Asami woke the following day as beams of light slashed across her bed, filtered through the curtains by her window. She groaned in displeasure and found herself sharply regretting her present lack of a butler. A simple breakfast would've been fantastic. Instead she pushed herself out of bed and stumbled through the task of cleaning and dressing herself. She had to be sure no one would suspect that she'd been out last night.
She came down to the kitchens to find Ibushi was gone. Slightly unused to the prospect, she went about preparing tea alone. She took a sip.
It was terrible.
"Lovely," she muttered. Freedom's name kept returning to her mind, flitting through her consciousness. It meant nothing to her; she'd looked for any records of someone using such a bizarre name, but she'd come up empty. She'd never even laid eyes onthe man, only heard of him from Lin, Ibushi, and a handful of terrified criminals. How was she supposed to fight someone she'd never even seen? She almost had to laugh. The Bat Spirit probably would have found that hilarious, if it had had a sense of humour.
There was a ringing at her door. It almost didn't occur to her that she had to go and get it before the visitor rang the bell again. She raced down the stairs to the foyer and took a moment to compose herself before opening the door.
Princess Azula was standing on the threshold, looking rather amused.
"You really mean to do this, don't you?"
Lao's eyes were stern and cold as they met Ky Lee's, their sharp green filled with none of their usual kind glimmer. If Ky Lee wasn't so obsessed with her goal, that look probably would have put any thought of rebellion out of her mind. She'd never suspected he could look so dangerous.
But the moment passed. He sighed and shook his head.
"I could stop you."
"You won't, though."
Lao looked into her eyes.
"You know what this means to me," Ky Lee whispered, clutching the hilt of her sword. She'd just finished her last sword performance. Lao had been there. Her mother hadn't. She'd said she couldn't bear it, not right now. That infuriated Ky Lee, for some reason. Now they were standing in that old abandoned warehouse in Old Earthtown, where Lao had given her the stone dagger.
"That does not mean it is wise," Lao said, though his heart didn't really sound like it was in it.
"I don't care. Wisdom is a bad joke," Ky Lee muttered. She drew her sword in one even stroke, the tip slashing near Lao's face. He didn't so much as flinch. He trusted her, but that didn't matter; Ky Lee had slowly realized that Lao never flinched unless he was pretending to.
"Enough of this. Come here." Lao turned around and walked over to a pile of rubble. He flicked aside a boulder the size of a man as though it were a pebble, and then extracted a briefcase from the earth. "I hid this here a few days ago. I thought if you decided to do something rash, it'd be best if I had this for you."
"I wasn't aware luggage was a crucial assassination instrument."
Lao flinched, but Ky Lee wasn't sure if he was pretending.
"Don't say it like that." He opened the case. "This is Kyoshi Warrior make-up and traditional armour. You'd be surprised how well it can disguise your appearance. More to the point, it's excellent protection and wonderfully flexible. If you're going to take Mako down, you should wear this. Now, this is something special. I was hoping I'd be able to give it to you tonight." He pulled a sheathed sword from the case. The sheath was beaten, battered, and … somewhat burnt.
"Special." Ky Lee repeated dubiously. Lao grinned and drew the blade with a flourish. It was pure black.
"It was forged from a meteorite," Lao explained simply. He handed the blade to Ky Lee.
"This can't be…."
"Yes. That belongs to Sokka, hero of the Fire Nation war. I found it years ago, back when he was still alive. He was kind enough to let me keep it." Lao's face was inscrutable. "It's an exquisite blade."
"You're just giving this to me?" Ky Lee was a little stunned.
"You deserve it. Your demonstration today was flawless, and you've shown remarkable skill in our sessions. Try it out."
"What, swing it around? You don't just swing a sword like this around," Ky Lee said flatly. Lao rolled his eyes.
"Isn't that what you were doing at your demonstration today?"
"I think the demonstrations are stupid. I was only doing it for you. And my father." Lao only nodded. Ky Lee unsheathed her old sword and handed it to him. "You're right, though. I should try it out. If you're nearly as infuriatingly competent as I've come to expect, you'll know how to use that thing in about a thousand different ways."
Lao smiled and got to his feet, dropping into an expert sword stance, holding his blade above his head and angling it towards the ground. Ky Lee rolled her eyes.
She charged at Lao and thrust at his midsection, only to find him blocking her strike and rolling away from it with cruel ease. He flicked her sword away and drove the point of his blade towards Ky Lee's throat, before Ky Lee quickly ducked and aimed a punch at Lao's kidney. He caught her hand with one fist and smashed the hilt of his sword toward Ky Lee's face. She rolled beneath his legs, forcing him to let go of her wrist to leap backwards, righting himself and levelling his sword at her. She stood back up.
"This thing is stupidly heavy, you know," Ky Lee said, grinning gleefully. Her broad lips, the only trait she'd really inherited from her mother, made the smile look slightly manic. Lao shrugged his shoulders and tossed Ky Lee her old sword back.
"You're welcome to use either blade. I just thought you'd appreciate holding a piece of history."
Ky Lee sheathed both swords and hung each sheath on either end of her sword belt. She hooked her thumbs in the belt and whistled.
"What do you think?"
Lao didn't comment.
"I think that if you absolutely insist on doing this," Lao walked over to her and laid a hand on her shoulder, "Then you are ready. And it is the right thing to do. Your father's killer should be punished. I'll try to help as best I can. Get the Avatar and Commissioner Lin off your tail."
