Notes: At the time of writing this I hadn't seen the first episode yet so I took some artistic liberties in terms of characterization, settings, style, and… logic. A few elements of this were also inspired by the FMA fic "Shadow of a Doubt" by Bookwrm389 (ID 6421617); I wouldn't go so far as to say this is based off that story, but for those who notice situational or character similarities (of which I know there are likely numerous), I tip my hat off to them for the great writing in that fic and give them credit for the bones in this.
Big hugs and eternal thanks to my betas, lastingaster and queenrodgeriii, who helped me make sure this wasn't a total flop. If you catch any mistakes or errors in here, then it had nothing to do with my betas' superior knowledge and skills, and I claim complete fault. For various reasons I had to take some artistic liberties with the science in the Avatar world, but I welcome any discussions or comments on factual inaccuracy if you have any to share.
A Breeze Over the Edge of the World
"What are you doing?" Korra yelped as Mako made to start running around the bank of the frozen river. "He went that way!"
"There's a shortcut around back, we can cut him off around – "
"We could just follow him there, I can still see his back! We could catch him if you just – "
"With all due respect," Mako replied through gritted teeth, "you're not the one who grew up in this city, all right? I know these streets better than you do, so – "
"Can you two stop arguing for a second to keep running?" Bolin's hands grabbed their sleeves and dragged them down Mako's path of choice. "At least wait until we're back home. I picked up pork buns for dinner on South Street – "
"I can yell and sprint at the same time," Mako snapped. He pointedly picked his brother's hand off of his thin jacket and rubbed his arms furiously, air puffing out of his mouth in thick clouds.
Korra glanced over at him. Mako's face looked red and chapped, and she could've sworn his teeth'd been chattering for at least the past three blocks. It had only been winter in Republic for a few weeks, yet there had already been two snowfalls, which, according to Tenzin, was rather unusual.
Her breath made its own clouds as her boots pounded against the frozen streets. Her legs were already straining from the pro-bending practice session they'd just left and her stomach was rumbling dangerously from emptiness. But she forced herself to keep going, keep running, no matter how much it sucked that the equalist had to surprise them when they were least prepared for it, no matter how inconvenient it was that Chief Bei Fong had insisted that she try to bring in the next one she ran into for interrogation, no matter how tired and sore she may be because it was important they figure out what Amon was planning –
But if Aang could face Fire Lord Ozai by himself when his foe was at his most powerful seventy years ago and save the world, then she could track down and capture a single nonbender with two friends to help save a city from a rebellion led by a masked guy in a robe. Yeah, of course she could.
Except Mako and Bolin weren't used to living in the South Pole winter weather like she was. They hadn't exactly had time to grab a warmer coat after the equalist jumped them as they were walking home from training. In her thick Water Tribe sweater, Korra felt just fine with the snow and ice – heck, the weather had even come in handy when she had sent raining icicles down on the chi-blocker's form and (she'dthought) injured his side in the process. But Mako and Bolin were probably freezing. The cold was probably settling into their limbs by now; the winter chill always prevented people from moving quickly after too long, and then she'd be left with two ice statues for teammates.
So she just had to keep them running to warm their muscles. And keep arguing to make them yell, which would keep their blood pumping to fight off the cold. Yeah, all right. She could do this. Never mind that her own fingers and ears were starting to feel a bit chilly…
Korra tightened her fists and put on a burst of speed, pounding her way up to the end of the block and ignoring her screaming muscles. They'd reached the end of the alley and were facing the bank of the frozen river. According to Mako, this would cut the equalist off, but she didn't see a single soul around. Just the three of them standing on the muddy bank that sloped down to the ice-frosted water down below and darkened buildings reaching up into the black sky around them. The few streetlights around were flickering a dull orange glow around the ice-wrecked streets, but there was still no movement here. No movement anywhere.
"Well," she said, "What now?"
A dark blur nearly caught her from behind – Bolin's indiscernible shout was accompanied by a firm hand shoving her head down, inches from the equalist's attack as he burst out from the shadows behind them –
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a burst of bright fire shooting out from Mako's arm toward the equalist. It propelled him back several feet, but he was back within moments, jabbing with practiced fingers at her forearm pressure points, but she'd learned her lesson – Korra ducked, but a heavy full-bodied jab to her stomach left her sprawling on the ground, dazed and nauseous from the blow.
Bolin was attacking above her head, blasting rocks like missiles that their opponent dodged effortlessly. Korra barely had time to register what was happening before the equalist turned and delivered a loud, solid THUMP of a kick to the back of Bolin's head. He smashed into the nearest lamppost, where he slumped to the ground, immobile.
Mako yelled something Korra couldn't understand – her head was still ringing, how useless – and begun attacking with roaring flames that shot high into the night sky, brilliantly bright against the darkness. Still on the ground, she dug her fingers into the ice below to form daggers on the tips of her nails. She thought back to her training with Sifu Katara, who had taught her how to use her waterbending like spears, bringing them up, above, and through –
She was rewarded with a surprised gasp of pain behind the equalist's mask that was quickly stifled, as if he was biting his lip to keep from crying out from some the ice that had lodged itself in his mask. In one fluid motion Korra jumped up and let out several bursts of fire from her feet; and the equalist, faced with two master firebenders attacking with full force, was thrust back with one joint attack that left him rolling down the hill that led to the river below, into the darkness and out of sight.
The immediate danger was over. Mako ran to Bolin, who was arousing himself and struggling to his feet. "Are you oka – "
"I'm fine," Bolin said. His voice was gruff but firm. "But I whacked my head pretty hard there, and he must have hit me, 'cause I can't move my arm…"
Mako swore. Korra felt the same way: her entire being was on edge, wary and twitchy. She hated being taken by surprise, being knocked on her feet, being defeated, however momentarily. This guy had sprung on them twice now, and she wasn't about to be caught off-guard again.
Even now she was torn between helping Bolin reach medical attention and chasing after the equalist, tackling him to the ice, slamming his head into the lamppost like he had to her friend's. But those were some pretty powerful firebending blasts they'd sent his way, which could leave even the most experienced fighter temporarily stunned… Was it presumptuous to guess he'd still be out of it? Was it arrogant to assume he'd be there waiting for them while she and Mako made sure Bolin would be all right?
