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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.

Chapter Text

Chief Unalaq was meditating.

Or at least, that’s what it looked like from the outside.  He could also be sleeping sitting up, the twins supposed.  They’d never quite learned how to tell the two apart.

Currently, both of them were standing at a distance, staring at their father’s unmoving body, and silently trying to determine whether it’d be worthwhile to approach him.

“Father does not appreciate disturbances while he meditates,” Desna finally said, after several minutes of standing around and doing nothing failed to achieve results.

“Yet mother asked that we summon him to dinner,” added Eska, her voice equally toneless as her brother’s.  “This presents a conundrum.”

“Perhaps we can endeavor to rouse father in an indirect manner,” suggested Desna.  “For example, we could make a loud noise in the other room.  In that way, we could follow both of their edicts.”

“An impractical solution,” his sister pointed out.  “Neither of us are very talented at making loud noises.”

Or you could simply blather on within earshot of me for a few minutes,” their father said suddenly, without opening his eyes or turning around.  “That would also work.”

The twins registered no visible reaction, though inwardly, both suppressed shudders.  While his words contained some measure of levity, his tone had none.

“Tell Malina I won’t be along tonight.  I’ll be in the Spirit World for the next few hours, and I want no more distractions,” Unalaq continued, in a voice that made it clear there would be no more words on the subject.  “Are we understood?”

All three of them knew this was the fifth meal Unalaq had skipped in so many days, and the tribal chief was beginning to show signs of it in the increased gauntness of his face.  But neither Eska nor Desna were even remotely willing to say so aloud.

Instead they both bowed their heads, and responded simultaneously, “Of course, father.”

And with that, they were gone.  At least he couldn’t blame them for being slow to follow commands, Unalaq admitted.

He resumed his meditation without delay.

The Spirit World wasn’t like the physical one, in that it had only a single plane on which things could appear.  It had…layers, he supposed might be the best term.  Dimensions beyond the obvious, things that didn’t properly exist unless one knew to look for them.

When entering a new location in the material world, everything – the people, the buildings, the creatures – all came before the self all at once.  Oh, certainly, one might not be able to see it all from the beginning.  But it was there.

Coming to the Spirit World was different.  With each moment, he pierced a little more of the veil; became increasingly aware of his new surroundings, which changed and shifted as fluidly as a person’s thoughts.

No matter how many times he did it, he would forever be enchanted by the sheer beauty of it all.

Finally, once his own soul had fully adjusted to the plane it was now anchored to, Unalaq opened what were, in one sense of the term, his eyes.

Strictly speaking, they weren’t, any more than what he inhabited now was actually his body.  But his spirit-self expected to experience the world by seeing through eyes, and so, that’s what it did.

“Instinct is a lie, told by a fearful body, hoping to be wrong,” said another voice, from the man who’d been waiting for him here.

“Guru Laghima again?” asked Unalaq, bemusement tugging at the corner of his mouth.  “Though more relevant at the present moment than most, I’ll grant.”

The two of them were seated, side by side, beneath the dragon blood tree at the center of Xai Bau’s Grove.

It was a place of great importance to the both of them.  It was here, as teenagers, where they’d first met – both fresh, young initiates to the Lotus.  Where they’d learned the story of Avatar Wan, and the horrific injustice he’d inflicted upon the world ten thousand years prior.

And where they’d constructed their plan, all those years ago, to rectify that grievous error.

“Do you have any news?” Unalaq demanded of the other man.  “Or are you just going to quote Air Nomad proverbs all day?”

At last, Zaheer opened his eyes, though he did not turn them toward the waterbender.

“A great deal,” he said, an air of distantness to his voice.  “But primary among it all is this.  The Avatar’s infiltration of Republic City has, according to my sources, been conducted successfully.  Her cover identity is in place, and she’s made contact with Jilu.”

“I still think this was a bad idea, Zaheer,” replied Unalaq, scowling.  “Korra is a unique and irreplaceable asset.  Until the time comes when the portals are ready to be reopened, you shouldn’t have let her out of your sight.”

“At this point, Unalaq, I think I know your niece far better than you do,” Zaheer declared in a low voice.  “She’s been growing more and more restless by the year.  If we’d tried to tighten control of her any more, she might’ve balked.  What if she’d decided to run off at the eleventh hour, like her predecessor?”

“And what if she dies in the process of this mission?” hissed the chief.  “Harmonic Convergence is less than a year away.  I doubt an infant could unseal the spirit portals, much less take the spirits of both Light and Dark within themselves.”

“Clearly, I trust in her capabilities far more than you do,” said Zaheer.

“It’s not a question of trust.  But you’re a fool if you can’t see the potential for disaster here,” Unalaq told the non-bender, a glower upon his face.  “Let’s say she survives.  Let’s say she even succeeds – takes out Amon, and ensures the United Republic is ready for the Lotus.  You’ve still left her to her own devices for months, at minimum.  What if, in that time, she learns what you’ve been keeping from her?  Everything you’ve been keeping from her?”

“She won’t,” Zaheer answered firmly.  “She’s too well-watched right now; not just by Jilu, but by agents she isn’t even aware of.  And besides…”

Finally, for the first time since they’d arrived on this plane, the non-bender turned to face him.

“Isn’t that what your little piece of…insurance is for?” he added, his mouth a thin line.

“I’d prefer not to play that tile until I absolutely need to,” said Unalaq, matching his expression.  “You and I are the only ones aware of it – even my wife and children have been kept in ignorance.  But once Korra knows, the only way to ensure her aid will be through coercion.  Which is far less reliable than…subtler methods.”

There was a lengthy silence that followed these words, largely because Zaheer couldn’t come up with any particularly good arguments against them.  Unalaq was, after all, speaking many of the same objections his own brain had come up with.

He did have his reasons for choosing this path, of course.  But to explain them would require revealing a number of things he didn’t want the tribal chief to know.

Not yet, at least.

Eventually, with his jaw set stoically, the non-bender asked, “Can you believe how close we are?  Sometimes I can scarcely comprehend it.  The lifespan of the old order can now be measured in days.

Unalaq considered the question for a long while before answering.  At last, he said, “I’ll believe it when we stand on the precipice of Harmonic Convergence.  No sooner.”

Zaheer nodded his acceptance of that response.  It was probably the healthiest mindset to have, all told.

“Then until that day, old friend,” he murmured, extending a forearm.

Unalaq hesitated for a moment, as a number of thoughts he was unwilling to share swirled within his mind.  Thoughts of the pact not a single other soul, in this world or the material one, knew of yet.  Thoughts of the pact that would change everything, for both worlds, the moment it was fulfilled.

But then, he supposed, it might do well to take his own advice.  And worry about that when he came to it.

He grasped the other man’s arm.

 

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

 

“Are you hungry, Mizore?” asked Asami, as the two of them walked along the pristine floors of the mansion.  “I just finished dinner, but I think they’ve still got some stuff laid out.”

Korra, for her part, was only half-paying attention to what the other girl was saying, as she was distracted far more by the sheer gulf of difference in their respective appearances.

Even in what was clearly a casual, wear-it-around-the-house sort of outfit, Asami looked indescribably stunning.  Her carefully crafted hair and makeup were evidently not something she did purely for others’ benefit, because they were out in full force right now, and Korra had to consciously force herself not to keep staring.

By contrast, she was still wearing the first thing she’d pulled on this morning – some ill-fitting, dark blue robes by way of her cousin Eska – which were in general disarray from the pieces of the Fire Ferret uniform she’d hastily yanked off of them.

And since she hadn’t thought to grab a shower before coming here, they were also matted with sweat.  She probably smelt awful, and even if Asami was too nice to comment on it, she felt deathly embarrassed by the possibility.

Why had she decided to come here, anyway?  She hadn’t really been planning on it.

Her first instinct, after learning about the triad summit, had been to head for City Hall.  It’d give her a chance to brief Jilu and get his advice, not to mention introduce herself to Councilman Tarrlok.  Perhaps a bit of a risky move, but one she needed to do sooner or later if this cover was to succeed.

Yet her feet had led her, instead, in this direction.  And she had an uneasy feeling it had nothing to do with learning more about Hiroshi Sato and his possibly-a-spy daughter.

“I…uh…guess I could eat,” Korra answered quietly, tugging awkwardly at her bangs.  “But if you don’t mind, the thing I could really use is…err…your shower.  If that’s okay.”

Asami surprised her by donning a sly grin.

“Oh, I can do you one better,” she said.

Taking Korra by the hand – which, for obvious reasons, did little to alleviate her self-consciousness – she led the Avatar through the second floor of their manor, to what appeared to be a sliding door made of bamboo.

The non-bender wasted little time in pulling the door to the side, revealing a massive pool of water surrounded by carefully carved stones and flawless wood paneling.  Steam filled the entire chamber, and Korra’s waterbending senses told her exactly why: the water was just shy of boiling.

“It’s designed to mimic the natural hot springs of the Fire Nation,” Asami explained, closing her eyes briefly and taking in a deep breath of the heated air.  “Your timing was pretty good, actually.  I was just about to take a bath myself.”

Korra blinked once, not fully comprehending what she was getting at.  Then, a second later, her jaw practically dropped to the floor.

“Wait, wait!” she yelped, her voice a couple tones higher than normal.  “You…You’re saying you want to…”

“What, are you embarrassed?” asked Asami, one shoulder already exposed.  “Trust me, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”

And with that, she shrugged off the remainder of her house-dress, leaving only the underwear beneath.

Korra could’ve blamed the heat for just about fainting, right then and there.  But that would’ve been a lie.

The underwear too soon followed, and with that, Korra decided there was little point in preserving her own modesty.  Or at least…that pulling off her own, sweat-laden clothes would give her something to do besides descend into gibbering hysterics.

Getting naked in the bathtub with someone you half-suspected to be an enemy spy was something Zaheer had never specifically advised her against, but she very much doubted he’d approve.  Still, seeing little alternative, she squirmed out of the baggy garments as quickly as she could, and followed Asami by slipping into the simulated hot spring.

The moment she immersed herself in the hot water, the idea that she shouldn’t have done this became as patently absurd as an idea to stop breathing.

Her muscles held in enough stress and tension to split the Earth Kingdom in two – possibly literally – and the sensation of the warm, soothing liquid upon them caused her to actually shiver with delight.

It’d been…well, she couldn’t even think of how long, since she’d had a chance to genuinely relax.  And though she knew it was folly to completely release her guard in a situation like this, the temptation to do so was nigh-irresistible.

“By the spirits, that feels good,” said Asami after a little while, her eyes half-lidded and her expression serene.  “There’s nothing like a hot bath at the end of the week.”

Korra didn’t really have the experience to judge such a claim, since virtually every bath she’d taken since childhood had been in rivers or cruddy motel bathrooms, but she nodded all the same.

“So what kept you all day?” the non-bender asked, leaning back so that her luxurious hair could soak in the steaming liquid.  “If you don’t mind me asking.”

Korra hesitated for a moment, but she could feel her resistance waning in the face of how ridiculously comfortable she felt right now.  And there didn’t seem to be much point in hiding this particular secret; she’d find out soon enough either way.

“I was, err…training with the Fire Ferrets,” she told the other woman, her voice quiet.

There was a loud splash, as Asami suddenly shot bolt upward at this news.  Korra immediately found herself averting her eyes, her entire face a deep crimson, for this change in posture had placed certain…features…of the heiress’ body on full display.

“Get out of town!” exclaimed Asami, her demeanor ecstatic.  “You got in?  That’s incredible, Mizore!”

She looked as if she was about to rush forward and hug her, but seemed to remember where they were a second later, and settled for flashing a congratulatory smile.

“Uh…thanks…” muttered Korra, shifting awkwardly.  “But…I dunno if it’s gonna work out.  I don’t think I can really play at their level.  Much less against guys like the Wolfbats or the Boar-q-pines.”

“Well, you’re just starting out.  I’m sure things’ll get better the more you practice,” the non-bender said encouragingly.  “And you’ll have one advantage they don’t have: the most devoted fangirl on the planet, cheering you on from the stands.”

“Actually, I’m pretty sure the Wolfbats have…” Korra started to respond, before realizing what Asami meant.  “Ooooh…right.  Nevermind.”

“Anyway, I can’t wait to see you out there,” the non-bender added after a moment’s pause, during which she’d sunk back to a lying position.  “You know, I’ve been following pro-bending since I was a little girl.  My mom loved it.”

“How about your dad?” Korra ventured to ask, following her lead.  While she didn’t have nearly as much hair as the other woman did – not at the moment, at least – the warm water still felt wondrous on her scalp.

Still on her back, Asami made her way closer to the Avatar by way of a lazy backstroke.  She got close enough that Korra felt an instinctive urge to cross her arms across her chest, not wanting to draw attention to her significantly less…ample body.

She was also close enough, however, that Korra could see her make a face out the corner of her eye.

“He’s never been quite as…into that sort of thing.  At least since mom died,” she said in a low voice.  “But that’s alright.  He doesn’t need to share the stuff I’m interested in.  He just needs to accept them.”

“Is there anything you like he doesn’t accept?  I mean, it seems like you’ve got him around your finger,” murmured Korra, without thinking.  The moment she said it, she regretted the question.  It really wasn’t any of her business.

Rather than be offended, however, Asami adopted a look that was almost…pensive as she floated by again.

“Not in so many words.  It’s more that…well…” she answered, chewing over her words carefully.  “I guess you could say…he just isn’t talking to me like he used to.  About some things, at least.  When I bring up certain topics, it’s not that he won’t talk about them, but he always seems like he wants the conversation to end as soon as possible.  Err…do you know what I mean?”

Korra wanted, desperately, to ask what those “certain topics” were.  But she was pretty sure she’d already overstepped the bounds of politeness, at least a little bit.  If she kept pushing, Asami might finally lose her cool and clam up completely.

And in any event, if her hunch was right, she was pretty sure she knew exactly which topics she meant.

So instead, Korra chanced to place a hand on the other woman’s pale, bare shoulder, as the two of them wordlessly returned to an erect position.  She was acutely aware of how close their bodies were to each other now.

“I dunno how much it helps, but…I’m here, at least.  If there’s anything you ever wanna talk about,” she found herself saying, though she was uncertain of precisely why.  Like coming here, it hadn’t exactly been a conscious decision.

And though she wished she could say it was a calculated move on her part, a ploy to goad what could be an enemy agent into a position of vulnerability, the truth of the matter was her words were both spur of the moment and, to her own surprise…

Entirely sincere.

It struck Korra, in that moment, as the two of them sat beside each other, so close that she could feel every breath the non-bender took…that deep down, she didn’t want the Satos to be connected in any way to the Equalists.

Because even if Asami wasn’t a spy herself – even if she was completely in the dark about her father’s alleged activities – the second Korra found what she’d been sent here to uncover, moments like this one would be over.  There were simply no two ways about it.

She couldn’t risk going anywhere near the Equalists, unless it was on her own terms.  They represented too many unknowns, and right now she was an asset the Lotus couldn’t afford to lose.

Of course, now that she thought about it…the second she found out either way, her days here were numbered, period.  It was silly, stupid, to forge any relationships in this city beyond the professional.  She’d be leaving it behind, leaving Mizore behind, and never looking back in – at most – a few months.

So why couldn’t she release her hand right now?

 

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

 

With nothing left to do on the “Mizore” front until the following evening, Kuvira spent the rest of the night chasing other leads.

Mind, any normal person would probably have spent that intervening time getting some rest.  She hadn’t slept in well over twenty-four hours, and hadn’t eaten in nearly ten.

But Kuvira was about as far from “normal” as any person could possibly be, and so after snatching up a meat-bun from a street vendor and remedying the “food” issue – all in the space of about two minutes – she was bounding along the rooftops of Republic City once more.

She was aware the police probably wouldn’t look kindly upon her, in essence, infringing upon their turf…both literally and figuratively.  Her cables were of unique design, courtesy of Baatar, and indeed a significant improvement upon their own, but she doubted they’d be able to tell the difference at first glance.  To all appearances, she’d look like a possessor of stolen property if caught.

Still, through a combination of immense skill and not the slightest amount of luck, she hadn’t run into any other metalbenders so far, and as much as possible she intended to keep it that way.

Funnily enough, it was her plentiful experience as a dancer that was proving most useful right now.  If Lin were to hear that, based on Suyin’s numerous stories, she was probably liable to pitch a fit, but on a basic level there was very little difference between gliding through the air as part of a choreographed routine, and doing so like this.

Kuvira took very few pleasures in life – “serious” didn’t even begin to describe her, for which she was quite proud – but she enjoyed her dance troupe.  Moving in rhythm with them, striking a perfect balance, centered her like nothing else could.

In this horrifically chaotic world, any semblance of order that could be found was an invaluable treasure.

Perhaps that was what’d drawn her to Baatar, she reflected idly.  He would hardly be guilty of someone calling him adventurous, rash, or impulsive.  But he was…stable, maybe was a good word.  He built things that were meant to last, and anchored her accordingly.

They’d been seeing each other for just over three months now, though they hadn’t yet informed his parents about it.  Somehow, whether rationally or not, Kuvira expected Suyin would see it as a betrayal of her trust.

But even in secret, there was much they could…do…for one another.  He was a good man, in more ways than one.  And he…

The metalbender shook her head to clear it.  Losing herself in sentimental idling while in the midst of a mission?  She expected more from herself.

Her mind reset to a singular focus, she landed directly above her first target.

Lau Gan-Lan, the head of Cabbage Corp, was walking along the street just below, humming a merry tune.  After some initial observation, she’d concluded that while he was unlikely to be connected to the Equalists himself, someone in his company definitely was.

She’d learned the principles of “seismic sense” from the best, and she’d surreptitiously tested it on the grounds of both Future Industries and Cabbage Corp.  Large, underground tunnels ran beneath both of them, with passages leading to warehouses on the surface.  Most likely, this was how the Equalists were managing to transport huge quantities of personnel and weapons without being noticed.

The need to maintain her cover as “Kinzoku” meant investigating the Future Industries tunnel would have to wait, but there was no similar need for caution at Cabbage Corp.  She’d followed it straight down two nights ago, and discovered a bustle of activity.  Dozens of masked men and women, and nearly a hundred crates full of materiel.

Whatever the Equalists were gearing up for, it had to be big.

Lau was meeting a younger man now, one with a thin, gaunt appearance and rather long mustache.  They embraced, though with a lengthy pause in the movement – as if their relationship was familiar, but strained.

Kuvira took Baatar’s listening device back out and put it to her ear, setting the volume to maximum.

“Son, your mother’s been worried about you…” she heard Lau say, his face crestfallen.

“I’ve told you a million times, she’s not my mother,” hissed the mustached man.  His voice was so deep it almost sent a chill down her spine.  “Anyway, come on.  I don’t want to have this discussion out in public.”

The two turned off to a side-street, walking quickly, and Kuvira struggled to keep up while still catching every word of their conversation.

“I still don’t see what you’ve got against Anae,” the older man spoke again after a while, once he deemed them sufficiently far from the market crowds.  They were in a deserted alley now, dark and narrow, which made hiding herself a simple matter.

“How dare you.  How dare you,” his son whispered venomously.  “That you would remarry one of those…monsters…after everything they did to us?  To me?  To you?!

“Not a day goes by I forget what happened to Tsuma.  Or to Tanim,” said Lau, his voice very low.  “But you can’t blame all waterbenders for what a few…”

“Oh, don’t go dancing around it!” shouted the son.  “They ripped them apart!  Shredded them to pieces!  Took their perverted ‘gifts’ and used them like animals!  Animals that need to be put down!

“Son…” Lau murmured, trying to cut in, but the other man wasn’t finished.

“Your wife!  My sister!” he roared.  “You weren’t there when those creatures…when they did it.  You didn’t see the way their limbs moved.  Didn’t see them split apart at the seams by their own blood!  The way every single vessel popped…all at once…burst like a balloon, from the inside out!”

The mustached man struck the wall behind his father with his gloved fist, leaving an indentation in the heavy stone.

“And after all that…after everything…you let one of those animals into our home,” he continued, his voice much lower but not an ounce less spiteful.  “Do you have any idea how it felt, every full moon?  To know that witch could do the same thing to me, with just a wave of her hand?  I never slept those nights, not even once.

“I…I didn’t know…” said Lau, his eyes wide.

“You didn’t care,” the younger man snapped.  “You were just so busy with your spirits-begotten company, trying your whole life to catch up to the Satos.  And what do you have to show for it?  You’re useless…a disgrace.  Grandfather would be ashamed of how far you’ve sunk.  Your bender whore is just the cherry on top.”

The sound of the slap reverberated through the alley.

“After I lost Tsuma, I thought I’d never love again.  Anae proved me wrong.  You can say whatever the heck you want about me, but you will not speak about her that way,” Lau told his son.  “Are we clear?

When he spoke again, however, his tone immediately softened.  “I…know I failed you, son,” he whispered.  “I barely understand half of what you’re doing anymore.  And maybe now, it’s too late to change things.  But I…I hope there’s still time.  Please…it’s been so long since you were home.  Come back.  I just want…to know my own son again…”

The mustached man, for his part, hadn’t retaliated against the physical strike, though he appeared far more physically fit than his gray-haired father.  But he’d turned away during his heartfelt plea.

“You haven’t known me for almost thirty years,” he said, very quietly.  Even with the device, Kuvira had to strain to hear him.  “It was a mistake to come out here tonight.  It was a mistake to think that could change.”

He began to walk away.

“Please…” Lau choked out, tears now streaming down his face.  “Sho, please…”

His son stopped in his tracks, but just for a moment.  Just long enough to utter one last, stinging rebuke toward his father.

“Sho Gan-Lan is dead,” he responded, his voice cool and calm and yet also dripping with venom.  “Call me the Lieutenant.  It’s the only name that means anything to me anymore.”

Then he left, and a moment later, so did their unseen observer.

Leaving Lau Gan-Lan alone, to break down and weep.

 

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

 

Hiroshi Sato exited the tunnel beneath his workshop, took a deep breath, and wiped the sweat from his brow.

The disadvantage of managing a secret factory completely underground – well, one of the disadvantages – was that it played havoc on his already subpar respiratory system.

During the Agni Kai attack on their estate twelve years ago – the same one that’d destroyed his entire world – he’d inhaled a significant amount of ash while trying, in vain, to save Yasuko.  According to his physician, his lungs had never fully recovered from it.

By all means, it was certainly the least of what those monsters had taken from him that night.  But that didn’t make dealing with the lingering aftereffects any more pleasant.

Lost in his bitterness and hatred, Hiroshi nearly forgot to reseal the tunnel before exiting his workshop, catching himself just in time.  Afterwards, he let out a sigh of relief.

The last thing he needed right now was for Asami to stumble across it, and start asking questions.  It wasn’t time to introduce this part of his life to her.

Not yet.

He knew he’d have to, of course – sooner rather than later.  He’d known ever since the moment he’d met Amon, a little over six years prior, and seen that he could do so much more with his grief than merely wallow in it.  That he could turn it into a weapon, and use it to strike down the vermin who’d taken everything from him.

Since that day, he’d done everything in his power to ensure Asami would be ready, when the time was right.

He’d spared no expense in hiring the most talented martial artists in the city, passing on to her every discipline a non-bender could possibly use to fight on equal footing with their oppressors.  Several of her instructors, unbeknownst to her, had even been Equalists themselves.  They hadn’t gotten around to teaching her chi-blocking yet, but the Lieutenant had assured him that would come soon.

Still, without fully intending to, Hiroshi had found himself pushing back the day when he’d have to explain himself, over and over again.  He’d come close, so close, to telling her, enough time times that he’d stopped counting, and yet…

The industrialist sighed.  Deep down, he knew she didn’t feel the same way he did.  She missed her mother terribly, of course, but she saw the man responsible as just that – a man, singular and solitary.

She was blind, maybe even willfully so, to the wider picture he represented.  A society that lauded, encouraged such brutality; that taught his ilk from birth that their “gift” was to be used without restraint, the ultimate expression of strength and willpower.

No matter how many people got hurt in the process.

One way or another, though, she would learn to see the truth.  She needed to.

Because Amon was only a few short weeks away from his endgame.  And on that day, anyone who wasn’t an ally…would be an enemy by default.

Before returning to the mansion, Hiroshi did his standard checks using his reflection in a window: no platinum dust in his hair, no debris from the machines cranking out mecha-tanks at lightning speed marring his clothes.  It was fine that they were a little unkempt – she knew he was working on a secret project, after all – but he didn’t want to give any hints about just what that project was.

More or less satisfied that he’d hidden all signs of how he’d spent the day, he slipped back into his home.

A servant informed him promptly that “Miss Sato, and guest” were using one of the washrooms on the second level.  Alarm bells instantly began ringing in Hiroshi’s head.  He could only think of one possible “guest” it could be, and if he was right…

He suppressed his instinct to simply rush in, however.  In case there truly was nothing going on, her father bursting in on her while she was bathing could only lead to bad things.

Instead, he asked another servant – an elderly, female housekeeper – to “check in” on the pair.  A few minutes later she returned, with two young women in fancy bathrobes following behind her.  One was his daughter, which meant the other must be…

“Hi, dad,” said Asami, reaching over to give him a casual hug.  Her hair was still damp.  “I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Mizore.”

The girl in question, who had wide blue eyes and fine brown hair cropped short, waved awkwardly to him.

“It’s great to finally meet you, sir.  I’m sorry it’s with me…uh, looking like this,” she told him, gesturing to her robes. 

They were obviously borrowed, given how well they matched Asami’s.  He tried not to think too hard through the implications.  His only daughter being friends with a waterbender was bad enough, but to even consider that she might…

Hiroshi bit down on the bile already rising up his throat.  For just a little bit longer, he needed to pretend.

Forcing a genial smile onto his face, the industrialist turned to the young woman and replied, “Think nothing of it.  Why, I showed up to my first job interview in nothing but a pair of swimming trunks!”

His daughter’s eyebrows rose.  “And you still got the job?” she asked.

Hiroshi just chuckled in response.  “Oh, no.  They threw me right out of the building,” he said.  “I didn’t say it was my first successful job interview.”

Returning his eyes to Mizore, he then added, “Speaking of which, I hear you’re one of my new workers!  How are you liking Future Industries so far?”

The girl grinned nervously.  She did a lot of things nervously, he couldn’t help but notice.  It was possible, even likely, that it was because of the difference in their status, but…

“It’s…a really wonderful job.  I’m learning so much every day,” she answered, before hastily adding a bow.  “Thank you very much for the opportunity.  Oh!  And for allowing me into your home.  Err…thanks for that, too.”

A shame.  If she wasn’t a bender, he might actually grow to like this girl.

Still, to keep up the mask, he waved off her gratitude with a flick of the wrist.  “Again, think nothing of it,” he said.  “It warms my heart to see such…enterprise in young people.  By all means, if there’s anything I can do for you, let me know.”

“In that case…would it be alright if Mizore spent the night?” asked Asami, so smoothly he was sure she’d rehearsed this in her head.

Hiroshi fought to keep a scowl away from his face.

“Of…Of course, dear,” he responded, every syllable careful and measured.  “But separate rooms, alright?  If I’m not at least a little overprotective, I’ve failed my duties as a father.”

His daughter giggled, and slung her arms around him once more.  Apparently unsure how else to respond, Mizore just bowed again.

“In any event, I’m going to grab a bite to eat and then turn in early, myself,” said Hiroshi, feigning a yawn.  He’d gotten very good at that, lately.  “But I’ll see you girls in the morning.”

He kept up his warm, paternal smile as they waved him goodbye and took off at a jog toward the bedchambers upstairs.  There were at least half a dozen unused guest rooms right now, so he’d have to trust his daughter to heed his edict.

But the moment they were out of sight, the expression on his face dropped away, like a light going out.

It’d been a long time, after all, that he’d really been able to trust anyone.

His face contorted in barely repressed rage, the wealthy businessman strode toward his study, his coat billowing behind him.

He had a call to make.

 

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

 

Kuvira did wind up catching a bit of sleep that night, if only accidentally.

Staking out individuals like Lau Gan-Lan, Chief Beifong, or Councilman Tenzin was a simple matter.  They had routines, schedules, and they adhered to them with only minor variation.  Even with the short amount of time she had available, she already had a pretty good idea where each of the “major players” might be at any given moment.

This was most emphatically not the case, however, with Varrick.

Iknik Blackstone Varrick did what he wanted, went where he wanted, and picked his nose when he wanted, with seemingly no rhyme or reason or way to predict his actions.  He’d declare in an emphatic voice, for all to hear, his intention to purchase this or that, only to forget he’d done so only minutes later.  He’d change his mind at the drop of a hat and seemed to simply expect the world to go along with it.

She knew Suyin and the shipping magnate were old friends, but his very nature meant any intel she could’ve come into this mission with would be years out of date.  Spirits, some of the intel she’d gathered on him yesterday felt years out of date.

Kuvira had better luck tailing the Southerner’s assistant, Zhu Li Moon.  Comparatively speaking – which admittedly wasn’t saying much – she was calm, collected, and most importantly, a creature of routine.  Three days of intermittent observation had convinced her he wouldn’t be able to dress himself without Zhu Li’s consistent and reliable aid.

Two nights prior, she’d spotted the woman leaving an Equalist rally; one Kuvira had cased externally, though she hadn’t been able to find a non-risky way to make her way inside.