Ky Lee hugged him.
"But before you do," Lao said, surprising her by hugging her back, "Let's go get something to eat at a nice restaurant. On me."
"You're going to try to talk me out of this, aren't you?"
"Yes." Lao was always honest with her, when it mattered.
"You know you can't. I have to do this." Ky Lee's grip became fierce. She was holding on to him for dear life. She didn't know why.
"When my father died, I was furious. At myself. At everyone. I wanted someone to blame. In my case, there was no one. Just a tiger. A force of nature. Nothing to be done." Lao extracted himself from Ky Lee's arms and looked her dead in the eye, his green eyes filled with sorrow. "I pray that vengeance will bring you peace, Ky Lee. You're an extraordinary young girl, full of promise, and whatever you do, it'll be incredible. I can tell, just from the short time I've known you." Lao managed to smile. "You deserve to fulfill that promise with a smile on your face."
Ky Lee smiled too, in spite of herself.
"Now come on," Lao said. "I'm going to treat you to dinner. Think of it as a reward for all your hard work."
"Ms. Sato? It's a pleasure." The famously insane, elderly Fire Nation Princess extended a hand. It was as even as a stone in still water. Not knowing how else to respond, Asami took the hand and shook it. There was no mistaking Princess Azula, not for anyone who bothered to pay attention. She was regally dressed, but not too richly. Her black robes were trimmed with red fabric rather than gold, and her hairpiece was only a very expensive ceramic. She had aged remarkably well, and her eyes had lost none of their fierce intensity. Her hair was white as the moon.
"Yes, certainly," Asami stammered. "Um, please, come in."
"You'll know why I'm here, of course," Azula said, as Asami shut the door behind her. Asami froze. "The butler advertisement."
"What?" Asami failed to mask her surprise. Azula seemed entertained.
"If you get to be my age, you'll enjoy doing that to young people. I don't suppose you'll invite me in for an interview?"
"Um, yes, absolutely," Asami gasped. She walked the Fire Princess—suddenly very aware of her reputation as a firebender of unnatural skill—into the kitchen and gestured towards a seat, shuffling away the remnants of her poor breakfast as quickly as possible. She could scarcely recall being so mortified. She barely had time to think,
What is she really doing here?
"Impressive," Azula commented idly, sitting with perfect posture. Her hands were crossed in front of her, patiently. Asami took a seat opposite her.
"I'm afraid I hardly expected someone of your, erm, regal bearing."
"They never do, somehow." Azula's eyes hadn't left Asami's for a moment. "I assure you I'm familiar with all the duties of running a household. Making beds, preparing meals, tendering accounts, that sort of thing. My late wife was quite the child well into her twilight years. She required not inconsiderable housekeeping." Azula arched an eyebrow at the memory, though Asami thought she saw the ghost of a smile playing around her lips. Asami paused.
"It seems odd, I suppose, that a writer as distinguished as yourself would want to take up such a demanding position." She thought that was rather tactful.
"I can't tell you how delighted I am to hear you call me 'writer' rather than 'disgraced Fire Nation relic,'" Azula replied acidly, though Asami wasn't sure that the acid was for her. "So, you've read some of my work? What did you think?"
"Your histories are excellent," Asami said quickly. "I particularly enjoyed your rediscovery of pre-Sozin Fire Nation history. We lost so much."
"That tends to be the popular one, yes. Tell me, what about the military strategy? Or is a fawning heiress such as yourself above such things."
"I'm afraid I haven't had the pleasure," Asami said carefully.
"You're lying. I didn't think it'd be that easy to spot. Tell me what you really thought."
"I liked The Sieges of Ba Sing Se. The way you conquered it was brilliant. 'Know where an enemy places their faith and strike at that point. If there are two such places, you need only illustrate the difference in location.' A useful, ah, business strategy."
"Oh, don't be modest. I've heard all about your exploits with the Avatar."
"I didn't know that was public knowledge," Asami replied breathlessly. Something about Azula's unrelenting stare was exhaustively intimidating.
"Oh, you have to dig past a dozen headlines detailing the Sato family's fall from grace, but it's there if you look. You're rather skilled. Speaking of which," Azula grinned, savouring the moment. "How did you manage to rescue Chief Lin, anyhow? That would have been difficult for a non-bender, I imagine."
"Pardon?" Azula sighed.
"Do you mind if we skip past the part where you pretend not to be the Batwoman? I lack some of the patience I was famous for in my youth."
Asami had no idea how to respond.
"For both of our sake I pray you're normally a bit quicker on the uptake. I know who you are. You're lucky that no one is asking the right questions about where you get your technology, or they would have come to the same conclusion that I did. No one else has the resources to put all that technology together, and few others have as much to prove as you do. My only question now is what are you trying to do? Is this just some personal crusade? Or do you really want to serve justice?"
Azula tented her fingers and stared into Asami's eyes, raking into her soul. Asami took a moment to catch her breath.
"I want to show the world that non-benders can protect their city. That we can be as heroic as the Avatar. That we can and will stand up for the innocent in this city, whether those people are benders or non-benders." Asami crossed her arms and stared back at Azula, for the first time feeling like she'd regained her balance. "So yes, I serve justice, if that's what you want to call it. What do you want to do about it?"
