Contrary to popular belief, war can indeed change. It can get so, so much worse.
Part 4 - Faith and Pragmatism
Section 7: "Fallout"
Everything was muffled. Foggy, indistinct voices grew louder, edging closer. Asami tried to open her eyes, but they were already open; her vision was nothing but burning white. Her ears rung painfully, and moving her head sent a sharp pain through her ribs. She winced, her mouth forming words her ears couldn't hear. She flexed her hands and wiggled her toes, confirming she still had them, and felt...cold. Her forehead was cold. And then slowly, the blinding whiteness melted away, her eyes regaining focus.
Korra was above her, waterskin slung over her shoulder, eyes shuddering in fear and carefully kneading Asami's forehead. The soft blue glow of her healing water poked at the edges of her vision, illuminating Korra's face in the dark and smog filled night.
"-okay? Just lay right there and take your time. We're fine. Everything's fine," soothed Korra. She slid the blue glow to the back of Asami's head and cradled her in her lap. "Your ribs were pretty bruised, but I-"
She'd hit the wall. The back wall of the suite; thrown against it from the-
"Bomb!" Asami's eyes bugged out of her head. She sat up and immediately doubled over from the stabbing pain radiating from her ribs. She grit her teeth and braced her side. "Shit!"
Korra quickly moved in front of her, shifting the water to her ribs. "We're okay." Naga bent down and nudged Asami's cheek, whining. "See? We're fine. Just focus on me. It was a pretty close call, though." She frowned. "Almost couldn't energybend a bubble to block the blast. Not a lot of spiritual energy around here..."
Asami furrowed her brow. She'd have to follow up on that later. Her head throbbed too much to think about it. "Thank you."
"Don't worry about it. Now, let's just rest here for a bit. No rush."
"I smell smoke." She tried to look over Korra's shoulder, but she kept moving to block her.
"It's the Fire Nation. Something's always burning."
"Cut that out. What are you hiding?"
Korra sighed, her posture collapsing. She frowned, looking defeated. "Your defense system..." She bowed her head. "It didn't work. I'm so sorry, Asami. It-I don't get how it could have failed! All of that testing..."
Asami gaped and felt a cold chill run down her spine. "That's...that's impossible. The Fire Nation installed them first. Months ago! If it didn't work, then..." She nudged Korra out of the way and paled.
Sirens, screams, raging fires and shattering glass flooded her eardrums. Half of the hotel was seared away, vertically, and what was left of the streets were collapsed into the sinking, bubbling mud. Sewage spewed out of broken pipes, and power lines sparked wildly, lighting up the otherwise pitch black part of the capitol. A crater, around ten blocks in diameter, and several stories deep, was smoking in the distance.
And above the all consuming chaos, a bright green flare burned through the blackened sky.
"Korra. Look up."
She did, and stared, a pained look contorting her face.
It had worked exactly as designed. Just not well enough.
Not nearly enough.
Varrick stared at himself in the mirror, admiring the man on the other side. Always sharp. Always prim, but never proper. Or was it the other way around? He swept his palms over his cheeks, chin, and mustache. He grinned. "Zhu Li? Hand me the Varr...lec...Varrilec..." He snapped his fingers several times, searching. "...the electric razor. Real name. TBA. The thing. With the prongs."
Zhu Li started pulling out gadget after brilliant gadget out of their bathroom drawers. Most of them needed electricity to work, and therefore were not to be used near the bathtub. Ever. "I think that's on your to-do list, dear. I can't seem to find it."
"But my face needs a trim!"
Zhu Li handed him a straight razor. "Tweezers could also work."
"I'm a visionary, not a sadist," he said, poking the flat of the razor. "Tweezers are far more pain than they're worth, thank you very much."
"Ah. Is filming going well?"
"Oh, it's going fantastic! You're going to love it." He slathered his face with shaving cream. "Every other scene, I cry! Bawlin' like a baby." He shaved, carefully, with the grain. And then against the grain, and then he repeated. Thrice. "Though that's mostly because of the tear gas scene we keep having to re-shoot. I tell yah, the actors we got...only Bolin can really take a hit. It's like the rest of them have never been in a fight before!"
Zhu Li smiled. "Well, they are actors, dear."
"Good point. Note to self: Have Bolin train actors to take punches," he said, raising his fists and making a 'ker-pow' sound.
"That's not exactly what I meant, though it would be more realistic."
"VARRIMETHOD!" he said, laughing and rinsing his razor. "Making people more like people." He snapped his head to the right as he felt the telephone ring before it even did so. "Which line is that?"
Zhu Li walked back into the bedroom and inspected the several telephones they had installed. "...it looks to be the police line, dear."
"Let it ring, then. Probably nothing important if they're using that one."
