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Playing Pai Sho
The Game
Chapter information
Series

Phantoms

Chapter

Two

Written by

Aritiane

Release date

July 28, 2012

Chronology
Last chapter

"The Boy"

Next chapter

"The Investigation"

Life is like a game of pai sho. After it finishes, the most valuable tiles are put in the same box as the least valuable ones.

Iroh of the Fire Nation, The Analysis of a Pai Sho Game

As it is commonly known, the pai sho board is circular — just like human life. After all, the fact that it's split into eight coloured parts is not coincidental. The cycle of each year consists of eight elements as well: germination and maturation, flowering and withering; furthermore, two solstices, a winter one and a summer one, and also two equinoxes during spring and autumn. By design, pai sho reflects the scheme of nature and life. The goal and rules are similar, too — even a beginner understands that players are to relocate tiles in order to put them into specific relations called harmonies. Jasmine's in harmony with Lily and Rhododendron, but it doesn't go well with Rose. Rose, on the other hand, likes White Jade and Chrysanthemum. And so on. Participants have to manage all of their fifty-four tiles and understand how they interact with each other. They must be aware of tiles' advantages and flaws, skills and lacks, affinities and fears. They must be able to manipulate them, fit them into a wider, bigger plan, and have the guts to sacrifice them when it's required. Yes, pai sho resembles life a lot... However, it's just an innocent amusement, so there's no need to be scared.

Now — let the game begin.

"He cannot be released."

"He can. And he will."

"He almost killed you. And you are the one to give him his freedom back. There is a word for that, I think... Oh, yes, it is called 'irony'."

"I don't care about irony. I need him alive, freed and working."

"No, my friend. The thing you need is a permission of the Council."

"And that's why we're talking. That's why you're here."

"I am here to understand. And I am failing to do so, although I must say I am striving."

"Understand what? I want him to manufacture new equipment for the army, I told you."

"As far as I know, everyone else could do it, too. What's wrong, General? What's bothering you?"

Iroh stood up and turned around. Saying nothing for a moment, he started to stare at the dark, metallic walls of the chamber in which they were. Tenzin ensconced himself on his chair.

"We had a... situation."

"Situation?"

"It had all begun, when I, Miss Sato and Bolin had been imprisoned at the Equalists' airbase. Before the takeoff, I had overheard a conversation; the engineers had had to fix a few engine flaws and hence look at the blueprints of the plane. I must admit I'd had better things to do for the time being, figuring out a way to free us, for instance, but I remember them talking about it. But when we later examined the base, there were no sign of any blueprints. Moreover, we didn't find any engineer who hadn't been defeated by Miss Sato and Bolin in the fight. They just... disappeared."

"And you fear—"

"—that the Equalists have hidden somewhere and might still be a danger. Yes. They went underground — into the shadows; that's their style."

"I see. In this case, he would be a bait, wouldn't he?"

"I've been working to develop a net of informants and plants for a few months now. I think we're ready for some action. But we need him to go outside of the prison, and count that he'll lead us to the rest of them. Their leader might be gone, but he's just one man. I want the whole organisation as my trophy."

"Does our prisoner know?"

"I don't think so. He probably believes his 'powerful friends' bribed me to release him. Pathetic."

"Thank you for a clarification, General. So... it seems we are spies now. Interesting."

Iroh's eyes narrowed. "What makes you think so?"

"You may not recognize it, my friend, but you've been building a germ of a secret police. Is Lin aware of our actions?" Iroh noticed how the airbender had quickly started to refer to his plan as ours.

"Beifong? No, she isn't."

"It should stay this way." Tenzin paused. "Now, could I speak with our prisoner for a moment?"

Iroh left the room for a few minutes, made appropriate orders, then came back. Soon after guards hauled the prisoner.

"Leave us." Tenzin's voice seemed casual and easy-going but he didn't let the prisoner out of his sight. "You too, General. Please." Iroh was reluctant, but eventually went out. He was a soldier, and soldiers know when to listen to orders. Hence, the door was closed.

