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A Cog in the Machine, Book One

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The flames came hard and fast, striking at Korra from every direction.

It took all her training, all she’d been working at for years, merely to keep herself from getting burned to a crisp.  Her master had commanded the others to hold nothing back, and she was expected to respond in kind.

Normally, she would combat firebending with careful use of water or earth – but this was an examination, and there were rules.

That didn’t mean she couldn’t have some fun with it, though.

Korra gave a great, joyful laugh before releasing a great torrent of her own fire from each fist.  The concussive force easily broke through and neutralized those of her opponents, forcing the two robed men backward.

For an earthbender, now would be the time to sit still and wait for their reaction.  A waterbender would enter a stance that was ready to turn any counterattacks back on themselves.

But fire was the element of passion, and drive.  So Korra wasted little time in pressing the attack further, following two more jabs with a sweeping kick that sent a wide stream of flame toward her opponents, knocking them right off their feet.

“She’s strong,” her master said from the sidelines, not at all disapprovingly.

“She lacks restraint,” murmured another, his expression less certain.

Korra, for her part, was amply demonstrating the truth of both these observations.  Sent sprawling to the ground, there was little the other firebenders could do but shield themselves from her continued assault.  Blast after blast, each a near-perfect balance in controlled release of power and overwhelming ferocity, rained down upon them.

One of the men bravely attempted to provide cover for the other by spinning wildly, a tornado of flame coming to life and following his movements as he leapt to his feet.  But Korra had been ready for this…and she’d positioned them both right where she wanted them.

A raised wall of flame easily broke through the tornado, allowing her a clear shot.  She experienced the still-strange but utterly thrilling sensation of chi traveling up her body as she summoned a great amount of it to concentrate at her light chakra, twisting and turning and building until…

The explosion flowed naturally from her third eye, gouging a deep scar in the earth directly in front of her attacker.

Though she hadn’t been aiming to kill, or even injure significantly, the combustion reaction still caught the other firebender in mid-leap, sending him flying directly into his partner.  He’d be singed, at minimum, from proximity to the blast – but nothing the Lotus’ healers couldn’t fix, Korra was sure.

Either way, she wasn’t going to let that faze her.  Pulling off her training helmet and tossing it to the ground, the Avatar began to whoop and holler as she punched the air in triumph.

“Woo-hoo!” she called out, before running up to meet her two observers.  Neither seemed to share her enthusiasm, though her master was still smiling.  “Hey, why all the doom and gloom, people?  We should be celebrating!  Three elements down, one to go!”

“Don’t be getting too far ahead of yourself, Korra,” said Master P’Li.  “My grumpy-gills boyfriend hasn’t decided whether you’ve passed your firebending test yet.”

The statuesque woman hooked a thumb over her shoulder at Zaheer, who seemed to chafe a bit at the description.  Still, he ultimately took it in stride as he turned to regard Korra.

“Ever since you were a little girl, you’ve excelled at the physical side of bending.  But you’ve completely ignored the spiritual side,” he told her, his expression severe.  “The Avatar must master both.  You more than any other, since Wan.”

Korra bowed her head at this.  It wasn’t exactly something she was proud of.

“I haven’t ignored it, it just doesn’t come as easy to me,” she replied, though her tone became significantly more upbeat as she leapt upon the opportunity he’d laid out.  “But that’s why I should start airbending training with you immediately!  I mean, you’re Mister Spiritual.”

“Be that as it may, you know I can only take you so far,” said the robed man, one eye on the other two instructors P’Li had selected, as their fellow Red Lotus members helped them limp to a healing tent.  “Though I’ve dedicated my life to airbending culture and philosophy, only four individuals alive can manipulate the wind by their own hand.  And none would be amenable to our cause.”

“Yeah, but…well, it’s better than nothing, isn’t it?” Korra asked, trying and failing not to sound too much like she was pleading.  “I mean, we’ve talked about this, right?  You could at least get me started.  Show me the forms and see what sticks.”

Zaheer let out a very deep breath, as if steadying himself.  When he spoke again, it was with the air of a man fully expecting to regret every single word he was about to say.

“Very well, then,” he finally responded.  “We will commence your airbending training…”

Korra’s mouth went wide with excitement, but he held up a hand to forestall her reaction.

“…Starting tomorrow,” he finished, his tone leaving no room for argument.  “Today, I will be needed in the Spirit World.  Our contacts in Zaofu, the Northern Water Tribe, and Republic City all have reports I need to be party to.  Many troubling things are brewing, and I need to ensure they won’t interfere with our plans for Harmonic Convergence.”

Korra gave a deep, disappointed sigh, but ultimately nodded.  She knew how important those plans were – to Zaheer, to the Red Lotus, to the physical and spiritual planes as a whole.

And it was only one day, after all.

Still, since they were presently only a few hours out from sunrise and she was totally jazzed from her victory, Korra chanced to ask, “What should I do with the rest of the day, then?”

“If there are no objections from your other masters,” answered Zaheer, casting a sideways glance to P’Li, who simply shrugged her well-toned shoulders.  “Then the rest of the day is yours, to do as you see fit.  But if you would like my suggestion…”

“Please,” said Korra.

“Then I would suggest you grab a bite to eat,” continued the non-bender, actually cracking the thinnest of smiles.  “And after that, I think it would do you well to revisit each of your other instructors, for a few hours of review.  Each element in the Avatar Cycle builds upon the last, after all.  Your mind will be all the more receptive to learn the element of freedom, if it has first been firmly grounded in change, substance, and power.”

“I won’t let you down, Master Zaheer,” she declared quietly, placing one fist against her palm in her most respectful bow.  “And if it’s convenient…I’ll see you again, Master P’Li, around sunset?”

“You know where to find me,” said the combustionbender with a wry smirk.  “Dismissed, Avatar Korra.”

Korra maintained her dignified composure as she departed from the couple…but as soon as she – incorrectly – believed herself to be out of their eyeshot, she began leaping into the air again, releasing celebratory sparks with one hand and forming a great, victorious fist of ice with the other.

“She isn’t ready for this.  For any of this,” whispered Zaheer, shaking his head.  “And Harmonic Convergence is only a year away…”

“She will be,” P’Li told her boyfriend, her tone more confident than she actually felt.  “I mean, she has to be, right?  It’s not like we’ve got any other choice.  She’s the Avatar.  We’ve just got to deal with it.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Korra’s early lunch – or late breakfast, whatever you wanted to call it – was fairly light.  One of the Red Lotus attendants had prepared some sort of pig-chicken stew, which was decent for what it was.  He wasn’t a spectacular cook, but it wasn’t like they were awash in too many other options.

The accommodations and resources available in these hideouts were necessarily sparse.  The core group she belonged to – herself, Zaheer, P’Li, Ghazan, and Ming-Hua – moved about frequently to avoid detection, surrounding themselves with existing recruits in each new place they settled.

It was easier, given how numerous the lower-level members were and how unwieldy it’d be to transport so many at once, to simply assemble a new group of operatives each time.  But while efficient, this made it fairly difficult to strike up any meaningful relationships.

She was on good terms with all four of her masters, of course – even Ming-Hua, who was pretty easy to get along with once you grasped her incredibly dark sense of humor.  But they were all far older than she was, and the nature of the master-student relationship made it difficult to call them “friends.”

Friends…that was something she’d never really experienced, growing up within the Lotus.  Recruiting as they did mostly from the disaffected ranks of their parent society, they tended not to pick up very many children or teenagers – Korra herself being an obvious exception, for equally obvious reasons.

And on those very few occasions their cause did acquire someone who was about her age, it would only be at most two or three weeks before they moved again.  After that, it was a virtual certainty she’d never see them again.

There’d been this one boy…the son of a Fire Nation general, who was on the outs with Fire Lord Izumi over suspected ties to the Kemurikage.  Korra was embarrassed to say she didn’t even remember his name.  But he’d been nice.  Cute too, if she was being honest with herself.

But the eventual arrest of his father had made him a liability, and meant they’d needed to depart the Fire Nation that very night.  He could be dead now, for all Korra knew.

Right now, they were deep in the forests in the northwestern Earth Kingdom, a few days’ drive from the Serpent’s Pass.  Most of their time was spent in various places like this, as the sheer size of the continent made it difficult for the Earth Queen to assert her nominal control of all of it at a time.

Formally speaking, ever since King Bumi had abolished the royal house of Omashu on his deathbed, the Earth Kingdom outside Ba Sing Se had been devoid of any other monarchs.  In practice, of course, a great variety of feudal lords and governors functioned as such in all but name, and Hou-Ting’s historically disastrous and self-indulgent rule had only exacerbated that fact.

Which led to a system where it was easy for a small, secretive group like the Lotus to slip quietly through the cracks.

These hideouts weren’t prisons, technically, but Korra almost never left them.  The eyes of the White Lotus were everywhere, and so unless it was absolutely necessary for her training, she tended to avoid going to places where there’d be too many prying eyes.

Korra couldn’t help but clench a fist, as she thought about their most hated enemy.  They’d already cost her so much, in their mad quest to control the Avatar for themselves – her family, her home.

It was in times like these that she felt, most acutely, how much else they’d stolen from her on the day they’d killed her parents.  An entire future she could’ve had.

One where she wouldn’t have to feel this alone.

Korra sighed as she put down her chopsticks; suddenly, she didn’t really feel very hungry.  She bowed her head to the attendant, who collected her bowl for washing, and left the dining area without another word.

She had some waterbending training to get to.

 

[--------------------]

 

“No, no, no!  You know this, Korra!  Now get the stance right this time!” Ming-Hua commanded harshly, bringing one of her water-arms down like a cracking whip to emphasize her point.

The Avatar gritted her teeth in frustration, but dutifully repositioned herself and started again.  Using waterbending in place of her own limbs didn’t come nearly as easily to her as it did the armless woman – though she figured that was probably true of all other waterbenders – but it was a useful skill, especially once one mastered the ability to do it all with the mind.

In theory, it worked much the same way as P’Li’s combustionbending: mapping the pathways of the chi mentally, and then willing it to flow in the way she needed.  Used perfectly, nearly any bending was possible without moving a single muscle.

Of course, that was far more easily said than done.

The Octopus Form, on which Ming-Hua’s signature style was a variant, normally operated by mirroring the movements of the limbs in the “tentacles” she created.  Having two arms and two legs, Korra certainly could do it that way, and when under the knife it was what she defaulted to.

But it was still good to practice the “psychic” variant (as the newspapers had once coined, when describing similar feats by the crimelord Yakone forty years prior), just in case she was ever bound or paralyzed.

Taking a deep breath and relaxing her muscles, Korra again looked deep within herself and mentally pictured her chi flow.  This sort of thing wouldn’t work if she was too tense, tried to force it.  She was a guide for the energy, nothing more or less.

“Better,” said Ming-Hua, as a lengthy stream of water formed around Korra’s right arm, much stronger this time than the last.  Experimentally, she moved it back and forth with a mere thought.  “Now the left.”

This one was easier, as it was in the element’s nature to seek balance.  A second stream came to life, moving in perfect harmony with the first.

And the middle,” added the older waterbender, grinning slyly.  “Scorpion Form.”

Finally, for the first time since her firebending test, a smile returned to Korra’s face.  The Scorpion Form had been her own invention, the feat that’d originally completed her training with water and allowed her to move on to earth, and she was quite proud of it.

She’d reasoned, after a long time of trying and failing to match up to Ming-Hua’s sheer skill, that rather than pigeonholing herself into one or the other – the unparalleled style of her master, or the one used by virtually every other waterbender on the planet – why not combine both?  She was perhaps the only person alive who could.

Thus, she relinquished full mental control of the streams currently surrounding her arms, letting them be extensions of the limbs they were attached to once more.  And instead, she focused all her concentration on forming a third water-stream, attached to the base of her spine.

This one, when used in concert with the other two, resembled nothing if not the tail of a scorpion-bee, hence the name.  And if utilized properly, the three together provided an extremely potent defense and offense.

One which her master was clearly eager to test.

Ming-Hua formed the tips of both her water-arms into scythes made of ice, and scraped the blades together for dramatic effect.

“Let’s see how much you’ve still got, Avatar,” she whispered, clearly relishing this.  “Hopefully all the playing with rocks and sparks hasn’t made you too rusty.”

Korra would’ve cracked her knuckles, were they not currently encased in liquid.  She settled for imagining it, in any event.

Because she was just as eager.

The two women lunged at each other, the five active streams of water clashing at each other like massive, fluid swords.  The winner of this match, Korra knew from ample experience, would be the first one whose control over the element slipped for even a moment.  That would be enough for the other to absorb their water into their own, depriving them of both their weapon and their only protection.

The water moved blindingly fast, almost quicker than the naked eye could see.  Twisting, grappling, fighting for dominance against the other.  The element shifted states constantly, and near-instantaneously, going from liquid to ice to vapor and back again as the situation required; sometimes, all of the above in a manner of seconds.

Korra held a small advantage, in that she had access to three streams instead of two.  This gave her a slight edge in mobility – letting her use her “tail” to swing from the ceiling while the other two continued to fight, for example – but all that really did was slightly level the playing field, given the wide gulf in their levels of experience.

Plus, she knew well that Ming-Hua could manifest far more “tentacles” than this, if she chose to.  Her use of only two was a self-restriction for the purposes of making this interesting, more than anything.

Still, Korra felt absolutely exhilarated as she weaved and bobbed around her master’s attacks, trying to force her streams aside and launch a swift and final counteroffensive.  There were small openings here and there, minute mistakes as the armless woman began to tire, but nothing large enough for the Avatar to actually strike at her body.

But if Ming-Hua was starting to make some slight errors in her form, Korra was making comparatively bigger ones, and the elder waterbender seized her moment just as her opponent landed from a leaping dodge of several thrown icicles.

One of her water-streams sliced through the one on Korra’s back, disrupting her concentration and collapsing the construct.  The other swiftly grabbed the Avatar by the midriff and solidified into ice, lifting her up nearly effortlessly.  The liquid surrounding Korra’s arms fell away into sad little puddles.

“I’ll admit, I’m impressed.  You haven’t gotten nearly as soft as I thought you would,” said Ming-Hua, chuckling a bit.  “But Avatar or not, the student’s still got nothing on the master.”

Though she was having difficulty breathing, however, Korra’s response to this was to don a wide smirk.  “You…sure about that…?” she asked, her voice choked but confident.

A sound emerged directly behind the older woman, and she didn’t need to turn around to know what’d just happened; her waterbending senses told her the entire story.

The “tail” that she’d detached from Korra’s body had slunk quietly behind her, and solidified into ice.  The bladed “stinger” now sat less than an inch from the back of her neck.

“Well played, Korra.  Well played,” she admitted, as both the ice holding the Avatar and threatening her own life fell away in an instant.  “You can control it psychically even when it’s not touching your body, now?”

“Only for a little while,” replied Korra, who was now cleaning up by bending all the excess water Ming-Hua wasn’t using into clay jars.  “And I still can’t do it all the time.  Firebending training helped, honestly.  It’s not that different from growing or smothering a fire that’s burning on its own.”

“Really?  Guess I owe P’Li five yuans, then,” said Ming-Hua, shaking her head and sighing.  “I was teasing her the other day about how waterbending gave fire that whole ‘lightning redirection’ thing, but firebending hasn’t done jack for water.  She bet she’d prove me wrong by the end of the week.”

“You should know by now not to bet Master P’Li at anything,” Korra told her teacher with a grin.  “She never loses.  And when she does, she cheats.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get the point,” grumbled the elder waterbender.  “Don’t you have some pebbles to go throw around, or something?”

“Oof, right!” exclaimed Korra, slapping her forehead as she glanced at a nearby clock.  “I told Master Ghazan I’d meet him at the canyon ten minutes ago!  Err…hate to spar and dash, but…”

“Eh, just get going,” Ming-Hua responded, one of her water-arms moving in an approximation of a dismissive hand-wave.  “I’ve had my fill of your sorry excuse for waterbending for the day.”

“Right back at ya!” the Avatar called back, and with that, she was gone.

 

[--------------------]

 

Though she was fond of all her teachers among the Red Lotus, in their own ways, Ghazan was far and away Korra’s favorite.

A distinct reminder of why was waiting for her at the bottom of a canyon near their hideout, one that locals called “The Great Divide,” where the mustached earthbender sat on a pile of stone and sipped a cup of piping-hot tea.

“Ah, there’s the girl,” he said fondly, offering her a second cup as she slid down the rocks to meet him.  “Here, have some before we start.”

“Managed to heat it up without melting the pot this time, I see,” she quipped, smiling.

“Well, it was a near miss,” replied Ghazan with a chuckle.  “Cooking with lava is…pretty unpredictable.  It’s not like firebending where you can just stick your hand under it, turn up the juice, and – boom!  Instant good eating.  Man, if I could pick up just one trick from another element…”

“You ever gonna tell me where you came up with lavabending, anyway?” asked Korra, sipping as she did.  Man this was good tea.  Jasmine, she was pretty sure.  “I mean, I’m the only other person on the planet who can do it.  Seems like I should know.”

At this, Ghazan just reached over and ruffled her hair a bit.  “Maybe when you’re older,” he said.

She rolled her eyes at him.  “You’ve been saying that to me since I was five,” she responded.  “I’m seventeen now, for the spirits’ sake.  I get any older and I’ll start growing a mustache myself.”

“It’s still the only answer you’re getting.  At least for now,” he told her, calmly putting away the tea set and stripping off the outer layers of his robes.

Korra couldn’t help but flush a bit at the earthbender’s shirtless body, which he flexed without an ounce of shame.  Her other teachers always taught her in full training garb – she wasn’t sure Zaheer ever wore anything less than his traditional gray robes, even when he and P’Li were alone together – but Ghazan was everything but formal, and dressed accordingly.

Plus, when you were throwing around big chunks of lava all the time, long flowing robes tended to be a bit of a liability.

Taking a low, defensive stance, Ghazan then said, “Alright, Korra.  We’ll start with the basics.  No lava yet.”

For the next couple hours, Korra shifted through a number of forms – not only in the “traditional” style that most members of the Earth Kingdom used, but also the style the legendary Toph Beifong had pioneered, and passed onto both Republic City’s police force and Zaofu’s Metal Clan.

Ghazan couldn’t metalbend himself, though he understood the theory, and had passed it on dutifully to his prized pupil.  Either way, the fundamentals of the style (rumored to come directly from the badger-moles themselves) were as applicable to “regular” earthbending as they were to iron and copper.

Wherever Ghazan had first learnt his craft, he was undeniably brilliant at it, blending both styles with a number of moves apparently of his own invention.  It was these that she practiced next, because they were the easiest ones through which to make the transition to lavabending.

Earth was a stubborn element, and even though she’d been doing it for nearly five years now, changing its state was still an incredibly tricky prospect.  In some ways her waterbending training helped, as on a very basic level the principle was the same, but in other ways it was a hindrance.

Chi didn’t flow naturally through rock, the way it did water or fire.  With those elements, if you offered them the path of least resistance, the energy would travel right along that channel on its own.

To move earth, she needed to be like earth.  It wouldn’t change to liquid with a mere breath, a subtle twist of the hand, the way water would.  It needed her to show it, head-on, that she was its master, and loosen the bonds of energy within it by sheer force of will.

It was hard, every single time.  Some of the hardest bending she’d ever had to do.  But thankfully, Korra had the right personality to pull it off.

After all, more than one person had told her she was the most absolutely stubborn person they’d ever met in their lives.

With a great grunt of effort, Korra grounded herself, centered all her energy, and stomped upon the canyon floor, as hard as she possibly could.

The impact of the vibrations shook every loose rock in the area, and actually managed to knock Ghazan off-balance.  But the main effect was much clearer.  The ground in front of her, stretching for several yards in every direction, was molten and boiling.

“Nice!  That’s the biggest one you’ve done yet!” exclaimed her teacher, laughing jubilantly and cracking his neck at the same time.  “Now let’s see you send some my way.  No holding back, y’hear?”

“Alright!  But you asked for it!” Korra shouted back, palming one fist in anticipation.  Then she struck.

This was a very different sort of duel than most earthbenders tended to get up to, the Avatar was fairly certain.  Rocks were fairly blunt instruments, both for attacking and defending; the best non-bending metaphors would be weapons like shields, warhammers, and catapults.  You threw them, and the opponent met them head-on, shattering them or at least weakening their impact before striking back.

A match between lavabenders was…not that.  The closest thing, she supposed, might’ve been a sandbender fight, but those tended not to be seen much outside of the desert.

Just like in making lava, controlling it was about applying waterbending principles of turning the opponent’s energy against them to an element that resisted those principles with its very essence. 

Lava she’d created would not remain “hers” for even a second longer than she could impress all her physical and mental strength upon it.  Each punch or kick she used to direct it, or to counter Ghazan’s own, had to be a whole new statement that she was its master, and it would bow to her will.

The other difference, of course, was that ordinarily earthbending was easily the most “physical” of the bending disciplines.  The vast majority of moves involved physically striking, grasping, or otherwise making direct contact with the element, to impart the bender’s own strength upon it as efficiently as possible.

Lava, however, could not be touched.  It couldn’t even be approached without serious consequence.  While it was true that bent lava was nowhere near as hot as the magma that dwelt in the Fire Nation’s volcanoes, it was still powerful enough to set things aflame by mere proximity.

As such, great care had to be taken to place some distance between herself and the element she controlled, and the ability to rapidly cool lava that was approaching her was just as important as heating it up in the first place.

It also made for an absolute spectacle for any potential observer, Korra was fairly certain, though of course she had bigger things to worry about in the moment.  Still, she was glad the preponderance of canyon crawlers in this area made the chance of onlookers very low indeed.

Because they needed to keep their distance from their element, grand and massive floes of lava were their best means of attack – either for aiming directly at their opponent, or at the ground, in order to try and disrupt their footing.

Already there was barely any room to walk or run, as larger and larger portions of the canyon floor became a molten sea.  But that only gave both of them more ammunition to draw from, for yet greater and more dramatic displays of power.

Finally, once the two of them were standing on the only small islands of walkable ground remaining in sight, Ghazan held up both hands, and Korra let the volley of lava she’d been preparing drop at a safe distance behind her.

The lavabender closed his eyes and took a deep breath, the sweat glistening across his heavily tattooed body.  Then he slowly lowered both arms as he exhaled, and in turn, every single square inch of lava cooled back to rock.

“I think that’s enough for today,” he said, though he was smiling broadly.  “Man am I proud of you, Korra.  You’ve gotten farther in five years than I did in thirty.”

Though she tried not to, Korra’s cheeks went pink again at the compliment.  “Well, y’know, I…I had a good teacher,” she mumbled, not meeting his gaze.

Alright, fine.  Yes, she had the teeniest bit of a crush on the older man.  Not one she was ever going to act on, but it was there.

But those feelings were normal at her age – at least she’d read they were, it wasn’t like anyone in the Lotus was gonna sit down and talk with her about it – and really, who else would they be centered on?  P’Li still acted too much like the weapon she’d been raised to be for Korra to feel that way about her, and while it wasn’t exactly polite to say out loud, she just plain didn’t find Ming-Hua’s missing arms attractive.

And as for Zaheer, well…he was Zaheer.

Thankfully, Ghazan either didn’t notice or didn’t question her blushing, and instead propelled them up out of the canyon with great pillars of earth.  They didn’t have any food on them, and Korra doubted any scent from the tea was left after all the lava-slinging, but it couldn’t hurt to be careful.

As they landed back on the distinctly not melted ground overlooking the Great Divide, the mustached lavabender clapped her on the shoulder and smiled again.

“Ah, look at that sunset,” he stated quietly, gesturing at the horizon.  “That’s really why we’re doing this, y’know?  The natural world was in perfect balance before man came along – before Wan, before benders, before everything.  Give them long enough, and the governments of the world will find some way to muck up the sunset somehow.  The spirits know, they’ve mucked up everything else.”

“The sunset!” exclaimed Korra, suddenly remembering.  “That’s right, I said…”

“You gotta get to P’Li?” asked Ghazan, to which she nodded.  “Well, don’t let me hold you up.  I’ll still be here when you get back.  Until then, Korra.”

She bowed, lower than she had to any of her other teachers.  “Until then, Master Ghazan,” she said, leaving before he could see her cheeks again.

 

[--------------------]

 

“Sorry I’m late, Master P’Li.  I got held up a bit with…” Korra had started to say as she returned to the hideout, but her sentence petered off midway as she saw the expressions both P’Li and her boyfriend were wearing.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, after several silent beats.  “Did something happen?”

“I completed my conference with Aiwei, Unalaq, and Jilu just a few minutes ago,” explained Zaheer.  “A great deal of news, much of it…concerning.  Gather the others, please.  I want everyone here for this.”

These last few words were directed to a couple of attendants, who nodded and bowed themselves out.

As they waited for Ghazan and Ming-Hua to be fetched, Korra couldn’t help but speculate what her non-bending mentor had learned; he’d returned to meditation in the meantime, and if P’Li knew anything she was about as forthcoming as a brick wall.

The only name she recognized was Unalaq, the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe and her paternal uncle.  She’d only met him once in her life, and she couldn’t help but shiver a bit at the memory.  Senior member of the Lotus he might be, but he still gave her the creeps from head to toe.

In any event, the Avatar didn’t have long to speculate.  “This had better be good,” said Ming-Hua, her water-arms crossed as the attendants led her and Ghazan in.  Both slipped out of the room immediately after, leaving the five of them alone.

“I suppose that depends on your definition,” replied Zaheer, his eyes opening into a severe expression.  “Either way, it is something we’ll need to deal with.”

“What’s going on, exactly?” Ghazan asked, one hand on his chin.

“As you all know, we planned to arrange the assassination, or abdication, of every world leader in the weeks leading up to Harmonic Convergence – the Fire Lord, Earth Queen, Water Tribe chieftains, and Council of Republic City,” he told the others.  “The resultant chaos in the physical world should strengthen Vaatu, and allow him to escape his prison in the Tree of Time.  But now, something threatens that goal.”

“Is something going wrong in the Spirit World?” P’Li wondered aloud.

“No.  All our plans on that plane are going as well as can be expected,” said Zaheer.  “Right now, it’s the material world that concerns me.  For you see…”

He slapped a thin, worn flyer onto the table in front of him.

“It looks like someone else might be beating us to the punch,” he finished, frowning deeply.

All four of the others, Korra included, leaned in to read the text on the leaflet.  It featured a picture of a masked face, and several broad statements of propaganda, under the title of…

“The…‘Equalists’…?” she read off, confused by the term.

“An anti-bender revolutionary faction, which has steadily been gaining ground across the United Republic,” Zaheer informed her.  “We first became aware of them about a month ago, and I’ve been having our operatives collect intelligence ever since.  They smuggled us this flyer last week, and Jilu just offered me a number of new details.”

Ghazan picked up the paper and scrutinized the portrait.  “This supposed to be their leader?” he asked.

“He goes by the name ‘Amon.’  But we’re fairly certain that’s an alias,” said Zaheer.  “So far, he’s been keeping to the shadows.  We don’t know anything about his true identity, his abilities, or even his long-term goals.  All we know is this: he’s been trying to stir up a movement against benders all throughout the Republic…and from what Jilu told me, it’s working.

“Wait, why does this guy hate benders so much?” Korra demanded, her eyes narrowed at the drawing.  The masked man’s own eyes, though she knew they were only a few dark brushstrokes, almost seemed to be following her around the room.  “What’d we ever do to him?”

“That’s one of the things we need to find out,” he answered.  “Which…is where you come in, Korra.”

“I don’t…wait, what?” responded the Avatar, looking utterly bewildered.

“Yeah, what’re you getting at, baldy?” Ming-Hua added darkly.  “I’m not sure I like where this is going.”

“Neither do I, to tell the truth,” said Zaheer.  “But be that as it may, I can think of no better alternative.  Korra…”

He turned to stare intently at her, and only her.  It struck Korra that his face suddenly seemed decades older, and when he spoke again, it was with the deepest, gravest tone he’d ever used with the young Avatar.

“I’d like for you to go undercover in Republic City.”

 

[--------------------]

 

“Reports from the men who’ve been…interrogating the mole we found, sir,” said a masked man, holding a thick stack of papers covered with hasty, untidy scrawl.  A bit of blood stained the one on top.

“Very good.  You’re dismissed,” responded the Lieutenant, and the other Equalist slipped out of the room without another word.

It was strange, how he even used the term “Lieutenant” in his own thoughts now.  As if it was the only name he had anymore.

But then, he supposed, perhaps in a sense it was.  Names didn’t matter here.

Only the mission did.

“Is it as I suspected?” asked the only other person in the chamber, his booming baritone commanding the Lieutenant’s full attention, even if what he spoke was barely above a whisper.

“It is,” he answered, scrutinizing the handwritten notes.  “The Red Lotus is aware of us.  They’re watching…and waiting.  What should we do about them?”

Slowly, the masked man turned from the map of the world he’d been studying intently, his dull blue eyes boring into the Lieutenant’s own.

“If they are content to watch, and wait…then for now, I think we should extend them the same courtesy,” said Amon.  “For in time, Lieutenant…”

Beneath his mask, though of course the other man could not see it, Noatak’s lip curled.

“All roads lead to the Solution.”

Chapter Text

“I…I don’t understand what you’re asking,” said Korra, still utterly floored by the words Zaheer had just spoken. “I mean…what about my airbending training?”

“It will have to be postponed, I’m afraid. At least for now,” replied her non-bending mentor. “Though depending on how things work out, this mission may wind up indirectly playing toward that goal. We can discuss that later, however.”

“Why her?” Ghazan asked the obvious question. “And why now?”

“The four of us are wanted criminals throughout the world,” stated Zaheer. “Even disguised, there’s too great a chance we’d be recognized and discovered. But most of the planet hasn’t seen the Avatar since she was five years old. Short of actively bending multiple elements in front of someone, the likelihood of her being found out is near zero. And besides…”

He placed one hand on Korra’s shoulder.

“I never intended the Red Lotus to be your prison, Korra,” he continued, his tones low and serious. “We’ve kept you close because we wanted to keep you safe, but every day, it broke my heart to see you chafe at it. How can we expect to stand for true freedom, when we don’t even allow one of our own to spread her wings and fly on the wind?”

“But I don’t know the first thing about the rest of the world!” exclaimed Korra, trying to keep distress and anxiety out of her voice and not altogether succeeding. “I mean, of course I’ve always wanted to go out there, find my own way, but…”

Zaheer held up a hand to interrupt her.

“Harmonic Convergence is only a year away,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve been looking for a place I could send you for some time now, to help prepare yourself. You can’t learn everything you need to know on that day, just by training with the four of us in these tiny little compounds. This just gives me a convenient excuse…one which will serve the Lotus on multiple other fronts, as well.”

“What kind of mission are we talking about, anyway?” asked P’Li. “And what does it have to do with those ‘Equalist’ people?”

“According to Jilu, he’s heard some rumors that Hiroshi Sato, the president of Future Industries, has financial ties with the Equalists,” Zaheer told his girlfriend. “It’ll be your job, Korra, to find out whether those rumors are true. Unalaq says that Future Industries is currently importing labor from the Northern Water Tribe, to assist with processing in their factories. It’s the perfect cover.”

“And if this Sato guy does turn out dirty?” demanded Ming-Hua, turning the end of one of her liquid appendages to ice and cupping her chin with it. “What then?”

“Then she uses him to get close to Amon,” he answered, gesturing at the masked face on the flyer again. “Either to see if he can be useful as an ally, to advance the cause of the Red Lotus. Or, if not…”

The waterbender brought the ice-tipped “arm,” now refashioned into a blade, near her throat, and made a single slicing motion.

“Exactly,” said Zaheer.

“If he’s really got such a big hate-on for benders, I can’t see how he’d like joining with a group like ours,” Korra pointed out. “Especially not if he knew who I am. Heck, he’s pretty much my exact opposite.”

“Precisely why I think you’re the best person to handle this,” Zaheer responded, locking his fingers together thoughtfully. “As I said, we have no idea what kinds of weapons or abilities Amon has at his disposal. Presumably he’s a non-bender himself, but that’s no reason to discount him as a threat – as I know well. Should it come to open confrontation, there’s no one I’d trust more than you, Korra.”

The teenaged Avatar looked askance and chuckled nervously at the compliment. While he wasn’t quite the drill sergeant Ming-Hua was, he didn’t exactly dole them out all that often.

“You said…err…that I’d be ‘serving on multiple fronts,’ right?” she asked, choosing to skirt around the issue. “What exactly did you mean by that?”

“Dealing with the Equalists is only one goal we have in operation within Republic City,” said Zaheer. “There are others you can assist with while you’re there. For example, while Jilu is well-placed for first strike against the Council, he is still only one man. Convincing or bribing other members of their staff – guards, clerks, even janitors – to look the other way when the time is right, will go a long way toward securing our success.”

The non-bender got to his feet and began pacing, twirling his staff – a genuine Air Nomad artifact they’d once recovered from the Eastern Air Temple – around in his hands, as he often did when he was deep in thought.

“The Republic City underworld, its police force, its communication systems…we know much, but there’s so much more we could know,” he went on, now talking to no one in particular. “Most of our people there are too…public to, say, stake out a meeting of the Triple-Threat Triads. You wouldn’t have that problem.”

“Maybe not…but she’d have others,” Ghazan cut in, his voice laced with concern. “I like the sound of this less and less the more I hear it. Sorry for how this is gonna sound, Korra, but he’s throwing you straight from the kiddie pool into the ocean. With no dry land in sight.”

“I’m not saying she wouldn’t have help,” declared Zaheer, his brow furrowed. “Jilu and our other operatives already in the city – nearly a hundred in total – can render whatever assistance she needs. And we wouldn’t be far. Going ahead with this plan would mean moving to a hideout just outside the United Republic’s borders. Worse comes to worse, we can sneak into the city and get her out.”

