldn’t have dreamed any of it ten years ago when the movement was young. Even in her wildest, most furious imaginations after Hiroshi’s death, rewriting the city was impossible.

“And where is Asami?”

Amon’s question brought her back to the present moment. “She’s with the mecha-tanks outside of Police Headquarters,” Yasuko said, placing her daughter’s marker on the map. “She’s either piloting one or she’s on standby.”

The aide frowned. “I don’t believe I heard her name in the last status report from that team…”

Yasuko pursed her lips. It wouldn’t make sense for Asami to be anywhere else but on the ground with her inventions. Her daughter had masterminded their ground forces and Yasuko had taken care of their air power.

She had opened her mouth to ask the aide a question when another aide ran in.

“Status update!” the aide announced.

Amon turned to the first aide. “It doesn’t matter.” Shifting his attention to the second aide, he nodded. “Go.”

She bowed briefly. “Our forces are approaching Air Temple Island, Amon. Quadrants four, eight, twenty-three, and twenty-seven are secure.”

“And Councilman Tenzin?” Yasuko asked.

“Confirmed captured.” The aide glanced down at a piece of paper. “In the battle outside Police Headquarters, we secured Councilman Tenzin and Police Captain Saikhan, at the cost of two mecha-tanks.”

“Where is the Chief of Police?” Amon asked, terse.

Swallowing hard, the aide glanced away. “The chief’s whereabouts are unknown, sir,” he said. “Forces are sweeping Police Headquarters as we speak.”

Amon was silent for a long moment. If Yasuko could have seen his expression, she doubted he would look pleased.

“Find Chief Beifong. And I want the rest of the airbenders secured, as well as the Sakari girl,” he said. “Shift our course to Air Temple Island. If required, I will deal with this matter personally, as it seems we’re having trouble with notable persons today.”

 

* * *

 

“We need to evacuate the island,” Mako repeated, reaching out a hand.

“Tenzin?!” Pema ignored him, slamming the radio button again. “No no no no. Air Temple Island to Police Headquarters. Air Temple Island to Police Headquarters.”

“Pema, I think they cut the line,” Mako said. “I’m sure Master Tenzin is fine, but we need to get out of here now.”

The door crashed open. Mako twisted around, ready to fight. Instead of Equalists, however, he found Bolin and Sonam, one of the White Lotus soldiers.

“Bro we gotta go,” Bolin said, seizing his shoulder.

Sonam moved into the room and laid a hand on Pema’s shoulder. “We’ve prepared a bison,” she said. “Pema, your children will not evacuate without you.”

As Bolin tugged Mako out of the room, he saw something harden in Pema’s gaze. She nodded. “Tenzin will join us later,” she said, turning toward the door.

“Did you guys get anything different off the White Lotus radio?” Mako asked as he and Bolin jogged to the courtyard.

“No, the Equalists are cutting lines all across the city,” he said. “Last thing we got was Tenzin sending a wire to the United Forces.”

Mako glanced over his shoulder. The airships were drawing over the city like a dark cloud, covering the sky along with the smoke that came from explosions on the ground. “Reinforcements would be nice.”

Somehow, Jinora and Sakari had managed to wrangle Ikki and Meelo onto a bison. Mako could see Pabu standing on the top of Meelo’s head, likely part of the plot to get him to stay on the bison. One of the acolytes was holding Rohan, who seemed to have picked up on the agitation around him and was crying. “Where’s mom?” Jinora called out when she saw them round the corner into the courtyard.

“Right behind us,” Bolin called back. “Get ready to fly!”

On the ground, Sakari had her face pressed against Naga’s nose, whispering frantic instructions.

“She’ll be fine,” Mako said, putting a hand on her back. “The Equalists aren’t after dogs, and she’s plenty smart. She’ll meet up with us later.”

Tears prickled at the corners of Sakari’s eyes when she turned to look at him and silently nodded.

“She’s a smart dog,” he said, cupping his hands together and holding them out. She planted a foot there and he boosted her up onto the bison before clambering on after her. Bolin launched himself up with an earthbending boost a beat later.

Sonam and Pema rounded the corner as Naga ran into the woods.

“The Equalists are on the island,” Sonam shouted. “The White Lotus will hold them off. Get the airbenders off the island!”

Sonam lifted Pema onto the bison with an earthbending platform. Pema had only just made it on when Equalists rounded the hill.

Somewhere behind him, Mako heard someone say ‘yip yip’ and the bison lifted into the air. All his focus was trained on the ground, however.

The mustached lieutenant was leading the pack, and they’d already closed the distance against multiple soldiers. Taken by surprise, the White Lotus failed to land more than a couple shots as the chi-blockers closed the distance between them. Within seconds, half the soldiers were incapacitated; the rest were quickly losing ground.

Then, from the back of the Equalists’ forces, he saw something coming for the bison.

“Get down!” he shouted, covering Jinora and Pema, who were closest to him.

A long cable shot out and arched over their heads, looping over the bison and dividing the saddle in half. Mako felt their momentum slow; the bison was already weighed down with so many people.

Then the cable yanked and everyone tumbled to one side. Mako looked over the edge to see where the force was coming from. “They have some kind of crank,” he said. “They’re going to pull the bison in!”

Just as he spoke, another cable came flying up toward them.

“Bolin, anchor me,” he shouted as he stood up.

Reaching back blindly, his hand found Bolin’s. He locked his grip on his brother’s forearm; Bolin matched the gesture and Mako didn’t need to look to see his brother had grounded himself into a solid base.

When the cable drew close, the end sprung open into a net with weighted ends. Mako pivoted, kicking out a wide blast of fire to knock it away. Only Bolin’s grip kept him from flying off the edge of the bison.

On the ground, the Equalists had pushed the White Lotus even farther back.

On the bison, Sakari, Jinora, and Pema were loosening the first cable’s grip on the bison.

In the sky, Mako could see more airships drawing closer, each of them bearing the Equalists’ red and black symbol.

Unless something dramatic changed, they weren’t going to make it away from the airships in time.

He stood up. “Don’t stop, no matter what.”

“Mako what are you doing?” Jinora sounded panicked behind him.

“We’ve almost cut the cable!” Sakari snapped.

He could see another two cables almost ready to fire on the ground. “Just. Go.”

All he had to do was sweep the courtyard, clear the Equalists’ ground forces just enough to let the the bison get out of range. From there, he could escape into the woods, then run the perimeter of the island; he knew the layout far better than the Equalists did.

Dimly, he recalled the hazy sight of the masked firebender, soaring through the arena on finals night. She’d guided her flight, a controlled falling really, with fire. When she’d landed, she’d softened the impact with a burst around her that conveniently took out the Equalists standing nearby.

“I’m gonna jump,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

Mako had spent a lot of time with airbenders recently. It would probably be fine. He’d been hearing a lot about gliding, and theory had to count for something.

Launching himself off the bison, his stomach seemed to fall into his throat. A frantic heartbeat later, he blasted a wave of fire out behind him. His arc wasn’t pretty, but a solid wave of fire carried him forward and he aimed himself for the center of the Equalist mass as he shifted his body for the landing.

Pulling up all the heat within himself, Mako took a deep breath. As he landed, he exhaled and sent every ounce of fire within him out and down. The balloon of flames under him steadied his landing, though the impact still rocked Mako’s knees, and flowed outward, knocking down a dozen Equalists.

But not all of them.

As the familiar, infuriating mustached lieutenant approached, standing between him and the cable-shooting devices, Mako kindled lightning in his palms. “Is it time for a rematch already?”

The lieutenant twirled his electrified sticks so they crackled and sparked. “Ready when you are, bender boy.”

“Mako, watch out!” Bolin’s voice sounded altogether too close.

Mako looked up right as his brother came hurtling out of the sky. Without any fire to guide his flight, all of the power came from his landing.

Leaping back as Bolin landed, Mako narrowly avoided the shockwave Bolin brought with him. The Earth rumbled out in a circle around him, launching the Lieutenant back against the wall of one of the Air Temple buildings.

“Bolin what are you doing here,” Mako snapped.

“Just following my favorite role model!” Bolin grinned at him and Mako couldn’t help but smile back.

Behind them, the White Lotus had managed something of a comeback, since Mako had disrupted the Equalists’ formation with his landing.

Then a roar reverberated across the island, at once familiar and terrifying.

Mako and Bolin’s focus swiveled from the lieutenant to the cable devices. Out of the woods near them, Naga surged onto the battlefield. She knocked the cranks aside with massive swipes of her paws, sending their Equalist operators scattering in the same motion. With one bite, she cut the cable still attached to the bison.

“Go Naga!” Bolin shouted.

To the side, Mako heard the lieutenant groan and move. Mako tapped Bolin’s shoulder as he turned toward the sound. “Naga’s taking care of the bison threats. I think you and I have a rematch to attend though.

Around them, some of the Equalists Mako had initially knocked down were starting to get up.

“I think we have some new match-ups to take care of too,” Bolin added.

They squared their stances back to back.

“I’m ready when you are,” Mako said.

“Born ready, bro.”

Mako spun, sending an arc of fire at the approaching Equalists’ feet. When they leapt into the air, they were met by a barrage of rocks to the chest. Catching movement out of the corner of his eye, Mako whirled and unleashed a series of fireballs at the chi-blockers. Bolin joined his attack by causing the ground beneath their feet to roll, enabling Mako to take them out with a few attacks.

A quick survey of the battlefield showed that the remaining White Lotus members had managed to regroup and were pushing back against the Equalists. Mako watched as Sonam and another earthbender took out a trio of chi-blockers. Sonam shouted orders for her troops to retrieve their chi-blocked comrades and fall back.

Meanwhile, Naga was proving quite capable of keeping the Equalists around the cable devices at bay. She clawed at any that dared to get too close. The chi-blockers had trained against human opponents, and their darting attacks had little effect against her. Even those armed with electrified gloves couldn’t land a solid blow. Occasionally Naga let out a whimper when one of the gloves zapped her, but the voltage wasn’t strong enough to hinder the polarbear dog.

“Mako, Bolin, time to retreat!” Sonam’s voice cut across the battlefield.

Mako dodged a chi-blocker’s strike, twisting out of the way to let Bolin get in another attack. His gaze flickered to the escaping air bison. It had pulled away from the airship above, and he estimated that they were finally outside of the range of the cables. He kicked at another assailant, repelling the attack with a wave of fire. “All right, let’s get out of here,” he said to Bolin. Calling back to Naga, he shouted, “Get out of here, girl!”

“Right behind you!” Bolin called. The ground shook for a moment, and a long column of earth shot upwards, clearing a path toward the woods as the remaining Equalists scrambled out of the way.

Mako grinned. “Nice work!” He took off running toward the trees. Taking a deep breath to center himself, he shot a wave of lightning behind him to discourage any pursuers. Bolin kept pace beside him, and they slowed to a quick jog once they reached the cover of the trees.

“Remember that route Ikki and Meelo showed us?” Mako asked, searching for the smaller trail that the younger airbenders had discovered.

“Way ahead of you,” Bolin said, darting ahead of him. The path took them closer to the cliff, but it would be harder for the Equalists to pursue them in numbers along the route.

They kept running until they reached the end of forest, following the winding trail along the island’s edge. The water from the bay stretched before them when they broke free of the trees. Mako glanced behind them and couldn’t see any sign of the Equalists.

For a beat, Mako thought everything was gonna be okay. He took a breath. Then Bolin stopped in his tracks. “The airship caught up to the bison!”

“No!” Mako watched in horror as the airship started corralling the bison. It couldn’t maneuver as quickly, but it was faster and its bulk allowed it to cut the bison off before the airbenders could leave the bay for open water.

At this distance, it was difficult to follow the action. Still, Mako tracked multiple nets and cable weapons firing at the bison. At first, the airbenders seemed to be doing a good job of keeping them at bay. Then he saw another figure stand up.

The sky shifted. Mako blinked. “No way…”

Sakari was pulling a cloud over. The sky was largely clear, but a piece of cloud was positively soaring their way. From the twin motions he could see, Jinora and Sakari were working double-time to pull the cloud toward them.

If they could bring over the cloud, they could obscure the bison and maybe escape. Or Sakari could pull the water out of the sky. With access to ice, to something solid, they could do more than just bat the cables away. They could trap the weapons or block them with a shield or, or—

The airship fired two nets at once. The bison swerved downward, but couldn’t escape.

One of the net’s weights clipped the shoulder of one of the standing figures. Mako shouted as he saw one of the girls fall.

“I think that’s Jinora,” Bolin said. It was hard to tell at this distance whether the colors were blue or orange.

Mako’s heart hammered in his chest. The falling figure was twisting in midair, but wasn’t gliding, wasn’t swirling the air around her. “It’s Sakari,” he said hoarsely, watching her tumble helplessly through the air, trying to stabilize her flight.

Above her, the airship snared the bison securely. The nets kept the airbenders on-board, securely trapped to the saddle.

Mako didn’t even turn at the sound of thundering footsteps. Then Naga dashed past him, leaping off the edge of the island toward Sakari.

“If she can pull the water toward her, break her fall against the water, she’ll be okay,” Bolin said. “Right?”

In the distance, it was hard to see, but the water seemed to move strangely around Sakari as she struck the surface. Below them, they heard Naga hit the water and start swimming.

“We gotta get off the island now,” Mako grabbed Bolin’s shoulder and pushed him into a jog. “We can rendezvous with Sakari at the contact point. She’ll be fine, and Naga will get to her soon.”

“Roger!” Bolin dug in his heels and put on a burst of speed, pulling ahead a few paces as the path wound away from the cliffs and back into the woods.

In case an emergency separated them, Mako had arranged for them to meet back up at the spot they’d taken shelter at by the manufacturing district. He’d had dropped by once or twice after they’d moved to Air Temple Island and it seemed as untouched as it did after Finals. They’d practiced this. They were gonna make it.

“We’ll rescue the airbenders after we rendezvous with Sakari,” he called forward to Bolin.

Mako’s only warning was a rush of air behind him. Then someone crashed into his back, feet right between his shoulder blades. It knocked the breath out of him and sent him sprawling on the ground.

Before Mako had even stopped rolling, a foot planted itself on the back of his head.

“Hello again.”

“Augh!” Mako roared as he recognized the voice. It was that damn Lieutenant!

Behind him, he could hear the man’s kali sticks crackling with electricity. Mako grimaced and ground his face into the dirt so he could twist his body, shooting lightning up at the man.

The Lieutenant dodged, but in the process he moved his foot off of Mako, who swept the ground with fire as he leapt to his feet.

“Here for another rematch?” he asked. He and Bolin had kicked his ass before. Mako knew the range of his kali sticks now. He could do this.

To Mako’s surprise, the other man smiled. “No,” he said. “I’m just an escort.”

He stepped to the side. The fire kindling in Mako’s hands flickered at the sight of Amon, flanked by two more Equalists.

“No,” he whispered.

Like at the Revelation, Amon’s eerie presence seemed to roll out ahead of him in a wave. Fear was almost paralyzing, but Mako choked it back.

“Get the other brother,” the Lieutenant ordered the two other Equalists, pointing them in the direction Bolin had been running.

“Oh no you don’t.” Mako drew a line of lightning between his fingers, but before he could shoot it at them, the Lieutenant was back on him. It took everything Mako had to keep him from closing the distance between them and bringing the kali sticks to bear.

Keeping Amon visible in his periphery was even harder, but the man seemed content to simply stand and watch the battle for the moment.

Mako needed to get away. He’d gotten away at the Revelation. He’d do it again.

Drawing on his reserves, he waited for the Lieutenant to be charging right at him, then loosed a blast of fire and dropped into a foot-first slide. If Mako could take the man off-guard, knock him off his feet and get behind him, then he’d be clear to dash into the woods. He’d set them on fire behind him and cut off the Lieutenant and Amon so he could find Bolin.

The slide carried him forward, knocking him right into the Lieutenant’s ankles and sending the man sprawling. As he fell, however, the tip of his kali stick clipped Mako’s shoulder.

Mako felt slow as he scrambled to his feet at the end of the slide. He’d made it to one knee when a cold hand seized his neck from behind.

“Don’t leave so soon.”

Amon’s touch froze him as though he’d been dunked in ice-water from the inside out. Whether it was fear or something else, every part of his body came to a halt.

Behind him, Mako could hear the Lieutenant getting to his feet, laughing darkly.

“Where are you meeting up with the Sakari girl?” Amon asked.

“Ha!” Mako summoned a hollow laugh. “As if I’d tell you,” he said.

All he had to do was turn his wrist and shoot Amon with lightning. That’s all he needed, just a small turn to point his fingers in the right direction. Unlike fire, he didn’t need to move to generate lightning.

“I believe you may want to reconsider,” Amon said. He gripped the base of Mako’s neck a little tighter, pulling his head back.

He was almost there. Something more than fear was holding him in place, some power of Amon’s that had seized his whole body. He was so close though, his fingers trembling with the effort. He just had to keep Amon talking, get him careless.

“If I told you where she was going, it would take all the fun out of tracking her down,” he said.

Bolin could always jabber on and get people talking with him, but the talent felt far from Mako’s reach. It was easier to gather the lightning up from his core and pull it toward his fingertips. The heat within him welled up, pressing back against Amon’s aura.

Above him, Mako could see Amon’s other hand, held out in a threat. “If you tell me where she’s going, I’ll let you keep your bending.

Mako twisted his hand the last inch. “I don’t cut deals with monsters,” he said. Heat flooded his body, almost superseding Amon’s chill touch as lightning kindled in his palm.

In the heartbeat before the electricity left his fingertips, Amon dropped his other hand and pressed his thumb to Mako’s forehead.

“We’ll find her anyway,” he said as the heat died at Mako’s fingertips.

In an instant, the cold from before returned. This time it seemed to flood his body and set in his bones.

For a beat, his mind didn’t recognize his body as his own. Amon released him and Mako distantly felt himself fall to the ground as a chill ocean gust rolled through the clearing. Dirt pressed against the scratches on his face and the heat of the pain was the only familiar feeling.

He’d heard that firebenders ran hotter, that their bodies ran warmer than other benders and non-benders.

Above him, the Lieutenant and Amon were speaking and Mako couldn’t hear anything but a muted rumble. The world seemed to be falling away around him. Another cool breeze rolled through and he shivered. He’d never felt their edge like this.

The ground seemed to shiver with him and the falling sensation intensified.

Mako blinked his eyes open and squinted as a crack appeared on the dirt in front of him.

The earth fell away under him right as the Lieutenant said, “Wait…”

Mako tumbled gracelessly through the ground, into the ground. No, into a tunnel!

He squinted and caught sight of his brother’s face an instant before Bolin closed the tunnel above them. “Bolin?”

“I’m right here Mako,” he said. He reached out and found Mako’s shoulder in the dark, then pulled him to his feet. “I’m here now, are you alright?”

It was pitch black in the tunnel and Mako felt his fingers twitch instinctively as he reached for light to result. None did, and he shivered again, struggling to keep his feet as Bolin started moving forward. “No…”

Normally he’d have tried to shield Bolin from the truth, tried to protect his kid brother as best he could.

He felt Bolin stiffen through their held hands. He stopped and paused to close more of the tunnel behind them. “I… I was too late, wasn’t I,” he said.

Mako wanted to deny it, wanted to brush it off and make an excuse. He could protect Bolin from the truth, just for a little bit. Just for one more second.

But that wouldn’t insulate his brother from the threats beyond their escape tunnel.

“Amon took my bending,” he rasped. “It’s gone.”

Mako tried to look down at his hands, eyes straining in the darkness. His legs wobbled again and he stumbled against Bolin.

His brother caught him and pulled him into a tight hug. “I’m so sorry, Mako,” he whispered. “It’s gonna be okay. We’ll figure something out.” He paused a beat and Mako could feel Bolin shouldering his weight, testing if he could carry him.