Zhu Li picked up the phone anyway. Her intuition as a smarter person than he was must have told her something was amiss. Or maybe she just made a snap decision and went with it. Either way, he couldn't fault for her it. "Varrick residence, Zhu Li speaking. Oh, hello, President Raiko." She furrowed her brow and reached for the notepad on the desk, scribbling down note after note. "Mhmm. Yes, I understand. I'll be sure to notify him."
Varrick raised a brow and wiped off his face with a towel. "So...ready to start the day?"
"There was a spirit bombing in the Fire Nation capitol earlier this morning."
His eyes widened. "Oh." He scratched his head. "...wait, did you say bombing or beam-ing?"
Varrick hopped over to the phone cabinet and perused it, searching for the line labeled 'Retainer Guy, Esq – Miscellaneous'. "I'm calling our lawyer."
"We have a lawyer for this?"
"We have a lawyer for everything!"
Kuvira stared at the diagram of the airburst suit. It was a puzzle that needed to be solved. She'd stayed up all evening trying to solve it with Baatar, who was now passed out on his office couch, still dressed; but she wasn't about to give up so easily.
She poked the mannequin in the nose. Something was missing. Something. Something she'd seen thousands of times before. Her mind was rattled and exhausted, but she had to...she just had to fix it. She had to persevere, because if she went to bed, and then woke up, well...she didn't have that much to do in the first place.
And then it hit her like a bolt of lightning. She actually laughed in her exhaustion, and whooped. "I got it!" she said in excitement, jostling Baatar and grinning. "Baatar, I figured it out. It was so simple and obvious. I have no idea how we missed it entirely."
Baatar woke up with a start and took a moment to find his bearings, as she'd just been shaking him awake. She wasn't happy very often as of late, and he decided to enjoy it while it lasted. He adjusted his glasses; Kuvira had slipped them onto his face. "What's going on? Are we under attack?"
"No, but your suit is missing a helmet."
Baatar raised a brow and then stared at the mannequin, laughing in disbelief. "Of course! The sketch she sent didn't have a helmet! That's... quite a thing to miss. Well, that shouldn't be too difficult to-"
The office door exploded open with a flurry of stone shards. Kuvira shifted her weight, sending Baatar flying behind his desk to shield him as some of the glassware and picture frames around the office shattered. Metal cables shot toward Kuvira, but she reversed them and bound her attackers into the walls of the building. On instinct, she wrapped the rest in a metal sheet and flattened them against the ground.
"I thought you said we weren't under attack!" said Baatar, peeking his head out from behind his desk. "...Aunt Lin?"
Kuvira looked back toward the door and froze, slowly holding up her hands in surrender. Chief Lin Beifong stomped over her flattened and groaning officers with a very unamused expression. "I was not given proper warning before-"
Lin flicked her on the forehead. "Yeah. I know. Got some overeager officers in the ranks because we've had to boost our numbers. So, let's try this again." She pulled Kuvira's hands behind her back and clasped them together with platinum cuffs. "Kuvira, Baatar Beifong, you two are hereby under arrest under suspicion of aiding and abetting in terrorist and military actions unsanctioned by the United Republic against the Fire Nation."
Baatar stared at her in disbelief as his own hands were cuffed behind his back. "What? This is ridiculous!"
"Tell that to the victims in the Fire Nation."
Kuvira and Baatar exchanged a look. "...what are you talking about?" asked Kuvira, hesitantly.
"You haven't heard? Somebody just spirit bombed the Fire Nation capitol."
Baatar paled and looked at Kuvira. "No..."
Kuvira shook her head. "That's not possible. The defense system-"
Lin sighed and slapped a metal strip over her mouth. "I'm not the one you should be arguing with. Save it for Raiko, and your lawyer. I'm just as much in the dark as you two are, but Raiko wants me to bring you in. So I'm bringing you in. Understood?"
"Good. But..." She smirked. "I'm gonna leave that on there for now. Not so fun when it happens to you, is it?"
Kuvira glared at her.
"Didn't think so."
"...estimated casualties are anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000. We've reached out to Future Industries and Varrick Industries International, but both companies have declined to comment..."
Korra stared at the growing crowd in the middle of the airport. Panicked families ran in a full sprint toward their airships, dragging along very little. Only what they could carry. Police officers tried to instill some sort of order with shouted commands, but they clearly fell on deaf ears, since it only got worse. There were only so many seats, and far more people. Just trying to escape. To live.
No order. Only fear.
"I keep going over the designs in my head. Of the pillars," said Asami, her eyes glazed over. "And I just keep thinking that dad wouldn't have let this happen. He'd have seen something I didn't. Just like the plasma saws." She slammed her fist into the wall. "Do you have any idea how obvious of an alteration that was? It took us an hour."
"You can't save everyone." Korra gently extricated her fist from the wall and entwined their fingers. "Believe me, I've lost so much sleep over that. What if I'd done this? What if I'd been faster? What if I hadn't been so stubborn? Nothing good comes of it. You just feel worse."