Ghazan still didn’t look fully convinced, but nodded once.

“I’ve got a question I can’t believe nobody’s asked yet,” said Ming-Hua in a snide voice, using a water-arm to slap lightly at Korra’s forehead. “Change of clothes, rougher hairstyle, that stuff’s easy. But what about this? Might as well have a big flashing sign with ‘I’m secretly a firebender’ written on it.”

Korra swallowed. Her waterbending master was right, of course; how could she have forgotten? Her tattoo was proof-positive that she could combustionbend, which was such a ridiculously rare ability that few things could possibly identify her quicker.

Ghazan shrugged his shoulders. “A headband, maybe?” he suggested.

Zaheer, however, shook his head.

“A headband could be removed in an instant, by anyone,” he replied. “Only an idiot would choose such a flimsy disguise. No, we have something far more effective. P’Li?”

The statuesque firebender strode over and pulled a small tub of some kind of cream from her pocket.

“Back when I was a…weapon…for the warlord Du Jun, one of his shamans developed this,” she explained, surprising Korra. She didn’t bring up that chapter of her life very often. “It’s a mix of herbs that hides spiritual tattoos from the naked eye, until or unless a strong enough pulse of chi moves through. It was useful whenever he needed me to assassinate someone who’d…who’d never see it coming.”

Wordlessly, Zaheer placed a comforting arm around his girlfriend, and despite the difference in their heights she melted into him readily. Without being asked to – albeit with a groan and roll of the eyes in Ming-Hua’s case – the rest of them turned their heads away, allowing the couple a moment of privacy to kiss.

Once they parted and everyone else turned back around, Zaheer’s face resumed its grave expression, and once again he placed a hand on Korra’s shoulder.

“Do you have any questions, Korra?” he asked softly. “Do you think you’re ready for this?”

“I’m…not sure,” she said, speaking honestly. “It’s so much to take in, but…if the Red Lotus needs me, I guess that’s that. Isn’t it? You’ve given me so much…I couldn’t refuse you now.”

“You shouldn’t go because it’s an obligation,” Zaheer told her quietly. “You should go because you know it’s the right thing to do. The only way true freedom will ever be given a chance to return to this world.”

“I know. I…I want that too,” Korra whispered, sincerely. “And if this mission means I get us a few steps closer to that, then I say…”

For the first time in at least an hour, the Avatar cracked a smile, and cracked her knuckles too for good measure.

“…Bring it on,” she finished, nodding confidently toward her teachers.

P’Li made a thoughtful “hmmm” sound through closed lips. “I guess that only leaves one thing,” she murmured. “You’ll need a new name. One nobody would ever connect with the Avatar who was thought dead twelve years ago.”

That decision needs to be fully up to you, Korra,” said Zaheer. “It’s what you’ll call yourself, day-in and day-out. Being slow to react to it could arouse suspicion.”

Now it was Korra’s turn to look pensive. She’d never really given that sort of thing a lot of thought before, mostly because the need for it had never come up.

The other core members of the Red Lotus all had multiple aliases, for use when they needed to head into towns for supplies or to meet with informants. Zaheer favored the name “Yorru,” for example – an obscure but pointed reference, since according to legend Yorru was the young, non-bending lover of Guru Laghima, whom her mentor idolized.

Perhaps she could think of something similar. But she wasn’t nearly as well-read as Zaheer, and choosing a name from something too popular probably wasn’t a good idea.

Unbidden, an image began to swim up from the back of her mind. When she’d been very young, only a couple years after her adoption by the Red Lotus, the five of them had once spent a few days on Ember Island, searching for a royal artifact supposedly buried there.

She’d forgotten some of the details, but somehow, she’d managed to cajole the others – okay, mostly Ghazan – into allowing her to see Pu-on Tim’s legendary play, The Boy in the Iceberg. Misguided and short-sighted as he might’ve been, Aang was still her predecessor, and it could only help to know more about the adventures of his youth…right?

A decade hence, it didn’t seem like his spirit was interested in telling her anything, after all…

Zaheer had argued against it, but ultimately relented, under the logic that the house was packed and nobody was likely to notice five more hooded and cloaked faces. Plus, in all honesty, she suspected he was curious. Before being outed as a Red Lotus member in his early twenties, the non-bender had been a frequent patron of the arts, and Korra knew how much he sometimes missed that.

Unfortunately, there’d been problems backstage that day. From what Ming-Hua had overheard (and immediately headed back to share; the acerbic woman was a surprisingly eager gossip), about an hour before curtain was set to rise, the actresses playing Aang and Katara had come to blows over the actor playing Toph…who ultimately wound up rejecting both of them, and hooking up with the actor playing Zuko instead.

The end result was a cast where about half the primary players refused to be in the same room as the others, much less put on the play.

Panicking, the theater director had decided he had no choice to make a last-minute swap for a performance with a much smaller cast of characters: the classic, if perhaps a bit overdone, Love Amongst the Dragons.

The performance was, without the cloud of youthful enthusiasm hanging over her eyes…well, awful. The acting was stilted, the props clearly thrown together at the last second, and one of the stage-hands had gotten his black bodysuit burned during the earlier altercation, so many in the audience were left wondering what a fat, big-nosed man was doing skulking around the back of the set the whole time.

But at age seven, Korra had been enthralled. The story of Lat-Dee (as theater aficionados often called it) was simple and easy-to-follow, but it’d survived for so long for a reason.

There was a basic, appealing humanity to the plight of the transformed Dragon Emperor, made mortal and left to fend for himself so far from home, and it wasn’t uncommon for the final, climactic scene – where he breaks his curse and embraces the Empress, reunited once more – to reduce even the most critical onlooker to tears.

In total, there were only three primary roles in the play: the Dragon Emperor, his love the Dragon Empress, and the Dark Water Spirit who opposes them. Most fans saw themselves in the one of the former two, but they hadn’t been the characters who most captured her attention.

To Korra, the Dark Water Spirit, the supposed villain of the story, was by far the most sympathetic character. She’d just been minding her own business at the start, after all. It was only after the Emperor trespassed into her domain, burned the Spirit’s sacred tree, and then refused to apologize that the Spirit had decided to curse her tormentor.

And everything had worked out for him in the end, hadn’t it? His time as a mortal had taught him a valuable lesson in hubris and, ultimately, had brought him together with his true love. One could easily argue the Spirit was the true hero of the tale.

In his mortal guise, the Dragon Emperor went by Noren; his Empress took the name Noriko while in her own. The Dark Water Spirit typically went nameless, but this wasn’t true in all versions of the play. And in the performance she had gone to see, the one that’d so captured the young Avatar’s fascination, the Spirit had been called…

“You don’t need to decide right away,” said Zaheer after a while, once the silence had stretched to an uncomfortable length. “If you need a few hours to give it some more thought, please do so.”

“No…No, I think I’ve got one,” Korra responded quietly, knowing that once she took on the mask she’d picked out, there was no going back. “From now on, call me…”

She bowed her head, steeled herself, and finally, took the plunge.

Mizore.

 

[--------------------]

 

On the roof of the Red Lotus compound, the Avatar sat alone, restlessly kicking her legs over the side.

There’d been a great number of preparations to make before departure, though Korra had been happy to let the others handle most of them. It gave her more time to think.

They would be traveling separately, which’d momentarily panicked her, though she tried not to let it show. Much as she was eager to set out and find her own path in the world, she still had barely spent a single day of her life apart from her family.

Well…from either of her families.

Zaheer and the rest would be traveling on their own boat, expecting to arrive at the United Republic about three weeks hence. But that was too long a wait for Korra – or for “Mizore,” rather. She needed to blend in with a shipment of new labor from the Northern Water Tribe…and since their ship was arriving in two weeks, so was she.

To that end, Zaheer had managed to secure the services of a band of pirates (“High-risk traders!”), leveraging his sheer force of personality and a lot of money. The Red Lotus had very deep coffers, when they needed it.

The pirates would be leaving port at dawn, which gave her a grand total of about ten hours to get used to the idea of leaving her old life behind forever.

“Wow. Looks like somebody’s out of spirits. Which is a doubly bad thing for the Avatar, if you think about it,” spoke a chuckling voice, and Korra turned to see Ghazan join her, his legs swinging over the edge in one swift motion to match hers.

Korra wasn’t sure what she was supposed to say here. Finally she muttered, “Thanks for…umm…y’know. Sticking up for me in there.”

“Hey, you’re a good kid,” said Ghazan with a smile. “Sometimes we still think of you as our little girl. And we worry, all of us. Yeah…even Ming-Hua.”

“I’m not a kid anymore,” she replied, a bit indignantly. Her waterbending master called her things like that about ten times a day, but it sounded a lot worse coming from him.

“No…No, I guess you’re not,” he admitted, shaking his head. “Spirits, you’ve grown up so fast. Seems like just yesterday when you were up to my knee, yelling and lisping and throwing around the elements like you owned the place.”

“I still do,” declared Korra, grinning in spite of herself. “Err…not the…lisping part. But the rest of it. Ugh, you know what I mean.”

Ghazan nodded, chuckling again, and turned to stare off into the distance. The stars were bright and distinct tonight, contrasting sharply from the dull, waning moon.

“Why are you here, anyway?” she asked after a little while.

“Just wanted a chance to say goodbye. For now, anyway,” he said. “No telling how long it might be till we see each other again. And figured there might not be time in the morning, so I wanted to catch you before bed.”

“I won’t be sleeping tonight,” Korra told him, a bit hollowly. “There’s no way I could if I wanted to.”

“Nervous?” whispered Ghazan, his mouth upturned slightly.

She looked at him. “Wouldn’t you be?” she demanded, probably a bit more sharply than she’d been intending.

“Maybe. But then, I’m not the Avatar,” he answered. “Look, Korra…I’ve known you for almost your entire life. You’re ready for this. Republic City won’t know what hit it.”

Korra felt her cheeks redden slightly as she said, very quietly, “You always know the right thing to say.”

“Eh, I’m just pretty good at faking it,” responded Ghazan with a grin.

Her next words were strained, nervous, barely audible. “Umm…before I go…I wanted to…to say…” she began, looking resolutely away. After a long pause, however, she ultimately let out a deep sigh and turned her back to him. “Err…nevermind. I should, uh… go say bye to the others.”

She left without another word.

 

[--------------------]

 

Ming-Hua barely even acknowledged when she stopped by, waving one water-arm lazily as she reclined across a couch and calling out, “Try not to get yourself killed on the first day! After that, it’s your call.”

P’Li took a little longer.

The towering woman was alone in the kitchen, absently chopping at vegetables. Despite her severity in training and combat, the firebender was a surprisingly adept cook.

Though she’d obviously never asked, Korra got the sense it had to do with her past. From what she’d gathered over the years, Du Jun hadn’t just used her as a living weapon. While in his service, she’d been forced to do a number of…other things for him, whenever the mood struck him.

“This is a big step, Korra,” she said, not looking up from her task. “I suppose everyone else has been saying they believe in you? That you’re ready for this?”

“Master Ghazan, yeah,” answered Korra, a bit awkwardly. “Ming-Hua…I’m sure she was thinking it. Probably. Maybe.”

“Well I’d like you to listen here, Avatar,” P’Li declared, putting down the knife and turning to face her young student. “This is going to sound harsh, because it’s supposed to. You’re not ready for this.”

“Excuse me?” asked Korra, raising an eyebrow.

“Fact of the matter is, that feeling in your gut? The one that’s telling you you’ve never faced anything like this, and you don’t know what to do? You should listen to it, because it’s got you pegged,” explained the firebender. “And you know what the big secret is? That’s okay.

“Err…now I’m just feeling even more confused,” said Korra honestly.

“None of us get to choose what we face in life. We play the Pai Sho tiles we’re dealt and hope the board doesn’t get flipped,” P’Li continued. “After Harmonic Convergence, once everything has changed…maybe that’ll be different. I don’t know yet. But right now, that’s how it is.”

The statuesque combustionbender wasn’t typically one for displays of physical affection, her boyfriend aside. But for perhaps the third or fourth time in their entire lives, she pulled Korra in for a brief hug.

“That’s your greatest talent, Korra. More than anything any of us have ever taught you,” she murmured. “You get thrown in a situation you have no idea how to deal with, and somehow, you hold on. You survive. Just do that again here, and you’ll be fine.”

“Umm…thank you…” Korra whispered back, still knocked a little off-balance by the older woman’s words. Unable to help herself, she pressed forward, just a bit. “Was that how you felt…y’know…when you…”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but she didn’t need to.

“Yes…it was,” said P’Li, very softly.

That was the end of the conversation.

 

[--------------------]

 

Zaheer caught up to her on the docks of the nearby town.

It hadn’t taken her more than a few minutes to pull together all the possessions she cared to take on her journey – just some clothes, a hefty sheaf of documents the Red Lotus attendants had provided, and a tangle of blue ribbon, used for braiding women’s hair in certain styles of the Southern Water Tribe.

Korra’s fist briefly clenched the ribbon tight. It’d been her mother’s – the only thing the Red Lotus had ever managed to recover from that night.

Apart from her, she supposed.

“The ship will not depart for another five hours, Korra,” said Zaheer, leaping down onto the port from the nearest rooftop nearly soundlessly. The man was truly an acrobat of absurd skill, when he felt like using it.

“I just got tired of waiting,” she replied, her fingers absently bending a small patch of the sea back and forth. “And now’s when you try to teach me a lesson about patience being the path to inner peace, or something like that?”

Zaheer’s mouth actually curled upward at this – almost imperceptibly, but it was there.

“You’re right about one thing,” he told her, taking a stance upon the wooden planks. In the middle of the night, they were the only people anywhere near here. “It’s time for you to learn a lesson.”

Suddenly, he moved like a flash of lightning, his movements circular and tightly controlled. An instant later he was behind her, a flat palm pressed between her shoulder blades. “Before you go, I’m going to teach you just a little bit of airbending,” he finished, another circular motion bringing him back in front of her in the blink of an eye.

Korra’s glumness was forgotten as quickly as her master had moved. The prospect of learning an entirely new element for the first time in thirteen years – even just the basics – was exciting enough to wipe away every other thought in her head.

“Alright!” she exclaimed, assuming a stance as well. She wasn’t entirely sure what an airbending stance looked like, so she just took fire and spread her legs out a little more. “Born ready for this. Literally, in my case.”

Zaheer immediately began to circle around her again, this time much slower, so she could see. “Airbending is all about spiral movements. When you meet resistance, you must be able to switch direction at a moment’s notice,” he said.

To demonstrate, he held up a small leaf, taken from their compound, and released it into the air. The cold night winds easily picked it up, carrying it to-and-fro.

“The key is to be like the leaf,” continued Zaheer. As he spoke, he moved expertly around the leaf, always following its movements without getting any closer or farther to it. Were it a weapon, it wouldn’t have a chance at touching him. “Flow with the movement of the wind. Let your mind and your spirit be free, and the rest will come.”

The non-bender came to a graceful halt, and swiftly caught the leaf in gentle but determined fingers.

“Now, Korra,” he added after a moment’s pause. “It’s your turn.”

Zaheer released the leaf once more, letting it drift toward her. The drafty ocean air made this an ideal place to practice, and Korra worked to match his movements as best she could.

Her results were…mixed. No matter how hard she tried to dodge it, the leaf managed to touch her, many times over, drifting softly over her skin only to be swept up by a different current an instant later.

Her master continued to circle around her as she did, most of the time silent but occasionally offering a brief bit of advice. “Your stance is too firmly grounded. You must be light on your feet at all times,” he said at one point.

A few moments later, it was, “Don’t look to the enemy as something to be avoided. Look at them at a partner. Their movements influence your movements, but also vice-versa.”

Finally, when she’d succeeded – just barely – at dodging the leaf for five passes in a row, he concluded, “And most importantly, remember that airbending is an art primarily focused on negative jing. It does not respond to aggression, nor impatience. But that doesn’t make it a coward’s weapon. It simply means that your focus should be on forcing your opponent to keep moving forward. For them to overextend themselves. And when they do…”

That’s when you strike,” Korra completed the sentence for him.

Zaheer gave a small smile. “More earthbending philosophy than air, in that case,” he said. “But yes, if you’re not going to commit yourself to pacifism – and the Avatar so rarely can – that’s ultimately the path you must walk.”

Korra had nothing to say to that, and ultimately found herself collapsing on the dock, breathing heavily from all the exertion she’d just put in.

Eventually, however, she thought of something else. “So…if I keep practicing stuff like this…” she muttered, only barely loud enough for him to hear. “Do you really think that’ll help me to airbend for real, someday?”

Her master, for his part, knelt beside her, his expression distant and contemplative.

“I’m afraid it’s as far as my guidance can take you,” he stated with a frown. “Which brings me to the original reason I came to find you, I suppose. There’s one more mission I’d like you to attempt while you are in the city.”

Korra lifted herself back to a sitting position, looking concerned. “What’s that?” she asked.

Zaheer couldn’t think of a way to phrase this delicately, so he was blunt. “If – and only if – the opportunity arises…” he said, still staring out onto the dark, distant waters. “I’d like you to try and kidnap one of Councilman Tenzin’s children.”

The Avatar’s eyes went wide. Whatever she’d been expecting from her mentor, it wasn’t that.

“Kidnapping?” she whispered, alarmed. “You can’t possibly mean…”

“I do,” Zaheer cut her off. “I wish there was another way, and I’ve thought long and hard to try and come up with one…but there isn’t. Let us face facts: you are the Avatar, and you need to learn airbending. Sozin’s folly means our options for a teacher are severely…limited.

He folded his hands and shook his head.

“Tenzin himself would of course be ideal, being the only true airbending master alive…but he is tied too deeply with the White Lotus to ever consider it. And take no offense, but frankly, I’m unsure even you could capture him against his will,” he went on after a moment. “But his three children have been learning from him for their entire lives. According to my source on Air Temple Island, his eldest, Jinora, is at most a few years from mastery herself. They could certainly get you as far as you need to go.”

“I’m not doubting their abilities,” said Korra in a low voice. “But I couldn’t see myself just…just grabbing somebody’s kid!”

“You wouldn’t need to,” responded Zaheer. “Simply lure one of them off their island and to a pre-identified location, and our people can take care of the rest. Only once you’ve completed the primary mission with the Equalists, of course.”

“If it’s that simple, why haven’t you done it already?” Korra demanded shrewdly.

“Spies among the Air Acolytes are not easy to come by. They screen any applicants vigorously, and only take in a few new ones each year,” explained the non-bender. “Our last mole tried, you know. When the middle child, Ikki, was much younger. But he was caught halfway through. Thankfully they never connected him to our organization…but we still lost an invaluable source of information when he was arrested.”

He let out a deep breath. “It took years to install another operative in their ranks,” he continued. “And so far, she’s been much more…subtle. We shouldn’t risk her exposure unless it’s for an assignment that’s guaranteed to work. One that has the assistance of the Avatar, for example.”

Zaheer looked toward her now, his grayish-green eyes – signs of his mixed Earth Kingdom and Air Nomad heritage – gazing into her bright blue ones expectantly. He wouldn’t force this issue, she knew, if she simply refused to entertain it any further.

But he was hoping that wasn’t the case.

Finally, in a very small voice, Korra breathed out, “Is this really the only way?”

“Harmonic Convergence is but a year away,” he said, his tones hard and severe. “One way or another, you must learn airbending by then. If you can find a different path, then by all means, you have my blessing to attempt it. But either way, remember…”

Korra nodded solemnly, and repeated the words he’d taught her since she was very little. The words that defined everything her life was about – everything she was:

“Only the Avatar can master all four elements…and bring balance to the world.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Korra looked out onto the vast sea, a clear azure expanse stretching out as far as the eye could see.

They’d been sailing for…well, she wasn’t entirely sure, since there weren’t any clocks or even sundials here. For a few hours, at least.

Still, her fellow “sailors” seemed to have no trouble telling the time of day in spite of that.

She’d spent the first few hours, after waving goodbye to a cloaked Ghazan and P’Li and settling into the small cabin Zaheer’s money had bought her, intently studying the scrolls the Lotus members had provided. They contained detailed intelligence on Republic City, everything they knew or suspected about Amon and the Equalists, as well as background on her supposed cover identity.

It hadn’t taken long, though, before Korra realized she was reading most of it without taking in a single ounce of information.

She just plain wasn’t good at this sort of thing. It wasn’t that she was stupid, mind. But she also couldn’t deny she preferred to solve problems with her fists over her brain.

Still, she had the basic stuff down, she thought. Not that it took very long for that to be tested.

One of the crewmen, apparently on break given the large snack-cake he was stuffing in his mouth, came over to join her as she leaned over the ship’s railing. He smacked his lips obnoxiously, then turned to look at her. His eyes went comically wide.

“Man, you are gorgeous!” he exclaimed, a hungry look in his eye that had little to do with the cake he’d just devoured. “Got a boyfriend back home, sweetheart?”

Korra, who’d been lost in thought, didn’t immediately register he was talking to her. “Wait…what?” she asked, looking around to see they were alone on this level of the deck.

“Eh, I’m just kiddin’ ya,” he said, snickering to himself as if he’d just told the most brilliant joke of all time. “We gettin’ paid way too much on this one to risk any foolin’ around. Ya got some real good friends, whoever ya are, sweetheart.”

“Quit calling me ‘sweetheart,’” she told him flatly. He just snickered again.

“Y’know, my family’s been sailin’ these seas for generations,” he added after a little while, ignoring her warning tone. “My pappy did it, an’ so did my granpappy, an’ his granpappy. Not my granpappy’s pappy, though. He was…uh…a tailor. We don’t talk ‘bout him much.”

“Really? That’s fascinating,” muttered Korra dryly. She usually wasn’t this sarcastic or rude to total strangers, but she was already nearing her last nerve and this guy pushed all her least favorite buttons.

Apparently oblivious to her disinterest, he continued on, “My granpappy’s the one with all the good stories, though. Ya wanna know who he met once? Go on, guess!”

Having absolutely no interest in this tale, Korra said in the most strained tone possible, “I dunno. Probably a dragon or something.”

“Heh! Closer than you might think, girly!” he yelped, pounding on the hull of the ship to emphasize his point. “Get this…it was the Avatar! An’ Fire Lord Zuko too! Well, I guess he wasn’t Fire Lord back then, but still…”

Korra tensed heavily at the word “Avatar.” Had she judged this man wrongly? Was his obvious idiocy just a front, and this rambling story, some kind of coded message?

And if so, did that make him an ally or an enemy? Both sides of the Lotus schism used the same codes…

Her worries were put to rest as she observed the man pick his nose with his right pinky, stare thoughtfully at the result, and ultimately, put the finger in his mouth.

Nobody faked stupidity that well.

“Anyway, this was back when Zuko was goin’ around, tryin’ to do that whole ‘capture the Avatar to regain his honor!’ thing,” explained the pirate, apparently oblivious to her brief panic. “He hired my granpappy’s crew to help him, but then he went an’ backstabbed ‘em right after! Or…maybe they backstabbed him? I dunno. Eh, doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.”

“Does this story have a point?” Korra demanded, resisting the urge to roll her eyes.

“Hey, I’m just makin’ small talk here!” he said, holding up his hands defensively. “Point is, I’m a guy who knows people. Been everywhere, seen everythin’. But I ain’t never seen a gal like you. Dunno what it is. Just somethin’ about your face, I guess.”

Korra just looked askance. She almost wished he was a spy for the White Lotus at this point. At least then she could end this conversation quickly by throwing him overboard.

“So…why’s a nice broad like you headin’ to a place like Republic City, anyway?” asked the pirate after a little while.

Her first instinct was to deliver another biting remark, but she suppressed the urge. This’d be a good, low-risk opportunity to test her cover story.

“The Future Industries Satomobile factories pay good money,” Korra recited, trying to make it sound as casual and natural as possible. “And I know they’re in need of skilled waterbenders. It’s cheaper than cleaning all the machines and processing the metals by hand.”

“Yeah, but if that was all ya wouldn’t need us to take ya,” he replied, confidently tapping his temple with his finger as if dazzled by his own cleverness. “There’s gotta be more to it than that. You left from an’ Earth Kingdom port, after all.”

“Not really,” said Korra. “It’s not a long story. Right now, Future Industries is only importing laborers from the Northern Tribe. I’m from the South. Went to Ba Sing Se to earn my fortune, but it didn’t work out. Now I’m trying to start over.”

The pirate seemed to be thinking this explanation over in his head for a while, before ultimately shrugging. Whether he believed her or not, he appeared to have lost interest in pressing her for details.

“Well then, girly…lemme give you one piece of advice,” he murmured, leaning forward and covering his mouth with his hand conspiratorially. “Beware of Republic City.”

Korra blinked in mild confusion. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“That city’s like this here coin, y’hear?” answered the pirate, fishing what appeared to be an ordinary gold coin – old-fashioned but still valid Earth Kingdom currency – out of his pocket. “Gleamin’ and glistenin’ on the outside, but under the surface…”

He bit into the coin, and his teeth went clean through. Showing the halves to Korra, it became clear that it was nothing but a disc of compressed dirt, painted to look golden.

“That city’s got one heckuva dark side. It’ll chew ya up and spit ya out, if ya aren’t careful,” he said, winking as he tossed the fake coin into the ocean. “Make sure ya don’t let it.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Korra responded in a low voice, more to herself than toward the irritating man. On the horizon, she thought she could just barely make out the hazy outline of her destination. “That’s not gonna happen.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Nothing could’ve prepared her for her first glimpse at Republic City.

She’d been in cities before, of course. Not for very long, but there were times when missions had required them to spend a few days in or around Ba Sing Se, or Omashu, or the Fire Nation capital of Yogan.

But this was something entirely different. Those other cities had existed since antiquity, and a great deal of their ancient architecture survived to this day, out of deference to tradition if nothing else. Where advances in technology had altered them – the addition of paved roads, for example – the new tended to work around the old, rather than in replacement.

Republic City, on the other hand, had been built with an eye toward the future, and this was reflected in every single brick and spire.

Towering buildings of stone and metal stood in every direction, hiking wares of every conceivable shape and size. An enormous bridge, extending longer than many small towns, loomed off in the distance. And just to their left, as the ship began to pull in close to the harbor…

Korra’s breath caught in her throat, briefly, as she gazed upon the massive statue that marked Avatar Aang Memorial Island – a gift of goodwill from the Fire Nation, to mark the end of the Hundred Year War and a period of, thus far, unparalleled peace and prosperity for the world.

She’d known it was coming, but still, she couldn’t entirely restrain the chill that ran down her spine at the image. It was one thing to see the statue in photographs or illustrations.

It was quite another to gaze upon the face of her predecessor, increased in size at least a hundredfold, and imagine those cold, stony eyes were looking down on her. Silently judging her.

What might he think about what she was doing now? She had no idea.

She was probably the first Avatar since Wan who didn’t.

“You’ll be getting off here, girl!” called the captain from the ship’s bow, startling her out of her reverie. “We have cargo to drop by the warehouse district right after, so make it quick!”

“Uhh…right!” she said back, before rushing off to her cabin to grab her things.

True to his word, she was the only person to disembark the ship as it pulled in to port, and it left in a great cloud of steam only a few minutes after.

Looking around, though, nobody seemed to have thought this was odd. Indeed, no one seemed to be paying any attention to her at all. Hers was just one of dozens of ships docked in Yue Bay, and she was just one of thousands of people hustling and bustling around the port.

All in all, it was the perfect opportunity to lose herself in the crowd. Arrive completely and totally unnoticed, without standing out in any way.

That plan did not work out.

Korra didn’t exactly have a lot of experience with roads, and her years of instruction from the Lotus in history, spirituality, and the bending arts had never included the vital lesson “look both ways before crossing.”

As such, she didn’t see the moped coming until the second before it crashed into her at full speed.

“Ow…” the Avatar moaned, clutching her ribs as she slowly attempted to pull herself back up to her feet. She hadn’t hurt anything vital, and she could use waterbending to heal the worst of it, but she was still certain she’d be sore for days.

“Oh no!” exclaimed another voice, presumably the driver. Korra wasn’t entirely sure. Her ears were still ringing. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you!”

Korra gritted her teeth, ready to lay into whatever reckless idiot was responsible. Or any idiots in the vicinity, honestly. She was angry enough right now not to be picky.

“How could you not see me?!” she demanded, whirling around to face the driver, who was wearing a helmet and riding gear. “I mean, I was just…just…”

But she didn’t finish that sentence. Because in that moment the stranger removed their helmet, to reveal the most beautiful woman Korra had ever seen in her life.

That wasn’t rhetoric, or some attempt at poetry, either. Korra was terrible at both. It was just plain literally true.

What she was looking upon now was a person for whom stuff like “elegance” or “poise” were clearly second-nature. The way she moved, the way she spoke; even the breathtaking way she flipped her inky-black hair back into position as she shook it free from the helmet. All of it was something Korra was sure she couldn’t match if she practiced for a hundred years.

She’d have been certain the other girl – “girl,” perhaps, was more accurate than “woman,” as they looked to be about the same age – was putting on a show for her benefit, if not for the fact that the sheer casualness of her demeanor indicated she acted like this all the freaking time.

“Are you okay? Did I hurt you? Ugh, I’m such an idiot!” said the other girl, rushing over to help her the rest of the way up. A bit reluctantly, she took the proffered arm.

“Nah, it’s…it’s fine,” muttered Korra, not meeting the gaze of her bright, piercing green eyes. She was acutely aware that she was blushing. “I’ve…err…had worse bruises in my life. I’ll manage.”

“I’m so embarrassed,” the other girl continued, shaking her head in shame. Eventually, however, she extended a gloved hand. “My name is Asami. Let me make this up to you somehow. Uh…how about I treat you to dinner? Tomorrow night, eight o’clock, Kwong’s Cuisine.”

Korra couldn’t even begin to think of all the reasons that was a terrible idea, though she couldn’t exactly lead with: I’m a member of a worldwide terrorist organization and I wasn’t really planning to work fancy dinners into the schedule.

As she politely but briefly accepted the other girl’s handshake and the silence began to grow awkward, however, she ultimately seized upon the easiest objection to articulate.

“I…don’t even know where that is,” she replied honestly. “I’m…umm…sort of new in town.”

“It’s right in the heart of downtown. The trolley has a stop right next to it – four stops west from here. You can’t miss it,” said Asami, gesturing at a passing railcar. “Come on, I’m not taking no for an answer. It’s the least I can do.”

“I…err…well, y’see…” Korra attempted to mumble another reason this wouldn’t work, any excuse to get out of there as quickly as possible. This’d already gone on way too long.

But for some reason, she was suddenly finding it rather difficult to string a coherent sentence together.

Asami, meanwhile, was refastening her helmet and goggles, not a single hair out of place from the experience.

“Well, I guess it’s up to you in the end. But I really hope you can make it,” she added, a warm, genuine smile spreading across her ruby-red lips. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything. All you need to do is show up.”

When Korra gave her no response – she couldn’t even begin to think of one – Asami shrugged her shoulders and fired her moped back up. Another kindly wave, and she was gone.

Leaving the Avatar to wonder what in the heck had just happened.

Chapter Text

The instructions Korra had received indicated that a number of things had already been arranged for her by Lotus agents in the city – first and foremost, a place to live.

Her apartment belonged to a not-particularly-successful merchant of cured meats.  Or at least it had, until his untimely death in a boating accident.  Because of the strategic location, the Red Lotus had chosen to keep it under his name, though it’d been vacant for the past several years.

Knowing this, Korra had been expecting the worst, but the place was mercifully clean and odor-free, if a little small.  Clearly, whoever had prepared the single-room dwelling had also given it a good scrubbing.

Best of all, it was only about a ten-minute walk from the factory where she’d be working.  Those arrangements had been made, as well: “Mizore” was on the list of new laborers from the Northern Water Tribe, and was scheduled to report in for work the following morning.

Which left her tonight to get settled in…and to think things over.

Try as she might, she hadn’t been able to get her encounter with that “Asami” girl out of her head.  Whenever she closed her eyes, the odds were pretty good she’d see her the curls of her raven hair unfold as she slowly removed her helmet; the shimmering quality of her emerald eyes in the sun; the way her makeup, eyeshadow and blush and brilliant red lipstick alike, had framed her face so expertly.

The latter struck her particularly hard.  Korra had never worn any kind of makeup in her life, and she’d never seen Ming-Hua or P’Li in it either.  For the most part, she’d always dismissed it as a pointless distraction.

But seeing it on Asami…

Korra shook her head, vigorously.  She wasn’t sure what direction those thoughts were heading in, but they weren’t anything good.  She had a lot to get done in this city, and not much time to do it in.  There was no room for distractions, of any kind.

Besides, odds were pretty good that – in a place as big as Republic City – she was probably never going to see her again.  After all, while she wasn’t sure if the other girl had noticed, Korra had never even given her a name…fake or otherwise.  Nor had she told her where she lived, or where she’d come from.

So literally all she needed to do, in order to avoid unnecessary complications, was not go out to dinner with her.

Which was an easy choice to make…right?

Desperate to do something besides linger over that afternoon’s chance encounter, Korra found herself fiddling with the only non-utilitarian piece of equipment in the apartment: an old but functional radio.  Having never actually used one before, she simply turned the dial absently through the channels, hoping to find something to take her mind off things.

“And eastbound traffic is backed up all the way past Jet Boulevard, so those of you heading home tonight probably should think twice about taking the bridge…”

“Flameo’s Noodles will make you smile!  The noodliest noodles all the while…!”

“Public Health Commissioner Raiko confirmed today that the water shut-off is expected to last through the end of the week.  When asked about…”

“So I’m gonna rock, rock, rock ya like an earthbender!  Rock ya girl, with a love that’s so tender…!”

“And the Wolfbats take an early lead, as Tahno single-handedly sends the Badgermoles into Zone Two right out of the gate!  Akemi is putting up a brave counterattack with her signature ‘Blades of Flame’ technique, but will it be enough, folks?”