Korra crept toward the edge of the hill and peered down, squinting in the gloom. Nope, she couldn't see a thing. The streetlights were too far away from the river here to cast any sort of light.
"Korra." Mako's voice made her turn. He jerked his head toward the hill they had sent the equalist tumbling down, out of sight in the shadows of the hill. "You go after him. I'll make sure Bolin gets help."
"I'm fine," Bolin said again, but the blood dripping from his forehead and the way his left arm dangled uselessly at his side betrayed his words. "I can make it to the police station from here on my own."
"I'm not taking that chance," Mako said fiercely, tearing his scarf from his neck and using it to dab the blood from his brother's crown. He gripped Bolin's working arm tight and begun leading him down the alley toward the center district, quickly as he could without hurting either of them. "Korra, go."
She needed no further provoking. Bolin would be fine – though it didn't stop her from worrying – and it was her job to bring peace to the world with these equalist guys, after all. She dashed down the hill, lighting a fire in her hand on the way down to see by. Visibility was still worse than she'd like, but at least now she could tell the ice from rocks before her boots slipped on them.
Below her feet lay a long, sliding slope in the mud and ice that stretched down the hill and out to the base of the river. It must've been the path the equalist tumbled down, but as it was, she couldn't see more than five feet in front of her. Korra gave her fire a little juice, cupping it with the other palm. The cold still didn't bother her much, but the flames did warm her a bit, gave her something to cling to in the darkness.
She tread slowly down the hill, stepping over twigs and stray bramble with the hopes to gain the advantage if the equalist had roused himself and was waiting for her. At the edge of her line of sight she glimpsed the river down below, frozen over with ice. The slope led straight to it – indeed, it looked like the equalist would have fallen straight onto the ice and most likely cracked the surface with the force of his sudden weight – yet there was no sign of the guy, nor were there any footprints leading away from the site.
Every nerve was alight and tingling with anticipation. She should've known a few firebending blasts wouldn't have been enough to take him down. Crud, what if he was going to sneak up on her again – ?
Korra whipped around, half expecting him to fly out from the darkness, but there was nothing except the bramble she had passed and muddy ice around her, coated in shadows. Over the top of the hill she could glimpse the hazy glow of the lamppost from the street, behind which Mako's faint voice was coaching his brother one step at a time to the station. The two of them would be out of earshot soon. She was alone.
Korra frowned. What was with this guy, anyway? Equalists were supposed to go just for pressure points, not the head. And reports said they usually attacked in groups, not solo, so unless this guy was outrageously brave, insane, or just leading them into a trap –
She froze. The fire in her hand flickered dimly in the thick gloom. The bitter wind stirred her hair. She couldn't hear the others anymore.
A trap. Dammit, she should've thought of that before, when Mako and Bolin were here and they could make a decision together. Now she was alone on the edge of Republic where nobody could see or hear or help her and…
But hell, she was the Avatar! If there was anybody who could do it, she could, right? Nothing to it…
Yeah. This Amon guy wanted to get rid of bending – well, he had met his match. She was tough. She was the Avatar. She was strong enough to take it. Right.
Korra reached the edge of the river. Nothing was to her left but the endless expanse of the river, but the right… On the right, several dozen yards away and nearly hidden in the gloom, was one of Republic's many bridges that stretched over the river's width. It loomed in the darkness like a great stone beast, a silent stronghold in the cold.
She didn't have to check anywhere else to know that was where he'd be. It would be just like the equalists, to hide in the shadows below the rest of the world. Waiting for their prey to come to them, waiting for the time to strike.
Under. Hiding under.
They were five blocks from the police station when Bolin gripped his wrist with his good arm. "Mako," he said, "You should head back there."
This was too absurd to even dignify with a response. He ignored his brother and kept up their odd shuffle-walk, leading him to the curb of a sidewalk to take a rest. "You should sit down. Head injuries are tricky and I don't want you passing out on me."
"Mako, you're not listening to me."
"I am listening. You're just not talking sense."
"What's not sensible about this?" Bolin snapped, pulling his arm out of his brother's grip when Mako tried to force him to sit down. "Come on, Korra's out there in the dark around a part of Republic she doesn't know and I'm four blocks from the police station, I can make it on my own – "
"Five," he said. "Five blocks. And besides, Korra can take care of herself."
"I'm not saying she can't." Bolin started walking again, faster than before now. "But that's not exactly what I'm worried about."
"What's that mean?"
"You two, there!"
Bei Fong's yell from jolted his senses; after paying attention to only his brother's and Korra's safety for the past half hour, it was almost startling to be faced with someone else. Especially someone so calm and collected and with so much authority – just the person they were looking for.
The chief of police was zipping toward them on the metal lines above their heads from the direction of the station, accompanied by one of the head cops under her division. She landed heavily on the ground in front of them, joined by her companion within seconds. "I thought I recognized you two." She frowned as she reached them. "You're Korra's lackeys, right?"
"We're her friends, yes," Mako corrected, narrowing his eyes. He trusted the chief, really (more or less), but damn if she could get annoying. "We were just – "
"Running around destroying the city again, I'm sure," she said. When he made to protest she held up a hand and pressed the other to her temple. "No, don't argue. We've received numerous reports of skirmishes between three teenagers and an equalist in the Warehouse District that led down to the bank of the river. I assumed the Avatar was involved, since it doesn't seem possible to have so much fire, ice, and rocks hurling around without a hot-headed teenage girl accompanying it all."
"Ma'am," her companion said. Mako couldn't tell if his voice was naturally so gruff or if it was due to the bad mood everybody seemed to acquire with the current weather. "The reports."
"Of course." Bei Fong withdrew a roll of notes from her uniform and begun reading aloud. "That'll be damage of public property, disrupting the peace – "
"Hold on," Mako interrupted loudly, "you aren't seriously charging us!"
"And why not?"
"Because my brother needs medical attention and Korra's still chasing the guy!" he yelled, propriety be damned. "He's not like the other equalists where he just blocks your pressure points, he nearly cracked Bolin's skull and – "
"You're telling me the Avatar failed to capture him?" Bei Fong's voice was dangerously low.