"Worse is how I should be feeling. They can't even confirm how many dead there are because there aren't any bodies. Tens of thousands of empty caskets."
"It'd be a lot more if-"
A ring of fire erupted around them, instantly rousing Naga from her nap. She roared, and the crowd panicked even more, scattering faster and faster. Korra reached out to the fire and extinguished it with a quick arc of her hands. Not a moment later, it reignited taller and hotter than it was before.
"ASAMI SATO! YOU ARE UNDER ARREST IN THE NAME OF THE FIRE LORD ON SUSPICION OF FRAUD, HIGH TREASON AND FACILITATING TERRORIST ACTIONS!" shouted a woman with a megaphone from the other side of the flames.
Korra scowled and extinguished the flames once more, revealing a dozen CCPD Special Response officers. "This is completely insane." She glared at the woman with the megaphone. "She's innocent. You want to get to her? You'll have to go through me."
Naga roared again and flashed her massive teeth.
Asami grabbed her arm. "Don't make this worse. Please," she said, exhausted. "There's no way out of this situation that doesn't involve you fighting off the entire Fire Nation military. Which, while you could do that, isn't a great idea."
"I'm not letting them take you."
"Then come with."
Korra raised a brow. "You think they'd let me?"
Asami shrugged. "You're the Avatar."
"Hey! Megaphone lady! Let me come with and there won't be any trouble."
"AND THE POLAR BEAR DOG?"
The megaphone lady conversed with her fellow officers for a few moments. "FINE. IT'S NOT PROPER PROTOCOL, BUT NEITHER IS TODAY. AND WE DON'T WANT TO FIGHT YOU."
Raiko massaged his temples and sat back in his chair. He'd closed the borders nearly a year ago. He'd mandated the tightest security possible around the Spirit Vines. He'd used taxpayer money to fund every discernible defense and research project he could find. And still, it hadn't been enough.
Tens of thousands dead in the blink of an eye. Centuries old buildings were just...gone. And no clear next step.
Fire Lord Izumi sat across from him, flanked by her own bodyguards. "I hope you know what you're doing, President Raiko."
"Know what I'm doing? Fire Lord Izumi, with all due respect, do you have idea, any idea at all, the insanity that my job entails? Just on a day to day basis?"
"The Fire Nation-"
"-has been peaceful and stable for the past fifty years. Many would say for centuries. What's the worst thing you've had to worry about in your lifetime? A bunch of rogue benders trying to destroy all the world's governments, but never got around to targeting you? Perhaps tax reform? Peaceful protestors?" He gripped his armrests. "My city has been all but destroyed three times in five years! Two of those times involved things that were twenty-five stories tall and shot giant purple beams of energy at everything in its path! The other time? A delusional bloodbender trying to commit genocide!" He leaned forward. "So when you ask me, if I know what I'm doing, maybe consider for a moment if you would have any idea what to do in my position. If you do, by all means! Let me know, because I am this close to having an aneurysm!"
Izumi raised a brow. "Are you done?"
Raiko sighed and adjusted his glasses. "Yes. I am. Now..." He checked his watch. "Do you see my door?"
"I do. Why?"
The metal door, brand new and shiny, was torn open in the middle by a very angry looking Avatar, quickly followed by Asami Sato, Varrick, Zhu Li, Kuvira, Baatar and...that other engineer. What was her name? Arlana? Misato? Zutara? Artana. That was it. They took their seats around the room, still in handcuffs, sans the Avatar.
And no one said anything.
Raiko cleared his throat. "...good. Now that you're all here, we can begin."
Korra crossed her arms and glared at him. "This is ridiculous."
Fire Lord Izumi frowned. "Avatar Korra, we don't have time to waste with this kind of nonsense. We need to get to the bottom of this, because, in case you forgot the tragedy you were quite literally in the center of, a good portion of my capitol was completely destroyed."
"And yet you're saying Asami helped whoever did this. And is guilty of high treason."
"Think of it from my perspective. Four of the most brilliant scientists in the world use the knowledge of a fifth brilliant scientist to develop countermeasures for the most destructive weapon the world has ever known. A countermeasure that failed."
Korra opened her mouth, but quickly closed it.
Raiko sighed. "You've been arrested because, with the exception of Avatar Korra, all of you are under suspicion. Have you been listening to the radio? No less than fifteen extremist groups have been taking credit for this attack! Do you think anyone is going to believe that one of them is really responsible for the bombing when all of them are trying to claim responsibility?"
"Fine," Korra said, her nostrils flaring. "Why is Kuvira here?"
Raiko scoffed. "For the same reason the rest of them are. She's in a unique position to manipulate her own Loyalist military, if she chose to, into doing whatever it is that she wants them to do. This bombing was well within her power to accomplish, and judging by her prior methods and motivations, not unlikely."
"Look, Raiko, all you're doing is guess work. We all know it's the Red-"
"Avatar Korra!" Raiko stared her down so intensely she actually shut her mouth. "The last thing we want is to jump to hasty conclusions. Other explanations must be explored, do you understand?"
