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Asami shocked
The Phantom
Chapter information
Series

Phantoms

Chapter

Four

Written by

Aritiane

Release date

September 2, 2012

Chronology
Last chapter

The Investigation

Next chapter

The Protest

Click to jump to the latest scene added to the episode.

"The Second Yu Dao Incident, also known as The Two Day Crisis, was a minor political event involving the Fire Nation's and the Earth Kingdom's soldiers who quartered in Yu Dao, a former belonging of both nations and a part of the United Republic of Nations at the time, that took place in 160 ASC. After The First Yu Dao Incident (101 ASC, cf. → The Harmony Restoration Movement) and the founding of Republic City and thus the UNR, colonies of the Fire Nation in the Earth Kingdom were transformed into free cities which belonged to the new country; although the situation in the West Coast remained unstable for many years after. The full development of Republic City was finished no earlier than in 128 ASC. The United Forces, based on the Mo Ce Treaty which was signed in 119 ASC (cf. → The United Forces → Origins), were not capable of protecting locations other than the capital until 138 ASC (cf. → The UNR Coal and Steel Community, esp. the paragraph about the deal between the Future Industries and the navy of the UF). Therefore, → the Triple Treat between the UNR, the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom was signed to insure the prerequisite security level of former colonies. Over the following years, every of the three nations would have interchangeably protected a third of mentioned territories by the time the UF would finally be able to cover the whole area itself. By 160 ASC, three-fourths of the UNR cities were under the jurisdiction of the UF, excluding Yu Dao. At the time, the metropolis was defended by the Earth Kingdom infantry, preparing to be relieved by the Fire Nation soldiers. Although, when the 3rd Royal Regiment was about to come to the city, it was attacked by a group of Earth Kingdom soldiers, who were later claimed to be 'deserters' by the diplomacy of Ba Sing Se. The Fire Nation commander of the 3rd Royal, → Colonel Sandazu, considered the attack as a provocation of the Earth Kingdom battalion, a clear announcement that → the Earth King ruled Yu Dao once again. He began a siege instantaneously, preparing to force through walls. The irrevocable political crisis and perhaps a prelude to a new war was obviated because of Colonel Sandazu's sudden death the day after, which made his regiment retreat. The Fire Lord later condemned Sandazu's actions as 'not consulted with the supreme command, calling the incident 'an unfortunate event,' which both sides 'deeply regretted.'"

Tzu, The Chronicle of Peace, or the Description of Years After The Great War

Breathe.

The morrow air which filled up the training arena was cool and fresh and full of light.

Even without fireballs which had obviously heated up the atmosphere.

Lee, a private of the First Division of the United Forces, dodged the opening attack, having backed his right foot and lowering the stance in result. Well, thought Iroh and smiled, such a fireball might be too easy even for a rookie. But it was still a warm-up and both of them knew it. The general sent another blast of fire immediately; his left arm, which he had kept low beside his flank, rose up and straightened in an attempt to perform a one-two sequence. His feet were following the movement by reflex, just as he had been taught in his childhood, shifting weight to the left, bringing him closer to the sparring partner. The private ducked once more and used the momentum to bend his body into a ferocious fire kick. Too ferocious and too high, in fact, but Iroh was still too far to use that mistake and throw him out of balance. Instead, he met the shot halfway; having formed his hands into a cone, he split it in two as easily as it would be a just a puff of wind and then threw it away. Once again, the general was a few steps further. He sought contact. I'll teach the lad a lesson.

It was Iroh who had commanded all his officers to train new recruits by themselves as he himself trained green firebenders of the First Division. He believed that it helped to form a bond between the leader and his soldiers and that both sides could learn from this experience and use it later in a battle. Trust is what builds every army, trust is what keeps it whole, and trust along with discipline makes it obey. His grandfather taught him that. Therefore, Iroh knew every firebender in his division by name and at least recognized other benders' faces; some of them had been fighting along with him for many years. My soldiers. My friends.

But for sure there was one who was fighting with him right now. Private Lee, seeing his superior coming closer, tightened his stance and prepared to duel in the short distance, his fists clenched at the level of his chest. He put both arms straight, intending to fire two shots in the same time, but Iroh predicted it and caught his hands in a grip so strong that it made the blasts snuff at once. Hoping to disengage, Lee wriggled into a side kick with his left leg, sending a blaze at Iroh's head; the general dodged it, leaning back and letting the soldier free, but when he touched the ground with his right hand to prevent himself from falling, he counterattacked and kicked the private in the leg while Lee was still spinning. And thus forced him to collapse.

The fight was over.

"You did good, boy," Iroh told him afterwards when the two dusted themselves off.

"Thank you, sir." The young soldier seemed awed and uptight to see his general praise him.

"You would do even better, though, if you stuck to the basics."

"Yes, sir."

"Consider using less high kicks."

"I will, sir." From what Iroh could tell, the boy seemed as he would never do a high kick again.

"And chill out, soldier. I don't bite."

He saluted, as straight as a pole . "As you command, sir."

Iroh sighed and shook his head, smiling.

After he had entered the headquarters, his other soldier called him. It was Sinchai, who as always wore his green earthbender's outfit of the First Division lieutenant; the news was that someone was looking for Iroh, so he ordered him to wait in the conference room. Hearing this, a policeman standing nearby scowled at them boldly; by his grimace the general could deduce that he wasn't happy about some bossy soldiers in his headquarters. Iroh knew that Lin Beifong had set the police against the United Forces, and he had no illusions that anyone in the building who was not his man would gladly spit into his tea when he wasn't looking. He ignored that look, however, smirking to mock the policeman, and thanked Sinchai for information.

"I see your leg's got better, Sin," he said when the earthbender walked away. Sinchai served under him in the First Division and had been injured during the Battle for Republic City. A bomb dropped from the Equalists' biplane had exploded not far from him and hurt his right knee. Since then he had been suffering constant pain and limping, even after the wound and the burn had been healed.

"Aye, sir," the lieutenant nodded, "but it depends on weather. Sometimes it's good and I feel like I could run around like crazy. But the next day it rains and the knee hurts even more than ever before. I can still fight, though, I'm sick of the paperwork. It takes more than a bomb to defeat the old Sinchai. Wanna check me out, sir?" he asked, guffawing, and pointed at the training ground.

"No." Iroh grinned and scratched his scar on the left arm by reflex. "It would make me sorry to kick your butt. Not because of the leg, of course. I'm simply better."

Sinchai winked, still chuckling. "I'll be waiting outside if you change your mind, sir."

Iroh went to the conference room. It was large and full of chairs which were placed in rows in front of the map of Republic City which covered nearly the whole wall. Beifong and her officers had been planning every coordinated action of the police in here, he was told; and indeed, pinned notes covered the map from end to end, containing information about latest patrols, actions, homicides, provocations. And there was a man in front of it, studying them closely. Too closely.

Iroh recalled the policeman's angry face. Maybe it wasn't so wise to let this guy be here.

"Beiphan." The firebender's voice was firm and sharp. "Do you want to steal that map?"

Scared, the man turned around, and sighed with relief after he had recognized Iroh. "No," he said quickly. "But tacks seem tempting."

Beiphan was small not only in comparison with Iroh who stood two heads taller than him. His nose hooked and askew, his mouth dishonest, his dark hair receding at the crown of his head, and his face always frowning, he looked neither pleasant nor even likable. Though Iroh needn't to be fond of him, every time the two met he wondered if there was a person who actually liked him. The conclusion had never made him sad; he knew Beiphan deserved it.

"Your report?" asked the general when he closed the door carefully.

"I've got it."

"I've got it, sir." Iroh's tone sounded as cold as it would be made out of steel.

Beiphan's eyes narrowed but he swallowed his pride. "I met with the girl like you had commanded. Sir."

"And?"

"I told her it was Tenzin who had sent me, and asked about the conversation."

"Just like it was planned. Later?"

"The airbender had gave her nothing to persuade Zuzhou. Seems he knew from the beginning that she was going to lose. You sent me there for nothing." He saw Iroh silently articulating the missing word. "Sir."

"Oh, there was a reason." Knowing what Tenzin wanted to do and what he will do next. "But what I intended is none of your concern."

Iroh sat down on the nearest chair and let himself ponder freely for a while. He knew from the beginning that she was going to lose... Did he? The general felt sorry for Asami Sato; she was a mere toy in a game she could not really control, because everything had been already settled before. Iroh knew that feeling — oh, he really did; as a member of the Fire Nation royal family, he had been raised in the atmosphere of palatial plots and conspiracies himself. And that was how he had enlisted into the United Forces, too. Traditionally, the prince of the Fire Nation should lead the Fire Nation army.

"By the way," Iroh decided to break the silence, "have you grown fond of Miss Sato, Beiphan?"

"Don't mock me. Sir." He seemed as he would feel squeamish every time he said that word.

Asami Sato... Iroh remembered her well, even though they hadn't met since the imprisonment in the Equalists' airfield. Her green, pretty eyes; long, ethereal hair; full lips and curvy body. Beautiful, he thought, but also smart, strong and decisive. He had heard about her efforts in the Revolution, and also that she had captured her own father while Iroh was pursuing aircrafts. The girl had not deserved it, Iroh was sure. But... isn't it my fault, too? It was me who had sent Beiphan. I didn't warn her. It's the same. Could he judge the others? In straightforward soldier eyes, cheating was always cheating; in eyes of the prince, however, necessity prevailed. Truth to be told, it didn't make him feel any better, though. Glancing at Beiphan, Iroh asked himself how the conversation between the two had really looked like. And the answer wasn't nice.

"I wonder if you tried to kill her with these scum eyes of yours because of her higher status," Iroh's voice seemed casual, but there was a threat hidden behind these words, "or undress her for the same reason." He paused. "Maybe both. Eh, Beiphan? How was it?"

The man kept silent, but Iroh knew he was boiling inside. Pathetic.

"I hope you didn't try to fool her." The general eyed the little man up and down. "You were just ordered to question her, and not deceive, so it would be best for you if you hadn't. Otherwise, I would have you hanged, scum."

I wouldn't, of course, not hanged, not after the Yu Dao, but he needn't know it. To him, Beiphan was just a pathetic worm.

"Y—Yes," the worm stammered. "I mean, no. I didn't. Try anything."

"Oh, you mean 'no, I didn't try anything, sir,' don't you?"

The man glimpsed at him hatefully once again and Iroh couldn't help but laugh. It wasn't long since he had recruited Beiphan and helped him to become Zuzhou's assistant, when he found out about his attitude towards those who were powerful enough to command, rule and lead. Being as small at heart as he was small of height, Beiphan hated such people just as much as he admired them; they were everything he would never be. He wanted power but he was too weak to achieve it. He craved respect but did not represent anything that would be worth it. Iroh, being a noble himself, loved to mock Beiphan because of such an attitude, even if his higher status meant in fact nothing in the United Republic. A soldier to the core, the general despised nearly everything in this man. He would pity him, however, if he believed there was a hope for him to change. A larva can evolve into a butterfly, he kept repeating himself, but a worm remains a worm for ever. Beiphan had proved to be useful sometimes, though; Iroh needed him and therefore, tolerated his presence.

Iroh stopped laughing and asked, "Are you certain that the airbender knows nothing?"

"Yes, I am. Sir."

"How? She could have asked him about you. That ugly face of yours is memorable."

"She didn't tell him."

"I wonder what makes you so sure, scum."

"I just know." Yeah, and you won't tell me, because you fear for the tongue. Whether it was a grimace or a filthy smile that had grown on Beiphan's face, Iroh could not tell.

"At least you would have courage to admit what you did, coward." The general frowned. "But I guess I'll have to let it be. You're as craven as one could be, do you know it?"

"Craven?" Beiphan's eyes narrowed crossly. "I spy for you, sir. I lie for you, sir. I put my life at stake for you, sir. And you're calling me a coward?"

"Yes, I am. That's exactly what I said. Do you want to deny it and challenge me?"

The little man seemed as surprised and scared as Iroh would have indeed commanded to hang him. "Are you crazy—?"

"No bending. Do it, here and now. Show your worth."

"No." Beiphan looked away. "No."

"That's a proof, then." Iroh smirked when Beiphan's face grew disdainful the thousandth time today. "You've been spying Hiroshi Sato, Zuzhou and Tenzin for me, you say. That's true, and I can't deny it. But I also do not doubt that you would the same for Zuzhou or Tenzin. Or maybe you're doing it already." Iroh's smile disappeared immediately. "Are you, Beiphan?"

"No," he sniffed the threat and became strangely polite. "No, I'm not, sir."

Iroh didn't believe him at all, but he nodded nonetheless. "And that's what I wanted to hear." He paused for a while and stretched his legs, making himself comfortable in the chair. "Tell me more about the old Sato. I'm really curious how he managed to screw Tenzin over like that. And also why I didn't know anything about it." General scowled, displeased.

"I—I didn't know either... If I had, I would have—"

You knew. But I do not care. It's the airbender's business. Besides... Asami didn't know either.

"Skip it. I'm not in a mood to listen to your whining."

"No one knew about it, in fact. There was no official meeting, that's for sure. People talk, though. It is said Zuzhou and Hiroshi had made a deal. In exchange for support in the election, Sato sold all his shares to Zuzhou, making him the controlling shareholder. If that's true, it means that Hiroshi withdrew from the company."

"He lost Future Industries, then... Are you sure your askew ears didn't fail you? It would be a pretty high price, don't you think?"

"I—No, I disagree... sir." Beiphan's legs grew tired as he stood there in front of the map, so he began glancing at the chair nearby, but Iroh stil didn't command him to sit down, and he was too afraid to do it without permission. "I believe it would be not enough, and actually, there has to be even more. Truth be told, Zuzhou had already controlled the company. And other shareholders didn't really like what Sato had done during the Revolution. He would have never regained the CEO office. Zuzhou needed something else."

"And that is...?"

"A new product. Products make money. It's a weapon, they say."

Iroh's eyes widened, but he immediately scolded himself for that, trying to hide his excitement. Did our fish took the bait so fast? Tenzin could be certainly disappointed about Hiroshi Sato acting at large and beating him in the Council, but it seemed that Iroh's game was just about to start. But he wanted to be sure. "Is it the Equalists' weapon?"

"No. Something new, really new. Sato's latest invention. That's the gossip. The city is not peaceful, people want to have a way to defend themselves. And when the market demands, Future Industries delivers."

Damn it. "Dig into it anyway. I want to know what that is."

