Boiling Point, Part I
Leaping headfirst into the fire was never the best idea, but in this case, there weren't any other options.
Part 4 - Faith and Pragmatism
Section 8: "Boiling Point, Part I"
"Blocking someone from entering the Spirit World," mused Kuvira. "Is that even possible?"
Korra rested her head on her hand, leaning back in their speedboat as it raced along the narrow river, the mountainside flashing by beside them. "I don't know." She rubbed her eyes with her palm and stared straight ahead. "Maybe. I don't want it to come to that."
Kuvira put the boat into a slight turn, following the path of the river. The water splashed against the bow, barely skimming the surface as it sped along. "It most likely will, and you must have some ideas. Otherwise, you wouldn't be attempting this at all."
"I know, and I do. It's just one of those things that shouldn't be done. Like taking someone's bending away."
"...or an airbender suffocating a woman with the air from her own lungs?"
"I was referring to the Earth Queen."
"Oh. Right, okay. Yeah, exactly like that, then."
"Zaheer has very little left to fear. If you intend to break him, show him just how far you're willing to go. Show him you're willing to go further than he can comprehend."
Korra rubbed her arm. "He can...comprehend a lot. I had more metal in me than I had blood, you know."
Kuvira stiffened. "That should have killed you."
"He said the same thing." Korra looked up and spotted the rough outline of the massive temple door in the distance. "All right, that's it up there. Remember, you're here to make sure he doesn't get into my head. He's got a nasty habit of doing that to people, me especially. So if I start to act funny, or lose focus, you beat him half to death. That should set me straight."
"I don't think it's possible for me to have forgotten that. Don't worry, Avatar. There is no single person I hate more than him."
Korra looked out over the boat and stared into the reflection of the full moon. "Yeah." She looked up at the sky, the wind billowing through her hair. "Same."
The temple was old. Ancient. Kuvira had no idea who had built it, or for what purpose, but it was most certainly not the White Lotus. They eyed her suspiciously as she walked through the massive doors behind Korra, and she elected to ignore them entirely.
The green crystals reminded her of the catacombs beneath Ba Sing Se, and she idly wondered if they had been transported there, or if they were naturally occurring in the western part of the continent. Still, despite the nostalgia they brought, she felt a sense of unease. She'd trapped over a dozen Dai Li agents in those catacombs, years ago. And with the Dai Li, things were never as they appeared.
The moment Kuvira stepped into the elevator she felt blind. Pure platinum.
The doors closed in front of them, and she noticed Korra's breathing becoming more controlled. Overcompensating for the anxiety she must have been feeling. Not that she could blame her for that. Even bound in chains, Zaheer was not to be underestimated.
Though, she noted, it would be interesting to truly confirm that he was indeed capable of flight.
"He's gonna be in chains," said Korra. "Wrists, ankles, waist. Platinum, all bolted to a large, round metal plate on the floor."
"Which is also platinum."
"Exactly. He's not immobile, though. He has some range of movement, but not enough to do that much." She gave her a sidelong glance. "No matter what happens, do not hit the chains. Knowing him, he'd find a way to escape if we make the smallest of mistakes. If we even breath wrong he could---"
"Korra," Kuvira said sternly. "Focus on what you came here to do. He's powerful, but he's barely relevant anymore. He's just a man, and he will never be more than that."
Korra blinked and shook out her head. "Just...don't take your eyes off of him. Not even for a moment."
The doors slid open and they stepped outside, the feel of earth underfoot returning to her. There was a second platinum door in front of them. Odd. Another elevator?
The White Lotus grounded their feet and began metalbending the chains, which lifted the unbendable door with a steady creak. It locked into place with a loud thunk.
"Approach the wall," ordered one of the sentries.
Kuvira looked to Korra, who nodded in consent. They did as they were told, and the door was soon sealed behind them. Ah. A security gate. The wall in front of them began to rise, and more green light flowed in through the ever growing crack. As soon as it rose past her eyes, she saw him.
Floating in mediation, his hair long and unkempt. He was at peace. At peace in prison. She clenched her hands into fists, trying to make sense of it. Her own time in prison had been anything but peaceful.
"I had a feeling I'd see you again," said Zaheer, neglecting to open his eyes. He tilted his head. "But not her. Never her."
Korra frowned and stepped forward. "Well, then surprise. Now, listen up, because here's how this is going to go. We're going to ask you some questions. Then, you're going to answer them."
"I don't think you understand the situation. You're at the end of your rope." He opened his eyes. "The Red Lotus beat you, and you're backed into a corner with nowhere else to go. This conversation is on my terms, because I have something you want."