Asami whispered something into Korra's ear and she gulped.
"Oh." Korra nodded. "I understand. But you still don't have any proof!"
Izumi scowled. "The only proof I need is the smoldering crater where tens of thousands of my citizens, the people that I was sworn to protect, used to be." She glared at Asami. "You, personally, gave myself, Raiko and the other world leaders a product demonstration to assure us that your Unity Defense system did indeed work. This morning, it didn't. You either manufactured faulty products knowingly, or through negligence. Both are extreme criminal offenses on this scale."
"That's circumstantial, at best," growled, Asami. "Your only rightful arrest was Kuvira. Everyone else...you really don't have any legal footing." She pinched her brow. "Where the hell is that lawyer?!"
As if in reply, a man of Fire Nation descent, presumably the lawyer, stepped through the remains of Raiko's door with a briefcase under his arm. His dark amber eyes swept over the assembled people in the room, twinkling with mischief. "Varrick!" he said, snapping his fingers. "There you are! You rang?"
"Yes!" Varrick said, raising his cuffed hands triumphantly. "Finally! Hey, you're gonna love this guy! He's the best in the business!"
"Let's not get carried away," the lawyer said, but his smile was unmistakable. "Everyone, I'm Keisai Sabad. Varrick called me in to help with this farce." He glanced back at the door, running a hand through his hair. "I'm a bit offended, Mr. President. I was deprived the delight of blasting that door open myself. This detracts from the entrance I had planned, you know?"
Raiko's mouth twitched. "If you expect me to apologize for inconveniencing your theatrical entrance by my door being ripped open by the Avatar-"
"Not now, Mr. President," Keisai said. "I'm as torn up about this as you are, trust me. But you all know why I'm here, and it's my job to show you why they-" he spread his arms wide, gesturing to Korra, Asami, Varrick, Zhu Li, Artana, Baatar, and Kuvira- "shouldn't be."
"I beg your pardon?" Raiko said icily.
"I could go about this two ways," Keisai said, walking to the table and drumming his fingers on its surface. "I could go the long, arduous route and explain how Kuvira's entire role in this mess is a legal nightmare- Kuvira, remember your case? The one that I was entirely ready to take, if not for-"
"No." Kuvira's voice was short, clipped. "There was never any case. There wasn't even a trial."
"Easy, sweetheart. I meant the case that should have happened, but didn't because… well, you must know why, Mr. President."
Baatar bristled at the endearment. "Can we hear the short version?"
"Sure," Keisai said, shrugging. "The short version is that your upstanding president opted to use Kuvira to the fullest capacity. That started with effective indentured servitude-Kuvira, you couldn't give any legal counsel a call before you signed?-and most recently resulted in him using her public appearance as a strategic ploy."
"These are very serious accusations, Mr. Sabad," Raiko said angrily.
"And accurate ones," muttered Artana.
"Very serious accusations stem from very serious legal debacles," the lawyer said, his expression sobering. "Mr. President, you knew that your city was teeming with potential loyalists. What you didn't know was when and where they would strike. My client is… eccentric, let's go with that. You had the perfect opportunity to draw the loyalists out of hiding, and you took it by using the Great Uniter for a public appearance at Miss Sato's party."
"Hey!" said Varrick. "That was my party and she had nothing to do with it. You think Asami could throw a party that fantastic? No, of course not!"
Asami rolled her eyes.
"She signed, as you yourself said," Raiko pointed out, ignoring Varrick's outburst. "Not to mention she effectively threatened my life and attacked my bodyguards-"
"Because I had just been informed that my fiance was alive," Kuvira said, raising her voice. "Are we going to pretend that ten months of psychological torture never happened?"
"Yes! We are!" said Raiko. "Have you forgotten the terms on which-"
"You let her think I was dead for nearly a year. That she killed me," Baatar snapped. "You don't have a leg to stand on either."
"Miss Sato already played that card," Raiko said, gesturing to Asami. "If you recall, it's why you're even here in the first place."
Asami curled her lips into a frown. "I can use it more than once, and you're fresh out of leverage."
"Enough of this bickering," said Izumi, raising her voice. "This isn't relevant to the problem at hand."
Keisai nodded to her. "My thoughts...exactly. Mr. President, it looks like you're just trying to scapegoat Kuvira. The way she's been treated doesn't do much in your favor. Now, you must be Miss Sato?" he said, looking to Asami.
"Miss Sato, I'm a citizen of the Fire Nation. Fortunately I was abroad when the terrorist attacks transpired, but do you know what I came home to, apart from carnage?"
Asami frowned. "I'm assuming this is rhetorical-"
"My office, along with ten blocks of the Fire Nation capitol-"
"-and he cuts me off-"
"-is gone." He drummed his fingers on the table again, looking from one face to the next before returning his attention to Asami. "So, let's talk defense system. There are thirty thousand casualties, and the pillars were supposed to prevent that. Tell us what went wrong."