Korra’s hand froze over the dial, struck rather intensely by what she was hearing.  She’d heard of this, hadn’t she?  Pro-bending, she was pretty sure it was called.

But she’d never heard, much less seen, a match like this…

“Seems like things are looking bad for Miki, as Ming and Shaozu concentrate everything they’ve got on her!  Poor girl has a bad record this season against earth-fire combos.  Now she’s been pushed back into Zone Three!  One more good shot and this could be curtains for – oh, wait!  I don’t believe what I’m seeing!  The Badgermoles’ own earthbender, Sakura, has just stepped in to defend her teammate!  Not sure what she’s thinking, but this is sure making this one heckuva match to see!”

Korra leaned in closer, entranced.

“With his other two teammates occupied, looks like Akemi’s pushback on Tahno has started to gain a little ground!  And…And is it…Yes it is!  Tahno has just been forced back to Zone Two himself!  That hasn’t happened once since last year’s season!  Looks like the reporters who called this the Wolfbats’ toughest match yet were right on the money!  But don’t count their captain out too soon, folks – now we get to see how he fights when he’s really serious!”

Korra’s ear was now pressed right up against the speaker, desperate not to miss a word.

“Sakura strikes once, twice, three times on Shaozu!  Seems the Wolfbats’ firebender might be running a little low on steam.  And…oof, that’s gotta hurt!  With that unfortunate little trip, Ming’s the only member of the Wolfbats still left on the Badgermoles’ side of the ring!  He’d better be careful, or the girls from Ba Sing Se will have them back to square one!”

Distantly, the Avatar thought she might’ve heard knocking.  She ignored the sound.

“Miki’s doing her best to hold onto her position, but things are looking worse for her by the second!  As I’m sure you know, folks, if she gets dunked in the drink she’s out for the round, no matter what happens next!  Her only chance is that Ming goes back one Zone before his team can deliver the ringout!  But with Sakura stuck defending her teammate, it’s all up to Akemi to…”

The collective groan of one half of the audience – and the raucous cheering of the other – were audible even through the dingy speakers.

“…To get blasted out of the ring herself.  I guess that answers the age-old question of what happens when you corner a Wolfbat in a cave.  Mind, where I come from that looked like a straight-up hosing violation, but I guess the ref doesn’t agree.  Either way, Akemi is out, and with twenty seconds left in the round, the Badgermoles’ only chance is to run out the clock and start fresh!  Odds are against them, folks, but if I’d believe it out of anyone it’s these lovely ladies!”

Korra’s own groan echoed the crowd’s.  She didn’t know who any of these players were, but from what little she’d heard it sounded like the Ba Sing Se Badgermoles were her kind of people.  Whereas the White Falls Wolfbats were distinctly…not.

The knocking was growing louder.

“And those odds just got a lot shorter, folks, as Sakura takes a fall right into Zone Three!  Now the Wolfbats all get to advance back into the heart of Badgermole territory!  Miki and Sakura have their backs to the wall – or to the water, I guess you could say – and they’re right up against three of the toughest players in the league!  With ten seconds left as we start back up again, this one’s a nail-biter right to the finish!”

There was no way she was imagining that knocking, now.  It practically sounded as if someone was trying to bust through the door.

It occurred to Korra that it might just be someone important; one of her Lotus contacts in the city, for example.  But she simply couldn’t tear herself away.

“I’ve gotta say, after commentating on this sport for years, I’ve never seen such a spirited Zone Three defense as what these girls are pulling off!  Both of them are just one good hit away from taking a dip, but that’s only got the pair fighting harder!  Still, the Wolfbats aren’t letting up in their assault.  It looks like Shaozu is taking the lead on their offensive, while Tahno’s water and Ming’s discs box them in more and more.  This’ll come down to the final seconds, folks!  Five…four…three…two…!”

But the commentator stopped counting at two, as the crowd – both positively and negatively – went wild.

“And with that final surprise shot from Tahno, we’ve got ourselves a knockout!  Our three-time defending champions, the White Falls Wolfbats, take the win, and nab the first slot in this year’s tournament!  But before we find out who else will be advancing from the qualifying round, here’s a word from our sponsor: Varrick Global Industries!  Varrick’s, maker of the Varri-cake – the tasty snack that’s got your back, whether you want it to or not!”

Korra gave a great sigh of frustration and stormed over to the door, which was still being pounded on like a hungry platypus-bear was on the other side.

“What?!” she demanded angrily, only to find herself facing an extremely short, extremely old lady.

“Don’t ‘what’ me, girl!” yelled the woman, shaking a broom furiously.  “You turn that racket down this instant!  My other tenants are trying to get some sleep!  I don’t care if you’re the Earth Queen, the Avatar, or the head of Cabbage Corp – you do that again and you are out!

Korra glanced back at the radio, which was currently playing a lengthy and incredibly confusing commercial for Varri-cakes, and grimaced guiltily.  In her obsession, she hadn’t realized just how loud she’d turned it up.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” she said, bowing the way Zaheer had taught her.  “It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“See that it doesn’t!” exclaimed the landlady, who then proceeded to leave in a huff, ranting about hoodlums and hooligans under her breath.

Korra, for her part, closed her door as quietly as she possibly could, then flopped back down on her bed with the radio held close, the volume knob turned way down.

And for the rest of the night, she listened.

She listened as the Bau Ling Buzzard Wasps trounced the Makapu Moose Lions, and the Red Sands Rabaroos rallied from behind to narrowly defeat the Ember Island Eel Hounds.

She listened to the commentator, who she now knew to be called Shiro Shinobi, wax poetic about the (literally) age-old returning champions, the Black Quarry Boar-q-pines, and how their resounding victory over the Harbor Town Hog Monkeys proved that wisdom and experience should never be discounted.

Finally, after she had no idea how many hours, she came to the last qualifying match of the night.  Whoever won this one would go on to face the Rabaroos in the opening round of the tournament.

“And now, folks, for the one you’ve all been waiting for: experienced veterans, the Pinnacle Palace Platypus Bears, versus our own home-grown rookies, the Republic City Fire Ferrets!  This’ll be one of the hottest matches of the season, folks, and I’m told betting is already shooting through the roof!  Not literally, of course.  The United Republic Pro-Bending Federation does not condone or endorse the damage or destruction of the arena.”

Korra chuckled, and chanced a glance at a nearby clock.  The lateness of the hour briefly shocked her – she’d have to be up for work in less than five hours.

But she sure as heck couldn’t stop listening now.

“The Platypus Bears have taken their positions, but…wait, what’s this?  Where are the Fire Ferrets?”

There was a scrambling sound inside the commentator’s booth, as if someone was shuffling a bunch of paper around.

“Hold on, folks, I’m just getting some new information.  And…oh no.  Oh, I can’t believe what I’m reading here.  It looks like Hasook, waterbender for our little underdogs from the street, is – and I quote here from team captain Mako – a ‘no-good no-show.’  I knew he took a beating during the last match with the Tigerdillos, but that is one heck of a shame!  Without a third player, the league will have no choice but to disqualify the Fire Ferrets.  Unless they can get a replacement waterbender in uniform in the next…let’s see, I believe five minutes is the rule…then it looks like the Platypus Bears are in the tournament by default!”

Korra’s eyes went wide, and without thinking it through fully, they darted to her window.

Where what could only be the pro-bending arena could just barely be seen in the distance, its bright lights shining like a beacon in the night.

 

[--------------------]

 

“I can’t believe Hasook would do this to us!” exclaimed Mako, tearing off his helmet and throwing it to the ground in exasperation.

“Well you did get on his case pretty bad after the last match,” Bolin said pointedly.

“Yeah, well, he deserved it,” Mako practically spat.  “And if he had such a problem with me, he could’ve just said it to my face!  Or punched me, or something!  Anything would be better than screwing us over like this.”

“He did not, indeed, leave us a lot of time to find a sub.  That is true,” replied the earthbender, his tone remarkably matter-of-fact despite the gravity of the situation.  “But hey, maybe we can try and grab someone from the audience?  We’ve got fans, one of them’s got to be a waterbender.”

“And get them uniformed, prepped, and ready to go within a couple of minutes?” Mako asked dryly.  “Plus, being able to splash some tap water around doesn’t mean you know the first thing about pro-bending.  Might as well throw Pabu in and see how it goes.”

“I would be okay with that,” Bolin declared, holding his pet close.  “Maybe he could beat them with sheer cute-bending.”

Mako pinched his brow and let out a long, drawn-out sigh.

“Alright, maybe your audience idea could work.  Or at least, it’s better than just taking the forfeit,” he said.  “Not like we’ve got a ton of other options.  Unless a skilled waterbender just happens to walk through that door in the next ten seconds.”

The door immediately swung open.

Bolin leaned into his brother, a hand over his mouth.  “Did you plan that?” he whispered, his eyes bulging for a second.  “Because…well, I’m just saying.  It’d be really impressive if you planned that.”

The person who entered, however, didn’t appear to be a waterbender – or at least, not one suited for a combat sport.  He was a short, older man with graying hair and glasses.  His dress was formal, though not extravagant, and he carried a clipboard that looked just a little too big for his thin hands.

“Oh, hi there, sirs!  I work as a page for the Republic City Council,” he informed them, his voice high and squeaky.  “I’m here on behalf of Chief Councilman Tarrlok.”

“Tarrlok?  What does some bigshot politician want with us?” asked Mako, narrowing his eyes.

“He heard about your little predicament here, and he felt just awful about it,” said the page.  “You and I both know you’d win in a fair fight against the Pinnacle Palace team.  You shouldn’t be kept from competing in the tournament, just because of some silly technicality!”

“Don’t know what he expects to do about it.  Unless he wants to sub in,” Mako responded, snorting a bit.  “He is a waterbender, isn’t he?”

“Oh, no, sir.  Nothing like that.  Councilman Tarrlok isn’t even here tonight,” answered the page.

The firebender raised an eyebrow.  “Then how’d he know about our problem so quickly?” he demanded.

“I told him, sir.  Gave him a ring on the phone as soon as I saw what was going on,” the page explained brightly.  “I’m a big fan, you see.  Gone to all your matches.  Tarrlok always likes to hear about them when I’m serving his morning tea, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask…”

“None of that answers my question,” said Mako, cutting him off.  “What does he think he can do about it?”

“Oh, that’s already taken care of, sir,” the page told them with a smile.

Mako was just about to ask what the heck he was talking about, when the booming voice of Shiro Shinobi returned to life over the speakers.

“And so, folks, in a stunning turn of events…the entire Pinnacle Palace team has just decided to forfeit the match!  Even with victory right in their hands, it looks like the Platypus Bears have chosen to hand over their spot in the tournament!  Team captain Yebuk is here in the booth with me now, with a statement.”

Yebuk’s voice was deep, and vaguely accented.

“First of all, I apologize to the people of Pinnacle Palace, for the shame my choice has brought them,” he said.  “But there would be far more shame in accepting a victory without honor.  We will be free to compete again in next year’s tournament, but the Fire Ferrets may not be.  This opportunity rightfully belongs to them.  Thank you, Republic City.”

Mako blinked, suddenly realizing.  “You bought them off…” he murmured, his tone simultaneously awed and disgusted.

“That’s such an ugly way to put it!” exclaimed the page.  “I mean…uh…yes, I suppose that’s technically true.  But I was only following orders, don’t hurt me!”

His voice had, somehow, become even squeakier at those last words, his hands held in front of his face as if anticipating an attack.  Just how in the spirits’ names did Tarrlok treat this guy?

“Okay, looks like your boss has proven two things,” Mako eventually said, once the page realized they weren’t going to hurt him.  “One, that he’s a weasel-snake slimeball willing to do anything to gets what he wants.  And two…that he gets results.  What does he want in return?”

“Just to speak with you, sirs!” the page replied, holding up his hands in assurance.  “An hour of your time, that’s all he’s asking.”

“And why do I not buy that for a minute,” hissed the firebender.  He would have said more, likely less tactful things, had his brother not chosen that moment to elbow him in the ribs.

“Maybe we should at least hear this guy out, bro,” he muttered in Mako’s ear.  “I mean, he did just do us a solid.  He did it in a sneaky and underhanded and kinda sorta maybe illegal way, but still.”

Mako sighed again.  He hated to admit it, but Bolin had a point.  “Okay, okay.  When does he want to see us?” he asked.

“How about tonight, around eight?” said the page, consulting his overlarge clipboard while brandishing an equally outsized pen.  “Tarrlok would like to keep this meeting outside the council’s normal business hours, if at all possible.”

“Of course he does,” Mako murmured under his breath, but he nodded all the same.  “We’ll be there.”

“Thank you very much, sirs,” the page squeaked out, bowing so low Mako was surprised his back wasn’t audibly cracking.  “You shall not regret this!”

The page kept his body dipped the entire time as he made his exit, leaving the two brothers alone with their gear and equipment once more.  Bolin, however, continued to stare at the closing door.

“I know I’m gonna regret saying this, but…what is it?” Mako asked, choosing to prepare a lengthy groan ahead of time.

He’d known his younger brother long enough to tell when he had a burning question on his mind…and also long enough to know those questions very rarely danced in the same general vicinity as logic or reason.

“I’ll just ask this one thing, and then I’ll shut up until we go see this Tarrlok dude tomorrow.  Promise,” said Bolin, his neck still craned at the point the page had departed from.  “Err…well…”

“Just spit it out already, bro,” Mako cut in.

Bolin blinked twice, then mumbled, very quietly, “Was…that a guy or a girl?”

That groan wound up being used rather quickly.

 

[--------------------]

 

Korra traipsed slowly along the road leading to the Satomobile factories, stifling yawns every few seconds.

She knew she should’ve gotten a lot more sleep last night, but the lure of listening to “just one more match” had proven impossible to resist.  There was no dancing around the issue: she was obsessed, and as much as she should’ve been thinking about her cover and the assignment right now, part of her kept stealing glances at the arena off in the distance.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt, just to go and see a match…once in a while…

Growing up with the Red Lotus, the mission had always come first.  Korra was not, strictly speaking, banned from seeking entertainment in her spare time – freedom was, after all, the entire reason they were fighting – but the opportunities were few and far between.  A light play here, a trashy novel there.  Occasional outdoor sports with Ghazan or P’Li…or even Ming-Hua, when she was in one of her rare good moods.

The only game she had the opportunity to play frequently was Pai Sho, for obvious reasons.  But Korra sucked turtle-duck eggs at it, so she rarely went out of her way to do so.

Pro-bending, though…that was something else.  She couldn’t entirely express the sheer exhilaration, the indescribable thrill she felt deep in her gut as she imagined every move; every last punch or kick or flip used to toss around the elements in styles she’d never dreamed of.

One thing was for sure: she couldn’t wait to get back to her radio tonight.  Maybe she could even buy a nicer one with her wages – Zaheer hadn’t told her what she was supposed to do with those.

But in the meantime, she supposed she’d have to go and earn those wages.

Korra heaved a great, heavy sigh, and continued the trudge to work.

There were four factories in all, spread across Republic City’s industrial district.  Interspersed between them were a large number of spacious warehouses, loading and unloading areas, and administrative offices.  Despite the earliness of the hour, trucks and forklifts were zipping all around her with great speed.

It was all more than a little daunting, and it didn’t take very long at all for Korra to find herself hopelessly lost.

“Err…excuse me?  Sir?” she asked of a passing employee, an engineer with a long mustache who was hunched over some paperwork.  “Could you tell me where new employees are supposed to go?”

The engineer grunted and hooked his finger over his shoulder, indicating one of the small office buildings.  On a second glance, it had a big sign hung over the door with a Water Tribe symbol and the words “New Hire Orientation,” making her feel rather embarrassed.

“Th…Thank you, sir!” she called back as she jogged toward the office.  “Sorry about that!”

He just grunted again and continued on his way.

Shrugging, Korra raised her fist and knocked twice on the metal door.  A moment later a slightly older woman, who looked to be in her mid-twenties, opened it with a smile.

“Here for orientation?” she said, to which Korra nodded.  “Alright, come join in.  We only just got started.”

There were about a dozen other waterbenders already in the room, most of them her age, both men and women.  All of their clothes and hair were dressed in the Northern tradition, apart from one girl who’d shaved her head completely.

Korra’s own clothing was a reasonable facsimile, courtesy of supplies from her uncle.  According to the Lotus attendants who’d helped pack her things, they were actually hand-me-downs from her cousin Eska, whom she’d never met.

Her hair, meanwhile, had been cut short in a bob.  She normally wore it long, sometimes tied up in an ostrich-horse tail and sometimes not – but in addition to strengthening her disguise, she’d reasoned that shorter hair was probably a good idea when working around heavy machinery.

In any event, no one seemed to find her presence unusual, though a couple seemed to briefly glare at her for coming late.

“Alright, then…looks like there’s only one name on the list still unaccounted for,” stated the instructor, now consulting a hefty scroll.  “Are you…Mizore?”

“Yes, that’s me,” Korra replied, swallowing deeply.  It was the first time she’d had to respond to her chosen alias.  “I apologize for my tardiness.  It won’t happen again.”

“Ah, that’s alright.  Most people get lost on their first day.  I wound up getting to my orientation about three hours after it started,” said the older woman.  “My name’s Miki, and I’ve been with Future Industries for just over three years now.  I’m here to let you know all the wonderful things about being part of the F-I team.”

Korra’s eyes widened slightly in recognition, although it was another person who raised his hand.  “Miki?  Like the waterbender for the Ba Sing Se Badgermoles?” he asked.

“That’s me,” Miki answered with a smile.  “Future Industries has factories all over the United Republic, Earth Kingdom, and Fire Nation.  I normally work at one of the ones in Ba Sing Se, but since I was in town anyway for the tournament, they asked if I could lead this session.  Well…supposed to be here for the tournament, I guess.”

It was impossible to miss the twinge of bitterness in her voice.

“You girls got conned,” the young man declared confidently.  “I was there in the audience.  The Wolfbats fouled at least four times without getting called!  Hosing, an out-of-zone disc, off-sides twice…”

“Yes, well…nothing that can be done about that now,” said Miki, though her fists momentarily clenched.  “In any event, I guess I can take solace in the fact that, unlike those glory goat-hounds, I have a great day job to fall back on.  So let’s stay on topic, please?”

“Err, uh…yes, ma’am,” mumbled the man, looking sheepish.

The elder waterbender walked over to the opposite wall and unfurled a large map of the premises.

“You’ll all be working here, in Factory B,” she told them, gesturing to the map.  “Though be prepared to go and help out at the others on busy days.  Primary duties will be cleaning the machinery and helping process the raw ore.”

“Yeah, I was curious about that,” said the girl with the shaved head.  “Don’t all these factories use automated assembly lines?”

“The Future Industries patented assembly line is largely automated, but that doesn’t mean human engineers aren’t important,” responded Miki.  “Think of everything in these factories – including yourself and your fellow workers – as one, big machine.  Each of you are cogs in that machine.  It only works, keeps on moving, if you all work together.  So be the cog.”

Korra, who’d been following her up until that last bit, slowly raised her hand.  “So we’re just there to keep the machines running smoothly?” she asked.

“Exactly,” Miki confirmed with a nod.  “Say the mechanism that moves the conveyor belt gets jammed.  If we have someone right there who can fix it immediately, we minimize the amount of lost time.  That means more production, and that means more money.”

She punctuated this point with a cute little wink.

The next couple hours were spent on paperwork, information regarding salaries and schedules, and an unintentionally hilarious presentation on workplace safety.  Korra had to admit that she largely stopped paying attention after a while.  She wasn’t a big fan of sitting still this long.

Eventually, however, Miki packed up her charts and scrolls and strode over to the door.  “And now, the part I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for!” she said brightly.  “An info session on tax law!”

She waited for a collective groan from the room before giggling to herself and adding, “Just kidding.  Guided tour of the factory, people.  I’ll show you where you’ll be working, and demonstrate a few of the ways you can use your waterbending to keep things on track.”

The factory was large enough to hold any three of the hideouts she’d grown up in…combined.  Everywhere Korra turned, there were machines pumping out Satomobile parts at an alarming speed, as masked engineers hunched over the finished products with wrenches, drills, or tightly controlled firebending.

The sheer amount of motion was quite nearly overwhelming, as was the amount of noise.  More than anything else, the prospect of working amongst this cacophony made her think twice about this mission for the first time since receiving it.

“It’s always easy to pick out the newbies.  They’re the ones with their hands over their ears,” Miki teased the group, bending out a stream of water from a skin at her hip and using it to gesture.  “Anyway, this is the area you’ll be reporting to every day.  Miss Sato will be your supervisor.”

“Wait, when you say Miss Sato, you mean…?” murmured one of the laborers, his eyes wide as saucers.

Miki smiled and nodded.  “The daughter of Hiroshi Sato himself,” she said.  “She took a special interest in the Northern Water Tribe labor initiative, and decided to oversee things personally.  I’ll be turning things over to her once her schedule clears up a bit.”

“Actually, she just freed up her schedule for this,” came a lilting voice from deeper into the factory.  A moment later, the speaker – presumably Miss Sato – stepped forward, and waved a hand in greeting.

Nobody else seemed to be surprised by her appearance, though the worker who’d just spoken looked like he was a few seconds away from drooling.  But Korra silently gasped.

It was Asami.

 

[--------------------]

 

Asami – or Asami Sato, more precisely – seemed content to allow Miki to continue leading the tour, though she made herself available for any questions.

Instead, she took up position toward the rear of the group as they walked down the factory floor…not entirely coincidentally, putting herself directly next to Korra.

“I had no idea you worked here!” she whispered.  “Sorry again for what happened yesterday.  Can’t think of a worse way to introduce yourself to a new employee than running them over in the street.”

“No, uh…really, it’s fine,” said Korra in a quiet voice, not meeting her gaze.  She was still trying to process all this.  “And don’t worry, I haven’t…err…mentioned it to anyone.”

“I still feel awful,” replied Asami with a sigh.  “But now that I know you’re part of the Future Industries family, my offer for dinner goes double.  And no excuses, because now I know for a fact that you finish work at five, Miss…”

Suddenly, the green-eyed woman flushed.  “Aaaaaand now I just realized I haven’t even asked you your name,” she added, one palm over her face in embarrassment.  “Great job, Asami.  Way to show you really care.”

To her own mild surprise, however, Korra’s gut reaction to this self-chastisement wasn’t annoyance or indignation…but amusement.  A strange, inexplicable urge to laugh suddenly filled her, and the smallest of chuckles managed to sneak its way out.

“It’s okay.  Really, it’s okay,” she told the other girl, one hand over her mouth to keep the rest of the tour group from noticing her slipping composure.  “Anyway, you can, umm…call me Mizore.”

“Oh!  Like the water spirit from Love Amongst the Dragons?” asked Asami, her face instantly brightening.

So much for obscurity.  Still, she’d prepared a story for this eventuality, just in case.

“My parents were…uh…big fans of the play,” she said, the lie slipping off her tongue more easily than she’d expected it to.  Or was it a lie?  It wasn’t like she could know for sure one way or the other…

At this, however, an oddly somber expression fell over the other girl.  “Yeah…my mom was too,” she murmured.  “I remember this one performance she took me to when I was five.  It was all in traditional Sun Warrior garb.  I dunno whose idea that was, but it made everything so…so…”

“Unique?” guessed Korra.

“That too.  But I was gonna say, it made it feel so right,” said Asami, her face growing increasingly downcast.  “Not that I thought that at the time, of course.  I mean, I was five.  I was fidgeting in my seat and begging to leave the whole time.”

“Hey, you were a kid,” the Avatar responded with a shrug.  “I’m sure she understood.”

“She did.  But I still feel terrible about it,” Asami stated quietly.  “That was the last play we ever went to see together.  I wish I could’ve shared it with her more.  I wish…I’d been a better daughter.”

Korra had no idea what to say here, and so she didn’t.  She didn’t even know what she wanted to hear in moments like this – moments when she missed her parents so much it was like a sword stabbing her directly in the heart – much less someone she’d just barely met.

Asami, however, shook the slight dampness from her eyes and chuckled a bit, very softly.  “Look at me, going off on a near-stranger about my personal problems,” she said in a small voice.  “You should be learning about your job, not listening to me ramble on about my mom.”

The Avatar’s eyes darted to the front of the group, where Miki was rather impatiently explaining that, no, employees are not allowed to take home “free samples” from the assembly line.

“I…think I can survive missing this part,” she remarked, scratching the back of her head as she grinned bashfully.

“Well, anyway…” muttered Asami, her eyes turned forward as well now as they walked side-by-side.  “Is that a yes or a no on the dinner?  I don’t want it to feel like I’m pressuring you, or anything.  I just…I really want to make it up to you.  You seem like a really nice person, and I don’t want us to start off on the wrong foot.”

Korra found herself blushing slightly, distinctly uncomfortable with the compliment.  Mostly because it was entirely untrue.

She knew she probably shouldn’t have, but she couldn’t resist asking, “What makes you think that?  That I’m…nice?

“I’m not sure.  But with you, I can…can just tell, y’know?” said Asami.  “I almost feel like I’ve met you before.  Even though I know I haven’t.  It’s hard to explain.”

Nevertheless, Korra found herself shivering slightly, because the other girl had just described exactly what she was feeling right now as well.

Still, she willed herself to think of this practically, casting all other thoughts and emotions away to the wind – just as Zaheer had always taught her to do.

Her number-one goal here, for the moment, was to learn more about Hiroshi Sato, so as to determine if the rumors of his being an Equalist were accurate.  The opportunity for some private time with his closest blood relative was too good to pass up.

Possibly…too too good to pass up?

The familiar chill of suspicion ran up her spine, and unlike with the pirate the other day, she couldn’t exactly dismiss this paranoia out of hand.

There was something suspiciously convenient about how the whole affair had unfolded.  That the first person she (literally) ran into in the city, just happened to also be her boss?  That within a few minutes of meeting, she’d invited Korra to a private location where they could be alone together?  That she’d picked up on the origin of Korra’s alias immediately, and smoothly parleyed the conversation into a topic that invited her to share further?

No matter what kinds of weird, irrational, completely nonsensical feelings her heart was pumping out, Korra couldn’t deny the very real possibility that she was talking to a spy right now.  For the White Lotus, the Equalists, the police, or someone else, she couldn’t be certain.

But there was only one way to know for sure.

“Alright,” Korra said with a nod, trying not to let her smiling face betray the thoughts swirling beneath it.  “I guess I’m in.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Sooooooooo…is this the place?” asked Bolin, glancing back and forth between the building they were approaching and the backside of a badly crumpled yuan.

Mako slapped himself on the forehead and sighed, for perhaps the thirtieth time that day.  “For the last time, bro…yes, this is the place,” he said.  “There’s only one City Hall, there’s nothing to mix it up with.”

“It just feels…weird, y’know?” added the young earthbender, his eyes wide in awe at the elaborate architecture.  “I mean, just a couple years ago, if we were in a place like this it’d proooobably be because we were gonna rob it.  Now, look at us!  Invited guests!  Well…sorta invited.  They wanted us here, that’s the important thing.”

“Let’s just focus on why we’re here, Bolin,” Mako responded, his expression not nearly as impressed.  “We get in, we hear what Tarrlok wants, we get out.  Keep it simple.”

“What do you think he wants?” Bolin asked, though he was only half-listening for an answer.  The rest of his focus was centered upon a massive golden statue of an unagi, with glittering jewels for eyes.

“I dunno, bro,” the firebender stated honestly.  “But I guess we’re about to find out.”

The hallways of City Hall were nearly deserted at this hour, save the occasional janitor.  Mako was surprised not to run into any security guards, and he wondered idly if Tarrlok had dismissed them for the night.

Whatever the councilman wanted to discuss, he clearly wasn’t trying to advertise it around.

Eventually, after getting lost at least three separate times, the two brothers managed to find the hall containing the councilmembers’ offices.  A single desk was placed between the ornate doors, each decorated with the symbols of one of the Four Nations, and sitting at it was the page they’d spoken to the previous night.

It took a moment for the man to notice them, hunched over several precariously balanced mountains of paperwork, but as soon as he looked up he smiled and waved cheerily.

“Councilman Tarrlok is waiting for you in his office.  Please, go on in,” he said, gesturing to one of the doors labeled with the rolling waves of the Water Tribe.  Mako couldn’t help but notice it was significantly nicer than the one directly next to it, which presumably represented the South.

Without preamble, Mako and Bolin opened the door.

Tarrlok’s office was larger than many of Republic City’s best apartments, and decorated ostentatiously.  On the opposite wall, a number of large glass windows displayed the clear night sky, while directly behind the councilman’s desk something like a waterfall was continuously cascading down the carved stone.

The chairman of the United Republic Council did not, to Mako’s initial judgment, appear to be a very powerful or intimidating man.  His frame was lank, and his face was somewhat gaunt, as if he hadn’t been eating or sleeping enough lately.  His hair was intricately braided, and his clothes were the height of Northern fashion, but it was immediately clear he hadn’t been maintaining either very well these days.

“Hello, young men,” Tarrlok spoke quietly, his voice the silky, practiced cadence of a politician.  “Take a seat, if you would.”

Bolin looked to his brother, who nodded slightly, and the two of them did as they were asked.

“Have you boys been doing well?” asked the councilman, with all the air of someone who didn’t actually care about the answer.  “I trust you’re pleased you’ll be able to compete in the tournament after all.”

“I’d prefer if we’d gotten in fair and square,” said Mako bluntly.  “But thanks, I guess.  Still not sure why you stuck yourself out for a couple of nobodies, though.”

“You’re selling yourselves short,” replied Tarrlok with a dismissive wave of the hand.  “Surely you must realize what your pro-bending success means for the people of the United Republic.  Our nation is in turmoil, and it needs its heroes.  The story of a couple vagabond street spider-rats, picking themselves out of the gutter and competing for the gold…it’s a powerful one, and one I couldn’t bear to see end prematurely.”

“What do you mean by ‘nation is in turmoil’?” Bolin piped up.  “Is something going on?”

“A perceptive young man, indeed.  But then, that’s why I wanted to speak with you both,” answered the waterbender.  Then, abruptly, his eyes narrowed, and his face darkened significantly.  “Are you two familiar with a group calling themselves the Equalists?”

“Err…I think I’ve heard the name around before,” said Mako.  “There’s some guy in Republic City Park who keeps raving about them, throwing flyers around.  I never paid it much attention.”

“Oh, they’d like us to believe their activities are limited to handing out flyers,” Tarrlok murmured, his tones biting.  “The truth is, the Equalists are building an army – one that could one day be strong enough to take down the United Republic.  They despise all benders, and consider bending the source of every problem in the world.”

He tipped his hand to them, before continuing, “Surely, as two men who make their livelihoods through bending, you must realize the grave threat they pose.  Every day, more and more of our city’s non-benders are seduced by their propaganda, turned against their nation.  And the rest of the Council refuses to even acknowledge they exist.

“How do you know all this about them?” Mako asked shrewdly.

“I make it my business to pay attention to what’s going on in the streets, unlike some I could mention,” responded Tarrlok.  He directed a glare at the door, and the other offices that lay beyond it.  “But my ability to find out more, and to strike at the heart of their secret operations, is limited by my station.”

He placed his fingertips together, and rested his chin atop them, staring at the brothers coldly.  “That’s where you two come in,” added the chairman.

Bolin blinked a couple of times.  “Umm…I’m not sure exactly what you…mean…err, sir?” he managed to stammer out.

“Let’s not be coy, boys.  I know you used to run…errands…for the Triple Threat Triad,” said Tarrlok.  “Don’t worry, I haven’t shared this with our esteemed Chief of Police…but it didn’t take a lot of digging, either.  It’d be a shame if that information found itself on her desk – say, right on the day you’re due to take part in the tournament.”

“You’ve made your point,” snapped Mako, one hand protectively leaping to his brother’s shoulder out of instinct.  “What is it that you want?

“My sources indicate that various triad members have been slowly disappearing over the last couple weeks,” Tarrlok explained in a low voice.  “I think the Equalists are targeting bending criminals as the first step of their agenda.  I’d like to see if we can head them off, before they expand their attacks to the greater population.”

“And we come in because?” Mako demanded.

“Because the leaders of the Triple Threats, the Red Monsoon, the Agni Kais, and the Terras have called a summit, to figure out how to deal with the Equalist threat,” the waterbender went on, narrowing his eyes at being interrupted.  “I need eyes and ears at that meeting, and they can’t be someone traceable to my office.  Offer to hire on as extra muscle for your old gang, they’re all going to be desperate for it.”

“I dunno.  This plan seems…kinda risky…” said Bolin, scratching his head nervously.

“Oh, there’s no doubt that it is.  But I wouldn’t have approached you if I didn’t think the two of you could handle it,” Tarrlok told them, in a tone Mako was certain he thought was reassuring.  Instead, it just gave him the creeps.

“So, is that the deal, then?” asked the firebender.  “You blackmail us, and we do your dirty work for this summit gig?”

“I’d rather you not put it in such…ugly terms,” answered Tarrlok, a small smile spreading over his face nonetheless.  “I see it as more of a ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ sort of thing.  I’ve already helped you out quite a bit, I think, by ensuring your spot in the tournament, but I can certainly do more.”

“For example?” said Mako.

“Well, were you aware that the buy-in for the tournament is thirty-thousand yuans?” Tarrlok asked, his smile expanding into a full-on smirk.  “It doesn’t matter if you aced the qualifying rounds; if you can’t cough up the ante, you aren’t competing.  And given your current…financial difficulties, I doubt you have that much lying around.  Do this little job for me, and I’d be happy to cover the fee.”

Bolin, who’d clapped his hands over his mouth at the mention of thirty-thousand yuans – more money than they’d ever seen in their lives, or at least since the deaths of their parents – glanced over to his brother, his eyes questioning and pleading.

Mako knew the earthbender would defer to whatever he decided.