Korra grunted. "No, it's on my terms," she said, pointing to the ground. "You do have something we want. Information about your friends. What they're planning, where they are, how many of you there are out there."
"Dozens have tried and failed before you, Avatar Korra. You can't win. No matter how much pain you cause my physical body, my spirit remains free and untethered."
Korra took a few steps closer to him. "Yeah, I know that. And I know why they failed; it's exactly why I won't."
"And why is that?"
"Because I can block you from entering the Spirit World."
Silence rang in the air as Zaheer stared down at her, blankly. Then, he erupted into a burst of laughter, which Korra responded to with a half-hearted scowl. Angry and embarrassed, a dangerous combination. Kuvira had seen what could happen when the avatar was provoked enough firsthand.
Zaheer scoffed. "Really? That's the best you could do? Avatar Korra, we both know that, even if such a thing were possible, you'd never inflict that kind of harm to a person. You've had your bending taken away. How is this any different?"
Korra jabbed a finger at him. "Because---well, you deserve it! You and your friends just wiped out 230,000 people like it was nothing. I can't let you get away with that. Someone has to pay, and you're here, so it may as well be you."
"Maybe so, but then if you did do what I think you're planning to do, you'd be no better than Amon, or myself."
"I…" Korra bristled. "You have no idea what I'm planning."
Kuvira frowned and circled around to his back, slowly extending her cables into her hands.
"Does it matter? You're uncertain. You don't know if you can go through with---"
Kuvira jerked her head to the side in a sharp gesture. "Korra. Focus."
Korra gave her a small nod and crossed her arms. "You know what? You're right. It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Know why? Because you are the exception for so many of my own rules, Zaheer. I'd kill you if I could, but that would only come back to bite me. I'd be seen as judge, jury and executioner. Mad with power. But I'm not gonna do that for another reason; it's too good for you. It really is. You deserve so much worse, so here's what I'm going to do to you, if you don't start talking." She cracked her knuckles.
Zaheer sneered. "Break every bone in my body? I already told you that won't work."
Kuvira wordlessly extended the cables, wrapping them around his chest and shoulders before jerking him to the ground. "Korra, get to the point."
Korra nodded. "You're right, this is a waste of time. Zaheer, do you know what kind of night it is?" she said, yanking his hair so he looked at her. "It's a full moon."
Zaheer blinked. "You're bluffing. You're not a bloodbender."
"I'm a healer. I know how the body works, and bloodbending, on principle, isn't difficult. Blood is mostly water. An open wound is no more straining than a mud puddle. The hard part is controlling it when it's inside someone. When it's flowing. And I have no intention of doing that today."
Kuvira tightened the cables.
"I don't need to. Not to break you." Korra frowned. "I'm going to destroy your seventh chakra." She pulled him in so that they were nose to nose. "Yeah. I'm going to rip out your inner peace and make it impossible for you to ever achieve it again. You will be unable to fly. You will be stuck here, in the material world, and even if you leave right now, because you think that I can't drag your spirit back here to finish the job; think again." Her eyes burned white. "I can. And I will."
Zaheer stared at her for a long moment. "You won't."
"No matter how sure you are of that…" Her eyes returned to normal. "Is it really worth the risk?"
They stared one another down for what seemed like an eternity. Two immovable objects, refusing to back down. Looking into the void and refusing to blink. That is, until one did.
"No." Zaheer closed his eyes and sighed. "The Boiling Rock."
Kuvira frowned, loosening her grip. "Elaborate."
Zaheer coughed. "That's our base of operations. It has been since the very beginning."
Korra narrowed her eyes and grabbed his chin. "Keep talking."
Asami rolled her shoulders. The airburst suit was a bit heavier than she'd imagined it would be, but not overly so. The miniaturized turbofan hung on her back as she adjusted to the weight and feel of the suit. It was almost perfectly balanced, though the extra bulk would take some getting used to.
Baatar slotted the last plate of body armor on to her chest, locking it in place. "Hopefully we can cut down on the weight for the production model, but this should give us a good baseline. Does everything feel in order?"
Asami turned her neck from left to right, surveying her bombed out test track, which had been since been repurposed for weapons testing. She touched her toes and stretched from side to side. "Minimal limitation of movement, but with your alterations that was expected." She twisted her waist. "It's nothing I can't adapt to. I think we're good to start testing."
Baatar nodded and jogged over to the mover camera, which Zhu Li was already operating. "All right. Zhu Li?"
Zhu Li nodded.