"Nothing. At least, nothing that wasn't expected."
"Miss Sato, if I'm expected to help, I need you to be detailed and use layman's terms," Keisai said pinching the bridge of his nose. "Work with me."
Asami scoffed. "I haven't said anything that was even remotely technical. In fact, I haven't said anything at all because you just got here. And I'm starting to wonder how you know all of this since Varrick called you today."
"I admit I'm not that good," the lawyer said, the mischief back in his eyes. "Varrick's had me on standby for…well, a while. How long has it been?"
Varrick shrugged. "Since the attack on the Sato Estate?"
"No, the invoices go back further."
"Since we caused that city-wide panic," Zhu Li said. "Experiment number 2501, I believe. Though when you wanted to hire a lawyer, I assumed you meant in the event the city chose to press charges on that."
Izumi massaged her temples. "Unbelievable. Mr. Sabad, this isn't the time for friendly conversation; as you said, thirty thousand lives were lost. Miss Sato, if you wouldn't mind continuing?"
"Of course." Asami cleared her throat. "The defense system we designed isn't faulty. In fact, it worked exactly as designed. When the energy came within range, the system kicked in and diverted it back into the Spirit World. However, what you and the rest of the world leaders most likely failed to realize was that a Spirit Bomb and a Spirit Beam are not the same thing. The beam is a directional weapon. Minimal collateral damage, and once it gets in range of a pillar, that's the end of it. A bomb, however, is omnidirectional. If it doesn't detonate right on top of a pillar there will be collateral damage. In this case, the goal is not to save every life, as morbid as that sounds."
"I can understand that," Izumi said. "But I'm afraid you're proving our point, Miss Sato. You're the mastermind behind the defense system, and you therefore know its limitations better than anyone else."
"I do," Asami said. "And its purpose is to limit casualties as much as possible. Considering the placement of the pillar that absorbed the explosion, I estimate that my defense system may have saved your entire city. Five million people. You wouldn't even be here, Fire Lord Izumi."
Izumi narrowed her eyes. "You've missed the point."
"I haven't. I'm simply stating a fact. More people, millions more, would have died. Today, they didn't."
"I love limited casualties as much as the next person," Keisai said, "but I don't like where this is going-"
"Miss Sato, you are responsible for this destruction," Izumi said. "Your engineer constructed the defense system itself, and Baatar pioneered spirit weapon technology. You and your team are the most likely culprits behind the attack. No one else would know the limitations of the defense system well enough to cause damages of this magnitude."
"Fire Lord Izumi," Keisai said, inclining his head. "Miss Sato and company were brought in by President Raiko because he thought he was misled. If you'll let me prove-"
"I was misled," Raiko said firmly. "We saw the demonstration, and the defense pillars did not work as they did outside of testing."
"I'm sorry," Keisai said, his voice sharp as he pulled a folder from his case and thumbed through it. "The defense pillars didn't work as they did outside of testing… how were they tested exactly?"
"I told you, I saw the demonstration," Raiko said. "Miss Sato fired a spirit blast and the defense pillars engaged, with virtually no damage-"
"What kind of blast?" the lawyer said, finding the page he had been searching for and laying the file flat on the table.
"A spirit blast! Like the ones responsible for the casualties!" Raiko exploded. "I was made to understand that there were limitations, but if this is the capacity of of the defense pillars, Miss Sato vastly overrated them, and that in itself is a criminal offense in a time like this. Especially if she had a hand in the attacks."
"I think my client was a bit more specific in her report regarding the limitations of her technology," Keisai said, jabbing a finger at the page. "Remember, she just explained to all of us that a spirit beam isn't the same as a spirit bomb. Which did she use in the demonstration, Mr. President?"
"In the demonstration? A beam, if I recall correctly," Raiko said, frowning. "But then we were misled to think that the pillars were safe to use! The damages caused by the spirit bombs were not displayed."
"Because you felt that part of the demonstration was irrelevant," Asami pointed out. "It was included in the report, but you only wanted to see the beam, since that's what took out most of downtown."
"Yes, the report," Keisai said. "Thank you, Miss Sato. Mr. President, I have with me a copy of the report Miss Sato sent you. If you look at the section I've highlighted, it's effectively what we all heard today-the bombs are omnidirectional. According to this alone, the pillars did their job."
"The report," Raiko said, bending over the file, "indicated an estimated one hundred thirty casualties for an area with a population density of fifteen thousand people per square mile. What of it? We already knew this."
"It's easier when you look at statistics," the lawyer said, his voice unnervingly quiet. "Do the math, Mr. President. If you look at the casualties per square mile post-attack, it come to one hundred fifty. You weren't misled."