She’d been ruminating over the implications ever since.  True, both Varrick and his assistant were non-benders, but they still didn’t really seem the “type.”  For all his eccentricities, Varrick was a cutthroat businessman, and there wasn’t much profit in the Equalist cause.

Which meant that either Zhu Li was sneaking around behind her boss’ back…or that he’d sent her, and was gathering info on his own.

Finding out which one was true was what’d brought her here.

Varrick Global Studios was a new subsidiary of his wider business empire, and so far, had been kept hush-hush from the world at large.  Here, Varrick and a small crew of engineers were experimenting with cutting-edge technology, in order to – as far as Kuvira had been able to tell – project so many pictures in sequence that it actually appeared as if they were moving.

Despite herself, she couldn’t help but be impressed.

She’d overheard them make plans to meet back here, promptly at six in the morning.  And true to her nature, Zhu Li had shown up a little before five.

But true to his nature, Varrick had turned up nearly three hours late, wandering in still dressed in his pajamas and stretching his arms dramatically.

Hence her own, entirely unplanned nap.  She’d simply been unable to keep her eyes open, waiting in the rafters for the idiot to make his appearance.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem as if Zhu Li had noticed.

Which was a good thing since, as she’d learned from Baatar…she snored, sometimes.  Loudly.

Thankfully, Varrick hadn’t exactly been subtle on his entrance, so she had little trouble rousing herself.

Yawning with all the grace and volume of a platypus-bear, the business magnate exclaimed, “Zhu Li!  There you are!  Why in the name of Kyoshi’s hairy armpit weren’t you there to do the thing?”

From context, Kuvira could only assume he meant “to serve as my personal alarm clock.”

The other woman showed what Kuvira could only describe as remarkable restraint as she said, tonelessly, “Because I was already here, sir.  Doing the other thing.  As you asked me to.”

Varrick tapped at his chin, looking quizzical.  “Other thing…other thing…” he muttered to himself.  “Ah, right!  Well then, what’re you just standing around her for?!  Fire it up, and let’s make some of that Varrick Global Industries-trademarked magic happen!”

“Yes, sir,” stated Zhu Li, as she hurried over to darken the lights and activate a projector.

Kuvira’s eyes narrowed at the screen it was pointed toward, as she watched words slowly take form in a fancy, sprawling scrawl.  A voice, which was clearly Zhu Li trying to sound – badly – like a deep-voiced man, began to read them out loud.

 

Long ago, in a distant land…

I, Amon, the shapeshifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil!

But, a foooooolish schoolgirl in a sailor outfit, wielding a magic guitar, stepped forth to oppose me!

Before the final blow was struck, I used a pair of scissors to tear open a portal in time, and flung her into the future – where my giant, sky-surfing robots are law!

Now, the fool seeks to return to her past…and undo the future that is Amon!

 

Kuvira continued to stare at the screen, dumbfounded.  She had…absolutely nothing to add to that.

The scene shifted to two people, both devoid of color.  One was a pretty, if bored-looking, woman who was checking her nails.  The other was Zhu Li again, in a boxy metal suit and wearing a mask.

 

“It is now time, princess,” she said, utterly deadpan, still using that ridiculously deep voice.  “You shall lose your bending forever.”

The other woman instantly dropped her nail polish and, as if a switch had been flipped, instantly began to shriek in fear.

“Oh, great and terrible Amon!  Aaaaaaanything but that!” she cried loudly.  “For without my blessed lightbending powers, the Guitar of Ages shall never deem me worthy to wield her!  I shall be…urgh, line!”

Someone handed her a small card from off-screen.

“Ah, that’s right,” she added, before shifting back into character nearly seamlessly.  “I shall be trapped in this accursed future…forever!  And never again shall I lovingly be in the loving arms of my beloved Tatsuya!”

“That…” whispered Zhu Li.  “Is where you are wrong.  For you see…”

Then she flung away the mask, and the actress gasped in mock-horror.

“I…am Tatsuya,” said the assistant.  She still sounded as emotionless as ever.

“Nooooooooooooo!” screamed the other woman, her face hidden from the camera.  “That is not true!  That is not possible!”

“You’re right, I was lying,” Zhu Li suddenly told her, shrugging her shoulders in indifference to the material.  “In fact…none of this is real.”

Then she waved her hand, and the scene seemed to dissolve away.  When it returned to focus, the other actress was alone, lying on her bed.

“Oh, what a relief!” she declared, in what might passably be mistaken for enthusiasm.  “It was a dream all along!  What a wonderful and brilliant twist ending!  And it was all thanks to my Varri-pillow, the patented sweet dreams solution for the weary traveler!  Productnotactuallyguaranteedtoprovidesweetdreams.  Order now!”

 

The film cut out there.

Unable to process a particularly large number of coherent thoughts herself, Kuvira slowly directed her gaze down at Varrick, who was neither smiling nor frowning.  He looked very deep in thought.

“That…was…” he began to say, enunciating each word carefully – before a massive, excited grin abruptly spread across his face.  “Brilliant!  One of a kind!  Ooh, that was exactly how I pictured it in my head!”

“If I may, sir…” replied Zhu Li, not looking nearly as enthused.  “Miss Ginger clearly needs some more time to study the script.  And I’m not an actor.  I don’t have the talent for it.”

“Yes, but, you’re a stone-cold war machine, and my team tells me that’s pretty much the same thing,” said Varrick, crossing his arms and winking confidently.  “Besides, everyone knows nobody actually cares how good an actor is at…well, acting!  Just that they look dynamite while doing it!”

Kuvira definitely wasn’t mistaking the flush that spread over the other woman’s face.

“That’s very kind of you to say, sir,” she murmured, careful to ensure he couldn’t see her blushing.  It clashed spectacularly with her normal, unflappable demeanor.  “But I still think you should recast Amon to an actual male actor.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll get to that,” Varrick responded airily, waving a hand back and forth to demonstrate how little this concerned him.  “Deep-voiced guy who can growl, we can find that anywhere.  The important thing is nailing down that script.  Do you think we made it scary enough?  We need to make every bender in this city pee their pants, make ‘em think Amon could be right around every dark corner!”

Kuvira’s eyes briefly went wide.  Did that mean Amon being able to take bending away was true?  Given the absurd tone of the whole thing, she’d mentally filed that away with the heroine being able to “lightbend” and use a “magic guitar.”

“Perhaps something a little less…humorous…might get the same point across quicker,” said Zhu Li, still not looking at her employer.

Varrick, for his part, looked honestly confused.  “Humor-what-now?” he asked.  “I didn’t write any jokes in that script!  One-hundred-percent pure drama, that’s the Varrick signature!  Literally, by the way, I put a trademark on that phrase.  I can see it going places.”

There was a very long, very silent pause that followed these words.

Eventually, however, Zhu Li seemed to recognize the futility in pushing the issue, and simply told him, “Yes, sir.  Still…you might want to run your next draft by another writer.”

“Eh, guess it can’t really hurt,” he eventually admitted with a shrug.  Still, Kuvira got the distinct impression he wouldn’t have even gone that far for anyone else.  “Anyway, we’ve had our demo, so let’s move on to phase two!  Chop-chop, time is money!  And money is time!  And strawberries are delicious, make sure they’re in all my salads from now on!  Now, Zhu Li…do the thing!

Zhu Li did, indeed, do quite a few things over the course of the next several hours, but Kuvira didn’t stick around to watch them.

If even the tiniest sliver of what she’d just heard was true…

She needed to rethink all her plans completely.

 

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

 

Korra was, to put it mildly, a heavy sleeper.

One would think, after years of resting in pitched tents or hastily constructed caves, constantly needing to wake up and flee the authorities at a moment’s notice, she’d have been cured of the habit.  At least to some degree.

One would be wrong.

She’d never been able to help it – it was simply the way she was.  Whether on an actual bed or simply laid out over the uneven ground, once she was out, she was out.  She’d been told she tossed and turned, stretched her limbs out every which way, and had a snore comparable to a tsungi horn, but she pretty much never woke up before someone or something made her do so.

Which was how she’d managed to sleep in past noon the next day.

There were no clocks in the Satos’ guest bedroom, so it hadn’t immediately occurred to her just how late it was.  It didn’t help that, even beyond her general “I’ll take any bed that’ll have me” attitude, this particular one was…well…

It was, for one thing, enormous – easily large enough to fit four of her, with room to spare.  Used to cots and sleeping bags that emphasized practicality over comfort, she’d never thought of herself as the type for something so frilly and, for lack of a better term, puffy…but the instant she flopped down on the thing, losing herself in the sheer amount of pillows and cushioning, her body decided it pretty much never wanted to leave.

And whether she acknowledged it or not, it probably was also relevant to note that the entire room smelt unmistakably like Asami.  Or like her perfume, at least.

In the back of her mind, Korra feebly attempted to convince herself it wasn’t weird at all she’d committed Asami’s scent to memory.

She’d had half-formed imaginings about sneaking out in the middle of the night, perhaps to break into Hiroshi’s office or workshop, and see if she could gather more intel that way.  But that idea was clearly shot, given how much sun was currently streaming through the curtains.

And so, with a groan, she hauled herself off of the so-comfortable-it-should-be-illegal mattress and went to get dressed.

When she learned of the true time from a clock in the hall, Korra was briefly stricken with panic.  She’d promised to meet Bolin and Mako for another practice at the same time as yesterday, which was around two in the afternoon, and if this one ran as long as the last they’d be going up until sundown.

That didn’t leave her with a whole lot of spare time.  Coming here had been such a waste

It was, however, difficult to continue that line of thought when she drifted by the kitchen and spotted Asami.

The other girl had changed her outfit again, opting for a sleek black number that looked more appropriate for a fancy gala than for wearing around the house.  It certainly put Korra’s casual Northern robes to shame.

Mind, it probably put about ninety-nine percent of all the outfits in Republic City to shame.

More puzzling than what she was wearing, however, was what the non-bender was doing.  She was bent over a hot stove, steam rising from a pan she held in her right hand, and she was…

Cooking.

“Don’t you…err…have your own chef for that?” Korra couldn’t help but ask.

Asami nearly dropped the pan in surprise.  “Oh…Mizore!  You’re finally up,” she said, not the slightest hint of judgment in her voice.  “And yeah, I do.  He could certainly do this a lot better than I could.  I just…”

If Korra didn’t know better, she’d have sworn the other girl’s cheeks briefly went pink.

“I just…wanted to do this for you,” she finished, a bit lamely.  “I guess, to prove I could.  I barely ever get to do anything for myself, much less other people.  Maybe that’s why I like doting on you so much.”

Whether or not she’d imagined Asami’s blush, she certainly didn’t imagine her own.  In a very quiet voice, she found herself mumbling, “You…don’t have to think of it like that.  The dinner, the dress, the bath, getting to stay the night…it’s all so…”

“I don’t want it to feel like I’m pushing any of this on you,” Asami replied kindly.  “We have different lifestyles; that’s okay.  But I’ve never had anyone to share mine with, before.  Trust me, I get just as much out of all this as you do.  Maybe even more.”

She flicked her wrist, sending the contents of the skillet flying up in the air, and catching them all on their way back down.  But her eyes never left Korra’s.

“By all means, if I’m ever moving too fast or pushing too much…always feel free to let me know.  I don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” she said, her smile warm and genuine.  “But short of that…I want you to be part of my world.  And I want to be part of yours.”

Korra’s blush deepened, by several distinct shades.  By the spirits, why couldn’t she say anything?

Asami didn’t appear to have noticed, as she was still talking, though more to herself now than to the Avatar.  “Wow…that probably sounded really lame,” she went on, chuckling awkwardly.  “Sorry, I really don’t have any practice with this sort of thing.”

Korra found her lips moving without input from her brain.  “I don’t mind…” she whispered, quietly surprised to realize just how much she meant it.

The two of them stood there for a little while longer, neither certain of what else to say.  They were rather rudely interrupted, however, by a small column of fire that erupted from the stove.

“Oh, man!  And I almost had the sear just right, too!” exclaimed Asami, pivoting back to the pan in mild panic.  “That’s what I get for not listening to my mom.  First rule of the kitchen, Asami: never take your eye off what you’re doing!  Urgh, I’m so stupid.”

She grimaced as she quickly ladled what she could salvage of the meat onto a couple of plates.  It didn’t smell nearly as appetizing as it had a couple minutes ago.

“I hope you like your turtle-duck, uh…really well-done?” she said with a nervous, embarrassed half-grin.

The meal was, as it soon turned out, still pretty decent.  Nothing on what she’d had last night, which even as leftovers had been phenomenal…but somehow, she almost enjoyed this one more.

It wasn’t as if she was a stranger to people cooking for her.  P’Li or her attendants had been taking care of that for as long as she could remember.  But the reason was different, and the reason was what mattered.

This slightly burnt turtle-duck hadn’t been made for her because she was the Avatar, or a member of the Red Lotus.

It’d been made because someone cared about her.

An ulterior motive for the quickly prepared lunch soon made itself clear, however.  As soon as their plates were clean, Asami grabbed her by the hand and started off at a hurried pace.

“Chushi’s an amazing cook, but he’d take two hours to make a bowl of noodles.  He always needs to get it just right,” she told Korra, grinning.  “And I don’t want to waste another second.”

“Uh…where are we going, exactly?” asked the Avatar, nearly tripping over her own feet as she struggled to keep step with the other girl.

“We…” said Asami, her grin broadening with every second.  “Are gonna take a spin around the track.”

 

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

 

This…was…a…terrible…ideeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaa!” screamed Korra, as she held on for dear life around Asami’s waist.

When the non-bender mentioned a track, Korra had assumed she meant racecars.  She’d said she drove them all the time, after all.

And that would’ve been plenty terrifying, all on its own.

Instead, Avatar Korra – who’d never ridden in a vehicle faster than Ghazan’s beat-up old jeep, the other night excepted – was now careening down a long stretch of pavement, on the back of the first and last motorcycle she ever wanted to ride.

She’d seen pictures of the things in books before, and even caught glimpses of a handful on the city streets.  And she couldn’t deny she thought they looked pretty cool.  But being on one?

Korra silently wondered whether she should rethink the question of Asami being a spy, because she was quite clearly trying to kill her right now.

“Hold on tight!  We’re gonna take this turn pretty sharp!” Asami exclaimed, giving Korra about three seconds of warning before dipping so far to the left that she could’ve reached out and touched the track.

Not that she did, of course.  Her arms were too busy grasping on as tightly as possible to Asami’s slick riding suit.

And her mind, in-between screams of bloody terror, was too busy trying not to think too hard about the fact that her breasts were pressed tightly into the other girl’s back.

Still, there were upsides to the whole thing.  They were racing against a few of the mansion’s other employees, who clearly hadn’t been instructed to take it easy on the boss’ daughter.  And even scared out of her wits, if there was one thing Korra was always ready for…it was a challenge.

Soon enough, as they overtook each of the other riders in turn, Korra’s cries of terror slowly transformed into whoops and hollers of triumph.  Whatever else she might be, Asami was clearly an expert at this, and she maneuvered around the circular track with all the precision and poise of a professional.

After they’d lapped all the others racers twice over, the non-bender finally saw fit to bring their death-defying ride to a halt.  Korra dismounted first, shaking her sweat-matted hair free of her helmet.

“By the spirits, that was awesome!” she said jubilantly, a wide grin across her face.  “I mean, I never ever ever ever wanna do it again, but man, that was a rush!  We totally whooped those guys!”

“I probably should’ve started you out with something slower…but I’ll admit, I kinda wanted to show off,” responded Asami, releasing her own hair from the ostrich-horse-tail she’d tied it in for the race.  “I hope it wasn’t too bad.”

“Eh, let’s just go for…medium amount of terrifying next time,” Korra stated in a high voice, holding her thumb and forefinger close together to emphasize the point.  “And just to be on the safe side, let’s make ‘next time’ a loooooooong way off.”

Asami giggled into her gloved hand, then glanced at her watch.  “Ugh, we should be getting back,” she added.  “I said I’d have this bike back by two so they can refuel it.”

“It’s past two already?!” asked Korra in alarm, suddenly frantic.  “Monkey feathers, monkey feathers, monkey feathers!

“Did you have somewhere you needed to be?” said Asami.

Korra grimaced in embarrassment.  “I’m, err…supposed to meet the other Fire Ferrets for practice again,” she answered, twiddling her thumbs as she did.  “Didn’t realize it’d gotten so late.”

“Well, that sounds fun!” the non-bender exclaimed, looking honestly interested.  “Do you think they’d mind if I came with?  Just to watch, y’know.  I promise I won’t leak any top-secret team strategies or anything.”

The Avatar hesitated to answer.  After all, this was going to be a pretty important practice.  Soon after, she’d need to follow Bolin and Mako to their appointment at Future Industries warehouse twelve, and Asami’s presence could only complicate that plan.

But as was becoming increasingly – and perhaps distressingly – common, the logical part of her mind was kicked straight to the curb by the part of her that reacted to more time with Asami like a trained polar bear-dog being offered treats.

Besides…she’d just spent the past day watching on as, one way or another, Asami showed off just about everything she had in her corner.

Maybe it was time for Korra to return the favor.

 

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

 

Amon stood before no less than five-dozen mecha-tanks, arranged in neat rows of six, his arms crossed in satisfaction.

“I’ve made several improvements to this model over the last.  The engine is in far less danger of overheating, and ice from enemy waterbenders is no longer a concern,” said Hiroshi Sato, his tone businesslike and conversational.

“I would make sure to test that claim in the field.  Thoroughly,” replied the bloodbender, narrowing his eyes beneath his mask.  “I’Inka may be past his prime, but any tanks sent after Tarrlok must be prepared to deal with a master waterbender.  And careful use of ice is his specialty.”

“You say that like you know him,” muttered Hiroshi, as he picked up a hefty clipboard delivered by another Equalist engineer.  “Do you two have a history?  If you don’t mind me asking.”

Amon stiffened.  He didn’t think the other man noticed, but his lips were pursed as he eventually whispered, “…After a fashion.”

Hiroshi continued to scrawl out notes, double-checking that the diagnostic reports for each mecha-tank were all in order.  Each one needed to be checked, daily, to ensure everything was working properly.  These were very new tech, and it might only take the slightest defect to send them all crashing down.

After a while, however, he said in a low voice, “Thank you.  For helping me last night.”

Amon turned to him, just by the slightest inch.

“We are…friends, Hiroshi,” he told the older man.  “If you truly have need of me, I will always come.”

The thing was, the bloodbender reflected briefly, he was no longer sure himself just how much of that was naked manipulation…and how much was entirely sincere.

“It was a small matter, in the grand scheme of things,” Hiroshi continued to murmur.  “Barely a blip on the course of our glorious revolution.  But it meant a great deal to me.

Amon said nothing, merely nodding once.  As both he and Hiroshi well knew, the industrialist was irreplaceable in the Equalist hierarchy.  Without the man’s wealth and technical prowess, Noatak would still be practicing his “cleansing” one bender at a time, achieving absolutely nothing in the long run.

Amon would still just be the fever dream of a young boy, inches from death in the cold northern snows.

In light of that, a simple application of his “talent” seemed a small price to pay to keep the old man happy.  What he’d learned as a consolation prize, of course, dwarfed the petty worries that’d led to the request completely.

But Hiroshi didn’t need to know about that.  Not yet.

This was information to keep close to his breast, until the time was just right.

“Are preparations ready for tonight?” Hiroshi asked after another long pause, apparently satisfied with the results of his analysis.

Amon drummed his fingers along the railing, his eyes upon the mechanized army directly below them.

“My Lieutenant is already in position.  In addition to twenty of my most skilled chi-blockers,” he said.  “And I will be joining them myself within the hour.  Too many of our enemies are gathering at once for us to ignore the opportunity.”

He reached his hand high, toward the artificial light, and watched in dim amazement as, without being bidden, every other Equalist working on the mecha-tanks did likewise.

“One way or another,” finished Amon, his voice a death-rasp in the dark, cold factory.  “By tomorrow morning…”

A full hundred fists, Hiroshi Sato’s included, clenched as one.

“All the world will know of our Solution.”

Chapter Text

“It’s a long, long way to Ba Sing Se, but the girls in the city, we look so pretty!  We kiss so sweet, that you’ve really got to meeeeeet – the girls from Ba Sing Se!”

 

Ghazan looked upon the row of dancers, each dressed and made up to be indistinguishable from the last, and dimly, almost as if on reflex, tried to figure out which one was his mother.

He wasn’t really sure how he’d expected to pick her out of the crowd; how he might’ve recognized a woman he hadn’t seen since the day he was born.  Particularly given how much she must’ve changed in the intervening fourteen years.

Perhaps he’d been counting on some kind of…feeling, deep down inside.  An instinctual connection to the woman whose blood he shared.

But if so, that’d failed pretty miserably.  He felt nothing.

“Come on, Ghazan.  Shift change,” spoke a hushed voice from behind him.  A hand, sheathed in a glove of stone, came down on his shoulder, more than a little impatiently.

Pushing all other thoughts from his mind for a moment, Ghazan briefly dipped the sedge hat of his uniform in acknowledgment, and allowed the other Dai Li agent to take his place guarding the festival.

Many people tended to forget, with their political role having reached such primacy in recent history, but above all the Dai Li had been founded to preserve the Earth Kingdom’s cultural heritage.  Parades, concerts, cultural festivals like these – all required the security only Ba Sing Se’s silent guardians could provide.

Being able to keep an eye out for his mother was just a convenient side-benefit.

His father and grandfather before him had worn the uniform as well, and so on, going back to the very first generation trained by Avatar Kyoshi herself.  Admittedly, they really didn’t talk about his grandfather much, since he’d been one of the agents who, rather infamously, betrayed his nation to the Fire Princess.

But apart from that, his family’s history of service stood second to none in all of Earth Kingdom history.

There was, in short, little Ghazan could’ve done to avoid joining the Dai Li himself – whether or not he wanted to.  While the formal age of induction was thirteen, he’d started his own training far earlier, and passed his admissions test with flying colors.

As a rule, the Dai Li generally discouraged its members from taking lovers or raising families.  Their first and only loyalty, after all, was supposed to be to their monarch.

As was often the case with such rules, however, it was broken so frequently and so openly that few agents ever actually got in trouble for it.  Generally, that only happened when a reason was needed for some other discipline to occur – for example, when a superior officer needed an excuse to fire a recruit who’d looked at him funny.

That was how Ghazan had slipped through the cracks.  His father, who went by the name Jing Cha, had never really risen very high in the ranks, but he’d kept his head down and took orders without question for nearly fifty years, if only to compensate for his own father’s treachery.  Under the watchful eye of Hou-Ting, that attitude was considered quite valuable indeed, and was more than worth overlooking such a small impropriety as a bastard.

His mother was a dancer – that was the beginning and the end of all Ghazan knew of her.  She’d met his father on a night just like this one, in the course of “overseeing” a cultural festival.  The way he told it, in a distinctly unromantic tone, he’d barely even remembered it the next morning.

Then, nine months later, she’d returned.

She was, she’d told him, extremely poor.  The last few months of her pregnancy, when her swollen belly had forced her to forgo dancing entirely, had only made that worse.  She hadn’t the resources nor the time to raise a child…or at least, not to raise him well.

Jing Cha wasn’t an exceedingly moral man.  His duty to his Queen was his entire world, and all else – Ghazan included – was decidedly secondary.  But responsibility was one thing he did understand, and after some cajoling, he’d accepted his son.

Ghazan supposed he should count himself fortunate.  He’d never wanted for food, or shelter.  Service to the Dai Li paid well, even for the freshest recruits, and provided a freedom of movement about the sprawling city that few citizens enjoyed.

Or, to put it another way…no Dai Li lived in the Lower Ring.

Every time he patrolled those streets – which was often, as the youngest agents naturally got the worst assignments – he caught glimpses of how his life could have been.

Children starving in the streets, begging for copper from every man or woman who passed through on their way to the Middle Ring.  Homes so old and broken-down it was frankly shocking they hadn’t yet collapsed.  Men slumped against the nearest wall, coughing violently or covered in sores, with nary the slightest chance of ever seeing a healer.

To be sure, not all of the Lower Ring was quite so awful.  It housed millions of people, after all; over five times the population of the other two rings, combined.

But there was also no denying that the problems of Ba Sing Se’s most impoverished citizens had only grown worse and worse, under the current regime.

Still, Ghazan reflected as he slipped away from the bright lights and swelling music of the festival…that didn’t make dealing with his abandonment any easier.  She might not’ve been able to take care of him on her own, but she was still his mother.

His father might’ve been distant and unaffectionate at the best of times, but at least he was there.  At least he’d taken some responsibility for the child he’d accidentally created.  Given him a home, an education, a chance at a life.

Sometimes, Ghazan wasn’t sure whether he was desperately searching for his mother in order to embrace her…

Or to punch her square in the jaw.

 

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

 

“You’re back late,” Jing Cha said to his son, the moment he walked into their apartment in the Middle Ring.  “I saw the duty schedule, you should’ve been relieved nearly an hour ago.”

“Tizui was running behind,” Ghazan lied easily.  He’d had a lot of practice.  “I think he’s been hitting the cactus juice again.”

He had no idea if that was actually true or not, but it was a plausible enough excuse.  While a talented agent otherwise, this wouldn’t be the first time Tizui had relapsed.

His father grunted in irritation.

“I’ll talk to his supervisor in the morning,” he replied in a deep, rumbling voice.  In the midst of saying so, he stifled a yawn.  “Make sure you get up early, alright?  The Queen is coming for inspection tomorrow, eight sharp.”

“I’ll be there,” Ghazan assured him with a parting wave.  Those were the only kind of words they exchanged anymore.

The earthbender supposed it wasn’t unusual, in some ways.  Plenty of children, from his age or even younger, were put to work at the “family business.”  Children of farmers helped till the fields.  Children of merchants helped man the shop.

He supposed, in short, he wasn’t the only teenager on the planet whose only real connection with their parent was the job they’d passed down to them.

But few other teenagers had ever had to do the kinds of things he did.

In just under a year of active service to the Dai Li, and throughout all the time he’d spent training under his father’s tutelage, he’d executed fourteen people.  Personally.  The number was no doubt far higher if one factored in all the things he’d done as part of a unit.

The reasons were myriad.  Tax evasion, most frequently.  Queen Hou-Ting had little patience for any subjects discovered not to be paying her the proper tribute, and there was only so much room in the debtors’ prisons.

So those cells were typically reserved for middle class merchants who could pay, and simply had managed to avoid doing so via one form of trickery or another.  The poor saps who made so little they’d probably never generate meaningful revenue…

Well, the crown didn’t consider their loss much of a waste.

Others had died for more serious crimes: murder, rape, treason.  And still others, for matters far more minor.  He still remembered the face of the girl he’d been ordered to cut down for stealing a single head of cabbage.

She’d died screaming.

And there were so many other things he’d done, at the behest of his Queen or her representatives.  He’d collapsed the homes of crying families, with a single stomp of his foot.  He’d “sent a message” to farmers by decapitating their livestock with jagged stone.  He’d stood before statues of monarchs ten dynasties past, and simply because the current ruler found them “tacky,” leveled them to rubble in an instant.

And not once, not once, had he ever stopped to think twice about what he was doing.  He wasn’t sure he’d ever really learned how.

Ghazan slept fitfully that night.

 

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

 

“Pathetic.  Disgraceful.  An insult to your Kingdom.”

The first part of their weekly inspection came in the form of the Earth Queen critiquing the states of their uniforms.  There weren’t usually very many positive comments thrown around.

Perhaps in response to how thoroughly they’d betrayed her father, Hou-Ting took a very “hands-on” approach to managing the Dai Li.  She personally looked over each of their duty schedules, doled out orders, and met individually with each new recruit for a session with a truth-seer.  And the man who dealt with them day-to-day, Grand Secretariat Gun, was watched over by her like a messenger hawk.

The woman was vain, conniving, and utterly averse to anything resembling manual labor, but she wasn’t lazy.  She’d seen the Kingdom nearly slip away from Kuei several times over, ever since she was a little girl, and she refused to let it happen to her.

Which meant, right now, that any member of the Dai Li with wrinkled or stained robes was in a very unfortunate position.

When she passed over Ghazan, she scowled and gave a brief nod – her signal that she could find nothing obvious to criticize.  It was about the best he could possibly hope for.

Then her eyes moved over to Jing Cha, and she abruptly stopped.

“Agent,” she said, her voice hard.  She never used any of their names, even though she’d met with every single one of them at one point or another.  It was a constant reminder of the difference in their stations.  “What, exactly, is that?

Ghazan’s eyes flitted over to his father.  It was just a quick glance, admittedly, but he couldn’t see anything wrong with his uniform at all.

“I apologize to the absolute depths of my heart, Your Majesty,” he whispered, entirely sincerely.  This was a man who lived for nothing but service to the woman currently glaring daggers at him, after all.  “But…I’m not quite sure what you mean…”

“Really?” asked the Queen, her tone cruel and mocking.  “Because I see dirt smeared all over your robes.”

Jing Cha was stunned, speechless.

“Still don’t realize what I’m getting at, agent?” she added after a moment’s pause.  “Pity…I thought they trained you worthless hog-monkeys better than this.  Gun, explain it so that even this idiot can understand.”

The Grand Secretariat, a small man with an even smaller voice, bounded over and began to read off a scroll.

“Ahem…on seven separate occasions over the past two months, an agent of the Dai Li has been observed making unscheduled visits to the Wu Dao Dance Troupe,” he said.  “Although the man’s face was never seen, it is known that Agent Jing Cha once took a lover amongst that troupe.”