There was a lengthy, protracted silence.  Finally, however, Mako sighed deeply and muttered, “Alright, fine.  We’ve got a deal…on one more condition.”

Tarrlok slowly raised an eyebrow.  “Oh?” he replied.

“Hasook’s gone, and probably never coming back.  We need a new waterbender,” said Mako.  “We’ll try our hardest to find a replacement ourselves, but if we can’t…”

The councilman held up a hand to stop him.

“Easily granted.  I know a number of young, talented candidates,” he declared, consulting a sheaf of documents on his desk.  “In fact…my patron, Chief Unalaq, just exported a new shipment of waterbenders for a temporary labor program with Future Industries.  Surely one of them is interested a little fame and fortune.”

“Well, err…alright, then…” the firebender stated uncertainly.  He’d been expecting to have to fight for that one a little more.  “In that case, I guess…we’re good?”

“We are indeed,” said Tarrlok, rising to his feet and extending his hand.  “The summit will be in three days’ time, so you have that long to get back in Lightning Bolt Zolt’s good graces.  I’ll expect a full report from you the following evening.”

“Understood, sir,” Mako responded, accepting the handshake.  He still didn’t exactly trust Tarrlok, but on the subject of the Equalists he was fairly certain the councilman’s feelings were sincere.  “We won’t let you down.”

After Bolin had shook Tarrlok’s hand as well, rather more vigorously, and the two were heading out the door, the young earthbender leaned over to his brother and whispered, “Well, that went pretty good, didn’t it?  We get a chance to play in the tournament, money, and a new teammate!  And all we gotta do is play super-spies for a night!”

“It probably won’t be that simple, Bolin.  But yeah…I guess that did turn out alright,” said Mako, smiling slightly in spite of himself.  The more he thought about this, the more he definitely felt like that they’d come out ahead on this one.

His mood was improving so quickly that, when they passed the page’s desk in the hall, he stopped to offer the older man a grin and a thumb’s up.

“Thanks for everything you did for us,” he told the page.  “I know Tarrlok wouldn’t have even gotten involved if not for you.”

“Oh, it was no trouble at all, sir!” exclaimed the small man.  “Although, err…as long as you’re here…”

He flushed a bit, and held out a promotional leaflet from the bending arena, along with his pen.  It was an ad featuring the Fire Ferrets striking a dynamic pose.

Mako instantly understood, and didn’t hesitate to sign the picture with a flourish.  As he handed it to his brother to add his autograph, he asked the older man, “Do you want me to personalize it?  I feel bad for not asking your name until now.”

“Think nothing of it, sir!  I’m not really very important,” the page said brightly.  “But if you insist, sir, you can sign it to ‘Jilu.’  That’s my name.”

Chapter Text

As Asami had indicated, the waterbenders finished work promptly at five o’clock.  Not that she’d really done much actual work her first day, but still.

After the tour, they’d spent the last couple hours of the day learning the basics of their day-to-day tasks, including cleaning the machines and clearing jams.  Miki was a patient teacher, and Asami seemed happy to defer to her knowledge on the subject, despite technically outranking her.

Since agreeing to her dinner request, Korra had kept her distance from the other girl, not trusting herself to avoid blurting out something stupid.  If Asami was some kind of secret spy, the last thing the Avatar wanted to do was let her know she was onto her.

But now a steam-billowing whistle and the setting sun were letting them know that it was time to pack up and go home, and the number of other people in the immediate area was beginning to dwindle.

Korra hoped silently, for a moment, that the end of the workday might mean Asami would have to go attend to another part of the factory, but those hopes were dashed just as quickly as the green-eyed beauty strode over to meet her.

“You did a good job out there today, Mizore,” she said with a smile.

“What, me?” asked Korra, swallowing nervously.  “I, err…well, I didn’t really do anything.  Uh…did I?”

“You paid attention, and clearly understood what Miki was saying.  So you’re ahead of Chun Cai, at least,” replied Asami, gesturing at the back of one of the departing workers.  Korra noted that he was the one whose tongue had nearly fallen out of his mouth when he’d first seen “Miss Sato.”

The other girl shook her head and sighed.  “I don’t know why Chief Unalaq picked that idiot for the program, but I guess I’ve gotta just grin and bear him for the first couple weeks,” she added, before a smile spread across her face again.  “After that, I get to start firing people.  My dad called it an early birthday present.”

Korra couldn’t help but laugh a little.

“Anyway, we’ve still got almost three hours to the dinner reservation, but we could…err…hang out, for a bit?” said Asami, somewhat awkwardly.  “Hope I used that right.  I haven’t exactly had a lot of people to ‘hang with’ most of my life.”

“Believe me, I am the wrong person to ask,” Korra responded, shrugging her shoulders.  “But I, err…guess I don’t have anything better to do?”

This last part was framed as a question, though Korra wasn’t entirely sure what answer she was expecting.  It was more that her brain was now, for some reason, turning into something that heavily resembled mush.

“Great!  It’ll give us more time to chat,” Asami exclaimed cheerfully.  “Just hold on one second – I want to tell my dad where we’re going.  He worries if I don’t.”

“Wait, Hiroshi Sato was here today?” asked Korra, letting more of her shock into her voice than she’d have liked to.  “I figured he’d be, I dunno…in some big fancy office building miles away.”

“Well, you’re half right,” said Asami with a chuckle.  “Dad’s working from home today.  I was just gonna call him with the phone in my office.  Wait up for me, I’ll only be a couple minutes!”

The black-haired girl was off without another word, leaving Korra alone, standing awkwardly by an unmoving conveyor belt.

She only had a few seconds to begin wondering what she should do in the meantime, before her thoughts were rudely interrupted by the light slap of a water-whip to her face.  Korra’s mind immediately jumped to Ming-Hua, for whom that was the preferred method of getting her attention (the “light” part was optional), but when she turned it was Miki’s grinning face she saw.

“Nice work so far, rookie.  Happy to see not everyone coming out of the North these days is an over-pampered princess,” she told Korra, patting her on the shoulder for good measure.  “And getting in close with the boss, smart tactic.  Really easy to backfire, but for now, smart.”

Korra’s face turned bright pink.  She was a bit naïve regarding this sort of thing, yes, but even she couldn’t miss out on what the older waterbender was implying.

“It’s nothing like that!” she protested in a hoarse whisper.  “I’m just…umm…well…”

“Hey, tell yourself whatever you like.  But this is an area I know a thing or two about,” said Miki.  “Oh, and speaking of which…”

She’d turned her head to the open end of the factory, where another person was approaching at a casual gait.  Korra had just enough time to recognize Sakura, earthbender for the Badgermoles, before the two women pulled each other close into a passionate kiss.

Korra’s blush deepened about a dozen shades.  While she knew these sorts of relationships weren’t all that uncommon – Ming-Hua, for example, spoke of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends with equal disdain – she’d never actually seen two people of the same sex doing…that, before.

“Akemi’s getting seriously up on my case,” the earthbender grumbled as they parted, just loud enough that Korra could overhear.  “Thinks if I’d stayed on the offensive instead of rushing to defend you, we might’ve won last night.”

“To be fair, she’s probably right about that,” whispered Miki, though she was giggling.

“Hey, she can shove a sock in it,” said Sakura, waving her hand dismissively.  “If her girlfriend was in the arena, I guarantee she wouldn’t leave her on her own for a second.

“Kaname isn’t even a bender,” Miki pointed out.

“Doesn’t mean I’m wrong,” Sakura replied, sticking out her tongue.  “Anyway, who’s the chick staring at us?”

The earthbender seemed to have just noticed Korra was there, and the Avatar hastily cast her gaze downward as they both turned to her.

“This is Mizore.  One of the new Northern employees,” answered Miki.  “I’ve been showing her and a dozen others the ropes most of the day.”

“Ah, fresh off the boat.  Gotcha,” said Sakura, pulling out an apple seemingly from nowhere and beginning to munch.  “How you likin’ Republic City so far, kid?  Pretty different from what you’re used to, I bet.”

“It’s…uh…alright.  Haven’t really had much time to look around…” mumbled Korra, shuffling around a bit awkwardly.

She was feeling distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of the older women – not because of the kiss itself, exactly, but rather because watching it had caused another image to bubble up unbidden from the back of her brain, and lingering on said image for much longer was an unquestionably bad idea.

Reaching for another topic, she managed to stammer, “I…uh…I saw you guys…err…last night.  I mean, not saw, umm…heard, you guys.  Y’know…on the…err…the radio?  You were really, uh…really…good?”

It would not go down in history as one of her most articulate moments.

The two pro-benders just laughed it off, however.  “Glad to hear we’ve got a fan,” said Sakura, grinning cheekily.  “Refreshing to meet a chick who isn’t a raging Tahno fangirl.”

Korra must’ve made a face, because the earthbender only proceeded to chuckle harder.

“I’d feel better about the loss if that guy wasn’t such a creep,” remarked Miki, shaking her head and sighing.  “You know, he actually tried to proposition Akemi after the match?  Talk about barking up the wrong tree.”

“Ooh, did she set fire to his pants?” Sakura asked, leaning forward with curiosity.

Worse,” was all Miki was willing to reveal, though she added an overly emphatic wink.

“Oh, hi Sakura!  Nice to see you again,” called out Asami, causing Korra to jump slightly.  She hadn’t noticed her approaching at all.  “What’re we talking about?”

“I genuinely have…no idea…” said Korra in a very small voice, burying her face in her hands and groaning.

It was times like this that it was very hard to remember what in the world she was doing in this crazy city.

 

[--------------------]

 

Thankfully, Miki and Sakura hadn’t lingered long.  With their schedules unexpectedly clear for the next few weeks, the team apparently planned to spend some time taking in the sights.

The last Korra saw of them, they were rushing off in a great hurry – running late for a dinner with Akemi, her girlfriend, and the Badgermoles’ manager, and arguing vociferously over whose fault that was.

“They’re a lot of fun,” stated Asami, smiling fondly as they watched the pair leave.  They were now the only two people left in this part of the factory, and Korra was acutely aware of it.  “I’m gonna miss them when they return to Ba Sing Se.  And it sucks I won’t get to see them in any more matches.”

She turned to Korra, her expression bright, and added, “Do you follow pro-bending at all, Mizore?”

“Err…kinda?” said Korra, shrugging her shoulders.  “I mean, not until last night.  Their match with the Wolfbats was actually my first one ever.  Caught it on the radio, pretty much by accident.  But…”

She couldn’t help but feel a big, goofy smile creep across her face.  “I loved it,” she finished, meaning every word.

“Wow, it’s gotta be weird to take in your first game over the radio.  You need to tell me what that was like,” responded Asami, returning the smile.  “Come on, we can keep chatting while we walk.  My car’s parked right outside.  No sense in taking the trolley if we’re going there together, right?”

And chat they did, much more easily than Korra had been expecting.  The subject of pro-bending carried them all the way to the car, and then some.

Korra was a little apprehensive about getting into a strange vehicle with Asami, alone, but ultimately dismissed the thought.  If this was a trap, the other woman was unlikely to spring it while she was driving.

The Avatar had never actually driven a car before, though Ghazan had offered to teach her how on her sixteenth birthday.  Unfortunately, the truck he’d meant to use had been parked dangerously close to her combustionbending lessons with P’Li, and…

Well, at that point, the story sort of wrote itself.

In any event, despite her own inexperience, it was immediately obvious that Asami was highly talented behind the wheel.  She handled the Satomobile – itself easily the fanciest and sleekest one Korra had ever laid eyes on – with casual precision, taking turns smoothly and keeping her speed constant.

Mind, that speed was about double that of the other cars they were passing, but it was constant.

“Hope you don’t mind all my flagrant disregard for traffic laws,” said Asami after a little while, as they careened down a main street at a pace where any less-skilled driver would’ve surely lost control.  “Sometimes I forget this city isn’t one big racetrack.”

“You race cars?” asked Korra, surprised.  Though maybe she shouldn’t have been, considering the last few minutes.

“I was probably the first person to drive a racecar.  Or at least pretty darn close,” Asami answered with a chuckle.  “My dad lets me test a lot of his new prototypes.  Probably because he knows if he didn’t, I’d just sneak out and jump behind the wheel anyway.”

“You must be so lucky,” Korra murmured quietly, momentarily forgetting to watch her words.  “He obviously cares about you a lot.”

Asami looked somewhat sad at this, but ultimately a smile – albeit a much smaller one – returned to her face, and she nodded.

“I guess you’re right about that,” she said, her eyes on the road.  “After my mom died, my dad could’ve shut me out, given up on life.  I’ve seen that happen to people.  But…he didn’t.  It only made him more driven.  He’s invented more in the last ten years than most people could in fifty.”

“I’ll admit, he sounds pretty amazing,” replied Korra.  An enemy, perhaps, she noted mentally.  But clearly a good father, if nothing else.

“Would you like to meet him?” Asami asked, causing Korra’s breath to briefly catch in her throat.  She’d been hoping, dimly, to steer this conversation in that direction at some point, but hearing it so soon caught her off-guard.

Swallowing, and hoping Asami didn’t notice that she did, Korra decided to give a safe answer.  “That sounds…pretty awesome, really,” she said.  “But honestly, it makes me pretty nervous too.  I mean, he’s my boss.  My, uh…boss-boss.”

“Ah, don’t worry.  He’s really a sweetheart underneath all the fancy suits,” Asami assured her.  “And I’m sure he’d love to meet you.  I was the one really pushing for the Water Tribe Labor Initiative, I’d get a real kick out of showing him how well it turned out.”

“Huh.  So that was your idea?” asked the Avatar, her lips pursed.  That was potentially relevant info.

“Dad and I met with Councilman Tarrlok a couple months ago.  He let us know the Tribes were dealing with a surplus of young people without jobs,” she explained.  “I wanted to expand the program to include the South, but that didn’t pan out.  Y’know…politics.

She wrinkled her nose at the word, and Korra couldn’t help but chuckle a bit.

“I just feel so bad, you know?” Asami added after a little while.  “Twelve years later and they’re still reeling from the Southern Massacre.  You’d think their sister tribe would’ve been the ones to help them rebuild, but…err, never mind.  I shouldn’t badmouth your home.”

Korra just shook her head slowly, her expression distant; she was barely listening now.

The Southern Massacre…so that’s what the rest of the planet called it.  She just knew it as the night her entire world had ended.

And the night a new one had been born from the ashes.

“Ah, looks like we’re here,” said Asami, breaking into her reverie.  “Get ready for the best meal of your life.”

 

[--------------------]

 

“You sure this is a good idea?” asked Bolin, struggling to keep pace with his longer-legged brother.  “You know what happened last time we asked Skoochy.”

“Yeah, but this time we have enough money not to skimp on his bribe,” said Mako, trying to sound more sure than he felt.  “He felt insulted that we gave him just three yuans.  That’s why he gave us that bad tip.”

“Well, I’m just saying.  If I made my cash giving people info, I wouldn’t lead any of my clients directly into a pile of hog-monkey manure,” Bolin continued to complain, though he ultimately shrugged his shoulders.  “Guess we don’t have a choice, though.  Not like Zolt has an office door we can just walk up and knock on.”

“Actually, he does.  But just for his day job, not triad business,” Mako corrected his brother in a low voice.

“Huh.  Sometimes I forget how close you guys used to be,” replied Bolin, sounding thoughtful.  “He taught you firebending, didn’t he?”

His older brother stopped in his tracks, just for a second, before continuing onward.  “That was a long time ago,” he murmured, and he left it at that.

Being a homeless runaway, keeping track of Skoochy was usually an exercise in futility.  He went wherever he wanted, and disappeared as soon as he got what he came for – which was precisely what made him such a useful source of intel.

But at this time of night, it was a pretty safe bet where he’d be, and it didn’t take them long to spot him giving advice on a good place to eat to a couple tourists at Central City Station.

The couple, naturally, failed to notice their wallets disappearing into his pockets as they departed.

“Some people never change, do they?” Mako asked in a carrying voice, as the two brothers strode over to meet him.

A sly grin spread across the street urchin’s face.  “And some people change a lot,” he said.  “Thanks for last night, by the way.  Took a ton of bets on your match, and nobody predicted a forfeit.  Cleaned up real good.”

“Well, it’s not like we planned it that way…” responded Bolin, his face falling a bit.

“Hey, you take the angles you get.  That’s rule number-one on these streets.  Don’t tell me the big fancy pro-benders have forgotten that much,” Skoochy told them with a snicker.  “Anyway, what can little ol’ Skoochy do for ya?”

“We heard the triads are getting together about something big,” said Mako.  “We need to know who to talk to if we want in.”

“Huh.  Well, I miiiiiight have heard about something like that,” answered the boy, tapping at his chin in mock-thoughtfulness.  “But I’m having a bit of trouble with my memory right now…”

Mako sighed and pressed a stack of bills into Skoochy’s waiting palm.  Twenty yuans, in all.  He made a mental note to bill Tarrlok once this was all done with.

The urchin smiled and tucked the bills into his shirt with a single, swift motion.

“Rumor going around is there’s a turf war coming up, but that’s just the cover story,” he immediately began to whisper.  “Truth is, you’re right.  Lightning Bolt Zolt wants a truce with the other three triad leaders.  Something big’s going down, and he thinks the only way to survive is banding together.”

“We already know that much.  And before you ask, no, how isn’t your business,” said Mako in hushed, impatient tones.  “Where is it happening?”

Skoochy just turned his head aside and held out his palm again.

Mako gritted his teeth and let out a low growl, but added another ten yuans all the same.

“Talk to Shady Shin.  He’s in charge of security for the meeting,” the boy continued, the moment he pocketed the money.  “Try the docks around nine in the morning, that’s when he does his protection runs there.”

The firebender frowned, but nodded.  “You better not be screwing with us again,” he muttered.

Skoochy took a step back and shrugged his shoulders in mock-offense.

“Hey, you get what you pay for.  And you fellahs paid good today,” he said.  “Anyway, pleasure doing business with you.  But I see some businessmen coming home late from work, and tired eyes are an opportunity I just can’t let slip by.  Hope you have a good time with Shin.”

And with that, the street urchin danced away, weaving his way through the crowd of travelers with practiced precision.

It was only a few minutes later, as the two brothers were leaving the station, that Bolin patted down his pockets.  “Hey…is my wallet missing?” he asked innocently.

His brother slapped his forehead.

 

[--------------------]

 

Kwong’s Cuisine was, to put it mildly, the fanciest restaurant Korra had ever set foot in.

Life on the run didn’t lead to a whole lot of opportunities for fine dining.  Most of the time, P’Li had made their meals, or else one of their various attendants.  Simple soups or dumplings, maybe a cake if they were lucky.

And on the rare occasions they did eat out, it was usually somewhere on the seedier side of things – a place where you could wear a hooded cloak throughout your meal and no one would blink twice.

Kwong’s, by contrast, was decorated lavishly and expensively, with a trio of live musicians filling the place with a lilting melody.  The waiters walked with posture so perfect it was almost off-putting, carrying glasses of sparkling liquid and plates laden with dishes Korra had never even heard of.

It also, as it turned out, had a dress code.

This was, apparently, part of Asami’s promise to “take care of everything else.”  As soon as the two of them entered the restaurant, an attendant grabbed Korra by the wrist and yanked her into a side-room, wherein she was promptly measured, fitted, and shoved into a fancy new dress in the space of about ten minutes.

Korra wasn’t really the person to ask for the street value of things – she’d rarely if ever had need to handle money herself before now – but she was pretty sure that buying something like this would cost her entire salary.

For a month.

“Wow,” said Asami, as Korra emerged from the changing room.  “You look…amazing.”

The Avatar, for her part, gaped slightly.  Asami had clearly also gotten changed, and was now wearing a sleek, scarlet full-body dress that, in Korra’s humble opinion, put the one she was currently wearing to shame.

Which didn’t mean she disagreed with Asami’s judgment.  She’d never imagined herself in something like this, but as she looked at their paired reflections in a mirror her cheeks couldn’t help but burn.

They looked, for all the world, like they belonged here.  Together.

“Oh, umm…thanks…” Korra stammered, finally finding her voice again.  “Err…you too!”

“This shade of blue really suits you.  It brings out your eyes,” muttered Asami, absently fingering one of her silk sleeves.  “Though I guess you might’ve had your fill of blue clothes by this point.  Umm…if that’s okay to say.”

If Korra was being honest, she’d have pointed out that she’d grown up mostly donning dull greens and browns, in order to blend in better in the rural Earth Kingdom.

But she hadn’t been honest about anything else so far, so why start now?

“Nah, I like it.  It’s…nice,” she said delicately, and that part she really did mean.  “Though I admit, I could do without the torture devices on my feet.  How do you walk around in these things?”

Asami giggled, a sound that caused a strange sensation in Korra’s stomach.  “Practice, mostly,” she replied.  “But feel free to take them off once we get to our table.  I won’t tell, promise.”

Even after the delay with Miki and Sakura, the drive here, and all the time spent playing dress-up, they’d still arrived over an hour early for their reservation.  For Asami, however, changing the time was apparently as easy as giving them her full name, and in less than a minute they were already being seated.

Deciding not to look a gift ostrich-horse in the mouth, Korra shrugged off her lovely but utterly impractical footwear the first chance she got.  If the waiter currently pouring them water noticed, it didn’t cause him to break his poised expression for an instant.

With her feet freed of those wicked, wicked things, Korra proceeded to unfold her menu and begin reading.  It took her a few seconds to realize she had no idea what she was looking at.

“Help me out here, please?” she asked of Asami, giving an awkward little grin.

Asami returned the smile and pointed at a particular item near the top of the list.  “If you’ve never tried it before, the elephant koi here is to die for,” she said.  “Or you could go for the sea slug, if you want something a little spicier.”

“The…err…elephant koi sounds fine,” Korra responded, shifting a bit in her almost ridiculously comfortable seat.

She’d been expecting individual chairs, but the tables here all appeared to be far more…intimate in design.  So she and Asami were currently sharing a single seat, wrapped around half of the small, circular table.

That seat also just happened to be shaped like a heart.

“Make that two, please!” Asami called out to the waiter, who’d been standing by patiently awaiting their order.  There were so few customers tonight that it seemed each server was covering a single table.

The well-dressed man nodded, leaving Korra and Asami alone once more.

“So, Mizore,” said the other girl after a little while, leaning toward her slightly.  “Tell me a bit more about yourself.  How’d you wind up deciding to join the labor program?”

“There’s, umm…not really much to tell,” Korra answered, a bit of sweat running down the back of her neck.  Five minutes into dinner and she already had her back to the wall.  “My parents…I lost them when I was really young.  I barely remember them at all.  Some…friends…took me in for a while, but they weren’t the types to find me a good, stable job.  That’s why I volunteered.”

Covers worked best when they were just a shade away from the truth; Zaheer had taught her that.  In that way, they became a lot harder to piece apart – and a lot easier to recite on the fly.

Technically, nothing she’d just said was a lie, apart from the implication that she’d grown up in the North.  But even then, it was just that: an implication.  Not her fault if Asami drew the wrong conclusions from her deliberately vague words.

Rationalization was fun.

“I’m so sorry,” whispered Asami, her head hung.  “Like I said, it was hard enough just dealing with my mom’s death.  I can’t imagine how I would’ve coped with losing my dad, too.”

“My friends helped a lot,” said Korra, choosing her words carefully.  “They’re all older than me, so they sort of…raised me?  They weren’t exactly parents, but they were the closest thing I’ve had in a long time.  I dunno what I would’ve done without them.”

That, at least, was one-hundred-percent true.

“That’s good, at least,” Asami murmured, a strangely distant look in her eye.  “I’ve never really…had friends that close.  Work friends, sure, but nobody I’ve ever been able to sit down and share things with.  Maybe it’s the wealth, or the Sato name.  I think it intimidates people.”

“It’s certainly, err…a lot to take in,” Korra replied, looking at their ostentatious surroundings rather than at the other girl as she did.  “But you, umm…seem cool.  Nothing like what I expected someone who eats at places like this to be.”

Asami smiled.  “That’s the impression most people have of me at first.  Even at the company,” she said.  “But I’m not all fancy perfumes and pretty dresses.  I can take care of myself.  My dad’s had me in self-defense classes since I was six.  I may not be a bender, but I can definitely hold my own.”

Another useful detail, although not unexpected.  If Hiroshi was really an Equalist, it was doubtful that he or his closest relative would be benders themselves.

“Maybe we should spar some time,” suggested Korra; the sentence was out of her mouth before she’d really thought about it.  There were a number of ways that could go seriously wrong, and yet she also couldn’t deny it sounded like a ton of fun.

The non-bender seemed to be thinking along the same lines, as the smile upon her face widened.  “I’d like that,” she declared.  “You’d probably wipe the floor with me, with muscles like that, but it sounds like fun.”

Korra found herself flushing again.  She didn’t usually give a lot of thought to her physique – one which matched the lifetime of training she’d received in order to master the elements.  She knew it wasn’t exactly the typical feminine ideal, though.

A thought only underscored by the fact that, right now, she was sitting beside what basically was that ideal.

“Err…if that came off as insulting, I apologize.  I didn’t mean it that way at all,” said Asami, frowning at her reddened cheeks.  “I actually think it’s really cool.  You’ve obviously put a lot of work into your body, and it shows.  I dunno how many people have ever told you this, but you’re really beautiful.”

That only deepened the heat in her face, to the point where a bead of sweat ran down from her brow.

“Literally no one has ever said that to me,” she couldn’t help but admit, looking askance.  “But, err…thanks.”

Asami looked like she was about to say something else, but the two of them were interrupted in that moment by the arrival of dinner.

It did, indeed, turn out to be a strong contender for best meal of her life.  The elephant koi was seared, spiced, and marinated to perfection, and the soft, flakey fish pretty much literally melted in her mouth.  She couldn’t help but notice the portion sizes were remarkably small for something called “elephant koi,” but other than that she couldn’t find a single thing to complain about.

“Do you eat like this every day?” Korra asked the other girl, as they shared a dessert Asami had also ordered.  She wasn’t even entirely sure what it was, but it was good.

“More or less.  We have a private chef at our mansion,” answered the non-bender, sounding almost as if she was embarrassed to admit it.  “Oh!  You should come by sometime!  We have a swimming pool, a couple gyms…you could even try out a few rounds on the racetrack, if you wanted.”

“That sounds, err…really nice,” said Korra, tugging nervously on her hair.  It was a lot harder now that she’d cut it short.  “But you don’t need to feel like you gotta keep paying me back.  This is…plenty.”

She gestured at the food they were finishing off, and then at the shining décor all around them.

“This has nothing to do with the accident,” Asami murmured in reply, one hand inching to the side to touch Korra’s, just for a second.  Still, it was enough to return her blush in full force.  “I just want to spend some more time with you.  I think you’re a really great person, Mizore.”

“Umm…alright…then…” the Avatar managed to choke out; her throat was suddenly very dry.

“How about this weekend?” asked Asami.  “I know you’re probably busy a lot right now – moving into a new city, starting a new job – but if you find some spare time…”

“Yeah…okay,” said Korra, a smile unconsciously beginning to form across her face.  “Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun.  And maybe I can meet your dad then?”

“If we can’t find time during the work week, sure,” Asami responded with a nod.  “He’ll love you, I’m certain of it.”

They were finished with their dessert at this point, so Asami waved over their waiter one more time and paid their bill, pulling out a fat stack of yuans from her purse like it was nothing.  The tip she left was nothing to sneeze at, either.

As they got up to leave, however, another attendant moved in front of them.  “Pardon me, Miss Mizore, but I believe you dropped something in the changing room,” he said.  “If you would please follow me?”

Korra hadn’t the slightest idea what he was talking about, but before she could manage to say so, the man pulled back his jacket slightly.  There, on his lapel, was a pin shaped like a Pai Sho piece.

The White Lotus tile…but with the petals tinged crimson instead.

Just barely managing to keep herself from gaping, Korra turned to her companion and told her, “You should go on ahead without me.  This might take a while.”

“Are you sure?” asked Asami, looking concerned.  “I mean, I’m your ride.”

“Nah, that’s fine.  I live pretty close to here,” Korra lied.  “I’ll see you at work tomorrow?”

Asami still seemed uncertain, but ultimately nodded.  “Have a good night, Mizore,” she said, placing one hand on Korra’s bare shoulder as she did.  The hand lingered for just half a second longer than Korra expected it to.  “I had a great time with you tonight.”

“Me too,” Korra stated quietly, and with that the non-bender turned away, her perfectly styled hair swaying behind her as she departed the restaurant.

The attendant beckoned Korra back into a side-room, and as soon as the two of them were completely alone, sank into a low bow.

“It is an honor to serve you, Avatar,” he spoke in hushed tones.

“As it is an honor to serve the Lotus,” she gave the response that’d been drilled into her from childhood.  “What’s going on?”

“A camp has been established near the Su Oku River, in anticipation of Master Zaheer’s arrival,” he said.  “Several members in the city are leaving tomorrow morning to provide them with staff and support, myself included.  Are there any updates or messages you wish me to convey?”

Korra placed a finger to her chin.  While there was much she suspected right now, there was very little she knew.

Eventually, however, she replied, “Just tell them I’m secure in my cover, and investigating the Sato lead now.  I’ll find out what we need to know, and I will get to Amon.  That’s a promise.”

“Understood, Avatar,” the attendant whispered.  “Now, there is one other thing…”

He handed her a scroll.

“We were going to arrange delivery of this to your apartment, but fortune has smiled on us this evening,” he continued.  “It contains personal details regarding Nei Jian, a mole we’d placed within the ranks of the Equalists.  He stopped reporting in a week ago.  Jilu believes he might’ve been compromised.”

“Jilu…he’s the head of operations here?” asked Korra, recognizing the name from her conversations with Zaheer.

The attendant nodded.  “He is the senior-most member of the Red Lotus in the entire United Republic,” he said.  “His own cover makes it difficult for him to reach you directly, but he’s very concerned about Nei Jian.  And truthfully…so am I.”

Korra gave the man a curious look, waiting to see if he’d explain further, until finally he added in a very low voice, “He is my little brother.”

“I’m so sorry…” was all Korra could think to say, but he waved her off.

“Do not do this for his sake, or mine.  In the grand scheme of things, we are of little importance,” he went on.  “The mission comes first, always.  But…if you happen to have a chance…”

She clasped the arm of this man she didn’t know, and in all likelihood, would never see again.  “Don’t worry,” she said.  “I’ll keep an eye out for your brother.  But I won’t forget my priorities, either.”

“Thank you,” he muttered, bowing again.  “It is good to finally have an Avatar who serves all the people.  Even the ones who do not matter.”

He left her alone with those words, and with those thoughts.

 

[--------------------]

 

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, its Chief of Police sat hunched over a massive stack of paperwork.

Lin Beifong was not having a good night.

The bending triads were becoming increasingly active these days – more aggressive in their pushes for territory, less patient in their demands for protection money from the shops and restaurants.

Her cop’s intuition told her these weren’t acts of confidence, though; they’d stepped things up too hard and too fast for that to be the case.  These were acts of desperation.

Something had them spooked.

Not for the first time that night, Lin pushed aside the disorganized mess of beat reports, court orders, and new hire applications and picked up a weathered, crumpled flyer.

What Tarrlok had spent the past couple weeks railing on about during Council meetings was beginning to sound less and less crazy.

On the face of it, of course, it sounded absurd.  Masked chi-blockers leaping around and abducting people in the night?  An entire, homegrown insurgency not only capable of doing without, but indeed set in direct opposition to, bending itself?

But if she considered that as the missing piece, then everything fell neatly into place.  No one had more to lose from an anti-bending revolution than the criminals who’d used their bending to harass and oppress for decades.  They’d be the first ones targeted, for sure.

Still, even if that was the case – if these “Equalists” truly were as big a threat as the chairman claimed – then that still begged the obvious question.

What was she supposed to do about it?

A knock sounded on the door.

“Come in,” said Lin, in a tone sure to make whoever it was think twice about the idea.

“I see you’re burning the candle at both ends again, Chief,” remarked the deep voice of Captain Saikhan as he cautiously stepped in.

Lin’s expression softened slightly…with the emphasis on slightly.  She didn’t enjoy being interrupted in her office under any circumstance, but if it had to happen, there were worse candidates than her best student and hand-picked lieutenant.

“What’s going on, Captain?” she asked of him.  “You know I hate small talk.  Especially at this time of night.”

“My apologies, Chief.  But there’s someone here to see you,” he replied.  “He, err…was quite insistent about it.”

Lin let out a long, frustrated sigh.  “Oh, alright,” she told him, her armor clinking slightly as she got to her feet.  She doubted any other police chief on the planet did paperwork in full-body armor, but then, most chiefs weren’t her.  “It’s not like I’m getting much work done right now, anyway.”

Her guest was waiting for her in the adjacent room, eyes closed and hands folded.  She’d almost have believed he was asleep, except that before she could take more than a single step toward him, he said, “Hello, Miss Beifong.”

“Chief,” she corrected automatically, narrowing her eyes at the man.

He wore glasses and a short beard, though the rest of his hair had mostly receded.  His clothing was Earth Kingdom custom, long and flowing robes of green, with some sort of metal ornamentation hanging over the shoulders.  His feet, however, were bare.

“Of course.  I hope you’ll forgive me for lapsing into habit,” he responded, finally opening his eyes.

He didn’t appear to be blind – or at least, he lacked the faded cataracts of Lin’s mother.  Which left only one likely explanation.

“Who are you, exactly?” she demanded of the visitor.

The man took a moment’s pause, as if mulling over the question.  Finally, however, he said, “My name is Aiwei.  And I am here on behalf of your sister.”

 

[--------------------]

 

By the time that Korra left Kwong’s Cuisine, Mako and Bolin returned home to the pro-bending arena, and Lin Beifong sat down for a conference with her mysterious visitor, most of the rest of Republic City was fast asleep.