Asami cleared her throat. "Day 1, test number 1-01 of configuration 2.5, Future Industries prototype designation M-233 'Penshe'." She walked over to the edge of the flat grid testing area. "For the control test, I'm going to sprint one hundred feet." Asami took a small breath and sprinted to the other side of the grid, skidding to a slightly awkward stop due to the weight of the suit.
"That's about 30 feet per second!" called out Baatar. He scribbled in his notebook. "Let's start off with 10% thrust capacity."
Asami nodded and locked the suit at 10% using the gauge on her forearm. "Locked. Engaging in three, two, one---" She took off in a sprint and felt the turbofan kick in almost immediately, propelling her forward along with the air thrusters placed along the suit. She overshot the edge of the grid slowed to a stop. "Woah."
"40 feet per second."
Asami raised a brow and flexed her hands. Just as she'd hoped, the suit had very intuitive controls, though one did need an extreme amount of control over their own body in order to operate it properly. "I could easily handle more." She bounced on the balls of her feet and jabbed in front of her a few times, her strikes hitting just a bit faster than usual. She spun and kicked the air, and it was nearly effortless.
Asami disengaged the safeties. "I had something a little more exciting in mind."
Baatar looked between her and the rather elaborate obstacle course. It, apparently, was based on the type the Earth Empire had used to train their elite metalbenders, crossed with some of her father's old Equalist training camps and even a few ancient airbender regimens. Combined, it was something else entirely. Absurdly high walls, platforms at every angle imaginable, a 'live fire' area designed for range, and several steel walls one was supposed to bend through.
"Asami, we still have dozens more tests to run before---"
"I'm aware." Asami walked over to the weapons table beside them and pulled on her harness. Two electrified blades, which doubled as fans. "We need this deployed as soon as possible. The Red Lotus aren't going to give us a chance to consolidate or prepare." She drew both blades, expanding one into a fan. They crackled with lightning. "They think we're running scared, and I want to be ready when we show them we're not."
Kuvira was silent until the checkpoint door sealed behind them. It had been easy. Far too easy, and surely Korra knew that. The Red Lotus didn't break. It was almost an absolute. Exceptions were possible, but Zaheer? Impossible.
"We're being lead into a trap."
Korra scowled at the floor. "Yeah, I figured that out. Doesn't matter, though. An ambush can work both ways. They hit us, we hit them harder. We wipe them out."
Kuvira nodded. She didn't doubt that the Avatar was capable of performing such a reversal, but at the same time, she wasn't sure if that was best course of action. Wiping out their opposition would leave zero subjects for interrogation, and leave zero leads to other Red Lotus bases. Then again, with the Avatar, anything was possible. For better or worse.
"Is Zaheer your only exception?" asked Kuvira.
"Your rules." The ruthlessness Korra had displayed seemed at odds with the Avatar's philosophy in general.
"Yes. What I was willing to do…" She balled her hands into fists. "Just him."
"And if we capture the base commander?"
"Was hoping you'd take care of that."
Kuvira raised a brow and tilted her head. "You'll need to get authorization from Raiko. This is already outside my jurisdiction."
"Trust me. That won't be a problem."
Mako scanned the growing crowd of the press conference from his position below the stage. Thousands of reporters and civilians alike had gathered outside City Hall, and due to the recent bombings, security needed to quite a bit tighter. Every major news publication had shown up, even those from the Fire Nation and the Water Tribes.
Raiko adjusted his glasses and leaned over the podium. "...which is why I, with great regret, must suspend any and all plans to integrate Jingdao into the United Republic due to these recent attacks. I'm confident that, once this Red Lotus threat is vanquished once and for all, we can return to these talks, but until such a time is upon us, I cannot in good conscience allow a mass migration of individuals on what amounts to the honor system."
A few hundred flashbulbs exploded at once, and the crowd erupted into a chaos of questions and desperate pleas. "Please leave all questions until the end of the conference!" he shouted. It didn't help, but it was protocol.
"However, I can report that we are doing everything we can to snuff out these terrorists so we can bring them to justice for these atrocities. The United Republic is working closely with the Fire Nation, as well as Avatar Korra, on this matter, and we will not rest until the world is safe..."
Mako blinked a few times as the flashbulbs kept going off. And didn't stop. They just kept popping, but if he did his math right, that wasn't possible. There were only so many cameras in the crowd, and even less close enough to actually affect his vision. So they couldn't be getting good exposure, which meant that they were either terrible photographers or---
It was a distraction.