"Yes... sir."

Silent, Iroh wondered for a while about everything he had heard. "That Zuzhou and Sato are friends, I was told. It's been a good friendship, and a long one, you've said yourself. But he charged his former boss a lot, didn't he? Damn much, if you ask me."

"Maybe that's why their friendship have been declining over the last few days." Beiphan smirked. "Now, Zuzhou has his Future Industries and Sato has his Council. Just as he wanted. But I've heard that the old man took it hard. The company's been his life. He loved it."

"Not as much as vengeance, I guess."

Beiphan shrugged. "Everybody has their priorities."

Someone knocked at the closed door. Iroh stood up to open it.

"Speaking of priorities," he said, clenching his hand on the handle, "it seems I've got more important stuff to do than experiencing the unpleasantness of talking to you."

"Likewise... sir."

"Oh." Iroh made a miserable face theatrically. "I thought you felt honoured every time you come here, Beiphan. Such a shame."

He did not comment. Still amused, Iroh opened the conference room's door.

"General." It was Sergeant Junshi. After the Yue Bay, Iroh had promoted him to the rank himself for shooting three Equalists' biplanes down. "An urgent call from the Council awaits you in the Chief's office, sir."

"I'm going." Iroh turned around to look at the turncoat who immediately took the chance to resume staring at the police's notes. "You are dismissed. Remember your orders."

"Aye, will do."

"And stop gawking at that map. Beifong would tear me apart with her cables if you stole it."

Having left the room, Iroh went straight to the management department. "Councilman Tezin will call you again immediately, sir," a secretary said after she saw him coming. Even she gave him an unfriendly look, though; amused, Iroh pondered what Lin Beifong had told them about him this time, and entered her office. It was a medium-sized, rounded place and seemed to be made nearly entirely out of metal. The desk was metallic, the drawers were metallic, so no one could read the Chief's documents but her or her metalbenders, and the walls — surprisingly... — were metallic as well. An inside as cold as Lin Beifong herself, thought Iroh.

Despite that, it reminded him of his own office in the Citadel, the United Forces headquarters on the Jiajiao Island. It must be a mess there, that's for sure, he smiled to his own thoughts. Haven't been there a while. The office had been given to him more than when he became a general, and he could have never really kept it clean. All those files, records and reports... Iroh had always hated the paperwork. It's easy enough to organise soldiers on a battlefield, but too hard to organise a bunch of papers on a desk. The firebender learned to accept that truth, but never stopped wondering.

All these thoughts made him miss the Citadel. It was an armpit when compared to Republic City, but it was his armpit. He had grown there to be a man he was now.

Finally, the phone rang. Iroh picked it up.

After a while, he found himself listening to words he could not really understand. No, it can't be. I don't believe it. Numb, he put the receiver on the desk after Tenzin was done explaining the whole thing. He stood there for a few minutes, still, immobile, as if he was lifeless or asleep on his feet. It must be a dream. Anyone, tell me I'm dreaming. He pinched himself; as he expected, it hurt. Not a few seconds passed, and dizziness attacked him. It's cold in here.

Someone knocked at the door. Just a dream...

Once. But it sounds so vivid...

Twice. No, it can't be... they wouldn't...

Thrice. Guess it's time to wake up.

"Come in," Iroh heard himself saying in a hoarse voice.

"General?" Sinchai's head poked out beyond the doorstep. "I thought we were to spar outside?"

Iroh did not answer. Not at once.

"General?"

"I'm not your general anymore." The firebender turned around, smiling awry. "I was suspended."


"Can I try?"

The boy turned around, surprised, and eyed him up and down, frowning when he noticed Koeni's air acolyte robe. He bounced the ball once or twice more, suspicious of the youngster he had not known, and then decided to pass it to him. Koeni caught the ball firmly with both hands and twirled it, instantly forgetting about the sharp cough that haunted him the whole day; he clenched his fingers, spotted familiar grooves on the surface and raised his arms to shoot, straightening his elbow and flicking his wrist — the move he had perfected his whole childhood. It feels so good, he thought. The ball went up and started to spin with proper reverse rotation before it dived into the net and swished lovely, not touching neither the blackboard nor rim.

The lad had been prepared to rebound, but instead he got nothing.

"Nice shoot, sir." He seemed to forget about his earlier suspicions.

"For an air acolyte, eh?" asked Koeni, grinning.

The boy looked him in the eye, as sincere as only a ten-year-old could be. "My dad, Laipei, says that ac... aco... acolytes are men who work for benders and ob—" he stammered, trying to recall the exact phrase, and then finished, his face proud that he could remember such a word "—obey them. Like slaves or doormats."

"If your father says so, it must be truth." Koeni nodded seriously, hiding his mirth.

"My dad is a locksmith and he knows everything," the lad staggered. "What does your father do?"

How could I know that, boy? The air acolyte looked away and quickly changed the topic. "The ball." He pointed at it. "Show me what you've got. Shoot it."

"My dad says I shouldn't play so much. I should be a locksmith just like him and his own father."

"A locksmi—" The cough attacked Koeni once again, and he was forced to pause. The bout was more severe this time; he felt as if his lungs were burning to the flesh and he would swear that he might spit them in a while. Trying to be fast enough, he reached for a handkerchief in his pocket, but it was too late. Before he put it in front of his mouth, a few stains of blood blossomed on the ground. His little interlocutor spotted it before Koeni stepped on the drops to cover them. Dammit. "Are you ill? My father was ill once and—"

I'm sick of your father. Koeni coughed for the last time and said, "Just shoot it, boy."

His face nearly red from intense focus, the lad dribbled it a few times more, stuck his tongue to aim better and then threw the ball using both hands. It bounced off the rim and fell down miserably.

Just be nice. Try to be nice. Defeat it. Nice. "Fine shot for a locksmith, I'd say. It almost went in." Koeni forced himself to smile in spite of the miss, and the lad blushed, glad and proud. Now tell him something useful. "Try hitting the square drawn above the rim."

The boy threw the ball once more, just the way Koeni had told him. He missed, but he got closer this time; it rebounded from the backboard and began to go round the rim before it finally fell out.

"Monkey feathers!" he cried, his face disappointed but also pleased because of the improvement.

"You'll get better, kid." Or not. Koeni turned around to leave. He felt that another bout was near. "Maybe we'll play again some time." Probably never. The cough may finish me sooner.

"Wait!" The lad's call made him stop. "My dad doesn't want me to talk to strangers."

"A wise fellow, if you ask me."

"You won't be a stranger if I get to know you." The boy scratched his head thoughtfully. "I'm Nanhai. I live there." He pointed at a house nearby, just as carefree as only a ten-year-old could be.

Koeni was about to point it out and scold him greatly; before he did it, however, another thought came to him and stopped him. You don't have to make him feel as miserable as you feel yourself. Shut your stupid mouth up, or say something... normal.

"Glad to meet you, Nanhai." The air acolyte decided to give him a bow. "My name's Koeni."

"You're nice, Koeni. For a doormat." He smiled charitably. "I'll tell my dad."

This time, Koeni just couldn't help but laugh; the bad mood just broke inside him. The laughter, however, quickly degenerated into the next attack of cough. He managed to leae the court nonetheless, gasping and avoiding the boy's scared look who must have already noticed bags under the air acolyte's eyes as well as his pasty, unhealthy skin.

The chat with the kid made him reminisce his own childhood.

Koeni had learnt to play the ball when he had been no older that Nanhai. It wasn't as spectacular as pro-bending, earth soccer, airball or kuai ball, but it was a game for non-benders like him. Healthy ones, at least.

Being an orphan adopted by a poor family living in the far outskirts of Republic City, he could have been outside all day long and practice shooting as long as he wanted. And there were other children living close to the court, not like in his foster home, where he could only meet Shibo, the guy who had found him in the streets and brought him with himself, and his old, grumpy mother. But to feel happy, Koeni didn't really need much; a ball, a basket and competitors whom he might challenge. Or at least a competitor, so they would be able to play one-on-one. Soon, no child in the neighbourhood really liked him because he always wanted to win; sometimes he had dared random people he hadn't know or even older teenagers he had known, and that was why he should fear them. Nothing could have stopped him. For as long as he was able to remember, rivalry had been always his element; to fight and to struggle, to win and to lose, to desire and despair, to fail and to rise — he sought it all.

But when evenings fell, Shibo would always bring him back home. Once he had come for him in the middle of a game just to take Koeni by force despite his furious attempts to break free. The boy might have yanked, he might have fidgeted and yelled and cried, but Shibo paid him no attention. "It's studying time, Koeni," he reminded him in his dense, low voice. Shibo was probably the strongest man Koeni had ever seen, a tall mountain of muscles and flesh, but he often acted like an overgrown child, and a blunt one. "Your mother would want you to know how to read and write, I'm sure. She was a very solemn person." The giant spoke about Koeni's real mother, the mother he had never known.

Shibo continued to walk, whistling joyfully and effortlessly holding Koeni in his arms, even though the latter was squirming like a wild cat. After the two had got home, he put the boy in his room, where a teacher had already awaited him, and went out. "Zolt needs me tonight," Koeni had heard him telling his mother. "Don't wait." He was aware that Shibo was a member of some triad and could easily imagine that his monstrous strength could be useful to many, even though he was not a skilful bender. Or an intelligent one.

A big part of what Shibo earned for doing it was spent on Koeni's education. He had always wondered why the big guy insisted on it so much, even against his mother's will, who had been always ranting about wasting money on a stray. Koeni himself was not happy about it, too; no other boy he knew had to learn how to write and read. It was dull and pointless and stupid. "Your mother would like that," Shibo would always answer, however, and if Koeni had asked about her and the reason why had she left him, he would have told him the same thing over and over again. "She was a very serious woman, that's all I know." Shibo never spoke about his father, though. Koeni would later learn to accept it as an unpleasant necessity.

But that was a thousand years ago. Now he was someone different.

Tenzin'd had him to deliver two letters to the headquarters of the police. The air acolyte couldn't help but glance at them both when he was leaving Air Temple Island by a ferry. The first was an official nomination for two officers Koeni did not know to become the interim commanders of the First and the Second Division of the United Forces, since Commander Bumi was incapable and the Council suspended General Iroh. The recipient of the second message turned out to be the firebender himself. "He knows about the Yu Dao," it said only that and nothing more. Koeni didn't know who that he really was and had no idea why Yu Dao, a city south of the capital, could be so important. Officially, Iroh had been suspended by the Council for his incompetence during the Battle for Republic City, answering for the defeat of the First Division. But the vote had been called by Hiroshi Sato, so there must have been a hidden motive behind it.

Koeni quickly did as he was bid, but did not leave the headquarters for a while. It wasn't a pleasant place right now, full of soldiers' doubt, disbelief and suspicions about their beloved general's situation. Koeni had stayed there, trying to listen, see and — understand. He was curious. He had been curious his whole life. But now... now he had to come back to the temple.

"Mohandas fails you! There is nothing — nothing, I repeat — he can do for you!" came the loud voice from nearby. Having recognized the familiar name, Koeni stopped to listen. There's still some time left to the next ferry, he thought. And that might be interesting.

He blended in with the large crowd. They huddled in an alley of the Dragon Flats borough.

"The old man is weak!" the cry went on. It belonged to a man much smaller than his voice. He stood in front of the mob, his dark eyes watching everyone closely upon his hook, askew nose. Oh, we aren't so pretty, are we? "The election clearly proved it, showing that he does not matter in the game anymore and is useless as well to them as he is to you. Remember: the choice is yours! You can do all the difference. New leaders must arise!"

A group murmur made the crowd billow. The guy loves to talk, Koeni realised. But if you look closely, there's nothing behind these words.

"Mayhap 'tis true..."

"Mohandas' gotten too soft..."

"No one wants t' listen t' us anymore..."

"New leaders... but who...?"

"They ne'er listen t' us..."

"Too soft, I'm tellin' ya, too soft..."

In that noise, a medium-aged man stepped forward and raised his voice. "Some folk here got it right, Beiphan." He spoke directly to the man who started the discussion. "If not Mohandas, then... who? You, mayhap?" The man smirked acidly. "Not much would change, I'd say."

Beiphan, thought Koeni. I recognize this name, too... But how did I get to know it...?

The little man's eyes shone odiously for a moment, but he quickly managed to hide it. "No, not me. I meant someone who has already won. Someone who is willing to help. Someone who really matters."

"And who is that?" Yeah, who?

Beiphan paused for a while, intending to increase their curiosity. "Hiroshi Sato."

A sudden silence fell. Then someone coughed (and suddenly, Koeni felt like coughing too). Someone grunted. Someone smirked. Someone murmured. And then someone burst into a short laughter. That was enough. Soon after, everybody was laughing. It was an avalanche — it had grown from a single laugh into overwhelming roar as quickly as snow slides down a slope. The medium-aged man laughed the loudest, clapping slowly in an amused manner. Beiphan's face grew all red.

"Are you done, Laipei?" he asked quietly when the noise went finally silent.

"No, I'm not." The medium-aged called Laipei seemed well entertained. Koeni had noticed that other people considered him someone important. Laipei, father of Nanhai... a nice locksmith must you be. He chuckled quickly, and coughed bloody. "I'm waiting for you to tell us that you spoke to Councilman Tenzin as well and everything will be just fine from now on."

Tenzin...! Suddenly, Koeni understood it all. That's how: the guy works in Future Industries and spies on Zuzhou for the airbender and Iroh. I knew I had heard about him before. But why is he here? And why does he speak about Sato?

"I have spoken to Hiroshi Sato." Beiphan's voice was as cold as steel. "And I'm not here to ask. I'm here to suggest." He emphasized the last word so obviously that everyone could hear it.

"'Tis what you're saying." But Laipei did not look so disdainful anymore. He sniffs the scent of benefits, Koeni realized. Brighter future smells so much different than locks and wood. "What have Hiroshi Sato ever done for us? He's a wealthy man, and we all know that. He doesn't care for us."

"I don't know, Laipei..." an unsure voice emerged out of the crowd. "Future Industries employs solely non-benders, you see."

"Yes, yes," someone joined, "and when I was a construction worker, Sato was the only one to keep our company running... He needed new factories... and everyone knows that those damn earthbenders would build it cheaper and faster... that's why we flopped, by the way... two hundred jobless people... but back then, he chose us anyway and paid well..."

"And the Revolution..."

"A brave man..."

"....and a hardworking one, that's for sure..."

"...his poor wife's dead..."