“Let’s get out of here,” Mako said. The tunnel was too cold, too dark. Too distant from the fire he was missing. If he could only get back in the sunlight, he would be that much more whole.

“Roger,” Bolin said. He hefted an arm under Mako’s shoulders without asking, supporting him as they started walking down the tunnel.

In the distance, Mako could see a small light. Around them, the tunnel had widened. Bolin must have dropped into one of the maintenance tunnels from when they first built Air Temple Island. It would have taken some fast thinking to calculate where Mako was, relative to where the maintenance tunnel ended.

He let his eyes close, but could still envision the speck of light behind his eyelids. He’d protected them for so long. For now, he could let Bolin take over.

Exhaustion overtook him then. The last thing he felt was Bolin picking him up to carry him out. 

 

* * *

 

Asami thought the hardest part about reaching the United Forces’ mid-ocean base would be convincing them not to shoot her down before she could land. She quickly realized, as she began climbing out of the cockpit of her stolen Equalist biplane, that convincing them to listen to her before arresting her was going to be the greater challenge.

Nearly two dozen soldiers surrounded her, regarding her with cold eyes and combat stances. They didn’t immediately swarm to seize her, so Asami took that as a good sign. One of the soldiers, a woman wearing an officer’s uniform, approached. “You will state your name and reason for landing here,” the woman said. Her gaze hardened at the sight of the Equalist insignia on Asami’s plane.

Asami had considered removing the symbol before she took off flying, but she had to prove that the Equalists had an air force ready for deployment. “My name is Asami Sato, and I’ve brought urgent news about the Equalist plans concerning the United Forces. I must speak with one of the generals present.”

From what she could glean from the Equalist reports, Asami knew that General Iroh was present on this base. It had taken her most of the morning to fly out of here, and she had to plead her case soon or she would run out of reasonable excuses for her absence. In the chaos of the ground-invasion of Republic City, her absence wouldn’t be overly-missed. If she didn’t get back by that evening, however, there was no way her mother could miss her.

“And where did you get this information?”

Asami held the woman’s gaze, refusing to duck her head. “I was a member of the Equalists.” The past-tense felt strange on her tongue.

A murmur broke out through the crowd, and one of the soldiers started forward as if to attack her.

The officer held up a hand to stop him. “You admit to being a member of the Equalists, fly here in an Equalist plane, and expect us to believe a word you have to say?” Though her tone had hardened, she seemed more skeptical than angry.

“My brother lost his bending because of you!” one of the soldiers shouted.

“You expect us to believe your lies?” another voice called.

Other angry shouts joined the first, many calling for her detainment.

“What is going on here?” A male voice cut across the airstrip, and all chatter died. The soldiers around Asami shifted, and a man wearing a red military jacket approached. The soldiers parted to accommodate his approach, then closed ranks around him. The man appeared to be in his mid-thirties and wore authority like a cloak around his shoulders.

Asami straightened. Hopefully she could convince this man to listen to her.

The man stopped a few feet from her, regarding her for a moment. His eyes flickered to her plane before settling on the officer. “Colonel Yi, report.”

“Sir, this woman claims to be an Equalist with information,” the colonel said. “She is acting alone as far as we can tell. She made radio contact ten minutes ago, claiming to be a non-combatant and requesting permission to land. Our scouts have not reported any other planes in the area. I can have her apprehended—”

The man shook his head. “I will speak with her first.” Turning to Asami, he said, “I am General Iroh.”

Her eyes widened. General Iroh was a well-known name. He was the grandson of the former Fire Lord Zuko after all.

After a beat, he prompted, “And you are?”

She bowed her head slightly. “My name is Asami Sato.”

His eyebrows jumped. “Sato? As in the Sato family that owns Future Industries.”

Asami took a deep breath. There was no turning back from this confession. “Yes, the very same.” Her mother would be taking a public role in the Equalists starting with the takeover anyway. Preserving the family reputation was pointless at this stage.

Another round of shock whispers relayed through the crowd.

General Iroh frowned at that, expression thoughtful. After a moment, he said, “And you say that you have information concerning the Equalists?”

Asami nodded. “The Equalists have planned a trap for the United Forces navy. I’ve come here with information regarding the attack.”

General Iroh’s eyes widened a fraction. “Very well,” he said after a moment. “I will hear what you have to say. Follow me.”

Relief coursed through Asami.  “I have also brought some technology to combat the Equalist machines,” she said. “I just need to retrieve them on my plane.”

“Very well,” General Iroh said.

Asami could feel the stares of all the soldiers as she climbed back up to her cockpit to retrieve the suitcase holding her electromagnetic disruptive devices from the second seat. Though she tried to ignore the words, she could hear Colonel Yi speaking with the general.

“Sir,” Colonel Yi started to say. “She could be lying.”

“And if she is telling the truth, she could be saving us from this alleged trap,” Iroh continued. “At the very least we should hear her out before making any judgments.” He said something else in a softer tone that Asami couldn’t catch. When she glanced back at him, his gaze was focused on her biplane, frowning at the sight of it.

She climbed back down and turned to face General Iroh. “I’m ready to go,” she said.

Colonel Yi intercepted her before she could approach the general. “I need to inspect this case before you go any further. Your plane will also be inspected while you deliver your information.”

Asami pursed her lips. They didn’t have time for this, but she wasn’t in a position to argue. Trying to circumvent their search would only waste more time. “Of course.” She set the case on the deck and opened it, then stepped back.

Around them, General Iroh had dismissed most of the gathered crewmembers, though they lingered at the edges hoping to catch a glimpse. Colonel Yi motioned one over to her and they pulled out one of Asami’s inventions, turning it over in their hands.

She’d worked nearly all night to repackage it from a prototype into something portable and usable. She’d built the original prototype into the suitcase itself, then made a set of smaller versions shaped like a remote.

Asami pointed to the red button in the center as Colonal Yi brushed a finger over it. “Don’t press that,” she said. "It will shoot out a pair of spring-loaded prongs, attached to the device by electrical cords. Upon both of them making contact with something that completes the circuit, such as the side of an airplane, it will send out a localized electromagnetic pulse that will disable the device it’s attached to.”

“Intriguing, if it works as you’ve described,” the colonel said, passing the device to the soldier she’d motioned over. The two of them whispered back and forth, appearing to debate the plausibility of Asami’s device, when General Iroh stepped forward.

When Colonel Yi made to object, he held up a hand. “You’re holding one and it hasn’t hurt you yet,” he said, reaching into the case to pick up one of the handheld units. “This certainly doesn’t look like any weapon I’ve ever seen,” he said. “But it should be able to disable the Equalist technology? The information we’ve received has mentioned... mecha tanks, of some sort.”

Asami nodded, casting her eyes downward. Her mother had done the initial tank sketches, but Asami had been their primary designer. Her attention to the tanks, along with the idea to design the forklift interiors suited for double duty, had freed Yasuko to focus her attentions on the Equalists’ devastating air power.

If she could convince the United Forces to work with her, maybe she could undo the devastation of both their inventions.

“Okay, follow me,” Iroh directed. “You can give me the full explanation after you’ve told me about this attack.” He turned his gaze to the crowd that had re-gathered around them. “Return to your posts. Now is not the time to be shirking your duties. I want a standard engineering team looking over this plane immediately. And Colonel Yi, you will act as Ms. Sato’s escort for the duration of her stay on our base.”

“Yes, sir.” Though Colonel Yi did not look as suspicious, she still regarded Asami coolly.

Asami had expected suspicion and hostility when she arrived. Cool looks were fine. She would just have to do her best to prove that her information was true and that she was sincere in wanting to stop the Equalists. Retrieving her devices and closing her suitcase, she followed after the general.

Iroh led her to a meeting room inside the base. A map of Republic City and the surrounding area had been spread across a conference table, and various figures marked the positions of the United Forces and Equalists. Asami was dismayed to see how much of the city had already fallen under Equalist control. She knew that they would quickly gain the upper hand in the fighting, but she had hoped that the takeover would last longer.

More disturbing still were the gaps in the map where the United Forces apparently had no intelligence. Apparently the Equalists’ plan to cut the city’s connections with the outside world had been largely successful.

Other officers had gathered around the table, and they looked up at Iroh’s entrance. “General, we’ve received a message from Councilman Tenzin requesting reinforcements to help repel the Equalists,” one of them said. “Our fleet is ready to deploy at your command.”

Asami’s heart leapt into her throat. “The message is a trap,” she blurted. At her words, all attention focused on her.  She straightened instinctively, her mother’s lessons on how to keep a room’s attention cycling through her head. The memories mixed with their last council meeting, when they’d reviewed the final plan of attack on Republic City. “The Equalists have an air force ready to attack your navy the moment it sails into Yue Bay. They allowed the councilman to send the message before taking him captive.”

A moment of silence followed her statement.

“Where did you come by this information?” one of the officers asked.

“I was with the Equalists,” Asami said. “I’m an engineer, the designer of their ground forces’ technology.”

“What?” An officer with a thin mustache glared at her before addressing Iroh. “General, why have you brought a known Equalist here? We can’t trust a word she says. She just admitted to developing those mecha tank monstrosities!”

Iroh ignored him. “How many planes could the Equalists deploy at once?”

“About three dozen,” Asami said.

A ripple of concern rolled out at the number. Beside her, Asami sensed the colonel stiffen.

“General, surely you don’t believe this woman’s nonsense,” the officer said. “We have no proof that the Equalists have an air force aside from their airships, let only one of that size.”

“Ms. Sato brought the proof with her,” Iroh countered. “She flew one of the Equalist planes to our base, even at the risk of our forces shooting her down. None of the reports I received on the Equalists mentioned planes, so I was surprised to see one on our airstrip. And if the Equalists have successfully crafted one biplane, they have the capability to construct others.”

Asami met his gaze sharply, and she caught the faintest smirk on Iroh’s face. It seemed that he’d figured out her reason for arriving in an Equalist plane. And so far he believed her. Having his support made the task before her less daunting.

“The Equalists built the planes in a secret base in the mountains northwest of the city,” Asami said. She walked over to the map and indicated the location. “The plans were kept a secret to make the ambush of your navy as devastating as possible.”

An officer with a scar crossing her left eyebrow studied the map.  “Hm. That location is close enough that the Equalists could hide their planes there and easily deploy them against our forces.” After a pause, he set a marker on the location.

Asami set her case on the table and opened it. In addition to the electromagnetic pulse devices, she’d brought two sets of blueprints: one of her device, hastily pulled together from her notes and the last-minute build; the other was the set her mother had given her, laying out the design for the biplanes. “While I don’t have any photographic proof of the number of biplanes that have been constructed, I have brought the blueprints to give you more information about the planes and their capabilities.”

The officer with the moustache took the blueprints from her and flipped through the pages.

“Each plane is capable of carrying four torpedoes in addition to multiple bombs,” Asami said, for the benefit of the officers who couldn’t see the plans. “They were designed specifically to combat the United Forces battleships.” She paused. “Oh, and the Equalists are likely scattering naval mines throughout Yue Bay as we speak.

The scarred officer frowned. “If she’s telling the truth, then we would face heavy casualties if we deployed our fleet now.”

Iroh frowned, studying the map. “And if we do nothing, we’ll abandon Republic City to Equalist control.”

Asami took a deep breath. Time to bring up her second point. “I’ve built a device that uses a controlled electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling the Equalist planes, but I can’t cause any lasting damage on my own.”

Iroh turned his attention back to her. “What are you proposing?”

“If you delay the deployment of your fleet, I could sneak a small contingent of your soldiers into the Equalist airfield. The security to the rear of the base is not as tight because of its remote location, and I can disable the electric fence surrounding the airfield. If we disable the biplanes, you could then deploy your fleet to take back Republic City.”

Silence greeted her words, and Asami remained still, waiting for the United Forces’ response.

“It could be a trap,” the woman with the scar said with a frown.

“But our fleet will not be of much help to Republic City if the Equalist planes ambush us,” Iroh added. “Our fleet is capable of dealing with the airships with existing surface-to-air capabilities, and that would buy a squadron of waterbenders time to clear the bay of mines.”

“How does this device of yours work?” the mustached officer asked.

Asami procured the second set of blueprints and held up one of the devices. “It shoots out a pronged wire that carries an electromagnetic pulse that disables the electricity in a device.”

The man studied the blueprints, brow furrowed.

“Well, Commander?” Iroh asked after a moment.

“In theory it looks like her device would work, but I would like a demonstration if possible.”

Iroh nodded. “I too would like to see how this device works. Lieutenant Zhu, have one of the automobiles in repair brought up for a demonstration.” He paused. “And one of the micro-tanks too, for good measure.”

The lieutenant in question nodded and left the room.

“We will delay sending our forces for now,” Iroh said. “If we are cautious, we can prevent the Equalists from gaining the advantage over us. If we can prove that your device works, then I’ll deploy a squadron of soldiers overnight by speedboat to rendezvous with you here.” He indicated a location near the mountains housing the Equalist airfield. The officer from before added another marker to the map. It was located just far enough away that the United Forces’ arrival wouldn’t be noticed immediately by the Equalists. “The earliest my troops could get there is by tomorrow morning.”

Asami released the breath she had been holding. A part of her wanted to rush over to the airfield now and incapacitate the planes, but she knew that a rushed plan would fail in minutes. If she was to help the United Forces take out the biplane threat, then she would have to be patient. “Very well. I can meet your forces there and lead them to the base.” She could come up with an excuse for her mother in the morning. Soon enough, she wouldn’t need to make any excuses anymore.

Iroh nodded. “Then it’s decided. Now onto this demonstration of yours.”

The other officers filed out of the room. Colonel Yi put a hand on Asami’s elbow to keep her back until everyone but General Iroh had left.

Then he stopped her on her way out of the room. “Thank you for this information. A lot of lives would have been lost if you hadn’t warned us about this trap.”

“Thank you for believing me,” Asami responded. “I’m... honestly surprised that you trusted me, even after I admitted that I was an Equalist.”

Iroh smiled. “My grandfather chased the Avatar across the world for months until he had a change of heart and became one of Aang’s strongest allies. Because of his story, I believe in the ability of people to change. No matter your past with the Equalists, I can see that you are honest in your desire to stop them now. I believe you’re in the middle of finding the right path just as my grandfather was decades ago.”

“I—thank you,” Asami said, ducking her head. The words felt inadequate, but she didn’t know how else to respond.

Iroh nodded. “Now let’s go see what your device can do.”

Asami nodded. She’d show them what she'd made, and then she’d need to rush back to Republic City before her absence caused a stir. The hours until the next morning stretched dauntingly before her, but the first steps in her plan were already in motion.

Tomorrow, she could stop the violence before it got any worse. Despite the tension in her muscles, Asami’s heartbeat felt steady in her chest. Finally, she had found the right path.

 

* * *

 

The radio station crackled again, layering the jazz music with static.

“Korra, would you go readjust the knob?” Ghazan asked without looking away from Ming-Hua. She was doing better, but not exactly great. When they brought her food, she ate. When they pressed a cup of water to her lips, she drank. As time passed, she she spoke more and she answered direct questions. Still, her primary mode of communication seemed to be in silent, weighted looks she levied at Ghazan. In return, he would crouch by her bedside with rapt attention.

The exchanges could last for an hour at a time. They were enough to make anyone feel like an intruder.

“I’ve got it,” Korra said, getting up from Ming-Hua’s bedside. Beyond the apartment, the distant sound of fire and rioting had been the day’s persistent soundtrack. She fiddled with the radio, trying to get back to the half-clear music from before. Every radio station within the city had been shut down; this jazz station, based on the other side of the mountains, was the only thing left.

Trying to fix the signal only seemed to make the problem worse, however.

“Try the other way, Korra,” P’li called from across the room.

“I’ve tried both ways,” she replied, almost letting an edge slip into her voice. Though P’li was speaking to her more lately, Korra felt as though something still lay unresolved between them.

The radio crackled under her hand, roaring with static for a beat before coming into focus.

“Good Evening, Republic City.”

Korra whipped her hand away from the radio. “That’s Amon,” she whispered

“What?” P’li walked over as he continued.

“This is your new leader, Amon.”

P’li and Korra exchanged a look. “That was fast,” P’li noted.

Korra nodded. “Yeah…”

“As you know,” Amon continued, “today was our day of liberation. Today, we secured the council and successfully swept over the city. Though a few minor pockets of resistance are still fighting, they will soon be eliminated or equalized.”

Korra’s heart ached. In that moment, she ached to be out in her mask, fighting alongside the benders of Republic City.

Even if she did figure out how energybending worked, how could she cure half the city’s bending population?

“Though we still have several challenges to face in the way of fully establishing the city’s new order,” Amon continued, “you may rest assured that life will assume a better, more equal, sense of order soon. We will be restructuring the whole United Republic into an equalized nation, so look forward to being a part of the next chapter of this glorious history.”

“Gotta say, I’m feeling the urge to skip town just about now,” P’li said, voice dry.

Korra didn’t reply, caught between the urge to run and the desire to fight Amon until the city came crumbling down around her. His vision of Republic City wasn’t the place she’d fallen in love with since the day she’d arrived. Aang had envisioned the city differently, a place for peoples of all nations to live and call home. His plans were flawed, but the idea was solid; Korra refused to let it die.

“Though the coming days will bring more announcements, for now I leave you with an invitation,” Amon said. “Join me, tomorrow at noon at the former pro-bending arena. You’ll hear speeches from several Equalist leaders, including some you already know through their other roles in Republic City’s public life. Then, for the main event, I will rid the world of airbending. Forever.”

“No,” Korra breathed. She’d hoped the airbending kids had escaped before the invasion started.

Amon’s message ended, leaving them with static and crackly jazz music.

P’li reached out a hand and shut the radio off. “Zaheer will want to hear about this,” she mused.

Korra nodded. “Yeah. When is he—“

The front door crashed open. Korra and P’li whipped around. They had already flown into combat stances before realizing that the intruder was Zaheer.

“You’re back! Oh, spirits, Zaheer,” Korra felt herself verging on babbling as she ran over to him and tried to suppress it. “On the radio, Amon. He just announced an event tomorrow about the—“

“The airbenders,” Zaheer cut in. “I’m aware.” He shed his coat and took a moment to exchange a smile with P’li, who’d followed after Korra. “I want you to calm down, Korra. I already know and I have a plan.”

“Why are you late?” Ghazan’s voice was biting. The fact that Zaheer had continued his undercover role in the Equalists was still a point of contention within the group. Korra understood the need for them to gather as much information about Amon and the Equalist movements as possible, but Ghazan had been making caustic remarks all day about how Zaheer had taken it too far in participating in the city’s takeover.

Korra turned. Across the main room, Ghazan had left Ming-Hua’s side to stand protectively in front of the door to their bedroom. He crossed his arms. “It’s past the time you said to expect you back from the Equalist undercover stuff.”

Her gaze swiveled back to Zaheer and Korra briefly felt a sense of vertigo. In some reversal of everything normal, Ghazan was the one angry and stern, demanding an explanation in regards to curfew. Zaheer was the latecomer, busy attending to non-Red Lotus matters.

“The sector I was assigned to took longer than expected to subdue,” Zaheer said, voice level. “In the process, Yuna was injured. I stayed back at the end to assist her back to her dwelling-place. As soon as I was able, I returned.”

Awkward silence fell over the apartment. Korra tried to exchange a glance with P’li, but the other woman’s gaze was fixed, perplexed, on Zaheer. Zaheer, for his part, was meeting Ghazan’s eyes steadily. Across the room, Ghazan had crossed his arms and pursed his lips, as though unsure how to respond.

Zaheer was always the one who pointed out when someone else’s priorities were out of line with the Red Lotus’ mission. Korra wasn’t even sure how to broach the topic when the situation was reversed in some fashion. She couldn’t even say for certain that P’li, Ghazan, and quiet Ming-Hua were thinking the same thing as she was.