"I want to help you. That's why I'm here. The Fire Nation Royalty will be coming in a few days—you've heard all about that I'm sure—and they've brought half the Navy in tow as a bodyguard. This City, despite your valiant efforts, is coming to a boil." Azula quirked an eyebrow, as though inviting Asami to interrupt. She didn't. "People are terrified, between the fallout from Amon's coup and the earthquake and Ms. Breeze's temporary power grab. You are aware that all this—maybe even Amon's rebellion, I don't know—has been orchestrated by one man, yes?"
"Yes," Asami said, grateful for the chance to demonstrate she wasn't a slack-jawed idiot. "A criminal formerly known as the Black Tiger, though he's now calling himself Freedom. Ms. Breeze mentioned him—seemed to have a grudge—and Lin knows him, but she won't talk."
"That doesn't surprise me," Azula murmured. "This is what I'm offering. You take me on as your butler—a function I will dutifully perform in what time is left to me—and involve me in your little crusade. I want to know everything. In exchange, you gain my own talents and advice."
"Why would you want to do that?" Asami asked, all pretence of innocence gone now. Azula seemed pleased.
"Well, for starters, it's the only way I'll truly be able to get away from my family. They can hardly demand the richest woman in the world surrender her butler because they're uncomfortable with letting a pardoned woman off of her leash. I'll finally be able to do something useful again. This may come as a shock, but old people get bored, too. I'd like to accomplish something in my final years."
"What's to say they won't demand I rescind your employment anyway?"
"Oh, that's easy. You'll funnel some money along the line to ensure that a story leaks into the newspaper about your hiring of me. No Fire Nation Royalty will dare publically reprimand one of Republic City's most prominent non-bender citizens, not with the city still fermenting in the wake of Amon's rebellion."
"Clever," Asami muttered. She supposed it was that fierce mind that had enabled her to conquer Ba Sing Se without a single death.
"Besides, I haven't yet told you the sweetest part of our bargain. The part that you can't refuse." Azula smiled with the slow grace of a cat. After a moment Asami realized Azula was going to make her ask.
"And what part is that?"
"I'll tell you the story no one else will tell you. I'll tell you the story of the Black Tiger, of Freedom. I'll tell you because I was there, because I've seen what he can do, and because no one else will stop him. And you'll listen, I hope, because if you don't, he's going to kill you."
There was a distinctly uncomfortable silence.
"How can I trust you?"
"When I was a little girl, my father, my teachers—my entire country—assured me that it was the divine right of the Fire Nation to dominate the world. So that's what I helped happen. I was a child. But my father's legacy stayed with me for the rest of my life. That's what happened to me. Do you want it to happen to you, too?" Azula arched a snow-white eyebrow. "You'll trust me because our stories are the same, and because you need me as much as this city needs you. I happen to agree with you, by the way."
"It is high time the people of this city stopped idolizing an Avatar who barely understands the world. Non-benders need to demonstrate that the world belongs to them as much as it does to anyone else. But more to the point, you need to stop the Tiger—or Freedom, or whatever—because he won't try and rule Republic City like Amon, or conquer it. He will burn it to the ground and laugh while he buries the ashes of your loved ones."
Asami got to her feet and went to pour herself a glass of water. Azula waited in silence as Asami took a long, thirsty drink.
"All right. But if we're going to do this, we should do it someplace safe. And you should meet Ibushi, anyway."
"Ibushi Makarai? We've met, before his incarceration."
"Good, then this will be simple. Follow me."
She and Azula walked to Asami's car, in silence. Azula had a faint smile on her face, clearly enjoying herself.
"This is the first time in a long time that I've been anywhere without guards. In the castle they keep them on me under the pretext of protection. Old habit, I suppose, to keep an eye on me."
"So they never forgave you?" Asami asked as she pulled on her driving helmet. Azula smartly settled into the passenger's seat.
"Oh, they forgave me. They just never forgot. It's hard, isn't it? Living with a past that no one will forget."
Asami only looked forward and drove on.
"Ibushi is already at the Lair."
"'The Lair?' And they called me dramatic," Azula chuckled.
"If you can think of a better name, I'm all ears." Asami turned down a deserted backroad that would take them to the Lair without passing under too many eyes.
"What, you never considered calling it the Batcave?"
Asami actually laughed at that one.
"I'll put it on the list."
When they arrived, Asami guided them both into the warehouse and quickly brought them into the underground complex. If Azula was impressed or surprised by any of this, she kept it to herself, instead crossing her hands in her robes and glancing at the various paraphernalia in the Lair with polite interest.
"It must be useful to have such a skilled inventor at your disposal."
"Why don't you ask him yourself?" They came to Ibushi's workshop to find him bent over a chemistry apparatus, distilling something or other. He raised a hand to beg their silence, which they provided. After a moment, he extracted some bubbling liquid from a vial and added it to a powder, apparently pleased.
"Well, this is a surprise," Ibushi murmured, his sharp eyes darting to Asami's.
"An honour to make your acquaintance once more, Ibushi Makarai," Azula said formally, inclining her head by way of a bow. "I'm pleased to find you out of bonds."
"And I you," Ibushi said simply. Azula raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment.
"Now that we've reunited, didn't you have a story to tell?"
"Of course. Is there perhaps somewhere that does not smell of sulfur where we might discuss this?"
"Right this way," Ibushi interjected, leading them to a table at the far side of the workshop. Asami noticed Azula's eyes narrowing slightly when she saw Ibushi leaning heavily on his cane. They sat around a plain steel table, both Asami and Ibushi staring expectantly at Azula. Azula had tented her finger sin front of her face, apparently enjoying the tension.
