As it turns out, things aren't quite as clear cut as Asami thought they were. Or rather hoped they were.
Part 4 - Faith and Pragmatism
Section 1: "Integrity"
Asami scowled as she jogged down the stairs and over her cracked marble floor. She slowed to a stop at her front door and tightened the ribbon on her pajamas. Smile and wave. Either would do. As soon as she walked outside, she was blinded by both the the bright rising sun and several dozen flashbulbs.
The press. Yay.
"Miss Sato, your estate was crashed by several dozen violent partygoers. Do you have anything to say about the incompetence shown here by the police department?"
"Why was Kuvira in attendance?"
"An insider source informed me that these party crashers were actually Empire loyalists, and caused a riot once they were discovered. Can I get confirmation of that?"
"You've officially stated that your unwillingness to take military contracts was on principal. What principle is good enough to allow thousands of soldiers to die?
"Is Future Industries attempting to weaken the United Republic from the inside?"
"Are you trying to bring down President Raiko?"
"Are you aware that your outright refusal to support the United Forces, and thus the United Republic, is very reminiscent of your father's anti-bending bigotry?"
Asami glared at that last reporter. No. Nope. Not today. She was done. It was almost as if, by asking that question, that man didn't want his bones in their proper place anymore. Wonderful.
Her face twitched and she really didn't care that it was caught on camera. She brought two fingers to her lips and whistled as loud as she could. The loud, heavy thump of Naga's paws charged across the floor and leaped out the door, landing right beside Asami with Pabu on her head. She gave the reporters a powerful unwavering stare and growled, biting at the air in front of her. Pabu hissed.
The journalists all stood frozen in place, mouths agape.
Asami cocked her head toward the crowd and, without further instruction, Naga roared like the bloodthirsty, vicious alpha predator that she was, flashing her massive teeth and snarling down the press. Pabu helped with his own little screech. The legion of reporters screamed and ran away with their tail between their legs.
"Gooood girl," cooed Asami, scratching Naga behind her ears. "And you too, Pabu," she said as the fire ferret scampered up to her shoulder. "That's going to make for one great headline. They'll probably call me a beastmaster, or something silly like that. But you're not a beast, are you girl?" she said, smiling.
Naga panted happily and licked her face. Pabu chittered.
Asami wiped the slobber off with her sleeve and chuckled. "You're lucky I haven't taken a shower yet."
Korra wandered out the front door with a full bodied yawn. "Heard Naga. Everything okay?"
"Yeah, we're fine. She took care of the press for me."
"She loves doing that." She wrinkled her nose. "It's six in the morning. I've been swarmed before, but not this early. And never at home."
"That would be because you live on an island."
"Right. Are they really that desperate, though?"
Asami crooked her lips to the side. "More often than not."
"That's dumb. You'd think they'd have more important stuff to talk about than some lame 'party crashers'."
Asami looked out over the city and scratched Pabu's tummy. "Must be a slow news day."
Lin grumbled as she drove up to the shanty town. The locals collectively glared at her as she passed, as if all of their problems were either her fault or that she simply refused to fix them out of some misplaced spite.
They wanted to become integrated into the United Republic. That had yet to happen, probably because Raiko was playing some stupid political game and forgot that there were tens of thousands of people just waiting for him to make up his mind.
It wouldn't even be hard, or take very long. There was a residential district right on the other side of the wall. People lived and worked there. The more she thought about it, the less sense it made.
Well, in the end it had nothing to do with her. The refugees could glare all they wanted. Wouldn't change a thing. Other than making more problems for her, of course. Riots and violent protests were inevitable. Protecting their 'homes', demanding entry and asylum, bribery. A few dozen other things.
At least they'd given the place a name, since Lin had gotten very tired of writing 'that place with all the refugees' on every damn police report.
Jingdao. Border Island.
She supposed it was fitting, since it was on the border. And it may as well have been an island, considering level of isolation the region was suffering from. The buildings were crude and quickly earthbent, their food almost entirely made of humanitarian relief efforts. Most of which did not come from the United Republic. No, the credit went to the big corporations throwing money at everything. To make themselves look good, obviously. Not out of any sense of altruism, because that would be ridiculous.
Lin gave Saikhan a small nod as she approached the main border checkpoint. She hopped out of her squad car and walked up beside him. "Anything to report?" she asked, keeping an eye on a group of kids who looked suspiciously like a swarm of pickpockets.
"Not at the moment, Chief."
Lin crossed her arms and scanned the horde of people weaving in and out of simple earthbent structures. "Good. Oh, and you'll never guess how those loyalists managed to sneak into the Sato estate."