However, Iroh didn't like the situation. Tenzin was a politician, looking for his own benefits, he knew it. After Amon's revolution he and his soldiers had billeted in the headquarters of the police, but it hadn't been due to the airbender's hospitality. The rest of the Council had been afraid about the possibility of further riots, and also the Avatar and her friends — especially Bolin and Miss Sato, who had fought alongside Iroh in the battle of Republic City — had made it possible for the United Forces to stay in the headquarters. Beifong had been resistant, but had eventually agreed. Iroh quickly got to know that she didn't like to give away control. She was a lot like him: tough, uncompromising and straightforward. But Tenzin — Tenzin was different. Iroh never knew what the airbender's thoughts and plots were this time or another. And he didn't want to be a puppet in his hands; he was a member of the royal family of the Fire Nation, wasn't he?

Suddenly, the door opened and Iroh could hear a dialogue.

"I've heard a lot about your famous diplomacy skills, Councilman, but they seem to be gone now. Am I not worthy enough to treat me like an equal player?"

Tenzin remained calm, but Iroh was sure he had noticed the pun. "You lost a long time ago."

"But I still hope for a rematch," the second voice answered. "And I want you to remember it."

"Hope is generally a good thing. If you can afford it."

"Oh, sure I can. I could buy your little island." A pause. "As I mentioned before, I'm thinking of throwing a feast in a few days. Hoped you come over."

"No, thank you. I have better things to do. On my little island, of course."

"Pity." Hiroshi Sato went silent for a second. "Others will."

And he left the cell. He looked weary, his prison clothes creased, and he had bags under his eyes; but as he got certain he was really free for the first time since the revolution, they started to sparkle with the old pride. Iroh knew Sato had had himself a limousine for the depart, because everything had been arranged before, and the only thing left had been Tenzin's acquiescence.

"You simply can't deny yourself playing those little games of yours, can you?" asked Iroh, when Tenzin joined him again a few minutes later. They were both watching Sato — as he was leaving the prison — through the windows of the headquarters.

The councilman laughed under his breath. "Oh, let the old airbender have some joy in his ascetic life. I am sure Hiroshi will dance as we want him to."

Iroh didn't comment.

"Bolin! Is that you, Bolin?"

He turned around, but he didn't see anyone familiar between the crowd wandering nearby the Fire Lord Zuko's monument. There were a lot of people at Central City Station, everyone minding their own business, and they were jostling Boling while he was straining to see the person who had shouted his name. Finally, he caught a sight of a man who was waving at him. Bolin recognized him quickly; it was Faan Dou, a former pro-bending athlete, whom he hadn't seen for many years.

"Mister Dou!"

"Hey, kid, it's been a while, eh? I haven't seen you since... since you were trying to hit those tins on the playground with earthbending, pretending they were your opponents on the arena, and, damn, you were like seven back then...? Whatcha doin' now, son?"

"Oh, you know." Bolin grinned. "Knocking my opponents out on the arena and stuff. But this time the arena's a real one."

Faan slapped his forehead. "Yeah, right, right, what a question was that, what else could you do?"

"And you, Mister Dou?"

"Just call me Faan."

"Well, Faan, what about you?"

"What 'bout me...? I've just visited an old friend of mine. He's in a hospital. A coma. Sleepin' for two weeks, and no sign of improvement. By the spirits, that was tough, boy. A man can't do anythin'; he's only able to watch and try not to cry."

"I realise. But besides that? How you doing?"

"Huh. How am I doin'? You really wanna know?"

"Yeah! Sure, why not."

"So, let's have a drink. On me. But first we go somewhere quieter, man. Then we talk."

Faan Dou had been a wunderkind of pro-bending, when Bolin had been a child. He was the youngest player ever to make it to the tournament at the age of fifteen, playing as a waterbender in the Ethalet Athletics team. He had the slightest stroke of water jets in the history of the game, according to a hell of a lot of opinions. Dou performed very intelligent on the field and it was his feather in the cap. He didn't strike hard; he struck where the opponent's stance was the weakest. It seemed obvious now, after all these years, but back then it'd been a radical revolution on the idea of waterbenders' role in the game.