“Pining for an old flame, in my service?  On my time?” demanded Hou-Ting, her eyes narrowed dangerously.  “I could forgive doing it once or twice.  But this has disrespected me, and disrespected the crown.  And you know the punishment for that.”

Ghazan, for his part, was frozen in fear.  Obviously, they had the wrong culprit.

He thought he’d been careful, avoided being seen at all except on those nights – like the previous one – where he had an excuse to be there.  He’d stayed to the shadows, never approaching the dancers, always keeping his distance.  But clearly, that hadn’t been enough.

And his father was getting the blame.

Ghazan knew he had to speak up, and quickly.  He opened his mouth, the words already half-formed in his throat…but no sound came out.  He swallowed and tried again, but the result was the same.

Flailing, desperate, he glanced sideways to his father.  Their eyes met, very briefly.

And then, before Ghazan could utter a single word, Jing Cha said, “Very well.  I admit to my crime.  Do with me as you will, my Queen.”

Ghazan’s mouth continued to hang wide as Hou-Ting replied, her eyes glinting, “Gladly.  Guards, take him away.”

That was the last time Ghazan ever saw his father.

 

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

 

The next few years passed the young earthbender by in a dull, unpleasant blur.

Trying to reconcile the lifetime of coldness and neglect his father had given him with his final, shocking sacrifice – for there was no way he couldn’t have deduced who the real culprit was – was an exercise in futility, and after a while Ghazan gave it up as a bad job.

Whatever their relationship was to each other, whatever it could have been; none of it really mattered anymore.  Nor did it truly matter what’d happened to him, though Ghazan spent many sleepless nights awake, wondering.  Dead, imprisoned, “reeducated”…

Either way, he was gone.

He never sought out his mother again after that night, either.  On the one hand, it was simply a matter of pragmatism – he’d been seen before, and there was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again.

But even setting that aside, the urge, the drive to meet her had been utterly snuffed out.  It was attached to a life he no longer lived.  Feelings he no longer shared.

All that was left to him was the Dai Li.  And so, that duty became his entire world.

Ghazan had been good, before.  An effective agent, given he was one of their youngest.  But that wasn’t enough anymore.

He would be the best.

In a remarkably short time, he soon managed to pile up accomplishments that put to shame any other three agents combined.  Besides his unyielding drive – itself hardly an inconsiderable skill – he had two things going for him in this self-imposed mission.

One was that his appearance belied his true age by quite a bit.  His long, thick mustache had begun to grow in when he was ten, and he kept his hair cropped short in a military cut.  Combine that with his rather impressive physique, the result of a lifetime of training at his father’s hands, and virtually no one would ever guess that he was still a teenager.

His other asset was his incredible prowess at earthbending.

All Dai Li agents needed to be potent earthbenders, of course.  It was the very core of the job, and was second only to blind loyalty in the attributes the Queen recruited for.  But Ghazan was in another league.

Whether it was his bloodline, or simply a random fluke of chance, the young man had a natural aptitude for the art that was almost terrifying.

The complaints the other young recruits sometimes vented in private, of difficulties lifting rocks above a certain size or deftly manipulating sand or mud, simply didn’t happen to him.  He picked up new techniques like a turtle-duck took to water, and was even fairly adept at countering troublesome water or firebenders.  Those still weren’t quite as common in Ba Sing Se as in the United Republic, but it never hurt to be prepared.

And he used those skills to bring fallow any and all enemies his Queen commanded.

Ghazan certainly didn’t like her, on any personal level.  And to the degree he gave much thought to political matters – which in fairness, wasn’t often – he had little doubt her policies had hurt his Kingdom more than helped it.

But it wasn’t his role to question these things.  It wasn’t his role to think.  The Dai Li were the left hand of their rightful monarch…and when she wanted to clench that hand into a fist, they obeyed.

So he captured, and he brutalized, and he killed.  Over and over and over.  He intervened in a thousand different crimes – some of them things no one but Hou-Ting would call such, like wearing clashing colors in her presence – and meted out punishment as commanded.

And that’s precisely what he’d been doing on the night he met them.

 

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

 

For most of its existence, Ba Sing Se had made due without any formal police.  Soldiers protected the city from external threats, while royal guards and the Dai Li were judged sufficient to strike down internal ones.

But its occupation toward the end of the Hundred Year War had devastated the capital, and at the behest of the Avatar and the Fire Lord, King Kuei had instituted numerous reforms upon his return to the throne.  One of those had been the institution of the Ba Sing Se Royal Police Force.

An independent organization that accepted recruits from all three Rings, Kuei had on his deathbed described the BSSRPF (there was a reason few people shortened it) as one of his proudest accomplishments.  It was, he’d said, a necessary first step to help his people better seize control of their own lives.

So naturally, his daughter had wasted no time in dismantling the whole thing.

The police force still existed, but these days its independence from the crown was only nominal at best.  Culled solely from sons and daughters of the Upper Ring – and the occasional Middle Ring family who were in good standing on their taxes – the officers were under strict orders to obey any Dai Li agents they met, and to defer to them in all things.

In effect, they were little more than a vast extension of the Dai Li’s influence; an acknowledgement that even they couldn’t be everywhere at once.  Uniformed agents numbered less than a hundred, while the police were a force greater than ten thousand.

One consequence of this was that, when an “ordinary” officer stumbled across a case they thought the Queen might be interested in, it was common practice to call in a Dai Li agent to consult.

Tonight, that was the role Ghazan was fulfilling.

“Say that for me, one more time,” he said, as a young officer – just a few years above his own age of seventeen – blabbered on in decreasingly coherent tones.  “What-bending?”

“Combustionbending, sir!” yelped the other man, a fresh recruit with bad acne named Imado.  “I saw it with my own two eyes!  Oh, man, it was just like that guy in The Boy in the Iceberg!  The one that was half-robot!”

This wasn’t a strictly accurate description of the play, nor of the actual historical figure it depicted.  But Ghazan ignored that for now.

“And so that’s what did…this?” he asked, gesturing to the massive holes blown into a government building and the surrounding streets.  Mercifully, no one had died in the explosions, but the property damage was incalculable.

Imado nodded emphatically.

“It was a young girl, couldn’t have been more than…I dunno.  Twelve or thirteen at the most,” he told the agent, his knobby hands trembling.  “She didn’t even try to hide herself.  That’s what was so scary.  She just walked up, took a deep breath, and…boom.

Ghazan tugged absently at his mustache, mulling this over.

“Did you see where she went after that?” he said quietly.

“Sorry, ‘fraid not.  We were all pretty much in shock,” replied Imado.  “Guess she must’ve slipped away in the confusion.”

Ghazan spent the next ten minutes taking down as much information as he could from the officer and his compatriots – a description of the perpetrator, whether they’d said anything, who they might’ve interacted with.  Mercifully, it soon became clear the criminal was someone who’d definitely stand out in a crowd: braided black hair, raggedy Fire Nation clothing, and most tellingly, a chi-focusing tattoo of a third eye.

Finally, once he was satisfied he’d heard everything even remotely useful about the attack – and quite a bit more that wasn’t – Ghazan stuffed his copious notes into his pocket and gave the men a terse bow.

“May the light of Her Majesty be with you,” he muttered, parroting words he’d both heard and spoken a thousand times over.  It was like a reflex, at this point.

“May the light of Her Majesty be with you,” Imado and the rest repeated back, with a great deal more emotion.

By the time they said it, however, Ghazan was already gone.

 

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

 

Strictly speaking, he should’ve reported this straight back to the palace.  Someone assaulting government property with an incredibly rare firebending technique was the sort of thing you were supposed to call in backup for.

But Ghazan didn’t really work too well with others.  And in any event, he had an intense, nagging feeling that this was something he needed to pursue himself.

He started by searching the streets – literally.  While he’d never had any formal training in it, and he’d never quite worked out a knack for the associated skill of metalbending, he was quite adept at the technique commonly referred to as “seismic sense.”

A single step onto Ba Sing Se’s rough roadways gave him a clear picture of everyone walking upon it for nearly a mile in each direction.  Interpreting that picture was a little harder, considering that “everyone” was currently in the neighborhood of a couple thousand people.

Still, firebenders tended to quite literally stand out in a crowd like this, their footsteps a little bit lighter than the average earth or non-bender.  And a child would be even lighter still.

Unfortunately, his first few hours of searching were largely fruitless.  He did catch a couple of people making trouble, and he dealt with them swiftly – a purse-snatcher, a group of boys trying to steal the radio out of a Satomobile – but none were his target.

The problem with trying to track someone down in Ba Sing Se was that the city was, by any conceivable measure, enormous.  The mysterious girl had attacked nearly half a day prior, giving her plenty of time to gain some distance between them.  Even his earthbending senses could only get him so far.

Even so, however – and Ghazan had to specifically remind himself of this – his bending wasn’t his only talent.  He had a keen mind, as well…or at least, one adept at deducing the thought processes of lawbreakers.

He tried not to think too hard upon that.

It was, Ghazan reasoned, fairly unlikely that the girl had targeted a government building by accident.  Her bending was hardly a precision instrument, but it was still the only thing that’d gotten destroyed.  The surrounding stores and alleyways were merely singed.

As such, it followed that she was someone with a grudge against the crown.  And so, unless she was a complete idiot, she’d have to be expecting someone to come down hard on her.

Someone…who was an earthbender

Ghazan’s eyes suddenly went wide, and they found what he was looking for almost immediately: an old, boarded-up theatre.  All the other buildings on this street were made of brick or stone, but not that one.

It was made out of wood.

As quietly as he could, Ghazan pushed aside some rotting planks and snuck his way into the theatre.  Dusty old posters for Love Amongst the Dragons and Waiting for Kuruk littered the walls, and he struggled not to cough at the musty odor that hung over the place.

This was the one place within walking distance of the target location, where the criminal might’ve been able to hide themselves from earthbending pursuers.

There was, of course, no guarantee they hadn’t fled the city entirely.  It would’ve been the smart thing to do.

But this was no ordinary attack.  This person had a point to make, something to prove.

And they couldn’t well do that if they weren’t still close by.

These were only hunches, of course, but Ghazan had long since learned that his hunches tended to be better than most.  And indeed, the hushed whispers he soon began to hear seemed to confirm his suspicions.

“That was foolish and reckless, P’Li,” said one of the voices, a young man.  His voice was very quiet.  “You know that.”

“I saw an opportunity, and I took it,” the other voice replied.  It belonged, unmistakably, to a young girl.  The culprit.  “I won’t apologize for putting into action what you’ve always taught me, Zaheer.”

“I taught you to be careful.  Or at least I thought I did,” the man called Zaheer chastised her.  Meanwhile, his steps as light as he could make them, Ghazan drew closer to the pair.  “The Earth Queen will fall, in time.  But that requires patience.  Making ourselves a target in hostile territory won’t bring us closer to that goal.”

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of tip-toeing around the dilapidated theatre, Ghazan turned a corner, and caught the first glimpse of his enemies.

Zaheer was a man perhaps five or six years older than he was, though his youthful face was already marred by several light scars.  Apart from his shaved head, however, there seemed to be little remarkable about him.  With his dull gray robes and soft voice, he could easily blend into a crowd just about anywhere.

The girl called P’Li was a…different story.

Imado had been telling the truth – she was clearly a few years younger than Ghazan, with plaited black hair that extended into a long braid.  She was tall, too, especially given her apparent age; Zaheer only had an inch or so over her.

The tattoo witnesses had described was also prominent, and Ghazan held in a deep breath as he considered what that implied.  At this distance, were he to be discovered, that thing could end his life in the space of a second.

So the earthbender watched in silence as P’Li let out a lengthy sigh and, finally, spoke up again.

“You’re right, of course.  You’re always right,” she said, and Ghazan was surprised to see there were actually tears welling up in her eyes.  “By the spirits, I’m so stupid.  No matter what I do…no matter how powerful I become…I’m still just a burden to you.  A burden to the Lotus…”

The Lotus?  She couldn’t possibly be talking about the White Lotus, could she?

Zaheer surprised him even more by reaching forward and grasping the girl around the shoulders.

Never think that way,” he told her, his tones tender yet firm.  “You’re more than just your power.  You’re more than just what you can do for the Red Lotus.  You’re a brilliant, talented, beautiful girl, all on your own.  Never forget that.”

Now Ghazan was even more confused.  The Red Lotus?  He’d never even heard of such a thing…

P’Li melted into the hug, almost instantly, and for a second she looked far more her age than she otherwise did.  Her next question was whispered, directly into Zaheer’s ear, but Ghazan was close enough – and skilled enough in the delicate art of eavesdropping – that he picked up every word.

“You know how I feel about you, right?” she asked him, grasping tighter onto the older man as she did.

Zaheer flinched uncomfortably…though not, Ghazan thought, in a way that looked like he wasn’t enjoying their closeness.  Rather, he looked like someone who was enjoying it far too much, and felt extremely guilty about it.

“P’Li…we’ve been over this,” he murmured back.

“I know, I know,” she said, her two natural eyes closed tight.  “You think I’m too young.  Maybe I am.  But I wasn’t too young to kill all those people.  To lay waste to their villages.  To do…everything else…that monster wanted me to…”

Even in their embrace, she shivered uncontrollably, and the first tear finally managed to escape her eye.

“I just want to be…with someone.  And for it not to hurt,” she eventually added, her voice so small and feeble it was easy to forget she was a maniacal terrorist.  “And I want that person to be you.  Because of the way you make me feel.  Because of the way you’ve always made me feel.”

Ghazan, for his part, felt his throat go completely dry, unable to fully process what he was seeing.  This wasn’t how people like…like this…were supposed to act.

“When I’m with you…” finished P’Li, burying her face into Zaheer’s shoulder.  “I’m more than just a weapon.  I’m a person.  You’re the first person who’s ever made me feel that way.  The only person.  How could I not love you?”

Criminals weren’t supposed to have loved ones.  They weren’t supposed to speak so tenderly, or hold each other so close.

Sure, he knew – on an intellectual level – that most of the men and women he’d cut down or brought in over the years had families.  That he’d separated countless children from their parents, the way he had lost his, purely because he’d been ordered to do so.

But he’d never had to deal with it, directly in front of him.  Not like this.

Yet he knew his duty.  Whoever these two were, whatever their reasons were for being here, they clearly intended to destabilize the careful balance that kept Ba Sing Se a peaceful, orderly utopia. 

He’d sworn an oath to stomp people like this into the dirt – without questions, and without mercy.  And he’d spent every last day of his entire life living up to it.

So…why couldn’t he act?  The two of them were fully distracted right now, paying attention to nothing and no one, apart from each other.  He’d never have a better opportunity to strike.

But the stones that encased his hands wouldn’t budge.

In the end, he left the criminals to their privacy and slipped out of that dark theatre, as silently as he’d entered.

 

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

 

Ghazan spent the next few weekly inspections in a state of increasingly frantic paranoia.

The eyes and the ears of the Dai Li were everywhere – that was the propaganda the crown always wished for the people of the Impenetrable City to believe.  And as a member of the Dai Li, Ghazan knew well that, while exaggerated…this claim was far closer to fact than fiction.

He hadn’t made a secret of his meeting with Imado.  As an official rule, no police officer was to keep a written record of conversations with the Dai Li, but any of the cops he’d talked to would be able to say the terrorist attack was now his case.

The entire point of handing matters over to the Dai Li was to wrap them up quickly and cleanly.  Though he hadn’t told any of his fellow agents about the attack, sooner or later, his inaction would be noticed.

And at that point, he’d just have to pray they jumped to the conclusion of “incompetence” over “cowardice.”

Because that’s what this was, wasn’t it?  If his father had taught him anything about life, it was that a heart as cold and unyielding as stone was the only thing that’d allow him to survive the world.

There wasn’t room for questioning orders in the life of a Dai Li agent.  There wasn’t room for thinking.  To do otherwise…to stay his hand when he could’ve easily rid his Kingdom of a grave and terrible threat…

No other word could describe that but cowardice.  No kinder word, at least.

Yet no one – not his Queen, not Gun, not his fellow agents – ever brought this horrible betrayal to light, as he passed inspection after inspection with the closest thing their organization had to flying colors.

Was it truly possible no one had taken notice of his failure?  He wasn’t convinced.  His father, after all, hadn’t been accused after the first time Ghazan had been mistaken for him.  They’d lulled “him” into a false sense of security, let “him” think that “he” was getting away with it.  So that when the trap was sprung – albeit, on the wrong target – the wound would run that much deeper.

He feared, deep down, that just the same noose was slowly tightening around his own neck.

Eventually, Ghazan found he could only come to a single conclusion.  He’d have to keep pursuing this case…one way or another.

Tracking Zaheer and P’Li down for a second time was easier said than done, however.  By the time he returned to the theatre, they’d clearly abandoned it for another hideout, and he had only the barest hints of what their objective in the city actually was.

No more wanton destruction followed over the next few weeks, or at least he hadn’t heard of any, so it seemed the combustionbender had taken her partner’s advice and was laying low.  He pulled on several of his connections, some seedier than others – nothing the Dai Li did was ever technically illegal, so long as the Queen didn’t overrule them – but none had seen the three-eyed girl or her bare-headed companion.

His big break came as a result of sheer dumb luck.

Every year, on the night of the Spring Equinox, an enormous parade was held in honor of the Earth Queen and her entire, sprawling dynasty.  Representations of every monarch in Earth Kingdom history were painstakingly recreated in stone reliefs, and marched from one end of the city to the other.

Parades celebrating Hou-Ting were hardly an unusual sight; there was one approximately once a week.  But this was the only one that stretched across all three Rings.  Attendance, by at least one member of each household, was mandatory.

Unsurprisingly, then, the event required every last Dai Li agent, in addition to most of the police force, to ensure security.  Ghazan was no exception.

He was stationed in the Lower Ring, a fair distance from the parade itself.  Leaping between vantage points with all the reflexes of a cat-owl, he could get a fairly good look at a massive portion of the city at once, and clamp down on any suspicious activity with extreme prejudice.

But the suspicious activity he eventually did spot, a couple hours into the event, wasn’t on the city streets or across its rooftops.  It was on one of the distant, rolling hills.

Where, just beneath a weathered tree…a pair of very familiar people were digging a hole.

There were no buildings near the hill in question, which was how he’d managed to spot their movement from so far away.  Clearly, they knew this, given that they’d timed this operation so perfectly – when all the eyes of Ba Sing Se would be turned elsewhere.

Unfortunately, that fact also prevented Ghazan from getting closer without revealing himself.

So, a split-second later, he made a decision.  And that’s exactly what he did.

“What do you two think you’re doing?” Ghazan demanded, landing some distance away from the tree, his stone gloves primed and ready.

P’Li immediately wheeled around to face him, her third eye pointed directly at his face.  But Zaheer placed a cautioning hand on her shoulder.

“I knew it was only a matter of time before we attracted an audience,” he said, as calmly as if he was discussing the weather.  “Tell me, pawn of the Earth Queen.  Are you familiar with the First Siege of Ba Sing Se?”

Ghazan stopped in his tracks for a moment, utterly dumbfounded by the question.

He couldn’t even begin to imagine how it was relevant to the matter at hand, and yet he found himself answering, “Only from history books.  General Iroh of the Fire Nation led an assault on the outer wall for six hundred days, but abandoned it just after breaking through to the city.  That failure caused him to be passed over for Fire Lord by his younger brother, Ozai.”

“Impressive.  So Her Majesty does allow you to know a few stray facts,” replied Zaheer, turning to face Ghazan directly.

Though he carried no weapons and assumed no bending stance, he somehow still managed to be incredibly imposing.  The fact that he stood at the top of the hill, the setting sun framed behind him, while Ghazan stared up at him from the bottom, only accentuated the effect.

“However, there are a few things missing from your version of the story,” Zaheer added after a moment, his arms folded.  “Chiefly, the reason why Iroh abandoned his siege.  On the six-hundredth day of conflict, his son Lu Ten – a lieutenant in the Fire Nation military – was killed by enemy soldiers.  He broke, that day.  Lost all passion or interest in pressing for victory.”

He then gestured to the hole behind him, as if inviting Ghazan to draw closer.  Cautiously, ready to strike at any second, he did so.

As he neared the hole, however, an overpowering, gut-wrenching stench filled his nostrils, and Ghazan nearly doubled over in agony.  He noticed for the first time that Zaheer and P’Li were both wearing nose-plugs.

“The number of dead from that assault, Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation alike, was incalculable,” said the man with the shaved head, his voice dispassionate and even.  “For this reason, all of them were buried in a mass grave, with no marker or identification.  And here they’ve been left to rot, all on top of each other, for nearly eighty years.”

Ghazan drew just close enough to catch a glimpse of what was inside the hole they’d dug, and just that glimpse was enough to desperately wish he could claw his eyes out.  It was the most horrific, awful, nauseating thing he’d ever seen – an enormous mound of long-rotted flesh and bloodstained bones, stretching down deep into the darkness.

“What…could you possibly want with this…?” he asked hoarsely, his rock-covered hands pressed uselessly over his nose.

“There is a spirit we will need to deal with, if we wish to accomplish our goals.  A spirit who was once a man,” responded Zaheer.  “If we can identify Lu Ten’s remains from among all this carnage, it will be useful as…leverage.

“You’re insane,” was all Ghazan could think to say, as his eyes watered from the noxious stench.  “You’re a monster.

“I’ve frequently been mistaken for both,” murmured the other man.  “Perhaps if you knew of our mission, you’d think differently.  Or perhaps not.  I’m uncertain how much life as a puppet of a corrupt regime has brainwashed you, and we don’t have the time to find out.  Move out of our way, or P’Li will kill you.”

“I don’t think so!” yelled out Ghazan, sending one of his gloves forward with a sudden, blindingly fast punch.

But the combustionbender was ready, and the stones were instantly vaporized in an explosion that sent Ghazan flying off his feet.  He knew immediately that she’d aimed for the air between them, rather directly at his body…because if she had, he’d be dead right now.

Still, the earthbender struggled back to his feet, sending tremors through the ground as he did.  It was sick, but he knew now that this hill was hollow – and just what was buried several layers below their feet.  If he could open up sinkholes underneath the pair, it was doubtful they’d survive.

But once again, looking upon the faces of the man and girl he was about to murder, he hesitated.

And once again, he paid for it dearly.

It all happened in an instant.  Dozens upon dozens of stone gloves, just like the one he’d just fired, flew through the air, and a number of them reshaped themselves to wrap around P’Li’s head, leaving only her nose and mouth exposed.  Several others quickly bound the both of them by the wrists and ankles.

Ghazan had just a moment to gape at this before a sharp, stinging pain shot down his entire body.  Manacles wrapped around his own limbs, but these ones were made of smooth, cold metal.

Blurry images swam in front of his eyes, and as he struggled to blink through the haze, the smiling, wrinkled face of Ba Sing Se’s Grand Secretariat slowly came into focus.

“Lock up the traitor with the others,” Gun ordered the other Dai Li agents, his normally timid and passive voice speaking far more coldly than Ghazan had ever heard it.  “Her Majesty should be quite pleased.”

There was another strike, harder this time, straight to the top of his head.  Then everything went black.

 

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

 

When Ghazan next awoke, he was surrounded on all sides by a small, metal box.

From what little he could make out from between the bars of a tiny window that served as his sole source of air, he was deep within the dungeons built out of the old Crystal Catacombs.  The place where he’d sent more people than he could count, assuming they were even worth imprisoning.

The irony wasn’t lost on the earthbender.

Instinctively, he pounded his fists against the walls, straining his bending to the breaking point as he struggled to find some small flaw or vulnerability in the processed ore.  He’d never quite been able to “crack” the secret of metalbending, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try.

After all, this was pretty much how the technique had been invented, wasn’t it?  Or something like that.  He wasn’t entirely sure, and his head was still throbbing

“That won’t be of any use.  Even if you’re a metalbender, these boxes are solid platinum,” said a quiet voice, speaking from several yards away.

Even distorted by echoing, he instantly recognized Zaheer.

“What the heck is going on here…?” Ghazan heard himself ask, his own voice sounding foreign and distant in these cramped confines.

“You’ve been betrayed by your precious Queenie.  Big surprise there,” P’Li snapped, sounding slightly farther away than her partner.  “And of course, we got caught up in the middle.”

“We’re all in the same boat at this point, P’Li,” Zaheer told her, still sounding surprisingly calm given their current situation.  “There’s no longer any point in being hostile.”

“Maybe not to you,” she responded bitterly.  “But if he hadn’t stuck his stupid mustache into our business, we’d be halfway out of the city by now!  That’s not something I’m about to take lightly.”

“The Dai Li responded in too great a number for us to counter.  Even without any distractions, we would’ve been no match,” said Zaheer.  “The only difference now is the number of prisoners.”

Ghazan punched at the wall of his cage again, a flash of anger coursing through him at this fresh reminder of the injustice.

“You’re wrong!” he cried out through gritted teeth.  “This is all just some big understanding.  You’ll see…when Her Majesty finds out about this, it’ll all work out.”

“You can’t possibly think that…that witch cares about you,” the firebender replied, her tone incredulous.

“It’s not about ‘caring.’  I don’t especially like her, as a person or a queen, and I doubt she feels any different,” said Ghazan.  “But I’ve been loyal.  That’s what matters in the Dai Li.  I’ve been loyal every single spirits-begotten day of my life.  They have to know that.  They have to.”

The memory of his father – just as mindlessly loyal, brought down for something he equally held no fault in – swam dimly into his brain, but Ghazan pushed it back down.

This would be different.  He’d get a chance to explain himself, and he’d use it.

 

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

 

That chance didn’t come for nearly three weeks.

Barely any guards ever stopped by their dark, secluded corner of the dungeons, content in the natural features of the cavern to hold them.  A man stopped by once a day to deliver a tin of water and dried meat, through which they were expected to survive to the next one.  They were constantly hungry.

The guard, a young agent whom Ghazan had seen in passing but didn’t know personally, never responded when the earthbender demanded to see someone about his release.  Eventually, he stopped bothering to ask.

The platinum box somehow managed to be both freezing cold and oppressively stuffy, and was too small for Ghazan to assume anything resembling a comfortable sleeping position.  And naturally, of course, he had absolutely nothing to do with himself to pass the time.

His only conversation partners were the two criminals he was imprisoned alongside…and considering it was their fault he was in this mess in the first place, it was hard to summon up the inclination to chat.

So it was in that state – starving, exhausted, and utterly restless – that Ghazan finally came face to face with Queen Hou-Ting.

Her sneering face greeted him one morning as he drowsily came to consciousness within his tiny cage.  At least, he thought it was morning; with no daylight down here whatsoever, it was hard to be sure.

“So.  This is the traitor who’d sell out his Kingdom to a group of terrorist filth,” she said, glaring imperiously through the small, barred opening.

Surprised at her sudden appearance, Ghazan struggled to take on a more dignified stance and speak up through his parched throat.  The bout of pained coughing that erupted instead probably wasn’t helping his case.

Finally, once he found some strained, hoarse approximation of his voice, the earthbender managed to answer, “Please, my Queen.  This is all just a mistake.  I…I was…”

“I.  Don’t.  Make.  Mistakes,” the monarch stated dangerously, cutting across him.

“I didn’t say it was your mistake, my Queen!” exclaimed Ghazan, hastily throwing up his arms in submission.  “Obviously, you received some bad intelligence.  Nothing more than that.  I was trying to arrest this scum, not join them!”

“Those plotting against the crown aren’t merely to be arrested,” said Hou-Ting, sneering contemptuously at the other two boxes.  “There was no point in bringing riff-raff like this alive.  If you were truly sincere, their corpses would’ve been proof of your loyalty.”

Ghazan’s blood suddenly ran cold.  He might not’ve liked Zaheer or P’Li very much, but the latter was barely more than a child.

And…well, yes, he had killed children before, on order of the crown.  Without ever giving it more than the dimmest of a second thought.  But this felt…different, somehow.

Or, maybe instead, for the first time he actually felt what a normal person might.

“I suppose I could allow you a second chance to prove yourself,” she continued to muse, as if she could read his thoughts.  “That is, if I was an idiot, of course.  You’ll never see outside your little box, you hear me?  You’ll rot there, knowing this is what you deserve.

“It’s not,” Ghazan meekly tried to protest.  If he had enough water in his body left for it, he thought he might be crying.  “All I’ve ever done is give myself to my Kingdom.  To the Dai Li.  To you.

“And perhaps that’s true,” said the Queen, steepling her long, spindly fingers together as she did.  “But I cannot be certain, and a soldier whose loyalty I cannot be certain of is a liability.  It’s not like there’s a shortage of new recruits to replace you.”

That white-hot anger surged back up within him again.

“Is this what you did to dad?” he demanded, his voice as loud and thundering as he could make it under the circumstances.  “Tossed him in a hole and threw away the key?  Because you were wrong about him, too!  Just like you’re wrong about me!”

Hou-Ting looked honestly confused by this, and turned to the Grand Secretariat, who was just barely at the edge of Ghazan’s range of vision.

“Gun, what is this fool blathering about now?” she asked.

The older man consulted a clipboard, leafing through a hefty stack of papers.

“It appears this agent’s father was also convicted of treason, three years ago.  He was executed, of course,” he eventually informed his monarch.  “Sincerest apologies, my Queen.  This should’ve been brought to your attention earlier.”