Beiphan smiled. He's planted a seed. And 'tis why he's contented. Koeni scowled. Hm. I'm a non-bender, too. I should be with them. But I'm also a doormat, so I guess I'm some worse kind of human to them. The one that's not equal enough to be equalised. Call it irony, or call it justice of the mob.

But what was all this masquerade? That was the question Koeni could not answer. He had heard that Beiphan was Iroh's man, but he knew for a certainty that Tenzin had use for him as well, but the two never contacted directly. The small man worked in Future Industries as Zuzhou's assistant, though now he seemed to be closer to Hiroshi Sato, helping him to gain followers among the poorest people in Republic City. But why would Sato need them? He had Zuzhou and the Coal and Steel Community, perhaps the wealthiest organisation of the United Republic. He does not need anyone else unless... unless, somehow, Zuzhou was no longer a friend of his. But if he wasn't, why would his assistant aid Hiroshi now? Another question was, why hadn't Beiphan informed Tenzin about Zuzhou's and Sato's election plot? Koeni pondered it for a while. He's never contacted him directly... Could it be true? Could Beiphan have informed Iroh, but it was the latter who had not told the airbender? But why?

Although Koeni considered himself to understand other people much better than an usual man — or at least he tried to do it — he had no slightest idea. Questions, so many questions... "The truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments, alas, how illegible, in the error of the world." He had read this sentence in a scroll in the temple once, but only now he saw how true it was.

"You all seem t' forget," a new voice made the air acolyte withdraw his thoughts, "how much Mohandas did for all o' us." It was an old man, his back bent nearly in half, his hands shaking and his eyes as white as snow. "Don't you remember the power plant protest, a few months ago? We did nothin', literally nothin', but it was 'cause of his presence and his arguments that they didn't start shootin' everythin' they got at us. Councilman Tenzin respects him. He agreed to our conditions back then, that non-benders can't be treated merely as cheap scrubs for firebenders and their lightnings... I've ne'er seen anythin' like it in my whole life. Not a drop of blood shed, nothin' at all. Yet — y'all seem to forget. It should be t'other way around: the young should remember, the old should forget. 'Tis a mad world we have, I'm tellin' you... but we have no other. Maybe it's not perfect... but Mohandas did some things to make it better. You shouldn't reject him just like that... especially you, Laipei. You're his right hand."

Oh, that's why you're so important here... Seems Beiphan did his homework well and knew whom to speak. And little Nanhai did not boast, actually. The thought made Koeni wonder if he did not underestimate Beiphan's part in the election. Though no one really wants to see it, he's clever. And ambitious, perhaps, if it was his own idea to offer Hiroshi his service. Politics always means power. Koeni glanced at the spy curiously. Smiling was all he did; he knew that he had no need to speak anymore. The seed was planted. But man, his face really is ugly.

"The world changes." It was Laipei who answered, his voice firm. "Mohandas stays the same."

"He's just cautious."

"Caution is not what we need. Action is." And money. I have to buy my son a new ball.

"You must remember that to every action, there's a reaction."

"Is this a threat, gaffer?" Of course it is, you idiot. He will beat you bloody. He's only nine thousand years old.

"A warning." The old man sighed. "Mohandas wants no harm to anyone."

"I don't say he doesn't." Laipei hesitated. Oh, he doesn't want to deny himself any possibility, Koeni realized. But I know he has already decided. "Besides... time will tell."

Time... Suddenly, it occurred to him that it was time to go. Koeni quickly left the Dragon Flats borough, headed for the port and took a ferry to the island. After he had got there, he glimpsed at the airbending training area, which was located in the upper part amidst frayed cliffs, and caught a sight of a lone person who was practicing there. The young Avatar, he thought and smiled. Sometimes, he watched her from a distance struggling with her airbending moves, but the two had never even exchanged a word. She's stubborn and strong. But she knows nothing.

To be frank, not many people knew that he was on the island; he did not like to show anyone bags under his eyes and his cough had got a lot worse lately... The truth was, he felt wearier and sicker every day, yet he decided to show no sign of it to Tenzin or other people — he might have looked terrible when they saw him, but he at least tried to smile, and accepted every task. However, he usually spent the most of his time in the library or in his bed. That's why I got here, he oft reminded himself. Spiritual enlightenment, remember? But during days like this, when he felt a bit better, he wanted to have a happy life, the life he — the orphan, the acolyte, the doormat — had never had, and got depressed easily. He sought comfort in wise scrolls and meditation. He did not find any.

'Tis a mad world we have, he recalled the old man's words, but we have no other.

That was the bitter truth. He had learnt to accept it.

He went to Tenzin soon after he had left the port. The airbender was in the dining room; he was eating lunch and reading the Council's documents at the same time, his face long and his eyes tired. Koeni knew about a few cases his master had to deal with; the most major one was Hiroshi Sato's idea to form a new police department that would exploit chi-blockers' abilities and his previous inventions which had proven to be so successful against benders during the Revolution. Tenzin, however, feared that Sato might use them as his own task force, just the way Tarrlok had done before, and blocked the idea. For the time being, at least. The new councillor seems to have a lot of ideas... He submitted a dozen of other projects, and not all of them were meant to gain him more power. Tenzin had no choice but to accept Sato's idea of non-benders wage parity in a bunch of specified jobs, for instance.

The airbender smiled a little when he saw Koeni stepping in, and listened carefully to his story about Beiphan and Mohandas' followers.

"Interesting," he replied, but his face expressed no real attention. After he said that, a loud female shout full of fury came from outside, probably the airbending training arena, and Tenzin's son, Meelo, who had sneaked up to the dining room through the open door, covered his ears not the hear the bad word. The Avatar, Koeni grinned. The older airbender sighed and glanced at him again, deep in thought. "Hm... I might have another task for you."

That did not look good.

The Athletics' firebender had already been in the third zone, and he and the waterbender — in the second. The enemy was pushing hard; fireballs, discs and water lashes filled the air so thickly that dodging became almost impossible. And there was dust everywhere, and heat, and splash — and no one could see through it, no one could breathe, and no one could hear; survive was the only thing the three Athletics' players had in mind, survive. Bolin ducked and blocked and ran across his zone, looking desperately for an opening, but the enemy was way too well organised. A combo, he thought, a combo would break their defence. But his team could not perform a coordinated action in this condition, he knew it. The Athletics seemed just as diffuse as their opponents were ruthless and sharp.

Bolin was out of his usual shape as well. He had missed more shots that he could count, he took two lashes to his face and a disc to the body, and his frustration only rose as minutes passed. At first, he was excited when he felt the familiar touch of the Republic City's pro-bending arena, because that was where Faan had arranged the next friendly match of the Athletics; now, though, his feet were tired and his moves were heavy. Focus, he reminded himself, sending a left jab that once again failed to hit the opponent. Focus.

It wasn't that easy, however. Not today. First, he could not have found Mako anywhere; his older brother had disappeared before he awoke. Even though the two had not exchanged a word since the conversation on Air Temple Island, Bolin was a little worried. But not for very long; before he got down to the arena, his thoughts had run to the police provocation in the evening, and he wondered if Asami felt the same mixture of excitation and thrill right now. At that time, when he had been preparing to the match, he had heard on the radio that General Iroh had been suspended because of his failure at the Yue Bay and accused of murder. Even if that case had been very old and happened in a city called Yu Dao, a place he did not know, it was still darn hard to believe. The earthbender heard no further details, though.

Yu Dao, he thought. Could Iroh have really killed someone? Before he could answer the question, however, he had to dodge an upcoming fireball, leaning back gawkily, and then he got a disc into his legs which made him collapse. After his head bounced off the hard surface of the arena, starts shone before his eyes; he could see nothing more. Trying to rise to his feet, his shaking feet, his trembling feet, he leant on both arms, but then a ferocious wave of water washed him down the zone two and three, so Bolin crashed into his own waterbender, which resulted in them both falling down the pit. Soon after, the round was over.

While the lift was raising up, Bolin glanced at the main stand. Faan stood there, scowling, worried, but when he caught sight of Bolin looking at him, he made an encouraging face and smiled to boost the team's morale; but it was a faint smile that faded as quickly as it had appeared. He's disappointed, Bolin concluded. He expects more of us. The truth was bitter; the new Athletics played very poorly today; nothing seemed to be working out for them and truth to be told, one could vainly seek any sign of improvement in the future. Before the lift elevated to the level of the arena, Bolin glimpsed at his team mates. Kin, the firebender who awaited them at the top, seemed to be ready to fight in the next round — but he was no Mako: inner fire did not burn in his eyes; he could not be the one to raise the Athletics up if need be. And Tonrar, the waterbender... He doesn't really care, realized Bolin when he glimpsed at his bored expression and loose stance. He's just going there to be finally past it. Mako would never...

But there was no Mako here, it occurred to him. He had to deal with it on his own.

Then the playing field appeared in front of the three athletes.

And so they fought.

Bolin ran to his left as fast as he could, sending a quick right jab towards the closest opponent, and then, while still moving on his feet, he twisted hips to the right, clenched his left hand and struck a powerful left hook, rotating the disc in a way pro-benders called "a falling leaf." The earth coin soared high and fast, just as it would miss the target, but soon the rotation made it descend and hit the enemy in the shoulder. One down, he smiled, ducking, three to go. The waterbender he eliminated leant on the ropes, defenceless. Deciding to send him down the pit, Bolin jabbed a disc to his stomach, but in the same time the poor wretch got a water lash into his face that blew him to his knees, and the shot missed. Bolin glanced to his right to bash Tonrar, but instead his eyes grew cautionary when he saw what was coming. Tonrar focused to shoot Bolin's opponent, breaking his guard, and now the counterpart waterbender was about to send a whip on his own to reach the athlete's head. No, no, turn around, turn around! But strangely, Tonrar did not react, even if he should have seen it.

In exactly the same moment a swish in the air made Bolin look to his left. The injured opponent should be there, leaning on the rope, but instead he saw a blurred shape of a disc in front of him. The earthbender reacted by reflex and caught the earth coin, bracing his feet and arms against it. Intending to use the momentum, he leant back a little, gathered his strength, and redirected the disc in the direction where the enemy waterbender had been aiming at Tonrar...

...and hit him. The opponent collapsed in front of Tonrar. Strike him, strike him now! JUST DO IT!

But Tonrar hesitated and did nothing instead.

Soon after, the bell announced the end of the match.

If he had hit him, we could have made it to another round. That would meant more time to preserve their possibility to win the match, Bolin knew about it. But Tonrar did nothing, he saw it. There was still a chance, we could have turned the tides! Furious, the earthbender looked at the main stand. It was empty, though; Faan had left. During the match or after? Bolin could not be sure. After, he decided. He would not leave us when we still had been able to success. Faan's not like that. Maybe I'm overreacting. The thought made him calm down a little.

But even later in the locker room he was still a bit upset. He had never felt like that before. Prior to Korra joining the Fire Ferrets, they'd been playing just for fun, at least Bolin. He had never really cared for winning; he loved the game itself — the act of playing. And when the team had made it to the championship, the Fire Ferrets won every match but the finale, and then the Equalists destroyed the arena, so he did not have time to live through the first serious defeat. But now — now he had played for his contract and for his future. He felt responsible, maybe for the first time in his life. There was no one to command him or tell him what to do — no one. The only thing he knew was that he did not want to let the coach down. Faan believes in me. Is this how Mako felt every time we played? His brother had always played to win. He took the responsibility. And Bolin had always able to believe in him when times were hard. Up to now.

Or... did Mako feel this way every time he saw me...? Have I—have I relied on him so much...?

"Finally! I thought that the match would never end..." It was Tonrar.

The rest of the Athletics had already dressed up. Bolin found himself sitting on the bench, deep in thought, his casual clothes still in his hands. Faan Dou had been nowhere to be seen since the earthbender last saw him.

Bolin frowned. "What do you mean... finally?"

"Oh, c'mon, man, we had no chance to win it anyway. And guess what?"

The game COULD have been won if you hadn't screwed it up! The thought made Bolin fierce, but he still remembered what happened when the Fire Ferrets started arguing among themselves, so he held his tongue. "I have no idea."

"Look at it." Tonrar took something out of his bag. Keys, realized Bolin when he had a glance at what was in the waterbender's hand. "A new shinin' Satomobile. I've bought it for my first payout."

Bolin's eyes grew wide. Kin, the firebender, whistled. Tonrar was the only one of them who had already signed a professional contract with Athletics.

"Yeah," Tonrar nodded. "I was thinkin' about it the whole match. Y'know, dreamin' about drivin' that beauty. I was barely able to wait for the friendly to end."

Barely able to wait... Scowling, Bolin recalled the situation when Tornar hesitated to knock down the last opponent and give the Athletics the chance to go to the next round.

BAM, a loud, furious smash came from outside of the locker room. The three exchanged a surprised look; Bolin was curious to find out what happened, but Tonrar only shrugged. The smash did not repeat anymore. Finally, Kin, who was nearby the entrance, reached for the handle.

But then someone opened the door themselves.

It was Faan.

He looked around, frowning and eyeing them up and down, as still as a stone and as cold as ice. He heard. Kin stepped back and withdrew his hand, cautious and confused. Even Tonrar had a joyless face. But when the coach noticed the keys in his fist, he smiled to Bolin's amazement. "A car?"

The earthbender sighed stealthily. Or he did not...

"Yeah." Tonrar grunted, relieved as well. "The latest model. A 2.9 litres straight-four engine."

"Ah." Faan nodded and came closer. "And speed?"

"45 miles per hour." The athlete's voice sounded proud.

"Ah." Dou paused for a while. "Can I see the keys?"

Tonrar hesitated at first; there was nothing he could do but shrug and pass it to the coach, though.

"Ah." It was the only word Fann Dou said when he grabbed the keys. He watched it closely, as if admiring the shining silver hue of the metal; after that, he glanced at the wall in front of him. Bolin followed his look slowly; he did not see anything special in that view, though. But then Faan Dou took a swing, twisting his body deeply, and before anyone could react, he threw the keys to Tonrar's precious Satomobile through the open window.

"Ah," Faan repeated.

Hm, looks like he's still got the aim, admitted Bolin. But he did not say it aloud, and Kin kept quiet too, hence an awkward silence fell in the locker room. Tonrar seemed muted and confused as well; just as everyone, he had watched the keys go through the window, following the trajectory with his head. Next, he moved it to look at Faan, still silent, his face so dumb and full of disbelief that Bolin merely could keep from laughing. And then he glanced at the window again, just as if he tried to check if the whole situation had really happened. And then he finally cried out.