The years of Dou's career had been also the last years of Bolin having a real family. He remembered how he and Mako had listened carefully to the radio during Faan's matches. Their faces almost sweaty from an intense focus, they'd been lying on the floor and supporting the Athletics on their way to win the championship. They stayed in that position long after the games had finished, chattering about how Lee, the firebender of the A's, could have performed another hat trick but missed once and failed to do so, or when the current streak of impressive wins would have finally had to end. And after an hour or two, their dad was picking them up. "Let's do some pro-bending, lads," he was grinning, speaking exactly the same way the announcer at the arena had spoken, lengthening syllables and pointing his finger to the imaginary crowd. "Areeee yaaaaa reeeeaaady to smash your old man, guys? Here, in the left corner — Maaaaakooooo. In the right corner — Boooooliiiiiin. Let's rumble, boys!" 

And they were playing for the whole evening.

Let's rumble... Yeah... Those were good ol' days.

Dou had been their neighbor, and though he was a few years older, he knew their faces, 'cause they'd been the biggest fans of the A's hereabouts, and he'd seemed prone to admiration. No, he had never showed arrogance; raised in a poor family, he'd always been a simple and straightforward guy. He'd just wanted to be someone; to mean something. He didn't care about money, because there weren't any; pro-bending had been an amateur sport back then. It was his passion.

But life — real life — is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

Faan's impressive career ended when his father had died. Bolin recalled that event; it'd happened shortly before his own family had been definitively destroyed. Dou's dad was a non-bender working as a lumberjack. It was very prosaic; a tree had fallen on him. One day, he's there in their shared backyard, laughing and saying that Bolin's made a massive progress in his pro-bending technique and could join Faan in the A's team one day, and the other day he's dead, lying in a coffin, his face snow-white. Dou's mother had been a healer; she couldn't have found a suitable job, so she had worked as a nurse. She had two sons and two daughters to feed, her salary low... so Faan did what he had to do. He gave up pro-bending and found a real job.

After the death of their parents, Bolin and Mako had seen him only once. It was raining that day; Dou was sitting on stairs in front of the tenement he lived in. His eyes absent and glazed, his face all wet, he was juggling a sphere of water and listening to a loud audition of a pro-bending match. His dreams were over. He had been probably the best athlete of Republic City and just a week later, he was nothing. Just like that; it was so prosaic. Lights out. Fans gained new heroes. No one cared.

"So, that's the place."

It was a sleazy, empty pub. They sat by the counter.

"I'll be honest with you," Faan reopened the topic. "I'm building a team."

Bolin did his best to be gentle. "Aren't you a little too... old?"

"A professional team, Bolin. The refreshed Athletics. The new chairman, who had bought the club, appointed me as the manager."

"It means—"

"—that soon pro-bending won't be an amateur sport anymore. Exactly. The game's changing. We're changing it. And we can change it together."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm looking for athletes. The best in here. I've been watching you play, Bolin. You're good. Damn good, I'd say."

"So, the whole 'whatcha doin', son' thing was a small talk?"

"Kinda, that's right. Don't look at me like that, you know the deal. It's not a small talk now. I'm here, because I think we can both make profit. That's what they pay me for." He paused. "Listen to me, such an opportunity happens once a lifetime. You have to take it, otherwise you won't even know when it's gone." He frowned. "Forever."

"I don't have to do anything."

"Kid, life ain't that easy. I'm giving you an option of doing what you love and being paid for it."

Bolin had mixed feelings. "But hey, I'm already in a team. The Fire Ferrets, you remem—"

"The case is simple. You can stay where you are, makin' no progress and playin' in your little playground. Or you can take it to the next level. It's no longer a children's game, Bolin. Not anymore. It's time to grow up."

Bolin went silent for a moment. "I... I don't... But what about my team mates?"

"I have a free spot for a firebender, if that's what you're askin'. Your brother fits my vision, I'm okay with him. And 'bout the Avatar... I'm sure she has her own business to take care of."