“Hmm…I see.  Clearly, this disease extends farther than I ever imagined,” said Hou-Ting, stroking her chin thoughtfully.  “Just to be sure, I want you to find out if any of our other agents have such…unsavory ties.  Execute any who do.”

Ghazan, for his part, could only gape, utterly speechless.  This was how he finally found out about his father’s fate?  Just like that?  So matter-of-factly?

And then, on top of all that…the order his Queen, his Queen, had just given?  Delivered so simply, so casually, with so little thought attached?

It’d mean the deaths of at least two-dozen agents he could name off the top of his head, depending on how broadly Gun decided to interpret “ties.”  And they’d never know.  Never suspect.  Never see it coming, from the woman they’d pledged their lives to protect.

Just as he had.

“You can’t do this!” Ghazan suddenly roared, slamming both fists against the walls of his cage.  The echoes of the impact rang in his ears.  “The Dai Li love and defend our Kingdom!  How can betray them?!”

“Don’t you dare lecture me about betrayal!” screamed the Earth Queen, her voice rising to dwarf his in both intensity and volume.  “Because of the Dai Li, our capital fell for the first time in eight thousand years!  Our great Kingdom was torn apart and handed to the Fire Nation in scraps!  And to his dying day, my father never gained back all the land those barbarians stole!  All because you worthless weasel-snakes made a fool out of him!”

As Hou-Ting paused to take a deep breath, Ghazan chanced a glance back up at her heavily lined face.  She was seething.

“If there is one thing I will take no chances on, it is treachery,” she continued in much lower, though no less furious, tones.  “No one has ever turned against me, and lived to tell the tale.  No one ever will.

“So if that’s really true…” Ghazan found himself saying, though he knew it wasn’t a good idea.  “Why am I still alive, then?  Why are we still alive?”

At this, the Earth Queen actually smiled, though there was no pleasure or humor in it.  It was a smirk of pure, vicious cruelty.

“You and co-conspirators live, to set an example,” she whispered, actually licking her lips for the briefest moment.  “I’ll be sending a different Dai Li agent down here every day to feed you.  Just a little less in each portion.  They’ll be able to watch on as you slowly waste away to pathetic piles of skin and bones.  And they’ll know what’ll happen if they ever disobey their Queen.”

“Someday…” murmured Ghazan, trying to sound defiant despite how utterly weak he felt right now.  “Someday…I’ll show you…”

“Someday, you will be dead,” said Hou-Ting, a sadistic little chuckle in her voice.  “And not one single person on this planet will remember you enough to mourn you.  Let this sink in, agent…you are nothing special.  Just a hapless elephant-rat in a uniform.  A uniform that anyone can wear.”

The Earth Queen let those be her last words, as she and her escort left the three of them alone in the darkness once more.

 

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

 

The next few weeks were spent largely the same as the last, but the knowledge that he’d wasted his one opportunity for freedom made them sting so much more.

He found himself playing back the argument over and over in his head, wondering if there was anything he could have said to make her realize he was telling the truth.

But more than that, he also found himself wondering whether it was the truth anymore.

Ghazan liked to think of his loyalty as a rock-solid pillar, but the truth of the matter was that it’d been wavering for quite some time now.  As he’d said to P’Li, nothing about Hou-Ting’s policies or personality inspired the slightest bit of devotion in him.

Yet it was also the only thing he really knew.  He’d never had anyone but his father to guide him, and Jing Cha had followed his loyalty straight into the jaws of his own demise.  Life with the Dai Li, in the end, was simple.  He received orders, and then he followed them.  Any ideas more complicated than that…

They’d never even entered his world.

All the same, he couldn’t prevent himself from feeling a twinge of regret with every life he ended, every home he destroyed – even if he told himself he didn’t.  He was very good at telling himself things.  He just wasn’t so good at believing them.

And then, that order.

What made it the breaking point wasn’t so much that it’d surprised him.  On the contrary, it was how much it didn’t.  It fit perfectly well with the commands he’d carried out without question for over four years; over ten, if one counted his years of training under Jing Cha.

The only difference, here, was that it was directed against people he knew.  People he’d grown up with, people he’d trained and worked and fought beside, since he was only a child.

And that’d made all the difference.  Or rather, the fact that it shouldn’t – and yet it did – was what made it so.

Because when it came to crushing the lives and spirits of those the crown was pledged to protect, simply because the woman wearing it now had delivered the command, there shouldn’t have been any difference between a fellow agent or a poor beggar in the Lower Ring.

He’d never learned such a thing; it certainly hadn’t come up during his training, which was all the education he’d ever known.  Yet he felt it, instinctually.  Deep down inside.

And “Her Majesty” had just removed every justification he had for burying it.

“Zaheer,” he suddenly said, after nearly a month of total, complete silence.  “Please tell me about the Red Lotus.”

 

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

 

In the days that followed, Ghazan learned a great deal of things the agents of the Dai Li were probably never supposed to know.

The story of Avatar Wan, Raava, and Vaatu was a revelation, in every sense of the word.  It was hard to argue, after the life he’d lived, that a world where Order was ascendant over Chaos could be called a success.

He’d been complicit, all his life, in just the sort of corrupt tyranny Vaatu existed to destabilize.  By sealing him away, the newly formed Avatar had proven themselves to be an agent of stagnation over change.

Even when that change could’ve alleviated the suffering of so many.

One needed only look so far as the forty-sixth Earth King, who’d been – if the history books were to be believed – even worse a despot than his great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter.  Avatar Kyoshi had had the chance to do some real good, by siding with the peasants he’d oppressed for so long.

Instead, she’d been so obsessed with preserving the status quo that her “solution” wound up being the Dai Li.  The check she’d installed against the monarchy had, in the end, only strengthened it.

He’d heard the tale of the Dai Li’s founding a hundred times over, but hearing it from another’s perspective finally made him realize just how screwed up a lesson it taught.  Preserving cultural heritage, clearly, mattered more to the governments and Avatars of the world than justice, freedom, and equality.

Zaheer shared with him an old Air Nomad proverb: “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”  It was, without a doubt, a statement layered with a great deal of truth.

Because now that he’d lost everything – everything – that’d made him who he once was, Ghazan was both willing and ready to be remade by the philosophies these “terrorists” espoused.  It was liberating, in a way he couldn’t quite describe, to imagine a life where he could put his talents toward making the world a better place, a freer place.

Instead of helping to mold it all toward one tyrant’s will.

Of course, there was a fairly deep level of irony in finally feeling so “liberated” while he was, for all intents and purposes, imprisoned.

“Remind me again why you can’t just break us out by throwing rocks around,” said P’Li one day, her voice expressing nothing more than total, abject boredom.

Ghazan scowled slightly.  They’d been over this, at least a dozen times.  He wasn’t sure whether she’d actually forgotten – they were down to remarkably small portions in their daily meals – or whether she simply wanted to stimulate conversation, and couldn’t muster the energy to think up a new topic.

Still, while his relationship with the young girl was still a little on the cool side – he couldn’t blame her for mistrusting his recent change of heart – he decided to indulge her.  Unstoppable killing machine or not, she still was only thirteen.

“These parts of the Crystal Catacombs are ideal to hold earthbenders.  I should know, I used to guard them,” he explained.  “The walls and ceilings are incredibly unstable; the slightest tremor could bury us.  Particularly under the crystals themselves, which aren’t easy to bend.”

He sighed deeply before adding, “Besides, even if we did manage to form a tunnel that way, we’re right under a massive underground river.  This chamber isn’t very large.  We’d flood ourselves going out that way, and none of us are waterbenders.”

“Let’s put that on the to-do list, then,” she said, presumably to Zaheer.  “If we ever do get out of here, we need a crazy anarchist waterbender on the team.  Gotta be a few of those hanging around.”

“One element at a time, P’Li,” muttered the older man, his voice distant.  Ghazan had come to recognize that tone well; it meant he was meditating, trying to gain some aid from the Spirit World.

It hadn’t really worked so far, but it was the thought that counted.

“Alright, fair’s fair.  How come your bending can’t get us out?” Ghazan asked conversationally, trying to keep some humor in his voice.  He’d heard the answer nearly as many times before, but this was still the most conversation he’d had in days.

P’Li let out a low groan, but Ghazan thought he could hear her returning his good-natured tone on at least some level.  It was heartening.

“Well, genius, as I’ve said a thousand times before, they’ve got me in a platinum full-face mask.  If I try to combustionbend, I’ll just blow up my own head,” she said.  “I suppose I could try and use regular firebending to burn through it.  But platinum’s a ridiculously good conductor, so that’s more likely to melt my skin off than anything else.”

Suddenly, Ghazan’s eyes went wide.  She’d never added that part before.

Melting…melting.  If he could melt away the rocks and crystals around them, that’d certainly solve all their problems.  They wouldn’t be in danger of getting crushed in an avalanche, and the water above could be countered before it could drown them.

Of course, there were several problems with this plan, chief among them being that earthbenders couldn’t do that.  Sure, waterbenders could change the state of their element easily enough, but the difference between the natures of their two elements was enormous.

When he told Zaheer this sometime later, however, the non-bender wasn’t so convinced.

“The separation of the four elements is but an illusion,” he responded from the adjacent box.  “So spoke Guru Pathik, a spiritual mentor to Avatar Aang.  Focus on what makes one element different from another, and that is all that you’ll see.  But open your mind to new possibilities…and in time, they’re certain to unfold before you.”

What he was saying was ludicrous, of course.  Maybe the Avatar could do it, with his mastery of water and fire to aid his control of earth, but an ordinary earthbender like him?

“The Queen said it.  There’s nothing special about me,” he found himself whispering aloud.  “I was competent, sure.  But clearly, I was just as replaceable.  The Dai Li, the Earth Kingdom, the world…it’ll all go on without me.”

P’Li made a scoffing noise with her tongue, and when she spoke again – despite the doubled echo of her mask and her cage – it was with a harshness that defied her years.

“I thought you were done letting her tell you what you can and can’t do,” she said, with an air of finality.

Ghazan’s eyes snapped open, blinking away the bitter tears that’d formed at their edges.

Because, by the spirits.  She was right.

He wasn’t quite sure, even years later, what’d done it.  Whether it’d all been the result of the others’ words, or something…deeper.  More primal.  In some ways, perhaps, he’d been working his way up to this moment all of his life.

At that instant, just for an instant, nothing else in the world existed.  Not the Red Lotus, not the Earth Queen, not the father he’d lost or the mother he’d never found.  Just him, and the rocks and stones that surrounded his cage.

For months now – or at least it felt like months – unending thirst and hunger had dulled his earthbending senses, but right at this moment they felt stronger, more vibrant, than they ever had before.

He could feel every last pebble that made up the earth around them, down to its very core.  It was like looking out into the sun, after spending months under a blindfold.  How could he have never realized just how alive his element was?  How it vibrated, constantly, like a magnificent, soaring song?

The earth wasn’t the staid, solid thing he’d always been taught.  The blunt instrument of tyrants obsessed with order, to crush all who opposed them under slabs of granite.  Just as much as the people who walked upon it did, the planet yearned to be free.

And once he became aware of the sweet symphony of the earth, became aware that he was a part of it, the next step became utterly, sublimely simple.

He urged it to sing faster.

Ghazan didn’t know all that much about science, but he’d overheard a few things during missions suppressing dissidents at Ba Sing Se University.  Things changed state when they got really hot or really cold, and that was because they were vibrating at a certain speed.  Or something along those lines.

What the former Dai Li agent was doing now was conducted under the same basic theory, just with more…poetry.  It took a monumental amount of effort, but with enough force he was able to focus on each and every particle of the earth above them, and exert his will upon them all at once.

Those particles rattled and hummed more and more rapidly by the second, until even Zaheer and P’Li could almost hear their vibrations.  But though it was putting colossal strain on his weakened muscles, Ghazan didn’t let up, pouring all the power he had into his bending.

Louder and louder, faster and faster, hotter and hotter.  By the sheer force of his will, he could feel it happening.  The earth was changing.

P’Li was shouting encouragement at him now, and even Zaheer’s voice had been raised above its ordinary cadence once he realized what Ghazan was doing.  He couldn’t make out their words – simply remaining conscious right now was taking all his concentration – but he appreciated the sentiment, and it spurred him onward all the more.

He himself was screaming now, though he could barely hear it over the din of the earth above them beginning to break down.  No coherent thoughts escaped his lips; it was simply the raw fury of the planet, channeled through him, and being channeled by him.

And then, after what could’ve been two minutes or two months, it happened.  The first droplet of lava cascaded down from the ceiling.

Strangely, the more of it that began to be produced, the easier Ghazan found it to manipulate.  Exhilarated by his success, by the utter impossibility of what he’d just done, the earthbender forced the newly molten rock upward in a great torrent, merging it with the river that flowed just above their heads.

Great, billowing clouds of blistering hot steam was the result, but thankfully most of it followed the upward momentum of the still-flowing lava, forcing more and more of the superheated water into the caverns above.  Any Dai Li standing guard there would be in for a serious awakening.

But that wouldn’t be enough to get them out, on its own.  As carefully as he could, Ghazan permitted small amounts of the molten stone to fall onto their cages, where it instantly began to eat away at the thick platinum like it was paper.  He stood as far away from the slowly expanding hole as possible, and could only hope that Zaheer and P’Li were doing the same.

Ultimately, the plan went off without a hitch – and how could it not, when he felt this unbelievably powerful?  If he’d needed to, Ghazan was certain he could’ve moved a mountain that day.  Or melted it.

Once large enough holes had been bored into all three boxes, Ghazan cooled all the lava he’d created to room temperature, simply by slowly and steadily releasing his breath.  He wasn’t entirely sure how he’d known to do that, but he wasn’t about to question the results.

Then, for the first time in what felt like an eternity, he hauled himself out onto solid ground.

His fellow prisoners did the same, upon which time P’Li – and even Zaheer, to a degree – gaped open-mouthed at what stood before them.  Purely on instinct, he’d solidified the flowing lava into a crude ramp, leading above them.

Leading to freedom.

“After you, then,” said Ghazan, waving them forward and grinning like an maniac.

 

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

 

It was, of course, not going to be long before the Dai Li realized one of their securest prisons had been utterly demolished.  Even if Ghazan wasn’t planning on leaving with the pair – and there was no question in his mind that he was – he needed to get out of the city, immediately.

But he had one stop to make, first.

The shop was one he’d passed a hundred times before on patrols through the Lower Ring, though he’d never gone inside.  The customers were a bit on the seedy side, but the business itself was legit.

Ghazan smiled ruefully at the thought.  Patrols…that felt like a word belonging to an entirely different life.

Which, in a sense, it did.  That’s why he was here.

“You wanna explain to me again why we’re not halfway across the Earth Kingdom?” demanded P’Li in hushed tones, a hood up to block her third eye from view.  “If we’re not going back for Lu Ten, I don’t see a reason to stick around.”

“He’s lived here all his life.  We must permit him to achieve closure, in whatever fashion he sees fit,” said Zaheer.  “Think how you would feel, if I hadn’t afforded you the same courtesy.”

These words seemed to cow the young firebender into acceptance, if a begrudging one.  Ghazan made a mental note to ask about it sometime.

Well…when she was in a better mood, anyway.

The newly minted lavabender entered the building without knocking upon its worn, grimy door.  As soon as it became clear just what service this place provided, Zaheer calmly whispered, “Ah.  I see.”

“I’m gonna grow this out, I think.  No need to stick to the regulation cut anymore,” Ghazan mused in a quiet voice, tugging at his short hair.  “And I’m done with uniforms.  Loose, comfortable robes from now on.  Maybe I’ll even go shirtless.”

He frowned for a moment before adding, “I’m keeping the mustache, though.  Proud of it.”

“And this place?  It’s a tattoo parlor, isn’t it?” asked P’Li, sounding honestly curious.  He supposed if there was one subject she wasn’t likely to give him grief over, it was this one.

As such, Ghazan nodded.  “This is one thing the Dai Li would’ve never permitted,” he said.  “I’m a new person, now, and I want a reminder of it.  A reminder that’ll last forever.”

He sat down in front of the only artist with an open seat and told him, his voice firm, “Make me look like a free man.”

Chapter Text

Ping was not a remarkable man, in any respect.

It was, more than anything else, why he’d joined the Equalists in the first place.  Oh, sure, he believed in the cause itself.  He’d been looked down on by just about everyone his entire life, in a way he knew they wouldn’t dare if he could toss fire or earth around.

But apart from that, the Equalist movement gave him a place where he could feel he belonged.  He’d lost his father a few years back, and his mother was constantly harping on him to settle down and get married.

He’d grown up completely alone – friendless, unloved, and unwanted.  He wasn’t particularly smart or good-looking; he was certainly no good at sports or any kind of talent.  He had no family trade or craft to fall back on, and he couldn’t tell a joke to save his life.

There was, in short, nothing special about him.

And the children he’d grown up with hadn’t been shy to remind him of it.  The shy, gangly, awkward-looking kid was an easy target, and he’d been picked on and bullied so many times he’d all but lost count.

Those bullies, of course, hadn’t hesitated to “enhance” his torment with their sick bending.  Over the years he’d been set aflame, pelted with rocks, and nearly drowned on dry land.  One particular earthbender had done it daily for a while.

Sure, there were non-benders among the bullies too, sometimes.  But they simply couldn’t hurt him nearly as much as their counterparts.

A bad encounter with a non-bender might leave him with a black eye.  A bad encounter with a firebender might leave him dead.

He’d tried to come to his parents about this, over and over, but they’d never listened.  Not really.  They’d given him meaningless platitudes about “finding inner peace” and “being the bigger man.”

The only practical advice they’d ever doled out was talking to a teacher about it, and that wasn’t likely to happen.  Most of his teachers had been benders themselves.  How could they be trusted to take his side?

As the years went by, the rift between them only widened.  His parents, despite being non-benders themselves, were practically worshippers of Avatar Aang.  Their home was decked out ceiling to floor with unofficial merchandise, from posters to teacups to disturbingly accurate figurines.

And accordingly, they’d also seen fit to mindlessly parrot his philosophy.  Peace and love between non-benders and benders of all stripes, and other such garbage.  It was enough to make Ping want to puke.

Because it was absurd.  He’d studied economics at Republic City University, and any way you crunched the numbers, they all told the same story.

Despite making up only about thirty-five percent of the population, benders held approximately eighty percent of the world’s wealth.  And that was hardly surprising, wasn’t it?  All the world’s modern nations were either bending-based aristocracies, or had grown out of the same.

The same was true in the world of politics.  The United Republic’s governing council was composed entirely of benders, and had been for over three decades now.  Even the airbenders, who numbered at most four people, got more representation than the nation’s millions of non-benders.

The Chieftain of the Water Tribes was a waterbender of legendary ability.  It was doubtful whether the Fire Nation’s royal family had ever produced a child who wasn’t a firebender.  And the Earth Queen…okay, fine, she was the exception that proved the rule.

Especially considering she stayed in power largely because of the elite earthbenders she could send to crush opposition at a moment’s notice.

But his parents refused to listen, no matter how many times they argued.  And they argued about it a lot.

Eventually, he’d gotten fed up.  Stormed out of their house, and rented a cruddy apartment with what meager savings he had left after college.

He was still technically a graduate student with RCU, though he’d been stalled on his thesis for nearly five years now.  Big surprise, his firebending professor wasn’t fond of his long, detailed, heavily cited paper that made it clear the only remedy for the injustices of the world was to ban all bending forever.

His mother still called, practically every day, if only for the sake of the whole “why are you still single” thing.  Ping humored her, but that was it.  With every passing day, he felt less and less connected to them and their fanatical devotion to the status quo.

When she told him his father had died in a Satomobile accident, he’d barely felt a thing.  He’d put in his appearance at the funeral, acted the dutiful son, but inside meant none of it.  It was as if a perfect stranger had passed.

And the reason for all that was the Equalists.

To make ends meet, he’d been working part-time at a bookstore for a while now.  One day, distracted by the latest row with his mom, he’d accidentally placed a draft of his thesis in a pile of books for purchase.

Initially, he’d been distraught.  It was his only copy, and the idea of writing out those one-hundred-thirteen pages all over again was enough to make him nauseous.

Imagine his surprise, then, when the pretty girl who’d inadvertently taken his masterwork returned it the next day…along with a note.

Contrary to his mother’s hopes, however, the note hadn’t been an invitation for a date.  But it had been an invitation.  One for a rally, held in secret.

That night, for the first time, he’d met Amon.

There were no words to describe that moment.  Amon was everything Ping had ever wanted in a leader – someone who understood how brutally cruel and unfair the world was, and who was willing to do something about it.  Who had the power to do something about it.

In the Equalists, at long last, Ping found allies and kindred souls.  By the spirits, he’d even found friends.

No one in the movement insulted him, or hurt him, or made him feel like his feelings didn’t matter.  They listened with interest as he shared the statistics he’d put together over the years.  Some of it’d even gotten worked into a few of Amon’s speeches, and needless to say that was an honor which he could scarcely describe.

Ever since then, he’d tried hard to do his part.  Every day without fail, he could be found in Republic City Park with his megaphone, calling for the downfall of the bending establishment.  Recruitment was the most vital objective for the Equalists right now, if they wanted their revolution to be more than just idle talk.

And they were certainly succeeding.  With each rally that Ping attended – he never missed a single one – he watched as the audience swelled, from a few hundred to several thousand.  Clearly, he and his fellow protesters were doing the job of spreading the word.

Still, Ping couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.  What he was doing was important, in the general sense, but it didn’t feel like he was striking at the heart of the bending regime.

That’s why he’d started taking chi-blocking classes.

The trainings were held in secret, and never in the same place for too long.  Technically, they were open to all Equalists, but usually only their most militant members actually stuck with it.  The regiment was grueling, the techniques complicated and intricate, and even those most devoted to the cause tended not to be eager to physically fight their oppressors.

But Ping had practiced long, and hard, for months now.  Drilled the forms and stances so many times he could practically do them in his sleep.  He might not be the strongest or most agile Equalist around, but these days he could at least hold his own.

And now, tonight…finally, finally, he’d gotten his wish.  Every single chi-blocker, whatever their level of mastery, had been called upon to serve.

He wouldn’t be anywhere near their glorious leader, whose own mission was a carefully guarded secret to all but a few.  But that was okay.  He’d still get to participate in the most important night the non-benders of the world had ever seen.

Plus, the chi-blocker uniform didn’t hurt.  He’d never gotten to wear one before, but the heavily insulated and padded bodysuit gave him an incredible feeling of invincibility.  And the mask…

Well, the mask was just plain cool.

That’s more or less what Ping was thinking about when a figure seized him from behind and dragged him into a dark alleyway.

A few minutes later, the poor graduate student was slumped over against a garbage can, out cold and stripped down to his underwear.

At the same time, his attacker finished pulling his mask onto their own face, tugging it down so that it fit smugly over their thick hair.

Then, as quickly as they’d struck, they were gone.

 

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

 

It became exceedingly clear, within moments of arriving at the pro-bending arena, that bringing Asami here had been a mistake.

This wasn’t to say, of course, that either the heiress or the other Fire Ferrets were having trouble getting along – far from it.  Asami was clearly ecstatic at getting to meet two of her pro-bending heroes, and Bolin just seemed happy to have a fan around, period.

The problem was Mako.  And not for the reason Korra would’ve expected.

On the contrary, the two of them seemed to be getting on a little too well.

Ever since the start of practice, the pair had been chatting animatedly during every single break and pause in the action, laughing and joking and discussing at length all sorts of pro-bending minutiae.  For Asami, this game was evidently far more than a casual hobby, and Mako was the only other person with the knowledge base to keep up.

“The Zebra Frogs are an interesting one, that’s for sure,” said the firebender, leaning casually against a railing while his brother ran off to use the restroom.  “Not a lot of waterbending captains out there.  Except the Wolfbats, of course.”

“Did you know they weren’t Xiao Yao’s first team?” Asami asked conversationally.  “They’re the ones who made it big, sure, but for the first couple years it was the…”

“Flying Fishopotami!  Yeah, I know,” he finished for her.  “Big surprise they didn’t go anywhere.”

Asami giggled.  Honest-to-the-spirits, she giggled.  Korra suppressed a deep pang of…something as she looked on at the pair, utterly lost.

“Hey, to be fair, they have been riding those things for centuries.  No wonder they’d make it their official animal,” said Asami.  “Not their fault the name just doesn’t roll off the tongue.”

“I…err…don’t see how ‘zebra frogs’ sounds much better,” Korra suddenly blurted out, desperate to insert herself into the conversation.  For some reason.

Asami blinked in surprise, as if she’d temporarily forgotten Korra was there.  It certainly didn’t make her feel any better.

Mako was the one who answered.  “Probably because they’re poisonous,” he told her with a shrug.  “Small, camouflaged, could kill a man if they stepped on it with bare feet.  It’s a decent name for a team that hits hard and fast.”

“Speaking of, how’d you come up with the ‘Fire Ferrets,’ anyway?” asked Asami.

The firebender was saved from having to explain by the timely return of Bolin, who was carrying Pabu across his shoulders.  The furry creature immediately leaped over to Asami, poking around her long hair with his small, wet nose.

“Well I guess that answers that,” she said, chuckling as the fire ferret experimentally licked her ear.  “This little guy just screams mascot.  What’s his name?”

“His Most Esteemed Lord of All Things Cute, Pabu…the Grrrrreat and Poooowerful!” answered the earthbender, his voice vibrating overdramatically.  “Or…just Pabu.  For short.”

“Hey, Pabu,” Asami whispered to the creature, petting him across the head with two fingers and eliciting a purr.  “Y’know, I can watch him, if you want.  You three probably wanna get back to training.”

“Gee, thanks!  Just make sure to keep a good eye on him,” replied Bolin.  “He’s got a secret stash of fire-flakes around here I’ve never been able to find, and they are a nightmare on his constitution.”

Pabu chirruped, possibly in indignity, or possibly just because his owner had stated the name of a food item.  Either way, he folded up in Asami’s lap as she took her seat once more.

“Alright, team.  We’re gonna try that River Formation one more time,” said Mako as they all refastened their helmets.  “Mizore, your positioning was off when we did it earlier.  You wanna be to Bolin’s left, not his right.  That way the other team can’t block you off at the sides.”

Korra nodded dimly, but she was barely listening to what he had to say.  She couldn’t help it; every few seconds, her eyes invariably drifted back to Asami.

She knew she should be focusing now – if not on the practice, then certainly on what she was planning to do after – but no matter how hard she tried, the image of Asami and Mako smiling and laughing together kept popping into her head.

And she wasn’t even sure why.

She’d felt the same thing, just for the briefest moment, when Asami had walked off with that Kinzoku woman.  There was only one thing that both situations really had in common, and it was that Asami happened to be paying attention to someone who wasn’t her.

Someone who was a great deal better-looking than her.

Korra did a mental double-take.  Where had that thought come from?  It was entirely accurate, sure, but what did it have to do with anything?

Asami was her friend, sure…probably the first and last one Korra would ever get a chance to make.  But she was perfectly at liberty to talk to whoever she liked.  People who were a great deal prettier (or handsomer) than she could ever be.  People who could talk back to her easily, without constantly dissolving into an awkward mess of nerves.

That shouldn’t in any way make her feel…well, anything.  But specifically, whatever you called this emotion.

The Avatar was kidding herself, of course.  She knew exactly what she was feeling, or at least she was pretty sure.  She just couldn’t bear to admit it.

To admit that she was jealous.

Because that opened up a whole new can of beetle-worms that she really shouldn’t be going anywhere near.  Especially right now.  This was quite possibly the most important day of her mission since coming to this city.  She couldn’t afford distractions.

Unfortunately, thinking that and actually acting on it were two entirely separate things.

“C’mon, Mizore!  Get your head in the game!” growled Mako, gritting his teeth as she tripped over her own feet for the third time.  “What’s with you today?  You were picking this sorta stuff up in one or two tries yesterday.”

“Sorry…I’ve just…” Korra murmured, flushing with embarrassment as she stumbled back to a standing position.  Her eyes flicked back to Asami, who was still watching intently; that only made her feel worse.  “I’ve just…got a lot on my mind right now.”

“Well then, clear it.  At least until we’re done here,” said the firebender with a shake of his head.  “None of us can afford to slip up right now.  Not if we wanna make it anywhere in this tournament.”

Korra gritted her teeth, but nodded.  He was entirely in the right here, which only made things harder.

The practice continued to grow more and more intense, as minutes stretched into hours.  With less than a week remaining until the first round, Mako seemed borderline obsessed with making as much as possible out of the limited time available.

One upside to this was that the more serious their team captain grew, the more Korra’s body defaulted to what might be called “training mode.”  She’d spent so many years in near-daily drills and practice runs that she barely even needed to think, once that switch was flipped.  Distractions to her thought process became a moot point if she didn’t have one.

Of course, she couldn’t completely shut off her brain in a situation like this.  Otherwise she might instinctively grasp for one of the other elements, and that would be…

Difficult to explain.

Regardless, their practice went on straight through sundown, and a good ways into the evening.  When they finally stopped, it was only because Bolin loudly declared that his uniform was starting to look mighty tasty right about now.

“Alright, I guess we can call it a day,” his brother said, wiping the sweat from his brow.  “I’m gonna take this guy out for noodles, and then we’ve got some, err…errands to run after.  But we’ll see you same time tomorrow?”