"Shut up." Faan silenced him with a look. "You thinkin' you're a star now?"

"Kinda," muttered Tonrar, trying to defend himself. "That's why you signed me."

"I've said you shut up, no?" Dou's voice was as cold as steel. "To your information: you're no superstar. You're just a boy. A boy who knows nothin' about the game, yet thinks he knows everythin'. Y'know who you are? Hm?" He paused. "A loser. And nothin' more. Not today."

"I don't—"

"Don't ya understand a simple command? You ain't speakin' now. I am." The vein on Faan's neck swelled suddenly. "Shit! You've just played a shitty match, and you lost! LOST! Understand?! So effin' ACT LIKE IT!"

No one said anything. Tonrar looked away.

The silence was overwhelming.

"Yeah," Faan Dou nodded, breathing hard. "Yeah. That's how losers should act. That's what losers deserve." He headed for the exit. "Bolin. Outside."

All worried, the earthbender grunted but went out without any resistance or comments.

"That'll be a quick question," Faan said after he closed the door. "You ready to sign the contract?"

Bolin glanced at the entrance to the locker room and then again at the coach. The vein on Faan's neck was still as big as a snake, but the coach seemed to calm down already. He had never seen the coach freak out so much; wasn't he right, though? Tonrar did lose intentionally. But that was the moment of truth. Did he really want it? Is there anything else I could want? Doubts did not stop gnaw him, though. But what if... how will Mako react... and what about Korra... It's no longer a children's game, Bolin, he recalled suddenly. Not anymore. Nor for him, neither for Tonrar.

"Yes." He nodded. "Yes, I am."

"You don't understand any of it, do you?"

Almost as angry as surprised, Korra drew up short and turned around. She did not expect anyone coming by near the airbending training arena; Tenzin had his Council chores, which made him unable to assist her today, and the kids were helping Pema with the baby or doing housework. Before his illness, Bumi would have dropped by sometimes to watch her practice new sets or certain techniques and tell stories about Tenzin and him in their childhood — but it obviously could not be him this time. Moreover, the voice that came from behind sounded strange to her ears.

At the top of the stairs stood a young air acolyte. His posture slender and tall, his skin sickly pale, his eyes dark, solemn and somewhat disturbing, decorated with visible violet bags beneath them, he was a person that Korra did not recognize at all, even though she had been living on Air Temple Island for almost a year and spoke or at least saw a lot of other acolytes.

"Do I know you?" she asked, withdrawing her airbending stance.

"No," he grinned. His smile was friendly and strange and weary at the same time. "But I know you, Avatar Korra. Sifu Tenzin sent me here. I didn't know that the case would be so, ahem, complicated, though." He smirked and then went on seriously. "I meant your airbending, of course."

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. "I can always show you how my other bending is if you wish."

"I don't doubt it." The air acolyte coughed. "But I'm afraid that you could hurt yourself if it's as splendid as what I've just seen... The name's Koeni, by the way."

Thinking desperately, she tried to come up with a comeback, but the guy was a complete unknown to her, so she said the first thing on her mind, feeling that her face was quickly growing red and warm. "Don't worry about me. You should be worried about yourself." The Avatar eyed him up and down; she would defeat him easily any time given. "Not a fighter, are we?"

He burst out laughing. "Of course I should be worried. You could accidentally hit me while waving your hands like that. Your airbending is very—" he paused for a while to find a proper word "—spatial." His grin went even wider. "I'm not sure if it's proper, however."

"How is that I've never seen you before?"

"I don't really stand out. Unlike the moves you've practiced when I came."

"Do it better, then. Go on and show me. I won't stop you." Her voice sounded venomous. He's toying with me, she realized. The conversation started to seem as a challenge to her when the first anger faded away. And Korra was not really a person who would reject a challenge if she saw one. "I wonder how you could do it, though. You know... since you're a non-bender, Mister I Know It All But Can't Do Anything Myself."

"Seems your nicknaming skills are almost equal to your airbending ones." Koeni laughed and coughed for the second time; at this moment the sound of it was more severe and hacking. "...Almost. Guess on your own which I find more impressive."

"Don't think I care. How did it turn out that Tenzin sent you? And what for? You began annoying him? Or worse, I did, and so he ordered you to came here and serve as my punishment?"

"I came here to teach you and help you with your training."

"Are you kidding me? You're an acolyte, not even a master. And a non-bender, I've just told you."

He arched his eyebrow. "I know who I'm not, and that's true. But you don't know who I am."

"Oh, such a pity... should I?"

Koeni shrugged. "Sifu Tenzin seems to think so."

"Heh, who am I to disobey his will?" The Avatar snorted. "If that's how it is, who are you?"

"Just now? Someone who wants to see what you already got."

"Huh? What for? I don't understand why—"

"There's a lot of things you don't understand, Avatar Korra. Just do it. Show me those bending skills I should be worried about. I must say I am curious."

Korra frowned, but she had small choice but to grant his wish. Smiling encouragingly, the air acolyte sat down on the steps at the edge of the rounded arena and waited for her to start. I will give him no satisfaction, thought Korra, taking her airbending stance. I'll do everything right this time. She stayed flexible on her feet and began revolving around the circular taiji painted on the ground, feeling Koeni's eyes on herself. But as she performed more and more techniques, the Avatar realized that her effort was no better than any other time. Stressed and over motivated as she was, she even tripped once or twice where she had never tripped before, and rushed her moves the whole time because of the strong desire to do the set well and prove that she wasn't as bad as he thought. After she stumbled, she glanced at Koeni, but thankfully, the air acolyte did not comment. He should, though, Korra told herself, it's even worse now when he doesn't say anything. But later, he congratulated her a few times when she did the sequence properly, and despite herself, Korra quickly found herself proud and pleased and even smiling at him; though, she stopped as soon as she realized what her expression was. No satisfaction, she reminded herself.

No matter what the air acolyte would tell her, however, Korra knew that her airbending still lacked a lot. It was not as miserable as the year before, but it still wasn't it, she felt that. Air punches were easy to her, therefore quickly became her favourite technique, and she had learnt to manipulate singular blows of the wind quite skilfully just several weeks after the Revolution. Unfortunately, it turned out that gusts of the air were one thing and combining them into a sequence was the other. Common people were oft saying that airbending is an art of bending without bending, but Korra soon realized that they could not be more mistaken. It took all her concentration to make the wind obey her will and move it the way she wanted; that was why her motions were too clumsy and her actions too slow or too fast and her blows too hard or too soft. "Air is the element of freedom," Tenzin always repeated; she had learnt that lesson hard. "It wants to be free; it is you who have to yield, and listen to the music of clouds and mountains and winds. Just let it go. Listen. And dance to the rhythm." Easy to tell, harder to do, thought the Avatar bitterly.

Korra already knew the basics of all of the thirty six tiers, but did not really master any of it, nor was she allowed to practice with the glider. And it's almost half a year now that I'm in training. In spite of the fact that The White Lotus had known that she was the Avatar since she was four, she had not began learning earthbending before she was sixteen, exactly as the tradition required. Even though, she had figured it out easily just six months later, and started her firebending training which had been completed by the time she moved to Republic City to be taught by Tenzin. Half a year later, she still considered herself more a beginner than a skilful airbender. Aang learnt all the elements during one year. And he was twelve. Truth be told, she tried to make contact with her previous incarnation to seek for any help, but Aang had been silent since what happened in the South Pole. Tenzin, however, was always telling her that his father's case was an exception, and every other Avatar had to develop their abilities exactly the same way she did, no earlier, so there was no shame in that. But still... If she was permitted to try and fly the glider, everything would be different. It would be a clearly visible sign of progress. But Tenzin had not let her. He still treats me like a child, she thought angrily. Like yesterday. I wanted to go help Lin and Bolin and Asami, but he wouldn't allow me to. I can handle myself...! If I only could fly the glider, I would be free...

The Avatar did not even notice when she stopped performing her moves, and drew up short, clenching her fists. She almost forgot about Koeni who was still there with her. But he had not said anything as well, and only looked at her the strange way he always did.

"And what do you think?" Korra asked him to break the silence.

"I have no idea." The air acolyte grinned. "I'm not even an airbender, you said it yourself."

The anger grew inside her anew. "You have no idea? Are you trying to make a fool of me?"

"No, you're doing it yourself pretty well, you know." He smirked. "I'm no bender, that's true, but like every man, I have my eyes to see, my ears to hear, my mind to think, and my wits to conclude if need be. I saw that you know your moves well enough but lack the flow between them. I heard all the stories about you and your stubborn attitude, as well the description of your problems that Tenzin gave me. I thought that if the blockade is not in your body, then it surely must be in your head. And thus I concluded that, in fact, you're doing everything correct... and completely wrong at the same time."

Korra scowled. "I don't understand—"

"Oh," he smiled provocatively, "you don't understand a lot of things, Avatar Korra. I told you."

The girl frowned. He shouldn't be like that. He should pray in the temple, he should speak gently or not speak at all because of his sacred vows, and ponder about spiritual enlightenment. She didn't know any acolytes like Koeni, and she had no idea why Tenzin would have appointed him as his assistant or her new teacher. The air acolyte had not really meant to hurt her; every insult came with a smile that did not fit Koeni and his sad, tired eyes at all. Though he certainly was able to talk much, in her opinion he had no abilities that might help her to master airbending and was blunt, stubborn and bumptious and stupid in the way that boys are, but also... Korra could not deny it... quite smart, witty and fun to talk with. Maybe he's not so bad.

But she would not show it, of course. "You're nuts, acolyte, have anyone told you that?"

"Someone has." Koeni smirked strangely, but she couldn't judge why.

And then the air acolyte coughed for the third time.

The cough grew into a serious bout almost instantly. Koeni's eyes went wide as he struggled to draw breath and expectorate, but all his efforts seemed pointless, so violent were the spasm that he had to fight. By the spirits... Frightened and confused, Korra hastened to aid him, but she found herself suddenly unable to come up with any idea about what to do but her instincts. She patted Koeni on his back and told him to lift his arms up, trying to sound calm and reasonable. Just don't panic or it'll get even worse. But had she meant Koeni — or herself?

Despite her effort, the air acolyte only shook his head miserably and caught her hand to prevent her from any action, still convulsing as he would choke any second now. I have to do something... Anything... The cough got even worse. Please... Someone help him... Growing desperate, she thought about Aang for a second. You once aid me; why do you keep silent now?! There was naught she could do, though. Felling utterly helpless, the Avatar could merely watch the air acolyte taking a white handkerchief out of his pocket and pressing it against his mouth, however. Soon after, the attack passed, but before Koeni hide the hanky back in his robe, she managed to see a few red drops on the material. Blood, she realized.

"Are you ill?" That was stupid, but it was the only question that she could think of.

"No." Koeni grunted cautiously, and an angry grimace grew on his pale face. "I just enjoy nearly coughing myself to death from time to time. You should try it some day. It's damn fun."

"I saw blood."

"Thanks for telling me. For your information, I saw it too."

Korra put both hands on her hips and scowled. "I could help you. I'm a healer, you know."

"Good for you. No need to worry your pretty face, though." He tried to smile, but the result seemed miserable. "I could only soil your retro clothes. As far as I know, blood is hard to wash out. And that outfit must have been surely expensive. It looks as if it was designed during The War."

"Said the man who wears just a yellow sack with a red stash rolled around his body," snorted the Avatar. Not bad, she thought. Now he's in defense. "And my clothes are not vintage, chump."

"I know, I know. It was just a jape."

Nevertheless, she still felt a little worried. "You almost spit your lungs out." And I almost freaked out. "I was afraid that I would have had to tidy up the training area out of it afterwards. Truth be told, I don't understand how you can make fun of it so easily."

Koeni laughed a weary laugh. "You don't understand a lot of things, Avatar Korra. I told you." After he said that, he paused for a long while, rubbing his chest, and then went on. "Life is tough. Outside of Air Temple Island and outside of the downtown, outside of the City Hall and the golden arena, there are a lot of worse circumstances than mine. People are forced to bend their knees every day, every moment they live; they get pushed, they stumble, they fall down, and their faces land in the mud of all that is nasty and difficult. And yet, they're still trying to rise. Again and again. If my little illness taught me anything, it's that even breathing can come with a price. In spite of that, I still have to breathe." The air acolyte smiled. "I even like to do it, you see."

Small wonder. "I don't see your point."

"What I'm saying is, you cannot be ashamed or frightened of your weaknesses, because others will never forget about any of them. Let them go, and no one will hurt you." If the weakness doesn't kill you first, she thought bluntly, but did not say it aloud. The air acolyte went silent for a moment, too. "I'm sorry I was so harsh on you. You only wanted to help."

"Still sure I can't do anything?"

"No one can." Koeni looked away. "I was born like that."

Even though he didn't mean it, his words sounded so miserable, that Korra felt sorry for the acolyte. Strangely, as hours passed since the two first met, the Avatar found herself growing warm to him — at first, even despite herself. She was sick of Tenzin's words about how the whole teaching would just click over time and hated when Mako was dropping by to watch her practice and try to comfort her. None of them really realized that she did not need any comfort. I know that I have to let it go, I know I have to be patient, I know I'm trying to hard! In fact, the thing she did need was progress. Tell me something that actually works, she wanted to shout to everyone. Koeni had no sweet words, no positive attitude. He reminds me of Mako, Korra realized suddenly. Before it turned out that she liked me too. Hoping to win the firebender's attention, she had put all the effort needed to become a good pro-bending player and impress him, and furthermore, it had been also the first time she actually improved her airbending while dancing on the edge of the arena.

But later... later something changed, Korra could not exactly explain what. The Revolution had ended, and she had got her bending back, and Mako had kissed her, and there had been no sweeter taste to her than this of his lips, and everything should be all right. But days and nights passed, and every time the two met there was a new thing that annoyed her about the firebender. The whole time, he would only hold her hands and not let her go, or hug her entwining his arms around her so tightly she thought hew would never release her, or kiss her while she was not in the mood, or tell her that he would never allow any harm to happen to her while there was no danger anywhere. But most of it all, in some strange way he reminded her about her failures. All the moments she had felt weak. After I escaped Amon and Tarrlok, he was the one to bring me to the bison. After I failed to defeat Hiroshi the first time, he and Asami were the only reasons we could get away.