"Yes," Asami said, relief in her voice. "Exactly-"
"You hear 'thirty thousand' and suddenly it looks like a gross underestimation," Keisai continued, raising his voice, "but it's not much higher than the projected numbers. The destruction of the capitol makes it all look a lot worse too, doesn't it?"
"Fine," Raiko said. "Even if the world leaders, myself and Fire Lord Izumi included, misunderstood how the spirit weapons operate, that's not enough to absolve these people of guilt. Even the Avatar is potentially an accessory to these crimes. A valid point was raised. It looks more and more like Miss Sato is behind the attacks."
Asami awkwardly held Korra back in her seat.
"You're right," Keisai said, "but the simultaneous bombing of Omashu, combined with what I have here, ought to be enough for you to drop your charges."
The room was silent. Korra's jaw dropped, Asami went pale, Baatar's eyes bulged in their sockets, and Kuvira's face went slack. Even Varrick looked profoundly affected.
"What?" Keisai said crossly. "You didn't know? Omashu was bombed. Literally simultaneously."
Izumi gravely nodded.
Lin poked her head in through the broken door. "It's been on the radio for about half an hour."
"Well, why didn't you say something earlier?!" said Korra.
"It's not my job to keep you people up to date on the world!" She pivoted back into the hallway. "I'm just the one guarding the hallway because someone is having trust issues with his security detail."
"So, no one here is well-informed," Keisai said, shaking his head and thumbing through a different file, carefully selecting the papers he needed. "Mr. President, I can tell this is a bit of shock to you-"
"Of course it's a shock!" sputtered Raiko. "The United Forces liberated Omashu not even a week ago! We had defense pillars in place!"
"And they worked," Lin called from the hall. "General Iroh isn't dead, he made the report himself."
Keisai cleared his throat. "Correct, Chief. That's not what I was going for, though. I hope you recognize that Future Industries and Varrick Industries International couldn't have had a hand in these acts of terror," he said, as if the outburst had never happened. "There is virtually zero Future Industries presence in the Earth Kingdom, outside of shipping facilities and personnel. Varrick Industries International was also forced to abandon the local factories after Varrick defected. I have copies of the records detailing the locations of employees and mech, if we actually take this thing to court. More telling is apprehension of a suspect in the bombing with no ties to either company. A third of the city is gone-"
"A third?"Baatar exclaimed.
Asami stared off into space. "That's...over two hundred thousand people."
"Yes," Keisai said. "The damage to the Fire Nation pales in comparison. May I continue?"
Kuvira clenched her jaw. "All this, just after its liberation."
"I get that this is upsetting." the lawyer said. "But frankly, the longer you all spend processing each new bit of information I tell you does nothing. We're at the part that requires all of you alleged terrorists to be a bit selfish. I think it's clear who was behind this."
"The Red Lotus." Korra supplied. "It has to be them. You've called this a terrorist act at least three times, and they're the only organization with the manpower to pull this thing off."
"Thank you, Avatar Korra," the lawyer said, inclining his head. "Yes, I have very good reason to believe the Red Lotus is behind this. And it not only means the city, all major cities, really, are in danger, but... " He trailed off. "I think you see where this is going."
"Mr. Sabad, if we have to admit, right here and now, that this attack was orchestrated by the Red Lotus, we have to move forward with the knowledge that no one is safe," Raiko said. "They can, and will, strike at any time, in any place, and there is no way to stop them once a Spirit Bomb is armed. We would be entering an age of paranoia and fear. So for the time being, I believe we should consider that our worst case scenario, if you can prove it."
Keisai snapped his fingers. "Yes, the proof. For the past year, spirit vines have been disappearing from your city, Mr. President. You were able to apprehend the triads in the smuggling process. Did you ever follow up on the people responsible for the actual theft?"
"No, but my detectives did. And I assume you think you've found something they've missed?"
"Not assume," Keisai said evenly. "Never assume. There are three possibilities here. The first is that random criminals were responsible, and just wanted access to a few hundred yuans. We know that's impossible; the dangers associated make that much obvious. The second is that Earth Empire loyalists were behind this; but it was established early on that Kuvira's agents were more preoccupied with kidnapping Prince Wu, not devising smuggling routes. Your Chief of Police herself determined that lead to be a dead end."
"Because it was a dead end," said Lin, her voice echoing in through the hall.
He pulled another sheet of paper from his folder. "Kuvira had a report on the topic. Found it in the archives as soon as I was granted access, actually." He glanced at Kuvira sympathetically. "Evidently people found your report boring as mud, sweetheart."
"Stop calling me that."
Keisai shrugged, and Raiko waved for him to continue. "So your third alternative is the Red Lotus, then. How, exactly?"