“Uh…sure,” Korra replied, sounding somewhat queasy from all she’d just put her body through.

“Kay.  It’s a plan, then,” stated Mako, picking his nearly collapsed brother off the floor with one hand and waving goodbye with the other.  “Night, Mizore.  And it was nice to meet you, Asami.  Feel free to swing by whenever you like.”

Korra’s eyes snapped back at the young woman watching from the stands, whom she’d managed to avoid glancing at for the last half-hour.  The look she shared with the firebender caused Korra’s stomach to turn over even more.

“That was incredible, Mizore!” she exclaimed, after returning Pabu to the arms of a sagging Bolin.

The Avatar took one last look at the departing boys, and released a great sigh.

“You mean Mako, right?” she asked miserably.  “I mean, if you’re into that sorta thing, then I guess…”

“No, no.  I’m talking about you,” said Asami, placing one hand on the other girl’s shoulder.

Korra made a scoffing noise with her tongue and looked askance, incredulous.  “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” she responded in a low voice.  “I was a mess out there.  A total trainwreck.”

“Maybe at first.  But you weren’t watching yourself,” the non-bender told her insistently.  “Halfway through, your technique changed completely.  I guess instinct took over, or something.  Because you were doing things with water I’ve never even seen.

The Avatar’s blood chilled slightly.  Had she gone too far without realizing it?  Using some of the techniques Ming-Hua had taught her, to their fullest extent, might draw undue suspicion…

“Anyway, my point is…you were good.  Really good.  I couldn’t take my eyes off,” added Asami after a moment, her cheeks turning a slight tinge of pink.

“Off of me…or off of him?” Korra whispered aloud, without even thinking about it.  The moment she realized she’d vocalized that thought, however, her hands snapped over her mouth.

She hoped, for the slimmest moment, that Asami might not’ve heard her.  She’d been speaking very quietly, after all.  But the look the heiress was giving her now left little room for doubt.

For the first time since meeting her, Asami actually looked hurt.

“I dunno what you think is going on,” said Asami, very carefully.  “But let me make something clear: I’m not interested in Mako.  I mean, he’s hot, don’t get me wrong.  Smart, seems like a nice guy.  If I was in a different place, I might go for it.  But I’m…well, I’m not, alright?  Let’s just leave it at that.”

Her face was burning now, and Korra wasn’t sure whether that meant she should or shouldn’t believe her story.

If she took her words at face-value, however…well, what the heck did “if I was in a different place” mean, anyway?  Did that indicate that she was already seeing someone else?  Or just interested in someone else?  Could…Could it possibly be that…

Korra stamped that stray thought into the ground, utterly terrified that she’d even had it.  Obviously, Asami was talking about some other person.  Kinzoku, maybe.  Or someone Korra had never even met.  They hadn’t exactly known each other long, after all.

It wasn’t her.  That was the point.

Not that she wanted it to be, of course.

She didn’t.

She didn’t.

 

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

 

“What the flameo are you doing here?” demanded Lin, as her ex-boyfriend dismounted his glider and touched down onto her disguised police boat.

She hadn’t needed to turn around.  Despite his virtually silent landing – or perhaps because of it – she recognized him immediately.  Those were the second-lightest footsteps she’d ever felt in her life.

Just behind his father.

Tenzin, for his part, smoothed out his robes and nodded curtly.  “I was wondering if I could participate in tonight’s sting.  Or at least sit in,” he said.  “I promise, I won’t get in the way.”

“Little late for that.  You’re just lucky none of the triads have shown up yet.  A councilmember gliding onto a catering boat is a bit of a red flag,” she replied with a frown.  “How’d you figure out this one was our cover, anyway?”

She chanced a glance back at him, and he at least had the courtesy to look somewhat embarrassed.

“I guess ‘The Eel-Hound Express’ works fine as a fake name for a caterer,” he told her, shifting uncomfortably.  “But it was also…the restaurant we used to pretend we ran together.  You know.  When we were kids.”

Lin’s eyebrows scrunched together.  “That’s right…I’d forgotten,” she muttered, turning away from him again.  “I don’t like to dwell on the past much.”

“A good philosophy.  But sometimes, the past seems to have other ideas,” Tenzin said quietly, moving up to join her as she leaned over the railing of the nondescript boat.

They stayed like that for several long, deeply uncomfortable moments, before Lin broke the silence by declaring, “You do know this is only gonna make it worse when Tarrlok finds out.”

“I’m not afraid of him,” responded the airbender.  “And besides, he would’ve made a big stink just for authorizing this behind his back, whether I was part of it or not.  At least this way I can keep an eye out for that bloodbender mother sensed.”

“You think they’re a triad member?” asked Lin.

Tenzin stroked his beard thoughtfully.  “The last known bloodbender in Republic City ran the Red Monsoon for fifteen years,” he answered.  “It’s not a guarantee they’re connected, but it’s certainly the best lead we’ve got right now.”

“I guess, if we make as many arrests tonight as I’m hoping…we’ll have plenty of opportunity to sit ‘em down and grill ‘em,” said the police chief.  “Just…stay back until Saikhan or I say otherwise, alright?  We don’t wanna give them a reason to disperse early.”

The airbending master nodded again.  “This is your operation, I’m just observing,” he told her.  “It’s no business of mine, to go around and tell you how to do your job.”

Lin let out a brief, humorless laugh.  “Wow.  That’s rich,” she murmured under her breath.

“What?” he asked.  She was uncertain whether he’d actually heard her or not, and wasn’t going to bother to check.

Instead she chuckles bitterly again, even more quietly, and said, “Nothing.”

Then she left to get the latest update from Saikhan, desperate to be anywhere but here.

 

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

 

“You can’t possibly still be hungry after that,” said Mako, his right hand cradling his forehead as he gestured to a half-dozen empty noodle bowls with his left.

Bolin, who was currently perusing the dessert menu, took on a tone of subdued offense.  “Everyone knows growing boys have two stomachs.  One for noodles, and one for…err…everything else,” he explained to his brother.

Mako just groaned.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be out of here before you know it!” Bolin assured him, as he passed back the menu to the waiter with three separate items circled.  “I haven’t forgotten about the you-know-what­ that we’re doing at the you-know-where, tonight at you-know-when.

He said that last part in a carrying whisper that was somehow even louder than speaking normally.

“Gee, bro, I think there might’ve been some guys in Ba Sing Se who didn’t catch that,” replied the firebender with a roll of his eyes.  “C’mon, could you be any more suspicious if you tried?

Bolin took on a thoughtful expression.  “Hmm…probably.  But I’d need Pabu.  And about fifteen gallons of whipped cream,” he said.

His face broke out into a cheeky grin, and a moment later, so did his brother’s.

“You’re just messing with me now, aren’t you?” asked Mako, sounding almost impressed.

“Hey, hey.  Turnabout is, indeed, fair play,” the earthbender responded, one finger held up in the air to emphasize the point.  “Besides, you deserve a little ribbing.  After hogging all the beautiful ladies to yourself like that.”

“Oh, come off it.  I did not,” the older brother protested.  “Mizore’s a teammate, and Asami was just someone I could swap pro-bending trivia with.  We weren’t flirting or anything.”

“Yeeeeeeeah.  Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight,” said Bolin, winking exaggeratedly.  “C’mon, you didn’t see the way they were making eyes at you?”

Mako couldn’t help it.  He broke out into a burst of full, unreserved laughter, to the point where several of the other patrons in the restaurant began to stare.

“I love you, bro, but sometimes…sometimes you are so dense,” he told the earthbender.  “They weren’t making eyes at me, they were making eyes at each other.  I just happened to sometimes be in the way.”

“Huh…really?” asked Bolin, trying to recall the exact details of their training.  As he’d spent the last hour or so of it in a sweaty, starving, exhausted stupor, however, his memories were far from perfect.  “I guess I never pegged Mizore as, err…well, y’know…”

“A lesbian?  Or bisexual, maybe.  You can say the words, bro,” said Mako.  “Anyway, it’s not as rare as you might think, nowadays.  Heck, I might be willing to give it a shot, if it was the right guy.  And no, before you ask, whichever dude just popped into your head does not qualify.”

Bolin deflated slightly, taken aback by the preemptive rebuke, but he rebounded quickly.

“I’m not saying anything against it!” he exclaimed, throwing up his hands to make his position clear.  “Hey, love is love, right?  I just thought…eh, I dunno.  I thought maybe I was getting somewhere with her, but I guess I was kidding myself.  I should’ve never…”

The earthbender immediately stopped talking, his eyes going wide, but the damage was done. 

“Bolin…what did you do…?” demanded Mako, just as the desserts his brother had ordered were slid between them.

Bolin chuckled nervously, shrunk back into his seat, and then immediately began wolfing down the nearest dish, trying to stall for time.  Mako didn’t let up his glare, however.

Finally, the younger brother let out a squeaking yelp and asked, “Promise you won’t get mad?”

Mako crossed his arms.  “No promises until I hear it,” he said.

Pressing the tips of his forefingers together and swallowing hard, Bolin finally answered, “I, uh…may have told Mizore.  Y’know.  About…tonight…?”

“You what?!” shouted the firebender, and this time, virtually everyone else in the restaurant turned to them.  He scowled and lowered his voice to a harsh whisper.  “Maybe this is pointless to ask, but what the heck were you thinking?

“Hey, she works for Future Industries, doesn’t she?” Bolin pointed out.  “I didn’t know whether she works night shifts or weekends or whatever!  All I told her was the place and time.  I just didn’t want her to go near there and risk getting hurt, alright?”

He then cast his eyes downward, before adding, very quietly, “And…okay, yeah.  I’ll admit.  I also was trying to sound all impressive and important and stuff.  It was a stupid idea, I know.”

Mako let out another very long, very frustrated sigh…but ultimately nodded.

“I guess if that’s all you said to her, that’s not so bad,” he said, his brow furrowed intensely.  “But next time you get the urge to do something this stupid, try thinking it over with your head, alright?  Not with, err…anything else.

Bolin’s face sunk even further, but eventually he nodded back.  Shoveling the remainder of his dessert into his mouth without much enthusiasm, he asked between bites, “So is it time for us to get going, then?”

His brother glanced at a clock on the wall nearby.  “Just about,” he replied.  “Shady Shin wants us there in about an hour, and it’ll take us nearly that long to get there on foot.”

“We can’t take a cab?” muttered Bolin, looking even more dejected as he stared down at his nearly finished meal.  It was clear he wasn’t looking forward to walking it off.

Mako shook his head.  “Unfortunately, somebody just blew the last of the cash Tarrlok gave us on enough food for a small village,” he said, one eyebrow raised slightly.  “And I doubt he’ll give us any more upfront.  Not until we get this done.

“Alright, geez, sorry.  I get the picture,” the earthbender declared, just as he finished off the last of the desserts.  “Hey, waiter dude!  Check, please!”

Mako looked upon this scene, and let out one last sigh for good measure.  He loved his brother dearly, there was no doubt of that.  Would do anything for him.  Lay down his own life, if it came down to that.

But not for the first time, he reconsidered the wisdom of choosing him as a partner for a covert spying mission.

Still…it was a little late to do anything about that now.

He’d just have to trust Bolin to come through in the end.

 

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

 

“Asami, look, I’m sorry!” Korra called after the other girl, her tone pleading.  “It was a stupid thing to say.  I don’t…I mean…”

The two of them were walking hurriedly along the Republic City docks, Korra struggling to keep up due to her slightly shorter stride.

She knew, though she didn’t have a watch or anything to check for sure, that time was wasting for her to catch up to the brothers and get into position for the summit.  But she just couldn’t leave things like this.

Finally, she managed to grab onto Asami’s wrist.  Instinctively, the non-bender wrenched out of her grip…but she also finally stopped moving, and turned back to face her.

The look in her eyes made Korra’s stomach do a turn.

“Look…I’m not mad, alright?” she said, exhaling deeply.  “I just wanna know why you’re acting this way all of a sudden.  I thought we were having a really nice day together.”

“We were!” exclaimed Korra, more loudly than she’d been intending.  Reflexively, her eyes darted around the area, but it looked like they were the only ones out here right now.  “I…I just…well…”

Asami crossed her arms, but said nothing, waiting for her to continue.

“I guess it’s…it’s just that…” she went on after a moment, averting her eyes toward the safety of the harbor.  “Since last night, you’ve been showing me how…well, how incredible you are.  You have this huge house, you can cook, you drive like a wild saber-toothed moose-lion…”

The Avatar let out a long, deep breath of her own before finishing, “Compared to that?  All I could do in front of you is suck at the one thing I’m good at.  Bending…it’s all I’ve ever been good for.”

Asami’s response to this wasn’t anything Korra expected.  A sudden burst of absolute, unmistakable fury flared up in her eyes.

“Don’t you ever say that!” she shouted, and Korra actually found herself taking a step back.  “Don’t you ever…reduce yourself like that!  You’re so much more than any one side of you.  I can see it, even if you can’t!”

Again, Korra found it hard to meet her gaze.  It was with her eyes firmly pressed toward the water that she said, very quietly, “You don’t really know me.”

Asami blinked, twice, and that look of impassioned anger faded from her deep-green eyes.  They remained just as piercing, however.

“Maybe I don’t,” the non-bender admitted in a low voice.  “But I want to.  I want to know what’s going on with you right now – the good and the bad.  Because you…you mean something to me.  I know we haven’t known each other long, but it’s true.”

“You don’t get it,” Korra found herself responding, her mouth moving faster than her brain.  She knew this wasn’t material it was smart to broach – especially not now – but she couldn’t help herself.  “If you knew who I really am…what I really am…”

The other girl placed a hand on her arm, stopping her.

“It wouldn’t change a thing,” Asami declared confidently.  “Mizore…I know there’re things you don’t feel comfortable telling me.  That’s okay.  I bet you’ve been bottling stuff up so long that it’s natural to you.  But I’m here, now.  You don’t have to feel like you’re alone anymore.”

For one brief, terrifying moment, Korra felt on the verge of doing it.  Of telling her.  Of telling her everything.

But the moment passed as quickly as it came.  Whatever Asami claimed, it was only because she was picturing secrets she might imagine.  Things within the realm of possibility.

“I’m the Avatar, and I’m on a secret mission to end the world” wasn’t going to factor into it.

Korra clenched her fists, her teeth gritted.  Though she knew Asami meant well – she’d fully and completely abandoned any suspicions of ulterior motives last night – all this was only making her feel worse.

“I’ve…I’ve gotta go,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.  “I’m sorry, Asami.”

“Mizore, please,” pleaded Asami, and for the first time, the alias sounded like a stab through the heart.  “Don’t leave things like this.  Wherever you’re going…maybe I can come too?  And we can…talk, a little more?”

A cold chill ran down Korra’s spine.  “That…wouldn’t be a good idea,” she replied evasively.

“Why not?” asked the non-bender.  There was nothing accusatory in her tone, but it was equally clear she wasn’t leaving without an answer.

Unable to think up a suitable lie on the spot, Korra ultimately decided on the truth…or part of it, at least.

“I think Bolin and Mako are getting up to something…shady tonight,” she explained, biting her lip.  “I’m following them, making sure they don’t get in trouble.  But it could be dangerous, so I’m going alone.”

“That seems like a good reason not to go alone,” said Asami pointedly.  “Look, Mizore.  We may have just met today, but I’d call those two my friends – and before we get started again, just friends.  Point is, I don’t want them getting hurt any more than you do.  So I’m going.”

Korra fumbled through her brain, trying to think of some excuse; any reason Asami’s logic didn’t make sense.  But she’d never been able to think well on her feet, even at the top of her game, and she was far from that tonight.

“If you come…you’ve gotta promise to do what I say,” Korra finally told her, even as half of her brain screamed that she was insane just for considering this.  “Stay close to me, and don’t make any noise if you don’t have to.”

“Got it,” answered Asami, nodding firmly.  “So where are we going?”

Korra grimaced.  This was, she suspected, going to go down as one of her stupidest ideas ever.

And, needless to say, that was a tough list to crack.

“To…well, to work,” she eventually said, signaling for the non-bender to follow.

 

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

 

“You’re late,” said Shady Shin, his mouth curled into a tight frown.

“Only by a couple minutes!” exclaimed Bolin, as he and his brother arrived onto the scene, huffing and puffing from all the walking they’d just done.

Shin shook his head, his expression uncharacteristically serious.

“You boys should know by now that ‘a couple minutes’ can be the difference between life an’ death in this biz,” he told them both.  “You’re just lucky none of the big bosses are here yet.  I’ll let it slide, but they probably wouldn’t be so generous, ya feel me?”

Mako frowned as well, but nodded all the same.  They couldn’t afford to be antagonistic right now.

So instead, he took to regarding the small group that’d been waiting for them, all of whom were staring straight at the brothers.

Gathered in front of Future Industries warehouse twelve, along with the waterbending gangster, were three others he assumed were rounding out the security staff.  One wore the emblem of the Red Monsoon, another the Agni Kais, while the last – a thin, mustached man – wore none at all.

Assuming he and Bolin counted as part of the Triple Threats, only the Terras lacked representation.  He rather doubted that was a coincidence.

“Anyway, first things first.  We’re gonna split up and case the joint.  Make double an’ triple sure there ain’t no…uh, surprises left by one triad for the others,” said Shin after a little while.  “Zolt wants this one clean an’ fair.  Only way we’re ever gonna get anythin’ done.”

He pointed to the Red Monsoon member and the man with the mustache.

“Eki, Zihu, you check out the area ‘round the rear exits,” he ordered, before gesturing to the boyish-faced representative of the Agni Kais.  “Ketto, you’re with me.  We’ll take the front.”

Finally, he turned to Mako and Bolin, his trademark smug grin returned to his face.

“And as for the wonder bros…I want you to take a look at some of the boats in the bay.  ‘Specially that one,” he added, sticking out his arm toward a nondescript ship with The Eel-Hound Express printed in white paint.  “It’s been hangin’ here for a couple hours now, not doin’ anything.  It’s probably nothin’, but better to be safe than sorry, am I right?”

Mako nodded again, before Bolin could say anything.  The sooner they finished this, the sooner they’d be able listen in on the summit itself.  Which was what they were getting paid for, after all.

“Come on,” he whispered to his brother, eager to get this over with.

Most of the ships betrayed little of interest, beyond what must’ve been some crewman’s stash of long expired cabbages.  Mako deliberately left “The Eel-Hound Express” for last.  They couldn’t afford any complications at this stage, so in the very unlikely event it did contain spies, he wanted to give them a chance to flee.

At first, the catering boat seemed as empty and unremarkable as the others.  No one above deck, and nothing back around the stern save a few barrels of fish.

The moment they stepped below deck, however, that story changed rather abruptly.

First off, the metal hatch they’d used to access the inner hull slammed shut behind them, seemingly on its own, and left them stranded in total darkness.  Then, before Mako could firebend a light, something thick and heavy wound its way around them both, binding their arms and forcing them to the ground.

A lamp was switched on, and the brothers got their first glimpse at their captors: no less than a dozen uniformed police officers, and the Chief of Police herself.

“I hope you boys have a really good story,” she said, her eyes narrowed in irritation.

 

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

 

“So when am I gonna get some thanks, huh?” asked Eki, a smug grin across her heavily lined face as she walked with her compatriot.  “If I hadn’t put in a good word for you with Shin, there’s no way you’d have gotten in on this gig.”

Her boyfriend grunted his ascent, and her smirk widened.

The man who called himself “Zihu” was at least twenty years her junior, had a sour disposition, and generally granted her very little interest or affection beyond the physical.  They’d been dating for a couple weeks now, and it was very obvious the relationship wasn’t going anywhere.

Still, she could admit her weakness for the attentions of a much younger man.  Particularly such an attractive one.  While lean, his body was incredibly well-toned and muscular, and she found the mustache a particular turn-on.  Very “manly.”

And that voice…oh, it still gave her shivers, late at night.

The fact was that she wasn’t getting any younger.  The Red Monsoons prized waterbending prowess beyond everything else, and her own skills – once quite formidable – were beginning to wane.  They weren’t sending her out on the streets anymore, and she knew the days before she was “quietly asked” to retire were numbered.

If she had to endure a bit of growling to keep this guy around, and stave off the creeping march of age a little while longer, that was fine by her.

Case in point: he was leaning into her now, out of the blue, holding her close by the small of her back.  Eki was somewhat puzzled by his timing, but nonetheless, she yielded easily.  Her eyes fluttered closed, her lips ready.

Then he shoved an electrified rod into her stomach, and with a single pulse, stunned her into unconsciousness.

“Alright, we’re clear.  Move in,” said the Lieutenant, pulling on his mask and wiping his hands on his pants, eager to cleanse them.

This particular mission couldn’t possibly have ended quick enough.  But at least he’d gotten what he needed.

A couple of chi-blockers appeared from the shadows at their field leader’s call, carrying off the unconscious Eki to a waiting truck.  By this time tomorrow, she’d be purified.

And with any luck, she wouldn’t be alone.

More chi-blockers followed shortly afterward, a much larger group – twenty or so in all.  They moved with the utmost silence and precision, the result of drilling for this night for weeks.  Each knowing (well, in one case, guessing) their roles by heart, they funneled into the warehouse through the back entrance, and took up position in each and every one of its dark corners.

Bringing up the rear of the group, however, was one individual who elected to hold back; one individual who, unlike the rest, was dressed rather distinctly.

“Hold any action until I give the signal,” ordered Amon, standing alongside his Lieutenant rather than turning to face him.  “They’ve all been taught it, I trust?”

“Of course, sir,” replied the other man, his rumbling tones blending seamlessly with the night wind around them.  “Only our most elite and experienced forces have been permitted to join us here.  The rest are at the other sites.”

“Then I take it things are proceeding according to schedule?” Amon asked, in a tone that implied there was only one correct answer.

Mercifully then, for his own sake, the Lieutenant nodded.  “Let’s get into position as well,” he said, and both of the masked men proceeded into Future Industries warehouse twelve, closing the door softly behind them.

Meanwhile, the two young women who’d been watching this entire scene play out took one last look at each other and then, by silent agreement, moved to follow.

 

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

 

“What do you suggest we do with them, Chief?” asked Captain Saikhan, crossing his arms and glaring at their tied-up prisoners.  His own metalbending ensured that their iron cords didn’t budge.

“Well first off, you could stop talking like we aren’t right here!” Mako exclaimed irritably, before once again attempting to struggle out of the bindings.  He did not succeed.

Lin scowled, and after a few seconds’ thought, adopted a similar stance to her second-in-command.

“Quite the mouth on this one,” she said, her voice terse and impatient.  “But we don’t have a choice.  Leave a couple officers here to guard these two.  We’ll take them into custody in the morning.”

“You don’t understand, ma’am!” responded Bolin, who’d been reaching back to scratch his neck when they’d been captured and, therefore, was stuck in a rather uncomfortable position.  “We need to get back to that summit!  The fate of the city – nay, the whole world – depends on it!”

The Chief of Police groaned and pinched her brow.  “Like I don’t hear that five times a day,” she muttered.  “Look, kid.  Are you going to tell me you aren’t associated with the triads?”

“Well…I guess technically, we got hired by the Triple Threats…” answered the earthbender.  Mako would’ve slapped himself if his hands were free.  “Wait, no, no, don’t get the wrong idea!  We only did it ‘cuz that Tarrlok guy asked us to!”

“Tarrlok?” asked Tenzin, speaking up for the first time since their capture.  Mako did a double-take; he’d missed the airbender entirely.  “What’s he got to do with this?”

“Wait a minute, I know you,” the firebender said after a moment.  “You’re on the council too, right?  The airbender guy.  Sorry…I’m blanking on your name.”

“Tenzin,” he told the younger man, frowning slightly.  “But let’s not change the subject.  You’re saying Chairman Tarrlok sent you here?

Seeing no other choice, Mako took a deep breath…and began to explain.

He left out a few details – namely his blackmailing them about their past with the triads – but laid out the rest of their deal as plainly as he could.

“So all this time, we’ve been worried about Tarrlok cracking down for doing this sting under the table…” Lin began, shaking her head wearily.

“While all along, he was planning to bribe civilians to do the same thing,” finished Tenzin, a low groan layered over his voice.  “I guess this explains that ‘proof’ he was planning to show us tomorrow.”

The Chief of Police beckoned him over to a corner so they could conference privately.  Then, her lips barely moving, she whispered, “Can we really trust this story of theirs?  Not that I have any trouble believing Tarrlok is capable of it, of course.  But we still need to consider the source.”

“I doubt anyone could, or would, make something like this up.  It’s too crazy to be fiction,” said Tenzin, just as quietly.  “Besides, whether it’s the truth or not, can we afford not to act on it?”

Lin sighed, but eventually nodded.  “So what exactly are we supposed to do with them?” she asked.

The airbender chanced a brief glance back at their captives, mulling the question over for a moment, before replying, “I think we should let them go.”

What?!” growled the Chief, more loudly than she’d been intending.  “Are you even more out of your mind than usual?”

“Think about it, Lin.  If these two don’t come back, the triads might begin to suspect something’s up,” Tenzin explained.  “You said it yourself: we can’t afford to spook them yet.  What if they decide to send more people to search the area?”

Or, we let them return, they blab everything to Zolt, and thus guarantee they send more people to search,” hissed Lin, her eyes narrowed.  “You’re discounting that very likely possibility.”

“Look, we’ve got nothing against the police.  You wanna arrest everyone in that warehouse tonight, fine by us,” said Mako, interrupting their whispered conversation.  Every eye in the room immediately snapped to him.  “Err…sorry for overhearing, but you should know: we just wanna get paid so we can stay in the tournament.  That’s all we’re here for.”

“And Tarrlok is offering us way more money than Shady Shin is,” added Bolin, trying to be helpful.  “So we’ve got no reason to tell him anything.  Badgermole Scout’s honor.”

“You were never in the Badgermole Scouts,” Mako couldn’t keep himself from pointing out.

“It’s an expression, bro,” the earthbender declared exasperatedly, as if that should’ve been obvious.

Lin clenched her teeth and let out another deep, rattling breath.  It’d almost be worth it to go along with Tenzin’s plan, just so she wouldn’t have to listen to these two.

Finally, and already half-regretting the words the moment they left her mouth, she said, “If we do let you go – and I’m not saying we will – you need to follow my instructions exactly.  Is that clear?”

“It is,” responded Mako, though his tone was mildly skeptical.  “But which instructions do you mean?”

“Mostly, you should just do what you would’ve done normally.  Tenzin’s right, any deviation in your behavior could tip off the triads,” she told them.  “But if and when we decide to move in, I want you kids to stay out of it.  Back off, put your heads down, and wait it out.  Can you at least do that much?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Bolin called out exuberantly.  He attempted to snap a salute as well, before remembering that he couldn’t move his arms.  “That is one thing we are really good at!  Like…reeeeeeally good.  Point is, you can count on us.”

Lin continued to glare daggers at the brothers, still all but certain this was a terrible idea…but nonetheless, gave a single, firm nod to Saikhan.  The intent was clear, and the police captain released his captives in one smooth, fluid motion.

“Don’t make me regret this more than I already do,” she said, gazing down at them with all the respect an exterminator might afford a spider-rat.

 

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

 

The hiding spot Korra and Asami were currently wedged in was very tight, which presented something of a conundrum for the young Avatar.

It couldn’t be helped; spread everywhere throughout the warehouse were those mysterious masked men, who – given that their leader was a dead ringer for the flyer Zaheer had shown her – could only be the Equalists.  Sneaking in and sequestering themselves in a small crawlspace of their own, without being seen, had been difficult enough on its own.

They certainly hadn’t had a lot of other options, was the point.

Still, the gap between a couple large crates was just large enough to hold the two of them, with no more than an inch or two to spare.  Meaning that her bare arm was pressed right up against Asami’s own.

And oh-there-were-no-words for how little she needed that right now.

She couldn’t afford the slightest distraction right now, and Asami was a constant one.  Their faces mere inches from each other, lying down on their stomachs side-by-side, Korra could feel every breath the non-bender took in, every last twitch or shiver of her lithe body.  And with each of her own breaths, the Avatar inhaled a bit more of Asami’s perfume, subtle and delicate and by the spirits why was she thinking about the way the other girl smelled?!

Furthermore, the physical closeness made it all but impossible to push their earlier confrontation out of her mind, despite how much she knew she needed to.  Over and over again it played out in her mind, Korra’s subconscious running wild with alternative ways it could’ve ended, had she decided to tell Asami the truth.

Most of them went along the lines of the most likely scenario: the rich girl storming away from her in disgust, furious at how she’d been used and betrayed.  Several even involved them coming to blows.  Certainly, at minimum, she’d call the police.

But…a few others…

Korra tried to clamp down on it, but it was too late – her imagination was fully out of her control.  Vague and…not so vague images swam through her mind, each more impossible than the last, and it took  all her willpower to remain focused on the mission at hand.

Because really and truly, she could not afford for her head to be anywhere but in the moment, right now.  With unseen enemies surrounding them in every direction, dozens of hardened criminals liable to arrive at any moment, and an all-out brawl certain to erupt the moment they did…

Well, this was not a time for daydreaming.

No matter how wonderful those dreams might happen to be.

Korra had little time to dissect that stray thought, however, before the warehouse’s main door slid open, and a handful of figures stepped into the dark room.  Several lights flickered on lazily at their arrival, but the lighting here clearly hadn’t been maintained well, as most of the warehouse remained shrouded in shadow.

