13: Promises, Allies, and Memories
"I know you're twenty-three, so I think I'm well within rights to call you kid, kid. Besides, if I called you Mako I think you'd take it as a threat and kill me."
Mako didn't bother arguing with that—after all, Liao was right. "Fine," he spat. "But why would an Agni Kai recruit want to come here? Especially if—if you have my brother held captive."
There was an uncomfortable silence in the hospital room. Feeling awkward, Mako sat down on the bed. Liao took a deep breath. "Because…I want to help you."
Mako's jaw almost clattered to his knees and his mind suddenly went completely blank. Out of everything that Liao could've said, saying that he wanted to help was definitely not something that Mako had ever expected. "I'm sorry, what?" Mako managed to splutter, his face a brilliant shade of red.
Liao's cheeks turned pink. "I want to help you," he repeated quietly.
"Why?" Mako asked obstinately, fighting the urge to laugh. What was wrong with him? "Are you being wired?" he found himself asking. "Is someone watching me talking to you? Do you have, like, a mike on you?"
Liao laughed without humor. "Wired?" he spluttered. "Yeah, I have a mike for you." Liao thumbed his nose and made a horrible hand gesture at Mako that could've put an old lady into cardiac arrest. "Speak into the mike, asshole," he said in exasperation. "A mike, honestly, kid. You've got balls, I'll give you that."
Mako literally had to count to ten to keep himself from jumping on top of Liao again. "You want to help me."
"Yes," Liao said, sounding extremely annoyed. "Get that through your thick skull, Detective. I. Want. To. Help. You," the Agni Kai Recruit said slowly and carefully, like Mako was an idiot. "Your brother's way less annoying than you," he muttered.
Only one word of that sentence registered with Mako. "My brother?" he breathed. "Bolin…is he okay?"
Liao didn't hesitate. "No."
Mako's heart crumbled into a million pieces and shattered. The worst part was that Liao wasn't even lying. He said Bolin's fate like it was nothing, like the revelation that Bolin was hurt terribly wasn't even a bad thing. "No?" he whispered, his voice twisting horribly. Hot tears pricked his eyes. "Is he…d-dead?"
"What? No! He's alive," Liao assured Mako, and a tiny bit of weight dropped off of his shoulders. "But he's far from okay, kid."
"Why?" Mako begged Liao, who stood impassively across the room from him. "Tell me. What is…how is he hurt?"
"Whipped, beaten, shot, sleep-deprived," Liao listed half-heartedly, ticking his words off one by one with his fingers. "Dehydrated, starving…the whole shebang."
Mako swore horribly to the point that Liao began to look uncomfortable. "He got shot?" Mako asked, fighting to keep calm and failing miserably. He prayed that Liao was lying. Then Dr. Zhen could've been wrong, and Mako didn't have to worry as much. "Where?"
"His arm." So Dr. Zhen hadn't been lying. Mako's heart leapt into his throat and his stomach dropped to his shoes. "We had one of our out-of-town meddies come and fix him up."
"Meddies?" asked Mako in confusion. "What the hell is a meddie?"
"Doctors," Liao clarified. "Doctor…um, Zhen, I think it was."
Mako's temper rose to levels he didn't even know that he had. "I know perfectly well who Doctor Zhen is," he spat. "He shot me in the chest! I was in a coma for two days because of that sanctimonious piece of shit, and Zhen fixed up my brother without any troubles whatsoever?"
Liao didn't understand at first. "We have the necessary medical equipment—"
"That's not what I mean, you zozzled idiot!" Mako yelled in exasperation. "Why would he just up and do that? Out of the 'goodness of his heart'?" Mako cackled, freaking himself out. "Is that the same reason you're doing this, Liao? Is—" he was interrupted by a crack as Liao punched him in the face.
"Yeah, asshole!" Liao shouted. "Just keep on making assumptions, why don't you? You smug little city slickers think our lives are so easy? I live in fucking military hell. The training sessions that we have to go through whenever our Section Leader is pissed off, are grueling, hard as hell, and even kills some of our Recruits! One of them only lasted for two hours after the beating, and my partner, some others and I buried him in the backyard of the training compound. You ask why Dr. Zhen wanted to help? I'll tell you exactly why: because he's a Triad, and the Triads made a deal with the Agni Kais that we'd work together. Now, the Triads aren't as big on punishment—they'll lash you, but they don't kill. Our punishment of deserting is being injected with a poison, and jogging until your heart stops."