A light rain began to fall on the roof above them, softening the silence with the soft rhythm of droplets.

Korra’s focus shifted to the bag at Zaheer’s side, where he’d kept his Equalist garb. She briefly wondered where, in the Equalists’ invasion, Asami had found herself.

“He’s a world leader now.” Ming-Hua’s voice pierced the quiet, even from the other room. “Amon just announced himself the leader of Republic City.”

Ghazan had spun around when Ming-Hua started speaking. Now, he turned back to Zaheer with a vengeance. “Now then!” he crowed. “Surely, finally! Our mission is to take him out!”

All eyes moved to Zaheer.

Korra could hear her heartbeat in her ears, second only to the sound of Ghazan’s heavy breaths.

By the door, Zaheer’s expression was inscrutable. Attuned to his spirit, however, Korra felt it fluctuate.

After an eternity, he inclined his head. “It is time,” he said.

Before Ghazan could interject, Zaheer continued, “I have a plan now. It has to do with Amon’s announcement.” His eyes met Korra’s. “We must not allow him to eliminate the airbenders. That aside, his power has overreached. His actions are an offense against the freedom of Republic City. He has conveniently deposed of the council and neutered the police force. I have no doubt that the Equalists have similar plans for the United Forces, although that information is above my clearance in the organization.

“If we eliminate Amon, I have no doubts that the Equalists will crumble or fold inward after. They have no other public figures who can assume Amon’s mantle and it’s a cult of personality. They have nobody else who can take his place, nobody else who holds his power.”

P’li cut in. “So if the Equalists do all the legwork in eliminating Republic City’s existing power structures, all we need to do is kill Amon and prevent them from fully establishing a new order.”

Zaheer smiled. “Exactly.”

“Saving the airbenders in the process, though,” Ghazan said. “Because that’s the important part?” He sneered at Zaheer. “For a moment, I thought you’d remembered to care about us.

Zaheer’s smile vanished. “It’s not about that. Now is the optimal time to strike, all other factors aside—“

“Maybe I don’t want to set the other factors aside!” Ghazan yelled, crossing the room. “Now is the conveniently ‘optimal time to strike’ now that the last scraps of Guru Laghima’s people are about to vanish! It wasn’t the optimal time after Amon took Ming-Hua’s bending though! You couldn’t even go on the mission with them that night because you were attending to Equalist duties for your cover.”

Just a few paces from Zaheer now, Ghazan spat on the floor. “If it’s even a cover anymore. Everything is more important to you than being here right now. Who is this Yuna anyway? Did she fight with you on Whale Tale island? Did she risk her life to kidnap the Avatar out of the Southern Water Tribe?” He stepped closer, until his pointed finger was almost touching Zaheer’s chest. “Is she going to help you off Amon?”

The question rang in the air.

The air between the two men seemed to shimmer, and Korra felt a disturbance roll off Zaheer’s spirit in a wave. When she had to blink, Korra half-expected Ghazan’s finger to be gone when she looked again.

P’li shifted, taking a subtle step behind Zaheer’s shoulder. She leveled a cautious look at Ghazan.

“No,” Zaheer said. “She isn’t.” His tone was a masterwork of control. Korra could sense a veneer of his agitation, but not a bit of it showed in his voice.

“But neither are you, Ghazan,” he continued.

Ghazan recoiled, mustache pulled in confusion. “What?”

“Look at me and tell me you’re stable enough to maintain control on a critical mission.” When Ghazan didn’t immediately reply, Zaheer continued. “Taking out Amon will require that we eliminate the symbolism of his authority. The hold he has over the city is due, in large part, to public perception of him as a dominant spiritual authority. The hold he has on the Equalists is a more intense version of the same, he’s a messiah to them.”

Zaheer turned toward Korra. “In one move, we will both eliminate and replace him.”

“Wait, you mean me?” Korra stepped back.

“It’s time to finish Ming-Hua’s mission,” Zaheer replied. “And, conveniently, you already have a persona to employ, a mask to match his.”

Korra’s gut clenched. She felt a dinner threaten to make a reappearance. “W-what are you talking about?”

“We know about the Blue Spirit, Korra,” P’li said. She glanced at the others. “We’ve known for a while.”

Despite the continued tensions between him and Zaheer, Ghazan managed a tight smile. “We watched you at Finals,” he said. “Your style is unmistakable, even at a distance.”

Korra hunched her shoulders. “Oh.” She felt suddenly childish, as though her guardians had caught her playing dress up. It had been one thing for Ming-Hua to know. It was another to realize that all four of them, all along, had played along with the charade, let her pretend she’d been keeping a secret.

“Republic City has been good for you,” Zaheer said. He stepped away from Ghazan to approach her. “Your freedom has led to great things, and we’re proud of the efforts you’ve made using your Blue Spirit persona.” He laid a hand on her shoulder. “Now, in fact, it’s critical to the plan.”

“So what is the plan?” Ghazan asked. He’d crossed his arms again, but had backed down the confrontational notes in his voice. Still, the potential rumbled beneath the surface, carving lines of tension across his forehead.

“We’re going to reveal Korra as the Avatar,” Zaheer said, “and the city’s new spiritual authority. All this at the same time she eliminates Amon.”

“What!” Korra stepped back. “That’s crazy.”

Ghazan squinted. “That undoes all the secrecy we’ve maintained for years.”

Zaheer shook his head. “There’s no point to building up the secrecy and maximizing the value of that lotus tile unless we’re willing to play it at some point. Now is the time.” His eyes met Korra’s. “I will be in the crowd to influence the reaction. Tonight, we’ll review your script. I will give you the words to say. More than anyone here, I’ve explored all sides of the current conflict in Republic City. I’ve worked out the perfect angle to win you Equalists, sympathizers, benders, and the undecided.”

“And in the end, Korra will take out Amon?” P’li asked.

Zaheer nodded. “In front of the whole arena, ideally.”

Korra swallowed the massive lump in her throat. Before she could speak, however, Ming-Hua appeared in the doorway of her room.

“This is dangerous,” she said, voice ringing like an omen. Though Ghazan had done all he could to take care of her, combed and pinned her hair, cleaned her face, washed her clothes, he couldn’t clean the hollow expression from her face. Ming-Hua’s gaze pierced the room and landed on Zaheer. “And if she fails? You are gambling everything on this fight.”

“Only because I know the odds,” he said. “We stand to win everything and more. We position the Avatar publicly and win the whole city in one swoop and then we ready ourselves for Harmonic Convergence.” He nodded to Korra. “She will need to be public by then anyway, to announce the uniting of the spiritual and physical worlds.”

Ming-Hua just shook her head and leaned heavily against the doorframe. Ghazan was by her side in an instant. “And what about Tarrlok?" he asked, looking across the room at Zaheer.

Zaheer pursed his lips. “There is no room in the plan for distractions,” he said. “Tarrlok is not a priority.”

Ghazan’s eyes narrowed. For a moment, Korra thought he was about to pick another fight with Zaheer. Instead, however, he returned his focus to Ming-Hua. As Zaheer gestured for P’li to come over, Korra could hear Ghazan asking Ming-Hua if she wanted something to eat and helping her back to bed.

“And what role am I to play in this plan?” P’li asked.

Zaheer sighed. “If I could trust Ghazan to stay here, I would have you in the arena with us, ready to assist from the upper reaches by the dome. As it is, I believe it best if you stay back for this one.”

Korra frowned. “I don’t think that’s necessary,” she whispered. “Ghazan wouldn’t leave Ming-Hua alone.”

“If his temper gets the best of him, I don’t think anything would stop him from going after Tarrlok and Amon,” Zaheer said. His voice invited no argument. “Earlier today, I overheard something that suggests Tarrlok has been moved to Air Temple Island. His death is no longer critical, though I am curious about Amon’s odd treatment of him.”

P’li hesitated, then nodded. “I understand,” she said. “I’ll stay back and keep things calm here.”

“Good.” Zaheer turned his focus to Korra. “Our focus right now needs to be your confrontation with Amon. I have the layout for the spectacle tomorrow at the arena. We’ll review your script and your cues. As an Equalist, I can get you into the arena without inspection. From there, we’ll need to separate and you need to know your part in order to kill Amon.”

Her whole body seemed liable to start trembling, but Korra nodded. “Alright,” she said. “What do I need to do?”

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen: Endgame
(Finale Part One)

 

Mako shivered and briefly considered the slim possibility that Bolin might come back with a hot breakfast. Honestly, he would be lucky if his brother came back with any breakfast at all, but it was good to dream.

A small part of Mako whispered that, if he still had his bending, he would be able to heat up whatever breakfast Bolin came back with. As a kid, it had been one of the streets’ small mercies. Whatever the two of them scraped together to eat, Mako could always make it a hot meal.

Around him, their hiding spot was much the same. Since they’d checked back a few times since finals, it was somewhat cleaner than before. At first, Mako was grateful it had shown no signs of habitation. But if it was untouched, that also meant that Sakari hadn’t made it here either.

He chewed on his lip. Sakari had plenty of time still. She could have gotten away and hidden with Naga in the city, then had to hunker down to avoid capture.

But there had been two airships above and Amon on the ground. The Equalists had managed to take the Airbenders right out of the sky, on top of a flying bison. Maybe they could capture a waterbender right out of the water too, polarbear dog or not.

He buried his face in his hands. And this was all assuming she’d managed to survive the fall. He’d wanted to stay and watch the water, but it hadn’t been safe. His fingertips felt cold against his face, so unlike his own skin.

As it was, they’d already been too late enough for one. They couldn’t have stayed and watched Sakari a moment longer, or else Bolin would have been taken too.

“Hey, Mako.”

Mako startled and pulled his hands back into his lap. Bolin smiled uncertainly from the entrance of their hiding spot. “I’ve got breakfast,” he said. “Nothing fantastic, but it’s edible.”

“Edible is all I ask,” Mako said, making himself match Bolin’s smile.

They sat down and cleaned up the food before eating. For dumpster fare, it wasn’t bad. Mako guessed that most of the trash-pickers had chosen to fall back on their emergency stores after the Equalist invasion. Unfortunately, he and Bolin didn’t have one anymore, or he’d never have let Bolin go out on the streets alone.

Halfway through his account of where he’d found which bits of food, Bolin stopped. His face grew grave. “I also have some news,” he said, pulling a folded paper from his pocket. “I saw this poster about seven blocks east,” he said, passing it over.

Mako took it and went pale when he unfolded it. The poster was in the same design as the other Equalist propaganda posters, but this time with the silhouette of Amon crushing a blue arrow as he stood astride the Republic City skyline. ‘Victory’ was spelled out at the top, and event details further down.

“Today at noon… they’re holding an assembly at the old pro-bending arena,” he read aloud. “Some speakers regarding their victory, and then—“ Mako’s breath caught in his throat. “Amon will rid the world of airbending forever?”

His hands crunched around the poster. If he had his bending, he would have set it alight. “That’s why they wanted the airbending kids?”

Bolin nodded, mouth a thin line. “We have to do something Mako. We can’t just let this happen.”

“Of course we’re doing something. Just.” Mako dropped his gaze. “I’m not sure how much use I can be.” He glumly chewed on some mostly-clean kebabs.

“Uh, plenty!” Bolin fixed him with a steady look. “First off, you and I know all the back ways in and out of the arena. We probably know it better than anyone else. Whether or not you can bend, you’re still Detective Mako.” Bolin paused and did a brief impression, stroking his chin and narrowing his eyes. In a fair impersonation of Mako’s voice, he said, “Based on the evidence at hand and my own superior powers of observation and deduction, I know it was you, Bolin, who took an extra rice ball from the bowl!”

Despite the circumstances, Mako found himself moved to laughter. Bolin’s impression was spot-on, all the way down to how he’d pitched his voice and somehow made his face look twice as long and serious. He even took his next bite like Mako, trying to look contemplative as he chewed.

“Alright you’ve got a point,” Mako said. “So we break in. How do we break the airbenders out if I can’t firebend? I’m not an Equalist. I don’t have any training in chi-blocking or something.”

“Um…” Bolin screwed his eyes shut with concentration for a moment. When he opened them and caught Mako’s gaze, his eyes glimmered. “Then we levy your experiences against the supplies at hand.” He paused, then grinned. “Ha, get it. Hand?”

Mako squinted and took a bite. He shook his head. “Uh, no. Don’t get it, Bolin.”

Bolin’s smile didn’t falter a bit. “You’re good with lightning. You know how it handles. Let’s steal one of those Equalist lightning gloves.”

“What.” Mako bit back his immediate reaction of distaste. He hated those gloves. He’d been on the bad end more than a couple times. Every time he saw them, he got a little more pissed off.

“Hear me out, Mako,” Bolin said. “You’re used to lightning. You know how it works, how it flows. We’ve even practiced close-quarters lightning techniques as part of our routines on Air Temple Island.” He grinned. “We’ll take an Equalist by surprise and steal their glove. Maybe see if we can get some uniforms too, so we don’t arouse any attention sneaking into the arena. Disguised and armed, we sneak in, locate the airbenders, and break them out!”

Bolin broke out hand motions to accompany the last bit, ending in a triumphant skyward punch.

Mako finished his kebab and shook his head. “You’re insane, Bolin,” he said.

His brother deflated slightly.

“Let’s do it.”

“Yes!” A light caught in Bolin’s eyes, burning hot and fierce.

Mako grinned back. Bolin wasn’t a firebender, but they were both the sons of a Fire Nation colonist. In the pit of his chest, Mako felt a small flame still smoldering. Some fires couldn’t be stripped away or put out. He tucked the feeling away, to be recalled when he next needed the steadiness.

After that, the morning seemed to fly by. The two of them finished breakfast, disguised their hiding spot once more, and talked through a strategy for taking down an Equalist to steal the glove.

When it seemed like they had everything in order, Mako wrote a note, just in case Sakari came to the rendezvous spot late.

“You know,” Bolin said, “Sakari could have gotten away, then found these posters.” He held out the announcement poster. “If she saw it, she’d be so worried for Jinora that she’d probably start planning on breaking out the airbenders herself.”

Mako considered the possibility. “That… is exactly what she’d do,” he admitted. “Maybe we’ll run into her on the break-in?”

“Let’s hope we recognize one another,” Bolin added drily. “It would really suck if she ended up clocking us with some ice to the head.”

“Understatement,” Mako said. “So, how are we gonna find an Equalist anyway?” After making their way toward the arena for a few minutes, the two of them had yet to come across anybody at all, much less a uniformed Equalist to take down and disarm.

“Uh… we could put out bait?” Bolin said. “Make a sign that says ‘innocent benders’ with an arrow pointing down a dead-end alley. Lure them right to us?”

They turned a corner and froze at the sight of a pair of Equalists walking right toward them.

“Speak of a spirit,” Mako muttered, “and it will appear.”

“You two!” The Equalists noticed them and immediately approached. “What are you doing?”

Mako and Bolin exchanged a glance.

“Uh, walking?” Mako said. He felt a hot rush of hatred course through him. If these two had their way, they would take Bolin right to Amon and strip him of his bending too.

The Equalists adopted combat stances. “I think I recognize them,” one said. “Aren’t those the two pro-bending brothers?”

“No time like the present for autograph signing,” Bolin quipped.

In the corner of his eye, Mako saw his brother slide into an earthbending stance. He tightened his lips to a thin line. “Go!”

Mako charged forward, sweeping into the foot-first slide he’d been practicing with an arc of fire. Without the firebending, it wasn’t quite as smooth, not quite as powerful.

Still, the low kick came outside the Equalists’ expected attack range. He swept the right one off his feet and knocked the left one off-balance.

Bolin charged in, a beat behind him, and immediately slammed the left one into a wall with a slab of earth.

Mako flipped around and tackled his opponent, keeping the larger man pinned to the ground. He wouldn’t be able to keep him down for long, but thankfully he didn’t have to.

Bolin secured his opponent to ground, trapping her feet in the dirt. He turned to Mako and yelled, “get up now!”

The moment Mako leapt off the man, Bolin sent a pair of earthen slabs over him, keeping him pinned to the road with one arm sticking out.

“I’ve got his glove,” Mako said. “You got her?”

“Affirmative,” Bolin said.

Turning his attention to the trapped Equalist, Mako grimaced and set about removing the glove from his hand. As soon as the man figured out what he was trying to do, he clenched his hand into a fist. It took Mako leveraging his knee against the man’s arm for him to wrench the glove off.

But, then he was holding a glove. Mako’s eyes lit up. Here was the possibility to re-level the playing field.

To the side, Bolin had managed to relieve his captive of her glove, then shut her in an earthen box.

“Can she breathe in there?” Mako asked.

Bolin nodded. “Yeah, but she shouldn’t be able to break out on her own. When the Equalists come through, they’ll be able to dig her out with a shovel.” He turned to the man Mako had disarmed and put a similar box over him as well. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Agreed.”

Once they’d secured a secluded alley, Bolin gave Mako the glove he’d won. “Try it out, try it out!”

They had, conveniently, stolen both a right and left-handed glove. He hesitated, then slipped the right one on. It felt strange around his wrist and on his skin. He fought the urge to say it was constrictive, because it really wasn’t. It took a moment longer for Mako to place why the glove felt odd.

If he’d been able to firebend, a glove this thick would have prevented him from doing so safely. His lips tightened. For now, it would do the opposite, temporarily granting him the power of lightning again.

He flexed his hand, feeling for the trigger in the glove. Briefly, blue lightning sparked at his palm.

“There it is!” Bolin grinned at him.

Mako tried to return the smile, flexing his hand again and trying a few different motions. His control over the lightning itself was limited. The glove couldn’t move it, so much as create it in a localized environment. It wasn’t firebending any more than striking a match was.

But still. He slipped the other glove on and tried them simultaneously. It was heat under his hands and the sound of lightning at his fingertips. The crackling sound in his ears reminded his body of what it was like to feel right again, made it feel almost possible that he’d be back to normal one day.

Mako’s expression tightened. If he placed his hands against Amon’s chest, he would still feel the man shudder before he dropped.

And, with two of them, more of his forms were available again. He ran through a few motions, seeing how the electricity interacted with itself and with the gloves paired together.

“It looks great from over here,” Bolin said at length. “But how’s it going on your end?”

Mako sighed. “Been better, but this… this is as good as it’s gonna get for now.” He looked up and met Bolin’s eyes. “I think we have an arena to break into. Let’s go.”



* * *



The vision opened on a training exercise. Korra placed Aang around thirteen years old as he dashed forward. Around him, his friends were fighting a legion of stone soldiers, controlled by Toph at the top of the hill. Flaming boulders, coated in grease and lit before Toph tossed them out, provided a heady level of realism.

Aang’s focus was on a scarecrow figure at the top, just in front of Toph. Korra identified it as the mock-target of their training exercise as Sokka called out, “Now, Aang!”

Aang leapt through the air, but Korra felt a shift in his energy before he landed. Swinging his staff downward, he stopped just short of the melon lord’s head.

A beat later, he backed away.

“What are you waiting for?” Zuko yelled. “Take him out!”

Aang shook his head. “I can’t.”

Sokka walked over and the whole group started to draw close. “What's wrong with you? If this was the real deal, you'd be shot full of lightning right now.”

Aang’s gaze dropped. “I’m sorry, but it just didn't feel right. I didn't feel like myself.”

The vision faded out as Sokka drew his sword and sliced the melon to pieces. “There, that’s how it’s done,” he said.

The vision faded in, and Korra got the sense that not much time had passed. Katara was holding a painting of a happy, dark-haired baby, but the group’s expressions were somber.

Zuko’s voice cut in. “Well, that sweet little kid grew up to be a monster, and the worst father in the history of fathers.”

Aang looked contemplative. “But he's still a human being.”

“You're going to defend him?” Zuko snapped.