Good news for them…and for all the Equalists presently lying in wait.

Having entered through the back and picked the first hiding spot they could find, the two girls were some distance away from the entrance, but the warehouse was so quiet otherwise that they had no trouble picking up the group’s conversation.

One man, a sleazy-looking guy in a blue suit, was lecturing the others about the schedule for the evening.  It took Korra a few seconds to realize, with a slight jolt, that two of them were Bolin and Mako.  She’d barely seen them out of their Fire Ferret uniforms before.

“The summit don’t start for another twenty minutes, but you should be ready any second.  Zolt likes to come, uh…fashionably early,” he said, his voice so oily that Korra was half-convinced you could power a Satomobile with it.  “Anyway, where the heck have you been?  And where’s Eki?”

These words were directed at the man they’d seen knock out his partner.  Another jolt, this one far more pronounced, went down Korra’s spine.  The box to their right constituted a large blind spot, so she’d completely missed his near-silent approach.

Whoever the man was, he lied easily.  “Afraid she hasn’t been feeling well lately.  Thought she could push through it, but she had an attack as soon as we reached the door,” answered the spy.  “Sorry, but I had to look out for my girl.”

Rather than be annoyed, however, the blue-clad gangster’s face twisted in sympathy.

“Hey, if she’s sick, she’s sick.  Ain’t nobody’s fault,” he declared.  “Eki was like a mother to me, back when I rolled with the Monsoons.  So you just make sure to treat her right, ya feel me?”

“Of course,” Amon’s lackey replied deftly.  If the other man’s voice was like the oil in a machine, this guy was like two gears grinding against each other – smooth, yet almost terrifyingly resonant.

“Anyway, like I was sayin’ earlier, you should all get into position ‘round the table,” the blue-suited man said after a moment, indicating a large, round meeting table near the center of the room.  “Oh, and first rule for tonight: you folks don’t speak.  Consider yourselves pieces of furniture.  Big pieces of furniture that can bend.”

“What if someone gets outta hand?” asked the one remaining stranger, a young man in red.  “At what point are we allowed to step in?”

“Look to your boss for that, Ketto.  He or she gives you the nod, you got permission to beat the crud outta whoever you like,” replied the first man with a wink.  “Unless the guy’s a Terra, of course.  Then you can skip straight to the last part.”

It was almost comical how every single person in the room – from Bolin and Mako, to Korra and Asami, to even the mustached Equalist – simultaneously raised an eyebrow in response to this, though none of them said anything about it.

None of them had a chance to say anything about it, because in that same moment, the warehouse door exploded.

Instinctively, Korra felt her body ready itself for a fight – at least, as much as it could from her current position – and she could see that she was far from the only one to do so.  But no attack followed.

Instead, an older man in finely crafted, maroon-and-gold robes strode in, passing through the smoke as if it didn’t exist.  Flanking him were a half-dozen other men and a single woman, their own clothing a mix of subdued blues, greens, and reds.

“Ah, sorry ‘bout that.  You know how I love to make an entrance,” he said, smirking smugly.  “And hey…didn’t expect ol’ Moneybags Sato to cheap out on lightning-proofin’ this place.  Baaaad call in this part o’ town.”

Korra felt a shudder course through Asami’s body at the mention of her father.

“Lightning Bolt Zolt!  It’s an honor, sir!” exclaimed the man in blue, bowing so low it was almost pathetic.  “I just finished makin’ sure the meetin’ place you picked out is all tight and secure.  You’ll be happy to know there ain’t not one peep outta order.”

Once you parsed the truly atrocious grammar, Korra thought ruefully, you might arrive at something resembling the truth.  There were, after all, a great many “peeps outta order” right now.

In any event, Zolt didn’t seem particularly impressed.  “Shady Shin,” he responded, with a tone someone might use to describe a fire gummy stuck to their shoe.  “I hope you pulled together somethin’ better than that sorry lot you had guard my daughter’s weddin’.”

Instantly, the younger gangster began to sweat bullets, and he swallowed so loudly that the girls could hear it.

“I…uh…know I messed up there, boss,” he said, pulling at his collar nervously.  “But I promise you, this is different.  I got nothin’ but the best, see for yourself!”

He gestured at the other four members of his group, already positioned in a circle around the meeting table.  Zolt took a couple steps forward, his golden eyes narrowed as he examined each of the “security staff” in turn.

To the man called “Ketto,” he gave a stiff nod, which Korra took to mean he had no objections.  She wondered idly, given that the colors of their clothing seemed to correspond with their elements, if it was because both were firebenders.

His expression turned more critical as he glared at the Equalist, and he looked to be on the verge of saying something.  But just to the man’s right, Bolin was being extraordinarily conspicuous in his desire not to be conspicuous, and all matters of the spy in their midst were instantly forgotten.

“Well, well, well…” murmured Zolt, something halfway between a frown and a leer spreading across his face.  “Look at what we have here.”

Bolin flinched, but the triad boss strode straight past him, and cupped Mako’s chin with his beefy hand.

“You got a lotta nerve, Mako.  Showin’ your face in a place like this, after what you pulled,” he said, lifting his fingers and then slapping them lightly across the younger firebender’s cheek.  Mako didn’t react.  “You got somethin’ to say for yourself?”

“I’m just here to do my job and get paid,” the pro-bender answered tersely, still staring straight ahead.

“Always ‘bout the yuans with you, ain’t it?” asked Zolt, his voice low and dangerous.  He took one step closer to the teenager, now fully within his personal space.  “You get this far an’ your mind’s still so small.  Sad.”

“Umm…no offense, sir, but…” Bolin spoke up timidly.  “Isn’t that what being a gangster is, like…y’know, about?

Zolt slowly shook his head, as if he was a schoolteacher and one of his students had just given an embarrassingly stupid answer.

“That’s only part of it, kid,” he said, frowning.  Korra couldn’t help but notice that he used Mako’s given name, but not his brother’s.  “The other part’s respect.  And that’s what you’re missin’, Mako.  Respect.

He gestured backward with a flick of the wrist, at the hole he’d blown in the warehouse door. 

“When the rest of the big bosses get here in a few minutes, we’re all gonna bow and make nice.  And that’s ‘cuz of respect,” he continued.  “We may not like each other, but we got respect, an’ that keeps this city stable.”

Then, without warning, Zolt seized Mako by his shirt and, with a single motion, threw him bodily to the ground.

“It was never ‘bout you leavin’.  It was the way you did it,” he explained in a low voice, planting an expensive boot across the teenager’s chest to keep him from getting up.  “Plenty of people quit the triads, that’s okay.  This life ain’t for everyone.  But you?  You were my best, Mako.”

“I was just an accountant,” Mako pointed out, coughing a bit from the pressure on his chest.

“You know what I mean, ya ungrateful little…!” said Zolt, his teeth gritted.  “You have any idea how many other people I taught firebendin’ personally?  You had a gift…still do.  Whether or not you stayed with the Triple Threats, I didn’t want it goin’ to waste.”

He released his foot, letting Mako scramble to his feet, but continued to glare furiously all the while.

“I took you in.  Gave you somethin’, made you somethin’,” he told his former protégé.  “An’ when you left to go shack up with that Toza guy, did I ever hear a ‘thanks’?  Did I ever get anythin’ back for all my trouble?  You disrespected me, Mako, and I ain’t happy ‘bout that.”

Mako kept his eyes directed downward, but sighed and asked, very quietly, “What is it that you want from me?”

Again, that expression which was halfway like a sneer.

“Right now?  Nothin’.  I just wanted you to know where we stand,” he responded, finally stepping away from the younger man.  “Later, we can talk a little more ‘bout, ahem…reparation.  But for now…”

He glanced back at the warehouse entrance, where a couple dozen similarly clad individuals were slowly filing through the opening.

“Looks like we got some guests to entertain.”

 

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

 

“Okay, hold up.  The heck are you trying to pull, Zolt?” demanded Long Shi, pretty much from the moment the triad leaders took their seats.

Ever since the Terra Triad’s founding by escaped criminal Long Feng, the members of his family – adopted, as the disgraced Grand Secretariat had been a eunuch – had always been among its leaders.  Long Shi, however, had not been in a position of power long; his older sister had run the triad for twelve long years, before finally being arrested just over a year ago.

Barely out of school and with a temper to match his age, Long Shi had spent that year systematically demolishing his own gang with one stupid decision after another.  The Terras had already been in a weak period after a number of police crackdowns, but Long Shi’s boneheaded leadership threatened to slide them fully into irrelevance.

Which, all things considered, meant Lightning Bolt Zolt wasn’t particularly surprised he’d been the first one to start trouble.

“Not sure what you’re talkin’ about,” he said, staring off to the side; not affording the youngest of their group the honor of eye contact.

That was a lie, of course.  At minimum, he had a fairly good idea.

“These spineless lowlifes you got guarding us!” exclaimed the Terra boss, confirming Zolt’s suspicions.  “I sent over half a dozen names to your guy, and what do I see?  The only earthbender here is with you.  What, am I supposed to take an insult like that lying down?”

“Yes, you are,” stated Gui of the Red Monsoon, his voice harsh despite its natural softness.  “There’re no waterbenders on the security staff at all, and I’m still whining less than you.”

Gui was outside his element, to put it mildly.  Normally a bookkeeper, he’d been promoted very quickly thanks to the decimation of the Monsoons’ leadership by the Equalists.  The oldest member of the summit by far, Zolt nonetheless showed him far more deference than the young earthbender.

“Can we stop with these petty squabbles and get onto the real issue?” asked the Agni Kai boss Niao, her tone severe.  “I was under the impression this meeting was somewhat important.

The sole woman at the table, Niao spoke through a half-face mask, hiding the ritual burn-scars that marked initiation into the Agni Kais’ upper ranks.  Though the majority of the firebending triad were men, its leaders were always women, in reference to the Kemurikage they’d spawned from.

“I agree with Our Esteemed Sister of the Flame,” said Gui, using the most formal term of address possible.  The lack of bad blood between them, which the Monsoons’ previous boss had held in abundance, was an encouraging sign.  “No one’s suffered from these Equalists worse than the Red Monsoon.”

“We’ve all lost people,” retorted Long Shi, still sounding sore at his abrupt dismissal but apparently unwilling to argue the point.  “Even if some of us have more to spare than others…”

This was directed, rather pointedly, at Zolt, though he didn’t rise to the bait.

Since they accepted all three kinds of benders, the Triple Threats – far and away the youngest of the triads, at only nine years old – had quickly grown to be its largest, by a factor of almost two-to-one.  So, although they’d lost more than a dozen of their best enforcers to the Equalists, they’d felt the impact far less than most.

Zolt didn’t consider that a reason to grow complacent, however.  If the Equalists weren’t stopped now, there was no telling how much damage they might eventually do.

“Let’s start by getting everythin’ we got on these guys out in the open,” Zolt told the other triad leaders, rapping the table with his knuckles for emphasis.  “Maybe one of us knows somethin’ the rest don’t.”

There was a hint of accusation in his voice, but just a hint – not enough to start anything over.

Niao straightened a set of papers and cleared her throat.  As usual, she’d come prepared.

“In point of fact, we actually know quite a bit.  Just yesterday, one of my lieutenants returned from their captivity,” she said.

Expressions of shock spread across the room – not just on the faces of the other bosses, but their various underlings as well.  None of them had ever heard of someone coming back from the Equalists.

Zolt said as much, and Niao nodded gravely.  “If I were to hazard a guess…” she replied, her masked head dipped slightly.  “Based on what he told me, our people aren’t failing to return because they cannot, but because they will not.  They’re so ashamed of what’s become of them, that they’d rather leave the city than face their superiors.”

She paused for a moment, letting that declaration hang in the air, before finally adding, “He reports that the Equalists’ leader, Amon, has the power to remove people’s bending.”

The reaction was immediate and dramatic.  A general outcry of skepticism and disbelief erupted across the table, though none were nearly as vocal as Long Shi.

“Hippo-bull!” he shouted, sounding incensed even at the suggestion of such a thing.  “No one can do that!”

“The Avatar can,” said Gui quietly.  “I should know, I was there.  On the day of Yakone’s trial.”

“Yeah, but…that Amon guy isn’t the Avatar!” sputtered Long Shi.  “If the Avatar was reborn after the Southern Massacre, they’d be…what, twelve?  That guy sure doesn’t look like a freaking kid!”

“I think what our friend is getting at is that if the Avatar could do it, it’s possible others could learn, too,” explained Niao, shaking her head in impatience.  “It wouldn’t be the first time.  Look at combustionbending.  It’s an extremely rare talent, sure.  But even if Avatar Weng was the first to use it, he’s far from the only one.”

“Guess you got a point there,” admitted Long Shi, albeit somewhat reluctantly.  “What the heck can we do against something like that, though?”

Zolt slammed his fist down onto the table, as if he’d been anticipating the question.

“I’ll tell you what we gonna do.  We gonna bring the fight to them,” he said, his voice a low growl.  “Amon’s only been succeedin’ so far ‘cuz he’s a coward, pickin’ off our guys one by one in the dead o’ night.  Tell me, did your lieutenant say how he does this no-bendin’ thing?”

“According to his report, Amon takes hold of the victim and presses fingers to their neck and forehead,” Niao read out dispassionately.  “What happens to them next is unclear.”

“Yeah, I figured it’d be somethin’ like that.  Point is, he can only do it one at a time,” Zolt continued on, baring his teeth toward the other gangsters.  “So if we gang up on him all at once…he’ll be sleepin’ with the skunk-fishies by mornin’.”

“That’s if we can even get to him,” Gui pointed out.  “We have no idea how many Equalists there are in the city right now, or what sort of weapons they have.  We don’t even know where their hideout is.  How are we supposed to launch an attack without knowing where to go?”

“Easy.  We capture one, and make ‘em squeal,” said Zolt, punctuating his point by clenching a raised fist.  “They’re targetin’ us, so it’s only a matter of time before they show their faces again.  Or…well, y’know what I mean.”

“Still seems like a bit of a risk to me,” responded the Red Monsoon leader, his wrinkled arms crossed sagely.  “But I guess I can’t think of any better ideas.”

I can,” Long Shi declared, crossing his own arms in a direct mirror of his elder rival.  On him, however, the gesture came across as immature and petulant.

Niao gave a short, snorting laugh.  “Alright, I’ll bite.  What’s your plan, kid?” she asked.

A smug grin spread across the earthbender’s face.

“Pretty simple, isn’t it?” he answered, adjusting his tinted glasses unnecessarily.  “Whoever these guys are, however many are out there, one thing’s obvious: they’re all non-benders.  Useless little nobodies who’ve forgotten their place.  Seems to me the easiest solution would be to…heh heh…remind them.”

Zolt frowned and slouched over in his chair slightly, but said nothing.  Long Shi took this as an invitation, if an unenthusiastic one, to keep speaking.

“You know…put more pressure on our territories.  Step up ‘donations’ from non-bender businesses.  Make an example out of any who refuse,” he went on, cracking his knuckles loudly.  “Maybe blow up some of the Sokka or Suki statues.  Send a message, y’know?”

“Hmmm.  I think I gotcha,” said Zolt in a low voice.  “Why don’t I show ya my opinion on that little plan o’ yours?”

Then, without any further preamble, he jabbed one fist forward and set the Terra boss’ chair on fire.

“What the heck, man?!” screamed Long Shi, raising dirt from the ground and using it to smother the flames on his coat.  “You think you can treat a member of the Long family like this?!

Incensed, his eyes darted around wildly, looking for someone to back him up – but neither Gui nor Niao had even flinched at the attack, and he’d only brought two bodyguards of his own to the summit.  With no one on the security staff on his side, he was forced to stand down.

Zolt waited for the younger man to take a seat on another chair before adding, “Look, I ain’t no bleedin’ heart.  But I also ain’t gonna stand for stupid ideas.  All you’d do is send more non-benders runnin’ for the Equalists.  Figurin’ they might be able to protect ‘em.”

“Oh, and if we take down Amon, that’s suddenly gonna stop?” demanded the earthbender, his hands balled in fists.  The sudden assault had clearly evaporated the miniscule amount of goodwill he’d entered the warehouse with.  “Think, Zolt!  This isn’t gonna stop with one guy!  We don’t push back on this, hard, and we could lose everything!

The lightningbender’s expression hardened even further.

“The Terras are free to do whatever they like,” he said.  “But you go too far, an’ you make an enemy outta every other triad in this town.”

The other two leaders nodded their agreement, which only seemed to anger Long Shi further.

“You know, I’m tired of this,” he murmured, a dangerous edge to his voice.  “You bossing me around…bossing any of us around!  Some upstart little hog-monkey whose gang didn’t freaking exist ten years ago!  And you get off treating me like I’m a kid?  Well screw you, pal!”

“Brother of the Stone, please,” Gui tried to intercede, switching to the formal term in an effort to calm him down.  “We shouldn’t let ourselves get sidetracked.  The important thing here is…”

“The important thing is doing something about him!” roared Long Shi, jabbing a stubby finger toward Zolt.  “As long as we’re letting him take the lead on this one, we’re finished!  The Equalists will eat us for breakfast.  And so if no one else’ll do anything about it, I will!

The rock shot forth before anyone had quite realized he’d bent it.  It wasn’t large, and the damage it inflicted was superficial at most.

But as a single droplet of blood trickled down the Triple Threat boss’ cheek, the entire mood of the room shifted noticeably.

“You wanna make a power play, kid?” said Zolt, slowly rising from his chair and cracking his neck, each movement careful and deliberate.  “Heckuva time to do it, but alright.  If we can’t trust ya to watch our backs against Amon, then you’re a liability.  And liabilities…”

He shrugged off the outer layer of his coat and took a stance, before finishing, “…Get turned to ash.”

A number of things happened in the next moment, each so quick it was easy to miss the rest.

In the blink of an eye, Lightning Bolt Zolt brought forth the element that gave him his name, firing it with speed and precision virtually unknown outside of the royal family.

Both Gui and Niao scrambled to get out of the way, as did everyone else surrounding the table – even the two other Terras that Long Shi had brought along.  Right now, no one was particularly eager to stick their necks out for him.

At the same time, two quick sounds echoed from the rear of the warehouse, like something metallic being struck.  The man called Zihu took a few steps away from the crowd, and returned the signal by tapping his heel against the floor.

The reaction was dramatic and immediate.  Long Shi had just barely managed to raise a wall of earth to protect himself in time, and a cloud of dust erupted as the lightning shattered it.

And when that cloud dissipated, only a few seconds later, the gangsters were surrounded by Equalists.

“Amusing as this all has been,” said Amon, striding forward purposefully in the wake of the strike.  Everyone present was too stunned by his sudden appearance to do anything but stand there agape at his approach.

“It is time to cleanse this city of its filth.”

 

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

 

The next few minutes were utter chaos.

Korra watched on in horror as dozens of the most powerful benders in Republic City were systematically, brutally demolished.  They were making a fight of it, of course, but in the long run there was no question.

This wasn’t a battle.  It was a slaughter.

Long Shi went down first, being closest to the spy the Equalists had inserted into their ranks.  The moment Amon made his presence known, the mustached man had drawn some electrified weapons and struck the Terra boss in the back, shocking him into a stupor.

Before he even had time to hit the ground, Amon was already upon him, swooping down like a man-sized wolfbat.  A few seconds later, and Long Shi was collapsed upon the floor, soft and limp as a pile of noodles.

And so it was repeated, dozens of times over.  The Equalists struck hard and fast, jabbing at joints and pressure points to disable their opponents long enough for Amon to strike.  And not one his victims ever got up again after he was through.

The bending criminals would attempt to counterattack, of course, but Amon moved like smoke itself.  Every burst of fire, earth, or water touched only air, and the Equalist leader darted in and out of the shadows with the deftness of a carnival acrobat.

First Gui went down; he was far from a trained combat waterbender, after all.  Then Niao fell as well, utterly abandoned by her right hand, Ketto, who fled for his life.  The various lieutenants and enforcers the bosses had brought with them, meanwhile, were dropping like bumble-flies.

Soon enough, it was only Zolt, backed by four others – Bolin and Mako, Shady Shin, and one of the Triple Threat earthbenders – who were holding their own against the Equalist horde.  Their ranks had been thinned somewhat, mostly by Niao, but they still outnumbered the benders by at least three-to-one.

Not for the first time, Korra felt a sharp pang of temptation – to intervene, to run away, to do something.  She chanced a glance to the side, at Asami’s similarly stricken face, and knew she was feeling the same thing.

But no matter how much she willed it, her body remained frozen firmly in place.  She wished she could say it was strategic considerations that were staying her hand…but the truth was far more shameful.

It was fear.

Though she knew it would benefit her none, that it was inessential to her mission, she wanted to help Mako and Bolin, whose fight against the Equalists grew more and more desperate by the moment.  She hadn’t known them long, but they’d been good to her; taken her in and taught her all they could about their livelihood.  Part of her, a large part, felt like she owed them.

Yet right now, Korra found she couldn’t move a muscle.  She’d just seen, with her own two eyes, that Niao’s claims were far from flights of fancy.  Several of Amon’s victims had attempted to recover from his attack, striking at him from a prone position with unsteady punches or kicks…but no elements had followed their movements.

There was no other explanation.  Somehow, some way, this man could remove the bending of his enemies.  With nothing but a couple of fingers.

How could she even begin to face him, knowing that?  Knowing how easily, how effortlessly, he could rip away everything that made her…well, her.  Avatar Korra.  The world’s last remaining hope for balance.

Still, Asami was staring at her now, silently beseeching her to step in.  The meaning of her expression was obvious, even if no words were exchanged: if Korra wasn’t willing to step up and help her friends, then she would.

In the next moment, however, all that was rendered moot.

Every single window to the warehouse was shattered in unison, as uniformed police officers descended from all directions on cables of iron.  Unlike the bending criminals, they moved as a single unit, raining down upon the Equalists with organization and precision.

As they entered into combat with Equalists and triad members alike without missing a beat, it quickly became obvious that they hadn’t just arrived here.  Korra supposed they must’ve been waiting outside for some time now, watching for the perfect moment to strike.

Letting the criminals thin each other’s ranks before swooping in wasn’t exactly honorable, but she couldn’t deny it was sound strategy.

In any event, however, one other thing was clear: their arrival presented the perfect distraction.  As soon as Zolt, Shin, and the other earthbender were set upon by Republic City’s finest, Mako and Bolin had chosen to slip away into the shadows, and were slowly making their way toward the rear of the warehouse.

Korra glanced over at Asami once again, and the two girls exchanged a single, silent nod.  Now was the time to move.

They stayed hunched over as they walked, letting the tall crates block them from view.  Without needing to speak, the pair automatically positioned themselves back-to-back, allowing them to stay alert of all three warring parties.

The brothers were maneuvering in a similar fashion, slowly and carefully, so it didn’t take long for the girls to catch up to them.

Unsure of how best to approach this, Korra cautiously tapped Bolin on the shoulder.  The earthbender very nearly let out a yelp, but his brother slapped a hand across his mouth just in time.  Mako’s eyes briefly widened in surprise at their presence, but he seemed to decide that any questions he had could wait, and nodded as well.

And so with that, the four of them set off.

The mayhem in the warehouse was growing worse and worse by the second, but the teenagers stayed just out of sight of the fray, with Korra leading them through the winding aisles of oversized crates and boxes.  If she remembered correctly from their harried arrival, the backdoor was only a few more rows away…

And indeed, when they turned the next corner, the door that’d be their escape came fully into view.  Unfortunately, however, something else stood directly in front of it.

The Equalist spy, three of his masked minions…and…

Amon himself.

“Take them all,” he said coldly.

With no more benefit to stealth, all four of them sprung into action against their attackers, bending and – in Asami’s case – fighting back with furious punches and kicks as if their lives depended on it.  Which, in a certain sense, they absolutely did.

Still, though they put their all into their struggle, it became clear fairly quickly that they were thoroughly outmatched.

The man who went by “Zihu,” in particular, fought with the ferocity of a man possessed, and it only took a couple of strikes from his electrified weapons to subdue both Bolin and Mako.  With his last bit of strength, Mako managed to knock those weapons away from him with a quick fire blast, but all that meant was that the mustached man and another Equalist had to spend some time holding them down and binding their limbs.

The other two Equalist foot soldiers seemed to be holding back somewhat against Asami, which the first learned to regret very quickly, as she slammed him into the ground hard enough to shatter several bones.  The other countered swiftly, however, and soon forced her into a tight hold.

Korra wanted desperately to rush to her side, but Amon had gone after her personally, and it was taking all her focus simply to stay out of his range.  The masked man, already fast, was now moving with agility bordering on inhuman, dodging and weaving around every single attack she threw.

Forced to rely solely on the water-skins she always kept at her sides, Korra had never so acutely felt the limitations of a single element.  Waterbending depended on the “push and pull” between the bender and their opponent; the ability to turn the positive jing of an attacker against them.

But if Amon was going to rely entirely on negative jing, evading everything she could muster and refusing to counterattack on his own, she simply didn’t have anything to work with.  Ice, vapor, water “tentacles”…not one of them came even close to their mark.

What Korra really needed right now was earthbending.  Amon wasn’t an airbender, after all – he couldn’t simply stay floating.  Though he was incredibly nimble on his feet, those feet still needed to touch the ground eventually.

If she could manage to trap his ankle with a raised bit of rock, even for a second, she was certain she could end this in a single shot.  The rest of the Equalists were still occupied holding down her friends or fighting against the police, so if she could just take down their boss…

Then, it hit her.  Why couldn’t she use a bit of earthbending?  Between Bolin, the other Triple Threat earthbender back there, and the dozen or so still-conscious police officers, there was no shortage of earthbenders here.

If she was subtle about it, no one would jump to the conclusion that she was the Avatar.  They’d all assume someone else had done it.

Carefully, making sure to maintain her waterbending for the sake of misdirection, she adjusted her stance to get ready for the move.  She wouldn’t even need her hands for this.  A single, strong tap of her foot would be enough.

Calling on all her training with Ghazan, Korra breathed deeply, watching Amon’s every movement with the eyes of a messenger hawk.  Steadily, patiently, she waited for the right moment to strike.

Finally, it came.  Her latest water-whip assault put Amon just slightly off balance, and he touched down firmly upon the ground to right himself.  It lasted less than a second, but it was enough.

She brought down her foot, willing the ground to rise and swallow his heel.

And absolutely nothing happened.

Korra’s breath caught in her throat.  Panicking slightly, she tried it again…but once more, no earth rose to her command.  Abandoning all pretense, she repeated the gesture with her hands this time, putting her entire body into the motion…

And still, there was no response.

The water she’d been bending crashed to the floor, drenching her feet completely.  Echoes of the booming splash reverberated through her mind.

Amon, too, came to a rest, his arms crossed behind his back and his posture immaculate.  So confident, so casual.  As if all this had been nothing more than an amusing game.

“I’m afraid that’s not going to work,” he told her, his voice a deathly, haunting whisper.  But it wasn’t those words that sent a deep, soul-biting chill directly down her spine.

It was what he said next.

“Isn’t that right…Avatar?

Chapter Text

“I appreciate this,” said Hiroshi Sato, his expression hard and cold.  “More than you’ll ever know.”

Amon offered no reply, except to raise a single finger to the painted mouth of his mask.  The meaning to the gesture was obvious: this was a situation that called for stealth and silence.

They were, after all, standing directly over their sleeping victim, who was liable to wake up at any moment.

The Equalist leader held nothing against the young waterbender who, at present, was curled up beneath altogether too many sheets and snoring obnoxiously.  None beyond the general hatred he felt for all benders, at least.

But Hiroshi had it in his head that his precious daughter – the one thing he cared about almost as much as his vengeance – was smitten with this girl, and that’d been enough for the industrialist to call upon a personal favor for the first time since they’d met.

Truthfully, Amon suspected the supposed affections were little more than an overprotective father’s imagination, but the truth ultimately mattered very little.  The fact was that they were rapidly approaching his endgame, and he couldn’t afford for his best engineer to be distracted by such a minor issue.

Hiroshi’s logic was simple: the girl had come to Republic City as part of a work-exchange program for waterbenders.  So if she suddenly and inexplicably found herself without her bending…well, she’d be out of a job, wouldn’t she?  With any luck, she’d be forced to return home to find new work.

And if not, that’d be the moment for her old boss to step in and, “out of the goodness of his heart,” offer her a transfer to one of their sites in Ba Sing Se or Omashu.  Somewhere nice and far away from the beautiful Asami Sato.

Beneath his mask, Noatak sighed and rolled his eyes.  He might as well get this over with.

With a soft cloth, the bloodbender lightly coated the most vital areas – the forehead and back of the neck – with a diluted form of shirshu venom.  The toxin would numb the nerves and, with any luck, prevent her from even feeling his touch.

Still, there was always the chance she might awaken regardless; every person had a slightly different tolerance level for the venom, after all.  He himself had long since developed an immunity.

All things considered, it was best he get this over with quickly.

And so, as he’d done with countless others, Amon pressed his fingers against the sleeping girl’s skin.

When he’d first been developing this technique, the first thing he’d needed to learn were the complex chi paths of each individual element.  The way that energy flowed through the body for a waterbender was far different from someone who wielded earth or fire.  To be able to cut them all off, in the same amount of time, had required years of practical study.

So when he made contact with his victim, he’d immediately sensed exactly what he’d been expecting: the paths that marked a talented and fully trained waterbender.