"The triads were ignorant of what they were being used for, but that actually worked to our advantage," Keisai explained. "See, every higher-up was killed, but it's impossible to hide every person's background in an operation of this magnitude. I did a bit of investigating, and after my research into the criminal background of a few members I found the Red Lotus link I was looking for. Mr. President, you might recall that Zaheer had a shady history before he joined the organization. A significant number of apprehended members of the organization are former criminals. Here," he said, pointing to one of the papers. "There's your link, and I've had it for weeks. Who else could feasibly steal spirit vines and create weapons from them? No other organization has the capacity, or the leadership, or the motive. These people are the wrong targets for a legal battle."
Raiko gritted his teeth. "And I suppose you just found all this out today? That's very efficient, almost unbelievably so."
"As we established, I've been on retainer for Varrick for quite some time." He smiled. "I'm glad you appreciate my efficiency all the same. But the point is," Keisai said, jabbing the file at Raiko, "you don't have a case, Mr. President. And if you still don't think it's the Red Lotus-"
"No, I see your point," Raiko said. "No other organization has the logistical capability to launch a simultaneous attack like this. It's the Red Lotus, we have to accept that."
"I'm glad we agree," Keisai said. "And I'll be even more glad if you agree that handcuffed are now free to go. Fire Lord Izumi, with all due respect, I assume you also will be dropping the charges which puts this case in the hands of the national department of defense. It would, of course, be an honor to assist."
She nodded. "Duly noted. Thank you."
"If we're going to move forward from this, we have to take the fight to them," Raiko said decisively. "Go on the offensive. We need to stop assuming that snuffing out the Red Lotus is impossible. We need to stop these terrorists before they destroy anything else, or there won't be a world left to live in. I don't care what it takes. We're going to wipe them out, and destroy any and all knowledge of this weaponry. By any means necessary. We'll lie to the public, burn documents-we will not succumb to fear tactics."
"So, just to confirm," Keisai said, holding up a finger, "you're dropping charges, correct? I need that explicitly stated… in writing."
"Yes," Raiko said irritably. "Yes, Chief Beifong will handle that. Thank you."
"Excellent," Keisai said, smiling. He paused on his way to the door, regarding Artana curiously. "You know, I still don't know your name, and I just gave you the next best thing to an ironclad legal defense. Name's Keisai Sabad," he added, sticking out his hand. "And you are?"
"Artana Kuze. Thank you for the assistance," she said bluntly.
"Guess that's my cue to leave," Keisai said, returning the papers to his case. "Everyone, you're welcome. Varrick, we'll be in touch. It's been a pleasure." He shook hands with Raiko and Izumi before stepping through the giant tear in the door, the twinkle of mischief back in his eyes and all the composure of a man who had enjoyed himself.
Lin slipped into the room and began unlocking the handcuffs, starting with Baatar. "You know, I've worked with a lot of lawyers in my time." She moved on to Asami, skipping Kuvira entirely until she looped back around. "But Varrick couldn't have found a more perfect man for his legal representation."
Varrick grinned. "What was the first thing I said when he walked in the door? That he was the best. Told you so."
"He loves the sound of his voice," Asami said, massaging her wrists. "But you're right about one thing; he's very good. I believe we're done with all of this, yes?" she asked, gesturing to the room in general, while everyone else was already leaving.
Korra shook her head. "I actually have something to talk to Raiko about."
Asami raised a brow. "You want to fill me in?"
Korra looked over at the broken door and whispered into Asami's ear. "...if that's all right, of course. I just think it's-"
Asami held out her palm in a placating gesture. "No, I understand the intent. If you think it's best then...well, then that's what you should do. She would certainly be more effective than I would be."
"That's not what I meant, Asami."
"I know. Just thinking out loud. I'm going to call for a car and meet you outside." She gave Fire Lord Izumi a short bow. "Fire Lord Izumi, good to see you again."
Izumi gave her a small nod. "You as well."
"Raiko. Thank you for wasting my time," grunted Asami, stomping out of the office.
Asami turned the corner outside of Raiko's office, and was immediately approached by Artana.
"Asami, may I speak with you for a moment?" she asked.
"Of course. What is it?"
"With everything that's happened today, I feel that there should be more research put into countering the Spirit Vines. I know as well as you do that the current defense system we have can't be improved upon in any meaningful way, so we have to expand."
Asami crossed her arms. "...in what way, exactly?"
"By eliminating the problem at its source. Making the spirit vines dormant. Non-reactive to electrical currents."
Asami sighed heavily. As helpful as that day in the swamp had been, it had also been just as equally discouraging. She'd dreaded having to go into detail on the matter, because it was, in her eyes, a total failure on her part. For the moment, at least. "I'm sorry, but making the vines dormant isn't feasible. I'm not even sure if it's possible, for the foreseeable future. The Spirit Vines bind this world and the Spirit World together, and severing that connection...there's no way to know what that could do to us. Those vines are one of the foundations of life itself."
"I understand that, but entering an era of fear and paranoia, where generation after generation will have to live with the knowledge that civilization could be destroyed at any given moment...don't you think that's worse? A living nightmare?"