“No, I agree with you.” Aang stood up. “Fire Lord Ozai is a horrible person, and the world would probably be better off without him, but there's got to be another way.”

The vision faded for a beat, and then Aang was in the middle of pacing back and forth. “This goes against everything I learned from the monks,” he said, “I can't just go around wiping out people I don't like.

“Sure you can,” Sokka said, “You're the Avatar. If it's in the name of keeping balance, I'm pretty sure the universe will forgive you.”

Turning to Sokka, Korra saw Aang twitch. “This isn't a joke, Sokka!” he snapped, “None of you understand the position I'm in.”

His friends protested, insisting they understood, as the vision drew back out and faded to white.

Korra opened her eyes to the wide dome that capped the pro-bending arena. Beyond the panes of glass, she could see Yue Bay. Air Temple Island looked the same from a distance, though Korra knew it was anything but since the Equalists had attacked. The Avatar Aang statue in the bay wore its changes openly; the Equalists had placed a huge Amon mask over the statue’s face.

“You’re both wrong,” Korra whispered toward the statue and its mask. “But I’m gonna set the world to balance between you.”

She turned away from the dome as the current speaker finished up. Korra had, at first, tried to really listen and pay attention to the Equalists speaking before Amon, but none of them had his flair or draw. Lukewarm applause escorted the speaker from the stage that the Equalists had set up at one end of the arena, where the team locker room used to be. A massive banner with Amon’s victorious visage stood at the back of the stage.

The lights dimmed and the announcer’s voice echoed around the arena.

“And now: the voice of the spirits, the new supreme leader of Republic City! I present the man we’ve all been waiting for, Amon!”

The whole arena seemed to lean in at the announcement. Korra walked closer to the edge, where the Equalist banner hung down, so she had a better view. She took care not to get too close; it would not do to fall from the roof too soon.

Zaheer wanted her to make her entrance at the right moment during Amon’s speech.

“You need to counter his mystery and aplomb with your own,” he’d said. “Amon is a master at holding attention, in part with how he seizes it from the first moment. Counter that and you will swing the city’s focus to you.”

Amon raised a hand to silence the cheers his entrance had triggered. The effect was immediate. When the quiet was to his liking, casting its own aura over those gathered, he spoke.

“Thank you all for joining me on this historic occasion,” he began. “This movement, our rise, has been a long path. Many of you have already heard, but my story began when I was a boy. A firebender struck down my entire family and left me scarred. Too many of us have similar tales. This tragic event began my quest to equalize the world.

“My family shattered, I left home in search of truth and meaning. It was evident to me that bending was a blight on the world, but I wanted to know why.”

Korra scanned the crowd, trying to see if she could spot Zaheer from her vantage point. He’d said he would galvanize the crowd to action when she made her move.

“I traveled the world, broken and scarred, in search of the truth,” Amon continued. “Why do benders exist at all? Why has bending caused so much imbalance in the world? I sought out spiritual leaders the world over, seeking to understand.” His voice hardened. “I came to understand that bending has not caused imbalance in the world. Bending is the imbalance in the world.”

The crowd roared. Amon put up a hand to quiet them and they stilled.

At the top of the arena, Korra stirred. She couldn’t imagine how Zaheer would sway this crowd. Was the arena packed with Equalist sympathizers only? Would there even be enough traction for him to get some people excited about the Avatar’s return?

“There was once a time,” Amon continued, “when bending was a temporary power. My search revealed a hidden history. We have not always been divided between benders and non-benders. Everyone used to be a non-bender. Occasional groups were granted the power of bending only for the benefit of the people around them, so they might hunt or gather food. When the time to gather food had passed, the people would be stripped of their bending until the next trip.”

Korra raised her eyebrows. She hadn’t expected Amon to have actually done some of the research he’d talked about. Furthermore, she wouldn’t have expected him to give an explanation that was, at least for the most part, true.

“But those days are not now,” Amon said, an edge lining his voice. “Bending is no longer used for the benefit of all. The spirits regret that humans are now so tainted with the power that the world has fallen out of balance. On my journey, I proved to them my intent and worthiness.” He raised a hand out toward the crowd. “They gave me the power to equalize the world, to strip benders of their bending and restore us to how we used to be!”

Korra shifted in place and mouthed out the words to Zaheer’s script. She needed to wait for the right moment to crash his speech. Timing was everything if she was going to supersede him as a spiritual authority.

“Use his flair for the dramatic against him,” Zaheer had said. “Let his speech be the introduction to your entrance.”

“Today, we will take on giant step forward,” Amon declared. “Today, I will rid the world of airbending forever. We will be one step closer to an equal world.”

Korra tensed. Her secondary criteria for choosing the right moment to interfere was making sure he didn’t lay a hand on any of the airbenders.

Even if Zaheer hadn’t given that command, she wouldn’t let it happen anyway.

“Councilman Tenzin is thrice condemned in the issue of the world’s imbalance. As a political leader of this city, he is complicit in rejecting stewardship of Republic City’s nonbending population. As an airbender, he is a blight on the spiritual balance of the world. And, as Avatar Aang’s son, his misguided spiritual leadership has only exacerbated these issues.” Amon’s fist clenched. “Today, he comes down to a level playing field with the rest of us.”

Korra knelt and laid her hands on the corner of the ledge. Any moment now. Her muscles twitched, tensing for the leap.

“The spirits have chosen me,” Amon said, “to usher in a new age of equality!”

A portion of the stage to the right of Amon began to rise.

“The city’s benders have stood by and done nothing but further our oppression. The old Avatar’s son has provided no spiritual leadership. And the new Avatar? Missing twice over now, irrelevant, and powerless. The spirits have abandoned that ancient concept.”

Korra’s heart thudded in her chest, pounding in her ears as the stage platform continued to rise, bringing with it a line of posts. As the top of Tenzin’s head became visible, Korra counted five posts and froze.

Tenzin only had three airbending children.

“I am the spirits’ new messenger,” Amon declared. He gestured to the rising sight of his captives. “So may the benders of Republic City despair! The Avatar is not even here to save her own sister.”

Risen out of the stage, all five captives were now visible. The whole arena gasped at the sight of Sakari, tied to the last post by Meelo.

“No…” Korra breathed.

Time seemed to stop as rehearsed scripts and controlled entrances slipped out of her mind’s grasp.

Korra felt a familiar pressure from behind her eyes. White crept in at the edges of her vision, but she couldn’t feel Aang’s presence behind it. Instead, the light threatened to engulf her with… more of herself. More power, enough power to pull the whole arena down around Amon.

Her fingers gripped the ledge so tightly that they trembled. Around her, a tremor seemed to sweep through the arena for a moment.

Her gaze locked on Sakari, gagged and bound to a post. Korra squinted and tried to force the light back. She needed focus, not blind rage, to get Sakari to safety and take down Amon.

Amon, who tore down her name and was so confident of the Avatar’s absence that he’d made a terrible mistake. She could almost hear Zaheer in her ear, whispering a quick and steady analysis that rushed faster than her thoughts could follow. He would say something about justifications and reversing the logic of Amon’s phrasing.

A second had passed. The crowd’s gasps were dying into an intake of breath.

Now was the moment. She knew this as sure as if Zaheer were standing behind her to shove her off the ledge.

Amon raised a fist, said something. She couldn’t parse his words as anything but the rush of her own anger. The fury rose, and it took everything Korra had not to fall into it completely. She needed to stay in-control of herself.

What had Zaheer told her about the Avatar State? What had he told her about how to make her entrance, calm and controlled and… what else?

There had been a plan. She could remember half a script, maybe.

Amon took a step toward his captives.

Korra leapt off the edge, into the open air of the Arena.



* * *



Asami leapt to her feet at the sight of the two speedboats approaching the shore. She’d been up for hours before sunrise, anxious energy churning within her. For the last half hour, she had worried that the United Forces wouldn’t actually show, but it seemed those fears were unfounded.

As the ships approached, she estimated the number of soldiers. There looked to be about two dozen men and women between the two boats. Given the number of Equalist staff regularly at the base, it could be a close battle. But the United Forces would have the element of surprise to give them the upper hand at the beginning.

The sight of the man standing near the front of the second boat caused Asami’s eyes to widen. General Iroh? Didn’t he have the navy to oversee?

She waited on the shore while the boats landed. General Iroh spoke to Colonel Yi for a moment before he made his way over to her.

“Miss Sato,” he said, bowing his head in greeting. “It is good to see you here.”

“You as well,” Asami said. “Although I am surprised to see you. I had assumed that you would be needed to lead the navy in Republic City.”

The general smiled. “I prefer to attend to matters myself when they are critical. And our navy will be useless if we cannot disable these biplanes. Commander Bumi will lead our navy into Republic City as soon as he receives word that the planes have been downed. I will rendezvous with our existing ground forces once our work here is done.”

Asami frowned. Existing ground forces? She hadn’t been aware of any United Forces presence within the city. So far any skirmishes had been between the remaining police officers and vigilante benders. Some of them had started wearing Blue Spirit masks.

Iroh inclined his head toward her. “We made a few adjustments to our plan following our meeting with you.”

Asami supposed it made sense that she didn’t know all of the United Forces’ plans. Even if she had impressed them with the demonstration of her device, wariness was understandable.

Iroh’s expression sombered. “Are there any last-minute changes to the Equalist plans that we should be aware of?”

“The planes have yet to be launched, so the pilots are on standby. Most have only basic combat training, but they will make attacking the base more difficult.”

“Then it is a good thing that I brought my best soldiers with me,” Iroh responded. “Go grab your disruptors and let’s get moving.”

“My what?” Asami frowned, then realized. “Oh, the portable electromagnetic disruptor devices.”

A smile quirked at the corners of Iroh’s mouth. “That name was a bit too long for the radio, so we just shortened it to disruptor,” Iroh said.  He called Yi and two lieutenants over.

“That makes sense,” Asami said. She moved back to her Satomobile to retrieve the suitcase containing her electromagnetic disruptors. Using the full name didn’t bother her, but she could see the practicality behind shortening it.

She did a quick scan of the suitcase to make sure that all of the disruptors were ready to go. She had agreed to distribute her extras to soldiers so that they could take down multiple planes at once. They might even be able to use the device against the handful of mecha tanks at the base.

As soon as the selected soldiers had been equipped, Iroh issued a call to move out. He turned to face Asami. “Lead the way, Miss Sato.”

There weren’t really any sentry stations at the back of the airbase. There were no trails on this part of the mountain, and the electric fence would keep out any trespassers.

Still, every one of Asami’s nerves was on fire as she approached the base. It felt like every shift in the wind heralded an Equalist attack. Her heart was hammering beneath her ribs by the time they arrived at a ledge overlooking the airfield.

Beside her, Iroh and Yi were surveying the airfield. There were three smaller hangars in the back that stored the back-up planes and mecha tanks. The main hangar housed the planes ready for takeoff, and five runways branched off of it.

“We’ll need to have the earthbenders take out those runways,” Iroh said. “Make it harder for the planes to take off.”

“I’ll have to take out the electric fence first,” Asami said, motioning to the fence posts spread evenly around the base. “It should only take a minute.”

Iroh nodded. “We’ll move into position and wait for your signal.” He relayed a series of commands through Yi and motioned for the other soldiers to begin making their way down the cliff toward the base. They split into four groups: three smaller ones to take out the rear hangars and one larger one to attack the main hangar. The pine trees provided the squads some cover.

Asami waited a minute before sneaking down the ledge.  If the Equalists had installed sentry posts around the base, they would have spotted her approach.

Perhaps her mother had a bit too much faith in her electric fence.

Asami crouched by one of the fence posts hidden by the rear hangars. Time to see exactly how good her disruptor was. Taking a deep breath, she lined the prongs up with the fence post and fired them.

The prongs darted forward, embedding themselves into the post. Seconds later, the entire fence activated, electricity crackling between the poles. It died just as suddenly.

The silence was broken by the sound of an alarm blaring through the base.

Asami cursed. So much for their surprise entrance. She jerked the prongs of her disruptor from the post and leapt to her feet, trying to catch sight of General Iroh to signal the attack.

The general was already moving toward the base, flanked by several other soldiers. Fire gathered in his palms, and he launched a series of fireballs at the Equalists scrambling to investigate the disturbance.

Returning her disruptor to her belt, Asami adjusted her electrified glove and rushed forward. She had been tasked with taking out the planes in the main hangar.

A wave of Equalists, most in pilot uniforms, came running toward the United Forces. Over half were pulling on electrified gloves. There wouldn’t be too many chi-blockers on the base—most of the chi-blockers had been assigned to the ground forces in Republic City—but the electrified gloves could be troublesome by themselves.

One of the earthbenders near Iroh dug his feet into the ground and thrust his fists forward. Chunks of earth rose from the ground and bolted forward. Two struck the incoming Equalists in the gut, sending them sprawling backwards. The rest were dodged, though not as skillfully as Asami would have expected.

Granted, most of the pilots had focused on learning how to operate the planes, and they would have only received basic hand-to-hand training.

The ground rumbled faintly, and Asami could see a pair of earthbenders begin to dismantle the leftmost runway. When a group of Equalists moved to intercept them, Colonel Yi and a waterbender responded in kind with blades of water and ice.

To her left, a trio of mecha tanks were advancing on Iroh and his soldiers. Though the general hurled fireball after fireball at them, the attacks did no damage. Frowning, he stopped and took a deep breath. Lightning crackled at his fingertips and tore through the air, racing toward the mecha tanks.

Even the lightning did nothing to slow their advance. Asami had designed them to withstand benders’ lightning attacks, redirecting the current to a ground.

The tanks had no built-in defense against an electromagnetic pulse.

Asami veered to her left toward the mecha tanks. The ground beneath her feet shook as the earthbenders with Iroh had more success at halting the tanks. She readied her disruptor as she approached the first of the mecha tanks.

The tank operators never once looked her way. Even though she had stripped the Equalist insignia from her uniform, she was still dressed close enough that they would likely picture her as an ally.

She activated the disruptor, and the prongs shot forward to strike the closest mecha tank.

The tank rolled forward for a second before it came to an abrupt halt. Asami could see the driver inside the cockpit frantically pressing at buttons, trying to get the tank to respond.

The operator glanced up and saw her. He pulled the lever for the manual release. The cockpit slid open with a hiss, and he sprung toward Asami.

Gritting her teeth, Asami ducked under his attack. She dodged to the left and dropped her disruptor on the ground. She just barely parried the next kick aimed at her. When the man attacked again, Asami grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. One touch of the electrified glove was enough to render him unconscious.

Her distraction gave Iroh and his soldiers time to halt the remaining two tanks. She retrieved her device from where it had dropped and rushed over to the mecha tank, yanking the prongs free.

A familiar thrum carried over the din of the battle, and Asami cursed. Iroh’s forces had damaged two of the runways, but if the Equalists managed to launch some of the planes, they could still damage the United Forces’ fleet.

“General!” Asami called, eyes darting to search for Iroh.

He met her gaze and turned his attention toward the main hangar. Fireballs flew from his hands toward the hangar entrance. It struck one of the plane’s tails, setting the empennage alight.

Colonel Yi and the other soldiers on the runways turned their attention to the planes trying to leave. Yi and the other waterbender threw a layer of ice over the ground to hinder any takeoffs.

They had to get to the hangars quickly. Asami sprinted forward, taking out two chi-blockers along the way. She reached the main hangar just as a pilot with an electrified glove darted outside. The woman, probably only a few years older than Asami, started to attack but pulled back at the sight of her.

“You’re—” she started to say.

Asami lunged forward and struck her in the gut with her own charged glove. The woman crumpled to the ground. “Sorry,” she muttered.

She was lucky that more people hadn’t recognized her and her role in the attack, but that luck wouldn’t hold out forever.

Four more pilots rushed outside to try and defend the hangar. Asami braced herself for the battle, but a wave of fire rushed past her and knocked the pilots back. She glanced over her shoulder as Iroh and another soldier arrived to take care of the pilots.

Iroh pulled Asami aside as more of the United Forces reached the hangar. “My men should have this hangar covered for now. I don’t suppose there would be some kind of room here that has paperwork in it?”

Asami frowned. “Paperwork?”

“Any additional information we can get about the Equalists would be helpful: blueprints, mission reports, roster lists, etc. Our fight for Republic City won’t end here.”

She nodded. “My mother’s office is in the back of the hangar. I can take you there.”

She just had to hope that her mother was responding to the attack elsewhere on the base. Yasuko spent most of her time on the base working with the planes or speaking with the other mechanics, so her office should be empty.

“That’ll work,” Iroh said. “Let’s be quick.”

Asami led Iroh to a side door that led into narrow hallway, just wide enough for three people to walk side-by-side comfortably. Several crates lined the right wall, filled with spare parts and various tools. “My mother’s office will be at the end of the hall and around the corner,” Asami said. “I’m not sure how many useful documents she’s kept here though.”

“Anything will work,” Iroh said.

They had only traveled a few feet down the hall when Asami heard a different set of footsteps resounding from the far end of the hallway. The approaching heels clicked in a familiar cadence; Asami cursed. “Quick, hide!” she said, motioning toward the set of crates on her right.

Iroh slid behind the crates seconds before a figure rounded the far corner.

Asami’s breath caught in her throat, and her entire body froze.

It was her mother.

Yasuko’s eyes widened at the sight of her. “You were reassigned too?” she said, closing the distance between them. “Good. We need to hurry to the mecha tanks before the United Forces can cause more damage.”

“Affirmative,” Asami said automatically. She half turned to continue down the hallway with her mother, then froze. If her mother walked past Iroh’s hiding spot, she might not see him. But could Asami take that chance?

Her mother had taken a step forward, but stopped when Asami did. She frowned, impatient. “Come on, Asami.” Then she paused. Asami turned as her mother’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you already wearing a glove?”

Asami’s heartbeat seemed to soar to a new level as the sound pounded in her ears. “I wanted to make sure I was prepared before... before...”

Yasuko cut her off, voice shifting from impatience to suspicion. “That’s not a hangar model glove,” she said, flexing the hand in her own electrified glove. Her sharp eyes flew from the glove to Asami’s jacket. Asami saw her mother’s gaze linger a moment on the space where the Equalist insignia used to be. Then Yasuko looked up and her expression accused Asami even before she could say, “You were the traitor?”

Unable to look her mother in the eye, Asami dropped her gaze. A dozen different explanations froze in her throat.

The silence felt damning.

“Asami you will tell me why.” Yasuko’s voice sliced the silence, as sharp as any blade.

“I... I couldn’t...” Asami wilted underneath her mother’s gaze. “I couldn’t stand it,” she said finally. “The movement has strayed so far I can hardly recognize it anymore, Mom. So much death, so much loss of life—”

“So you turn it on your comrades?” Her mother took a step forward, gesturing to the distant sounds of battle with her gloved hand. “There will always be death, there will always be hurting. We started this movement to turn it away from non-benders and you’ve betrayed us just to return it?!”

Asami turned her reasons over in her mouth, but couldn't open her mouth to say them. If she did, she would cry, and she refused to do so. Not right now.

“You are Hiroshi’s daughter.” Yasuko seemed to have steeled her temper into something duller, but heavier. She sounded older. “I will give you one moment to redeem yourself. After this, you will never have another chance.”

The ‘never’ thudded in Asami’s chest, but she’d already made her decision. She looked up and met her mother’s wary eyes. Her mother’s taut stance spoke to readiness.

Asami dropped her gaze and let her hands fall by her side. “One of the United Forces generals is here,” she said, stepping to the side and gesturing to Iroh’s hiding place. “He... he ordered me to take him to your office for intelligence.”

Yasuko started, clearly surprised. She took a step forward. “Wha—”

Asami pivoted from her hips so her shoulders wouldn’t project the motion and punched her glove forward. The shock caught her mother in the chest just as Yasuko was raising her own glove. She couldn’t say if the motion had been intended for her or for Iroh.