"So. You want to know about the Black Tiger? I suppose it's best to start with his birth name." A sharp intake of breath from Asami interrupted Azula. The Fire Princess smiled and continued slowly, languorously, enjoying every moment. "His name is Lao."
Azula took another pause, her smile fading into cold contempt. Asami could feel the sweat on her brow.
"His name is Lao Bei Fong."
Lin sat alone on the sparse bed in her apartment, taking a deep breath. Her metal armour stood erect in her wardrobe, hanging on a bare wire frame. The empty armour seemed to stare at her silently, without looking, the way her mother did when she'd done something wrong. She missed her mother down in her bones, in the soul aching way that would never really fade. She missed being too young to know better.
In one fluid motion, Lin Bei Fong stood up and threw out her arms. Her suit of armour flew out of the closet and wrapped itself around her body, the cool comfort of earth-rich metal like a gentle kiss on her skin. Metalbending was the last thing she really had of her mother's. She had trinkets, sure, but her mother had always been contemptuous of heirlooms. Toph Bei Fong had only cared about what she could feel in her hands or hear. She had only cared for what was real.
Darkness lurked at the corner of her mind, threatening to poison her memories. She abruptly left her apartment and went for her car. She had a dinner to attend. A part of her bucked at the thought of spending time with two future officers who really weren't any more special than any other new recruits: but they were the Avatar's friends, the Avatar had formally invited her, and Lin had developed a soft spot for Bolin while teaching him, besides. She thought he'd make one of the invaluable police officers who did good work on the street without ever giving thought to detective work. Mako would probably try for detective. He'd be one of the assholes the department needed to solve cases. If Lin gambled, she'd put money on his future drinking problem.
But then again, maybe not. Raising your brother would demand a certain responsibility. Perhaps Lin had grown a little too jaded.
It was nearly time to go to the dinner, and Lin hadn't been late for anything in years. She pulled on her coat and left.
"Bei Fong," Azula repeated tonelessly. "He's Lin's older brother. By a year. Toph never did say who their father was, if he was the same man. I find it hard to believe they could have identical ancestry, but you never know. I've been known to put too much stock in bloodlines."
Asami bit any number of questions back. She didn't dare interrupt.
"The first time I met him," Azula said, with the air of someone gathering the momentum required to begin telling a story, "He was only twelve years old. Toph was visiting the Fire Nation with her family. The Avatar's entourage had already arrived, so the whole gang was out waiting in the coutyard for Toph's little group to complete the reunion. I'll never forget how they arrived; no guards, transports, or anything. Just a short but formidable woman clad in steel armour, flanked on either side by skinny little children. Lao had long hair, unruly but clean, while Lin had a cut in imitation of her mother. Neither had those scars yet, by the way."
Azula took a breath.
"They all gathered and exchanged greetings. I watched with Ty Lee from a safe distance. I never saw him up close, but while Lin was eager to be around her young companions, Lao always seemed distant. Like he was bored of them. Toph never seemed to know what to do with him. She was certainly more comfortable with Lin, you could see it a mile off. She introduced them both with pride, though. Lin wanted to demonstrate her earth bending—the Avatar's children had upon their arrival, as well, and once she got wind she simply had to. She was quite the spitfire, actually." Azula smiled at the memory.
"Well, she demonstrated some earthbending in a clearing in front of the courtyard. It was all rather impressive for an eleven year old, don't mistake me; she wasn't as skilled as her mother had been at that age, but she was quite good. Lao watched and smiled; he said something encouraging, I can't remember what. By all accounts he seemed a sweet boy, just a little withdrawn. I think it was Ursa—Zuko and Mai's daughter—who started demanding that Lao show off his bending, and of course the other children chimed in, so he stood in the middle of the courtyard where Lin had given her demonstration. I remember the first thing he did was to clear away the little pillars his sister had made. Very detail-oriented. At the time I rather appreciated it.
"So then he pressed his palm to the earth. After a few seconds we all began to feel embarrassed, before he just started pulling this huge chunk of black iron out of the ground, the size of a man's head. He held it out in front of him, and then let it float in the air, just above his fingertip." Azula's face was taut, as though she were carefully keeping it in check. It made Asami think uneasily about how this woman had, at the age of fourteen, brought a city to its knees and nearly killed the Avatar. How had she forgotten that?
"We all started to applaud, once we regained our senses, but he wasn't done: he swung his arms and stamped on the ground and seven pillars erupted in a circle around him. As they did, the clump of iron split into seven spikes that shot into each pillar. Then he swung his arms back towards himself, and the pillars began to sink as the spikes shot back into a clump in front of him. He reached out with his hand," Azula held out her hand, as though cupping a wine glass, "And grabbed the clump of spikes at its vertex. Then the points melted off until he was holding a sphere, and he walked up to Ursa and handed her the sphere. By now everyone was quiet. The sphere started to unfurl until the Princess was holding a metal flower. Lao just stood there, waiting. No one said anything, so he started walking towards the palace. He just walked, past the Avatar, past the other children, nearly past the Fire Lord himself. Zuko managed to find his voice and made some joke or another. He was already putting on weight by then. Do you know what Lao did?"
Asami blinked and shrugged.