But in one part of the city, a broken-down factory that’d been abandoned for years, numerous citizens packed the hall from wall to wall, each of them wide-awake and waiting anxiously.

A makeshift stage had been prepared at one side of the room, with spotlights positioned to give as much emphasis as possible to its center.  At the moment, no one stood atop the stage, though massive signs and banners flanked it on either side.

Finally, as the audience was just beginning to edge toward dangerous levels of excitement and impatience, a platform slowly rose from below the stage, bringing half a dozen masked men into view.

The crowd went wild.

One of the men, the one whose masked face was plastered all across the hall, permitted this for a moment, drinking in the near-religious adulation of his followers.  Eventually, however, he raised a single, ungloved hand.

The audience immediately fell into silence.

“Citizens of Republic City,” Amon said into a microphone, his deep baritone reverberating all throughout the former factory.  “I know you are all reasonable people.  But you do not live in a reasonable world.  For ten thousand years, a mere twist of fate has given your fellow man the power to bully, oppress, and end you, with nothing but a flick of the wrist.”

Jeers sounded across the auditorium.

“Think about that, my fellow Equalists,” he continued, now pacing slowly across the stage.  “The so-called ‘gift’ of bending does not discriminate based on character, or creed.  The wickedest, cruelest individual alive may receive its power, out of nothing more than random chance.  Which he will, invariably, use to terrorize all those he sees as beneath him.  The great masses not ‘blessed’ with his impurity.”

Amon raised one fist and clenched it in anger, and many in the crowd followed suit.

“When I was just a boy, a firebender came to my home and slaughtered my family,” he told them, reveling in the lie.  The lie somehow so much less painful than the truth.  “No hesitation.  No mercy.  He carried the ability to cut down any man or woman that crossed him, from the very day of his birth, and he used it.  I learned, then, that the present situation could not stand.  That a revolution would be needed!”

The audience members lit up in a great cry of support.

“I have spent the rest of my life honing my mind and body to their peak.  Today, I can go toe-to-toe with virtually any bender,” said Amon.  “Still, I knew I couldn’t accomplish my goals alone.  I would need my armies of chi-blockers, trained specifically to disable and defeat benders of all stripes.  I would need you, the common people of the United Republic – the silent majority who have spent too long under the heel of the bending elite!  But even that wouldn’t be enough.  I would need the aid of one other group.”

He paused here, for dramatic effect.  It was incredible, sometimes, how often his most useful weapon was not his bloodbending…but rather, his talent for oration.

“Some claim that bending originally came from the spirits,” he went on after a moment.  “I cannot say for certain whether or not that is true.  But one thing is clear: they are displeased that humanity has so horribly misused its power.  I know this, because I have communed with them!  They have assured me that our path is righteous!  And…they have gifted me with the ability to fight back!”

Suddenly, the trapdoor opened again, and the platform rose once more.  Four men, all bound in heavy ropes and forced to their knees, sat atop it.

“Gaze upon these creatures, my brothers and sisters!” he exclaimed, placing his right palm across the scalp of the nearest one and pulling their head up by the hair, so that the crowd could see their face.  “Here, we have members from each of the bending triads – monsters who have used their power to inflict untold horrors upon this city, without a shred of remorse.  Now, it is time for them to face justice!  Untie the first prisoner.”

That last order was directed at one of the masked Equalists flanking him on the stage, who hastened to obey.

The “prisoner” in question, an older man in a heavy furred coat, sputtered as a cloth gag was removed from his mouth.

“The heck is this…?!” he demanded, his head twisted toward Amon.  “Do you know who you’re messin’ with, mask-boy?!”

“An arrogant fool, too secure in his impurity to realize his own destruction,” said the bloodbender, assuming a fighting stance as he did.  “But if you wish to prove me wrong, then go ahead.  Defeat me in single combat, and you may go free.”

The other man, a high-ranking lieutenant in the Red Monsoon, let out a sharp bark of a laugh. 

“If you’re that eager to get pounded into the floor, guess I’ll oblige,” he replied, cracking his knuckles and stretching his limbs.  “But I warn ya, I learned waterbending from Yakone himself, way back in the day.  Some punk too afraid to show his face don’t scare me.

Noatak couldn’t help himself.  He laughed as well, a far more commanding and booming sound.  He knew nobody else in the room would realize why, but he also knew none of them would even think to question him about it.

And with that, the fight began.

The Red Monsoon member was painfully obvious in his technique.  Even if he hadn’t just been told, he probably would’ve been able to guess at his father’s influence, as the man used the exact same style Noatak had himself been taught with basically zero variation.

For Amon, who’d grown up sparring against a far more talented waterbender in his brother, dodging the man’s attacks was almost literally child’s play.  He weaved and bobbed around water-whips and spikes of ice, barely even having to use his bloodbending to throw off the gangster’s predictable stances.

After about half a minute of this, however, Amon grew tired of playing around, and forced the man off-balance with the subtlest application of his power.  A moment later, he was in Amon’s iron grip, and the bloodbender was lowering one thumb to the man’s light chakra.

When he’d first learned to do it, the process had taken hours, as his bending ran down the victim’s body to detect all of the active chi paths, isolate their connections to the bloodstream, and summarily cut each and every one of them off.

But after repeating the technique for dozens, hundreds, thousands of benders, it was little more than second-nature now.

The Red Monsoon member fell back to his knees, utterly disoriented.  That was a common side-effect.

“Wh…What the…?” he managed to choke out, instinctively trying to throw a stream of water at Amon to buy himself some distance.  But to his horror, and the shock of most of the audience, nothing happened.  “What…did you…?!”

“I have cleansed you of your impurity,” said Amon, returning to full height and striding back to the other three captives, the first man already forgotten.  “As I shall do, in time, to every last bender on the face of this planet.”

He proceeded, over the next several minutes, to offer up the same deal to the rest of the gangsters in turn.  None fared any better.  Soon enough, four of the mightiest benders in the city were reduced to pitiful wrecks, allowed to leave in safety only because they were too pathetic to consider punishing any further.

Amon resumed his speech soon afterward, and indeed spoke for nearly half-an-hour more – about all the war, crime, and devastation bending had been responsible for over the centuries, and about all the things they could do to fight back.

Flyers with information on secret locations to practice chi-blocking were distributed.  Masks, uniforms, and electrified weapons were given out by the crateful.  Those volunteers in positions of power were encouraged to bring any intelligence to Amon’s trusted Lieutenant.

But one person at the back of the hall didn’t stay for that part.  As soon as she’d seen the impossible and yet undeniable sight of Amon removing bending, she’d rushed out of there as quickly as she possibly could, without drawing undue attention from the crowd.

The moment she was free of the throngs of cheering non-benders, she let out a deep breath and rested her hands on her knees, just barely able to keep herself from collapsing.

There wasn’t much in this world that could spook her; indeed, there wasn’t much that could make her emote at all.  She’d seen it all, and heard it all, in the course of her work.

Or so she’d thought.

She sighed, very deeply, and adjusted her glasses.  By the time they were set, her face had returned to its normally impassive, businesslike mask.

Varrick needed to hear about this.

Chapter Text

“Pick up the pace, Ming!”

The young waterbender struggled to rebalance the heavy yoke across her shoulders, succeeding only after an immense effort.  Sweat matted all across her body, she slowly managed to return to her feet, swearing at the spirits under her breath all the while.

It was, after all, their fault her life was like this.  Well, sort of.

The hunt lasted for hours, and yielded only a dozen possum-chickens for all their efforts.  Unfortunately, that was hardly unusual.  Their last hunt had stretched on for three days, and been just about as successful.

The swamp simply wasn’t providing nearly as much bounty as it used to.

When Ming-Hua was a little girl, her grandmother used to tell her stories about the old days: a time of peace, when Foggy Swamp stood an impregnable natural fortress, utterly immune to the chaos of the Hundred Year War.

But what the horrible destruction and devastation of warfare had failed to do for so long was being accomplished, slowly and gradually, by the simple ravages of time.  The nearest city, Gaoling, had grown from a moderately sized town to a sprawling metropolis, and encroached further and further upon the swamp’s borders with each passing year.

The swamp could defend itself, of course.  Few places on the material plane were closer to the Spirit World, more in-tune with its energies.  The plants, the wildlife; the very waters themselves were all linked as one, and their tribe was simply one small part of that great whole.  Together, they resisted any efforts by the outside world to change them.

Yet Ming-Hua had come to realize, over the years, that such a thing was ultimately futile.  It was against the very nature of their element.  Water, after all, was the element of change.  The world around them would never cease the escalating march of progress, for good or ill.

And Foggy Swamp could only stand against that tide for so long.

She estimated that, over the past decade, perhaps ten percent of the trees on the outer rim of the swamp had been cleared away – mostly for the sake of farmland.  Few others in her tribe paid attention to that sort of thing, but Ming-Hua had always been remarkably…savvy.  She’d needed to be, to survive.

That still left an enormous amount of swampland remaining, of course.  Which was probably why her fellow tribesmen stubbornly refused to acknowledge it.

But she knew.  And the swamp knew.  That’s why the game was beginning to dry up.

Ming-Hua let out a low groan, and continued to trudge forward, a dead possum-chicken in each basket on either side of her yoke.

This was really freaking hard without arms.

 

[--------------------]

 

The disadvantage of being born to a tribe that deliberately eschewed all modern technology was that it made dealing with birth defects…challenging.

To be sure, the Foggy Swamp Tribe actually had remarkably skilled healers, for the most part.  They’d learned over the centuries how best to take advantage of the swamp’s natural herbs and medicines, to cure everything from burns to upset stomachs.

But being born without certain limbs?  There wasn’t exactly a plant for that.

There wasn’t much of a system set up to make allowances for her disability, either.  The tribe had a structure, and each and every man or woman in it had their place.  It was how they managed to function without any chiefs, unlike their distant sister tribes.

Ming-Hua was a waterbender, which meant she hunted.  She healed.  She helped propel their skiffs along the swamp’s numerous lakes and rivers.

That she could barely even do those things didn’t absolve her of responsibility.

Her mother had died in childbirth, which made things harder.  She’d been raised by her father and paternal grandmother, and the latter was the only one who’d ever shown her any love or understanding.

Koya and her son, Huang-Ze, were both highly spiritual people.  But while Koya, the tribe’s elder, took a relaxed and open-minded approach to enlightenment, Ming-Hua’s father was…considerably different in temperament.

Huang-Ze, like his daughter, recognized the gradual shrinkage of their home.  But unlike her, he refused to acknowledge the outside forces at work, or the near-inevitability that it could one day threaten their way of life.

Instead, he looked inward.  He blamed the laziness and complacency of the younger generation, whom he believed to have neglected their “spiritual duties.”  He blamed the fact that they’d begun to occasionally trade with the “heathens” of the Earth Kingdom, following the end of the Hundred Year War.

And most of all, he blamed her.

Ming-Hua’s condition was, he claimed, a punishment on behalf of the spirits – a sign that she was weak and corrupt, and a warning to her fellow tribesmen against their current, destructive path.

She wasn’t sure whether she believed all that.  But he did, wholeheartedly, which really wound up amounting to the same thing in the end.

Not once, had she ever seen him look at her with eyes of kindness, or compassion.  Only cold, blistering contempt.  Her disability was a blight on him, on the whole tribe.  Every second they were together, it was obvious he was ashamed of her very presence.

So as much as she could, in such a tight-knit tribe, she learned to avoid him.

Koya, at least, had been close to her.  Told her stories, played games with her; assured her that her condition was no curse, but something natural and wonderful.

Ming-Hua wasn’t sure she believed that, either, but it was nicer to hear.

But those years hadn’t lasted long.  Koya had passed when she was only nine years old, from some sort of fever.  The kind which their healers could’ve easily cured just a few years prior.

The necessary herb, though, had suddenly proven impossible to find at the moment they’d needed it.  Another punishment from the swamp itself, Huang-Ze claimed.

That time, his daughter almost believed it.

She’d spent the intervening years throwing herself into her duties to the tribe, putting countless hours of blood, sweat, and toil into overcoming her deficiency.  She’d eventually learned to waterbend passably with just her feet, though it lacked the fine control or finesse of the other benders in the tribe.  Still, she made do with what she could.

Huang-Ze was now the closest thing the tribe had to a leader.  They had no formal government, but age, experience, and wisdom all lent certain voices more authority than others.  With the tribe elder dead, her son’s judgment carried great weight.

Today, on the day she turned sixteen – not that anyone else in the tribe acknowledged that, of course – he’d summoned her to his hut.

That, in itself, was unusual.  He really only spoke to her when he needed something, and that was a rare occasion.  Most of the time, he preferred to just leave her alone.

Ming-Hua found him in meditation, the flayed skin of a possum-chicken sitting atop his head rather than the traditional banyan leaf.  Truthfully, she thought it made him look rather ridiculous, especially with his face screwed-up so seriously.

She didn’t tell him that, of course.

Huang-Ze didn’t break his meditation when she entered, so Ming-Hua slowly lowered herself to a sitting position to join him.  Even that was a little difficult for her.  Normal people didn’t even realize how much they unconsciously used their arms for balance when shifting positions.

After several minutes, her father’s eyes snapped open.  “Daughter,” he said, as if the word itself felt mildly distasteful on his tongue.  “You look thin.”

She glared at him.  “Food has been scarce, father,” she told him, matching his tone.  “For the entire tribe, not just for me.”

“And I think we both know who to blame for that,” he replied, folding his hands.

By the spirits, she hated when he was like this.  Which was most of the time.

Still, she wasn’t sure when she’d get another opportunity like this, so she pressed on, “Father, we need to do something.  Our tribe is dying.  We need to adapt, or we’ll…!”

“Silence!” he cut across her, his voice low but biting.  “Stay your tongue before you voice more blasphemy.  Our people have been one with the swamp for hundreds of years.  We are the true sons and daughters of water.  We must hold firmer to our traditions, not abandon them as the savages do!”

Savages…it’s what he called the descendants of the tribesmen who’d fought in the Day of Black Sun.  Some had elected to stay in the outside world, among the “heathens,” rather than return to Foggy Swamp.  They’d intermarried with people of other nations, assimilated into their cultures.  Most had even started wearing pants.

There were few people in this world, if any, that Huang-Ze hated more.

“I’m not saying we leave the swamp!” she said heatedly.  “Maybe just step up trade a bit…for food, medicine…”

Again, he cut her off with a glare.  “Enough.  I don’t want to hear another word on this, daughter,” he commanded.  “I will lead this tribe to restore its former glory – to ensure the old ways are never forgotten.  No matter what it takes.”

Ming-Hua blinked.  “What?” she asked, confused by his words.  “Our tribe doesn’t have leaders.”

“Incorrect.  As of today, I am its first and only chief,” answered her father, his dull blue eyes staring coldly into hers.  “The rest of the tribe declared it this morning.  I will lead, until things have been returned to the way they once were.”

“That’s just self-satisfying garbage!” said Ming-Hua, practically snarling.  “Listen to yourself.  You want to keep us from changing with the world, but this is the biggest change we’ve ever made!  What makes you any different?”

“We are all sinners, daughter.  Some more…obviously…than others,” he responded, his eyes darting pointedly toward her shoulders.  “The difference is that I acknowledge mine.  I am no greater than any other man in the tribe.  But I know what needs to be done, and I will achieve it.”

Suddenly, off in the distance, something like an explosion sounded.  To be heard over all the ambient noise in the swamp, it must’ve been very loud indeed.

Ming-Hua’s eyes widened.  “What did you do…?” she demanded in a hushed whisper.

“Gaoling is the source of the merchants who pollute our swamp’s sanctity,” said Huang-Ze, his expression burning with hatred.  “I will correct our ancestors’ mistakes.  Right now, our best benders are hard at work, leveling that heathen city to rubble.

She froze, unable to bring herself to speak.  She was far too horrified.

“This will be the end of their wicked presence on sacred ground,” he continued, unabated by her reaction.  “And when the land runs red with their blood, I’ll offer it as tribute to the swamp.  It will regain the ground those monsters stole from it.  Surely, then, the spirits will bless us anew.”

“You’re insane,” Ming-Hua finally managed to murmur, shaking her head.  “I always knew you were cruel…but this…”

She swallowed hard, and with difficulty, returned to a standing position.  “Was that all you wished to tell me, father?” she asked.

Huang-Ze, too, rose to his feet.  As he was more than a head taller than her, this was a rather more impressive move.

“No, daughter.  It is not,” he said.  “For as I always tell you, when assigning blame, one must look not only outward…but also, inward.  To cull the swamp of the heathen trespassers will do little good on its own.”

His fists clenched as he again looked upon the empty skin at her sides, where arms should have been.

“From birth, you’ve carried the sign of a great and terrible curse,” he added, his tones vindictive and spiteful.  “I thought I could ignore it, for a time, but now I see it’s a sign I should have heeded.  One that cannot be allowed to persist.”

He took one step toward her, and instinctively, Ming-Hua took one step back.

“Today, you reach your sixteenth year at last,” whispered the would-be chief.  “When I first saw your deformity, I thought of drowning you.  I almost did.  But then, I thought…why be so wasteful?  The spirits work in mysterious ways.  You could at least be married off, and serve some use to the tribe.”

“So what happened to that plan?” she demanded, absolute fury rapidly beginning to consume her entire being.

“I have spoken to each man of the tribe, in turn, in anticipation of this day,” said Huang-Ze.  “And each and every one of them was absolutely disgusted.  And who wouldn’t be?  What man would wish his child to risk carrying on your taint?”

The man raised a fist and clenched it.  The swampwaters around the hut rose in turn.

“You are my sin to bear, daughter.  So I will make it quick,” he declared, and the frightening part was she knew he meant every word.  “But it must be done.  Our tribe cannot survive unless we purge it of the unworthy – those whose connections to the swamp and the spirits have wavered.  And it will start with you.”

Ming-Hua gritted her teeth, and for a moment, all she saw was red.

“You can try!” she screamed, leaping to the air and twisting her legs in a series of kicks.

Blades of water rose from the bog and followed her movements, tearing her father’s hut apart in an instant.  But he was far more experienced than she was.  The bent liquid broke before it could reach him, and an immediate counterstrike on his part sent her sprawling to the ground, sputtering.

The teenaged girl attempted to recover, but before she could do more than struggle back to her feet she found them bound in heavy vines.  She gaped at her father, for more reasons than one; plantbending was a sacred art, known only to a few, and its use on another member of the tribe was absolutely forbidden.

Another vine wrapped tightly around her torso, and then, one more around her neck.  It suddenly became extremely hard to breathe.

There was some sort of sound in the distance.  Crashing, breaking…the sounds of a battle.  And someone was screaming…

That was the last thing she heard before she blacked out.

 

[--------------------]

 

When Ming-Hua awoke, she was in a clearing.  Even after sixteen years in this swamp, she hadn’t come even close to seeing it all, but she was certain she was nowhere near the rest of her tribe.

She blinked.  Daylight was streaming through the thinnest layer of trees.  She’d gone to see her father shortly after sunset, so she’d been out for quite a while.

She blinked again when she realized she wasn’t alone.

The other woman in the clearing was, undoubtedly, not a member of the Foggy Swamp Tribe.  She wore plain robes in the Earth Kingdom fashion, of green and pale yellow, and her dark hair was tied up in a large bun.

Her most distinctive trait, however, was her eyes.  The colors within them were faded, muted somehow.  In the shimmering light that reflected off the swampwaters, they did not shine.

“Well, took you long enough to get off your sorry butt,” she said, without turning to look at Ming-Hua.

The young waterbender arduously pulled herself into a sitting position, wishing she had hands to clutch her aching head.

“Who…?” she managed to choke out, coughing up droplets of water as she did.  Her throat was burning.

“Not really important.  That’s what I like about the swamp,” replied the older woman, who was perched on a rock formation and drumming her bare feet against it absently.  “None of that namby-pamby obsession with names, or titles, or money…or power.  Nice and simple.”

“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Ming-Hua spat bitterly, talking mostly to herself.  “But my father…”

“Seems like a real piece of work, won’t argue there,” she cut her off.  The strange-eyed woman leaned back against the rock and let out a low sigh.  “Here I am, fresh in retirement, come back to my hometown for the first time in three decades to see my own family…and what do I find?  Some weak-tea swampbenders throwing twigs around to try and muck it up.”

“What happened to them?” asked Ming-Hua, unsure if she really wanted to hear the answer.

“Eh, don’t worry.  I put a good scare in ‘em, but nothing too permanent,” the woman said matter-of-factly.  “They’ll think twice about messing with Gaoling again, I think.  And if they don’t?  Well…it is where I set up one of my first metalbending schools.  The Dark One’s headmaster now, and he runs those lily-livers hard.

The waterbender had no idea what she was talking about, but ultimately decided it might be better to stay that way.

Instead, she told the older woman, “You don’t know my father.  He’ll try again.  Nothing can stop him once he makes up his mind.”

“I kicked his butt once to save you, didn’t I?” she responded, waving a hand dismissively.  “I’ll do it as many times as I have to.”

Ming-Hua grimaced as another sharp stab of pain shot through her head.  “Is that what happened?” she asked.  “I don’t remember anything after he…he grabbed me…”

“Aw, you missed the best part then!” exclaimed the woman, cracking her neck as she did.  “Y’know, I knew the guy who invented plantbending.  Your dad’s not nearly as inventive.  A few pesky vines ain’t got nothing on the greatest earthbender in the world.”

“Is he…?” said Ming-Hua, unable to complete the sentence.

“I told you, no permanent damage.  Apart from to his pride which, honestly, looks like it might’ve been more important to him,” answered the earthbender.  “Couldn’t just sit by and let him kill a little girl, though.  Didn’t know you were his daughter until later.  Man, I’ve put away a lot of scumbags in my life, but that guy…”

Despite everything, the armless waterbender found herself getting incensed.  “I’m…not…a little girl,” she muttered, her eyes narrowed.

“Hey, whatever floats your boat.  Or whatever you call those silly little canoes you use here,” the woman tossed off dryly.  “Anyway, what’s your deal, kid?  Got any idea what you’re gonna do now?”

Ming-Hua leaned forward against her legs, resting her chin upon her knees.

“I don’t know…” she said honestly, her eyes slightly damp.  “I can never go home again.  They don’t want me.  They’ve never wanted me.”

“Why, because of the whole ‘limbless wonder’ thing?” asked the earthbender in a loud, carrying voice.  “As if you should let that stop you.”

“It’s never done anything but stop me,” she stated bitterly.  “This…condition…it ruined my life.  You wouldn’t understand.”

“Would I?  There’s a whole lot you don’t know, girlie,” replied the older woman, sliding off the rock and striding forward.  She gestured at her odd, faded eyes.  “Blind as a wolf-bat from the day I was born.  And as I just finished telling you, I am the greatest earthbender in the world.”

Ming-Hua blinked.  “That…can’t be true,” she whispered, though she didn’t sound very certain.  “How did you get over being a…a…”

“Freak?” guessed the earthbender, her voice shrewd and acerbic.  “Or whatever other awful names your daddy has probably spent your whole life calling you?  Well the answer is, I didn’t get over it.  I used it.  I made my weakness a strength, learned to use my bending in ways most people can’t even dream of.”

She leaned forward slightly and added, “You can do the same thing, if you just put in the work.”

Again, Ming-Hua felt white hot anger boiling up from her gut.  “I have been putting in the work,” she said insistently.  “More days than I can count, trying to find a way to waterbend that gets around this stupid deformity…”

“And that’s exactly your problem,” spoke the woman, quietly shaking her head.  “Here’s some nice, friendly advice from an earthbender to a waterbender.  You can’t ‘get around’ this kind of thing.  You’ve gotta meet it head-on.  Without arms to do all that pushy-pully junk, you need to find a new path.  One that works for you, and for your body.”

Ming-Hua suddenly realized something.  “Wait, if you’re blind…” she murmured, confused.  “How do you even know I don’t have any arms?”

Instead of answering, the older woman assumed an earthbending stance, one foot raised slightly over the damp ground.  Then, in one swift motion, she brought her foot down in a stomp.

“The original earthbenders were the badger-moles, and they’re just as blind as I am,” the woman explained.  “They ‘see’ with earthbending.  Sensing vibrations in the ground, and getting an idea of everything that’s on it.  I learned how to do the same thing, and I doubt I ever would’ve if my eyes worked like everyone else’s.”

The teenager looked up at the sky, squinting in the mid-day sun.  “The first waterbender was the moon, if you believe the stories,” she said in a low voice.

“See?  Exactly!  And does the moon have arms?” asked the woman, her arms crossed as if that was the end of it.

“I…don’t think that’s really the point…” mumbled Ming-Hua, kicking one foot awkwardly.  The swampwaters moved slightly in time with her motion.

“Of course it is,” the woman responded with an exaggerated shrug.  “You’ve got it in your head you need to be like everyone else in your tribe.  But you’re not.  So quit acting like it, and quit all this bellyaching.  I haven’t heard so much whining since I taught Aang.”

“You taught the Avatar?!” demanded the waterbender, her eyes going wide.  “So if you’re a metalbender…then that makes you…”

“Like I said, not important,” Toph Beifong cut her off, cracking her knuckles and grinning.  “Now are we gonna keep screwing around, or are you ready to learn a thing or two?”

 

[--------------------]

 

Training with Toph was a grueling experience.  Though it only wound up lasting five or six days, it felt like fifty.

The middle-aged woman appeared to either have no concept whatsoever of positive reinforcement, or else utter contempt for the notion.  She shouted abuse the moment Ming-Hua got something wrong, which was often, and when she got it right the most she could ever hope to expect was a curt nod.

Still, it was surprising how much Toph’s earthbending philosophy managed to apply to Ming-Hua’s nascent control over water.  The elements at first seemed to have nothing in common – water flowed by its very nature, seeking the path of least resistance, whereas earth was firm and unyielding.

But Toph had been right.  Ming-Hua would never be able to bend like every other waterbender on the planet, and it didn’t help anything to pretend she could.  She had to find another approach.

Her teacher had grown up traveling with one of the greatest waterbenders in history; even here, in Foggy Swamp, Master Katara’s strength was legendary.  So while she knew none of the moves personally and indeed expressed unending disdain for “all that splashing around nonsense,” there were a couple of forms she could at least get the teenager started on.

The one she took to, immediately, was the Octopus Form.  Used properly, it allowed a waterbender to surround themselves with numerous “tentacles” of liquid, theoretically giving them offense and defense in every direction.

Ming-Hua, of course, could not use it “properly.”  Like most waterbending, the essence of the form was to mimic the motions of her nonexistent arms.

But when she came at it with the mindset of an earthbender, everything changed.

“Power in fire and airbending comes from the breath.  For water, it’s the blood.  The natural flow of chi,” said Toph, circling around her and occasionally assaulting her with a small cluster of rocks.  “But earth is different.  Earthbending is the body – the bones, the muscles.  You need to make that water follow your orders, like any other part of your body.  You need to show it who’s boss!

She did as she was bidden; focused on the liquid surrounding her, and pushed, hard.  As if it was a leg that’d fallen asleep, or a part of her face paralyzed by pain.

And to her surprise, it obeyed.

A stream of water rose at her side, moved by nothing more or less than her own will, and crashed down upon Toph’s latest volley of stone.  The sheer pressure of the bent swampwater dissolved the rocks to dust.

“Alright, now that’s more like it!” exclaimed the metalbender.  She then punched Ming-Hua rather hard on the shoulder, as if to make sure she didn’t get used to the compliment.  “But still not good enough!  The Sugar Queen used to surround her arms with watery…tentacle-y…thingies all the time.  You can do her one better!”

It took her the better part of the week to figure it out, but eventually Ming-Hua was able to reproduce the variant form Toph was talking about.

Once she got used to treating water as a surrogate limb, the leap to actually using it that way wasn’t too great.  Indeed, once she got the hang of it, that approach was actually easier – by connecting the water streams directly to her body, the chi flow from her heart to the liquid remained uninterrupted, increasing the speed and finesse of her bending.

And now that she’d hit upon the key to it all, the rest came fairly easily.  Her water-arms were far more versatile than ones of flesh, able to reach as far as her eyes could see and strong enough to cut through solid iron.  Given enough water, she could even produce ten or twelve of them at a time, though she was still having trouble controlling that many at once.

Toph, for her part, stepped up the intensity of her training every time Ming-Hua made even the slightest advance.  If she could succeed in lifting three boulders with her streams, her teacher increased it to five.  The moment she managed to change the state of one of her streams to ice, she made her do the same with vapor.

It was bitter work, on every conceivable level.  But the results were worth it.

By the time her training was complete – or at least as complete as it could be, before Toph decided her interest had run its course – Ming-Hua couldn’t remember why she’d ever spent a single day being jealous of “normal” people.

In virtually every way, she was now superior to them all.  She was stronger, faster, and vastly more mobile.  She had the power to break a man in two, if she felt like it, and the fine control to grasp a falling leaf, as if she had the fingers she’d always dreamed of.

The two women had rarely exchanged words throughout their training sessions, apart from what was strictly necessary.  As well as a steady stream of insults directed at Ming-Hua’s various fumbles, though Toph would’ve argued the two were one and the same.

Still, on the night that her teacher had – largely nonverbally, because being blind apparently didn’t diminish your ability to glare at people – made clear would be their last, Ming-Hua couldn’t help but ask the question she’d had burning in her mind for the past week.

“Why’d you do this, anyway?” she said, as she slurped up some incredibly bad stewed frog-squirrel.  For all her accomplishments as an earthbending legend, Toph had clearly never learned to cook properly.  “You don’t have much of a reputation for taking charity cases.”

“Why’s there gotta be some big fancy reason for everything?” Toph replied dismissively, messily devouring a big chunk of tail as she did.  “Maybe I was just bored.  Some people take up knitting, I help some random girl make arms out of swampwater.”

“There has to be more to it than that,” insisted Ming-Hua, her brow furrowed.  “People don’t do nice things for me.  Doesn’t happen.  Never happened.”

The middle-aged earthbender just sighed and leaned back, staring up at the stars.  Well…staring wasn’t the right word, but she was lying on her back in any event.

“Let’s just say I screwed up pretty hard with my last two…students,” she said in a low voice.  “My life sucked so much from all my freedoms getting taken away, that I pretty much let them do whatever the heck they wanted.  I thought that’d work.  Convinced myself it’d work.  Even when all the signs started pointing in the wrong directions, I just ignored them.”

“You gave them too much freedom?” demanded Ming-Hua, her tone skeptical.  “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“That’s because you’re young,” Toph told her, sounding distant.  “Sure, I may act sometimes like I haven’t matured since I was twelve, but I’ve bent around the block a few times.  ‘No rules, no boundaries’ is the kind of thing that sounds good when you’re a kid, but when you try to apply it to real people…”

The metalbender didn’t finish her sentence.  She just returned to eating in silence.

Eventually, after the quiet had stretched to an uncomfortable length, Ming-Hua found herself murmuring, “So what’re you going to do now?”

“Good question,” said Toph.  “I came to Gaoling to try and make things right with Su…and with my folks.  But your dear ol’ dad kinda threw a wrench in that.  I’ll try again when the time is right.”

“And until then?” asked the waterbender.

The older woman stretched.  “Maybe I’ll just stay here for a little while,” she answered quietly.  “Give that whole spiritual enlightenment, path of peace mumbo-jumbo a try.  Seems to have worked pretty well for Twinkle Toes.”

She turned to Ming-Hua, reflections of their campfire dancing in her blank eyes.

“What about you, then?” she added.

Ming-Hua rested her forehead against one of her water streams, losing herself for a moment in the cool sensation.  It helped her to think better, she found.

Finally, after a lengthy pause, she said, “I don’t know.  I’ve never been anywhere except Foggy Swamp.  But I don’t think there’s a place for me here anymore.”

“So travel,” Toph suggested with a shrug.  “See new places, go on epic adventures, overthrow a horrible tyrant or three.  Pretty sure kids still do that stuff.  And if they don’t, they should.  Builds character.”

Ming-Hua was surprised to hear herself responding, in a rather hollow voice, “What about my tribe?”

Again, the earthbender shrugged.

“They’re not going anywhere, are they?  Your dad’s making sure of that,” she said.  “Come back in a few years and see how it goes.  Or don’t.  It’s up to you.  Either way, you know how to defend yourself now.”

Slowly, Ming-Hua picked up a branch from the ground with her water-arm, and with just a thought, snapped it in two.

“Yeah…” she whispered, her blue eyes alight with something Toph was probably fortunate she couldn’t see.  “I guess I do.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Those first few years, quietly traveling the Earth Kingdom, were at the same time eye-opening and utterly uneventful.

This was a time of great peace, and nobody thought twice of a waterbender passing through the average town – even one as distinct as her.

She’d needed to change her clothes, though.  Wearing nothing but leaves and carved wood did provoke its fair share of stares.

(Some approving, admittedly.)

These days, her garb was largely in the Southern style – simple, padded robes of dark blue.  That was common enough, these days, that she doubted anyone could guess her real origins without knowing them already.

She’d tied up her hair, as well, which in the swamp she’d always worn long.  Copying an upper-class Earth Kingdom woman she’d once spotted in Gaoling, she used two pins to keep a bun in place, obscuring her ancestry even further.

Ming-Hua knew little of the outside world, but she learned quickly.  She drifted from town to town, never spending more than two or three nights in the same place, always living simply and within her means.

Which, admittedly, wasn’t much of a life, since those “means” usually amounted to the clothes on her back and the water in her skins.  With no formal education and no connections, opportunities for work were incredibly rare.

She did odd jobs, mostly, though even those tended to be hard to come by.  Why hire someone with such a glaring disability, when there were a thousand others with perfectly working arms? 

And on the occasions she did demonstrate that, in fact, her waterbent limbs were vastly superior to the fleshy kind…well, that usually scared prospective employers off pretty good on its own.