"Ma'am," Bolin said, speaking up for the first time during this whole exchange. "Please, even between the three of us, he was still a really powerful opponent – we really weren't trying to damage anybody's property, we were just to get the fight done as quickly as we could – "
"Fine," she snapped, her patience apparently having worn thin. "Saikhan, get the injured boy to our medical ward. I'll get the damages fixed and write up the report. And you, what was your name again?"
"Mako, then – if this equalist is so dangerous, then we can't leave his capture to one individual alone, so I want you assisting the Avatar. Get going."
"Hold on," Mako said incredulously, "you're not going to give us some help or anything? I just told you – "
"You think you're the only ones in the entirety of Republic with problems tonight?" she snapped back. "I've got two criminal bending gangs teamed up and running around Center City, an attempted robbery at Satomobile Industries, not to mention the daily riffraff cases arriving on my desk by the minute that come with heading the most elite police task force in the entire world. I don't have time to go chasing after every stray equalist that's causing trouble."
"I know you're busy, but if you could just – "
"If the Avatar's going to run around in my city unsupervised and wreak havoc then she might as well make herself useful and capture one troublemaker for me." She lifted a stern eyebrow. "Unless you two think you won't be able to handle it by yourselves. Would you like me to saddle you with a babysitter to make sure nothing goes wrong?"
Mako grit his teeth and shook his head.
"Granted you bring him in a condition that leaves him available for interrogation and keep from involving anything or anyone else unassociated with the struggle, I'll consider the charges dropped. Clear?"
He didn't trust himself not to swear in front of her if he opened his mouth. His jaw only tightened as he nodded.
It wasn't that he didn't want to go back and help (he did) and it wasn't that he didn't want to kick the guy's ass (he definitely did) it was just…
"Mako," Bolin said quietly, "I'll be fine." He was clutching the red scarf to his temple, looking up at his brother with serious eyes. "The chief's an honest woman. She won't go back on her word."
And that was that. There wouldn't be any more point in sticking around unless he wanted to be yelled at by the chief and his brother. As much as he didn't trust the cops (and why should he? They didn't like him when he and Bolin were street rats living in trash bins, and now shouldn't be any different), he did trust Bolin. If no one else.
"…Just watch yourself," Mako said finally, his voice just as quiet, before he turned around and sprinted off from where he'd come.
It was as cold as a mausoleum under the bridge. A great waft of air tingled and pressed at her legs, her boots were dripping from trudging through the wet muck, and the wind chill was unnerving, even for her. Korra fought a shudder, grit her teeth, and kept moving.
She paused when the ground under her boot changed texture. Ice. As a test, she shifted a bit of her weight onto it. It had begun to freeze over a fortnight ago, and now, the river churned on below it, rushing faster than normal due to the ice's pressure. She could always solidify some of that water to make the ice thicker if she wanted; but the sound of the freezing would probably give away her position, so she refrained from indulging and tried to tuck her fears away.
She had grown up around ice long enough to know where to step and how to distribute her weight on frozen water. She wasn't sure if the equalist could say the same – perhaps he had already fallen under, already drowned, and she was wasting her time. But no, she couldn't see a crack in the ice anywhere, and she wouldn't give up and go home that easily. Equalists were agile, nimble little bastards. She wasn't leaving until she was sure.
Korra shuffled slowly toward the river's center beneath the bridge, ears alert for any new sounds. The fire in her hand had dwindled to a tiny flame and she kept her other hand cupped around it to prevent the light from being blown out by the wind. She had been prepared to worry about the light giving her away, but upon stepping under the bridge she could see it was unnecessary. Below the cavernous arc of the structure there was already a dull, eerie blue glow that seemed to emanate from the ice itself. The light cast odd, looming shadows on the underside arches of the bridge.
There wasn't a sign of the equalist anywhere, but she knew that couldn't stop her. Amon's fighters were masters at hiding in plain sight. If anything, that knowledge made the whole ordeal feel ten times worse.
She glanced behind her back every few steps. Her skin was tingling with dread, anticipating a moment when her opponent would jump out at her back. All of her senses seemed heightened. Her ears were straining and her instincts were taught, strung, ready to snap at the tiniest provocation.
She practically felt every noise as it was made: it amplified under the arch, echoing back at her from all angles. Damn, it was nearly impossible to tell where anything was in here by the sound alone. Korra found herself holding her breath at times, anything to keep from making a single noise that would add to the few sounds she could decipher as they bounced back at her from the arch's walls.
Sounds of the groaning river below. Sounds of distant wind, sounds of dripping water.
Sounds of breathing.
Korra froze, inhaled, and held it. The breathing continued.
She barely had time to register the movement on her left before –
An explosion of pain burst open at the side of her head. She managed to duck his second fist, turn, and deliver a kick, bursting fire out of her foot. But he was back before long, jabbing at her with a blade –where'd he get a knife? – and she bent a surge of water up from below their feet, trying to freeze him inside it before –
His hand shot out of nowhere toward her throat, curling, nails jutting into her windpipe. Korra's breathing stopped and stuttered – she'd frozen the equalist in ice up to his torso, but he had one arm lifting her into the air single-handedly as the other worked with the knife to hack away at the ice to free himself.
Her entire body was shaking, desperate for air, and her throat tightened even further, inflamed and choking. She lit her palms up with fire and tried to reach him, but the flames were so meager from her exhaustion and the pads on his arm protected him from the heat –
The longer he grasped, the less she was able to claim focus, no longer trying to attack, only survive. In her hazy state she tried kicking, scratching, clawing at anything she could reach, trying to focus to bend the ice below, but there wasn't enough oxygen reaching her lungs for her body to cooperate. She just needed one good breath to break free, one gulp of air and she could make it, but colors were fading and the corners of her vision were starting to go black –
"You have a second to remove your hand before I roast it off."
The world turned orange and yellow with brilliant heat, heat that warmed her entire body from head to toe and rushed the wind around her face, heat that burned –
The equalist's hand disappeared and she dropped to the ground, below the fire and smoke, and breathed. The air she was gasping in was cold, freezing cold, but it was air, at least, air – she took two shuddering gasps and then gathered enough energy to shout, "Mako, not so much fire – !"
If he heard her, she never knew, because the second she got the words out was the second the ice below their feet burst apart.