Yasuko shuddered and Asami caught her body in time to lower her to the floor. She looked up as Iroh stood from behind the crate.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean for it to seem like I was betraying you.”

“I can’t imagine that facing your mother was easy,” Iroh said. He rested his hand against her shoulder as she straightened up.

She stared down at her mother’s prone figure. Like an echo, she could almost imagine her mother’s voice, alternating with Hiroshi’s. When Asami was a child, when there used to be three of them, she would ask them an endless stream of questions, trying to understand how the early satomobile worked.

Reaching for the memory, it seemed to slide out of focus. The years had faded her father’s voice to the memory of a memory. And her mother’s harsh voice, the condemnation from a moment ago, felt closer than the kind and patient explanations she’d once given to Asami’s every question.

Asami clenched her hands into fists and released the breath she had been holding. Her mother had made her choices, and she had made her own. “Come on,” she said, only the slightest waver in her voice. “Her office is this way.”

Iroh removed his hand and nodded. Thankfully he let the matter drop as Asami led him down the hallway.

They turned the corner, and Asami pointed out her mother’s office. The door had been thrown open, revealing a plain desk covered in various papers. She knew that her mother kept copies of the plane and mecha tank blueprints for reference.

Iroh began rifling through the papers the moment he stepped inside the office. A few pages he glanced at with interest, but most he set aside in a neat pile.

“I’m afraid my mother keeps most of her documents in her home office,” Asami said. “There may be some in one of the back drawers, but I believe they are mostly filled with tools.” She took a step toward the back cabinets, but Iroh held up a hand to stop her.

“Sorry, but I can’t have you handling any of this evidence,” he said, offering an apologetic smile. “I trust you, but many would view any documents you handled with suspicion. I’d rather avoid that.”

“I understand,” Asami said, lingering in the doorway. For a minute she remained there, pointing out various pieces of paperwork, but Iroh seemed to know exactly what he was looking for.

After a moment, she sighed. “If I am unneeded here, would it be alright if I checked on my mother?” She hadn’t wanted to leave Yasuko unconscious in the hallway like that, but the mission had come first.

Iroh’s expression softened. “Of course. I should be finished here shortly.”

Asami turned to leave when Iroh called her back.

“Sorry,” he said, holding out something to her. It took Asami a moment to recognize the item as a pair of handcuffs. “I know,” he said, responding to her silence. “It’s not a pleasant request, but I can’t have your mother escaping.”

The sight of the handcuffs left a bitter taste in Asami’s mouth. But Iroh was right. “Understood.” She tucked the handcuffs into her belt and left the office.

Her mother was still where Asami had left her, slumped against the wall near the crates. Even from a distance, she could see the rise and fall of her mother’s breathing, and relief coursed through her. She knelt beside her mother to check her pulse. Thankfully she didn’t detect any irregularities.

“I’m sorry,” she said, keeping her voice low. “I never wanted it to turn out this way. But I couldn’t let you go through with destroying the United Forces like that.” She carefully moved her mother into an upright position and reached for one of her wrists.

Heavy footsteps came down the hallway from the direction of her mother’s office, familiar in their gait. Iroh must have finished collecting the Equalist documents.

“She’ll be okay,” Asami said, keeping her gaze on her mother. “A shock to the chest isn’t advisable at her age, but she’ll be fine after some rest.” She brought her mother’s hands together. Releasing a deep breath, she put the handcuffs on.

Her mother would be furious with her once she woke up, but Asami couldn’t let her walk away after everything that had transpired with the Equalists.

She looked up, about to ask Iroh if he had finished collecting what he needed, but the words died in her throat.

Liu stood a few feet away, staring at her in shock.

Asami felt as if she had been dunked in ice. “You’re not supposed to be here.” He should have been at the Pro-Bending Arena at Amon’s side or overseeing the fighting in the city.

It took him a moment to respond. “Amon suspected betrayal, so he reassigned me to the airbase.” Liu let out a rasping laugh. “I never would have suspected that the traitor was you.”

She swallowed, rising to her feet slowly. “Liu, listen to me. The situation—”

He drew his kali sticks and activated them. The blue-white lightning crackled to life, and the hum of electricity reverberated through the narrow corridor. “I have nothing else to say to you.”



* * *



“I am the spirits’ new messenger,” Amon declared.

Sakari stiffened as he gestured toward her and the captive airbenders.

“So may the benders of Republic City despair!” Amon continued. “The Avatar is not even here to save her own sister!”

Her hands trembled against their bindings, and she dropped her gaze, squinting away tears under the harsh spotlights. The crowd gasped as she came fully into sight with the airbenders.

Anger tore through her body, hot as the flush that burned her cheeks and the fear that had set her muscles burning with the urge to fight. Flee. Something, anything. The fear-strength was so overwhelming that, for a moment, Sakari thought she might be able to rip her hands free solely out of her desire to leave, to be elsewhere, anywhere. Even back in the bay would be better than this, sinking and lightheaded until the Equalists pulled her out of the water.

She trembled again and it felt like the whole arena trembled around her.

To her right, Sakari could feel Jinora’s eyes on her. Even though her friend was closer to Amon, of course Jinora would be worried about her. Any time the Avatar was mentioned, Jinora always remembered to check in on Sakari, to make sure she was okay.

“Now bear witness, Republic City!” Amon declared. “For now is the first moment of a new age!”

He took a step toward Tenzin, the closest captive to him.

In the corner of her eye, Sakari saw someone leap from near the roof of the arena.

She turned her head as the figure, dressed in all black, flipped around in midair, steering her flight with a long train of fire. As the figure drew close to the referee platform, she punched her hands toward the sky.

Sakari startled as the pro-bending moat surged and crashed against the arena walls below.

The figure landed on the referee stand with an explosion, a wave of fire shooting out from her feet to crash into the Equalist guards, knocking them off the platform. She wore a blue and white mask, and Sakari realized the newcomer must be the Blue Spirit from finals. With a sweeping motion of her arms, the Blue Spirit called a wheel of fire to spin around her.

Then, she dug her feet into the ground and reached out a hand. The concrete wall beside her fractured. A cry of surprise tore through the audience. Chunks of the concrete lifted into the air and whirled around her in a rush, twining the earth and fire together.

No… Sakari couldn’t even whisper the word from behind the gag.

A heartbeat later,the Blue Spirit raised both of her arms into the air. The water from the moat soared up around the woman in a column. Spinning her hands in a motion so familiar to Sakari that it ached, the Blue Spirit pulled the water around her to join the dance of fire and earth.

Sakari’s throat had constricted to nothing. The whole audience seemed to lose its breath with her for a moment.

“The Avatar is here,” the figure roared, mask locked on the stage where Amon stood.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen: The Avatar and the Equalist
(Finale Part Two)

 

 

P’li stole a glance across the living room at Ming-Hua and Ghazan. Zaheer’s insistence that she stay home to keep an eye on them had probably been unnecessary.

After Korra and Zaheer left, Ghazan grumbled and paced. His anxious energy had filled the apartment, then petered off as his focus returned to Ming-Hua. For the most part, he’d only been picking fights when Zaheer was around. She had tried to explain this to her partner, but he’d insisted she stay.

P’li sighed. Ming-Hua was better, one day at a time. Ghazan was a large part of that. This was all that mattered.

Though her friend still had her darker moments from time to time, P’li was glad to see her recovered enough to be sitting up (and in the living room no less) and alert enough to play a game of Pai Sho with Ghazan. For his part, P’li knew he wasn’t fond of the game, but he moved Ming-Hua’s pieces to the spaces she called out and tried his best.

More importantly, he would play the game without pause until Ming-Hua no longer wanted to play. So far, he’d lost four matches in a row. P’li studied him from across the room. Despite his losses, Ghazan seemed to still be in a good humor as he set up the board for a fifth match.

He wouldn’t have left Ming-Hua, even if P’li hadn’t been here. Of this, she had no doubt.

She sighed. She was wasting her time here. Zaheer had underestimated Ghazan; as a result, the Red Lotus was spread thinner in the field. This wasn’t the sort of in-fighting they needed at this stage of the plan.

She walked over to the couch to observe this Pai Sho match personally. Zaheer was a better player than all of them, but P’li knew it fairly well. Since she was stuck here anyway, she might ask if Ming-Hua would play her for the next match.

Ming-Hua looked up at her approach, alert and looking more like herself than she had in days. “Come to steal my strategies?” she asked. A smirk ghosted at the corners of her mouth.

“No, she’s definitely here for mine,” Ghazan said, crossing his arms and tossing his hair.

“I’m here to play,” P’li said, voice flat. “Finish your game. I’ll play the winner.”

“So... you’ll play me?” Ghazan winked and they all laughed.

For a moment, everything felt outrageous and normal. She sat beside Ming-Hua and let her friend lean against her while she and Ghazan finished their game. It was closer than usual, but P’li couldn’t tell if it was because Ming-Hua was distracted or generous.

When they were done, P’li swapped seats with Ghazan. He put an arm around Ming-Hua and helped P’li reset the board.

Whenever Ming-Hua said her moves, Ghazan would move the pieces for her. As the game lengthened, however, he started to take longer before he registered that Ming-Hua had said her move.

P’li tensed. She didn’t want to break the status quo and begin moving Ming-Hua’s pieces. Better to let the issue sort itself out than disrupt the existing balance.

But then he didn’t seem to hear Ming-Hua say her next move. Ghazan was gazing out the window with an odd expression on his face.

P’li was about to clear her throat when Ghazan said, “Do we get indirect justice this way?”

“What?” P’li frowned, trying to reconcile his statement with the board game.

“If Amon killed Tarrlok, and if Korra kills Amon, then can we say that worked out?” Ghazan turned back toward P’li and Ming-Hua, who had stiffened.

P’li frowned. Amon hadn’t killed Tarrlok, but beyond that… “That logic isn’t quite workable,” she said. “The same way that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ doesn’t work either.”

“Hmm.” Ghazan’s gaze dropped.

Ming-Hua fixed P’li with a look. “Tarrlok’s not dead, is he.” It wasn’t a question.

“Uh…” If Zaheer hadn’t told her, P’li would have been able to answer that she honestly didn’t know, but…

“Of course,” Ming-Hua mused. “Amon stripped Tarrlok’s bending and took him. Why go through the trouble just to kill the man.”

“That… sounds logical,” P’li managed, trying to figure out the best course of action. Zaheer hadn’t wanted them to know, but that possibility was quickly slipping out of reach.

Ming-Hua’s eyes narrowed. She seemed more alert and present that P’li had seen her since the Tarrlok mission went wrong. Looking at her from across the Pai Sho board, Ming-Hua seemed to read right through P’li.

“You know where he is, don’t you,” she said.

P’li didn’t let her gaze drop. It wouldn’t be easy, but she could lie.

But Ming-Hua looked like herself for once. Her eyes locked on P’li’s. This woman had been her best friend, her closest confidant after Zaheer, since they were teenagers. She had been deeply, irrevocably hurt and she was asking P’li for the truth.

“I do know where he is,” she answered.

“Tell me!” Ghazan leapt to his feet.

Ming-Hua looped an ankle around his and yanked him back beside her on the couch. “Shut up, Ghazan.” She spared him a glare, then returned her gaze to P’li. “Finish my mission for me,” she said.

“What?” P’li blinked.

“Take him out. Finish my mission. You don’t need to tell us where he is. Ghazan will stay here with me; we’re not going anywhere while you’re gone.” Only now did a bitter note creep into Ming-Hua’s voice. “He’s not a waterbender anymore, so it should be simple enough.”

P’li pursed her lips. Zaheer would not like this.

But, in the end, it did not matter who killed Tarrlok. By finishing the mission, she wouldn’t hurt their cause.

And even if it didn’t matter, it felt like it mattered

“I’ll be back shortly.” P’li stood up. “Ghazan, finish my game while I’m out.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Mako and Bolin had raced through all the back-routes they knew to make it into the stadium to the back of the Equalist stage. It helped that it had been constructed over the locker room that the Fire Ferrets used to use.

“I am the spirits’ new messenger,” Amon declared.

Mako held out his hands and Bolin dashed forward, planting a foot in Mako’s grip to get a boost up onto the back of the stage. Once he was on, Bolin reached down and helped pull Mako up.

“When do we make our move?” Bolin whispered.

Mako stole forward to the edge of Amon’s banner and peered through the gap between the banner and the scaffolding holding it up.

“So may the benders of Republic City despair!” Amon continued. “The Avatar is not even here to save her own sister!”

Right as Amon said it, Mako caught sight of Sakari. He cursed under his breath.

Bolin moved in beside him. “They have Sakari?” he asked, looking through the gap with Mako.

“Yeah,” he said. “We can’t let him take anyone’s bending, no matter what.” His grip tightened inside the electric gloves he wore, and he repressed a tremor.

“Now bear witness, Republic City!” Amon punched a fist in the air. “For now is the first moment of a new age!”

Bolin nodded. “On your signal, Mako.” His hands moved, turning one of the rocks he’d brought with him into a sharp stone knife and handed it over. “I’ll keep them at bay while you…” he trailed off, staring out at the arena.

Mako took the knife and looked back out just in time to see a figure land on one of the referee stands in an explosion of fire, tossing the Equalists guards there . He could feel that heat on his face all the way from the back of the stage; it was an outrageous display of power.

“I can see the Blue Spirit mask!” Bolin grabbed Mako’s arm. “She’s here!”

Mako’s eyes widened at that. He had not expected to see the Blue Spirit again, but her presence would definitely play to their advantage. Maybe this time he’d actually get to thank her for saving them during the finals.

Then the Blue Spirit extended her hand to the wall behind her. Cracks spread throughout the concrete, and fist-sized chunks broke free to join the fire swirling around the woman.

“No way,” Bolin breathed, eyes almost comically wide.

Mako’s breath caught in his throat, and he could hear a surprised cry ripple through the crowd.

Below them, the water churned ominously. The Blue Spirit raised her hands, and a pillar of water shot upwards. Twirling her hands in a gesture Sakari sometimes used, the Blue Spirit pulled the water to spin around her.

“The Avatar is here,” the figure roared, mask locked on the stage where Amon stood.

“The spirits have sent me, the bridge between our worlds, to tell you that freedom is arriving!” She pulled more chunks of rock from the wall of the arena, whirling them around her like orbiting asteroids. “Amon does not represent the people of this city any more than the council did, just a different heel on your neck. I will not stand for the enslavement of any peoples. Rise up, Republic City, and claim the freedom that is your right!” She raised a hand to point at the stage. “Amon, you will never take anyone’s bending ever again!” she declared. “I am here to end this.”

Mako’s mind raced, making a dozen connections that he didn’t have time to process. If the Blue Spirit was the Avatar and the Avatar was Sakari’s sister...

The Avatar’s words echoed through the arena, casting a speechless awe over the crowd. Then the moment shattered into gasps as she leaped off the referee stand in a blast of fire and a whirl of stone and water, flying toward the stage, right at Amon.

Mako grabbed Bolin’s arm. “We move now,” he ordered. “Go!” He used the stone knife to slash a gash in the banner.

Bolin burst through with his rocks and faced down the Equalists that ran toward him. Mako came right after and went for Sakari, the closest captive.

“Get some water if you can! Our goal is to get the airbenders and get out,” he shouted as he cut the ropes binding her wrists. Beyond the stage, Mako distantly noted that several fights had broken out in the crowd. Fights between Equalists and the Avatar’s new supporters?

From the corner of his eye, Mako saw Bolin knock an Equalist clear off the stage with a rock to the gut.

Beyond him, the masked Avatar had landed in an explosion of fire. Thankfully, she’d kept it directed forward, away from the captive airbenders. The torrent of flames raced toward Amon, but he calmly evaded the attack.

As soon as Sakari’s hands were free, she ripped off her gag. “Korra!” she shouted, stumbling away from the post.

Mako grabbed her shoulder, abruptly turning her to face him. “Free Jinora!” he ordered.

In the corner of his eye, a huge chunk of rock went flying as the Avatar presumably faced off against Amon. She may have been Sakari’s sister, but she clearly had her own agenda, and Mako didn’t think now was a good time for a family reunion.

Thankfully, Sakari’s eyes snapped into focus when he said Jinora’s name. She nodded and ran over to her friend.

Mako followed after and started cutting Meelo free. “Once you’re free, stay beside me,” he said. “We’re getting your family and getting out of here.”

The whole arena rumbled around them. Mako couldn’t tell if it was from earthbending or the riots that seemed to be starting out in the crowd. He glanced over. The Avatar seemed to have pushed Amon back, as well as collapsed the scaffolding that had held Amon’s banner. Sakari had freed Jinora and gotten some water from somewhere—the Avatar had brought a wave with her onstage—the two girls had turned to free Tenzin. Bolin seemed to have borrowed one of the Avatar’s large rocks, forming it into a wall to keep spillover from the Avatar-Amon battle from reaching the captives.

Mako cut Ikki free as soon as he was done with Meelo, giving her the same order. Thankfully, there was enough chaos that the airbender kids seemed to be listening to him for once.

Then a trio of chi-blockers leapt onstage from the opposite end.

“Sakari!” Mako shouted, scooping Meelo and Ikki up under his left arm and backing away.

A thin stream of water raced past Mako’s feet, under the chi-blockers. “Maneuver seven!” Sakari shouted back.

Time seemed to slow as Mako took another step away from the approaching chi-blockers.

Sakari didn’t know he’d lost his bending yet.

His mind raced. Maneuver seven needed lightning. He couldn’t make any, but he could fake it.

Dropping to one knee as he took another step back, Mako dropped his gloved hand to the floor and loosed a shock along the water stream.

The chi-blockers stopped, bodies jolting for a moment, then collapsed to the stage.

The crowd roared, simultaneously angry and triumphant, as Mako scrambled up to his feet and set Ikki and Meelo down. For a beat, he felt almost like he was in a pro-bending match and they were cheering some bit of firebending he’d done.

“Amon just fled offstage, Korra behind him!” Tenzin appeared beside him, holding Jinora’s shoulder. Sakari trailed behind them, looking over her shoulder “This arena is packed with Equalists and quickly turning into a riot. We need to get Pema and Rohan get out of here!”

“Roger!” Bolin ran forward, leading the way out. Tenzin and the airbender kids followed after him.

“Yes, sir!” Mako reached out and grabbed Sakari by the arm. “Time for a family reunion later, somewhere safer,” he said. “We need to escape.”

She seemed distracted, but she nodded and followed him as the group ran off the back of the stage.

Bolin lead them down several back corridors of the arena, yelling back and forth with Tenzin about where Pema and Rohan were being kept.

As the group ran down a hallway, a bathroom door flew open and an Equalist walked out. He tripped over Meelo, who yelled, “Aaah, evil guy, evil guy!”

Mako was closest, though Sakari was just a hair behind him. He dashed forward and electrocuted the man before he could raise his glove against the airbender kids. The electricity danced along the palm of the glove, just out of reach, just out of feeling.

But it was almost like lightning. Almost.

The group let out a breath as the Equalist collapsed to the floor. At the front, Bolin shot Mako a thumbs up, then called back, “We gotta keep moving, people!”

As they started running again, Ikki looked up at Mako with confusion. A bit of fear danced at the edge of her voice. “Why are you using one of their gloves?” she asked.

Mako looked forward, hoping to make eye contact with Bolin. Instead, he found Tenzin looking back at him significantly.

“Gotta fight fire with fire,” he said. His voice felt hollow and he followed the group with his mind half-elsewhere until they rounded a corner and Jinora paused to fall back from where she’d been up beside Tenzin.

Her expression froze as she looked back. “Mako, where did Sakari go?” she asked.

He looked back. She was nowhere to be seen. She must have slipped away while he was distracted.

The arena shook around them again. The sounds of distant bending—the kind that made the building shake—echoed through the building.

“She’s at a family reunion,” he said, blood draining from his face.

