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It Flows Into The Sea

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            The Arena, as always, was crowded.

            Well; crowded was an understatement: it was overflowing with people.

            Crowded was what you called it on a regular day, with Pro-benders vying for a timeslot the gym (still the best gym in Republic City), Butakha and his clients moving in and out on their business, fans sneaking in to catch a glimpse, just a glimpse of their favourite team.

            Crowded was average in the Pro-bending Arena; typical, normal.

            This was the opening match of the season, on the first truly sweltering day of the summer.

            It was packed.

            Fans talked enthusiastically, pitching their voices over everyone else, over Shiro Shinobi listing off sponsors through the stadium sound system; children clung tightly to parents or older siblings, wide-eyed and nervous, overwhelmed by the noise and sheer number of people yet simultaneously excited by the energy all around them; vendors called out their treats from booths and kiosks (popcorn, bags of fire flakes, sugary milk tea, equally sweet taho).  The lights gave off a low hum, an electrical undercurrent that mirrored the energy bubbling in the building.

            Asami walked briskly, making her way calmly through the Arena.

            It was the first game of the season, after all; she’d expected it to be this crowded.

            Somewhere down a hall a fight broke out, an argument between a group of people who had purchased rush tickets and another group who had been there since the afternoon, loitering and tarrying around the Arena.  Butakha technically had rules about stragglers like that.  The Arena security reported anyone they found in the gym without paying, but they couldn’t stop all of it from happening.  Toza complained, especially, because it was a problem—particularly when crowds became an issue and fights broke out over seats and standing room in the nosebleed section, so Butakha couldn’t not do anything about it, but it was mostly a charade put on for the sake of professionalism.  He’d have security give them a scolding, get them to pay a marginally reduced fee, and then be done with it.  Everyone knew that stragglers meant more people watching meant more money being put into the sport, which meant, ultimately, more money for Butakha.  “Crowded” and “stragglers” were synonyms for “more money”, so Butakha would only put his foot down so much.

            Because stragglers, of course, were also a synonym for dedication—and there were two kinds of dedication in fans.

            There were those who dedicated themselves to one team, arguing relentlessly about calls the referees made, breaking out into fights in the stands that inevitably required security to come settle it down, following every newspaper and magazine for season predictions and team rankings and gossip, pouring their money into the sport in small ways.  The others were those who loved the sport, the art of bending, plain and simple; dependable for filling up the stands no matter what team was playing.  They were often the stragglers, desperate for the spectacle no matter what seats they got, though singular fans often pulled the same stunts as well (Asami herself had been there, done that, countless times, from arriving early to a match to tarrying late just for the chance of seeing a team—when she was younger, at least; she didn’t have to any more).  The former was better for business because it was a steadier profit over the long term, numbers and statistics that Butakha could reliably pass on to the sponsors and other financial bigwigs, making advertising investments pay off; the latter, however, was really where you found the heart of Pro-bending fans, people who loved the sport no matter what.

            Teams came and went.

            But there was always Pro-bending.

            Which was why Butakha would only protest so much, only side with Toza when people really avoided paying; it was good for Butakha, annoying for Toza.

            (Though there wasn’t much that wasn’t annoying to Toza.)

            “Just down to twenty minutes folks!” Shiro Shinobi’s voice crackled over the PA system.  “Grab your snacks and get your seats because this match will not be one to miss!”

            The voices of the crowd surged at the announcement and people began moving faster to get to their seats, not quite trusting to the reservation their tickets promised them because anything would happen and tonight—on top of being the first game of the season, already more than just a regular game—tonight, he teams playing were the Axolotters and the Wolfbats.

            The White Falls Wolfbats.

            Teams came and went.

            But the Wolfbats—the Wolfbats were the Wolfbats.

            Pro-bending was thrilling; Pro-bending was always thrilling, of course it was, no matter what teams were playing (well—maybe with a few exceptions), but tonight, the start of the official season, in the hot, scorching heat of summer in Republic City, the White Falls Wolfbats were opening the season as three-time champions.

            Yeah; Asami was excited.

            (Really, really excited.)

            “We need to get going!” a girl exclaimed, grabbing another (a friend) and pulling, their excited chattering blending into the crowds just as “Fifteen minutes and counting!” blared across the PA system, instilling excitement in everyone, and that was the last thing Asami heard before she found her own private booth, slipped in, and shut the door.

            It barely muffled the noise of the hall, but with the steady flow of people into the stands, most of the noise was coming from the arena.

            The arena, lit up brighter than the afternoon sun, clean and shining, waiting for both teams as the clock ticked down.

            Asami sat down and tugged her seat just a little closer to the balcony to watch.