Saikhan raised a brow. "Hidden amongst the press?"
"Big hole in the old secret factory."
"I completely forgot about that place."
"So did everyone except the loyalists, apparently.
Saikhan snorted. "Sounds like they have a fixation on secret tunnels."
Lin gave Saikhan a sidelong glance. She stomped her foot into the dirt and reached out to the earth, sensing the tiniest of vibrations move through the ground.
Rocks, rocks, more rocks, that tunnel she collapsed a few months back, the other tunnel she collapsed, the old sewer systems, several thousand refugees, even more rocks, a metal truck in a back alley just above a freshly bent tunnel...
"Found one. Saikhan, with me," she said, tearing open a hole in the earth to reveal a very crude tunnel several stories underground. She hopped down the hole slowed her descent with her cables. She flicked on her flashlight as Saikhan followed her down.
"Over and under?"
"Yes," said Lin as she marched several blocks down the tunnel. She pointed her flashlight up at the ceiling and brushed her palm along the rock, reaching out once again. Rocks, rocks, truck, another truck, spirit vines, eight people, lots of metal boxes, and a big blank spot in the shape of oh!a truck. "Scratch that. Eight people now. Three trucks, one is platinum lined. And they've got spirit vines."
"Ready when you are, Chief."
Lin holstered her flashlight and they both dropped into a horse stance. They widened the tunnel to cover all three trucks and, with a small breath, pulled the earth out from beneath them. Three large trucks came crashing down through the ceiling, landing violently with shattered windows and the terrified screams of the idiots involved.
Lin scoffed and hopped on top of the nearest truck. "Saikhan, call it in. I'll check the cargo." She metalbent the roof apart to find two unconscious dunderheads in an almost amusing position, a bunch of spirit vines, and some metal boxes. She looked up at the massive hole they'd opened and smirked at the kids waving down at her.
And then she was reminded why 'cute' didn't always mean good, since those kids had distracted her from a firebender who'd managed to pick herself up and toss fireballs like a madwoman. Lin pivoted, avoiding them entirely, and used her cables to slam the firebender into the wall.
Lin hopped over to the next truck and once again found bodies, vines and boxes. She tore open one of the boxes and screwed up her face. Batteries, wires, detonators---oh.
Lin fought her growing migraine and rotated the earth below the platinum truck, spinning it so the back doors were facing her.
"Airship's on the way, Chief!" yelled Saikhan.
Lin took a small breath. If even one was armed she'd have no damn idea what to do. She opened the doors...only for an avalanche of spirit vines to spill out the back and cover her entirely. She scowled under the pile and shoved the bundles off of her.
Saikhan was clearly suppressing his laughter.
Lin rolled her eyes. "Shut up."
Asami walked into the lobby of Future Industries Tower to find a very tired and uncharacteristically solemn General Iroh, flanked by two soldiers in full dress uniforms.
"Miss Sato. I apologize for the intrusion."
Asami raised her brows. "Oh, it's...no trouble. Haven't even started my day yet. I must admit I'm surprised that you're here at all. I thought you were still deployed out east."
"Officially, I am," he said gravely. "But things have changed. Which is part of why I'm here." He dismissed his two officers outside. "I couldn't help but notice that odd aircraft that's on display. I'd very much like to get a closer look."
"Oh! Of course." Asami walked over to the Satohawk, gesturing for him to follow. "We're going to be rolling them out for mass production in the next few days, but this one is a little banged up thanks to a little...incident in the swamp. It's a good indicator of how durable she is, though."
"I've never seen anything like it. What is it called?"
"We're marketing her as the 'Satohawk'."
"Interesting," he said, inspecting the outer hull. "Could we take a look inside?"
Asami shrugged and pulled the side door open. "I don't see why not. But, isn't this a bit of a distraction from...whatever the reason you're here for?"
General Iroh climbed inside and pulled Asami along with him. "Don't worry about that. Please lock the doors."
Asami narrowed her eyes but did as he asked. "What's going on?"
General Iroh sighed and sat down on the floor, resting his back up against the bulkhead. He leaned forward. "Have you been keeping up with the newsreels?"
Asami nodded. "The most recent one was about how you were taking back Omashu, if I recall correctly."
"It's a lie. The United Forces are losing this war, Miss Sato. By a very wide margin," he said, exhausted. "The Fire Nation can't help us, and the Water Tribes simply won't. The First Division has been all but wiped out."