 



* * *

 

 

The crackle of Liu’s electrified kali sticks reverberated in the narrow hallway. Asami’s mind raced through all of her limited options for escape even as her body felt frozen in place. “I don’t want to fight you.”

“You seemed to have no qualms fighting your mother,” Liu said with a pointed look toward Yasuko.

Asami swallowed. If she closed her eyes, she could still remember her mother’s exact expression when she had shocked her. “I never wanted it to come to this.”

“And yet here you are,” Liu said. His expression was frigid as he regarded her, the same look he wore when speaking about benders. “You betrayed us.” He took a step toward her.

Asami stepped back on instinct. Liu had taught her to control the distance between her and her opponent during a fight. She had never once imagined that she would be facing him. “Liu, please.” Her voice cracked on the words. “If you would just listen to me—”

He lunged forward, lashing out with one of his kali sticks. “I have no words for a traitor.”

Asami leapt backwards, watching as the tip of one of the sticks swung only a few inches in front of her torso. She had sparred with Liu countless times, but those bouts had always been focused on hand-to-hand combat, chi-blocking and work with electrified glove.

He attacked again, slashing with the other stick. Asami stumbled to the right, dancing out of the way. She had to move them away from her mother’s body. The narrow space didn’t give her much room to maneuver, but it would work against Liu as well.

She feinted to the left before switching to attack at Liu’s right side. However, he anticipated the move and blocked her attack. It was one that he had taught her years ago. He landed a kick that sent her sprawling backwards.

Asami rose to her knees as Liu charged forward. Activating her electrified glove, Asami raised her hand to intercept the blow crashing toward her head.

The glove was insulated to protect its user from being shocked, but the gloves also handled a lower voltage than the kali sticks. Her glove could block out most of the electricity, but small sparks danced down the its side to her arm. She hissed in pain. Though it was nowhere near the pain of a direct strike, it was enough to leave her arm faintly numb.

Liu shifted to attack with his other stick. To counter, Asami tightened her grip on the first kali stick and threw it to the left. Liu stumbled in that direction, and Asami landed a kick to his knee.

She scrambled to her feet as Liu recovered his balance only to find the wall at her back.

Liu turned to face her, and for a moment, silence stretched between them.

Then he charged forward, and Asami lunged to the right to escape his attack. She was forced into a pattern of dodging: left, right, left, back.

Her heel caught on something, and Asami found herself falling backwards. Too late did she realize that Liu had maneuvered her back toward Yasuko’s fallen form. She landed on her back in front of the crates beside her mother, breath knocked from her lungs.

Liu closed the distance between them in seconds, kali sticks raised.

Asami rolled to the side as Liu brought his attack down. He struck one of the crates with enough force to dislodge the boards near the corner.

Asami scrambled for one of the loose boards, yanking it free. Liu lashed out with a second attack, and she blocked it with the board. Though the wood kept her from being electrocuted, it did nothing to mitigate the shockwaves reverberating up her arm. She gritted her teeth and held on to her defense.

Liu moved through a volley of attacks, but Asami parried all of them. She kicked out toward his hips, forcing him back.

Asami darted to her feet, slightly winded. She had to find a way to end this fight quickly before her endurance flagged. Liu might have her beat in speed and strength, but she had always been the smarter one. She just had to out-strategize him.

Her hand brushed against the disruptor on her belt, and her eyes zeroed in on the generator Liu wore on his back.

Liu charged again, but this time Asami held her ground. She blocked his first three attacks with the board. But then Liu switched the direction of his fourth attack mid-strike, wrenching her makeshift weapon from her hands.

Dread coursed through Asami as she leapt backwards. If she wanted to get her opening, she needed to do more than dodge. She surveyed the hall. Though the ceiling was tall, she doubted that she could leap high enough to evade Liu’s kali sticks.

Taking a deep breath, Asami started forward.

Liu’s eyes narrowed beneath his goggles, and his raised his sticks to intercept. As she neared, he slashed toward her.

Pulse pounding throughout her body, Asami put a hand on the disruptor and dropped into a slide at the last moment. She watched sparks dance as the electrified kali stick traveled inches over her face.

Asami twisted her upper body as she slid past Liu. Taking a heartbeat to aim, she fired the disruptor.

Liu had started to pivot to better face her, but the prongs traveled faster. They struck his generator backpack on its side.

Asami pressed the button to activate the device.

Bolts of electricity erupted from the generator, coursing through Liu’s body, and he cried out in pain.

“No!” A surprised cry tore itself from Asami’s lips as the electricity died. She rushed forward as Liu crumpled to the ground. “Please don’t be…”

His pulse hammered beneath her fingertips, and relief flooded Asami at the sight of his slow breathing. He was alive.

“I’m sorry, Liu,” she said. “I don’t expect you or my mother to understand, but your hatred is not a path I could follow.”

“Asami.”

The sound of her name startled her, and Asami jerked her head up to see General Iroh making his way down the hallway. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Asami said, unable to keep a tremor from her voice. She rose to her feet and raked a shaky hand through her hair. When Iroh regarded her skeptically, she added, “I am unharmed at least.”

He nodded, studying Liu. “What happened?”

“I was attacked when I came back to check on my mother.”

“By someone you knew it looks like,” Iroh observed.

“Yes.” Asami motioned to Liu and forced the words past the lump in her throat. “This man is the Lieutenant, Amon’s second-in-command.” In a softer tone, she added, “He was like a brother to me.”

“I’m sorry.” Iroh’s expression softened marginally. “It is never easy fighting family.”

Asami swallowed, turning her gaze from Liu. “Did you get everything you need?”

Iroh nodded and indicated the roll of papers tucked into his belt. “I had a run-in with some Equalists on my way back, but nothing I couldn’t handle.” He pulled out a second set of handcuffs. “I hate to ask this of you again, but we need to finish up here and head back to the battle. My men should be securing the base soon. We’ll have a perimeter formed before they wake up; I’ll send a squad to take them into custody shortly.”

Asami nodded. She helped Iroh disarm Liu and cuff his hands behind his back. They left him propped up against the wall near Yasuko.

“Let’s go,” Iroh said, straightening. “Our job isn’t over yet.”

Asami cast one last look at her mother and Liu before turning away to finish her mission.

 

 

* * *

 

 

A trail of fire blazed in Korra’s wake as she used a blast to swing her around the corner. She couldn’t let Amon escape, no matter what.

Down the hall, she saw the heel of a boot disappear behind a door.

Korra leapt forward, landing on a slab of stone she’d been earthbending. She surfed down the hallway on the rock, gaining speed until she was almost level with the doorway.

At the last second, she hopped off the slab and pivoted, sending it crashing through the doors and ripping them from their hinges.

That cleared out the possibility of an ambush. Korra swept in right behind the rock. “Come on out, Amon!” she called as she moved to the center of the large room. It was the same training room that Sakari had shown her and Asami when they’d gone backstage in the arena.

No reply. No sound. Korra slowed, but did not lower, the rocks and water revolving around her. Amon’s power was all at close range. If she could protect against that, keep him at a distance, she could take him out without any personal danger.

“Come out and face me!” she yelled.

The mask pressed tight against her face and Korra fought the urge to rip it off. She’d done well enough with her street-vigilante fighting, but it wasn’t comfortable to wear long-term.

“What an interesting turn of phrase, Avatar.” Amon’s voice echoed around the room.

Korra whirled around, trying to find the source. “And what’s so interesting about it?”

Zaheer’s advice echoed in her thoughts. Better to keep an opponent talking and set up the perfect moment to strike. As long as the head-games only went one way, there was never a problem with keeping up some dialogue.

“I thought it a little humorous, considering everything we have in common.” Amon chuckled, and Korra gritted her teeth.

“We have nothing in common,” she said.

She still couldn’t say where his voice was coming from, and she didn’t want to approach any hiding spaces to look for him. Her advantage in this fight was the ability to attack at range and keep that distance between him, keep him from putting his hands on her.

“Don’t we though?” Amon asked.

Korra thought his voice was coming from the right corner now. She pulled a rock close, ready to strike. “Nope. Can’t think of anything.”

“What about the masks?” Amon stepped out from near where Korra had been eyeing. He had his hands held up in a non-aggressive gesture. “I, like most people, thought you were rather thoroughly missing. However, I believe we might be able to come to an understanding.”

Korra bent the stone beside her to a point.

“I don’t think so.”

Amon’s reflexes were good. He’d done some improbable dodging against her attacks so far. This room was more enclosed than the stage, however. If she could attack him with his back to the wall, that could turn the tide.

She tensed and pulled the stone closer, ready to strike.

He laughed, and the sound grated on her ears. He tugged at the chin of his mask. “I’ll show mine if you show yours.”

Korra paused. There was one thing she was curious about. “I don’t care about your face or your scars,” she said. “Tell me though, what is the true source of your powers?”

Amon shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s a secret I’m not sharing,” he said.

Korra bit her lip. A bead of sweat rolled down the inside of her mask, pressed tight against her forehead. “Once you’ve taken it, can someone’s bending be restored?”

“I have never thought to try, Avatar.” He tilted his mask. “Though this sounds like a personal concern. Have I met a friend of yours?”

At the thought of Ming-Hua, Korra felt white creeping in at the edges of her vision and fought it off with a roar. She needed to stay in control here.

She threw the stone lance and charged forward with a blast of fire at her feet. The water around her became a dozen pointed icicles. As Amon dodged the stone, she shot the ice forward.

There were too many of them, in too broad a spread. He couldn’t dodge them.

Whirling around on his heel, Amon punched both arms out toward her.

An inch from his fist, the ice stopped in midair.

Then Korra stopped, and the fire sputtered out behind her as her body trembled, caught in an invisible hold that felt terrifying and familiar.

Tarrlok had held her in a bloodbending grip like this, a moment before he tossed her out of his sitting room.

“No…” Korra could hardly force the words out.

Around Amon, the dropped ice had made a puddle of water on the floor. His footsteps splashed as he crossed it. Lowering his arm, Korra was pushed back through the air to the center of the room, then dropped to her knees.

“I hope this is a satisfactory answer,” he said.

Locked on her knees, Korra struggled to move her arms, then stopped trying to. Ming-Hua couldn’t teach her the full breadth of armless waterbending, but they’d done more than a few training exercises.

If she could bend that puddle behind him, maybe she could turn the tables and take him by surprise.

Amon looked at her sharply as he walked over, then pointed a hand toward her and made a fist. The control Korra had started to gain over the water vanished. “It really is fascinating,” he said, “how we’ve both come to this city. I’m sure you, as well as I, have come with a mission, some vision for this place. And for our own reasons, neither of us felt that we could do so with our faces showing.”

Amon walked around her in a slow circle. Korra couldn’t turn her head, and she could barely follow him in her peripheral vision with the Blue Spirit mask on.

“Your interruption today has stymied my momentum,” he continued, “so I will return the favor.”

His footsteps stopped behind her. Cold sweat trickled down Korra’s neck.

“You made quite the entrance today, but I wonder how the world will look on you now. An Avatar, stripped of her bending.” Amon gripped the back of her neck. “A vigilante stripped of her mask. A symbol stripped of all meaning, lacking even the moderately interesting trait of being missing.”

Distant footsteps sounded in Korra’s ears, competing with the hurried pounding of her heart.

Amon was about to remove Korra’s mask when Sakari burst through the ruined doorway, a broad stream of water in her wake.

“I just found her, and I will not let you touch her!”

Amon let go of Korra’s neck and she felt his attention shift a fraction away from her.

Korra managed to shout, “No!” as Sakari charged, about to slam a wall of water toward Amon. “Don’t! He’s a—“

Her words were lost in rush as Amon raised a hand to split Sakari’s wave. Korra was soaked as he divided the water to either side of himself, then raised a hand out at Sakari.

Korra’s heart stopped as her sister froze mid-motion, body twitching unnaturally under Amon’s control. Her face twisted, half-angry and half-terrified, as Amon sauntered closer.

“This would be touching, if not for how it’s going to end,” Amon said. An odd note laced his voice. “Sisters reunited... siblings with so much in common…” He trailed off as he lowered a hand and brought Sakari down to her knees, in a mirror pose of Korra’s.

“It will not be the future you imagined, but you two do have a future together.” He paused and brushed some hair from Sakari’s face. The gesture seemed almost paternal. “So I will impart to you a lesson now, girl. It’s one I’ve learned more deeply and truly than bloodbending: Family will always disappoint you. Siblings will always let you down. The sooner you see this, the better.”

Something in Sakari’s expression broke. Her anger faltered, and Korra could see tears dancing at the corners of her eyes as Amon walked behind her and put a hand on her neck.

“No!” Korra felt new strength rise as she fought against Amon’s bloodbending hold. Her whole body trembled, and anger edged her vision in white as Amon lowered his other hand to Sakari’s forehead.

Light overcame her vision.

"I just found her, and I will not  let you touch her!”

Korra heard her own voice, and behind it the multitudes of Avatars before her.

Power, more than she’d ever felt, coursed through her body. She felt the bloodbending hold dissolve before it, like a grain of salt in a waterfall. Amon looked up and Korra felt herself charge forward, fire at her feet and kindling in her hands.

The world blurred as she struck him, sent him flying back through the doorway, away from Sakari. Then she struck him again before he could get to his feet. Chunks of stone arena pillars ripped from the walls as she flew by them. Her body sent them hurtling down the hall after Amon and Korra roared. Behind her voice she could hear Aang amongst the multitudes of voices.

Ten thousand years of Avatars rushed through, uninhibited, unrelenting. Korra blinked and found herself at the end of the hall with an explosion about to burst from her skin. One of her stones had burst through the wall and left a massive hole, silhouetting Amon against the light outside.

Then Korra sent a blistering wave of fire down the hallway, sending Amon hurtling out of the arena.

She raced down the hallway and caught sight of him crashing into the bay. Water wouldn’t stop him though. Korra launched herself out the window after him, summoning fire to propel herself toward the ground. Even with the heat around her, she seemed to experience her own actions through a fog. Her connection the the present seemed to flicker in and out in the moments before she landed. As her feet touched the ground outside the arena, a shockwave knocked back some nearby civilians.

Then Amon spun up from the bay in a waterspout, clothing singed, mask missing.

The crowd gasped as red paint, a fake scar, washed down his face.

“Amon is a liar!” Korra heard her layered voice announce to the crowd. “A waterbender who has used bloodbending to take people’s bending!”

Korra reached out and seized control of Amon’s water spout before he could get away. Around them, the crowd had burst into gasps and exclamations. She blinked and lost track of herself in the Avatar State for a moment, floating in the whirling rage and emotions her former lives brought as they raced through her.

When Korra came back to her body, she had wrenched Amon from the water and slammed him down on the walkway.

“This perversion of bending makes him the kind of bender who should be stricken from the world!” Korra declared. She couldn’t remember if this was Zaheer’s script or not.

Amon threw both arms forward, desperate, and forced out the full weight of his bloodbending.

“No!” he yelled, “Not like this!”

Around them, a dozen civilians flew backward, but Korra’s steps did not slow. She felt the Avatar spirit shrug off his power.

She slammed her hands together, pulling slabs of the stone walkway up to trap Amon. “Some benders abuse their powers to lord over others, benders and non-benders alike.” Korra stepped forward and slipped out of her body for a moment.

When she came back, she was standing mere paces from Amon’s trapped form. “I am the Avatar, and I will not allow it!”

Fire kindled in her hand and Korra saw herself raise it, though she couldn’t feel what guided her arm.

Then she blinked out.

 

When her spirit returned to her body, it returned alone.

She stumbled as her vision faded in, acclimating to the absence of white light. She managed to stay standing even as she started hearing again.

Around her, the crowd was silent, frozen.

Before her, Amon was unmoving.

Dead. He was dead.

Korra took a step back. Then another.

She had a script. Something like that.

“Now Republic City is free,” she said. Her voice cracked. “Free of Amon’s oppression. Free of the council’s tyranny.”

Around her, the crowd had begun to stir. Some of them looked at her with relief. Some with fear. On some faces, she read curiosity and a dozen other feelings she couldn’t name.

“I stand against those who impose themselves on the freedom of others.” She made a vague gesture. “Do with yourselves what you will.”

She turned and took a pair of faltering steps toward the bay.

“Korra!”

She hesitated as she recognized Sakari’s voice.

“Korra wait!”

She couldn’t face her sister now.

Trembling, Korra took another step forward, then another, stumbling forward into a sprint before she threw herself into the bay, diving down down down, deep and as far from everything as possible.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Sakari surfed unsteadily down from the hole in the wall on a stream of water.

“Korra wait!”

She ran out of water before she quite reached the ground and lurched forward on her landing.

As Sakari recovered her balance, Korra hesitated at the edge of the dock, shoulders slumped. Then she dove into the bay.

Sakari clenched her fists. “No. No no no!” She sprinted to the spot where Korra had jumped, raising her arms to pull some water to her, to gain speed so she could catch up underwater.

She was two steps from jumping after Korra when someone tackled her from the side, knocking her off-track and down to the dock.

Before she struck the ground, however, a pillow of spinning air appeared beneath her to soften the landing. A beat later, Sakari dropped lightly to the ground and blinked to see her tackler had been Jinora.

Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. “Why did you stop me?” she asked. “I… I could have caught up to her.”

“I know, Sakari, I know you could have,” Jinora said. “I just… I don’t think now is a good time.”

Sakari closed her eyes for a moment. She heard a pair of footsteps approaching as she took a deep breath and resisted her gut instinct, which was to yell at Jinora and say she was wrong.

Because Jinora was probably right.

Sakari didn’t know much about the Avatar State, but after what she’d seen, watching from the hole in the arena wall, it seemed like Korra needed some time.

When she opened her eyes, Mako and Bolin had joined them, crouching around and forming something of a barrier against the increasingly-curious crowd.

Sakari sniffed and wiped her eyes. “I’m going to find her.”

“We know,” Jinora said. She smiled.

“And you don’t have to find her alone.” Bolin put a hand on her shoulder. “No running off like earlier. We’re gonna pull this off as a team.”

“We promised, remember?” Mako put his hand on Sakari’s other shoulder and she blinked at the touch of his glove.

Everything had been so harried earlier, she hadn’t quite processed what it meant, that Mako was wearing one of the electrified gloves.

She nodded. “It’s… not okay right now,” she said, “but it’s gonna be okay, right?”

Jinora gripped her hand. “We’ll make it okay. Somehow. We’ll find Korra, and the city will heal.”

“The rioting got pretty bad inside,” Mako said. “We avoided the worst of it being in such an isolated part of the arena to get Pema and Rohan. Most of the violence moved outside, but there are a lot of people who got injured or trampled.”

“Republic City could use a good waterbending healer,” Bolin offered.

Sakari nodded. “Then let’s get to work.”

 

* * *

 

 

Asami breathed a sigh of relief when the remaining Equalists surrendered to the United Forces. The battle to secure the airfield was finally over. Iroh’s squad had kept the threat of the planes contained, thanks in part to her device, and the relative silence that moved in was almost unsettling.  

Colonel Yi passed her on her way to report to Iroh. “Your device did well out there,” she said.

Asami figured that would the extent of praise that she got out of the colonel, but it was more than she expected.

“Sir, we have secured the radio tower,” Yi said, saluting the general.

Iroh nodded. “Good. Contact Commander Bumi and give him the go ahead to lead the fleet into Yue Bay. And contact our ground forces and get their current status.”

“Yes, sir.” Yi turned and strode toward the radio tower.

Iroh called a pair of soldiers over and said something that Asami couldn’t quite catch. He turned to face her after a moment. “We need to go collect your mother and the Lieutenant. If you would rather not come…”

The thought of facing either of them again made Asami’s stomach twist. If either of them had regained consciousness, they would have no kind words to give her. But Asami needed to see this mission through to its end. “I’ll accompany you,” she said.