"I don't know..."

"Listen up, boy." Dou's voice quivered a little. It wasn't the guy who had been sitting in front of his house in the rain, devastated and depressed. Faan eyes were now full of excitement and passion; he really believed in what he had been saying. "My chairman is a real visionary, but all he sees is money. For him, it's the amount of sold tickets, hot-dogs, t-shirts and gifts that matters. He wants to keep fans happy, because only then they buy tickets, hot-dogs, t-shirts and bloody damn gifts, and only then he has money to afford our salaries. As you good damn know, fans are happy when they have fun, and they have fun when they watch you playing out there, working your damn guts out to satisfy them, like pets. But you and I... we're players, both of us. And we're different. We know it doesn't mean anythin'. That it's not the point of pro-bending."

"But... what's the point? I don't—"

"You know it, boy. Look inside yourself. The question is, who you wanna be? A little ferret in the company of lions, forgotten a day after you'll leave the arena? Or do you want to do something that matters? Change the game? Rumble things up?"

Let's rumble, boys...!

"I'll give ya time to think it through." Faan stood up. "But you should know that I want you on my team. And I want you badly." After that, he left.

Bolin remained alone. His face baffled, he was still sitting by the counter, turning his back to the door. He didn't move for a long time. Areeee yaaaaa reeeeaaady, guys...?

Yeah, dad. Are we?

"So, Korra... how's your practice?"

"Exactly how it looks. Awful! I'm so pissed off!"

"Yeah... you are... I guess."

"I can't get this right! This air sphere is supposed to swirl, and I should stand on it, so it would move in the direction I want. That's what Tenzin said."

"It's swirling. You got the swirling part right. That's good."

"You know what I'm talking about, Mako! And you know how it looks when Tenzin's kids do it!"

"Yeah... they're running around like madmen."

"Exactly! I won't be surprised if Rohan will soon start to do it, too. But I cannot."

"It will come to you."

"Don't annoy me. That's what Tenzin says."

"He's a wise guy."

"I will figure it out myself, okay? I can handle it. Let's try this one more time."

"Just don't go too hard—"

"Ouch!"

"Korra! Are you okay? You fell—"

"I know I fell, you don't have to tell me!"

"Your ankle looks hurt."

"I don't care about my ankle! This stupid sphere is driving me mad!"

"I think you should rest a little. There is such a thing as overtraining."

"Don't tell me what to do! And I'm not overtraining!"

"Okay, okay. Can I glimpse at your ankle at least? It looks twisted to me."

"The ankle's fine!"

"Show it. I wanna take a look. A pro-bending player can tell somethin' about injuries."

"I'm a healer, Mako! I don't need your help. Really."

"I just wanted to—"

"I know. I know. But you don't have to. I'm good."

"Okay. If you don't want me to care, I won't."

"What does it mean, huh?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing."

A silence. A long, awkward one.

"Well... ekhm... how's... how's Bolin...?"

"Good."

"I didn't see him on our pro-bending practice yesterday."

"I don't know where he was."

"You don't know?"

"Yes, I don't know."

"But you always know where he's going and what he's up to."

"Oh, if you know us so well, maybe you will tell me where he was! C'mon! Feel free!"

"Oh, you know what? Stop acting like a resentful princess!"

"I'm not!"

"Yes, you are!"

He didn't answer.

"I have.... I have some airbending stuff to do in the temple."

"Good."

"I know it's good."

"Glad we both know. I gotta go now."

She wanted to tell him something else, but didn't find proper words. Soon after, they both left.