Asami paled and slowly sat down. Information control on such a large scale could only be Raiko's doing, but then, it made sense. If everyone knew they were losing so badly, he'd be impeached...and the innocents left in the former Earth Kingdom would be left to die. "General, if that sandbender is capable of such destruction, then you should really be talking to Korra about this."
"It's not the sandbender. It's the loyalists. They're far more organized than anyone realizes. Each state seems to have their own faction, and most of them are loosely allied together even without Kuvira. They have us outclassed in every way possible. Numbers, firepower, speed. Everything."
Asami frowned. "I believe you. My estate was infiltrated by loyalists yesterday evening in an attempt to 'extract' Kuvira. She tried to talk them down, but they wouldn't listen."
"...so she's really standing by her word, then?"
"I don't know, and I don't care. General, if you're losing the war, why are you here? And more importantly, why are we in here?"
General Iroh stared at her for a long moment. "We have reason to believe that the Red Lotus is active again, and that they're spreading."
Asami nodded slowly as her heart dropped into her stomach. Memories of those few weeks after...that day surfaced. But that was the past. Korra was okay. She was back, and she was okay. But those terrorists, those monsters, they were still around. They were back, too.
"You're one of the only people I know who would never affiliate with the likes of them. Which means you're one of the few I can trust. I need your help, Miss Sato. The United Republic needs your help."
Asami swallowed and bowed her head. "You want weapons," she whispered.
"We need them. We cannot hope to win this war without them. This isn't the kind of fight that the Avatar can help with. It's a long, bloody war of attrition."
"One that the Red Lotus is involved in."
"I would be very surprised if they didn't have a hand in this."
Asami buried her head in her hands. "I need time to think. I can't give you a decision right now, as much as you need it. I'm sorry."
General Iroh stood and scowled at her. "The lives of tens of thousands of soldiers are on the line, and you need time to think it over? That's not even counting the millions of civilians in the former Earth Kingdom! I came here, risking assassination to grant you the courtesy of meeting with you personally, and you tell me that you have to think about it?!"
"Yes. I am." Asami glared at him. "I spent the better part of four years cleansing my name, General. The only reason I am even thinking about this is because of the Red Lotus. I will consider your request. That's all I can promise you."
General Iroh shook his head and opened the side door. "I depart for the frontlines in twenty-four hours. Inform me of your decision by then."
Asami narrowed her eyes. "I will."
"How's production coming along?" asked Asami.
Artana extinguished her arcwelder and lifted her mask. She stepped away from the grey, half assembled pillar. "Very well. The first full order should be ready for installation within the week."
"Good. Tell me, do you think you could handle overseeing another few projects in addition to this one?"
Artana shrugged. "That's entirely dependant on the subject matter."
Asami handed her a few folders filled with blueprints. "I'm considering temporarily reopening the Military R&D Division of Future Industries and you have more experience in weapons development than anyone else I have on staff. Yesterday evening was...quite the eye opener. Take a look."
Artana's smile grew wider and wider as she skimmed through the pages. Large battleships converted to accommodate runways and airplanes. Weaponized Satohawks. Some sort of small mecha-suit with a familiar looking undersuit. "They're not quite as exciting as the Colossus, but I can certainly head these up for you, should the need arise."
Artana chuckled. "Be entirely honest with me, Asami. If someone asked you to help build a giant mecha-suit. Twenty-five stories tall and logistically ludicrous in every way possible, wouldn't you do it? Just to prove that you could?"
"Well…" Asami chewed on her lip. "Okay, yes. I wouldn't even think about it. It's just...it's…"
"A giant mecha-suit."
"Yes! Exactly." Asami beamed. "Now, you're sure you can handle these extra projects? In the event that I approve them?"
Artana nodded. "Absolutely. It's always a nice change of---" Out of the corner of her eyes she spotted several bright things floating around the pillar she was working on. She turned to see a bunch of tiny floaty spirits spinning around it. "Hey! Don't touch that!" she said, waving her hands through them, shooing them off. "Get away from my work!"
"They're not hurting anything. Just leave them be."
"Easier said than done." Artana swiped her hand a few more times. "May I ask why this is a potential project, and not one to be started immediately? If last night, which was a wonderful party despite the interruption by the way, is any indication of what we'll be dealing with in the future, it would be a good idea to get a jump on this."
Asami placed a hand on her hip. "Because our defense system is far more important than everything else."
"Fair point. Do you mind if I keep these for now?"
"Not at all. Just return them to my office by the end of the day. It should be some very interesting reading over lunch."
Artana flipped through the pages. "That it should."