On the bright side, at least that was the worst kind of reaction she could expect to her missing limbs.  She’d been surprised to find out that, for the most part, few people outside of Foggy Swamp cared about her condition.  Not enough to call her a freak or a filthy abomination to her face, anyway.

She even got a few request for dates, here and there, from both guys and girls.  She accepted every single one, mostly as a giant “screw you!” to her father.  None of the relationships lasted more than a night or two at a time, but she was okay with that.

Ming-Hua really wasn’t all that big on most people, all things considered.

Still, after a couple of years spent in this way, drifting across the continent like a halfway-faded spirit, the inevitable began to occur.

She began to get bored.

The waterbender had been bored in the swamp too, if she was being honest with herself.  The daily torment of being the most hated person in the tribe had simply overridden that.  Hard to concentrate on how sucky life was when your home was slowly dying.

But here, without those distractions, she felt an indescribable yearning for something different.  Toph had described “epic adventures,” no doubt drawing upon the legendary ones she’d taken part in as a girl – the stories even children in Foggy Swamp knew, from the fall of Ba Sing Se to the defeat of Fire Lord Ozai.

Yet these days, there seemed to be none of those left.  Ming-Hua resented that, if she was being honest with herself.  She had the skills, the temperament, and the will to fight.  In truth, it was probably the only thing she was really good at.

She just needed the opportunity.

And it came far sooner than she’d ever expected.

 

[--------------------]

 

FILTH.  FILTH.

The creature’s rumbling voice sounded across the land, shaking the rocks and the trees.

But what really caught Ming-Hua’s attention, what really made her breath catch in her throat, was the fact that, underneath the vibrating, pulsating echo…

It belonged, unquestionably, to her father.

CLEANSE.

MUST. CLEANSE.

CLEANSE…FILTH…

She wasn’t entirely sure what’d happened to Huang-Ze, but she could make a guess.  Whatever his numerous faults, her father was the most spiritually attuned person she’d ever met, and as likely to budge on his convictions as he was to stop breathing.

Somehow, he must’ve communed with one of the great spirits of Foggy Swamp.  Allowed it to possess him, so it could act through his mortal form.

And the result was…this.

It was a horrible, oozing, misshapen thing.  A conglomeration of trees and vines and muck, as tall as ten elephant-mandrills and five times as broad.  The shape was vaguely humanoid, but nothing remained of Huang-Ze in its monstrous features.

Features set in a terrifying, eternal rage as it sought to tear the city of Gaoling apart, brick by brick.

Ming-Hua wasn’t entirely sure why she’d returned here in the course of her journeys, though she rarely needed a reason to go most anywhere.  There’d been, perhaps, a vague thought in the back of her head of stopping by the swamp, and trying to reconcile with her people.

Or to tear them all to tiny, bloody shreds.  One of the two.

But instead, she’d found this.  The sight of a creature of unmatchable might, with the voice of the man she hated most in this world, wreaking havoc upon the people she’d once been too weak to save.

Not that her motivation was any kind of noble heroism, of course.  It was revenge, pure and simple.

Still…there were worse side-benefits.

Ming-Hua smirked, and launched herself at the monster.

It was a battle for the ages, though of course she hadn’t been thinking of that much at the time.  It took every ounce of her concentration merely to stay alive.

She’d improved greatly in her waterbending skills, in the years since her instruction with Toph, but the spirit-creature still dwarfed her; both physically and in terms of sheer power.  Its every movement smashed through solid stone and metal like they were paper, and the master waterbender she knew to dwell at its heart meant every plant in the area bent to its command.

It did not appear to recognize her – or, if it did, then it saw her as no different from the other humans it sought to slaughter.

FILTH.

WRETCHED.  FILTH.

TIME…TO END…

But unlike them, she wasn’t going down without a fight.

She made her stand, fortunately, in the immediate vicinity of both a fountain and a well, and she took full advantage of both.  Great torrents of water crashed into the monster, slicing and carving away pieces of its swamp-born body with blades and pikes of ice.

Ming-Hua had eight active streams of water going right now; she saw no point in holding anything back.  Six battled continuously with the monster’s enormous limbs, while the other two kept her physical body constantly mobile, making her nearly impossible to hit.  She swung from building to building, rarely even touching the ground, as she kept up her furious assault on the spirit.

Still, while she’d inflicted a good amount of damage so far, she knew she was fighting a losing battle.  The monster could reform parts of its physical body by absorbing the plant life around it, and there was no shortage of that supply.  And no matter how much she seemed to be harming it, its advance never slowed for a moment.

There was only one way to end this, she was certain.  And that was to tear away the spiritual exterior, and rip out the man at its core.

Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.  Every wound she inflicted on the spirit-creature was repaired only seconds later, and no matter how hard she tried to find one, no weak points in its natural armor presented themselves.

Though it pained her to admit it, one fact soon became crystal-clear: she wouldn’t be able to win this one without some help.

And it was at just about that time when an explosion went off, directly in the center of the monster’s chest.

Ming-Hua froze in place, her mouth agape, as more explosions rocked the creature’s massive body, causing it to stumble.  The source of the attack wasn’t immediately clear, but whoever was responsible was obviously adept at their craft.  Each blast struck with pinpoint accuracy, catching the behemoth further and further off-balance, until finally, inevitably, it all came crashing down.

Furthermore, it soon became apparent that they weren’t acting alone.  The ground seemed to open up to swallow the creature as it collapsed, the work of at least one extremely powerful earthbender.

But then, the stone began to do something Ming-Hua had never seen any earthbender manage before.  It melted.

From its misshapen head to the grotesque stumps that served as its legs, the titan’s entire body was being encased in red-hot, molten rock, setting aflame the numerous swamp plants that made it up by sheer heat.

“Don’t let up, Ghazan!  We have to burn away the entire body, or it’ll just regenerate!” a male voice suddenly shouted, his voice naturally soft and yet carrying a palpable sense of command.  “P’Li, provide cover fire to keep him from breaking free!”

“Right!” two other voices exclaimed simultaneously, causing Ming-Hua to turn.

The source appeared to be three individuals on a nearby rooftop, who’d attacked the monster from just outside its field of vision.  Hastily, Ming-Hua swung over to meet them.

All were fairly young, and yet all had the air of people who did stuff like this every other week.  The first speaker, presumably their leader, was the oldest of the trio, though he still couldn’t have been above his early twenties.  Still, his wild hair and small beard – not to mention a fresh battle-scar directly above one eye – made it difficult to tell for sure.

The earthbender, evident by his plain green robes and by the sheer amount of concentration he was putting into his hand and arm movements, looked to be about her age – give or take a couple years.  Again, though, the issue was confused by his long, flowing hair and a truly epic mustache.

And the last, who could only be the source of the explosions, was…a little girl.  Well, perhaps “little” was pushing it, but she could still only be thirteen or fourteen, tops.  She was quite tall for her age, and wore her hair and clothes in a way few teenagers would find appealing, but there was no mistaking the sheer youth of her face.

Or the ceremonial tattoo upon her forehead, through which another explosion was soon channeled.  This one blasted to bits a large patch of greenery the spirit-creature had been trying to summon, preventing it from refilling one of the rapidly growing holes in its body.

The first man noticed immediately as Ming-Hua touched down on the roof, and offered a brief bow.

“We were watching the battle prior to intervening.  Your skills are extremely impressive,” he said.  “I am called Zaheer.”

“Ming-Hua,” she answered automatically.  “But what are you doing here?”

“I am a person who is…sensitive…to matters of the spirits,” Zaheer explained, his eyes returning to the monster below them, struggling to break free.  “This fusion, between man and spirit – it’s unstable and unnatural.  All in the Spirit World sensed their joining.  And if we cannot separate them…the balance of both worlds may be threatened.”

“Is that what you three do?” asked the waterbender, her water-arms crossed.  “Go around the world, righting wrongs and junk?”

“There are considerably more than three of us,” he replied.  “But yes, that’s certainly part of it.  We are a society dedicated to changing this world for the better.  From one bound by war, strife, and the oppressive hand of tyrants, to one where peace and freedom can truly flourish.  We…are the Red Lotus.”

“Well, if you stand for freedom…and against this…” said Ming-Hua, using a stream to gesture widely at the creature.  “Then I say we work together.  I just want one favor.”

Zaheer arched an eyebrow.  “Oh?” he murmured.

“The man inside that abomination.  The chief of the Foggy Swamp Tribe,” she added through pursed lips.  “Leave him to me.

In that moment, the monster managed to break free of its restraints, but Ming-Hua was no longer concerned; this battle was already won.  Big, gaping holes all across its body remained unhealed, where the lava had burned clear through the dense vegetation, and its movements were unsteady and unbalanced, as if it could tip over again at any moment.

It wasn’t speaking anymore, either, but simply releasing deep, guttural roars as it tried in vain to fight back.  But it was no use.  Explosions, lava, and water were all assaulting it at once now, and more and more of its enormous form was being cleaved away by the second.

“Do you have any idea how to separate them?” called out Ming-Hua, as the fight continued to tip more and more in their favor – her question directed at Zaheer, who was perched atop a nearby pole.  “Y’know, with you being so sensitive and all?”

“A colleague of ours developed a technique to pacify restless spirits,” he said, his face deep in thought at he observed the battle.  “Unfortunately, it requires waterbending.  And I doubt we have time now for you to try and learn it.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence!” she responded dryly, using five streams to bind one of the spirit-creature’s limbs and giving the younger girl a clear shot at its chest.  “Any ideas that’d actually work, then?”

The earthbender let loose a laugh – a sharp, barking sound – in between volleys of molten rock. 

“I dunno if P’Li and I get a vote in this…but if we do, I say we keep this one!” he told Zaheer.  “She’s got the right attitude!”

Zaheer frowned, his expression one of a man whose mind was moving a mile a minute.  “This is clearly a spirit of a tree, or other ancient plant,” he mused, puzzling it out aloud.  “It holds itself together by its own power, but most likely, it moves via waterbending…”

He turned to Ming-Hua.  “Do you know how to extract water from plants?” he asked her.

A sly grin slowly spread across her face.  Despite everything, she was really beginning to have some fun with this.  “Just leave it to me,” she said.

It wasn’t hard; the leaves and vines making up the brunt of the monster were already bone-dry from all the heat, and the small amount that remained flowed easily through her water-arms as soon as they made contact.  Utterly drained of moisture, the portions of the titan that hadn’t yet been blown or burned away soon began to wilt and fall to pieces, unable to fight back any longer.

“The human the spirit possessed will likely be at the very heart of its body,” added Zaheer after a little while, assuming a stance Ming-Hua wasn’t familiar with.  “As soon as P’Li and Ghazan manage to expose him, you must sever their connection with your waterbending.  Then I’ll pull him out.”

Ming-Hua didn’t entirely understand this plan, but she obeyed all the same.  Her water streams, all eight of them, stood at the ready, as the last vestiges of the creature’s dried-out husk began to fall away.

Finally, after two agonizing minutes, she caught a glimpse of the pale flesh and dark hair of her father, and Ming-Hua sprung into action.  Each and every one of her water-arms moved in unison, penetrating the open cavity and forcing it wider.

At the same time, she got to work draining the liquid from the vines that held fast to Huang-Ze’s limbs and head, weakening their link.  This was far more difficult, because unlike the plants on the “outside” layers, these ones pushed back when she tried to bend them.

But Ming-Hua didn’t quit.  Over the last few years, she’d become a much more powerful waterbender than her father ever was.  Now was the time to prove it.

With a great, primal scream, she pulled all ten streams back at once, and with a sickening, wrenching sound, the half-conscious man came free of the spirit.

Its connection to the physical plane terminated, the monster immediately began to fade away, its corpse of dried-out vegetation and swamp mud rapidly collapsing to dust.

In the midst of all this, however, Zaheer made his move.  With reflexes like a circus acrobat, he leapt and flipped through the air toward the now-falling Huang-Ze, and caught him long before he could hit the ground.

The earthbender – Ghazan, she was pretty sure he’d been called – summoned a platform of rock to catch them, lowering both safely to ground level.  He, Ming-Hua, and the explosion girl hastened to join them a moment later.

“So this is the guy who’s been causing all this trouble,” said the youngest of their group, finally speaking for the first time since they’d appeared.  “Gotta say, not impressed.”

“Looks can be deceiving,” snapped Ming-Hua, her eyes never leaving the man Zaheer was holding.  The trauma of the last few minutes appeared to have knocked him out cold.

“You say that like you know this man,” Zaheer observed shrewdly.

Ming-Hua’s entire body, water-arms included, tensed.  But ultimately, she muttered, “He’s my father.”

The Red Lotus trio were silent for a while, in the wake of these words.  No one seemed sure what to do or say.  Even Ming-Hua wasn’t certain what was going through her head at the time.

So it almost surprised even her when a water-arm snaked around Huang-Ze’s neck, lifting him into the air.

Zaheer’s voice was calm, but firm.  “What do think you’re doing?” he asked her, the question open and genuine, containing no judgment one way or the other.

“You have no idea what this man did to me…to my tribe,” she said, her voice a furious hiss.  “He seized power and turned a people of peace into warmongers.  He cast me out, tried to kill me, because I…embarrassed him!  He needs to pay!”

“I set no store by notions of vengeance or retribution,” Zaheer declared quietly, his hands neatly folded.  “But if he is, as you said before, a chief – the leader of a government, no matter how small – then he must die nonetheless.  So we have no quarrel.”

He and his two fellows took a few steps back, silently permitting Ming-Hua to handle things as she saw fit.  She raised her other stream, solidifying the tip into a blade of ice.

She’d never done this before; at least, not to anything larger than a possum-chicken.  But if there was any person on the planet who deserved this fate, it was him.

Ming-Hua brought the blade to her father’s throat, and it rested there for several heavy seconds.  Despite everything, she did hesitate.

But only for a moment.

The blood sprayed from the wound, splattering her clothes and face.  She’d cut cleanly through, any lingering familial affection only going so far as to grant him a quick death.

He twitched for little while as he fell to the ground in a pathetic heap, and then he was still.

Ming-Hua turned back to the others, a stern expression across her bloodstained face.

“I’ve seen what happens when someone tries to make himself king, in a place there should never be a king,” she spoke in a deathly whisper.  “If you’re fighting against that, then you can count me in.  Y’know…if you’ll have me.”

There was a silent beat, and then Zaheer stepped forward, a hand extended.  He seemed to realize his mistake a second later, but Ming-Hua just smiled, and wrapped one liquid “arm” around his.

“Welcome to the Red Lotus,” he said, and for the first time in her life, Ming-Hua felt something she’d never imagined she ever could.

She felt like she was home.

Chapter Text

The night that Tarrlok summoned Mako and Bolin to his office was spent by his fellow councilmembers in peaceful, uneventful slumber.

But as one of those politicians was a father of three, that peace didn’t last very long.

“Daddy!  Daddy!” said Ikki excitedly, pulling on his beard for good measure as she sat atop his chest.  This was, regrettably, not an unusual way for him to be woken up.  “Come quick, the baby’s coming!”

The airbender sat bolt upright, immediately wide-awake.  “What?!” he exclaimed.  “But that doesn’t make any sense, she only got pregnant last…!”

Tenzin abruptly ceased his shouting as he saw the sly little grin on his youngest daughter’s face.  She’d always been a terrible liar.

“Now, Ikki.  What did I tell you the last time you did this?” he asked, pulling her off of him one-handed.

“That I-shouldn’t-kid-around-about-such-important-matters-and-when-I-grow-up-I’ll-understand-the-gravity-of-what-bringing-a-life-into-this-world-means,” she chattered brightly, somehow managing to fit that all into a single breath.

Her father sighed wearily, his eyes rapidly blinking sleep away as he glanced around his bedroom.  Pema had already gotten up, it seemed.

“So…what is so important, then?” said Tenzin, turning back to his daughter.

“Some guy’s at the door waiting for you,” she replied, placing a finger to her chin and taking on an uncharacteristically thoughtful expression.  “At least, mommy said he’s a guy.  Me and Meelo weren’t sure.”

“Meelo and I,” he corrected automatically, already pulling on his cape over his pajamas and sweeping out of the room.

It wasn’t quite “receiving guests” wear, but this early in the morning it’d have to do.

He pulled open the door with a bit more force than he’d been intending, though he otherwise chose not to vent his frustrations on the poor sap on the other side.  He recognized the visitor immediately – the timid and bookish page who currently served the Council.

“Good morning, sir!” he said immediately, bowing almost comically low.  “My apologies for the hour of my arrival, but Councilman Tarrlok said this was urgent.

The page held out a sealed scroll, which Tenzin took.

“Thank you…Jilu,” responded Tenzin, slightly embarrassed that it’d taken him a second to place the name.  “Err…can I get you anything before you go?  Water, tea?”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you, sir.  Air Nomad hospitality is truly second to none!  But I’m alright, really,” he told the bearded councilman.  “I should be getting back to City Hall right away.  Busy day today, very busy day.”

“Well, if you’re sure…” said Tenzin, his tone slightly suspicious.  He thought, for a second, he’d seen…something in the older man’s expression, but it was gone the moment he noticed.

Perhaps it really was just too early in the day.

“What does that weasel-snake want now?” his wife asked as soon as he closed the door, a frying pan in one hand while the other rested on her stomach.  She had an impressive talent for managing to overhear every word of his conversations, without him realizing she was there.  Until or unless she felt like it.

Well…“impressive” was one word for it.

Tenzin unfurled the scroll and read for a moment.  The message was very short.

“Looks like Tarrlok is calling an emergency meeting of the Council,” answered the airbender, his expression pensive.

“About what?” said Pema.

Tenzin shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  Though I have my suspicions,” he muttered.  “Either way, the meeting isn’t until noon.  So at least the morning isn’t completely shot.”

“That’s a good thing,” she declared, smiling at her husband.  “Because I think your daughter needs you right now.”

The councilman placed a palm over his face.  “By the spirits, I think I’ve had enough of Ikki ‘needing’ me for one morning,” he replied with a groan.

Pema just shook her head slightly.  “Wrong daughter,” she said.

Then she pointed out the window, at a distant outcropping near the docks of Air Temple Island.  It would’ve been hard for anyone else to make out, but Tenzin recognized Jinora’s small, slender frame instantly.

“She’s been out there since before sunrise,” Pema explained, leaning slightly against her husband.  “At first, I thought she was just meditating.  But I went out that way a little while ago to grab some herbs, and…I think I heard crying.  I’d climb up there myself, but…”

The Air Acolyte patted her swollen belly absently; neither of them needed to say out loud why her engaging in rock-climbing was a poor idea.

“I’ll go get her,” whispered Tenzin, and with that, he was quite literally off like the wind.

 

[--------------------]

 

Asami Sato, by contrast, awoke that morning to the warm, sweet scent of purified buzzard-wasp honey.  In the kitchen, their personal chef was clearly experimenting.

She stretched out across her bed and smiled.  Okay, she had to admit…sometimes it didn’t suck to be obscenely rich.

The non-bender checked the clock on the table next to her bed.  Work didn’t start for another couple hours, so she had a bit of time to kill.

Strictly speaking, it was true that Asami didn’t actually work at Future Industries; she didn’t draw a salary, at least.  Not that she needed to, of course.  But as far as she was concerned, the company was going to be hers eventually, one way or another.  So why not get some hands-on training while she had the chance?

Her father, ever-passive and indulgent of his little girl, had allowed her to pick one program to implement and manage, to prove she had the skills and the smarts to be a successful businesswoman.

The Water Tribe Labor Initiative had been her choice.  And right now, she couldn’t imagine having picked a better one.

Asami slowly pulled herself out of bed and sighed contentedly.

There were no two ways about it: Mizore fascinated her, in a way she couldn’t ever remember another person matching.  They’d only known each other for a couple days now, but she was sure the other woman felt it too.  Something seemed to be…drawing her to the waterbender, a feeling in the back of her head she couldn’t explain.

Right now, she felt somehow like she knew everything about her, and at the same time almost nothing.

Every word Mizore spoke about her past, her family, her mysterious friends, was vague and noncommittal.  Asami didn’t get the sense she was lying to her, exactly, but she did think she wasn’t telling her the full truth.

There was something else there, just beneath the surface.  And more than she’d ever felt around anyone else, Asami found herself wanting, needing to find out what it was.  To understand.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that Mizore was also friendly, genial, and so adorably awkward in her evident inexperience with socializing.  And…well, there wasn’t any point in trying to dance around it.  She was also very easy on the eyes.

While Mizore had made it clear she didn’t recognize it herself, she was indisputably gorgeous.  Strength was the thing Asami found most attractive in people – a desire to feel safe with someone, a feeling she hadn’t honestly experienced since the day she lost her mom – and Mizore was built like someone with a ton of it to spare.

Combine that with her perfectly toned skin, cute little bob haircut, and highly impressive…figure, and Asami was confident she could have half the men or women in Republic City, if she simply asked for it.

Asami shook her head as she dressed herself, pushing those thoughts from her mind.  They were not appropriate things to be thinking about an employee – particularly an employee she was responsible for.

Still, the waterbender’s smiling, blushing face rested at the corner of her thoughts all the while as she went down for breakfast.

Hiroshi was already at the table, sipping tea and reading a newspaper.  Asami leaned in and gave her father a kiss on the cheek.

“Morning, dad.  Are you not going in today?” she asked.

He smiled and patted her hand as she sat down beside him.  “Another day of working from home, I’m afraid,” he said.

“You’ve been doing that a lot, lately,” Asami pointed out, her brow creasing slightly.  “Is something the matter?”

The inventor waved a hand airily.  “Oh, no.  I’ve just been busy,” he replied with a chuckle.  “You know me when I get on a big new project.  Can’t even spare the time to commute!”

That piqued Asami’s interest.  “Ooh, can I get a hint?” murmured the teenager, her eyes popping.  “Come on, you can’t leave me hanging like that.”

Hiroshi patted her hand again, more gently this time.

“You’ll find about it soon, don’t worry.  Never forget, Asami…you’re the most precious thing in the world to me,” he said.  “Anyway, enough about work!  How’d it go yesterday?  I hope your new…friend…had a nice time at Kwong’s.”

“Mizore clearly hasn’t had much experience with fine dining, that’s for sure,” answered Asami, unable to suppress a short giggle.  “But really, it was great.  We have a lot in common, and she’s super easy to talk to.  Maybe a little guarded, but I can’t really blame her there.  She didn’t exactly grow up around…err…this.

The non-bender gestured around them in a wide arc, acutely aware of how dramatically oversized their dining hall was for just two people.

“This…Mizore person,” added Hiroshi after a long sip.  “She’s a waterbender, I take it?”

“Well, considering she’s part of our waterbender initiative, I think that’s a safe bet,” she said, grinning.  “And a pretty good one too, from the looks of things.  If she got hand-picked by the chief, she kinda has to be, right?”

“That would be the logical conclusion,” her father stated evenly, his hands now folded.  “Nevertheless…I just want you to be careful.  This new friend may be…exciting, but you barely know anything about her.  Try not to move too fast.”

“You worry too much, dad,” responded Asami, waving off his concerns.  “All we did was have dinner.  Err…although…”

Hiroshi raised an eyebrow.  “Although…?” he repeated.

“Well, I…kinda asked her if she could visit here this weekend.  And maybe meet…well, you.  If that’s alright,” she eventually managed to explain, saying all of this very fast.

Her father frowned, just for a moment…but it melted into a warm smile so quickly she was almost sure she’d imagined it.

“Of course, if that’s what makes you happy,” he said, nodding.  “In the meantime, though, I really do have to get back to my personal project.  I’ll see you again at dinner?”

Asami kissed him on the cheek again.  “Wouldn’t miss it,” she told him, before heading to the kitchen to get some of that honey.

 

[--------------------]

 

“Been a long time, Shin,” said Mako, his arms crossed as he glared at the triad member.

Skoochy’s tip had been spot-on: the brothers found Shady Shin shuffling around the docks with his hands in his pockets, calmly reminding each restaurant or storeowner that today was “payday.”  Without fail, each of them produced the protection money with nary a second glance.  None of them even seemed scared of Shin.

By this point, they were simply resigned to the cost of doing business in Triple Threat turf.

Shin, for his part, barely looked surprised as he turned to face the two of them.

“Mako!  Bolin!  Well ain’t you boys a sight for sore eyes,” he replied, grinning cheekily.  “Haven’t seen you around since…when was it?  Ah, right.  When you stabbed ol’ Zolt in the back and ran off to join the circus.”

“Pro-bending, actually,” interjected Bolin, one finger pointed upward.

“Eh, same difference from our end,” said Shin with a shrug.  “But that’s water under the bridge now.  All in the past.  So what can I do for ya this fine day?”

“Has to do with that ‘circus work,’ actually,” Mako answered.  “We need money, good money, for the championship ante.  And we need it quick.  I don’t suppose you know of any big jobs coming up?”

He decided to play dumb about the summit, at least for now.  Shin would likely assume, semi-correctly, that Skoochy had told them about it, and he didn’t want to get the kid in trouble for blabbing.

Shin’s face lit up instantly.

“Well, well, well,” he murmured, his tone so oily it was almost comical.  “Looks like you’re in luck.  Matter of fact, we do have a big shindig comin’ up.  And provided you boys are fine with standin’ around, lookin’ tough, and most of all not askin’ questions, I think I can squeeze you in.”

“So it’s a security job?” asked Bolin, playing along with his brother’s feigned ignorance.  Or possibly having actually forgotten some of the details, Mako wasn’t sure.

Shin leaned in close, looking – as he often did – more like an over-the-top parody of a gangster than an actual one.

“Listen up, ‘cuz I’m only gonna say this once,” he said in a carrying whisper.  “All the triad bigwigs are getting’ together this weekend for a little powwow.  And none other than yours truly is in charge of hirin’ security.  I used to run with the Monsoons before I joined the Triple Threats, and my brother’s in the Agni Kais.  Makes me a good, neutral choice, ya feel me?”

He emphasized this point by smirking and tugging at his collar, as if this made him the most important person on the face of the planet.

“What about the Terras?” Bolin couldn’t keep himself from adding.

The Triple Threat member made a scoffing noise with his tongue.  “Terras are on their way out, and everyone knows it.  Even them,” he explained, shaking his head in derision.  “They’re lucky Zolt even lets ‘em show up.”

Eager to keep things from getting too off-track, Mako cut in, “So what’ll we be making off of this, anyway?”

It would’ve been suspicious not to ask.  And in any event, if Tarrlok decided not to follow through with his end of the bargain, it couldn’t hurt to have some extra cash on hand.

“Well I won’t lie to ya, boys,” responded Shin with a sigh.  “I’m short on muscle – good, reliable, bendin’ muscle – and I’m short on time.  So I’m willin’ to be generous.  Five thousand yuans, each, provided the night goes smooth.  Somethin’ goes wrong, and you guys step in to fix it…well, then we can talk a little bonus.  But I’m hopin’ it won’t come to that.”

“We’re cool with those terms,” said Mako, nodding to his brother.  “Just give us the time and location, and we’ll be there.”

“Two nights from now, eleven o’clock.  Future Industries warehouse twelve,” Shin told them promptly, his smirk broadening.  “My uncle’s a janitor there, got me the key.  Get there at least an hour early, so we can make sure it’s all nice and secure.”

“Got it,” declared the firebender, clasping hands with the gangster as briefly as he could get away with.  “Come on, Bolin.”

Finally, they had all the info they needed.

All that was left to do was wait.

 

[--------------------]

 

Jinora stared out at the surface of the ocean, as she’d been doing for the past three hours.

But no matter how long she looked, what she saw didn’t change.

She was vaguely aware of her father’s approach, but said nothing as he climbed up the rocks and – with some difficulty – took a seat beside her.

“Your grandfather used to sit in this very spot, you know?” he asked, letting his eyes seek out the horizon to match hers.  “He could meditate out here for days.  Once, he went nearly three weeks.  No food, no water.  I always wondered how he did it.”

His daughter remained silent, so Tenzin added quietly, “What’s the matter, Jinora?  You’ve never been this…sullen, before.”

Still, she refused to say a word.  Unsure what to do, he pressed on, “Now, dear, please.  You know you can tell me any-”

“I hear them in my sleep,” she said suddenly, her voice somewhat hollow.

Now Tenzin was even more confused.  “What exactly do you mean by…?” he began to ask, but Jinora cut him off again.

“The spirits.  All around us, especially on this island,” explained the young girl.  “They keep coming to me, in my dreams, even when I’m awake sometimes.  And they’re…I dunno how to describe it.  But there’s something really, really wrong.

“With the Spirit World?” whispered Tenzin, his brow furrowed with concern.

“With everything!” she exclaimed, her eyes still set resolutely on the morning sun.  “Something’s coming, really soon…something big.  And things just aren’t the way they’re supposed to be when it does.  They don’t tell me that in words, but…I can feel it.”

“I see…” said her father, now deep in thought.  “I wasn’t aware you could see or hear spirits so readily.  That’s a rare gift.”

“Only lately.  And…only sometimes,” Jinora told him in a low voice.  “Umm…dad?”

“Yes, Jinora?” he replied, leaning in a bit closer.

“There’s this one name I keep hearing from them.  I think…it’s at the heart of everything,” she continued.  “Have you ever heard of something called, uh…the Tree of Time?”

“I’ve read about it,” said Tenzin with a nod.  “According to legend, it sits at the nexus of the material and Spirit Worlds.  Part of both, yet neither.  It’s the focal point for all the cosmic energy throughout the universe.”

“I think that’s what’s wrong,” Jinora declared earnestly.  “Something’s in there that…that shouldn’t be in there.  Something powerful.  Something evil.  Something…”

She closed her eyes, and when she spoke her next word she wasn’t entirely certain she was the one who’d come up with it.

“…Timeless.

The two of them were silent for a while after that, though Tenzin wordlessly pulled his daughter into a one-armed hug.  She didn’t resist, but leaned into his side, letting all her worries wash away for the moment.

They’d need to discuss this further, she knew.  Whatever was coming, it was coming fast.  And her father was one of the few people on the planet with the power and spiritual knowledge to, just maybe, do something about it.

But for now…

This was what she needed.

Just a little bit more time with her dad.

 

[--------------------]

 

Korra was quickly beginning to realize that having a job was, well…

A lot of work.

She’d never been a stranger to physical labor growing up – spending your life on the run meant everyone had to pull their own weight, if they wanted to eat and sleep that night – but working at Future Industries was another story entirely.

Her job was repetitive, tiring…and frankly, rather boring.  She spent most of the day moving a water stream back and forth across a conveyor belt, assisting the machines in breaking down raw ore.

The only break in the monotony came when the machines jammed or malfunction, in which case she and her fellow waterbenders would be tasked to help solve the problem.  Or maybe it was more proper to say such a break would come, since it hadn’t actually happened yet.

Two hours in, and Korra was praying for something to go wrong, just so she’d be able to do something else for a while.

Asami wasn’t coming in until the afternoon shift, so Korra spent that first morning in the company of the Northerners who’d been selected for the initiative.  Not that they were very interested in making conversation.

She probably should’ve realized it ahead of time, but obviously, if they’d all come together on a boat from the North Pole then they’d know she hadn’t been on it.  None of them seemed willing to go so far as to elephant-rat her out, but they weren’t going out of their way to socialize either.

What she overheard as they finally broke for lunch didn’t help much.

“Look at that girl.  The boss’ pet,” whispered a young woman to her friends, in what Korra was sure she thought was a quiet enough voice not to reach her.  “Eating her noodles all awone.

“What do you think she is, anyway?” asked a boy who was hanging off of her; they were clearly an item.  “Southern?  Maybe even swamp.

“Long as she stays out of my way, I don’t care,” another girl said with a shrug.

Korra leaned lower over her meal, pretending as if she hadn’t heard that exchange.  She tried to tell herself it didn’t bother her – she was, after all, one of the most trusted agents of the Red Lotus, not to mention the freaking Avatar.  What a bunch of punks from the North said behind her back wasn’t a big deal.

Of course, there was little point in lying to herself when she already knew it was a lie.  The truth was, Korra was acutely concerned of what people thought of her.  This was the first time in twelve years when she’d been around a bunch of people her own age, and despite the risk it’d carry she couldn’t deny the part of her that yearned desperately for some friends.

It was that same part that was counting down the seconds until Asami was scheduled to arrive, despite all the risks that carried.

There was no denying that the non-bender was consuming a great number of her thoughts lately, and not in the “she could be an Equalist spy I must watch every single word I say” kind of way.

More of a “I really, really want her to keep thinking I’m a nice person I must watch every single word I say” sort of thing.

Well…at least part of it amounted to the same thing.

She wished she could say her interest in the girl was entirely for her utility, in helping her get closer to Hiroshi Sato and thus, possibly, Amon.  But again, she saw little point in lying to herself.

Asami clearly wanted to be friends with her, which was something Korra couldn’t say about anyone else she’d ever met.  Well, to be perfectly accurate…she wanted to be friends with Mizore.  Which was part of the issue, of course.

The moment the beautiful girl realized that nearly every word they’d ever exchanged had been a lie, this was all going to come crashing down.

But until then…maybe…

Asami arrived a few minutes after their lunch break came to a close.  She was dressed smartly, in a suit of dulled reds and blacks – a testament to the Sato family’s Fire Nation heritage.  Her vibrant green eyes, however, made evident that she also shared Earth Kingdom blood.

She’d done something differently with her hair today, Korra couldn’t help but notice.  It was tied into a neat bun and pinned in place, similar to how Ming-Hua usually wore hers.  More practical than wearing it long, when working in a place like this.

As soon as she noticed Korra staring at her, the non-bender gave a smile and friendly wave.  Korra thought about it for a second, shrugged, and then waved back.

If she was gonna be resented as the “boss’ pet,” she might as well at least own it.

“Huddle up, everyone, huddle up!” Asami called out, her voice ringing through the factory with the air of someone who’d practiced this quite often.  “I know you’re all busy, but I just want a couple minutes to make some announcements.”