Furious, Mako went straight to the ferry. Everything was getting so messed up; firstly, Bolin had got his childish hump, and now Korra... He'd only wanted to help; he cared about her, didn't she see that...? And Bolin... Mako was trying to protect him his whole life and that's how his brother repaid him... What had been he thinking? He came to me and started talking about that Dou and his pro-bending vision... He was so excited — like always — and also so naive — like always... Mako left the airbending training site, and, intending to pass by the temple and not to meet Korra again, headed directly for the island's small harbour. And he told me that Dou's going to create a professional team. And I told him, "Bolin, it ain't that simple, it doesn't work that way..." Mako remembered the view of Bolin's face when he'd said that. His eyes had narrowed, his lips had pursed, and he'd asked, "How is that not simple? It's very simple. Fans pay for the tickets, the chairman pay for the best players, so fans would be happy, and if they're happy, they will buy more tickets. And everyone's happy." And I'm telling him, "Bolin, I've heard that the Wolfbats wanted to sign a professional contract a few weeks ago, and you know what? They have no control over their own team right now; they were played on." Bolin had quickly replied that Faan was different, and Mako had had no idea what he had been talking about. "I have no idea?! Let's say we're gonna go pro! And then what? Look at your Faan! Just look and him! And think how quickly athletes' careers end! Yes, Bolin! We end up having no money, no job, no education. I want something more for us; something better! Pro-bending is good as a hobby. But we have to stick to real jobs. Real future!" Bolin had gone silent, but his face had been getting red quickly. "Besides," Mako had calmed down a little, "there's no contract offer to speak of. You didn't say anything about Dou offering us to play for him, did you?"

Bolin had seemed to hesitate, but it'd been only for a moment.

"No." His face had been fierce again and his words angry. "I didn't."

And he'd slammed the door, leaving the room. He hadn't showed up for the whole evening.

"Hard day, eh?"

It was a young air acolyte. Mako glanced at him. His eyes definitely weary — but curious and cautious — his skin non-tattooed and his body rather fly-weight, he was standing by the ferry, evidently waiting for the depart.

"Yeah, kinda," replied Mako reluctantly. "Do I know you?"

"No." He smiled. That smile, thought Mako. It's... weird. "You don't know me. Huh, I believe I should say something nice now. Something comforting. Like 'it'll get better' or that 'you don't have to worry'. But, you see, man, the problem is — it won't."

Mako scowled and entered the ship, baffled. "Who are you?"

The air acolyte ignored his question and stayed on the pier. "It won't get any better. It never gets."

"Are you nut—"

"Koeni. Koeni's the name."

"Stop toying with me." Mako frowned. "Tell me what you want and just get the hell outta here. I'm busy."

"Busy doing what? The ferry's sailing off. And you're just standing here, on the deck, staring at me furiously because you don't understand me." His smile became even wider. "You don't understand a lot of things."

"You clearly want to get into trouble, man," threatened Mako. That guy started to annoy him. He was seriously regretting that the ferry was about to leave; he would show him a few firebending tricks.

"Oh, I do not, really," the air acolyte laughed like Mako would have cracked a good joke. "I used to, but that's why I came here. To stop that. Listen, I'll give you some advice."

"I don't need—"

"You do. And here it is. Just stop acting like a resentful princess. Try to understand."

The ferry set sail.

Mako, his eyes narrowed, wanted to know how this guy found out about the argument. "How the—"

"A nice chat we're having, but I think it ends now." The air acolyte's tired eyes shone with a little bit of humour. Suddenly, Mako realized why his smile seemed weird to him. His mouth was smiling nearly all the time, but his eyes — his eyes were dark and grim. A distance between the ferry and the island started to grow, and now the air acolyte had to shout. "I hope we meet again... Mako!"

"Asami. Long time no see."

"Mister Meiyou. It's a pleasure."

"Meiyou... Your father used to call me just Zuzhou. But I guess my surname is more appropriate now. You're not very welcome here lately."

"It's not—"

"—polite?"

"Fair, I'd say."

"Maybe. But we both know why it can't be otherwise. Things are different now. You're not the cute, little girl who used to hide behind her father's door, overhearing his conversations, your eyes shining with excitement. Not anymore. You've made your own choices."

"As have my father."

"Yes... Hiroshi, eh, he should how been more... look, never mind. I cannot say I don't understand him. But what I can say is that I don't understand you."

"There's nothing to understand."

"Oh, no, no, there is, I assure you. Think about it. I wonder how does it feel to be the second for the first time in your life, for instance?"

"I... I'm not sure I get your point."