Iroh simply nodded and headed toward the back hallway of the main hangar.

Asami followed a few paces behind, bracing herself for whatever her mother or Liu might have to say to her. A part of her hoped they would still be unconscious, but she knew that she had to brace herself for the alternative. They approached the hallway, and Asami stepped inside.

It was empty.

She gasped, staring at the space where her mother and Liu should have been. Only splinters from the broken crate and the glint of something metallic littered the floor.

Beside her, Iroh turned to address the soldiers with him. He gave them some kind of order, but the words barely registered in Asami’s ears.

They were gone. Her mother and Liu were gone.

They couldn’t have gotten far. Even with their legs free, they wouldn’t be able to get away from the base on foot. The mountains could be difficult to traverse, especially in handcuffs.

Iroh knelt and picked up something from the ground. It took Asami a second to recognize the glint of metal as half of a handcuff. The chain had been broken almost exactly in the middle.

“We’ll put out a bulletin with their descriptions,” Iroh said, holding up the broken handcuff for her to inspect. “In the meantime, I’ll assign some of my men to scan the area. They couldn’t have gotten too far.”

Asami took the handcuff and nodded numbly. She turned the metal around in her hands, studying where the links in the chain had been forced apart. Her mother or Liu must have managed to find some way of getting enough leverage to break the chain. If one of them had broken free, they could find a way to pick the lock on the other set of handcuffs to escape.

They would know the area better than the United Forces. Even if they couldn’t travel fast on foot, they still had the advantage in escaping.

“We will find them,” Iroh said.

Asami nodded again though she didn’t really believe the words.

“General!” Yi’s sharp voice cut through the air around them.

“What happened?” Iroh asked, turning to face the colonel.

“We’ve given Commander Bumi the orders to send the reinforcements in,” she said. “But we’ve also received word from Chief Beifong and the ground forces that there has been some kind of disturbance at the pro-bending arena.”

“At the arena?” Iroh frowned.

“The Equalists were holding some kind of victory rally there,” Yi reported, “but riots have broken out around it. We don’t have many details yet, but Chief Beifong suspects some vigilante benders may have instigated some kind of attack. She will lead her remaining officers and the other ground forces to route the streets. She’s requested any backup we can send.”

“When will Bumi’s troops arrive?” Iroh asked.

“Within the hour. Sir, Chief Beifong reports that whatever has happened at the arena has sent the Equalists into disarray. This could be our chance to land a decisive blow against them.”

“Understood. Locate any kind of transportation on the base that you can find to take us into the city. Leave some of our forces here to guard the prisoners, but have the rest ready to leave.”

“Yes, sir.”

Yi’s report cycled through Asami’s head, but she could barely process the words. Some kind of disturbance at the arena. The Equalists in disarray. A decisive blow.

If something had happened to put the Equalists on the defensive, it could be enough to give the United Forces the upper hand in the ensuing battle. The Equalists had hundreds of members, but they were small compared to the entire strength of the United Forces.

Surely even Amon and his powers couldn’t take on an entire military.

Asami tightened her grip on the handcuff and closed her eyes. No matter how long the upcoming fight took, it would end with the Equalists’ defeat. Their plans to take out the United Forces’ fleet had failed, and they would only hold out for so long against a fully trained army.

“Asami.” Something about the tone of Iroh’s voice let her know it wasn’t the first time he had called her name. “A couple quick questions about some technical specifications.”

“Oh, yes.” She walked over to where Iroh stood with several officers. They had some questions for her about the mecha tanks. Numbers, sizes, deployment spread.

Asami answered automatically until the had everything they needed to know and Iroh dismissed them.

She was about to drift back to the wall she’d been standing against when Iroh said, “Wait a moment.” His eyes, when they met hers, were kind. “Is there anything I can do for you, Asami?”

“No...” She fiddled with the half-handcuff. “There’s nothing, General...”

She couldn’t ask Iroh to vouch for her forever. Her defection from the Equalists would win some to her side, but not all, especially as the duration of her Equalist service came to light.

It would be easy to slip away as the dust settled, distance herself as far from the Equalists as she could. But that didn’t change the fact that she had been responsible for a great deal of the technology that had powered the Equalists. She and her mother had spent several years on these projects.

And with her mother vanished without a trace, someone had to take responsibility for the crimes committed with that technology.

Asami took a deep breath. “Actually, I do have a request, General.”

Iroh turned and glanced at her curiously.

“I would like to turn myself in for my involvement with the Equalists once we reach the city.”

He regarded her in silence for a long moment, eyebrows raised.

“I have a lot to answer for concerning my role within the Equalist movement,” Asami elaborated.

“We would have faced much higher casualties without your warning,” Iroh remarked.

“Yes, but my assistance here does not cancel out my previous crimes. I helped design the technology used by the Equalists, and I sat on their leadership council, however briefly. Because of my inventions, countless people have been hurt. I need to answer for that.”

Iroh studied her for a moment, impassive. Finally he said, “You have a strong sense of justice, Miss Sato.”

She didn’t know how to respond to that.

“We can place you under temporary custody until the city has been secured,” he continued. “Then you can turn yourself over to Chief Beifong. As a non-combatant, I think a military tribunal would be... inappropriate.” He offered her a faint smile. “The Chief knows we had an Equalist source supporting us in this attack. I will ensure she is informed of your tremendous assistance, at great personal risk and distress.”

“I…thank you, General.” She stared down at the broken handcuff in her grip. She could feel the ghost of its other half tightening around her wrist. A part of her whispered to turn and run far away from everything, but she forced that part down.

The Sato family name would be ruined. The company would be dissolved. Her family was broken, in every sense.

But Asami could still stand with honor. She’d done the right thing, the best she could manage. Whatever the consequences were, she would face them with her head held high.

 

 

* * *

 

Korra surfaced at Republic City’s southern edge and crawled ashore on the empty stretch of beach. Before she’d cleared the tide’s reach, her trembling arms gave out and she collapsed to the sand.

If she’d ever been so physically exhausted in her life, she couldn’t remember it. Every moment since the Avatar State left her had been excruciating to her sore body.

She lay in the sand with her eyes closed, listening to the waves. When she opened them, she could see the Blue Spirit mask in her hand. She’d ripped it off underwater, but held onto it for reasons she couldn’t name.

“What now?” she asked it, pushing herself to sit up and brushing sand from her body.

Zaheer had planned on her making a flashy exit, to disappear as astoundingly as she’d appeared in the first place. After that, she was supposed to make her way back to the apartment in the most roundabout way possible, just in case she was followed.

Korra carefully wiped damp sand from the mask as the water ebbed and flowed at her feet.

The spiritual connection she’d felt to the previous Avatars felt distant. Even if she stretched herself, Korra couldn’t sense Aang’s presence.

“No advice now?” she asked the sky.

No answer came.

She sighed. “Fine. Be that way.”

Korra slowly, achingly, got to her feet.

The city would be in chaos, just as planned. For some reason, that didn’t feel as satisfying as she’d thought it would.

But it meant it would be simple enough to disappear, at least for a time.

She started a slow, stumbling walk toward the city with the mask under her arm. “I’ll figure it out on my own then, Aang. Zaheer. Whoever.”

Korra knew before she’d left the beach that, wherever she was going, it wasn’t back to the apartment. It was time to face Republic City on her own terms.

 

 

 * * * End Arc One * * *

Chapter Text

Chapter 17: The Runaway
( everyone where they chose to be; nobody where they ought to be)

 

Korra woke up in the dirt and pushed herself off the ground. A hazy sunrise reflected off a nearby building. She sighed. Time to move.

Grabbing her bag, found yesterday in a dumpster, from under a porch where she’d stashed it, Korra straightened her clothes and tried to look presentable.

At some point in the chaos of her fight with Amon, her sleeve had ripped across her bicep. Korra had attempted to keep the black shirt together, but it didn’t seem to be doing so well on that front. After a moment’s hesitation, she took out her knife and cut the rest of it off, tugging what remained of the sleeve down over her tattoo.

Zaheer’s warnings about recognizability drifted through her mind and she steadily ignored his voice as she trimmed the other sleeve to match.

Just because it was good advice didn’t mean she had to imagine it coming from him.

Yesterday, she’d traveled around the city easily enough, mostly by rooftop. The United Forces and police had been mopping up Equalist cells all over the city, and nobody really had time to take note of a black-clothed figure who wasn’t bothering anybody.

Korra unconsciously reached into her bag, fingertips brushing the energybending scroll. It had taken her hours to get to its hiding spot, but she needed to have it with her. There would be no point to stealing the thing if she couldn’t try to use it. Try to fix everything.

Before she pulled her hand out of the bag, Korra’s hand bumped against the Blue Spirit mask hidden there too. She stiffened, as if someone were watching her, then forced herself to relax.

Blending in today would mean fewer rooftops and more sidewalks. Korra ducked down a few side alleys into the Dragon Flats borough. Here, her torn clothing meant she fit in well enough, but the black stealth clothes felt conspicuous on the street.

A couple blocks in, Korra spied a water tribe woman carrying a basket of laundry home from the cleaners.

After a little cajoling, Korra managed to spend a few coins and buy a robe that wasn’t too tattered. The woman was a bit shorter than her, but Korra relaxed as soon as she pulled the robe on over her black shirt and pants. She didn’t look so different now from the people around her. Plus, it was getting colder and the extra layer was a welcome addition.

Next, she’d need a base of operations. Between the weather and the police, she’d be better off inside than outside. In most of the cities the Red Lotus passed through, she and Ghazan would pick the house they’d squat in. Korra was scoping out an abandoned house and steadily refusing to think about the Red Lotus when a sound gave her pause.

Listening closer, Korra frowned. It sounded like… music.

She made a note of the house’s location and set off toward the noise. Something about it felt irresistible, this small sign of humanity and celebration in the midst of the chaos.

It was a thin sound, not overly polished. Still, it was… festive. The melody seemed at odds with the run-down neighborhood, with the city’s broken spirit. As Korra drew closer, she recognized the sound of a Water Tribe-styled flute.

She rounded a corner and found the source. A child (maybe seven?) sitting in front of a rickety house, was playing the tune. Up on a ladder, a woman in her 30s was hanging a row of paper lanterns across the house’s porch.

It felt absurd. Korra stopped and watched them for a minute, trying to figure it out. They were clearly preparing for a celebration of some sort. In the middle of the city’s tragedy, they were decorating and playing music. Passersby would glance at them, then hurry on their way.

The woman on the ladder leaned over, reaching out to try and place one more lantern. Her balance wavered and Korra’s heart skipped a beat as she watched the woman yelp and grab the roof for balance.

Before she quite knew it, Korra was across the street. “Do you need a hand?” she called, reaching out to steady the ladder.

The little boy stopped playing his flute and looked up at the woman. The woman on the ladder glanced down at Korra, surprised, before clambering down to greet her, lantern still in-hand. “For a moment, perhaps,” she admitted. “Would you brace the ladder for me?”

“Of course.” Korra dropped her bag by the porch and helped move the ladder over so the next batch of lanterns could be hung. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I climb up instead…?”

“No, no, that’s just fine.” The woman collected the lanterns on one arm as the boy started playing his flute again, the same tune as before. Korra suspected it might be the only one he knew.

Korra braced the ladder as the woman climbed up. At the top, she nodded. “Oh that’s much better.” She smiled down at Korra. “Thank you, stranger. What’s your name?”

“Uh.” Korra blinked. “Naga,” she said, unable to think of a better cover. “How about you?”

“My name is Jia,” the woman replied. She nodded toward the boy playing the flute. “And that’s my son, Hai.”

He stopped playing the flute at the sound of his name, looking up at Korra curiously. “Naga sounds like a dog’s name,” he said.

“Hai! Apologize!” Jia sounded mortified.

Korra chuckled and smiled at the kid. It took all of her concentration not to think of Sakari. “I get that a lot, actually,” she said.

Hai’s prompted apology segued into a lecture from Jia on not making fun of people’s names. By the end of it, Hai seemed genuinely sorry, correcting his earlier statement by saying that Naga sounded like the name of a really nice and great dog.

Before Jia could correct him again, Korra cut in. “So what are you decorating for, anyway?”

They’d finished hanging the last batch of lanterns. Jia climbed down and looked up at her work with approval. “We’re getting ready for the Glacier Spirits Festival,” she said with pride. “My wife is from the Southern Water Tribe and has celebrated every year since she left. We’re not about to stop now.”

Korra blinked. She felt short of breath. “Even… even with everything that’s happened?” she heard herself ask.

A shadow passed over Jia’s expression. “Sometimes it’s when things are darkest that you most need the guidance and light,” she said. “I’m not sure if the festival can give it to us, but if we stop seeking it out, we give up.”

The wind shifted, a chilly breeze, and Korra caught a whiff of cooking from the house. Her mouth immediately watered at the scent of seaweed noodles and five-flavor soup. Unsure how to respond to Jia’s statement, she found herself asking, “do you, uh, need any more preparation help?”

Jia breathed in, and Korra saw a smile touch her face at the smell of the cooking. Her eyes appraised Korra, lingering on the blue trim of her worn robe. “Anyu could probably use another pair of hands in the kitchen,” she said. “Why don’t you come in?”

A weight Korra hadn’t noticed lifted from her chest and shoulders. “Thank you,” she said, grabbing her bag from in front of the house.

“Please don’t mess up mom’s food,” Hai said gravely as he put his flute away in an old seal-leather sleeve. Looking at it again, Korra guessed that the instrument was far older than the child playing it. She’d developed an eye for Water Tribe original pieces over the years. Mostly from stealing them.

“I won’t mess up the food,” Korra said, chuckling. “Or at least I’ll try not to.” Jia cast an amused eye back as she opened the door and waved the two of them in.

The inside was shabby, but well-loved and with good bones. From what Korra could recall, the Dragon Flats used to be a nice enough neighborhood during the first wave of Republic City’s development. Since then, it had run downhill. That the house had a main room and two bedrooms marked it a cut above the abandoned shack Korra had been scoping out earlier.

At a thick wooden table, a young girl, a year or two older than Hai, was cutting seaweed into strips. She looked up sharply when the door opened and her expression tightened at the sight of Korra. Fear and anger passed over her face before she ducked her head back down to focus on her task.

The kitchen took up one of the room’s walls with lots of counter space, although not all of it was level. An older woman, maybe 40, turned when the door opened. Cooking steam had set her hair in a faint frizzy halo around her face, which crinkled with a smile towards Hai and Jia.

The woman, who must be Jia’s wife, tilted her head as Korra followed sheepishly behind them.

“Naga, this is Anyu, my wife. Hai’s sister, Hotaru, is the kid at the table.” Jia gestured to the two of them in turn. Hai ran in and immediately grabbed for a piece of seaweed his sister was cutting. She pulled it out of reach and cast him a glare.

“A guest?” Anyu chuckled. “It must be a festival then,” she said.

“Naga here was helping me hang the lanterns,” Jia explained. Korra smiled and tried to project helpfulness as she debated if she should set down her bag or not. “Could you use another pair of hands in the kitchen?”

A note of exasperation touched Anyu’s face. Jia struck Korra as the type of person who routinely brought in stray animals off the street. Korra felt very much like a stray dog of some sort, unsure where she should go without her usual family at hand.

“If she’s already helped out, she’s more than earned an invite to the table,” Anyu said after a beat.

Jia smiled and skipped over to place a kiss on Anyu’s cheek. “Thanks darling. I’ll be back in a moment.” And then she swept back out the door on some errand, pulling Hai away from the seaweed on her way, leaving Korra alone in the house.

“Can you cook?” Anyu asked Korra. Her gaze touched on Korra’s water tribe robe, her hair and complexion. A smile touched her lips. “It’s alright if you can’t very much, I just need to know what I can have you do.”

“Oh, uh,” Korra cast an anxious eye toward the various dishes in the midst of being prepared. “I’m a fair hand in the kitchen I just, um, don’t have a lot of experience making Water Tribe food.” She dropped her eyes. Ming-Hua did the least amount of cooking in the Red Lotus. Lots of fishing though.

“I’ll take care of the hard parts,” Anyu said. No trace of judgement touched her face. Korra was grateful for that. “In the meantime, you can cut the octopus. We want bite-sized pieces.” She thrust an octopus, a knife, and a worn cutting board into Korra’s hands.

Hotaru was still solidly ignoring Korra. A wave of anxiety and mistrust rolled off the child, giving Korra pause as she set up to cut to octopus at a corner of the kitchen counter. Once she’d set up a good rhythm of chopping, Korra pushed her mind toward the spiritual plane on a hunch.

Immediately, she winced. Her own spiritual self was wildly out-of-balance. Zaheer would be so disappointed. But Korra could hardly stand to look at herself since coming out of the Avatar State.

In the physical realm, her hands faltered. Korra took a breath to steady herself. She didn’t need to do painful introspection in order to take a peek at Hotaru.

Like Ming-Hua, Hotaru’s spirit seemed oddly contained. Korra could see the flickering core of earth and stone within the girl, but something had rendered it out of reach.

Amon.

The sound of Anyu’s voice and Korra’s aching heart pulled her back from the spiritual realm. She pushed Hotaru and Amon out of mind, giving all her focus to the task at hand and Anyu’s voice.

“—always reminds me of home. I’ve lived here over twenty years, believe it or not. Jia and I took the kids south to see my mother one year and we could hardly recognize the festival.” She chuckled.

“Was it weird to see the tradition had changed?” Korra asked, sliding a pile of finished octopus pieces to the side.

Anyu pursed her lips. “Yes and no,” she said. “Traditions change. It’s foolish to resist time, although I think it could use a bit of guidance sometime.” Her gaze felt piercing as she met Korra’s eyes. “Do your folks celebrate the festival away from the south?”

Korra shook her head. “Not really. I… I can’t even remember celebrating it as a kid. I was too young when we, uh, left.” Ming-Hua’s family was from the Southern Water Tribe, but she’d grown up away from it too, and they’d never visited Water Tribe lands on their travels, so it didn’t exactly come up much.

Anyu peered around Korra’s shoulder—she was too short to peer over—and nodded in approval at her cutting job. “Nicely done so far,” she said. “I hope you enjoy your first Glacier Spirits Festival. We don’t have a glacier here, and not so much in the way of games like the festival down south is sporting nowadays, but we do light a couple candles for the spirits. We scrounge up some music and lanterns every year. Hai only knows his one song, but it’s nice enough.”

“The music is actually what brought me here,” Korra admitted. “I heard it and couldn’t help but walk over… It just seemed impossible, I guess. Everything is…” she made a vague hand gesture.

“Chaotic?” Anyu supplied.

Korra glanced away. “Yeah… it’s so messed up. But there was music, coming from somewhere, and it made me think that there must be something right, something good and okay, somewhere in the city.” She finished cutting the octopus and her shoulders sagged.

This was all her fault. Republic City, the chaos, the haunted looks in the people’s faces that she’d passed.

“Alright next step,” Anyu said. Her tone had warmed since Korra finished prepping the octopus.

As kitchen prep continued, Korra found she couldn’t wallow too long. Anyu just kept her too busy to do so. When she did manage a stray thought, she spared them for Sakari, wondering if her sister celebrated the festival. Where was she? Was she safe? Had Sakari ever seen the festival the way it was now, with games and carnival rides? What was Korra supposed to do, show up at Air Temple Island and say, ‘hey sis, it’s me!’

Then Jia came back with candles and Hai played his one song again as they set the table. Hotaru dashed into the room that she and Hai shared to put on her one nice robe for dinner.

Lighting the candles, Anyu led the offering. She placed aside some of the food they’d prepared, along with a few handmade items. Standing while the rest of them sat cross-legged at the table, she began.

“Though we are far from the glaciers, we know the spirit world is closest on the solstice.”

Korra blinked. She’d hardly realized it was the solstice already.