And after Amon had taken her bending away, Mako was there, too.

And when she had cried on the edge of the cliff, thinking about what her life had become...

Korra knew she should hate herself for such thoughts. But every time she saw Mako's face, in her mind's eye she saw her own face, too — and it was helpless and miserable and weak. She just couldn't help that. Before she could even notice, she started avoiding the firebender. Unintentionally, at first. But then she told him she had housework, though she hadn't. Next she said she had to practice airbending, but she had done it before.

And so the wall between them began to grow. Korra was not able to tell whether it was her attitude or Mako's behaviour that really made it happen. Or she didn't want to tell.

"Come." It was Koeni who first broke the silence. "I have a few things to show you."

The Avatar glanced at him curiously, brought out of her reverie. "Things?"

"Ahem. I don't know what you're thinking." He grinned. "...I meant the library in the temple."

"Oh. Yeah."

The library... Korra rolled her eyes out and sighed, sniffing the smell of spring. I hate libraries.

"...our reporter Kuli Chen stands in front of the City Hall right now. Kuli, how is the situation in the eye of the storm?"

It was late to wake up, Mako could not argue, but at least the afternoon had not arrived yet. He and Bolin had come back home late in the night after the argument. The ferry Asami had took to get to the island had been the last one to sail that day. The captain had told her he would wait no more than a few minutes for her to return, but the conversation happened to last a little longer, and when Mako, Asami and Bolin appeared on the pier, the boat had already set sail. Thankfully, the crew heard their cries and decided that no money stank, especially in these hard times, so the ferry came back for them. But for the next several moments there was an awkward silence between the three passengers as the brothers had not seen Asami for a long, long time. She was busy, Mako thought then. The election and stuff. Having already heard the result on the radio, he kept in mind not to rouse the topic, trying not to upset Asami or bring back bad memories of her father, both old and fresh, but his brother had spent the day in the Athletics' gym, clueless, and asked her about it friendly.

"...well, Zheng, there's certainly a lot of disturbance around here. The morning meeting of the Council has just been closed, but we've been able to get some information about the course of it. It seems that Hiroshi Sato, the new councilman, rolled up his sleeves just a day after swearing his oath to humbly serve Republic City as one of its leaders, submitting more than a dozen of legislations projects. Not all of them passed, however, and a few votes have been postponed to the next meeting, but among the successful regulations one can find the most discussed case of the day: General Iroh's suspension for his incompetence and the defeat in the Battle of Yue Bay..."

Asami, her face sad and hurt and weary, had told Bolin the whole story; that was how the conversation began. Silently listening to the two discussing the police provocation thing, Mako could not help but keep glancing at Asami's deep green eyes from time to time, no matter how hard he promised himself not to do it again. His younger brother tried to cheer her up awkwardly, cracking a joke or two, and even caused a faint smile to appear on her lips. But in Mako's mind that smile and Asami's pale skin — paler than he had remembered — looked more like a pang of conscience. "No matter what happens next," he had told her once before she went to the Equalists airbase to confront her father, "I want you to know how much I care about you." But have I really cared? The answer hurt. A few months passed, and here they were, having not a word but small-talk to say to each other.

"A man's word matters more than his life," his father used to tell him and Mako had always kept the motto in his heart. It quickly appeared to be more than true after he and Bolin had ended up on the streets. In the cruel world of triads, hunger and homeless kids, a man's word indeed meant more than one's life — but it was the wicked perspective of the city's rotten underbelly that oft determined whose life it was: one day, a kind soul could promise to give the poor brothers food and save them for the next few days... or someone could promise to kill them because they were helpless orphans, and no one really cared for them.

Mako had learnt that lesson early enough. "I will protect you," he remembered his father saying. "I will never let anyone harm you, son. You, Bolin or Mom. Never."

But then he had not kept his word.

He died.

Maybe that was the thing Mako could never forgive him. He said everything would be just fine, and he lied. Mako vowed that he would do better himself, that he would really protect everyone he cared for, that he would not let them down... Never.

But what about Asami, then? It was a quiet, unpleasant voice inside of his head.

"...the Council and the chairman have not officially commented the case yet, but we were able to ask Hiroshi Sato himself about it after he left the City Hall. He told us about the decision, confirming our previous leaks, and explained that if Republic City is to be a place of justice and order, it shall have no such ineffective guardians. However, he did not reply to a comment that he himself was indeed very effective during the Revolution, and asked for another question..."

I should have offered to do it with her, not Bolin. I was the one to let her down — both now and in the past. But he kept silent. He had been mad at Bolin and Korra... and though he would never admit it... definitely hurt and ashamed. Hurt, because of the Avatar's recent attitude, the impression that she'd avoided him lately, and because of hard times in their relationship — and Bolin who could not appreciate his efforts to keep him safe, to keep them both safe, and preserve his word that he would always take care of his younger brother. Ashamed — because of his behaviour towards Asami. And so there he'd stood, saying just nothing. If Bolin wants his lesson about real life so much, he had been thinking back then, still stubborn, still full of fresh emotions and anger, he will have it. Even if had not fully convinced himself, his pride forbade him to speak. Let them do it. Just let them do it. They think they know better. And if they don't want me, fine.

But fine had been the last thing he was.

"...General Iroh's suspension is one case, but the rest of Hiroshi Sato's accusations is the other. Asked about his hostile attitude towards the general, Hiroshi Sato stated that there was more in this that just animosity or Iroh's lack of skills. 'General is not the man you think he is,' he told us and then divulged, 'why do you think the prince of the Fire Nation serves in the United Forces, not in the army of his own country? I'll tell you why. Ten years ago, during the event that was later named by scribes the Second Yu Dao Incident, Iroh murdered his own superior, Colonel Sandazu, to take over the command and steal all the glory in case of success!' According to Sato, General Iroh was immediately caught and banished from the Fire Nation, and eventually joined the United Forces a few months later to seek new life..."

Mako glanced at the radio as if he had heard the broadcast for the first time since it began. Iroh... a murderer? He did not know the general very well, but Bolin had been always speaking very highly of him, and the man seemed brave, decisive and just during their stay in the hideout under the city. Not the murder kind, Mako would tell. The Yu Dao Incident... He had never heard of it. But it's Hiroshi's doing, so it's probably a lie, just another plot. He was surprised, of course, but he did not dwell on it much; he had problems on his own and he could not do anything to help Iroh anyway. I should stop bothering myself. Mako turned off the radio, shaking his head, and then left the house, deep in thought, having previously checked if his brother was still asleep. He decided that a walk would help him to clear his mind.

The world outside the arena looked beautiful that day. Spring had already been blossoming for a while; the sun had begun rising higher and higher every day, the threes went greener and the air was full of lively air and new opportunities, but truth to be told, the only things that Mako could sniff and see around himself were phantoms of the past. Asami once again had to deal with her father, who would not stop haunting her. Korra still had a problem learning airbending and though she was making progress in spite of the difficulties, her mindset had not really changed a bit. And their current problems reminded Mako of what had been happening when he'd been still with Asami. Oh, and of course Iroh had his very own phantom too. The only change that Mako had experienced lately was Bolin's behaviour, and it wasn't a positive one. And the whole Equalists thing... It had not finished when Amon died; it had even developed much more since then. Mako saw people's life getting better every day; there were less triads on the streets, non-benders' conditions progressed, and they had finally got their own councilman... even if it was Hiroshi Sato. Republic City did improve.

But not for everyone, it seemed.

Having left the pier in front of the arena, he noticed a bunch of boys fighting. But when he came closer, it occurred to him that it wasn't exactly a fight; the small lad in the middle was the only one being beaten, and the rest circled around him, laughing and taunting. Mako frowned. That's not a fair combat. Not at all. It would be not like him to let such a situation just slip by. It might have been me, he thought at once. Ten years ago.

"Hey," he shouted. "Hey! Leave him be!"

The biggest guy in the group eyed him up and down, considering if he could be a danger, and then snapped his fingers, igniting a few sparks. Scowling, Mako lit a single warning flame out of his fist. A smile slowly disappeared out of the bully's face; he glimpsed at his opponent's hand and stepped back, nodding at the rest of his pack. Before they left, he gave the beaten boy a long look that suggested that the execution was only being postponed, and glared at Mako as if he wanted to make him know that he tolerate the Fire Ferret's presence on his territory only temporary.

"Douchebags," growled Mako and turned around to continue his walk.

But then the lad he'd saved popped out in front of him. "Thank you, sir," he said, grinning. "For that. Your help, I mean. Sir."

"You're welcome." Mako was not exactly in a mood to talk to the kid at the moment. "But you should be in some other place right now, I guess. Like home." He inflected the last word, trying not to sound too harsh, and went on marching.

The boy proceed as well, however. "Nah. They're working. They're always working. My parents, I mean. And grandma's just sleeping the whole day. So I go out."

"Good for you. But go out somewhere else."

"I do. With you. I'm going with you. That's what I was trying to say. Sir."

"Yeah." Mako rolled his eyes out. "I see. Don't you have some friends to drop by, kid?"

"I have a friend. Or I had. Once. His name's Lee. Or was. But that probably doesn't tell you anything. Sir. Because there are so many Lees. But I haven't seen my Lee for a long time."

"Go and look for him, then." Mako fastened his steps.

"I did. But he disappeared. Since the battle. I mean, the battle. I don't know what happened to him. And his parents. Nobody knows."

Since the battle, thought Mako. There was a lot of battles during the Revolution. But for the commoners, the battle could be only one, and it wasn't the Battle of Yue Bay. He means Hiroshi's bombing, Mako realized. The firebender wondered if the lad had checked his buddy's house, and if so — could he really understand what he might have seen. Most likely, the sight was composed out of the broken glass in the windows of the bombed building, and the wooden stakes protruding out of the dark hole in the roof, broken and burned. The sign of war. He's like ten. He was only looking for the friend. Mako clenched his fists.

"...and there's nobody to play with me since then," the boy finished.

"So see your grandmother, then. She's missed you, that's for sure."

"She's asleep. And old. And boring. Old people are boring. Not that you're boring. Sir."

"So talk to your parents."

"Working. I told you. They're working. Sir."

"So just get lost, kid." Mako began to get annoyed.

The lad did not take offence. He was almost running to keep up with the firebender and his long legs. "I saw you... There. Sir. Bending... and all. You scared them off. Sir. Would you teach me? Please? How to do that? Fighting, I meant. Not bending." He blushed. "The moves."

"No. Go away."

The kid scratched his right shoulder, strangely ashamed. "Sir... I recognized you. I mean, I recognized who you are. Since I saw you. You're Mako. The Fire Ferret." He paused to breathe, red from his excitement. "I knew it. That you would have helped me. Sir. I knew."

Suddenly, Mako stopped and eyed the boy carefully for the first time since he started to follow him. His clothes ragged and his hair greasy, his face thin and his body perhaps a little lighter than other kids' in his age, his appearance rather poor and his eyes shining with excitement, the lad seemed to be glad that Mako just talked to him. After he saw the firebender turning around to him, a wide grin brightened his lips up. Breathless but happy he stood, and it took so little of Mako to make him so. A child. A child of the street, thought the Fire Ferret. Had he forgotten where he came from himself? Had fame of pro-bending and Team Avatar eluded him so much? And was he truly as selfish as Bolin had said? He knew that I would help. He knew. And maybe... maybe the kid reminded him a little of his brother in his age.

Bolin had believed in him, too... once.

"Well..." Mako grunted. So little to keep him happy. Just try. But what was his name? "...kid. You watch the games? In the arena?"

"No," he replied sadly. "I only saw one match. A year ago. But it was cool. So cool! But then my dad forbade me to go to there anymore. It was your match. Sir. The Fire Ferrets. I'd never forget it. I dreamed about it the whole night. It was my uncle who took me there. Sir. He left. Later, I mean. And it was not something I should watch. My dad said that. He doesn't like it. Bending, I mean."

Nobody likes it anymore, thought Mako bitterly. Soon, even benders will be ashamed to openly admit who they are. "So... what match was it?"

The lad scratched his shoulder again, but recalled the event at once, without even hesitating. "With Golden Temple Tigerdillos. With them. My uncle told me. That day. 'Golden Temple Tigerdillos are not easy opponents, remember it, Sensu,' he said. And I remembered." Oh. So his name's Sensu. "It was the coolest thing. Sir. The coolest thing I've ever seen. That's what I wanted to say."

Mako remembered it, too. Back then, Hasook had been still on the team. It was the day Korra joined us, he realized. Funny. Things had changed so much... But the firebender had no heart to make it clear that the Fire Ferrets were no more and break Sensu's memories. "We won that match."

"Yeah..." The boy's voice seemed almost delighted. "I mean... ahem... yes. You won, sir. It was the best. The best thing in my life. Have I said it before?" He scratched the right shoulder for the third time. "The best."

The firebender smiled. "Glad you like it."

"I even—" Sensu blushed "—I even tried to practice. You know. Sir. The moves. I thought... I thought that I could... that they wouldn't... you know..." Ashamed, he inclined his head low and whispered the rest, "...beat me."

After that, he scratched his shoulder again. Mako's eyes narrowed; he grabbed Sensu's arm firmly and rolled up his sleeve before the boy could protest. By the spirits... He was a little suspicious, but this... Mako certainly did not expect this. All angry, he closed his lids and fixed his attention on the shoulder, his face quickly growing red from helpless fury. "It might have been me," he recalled himself thinking. But... was it only rage he felt? "Soon, even benders will be ashamed to openly admit who they are." And yes, that turned out to be truer than he imagined — because Mako was ashamed, too.

There was a scar on Sensu's shoulder.

A burn.

It was small, but quite deep, as if somebody's finger had drilled into the boy's skin, and reminded Mako of cigarette burns he had once seen. Fire, he knew it on the spot, recalling the bully's gesture of snapping fingers and bending sparks. Bastard...

"Do your parents know about this?" His voice was quiet. And firm. And stern. But surprisingly — calm as well. Cold anger he felt now, and a decisive one.

"I told them—" Sensu looked away "—I told them I burned myself."

Mako kept silent for a very, very long while.

"First lesson." He lifted the lad's chin, and saw hope gleaming in his eyes. "Always tell the truth."

"So, what do you think airbending is all about?"

She knew the answer at once. "It's about letting go."

These are Tenzin's words, not yours. "Of what?"

That one was harder. "Everything... I guess..."

"That is not an answer."

"I don't know—"

"Then find out. Letting go of what?"