She held up a clipboard, her eyes roaming quickly over a few inches of thick paperwork.

“First off, just wanna say, your morning supervisor tells me you’ve all been doing a great job so far,” she said.  “I know it’s not the most glamorous job in the world, but it’s vitally important to Future Industries and I appreciate you giving it your all.”

She gestured at her right, as another young woman – maybe five or six years older than Korra, with a severe face and tightly pressed green clothing – stepped forward.

“Secondly, this is Kinzoku.  She’s joining us on loan from our Omashu branch,” Asami went on, as the other woman bowed her head to the assembled waterbenders.  “She’s a metalbender of significant skill, and she’s agreed to help us out even further with the ore refining process.  I’m hoping this can be a great partnership on all sides.”

“When’ll she be starting?” asked one of the Northerners, his tone less than entirely welcoming to the idea.

“Next week, with any luck,” answered Kinzoku.  Her voice had a quality to it that was decidedly…unique, though Korra had trouble coming up with any other word to describe it.  “I still need to fill out some paperwork for the transfer.”

She then gestured to Asami for her to continue, and she did so.

“Finally…” said the non-bender.  “I’ve been asked to share a huge opportunity with any of you that’re pro-bending fans.”

Korra’s attention perked up immediately.

“The Fire Ferrets, Republic City’s only homegrown team, is scouting for a new waterbender,” Asami told them, flipping to a new page on her clipboard.  “Don’t go spreading this around too much yet, but apparently, the Council has decided to sponsor them directly.  And according to their page, they’ve recommended you folks as good candidates for the spot.  Anyone who’s interested can take a flyer, and go for tryouts tonight.”

Several of the Northerners immediately stepped forward, and picked up some hastily scrawled flyers from Asami’s gloved hand.  Korra hesitated for a few seconds, before grabbing one as well.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m a big Fire Ferrets fangirl,” added their supervisor, winking for good measure.  “So I really hope one of you makes the cut.  It’d be super-cool to see Future Industries represented in the arena.”

To emphasize the point, she clapped her hands together loudly, and then raised her voice again to exclaim, “Alright, that’s it for now!  Back to your stations, wave me over anytime if you have a question!”

Korra did as she was bid, though one eye remained on Asami and Kinzoku as they returned to the former’s office.  She had to repress a short pang of…something, as she couldn’t help but observe how absurdly beautiful the two of them were.

Well…Kinzoku would look a lot prettier if she stopped making a face like she had a metal rod up her butt, that was true.  But even then, she was a nine out of ten at least.

The Avatar pushed those very strange, very unhelpful thoughts from her mind, however, and forced her eyes back down to the flyer in her hand.  Nothing was written on it but a time and a location.

She shouldn’t go, she knew.  Under absolutely no circumstances were the potential benefits worth the risk.

And yet…

Korra returned to her workstation and resumed her menial task, her mind racing.

 

[--------------------]

 

Lin Beifong’s stewed silently as she drove to City Hall, the only noise out of her mouth being the occasional, rumbling growl.

Being woken up by a summons from her least-favorite Council member would’ve put her in a foul mood on the best of days, and she was not having one of those right now.

How dare he?  How dare he…?!

 

“If you’re here for Su, you can save us both some time and get the heck out of here,” she said bitingly.  “I’m not interested in anything she has to say.”

The man calling himself Aiwei didn’t budge, however.  “Be that as it may, I take my duties seriously,” he replied in a low voice.  “I’m simply here to deliver a message.  What you do with it is your business.”

Lin grimaced, but ultimately nodded.  Getting this over with quickly was probably the easiest way to deal with it.

“Just come out with it, then,” she muttered.

“Suyin recently became aware of certain…elements at work in this city,” explained Aiwei.  “She was concerned about you.  She thought perhaps you could use some help.”

“Oh, that’s rich,” said Lin with a roll of her eyes.  “Little miss queenie looking down from her no-rules paradise and taking pity on her poor, actually-has-to-work-for-a-living sister.  Well she can take that ‘concern’ and shove it.”

Aiwei folded his hands.  “With all due respect, Chief Beifong, Suyin merely has Republic City’s best interests at heart,” he responded.  “She wasn’t sure if she believed the reports when she heard them at first, but…”

Lin’s eyes narrowed even further than they already were, which was something of an accomplishment.

“Hold up there,” she interjected, jabbing a finger at the man’s chest.  “Since when is Su the type of person who gets reports?  She’s no leader, no kind of officer!  All she did was run off, without facing the consequences for what she’d done, and set up some cozy little commune for other people who don’t want to face the consequences!”

“Suyin had a wide variety of connections, and many friends,” said Aiwei, now sounding a little less patient.  “She hears many things, and when she heard about a secret group trying to subvert her sister’s city from within, she…”

Lin held her hand to cut him off again.  “I know about the Equalists, and we’ve got them under control,” she snapped.  “So thanks, but no thanks.  You can leave now.”

But Aiwei shook his head.  “The Equalist movement could indeed prove to be a grave threat to the world,” he told her.  “But I am not talking about them.”

 

Lin shook her head vigorously as she parked her Satomobile and set the brake, trying to clear her mind.  She had to forget about last night.

She had more important things to focus on right now.

When the Chief of Police entered the Council chamber, raised voices were already flying back and forth.  Neither of the speakers seemed to have noticed her entrance, though the page recording it all gave her a nervous wave.

“If you think we can afford to sit idly by while this goes on, you’re living in a fantasy world!” shouted Tarrlok.  “People are being abducted off the streets, Tenzin!  We can’t let this stand!”

“You don’t have any proof of that,” the airbender said heatedly, his robes slightly disheveled.  “And even if you did, this plan goes too far!  Pushing too hard on the non-bending population could incite the very revolution you’re trying to prevent!”

“Much as I hate to say it, I have to agree with Tarrlok on this one.  Or at least part of it,” Lin spoke up, causing the gathered councilmembers to notice her for the first time.

Tenzin looked somewhat conflicted, but recovered quickly.  “What exactly do you mean, Lin?” he asked.

“The abductions,” she answered, taking up position next to Jitai, the Fire Nation councilwoman.  “Took a little while for me to be sure, because they aren’t usually big on filing missing-person reports, but triad members have been vanishing off the records for weeks.”

“Couldn’t there be another explanation for that?” the Earth Kingdom councilor, Wei Yuan, piped up suddenly.  “These are street criminals, surely they disappear all the time.”

Lin shook her head.  “Not this many,” she said.  “Obviously, it’s difficult to get hard numbers, but all four major triads are certainly acting like they’ve been taking heavy losses.  And if it was because of a turf war or something, we’d have heard about it by now.”

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, Chief, but…are we sure this is such a bad thing?” asked I’Inka of the Southern Water Tribe.  “The bending triads have been a menace to our city for years.”

“It starts with the triads, but it won’t stop there,” Tarrlok declared, his words firm and uncompromising.  “If we sweep this under the rug and pretend it isn’t happening, it’ll only embolden the Equalist menace.  I promise you, in a few weeks it’ll be civilians next!  Men, women…children.  And we aren’t even certain what these terrorists are doing to the people they target.”

“I’ll admit you make some good points, Tarrlok,” replied Tenzin, adopting a cautioning tone.  “But nonetheless, we can’t just…”

“I know, I know,” Tarrlok murmured dangerously.  “You’ll have your vaunted proof in two days’ time.  At which point I will hold another vote, and hopefully you’ll all have learned to see some sense.

And with that, he stormed out of the chamber, his fancy robes sweeping behind him.

Lin, for her part, sidled up to Tenzin.  Speaking privately to her ex-boyfriend was always a little bit awkward, even in a professional setting, but she had to ask.

“What’d he propose?” she said in a low voice.  “What was the vote on?”

“Tarrlok wanted to impose a curfew on all non-benders,” the airbender whispered back, wrinkling his nose in distaste for the notion.

“That’s a terrible idea,” stated Lin immediately.  “It’s difficult to enforce, easy to circumvent, and it alienates the majority of the population for the sake of catching a tiny group.”

“Which is pretty much exactly what I said to him,” responded Tenzin with a sigh.  “But he won’t listen.  I think he sees the Equalists as an opportunity to grab the power he’s wanted for years.

It was probably best Aiwei hadn’t come to him, then, Lin couldn’t help but think.

 

“The Red Lotus?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.  “I’ve never even heard of them.”

“Few have,” said Aiwei.  “A splinter group from the Order of the White Lotus, their members operate in secret all over the world.  Your mother has taken an…interest in them, ever since the Southern Massacre – which she believes them to be responsible for.  She spoke of it to Suyin at length during her last visit.”

“Wait, wait.  Back up a second,” Lin cut in, her face stern.  “You’ve seen my mother?  She visits you?!”

She left Zaofu some time ago, to find enlightenment,” explained the metalbender.  “But yes, she returns on occasion.  Typically only when she has business to attend, however…as was in this case.”

“And what’d she say, then?” demanded the police chief.

“That the Red Lotus have been setting up a base of operations, in or around Republic City,” he said.  “If they didn’t have one already.  The society is exceedingly crafty, and plays the long game.  Anyone you meet could be one of their agents.”

Aiwei paused, closing his eyes briefly and frowning, as if deep in thought.

“You are correct, however, that the Equalists are not entirely an unrelated matter,” continued the bespectacled man.  “Or at least, Master Toph doesn’t think so.  She believes the Red Lotus are here either to ally with, or to destroy utterly, the Equalist threat.”

“Those two options really narrow it down,” Lin muttered dryly.

“She’s not certain they’ve made up their mind between the two,” replied Aiwei.  “Of course, this is all speculation.  Master Toph may be brilliant, but she isn’t all-knowing.”

At this, Lin loosed a derisive, snorting laugh.  “Well isn’t that the news story of the century,” she whispered bitterly.  “But fine, I’ll keep an eye out.  Now will you please take a hint, and get the heck out of my office?”

“I’ll only trouble you a moment longer,” he said, again not rising to the bait of her obvious antagonism.  “There is one other matter I’m certain you’d wish to know about.”

 

“In any event, there’s not much more we can do for it now,” Tenzin added after a little while, his tones low and weary.  “We’ll see what Tarrlok has in store for us in the next couple days, and then decide from there.”

“I have a bad feeling his so-called ‘proof’ won’t be anything good,” Lin murmured back through pursed lips.

“I have a feeling you’re probably right about that,” said the airbender.  “But whether we like it or not, he’s the legitimately appointed chairman of the United Republic Council.  And as I said…he may not be entirely wrong.”

“The hardest part to admit,” responded Lin with a sigh.  “Still, we don’t even know whether he’s going after the right threat.”

“What do you mean, Lin?” Tenzin asked, concern in his voice.

By the spirits.  She hadn’t meant to let that slip out.

Hastily covering for herself, Lin stammered out, “Nothing.  Just…Just a hunch, that’s all.  Leave me to do my job, and I’ll leave you to yours.

The councilman sighed as well.  “If you insist,” he said, his arms folded and his head dipped pensively.  “I’ll see you whenever Tarrlok sees fit to call a follow-up meeting.”

“Yeah…see you then,” she grumbled, already on her way out the door.

 

“She what?!” Lin yelled out, slamming her fist into the nearest wall.  For a moment, the entire building shook.  “I just told you, Su isn’t the leader of anything!  Not elected, not even legally appointed!  And she thinks she can just…!”

“Suyin meant no disrespect, Chief Beifong,” said Aiwei, his utter calm persisting in spite of her increasingly violent rage.  “She only wished to help.”

“By placing one of her ‘people’ in my city?” she demanded at the top of her lungs.  “By sending some…some…vigilante to run loose on a case she has no business butting in on?!”

“Suyin trusts her intimately,” Aiwei replied.  “And I can vouch personally for her dedication and discretion.  There is no chance of her engaging in any…improprieties, during her search.  She will gather the intelligence you need, share it with the police department, and then return to Zaofu as silently as she came.”

“Get.  Her.  Out.  Now,” Lin whispered dangerously.  Her tone left no room for argument.

But the Metal Clan member just shook his head.

“Even if I wished to comply, I could not.  We undertook our tasks separately, and in secret, as Suyin requested,” he explained.  “She is already under deep cover, chasing a lead.  I can tell you nothing of her whereabouts, save that she is within the city limits.”

“And this was all to help, of course,” said Lin through gritted teeth.  “All this going on, and she decides the one thing I need is another unknown.”

“You may do with this information what you will.  My only purpose was to deliver the message,” responded Aiwei, now turning to leave.  “I wish you a good evening, Chief Beifong.”

 

In both the past and present, Lin let loose a frustrated snarl and stormed away.

 

[--------------------]

 

The location on the flyer turned out to be, in what could only be described as the epitome of irony, the Southern Water Tribe Cultural Center.

Korra noted, with more than the slightest twinge of bitterness, that the magnificent blue-and-silver building could probably house more people than the actual population of the tribe it represented.  The gleaming statue of Chief Sokka, holding his legendary boomerang in triumph, probably shined brighter than any of the snows he’d walked through in life.

The very existence of this place was a joke.  A memorial to a “culture” that was all but dead.

Just like the two Southerners who’d brought her into it.

That it was about to serve as a staging ground for glory only Northerners were allowed to partake in…that only made the joke all the crueler.

Korra took a deep breath, centering herself, and pushed forward.  She had to remember what the Lotus had taught her.  There was no point in dwelling on what’d already happened.  The past could not be changed.

But the future always could be.

The cultural center’s posted closing time had passed over an hour ago, and all its lights had been snuffed out for the night, but Korra found the doors unlocked and slightly ajar.  It creeped the Avatar out, just a little bit, but she pressed on nonetheless.

Crude signage directed her to a room toward the rear of the complex.  It was, apparently, a reproduction of the courtroom within the Southern Water Tribe Royal Palace.

Except that this version hadn’t been reduced to a mound of slush, of course.

There were five others seated on the faux-ice benches – three she recognized from work, and two others she’d never seen before.  She took a seat some distance away from them, grateful no one was trying to start any conversation.

One more person, another fellow employee, arrived before the clock struck the hour on the flyer.  At that very moment, a small, elderly man entered from a side-room and bowed low.

“Thank you all so much for coming!” he said.  His voice sounded oddly squeaky, like a rusty hinge.  “I hope you all found the place okay.”

“Are you gonna be the one judging the tryouts?” asked one of the Northerners impatiently.

The man nodded.  “I’m here representing Councilman Tarrlok.  He regrets that he wasn’t able to attend personally, but he is a very busy man,” he answered.  “Now, since there’s so few of us, I think we can do these one at a time.  Would you like to start us off, miss?”

It took Korra a second to realize he’d directed those last words at her.

“Uh…um…sure!” she managed to sputter, grinning nervously.  “Err…what do you want me to do?”

“Just follow me, good miss,” he said brightly, gesturing to the room he’d just come from.  “I’ll see each of you one at a time, just to make sure no one has any unfair advantage over the others.”

Korra wasn’t sure how much sense that made, but she followed his instructions nonetheless.  She was hardly prepared for what happened the moment the door closed behind them, however.

The tiny man let out a jubilant squeal, leaned forward, and hugged her.

“Oh, you’re so clever!  I thought this was a longshot, but you pulled it off!  You wonderful, wonderful girl!” he exclaimed.

Korra had absolutely no response to this.  Her brain had pretty much completely shut down from overload of “whaaaaaaaaa…?”  She knew she was missing something, but for the life of her, she hadn’t the slightest idea what.

Finally, after regaining enough mental faculties to realize she should, she awkwardly pushed the old man away from her midsection and demanded, “What the heck is going on here?”

His face fell a bit.  “Wasn’t this your plan all along?” he asked, his eyebrows scrunched together.  “To find a way to meet that wouldn’t arouse suspicion, either from Hiroshi Sato or Tarrlok?  I apologize, I’ve been wanting to debrief you myself ever since you came to the city, but…”

And suddenly, everything clicked.

“Jilu…?” Korra whispered, finally realizing who this unassuming little man must be.

Any trace of his prior joviality disappeared in an instant.

“So…you really didn’t know?” said Jilu, suddenly giving off an aura of menace that contrasted strongly with the squeaky quality of his voice.  “You took on this risk to your cover, potentially jeopardized everything the Lotus has been working toward…just for the sake of being a pro-bender?

A shiver went up the Avatar’s spine.  “Err…no!  No, of course not!  I was…umm…just…you see…” she replied, scrambling hastily for an excuse.  “I was, err…just testing you!  Yeah, that’s it!”

Testing me,” repeated the bespectacled man, his tones dripping with doubt.

An awkward, nervous grin she didn’t actually feel at all spread across her face.

“Well, uh…I mean, I’d never met you in person before, right?” she continued, unsure where she was going with this.  “So, err…the thing is, you could’ve been an Equalist impersonating Jilu, couldn’t you?  I’d, umm…never know the difference…?”

Korra hadn’t really been expecting him to buy that hippo-cow manure, but to her abject surprise, the brightness immediately returned to his face.

“You know, I hadn’t even thought of that!” he said, briefly squeezing her around the waist once more.  “I guess they don’t call you the Avatar for nothing!  Not that anyone should be calling you that around here, kinda the point of being undercover, but still…”

“So is this your cover?” asked Korra, grateful for the chance to skate by her grievous error in judgment.  “Zaheer was sort of vague about it.”

Jilu nodded.  “Page to Republic City’s Council by day, senior member of the Red Lotus by night!” he told her.  “It’s usually a pretty cushy gig.  Tarrlok treats me like dirt, but that’s fine.  Running around, doing all his errands gives me a chance to check in on all my contacts.  And as long as I keep up the ‘squeaky-voiced coward’ act, he barely pays any attention to me.  The perfect position for a spy.”

“I guess that makes sense…” Korra murmured quietly, trying to process all of this.  When the others had spoken about their top operative in the city, placed within striking distance of the Council, this was not the sort of man she’d pictured.  “Oh, speaking of which!  I met another agent last night.”

“Yes, he handed me a report this morning, before leaving for our new base at Su Oku,” said Jilu.  “He asked you to help rescue his brother, didn’t he?”

Korra could only give a small, quiet nod.

“It’s a shame what happened to poor Nei Jian,” added the old man, shaking his head sadly.  “And if you get the chance, it’s a good idea.  The kid doesn’t know much, but leaving any info in Amon’s hands is a liability.  Still, I can’t call him a priority right now.”

“Of course,” responded Korra, unsure of what else to say.

“So how’s progress, otherwise?” he went on, without missing a beat.

Korra figured the attendant from Kwong’s had already related everything she’d told him, so she wracked her brain for anything new to add.

Finally, she said, “I guess you should know I’ve been invited to Hiroshi Sato’s home this weekend.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to learn whether or not he’s connected to the Equalists then.”

“Any chance this invitation could be a trap?” asked Jilu.  “The timing seems awfully suspicious.”

“I…don’t think so?” muttered Korra, looking askance.  “I, err…haven’t ruled out his daughter being an Equalist spy herself.  But I think her invitation was sincere.”

Why?” he demanded, leaning forward insistently.  “That sounds exactly like a trap.”

“I just do, okay!” she blurted out, a little more loudly than she’d been intending.  “Err, I mean…can you just trust me to handle this part on my own?  Master Zaheer gave this job to me, and I need to do it my own way.”

Jilu sighed deeply, but ultimately nodded.  “Very well, Avatar Korra,” he said.  “Or…what was your cover name, again?  I guess I should get used to using it.”

“Mizore…” she answered, her voice quiet.  Saying it still didn’t feel entirely natural.

“Well then, Mizore.  It’s been good chatting with you.  We’ll be in touch soon,” Jilu continued on, leaping to his feet and giving another bow.  This one was far shorter.

“Wait…what about my audition?” asked Korra, surprised at the abruptness of her dismissal.

At this, however, the old man just laughed heartily.

“Well, obviously you’re going to be my choice,” he said after a moment, once he’d managed to stifle his guffaws.  “I mean, we can’t just let an opportunity like this pass us by, right?  A ready-made excuse to meet privately all the time?  Sure, I’ll pretend to let the other kids have their shots, but there’s no way it’ll be anyone but you.”

“Err…gee, thanks…” mumbled the Avatar, now feeling distinctly wrong-footed.  She knew she should be happy, but this wasn’t exactly how she’d been expecting to nail her tryouts.

If Jilu noticed her mixed reaction, however, he didn’t comment on it.  Instead he donned a big, fat grin, and gestured to the door.

“Welcome, Mizore,” he added, his servile demeanor returning to his face like a glove over a hand.  “Welcome to the Republic City Fire Ferrets.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Tenzin clutched at his head as he disembarked from his glider, right in the center of Republic City Park, and groaned audibly.

He was really getting too old for this.

Gliding had been his favorite activity as a child, and in the years since it’d never failed to lift his spirits.  Until his death, it really and truly had been the one thing he and his father could always share – and only them.

Whenever Bumi was picking on him, or Kya retreated into her room in her latest attempt to “find herself” (yes, she’d been doing that since she was nine), Tenzin could always count on the skies to take him away, far above what any non-airbender could possibly imagine.

But the cold night air and rushing headwinds were harsher on his middle-aged bones than they’d been as a child, and what should’ve been an energizing experience had only drained him further.

He knew he probably should’ve taken Oogi for a trip of this length, but the poor boy had been flying around with Ikki and Meelo all day, and Tenzin decided he could use the break.  And in any event, he didn’t have much father to travel.

This was a route he’d taken a great many times in the past fifteen years, ever since she’d moved to join him and his family in the city.  Republic City Park was the closest piece of wide, open space for landing, and her apartment was only about a five-minute walk away.

Perhaps, at his age, he should’ve outgrown the instinct to seek her out first.  But little was certain right now, and even less was understood.  That feeling wasn’t one he enjoyed experiencing.

In days gone by, when he’d felt similarly, his father had been the rock he’d tethered himself to – an ironic turn of phrase perhaps, given Aang’s infamous difficulties with earthbending, but an apt one in this case.

Which left only one option to turn to.

Her home was small, cozy; decorated intimately with skins and beads of southern origin, and eschewing all but the most basic appliances.  Numerous photographs covered the walls nearly from head-to-toe: her and her husband; their children; any number of old friends and allies, both living and departed.

It looked, for all the world, like it belonged to a member of the lowest classes of the United Republic.  Not to one of its most influential founders.

There was already a teapot on the stove, which she was tending, her back turned away from him.  Of course there was.  He hadn’t told her he’d be dropping by, but she knew.

Somehow, she always knew.

“Good evening, mother,” he said, bowing his head in deepest respect.

Slowly, with great care, Katara turned around, the warm smile on her face precisely the same as the one she’d worn on the day he was born.

“It’s good to see you, Tenzin,” she replied, returning the bow as deeply as her aged muscles would allow.  “Please, sit down.”

Chapter Text

“It’s…not bad,” Ming-Hua said tersely, her water-arms entwined.

Coming from her, it was a compliment of the highest order.

Their new base of operations along the Su Oku River was indeed impressive, for something that’d been thrown together in the space of three days.  Thanks to their earthbenders expanding a small natural cave nearby, nearly the entire complex was underground, making detection all but impossible.

Ghazan was currently at work reinforcing all the walls and ceilings.  He trusted the talents of the earthbenders they had here, largely, but it couldn’t hurt to be sure.  And few benders shared the tattooed man’s sheer level of…finesse.

P’Li and Ming-Hua were both hard at work as well, if somewhat begrudgingly in the latter case.  The combustionbender’s explosions were more hindrance than help down here, but she was still a talented firebender outside of that, and she was currently making sure they had enough fires to provide for warmth and cooking.

The waterbender, meanwhile, was using every last ounce of her skill and fine control to channel a portion of the river to flow underground.  The Su Oku’s waters were potable, and had been used by a nearby village for centuries.  It’d once even housed a world-class spa, of all things, close to their current location.

But the end of the Hundred Year War, and the consolidation of the Fire Nation colonies into the United Republic, had largely rendered the Su Oku village obsolete.  That was not uncommon, for the colonies that existed on the outer rim of the new nation.

Its peoples invariably wanted to move inward, toward the big cities – and Republic City, in particular.  The last seventy years had seen a huge swell of population growth in the urban areas, and the essential abandonment of dozens of smaller towns and villages which’d stood for centuries.

But the infrastructure and natural resources, which’d allowed some of these places to stand since the era of Avatar Bai, still remained.  And now, they were being turned to greater purpose.

They had a total of nineteen support staff, most of them agents who’d been relocated from within or around Republic City.  Among them were three waterbenders, five firebenders, and six earthbenders – two of them able to use metal as well.

All of them, bender and non-bender alike, deferred to Zaheer as a matter of principle.  By definition, of course, the Red Lotus didn’t have leaders.  Indeed, more than one senior member had warranted assassination in the past, for trying to grasp at power that wasn’t there.

Still, these people respected him, and within the Lotus that was enough.  He didn’t need to give orders if no one here would even think to disobey his requests.

“A fine job, all of you,” he told them after a few hours, once the whirlwind of activity had begun to die down.  “Barring unforeseen events, the Avatar’s mission will require us to remain within a day’s travel of Republic City, for at least the next few months.  Those months will be difficult, for all of us.  But I trust in your loyalty to the Red Lotus…and to our cause.”

Several of the attendants raised their fists in the air, and a great cry of support erupted across the small crowd.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” murmured P’Li as she came up next to him, her two natural eyes shining.  “What you’ve built.  What we’ve built.”

“It is,” said Zaheer, his lips barely moving as he spoke.  “But the mission is far from over.”

He waved over one of the non-benders, a florist named Hanaya.  Her profession made her an invaluable asset in the city, as she could easily slip messages or other small objects into her deliveries.

As such, she’d been the last one to speak with their operative at Air Temple Island.

“It is an honor, Master Zaheer,” the old woman whispered, bowing her head.  “How may I serve the Lotus?”

Zaheer held up a hand.  “Please.  No need for titles,” he replied quietly.  “What can you tell me of our progress?”

“I delivered to Master Jilu, Mistress Haguru, and Mistress Chui prior to coming here,” said Hanaya.  “I have reports from all three.”

“Then give them to me,” Zaheer declared immediately.  “Time grows shorter and shorter still.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Tenzin sipped from his tea cup, savoring the bitter yet subtle taste.  Of course she’d made it just how he liked it.

She was his mother, after all.

Katara mirrored her son, though she added several spoonfuls of something that looked like honey into her own.

“These old tastebuds of mine aren’t what they used to be, you know,” she said as she caught him staring; Tenzin’s face instantly went red.  “If I need to give them a little kick in the pants once in a while, I’m fine with that.”

“Of course, mother,” responded the airbender, before sighing deeply.  “Thank you for seeing me so late.  I…have a lot on my mind, these days.  And incredibly few people with whom I can share any of it.”

She waved off his thanks.  “Come now, Tenzin.  We both know I don’t have much else to do, these days,” she told him.  “Besides, you’re my son.  I’ll always have time for you.”

 Tenzin flushed slightly, but said nothing.

“Now…” continued the waterbending master, as she took a seat in a comfy armchair across from her youngest son.  “How is it I can help you?”

“It’s…Jinora,” said Tenzin, his head bowed.  “She spoke to me this morning of…visions she’s been having lately…”

He began to relate her granddaughter’s words in as much detail as he could recall.  Katara listened on without interruption, simply drinking her tea as she took in his story.

Once he’d finished, however, she opened her lips slightly and whispered, “This is very grave news, Tenzin.  If not entirely unexpected.”

“What do you mean, mother?” he asked.

“I cannot speak to the Tree of Time, or the ‘evil’ she senses,” explained the elderly waterbender.  “But I’ve communed with the spirits more times than most – albeit, not as often since your father passed.  Still, I can tell they’ve grown…restless, as of late.  Why, I cannot say.  But I doubt Jinora’s plight is unconnected.”

“I just feel so…helpless,” said Tenzin.  “I want to do something for her, but all this is even beyond my depth.  I’m supposed to be a spiritual leader, but…”

She placed a comforting hand on her son’s shoulder.  “Even a leader can’t always have all the answers,” Katara replied.  “I learned that the hard way, twelve years ago.”

Tenzin didn’t need to ask what she was alluding to.  The Southern Massacre had claimed the lives of her brother, her friends, and about ninety percent of her tribe…not to mention, the young Avatar, discovered by the White Lotus less than a year prior.

All this time since, and the Order still hadn’t located that poor girl’s successor.  The Earth Kingdom was a big place, admittedly, and Avatars born into it often took longer to identify as a result.  But it still made for yet one more tragedy that night had inflicted upon the world.

“Does it ever get better?” he murmured, his eyes closed.  “This feeling…that you’ve failed the ones closest to you…?”

“No…I can’t honestly say it does,” said Katara sadly.  “But you haven’t failed, Tenzin.  Not yet.  Not until you stop looking for answers.  Just because I can’t give them all to you, doesn’t mean they aren’t out there somewhere.”

She put down her now-empty cup and took a deep, rattling breath.  “There is one thing I can tell you, however,” she added.  “I’m not sure if it’s connected to the spiritual troubles, but either way, it’s something you’ll no doubt want to investigate.”

“Go on, mother,” Tenzin encouraged her, sensing her hesitancy.

“It took me a while to be certain…but there can no longer be any doubt,” she answered, her voice very quiet.  “There’s a bloodbender in this city.”

Tenzin’s eyes immediately went wide.  “How can you be sure?” he asked.

Katara hung her head as she spoke, her tones solemn and regretful.

“I have bloodbent three times in my life.  And even though two of them were to save lives, part of me wishes I could take back every single one,” she said.  “That’s why I pushed so hard to have it outlawed across the world.  Why I had nothing but support when Aang removed the most powerful bloodbending ever to exist in a person.”

The waterbender folded her wrinkled hands to keep them from shaking.  She’d never met Yakone personally – she’d been busy raising her children in the South during his reign of terror and subsequent trial – but Aang, Sokka, and Toph had all experienced his horrific bending firsthand, and their stories had inevitably reached her.

“The most terrifying thing about bloodbending, perhaps, is how…easy it becomes, after you’ve done it once,” Katara went on, after a lengthy and uncomfortable pause.  “You become acutely aware of the water in others’ bodies…and how simple it’d be to make it move one way, or another.  Just one little push.  Just one little pull.”

Despite everything, despite how deeply he loved her and how much he knew his mother would never act on what she was describing, a chill ran up Tenzin’s spine.

“My point is, if you have that sort of…‘blood sense,’ you might call it…it’s obvious when you feel blood moving in a way it shouldn’t,” she told her son.  “I was walking home from the store the other night, and I’m sure that’s what I felt.  Somewhere, within the range of my bending, someone was being bloodbent.”

“I’ll have the police look into this immediately,” Tenzin stated seriously.  “We’ll need to know where you were at the time, of course.  It might help us narrow down the search.”

“I’ve already submitted a police report, with all the details,” said Katara.  “But you could still speak to Lin, perhaps, and make sure it doesn’t get lost on someone’s desk.  Whoever is doing this, they need to be stopped, Tenzin.  And quickly.  Because…”

She leaned forward, her warm blue eyes burning with an intensity her son hadn’t seen in years.

“This bloodbender, whoever they are…” she concluded, her tones hard and grave.  “They’re like Yakone.  That night was a new moon.”

 

[--------------------]

 

“Are you sure this is the right place, bro?” asked Bolin, restlessly bouncing up and down on his heels.

“The note Jilu left said we’d be meeting the waterbender they found right here,” said Mako, though he consulted the brief letter again just to be sure.  “The summit still isn’t until tomorrow night, so we’ve got nothing better to do in the meantime.  I mean, they’re only ten minutes late.  I say we give it another five before we pack it up.”

The two of them were standing at a side-entrance to the bending arena, by a statue of Chit Sang – one of the world’s first pro-benders, and the first firebender to participate in the infancy of the sport.

Lots of people were shuffling around the area, despite no matches being scheduled today, but none of them looked like waterbending athletes.

Suddenly, Bolin began to chuckle, and a bulge moving up his shirt indicated that Pabu was crawling over him.  The little fire ferret soon emerged onto his owner’s head and made chirruping sounds, its ears perked up as it stared off in the distance.

Both brothers followed the path of his beady orange eyes, and saw a young, dark-skinned girl jogging toward them, waving enthusiastically.

At least, up until the point when she tripped on the uneven tiles, stumbled dramatically, and took a dive straight into the water.

“Oof, sorry about that.  Yeah, the ground here…haaaasn’t really been retiled in, like, ten years.  Maybe twenty?” was Bolin’s response, as he and Mako rushed over to give her some help.

She was, however, a waterbender of course, and emerged from the bay in a rising funnel of liquid, returning to dry land with a neat flip for good measure.

“Err…can we, uh, pretend you didn’t see that?” she said nervously, squeezing the water out of her hair as she did.  “The fall part, I mean.  I think the ‘getting back’ part was okay.”

“Done,” replied Mako, though he didn’t return her awkward grin.  He brandished Jilu’s letter.  “You’re ‘Mizore,’ I guess?”

“The one and only,” she declared, a bit of water – or possibly sweat – dripping down her cheek.  “Which must make you…Mako, and Bolin, right?  I’ve listened to you on the radio, but I’ve never seen you in person.”

“The two and only,” Bolin stated confidently, casually flexing one of his arms.  “Nice to meet you.”

He accompanied this by directing both his pointer fingers toward her and winking, a gesture that did little but utterly confuse the disguised Avatar.  Doing so seemed to agitate Pabu, however, as he began to dart along his back and chirrup again.

“Oh, and this friendly fellah is our adorable mascot, Pabu,” he said after a moment, his voice instantly losing that artificial tone of bravado.  “Together, we are the…duh duh duh dun…Republic City Fire Ferrets!  And I guess you’re the newest gal we’ll be welcoming aboard!”

“Assuming everything all works out,” Mako added hastily, his tones cool and cautioning.  “Tell me, Mizore.  I guess you wouldn’t have had a chance to play much, being from the North, but how long have you been following pro-bending?  Are you good on the rules, the strategies?”