Liao waited a few seconds for this to register before continuing. "Zhen had no choice but to stay on. Now. Why am I helping you? To be honest, kid, I don't even know why I'm helping you! I don't know why I pity your brother over everyone that I've ever killed and tortured, or why him screaming and sobbing haunts me at night. But my partner got hurt trying to protect me, and he's still in a fucking coma right now."
Liao took a deep, shaky breath before sitting down next to Mako on the bed. "Doc doesn't think he'll wake up," he whispered before managing to compose himself. "And he got hurt protecting me from my own fellow Recruit, this complete unadulterated asshole of a CID. It kind of opened up my eyes and I saw for the first time how bad we truly are. Your brother doesn't deserve what we do to him. And I want to help him."
The two men sat in silence for a few moments. Mako patted Liao on the shoulder awkwardly, making the Agni Kai Recruit look up. "What's your partner's name?" Mako asked, unable to think of anything else to say.
"Xin," said Liao, wiping a tear from his eye. "He's my best friend. We're like brothers, like you and Bolin."
"Nah," Mako chuckled half-heartedly, wiping away a tear of his own. "More like Hikaru and Satoshi Daichi."
"Who?" Liao asked in confusion.
"Never mind," Mako muttered. "So. Liao, right?" Liao nodded his confirmation, and Mako continued. "Where's my brother?"
Liao opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by the door opening. He immediately jumped to his feet and pulled out a heater, causing Korra, Asami, and Midori to scream and cling to each other. Korra immediately threw a fireball at him, which Liao dodged, and held up his hands in surrender. "Hold your fire!" he shouted. "Damn it, it's okay! I'm sorry!" He holstered his gun. "I'm sorry!"
Midori was sobbing and clinging to Asami, who rubbed her back soothingly while shooting Liao a death glare. "Who the hell are you? Why do you have a fucking heater?" she shouted.
"It's okay!" Mako jumped to his feet, not caring that he was still wearing a hospital gown. "Asami, Korra, Midori, this is Liao. He's a…" he hesitated, because he didn't really know him well enough to call him an acquaintance or a friend or even a colleague… "He's an Agni Kai," Mako blurted.
The reaction was instantaneous as Midori screamed, Asami flinched and jumped back, and Korra airbent the now-terrified Recruit into the wall, holding him there. "Get out of here!" Korra screamed.
"I'm…on your…side," Liao choked out, a trickle of blood coming from his hairline where his head had slammed against the wall.
"What?" This gave Korra pause. She stared at her boyfriend. "Mako?"
"He knows where Bolin is," Mako said wearily, and Korra dropped Liao onto the bed, where he lay coughing and rubbing the back of his head. "He's on our side."
"He has a name," Liao muttered in exasperation. "I'm Liao."
Asami's eyes flickered towards him. "You're bleeding," she said in surprise, like it was physically impossible for an Agni Kai to bleed. "Here." She dug a tissue out of the pocket of her pants, sat down next to him and wiped the blood away not especially gently.
"Thank you," he replied with a furrowed brow.
Midori was next to speak up. "You know where Bo is?" she asked, barely able to keep a thread of excitement out of her voice. The curly-haired teenager edged closer to Liao, apprehension and happiness fighting to gain dominance on her face.
"In a manner of speaking," Liao said, taking the tissue from Asami and wiping the rest of the blood off himself. "Yes."
Korra didn't look convinced. "Uh huh. And we should trust you why? How do I know you're not leading us into a trap?"
Liao looked at her like he was an art critic inspecting the world's finest painting. "You must be the Avatar," he said. "So then you must be…Asami, then?" he asked Asami, leaving Korra spluttering.
"Yes," Asami said, not willing to deny his statement. "And this is Midori."
"How d'you know their names?" Mako inquired.
"Bolin screams their names when he gets tortured by Zolt and our Section Leader," was Liao's blunt statement.
Asami looked a bit green. "Ex—excuse me? T-tortured?" she stammered while Midori swayed where she stood. Korra earthbent her a chair, and Midori nodded gratefully before collapsing on top of it.
Liao had the decency to look a bit embarrassed. "Um—yes, and—er, he was—"
Mako held up a hand. "Don't go into details."
"Right." Liao shut up.
Midori gazed at him. "You…you didn't torture him, did you?" she asked hesitantly, her hands twitching at her sides. She bit her lip and fussed with her hair. "Right?" she pleaded, her voice cracking.
Liao did not say anything, but his eyes and the flush in the back of his neck gave everything away. Mako, Asami, and Korra gasped.