Mako frantically searched the crowd for some sort of disturbance, shielding his eyes with this forearm. He locked eyes...Two Toed Ping?! He was covered in flop sweat and shaking, eyes pleading. As he waded his way through the crowd, Mako saw, for a split second, a purple glow around his collar.
"Bomb!" he yelled, sprinting into the crowd. They scattered in a panic, thousands of feet scrambling away from the conference at once. The other officers dragged and practically threw Raiko into a satomobile, which screeched off down the street to relative safety. Mako managed to grab hold of Ping who was standing in the center of a pile of spent flashbulbs.
Ping pushed Mako away and held up his hands. "This wasn't my idea! Mako, you gotta believe me, they took me off the street into some alley and put this thing on me!" He pointed to a few odd bulges on his jacket. "Listen, you gotta run. Get outta here! Get everyone outta here!"
"Ping, I can't do that. Calm down and hand over the bomb."
"Believe me, would if I could, it's really heavy, but they bolted this damn thing to me!"
Mako's eyes widened. "Show me."
"Uh, Mako, remember how---"
Ping quickly unbuttoned his jacket and chuckled anxiously. Rigged onto him was some sort of mechanical vest, wires splaying out in every direction, and a glowing purple cylinder over his right breast. And it was padlocked to him. "See? No dice!"
"Stay calm. And don't move. I need to see what kind of bomb this is." Mako quickly followed the wiring with his hands, sticking his arms into the jacket. Latch, latch, dummy wiring, redundancy...transmitter! He snapped it off and tossed it on to the street. "Okay, they had this rigged with a radio detonator, but they can't use that now." He turned around and waved his hand through the air. "I need a metalbender!"
Lin landed next to him not a moment later and bent down over the vest. "Platinum padlock, broken tumblers." She gestured to the rest of Ping. "The whole damn thing is platinum. It's already glowing, so---"
Mako flicked his fingers into a blowtorch. "Not enough time to get the proper tools. I can cut through this." He started on the first lock, focusing his chi on a single point to burn as hot as he could. "Nearest defense pillar?"
"Intersection, two blocks south. Just hand it off and we'll get this done."
The first lock clattered to the ground and Mako moved on to the second. "Ping, talk to me."
"About what?" sputtered Ping.
"Anything, just talk."
Ping twitched and hissed. "Well, that fire you're bending is really damn hot so how 'bout we keep the casual conversation to a minimum until you're done saving the city?"
The second lock snapped off and Mako carefully removed the bomb from the vest. It hummed louder and glowed brighter. "Uh huh."
Lin snatched the bomb up out of Mako's hands and fastened it to her belt. "Stay down." She shot her cables into the sides of the buildings on either side of the street and launched herself forward. She retracted one line, twisted, and slung it around the pillar as an anchor point. She swept up to the roof of the building it was on, rolled into a landing, and fluidly metalbent part of her armor to secure the bomb to the pillar.
She turned around, moving to leap off of the building, and the bomb exploded behind her, sending her flying back towards the courtyard, the heat of the blast burning her armor into her skin. She shielded her eyes from the blinding purple light, shot her cables into the stone and yanked herself back to the earth. She hit the ground hard, her body slamming straight into the concrete.
"Lin!" yelled Mako, sprinting over to her. He slid to a stop and bent down beside her. "Are you okay?" He extended his hand.
Lin swatted his hand away and frantically metalbent her smoking armor off. It clattered and hissed onto the street. "I'm fine. Just burned and bruised." She leaned back on her haunches, taking a few deep breaths as the burns painfully made their mark on her skin, and looked up to the sky.
A green flare, and below it a minorly scorched four-way intersection.
Lin sighed and used Mako to help herself up. "Nice job, kid. Would've been a real shame if I had to tie that triad moron to the pillar with the bomb." She raised a brow and looked around. "...where is he, anyway?"
"Threw him in the back of a paddy wagon. He should be down at the station by now." He looked over her shoulder. "...those look pretty bad. We should get you to a hospital."
Lin scoffed. "I told you, I'm fine. We've got medics back at headquarters."
"Medic. Headquarters. Now." She furrowed her brow. "A paddy wagon? Everyone should have been evacuated."
Mako shrugged. "They were, except that one---" He paled. "Oh no."
Lin growled. "Damnit! Which way did it---"
A fiery explosion a few blocks away tore through the air, and smoke rose from behind the buildings and entrenched vines. Lin pushed aside her pain and took off from Mako, sprinting down the street, shoving her way through the gathering crowd with a strained stumble, and into the scorched alleyway.