The library was a large, oval room located in the second store of the temple. Inside, walls and closets which were reaching to the ceiling surrounded a lone table; the shelves were so full of books and precious boxes, in which fragile manuscripts were stored, that wood seemed to take a deep breath every time someone took any of the fat tomes and lifted the weight off its weary arms. The endless circle of volumes covered all the walls but two small doors: one to the stairs and the other to the archives where all the correspondence was put in storage. Koeni and Korra were sitting beside the table. Waiting for an answer, the air acolyte put his hands on the only book that was lying on the counter top. My book, he thought quite proudly. It was "The live or lives of the Avatar" by an unknown author, a great work he had found in one of the air temples long ago and brought it to Air Temple Island as a price for joining the airbenders. He knew the book by heart, and intended to make use of it now. Seems my step-brother Shibo was right after all to make me learn... even if he had been always wrong in everything else. The current Avatar, on the other hand, teetered on the chair blithely, and didn't look to be engaged in the conversation very much.

"Flying the glider would teach me so much more," she said, biting her lip out of boredom. "Reading is dull, but flying is freedo—" And then she seemed to get a sudden idea.

Looks like she understood. Koeni decided to build on that. "Letting go of what?"

"...things that attach you to the ground," she finished at once.

"Good." I guess. But he nodded nonetheless. I can't show her that I only read a few books about the topic, and have no real experience myself. She has to trust me first in order to trust herself later. He scowled at his own thoughts. I guess. "Now, tell me what makes you attached?"

"It's weight, of course."

Koeni frowned. Seriously... weight? It's gonna be harder than I thought... "Sifu Tenzin's much heavier than you are, and still he can fly. Not to mention sky bisons." The air acolyte rolled his eyes out. "Leave earth; think of the sky. What attaches you to the ground?"

"My weight," Korra repeated stubbornly. "I don't know." The girl shook her head; irritation flickered in her blue eyes. She's getting angry. Good. "It doesn't make any sense to me. Tell me, what makes you grounded?"

He looked her straight in the eye, and coughed. "Pain."

"I'm sorry," she said quickly, and ire in her face faded away a bit. "I didn't mean—"

"I can't let go of pain," Koeni interrupted her firmly. Release the fury, Avatar... or else I'll provoke you. "When I wake up, it pains me. When I go to sleep, it pains me. When I eat, read, walk and breathe, it pains me." And therefore I will never fly, he wanted to add, but bit his tongue in time. Let her believe I know what I'm talking about, he repeated. In that moment, however, Koeni felt that the whole case was utterly ironic, and suddenly realised that Tenzin might have commanded him to do the impossible: teach the Avatar something the air acolyte would probably never understand himself. Koeni may have tried to seem to Korra more self-confident than he really was, even over-confident, but he was aware of the bitter truth: in fact, he had only read a few books and knew people better than casual men. Every cough reminded him that he had come to the temple to seek peace within himself; every sleepless night he felt he was failing to do so.

I'm blind. And I'm trying to show her how to see. Suspicious and distrustful as always, he wondered if Tenzin meant the whole thing as a cruel jape or did he believe it would help both Koeni and Korra to understand themselves and each other. The thought made him a little angry as well. I need no help. I need no pity.

But he went on; he had to. "What attaches you to the ground, Korra?"

"I don't know." You do. Tell me!

And on. "What attaches you to the ground?"

"I don't know! I just don't! Leave it be, okay?" No! Release it...!

And on. "What is it?"

"Everything!" the Avatar exploded and snorted. "I don't even know where to start off! I'm trying to do it all, believe me I am, but everything just keeps blowing up in my face! I'm standing there, trying to practice, doing the stances, following the moves, but then... I stumble once, I stumble twice... and I get angry at myself. And then I see the airbender's kids running around on their air scooters, and I'm even more angry, because a five-year-old can do it... but I can't!" It was a bitter laugh that she burst into after she said that. "Pain, you say... I'm not afraid of pain. I've been fighting my entire life. But then I came here and everything changed. I was scared of Amon, and Tenzin told me that I have to let it go; and I did, I went there to face him, but he took my bending away. Just like that, in one moment. Do you know how the sound of your bloodbent bones contorting and cracking, acolyte? I do. I do. It's not an easy thing to forget." Korra shook her head and closed her eyes.

It's not, he nodded to his own thoughts. I should feel sorry for her. Pity her. Comfort her. Yet I feel naught... and naught at all. Seems you've become the bitter beaten man you never wanted to be, acolyte. He coughed. It's not only taking your blood away, it occurs to me.

The Avatar went on. "Pain, you say... You can clench your jaws and be tough and defeat the pain. But it's much harder to forget how you feared. Even though, I'm not afraid now... Amon's dead, the Revolution's done... and Mako's mine. Then why do I feel that way? All the battles are over... but truth to be told, I did not win any of them. I can't even master stupid airbending... I, the Avatar. I, the failure." Korra opened her eyes and looked away. "You think you're the only one in the world who can suffer? Then let me tell you something: you're not. But you could not read it in any of the books of yours."

You know nothing of pain, Avatar Korra, Koeni thought bitterly, and coughed. Nothing at all. He went silent for a while, and played with a spine of the "The live or lives of the Avatar" lying on the table, but then continued in a stronger voice, the old tale anew. "What attaches you to the ground?"

"It's shame," the girl said and clenched her fists. "I can't fly because I am ashamed."

"The question is, have you ever stopped to think about it before?" Koeni did not wait to hear the answer, though. Any of my books, you say... we'll see. The air acolyte smirked acidly. Big Shibo would be glad to hear someone call me a bookworm. So many things have changed. "Or did you just close your eyes and put all your efforts to go to the training area and practice the wrong thing? You act as you speak, Avatar. Impatiently. Carelessly. I told you that you're not too weak or too slow for airbending." Or so informed me Tenzin. But you don't need to know it. "And I told you that, in fact, you don't understand it at all. But you've never bothered to think it through. You've tried to run away from the truth, and hence you built a wall around yourself, and for the last few month you've been trying to smash it with your head. But the wall will stay still unless you take out the bricks."

"Oh, it's so nice to hear." Korra's eyes narrowed. "You're making me feel so much better."

"I'm not here to help you feel better," the air acolyte replied and snorted. "Tell me now: save for shame, what are the other bricks in the wall?"

"You tell me." The Avatar eyed Koeni angrily. "You act as if you knew me better than I know myself. Even though we got to know each other just a few hours ago. But I'm just an Avatar, and you're the air acolyte. And you've read some books. Of course you're so wise."

"Maybe it's true indeed," he answered, looking her straight in the eye. She really thinks she can hurt me with words. He coughed again, and a sudden bout of pain stung his lungs. More fool she. "Maybe I know you better than you know yourself. It's not so hard, though, easier than I thought. You don't understand a thing about being the Avatar and their duty. Your duty." He opened the "The live or lives of the Avatar" and pointed at it. Hurt her. Anger her. Make her think.

"I DO understand! It's about keeping the world in balance! I'm the Avatar, who can know it better?"

Koeni laughed. "And you really consider balance possible? The natural state of the world is imbalance." Korra frowned as he said that. Tenzin will not approve that as well, the air acolyte reflected. But he could not resist himself, so he continued to speak, his voice fierce and firm and loud. "Imbalance is where changes happen, and change is what drives us all forward. But forward is not always a pleasant direction, and the want of change never fades away. That's why we, human, are so unhappy. The drive to make things different doesn't let us to be contented with the things that we already have. But the new always becomes the old over time, and the cycle begins anew, endless."

Her lips tightened. "Tell me, the wise one, what is my duty, then?"

You should have read the book. But that would require you to read more than ten pages. Instead, he said, "You're the Avatar. Monks would tell you that detaching yourself out of the world is the only way not to feel the pain of the existence. But you must struggle, and you must suffer in order to change the world for the better. But you cannot delude yourself."

"I've tried. I've tried. But the world decides to kick my butt every time I want to do something good." Korra shook her head, and hid it in her hands. "I fought the Revolution, but then Republic City's citizens turned against me—"

Koeni interrupted her firmly. "No. Republic City's citizens were the Revolution." He thought of young Nanhai and his father Laipei the locksmith, and of all the non-benders that gathered around Beiphan and Mohandas and Zuzhou. "You fought Amon to help yourself and your friends, not them. Have you ever thought why people actually followed Noatak and the Equalists?"

"He deluded them. He lied to them."

"You're wrong, for the second time. In fact, Amon was the only one to care for them. The Avatar did not." The air acolyte's voice was so sharp it could almost cut skin. "Instead, you played pro-bending and you joined Tarrlok's task force, you fought Hiroshi and you were at the Yue Bay. I know why you did it: because you feared and you loved and you hated." Oh, you told me it yourself; you're easy to read, Avatar Korra. "But have you wondered why they did it? There were real people behind chi-blockers' masks. As real as you are."

"I know, I KNOW!" cried out Korra. Too late, Koeni reflected. "You're really good at making me aware of my being an idiot, but—"

"If you think I'm saying it to call you stupid, then you understand even less than I believed."

"Why, then? I had to fight them all back, otherwise they would win!"

"The Equalists did win, Korra! They broke the Council, the United Forces and you, you said it yourself. And do you know why? Because they exploited the greatest imperfection of all benders: their bending!" Koeni coughed violently, and calmed down a little. "It's the most interesting thing in the world that even though benders are a lot more powerful than non-benders... because they can shoot fire from their hands, for instance... still, there are more non-benders than benders everywhere. Face it: you're the minority, but it should be exactly opposite; if benders are stronger and fitter to survival, the number of non-benders should be declining, not the other way around. It's the law of nature that Daerwen the philosopher described in his manuscript."

Korra scowled. "Another book. Have you got any thoughts on your own?"

"At least I have thoughts."

"Yeah, right." The Avatar slammed the book on the table so hard it caused a gust of dust arise, and Koeni was forced to take his hands off the cover. "Of course you know why Dumber the philosopher is not right, acolyte?"

"It happens that I do." Koeni frowned as well. This time he felt a little hurt; it was his own theory, not Daerwen's. "The reason is bending itself. Imagine if you were born with a sword instead of a hand. Most likely, the first thing that you would do with it would be cutting something off. Or cutting everything off." He coughed. Better hurry explaining it, the wise one. The attack is getting near. "Benders happen to die more oft just the same way; they have swords of water and fire and earth in their hands, and the only thing they could think about is fighting. They are born to fight, they are taught to fight, and so they die because of their greatest strength and their greatest curse."

The Avatar looked away. "Why—why are you telling me this?"

"It's time for you to understand it, Avatar Korra." Koeni leaned towards her, trying not to began coughing. It's now or never. I've been thinking the whole day about the arguments, I won't make up anything better. "It's time to finally understand it all. Why am I telling you this?"

"Because—" Korra's voice quivered a little "—because being the Avatar isn't all about fighting."

"Perfect." I won't hold it anymore. "I have to excuse you now. Health matters."

He managed to run to the archives room before the bout made him lose his breath, and before he delve into the pain that seemed to go on forever and ever. He heard Korra rising from her chair in the library, so he found the door with his shaking hand and locked it. The Avatar was still aware of the couching and sounds he made, that's for sure, but at least she couldn't see him. Him — and the blood. Because, of course, there was blood on the floor and his handkerchief when Koeni was finally done. For him, the attack seemed to last for an hour or more, but he knew that, in fact, it was a matter of seconds, a minute at most. But it's killing me nonetheless. After he had regained full control of his body, the air acolyte glanced at what was in front of him, and coughed feebly for the last time — feebly and surprisingly, almost... curiously.

He had been in the archives before, but the room seemed literally untouched every time. Now, though, there were a few unsealed parchments lying on the only desk around. Tenzin must have left it here, he reflected. Koeni ignored Korra's worried shouting as she was trying to get inside to help him, and silently came closer.

Then he took a look.

There was a seal of the Fire Nation and the Fire Lord on the letter. Koeni checked the date in the first paragraph; easy counting, and it occurred to him that the message was at least ten years old. "Yu Dao," he noticed the two words at once, and read the rest so quickly that he was afraid he might miss the meaning behind the sentences. But he did not. That's interesting, the air acolyte thought. Both him and the Avatar had already heard more about General Iroh's case on the radio, but that was something that the press might not know at all. At first, the girl couldn't have believed the news, but soon after the acolyte convinced her the whole case was truth; yet, she still didn't consider Iroh guilty, saying that it was all just another Hiroshi Sato's scheme to take his revenge.

"Koeni." It was Korra, her voice quiet behind the door. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah," he yelled, and glimpsed at the last paragraph once again. "...the whole thing must remain a secret, Councilman Tenzin; do it for the sake of your late father and our greatest friend, Avatar Aang..."

"Do you want not to go out at all?" The girl's voice sounded impatient.

"Yeah," the air acolyte repeated, not really listening to her, and read the most important sentence for the last time before he turned around to leave the archives and face the Avatar.

"...we hope that the terms of Prince Iroh's banishment will meet your quickest approval."

The evening was approaching, and so was her hunt.

Strangely, Lin Beifong — the most experienced person in the police force, the Chief, the veteran of thousands of similar provocations, and last but not least, Toph Beifong's daughter — found herself nervous and anxious. Around her, other officers were checking their equipment, making sure that no cable had jammed by any chance or that their metal armours fit them comfortably. Standing in front of the large map of the city in the conference room, she could have a close look at their faces: she sought weaknesses, but did not find any; searched for doubt, but there was none — and that made her proud and a bit calmer. Am I the only one feeling uneasy here? She, the iron child of the best earthbender in the world? She, the hero who had stood up against Amon? She, who had sacrificed her bending to save Tenzin's family without even thinking twice?

She, who had spent the whole night beside Bumi's bed, in darkness and silence.

She, who still remembered the terrified face of the victim she interrogated the day before, and how he broke.

She, who would not forget it for the rest of her life.

I must remain strong, she kept telling herself. I must find out what happened to Bumi. Only I can end this. And I will end this. No matter who or what is behind it. But a strange feeling that this case would soon turn out neither pleasant nor easy accompanied her the whole day. For the second time in her life — and the first time being her inaugural speech when she had been still a young cop — she struggled with explaining the details of the action to her officers. Thankfully, she had not forgotten to say anything important.

It's personal, she thought. It's personal as hell, and that's why.

No, Lin Beifong had never been afraid to do anything.

But this time she could not let herself fail again.