“As our worlds pass each other, close but out of reach, we present these offerings and an invitation to our feast for any spirits passing through,” Anyu continued. She glanced again at the offerings clustered around the candles. Korra thought she caught a flash of self-consciousness cross the woman’s face.

“We don’t have a lot to offer,” Anyu said, ad-libbing hurriedly, “but we still offer our hospitality and warmth. A blessing on visitors to our house.” She turned and bowed toward the door, which prompted the rest of them to get to their feet and do so as well. A gesture to honor the spirits who might come by.

They sat down and began to eat. Korra’s stomach had been grumbling for hours at this point. The food was twice as good as she’d hoped it would be while she’d been helping. As she spooned warm five-flavor soup into her mouth, the tension seemed to melt off of Korra’s shoulders.

“Are there any other blessings we would like to invoke?” Anyu asked, breaking the silence once they’d all been eating for a minute or two.

“A blessing on you, my darling, for the amazing food!” Jia leaned over and kissed her wife’s cheek.

A charming blush touched Anyu’s cheeks as she smiled and shook her head. “In that case, a blessing on kind strangers.” She looked across the table and Korra. “For being part of our celebration today and for helping with the preparation.”

“For reminding us,” Jia added, “that this darkness will pass. That our visitors need not be spirits in order for them to bring a blessing to our house.”

“And keeping mom from falling off the ladder,” Hai added, giggling. Jia wrinkled her nose at him.

For a moment, Korra couldn’t find her words. “I just… no, but.” She took a breath. “All the thanks should be to you,” she insisted. “You’re the kind strangers. You don’t know the first thing about me, but you’ve taken me in and fed me and made me feel welcome.”

“The festival is meant to welcome visiting spirits, passing close to our world,” Anyu said, “but we would be ridiculous not to welcome guests on the physical plane too.”

“A blessing on your house and family then,” Korra said. The shabby residence felt resplendent now. Korra could hardly remember the last time she’d felt so at-home.

Anyu and Jia thanked her, and then it was Hai’s turn. He smiled hesitantly across the table at his sister. “Can I do a blessing for Hotaru?” he asked.

Hotaru glanced up. Though she’d been as quiet as the rest of them, she hadn’t eaten nearly as much as Korra would have thought. She shrugged at her brother.

“Of course you can,” Jia said, casting an encouraging look toward Hai.

“Then… a blessing for her too.” His smile wavered, but he forged on. “It’s really hard right now, but it’ll get better.”

Hotaru managed a ghost of a smile, and Anyu thanked Hai for his blessing. Jia reached out and patted Hotaru’s shoulder.

Something about their response felt odd. Briefly, and abruptly, Korra found herself reminded of Zaheer.

Before she could push him from her mind, she remembered how he’d looked the morning after Amon took Ming-Hua’s bending. Not callous, but uncomprehending.

Hotaru was the only bender in the family. Had been the only bender in the family.

Her deep-seated rage against Amon, the desire to see him crushed to dust, stirred in the deepest oceans of her feelings. Korra took a breath and let the emotion settle.

“Would you like to offer a blessing, Hotaru?” Jia asked. Her voice was gentle and kind.

The girl looked up from her food and briefly glared at Korra.

If it had been within her power, Korra would have vanished from the house. Jia and Anyu had been kind to her, kind beyond measure, but Korra wished it hadn’t come at the cost of invading Hotaru’s safe space.

Then, in a blink, Hotaru’s whole demeanor changed as she glanced at something behind Korra. “I do have a blessing!” she said, eyes alight. “A blessing on the Avatar!”

Korra felt as though she’d been dunked in icy water.

“The Avatar?” Anyu asked.

“Yes,” Hotaru said. Her mouth tightened. “A blessing because she came back and, and she killed Amon!”

Though her voice trembled, the triumph in Hotaru’s tone was unmistakable.

Korra’s skin went from chill to blazing. Fragments of memory, blazing white like an overexposed photo,  flashed across her eyes. Amon flying out the side of the arena. Amon, de-masked, reaching out to her. Fire racing along her skin and a thousand voices echoing behind her own. And then Amon’s corpse.

She took a shuddering breath and found herself back at the table.

Jia had pulled Hotaru over and was having a quiet conversation. Something about it being inappropriate to celebrate death at a festival. Or maybe it wasn’t okay at the dinner table. Hai looked on, expression caught between concern and confusion as he slurped at a noodle.

Something about the scene felt absurd. Children weren’t supposed to glory in someone’s murder. Okay, sure Korra had as a kid, celebrating the Red Lotus’ victories, but that was different. Children like Hotaru weren’t supposed to be hurt like she had been. Hurt so much that she was happy he was dead.

The blessing fell like a weighted shawl around Korra’s shoulders, and she found herself quiet as dinner resumed with a more normal conversation. Somehow, they managed to avoid current events as a topic altogether. Korra couldn’t have said how.

When she stole a peek behind her, to see what Hotaru had been looking at before her blessing, Korra saw a stack of newspapers. From the look of them, they were current.

It was only as they started cleaning up that Korra glanced out a window and noticed the darkness. “Oh, I… I should probably be going soon.”

Anyu swept over from where she’d been helping Jia clean the table. “Before you do, could I have a word, Naga?” she asked.

Korra nodded and followed Anyu out onto the porch. “What is it?”

“Do you have a place to stay?” Anyu’s eyes crinkled with concern.

The temptation to lie crossed her mind, but Korra resisted. No stealing. No lying, except about her name. She refused to add to the city’s chaos. “I… do not,” she managed. Admitting to vulnerability felt… surreal, almost.

Anyu nodded, as though Korra had confirmed her suspicions. “I thought not. Nobody goes wandering around the Dragon Flats unless they have to.” She pursed her lips. “Next question: are you a bender?”

Was it better if she answered yes or no? Korra debated, briefly. Then she thought of Asami’s face, of how she’d been so betrayed by that lie especially. Korra couldn’t even have said if it was safer to be a bender or to not be one, at this point in the city.

Either way, it should be the family’s decision whether or not to take her in on that basis too.

“I’m a waterbender,” she admitted.

Anyu sighed. “That must make doing the dishes easier,” she muttered. “In any case… I was just talking with Jia. We have a small space in the attic of the house. It’s hardly glamorous, but it’s indoors. You could stay awhile, if you’d like.”

“That is so generous and kind of you.” Korra bowed her head. “But I’m afraid I don’t have money to pay any rent. I couldn’t possibly impose on your generosity like this.” Korra had taken the coins she’d hidden with her energybending scroll, but half of them had gone toward buying the water tribe robe off the woman from earlier.

“If you’re willing, we could use a hand around the house.” Anyu smiled wanly. “As you noticed earlier, our ladder is none too stable. And Jia, though I love her, is less than coordinated. If you could do some basic repairs, I think that would serve for a time.”

Korra hadn’t done much home repair, but she and Ghazan were usually the ones to construct the Red Lotus’ outdoor shelters. The basic principles couldn’t be that different.

“I can probably manage that.” Korra smiled.

Anyu mirrored her expression. They heard the house creaking above them and Anyu chuckled. “I told Jia to wait before prepping the space, but she seems to have gotten started early.”

In the distance, Korra could just make out the sounds of a raid. Sirens and shouting. A crash, like a door breaking inward.

Anyu looked away and a shadow crossed her face. “And I think it will be good to have a bender around as well. A little extra protection, maybe.”

“I’ll do my best,” Korra said.

She would see half the city in flames before she let anything happen to this family.

“And Hotaru… If you are able to talk to her at all, please do.” Anyu turned back to her and looked up at Korra with concern. “You may have noticed her… outburst earlier. Hotaru is an—was an earthbender. During the Equalist sweep of the city, she was among those taken. Thank the spirits one of our neighbors was taken at the same time. He made sure to bring her home after… after they were stripped of their bending.” She shook her head.

“It’s all beyond me. My grandfather was a waterbender, and I know Jia’s sister is an earthbender. It’s hard to comprehend what she’s lost. The nightmares she has, of the line of people being led to him… I cannot imagine the feeling…” Anyu trailed off and regarded Korra with tired eyes. “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible, and that’s why we celebrated the festival today, but these past three days have been a lifetime.”

“I know exactly how that feels,” Korra said. Three days ago, this time of the night, Zaheer still hadn’t come back, still had yet to reveal his plan for her to kill Amon.

Anyu opened the door and ushered Korra inside. “Is there anything we can do for you before we settle you in the attic?”

Korra was surprised to find that Jia, Hai, and Hotaru had finished the cleaning while Anyu and Korra had been outside. “Um, I don’t think so… Maybe a pillow if you have one spare, or at least a blanket to roll up?”

“Of course. I suspect that Jia already put one up there for you, actually.”

Korra grabbed her bag from beside the door. Her eyes lingered on the newspapers as she did so. “Actually, one other thing. Could I bring a couple papers up to read? I’ve been, um, a bit out of touch with the news.”

“Take them all if you want.” Anyu waved a hand as she set the rickety ladder from before against the entrance to the attic. “I can hardly stand to look at them any longer than it takes to read them.”

Anyu even gave her a couple candles to take up with her. Once Korra was settled in the space, she kindled a flame in the palm of her hand. Burning their candles when she didn’t need to felt further wasteful to Korra. She’d have to burn a couple so they wouldn’t get suspicious, but she’d save what she could

Yesterday, she’d avoided the news as much as possible, unwilling to look at the front cover. The handful of blurry photos of her, in the arena, and then in the Avatar State outside of it, had been plastered across every front page.

Korra took a deep breath and skipped past them. She didn’t need to read what she’d been there for. She needed to know what she hadn’t seen.

Riots, all across the city. And enduring Equalist cell that refused to give ground, holed up in an underground bunker lined with platinum. The triads, taking advantage of the disorder to seize territory and launch a gang war.

Tarrlok found dead on Air Temple Island from an explosion in one of the towers.

Korra narrowed her eyes and paused. Explosions didn’t just happen for no reason. And P’li had been there with Korra when Zaheer mentioned where the Equalists were holding Tarrlok.

She shook her head. Maybe she’d find out later. Maybe she wouldn’t.

She felt no satisfaction in his death. She’d expected to feel alive and vengeful, but she just felt numb. After Amon… death didn’t feel like a victory anymore, however justified.

Turning to another paper, Korra froze. For once, it wasn’t her (masked) face on the front page.

It was Asami, standing tall by the police station by a man in a United Forces uniform. Her hand gripped half a handcuff as if it were a lifeline. Korra’s eyes flew to the headline.

THE ASAMI SATO STORY: HOW REPUBLIC CITY’S DARLING INVENTOR WENT FROM SECRET EQUALIST TO HEROIC REBEL

“What,” Korra hissed, eyes flashing down the page. Asami was, apparently, in prison.


* * *

 

Asami had thankfully never had reason to visit the Republic City Prison before, but it was far more crowded than she had envisioned.

Most of the cells were filled with men and women who had been part of the Equalists. Faces that Asami recognized even if she didn’t know their names.

They recognized her as well. Somehow word of her arrest had gotten to the newspapers. The Asami Sato story was apparently front page news.

“It’s the traitor,” someone said, voice carrying across the cells.

The other prisoners shifted to catch a glimpse of her. Those who had been Equalists sneered at her. Even the other prisoners, bender and nonbender alike, regarded her coldly.

Asami squared her shoulders, keeping her gaze fixed ahead. She remembered her mother at a gala shortly after her father’s death, moving across the room with an impassive expression to fend off the whispers about the young, tragic widow. Asami would need a similar fortitude here.

“Acting all high and mighty like you’re above us,” another prisoner spat. “But look where you ended up. Colluding with the benders got you arrested just like the rest of us.”

A laugh came from somewhere to Asami’s left. The woman matched the description of an Agni Kai Triad leader arrested months ago. “Maybe she’s a bender too,” the woman said, lips twisted in a vicious smirk. “Maybe all of your leaders were benders.”

“He wasn’t a bender!” someone to Asami’s right shrieked.

“The whole thing was staged,” another voice yelled. “A lie created by your runaway Avatar.”

“Well at least she’s not dead!”

Several other enraged shouts joined the argument from both benders and nonbenders alike. The aftermath of Amon’s fight against the Avatar had left more questions than answers, particularly in regards to the revelation of Amon’s secret bending. Eyewitnesses like Councilman Tenzin were good enough for most of the city’s benders. Various non-bending civilians and a few arrested Equalists had reported the same story. Some others insisted it was a setup, that the Avatar had just made it look like Amon had been bending. But the largest group, by far, were those too shocked by events to give an accurate recap.

What was certain that Amon was dead.

Asami had read about his downfall in the newspaper that Iroh had provided while she had been under the United Force’s custody. She hadn’t truly believed that Amon was dead at first. The man had seemed untouchable while leading the Equalists. Every bender he had fought had fallen. His powers seemed, truly, gifted by the spirits. His very death seemed farfetched.

Then again, so did the idea that he was secretly a waterbender, a bloodbender no less. That had been a hard claim to swallow at first, but Amon’s bending would explain how easily he had resisted Tarrlok during their confrontation. And it wouldn’t be the first time Asami had seen a waterbender pose as a nonbender.

Korra’s face flickered through Asami’s thoughts, but she forced the image away. She didn’t know enough about what had truly transpired at the arena or Korra’s role in the events, and she couldn’t afford to focus on those thoughts on the way to her own interrogation.

She’d have time to process everything once she was installed in the prison here.

The officer walking in front of Asami rapped her baton on the bars of a cell. “Quiet down, the lot of you,” she barked.

Asami’s eyes followed the movement, and her eyes landed on a figure in the darkness of the cell. Amber eyes, full of blazing hatred bore into her. She stumbled on her next step, and the prisoner smirked.

It was Kin. Asami hadn’t expected to see any of the Equalist leaders, especially not one of their most talented chi-blockers. Once upon a time, Asami had trained vigorously under Kin, hoping to earn one of the woman’s rare compliments.

Now, she was deeply grateful for the bars separating them and the police officers escorting her. Without both, Asami was certain that Kin would have tried to kill her.

A hand settled on her shoulder for a second, a silent show of support from General Iroh. She flashed him a grateful look. He continued to go out of his way to show himself as her ally, even throughout her time under the United Forces’ custody.

They passed the rest of the cells without incident, though Asami could feel Kin’s gaze on her the whole way.

Her escort led her to an interrogation room beyond the cell block. Inside was a single metal table and three plain chairs. A stern woman with a scar on her right cheek stood inside with her arms crossed. Asami recognized her as Chief Lin Beifong.

“Sato. So you’re the famed Equalist Traitor,” the woman said.

“Chief Beifong,” Asami said with a faint bow of her head.

The police chief appraised her in silence for a moment before motioning to the chair by the table. “Have a seat. We have several questions for you.”

Asami nodded, expecting as much. The United Forces had questioned her about Equalist plans and technology at several points over the last two days. She took the indicated seat.

“If you are uncooperative or initiate a physical altercation, you will be restrained for the duration of your questioning.” The chief’s voice was flat. She clearly said this to everyone.

“Understood, Chief Beifong,” she replied quietly. Asami absently ran a hand over the metal restraints on her chair. If this metalbender wanted, Asami would be bound to the chair in a blink. She resisted old habits of thought, justified fears of benders, as Iroh sat forward.

“Lin, I told you that won’t be necessary,” he said.

“It’s standard procedure, Iroh,” Lin said. She waved a hand and the two police officers from Asami’s escort posted themselves outside the door and shut it. Iroh sat down to the side while Chief Beifong remained standing.

Lin picked up a folder from the table, absently opening to a page in the middle. “You’ve become quite the celebrity overnight, Sato. Already I’ve received calls from nearly every major newspaper requesting an interview with you—as if the police department functioned as your press secretary. Lau Gan-Lan had some choice words for you upon his release. I’m half-tempted to set his lawyers on you so they get out of my hair.”

Asami remained quiet, unsure of how to respond.

“The city seems ready to deem you either a hero or a traitor,” Lin continued. “And yet you’ve turned yourself in, and the reports from the United Forces indicate that you’ve been cooperative throughout everything.”

“Miss Sato has been extremely helpful with all of her assistance,” Iroh remarked. “Thanks directly to her information, we’ve located and disabled two major Equalist bases.”

Lin gaze flickered toward him for a second before she returned her attention to Asami. “I’m curious how a nineteen year old becomes a leader within the Equalists to have access to such information.” Her gaze fixed expectantly on Asami.

Asami blinked. She had expected further questions about the Equalists’ plans or her inventions, not about herself. “I’m afraid it’s a bit of a long story,” she said. “But I was raised in the movement from its earliest days. My mother has long been one its primary supporters.”

“Why did you and your mother join?”

Asami swallowed. “When I was six, a firebender broke into our home, looking for valuables. In the process, he killed my father.”

“I remember the case,” Lin said. “The man was caught and sentenced to life in prison. Died two years later.”

Lin seemed unaffected by that detail. Yasuko had raged for days. She’d wanted him to pay for what he’d done, and he’d skipped out on the consequences.

“After my father’s death, my mother was so lonely and empty. It felt like our family was just barely holding itself together. My mother was left with a deep mistrust of all benders, and in her grief, she met others who felt the same way. Families and friends who had been harmed by benders in some way. They could see that the laws greatly benefited benders, and too many were able to get away with harming or exploiting nonbenders.”

“And so these people began making plans to take out all benders?” Lin asked. Asami was grateful she’d said it as a question, not a statement.

“The Equalist movement wasn’t about removing benders from the world,” Asami said. “Not in the beginning.” The movement had originally been about justice, not revenge. “It started out as a political protest. We just wanted equal rights for nonbenders. More job opportunities. Equal pay. Representation on the council. After Councilman Sokka died, nonbenders could never get a seat.”

Her mother, Liu, and the other original members had been young. Filled with a passionate enthusiasm at making a change. It had been electrifying to Asami as a child.

But that idealism hadn’t lasted. “When nothing changed, the Equalists began contemplating other measures. Then Amon arrived and the movement transformed rapidly from there. He galvanized everything to greater heights, farther extremes... At some point, a line was crossed, and the cause I fought for was no longer recognizable.” Asami sighed. “And I wasn’t willing to see it until it was too late.”

Lin regarded her with an impassive expression. If even a part of Asami’s story had moved her, she didn’t show it. “So I can assume that Future Industries has been financially supporting the Equalist movement since its inception?”

“Yes.” Despite Asami’s best efforts.

“And all of the factory workers were confirmed Equalists?” Lin asked.

“No.” The word left Asami’s mouth empathically. “No, only a small portion of our employees were directly involved in Equalist activities, mostly at the management levels. I can give you the names I remember, and if I had a list, I could provide more. The majority were kept unaware of where the parts they constructed were heading. We developed a system of interchangeable units. The assembly line workers would construct forklift interiors, some of which we did install into forklifts. But some shipments were diverted to a separate plant where the Equalists would install the interiors on mecha tanks.”

“I’ve already opened up an investigation into Future Industries,” Lin said. “We’ve searched your mother’s office and the secret factory beneath your house already, but it seems that someone arrived before us and took a great deal of paperwork with them, including information on the finances and employees. Until we have more information, I’m afraid that anyone under your mother’s employment is under suspicion.”

“I understand,” Asami said, dropping her gaze. Her mother and Liu must have raided both locations after they had escaped from the airfield. The documents they had stolen would make it harder for the police to conduct any kind of thorough investigation.  Asami would provide what information she knew, but even she hadn’t been privy to every detail of the Equalists’ plans in the way her mother had been.

She hoped that the employees who had not been involved with the Equalist work could at least start rebuilding their lives though. Losing their jobs would be hard enough without the adding burden of police suspicion.

Lin turned a page in the folder. “So you were the primary inventor of all the Equalist tech?”

“My mother was the primary inventor,” Asami said. “I worked as her assistant on most projects because I was young. It was only in the last few months that I was given my own assignments, primarily overseeing the work in the main fac