"He just looked at him. Looked into the Fire Lord's eyes for just a moment too long and asked, 'Where will my family be staying?' So Zuko laughed and told a servant to go escort Toph and her family to their quarters. That was the first time I ever saw Lao Bei Fong. He walked beneath our noses, passing for human in broad daylight."
"Did no one suspect anything?" Ibushi thought aloud. Azula rolled her eyes.
"No. We all thought that Toph had been blessed with one supremely odd but uncommonly gifted son, and one mercifully normal daughter. I suppose we weren't wrong."
Lao escorted Ky Lee into a back corner of the restaurant, a humble but fine dining place. He could feel the rumbling in the earth, the slight echo that marked the presence of a particularly powerful earthbender. It was amplified by the presence of two others—the Avatar, and someone else. Lin was nearby, perhaps just behind one of the curtained, private booths reserved for the rare celebrity of the Avatar. Lao smiled. Ky Lee assumed it was one of his meaningless kindnesses.
"So, what'll we be having?" Lao asked cheerfully. He took a corner booth, choosing a seat where his back was to most of the people in the restaurant. Ky Lee sat opposite him, staring out at the crowd.
"I'll have whatever you are," Ky Lee muttered. Lao frowned.
"Ky Lee, please."
"Please what? What do you want me to do, act as though I'm out having dinner with my father? Because I'm not! You're not him!"
Ky Lee's voice had raised to a near-yell. Lao crossed his hands and tried to look forward.
"I know that, Ky Lee. You just—well, you remind me of myself, when I was younger. Frustrated. Angry. Without direction. I know I can't tell you what to do. But I can try to help. I owe that to your father."
Ky Lee crossed her arms in a huff. "I know. I'm sorry." Her face was screwed into a deliberate frown. Lao's expression was kind.
"You don't have to be, Ky Lee."
"The rest of the festivities progressed as normal. I remember the other children had all manner of quaint adventure, but Lao seemed to slip out of sight. I'd find him asking the servants about their duties, or examining the floorboards. He was warned about me, of course, but he always seemed curious. He knew better than to show too obvious an interest in Zuko's crazy, evil sister. Not publically, anyway."
Azula's voice had dropped to a whisper.
"One night, it was late, and Ty Lee … was out." They'd been in a fight. The momentary lapse in Azula's expression, the brief sign of pain on that tight, controlled face, said as much. "I was reading, trying to keep myself occupied. I heard something at my window—this was a fourth-storey window, mind you—and saw him standing there, on a pillar of earth no thicker than my arm. He slipped through the window and walked towards me without a word. I asked him what he was doing there. He replied:
'I wanted to see you.'" Azula did an eerily accurate impersonation of a young boy's voice.
"I asked him why. He said he was curious about me. I'll never forget what he said next." Azula cleared her throat and mimicked Lao's young voice again. "'I was wondering if you were someone like me. But I was wrong, wasn't I? You're just a scared little girl.' I didn't even have time to respond with indignant rage before he slipped back on the pillar. I think I said something about calling the guards. He just laughed at me and said: 'Do you know what they call your brother? They call him Zuko the Wise. Do you know what they call you? Azula the Mad. No one will care what you say.' Then he slipped away from the window and I didn't see him again. Not for fifteen years, before the Avatar enlisted me to stop him from rampaging across the countryside."
Asami waited, but Azula didn't say anything.
"And? What happened then?"
Korra didn't like that they'd needed a private booth, but Lin was obsessive about security measures. She was honestly surprised Lin had decided to come along, since it might risk displaying favouritism, but the famously stoic Police Commissioner remained as imperceptible as ever. They were seated around a circular table, with five seats—Korra was sitting next to Mako, who was next to Bolin. Lin sat next to Bolin, chattering to him about his metalbending training. Normally, Korra would've been fascinated by the discussion.
"Where is Asami?" She asked aloud. Bolin and Lin stopped their discussion abruptly. Mako took her hand.
"I'm sure she'll be along," Mako said, somewhat rigidly.
"I hope so," Korra said, staring into her bowl of noodles with disinterest. She'd been hoping to see Asami again, to—she didn't know, apologize? Try and just talk with her? She didn't really have much of a plan. It had been eating away at her, though, as she'd been listening to Tenzin's spiritual sermons, about unity and balance. She'd been trying to learn as well as she could, but mostly she just felt guilty, that she wasn't the Avatar she should be. She kept thinking of how heartbroken Asami had been when Mako had broken up with her. How they hadn't spoken in months. How no one but Bolin had even bothered to check in on her.
I'm the Avatar, and I haven't done anything. Somehow, she felt that if she could just talk to Asami, be honest with her, she could start doing things right. The Batwoman wasn't helping things, either; it should have been the Avatar who saved Commissioner Lin. Instead it had been some woman in a mask.
Some symbol I'm turning out to be.
"Hey, Korra? Why aren't you eating?" Mako was worrying, which was about as surprising as the dawn. Korra smiled at him. He did look rather dashing in his new police uniform—so did Bolin.
"Nothing. I was just hoping to talk to Asami, that's all."
"Me too!" Bolin added cheerfully, slurping down some noodles. He smacked his lips and sighed in satisfaction. "I just hope she can find time to come here. I swear, she's working herself to death. Have you seen that tower her company's building?"
"Kind of hard to miss it, Bolin," Mako said, not unkindly.
"It's huge! I don't think she's very pleased about it, actually. She should probably get out more."