"I'll be honest and straightforward, then. You are an only child. Your father coddled you, maybe he didn't spoil you, but he coddled you, for sure; you were an apple in his eyes since your mother had died. He did everything he could to please you. But now, as you said yourself, things are different."

"My childhood doesn't matter. That's not why I came here."

"I remember a scene, you know. It took place at least ten years ago. You and some kids—"

"I don't see any connection to the matter."

"But I do. So, you and a few friends of yours were having fun in the playground, while your father and I were discussing some business stuff. What was it... oh, I recall now. We had a problem with the new Satomobile. Customers had been reporting that the engines had been overheating sometimes, nothing really serious, but they overreacted, the press got it very quickly and that idiot Lau Gan-Lan was to release his first Cabbage Car the next week... Anyway, while we were talking, I remember I was watching you play with the other kids. And guess what?"

A sigh. "I have no idea."

"You were the one to choose a game. You were the one to speak first and last. You were the one to manage and organize. You were a leader. You've always been a leader type of a person. You were taught to take care of yourself. And this is why I wonder how did it happened that you had agreed to become a puppet in their hands."

"Their hands?"

"The Avatar's and her bald buddy's, of course."

"They're my friends."

"Yeah. Sure. If that's what you want to think." An ironic grimace. "So, tell me why you're here. Go ahead. I'm all ears."

"I want your support."

"Because...?"

"It seems there will be another Council seat to take. A non-bender one. And I want it."

"You want it?"

"As you said yourself. I've always been a leader type of a person."

"You want it? Not your 'friend' Tenzin?"

"Both of us, I think."

"And that's why he sent you here."

"No. That's why I came here."

"I see. What an irony."

"Irony?"

"Future Industries were founded by Hiroshi Sato. And now, many years after he made me his assistant, I am the interim chief executive officer of the company, the founder's in jail, and his daughter asks me to support her case. Yes, things are different now, for sure."

"It's a time for new leaders to rise. Yesterday, they didn't even think they will have a chance. Now, they have to deal with the new reality. And you are one of them, Zuzhou. Just like me."

"Oooh, do you really think that the airbender has a nice role for me in his government of marionettes?"

"No. But I have, in my government of a free city. It's my turn to be clear and straightforward, so listen carefully. The revolution has changed a lot of things. One of them is the situation of Future Industries. Everything my father did, every deadly machine he built... it's not only bad press. He bombed the city—"

"Not literally. It was Amon."

"It's the same. People died because of him. It's not something shareholders would have liked, is it? I read a paper yesterday, and guess what? It said Future Industries stock had dropped once again. Once again. And it's been going down for months. Moreover, since my father's in jail, you're the one who's responsible for it, even though you didn't do anything bad. I guess the board of directors isn't very impressed with your crisis management skills. Let's face the truth. You're wealthy and you have powerful friends that I want to use. You may act confident, while talking to a teenager, but the fact is, you're fighting for survival."

"Those are very strong words."

"Just truth."

"You think so?"

"The company needs redemption, hence you need redemption. I'm willing to give it to you."

"So, that's the deal?"

"Yes. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. It's that simple."

"I must admit, you're getting good at this, child. Maybe even as good as your father. Yet, you have a lot to learn. I'm afraid I must refuse."

"What...? Why? The company—"

"I don't care about the company. It may fall, it may rise, I don't give a damn about it!"

"What is it, then?"

"Two names. Guess."

"Korra... and Tenzin?"

"Exactly! The current Avatar and the previous Avatar's son! I will never do what they want! Not in this or her previous lifetime!"

"Previous lifetime? You mean... you mean Avatar Aang? Did he do something to you?"

"You don't think I will make confessions to a girl like you, do you?"

"But that's just plainly ridiculous!"

"Ridiculous? Ridiculous?!"

"Listen, I don't care what it was! But so many years have passed! Aang's dead!"

"But she isn't!"

"So what, you want her to die, too?"

An awkward silence fell.