"Right?" Midori begged, two tears dripping down her pale cheeks. Liao very slowly shook his head no. Midori began to tremble uncontrollably. "Wha—what did y-you d-do?"
"I—" Liao gulped. "I…" he mumbled the rest under his breath.
"What did you say?" Mako asked through gritted teeth.
"I belted him," Liao whispered quietly, but was still able to be heard. The room was dead silent. "I whacked his back with a belt that Z-Zolt gave to me…for thirty minutes."
Mako snapped at hearing that this man, who was supposedly on their side, had whipped his little brother for an entire half an hour. That sanctimonious son of a bitch… But it was Midori who was the real surprise. She walked straight up to Liao and socked him in the jaw, causing him to trip and fall, stunned, onto the carpet. "That's for Bo," she said, crossing her arms before kicking Liao in the shins. "And that is for being part of the same, shit-eating cult that killed my family."
Mako felt like he was the one who had been punched. Either I'm still in a coma, or I've stepped into an alternate universe where Agni Kais want to help my brother break out of hell and Midori socks people in the jaws. "You fucking asshole," Asami whispered, edging away from him with a look of horror on her face. "You—you, h-hurt…" She stumbled backwards, where a surprised Korra and a hard-faced Midori hung on to her.
"I had to—I had no choice!" Liao pleaded. "Gainika would've killed me and Bolin if I hadn't tortured—well, belted him—"
Liao's stammering pleas were cut off by Asami punching him in the face. His nose began gushing blood, splattering it on his shirt and pants. "Shut up!" she screamed. "You hurt—my best friend—he—oh, shit, I think—I'm going to—" she dry-heaved several times before collapsing to her knees in front of a trash can and emptying the contents of her stomach into it.
Mako glared at the Agni Kai, who was wiping the blood off of his nose with the sleeve of his shirt, a pained grimace on his face. "Where. Is. My. Brother?" he demanded, sick and tired of this shit—couldn't Liao just cut to the chase already? Mako had believed that his brother was gone for nearly half a decade until Asami had come to his door in the middle of the night nearly two months ago now. He was so tired of waiting for answers. He wanted some now, damnit!
Asami looked up from her trash can, her pallor a bit green.
Midori and Korra froze as Liao took a couple of deep breaths, pinching his nose shut.
"He's in Ba Sing Se," Liao said crisply, sounding outright tough despite the blood coming through his fingers. "Way beyond the outskirts of the city. And that's all you're getting out of me."
Liao must have known that half of intimidation was the beauty of a well-timed exit, because he turned neatly and left the hospital room, leaving the detective, Avatar, heiress and curly-haired teenager baffled.
Korra broke the silence. "That went well."
That night, as Asami tucked Midori into bed, she couldn't help but truly look at the girl, the young woman that she had come to think of as her little sister over the last four years. She really had grown up over the years, Asami mused, smoothing Midori's hair back. Asami loved Midori with all of her heart and soul—and she had really made Asami proud when she'd socked Liao in the jaw. Asami smiled.
"What?" Midori asked with a slight grin. "You okay, 'Sami?"
Asami's smile did not falter at her use of Bolin's nickname for her. "Just thinking, babe," she replied. "Nice punch today."
Midori grinned. "It was the heat of the moment. But it felt really good. Instructor Ming taught me something after all in those self-defense classes."
Asami snickered. "Glad to hear that those fifty yuans a month I pay him aren't going to waste."
The two women didn't say a word for a few moments. Asami kept holding Midori's hand and thinking about what she'd said to Liao: "And that is for being part of the same, shit-eating cult that killed my family."
"Hey, honey?" she inquired of her sixteen-year-old adopted sister, who looked up at her. "Can I ask you something?"
Midori nodded, bemused. "Uh, huh."
Asami steeled herself before blurting the question that had been on her mind not just since today, but for years. "Blue, babe," she hesitated. "You never—you never really told me, um, how your, er—"
"How my family died?" Midori's voice wasn't unkind, but it wasn't friendly either. It was calm, monotonous, and it scared Asami a little. "There's a reason for that, Asami."
"I know, Midori, and I've never asked for that reason, but," Asami paused, "but what you said to Liao got me thinking and…I want to know."
Midori didn't say anything.
Asami changed the subject. "Did I ever tell you how my mom died, Midori?"
Midori shook her head slowly. "No. But you did tell me why your dad's in prison, and—" she shut up. "Continue," Midori finally said, looking politely intrigued.