The loud crack! was all she heard before she was plunged down into the icy river. Startled by the sudden drop in temperature – dammit, it was frigid in a river during wintertime, no matter where in the world you were from – it took her a moment to gather her wits about her and bend a bubble of air around her head.
Korra fought the swift current trying to drag her downstream, bending the water to keep her position stable as she tread it. Squinting in the poor lighting, she searched for signs of a red scarf before she remembered its owner had given it to Bolin when he'd been injured. Visibility was worse than ever: the only light came from the dim rays of the fire still burning above, and damn it all, she was looking for a skinny black-haired guy who had an unfortunate habit of wearing dark clothing –
A figure blurred past her line of vision, caught up in the current. A pale hand floating by wearing a ratty glove – and equalists didn't wear gloves –
She grappled for Mako's arm, swimming after him when the river dragged him away. He was making feeble attempts to reach the surface, fingers barely touching the thin ice shelf above their heads as they traveled down river, but after a few minutes of struggling she was able to grasp his forearm and tug him toward her, pressing his head toward hers to share her air. Wrapping an arm around his torso, she thrust them upward in two big strokes. She ignored her strained muscles, ignored the stinging bite of the water, ignored their heavy clothing that was trying to drag them down like lead weights – push us up, bring us up, come on –
Korra shattered the ice when she reached it and broke the surface gasping, heaving in great gulps of air that, she noted, were slightly less cold than they had been underwater, though not by much. Beside her, Mako was doing the same, heaving and spitting up water as he tried to breathe at the same time. She still had a good grip on him, an arm wrapped around his back and clutching the front of his shirt. She pulled him closer to her body and formed a fist with her free hand, thrusting the water below them to form a solid ice shelf that pushed their feet up to the surface.
"You melted six inches of ice below our feet," she grunted, heaving his sodden figure upright. "That's why I told you not to use so much fire."
"Ah, was that what you were telling me?" Mako panted. His voice was strained from the dry air and he took a moment to cough up a few mouthfuls of water. "I must have been shocked into misunderstanding you when I was expecting to hear the words 'Thanks for saving my life, Mako – '"
"He's getting away!" she yelled hoarsely, pointing. She could barely make out the equalist's figure, sprinting lightly on the ice away from the cracked, fire-spitting mess they'd made under the bridge.
Korra pushed herself to her feet, starting to run – and stopped, looking back at the figure sitting on the ice. "Mako, come on!"
"G-give me a minute." Mako's teeth were chattering so loudly she could barely make out a word. He was still kneeling on the ice, huddled over, fingers jammed into the opposite armpits. "I'll be right behind you…"
It took her a second to dash back, two to raise her arms and bend the water out from his clothing, skin, and hair, and another three to grab his arm and pull him to his feet. "I learned my lesson," she replied, heaving. "I'm not going after him again without backup."
"I can walk," he said stiffly, pulling his arm out of her grip as they started to move. He stopped when Korra simply bent the water and sludgy ice in front of them to form another large, solid shelf underneath their feet. Using her arms to push and pull the water below, she thrust the ice forward, disrupting Mako's balance and nearly sending him sprawling off into the river. She reached back to grip his forearm with her left one, steadying him, and he gripped back tightly with both hands.
She could still see the equalist moving in the dark up ahead – he was headed upriver, away from the city, into the mountains that towered above Republic. Was he trying to draw them off? This was twice that he'd run after a fight now, once after their first skirmish as they were leaving the pro-bending arena and now…
"I thought you were going to give him a second," she commented.
"What you said, back there. You were going to give him a second to drop me, but you didn't even bother waiting before you started blasting fire everywhere."
He snorted. "I got impatient."
"And," she said, "you should be helping your brother."
"We met up with Bei Fong," he said, teeth still chattering. Korra realized with a jolt that lifting the water from his clothes and skin may have dried him off, but did nothing to help with the temperature, and his skin would probably be feeling ten times itchier soon. "She took him to a medic, so he'll be fine."
"And she didn't bother sending us any help?"
"Apparently she's busy," he said gruffly, "and she believes two teenagers should be enough to take down an equalist, especially considering one of them is the Avatar. Let's just capture the bastard and turn him in."
Korra wanted to ask Mako about what he thought of the equalist's odd tactics: dangerous shots, but rarely going the kill until he was sure he had a good chance, like under the bridge – and then dragging out his knife when he had Korra alone, almost as if he was trying to keep from using it until he had to. And then fleeing when outnumbered…
The thought of making an equalist afraid of the both of them sent a tingle of pride down the back of her spine; she wanted to mention this, but her sore throat still felt the ghost of the equalist's fingers wrapped around her neck, and she was sure there would be noticeable dark bruises coating her skin in the morning. All of this seemed too much to say between her heavy panting, so she bit down on the thoughts and focused on the task at hand.
The equalist was keeping well ahead of them, following the curve of the river, dashing in and out of forest of tree skeletons that separated the city from the mountain range. Korra continued to bend the water beneath them at a steady pace, fast enough to make sure he never fell out of sight but slow enough so she didn't tire herself out.
"He's toying with us," Mako said suddenly, when they had nearly reached the base of the closest mountain, the one that towered over Republic's north-eastern districts and covered them in shadow in the early morning. "He wants us to follow him. He's not really running."
"Then we'll follow," she replied.
"Korra, I really don't think this is a good idea. We don't know where he's going or who could be there when we get to where he's going — "
"And this is our chance to find out," she said firmly. "I'm tired of playing games with them. If he's leading me to Amon, then I'll take it."
He stared at her, wide-eyed. "Tell me you didn't seriously just say that." When she didn't respond, he yelled, "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Don't be stupid," she replied, but gave no other answer. She could feel him watching her, but she ignored everything but the motions of her waterbending and the equalist's lithe, darting figure up ahead.
Five minutes later, Korra snarled in frustration. "We've got to continue on foot. This guy's leading us up the river but I keep losing sight of him in the trees, so I think he's going farther inland."
"Then let's get off here." Mako's voice was tight and worried, but he followed her lead nonetheless.
Korra pushed them to the river's edge and they landed on the muddy bank, then hit the ground running. Following the glint of metal from the equalist's uniform glancing through the trees up ahead, they sprinted through the frozen forest as the ground grew steeper and led them higher and higher into the mountains.