"By the spirits, Zuzhou... You're... I just don't—"

"You don't...? You don't what? Let me tell you something. I don't care what you do or do not! I don't give a damn about it!" He paused. "Do you remember what happened when your mother died?"

"Don't bring her into this. Just don't."

"The day you overheard me and your father?"

"I... I..."

"Go ahead, speak yourself."

"No."

"Then you won't understand me."

"I was... I was curious... and little... that's all... And he had left the door opened... I was just coming by and... I heard someone crying. It was a long, miserable moan. So I peeked, everybody would have. I saw my father and you... You were sitting in a chair, your back turned to me... And he... he was sitting behind the desk. He had hidden his face in his hands, but I knew it was him who was crying. I had never seen him crying before. I don't know how he had acted in the morgue, I've never thought of that... But at the funeral... a week later... he didn't cry... his face was pale, weary and... somewhat decisive, but he didn't... And in the office that day he looked... broken."

"He was broken."

"And then... then you leant over and said—"

"Yes. What did I say?"

"You asked him, 'Remember how he took her away from me? The Avatar, benders, triads... They're all the same'. I didn't understand any of it back then—"

"That's not everything."

"No, it's not... You paused and you said 'One day we'll have our revenge. I promise.' And then... then you turned around... and saw me behind the door. I got scared. So I ran away."

"That's it. That's why I won't help you. Your father had his chance for revenge, but he rushed it and failed. But he was always hot-blooded. I will settle for a small victory like this. I'll smile when you, that damned Avatar and even more damned airbender lose, all three of you."

"I guess the conversation's over, then."

He didn't deny it, still smirking. She left the office immediately.

"Miss Sato? Miss Sato, is that you?"

"Yes... But who are you?"

"My name's Beiphan. I'm one of Zuzhou's assistants."

"And why are you—"

He lowered his voice. "Tenzin sent me."

"Oh. I see."

"Let's go somewhere more convenient. Meanwhile... How did it go with Zuzhou?"

"Bad."

"Just bad or a very bad kind of bad?"

"A catastrophic kind of bad, I'd say."

"Yeah. The airbender expected it."

"He expected it? So why am I even here?"

"Because you have to talk to me."

"You? You're just an assistant; you can't do anything. We've lost Zuzhou."

"No, not really."

"Yes, really!"

"You think so. All of you, well-born people, are the same. You always underestimate everyone else." He smiled awfully. "I want to remind you, my pretty lady, that you have just screwed up the meeting with Zuzhou, not me... I have my own methods. Okay, stop here, it's a good place to talk."

"So...?"

"You tell me. I require an incentive to cooperate."

"What...?"

"How about a dinner?"

"You and me? That's funny. Really funny. Just do what Tenzin told you to do. And then go away."

His eyes shone odiously for a moment. "You see? You don't even consider me equal. Oh, I know you so well, every damn one of you. That's why you're so easy to fool."

"Just skip the hateful part."

He seemed to have different opinion on this, but then he didn't continue the topic. "Zuzhou relies on my judgement. He went personal on you, but he'll settle down sooner or later, and then he'll ask me and the other assistants about our view on the case. He's a businessman first, remember that. But when the time comes, I'll have to give him something. Something that will make him profitable. It depends on you what it'll be."

"Do something. You're Tenzin's spy. That's what you do for a living; cheat on people."

"Look at yourself, doll." He frowned hatefully. "You despise everyone you can. Everyone's a tool to you. You think you're so special...? You're not. You have to earn what you want just like everyone else."

"Slow down. I had an offer for him — my shares — but he didn't even let me mention it."

"Good, because that would be an idiotic offer. He doesn't really need your shares; he's in control of the company and he's had no competition since the old Sato's in jail. Maybe if Hiroshi wasn't... Anyway, Zuzhou's the CEO now; the 'interim' part is only a temporary façade. What Zuzhou really needs, is revenue and profit of the company. He wants new products and innovations to show investors that we haven't lost Sato's magic touch."

"I might... I might have something like that."

"Go ahead."

"I have them in my bag. Look..."

"These are... These are the schemes of the Sato's airplane."

"Yes."