            The Wolfbats were—well, everyone knew the Wolfbats.  The Axolotters, their opponents, were a decent team, fierce and hard-hitting, usually doing well in the regular season, almost having won the Spring Tournament one year, but never quite making it into the Championships.

            The bets didn’t care for them; most predictions said they wouldn’t last more than the first round, so betting had come down to calling it minute by minute, even going as far as to (ridiculously) predict a knockout immediately after the bell.

            The Wolfbats were good, but—well, they were that good.

            But the Axolotters weren’t that bad.

            (Though Asami wouldn’t put it past Butakha to arrange something like that.)

            (Or, really, for Tahno to go along with it.)

            She leaned forward on the low stone railing, sitting at the edge of her seat, and propped her elbows up to look at the surrounding stands, catch whatever glimpses she could of the prep rooms.  The stands were already full to bursting.  It looked like the entire city had turned out for the match, with no standing room left even in the nosebleed section.  Craning her neck, she looked up to try and see above her in the regular stands, and from what she could tell it was just as packed all the way around.

            Butakha had really advertised this game.

            The referees took their spots at the raised stands on either side of the arena; Shiro Shinobi roused up the crowd with his prep speech, broadcast throughout the arena and across the whole city; the teams took their spots at the edge of the change rooms.  Asami could see Tahno adjusting his hair in his helmet, making sure it was perfect, while Shaozu shook his head at him and Ming watched both from his ready position at the edge of the floor.  The Axolotters stood firmly in spot—no pacing, no nervous or agitated fidgeting, no glancing back towards the change room door with last minute flutterbats in their throats.  Asami felt a bit sorry for them, really—but she admired them too.

            The center platform rose, and with it the announcer; posed for dramatics, microphone grasped in one hand and raised to the high vaulted ceiling of the Arena.

            “Introducing the Axolotters!”

            The crowd cheered and whistled as the Axolotters’ platform carried them over to the arena, faces schooled as much as possible to impassion.

            “The Axolotters are well-known to Pro-bending fans at this point,” Shinobi was saying, “with team captain earthbender Eun-ji, firebender Chi-ang, and waterbender Pakak being regulars in the Spring Tournament.  In fact, they were this year’s runner-ups!  It will certainly be a test of their skill and mettle to go up against the reigning champs for the first match of the season.”

            Eun-ji stepped onto the arena floor and waved.  Pakak and Chi-ang joined her, a flash of excitement cracking their veneer of indifference.  They couldn’t ignore the energy of the crowd, after all.  And they were a good team; skilled, focussed, and hard-working during games, they weren’t without their fans or credentials, and earned the praise they got.  Asami wasn’t unfond of them, but she didn’t think they considered opening the season against the Wolfbats to be simply a test of their skills.

            More like bad luck.

            “And their opponents,” the announcer continued, turning to the other end of the arena and pointing, “Our three-time defending champs, opening this year’s season, the White Falls Wolfbats!”

            The crowd—exploded.

            People howled from the stands (Asami could definitely make out Chio in the midst), banners and flags and signs waving frantically, lovingly; there was always howling, there couldn’t not be howling, it was the Wolfbats’ trademark.  And it never got old for the fans.  The sentiment was shared, it was obvious, as Tahno and Ming and Shaozu waved and blew kisses to them all.

            Asami frowned, though; she was just as excited, wasn’t exempt from the enthusiasm—but the Axolotters were opening the season just as much as the Wolfbats were.  That was no mistake, no accident on the announcer’s part—that had to have been scripted.  And it didn’t begin things very fairly for the Axolotters.

            Butakha’s idea, most likely, she thought.  She wouldn’t have put it past Tahno, either, but—Butakha, most likely.

            Tahno stepped onto the arena floor with a flourish, Ming and Shaozu a half-pace behind him, and Asami shook her head again and chuckled, because it was so quintessentially Tahno.

            The Axolotters didn’t look amused by it.

            With energy high and tight, tension building between the two teams as they stepped up to their places, mirrored by the audience, the match began.

            The Wolfbats spared no time for pleasantries.

            Shiro Shinobi dove right in to the action, voice crackling through the radio in her booth.  “Tahno opens on the offensive, charging Pakak, with Shaozu at his back for cover!  Both opening teams—” Asami noticed his deliberate emphasis of both. “—start up with a bang!  Pakak dodges with a counter-cover from Chi-ang and Eun-ji.  The Wolfbats don’t let up, keeping firmly on the prowl.  They’re certainly not cutting the Axolotters any slack, keeping their moves tight and controlled.  I wouldn’t expect anything less from the best, but the Axolotters seem bound and determined to prove themselves!”