She was panting hard by now, and could hear Mako's breaths getting shorter beside her. She was starting to wonder if deciding to run was a bad idea, when suddenly the tree cover broke and they were sprinting on a flat expanse of dry land. The equalist was still up ahead, closer than they'd thought, and running straight for a large pit that sat below the nearest mountain. Embedded in the side of the mountain were three of dark holes — no, entryways, with old train tracks stretching into their depths. As they watched, the equalist sprinted into the center one and was soon lost to its darkness.
"The old coal mines," Mako panted. "T-Toza told me they shut these down due to structural issues and horrible working conditions for the nonbending employees. I can remember all these violent protests when I was a kid… The tunnels are probably still down there, though." He glanced over at her, eyes glinting in the darkness. "You still want to go?"
She nodded. "I'm not waiting for him to come to me anymore."
The ground turned to gravel under their feet as they jumped in the pit and made their way into the black shaft. After only a few steps into the tunnel the moonlight from outside disappeared; it was immediate, disorienting, like being doused into a pool of inky blackness. Korra lit the way with a tiny ball of fire in her palm, and behind her, Mako followed her lead. She ran, pounding on the ground, following the train tracks that led them deeper and deeper inside the mountain.
Korra eventually started to lose track of time. The tracks went on, the air turned colder, and she grew more and more out of breath. Occasionally she'd notice other tunnels that branched out their main one, but they were all damaged, collapsed, or too small to squeeze through.
The shadows were pressing down on her from all sides, but she pushed on despite her exhaustion. Eventually, her world began to narrow to just the tiny bubble of light in her hand and the sounds of her own breathing and footsteps. Her throat was parched, still bruised, and there was a sharp pain in her side from running so hard for so long that told her that her body was nearing collapse. Drained, she let her feet catch a break and jogged to a halt, panting against the wall. The tunnel stretched on further in front of her. And still, there was no sign of the equalist.
"Mako," she sighed, "I'm starting to think you were right. This isn't going anywhere, and it may not even be worth it. You still want to turn back?"
She turned around and saw nothing but the dark confines of the tunnel behind her. Mako was gone.
The air was cold and stale, drifting over her skin like a ghost's breath. The fire flickered in her palm, casting a blood-red glow on everything. There was no response.
Korra closed her eyes and gave herself five seconds to be terrified, for her sake and for Mako's, before she opened them again.
Were those footsteps?
" – had enough of your running! We're finishing this HERE!"
Korra started. Mako?
A dull red and orange fire lit up the tunnel behind her in a distant roar of flame. Korra started sprinting toward it, desperate to reach him, to –
"Answer me, dammit! You hurt my brother, now what've you done to my friend? WHERE IS SHE?"
Korra rounded a bend and found Mako battling the equalist, who was jumping off of the walls to avoid the fire he was shooting everywhere. She slammed her hands to the nearest structural pillar and launched a volley of rocks toward their opponent, attempting to cage him in.
"Mako!" she screamed as he dodged each attempt, "watch out for his knife – !"
A low, ominous rumbling from above interrupted her thought.
She saw a rock over Mako's head dropping; as she went to cry out it landed solidly on his leg, which gave way immediately. He dropped, teeth gritted in pain, and she gave a good, solid kick to the equalist's groin — dirty, but she wasn't below that sort of thing if she had to be — before she dashed over to blast the rock off of Mako's leg. He was clutching it painfully, but he glanced up at her with what looked like a thanks on the tip of his tongue before —
"Look out!" he yelled, yanking her toward him. Korra gasped at the sudden contact and made to ask him what was wrong, but the next thing she knew, she was struck by a sudden, dull thump on the back of her skull, and the world went black.
The air inside the tunnel was thick with dust and Korra was still unconscious.
Upon his dazed awakening, he could only tell that he was lying on the cold ground, there was a freezing body next to him, his leg was in a downright terrible shape, and that, with the damp ground and stiff digits he wanted to call his fingers… this was absolutely no place for a firebender.
Mako bit his lip, struggling not to cry out as he slid roughly down to the ground against the wall. Walking around on his bad leg hadn't been his smartest idea, but at least he knew how much area they had to work with. As soon as he had managed to get himself on his feet, he set about finding some spare or chipped wood, then lit a series of small fires on them to grant some light. Ten paces across the width of the tunnel, three to the left until the rubble became too difficult to crawl over, and the right stretched on into the depths of the mountain.
And they were still alive. He was shivering like a leaf, coughing up a lungful of dust, his right calf was painfully swollen, and his fingers felt like they'd been shoved in a vat of ice cream and frozen solid, but they were both still alive.
Mako huddled his body as tightly as he could without jarring his leg. It had been a long time since he'd had to use his Breath of Fire (his last time was his first attempt: it had been winter a few weeks after they'd met Toza, the roof was leaking, they were both deliriously sick, and their new mentor was nowhere to be found – and that was all that he allowed himself to remember of that day)… But the old firebending veterans that lingered around on the streets were always going on about how the Breath had prevented hypothermia and saved lives in the War during sieges of the Water Tribes, for as much energy it took. And now seemed as appropriate a time as any…
He closed his eyes, concentrated, and took in a gulp of air. It took him a few tries to collect a breath that didn't coat the inside of his mouth with dust, but eventually he built up a dull glow back in his throat, mixing the air with his fire. He held it, steady, then let it go.
A tiny flame escaped from his mouth and immediately burned itself up in the air. The results were draining but immediate: it felt as if he had suddenly been planted in front of a warm bonfire, like the goosebumps he would get walking out of a cool building into the summer sky. He was lit with a burning flame that stretched through him from the inside out, reaching from the tips of his fingers to the ends of his toes. Directly after, he was hit by a sudden wave of exhaustion, but he rubbed his eyes aware again, determined to stay focused.
Disregarding their surrounding conditions, Mako breathed through the lingering pain and struggled to concentrate on coming up with a list of problems to deal with in the immediate future.
His leg was his body's first priority. He didn't know how badly it had been whacked around, but suffice to say he wouldn't be eager to try walking on it again any time soon. He didn't know how long a Breath of Fire was supposed to last, but if it cost so much energy each time, he wouldn't want to risk it again. And he didn't even want to think of how he would deal with frostbite. He was more worried about Korra.