Korra reclined in her chair and poked at her soggy noodles. She couldn't help but agree. She couldn't shake this nagging doubt, this feeling that she was responsible. Tenzin was always imploring her to think through the consequences of her every act—to see not only a spark but the flame it would birth. She'd been so convinced Mako was her soulmate—still was, actually—that she hadn't thought about the consequences of her actions. When she'd first tried to expose Amon, she hadn't even thought then. She wasn't even sure why Aang had restored her bending, if she was such a poor—
"Hey, Korra, is something wrong?" Mako again. He was sweet, if a bit overbearing. Korra forced a smile.
"I'm fine. Everything's fine."
"I travelled out from the Fire Kingdom and joined the Avatar's little band. It was the Avatar, Toph, Katara, and myself. We searched the countryside for signs of him, but he hadn't been discreet. He was staying in the rubble of a small town he'd demolished. No one knows its name anymore. He was remarkably polite about the whole thing. When we did find him and fight him—" Azula shuddered. "I had never seen such bending. Were he not trying to kill me it would have been mesmerizing. We only stopped him because Toph cried out to him and … he stopped. For a moment. So I shot him in the chest with lightning."
Asami didn't know what to say to that.
"It should've killed him, but he raised a wall of earth in time. The lightning still blasted through the earth and knocked him out. Frankly I'm surprised he survived even then. I poured everything into that strike."
Azula adjusted herself in her seat, and took a breath. She was clearly enjoying having such an audience—Asami and Ibushi were captivated. Her eyes hadn't left Asami during the entire tale; luckily, Asami had a pretty practiced poker face.
"Now the important part. The part you need to know. The first thing Aang did when Lao fell was to try and take away his bending—but it went wrong. Energybending is a difficult process, and Lao was … more than ordinarily difficult. A blast of black light shot from Aang's eyes and he fell, as defeated as Lao. So Toph had the Hole built, to hold Lao, and with the help of the White Lotus they covered up the entire story as best they could. They couldn't afford to let anyone know that the Avatar spirit had been tainted by that monster."
"What do you mean, tainted?" Asami asked, her voice faint with growing horror. Azula's eyes narrowed.
"I mean that the Avatar spirit has been touched by Lao's. Aang let him in, and he's been lurking there like a tiger. I'm no expert on the spiritual realm, but I know this: Toph Bei Fong would not have covered up the existence of her son just because he was a conventional kind of monster. There had to be something more, and this is it. He's back now to get vengeance, or whatever passes for vengeance in that twisted mind of his. I think it's something between him and his sister—you'd have to ask her—but there is one thing I know for certain. Korra is not safe, and a tiger will always take the most vulnerable prey. It's no secret the Avatar's been all but in hiding under the guise of Tenzin's 'training.' No doubt it's Lin and Tenzin's way of keeping her safe."
Ibushi drew in a sharp breath.
"Asami, weren't you supposed to be getting to a dinner party? With the Avatar and your friends? A very public dinner party?"
Asami stared in horror, then leapt to her feet. She ran for her suit, her heart racing, her blood ice cold in her veins.
As she ate, Ky Lee was aware of Lao's eyes, always watching her. His gaze never left her face, not even as he ate his own meal. The food was decent. She let her chopsticks fall with a clatter when she was done.
"Is there something on my face I should be aware of?" Ky Lee asked dryly. Lao closed his eyes and opened them again. His expression was impossible to read.
"No." He wiped the corners of his mouth despite the absolutely impeccable state of his lips. He folded his hands in front of him. "Ky Lee, I'm going to tell you something on the condition that you promise not to react strongly. Is that acceptable?"
"No, but out of the goodness of my heart I'll play along." Ky Lee flashed an irritated smile. He didn't seem amused.
"Good. The Avatar is here. Along with Commissioner Lin and two police recruits." Ky Lee's blood froze.
"He's here, isn't he," Ky Lee whispered.
"Yes. Now listen to me—listen to me, dammit," Lao said, and for once he seemed out of sorts. He hadn't expected this. Or … had he? Ky Lee had her suspicions. But Lao had her trust. He was the only one who had earned it. "You cannot take them. Not now. They're too powerful, they're too public, and Mako is too well-protected. But this is also," Lao said, beginning to sound … excited? "An opportunity. One that has fallen into our lap. So here's what's going to happen. You are going to leave this place. You're going to slip into the shadows, the way I've taught you to. Once I know you're out there, safe, and unseen, I'm going to start a fight. I'll probably lose. Maybe die." Ky Lee's eyes went wide. She felt her heart racing.
"I may," Lao said honestly. He shrugged his shoulders. "I've lived long enough. Long enough to know that I can be beaten; long enough to know I can't stop you. All I can do is try and make sure you still have a future. So that's what I'm doing. Don't argue. Go, now. Shadow Mako when he leaves, to wherever he has to go. You have the Kyoshi make-up with you, yes?"
"Yes, just enough to—"
"Good. Now go."
"This is what you want?" Lao's face was as guiltless as ice.
"Yes," Ky Lee whispered.
Ky Lee tried to say something, but somehow she couldn't. That face, so kind, so familiar, so gentle, was now pitilessly blank. His eyes were the sharp green of a blade of grass after the rain. The scars on his face somehow seemed more prominent than before. They were clearer.