            Shaozu somersaulted backwards with an upwards kick, sending a gout of fire at Eun-ji.  He caught himself with one hand, recovering quickly and calmly with a left-hand punch on his landing.  Tahno sent a shot of water right at her feet, aiming to trip her up, and Eun-ji scrambled to call up an earth disk to block; she held strong, sending another disk back with a round house kick, but Ming intercepted with a disk of his own.  They both burst into a cloud of clay dust, falling harmlessly to the arena floor.

            Ming clashed with Eun-ji as she lodged disk after disk at him, crashing together with his own.  Eun-ji had herself planted firmly, strongly, calling up the disks, whereas Ming kept himself agile and moving.  Pakak and Chi-ang rounded at Shaozu from the side with a low-sweeping heel kick from Pakak and a vaulting jump from Chi-ang.  Shaozu leaped in a butterfly kick to avoid both, Chi-ang’s fire narrowly missing his back.  He landed barely behind the centerline and sent them both scrambling with fire of his own.  Asami tilted her head a bit, watching.  The Axolotters certainly didn’t have as much finesse as the Wolfbats (did anyone have as much finesse as the Wolfbats?), but they were holding strong.

            For now.

            She thought that most of the people who predicted an early finish for the match were going to be disappointed.

            “The Axolotters have definitely been planning for this, folks,” Shiro Shinobi continued.  “They’re sturdy and economic, keeping all their moves straight to the point, but if they plan on tiring out the Champs, they better be ready for a long match.”

            Ming lifted two disks in tandem and sent them flying towards Pakak, and Shaozu followed with two streams of fire.  Pakak took the brunt of the two disks, blocking, but didn’t move fast enough for the fire.  It caught him around the ankles (an echo of Tahno’s earlier move) and he fell, sprawling, leaving himself open to a burst of water from Tahno.  He tumbled, rolling back into Zone 2.

            Chi-ang retaliated with her own fire, fierce and agitated, but Shaozu countered it effortlessly.

            “And another smooth combo from the champs!” Shinobi called.  “If there’s a team that works together better than the Wolfbats, I don’t know who they are!”

            Asami watched it all, Chi-ang and Tahno facing off at the centerline, daring each other to cross, Shaozu vaulting with a boost from Ming to hit Pakak back in Zone 2, Eun-ji breaking Tahno and Chi-ang apart.  Ming took it as an opening and kicked a disk over, sending Eun-ji rolling all the way to the ropes when it hit.  The round was half over with the Wolfbats leading, and the Axolotters were starting to slip.

            Chi-ang and Eun-ji took to either side of the arena, alternating quick elemental shots.  Tahno ignored them both, focussing on Pakak and forcing him back to Zone 3.  He crouched low beneath a wave from Pakak then lunged forward, tossing up two orbs of water to rain down on him.  Pakak braced with both arms above his head.  He brought them down just in time to take a headshot from Tahno, knocking him right back into Zone 3 and then over the edge and into the drink.

            “The buzzer goes and Pakak is in the drink, folks!  He’ll be back to join his team mates in the next round—if, of course, they manage to stay in the game.”

            Shinobi sounded like he thought they could.

            Asami did, too.

            Eun-ji and Chi-ang went on the offensive, making up for Pakak’s loss, but they were frazzled and harried; they didn’t have their steady rhythm anymore, their strong base, and it showed.  It showed in Ming forcing them apart with a carefully aimed earth disk, dividing them to let Tahno and Shaozu tackle them individually.  It showed in Chi-ang slipping in a landing that should have been easy, getting pushed back to Zone 2 by a stream of water from Tahno.  It showed in Eun-ji gritting her teeth tight enough that Asami could feel it in her own jaw.

            “Eun-ji takes a dive, Chi-ang has her back with a whopper of a punch, and—oh, and a flawless combo executed from Shaozu and Tahno!” Shinobi cried as Tahno whipped a stream of water at Eun-ji and Shaozu pressed from the other direction, sandwiching her between elements, leaving Chi-ang on her own.  “Chi-ang is forced back to Zone 3 by Ming, leaving only Eun-ji in Zone 1, and let me tell you, folks: she is holding on!”

            Chi-ang stood panting at the end of the arena, and if there was any silver lining in her position, it was that the two zones between her and the Wolfbats gave her space and time to recover.

            “Pakak is in the drink and Chi-ang is back to Zone 3, but the Wolfbats still can’t advance because Eun-ji refuses to give up Zone 1!” Shinobi called.  “She won’t have any Wolfbats invading her territory!”

            Eun-ji summoned three disks, heaving them at Ming.

            Chi-ang was everywhere in Zone 3, leaping and kicking in a fury.  But the distance that saved her also worked to her disadvantage as the Wolfbats dodged lazily, having the time to see her attacks coming.  Asami could see the her frustration rising, mirroring Eun-ji’s, both of them desperately seeking to hang on, to last the round, gain something back, not be the ones to lose in the first round during the opening game of the season—to do something, anything to stay in the game.