"One could, and probably will, have catastrophic consequences to our very perception of reality. The other would be...the end of the world, or rather living in fear of that. The latter is a better alternative. We're not in a good position, I understand that, but at this point, our only real option is what Raiko suggested. We eradicate the Red Lotus and any and all knowledge of how Spirit Vines work."
Artana frowned. "You can't destroy knowledge once it exists. It's impossible."
Asami shrugged. "Artana, in the past five years, I have witnessed the impossible happen time and time again. Nothing is impossible. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone. At this point, it may as well be synonymous with 'impossible, for now'." She smiled sadly. "So, even if it is insane to attempt to prove one of the fundamental laws of human history wrong, by killing an idea, we still have to try. Even if we fail, we have to try."
Artana crossed her arms and nodded slowly. "Very well."
I appreciate you sharing your concerns, but the truth of the matter is that this is really our only option moving forward. Was there anything else?"
"No. That was all I needed."
"I have to admit," said Rako, reorganizing a few papers on his desk. "I didn't expect you to be so...amenable to this idea. Let alone to be the one to suggest it."
Korra crossed her arms. "Zaheer is the only real connection we have to the Red Lotus, and after what they did today..." She frowned intensely. "I'm done waiting to see what they're going to do next. He's involved, I just know it."
"I just don't see how this is feasible," said Izumi. "In the past several years, we attempted more extreme methods of interrogation-"
"You mean torture."
Raiko nodded. "Yes. Torture. On Zaheer, but he became catatonic the moment it started. Every single time. We believe he's escaping the ordeal by entering the Spirit World, but that's not something we can counteract."
Korra raised a brow. "...could his friends enter the Spirit World, too?"
"We didn't torture them when they were first in prison," said Izumi. "It was a...different time."
"You didn't want to set a bad example."
"That must have been the idea," grumbled Raiko. "Korra, if you can find some way to block him from going to the Spirit World, you can leave the rest to us."
"Don't worry, I'll find a way. This isn't something I'm gonna hesitate about."
"Good. And good luck."
"Thanks. Sorry about your door."
"Mmmm, no. I said I was sorry, not filled with regret." She tapped her chin. "Oh, and one last thing." She narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm taking Kuvira with me."
"Something like that."
Opal sighed and looked at her wedding ring. "I know this is probably one of the most self-absorbed things to say right now, but..." She leaned back in their booth at Narook's pouted. "It's just not fair that the day he proposes is the same day of the single worst terrorist attacks in history! That's it! There it is! I said it! Now, every single time this date rolls around, if I want to celebrate it, it has to be somber and respectful of the dead. Instead of being about us." She said gesturing between her and Bolin.
Bolin frowned. "And not only that, but Varrick already pre-paid for the wedding. Two years ago."
Asami raised a brow. "What? How could he have known that you'd finally propose now?"
"He didn't. He just booked the band, the caterer, and everything else every three weeks. Just in case."
Korra snorted. "Wow. That's both crazy and generous."
"Tell me about it," said Opal. "It gives us barely enough time to even prepare on our own! Two weeks notice for friends and family is a bit...well, inconsiderate."
"Didn't Varrick pull a wedding out of thin air in, what, three days?" said Mako.
Asami nodded. "Three days exactly."
Bolin smiled. "See? Nothing to worry about. Everybody made it there in time, and I should know since I officiated. Well, me and Pabu."
Opal raised a brow. "Which was only possible because half the world was coming in town already to help with relief efforts, remember?"
"Riiiight. That's a good point. I'm sure everyone will manage okay, though."
Korra drummed her fingers on the table. "Speaking of friends and family, who's going to officiate your wedding?"
"Can it please not be Varrick?" asked Asami. "He's not that bad, but this is your wedding we're talking about. You only get shot at making it great. Typically."
Bolin raised a brow. "You really thought I'd give him that honor? We're good friends, but we're not brothers." He gestured to Mako. "Y'know, because we're brothers-"
Mako smiled, wide as can be. "I got it, Bo. You asked me this morning, remember?"
"Yeah, but Korra and Asami didn't know that, and you're obviously going to be my best man. And also officiate it. And lots of other jobs-Mako, honestly, that job is not easy. I had to do like a thousand things."
"I think I'll manage."
Zaheer sat in a lotus, his raggedy grey robe feeling out of place within the bright and lively green and purples of that particular area of the Spirit World. But, it wasn't as if he could get better clothing. As free as he was when not bound to his body, he was still bound in platinum chains. Hundreds of feet underground. But that was all right. He'd been rewarded for his patience once before. He could wait, if it was necessary.
A hooded figure materialized in front of him.
"You can take off the cloak. It's redundant."
"It's not. The Spirit World is more accessible than ever. Anyone could be watching."
"Very well." Zaheer sighed. "Any news?"
"She's coming. I trust I don't need to remind you of your role in this?"
Zaheer sat up straighter. "No." He smirked. "I remember it perfectly."