"All right. Lao, thanks." Ky Lee didn't know what else to say. She got up and thought of hugging him, but at the last minute just left. The thought that this might be the last time she ever saw him was eclipsed by the burning hatred deep in her stomach. She walked out of the restaurant. Found a spot where she'd be able to observe all the exits from the place. Figured out how to get there surreptitiously. She slipped into the darkness, just the way she'd been taught. By Lao.
Asami flew above the streets of Republic City, not caring to hide herself, ignoring the gasps as more and more people leaned out of their windows to see the Batwoman flying overhead. Her masked face scowled down at them as she flew above, disinterested, grappling from one building to the next, leaping onto the wind and spreading her cape like a grim parasail. She was making a beeline for the restaurant, where Korra would be in public for the first time in months. How could she have been so blind? How could she not have realized that Tenzin wasn't just boring Korra with training, he was protecting her.
The Bat Spirit had been right, Asami realized. That was annoying.
She couldn't think about that now, though. She couldn't afford doubt. The Avatar was more than just a brazen water tribe girl, more than just an earthbender or airbender. She was a symbol, an icon of the unified world, even here in Republic City. If she fell, if Lao could do something to destroy her or even destroy the Avatar forever, then who knew what would happen. It would be a disaster. The spirit of Republic City—literally of the entire world—would be broken.
I can't let that happen.
Lao finished his meal neatly and wiped his mouth. He could feel the vibrations of Ky lee's footsteps, passing to him through the dust reverberating through the floorboards. Earth was everywhere, if you knew where to look, how to hear its song. Ky Lee was gone now, into the street; the dust had stopped ringing with her presence. He could feel each person in that restaurant. The Avatar, his sister, their two companions … they were in the back, behind a curtain, out of the public eye. Lao smiled. He wondered if his sister could feel him there; obviously not. She had never quite realized that; for her the earth was only a second sight, another tool. Like the person with all their senses each one she possessed was weakened by the blindness of sight.
He picked up a metal chopstick in one hand, rolling the metal over his fingers. It sang in his grasp. Every other metalbender, learning still from his mother even after her death, sought to find the earth and push it apart within the metal. How could they not see that the metal itself came from the earth, that it could be willed and coaxed as easily as sand or stone, if only you knew its character? He didn't care, really. He tapped the side of the metal rod and it rang pleasantly. He focused his will on it and tightened his grip. One end began to drip and melt as the blunt rod filed itself down to a microscopic point, the excess metal sliding harmlessly over Lao's hands. It pooled onto his plate and made a little reflective puddle, distorting the images it caught. Lao glanced down at it and saw his scarred face, slashed with the brilliant green of his eyes. He stood up and walked to the curtain that led to the private booth. He waited.
Before long a dismayed waiter sidled discreetly up to him. Lao ignored him.
"Sir? What are you doing—"
"Shh." Lao raised a finger. "Could you step just a little closer?"
"Come a little closer."
The waiter walked forward. Lao wasn't looking at him, but he could feel the nervous pattering of the man's heart. He threw out his hand and launched the filed chopstick into the man's throat. The corpse fell to the floor with a gurgle and its blood stuck between the floorboards.
Lao waited a moment. The screams started, first slowly, then suddenly, then they exploded with impressive consistency. Chairs and tables were overturned as people fled from the restaurant. Hearts beat like hummingbird's wings. Lao waited in front of the curtain.
Two metal cables tore through the fabric and shot at Lao's torso, but Lao twisted to one side, catching one cable in his left hand. He didn't pull on it. He simply didn't let go. The metal fell limp in his hands; he refused to allow Lin to control it. There was a clinking sound and his sister walked through the curtain; she'd yanked the cable out of her armour.
"Hello again," Lao said softly. He let the cable fall to the ground. "You told them to run? They won't. She won't, anyway."
Lin glared at him.
"I'm not here for you," Lao said. "Not yet."
"I don't care."
Lin lunged at Lao, aiming a vicious punch at Lao's jaw. Lao caught her fist with one hand and jabbed into her abdomen with his other; the metal crunched and splintered on the contact, digging into Lin's flesh. Lin bit back a scream of pain as Lao squeezed the metal gauntlet into Lin's hand, the metal turning sideways and slicing deep into her forearm. Lin fell to her knees, one arm useless and spilling crimson blood on the floor.
"Sorry," Lao said apologetically, "But you were in the way."
He opened his palm and the pointed chopstick leapt eagerly out of the corpse's throat and back into his hand. His senses flared and he leapt back in time to avoid a searing blast of fire, scorching over Lin's kneeling form and aimed square in Lao's chest. He landed back on his feet, graceful as a cat, and smiled. The Avatar and her friends had fanned out in front of Lin, their arms raised and faces grim.
"You all have parts left to play," Lao informed them. The Avatar charged first, hurling a blast of wind in Lao's direction. Lao slid beneath it and leapt to her left, landing to the side of Bolin. The boy barely had time to react before Lao jabbed into his sides with three precise strikes, turning his limbs to jelly. The boy flopped onto his knees and Lao grabbed him by the collar, wrenching him to his feet with brutal strength. Lao twirled the chopstick in his other hand and held it to the boy's throat. Mako screamed in indiscriminate anguish.
Lao raised an eyebrow.
The Avatar glared death at him, but she didn't move. Neither did her boyfriend.
"Run away!" This from Bolin, struggling to fight with limbs that refused to work. Lao raised his eyebrows in surprised approval.