The police car was torn to pieces. The roof was wedged into the alley wall, glass shards all over, and bits of heated metal sizzled on the concrete. Rubber melted and a tire rolled its way toward her and the growing crowd of looky loos.
Mako sprinted up behind her and waved his arm in front of him, clearing some of the smoke and smog. He coughed and looked around at the gathering of people. "I'll put out the fire; you section this off."
Lin nodded and raised a tall divider wall from the concrete to shield the public eye from the crime scene. She winced as she felt the skin on her shoulder blades burn. Maybe she was hurt a little worse than she'd thought. Maybe. Probably not.
Mako went to work on putting out the fire, bending the flames up and out of the alleyway and into the sky. He cleared the smoke, transferring the heat with controlled circular motions, in much the same manner. "I think I see a body in there."
"Drag it out."
Mako crouched into the mangled remains of the cruiser, ducking below and around jagged hot metal. He emerged shortly after, dragging a lifeless body by the legs out the wreckage. He tore off the corpse's boots and counted the toes. Twelve. "It's Ping." He pinched his brow. "He probably knew something! Chief, I swear this will never happen again."
Lin stomped over to Ping's body and bent down beside the head. "Save it. No way you could have predicted this." She gestured to the front of the car. "Check the driver's seat. Looks like it crashed before it exploded."
Mako nodded and jogged up to the front.
Lin inspected Ping closer and smelled something...odd. Distinct. It was something she'd used a thousand times before, but couldn't quite place it. "...spider-rat poison?" she mumbled. She poked his cheek and drool slipped out of his lips---wait, not drool. Foam. "Mako! I don't think Ping died in the crash, or the explosion."
Mako walked back to her. "Nothing in the front. Well, what's left of it." He raised a brow. "What are you getting at?"
She pointed to the leaking foam. "Spider-rat poison. Either killed himself, because he was in on it, but that doesn't add up since he let us disarm the bomb…"
"Or he had a handler who took him out, using the police car as a cover."
Lin slowly rose to her feet and winced. "You remember anything about the driver?"
Mako nodded. "Yeah, actually. He looked kinda familiar."
"...and you thought he was a cop." She massaged her temples. "Any clue as to---"
Mako snapped his fingers. "Lee!"
"That doesn't help us. There are a million Lees."
"Right, but there's only one that works for the White Lotus on Air Temple Island."
Asami surged forward, expanding both blades into fans and blocking the flamethrowers on her flanks. She pivoted and sliced one in half, the frayed wiring sparking, and bursted into the second, diverting the flames with her fan, cutting off its power supply.
She checked the gauge as she moved on to the next part of the course. "50% capacity!" she yelled back to Baatar, bursting up and over a two-story wall and cutting a series of suspended steel pillars to pieces before hitting the ground. Pillars that were meant to be bent, of course.
"Don't go any higher," he replied over the intercom. "I don't want to burn out the prototype on the first test run."
Asami frowned, but knew he was right. It was exhilarating to be able to move so quickly, and so freely, but she did feel the pressure and strain on her body slowly build the further she pushed toward her natural limits. That, and she didn't want the to set herself on fire. She engaged the thruster locks and spun below a bolt of lightning, tossing her sword like a javelin into the power core of the unmanned Varrimech. It sputtered and fell on to its back with a hail of sparks.
Asami jumped on to its fallen chassis with a loud thump and pulled her blade from its chest. "I can feel it. Already have a few ideas on how to fix that, but for now I think it's time for a break." She sheathed her swords onto her back and turned off the turbofan. "And review the footage. Feels like the left side is overcompensating a little…" She slowed her breathing and jogged back over to the starting area, carefully stepping over broken machinery and piles of shredded metal along the way.
"It is," said Zhu Li, the telephone ringing in the background.
"That should be an easy adjustment."
"Asami, Mako just called. They need you back at the island."
Asami's eyes widened and she sprinted the rest of the way. She skidded to a stop, no longer losing her balance, and looked between Baatar and Zhu Li. "What? What happened?"
Baatar frowned. "Someone just tried to spirit bomb Raiko's press conference."
Artana slid open her door as she heard the procession of loud metal boots marching through the halls of the temple. She watched a scowling Chief Beifong, Mako and several other officers pass by her room in a rush, and out into to the grounds.
And they were dragging Lee, that incompetent man from the White Lotus, with them.
Her interest piqued, she followed behind them, genuinely confused as to why they'd need such a sizeable force. They didn't seem to care about her presence, though, so whatever was happening, she'd get to find out.
"What's going on?" she asked.
Chief Beifong looked over her shoulder. "This moron just tried to bomb Raiko's press conference. Allegedly."