"Dad and Mom and I—we were on our way to one of his business meetings, right? He was going to show off one of his newest models of an All-Terrain Satomobile to a bunch of investors. So while—" Asami's voice cracked as she remembered that day. "While Mom listened and I played around, this team, or Crew, of firebenders enter the conference room, and they ask, 'where is Hiroshi Sato?'
"My father looks up. 'That's me,' he says. 'What do you want?'
"The head guy, who's wearing a face mask and had this really mellow sounding voice, says, 'We want to dispose of you,' and fires this white-hot bolt of lightning at his chest. He ducks it, but it sets the room on fire. I'm screaming and clutching m-my m-mother, and t-then—" Asami hesitated before continuing. "T-then we're all rushing out and I'm lost in a wave of people and I hear this big bang and I—I hear my father scream, a-and, I—I turn around and see him clutching my mom's body. Someone had shot her with a heater.
"This guy who was a business associate of my dad's got me out of the building in time, and a team of waterbenders managed to get my father out, alive and well. But my m-mom, she'd died." Asami wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Midori gazed up at her adopted big sister with wide eyes, and she gripped Asami's hand tightly. "I understand why you don't like to talk about your family dying, Blue, but it does make you feel a bit better at the end."
"My parents' deaths aren't like that," Midori whispered with tears of her own. "They aren't like that at all."
Asami waited for her little sister to continue, and eventually got another response.
"We'd always been homeless," Midori began slowly. "I dunno why, but Poppa never had a job, and he met Momma on the streets. We scraped by because Momma worked in some rich family's estate every two weeks and brought us food from there. My little sister and I were both born in a shed of a healer's house.
"One day, Momma was fired, and we were really hard on food. Hisui—that's my sister's name—was emaciated, and sick. My parents gave her all of their food. I gave her half of everything I stole, but it was not enough. She just got sicker and sicker by the day.
"My Poppa sent me to go and see if I could find any medicine on sale for her, and gave me all the money that he had. He gave me fifteen yuans, and I couldn't help but think how much money that was to me—at the time, anyway," she added glibly. "Fifteen yuans is like change that we find in the couch cushions over here.
"But I asked Poppa why we should try if Hisui was dying anyway. He slapped me, 'Sami, saying I should never talk like that, ever. And then I said the most horrible thing, Asami. I told him that he never paid as much attention to me as Hisui and never would, even if I was dying too.
"I ran off and cried. But then I realized that I had to find some medicine for my sister, so I looked and looked, and no one was willing to sell a street brat like me anything. I couldn't ask Bo and Mako 'cause I didn't know them well enough then. So I returned home to our shack, only to find that it was on fire.
"I ran towards it, dropping those fifteen yuans onto the ground, howling and screaming for someone to call the police department. No one came. By the time I managed to get inside, my parents and Hisui were three piles of ash."
Midori was crying now, harder than Asami had. She clutched Asami's pajama shirt like it was a lifeline, and Asami hugged her little sister tightly. She had no idea how long the two of them stayed like that, but it didn't matter to her.
"I think every day about what I said to him, Asami," Midori choked. "If I—if I hadn't argued then, and just—just told him that I—I loved him, the—then…"
"Shh, shh," Asami soothed, smoothing Midori's hair back. "I love you, Blue…it's okay. They knew that you loved them, I promise, Midori…"
Midori, taking heaving breaths, lay back down in bed, still sniffling. "I love you, Asami," she whispered before nodding off, grasping onto the same doll and teddy bear that Bolin had bought for her nearly four years ago.
Asami gave her a kiss on the forehead. "I love you too, Midori." She got up and turned off the lights before tiptoeing away down the hall.
She sat down in the dining room and poured herself a glass of red wine, not paying attention to the clock that chimed eleven thirty p.m. Asami took out a photo of herself, Bo, and Midori that she had taken of them on the day after their first Christmas in Ba Sing Se. Midori was holding her doll happily, Asami's hair was a complete mess and she wasn't wearing anything except her pajamas, and Bolin was making a goofy face into the camera, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue.
It had been one of the happiest moments of her life.
She traced Bolin's expression, scrutinizing it carefully until hot tears blurred her vision. "Bo," she mumbled. "I miss you. Oh, Spirits, I miss you."
Would this be the only thing that she'd have left of her best friend? Was Liao's information valid? Had the Agni Kais killed Bolin, and had sent Liao as a joke? Asami prayed that that was not the case.
"I promise I won't lose you the way I lost my mom, Bolin," she whispered. "We will find you. I promise." Asami put her pointer finger to her lips and then placed it on Bolin's cheek. I promise.