            The odds weren’t in their favour.

            “The clock is ticking down,” Shinobi confirmed as one of Ming’s earth disks found its target and Eun-ji just barely held her ground.  “It’s a fight for survival as Eun-ji goes head to head with Ming, earth against earth!”

            Dust built up between Ming and Eun-ji, obscuring the centerline, and Chi-ang kept Shaozu and Tahno just busy enough that they couldn’t do anything to clear it away.  The clay dust built up and Ming flipped backwards to clear up, two disks at the ready when he landed, but Eun-ji took them down before they hit.

            “Eun-ji just seems to be buying time now, with the clock almost down zero and mere seconds to go and—oh!  Oh, look at this!  Ladies and gentlemen will you look at this!  Ming has—Ming has tripped back into Zone 2!  Eun-ji lodges a disk at him through the dust and trips him at his feet, and he falls back to Zone 2!  Just seconds before the bell, I can’t believe this folks, wow!”

            The entire building shook as the crowd let out a roar of excitement and bewilderment, drowning out the bell.

            “What an astounding turn of events folks, the Wolfbats take Round 1 but not without the Axolotters getting back for it!”

            Asami was on her feet, hands on the railing, watching for the dust to settle and everything to calm down.  Ming stood stock still, chest heaving, feet planted firmly beneath him—just behind the dividing line for Zone 2.

            The Axolotters had scored.

            Tahno, Asami could tell, was furious; he paced back and forth, arms flying everywhere, glaring daggers at the Axolotters.  Shaozu was doing his best to placate his anger and calm him down, unsuccessfully.  The refs and announcer called out instructions as the Axolotters took deep, relieved breaths, readying themselves for the next round.  Ming was reserved, arms crossed tightly, seething beneath his helmet.  The Axolotters’ small victory was at his expense.  It wasn’t something that happened often.

            Asami smiled, let out her held breath, and sat back in her seat as Tahno fixed his hair and Shiro Shinobi informed the crowed all about Flamey-O Instant Noodles.

            Both teams took their spots once again at the center ring.

            The bell rang.

            The second round started.

            Tahno cartwheeled to the left.  Eun-ji whipped an Earth disk along the floor and managed to catch Shaozu’s heel as he landed from another flip.  He fumbled out of the landing and fell to the side, but caught himself and rolled before crossing into Zone 2.  Tahno retaliated with a bombardment of water, shooting countless quick bursts in such rapid succession it almost looked seamless.  Eun-ji blocked with an Earth disk and then braced as Tahno continued his assault.

            Asami shifted her legs.

            Ming and Shaozu kept Pakak and Chi-ang corralled in the corner of Zone 1 while Tahno worked on Eun-ji, forcing her closer and closer to Zone 2.

            “Tahno is proving what an unstoppable force he can be as the deluge on Eun-ji continues! 

Meanwhile, Chi-ang and Pakak are helpless in helping their team mate as Shaozu and Ming are an Earth and fire tag-team to be reckoned with—there goes Pakak, attempting to slip out, but Ming keeps him from going too far.  If I had to describe this round with just one word it would be: payback!”  The crowd roared along with Shinobi.  “I don’t think the Wolfbats expected to be playing beyond the first round, and they have definitely amped their game up!  Not to say they weren’t performing fantastically before, of course.”

            The clock ticked down as Eun-ji was forced farther and farther back, frustration emanating from her and Chi-ang and Pakak.  Asami rose in her seat (just a bit) to watch, tense and excited.

            “Tahno keeps pressing methodically and it’s only a matter of time before Eun-ji—oh, and there it is, I’m—oh!  Unbelievable!  It’s unbelievable ladies and gentlemen, Pakak has broken out and—oh, what a hat trick!”  It sounded like Shinobi was on the edge of his seat as the crowd boomed.  “Pakak has saved Eun-ji from Zone 2!  I don’t know how he managed that, but it comes at his own expense as he falls back all the way to Zone 3!”

            It was true; Pakak had edged out from Ming and Shaozu’s barrage and rammed into Eun-ji, knocking her out from Tahno’s assault—but leaving himself open to that very attack.

            It wasn’t a good move.

            The Axolotters pressed hard; the Wolfbats pressed harder.  Chi-ang and Eun-ji attacked with an Earth and fire combo.  Tahno stopped them both.  Steam hissed in the air and Ming took the opportunity to ricochet a disk off the ropes to hit Eun-ji from behind, retaliation for earlier, and Tahno whipped a stream that finally knocked them both back to Zone 2.  Pakak leapt and spun in the air, sending his own whip for defence, but it was no use.