Lee scoffed. "You people are crazy! I've been here all day!"
Artana narrowed her eyes at him. "...no. No, you haven't. We were supposed to play Pai Sho this morning, and you weren't here."
Mako raised a brow. "Can any of the other members of the White Lotus corroborate that?"
"I asked them to begin with."
Lee struggled in his cuffs. "Whatever happened to covering for friends!?"
Artana frowned. "We are not friends." She swallowed. "You said bombed, correct? Did you mean---"
Chief Beifong rolled her eyes and shoved Lee forward. "Ever try listening to the radio, Artana? Yes. Spirit bombed. Rigged some poor triad goon with a vest, then killed him when the bomb didn't go off."
"You're saying he's Red Lotus."
"It fits their profile."
"Him? But he's incompetent and clumsy and---" Artana raised her brows. "Foaming at the mouth."
Chief Beifong turned to see Lee in the middle of a seizure, his body contorting and shuddering wildly as white foam flowed out of his open mouth. He struggled violently and fell to the ground, spasming for a few moments before stilling entirely.
Mako knelt down to check his pulse. "Dead. And from the smell of it…" He wafted. "Same stuff as last time."
Artana pursed her lips. "Spider-rat poison."
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
Her shoulders slacked. "Kuvira issued small capsules of them to high security personnel, and during development of the Colossus, I was one of them. If ever we were to be captured by the enemy, we were ordered to bite down on them."
"Suicide." Chief Beifong's face twitched and her face blazed red in anger. "I hate terrorists."
Korra peeked out of the island tower window and watched Tenzin yell his head off at the Grand Lotus. She really couldn't blame him. In fact, if she wasn't otherwise preoccupied, she'd join him. How could they have been so careless to allow a member of the Red Lotus that close to the Air Nation?!
She set her jaw and closed the blinds. If she thought about it anymore, she'd punch the wall open and beat that moron up for his crap. With a water whip. For three hours.
"Avatar Korra?" said Raiko. "If you wouldn't mind?"
"Hm? Sure." Korra turned back to the meeting and walked up to the large table. Maps and blueprints of the Boiling Rock were strewn across it, along with documents detailing probable troop numbers and defense emplacements. "Maybe we should start without Mako."
Kuvira shook her head. "A bad decision. You risk miscommunication and confusion when you summarize proceedings to newcomers. Wait for him; everyone needs to be on the same page."
"That's a little extreme."
Bolin shrugged. "Better safe than sorry."
Opal raised a brow. "Yes, there's that, and also the fact that if we don't come back alive---"
"We will," interjected Korra.
"---then everyone will have come in town for nothing."
Asami pinched the bridge of her nose. "I am so sorry, Opal. Your wedding just seems like it's clouded in misfortune."
"Hopefully that means we won't have to deal with too much of that after we're married."
"I'm sure it does."
Mako opened the hatch in the floor and climbed up into the room. "Hey, sorry that took so long." He shut the hatch. "Lin really doesn't like hospitals."
Korra frowned. "Are her burns that bad? Like your arm?"
Mako shook his head. "Nah, not nearly that bad. If she'd waited too long, yeah, there'd be some permanent damage, but we dragged her there in time."
Bolin patted him on the back. "That's our newest savior of the city for ya!" He grinned at Raiko. "Hey, doesn't this remind you of---"
Raiko sighed. "Yes. You both saved my life. Thank you."
"That's all I wanted."
Mako raised a brow. "I was just doing my job, Bo."
"Since when is dealing with crazy bombs part of your job description?!"
"Since...six months ago?" he wondered aloud, looking to Asami.
"Around that long, yes. At least, that's when we printed those training manuals…"
Korra clapped her hands together. "Guys! Sorta big news!"
Kuvira cleared her throat. "I accompanied the Avatar on her visit to Zaheer's prison cell. To our surprise, the interrogation proved fruitful." Her eyes narrowed, and she folded her hands behind her back. "The Red Lotus is operating out of a long defunct maximum security prison. The Boiling Rock."
The room was silent.
Asami raised a brow. "...this is clearly a trap."
"We're aware. As Korra pointed out after the interrogation, an ambush can be subverted. If they strike, we counterattack and overwhelm them."
"But what if there's nothing there to begin with? If he was just lying?" asked Mako.
Kuvira smiled tightly. "Then we'll have lost nothing of value."
"Kuvira is going with you," said Raiko. "She has years of experience in this kind of warfare, and it would be a mistake to exclude her due to personal bias."