The evening was not here yet, though, and Asami and Bolin hadn't come thus far anyway, so the metalbender decided to have a walk around the headquarters to calm down entirely. It wasn't exactly an uplifting place right now, however; her cops were either busy with the paperwork or too focused on the upcoming night and silent, or out in the field; and soldiers of the United Forces had been maundering around for the whole day as if they were knocked down boxers defeated by the news about their general's suspension and his old crime. They believed in him, she thought, looking around the main hall, eying miserable people in the UF uniforms who were there and chatted quietly, just as my men believe in me.

As far as she knew, Iroh did not explained much to his soldiers. He had taken his officers to the conference room after the radio had revealed the whole case, but she had no idea what he could have told them. His own explanation, probably. Maybe the truth. Or maybe nothing. Sad faces around weighted the third theory in favour, though. Iroh should be in his office now, she thought, glancing at the right wing of the building, packing his bags or tiding documents up. The general had not left the room for the whole day, save for the mentioned moment, which was quite unusual for him. Lin knew damn well how he hated it; when the Council had forced her to host the United Forces, she had placed Iroh's office in the most obscure part of the headquarters. He did not have even a phone there. But now he seemed to seal the door shut and barricade himself inside. He's afraid, she realized, and felt contempt. Afraid to face up to us. To everyone.

Lin despised such a behaviour. Coward. She would never leave her men alone...

...or would she?

She, who had allowed Amon to take bending of her finest officers away?

She, who had failed Bumi because she wasn't where she should have been.

The truth hurts. That realization cooled her down.

And who am I to judge him...? Is anything I've thought about myself really true?

To be frank, Lin had never liked General Iroh; it had been plain since the two met. That mocking smile of his... oh, how I hate it, I really, really do. To her, he had always seemed to be a capricious asshole who obviously thought that his royalty could make everyone obey him and bend to his will.

And he had taken a part of her territory, too, without her acceptance or even permission, using the Council to force her to let him do it. How ironic. Back then, Iroh had sought the Council's help and the councillors' fear about further riots was the only reason why he had stayed in the city; now, the same Council wanted to get rid of him. Back then, Tenzin tried to persuade other members that the presence of the United Forces could be the very spark leading to the next conflict; now, the airbender was the only one to defend Iroh. He even decided to use his chairman's privileges to make it possible for the First Division to stay in Republic City despite Hiroshi Sato's resistance.

Lin knew, of course, about the non-bender's plan to create a new chi-blocker police unit; Tenzin had told her. It's obvious why Sato suspended our little prince, she reflected. But what about the Yu Dao? The former was just a payback for Iroh destroying Hiroshi's air fleet. She had no idea about the latter, though. Even if the accusation were true, how could the new councillor possibly know about whole thing? Lin had heard about the Second Yu Dao Inducement before too, just as everybody else, but the circumstances of Sandazu's death were never disputed. He just died. No one asked why. Now, after all these years, it occurred to her suddenly that such a solution would have been way too easy to indeed occur. But Iroh... How old could he have been then? Eighteen...?

In all her straightforwardness and honesty, Lin Beifong felt bad for judging him rashly. I wonder if he's still in the office. The earthbender looked around, and only then she realized that, having left the main hall, she was walking the whole time while she was thinking. It's nearby. In fact, she could even see the door from where she stood... so she came closer and opened it.

"Beifong—?" Iroh seemed confused when he saw her. But truth to be told, also was Lin.

The earthbender went there, not really knowing why she was doing it or what she exactly expected. Of course he's still here, she thought, angry at herself. And of course he's surprised, you're the last person he expected. Iroh had been cleaning his desk up of various sheets of paper, just as she had guessed before, and now stood in front of her, his hands full of documents, his eyes wide and puzzled, waiting patiently for her response. Nevertheless, she had to make some reason up right now if she wanted not to make a fool of herself.

Being the daughter of Toph Beifong, Lin could not think of any other way than to take it head on. "Did you do it?" Her firm voice hid her disturbance almost perfectly. "Did you kill the colonel at the Yu Dao?"

The firebender smirked. "Even if I had, you really think I would tell you?"

He had the point, but she had no choice but continue her game. "Did you?"

For a moment, there was only silence and nothing more. "Yes." Iroh looked her straight in the eye and smiled strangely. "Yes, I did kill Colonel Sandazu during the siege of Yu Dao. Does the answer satisfy you?"

He's making fun of me, she realized suddenly, clenching both of her fists. Lin's compassion towards the ex-general evaporated at once. He's lying. Oh, how I hate that bloody smile...! Instead, cold rage started growing inside her. But I must control myself. You won't laugh at me ever again, asshole.

"If you don't want to tell me," she said, trying to tame her sudden fury, her voice fierce nevertheless, "at least be fair with your soldiers. They deserve it." She turned around to leave. "Even if you don't deserve them."

Iroh did not reply; soon after, she went out.

And when she entered the main hall, she heard two familiar voices. Asami. Bolin. Suddenly, Iroh and the Yu Dao did not matter anymore; Lin forgot about it at once.

The evening had finally begun. And so had her hunt.

The red sun was sinking into the sea.

Alone and deep in thought, Korra wandered around Air Temple Island. She passed by the airbending training area, stopped nearby and watched the evening shadows, long and dark, sneaking slowly on the ground, falling from beneath the trees. Bolin and Asami must be already in the field with Lin by now, she realized suddenly. A lone leaf fell from the nearest tree, twirling in the air, cool and windy, early spring's; Korra stretched her arm, caught it, then looked at her bounty, but she could not exactly explain why she'd done it — by sudden and silly reflex, possibly — nor she really saw the leaf, her mind far, far away. I should be with them. I'm the Avatar. It's my job. The realization was bitter. But Tenzin... he and everyone... Oh, how I hate that...!

Her fist clenched on the leaf and crushed it. That's not fair.

Having left the practice site, she headed for the lower level of the island. Going down the stone steps that led to the temple and other buildings, she could have a good view at Republic City and its illuminated environment. The man who attacked Bumi is somewhere out there. As are my friends. But when she was done descending and when she left the stairs — when the city hid behind the row of pavilions and dormitories — a strange recollection came to her. Tenzin said it doesn't have to be "someone." He said "something." What else could that be, though? Some deadly animal? A spirit? That realization made her even angrier. If it was a spirit, she should be dealing with it, not Bolin, neither Asami nor Lin. She was the Avatar. I'm not a child, don't they see that? But then she glimpsed at the training site again, and her eyes grew dim. A little while after, though, she shook her head and repeated even fiercer — I'm ready.

Every time she had felt down, she would go to Naga and play with her. But not now.

She was ready.

The area in front of the temple was empty and quiet. Acolytes, as far as Korra knew, had their evening chores to do; she wondered for a while if Koeni was there, reading some scrolls, or writing new ones, or perhaps it was his turn to take care of the greenhouse. The Avatar imagined the air acolyte holding a shovel and planting, his knees on the dirty ground; she smirked. That would be a queer view. He was often irritating, big-headed and made her feel stupid all the time, even if she wanted not to sound stupid so much, but there was something... she was not sure... something likeable about him. One more thing I don't know about myself. She liked his eyes... maybe!... these sad and smiling eyes of his. But Mako... no, she did not want to think of Mako. It would only make her wonder about some similarities... Did he feel about Asami the same way when they both knew it was over? That thought slipped almost unconsciously. Did Bolin feel like that when I rejected him?

So confused...? So alone...?

As if expecting that Koeni would be at the greenhouse and his hands would be full of plants, Korra glanced at that direction curiously. Her eyes stopped halfway, however, staring at another building: a small storeroom where airbending gliders and the rest of equipment were stored. Not really knowing what she wanted, Korra came closer and looked around. Tenzin, Pema or their kids were nowhere to be seen — they might be dining, or visiting Bumi in the temple and sitting by the bed where the unconscious body of the commander was lying. Her hand caught the handle and twisted it; the door wasn't locked. Standing still, she wondered for a while what the old airbender would say about her going there just to told herself once again that it's not fair at all — and that sentence seemed to convince her well enough, for she entered soon after, her steps firm and decisive.

A certain thought started to shape in her mind.

The inside was dark, and there was spiderweb above the entrance, at the ceiling, in the corners.

Korra grabbed the nearest glider. Her fingers slid slowly on the wooden surface. I'm ready.

She took the staff and left.

The vicinity was still quiet and empty, but nonetheless, Korra felt uneasy. She hastened and paced to the meditation pavilion, which was probably the most secluded place on the island, and, although situated at the edge of a cliff, was still not very far away. But won't someone be there? Korra was not entirely sure, but she had small choice but try. Sneaking through the lower arena, she climbed up the stairs again; soon after, she could see the place in front of her. Above it, there was only darkness and the garnet sky; beneath — the red sun slipping into the coat of the shimmering ocean. And not a soul around. The Avatar sighed, relieved, and clenched her fingers on the glider. Just do it.

Slowly, she went to the balustrade at the edge of the gazebo. I have to. Feeling the wind rising and watching the verge of the sun going down into the waters of Yue Bay, she lifted one leg and stepped on the fence. The staff in her hand, she touched the button that was uncoiling the wings...

"Running away, aren't we?"

Taken aback and frightened, and not knowing which more, Korra turned around.

Koeni.

He stood there, at the entrance to the pavilion, and scowled, his eyes watching her carefully and his arms crossed across his chest. His skin was deathly pale in contrast to the darkness around them.

"No," she answered, trying to regain her confidence. "Facing what I have to do."

"Oh." He came a little closer. Just one step, nothing more. "I didn't know that you have to try to kill yourself. Stupid me. Is it obligatory for everyone else, I wonder?"

"Don't mock me." And she frowned.

"—because I'm not sure if my coughing counts as an attempt. It's too slow... unlike falling down the cliff. A sure death. At once. Should I try harder, then?"

Korra shook her head. "You don't understand."

"And that's where you're right." The acolyte smiled bitterly. But his eyes, Korra saw it, remained sad and dim and serious. "For indeed I do not understand."

"Yeah. But I don't care," she replied, and looked away. Her braids shook sharply as she turned her face away. "I don't care," she repeated and then went on, "because why should I? You're just an acolyte," and maybe, MAYBE, I like these sad eyes of yours, but so what, "and you know nothing about me or being the Avatar," and I don't want to like these eyes; I want to show you who I am, to prove my worth, "and you won't teach me anything because you don't know anything," and I hate the way you smile, because it often makes me smile too, but it's naught, it's naught at all... "So tell me, why should I care?"

He did not answer at once. "Perhaps you shouldn't." And he said nothing more.

Korra's eyes narrowed as she could not tell what he really meant. As if it was not enough, she could not even tell what she really meant. Aaaaah, it's so confusing. "Well—" she felt she had to go on somehow, even though the glider weighted in her hand so temptingly... "—why aren't you with the rest of acolytes?"

"The night's coming." Koeni seemed to stand still, almost stiffly, she noticed. "The Rule of Monk Gendun commands every acolyte to go to sleep at nightfall and wake up at dawn. But I can't sleep. Apart from many things, it's another one I fail to do." He looked her in the eye tellingly, and coughed, and his voice was weary. "Same as you, sadly."

"Sleep... How could I sleep knowing there's a monster prowling out there?" The Avatar pointed at the city gleaming in the darkness; shadows danced on her face. A human, or a spirit, it makes no difference. It's a monster. "And my friends need me." Suddenly, she thought about Asami, their argument in the city hall, and blushed. "Out there, there's a debt I have to pay off. Things I have to fix."

"You won't fix anything by attempting a suicide, I fear."

"I'm ready." The words burst out of her mouth almost violently. "You may think otherwise, Tenzin may think otherwise, everyone may think otherwise, but I'm sick of being hopeless and useless. I won't just sit here when they're risking their lives!" She shook her head, she clenched her jaws. "I did nothing too many times. I let them fight for me..." her voice quivered "...become hurt instead of me... I'm not a package they have to protect. I must finally act. I'm ready."

"You're not, Korra." Koeni's tone was calm. "You're just trying to prove something." He glanced at the staff, and sighed. "The Avatar can bend any element they like. They could jump into water and swim, or create a stony crossing through the Yue Bay, or even jet themselves into the air with firebending. Yet, you took a glider... though your training is not completed. I'm not stupid, Korra. Be reasonable... I—I..." He made the second step and then a movement which might look like extending his hand to her, but halfway, he withdrew it awkwardly. The words he wanted to tell seemed to stick in his throat.

Unexpectedly even to her, Korra felt angry at that. No, you're not stupid, acolyte, she told herself, but I am, and you don't have to tell me that again. I don't need your help. She felt an urge to roll her eyes, but she resisted it. "I knew you wouldn't understand."

The acolyte did not answer, his face still ill at ease.

Korra turned around once more, and put her leg on the fence. "You're not going to stop me? Or call Tenzin?" Why am I telling this? I shouldn't give him any ideas...

"No." The girl did not know if he had looked away or stepped forward or turned away as she did, but his voice was sad, just sad. "That would be pointless. I told you, Avatar Korra. I'm not stupid."

Korra glanced over her shoulder just to see him still staring at her, so she turned her head around as fast as she only could. I won't hesitate. I'm ready. She lifted the second leg and climbed on the balustrade, trying to regain balance for a while. For the whole time, she still held her finger over the button on the surface of the staff. I'm ready. Just one click — and the wings uncoiled as the flowing movement made the mechanisms work and turn the staff into a real glider. Hoping not to fell down before she would take off, Korra rose it above her head and took a deep breath. I'm ready.

Koeni kept silent. Maybe he'd left; she had not heard. I don't care anyway, she told herself, clenching both hands on the glider. I don't...

And she jumped.

For a moment, there was nothing but a persistent swish of wind in her ears. I'm going down, Korra realized suddenly, I'm really going to kill myself. A sudden panic overwhelmed her, and it seemed to her as if fear, not air, filled her lungs. But when a second passed, and then another, and she had not fallen down into the sea yet; later on, she realized she was so frightened at the point of the jump that she closed her eyes and did not even notice it at all. She raised both of her lids, and even though her sight did not change much because of the evening, only then she could truly see that she was flying.

A felling of excitement, of relief exploded inside her. I made it. I made it! She was soaring through the darkened sky as if she weighted naught or even less. Trying to change direction, she lifted the glider up and began ascending. It was such a pleasant, flowing, sweet motion that she closed her eyes and let herself enjoy the moment. For air is the element of freedom... She finally understood.