            The Wolfbats had them.

            The buzzer rang as Pakak was sent over into the drink again; Eun-ji took his place in Zone 3.

            “Eun-ji fumbles and just barely misses her teammate as the Wolfbats finally advance into Axolotter territory.  Chi-ang is left alone in Zone 2 and the Wolfbats are focussing all their efforts on her, but don’t you feel sorry for her, folks, because this fierce little amphibian is not going down without a fight!”

            It was true, Asami thought.  The Axolotters wouldn’t be giving up the round no matter how dire it got—but it also meant that Shinobi didn’t expect her or Eun-ji to last the round.

            Tahno lodged a disk of water at Chi-ang.  It caught her foot and she fumbled, and Ming took the opening to hit her with a disk in the side.  She rolled along the arena floor into Zone 3 and just barely got up to avoid a burst of fire from Shaozu.

            The Axolotters were finished.

            Chi-ang attacked; Ming dodged.  Tahno and Shaozu pushed with a combo that sent her sprawling back to Zone 3, colliding into Eun-ji.  They teetered together, trying to get their balance, but the Wolfbats took the opportunity to swoop in with a triple attack and just like that—the Axolotters were in the drink.

            The crowd howled and roared.

            “A knockout!  It’s a knockout folks, the Wolfbats win the round and the match with a knockout!”  Shinobi declared over the radio.  He kept going, professing excitement and amazement at the match, but Asami barely heard him over the bellowing roar of the crowd.

            The referees made their final calls, roses were tossed onto the arena, and bets were made or broken.

            The season began with a knockout.

            Asami sat in her seat, waiting for the crowds to thin a bit, smiling, one elbow propped on the arm of her chair, her cheek leaned against it, waiting, relaxing, feeling the energy of the crowd course through the arena, watching as Tahno waved and bowed and caught a rose deftly in the air.  Shaozu pumped his fists in the air, a huge grin welcoming the adoration from the fans.  Ming waved and blew kisses.

            It was a good game.

            After both teams returned to their change rooms she waited a short time longer, then left her private seat to make her way through the remaining crowds.  Teeth flashed in grins and excited chatter filled the halls, some people stayed to catch one last treat from the sellers, but most of the crowd was headed in the same direction, towards the exit.  It was almost more packed than getting to her seat had been, and arena security worked diligently on encouraging people forward in a steady pace.

            “Asami!  Asami, Asami, over here!”

            Asami turned at her name and saw—Eri, waving happily from the other side of the hall, jumping up and down in the crowd.

            She smiled and held her head a bit higher as she made her way over.

            “I didn’t even know you were here!” Eri said, hugging her tight, her eyes bright and shining.  Asami could faintly smell her floral perfume.  “Wasn’t that such an amazing match?  That final combo from all of them, that was the best three-way I’ve ever seen!  I wish every season could start like that!”

            “Well, if it did, it wouldn’t be special when it happened, would it?”

            Eri huffed and rolled her eyes.  “You know what I mean.  I’d be completely happy if the Wolfbats opened all the time.”  She grabbed for Asami’s hand and tugged urgently, motioning down the hall.  “We’re all meeting up to go out.  Xuan can’t make it, but Chio and Tomoi will.  They’re probably already waiting outside the change room.”  She tugged again.  “Come with us?”

            Asami let herself be pulled along and laughed.  “Lead the way!”

            The crowds were still horrific, but they were thinning out as people left.  Reporters flocked to and fro catching stragglers, aiming for audience opinions for their audience opinion pieces (newbie reporters usually ended up with those).  Most waited for the Big Story, though, directly from the Wolfbats themselves.  Eri wove through all of it with one hand wrapped delicately around Asami’s wrist until she spotted Chio (touching up her lipstick, a small compact mirror in one hand) and Tomoi (leaning against the wall with one arm beside Chio, head propped on a fist) and called, pulling Asami along.  Chio looked up and smiled, waving back—until her eyes fell on Asami and flashed, and Asami could tell that her luck still hadn’t changed.

            “Asami,” she said.  “Nice to see you.”

            Asami thought she almost, almost sounded sincere; but then, Chio specialized in that.

            Pretty good match, wasn’t it?” she asked.

            Chio’s lips curled at the corners, coy and snide.  “Best I’ve seen since the Championships last year.”

            “Oh, come on, you know that’s not true,” Tomoi said, looking at her nails.  “You didn’t bother going to any of the amateur games or the Spring Tournament this year.”

            “Well of course,” Chio drawled.  “What was the point?”

            There were a few things Asami and Chio would just never agree on.

            “But this is going to be an amazing season,” Eri was saying excitedly.  “I just know it.”