Asami crossed her arms. "Fine, but that doesn't mean we can take on an entire base on our own. We're capable, but we're not…" She gestured to Korra. "Six of Korra. Not even two!"
"Which is why you'll be joining an assault team that's already being mobilized, as opposed to this being a clandestine operation of your own creation." He pointed to the Boiling Rock on the map. "Commander Gisei of the United Forces will be leading an airborne assault comprised of three Satohawks." He tapped Republic City. "The first will be comprised of the six of you, attacking from the east."
Kuvira traced her finger from the most north eastern part of the United Republic to the Boiling Rock. "Commander Gisei's unit will be approaching from the northeast…." She moved over to the Fire Nation capital. "And a Special Forces unit from the Fire Nation will be joining us from the southwest. We'll hit them on three fronts. The boiling lake in the volcano's basin gives enough natural cover with the steam, so visibility will be poor. Preparation is key for this mission to succeed."
Korra cracked her knuckles and scowled. "When do we start?"
Asami checked her suit gauge and made her way to the front of the Satohawk, slipping into the gaps between the others. It made her uneasy being in an aircraft that she wasn't piloting, especially since she designed it. She looked out over the pilot's seat at the sea below, which was deceptively calm.
While she was thankful to be able to properly field test the suit personally, the closer they got to their destination, the more anxious she felt. She'd never been on an actual military operation before. Small scale skirmishes, yes. Even some organized resistance. But never to the level to which she was currently in. Kuvira and Bolin were well versed in it, however. Even Opal was, to some degree.
The rest of them were a little out of loop, but Bolin had assured them that they'd adapt just fine on the ride over. Multiple times. Probably his way of coping.
"Should be approaching visual range soon, miss," said the pilot.
Asami nodded. She checked her gauge again, probably for the tenth time inside the hour, and sighed. Everything was working. And why shouldn't it? She never settled for less than perfection. Even the fully militarized Satohawk that she was riding in was...frustratingly flawless.
Asami wiped her forehead and stared at the wall. It still sickened her. She made the weapons platform, even if she didn't personally make the weapons. The fan-blades, though, those she could stomach. Because those were for her, and she knew exactly where and when they'd be used.
"Hey," said Korra, putting a hand on her shoulder. "For what it's worth, I am pretty curious to see what that suit can do. Even if it's not under great circumstances."
Asami snorted. "It's why I'm even here. There's no way I could keep up without it, and no, don't try and assure me otherwise." She shrugged. "I know what my limits are."
Korra gave her a crooked grin. "Still not convinced you have any."
"Boiling Rock in visual range!" said the pilot. "Two minutes out!"
Asami looked through the canopy and caught sight of the other two Satohawks in the distance, all heading towards the rising pillar of impenetrable steam. "...say that again, once this is over," she whispered.
She held her breath as they approached. Closer and closer. The blindness was new to her. How were they supposed to defend themselves if they couldn't even see who they were fighting? When they came upon the edge of the volcano, her heart rate jumped.
They flew in easily enough, all of them silent. As if that would prevent the Red Lotus from finding them in the fog. They would. Even if it was impossible, they'd find a way. And then they cleared the thickest of it, and could finally make out the compound before them.
It was enormously expanded upon from the original schematics. An airstrip extended out into the boiling lake, and she could just make out tiny pilots mobilizing a squadron of biplanes. Anti-air lightning cannons were placed along the edges of the base, split between their three targets.
Flares shot into the sky. They'd been spotted.
Bolin's eyes bulged in their sockets. "Please tell me we have a plan for this."
"Shut off everything electrical! Twenty seconds!" said the pilot.
Asami blinked and immediately understood. She switched everything off, systematically and carefully, and looked out the window. Radios were off, and the military variants of the Satohawk should be immune…
The biplane squadron screamed through the air, swarming around all three Satohawks, slinging lightning and metal blades in rapid succession. The cannons shot long beams of lightning as well, peppering the air space with bright blue static. They banked from side to side, narrowly avoiding the barrage as it flew past them and into the fog beyond.
To the north east, she saw the command Satohawk begin to smoke. It took three direct hits to its belly and was rammed head on by a biplane, sending it hurtling it downward into the boiling lake in a smoldering mess of metal. She thought she could make out a few soldiers bailing out, but it didn't matter. They'd be boiled alive.
"Command Satohawk is down! Engaging electromagnetic pulse!" yelled the pilot.
"But we're---" said Mako.
Asami hushed him.
And then, just like that, the anti-air defenses stopped firing and the biplanes flew stopped attacking. They couldn't. Their weapons needed power.
Asami turned everything back on and took a deep breath. Almost there. Just a little more.