“Oh, uh…a while!” Korra exclaimed through her grin, determinably not making eye contact with him.

She figured the honest answer of “the last two days” probably wouldn’t win her much points with this guy.

“But, err…I mean, I could always use a refresher course,” she continued after a moment, trying to think on her feet.  “Not that I exactly need one, but…well, listening isn’t the same as doing, right?”

The smallest flicker of amusement tugged at the firebender’s mouth.

“True enough,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.  “Alright then, rookie.  The ring should be free right now.”

He clenched a fist, and a burst of flame erupted from his fingers, before dissipating a moment later.  Korra had to admit, the effect was really freaking cool.

“So let’s see what you’ve got.”

 

[--------------------]

 

“Zhu Li!  Get ready, I can feel the ideas starting to flow!  Like my bladder after a late night on Ember Island!”

The beleaguered assistant to one of the world’s leading industrialists sighed, but readied her pen and said “Yes, sir” in a deadpan voice nonetheless.

Some variant of this exchange happened approximately ten times a day, on average.

Iknik Blackstone Varrick, for his part, was currently suspended by his ankles from a lengthy metal rod and munching on hot peppers.  This was, after all, his standard “equipment” for brainstorming.

She didn’t understand it.  But then, she didn’t understand a lot of how his mind worked.  The point was it did, and that was the important part.

“Alright…it’s coming to me!” Varrick cried out, hot tears streaming from his reddened face as he shouted.  “Sugar…coated…sausages!  Portable doors!  Pillows that go under the bed!  Wait…I’ve got it!  Zhu Li, do the thing!”

Zhu Li Moon hastened to unfasten her boss and fetch him a deep glass of water, which he drained in about two seconds.

“I can see it now, Zhu Li!” he said, grabbing her by the shoulder and stretching out his arm dramatically.  “The wave of the future!  Those movers we’ve been working on…oh, they’re just the beginning!  Someday, every family on the planet will own a little screen for interacting with the world!  News, entertainment, exitainment…sky’s the limit!  And it’ll be called…Varri-vision!  Streaming anything and everything right off the Varri-net!”

“Brilliant as always, sir,” she replied tersely.  “But wasn’t the point of all this to figure out how to deal with the Equalists?”

Varrick paused mid-sentence in his extolment of the virtues of the coming “Varri-tal Age” and placed a finger to his chin, looking quizzical.

“Y’know what?  I think you’re right about that…” he muttered, partially to her but mostly to himself.  “Any of what I just said still apply?”

Zhu Li slowly shook her head.

“Ah, monkey feathers!  Well, you can’t win ‘em all,” said Varrick, punctuating his point with a finger-snap.  “Alright then, new strategy.  This time, you say whatever randomly pops into your head, and I’ll interpret it into words of pure genius!  That’s called teamwork, Zhu Li.  I tried to trademark it but they gave me some hippo-bull about ‘common usage’…”

His assistant sighed again, but did as she was bidden.

“Our primary issue is lack of intelligence,” she stated matter-of-factly.  “We need to learn more about Amon and his organization, so we can make sure he doesn’t affect your business.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed the industrialist.  “I may not be a bender myself, but Varrick Global Industries does not take kindly to terrorists!  Although…terror can be darn good for business.  People always buy things when they’re scared, it’s a fact of life!”

A mischievous grin was rapidly spreading across the Southerner’s face.

“Zhu Li, scratch everything I just said.  Except the doors idea, send that one to R&D,” he added, drumming his fingers against one another.  “I mean, what more do we really need to know about Amon?  He’s big, he’s scary, he takes bending away!  Most people don’t know that part yet, but they will.  We’re in just the right position to get in on the ground floor of this baby.”

Snapping his fingers again, Varrick called out, “Zhu Li!  Scrap everything to do with Ginger in Gray!  I think I know exactly what our first big mover should really be.”

 

[--------------------]

 

Ghazan moved along the banks of the Su Oku River, expertly practicing each of his forms.

Lavabending was a volatile art at the best of times, and it was certainly hard to do without attracting attention.  He knew his one and only student had never quite mastered the fine control necessary to do so.

In terms of raw power, she of course eclipsed him any day of the week.  She was the Avatar, after all.  On her best day, he felt confident she could take on an actual volcano – and win.

But Korra was also decidedly…unsubtle in her approach.  She tended to strike fast and hard, no matter which bending discipline she was executing, and when it came to lavabending usually overcompensated with big, showy displays.

Unlike most other earthbending, it was actually often easier to bend large amounts of lava at a time, as opposed to smaller, discrete amounts.  It was like the difference between pouring water from a jar all at once, or doing so a single, minute drop at a time.

Unfortunately, her favored style would do her little good in Republic City.  Lavabending was an immensely rare skill, and using it in any kind of overt fashion would only attract attention.  She needed to be subtle, if it was going to be of any use to her out there.

Maybe that’s why he was training like he was now – trying to melt the smallest amount of rock possible, and manipulate it without drawing wandering eyes.  In the hopes she might be able to do the same.

That all he’d taught her would give her some protection in that spirits-begotten city.

Ghazan sighed, allowing the tiny globule of lava he’d been moving around to fall into the river, rapidly cooling back into earth as it was swept away.

This hadn’t been what he’d signed up for, all those years ago.  The kidnapping of the Avatar had just been the latest in a long line of missions, and he’d approached it with the same level of cool, professional detachment he’d have done for any other.

Kidnapping, theft, assassination…they were all the same, at this point.

Except that you didn’t have to live with the results of a theft for twelve years.

Growing to…care for Korra, had never been part of the plan.  She was nothing more or less than another tool for their goals – arguably their greatest tool, perhaps, but a tool nonetheless.  Fit only to be used, and then discarded.  Trained to accept she’d eventually be discarded.

The specter of Harmonic Convergence loomed ever closer with each passing moment, and on that day, he knew that it’d all be over.  Korra would be worse than dead, her very spirit consigned to a fate the lavabender scarcely even understood.

It’d be the dawn of a new era – an era of peace and freedom, that’d been denied to the world for nearly ten thousand years.  But the price…

“Wow.  Someone sure looks tense,” came a dry voice from behind him.

Ghazan didn’t turn around, instead sitting himself down by the water’s edge.  “I’m busy, Ming-Hua,” he said.

The waterbender elected to ignore this completely, lowering herself beside him using her water-arms.

“Oh, sure.  Certainly looks that way,” she drawled, playfully slapping a wave of liquid across his face.  “Funny how Zaheer never seems to stick ‘sit around and brood’ on the chore list, though.”

He let out a deep, frustrated breath.  “Taking a break from training.  But at least I am training,” Ghazan replied.  “All this water around here, you could at least do something.  You shouldn’t let your skills get rusty.”

Ming-Hua’s brow perked up, and a grin began to spread across her face that wasn’t entirely rational.

“Is that a challenge, big boy?” she asked, the tips of both her streams solidifying into ice as she did.  “I could go for a little sparring match right about now.”

Truthfully, Ghazan saw little point in it…but he also saw little point in denying her.  He knew she’d just keep insisting until he gave in.

So instead, he shed the outer layers of his robes, leaving him completely naked from the waist up, and readied a stance.

“Let’s just keep this quiet, alright?” he said, his senses already reaching through the ground to find the earth with the lowest melting point.  “I’m not getting railed at by Zaheer for giving away our location.  Not for your sake, anyway.”

“Please.  Captain Baldy and Sparky Sparky Boom Lady are a little…occupied right now,” responded Ming-Hua, making mock-gagging sounds to punctuate the point.  “But fine, I’ll make sure to keep your beatdown on the down-low.”

Then, she began her attack.

It became clear very quickly that if the waterbender was holding back, it wasn’t by much.  One water stream whipped at him after another, each moving so quickly his eyes could barely keep track.

Holding this sparring session right next to a river had clearly been a mistake, as it provided Ming-Hua with no shortage of ammunition.  So while she kept her strikes low, presumably to make them harder to spot from a distance, she more than made up for it with sheer quantity.

Eight, nine, ten of those liquid limbs – she was expanding her arsenal every few moments, testing herself to see how many she could control at once, and before long Ghazan lost count.  If he didn’t want to wind up a bruised pile of meat on the ground, he needed to hit her back.  Hard.

He started out by melting parts of the riverbank, forcing a sizable amount of lava into the water and raising a great cloud of steam.  Ghazan knew she’d be able to bend the steam away from her, but it’d distract her for at least a little while, buying him precious time to counterattack.

His plan went off without a hitch.  Ming-Hua was hardly stupid, but she also wasn’t exactly what one might call a “cerebral” fighter.  That made her easy to predict…especially for someone who’d spent the last sixteen years in her company.

Once he was temporarily blocked from her view, Ghazan struck back with as much force as he could comfortably muster.  He couldn’t melt too much of the ground here, for fear of destabilizing the base below them, but there were a number of medium-sized boulders lining the area, and those he could easily use.

A torrent of lava hurtled through the wall of steam, just as Ming-Hua managed to clear the brunt of it.  Instinct took over at that point, and she sacrificed more than half of her active streams to stop it, redirecting its burning-hot intensity back toward the river.

From there, their sparring began to take on a steady rhythm.  Her streams had returned to a more manageable four, and grappled easily with every rock – molten or otherwise – that he sent her way.

“So what has you so down in the dumps, anyway?” she said in a carrying voice, as their duel reached a comfortable pace.

Ghazan hesitated to answer…but only for a moment.  Ming-Hua was hardly the ideal confidante, but he needed someone to talk to right now.

“Do you remember when Korra was eight?” he asked in reply, as he casually parried her latest attack.  “That trip to Kyoshi Island?”

“Well, I dunno if I’d call it a trip.  I think I still have some bruises from all those chi-blockers,” the waterbender recalled sourly.  “Anyway, what about it?”

“Before we assassinated the mayor, and everything went south…” Ghazan continued, just loud enough for her to hear over their battle.  “The night before, you know?  Korra was begging to go swimming in the lake.”

“Oh, right!” exclaimed Ming-Hua, doubling up her offense as she did.  “Then that…water-spitting eel thing…”

“The unagi,” he said.

“Yeah, that thing!  Still can’t believe she managed to ride it,”  she added, now joining him in smiling at the memory.  “For a little while there, thought we’d need to start the plan over with the next Ava-tyke.”

“Zaheer thinks it has to do with ‘spiritual memory,’ or something like that.  Aang did it once, so it comes easier to her,” he explained, his voice distant and detached from the intensity of his counterattacks.  “Not that she realized that, I’m sure.  She thought it was just another animal to play with.”

“He was so pissed about her blowing our cover there,” said Ming-Hua, her smile shifting into a taunting smirk as they continued to exchange blows, their rhythm steadily increasing in tempo.  “Always fun when our fearless leader stops ‘being the wind’ or whatever and loses his cool.  Y’know…like a normal person.”

Finally, with a furious burst of effort, one of her streams managed to break through his defenses, sending Ghazan staggering to the ground.

“But why’re you bringing this up, anyway?” she asked.  “It’s a cool story for parties and all.  But I’m not seeing the point.

Ghazan lay there for a few moments, contemplating his answer, before releasing a deep breath and cooling all the remaining lava in the area.  He knew when he was beaten.

“I…no reason,” murmured the earthbender.  “Just…been thinking a lot about the past.  Even more about the future.”

Despite everything, Ming-Hua mildly surprised him by solidifying one of her water-arms – now returned to the normal two – and helping him to his feet.

“Guess I can see that.  A lot’s going on right now,” she said in a low voice, sounding uncharacteristically pensive.  “Geez, we’ve been working toward it for over a decade now, and I still barely understand what Harmonic Convergence is.  And now it’s practically here.  Hard to really take in.”

“When it’s all said and done…when we’ve re-fused Raava and Vaatu within her body…” whispered Ghazan, his lips moving faster than his brain.  “Have you…thought about what’ll happen to her?  To Korra…?”

Ming-Hua’s brow furrowed, and her mouth became a thin line.

“So that’s what all this is about,” she responded flatly.  “I mean, I like her too, in a way.  She’s easier to get along with than most.  But you can’t forget who she is, Ghazan.  What she is.”

“I know that!” he spat, more anger seeping into his voice than he’d intended.  “I…I do know that.  And I’ve come to terms with it.  Or at least…I thought I did…”

“Do I need to be concerned about this?” demanded Ming-Hua, her eyes narrowing.  “I’m no snitch, you know that.  And I like you better than anyone else in this stupid society.  But if you’re having second thoughts about this…”

“I’m not,” he said firmly.  More to convince himself than her.  “I’m not, alright?  I’ll push through this.  Just…if you could just not mention this to Zaheer or P’Li?  I don’t want to make things more complicated than they already are.”

“…Fine,” she muttered back, but there was something in her expression that made him sure this wasn’t over.  “But that’s the only favor you get out of me for the year.  Eh…for the next five years.”

“I think I’ll manage,” Ghazan told her, his lip curling.  “Anyway…I lost the match, so I’ll clean up the mess.”

“Hey, no argument here,” she said flippantly, already turned away from him and walking back to the cave entrance.  “If you need me, I think I’ll be taking a nice, long nap.  So I advise you not to need me.”

Ghazan waved her goodbye, though he knew she wouldn’t bother to look back and see it.  Ming-Hua pretty much never looked back, at anything.  It was part of her, for lack of a better term, “charm.”

With that being said, he got to work using his earthbending to restore the riverbank as best as he could, removing all overt signs of their brief match.  But all the while, his mind was racing.

 

“I still don’t get what I did wrong…” Korra said sadly, sniffling as they rode a small steamboat back to the Earth Kingdom mainland.

Her eyes were puffy, and tearstains matted her burnt-red cheeks.  Zaheer hadn’t done anything physical to her; he never did.  But she’d never seen him that mad before.

Ghazan suspected she might’ve preferred to get hit.

He looked uneasily at the non-bender, who was staring in the opposite direction, his expression sullen.  He suspected Zaheer might already be regretting how harshly he’d yelled at her, but he was still too angry to say so out loud.

P’Li, as always, stood by her boyfriend.  And sending Ming-Hua to comfort a young child was like sending a shirshu to guard a pig-chicken house.  So as always, it fell to Ghazan to be the proverbial “good cop.”

He’d never admit, least of all to himself, how much he enjoyed fulfilling that role.

“This was a really important mission, Korra, and it depended on us staying hidden as long as possible,” he attempted to explain, bending down on one knee so he could look her directly in the eye.  “We still succeeded, but only because we got lucky.  And besides…”

Ghazan grasped onto her tiny shoulders, helping to steady them; she’d been shaking uncontrollably since her dressing down.

“You could’ve gotten seriously hurt today, Korra,” he continued, his voice steady and even.  “I know the Avatar has a special connection to nature, and you want to play with any animal you see, but a creature like the unagi is dangerous.

“It didn’t seem all that dangerous to me…” the little girl mumbled, averting her eyes and biting her lip.

“That’s often when something is most dangerous,” said Ghazan.  “When you stop expecting it to be a threat, it becomes easy to get surprised.  You’re strong, Korra, no question.  But you need to know your limits, too.  We can’t always be there to protect you, if things get bad.”

Korra closed her eyes, sniffling again, but ultimately nodded her understanding.

“Okay…” she whispered, directing her gaze upward at Zaheer, who was still looking out over the water.  “I…I’m sorry…”

Zaheer’s expression didn’t change, but after a few seconds he nodded as well.  “Your apology is accepted,” he stated in a quiet voice, before turning away to join Ming-Hua and P’Li below-deck.

Ghazan watched as the non-bender departed, but his attention was abruptly snatched back as Korra darted toward him, squeezing hard around his midsection.

“I dunno what to do,” she breathed, choking down on another sob.  “It feels like I just keep messing everything up…”

The earthbender knew he probably shouldn’t.  Zaheer had gone over, extensively, a list of protocol they were to follow, in order to walk a fine line between engendering the Avatar’s loyalty, and becoming too unduly attached to her as a person.

But in the three years since her kidnapping, Ghazan knew all four of them had broken those protocols.  And none more often than himself.

So slowly, in the way he’d never once had anyone do for him, the earthbender found himself wrapping his muscled arms around the girl. Holding on tight, and not letting go.

And in response, she looked up at him, with trembling eyes and quivering lips…but also the purest, sincerest smile he’d ever seen in his life.

 

There was no question.  His real problem was that, when he thought of Avatar Korra these days, it wasn’t their grand schemes or carefully laden plans that came to mind.

It was that smile.  A smile only a child could wear.  A child who had no idea what the people she thought of as family had in store for her.

A smile that, in less than a year, he would never see again.

 

[--------------------]

 

The very first thing Tenzin did, the morning after visiting his mother, was head to the police station.

It was clearly a busy morning for them.  No less than six men, all of them wearing the colors and symbols of the Agni Kais, were in various stages of the arrest process.

“They torched a bar called Dante’s last night.  Screwed up their getaway,” said Captain Saikhan, sidling up next to the councilman and answering his unspoken question.

Tenzin nodded briefly.  “Where’s Lin?” he asked without preamble, looking past the gangsters to see if he could spot the metalbender reading one of them the riot act.  “Err…Chief Beifong, that is.”

“We might be in luck.  The leader of these miscreants offered info on the triad for clemency,” answered Saikhan.  “The Chief is interrogating him now.  You can see her after she’s done, Councilman Tenzin.”

Tenzin was just about to object to this, but what happened next made his half-formed protest moot.  The door to the interrogation room opened, and Republic City’s Chief of Police stormed out, wearing her perpetually sour expression.

“Oh, great.  You’re here.  Just what I need today,” she hissed, glaring daggers at her ex-boyfriend.

As she said this, Lin grabbed the man she’d been leading, another Agni Kai member – albeit one with significantly nicer clothes than his fellows – and hauled him over by his fancy collar to Saikhan. 

“Put this one in with the rest,” she added, barely sparing the gangster a second glance.  “We’ll let the judge decide if his testimony is worth shaving off a couple months.”

The Agni Kai leader clearly didn’t approve of these terms.  “That wasn’t the deal, you lyin’ elephant-rat!” he exclaimed.  “You said you’d let me go if I squealed!”

“I said I might consider letting you go,” said Lin, her tone severe.  “Which I did.  And I decided against it.  Now get your butt in a cell like a good boy, before I have to kick it there myself.”

Then, without missing a beat, she turned back to Tenzin and demanded, “Alright, you’ve got ten seconds to tell me why you’re here, and more importantly, why I should care.  As you can plainly see, you haven’t caught me on a great day.”

“I doubt you have very many of those in the first place,” the airbender stated quietly.

“Exactly my point.  So out with it, already,” she replied, beginning to count off on her fingers.  “Six seconds…five…four…”

“Police report number two-two-one-two-zero-five,” Tenzin interrupted her, his expression extremely serious.  “Submitted by my mother two days ago.  You’ll want to take a look at it.”

“By Katara?  Well, I guess I can’t really hold your actions against her,” said Lin, though her tone indicated she was certainly tempted to.  “Still, if it’s something such a venerated master thinks is important, I suppose I can’t argue.”

“Trust me, it is,” muttered Tenzin through pursed lips, not wanting anyone else to overhear.  Instead, he did little more than mouth: bloodbending.

Instantly, Lin snarled some kind of oath under her breath, and though he couldn’t quite make it out he was certain it was something he wouldn’t want repeated in front of his children.

“This is clearly National Pile-It-All-On-Lin Week.  And I didn’t even get a medal for it,” Lin declared dryly, one hand over her face and a low groan exiting her throat.  “But fine, I’ll look into this too.  I want a favor in return, though.”

One of Tenzin’s eyebrows rose slightly.  “What kind of favor do you mean?” he asked.

She motioned him to come closer, and he did so.  In an even lower voice than before, she said, “That Agni Kai member just tipped us off about a summit all the triad leaders are holding, tomorrow night.  I want to run a sting, but we’d need council authorization to put together anything meaningful.  And I don’t want to bring this to a public meeting.”

“Why not?” responded Tenzin, before realizing the answer to his own question.  “Ah…I see.  You’re trying to end-run around Tarrlok.”

“You know the law here better than I do,” Lin admitted with a sigh.  “Can it be done?”

The airbender looked thoughtful for a moment.  “Strictly speaking, there’s nothing illegal about me authorizing your operation, in my capacity as a councilmember,” he eventually told her, choosing his words carefully.  “But Tarrlok sure wouldn’t be happy about it.”

“He can go to the lizard-crows, for all I care,” snapped the Chief of Police, fitting a rather impressive amount of venom into a line that was barely above a whisper.  “I’ll get everything prepped.  I just need you to sign off at the end.”

“Understood,” said Tenzin, nodding solemnly.

It took him several moments to speak again, but when he did, it was in a drastically different tone.  An increased feeling of weight behind his words.

“I can’t help but think…that all this is connected, somehow,” he added.  “There are too many things changing in this city, too quickly, for it all to be a coincidence.”

“I’m starting to think you might be right about that,” she murmured, shaking her head as she did.  “Either way, I know there’s a piece of the puzzle we’re missing.  But what is it?”

 

[--------------------]

 

The Avatar was currently in the midst of getting her butt kicked.

She was used to bending only one element at a time, in a manner of speaking.  Since the fact that Avatar Korra still lived was a heavily guarded secret, it was something of a necessity whenever they engaged in combat missions.

But in those cases, she’d at least been able to use all of her talents in whatever element she’d chosen for the day: fire and combustion, earth and lava, “normal” waterbending and its ability to craft artificial limbs.

Pro-bending, as it turned out, was a far different story.

This was a sport in which her typical style – favoring the overwhelming power of fire and the rootedness of earth, even when she was using her native water alone – was of virtually no help at all.  As an increasingly frustrated Mako explained, she had to restrict herself to short bursts of no more than a second each, and could only strike opponents head-on from the front.

Anything more intense than that was, apparently, liable to earn a foul.  Knocking people over the sides, also a foul.

Bending water from outside her zone?  A foul.

Changing its state?  Foul.

In short, pretty much anything that’d actually be fun was, probably, a foul.

A few hours spent practicing this heavily restricted form of waterbending had Korra inwardly begging to shift to Scorpion Form and knock Mako’s smug face into the pool surrounding them.

Part of her knew that, if she were in his shoes, she’d probably be just as irritated as he was right now.  He’d been promised a talented waterbender who the Council themselves had vetted as the best fit for his team, and instead he’d gotten…well, her.  A stupid little girl who’d barely even heard of this game a week ago.

Of course, it was a lot easier to take out her anger on him than on herself.

“I already told you, you need to be lighter on your feet!  You’d be a sitting turtle-duck with a stance like that,” he said, any trace of patience having long since evaporated over the course of their prolonged training session.  “I’m getting a little tired of drilling the same stuff over and over!”

“Well excuse me, princess.  Didn’t realize I was making you late for your hot stones massage,” responded Korra, emphasizing her point by spitting over the nearest railing.

“Hot stones!  Ha!” exclaimed Bolin, who’d been watching this all with varying degrees of amusement.  “Y’see, that’s funny, because you bend fire, and I bend…”

He stopped talking when he saw the look on Mako’s face.

Anyway…” the firebender added, shifting his glare back to Korra.  “I won’t lie, you’ve got potential.  You bend water differently than anyone I’ve ever seen in this ring.  But that won’t matter if you don’t get your act together.  The rules aren’t just a bunch of cute little suggestions.”

Korra gritted her teeth at this latest jibe…but ultimately, she released her clenched fists, and let out a deep sigh.

“Yeah…I know.  I’m awful at this,” she said quietly.  “But…urgh, I don’t get it.  There’s never been a style of bending I didn’t pick up right away.”

A chill ran up her spine as she realized what she’d just said.

Thankfully, rather than look aghast at her monumental slip-up, Bolin just adopted a curious expression and, ticking them off on his fingers, asked, “How many styles of waterbending are there, anyway?  North, South…are we counting those swamp guys?”

Still, Mako’s expression remained hardened and unreadable, so Korra fumbled for an explanation that wouldn’t arouse suspicion.

“I, err…grew up with a lot of different kinds of benders,” she muttered after a moment’s pause, somewhat awkwardly.  Once again, she decided a small kernel of the truth was probably the best call.  “That’s all I meant.  They all kinda influenced my style.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” replied Bolin, a finger to his chin.  “Now that I’m looking for it, you move more like an earthbender than I do.  Or at least you stand like one.  Here, let me show you.”

And suddenly, despite his broad body and hefty weight, the younger man was moving with all the lightness of a dancer.  He weaved and bobbed around the arena in demonstration, as if avoiding invisible fire and water blasts.

Then, when it came time to strike, he planted his feet firmly to the ground for only a second – not one sliver more – summoned two discs from the compartments below, and tossed them in a wide arc, at the same moment as he resumed his rapid footwork.

“See?  Simple!” he said, as he demonstrated the technique twice more.  “Pro-bending is all about controlling territory.  You don’t get a lot of space, so you gotta make the most of it.”

“Yeah…I think I’m starting to get it now!” Korra declared, grinning as she copied Bolin’s movements almost perfectly.  A stream of water followed her feet as she leapt into the air, striking her imaginary opponent dead-center before she even hit the ground.

“Okay.  Definite improvement,” Mako told her as she landed, as if impressed in spite of himself.  “Maybe there’s something to that whole ‘positive reinforcement’ thing after all, bro.”

They continued to drill variants on that technique for another hour or so, until moving around the arena with grace and agility began to feel practically second-nature.  Once Mako was satisfied with her progress, another couple hours were given over to practicing team formations, moving as a unit to defend against enemy attacks, or to press their own.

Finally, once all that was said and done, and all three of them were so tired and sweaty they felt liable to drop at any moment, Mako called it a day.

“I was skeptical at first,” said the firebender, as they led Korra to their locker room.  “But you pick this stuff up ridiculously quick.  I think this might actually work out, Mizore.”

Korra’s cheeks went slightly pink at the compliment.

Mako, meanwhile, was fishing something out of his locker, which he tossed to the Avatar.  It was a small, but thick, cheaply bound book.

“The rulebook,” he stated, his face briefly hardening once more.  “You wanna play with us in the tournament, fine.  But that’s my condition.  Read it backward and forward.  Make sure you can’t sleep without naming all fifty-two possible fouls.”

“Err…right,” answered Korra, though inwardly, she suppressed a shudder.

This was exactly what she needed right now.  Homework.

“I’ve gotta go talk to Butakha.  See if he’ll hold off on our rent until Tarrlok pays up,” he added to his brother, already halfway out the door.  “You can show Mizore out of here, right bro?”

“Yeah, no problem!” Bolin called back, stretching his back and neck as he peeled off his uniform.  “Ahhhh, that’s more like it.  Nothing like a good streeeeeeeetch after a day of training.”

Now that the two of them were alone, however, Korra’s mind was working on overdrive.  Mako’s parting words had reminded her of something she found rather odd.

Seizing the opportunity, she walked over to the earthbender and asked, “So what’s the deal with you guys and Tarrlok, anyway?  Why’s he taken such an interest in pro-bending?”

“Well…I probably shouldn’t say…” replied Bolin, though with all the air of someone who really wanted to.  “I mean, Mako said not to tell anyone.”

“Eh, come on,” said Korra, in what she hoped was an entirely casual tone of voice.  Figuring it’d enhance the effect, she placed a friendly hand on his shoulder.  “Just between you and me.  He doesn’t have to know, does he?”

A bright flush suddenly spread across the earthbender’s face.

“Err, well, umm…I guess…” he murmured nervously, his voice an octave higher than it normally was.

He coughed, and when he spoke again, his voice was suddenly extremely deep, and brimming with confidence.

“I, uh…guess there’s no harm in it,” he continued, coughing one more time.  “See, Tarrlok’s recruited Mako and me for a super-top-secret mission.  We’re gonna be spying on some of the triads for him, if you can believe it!”

“Huh.  Really…” whispered Korra, trying to control her reaction.  That wasn’t what she’d been expecting at all.

“Yeah, they’re supposed to be having some big major meeting about how to deal with those Equalist guys,” Bolin said casually.  “Or something like that.”

Korra had a harder time with that one.  Her eyes went wide as saucers.

“Oh, that reminds me.  You work at Future Industries, right?” asked the earthbender, in the wake of her muted silence.

Korra wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but she nodded.

“Ah, then I should probably warn you.  The meeting’s gonna be over there, in warehouse…twelve, I think he said?  Anyway, it’s tomorrow night,” he explained.  “So you might wanna take work off early.  These are some seriously bad dudes, you don’t wanna risk running into ‘em.”

“I’ll, err…keep that in mind,” she said, her voice slightly hollow.  She couldn’t believe her good fortune right now.

Or rather, how unbelievably stupid this guy was being.  Almost…suspiciously stupid…

Korra rapped her knuckles against her temple.  Nope.  She wasn’t going there again.

Besides, even if this somehow was a trap…it wasn’t one she could afford not to spring.

“Hey, I uh…just remembered something I’ve gotta do,” she told Bolin, peeling off the last bits of her own borrowed uniform as she did.  “Seeya both tomorrow for practice again?”

“Looking forward to it!” exclaimed the earthbender, either completely oblivious or doing an excellent job at faking it.

And with that, Korra made her way out of the bending arena as quickly as possible.

As did the person who’d been listening in on their entire conversation from the rafters.

 

[--------------------]

 

The woman who called herself “Kinzoku” proceeded along rooftops, continuing to track the Avatar’s movements – just as she’d been doing all day.

At least, she was pretty sure the so-called “Mizore” was the Avatar.  All the pieces fit.  Avatar Korra, had she lived, would be seventeen years old right now, and would share the young woman’s basic features – dark skin, blue eyes, brown hair.

It hadn’t taken her long to figure it out.  That the Red Lotus would send someone to investigate Hiroshi Sato was a natural conclusion, so she’d elected to do the same, faking references from Future Industries’ Ba Sing Se division so she could sneak in without incident.

From there, it’d been a simple matter of monitoring for suspicious behavior during her tour of the facility.  Given the timeframe of Master Toph’s vision, she could eliminate everyone but the very most recent hires – a pool of at most two dozen people.

And then…serendipity.

The maka’ole berry, when properly diluted, could produce a paste that hid certain things on the body from view – specifically, tattoos.  But mixing such a substance was incredibly dangerous.  Undiluted, the berries tended to cause severe, even permanent blindness.  It wasn’t something just anyone could whip up, or would wear without a very good reason.

More to the point, within that delicate mixture were – among a dozen other ingredients – several trace metals.  Minute enough quantities that she doubted even most other metalbenders would’ve detected them.

But she had some of the finest metalbending senses on the planet.  And so, when she came face-to-face with a young woman with bits of those very same metals flecked across her forehead…

She knew.

In that moment, it’d all clicked.  Master Toph suspected the Red Lotus had instigated the Southern Massacre.  If the Avatar had survived, they would’ve been in a prime position to abduct, imprison – possibly even indoctrinate her.

Furthermore, one of their most well-known agents was a combustionbender, who’d murdered numerous people over the years with her third eye.  A chi-channeling tattoo normally placed at the center of the forehead.

Of course, that’d all been conjecture, but it’d certainly warranted further investigation.  And after a sleepless day spent shadowing the young waterbender, she’d only grown more and more certain.

“Mizore” always checked over her shoulder when walking out onto the street or turning a new corner, as if worried about being followed.  She moved with a grace and precision that was at odds with her apparent backstory, but would be explained perfectly by a life spent engaging in do-or-die missions.

And most incriminating of all, in a drawer in her apartment – locks were a fairly minor obstacle for a sufficiently talented metalbender – were numerous documents outlining detailed, pointed intelligence on Republic City.  The name and symbol of the Red Lotus never turned up within their pages, but she could think of very few other groups with both the ability and the inclination to put them together.

That “Mizore” was an undercover operative for the Red Lotus was, in short, all but guaranteed at this point.  The only open question was who she was.

But she’d seen the girl waterbending, and so far as she knew, there was no reason for a waterbender to inscribe a tattoo over their light chakra.  That was the mark of the rare person gifted with the art of combustionbending.

And only one individual on the planet could wield both.

In any event, her theory would likely be borne out, one way or another, by seeing what the girl did next.

“Mizore” took a long and winding route away from the bending arena, as if subconsciously aware that someone’s eyes were upon her.  Unfortunately for the waterbender, she very rarely looked up.

Her pursuer realized where she was heading several minutes before she arrived, but for the life of her she couldn’t follow the girl’s thought process.  What business did she have in this part of town?

Then “Mizore” began to draw nearer to one of the gleaming estates in particular, and suddenly, it all became clear.

Following her any further was going to be difficult, if not impossible – the mansion stood on its own, and was simply too far from her current position to reach without drawing attention to herself.  But that was fine.  She could see and hear everything from here.

She watched as the young girl rapped twice, nervously, upon the thick oak doors that were at least three times larger than she was.

She watched as a dapperly dressed servant answered the summons, bowed respectfully, and retreated back into the manor.

And she watched as Asami Sato came to the door, dressed in the fanciest and most attractive housedress she’d ever seen.

“I’m sorry I didn’t make it here today,” she overheard the waterbender say, using an instrument Baatar had invented to amplify the distant sound.  “Something…came up.  And I know it’s late, but…”

It was, indeed, just a few minutes shy of sunset.  Certainly too late for this visit to be perfectly polite.

“Hey, don’t worry about it.  My invitation still stands,” Asami replied, the genuine warmth in her smile evident even from this far away.  “You could even stay the night, if you want.  Trust me, we’ve got plenty of room.”

She didn’t hear what “Mizore” said in response, or perhaps her reaction was entirely non-verbal.  Either way, she followed the young heiress into the manor, and the heavy doors slammed closed behind them.

Kuvira stood up, and swore under her breath.  But ultimately, she supposed it didn’t matter.  Even if she didn’t know what the Avatar was doing here now

She certainly knew where she was going to be.