            They chatted lightly (purposefully so in Chio’s case) until a hush fell over the crowd at footsteps echoing down the hall.  The security guards stood to attention as Tahno walked out, hair done, eyes gleaming, smile shining brighter than the Pro-bending Arena, and every camera in the building turned to him.  Ming and Shaozu trailed behind, exuding confidence and victory, and reporters shouted out questions, vying for their attention.

            Asami watched them answer questions and pose for photos while Tahno soaked up all the attention and shone.

            The questions were fairly typical, and the only surprising thing was that Butakha wasn’t there.  Asami would have expected him to make an appearance, considering how staged the starting teams had been and the huge amount of advertising for the match.

            But then, Tahno didn’t like sharing his spotlight.

            He dismissed the reporters, eventually, the arena security ushering them out, and then turned his grin on the group of them waiting.

            His eyes widened just a bit when they fell on her.

            “Well, well, what a nice surprise!  I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight, Miss Sato.”

            “Well, I was definitely expecting to see you tonight,” she said, smiling.

            “Please, don’t.”  Shaozu strode forward and wrapped one arm around Tomoi’s back.  “It’ll just go to his head.”

            Tahno scoffed dismissively.  “And we wouldn’t want another ego the size of yours on the team.  Chio.”  He said her name warmly and greeted her with a long kiss while Shaozu rolled his eyes.  “So, shall we head out?” he asked, stepping back with one arm around Chio’s waist.  “We’ve got the reservation.”

            “No reason to wait,” Ming said, buttoning one of his gloves up.  “Will you be joining us tonight, Asami?”

            “Mm, maybe.”  She gave a small smile.  “Depends on where you’re going.”

            “Kwong’s,” Tahno chimed in, a heavy hand on Eri’s shoulder.  “Ming’s choice.”

            “I figured tonight’s a special occasion,” Ming said in explanation; which made sense, being the start of the new season, but he didn’t really need an excuse to go.  Kwong’s or one high-end restaurant or another was always his choice.

            Asami smiled fully at it, though.  “Then I think I will.”

            Tahno gave his most lecherous grin.  “Perfect.”

            Ming offered her a ride, since he was driving (as usual), but she declined.

            “You sure you don’t want a ride with us?”  Tahno asked, one arm leaning casually against the car and the other placed at his hip.  “There’s lots of room.”

            “What?” She gave him a half-facetious look, buckling her helmet with a grin.  “And leave my bike for someone else to drive?”

            Shaozu snorted from behind Tahno, not bothering to hide it; Tahno just rolled his eyes and leaned down to kiss her, fleetingly, before sliding into the front seat.

            “See you there!” he called, closing the door.

            Asami shook her head and grinned.

            She got there before them—just barely, but she did.

            Ming informed the staff of the additional person to their reservation, but they said nothing of it and accommodated them without complaint.

            Asami sat at the table they were lead to, one of the larger spreads near the back—secluded just enough for privacy, but still enough so that other patrons knew they were there.

            Tahno sat beside her—incidentally, also beside Chio, placing himself physically between them, which made Asami strongly suspect that it wasn’t incidental, that he did it deliberately, but she didn’t say anything.  He draped an arm casually over Chio’s shoulders (and she settled comfortably against him) and sat back in the large cushioned chair, and Asami propped her chin on one hand, elbow on the table, listening to everyone talk animatedly, adding a word here and there.  Ming gave their order to the waiter when he came; he returned with tea and drinks for everyone (plum wine, for the most, except for Ming, who ordered something stronger) and left with promises of speedy service.           

            “So Asami,” Chio asked promptly, “What’s the latest lineup from Future Industries this summer?”

            “Ooh, yeah!” Tomoi nodded, sitting forward in her seat beside Shaozu.  “Can we get a trip to the race tracks any time soon?  Just for a peak?”

            “Well, there’s not a whole lot I that I can talk about right now,” Asami said, sipping her tea and watching Eri and Tomoi pout out of the corner of her eye.  “But I don’t see why we couldn’t go for a race sometime.”

            Eri and Tomoi nodded excitedly, Eri clasping her hands tightly at her chest, deep plum-with-icy-pale-pink-trim sleeves sliding down to billow at her elbows, Tomoi’s eyes lighting up, and Chio grinned her wry, reserved half-smile, one corner of her lips pulled up and back just pleasant enough to be socially graceful.

            “You still owe me a race,” Shaozu said, taking a long sip from his drink and then motioning at her with the same hand, one finger pointed.  “Isn’t that what we’ve been saying for the past, well, ever?”

            Asami’s eyes flicked over to Tahno before she smiled at Shaozu.  “I’ll race you once you get a proper motorcycle,” she said.  “It wouldn’t be a very fair race otherwise.”