Except that wasn’t all he sensed.

At first, Amon was certain he must’ve been mistaken.  He’d misread opponents before, in his early days – usually benders of one element who’d been trying to pass themselves off, in dress and mannerisms, for another.

But the more that his bloodbending senses became acclimated to this girl’s body, the surer he became.  He wasn’t picking up a single active chi path.

He was picking up three.

Noatak’s breath caught in his throat, and his cold blue eyes went wide as saucers.  Not for the first time, he was immensely grateful for his mask; grateful for the fact that Hiroshi couldn’t see his expression.

What were the odds of this?  Was this fortune smiling upon him?  A sign that there was truth in his lie – that the spirits did approve of his mission?

Either way…

This was going to change everything.

 

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

 

“How…How did you…?” Korra choked out, too horrified to come up with any other words.  Her eyes kept darting between Amon, his minions, Mako and Bolin, and…Asami.

All of whom were, though beaten down and injured, completely and totally conscious.  And staring at her with wide, disbelieving eyes.

There was no way they hadn’t just heard everything.

“You know my power, Avatar.  You have seen it demonstrated multiple times this very night,” said the Equalist leader, cutting through her panicked thoughts.  “Some time ago, the two of us had a…chance encounter.  You did not know it then, but I did.  How could I not, when I tried to remove a single bending art and, instead, found three?

He began to slowly approach her, his cold and methodical voice keeping perfect pace with his stride.

“I knew, then, that this knowledge was a weapon.  One to be kept in reserve, until the moment it would most make you bleed,” he continued on.  “That is why I left your native element alone – it would tip my hand too early.  But your other gifts…?”

Terror and wild fury swallowed whole any considerations of subtlety, and Korra felt her body move on its own, desperate to prove him wrong in the deadliest, most devastating way possible.

With her fists and feet, she attempted to melt the ground beneath Amon, swallowing him whole in a torrent of burning earth.  And with the rest of her body, she willed all the chi she could muster to flow through her forehead, and reduce the masked man to a pile of cinders.

But nothing happened.

“Gone, Avatar.  Gone forever,” he finished, now a single step away from her, his unflinching stare bearing down.  “And now…it’s time to finish the job.”

Korra willed herself to move, to fight back – she still had one element available to her, after all.  But no matter how hard she willed it, her legs refused to obey.  She was frozen, paralyzed, as his fingers inched closer and closer…

Her gaze darted, again, to the others, who were struggling harder than ever to free themselves.  But with his limbs completely bound, Bolin’s bending was essentially useless, and Mako’s only slightly less so.

For one brief, hopeful moment, he seemed about to loosen a burst of flame from his mouth, but apparently Amon’s lieutenant had dealt with this before, because he had a countermove ready: an oil-covered cloth that he used to gag the young firebender.  Now, any attempts to breath fire would only set his own head aflame.

And as for Asami…well, it wasn’t really nice to say, but with her own arms and legs held by the chi-blockers like vices, she truly was useless right now.

But then, Korra supposed she shouldn’t be one to talk.  After all, she was going to be in the same boat any second now…

That was right about when the Equalist holding down Bolin reached over and shocked their mustached leader into unconsciousness.

It all happened in a flash.  The masked chi-blocker turned their electrified glove onto the Equalist holding Asami in just the next moment, and at the same time, raised their other fist high and unclenched it.

The metal bindings used on the brothers came apart at once, and though they were clearly both surprised by the development, they wasted little time at leaping into action.  Amon, who just seconds ago had been so close to Korra’s face that she could count the lines on his palm, was forced to retreat from the onslaught of fire and earth, using a spinning leap to duck behind a nearby crate.

Meanwhile, the momentary stunning of her guard was enough for Asami to wriggle herself free, knocking him out cold with a devastating pair of kicks.  Immediately after, she rushed to Korra’s side.

“Come on, we’ve gotta go,” she said urgently, offering her hand to the speechless waterbender.

“I…uh…okay,” murmured Korra, too shocked by all of this to even consider refusing.

The Equalist who’d helped them made a motion to follow, and seeing no better alternative they all did so.  Before they scrambled out through the warehouse’s back door, the traitorous chi-blocker unleashed one last, parting shot – a rising punch that sent tremors through the ceiling, and caused several of the girders hanging over them to vibrate intensely.

They were out the door just seconds before the girders fell, separating themselves from Amon by two tons of tempered iron.

Still, there was no point in taking chances, so the five of them continued to jog away at a brisk speed, eager to get as far from that warehouse as possible.

Mako was the first person to recover from the initial shock enough to ask the obvious question. 

“Who the heck are you, anyway?” he demanded of the Equalist, his expression stern.  “And why did you help us?”

In lieu of an explanation, they simply removed their mask.  Both Korra and Asami gaped.

“Kinzoku…?” whispered the waterbender, but the other woman shook her head.

“My name is no more ‘Kinzoku’ than yours is ‘Mizore,’” she replied, her eyes still directed straight forward.  “I am Kuvira, captain of the Zaofu city guard.  And you, Avatar Korra…are going to answer my questions.”

 

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

 

“Well…” said Lin about an hour later, as she finally plopped herself down behind her desk.  “That could’ve gone better.”

“But it certainly could’ve gone a lot worse, too,” Tenzin pointed out, taking the only other seat in the office and closing the door behind them.  “Lightning Bolt Zolt may’ve gotten away, but we arrested the heads of all three other triads.  Not to mention over two dozen of their rank and file.  This could be the blow that ends their reigns of terror for good.”

If we can make the charges stick,” responded Lin with a frown.  “We held back because we hoped they might let something incriminating slip.  Instead everything got ruined by those…those…”

“Equalists, yes.  There’s no question I was wrong about them,” the airbender finished for her.  “But isn’t that a good thing?  True, we’ll have to eat a bit of lizard-crow next time we see Tarrlok.  But not only do we have definitive proof of their existence…we managed to arrest seven of them.  This is our chance to learn all we can.”

“Except those ‘Equalists’ aren’t talking,” declared the Chief of Police as she leaned back in her chair, looking about ready to collapse.  “I was just in an interrogation room with one for the past hour.  And you don’t understand these people at all.

“What do you mean?” asked Tenzin.

Lin’s eyes, dulled by lack of food or sleep, narrowed in irritation, but she answered the question all the same.

“Most criminals aren’t the most…loyal bunch,” she said, and he knew from the way her fists clenched exactly what – or rather who – she was thinking about.  “You offer them a better plea deal, or a bribe, and nine times out of ten they’ll sell their ‘friends’ up the river before you even finish the question.”

She let out a deep, exhausted yawn, though she tried to cover it up.

“But people like this?  They’re different,” continued the metalbender in a low voice.  “These are fanatics, Tenzin.  Zealots.  This cause they’ve come up with…they believe it, heart and soul.  I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere without going for the man at the top.”

“That masked man.  I believe the flyers called him ‘Amon,’ if I remember correctly,” murmured Tenzin, a pensive expression upon his face.  “Unfortunately, it seems he got away as well.”

“We lost track of him after those boys Tarrlok hired made a run for it,” Lin explained.  “Which we should talk about, by the way.  Today’s meeting is going to be one heck of a fiasco.”

“Perhaps, but he really won’t have a leg to stand on,” replied Tenzin, sounding a little more confident than he actually felt.  “He could have partnered with the police department for his investigation.  Instead he acted on his own, outside the law.  I can only imagine it’s because he wanted the glory for himself.”

Or, it was because not a single one of you was taking my claims seriously,” the waterbender in question suddenly interjected, slamming open the door and striding into the room as if he owned the place.  “Sorry…I was waiting for our most esteemed chief here, and I couldn’t help but overhear.  You really should soundproof this door.”

“I’ll put it on my to-do list,” said Lin, while at the same time affixing the councilman with a look that could kill a platypus-bear.  “Now, what the flameo do you want?”

“I’m wounded by your tone,” Tarrlok answered through a simpering smirk.  “Especially when I’m just here to check on your little…off-the-books operation.  And since the owl-cat’s out of the bag – to see where you’ve stashed my little Fire Ferrets.  But I suppose now I know you haven’t the slightest idea.”

Tenzin let out a long, weary sigh.  “I’m confident they’ll be coming to you fairly soon,” he told his fellow councilman, his tone vaguely accusatory.  “You’re the one paying them, after all.”

“Well, I didn’t tell them to spill everything to you, and it’s fairly obvious they did,” noted the waterbender, tapping his chin quizzically.  “I could use that as a reason not to pay, if I felt like it.  I don’t think I’ll need to go that route, though.  In comparison to my personal fortune, what they’re asking is chump’s change.”

“All gained perfectly legitimately, I’m sure,” Tenzin mumbled under his breath.

Tarrlok clearly hadn’t missed it, however, as his face hardened noticeably.

“I assure you that it absolutely is,” he said through clenched teeth.  “I had to earn everything on my own, and I did all of it cleanly.  It’s not like my family was…”

He stopped abruptly in the middle of his sentence, as if he’d been about to say something he shouldn’t have and caught himself just in time.  Finally, he just added, “It’s not like my family was wealthy.  Just poor fishermen in the North.   I started from nothing, which is more than I can say for either of you.

Lin snorted.  “Trust me, if you wanna make this about who had the worst childhood, you’re not gonna win with me,” she declared with a roll of her eyes.  “Anyway, we’re getting sidetracked.  You wanted to know how the sting went?  Well if you were eavesdropping, you already heard everything I care to share on the subject.  You can wait for the police report for the rest.”

The corner of Tarrlok’s mouth twitched – though out of amusement, irritation, or a bit of both, Tenzin wasn’t entirely sure.

“Very well.  Just one more question, then,” said the waterbender.  “Amon’s power…is it as the rumors say?  Is he truly able to…?”

“Rumors?” repeated Tenzin, his brow furrowing.  “What rumors?”

“Oh, a little here, a little there,” Tarrlok responded evasively.  “But how I found out is rather secondary, I feel, to whether or not it’s the truth.  So…is it?”

“I suppose there’s no point in trying to hide it,” muttered Lin with a sigh.  “From the Council, at least – I’d rather the general public not find out yet.  Anyway, it certainly looks like that’s the case.  Twenty-nine triad members being processed right now, and not one has bent a thing since Amon’s attack.”

“I see…” whispered Tarrlok, folding his hands and adopting an impassive expression.  “Well, I suppose we’ve finally found one thing we can agree upon.  Informing the public right now would provoke mass panic.  We need to find out exactly what Amon is doing to people, and how best to counter it.  Covertly.

Tenzin nodded his agreement as well.  “Once every bender in the city finds out about this, there’ll be no going back,” he said.  “It looks like Amon is trying to start a war with the United Republic.  We can’t risk giving him what he wants.”

That was the moment Captain Saikhan chose to come bursting through the door.

“Chief!” he exclaimed, sweat running down his cheeks and forehead.  “You need to…err…to see…”

His voice fell away as he took in the full scene of the office.  Clearly, he hadn’t expected to run into two councilmen here.

The lines of Lin’s face deepened noticeably.  “As you can see, Captain,” she cut across him, putting emphasis on the rank.  “I’m a bit busy at the moment.  Can it wait?”

Saikhan let out a deep breath, as if he’d been holding it in for several minutes, and shook his head.

“I’m afraid it really can’t, Chief,” he said, his tone even more serious than usual – and that was saying something.  “If you’re not going out there personally, you at least need to turn on your radio.”

Lin wasn’t really sure what he was getting at, but did as he asked nonetheless.  Anything that had Saikhan this worked up merited her full attention.

She turned the dial to the news station.

 

“…ose just joining us, a repeat of our top story.  Less than thirty minutes ago, explosive devices were detonated all across the city.  Direct casualties number at least seventeen, with hundreds more injured.”

“Reports of seven individual bombings have been confirmed thus far.  Targeted areas include City Hall, Republic City University, the Northern and Southern Water Tribe Cultural Centers, the Fire Nation Consulate, Ba Sing Se Bureaucratic Annex, and Avatar Aang Memorial Island.”

United Daily News has verified that the bombings occurred nearly simultaneously, within a space of four or five minutes from each other.  Additionally, each location received an anonymous call shortly before the devices went off, requesting that the building be evacuated.”

“Combined, these facts seem to suggest this was an organized, coordinated attack.  No members of the government or police department have been made available for comment, however, as rescue efforts are still ongoing.”

“We will be bringing you more details as soon as they become available.  Until then, this is Kuroi Shinobi with United Daily News, reporting to you live.”

 

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

 

News of the bombings spread quickly throughout Republic City, and as its people began to rise to the first rays of the dawning sun, it was the sole topic of discussion over any number of breakfast tables.

But there was at least one small tea shop, far away from the city’s hustle and bustle, where the news had not yet reached.

Their conversation was taking on something of a…different tenor.

“Don’t tell me you intend to deny it,” Kuvira demanded of her young charge, affixing her with a piercing glare.  “You are the Avatar.  You came to this city under a false name, for a secret purpose.  I want to know what that purpose is.

“I…” said Korra, her lips barely moving.  Her eyes kept wandering between the four individuals staring expectantly at her from around the table, one after another…but always, without fail, they would end their journey upon Asami.  “I…can’t say.  I’m sorry.”

She blinked, several times, as hot, stinging tears began to flow, unbidden by her conscious mind.

“But the rest…” she continued to whisper, unable to meet their gazes, desperate to find some way out of this and finding absolutely none.  “No…I won’t deny it.  It’s all true.  I am Avatar Korra.”

She chanced a brief glance up at the others, unable to help herself, needing to see their reactions.  Kuvira, of course, displayed no surprise, having deduced this all herself; how, Korra still wasn’t quite sure.

Bolin’s mouth was hanging so low it was a wonder he hadn’t dislocated his jaw.  Stunned into total silence, he could only manage to mouth, his lips contorting exaggeratedly, “The Avatar…”

Mako’s expression was the hardest to read.  His arms were crossed in front of him, his face blank and stoic.  Korra could only assume he was reserving judgment until he heard more.

Then, finally, the Avatar turned to the final face.  The one she’d been dreading the most.

Asami’s face was not especially hard to read…but what Korra saw on it wasn’t anything like what she’d expected.  She didn’t look hurt, or betrayed.  Inexplicably, and yet unmistakably, the emotion it most resembled was…

Sympathy.

“You could’ve told me about this.  But I understand why you didn’t,” the non-bender said in a quiet voice, reaching forward to place one hand atop her own.  “I just wanna know…well, how.  The whole world thinks you’ve been dead for twelve years.”

And there it was.  The brief, uncontrolled swoop of elation that’d swept through her stomach at Asami’s words came crashing down just as quickly, because there was no easy answer to this question.

Obviously, the only reason Asami hadn’t rejected her was that she didn’t know the full story.  In the brief few hours since they’d escaped the warehouse, she’d no doubt concocted some elaborate, overly romantic scenario by which the Avatar had bravely escaped certain doom, and gone on to any number of wild, heroic adventures.

That was all, in a sense, true, but it was also far from the entire tale.  How could one describe the Red Lotus to someone who hadn’t seen what she’d seen, lived what she’d lived?

What they were planning to do, what she was planning to do, would sound insane to an outsider’s ear.  It was all but impossible for people who’d been inundated from birth with lies from blind leaders and corrupt governments to see the world for what it was.

She’d learned this more times than she could count, and it was always a harsh lesson.

It’d be a difficult enough case to make if she was in a calm and stable mindset, and she was about as far from that right now as she’d ever been.  So much had happened over the course of the previous night and day; enough that she hadn’t even begun to deal with half of it.

On any other day, the revelation that she’d lost two-thirds of her bending abilities would’ve consumed every last corner of her mind.  Now…it was almost an afterthought.

If only because she was intentionally trying not to think about it.

She’d been silent for an extremely long time now, and she was acutely aware of it.  Finally, Kuvira seemed to lose what little patience she had, and seized hold of the front of Korra’s clothes.

“You will answer her question, Avatar,” she murmured dangerously, holding the waterbender up until their noses were practically touching.  “Or I’ll see fit to share what you conveniently left out of your story.”

The older woman accompanied these words with a flick of her wrist, causing a metal Pai Sho tile to emerge from her sleeve.  It lingered for less than a second before Kuvira hid it again, but Korra got the message.  Her breath caught in her throat.

“How did you…?” she asked, her voice a strained whisper.

“I am very good at what I do,” said the metalbender, a hint of smugness in her expression.  Her next words were spoken with a raised voice, ensuring the others could hear.  “I know which masters you serve, Avatar.  I see no need to make that knowledge common…should you be willing to fill in the rest of the pieces for me.”

Korra looked stricken, but eventually nodded, acceding to her terms.  She didn’t see a lot of other options.

She could try to run, of course – she’d been thinking about it more or less constantly on their way to this nearly empty teashop – but with only one element, she didn’t fully trust herself against an opponent with so many unknown capabilities.

Particularly one who could bring down an entire building without breaking a sweat.

Before Korra could begin to explain, however, Bolin of all people chose to interject.  “Hold on a second,” he declared, his expression uncharacteristically serious.  “We’re asking an awful lotta questions of Mizore…err, I mean, Korra.  But at least we know her.  Umm…well, that is, we kinda do.  Sorta.”

He swallowed, having stumbled a bit in his momentum, but attempted to recover swiftly.  “My point is…” the earthbender continued on.  “Well, what about you, ma’am?  We only just met, and we barely even know your name!  How come you get to take the lead on all this?”

Kuvira’s expression instantly turned far sterner, and Bolin visibly recoiled from her glare.

“Let us get one thing straight, you conniving little street urchin-crab,” she said, her tone brooking no room for dissent.  “The only reason I’m letting you three sit in on my interrogation is because I hoped you might have some worthwhile information to add.  The moment I have no more use for you, I will take immense pleasure in ejecting you far from my sight.  Are we clear?”

Bolin trembled, suddenly looking ten years younger than he actually was.  “Yes ma’am…” he squeaked, his voice positively tiny.

“Could you at least tell us who you are and why you’re here?” asked Mako, his voice even and reasonable.  “You seem to know all about us.  I think it’s only fair.”

“I have little interest in ‘fairness’ for its own sake.  But…I suppose I can agree to that much, if only for expediency’s sake,” answered Kuvira, releasing a low, measured sigh.  “As I already stated, my name is Kuvira, and I serve as captain of the guard for the Metal Clan of Zaofu.  I’m on a mission on behalf of our city’s matriarch, Suyin Beifong.”

Bolin’s mouth immediately shot open, as if he was about to say something, but the metalbender cut him off preemptively.

“And before you ask, yes, that is ‘Beifong’ as in the youngest daughter of Master Toph, and the sister of your city’s Chief of Police,” she added in an annoyed tone.  “She wished me to conduct an investigation of these ‘Equalist’ vermin, and that is precisely what I’ve done.  It just so happened my investigations also stumbled across something…else.

Her piercing green eyes snapped back to Korra.  “Which brings us back to our original subject,” said the metalbender, without missing a beat.  “You surely came to this city with agenda of your own.  Tell them to me, in detail, before I decide there’s no longer any value in niceties.”

Despite the gravity of the situation, Korra found herself sharing a look with the others, and she could tell they were all thinking the same thing.  This was her being nice?

“Well…the truth is…” the Avatar responded hesitantly.  “The main reason I’m here…is the same one you are.  Trying to look into the Equalists.”

“Hmmm.  I suspected as much,” stated Kuvira, her arms folded.  “They would present a potential threat to your plans.  Even more so, now that their leader has rendered you…unwhole.

Korra cast her gaze downward, blinking away tears she hadn’t realized were still there.

“I still have so many questions,” Asami spoke up again, her own eyes shimmering.  All this time, her hand hadn’t left Korra’s.  “If you’re her – the Avatar who came after Aang – well, wasn’t she from the South?  The Massacre…that’s where everyone thought we’d lost you.  If you survived somehow…”

The waterbender nodded softly.  “Almost everything I’ve ever told you was a lie,” she said, looking askance.  “I’m not from the North…I’ve never even been to the North.  My documents are forged.  All this…it was just to find out about Amon.”

She bit her lip, shaking from head to toe, before adding in a strained, barely audible whisper, “I’m sorry.”

“You may have lied to get your job, but that doesn’t mean you lied about everything,” replied Asami, her tone insistent.  “There’s just one thing I don’t get.  Why that job, specifically?  Why come to Future Industries in the first place?”

“Probably for the same reasons I did,” Kuvira interjected, before Korra could say anything.  Not that she had the first clue what she would’ve said.  “The Avatar appears too much of a coward to broach the subject, so I will.  It’s highly probable your father is connected to the Equalists, Miss Sato.”

Asami was silent for several moments, staring at the metalbender unblinkingly.  Then, in a very quiet voice, she muttered, “…What?”

“It hardly takes a genius to suspect him of a major role,” said Kuvira, betraying not even the slightest hint of sympathy.  “The Equalists possess industrial capability beyond any mere terrorist organization.  Clearly, they have moneyed interests involved – interests that, necessarily, would be non-benders.  Hiroshi Sato fits all of these criteria.”

“And that’s enough for you to accuse him of something so…so horrible?” demanded Asami, her tones incredulous.

“I assure you, those are just a small sampling of my reasons to suspect him.  Few of which I see any value whatsoever in sharing with you,” Kuvira declared contemptuously, before turning back to Korra.  “But I will tell you this much.  At this time two days ago, you still held the full range of your bending.  I was tailing you as you made your way to the Sato residence, and I know you were surreptitiously using seismic sense.”

Korra didn’t try to deny it, though she suppressed a shiver at the implications.  She thought she’d been careful, but clearly…

“And since that night – unless I’m very much mistaken – you’ve been cognizant of your surroundings the entire time,” the metalbender went on, her eyes boring into Korra’s.  “Do you understand what that means?  For Amon to have attacked you while you were unaware, there was only one potential opportunity.”

“When I was…asleep…” the Avatar whispered slowly, her eyes going wide with horror.

“Precisely,” said Kuvira.  “Your visit to the Sato mansion was spontaneous and unannounced.  For Amon to strike there that night by mere coincidence is simply impossible.  Help from the inside would’ve been required.”

“I’m not hearing this,” Asami growled, her hands balled up in fists.  “Even if what you’re saying is true, it’s no reason to suspect my father.  It could’ve been anyone who works at our estate.  Heck, it could’ve been me.

“I haven’t completely placed you below suspicion, as of yet,” Kuvira stated harshly, her own body tensing reflexively.  “But for now, my focus is upon Hiroshi Sato.  It’ll be a little more difficult now that my cover as ‘Kinzoku’ has been blown…but I suppose that really can’t be helped.”

“Yeah, uh…I got a question about that,” Bolin cut in, speaking up for the first time since Kuvira had badgered him into silence.  “How come you were there in the first place?  And dressed up like one of those freaky mask guys!”

Obviously, I was in disguise to infiltrate the summit,” said Kuvira, her tone dismissive, as if she was lecturing a five-year-old.  “I’d hoped I could enter and leave under the cover of my stolen uniform, with Amon none the wiser.  But I couldn’t stand back and allow the Avatar to be struck down.”

The metalbender’s eyes narrowed.  These next words, though she said them with the same logical and matter-of-fact tone as she did everything else, were no doubt coming straight from the heart.

“Whatever she is, whatever she now…represents, she is too important to the world for it to lose,” she told them, her face impassive.

“Not again.”

 

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

 

Each of the gathered leaders of Republic City stared at the next in turn, unsure who should be the first to speak.

Finally, after the silence had stretched on to nearly three minutes, Lin more or less summed things up with a murmured, “By the spiritbegotten spirits of a spirit’s spirit and the spirit mother of a spirit spirit spirit…”

Several of those words were not actually “spirit,” but that was how Tenzin chose to interpret them.

“We have to get out there,” said Tenzin, already leaping to his feet with an accompanying flurry of wind.  “Those people need our help.”

Saikhan held up a hand.  “Our officers are deploying in full force to save lives and control the damage,” he explained.  “With all due respect, Councilman, I don’t think rushing in right now would be a very good idea.”

Listen to him, Tenzin,” added Tarrlok, his tones blunt and impatient.  “While I can appreciate the urge to play the valiant hero, you can do a lot more good from here, determining how we catch those responsible.”

Tenzin sighed, but nodded softly.  Much as he hated to admit it, Tarrlok was right.

Sitting back down, he turned back to the other two and asked, “I assume we’re all thinking the same thing?”

Tarrlok nodded as well.  “The Equalists.  This has their filthy hands written all over it,” he spat out.  “I told you that if we didn’t clamp down on them early, they’d go after ordinary benders next.  Looks like we didn’t have to wait long.”

Lin, however, seemed deep in thought, barely listening to what the chairman was saying in increasingly venomous tones.  He shot her an inquisitive look, but she didn’t acknowledge it.

“In any event, they couldn’t have struck at a worse time,” said the airbender, deciding to bring it up later – once Tarrlok was no longer in the room.  “With the majority of the police’s metalbenders deployed to the summit, our forces were severely stretched everywhere else.”

“Yes…” responded the waterbender, his eyes narrowed.  “And I very much doubt that was a coincidence.”

That managed to shake Lin out of her reverie.  “What exactly are you getting at, Tarrlok?” she demanded, a sharp edge to her voice.

“I’ll be blunt, Chief,” he replied, folding his fingers together in that smug, self-important way only he could pull off.  “You’ve got a leak in your department.  Only a very small contingent of your subordinates knew about the sting ahead of time.  Even I didn’t find out until after the fact.”

“You think the Equalists have a mole amongst the police,” said Tenzin, mulling over the notion carefully.  “I suppose it could be possible.  We still know so little about their capabilities.”

“Ludicrous.  I refuse to believe it,” declared Lin, her voice practically a growl.  “There are bad cops here and there, sure.  But none of them are on the take from terrorists in theatre masks.”

“Then what other explanation is there?” Tarrlok asked.  He didn’t bother to wait for an answer.  “Deal with the facts, Chief Beifong.  Your elite metalbenders are above reproach – probably – but there are plenty of non-benders who work in your department as well.  And we need to do something about them.”

“I’m not sure I like where this is going,” the airbender cut in, his brow furrowed.

“I expect you won’t.  But that doesn’t make it any less necessary,” said the chairman.  He extracted a sheaf of papers from his breast pocket.  “Later today, I will again present this proposal to the Council – to render association with the Equalists illegal, and to institute a mandatory curfew for all non-benders.  Both measures which are long overdue.  But now, I’ll be joining them with one other.”

Tarrlok paused for a moment, his mouth a thin line, before finishing, “A formal inquisition will be opened into each and every non-bender in public service.  Police, military, or civilian.  It’s the only way to be certain.”

“Have you lost your mind, Tarrlok?!” exclaimed Tenzin, scrambling to his feet once again.  “Didn’t I just say we shouldn’t let Amon turn this into a war between benders and non-benders?  You’re practically sending this to him gift-wrapped!

“You’ll have your say at the meeting, Tenzin…just as you always do,” the waterbender answered, his lip slightly curled.  “Just don’t blame me if you find yourself in the…distinct minority.  But then, I suppose you’d be used to that by now.”

“This is a rare sentence for me, but I agree with Tenzin,” said Lin.  “Your proposal is going to do way more harm than good.  Heck, we still aren’t even certain the Equalists are responsible for this one.”

“Oh, please.  Who else could it be?” asked Tarrlok, rolling his eyes.

Throughout their meeting, the gathered councilmen and police officers had left the radio on, just in case it reported any updates.  But no new information had come in the last twenty minutes or so, and with the same story repeating over and over, the dulcet tones of Kuroi Shinobi largely faded into the background.

Still, when those tones abruptly cut off, it drew the attentions of everyone in the room immediately.

Static blared over the speakers for several seconds, eerie and dissonant.  Then, another voice began to speak.

A voice all but one of them had heard very recently.

 

“Good morning, people of Republic City.  You may call me Amon.”

“By now, I’m sure that most of you have witnessed my handiwork.  Our handiwork.  Let it be known that the Equalist Movement claims full responsibility for the bombings that rocked your city today.”

“Some of you may have already heard of our cause.  Many, I’m sure, have not.  But either way, I think this a good time to establish what we stand for…and, what we demand.”

“For thousands of years, this world has known one, singular truth.  That those fortunate enough to be born with power of bending were its natural rulers, and all the rest…fit only to be crushed beneath their heel.”

“We are here to expose that ‘truth’ for exactly what it is.  History’s oldest, cruelest lie.”

“For those who have clung to this wretched, unnatural power as a way to subjugate your fellow man, know this: your time, your era, is over.  Never again shall you rape or slaughter with impunity.  Never again shall you escape judgment for your crimes.  Never again shall you be safe.

“All who have spent their lives bullied and downtrodden by the bending elites…you, the silent majority, may breathe easy.  We will be your protectors.  And we will create a world where no child will have to grow up alone…because of some bender punk.”

“Last night, I took another step toward that goal.  No doubt, many of you have witnessed the atrocities of the bending triads firsthand.  Perhaps you have a friend or a loved one who’s been burned, bludgeoned, or drowned on dry land.  Perhaps you have been a victim of their monstrous attacks.”

“But now, for the first time in decades…this city’s innocents have nothing to fear.  A few short hours ago, with my own hand, I ended the triads.  Once and for all.”

“No doubt, some of you will be skeptical.  But the truth of my power will become obvious in time.  The spirits themselves have turned against the mortal world – and the way we have allowed bending to twist and pervert it.  That is why they have granted me the ultimate weapon.  The weapon I used to render the criminal filth of Republic City incapable of harming another.”