"Does the airbender know?"

"No."

"How you got them...?"

"It's my business. You'll take care of your part of the deal, won't you?"

"I will."

She said nothing in return and headed for the exit. Beiphan, his face covered with shadows, stayed in the corner for a while, watching her leave.

The darkness lay down on the streets of Republic City.

Bumi, his wild hair ruffled by the evening wind which was dancing over the waters of Yue Bay, walked out of the ferry. The harbour seemed abandoned as the day had ended and workers, tired and overworked, had returned home to their beloved families: children and wives, who had prepared them a hot supper — or hadn't, if they were short on money, which happened very often. Bumi, who — unlike Tenzin — was a very earthy person and didn't like to engage in any exalted stuff, quickly saw injustice of the city. He remembered how he — a naive, idealistic teenager, who had a forceful need of being remarkable as his older sister and parents, the only non-bender in a family of bending prodigies — had joined the navy to prevent such things from happening; he'd believed the United Forces and the Republic could guide the world into an era of prosperity and peace, in which people would be happy again. The reality, however, quickly turned out to be very brutal. The economic inequality — as well as the bending one — seemed to be a strict rule of life.

The only solution was to let go and live like you're going to die any second. It didn't matter that way if your wealthy or not. His father taught him that.

Bumi left the harbour soon after and made for the downtown, which was still awake. He went straight to the florist's, whistling joyfully; however, the shop was already closed. Having looked around carefully, he noticed that there was a flat above the shop and the lights were on, so he started to knock loudly. A minute passed and nothing happened, but he didn't give up, hence soon he could hear a few quick steps and angry curses behind the wall. An old man wearing a frayed nightcap opened the door little bit, creating a narrow slit, and exposed his head with hesitation.

"What?" he snarled, his skin wrinkly and pulled loose. "Can't he read, a stupid youngster? It says 'closed'. Closed! So what does he want?"

"A bouquet." Bumi grinned widely, exposing his teeth. "And I'll pay you double."

He always treated money rather carelessly. That was his nature: he didn't care about wealth; he treated everybody's possessions as toys to play with; he easily made new friendships, almost as easily as new enemies; he easily forgot and forgave. He also subconsciously expected everyone to do the same; however, they did not always appear to be so easy-going. Let's take Tenzin, for instance. His brother didn't seem to like him and Lin — Tenzin's ex-girlfriend — hooking up. Bumi, on the other hand, thought of it as a funny twist of life's plot.

He left the shop after the old man, whose eyes had become as rounded as two golden pieces when he had scented money, had given him a fine bouquet of flowers. Among all the kinds of beautiful plants, it contained a single panda lily flower, the most pretty flower in the world in the opinion of many. Bumi knew that Lin seemed to hate such gifts; she considered them plainly stupid and shallow. He also knew that she knew that he would buy it for her anyway. That was like him. He couldn't help that.

He knew he had some time left to the date, so he didn't hurry. Last time they had met, he'd been late — a rather usual thing for him, a carefree spirit — and she'd dressed him down like only Lin Beifong could have done it. He wanted to be timely now. They chose a cosy restaurant placed in the downtown, but in a somewhat distance from the most crowded part.

Bumi entered a narrow, long alley.

A quiet one. There was no sound, but he could swear he had heard a few laughs in the pub nearby just a second ago. The alley kept silent. But something inside — something inside was whispering to him...

A dark one. There was no light, but he remembered that he had passed by a lantern. He caught a glimpse of a sight of two luminous points in the background, but they quickly disappeared.

A scary one. He saw the danger, yet... he walked along the enchanted way.

After a few steps, on a quiet street where old ghosts meet, he saw — a creature.

A creature made of shadows. The contours of it nearly blended in to the darkened environment.

He had no time to react. He only managed to shout. And then — it attacked.

It attacked.

It attacked.

Episodes

The Backstage

Do you want to know how I write Phantoms? If you like the fanon, you might want to check my blog out. With every new episode, I write a post about my writing techniques and a lot of backstage decisions I had to make. I believe you'll like it!

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