"You should do as he says," Lao said reasonably, "But you won't, because if you do I'll kill him."
There was a silence punctuated only by Lin's choked breathing.
"Korra, please come here. I'm going to give him to you. Then I'm going to go away. All right?" Lao's spoke kindly. Korra glanced at Mako and, seeing the desperation on his face, slowly inched towards the Black Tiger, the man who called himself Freedom.
She stopped when she was a few feet away from Lao.
"Closer, Korra. I want to look you in the eye. Get the measure of our new Avatar. That's all."
"Korra, don't do it!" Lin screamed, lurching sideways before she gasped in pain. She'd lost too much blood. She lay on the ground, clenching her jaw to keep herself from screaming. Lao hadn't taken his eyes off of Korra.
"It's okay," Korra said, beneath her breath. She was looking at Bolin. "It's going to be okay, Bo."
"You don't know him!" Lin had pushed herself onto her good arm. "Get back!"
Korra walked towards Lao. When she was within arm's reach, Lao tossed Bolin to the ground and embraced Korra as though hugging a lost child, moving with alarming speed. Korra gasped in horror as he pressed the chopstick to her throat, now. He grabbed her chin with his other hand and wrenched her jaw so that she was looking into his eyes, blue staring into green. Lao smiled.
"Do you remember me?"
Behind Korra's blue eyes there was the faintest hint of long-forgotten black. She shuddered, deep down in her soul.
"Who are you?" Korra whispered. She'd broken out in a sweat, and her skin was cold as ice to the touch. Lao let her take a step back. The ground began to rumble, slowly groaning as Freedom woke its rage. He smiled, and dust shook from the ceiling beams and fell around him like dark snowflakes. He pushed her back and she fell onto her backside. She was shaking harder than the building around them. Mako rushed to her side, but was knocked into the air by a block of earth that Lao pulled from the earth. He collided with a wall and fell to the ground, barely conscious.
A scream ripped from the Avatar's throat. She writhed on the ground, trying to get away from him. She sounded like she was being mauled by a tiger. After a moment she collapsed, as though sleeping, but her breathing was fitful and she was still shaking.
Lao turned to go, and frowned as an arrow planted itself in the ground in front of his feet. It must've been fired from the door. He blinked and saw another arrow, its tip arcing with electricity, flying through the air. Acting on pure instinct, he pulled earth from beneath the floorboards and wrapped himself in a protective cocoon; the explosion knocked Lao off of his feet, but the earth took most of the damage. He stood back up to find himself staring at the Batwoman.
"Ah. I was wondering when you'd show yourself again. To be honest I'm a little excited." He smiled like ice and walked towards her. The Batwoman raised her wrist-mounted crossbow again, glaring silently at him from behind a scowling mask. Lao stopped in his tracks and raised his hands, grinning widely.
The Batwoman fired her crossbow, and Lao ducked in time to avoid the brunt of another explosive tip, showering him in a dusty white powder. He wiped it out of his eyes and hastily blocked a lunging strike from the Batwoman, countering by jabbing at a soft spot in her armour. The Batwoman stepped back and whirled her cape in Lao's face, tangling his left arm and using the distraction to kick him in the stomach. He trapped her leg with his free arm and rolled her over his shoulder, slamming her onto her back. She scrambled to her feet and raised her fists, breathing heavily. The earthquake's rumble had grown to a roar. Dust and splintered wood drifted through the air and trembled on the floor.
Freedom smiled at her and bowed deeply, then spun his arms and descended into the earth, all trace of him gone.
Asami stared at the hole Freedom had left, then ran to Lin and heaved her onto her shoulders.
"Leave me, get the Avatar!"
Asami ignored her, uncoupling three hooks from her belt. She hooked one to the clothes of Mako, Bolin, and Korra, then bound them all to a rope and dragged them out of the building, her muscles straining in protest.
She shouldered her way through the main door to the restaurant and gently let Lin down on the ground, before she dragged the rest of them out into the street. Just as the Avatar passed safely beyond the threshold, a beam displayed the restaurant's sign collapsed. Asami's heart leapt into her throat. She shook Bolin by the shoulder to wake him up.
"You need to get the Commissioner to a hospital! If you don't she's going to bleed out and die."
"What about Korra?"
"You leave her to me. You can't help her, but I can. Go, now!"
Bolin managed to pull himself to his feet. Mako was stirring as well. Asami ignored them and grabbed Korra, pulling her up onto her shoulders. The Avatar was heavy with muscle, but at least she wasn't wearing any damn metal armour. She needed to get the Avatar to the Bat Spirit. It was the only thing Asami could think of that might be able to save her—but how….
The amplified microphone in her suit's ears were picking something up. A faint rumbling, not like the earthquake, but rather a roaring … like a Satomobile's engine revving beyond reason.
Asami turned around to see a car—one of her cars—speeding down the street, recklessly ignoring the earthquake. The driver was wearing a make-shift mask made of a black scarf with holes cut in the eyes. It pulled up next to her.
It was Princess Azula. Asami sighed in relief and threw Korra into the car, leaping into the back seat with the Avatar's prone form. She pulled off her glove and felt her forehead; she was freezing. What had Lao done to her?
"Will the Commissioner be safe?" Azula had apparently noticed she was bleeding.
"Police cars will be converging here in any moment," Asami muttered. "I was listening to their radio. Drive. We need to get the Avatar out of here."
"As you say, Master Sato."