“I took their bending away.

“It is a power I can, and will, use on any bender.  Water, earth, fire, and air.  None can stand against me.  None are immune to our Solution.”

“Make no mistake – this is only the beginning.  We will accept nothing less than the complete dissolution of the bending establishment.  A purge of benders from all positions of power in government, business, and law.  And the recognition of bending as the high crime it truly is…worthy of a sentence of life.”

“These changes can happen peacefully.  Or…they can be taken by force.”

“The choice is yours, Republic City.”

 

The radio became static once more.

Tarrlok turned to the others.  His face was set somewhere halfway between smug self-satisfaction…and a grim, subdued resignation.

“Any more doubts?” he asked quietly.

He didn’t bother to wait for an answer before picking up his papers and storming out the door.

 

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

 

“Did you hear that, Zhu Li?” said Varrick excitedly, practically dancing a jig as he turned off his own radio.  “We might not even have to use the ad campaign for our mover!  Amon’s the best pitchman I’ve ever seen!”

Zhu Li did not respond immediately, as she was currently buried underneath something in the neighborhood of four-thousand flyers, craning her neck around the enormous stack to try and see where she was going.

Each of the flyers was emblazoned with a cartoonishly exaggerated depiction of Amon’s grinning face – or grinning mask, rather – along with a headshot of Ginger in her princess costume, looking distraught and pretending to scream.

The title was printed above them in a sharp, messy font Varrick’s marketing team had assured him was sufficiently “spooky.”

The Curse of Amon, the Ancient and Almighty!

Last-minute rewrites had turned Amon of the film into a centuries-old immortal being seeking vengeance for his long-dead wife.  Combined with Varrick’s general predilection for alliteration – second only to his insistence on prefixing as many things with “Varri-” as possible – the choice had seemed obvious.

Well…obvious to him, anyway.

In any event, Zhu Li was not exactly happy to hear that all her work designing, printing, and hauling around these ridiculous posters might be for naught.  The best way to phrase this, however, eluded her.

Yet as he was wont to do, with an almost distressing level of frequency, Varrick seemed to read her mind, adding, “Of course, as long as we’ve got ‘em handy, we might as well stick to the original plan.  No such thing as too much publicity!  That’s a Verified Varri-fact.”

“Then I’ll get these mailed out right away, sir,” said his assistant, bowing her head.

“Very good, very good,” he replied, showing off his charming smile as he reclined back in his chair.  “You see, Zhu Li, what everyone’s gonna be scrambling around for now is answers.  Because the one thing everybody, and I mean everybody hates…is being kept in the dark.  If you can sell people answers, you can sell ‘em anything.”

Varrick gestured casually to the radio.  “All that big grand speechifying he just did?  That’s gonna have people running scared all over town,”  he continued.  “They’re gonna be desperate for something, anything that’ll tell ‘em more about this guy.  Who is he?  Where’d he come from?  Will buying a patented Varri-Armor Body Suit save me from his ancient undead wrath?  When they see these flyers in their mailboxes tomorrow, it’ll feel like a spiritsend!”

“Except you made all those details up,” Zhu Li point out.  “None of us actually know those things.”

“Well, yeah,” said Varrick, rolling his eyes and shrugging dramatically.  “I’m creating art here, not a news broadcast.  Not my fault if the audience takes it too seriously.”

Zhu Li was briefly tempted to reply that no, in fact, there was very little chance of anyone taking this mover seriously.  She elected not to say so aloud, however.

“Turning our attentions to another topic,” she stated after a moment, pointing to another set of papers on his desk with her foot.  Her hands were still busy putting postage on over four-thousand flyers.  “Something’s been bothering me ever since the bombings.  Are you aware that two nights ago, a shipment full of our proprietary explosives went missing?”

“Oh yeah, I know,” answered the Southerner, picking up a children’s toy from his desk and playing with it absently.  “I’m the one who left the warehouse unlocked.”

Beneath her glasses, Zhu Li’s eyes went momentarily wide.  “What…?” she asked quietly.

“Whoever was in charge of keeping a lookout, he was really bad at it,” said Varrick with a casual shrug.  “Spotted him like three times.  I figured they had to be after the bombs and detonators, so I just let ‘em take ‘em.  Figured this was pretty much exactly what they’d do.  And hey, I was right!  One more win for the Varrick column!”

“But…But sir…” murmured his assistant, her normal, emotionless demeanor cracking slightly.  “All those people…”

“Not saying I’m proud of it!” he exclaimed, throwing up his arms defensively.  “But hey, this is war, Zhu Li.  Great for business, not so good for the whole ‘people not dying’ thing.  At least there weren’t too many this time.”

This time…Zhu Li wasn’t sure if he’d intended those words to sound so chilling.

Nevertheless, she couldn’t really think of a good counterargument.  Nothing short of finally leaving him, anyway…and to be frank, even if he’d killed those seventeen people personally, she doubted she would’ve been able to do that.

She was bound to this man, inextricably drawn to him, and had largely resigned herself to the idea that this would be the case for life.

Devoid of anything resembling morals he might be, but there was still no one on the planet who came close to matching his sheer genius.  She couldn’t just walk away from that.

As such, though conflict continued to rage in her heart, outwardly Zhu Li affected her stoic mask once more and said with a nod, “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“Just you keep being you,” Varrick responded with a grin and a wink, as if he’d just said something intensely profound.  “Heck, after you’ve got those flyers sent out, why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

That wasn’t a set of words she heard out of him very often.  Or…ever, really.  “Are you certain, sir?” she asked.

He waved his hand dismissively.  “My breakfast’s been cooked and my bunions have been scraped.  I think I can handle it from here,” he told her, before taking on a pensive look, as if thinking better of it.  “Weeeeell…I can handle it until dinner, anyway.  Be back by then and we’re golden.”

The Southerner gave her a double thumbs-up and another wink.

“In the meantime, you go out and enjoy yourself,” he went on to add, smiling so wide his teeth glinted in the morning sun.  “You’ve definitely earned it.”

Zhu Li wasn’t sure she deserved to blush right now.  But she did, nonetheless.

Unable to think of anything else to say, she returned his smile, hesitantly, and then left the office.

It was all she trusted herself to be able to do right now.

 

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

 

“So, uh…is anyone gonna deal with the elephant-mandrill in the room here?” asked Bolin, his voice small and tentative.

The others turned toward him, unsure of what he was getting at.

“Err…well, however or whenever he did it, Amon took away the Avatar’s bending!  The Avatar!” he said, gesturing to Korra with both hands.  “We’re not gonna just let him get away with that, are we?”

“Not really sure what you mean by that, bro,” replied Mako.  “I don’t pretend to get how it happened, but it did.  There’s nothing we can really do about it, is there?”

“We track him down, kick his butt, and make him give her bending back!” declared the earthbender.  “I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it?  This is fate!”

“Umm…fate?” Asami repeated, clearly just as lost as the rest of them.

“Well, look at us!” exclaimed Bolin, starting to become a bit exasperated that no one was on the same page as him.  “An earthbender, a firebender, a metalbender, a non-bender, and the Avatar!  And we all came together…err, well, kinda…after a big scary adventure!  Didn’t you guys ever hear the stories of Team Avatar in their prime?”

“Of course.  I mean, everyone has,” said Asami.  “But what’s this gotta do with us?

Mako, however, had cottoned to his brother’s meaning.  And he groaned rather vocally.

“Bro, focus.  We were there to get paid so we can enter the tournament,” the firebender reminded him.  “Don’t go trying to turn this into…”

“There are things in this world more important than yuans!” Bolin called out, leaping to his feet and extending his pointer finger straight in the air.  “Don’t you all see?  We could be the New Team Avatar!  Fighting to restore the Avatar to full power – righting wrongs and saving fair maidens along the way, of course – so she can save the whole world!”

“I cannot even begin to express how little the idea of being on a ‘team’ appeals to me,” Kuvira stated sharply.  “But…”

Then, to the immense surprise of all gathered, her mouth suddenly twisted into a small but unmistakable smile.

“I concede there may be some value in…pooling our resources,” she continued, her hands folded neatly.  “Let me be clear: I do not particularly like any of you.  But we each possess connections and information the others lack.  If it helps to bring some semblance of order to this spiritforsaken city, I’d be…amenable to cooperation.”

Mako let out a lengthy sigh.  “Gonna make me out to be the bad guy on this one, aren’t you?” he said to his brother, shaking his head as he did.  “Alright, fine.  Long as we get paid, I guess we can do this too.  Let’s keep it on the down-low, though.  We’ve already attracted enough attention as it is.”

As soon as he finished speaking, Asami turned to Korra and rested a hand on her drooping shoulder.

“Whatever happens…” she whispered, her eyes staring forward intently.  “I’m with you.  Don’t forget that.”

And then, just like that, all eyes were on Avatar Korra.  She directed her gaze downward once again, her face burning under the pressure.  As she’d been pretty much since the moment they’d left the warehouse, she wished desperately that she could have some time alone.

Knowing they were expecting an answer, she hastily pushed herself to think this all through logically.  Certainly, it’d be all but impossible to do what she needed to during Harmonic Convergence, without the power of a fully realized Avatar.  And in any event, in order to complete her current mission, she had to confront Amon again.  Either to hold a dialogue with him, or else to…

Well, regardless, it followed that she should take any available opportunity to force such a confrontation.  Sure, there were risks involved.  But for better or worse, she’d already told these four so much.  Her cover was hopelessly compromised either way.

She wasn’t sure whether what Amon did even was reversible – heck, she wasn’t really sure what he was doing, period – but didn’t she at least owe it to the Lotus to try?

“If…If you guys can help me…if you guys really wanna help me…” she finally managed to choke out, speaking through tightened lips.  “Then okay.  I’m in.”

 

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

 

“Alright, I think I’ve done everything I can here.  Time to get moving,” said Lin Beifong, neatly arranging a tall stack of reports and locking them in her desk drawer with her bending.  She’d have to get around to them once things died down a bit.

If things ever died down a bit.

“I’ll make sure the other councilmembers are informed of the current situation,” Tenzin offered, leaping to his feet as well.  “After that …I’d like to stop by Avatar Aang Memorial Island.  Several of our acolytes work there part-time.  I want to make sure they’re alright.”

Lin waved her hand airily.  “Do whatever you want.  It doesn’t concern me,” she told him, already halfway out the door.

“Lin…” he murmured, his face falling slightly at her tone.

“It…wasn’t the worst thing in the world to team up last night.  Like old times,” she found herself saying, for reasons she wasn’t fully capable of explaining.  She was still facing resolutely away.  “But the night’s over.  And we’ve both got things to do.”

Before she could manage to slip away, however, the airbender raised his voice and called out, “There was something else you had to say.  Something you didn’t want to tell Tarrlok.”

Lin stiffened for a moment.  “What makes you think that?” she asked, her tone measured.

“Because I know you, Lin.  There’s no sense in pretending I don’t,” answered Tenzin.  “It was right after we heard the first news report.”

The Chief of Police let out a hefty sigh.  “It was…probably nothing,” she said, placing one hand upon the doorknob.

“I’d still like to know,” he replied.  “Your ‘probably nothings’ are better than most people’s best hunches.”

She could tell that he was crossing his arms without turning around, merely by his tone of voice.  One of the many “skills” she’d picked up from her mom.

Lin sighed again.  “Alright, fine,” she growled, her voice low.  “It has to do with their targets.  Admittedly, we don’t know much about the Equalists yet, but something about the attack seems…off.

“What do you mean?” asked the councilman.

“No question, attacking City Hall makes sense.  And there’s a certain poetry, I guess, in attacking places linked to all four elements,” she explained.  “But if their pork-beef is with bending, the university’s the odd one out.  Most of its students and staff are non-benders.  It’s one of the places where discrimination against non-benders is least tolerated.”

“Perhaps Amon doesn’t know that,” said Tenzin.  “It’s a target with a high amount of visibility.  If his intention was to send a message, that might’ve been all he cared about.”

But Lin shook her head.  “If he just wanted to put a scare into benders, there’re so many other places he could’ve attacked,” she continued.  “Bending schools, the pro-bending arena…even a crowded street or an office building, if he doesn’t care about casualties.  But he called in warnings beforehand, so that’s definitely not the case.”

“Well, the attacks certainly aren’t random, either,” responded Tenzin – stating the obvious, as usual.  “So are you seeing a different connection?”

The metalbender scowled, though she knew he couldn’t see it.

“I am,” she muttered, her brow furrowed thoughtfully.  “I just…don’t know what it means, yet.”

 

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

 

Some people, while on the run from the law, would adopt as austere a lifestyle as possible, in order to minimize their profile.

Lightning Bolt Zolt, who was presently leaning back in his cushy armchair and sipping liberally from a glass of flaming baijiu, was clearly not one of those people.

So confident was he that the firebender was “laying low” in his very own office – a laundry service used to provide cover for his illicit “side businesses” and turn a healthy profit of its own.

“No two ways ‘bout it,” he said in between sips of his beverage, relishing the sensation of his insides being lightly singed.  While traditionally an Earth Kingdom drink, Fire Nation settlers had long since discovered the advantages of lighting its rim aflame.  “Last night was a bust.”

He drummed his fingers along the edge of his chair at he took another, lengthy draught.

“I call everybody together to see what we can do ‘bout those Equalist fellas, an’ what happens?” the firebender went on, his every word slow and methodical.  “Every other triad leader gets the bendin’ knocked right outta ‘em.  Same with most o’ our guys.  Only folks who got away unscathed were me, an’ a couple o’ my lieutenants.  Y’know…s’almost as if…”

Zolt’s face suddenly twisted into a tight leer.  “Somebody planned it that way,” he finished with a low, sadistic chuckle.

He raised what remained of his glass to meet his partner’s, which still remained full.  Understandable, of course.

Zolt couldn’t well ask him to remove his mask in this sort of company, after all.

“Then I suppose all things went according to plan,” said Amon, accepting the toast.

“More o’ less.  I lost a couple guys to the cops, but they’re small-fry.  I know you had to make it look convincin’,” replied the firebender, downing the rest of his drink and immediately moving to refill it.  “Besides, they’re more than worth eliminatin’ every bit o’ competition in a single night.  As o’ today, this city belongs to the Triple Threats.”

“It was an elaborate scheme, indeed,” stated the masked man, his voice even.

Bolstered by his victory and giddy from the amount of alcohol he’d consumed, that was all the invitation Zolt needed to begin gloating.

“The tricky part was gettin’ the cops to show up at the right time,” he told the other man.  “Paid off a guy I know in the Agni Kais to leak the time an’ place.  Then I jus’ had to make sure I gave them – an’ you – a good openin’ to strike.  Thankfully, Long Shi can always be counted on to be an idiot.”

“I see.  And what are your plans, now that you control Republic City’s underworld?” asked Amon, his tones still betraying no emotion one way or another.

“Good question.  Never thought it’d be this easy,” answered Zolt.  “But hey, you see an opportunity…ya grab it.  That’s always been my motto.  An’ you, my friend, were one heckuva opportunity.”

The gangster began tapping at his broad chin, looking quizzical.

“Guess the first order o’ business will be gettin’ what remains o’ the other triads in line,” he eventually said.  “The Terras an’ Monsoons should be easy; they’re on the brink o’ collapse already, an’ they know it.  The Kais could be trickier…but I think my bein’ a firebender should help smooth things over.  I may not be one o’ them smoky chicks, but I could bend circles ‘round Niao any day o’ the week.  Not that that’s sayin’ much now, I guess…”

Amon didn’t reply except by leaning forward slightly, his painted grin ever-present.

“Anyway, I ain’t forgotten my end o’ the deal,” Zolt added hastily, downing another glass in a single gulp as he did.  “We’ll lay off on harassin’ the districts we discussed, an’ we’ll keep outta the way o’ your guys if they ever run into each other.”

His smug, self-satisfied smirk returned.  “Can’t get rid o’ bendin’ crime entirely,” he murmured, his tone amicable.  This was clearly meant to be taken as some form of friendly advice.  “But at least now you can make it work for you, instead o’ against.”

There was a single, silent beat.  Then Amon said, “Oh?  I’m not quite sure I agree.”

Zolt’s muscles tensed slightly, and one of his eyebrows rose.  “What’re you gettin’ at?” he asked, very carefully.

“I mean to say that there’s at least one way the triads could be toppled,” whispered Amon, and though his voice was low the firebender had no trouble hearing every word.  All other sound in the room seemed to have suddenly ceased.  “For example, you could simply manipulate one of its heads into devouring all the others.  Then, the entire system could be cut down…”

In a single blink, the masked man had leapt to his feet and crossed the distance between them.

“With a single stroke,” he concluded, his hand already outstretched.

Zolt’s face twitched slightly, his smirk not quite disappearing, as if he was half-convinced this was a joke.

“You think I didn’t see this comin’?” he said, a distinct edge to his voice that was just shy of genuine panic.  “Shin, Viper, get yo’ lazy butts in here!”

But the door to his office remained closed.

“Their bending was already gone the moment you poured your first glass,” Amon informed him, flexing each of his fingers individually with an audible pop.  “But don’t worry.  Your impurity won’t plague you for much longer.”

Letting loose a furious roar, Zolt moved to unleash the power that lent him his moniker.  But the very instant he leapt to his feet, one of his legs suddenly buckled beneath him, and he collapsed into a heap.

That was all the opening Amon needed.

It look less than a minute for the bloodbender to “equalize” the arrogant crimelord, signal the chi-blockers who’d covertly eliminated his security, and load him into one of his own laundry trucks.

Amon had been fine with leaving the other triad leaders in the police’s clutches, but Lightning Bolt Zolt was the face of bending tyranny for any number of Republic City’s most impoverished citizens.  Trotting him out at some later date, beaten and humiliated, could make for valuable propaganda.

Once that was done with, Amon dismissed the rest of his forces, leaving him alone in Zolt’s spacious office.  He hesitated for a moment, stretching out his bloodbending senses to make certain nobody else was near, before sitting down at the gangster’s desk, pulling off his mask, and reached for the bottle of baijiu.

Amon tended not to partake in any food or drink while out in the field, but on this particular day he made an exception, downing glass after glass of the steaming beverage.  It burned his tongue and the inside of his mouth, but that only spurred him to drink more quickly.

The pain was a useful reminder right now.

Things were progressing more rapidly than the bloodbender had ever imagined, and quiet moments like this were becoming fewer and farther between.  That was the disadvantage of heading a cult of personality, after all.  The mask could never come off – figuratively or literally.

Noatak was allowed to be human, just for a little while.  Amon was not.

At any given time, a thousand different things were there to occupy his attentions.  Writing speeches to rally fresh recruits and stalwart diehards alike; personal inspections of their weapons and mecha-tanks; “purification” of the latest batch of captives, and then deciding on what to do with them afterward.

The previous night had been no exception.  For most people, an unplanned encounter with the Avatar would’ve been all they could think about, several hours later.

For Amon, she was just another factor to take into consideration.

Seconds after polishing off his eighth glass, the bloodbender became aware of another presence in the building.  He’d missed their approach – alcohol dulled his “blood sense,” which was part of the reason he almost never partook – but at this range, even his weakened bending couldn’t possibly fail to notice them.

Hastily, Noatak slid his mask over his false scars, becoming Amon once more.  Of course, one could certainly argue he never actually stopped these days.

The figure entered the office in a cloak, hood pulled down to hide all but the bottom half of his face, but Amon recognized him immediately.  No disguise could change one’s blood.

“Should I be concerned you located me so quickly?” asked Amon, gesturing to the chair he’d been using during his meeting with Zolt.  The hooded man dutifully sat down.

“Oh, please.  Don’t try to pretend you don’t have just as many spies following me as I do you,” said the other man, pulling back his hood once his own senses – not bending ones, of course, but just as well-practiced – had convinced him they were alone.

The Republic City Council’s page, Jilu, grinned cheekily.  “Frankly, if you didn’t, I’d feel kind of insulted,” he added, as he began folding his cloak into a neat pile.

“Still…talented spies, to have alerted you with such haste,” stated Amon, folding his hands upon the desk between them.  “I suppose they’ve kept you abreast of what just transpired?”

“More or less,” Jilu replied airily.  “And yes, the Lotus counts some of the world’s best among their membership.  They’re not all like poor Nei Jian.  Although…I suppose I should be grateful to the child.  Without his capture as a catalyst, our partnership would’ve never blossomed.”

“I’d refrain from using the term ‘partnership,’ if you please,” said Amon, his tones low and warning.  “Our goals, for the moment, align.  That does not mean I’ll hesitate to destroy you, when the time comes.”

Jilu’s mouth twitched upward in bemusement.  “The feeling’s mutual, I assure you,” he told the bloodbender.

“So why exactly are you here?” asked Amon after a moment’s pause, a subtle but distinct sharpness to his voice.

The older man shrugged his shoulders indifferently.  “Just felt like checking in.  I was the one who suggested we use Zolt’s ambitions to our own ends, after all,” he answered with a smile.  “Last night was a big one, for both our causes.”

“I allowed you a measure of input on our targets.  Nothing more,” Amon said quietly.  “It just so happens that the bending elites and corrupt leaders of the world are, quite often, one and the same.  Not a single government on this planet could persist without the power of bending to dominate and oppress.”

“Nevertheless, a vital blow has been struck to the adversaries of freedom,” responded Jilu, removing his glasses and beginning to wipe them diligently with a cloth.  “Even if they don’t yet realize it.  The Red Lotus is content to rise in the Equalists’ shadow.  It will make it all the easier when we finally do step into the light.”

“Until the moment we build a truly equal government upon the ashes of the old,” the bloodbender reminded him.  “Then, I trust, we shall become your prey.”

“Well, excepting that such a thing simply isn’t possible,” said Jilu, taking on a didactic tone.  “Governments are unequal by definition.  They determine what one person should have and another should not.  No matter how grand your intentions, you can never escape that simple fact.”

He leaned back in his chair and replaced his glasses.

“But, I see no reason not to allow you to try and prove me wrong,” he continued, smirking knowingly.  “You’ll fail, of course, but you can certainly try.  It’s only at that point that we’ll become enemies.”

“Whereas you shall be our enemies for as long as you employ bending to your cause,” whispered Amon, leaning forward slightly to emphasize his severity.  “Make no mistake: the Equalists see no more ‘good benders’ than you see good governments.  My mission shall not be satisfied until every bender on this planet has been purified.”

He paused for a moment before finishing, his voice deathly cold, “And that includes your Avatar.”

The corners of Jilu’s smile twitched again.  “She really belongs more to Zaheer’s group than the Lotus as a whole,” he said.  “We allow them to do their own thing, for the most part.”

Beneath his mask, though it was hard to see, Amon’s beady eyes narrowed.

He isn’t aware of this,” murmured the bloodbender, suddenly realizing.

“Zaheer is a fool.  A valuable one, but a fool nonetheless,” explained Jilu.  “His faction wastes time meddling with spirits we scarcely understand, let alone are able to control.  His plans for Harmonic Convergence are doomed to failure, and will only set back our cause.”

Amon filed away that information for later.  He doubted he’d get a straight answer if he asked directly, but whatever “Harmonic Convergence” was, anything to do with the spirits warranted…further investigation.

Instead, he merely said, “So the Equalists represent a power play for you.”

“An apt way to put it, I suppose,” replied Jilu, pleased by the other man’s shrewdness.  “Zaheer has been a devotee to our cause since he was a teenager, but the success of his gambit for the Avatar…emboldened him.  Caused him to seek grander and grander prizes that could jeopardize our very existence.  I, and those like me, believe we should concentrate on toppling world leaders, rather than playing around with spiritual mumbo-jumbo.”

“Then…I suppose you’re not displeased by what I did to the Avatar?” Amon asked, deciding to keep things vague, wanting to know how well-informed his spies were really keeping him.

“Not at all!” Jilu exclaimed genially.  “Although I’m still not sure why you’d leave the Avatar a single element in the first place, if you were just going to remove it anyway.”

Amon’s inner voice quietly swore.  Clearly, they were keeping him very well-informed.

“You’re assuming I ever intended to follow through in that warehouse,” said the bloodbender.  “I knew there was an interloper amongst my chi-blockers; disguises are useless trifles against me.  I gambled that threatening the Avatar would force her to expose herself…and, quite evidently, I succeeded.”

Amon folded his arms.  “Besides, there’d be little value in neutralizing the Avatar so…cleanly,” he went on.  “So long as she possesses one of her weapons, she’ll never stop pursuing me for the rest.  And with every confrontation, I will learn more.  About this ‘Zaheer,’ and what he intends for me.  And about the girl herself.”

“What’s there to learn?” Jilu tossed off, waving his hand dismissively.  “I’ve met young Korra.  She’s clever, for what she is.  But she’s also naïve, sheltered, and in way over her head.  I see no reason why my fellows place such faith in her.”

“Perhaps, old man…” said Amon, his lips tightly pursed.  “That is precisely what you should learn.”

“Another thing I’m welcome to be proven wrong about,” responded Jilu, before standing up from his chair and making a deep bow.  “In any event, I must be off.  Tarrlok will be expecting me at this afternoon’s Council meeting.”

Amon slowly rose to his feet as well, and in his case, it made for a rather more impressive effect.

“Very well.  But let me make one thing perfectly clear, before we part,” spoke the bloodbender, his voice barely above a whisper and yet cutting like a knife nonetheless.  “The man who sat here earlier this morning thought he could use the Equalists as pawns to grab power.  For that, he lost everything.

He leaned forward slightly, towering over the older man.

“I choose to believe you are smarter than Lightning Bolt Zolt,” he said, his masked face less than a foot from Jilu’s own.  He could see his reflection looming in the page’s glasses.  “Don’t repeat his mistake.”

Those were the last words he chose to deliver before striding out of the office, exiting straight through the front door and onto a crowded street.

For a moment – just for a moment, for he knew he had no more than that – he stood still, basking in the morning sun.

This was a new dawn.  A new day.

And with that, he disappeared into the shadows once more.

 

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

 

That morning, with the obvious exception of the Triple Threats – who hadn’t yet learned of Zolt’s fate – panic had rapidly set in amongst the various triad headquarters.

The Agni Kais, at least, had one advantage the others didn’t: one of their lieutenants, a young man who called himself Ketto, had managed to make it back from the disastrous summit.  Since details were scarce at best on what exactly had occurred, he soon found himself besieged by desperate questions from the gang’s elders and newcomers alike.

He left out the part where he’d only gotten away by leaving their beloved leader to the mercies of the Equalists and police.

The Council of Smoke and Shadow was meeting now to select Niao’s successor; even if she was someday released from prison, a non-bender could never be permitted to lead.  This left Ketto to his own devices, for the most part.

Which was how he’d managed to sneak away for a stroll through Republic City Park, searching ardently for an old friend.

Thankfully, the man wasn’t difficult to find.  As he nearly always was at this time of the morning, he was illegally fishing from the park’s river and whistling a merry tune.

For a hobo with no way to tell the time, he kept an impeccable schedule.

“Hey, old buddy!” Gommu called out, waving him over with both hands and inadvertently dropping his fishing pole in the river.  “Oh, dagnabbit.  And that was my favorite rod, too!”

“It was…a stick,” said Ketto, sitting down upon the grass next to the homeless man and smoothing out his crimson robes.

“Ah, but a very good stick,” declared Gommu, as if that obviously settled the matter.  “Anyway, what can I do ya for?”

“Would it be possible for you to send out another telegram?” asked the firebender, cutting right to the chase.  “One that can’t be traced back to me.”

“The usual order, then?” Gommu replied with a grin.  “And the usual payment, I trust?”

Ketto sighed, and placed a heavy satchel in the hobo’s waiting hand.  Gommu immediately tore open the bag and licked his lips, mouth watering at the prize: two full pounds of spiced komodo-rhino meat.

“Alrighty, can do!” he exclaimed, sealing the satchel back up and tossing it over his shoulder.  “I’ve got my setup in the sewers ready and rarin’ to go.  You wanna come with, or just give me the message now?”

The firebender made a face.  “As…tempting…as that sounds, I need to be getting back soon,” he said.  “If I’m not there when they finish their meeting, the old ladies might start asking questions.”

Instead, he handed a folded piece of paper over to the homeless man, which he quickly opened and read.  A few seconds later, he nodded.

“This shouldn’t take me too long.  I’ll get right on it, sir,” he told Ketto, already leaping to his feet.  Albeit, that might’ve been because of the cop wandering dangerously nearby.

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ anymore.  You know that, right?” asked the firebender in a low voice, but Gommu just shook his head.

“Old habits die hard,” he murmured, as the two of them walked quickly away from the park.  “Neither of us may be in the United Forces anymore…but you’re still a general to me.

“Just get that message to my grandfather, alright?” said Ketto, his mouth barely moving.  “And quickly.

Gommu tossed off a quick salute, and stuffed the message into the front pocket of his meat-satchel.  As he swung around to face the other direction, the only decoration on the bag came into view: a stylized illustration of a white flower, its petals open in bloom.

Ketto watched on as the hobo hurried away, before disappearing through a manhole cover as casually as most would a door.

Underneath his breath, he found himself mouthing the words of his message, which he’d long since memorized.  It wasn’t difficult, after all.  There were only three lines.

 

To the Grand Lotus.

Avatar Korra is alive.

You are needed in Republic City.