"All right, we're in the clear," said the pilot. Green light filled the cabin. "Get ready to go! Thirty---"
Shards of glass shattered through the canopy and sliced the pilot to pieces. He slumped forward in a bloody mess and the Satohawk started into a nose dive. The green light turned red and flashed madly, warning clarions sounding off.
Asami looked to Korra and her anxiety fell away. There wasn't any time for it. They needed to move. Fast. "It's the sandbender!" she yelled.
"He can bend glass?!" asked Kuvira.
"Yes! So keep your head down!" Asami tore the dead pilot from his seat and ducked beneath the controls, leveling off the Satohawk from memory alone. "Korra---"
Korra sprinted to the back of the Satohawk and slammed her fist against the emergency release button. The back ramp lowered and she looked back over her shoulder. "Land this thing! I'll give 'em a better target!" Her eyes ignited in white and she leaped out into the air around them.
Mako and Bolin pulled the hatch closed and Asami settled into the pilot's seat just in time to see Korra fly by in front of them, her hands and feet ablaze with fire. Vengeance. Asami pulled up on the stick, and the Satohawk strained to level off.
The instrument panels were damaged and the hydraulics were torn to shreds from the glass in the cockpit. Still, she held on with every ounce of strength she had, the controls unbearably heavy, and barely kept it steady. "Okay, this is gonna get bumpy!"
Asami made a beeline for the airstrip….which a team of tanks were converging on. Even if she could maneuver, she couldn't veer off course without exposing herself to where she was pretty sure the sandbender was, and there wasn't another landing zone close by. There was---oh. Right. Asami snorted and carefully reoriented the targeting reticule, her muscles burning from overexertion. She fired a barrage of lightning at the tanks, melting their armor and detonating their fuel tanks.
Asami set her jaw and banked to the side, lowering down as steadily as she could. "Hold on to something! It's not gonna be a smooth landing!"
Asami scowled as she brought the Satohawk down to the airstrip and slammed down on to the concrete, shattering the landing gear as it skidded across the ground. Metal screeched against hardened stone, the rotors digging into the earth and snapping, until they finally came to an uneasy stop, tossing them off of their feet.
Asami groaned to her feet, shaking out her arms. She looked back into the cabin. "Everyone okay?"
Mako picked himself up and dusted himself off. "We're good."
"Great! We're here!" She looked between them all. "...now what?"
Kuvira wrinkled her nose and clicked on her radio.
"...please respond. We've landed on the north side of the compound and have secured the area. We can't raise Commander Gisei. Requesting new orders from acting commanding officer."
Opal paled. "...I thought they were next in line."
"Avatar Korra was evidently expected to take up the mantle," said Kuvira, her voice sharp. "Since that won't be happening, which of you will assume the role of commander?"
"Why not you?" said Bolin. He held up his hands when the others stared in disbelief. "Hey, look, guys, I'm not the biggest fan of this either, but I worked with her for years---" He looked at Opal and winced. "---sorry, again. But she's perfect for the job! We need a military commander, and we have one. Right there."
Kuvira looked from each face to the next, as if she meant to gauge their reactions. "Thank you, Bolin. But it's not my call. Miss Sato?"
Asami shook her head, baffled. "What? No, that's a terrible---I run a business! Not a military!"
"That's not what I meant," said Kuvira. "This is your aircraft, and you'd be taking orders from me. I will be the first to admit that this situation is far from optimal. If anyone has any objections to my assuming authority, I want to hear them now. I won't step up if it isn't my place to do so."
Opal frowned. "Just do it already so we can get this over with. You get us home, safe and sound. If you can do that, I don't care how, just do it."
Asami sighed. "...as much as I hate to admit it, yeah. We came here to do a job. This is the only way it gets done."
Mako leaned closer to his brother, nudging his shoulder. "You're sure about this, Bo?"
"Yeah, absolutely! 90%! Mostly. Look, point is, we'll make it out fine." He gestured to Kuvira. "Right?"
Kuvira sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. "I will be the last person to instill false hope. We're in a dangerous situation, and survival may prove a more plausible goal than outright success." She paused. "Telling the troops won't help morale, but you all deserve full disclosure. I can't promise that we'll make it out unscathed. If you still want me to lead knowing that, I'll do it."
Opal groaned. "Just. Do it."
Mako nodded. "There's literally no one else who can."
Kuvira looked at them all a moment longer and seemed to steel herself before entering the cockpit. "This is your new commander speaking," she said over the intercom, her voice steady and resolute. "This is Kuvira."