Korra was unconscious and he didn't know when she'd wake up. Korra had a broken arm (most likely), some nasty bruises (he assumed), and a concussion (judging by the way the rock hit her head, he was going to take a leap and guess so).
It was freezing. It was dark. He didn't have a clue what had happened to the equalist or where he was.
And nobody was coming to get them.
It would be useless to count on Bolin and Bei Fong. Bolin would be in the hospital by now and the chief would probably still be wading through the red tape, even assuming that she'd dealt with her other problems by now. If anything, she'd be waiting for them to come back; he could imagine her sitting at her desk scribbling away at the paperwork to lock them away where they'd never destroy any more streets or dig up any more concrete again. Anything but coming in to get them herself.
But they would get back. One way or another, they'd make it. They had to.
The sound of shuddered breathing nearly made him jump, but he relaxed upon discovering that Korra was awakening. Despite his dreariness and pain, he rushed to her side as fast as his leg would allow, kneeling, and placed his palm on her shoulder. "Korra, are you awake? You all right?"
It took her a moment to come to, but slowly, she blinked her eyes open and raised a hand to her temple. "Y-yeah," she replied. "I think so."
"Take it easy," he instructed when she made to sit up. "You hit your head pretty hard there, and your arm looks like it's in bad condition. It was hard to tell what was going on with so much rock raining down, but I don't think it'd be a stretch to say you probably have a concussion…"
Korra sighed. "Right." She clutched her left arm to her side and blinked, squinting around in the dim gloom. "We're still in the tunnel?"
He gestured toward the mess of the rock wall behind them, and she followed his gaze, swearing quietly when she saw the extent of the damage they had done to the tunnel.
Mako watched her reaction carefully. "Do you think it's salvageable?"
He lifted his hands in a mock-surrender expression. "I'm no earthbender. I'll burn or lift whatever you need me to, but of the two of us, you're the one who could probably get us out of here."
"Right," Korra said again absently, then paused, thinking. "Okay." She sounded surer of herself now, more in control. She stood up — he raised an arm to help her balance, worried about her head, but when she stepped away he let his arm drop unnoticed — and moved to inspect the damage.
"What are these pillars made of?" he asked, placing a hand on one of them. He had guessed that it stretched nearly six feet wide and three feet in length, though he figured it was far from an appropriate size, as large chunks of it looked worn away from disuse and abandonment.
"Coal, I think," she said, frowning. "It's definitely some sort of mineral earth, but I'm no expert on mining, so that's my best guess. I could bend it if I had to, but do you see that?" She pointed to different parts of the large pillar, where he could see, squinting, that metal reinforcements were embedded in the rock. "I wouldn't want to mess those up. I've never metalbent before. If I spent enough time in here I could probably figure it out enough to restructure the pillars and get us out of here… but I don't think we do have time."
"What?" he whipped his head around. "Why not?"
She bit her lip, then spoke slowly, as if she was trying to remember the right words. "This entire structure… there's no telling what kind of fumes are lingering around in here. We've gotten lucky with the fire so far, but it's using up a lot of our air down here."
He hadn't even considered the fact that they might have a limited air supply. Mako guiltily eyed the fires he'd set up for them to see by, then nonchalantly dimmed one next to him to a glowing ember. "Did you see what happened to the equalist?" he asked.
"No. Why does it matter?"
"Just, it's possible he's still alive, so locating him should probably be a priority…"
"Dead, probably," Korra said sluggishly, as if she was struggling to concentrate. "Let's just get out of here."
"Don't strain yourself," he said. "If it hurts to talk, then – "
"It doesn't hurt to talk," she snapped. "I'm just tired. Come on, let's get to work moving these rocks."
"Are you sure that's a good idea? We might accidentally trigger another collapse."
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," was her response, and she turned her back on him, moving over to shift some of the larger boulders blocking their exit.
He frowned. "That's your plan? Just dive into it and deal with the consequences later?"
"Well, would you like to sit around here and wait for someone to find us? Excuse me for taking this into my own hands."
"There's a big difference between 'taking something into your own hands' and 'rushing blindly into a potentially disastrous idea with no regard for what could happen.' We could plan things out, you know."
"Plan things out," she snorted, "that sounds great. Why didn't you keep that in mind when you broke the ice shelf back at the bridge? Who was it blasting fire everywhere inside a freaking mine because he thought his friend was in trouble?"
Mako was all kinds of pissed now. Yeah, sure, he'd overreacted, but hell, he'd been terrified when that equalist jumped out at him and Korra was nowhere to be found; after the bend in the tunnel had separated them, his mind had jumped to the worst conclusion… And Korra was chastising him for being concerned for her?
"Right, then," he said, face heating up, "I won't bother worrying in the future. I'll just assume you're on your own, does that sound fine?"
"Fine," she snapped. "Now get to work with these rocks."
Mindful of his leg, he stalked over to the closet side of the collapsed wall a few yards from Korra and plopped himself down onto a nearby boulder that allowed him plenty of maneuvering room; it was just enough space to keep close but not intrude onto her side or accidentally glance at her face. What was wrong with her, anyway? Excuse him for caring. So she was allowed to get emotional but the one time he did, he got mocked for it?
Mako frowned, disgusted with his self-pity. Focus, idiot. Focus on getting out and then you can yell at each other later.
He turned his attention to the earth, shoving what he could out of the way. Korra was making little progress, it seemed, having taken his concerns into consideration about not using earthbending to make any large changes to the structural foundation. Any other time he would've been moved that she actually listened, but now, all he could feel was exhaustion.
Mako rubbed his face in his hands, struggling to stay concentrated, then leaned back and stared up at the wall. It stretched up to the roof, where he could only see dark shadows above their heads lingering where the light couldn't reach. He wasn't even making a dent.
She was partially right, though. He just had to freak out and start blasting fire everywhere… They were so far over their heads he wouldn't have minded a babysitter at this point, especially not if one was a highly experienced metalbender. He was starting to regret not taking up Bei Fong when she had offered help, however patronizing the suggestion had been.
"Brilliant move," he told himself in a tired voice, "real brilliant…"
"Well I'm sorry," Korra's voice came from his right, tight with strained emotions, and he realized with a jolt that she thought he was blaming her for their situation. "Why don't I just take all the credit for this disaster, yeah? Anything to save your precious pride. I'm sorry I didn't use my head for once — not everyone's as perfect as you, okay?"