            Ming let out an unexpected laugh and took a long sip of his drink to cover it up as Shaozu glared at him.  Tahno snickered, a thin smile at his lips, then broke out into full-on laughter with Eri and everyone else, even Chio grinning more than she usually let herself when Asami was around, all at Shaozu’s expense.

            Shaozu, for his part, rolled his eyes.  He shook his head, taking another bitter gulp from his drink, and said, “Every single time.”

            “You know how to get a different answer,” Asami said, idly running the tip of a finger along the rim of her teacup.

            “He won’t get rid of that bike,” Eri said, still giggling.  “Never, not until it explodes.”

            “And that will never happen,” Tahno announced airily, “because Shaozu takes such good care of his motorcycle.”

            “Better than you take care of your car,” Shaozu shot back, and Tahno rolled his eyes, the jab sliding right off him, a usual retort in their scripts for bickering, Asami knew, and everyone nodded, and then the main course came, roasted and sliced duck with scallions and a small dish of steamed vegetables, so Asami gave Shaozu an affectionate, apologetic smile (always their resolution to the motorcycle argument) and the conversation was dropped and turned to other things over dinner.

            “So, how do you think the Axolotters will fare for the rest of the season?” Chio asked, picking up a stock of kai-lan with her chopsticks.  “Think there’s any chance they could make it into the championships?”

            “Honestly?” Ming sat back and laid his chopsticks beside his plate.  “They’re better than they were last season.”

            “Like that’s saying much,” Shaozu muttered, slumped low in his chair in a posture that was completely inappropriate for Kwong’s Cuisine, but there was nothing any of the staff would do about it.

            That was just Shaozu, though.

            “Well, other teams have to start somewhere,” Asami said.  “Not everyone can be the Wolfbats.”

            Shaozu gave a self-important grin.  “They wish they could.”

            “They got their hat trick, though,” Asami said, tapping her teacup absently with one finger.  “At the end of the first round.  That was a pretty decent play.”

            Chio pursed her lips, probably to keep from sneering or glaring.  “Yes,” Ming said, watching her, eyes narrowed.  “It was.”

            “Lucky shot is all it was,” Shaozu muttered, but didn’t say anything more.

            “What did happen there?”  Eri leaned forward on her elbows, her brows creased in concern.  “I mean... everything looked fine, and then...” she trailed off, glancing between Ming, Tahno, and Shaozu.

            Ming’s eyes rolled sidelong at her across the table.  “I slipped.”

            “Oh,” she said; softly, her mouth holding the shape afterwards.

            Ming nodded, curtly.  Shaozu looked at him with a mix of concern and something else; and so did Eri and Tomoi, and she could guess Tahno as well, because, well—that didn’t happen to Ming.

            Ming didn’t slip.

            Asami met his eyes over the table and nodded.  “You got them for it later, at least.”

            “In any case,” Tahno interjected, moving his hand off Chio’s shoulder to rest flat on the table.  “It’s fine.  We won the match, the season’s begun, and the Axolotters will get a day’s worth of attention where they can say they survived a round against the Wolfbats.”  He slung his other arm over the back of his chair, finger tapping against the table.  “Maybe they’ll even make it into a paper or two.”

            Chio snorted.  “A footnote at the bottom of a page, maybe.”

            Tahno grinned at her.  “Maybe.”

            It worked, the mood turning back to cheerful and exultant, the conversation ranging from the upcoming season and the Championships in the fall to new teams this year like the Fire Ferrets, to politics, the weather, and whatever else they felt like, and Asami smiled while she sat and listened and participated.

            When the bill came and Asami reached for her purse to pay her share Tahno put his hand over hers and pushed it down.  She looked up at him, one eyebrow raised, ready to protest, but he shook his head and squeezed her hand.

            She relented.

            Ming took care of the bill.

            Chio and Eri, it turned out, would be leaving together, and Tomoi would be getting a ride (at Shaozu’s insistence, who wouldn’t have otherwise and clearly could speak on behalf of Ming).  They milled around in the front hall, talking animatedly, before moving outside to wait for the bellboys to bring around both Ming’s car and Asami’s moped.

            Chio and Eri caught a late-running streetcar, trailing kisses and well-wishes and excitement in their wake, and after they left Tahno motioned to Asami and took her aside.

            He turned around the corner and leaned against the wall, evidently intent on talking about something, but before he could say anything she said, “You know, I can afford my own bill.  That was completely unnecessary.”

            Tahno laughed and shook his head, grinning, and said, “I just wanted it to be a treat.  The first game of the season, opening the season... besides, I haven’t seen you in a while.”

            “I’ve been busy,” she said, one arm on her hip, the other hanging loose.