It's natural. All the teachings clicked at once, just as Tenzin had told her; all of them sunk in. She felt that famous Avatar unity for the first time since the North Pole. And I did it on my own this time.

And so she was going up and up, twirling in the background of blackness.

And up... and up... and up...

The moon is so close.

She flew bold and fast and strong. But only when she raised both lids, when she opened her eyes, only then she could see that she had risen too high and too carelessly. It was too late as well, though — her spiral movement grew so powerful, while she wasn't watching out for it, that it made her lose the control of the glider, which slipped away out of her hands before she could correct the trajectory.

Nononononoo...!

And so she was going down and down, and the staff was falling where her hands would never reach it. Aang... Aang, where are you?! In face of the danger, she decided to overcome her pride and ask for help — but there was no answer. Avatar State... help... Aang...! Panic blocked something inside her. The noise of raging wind drowned out even the sound of her heart beating, even the shouting of her scared thoughts, and there was nothing in the whole world except of the feel of hopeless descending and rising speed, and fear, fear, FEAR. Airbend, she told herself desperately, when she saw Air Temple Island beneath the clouds. Airbend, she repeated after the glimmering of Yue Bay came into view. "Airbend," she shouted when it became possible to distinct individual trees in the forest surrounding the island. The shout changed little and less, however.

She clenched her eyelids, trying to evoke the Avatar State... all effortlessly. She was alone.

But it was going so well, she thought when there was nothing else she could think of.

Then, and only then, did she hit the ground.

The mist was all around them.

Buildings emerged from beneath the grey cloud, taking them further and further into the labyrinth of shadows and unclear shapes. Sometimes a pedestrian would step out of the unknown in front of them; sometimes they could spot two dim lights that kept coming closer and closer, and soon after, a car would pass them by just to quickly disappear again into the world of darkness. Those were only some strange phantoms of the city they both thought they knew, however. Even lanterns seemed darker and smaller in that overwhelming mist.

Asami pulled Bolin closer. They'd been walking around the streets of Republic City for hours now with Lin Beifong's agents following their every step. "Don't worry," the chief had told them when they came to the police headquarters. "We'll stick close, and if something happens, we will react at once. I don't feel like loosing any men today." And indeed, Asami had already spotted several cops during their walk: the first had emerged from beneath the mist and just nodded at them, passing them by. Once, she had glanced a glimmer of metal somewhere inside the dark alley she and Bolin had left behind while crossing the street. And when they had finally left the downtown and headed for the Dragon Flats borough, where most of the attacks had happened, she could swear she heard a sudden swish of a metalbending rope above them, but after she'd lifted her head, there was nothing there but dark contours of buildings — and mist, mist all around them.

It was long past midnight, or so she only guessed. But can I be sure? Had they spent here three hours or already four? The beautiful dark sky, which had showed up after the nightfall, disappeared at once when they went into the city, and so did her excitement and positive attitude towards the whole thing. Even Bolin's jokes hadn't made it any better; she had to summon a fake smile to her face and force herself to listen to him, while trying to get rid of thoughts as dark as the foggy night around them. Mohandas told me to play by my own rules, she recalled, trying to see through the mist, which blurred her vision. But I don't think this is what he had in mind. She began regretting her sudden and unexpected outburst, which had made her join the provocation just to show Tenzin and Korra that she was still strong enough to act and fight to seek her own way. In her last night's rage, in her whole disappointment, she thought it was a good idea; now, however, she started to see it as a mistake, and the cold and the darkness around them obviously did not help her snap out of the bad mood.

Soon after, it got darn cold, really darn cold. Asami shivered violently as suddenly her dark jacket failed to provide her necessary warmness. Oh my, she thought; she wanted to say something to Bolin, who must have felt the cold as well, but then she realized her teeth were clinging. Having clenched her jaws, she did not speak a word with an intent to not to show the earthbender that a little coolness could make her weak. But I have to do something or otherwise I'll freeze soon. Asami winced. I could have taken my gloves. Her mind on full run, she got an idea soon after. Stretching her arm to reach Bolin, who had turned quiet when the mist emerged and, squinting, was trying to see through the grey, dense cloud, she slipped her hand into his and brought him closer to keep them both warm. That's it. Just to keep us warm. It's nothing. The earthbender muttered something she could not hear, and blushed a little. Or is it?

Bolin had been the only one who had volunteered to join her in the provocation, and he alone seemed to really care about how she'd felt during the election, trying to cheer her up. The rest of so-called Team Avatar, however... When she was thinking of Korra, the only thing that kept coming to her mind was their latest quarrel and her cruel words; when she was thinking of Mako, it was even worse. But Bolin... Bolin was smiling while looking at her, and joking while talking to her, and stammering so sweetly while she was holding his hand... He was... nice. She hadn't thought of him like that before, so it was a rather sudden realisation that surprised her.

"You think anything will happen tonight?" she asked, breaking the silence out of a sudden.

"Anything?" The earthbender said no more, but she could swear he squinted hopefully at their hands.

"I meant the provocation, stupid." Asami could not help but laugh out loud; her laughter bounced off the mute and misty streets around them and disappeared quickly amidst the darkness. "We've been going to and fro for at least... well... hours. Where's the person we're looking for?"

Bolin seemed unsure. "Lin said all the attacks had happened late into the night."

"It is late into the night. And there's been not a sight of anything suspicious so far."

"Maybe we have to wait."

"I'm sick of waiting," she replied, frowning, and burst into silence once again. Bolin glanced at her, but did not comment. He looked like he would like to, though, but instead the earthbender just raised his head, scowling, and tapped his neck just as if he'd expected to find something there. Soon after, Asami felt it as well. A sudden cold drop on her face. And then another.

Rain, she realized. It was raining.

The fog thinned out a little as if some of the sparse vapour particles inside the mist decided to go up with their whole malice — and then condense into water just to make the two provocateurs all wet and more miserable. Of course, the rain began suddenly, but now, just a few moments later — now, Republic City tinkled. That was only the first impression, however; not a minute passed until their ears got used to the sound. Quickly, the world around them became a soft, monotonous whisper of thousand raindrops splashing softly into the streets. "Go to sleep, Republic City, my dear," that whisper seemed to say, "for the night is dark and full of terrors. It's the time for hopeless wanderers, for demons and phantoms."

"And sometimes," it would add later, "it's very hard to tell who is who."

Perfect, Asami reflected, rolling her eyes out, and sighed. I deserve that. I should have stayed in my warm apartment, but no, I had to come here to die out of boredom, the cold and now rain. Yeah, this sounds completely legit. But nonetheless, she was here and nowhere else; there was nothing she could do now but complete her task, so she bit her lip, her left fist clenched because of sudden determination, and told herself to stop ranting and just do the job. But not by the common rules. As if hesitant to put both of the teenagers in real danger, Beifong had told them to stay close to the main streets, even in the Dragon Flats borough; the unconscious bodies, though, as Asami recalled from the meeting they'd had before they set off — the bodies had only been found in places such as narrow alleys or darkened corners. Not in the open — but in the shadows.

"I'm sick of waiting," she repeated aloud, having made up her mind, and wrestled her hand out of Bolin's, which was easy because it was already wet and slick. "We need to act!" Soon after, she was running into the nearest alley, leaving the earthbender's anxious shouts behind her.

It was a narrow passage she got into, placed between two buildings, a space full of shadows and puddles on the rough ground. Still being able to hear Bolin, who ran after her, Asami made it a few steps further and then lifted her head to see the roofs. She could catch a glimpse of something dark and slim slipping through the night sky on the surface above her; she was not sure. A cat, she ensured herself, deciding to keep going. But could she really know? That could be him. Our bad guy.

"Asami!" Bolin's voice came from behind her. She did not turn around, feeling that the only way to keep the earthbender close is to go on herself; she was sure he would follow, reluctant to leave her alone in the darkness. The need to look at the roofs once again was too strong to overcome, however... — this time no shadow appeared, though, and the only thing she could see up there were the falling raindrops splashing at her face. Just a cat, she nodded. Or a cop.

And indeed, when she finally found back her former determination and went on into the alley, she heard a quiet meow; there was no cat around, though, or she could not spot it. It's so dark here... But the sound of the kitty was so vivid and... encouraging that she could really tell it wasn't only her imagination: the cat was somewhere over there. Suddenly, she felt that she had no choice but try to find the animal and therefore, delve into the lightless corridor in front of her. It's only a stupid cat... although... In spite of the obvious realization that the urge seemed silly even to herself, Asami began walking anew, further and further into the shadows.

It stopped raining... or it was her who did not feel the rain anymore... just as she did not hear Bolin behind her. Bolin... she reminded herself, he should there, just turn around and he'll be there, and everything will be alright... Asami did not looked back, though. The cat... a phantom that existed only in the non-existence of the narrow passage... that was her goal — the only thing that mattered to her at the time being. Everything will be alright, she repeated, blinking for the first time since she began her lunacy, so why am I so scared...?

Then the meow went silent as surprisingly as it started.

And two pale points appeared just before her on the level of her head.

A single stream of the moonlight made the monster visible just before Asami heard the first growl. It was a black, slender creature, much taller than her, much taller than anyone she had ever known... she could see it when the dark thing rose to its feet. The head, a black skull prolonged at the parietal bone, a skull that looked like a crown surrounded by shadows dancing on the edges of it... that head and its pale eyes were turned exactly towards her. She found herself unable to think, unable to scream, unable to run... and just watched still as the monster raised its arm slowly. It was twice the length of her own and looked too long for that weird creature, for it reached even below where that thing should have knees. It was pointing at Asami now; in all her fear, she felt some strange connection with the monster, just as if... as if the phantom... somehow... was able to know what she thought... and feared... and desired... and then could take it all away from her, making her recollections its own. As seconds passed, the girl felt emptier and emptier, feebler and feebler. She instinctively knew she shouldn't close her eyes, because she might not open them ever again... but the feeling of fatigue was so strong... and she was so weary... She deserved some rest, didn't she...? Yes, yes, that's right...

"Just go to sleep, Asami, my dear," the phantom would whisper softly, singing its murky lullaby without actually saying a word, "because I'm hungry and you were looking for me... so here I am."

Then, before she could let her lids go down and finally drown herself in the state of sweet emptiness, two things happened at once.

A boulder smashed into the slender creature, shrouding it with dust.

A sudden swish of something that seemed like a metalbending rope sounded somewhere near.

The monster lifted its arm by reflex to cover itself from the rock that flew violently through the air. That was the moment when the connection between it and Asami broke, she knew it instantly. As weak as she was, she could not bear her own weight and began falling down as soon as the bond released her. The phantom must have realized the same because it roared with rage and raised the second hand to regain control of the girl. All of Asami's muscles tightened once again; an unknown force straightened her so brutally that she felt as if her back was going to fracture. The scream escaped out of her distorted mouth even before the pain struck her with all its power. But then the swish sounded once again, and she glimpsed out of the corner of her eye that a shining rope caught the monster's hand, twisting it at some other direction. She was finally free... and so she collapsed on the wet ground — her face covered with mud and fresh raindrops which blurred her vision.

It all took just a few seconds, no more.

The monster grabbed the rope with his free hand and jerked, forcing the cop, who could otherwise continue to attack from distance, to fall down from the roof. Having landed in a big paddle, the metalbender rose quickly to his feet, desperately trying to avoid being caught by the phantom. In all her numbness, Asami watched the scene from her soft, little muddy place; her flawed senses seemed to be still working, though, because she felt some vibrations in the air overhead. And indeed, soon she saw the second boulder thrown at the monster. In the wink of an eye, the dark phantom pulled the rope so powerfully that the cop almost flew into its hand, which clenched around his neck; a moment later the creature smashed the metalbender into the wall — the sound of the crushed armour made it even through the barrier of Asami's indifference — and then, almost at once, destroyed the soaring rock with the free arm.

That was another few seconds. But it felt like an eternity to Asami.

However, the fight wasn't over yet.

The phantom roared for the second time and came closer, intending to claim its trophy which was lying still and weak on the ground. The girl winced uncontrollably.

At the same time, a frail silhouette jumped over Asami, trying to protect her with his own body. And, of course, with the rocks floating around him.

Funny, thought Asami, fighting with a tempting desire to just die where she was. Irrationally, the only thing that kept her conscious was her curiosity and an urge to find out how this all was going to end. He looks just like Bolin. That guy I knew during that other lifetime... the life that feels so distant and strange... She feebly recalled that she might have liked Bolin back then. But it was so long time ago...

The monster roared for the third time and raised its hand towards the silhouette. Her defender hesitated just as if the phantom had gained control of his thought and fears as well as Asami's. She tried to tell him to snap out of it, but no words left her mouth. She tried to scream, too, but wasn't strong enough to do it. The only man between her and her death stood still as the creature made a step further... and then another... and another. As if trying to find his courage, the defender managed to glance at her for the last time; she wanted to look at him as well, but the mud and rain that covered her eyes didn't let her...

And then the silhouette attacked.

All the boulders crashed into the phantom almost at one exact moment in a furious attempt to break its defence once and for all — and whether was it a terrible thunder of the storm, or the crack of the mangling rocks that sounded in the alley, or maybe just her own delirious imagination, Asami couldn't really tell. But her defender didn't seem to stop. He bent the earth from wet ground and, making it firm again with a clench of his fists, began shooting another sequence of ammunition. Every step forward he made, the monster, trying to deflect the shots, had to back down a little.

But not for long. Soon after, the phantom finally held its ground and started to move towards the earthbender who still attacked it furiously. Slowly — but firmly — it made progress. Using its long arms as a shield, it was able to make it through the rain of rocks, and then, having shortened the distance between the two of them — punch the attacker just like the whole previous fighting wouldn't actually wear it down.

The hit threw the silhouette a few meters back where she could not see him anymore.

No, thought Asami desperately.

No.

No.

Bolin...

The phantom did not have time to celebrate victory, however. It raised its head; at the other end of the alley, whence Asami had come, a dozen of voices sounded. And particularly, one strong female voice that Asami knew she should recognize at once, but couldn't do so. Alarmed and startled, the monster turned around and ran back into the darkness, disappearing soon after. Still unable to move or say anything, not even cry, not even die, the girl could only listen to the steps behind her. Several moments later, someone grabbed her and turned her on her back. Perhaps they even asked her about something important — she was not certain, nor did she care. Summoning all her remaining strength, she only wanted to know if the person in front of her was Bolin. She hoped to see him well and alive so much... It was all because of her...

That final effort made her lose her consciousness.

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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