"Korra," he said, determined to clear this over before it grew out of hand. They were both filthy and hungry and exhausted from the training, the chase, the whole fighting-for-their-lives thing, and he wasn't about to let an argument get in the way of working together to find a way out of here. "I didn't mean it like that — "
"Don't apologize," she snarled. "It's my fault, right? It's always me or Bolin, and heck, since Bolin's not here right now, that only leaves one option, doesn't it? It's not always that simple, Mako!"
Mako fell silent, realizing that she was talking about something that went beyond the night's events. "Korra?"
She looked about ready to snap, glaring at him from across the tunnel's width. Her blue eyes burned in the fire's glow, fierce and untamed. "I can't plan my life out like you, all right? I can't abide by what other people decide for me, it's just not that easy. I ran away from home to come to Republic."
"I know that," he said testily, getting rather impatient despite his better judgment. "What's your point?"
"You don't get it," she snarled, "I'm the Avatar, it isn't always so clear-cut for me like it is for you. I have responsibilities that pop up that I can't plan for, and I have to save the world, you know, which – "
"You think you're the only one with responsibilities?" he yelled, completely spent. "I've been raising Bolin on my own since I was eight. How'd you like to watch a mugger cut down your parents right in front of you and leave you and your younger brother to fend for yourselves? How'd you like to scavenge in garbage bins and clean toilets to keep bread on the table your brother? You forgotten that yet?"
Korra took a deep, steadying breath, as if she was struggling to concentrate. "I didn't…" She swallowed. "I didn't forget. I didn't mean to suggest it like that."
"I know you didn't," he said, "but that doesn't matter. You've convinced yourself you have to tackle all of this head-on, I know you have. You don't have to do it all alone, you know."
"And you're going to try to convince me I should start leaving it to others?" Korra pounded her right fist on the side of the wall in frustration, causing a shudder that ran up to the ceiling and triggered a few stray rocks in the ceiling, one of which fell straight down and brushed her left arm before thumping to the ground. She grit her teeth in contained pain. Mako considered rushing over to her aide, but the glare in her eyes hadn't subsided, and his leg was still throbbing violently. He forced himself to remain sitting against the wall, watching her pull her left arm from her sleeve and cradle it inside her blue coat, close to her torso, to prevent it from being jostled.
"Just forget it," she said eventually through the hisses. She turned her back on him. "We'll talk about this after we've cleared this mess up and brought the bastard into Bei Fong's office."
But it wasn't okay, of course. He didn't want to let this go, but Korra seemed finished with the conversation.
Mako watched her shivering miserably against the rock wall. A part of him wondered why she was so cold — wasn't she used to this weather, being from the South Pole and all? — but then, being stranded in below-freezing temperatures in a place that was hardly an insulated igloo probably wasn't her idea of a comfortable time. He thought about recommending that she try her own Breath of Fire, but… her concussion. Was firebending within yourself really such a good idea when your mind wasn't thinking right?
His fingers still tingled faintly from the warmth of the heat he had centralized inside his body.
He couldn't let it go.
"I'm sorry for yelling," he said finally, voice echoing as she huddled in silence. "I know it's gotta be rough. I won't try to pretend I know what being the Avatar's like, but…" He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I just don't like seeing you beat yourself up, like you have to prove something. It's hard, standing on the sidelines and watching you throw yourself into danger. I've fought my entire life to make certain Bolin wouldn't have to fight any more than he would want to, and now you come in and pick fights just to start them…"
"I don't pick fights just to start them," she said, and her voice was shaking – with what, he couldn't tell. "I'm just trying to make sure people know who I am."
"The water, rocks, and fire being chucked at them isn't enough of a giveaway?"
"That's not what I meant," Korra snapped in irritation, and he fell silent. She rubbed her forehead in her hand, frowning, and he was again reminded of her injuries. "It's just… besides the Avatar stuff, beyond all that."
She trailed off, but he finally caught a glimpse of what she was trying to say. It must be frustrating, he realized, for people to see and judge her for what she was and not whom. From the moment Bolin had introduced her, Mako had done his best to treat her as equally as he would any other waterbender on their team, trying not to allow her privilege and status to affect his attitude for her in any way that might get in the way of their teamwork.
And she had done well, exceeded his expectations – if he told her this she'd just laugh and ask what else he should have expected. Yet, still… he was impressed.
But the rest of Republic didn't get to train with her every day in the gym. To them, she was a name and a face and an image splashed across the papers and gossiped about on the radio. To them, she was a celebrity, a figurehead, with glory and titles but lacking any substantial essence of personhood. Without a personality, she'd be a puppet.
"Right," he said quietly.
She glanced back at him. "Can we just…" A sigh. "Let's just continue this conversation later. Deal?"
Korra turned her attention to the wall again and pressed her free hand against it. "I don't know if earthbending's going to get us out of here, though."
"Better get started it the old-fashioned way, then," he said, and moved to do just that before he realized Korra was frowning at nothing. "What?"
"I hope Bo…" She trailed off, a deep frown creasing her face. "Boh…"
"Bolin." Mako would never claim to be an expert on head injuries, but he was pretty sure that short lapses of memory loss and slurred speech were signs of something pretty dangerous.
"Bolin, yeah. I hope he got those pork buns."
He couldn't help it. He started to laugh.
For a moment she just looked at him, then, startled, she started to laugh as well. His leg hurt, his head hurt, his lungs hurt, everything hurt, but they laughed.
This, he could deal with. This was Korra being Korra, even in the wake of disaster. The very least he could do was be Mako, for her.
When he calmed down, he leaned against the wall and slid to the ground in an exhausted sense of odd contentment. He noticed Korra wasn't moving: one hand was pressed against the rock wall, concentrating. "…You can't really bend us a way out of here safely, can you?" It couldn't be that easy.
"I'm checking," Korra said, and Mako felt sheepish when he realized that, yes, that was exactly what she was doing. She had her palms against the wall, but she wasn't bending, she was… just touching it. There was contact, her hand was on the rock, but no movement. He was pretty sure that wasn't how bending worked.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It's just — " she sighed, her arm sagging like a weight at her side. "It won't work. The rock isn't thick enough."