            “Wouldn’t doubt it,” he said, running his hand up from her wrist to rest on her shoulder.

            She smiled.  “You’ve been busy.  I don’t think there’s been a paper in the last month that hasn’t had you in it.”

            “You noticed?”  His lips curled at the corners.  “I’m flattered.”

            “Hard not to notice.”

            “I do try.”

            His hand moved as he toyed with a lock of her hair between his thumb and forefinger.

            “Ming’s going to be all right?” she asked.

            She let her other arm slide down and hang at her side too.

            “He’ll be fine,” Tahno said, and a distant-passing car almost covered him because he spoke so softly.

            “Yeah?”

            “Yes.”  His hand squeezed hers and she squeezed back because she’d caught his other hand hanging at his side.

            She ran her thumb up the inside of his wrist.

            “Because that was a good combo from the Axolotters,” she said, “but well, even I got caught off-guard when they pushed him back a zone.”

            “He’ll be fine,” he repeated.  He twined her hair around a finger.  “Nice job breaching the topic, by the way.”

            She hummed briefly and walked two fingers up his forearm and said, “I tried to find a... nondescript way of introducing it.”

            “I’m touched,” he said, and moved a fraction closer.  “The sentiment’s sweet, but they’re just the Axolotters.  They couldn’t get to us.”

            “You sure?” she asked, teasing.  “Because that’s not how it looked like you felt when it happened.”

            Tahno scoffed.  “I have my moments of frustration.”

            “‘Moments’,” she said, and he rolled his eyes at her.  “Maybe I’ll just find the one newspaper that doesn’t have you on the cover tomorrow.”

            Tahno made a face, but it was put-on.  “You know I’m starting to think you actually like the Axolotters.”

            “Well,” she said, “they do have a pretty good firebender.”

            “Don’t let Shaozu hear you say that,” he said.

            His breath was warm over her lips.

            “Wouldn’t dream of it,” she said; smiling.

            Tahno rolled his eyes and she leaned up and he leaned down and kissed her.

            It was sweet and slow and Asami could still taste the plum wine on his lips.

            “I miss you at games sometimes,” he said, breaking away just enough so they could talk, foreheads pressed together.

            “I came tonight,” she offered.

            “After how long?”

            “You didn’t play the Spring Tournament this year!” she said, batting at his chest.  “You know I always watch that.”

            “We decided to take a break this year,” he said, running a hand through her hair behind her neck.  “And besides, we have to give other teams a chance to win sometimes.”

            “I’m sure they appreciate it,” she said wryly, then tilted her head back up to kiss him again, and she could feel the grin curving at his lips.

            “Come to our next match?” he asked, voice breathy and low.

            “Can’t,” she said.  “I’m too busy.  But I can make it to the one after.”

            “Oh, you know our schedule, do you?”

            She smiled.  “I always do.”

            “That is, of course...” he drawled, “granted we win the next match.”

            She narrowed her eyes and made a face at him.  “Like you wouldn’t?”

            He smiled slyly, face illuminated from the back by the light from the windows just above his head, and said, “Of course we wouldn’t,” and then his lips were on hers, again.

            She kept them there for as long as possible.

            Another car sped by casually, the lights trailing along the wall and the sidewalk and the street, and the wind ruffled the warm night air around them.  Tahno’s hand found a place on her back, palm flat and warm, and he pulled her just a bit closer.

            Asami let him.

            “I’m still sorry you and Chio don’t get along,” he said against her lips.

            “Well, nobody’s perfect.”  She curled her fingers around his shoulder.  “But Chio is Chio.  I have nothing against her.”

            “Mm.”  He hummed and kissed her one last time.  “That’s good.  Also, I think your moped is back.”

            She glanced just over his shoulder to the left.  Two bellboys spoke with Ming while Shaozu and Tomoi leaned against his car.  “The car’s back, too.”

            “We should get back,” he said.

            “Yeah.”

            Ming tried to cover the tip for the bellboy, but Asami shook her head and refused.  “I take care of my own ride.”

            Ming grinned at her over his door.  “Thought I’d offer anyway.”

            Tomoi hugged her tightly before slipping into the back of the car; Shaozu followed with a quick nod to her before ducking in.

            Tahno stood at his door, waiting.

            Asami buckled her helmet beneath her chin.  “Make sure the next game’s good, you hear.  I’ll be listening.”

            Tahno’s eyes flashed when he smirked.  “Always.”

            “You better,” she said.

            “Just for you,” he said, and then slipped into the car and rolled down his window and called, “Till next time, Queen of Industry!

            Ming pulled the car out into the road and drove away as Asami watched, Tahno’s hand still held up in farewell.

            She smiled.

            It was going to be a good season.