Korra rolled her shoulders and held out her palms in an airbending stance. Her boots sunk into the padded flooring of the gym. "I'll start with just enough power to knock you down, and we'll move up from there. Okay?"
Asami nodded and twirled her wooden practice sword, keeping her fan close to her body.
Korra twisted her hand and sent a burst of air towards Asami...who spun and deflected it entirely with her fan. Korra smirked and shot two more blasts, only for them to be deflected even faster than before. "That's really cool."
Asami repeated the same sweeping motion with her fan a few times, each in a different direction. "Thanks. I'm just glad that I'm not as rusty as I thought. Air might just be easier to handle, though..."
Korra raised a brow. "Easier as opposed to what?"
Asami cleared her throat. "Let's just say that a firebender was standing where you are right now."
"That explains a lot."
Asami frowned just a little. "I know. C'mon, let's go again. But try to pull your punches a little less, okay? I've got this."
Korra shrugged. "You're the boss." She still held back, but not nearly as much. If she gave it her all, she might accidentally blow apart a support beam, which would...not be the desired effect. Asami dodged the first few bursts, spinning and gracefully rolling through the air. The first one she batted away with her fan had enough power to send an ostrich horse flying. Several dozen feet. And she didn't so much as deflect it, but use the force if the air itself to push her away.
She was airbending...without actually airbending. And also waterbending.
"All right, you've got air. Not that you'd ever need to defend against it, but still." She flicked her wrists and channeled her chi into two fireballs. "Up for fire?"
Asami took a few deep breaths and wiped sweat off of her brow. "Uhm, no. Let's not do that." She poked her in the stomach with the wooden practice sword. "I'd rather not burn my house down the day after it was attacked."
"Smart." Korra laughed. "What about water and earth, though? You can't deflect a boulder. Or water. At least, not very well."
"Earth is a just a matter of speed, most of the time. Lots of dodging and rolling. Water always seems to gives me trouble."
Korra grinned. "Yeah, I do---"
Asami placed a finger on Korra's lips. "Shhhh, don't ruin it." She frowned. "Damnit, I...so, the United Forces showed up at my office today." She sighed and returned her equipment to the rack. "Specifically, General Iroh."
Korra raised her brows. "What? I thought he was supposed to be out east."
"Officially, he is. Look, I'm going to come right out and say it: He thinks the Red Lotus are mobilizing."
Korra's eyes flickered white as a sudden rush of rage nearly overwhelmed her. Her shoulders tensed and she was one unfocused breath away from spewing vitriolic flames. She ground her teeth and closed her eyes. "For what?" she asked, with quite a bit of malice.
"He doesn't know for what, but I believe him all the same. He's scared, Korra. So scared that he thinks his own officers might be double agents."
Korra cracked her knuckles. "This problem has a very simple solution. We flush them out and end them." She exhaled a little puff of fire. "All of them."
Asami sighed. "That's not...actually why he came. Not the only reason, at least. The United Forces are losing. Badly. He all but begged me to develop new military weaponry to help." She frowned. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about."
Korra narrowed her eyes. "Are the Red Lotus part of this war?"
"Most likely, yes."
"Then build them. Build as many as you can. As long as they aren't spirit weapons, make him the most deadly and effective things possible."
Asami gaped and took a few steps closer. "Korra. No, that's...you're supposed to tell me that you can't condone this kind of thing. Remember? How hard I worked to get out of that business? And stay out?"
Korra blinked. "I remember. I also remember the kind of people that you'd be getting rid of. These are the same men and women who were willing to commit genocide for the sake of leverage. Forget what they did to me. They tried to wipe out the Air Nation; finish the job for Sozin." she growled. "Iroh wants weapons? Make them."
"So. That's it then? The ends justify the means for you, too?"
"For the Red Lotus, they always will."
"But---" Asami bristled. "Damnit, Korra, I wanted---you were supposed to talk me out of this! You weren't supposed to…" She pinched her brow. "This isn't what Iroh would want."
"...yes, it is. He literally asked you for it."
"No, the other Iroh."
"Oh. Probably not, then." Korra sighed and sat down on the padded floor. "I know that whole...thing is important, but how can you be the noodles if there isn't a world to bring closer together anymore? They want the end of everything. That can't happen."
Asami took a shaky breath. "You're right. You're exactly right. If somebody has to get their hands dirty, it may as well be me. At least I can do it correctly."
"That's one way to look at it."
Asami sat down beside her and entwined their fingers together. "Thank you. I don't think I would have realized just how necessary it is that I do this if not for you. I might have ended up doing it, but not for the right reasons."
"Makes all the difference."
"It really does."