"…It isn't thick enough? It's rock. How much thicker could you get?"
"That's not what I mean," she said tightly, frustrated, as if the words weren't coming. "It's coal, soft rock. I can bend coal, but it takes some concentration to bundle it together to make one solid mass. Unless you want me to toss little chunks of flying rocks around…" She frowned. "Parts of it are so deteriorated that a lot of it's become loose," she continued. "Like thick sand that's been pressed together for so long the only reason it's still up is because of the supports, and I messed that one up pretty bad. It's probably why this tunnel is abandoned in the first place."
Mako frowned. This sounded like crap to him, but then, what did he know about earthbending? He rubbed his injured right leg, trying to get the blood flowing where he could feel it cramping up. "If it's so unstable then what's keeping the entire mountain from coming down?"
"That's the weird part," she replied, pressing her hand to the wall again. After a moment, she continued, "There's support for the tunnels in here, of course, but up above… there are others, somewhere, that aren't made of earth. I'd be able to sense it if they were. I imagine you'd have more pillars like these placed in various positions that'll hold the site up, but I noticed most are so far gone it's a wonder the entire thing hasn't collapsed. But there is support, it just isn't earth, it's…" A frown. "Something else."
"No, I think I'd be able to tell if it were metal. I'm not really familiar with bending metal but I can still sense it, more or less. I don't really have the seismic sense, but every earthbender can just… tell, sometimes. Metal resounds better than earth does, I could feel it. This isn't earth, but it's — " She paused. "It's a pattern. It's wood."
He was well and truly lost now. "A wooden… pattern?"
"Wooden beams, yeah, that's it — a support structure. It stretches — oh… oh. Far. Really, really far."
Mako was feeling more and more uneasy in the mountain by the second. He couldn't help thinking that this might all be a mystery they'd be better off not figuring out. But despite himself, he asked, "How far?"
"Far enough," said a voice from behind.
Mako struggled to his feet and whipped around, one hand on the wall behind him for support, fire in his hand and ready to shoot at —
The equalist from before emerged from the darkness like a living shadow around the tunnel's bend. Mako heard Korra gasp when his injuries were thrown into perspective by the dim lighting: half of his uniform was torn off by the various struggles they'd engaged in, revealing large purple and yellow bruises on his skin. Even the man's mask was nearly destroyed: half of it had looked like it had been blown off, most likely torn away from Korra's ice attacks, earthbending, and his own firebending from before. What they could see of his face – his young face, hell, he barely looked older than they did – looked like one giant mottled, bloody bruise.
Outside with the mask, it had been easy to convince themselves he was just a nameless henchman, a fighter without an identity, but here he was —
"So you've figured it out, then," he said flatly, and his words sounded thick against his swollen lips. "But I'm afraid it won't change anything. I preferred to handle this in the city, but you've dragged the fight on now, so we'll settle it here."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Korra snapped. "I didn't figure anything out except that you guys are all lunatics. Besides, I didn't bring any fight in here — you were the one who ran into the mountains and jumped us in the first place, pal, so don't start acting like I started anything — "
"Avatar Korra," he said in a ringing tone that reverberated around the tunnel; it was a voice that was meant to intimidate, but somehow, Mako felt that seeing his face gave him less authority than before. "Calm yourself. For the moment, I merely want to talk."
Korra wasn't having it. "Look, your boss may think he's a big shot, hiding out in his secret lair — "
"Korra," Mako started. His leg was throbbing painfully from the weight he was putting on it and he wasn't feeling at all in the shape for another fight. "Let's hear him out. Maybe he knows a way out of here."
"There is no way out," the equalist said, "but that is not our concern. Let's talk for the moment, not as friends nor as enemies, but as people. As equals. Will you grant me that, Great Avatar?"
The contempt and condescension dripping in his tone was disgusting, and he didn't even bother hiding it, but Mako took Korra's right arm and lowered it before she could blast his head off. Reaching behind to lean back against the wall, "What did you mean, there's no way out?"
"Exactly what I said," the man replied. "These tunnels were used during Republic City's inception. With the heavy industrialization the mining business grew exponentially, but as you can tell by its instability, these particular tunnels have long since deteriorated from disuse. You have, I believe, realized the extent of the damage caused by our struggles. The mines were crafted by benders and designed for nonbending miners who were unequipped to deal with severe earthbending, especially by one unfamiliar with their structural foundation."
The words were meant to insult more than just Korra's knowledge of coal mines, and they all knew it. The subtlety of his language, the little dropped hints here and there… all pointed to them, benders at large, as if it was their fault the entire system was set up in the first place.
Mako supposed he was biased, sure, but he felt it was appropriate. He'd never believed nonbenders were any less of people than benders — hell, it was hard enough convincing other people that he was worth something even with his own firebending — and he could support the idea of equal rights, but this… This wasn't equality. This was chaos.
"Why'd you take us here?" Korra demanded.
"This is what used to be our stronghold."
Beside him, Korra's face blanched. "The mine was shut down due to structural instabilities and poor conditions for the nonbending workers. Mako said it led to full-out bloodshed… Were you guys behind that?"
"That is none of your concern," was his response.
"Fine," she snapped. "But I want to know what you want. I'm tired of beating around the bush. All of your attacks have been so different from what we know of you guys, you don't bother with pressure points, you just go for the most dangerous attacks. I want to know what you're trying to accomplish tonight and I want to know now."
"Lend the Equalist Revolution some credit, Avatar," he responded. "We'll not diverge our secrets so readily."
"Then what was the point of asking to talk?" Mako snapped. His right leg was aching no matter how much he shifted and squirmed, and he was fed up with this guy, fed up with looking at rocks and darkness, fed up with the freezing temperature that was starting to slowly settle back into his bones as his inner fire started to dim down.
"It's not like you've been the smartest opponent, anyway," Korra picked up. "If we're trapped down here together and there's no way out, the least you can do is tell me what you're after before I smash your skull against a rock and squeeze it out of you the hard way."
The man's one visible, bloodied eye narrowed dangerously, as if daring her to try. "A threat, Great Avatar?" he asked softly.
"It's a promise, actually. As stupid as you are, you probably deserve it." Korra started ticking off the fingers on her right hand. "Jumping out at us without backup, running whenever things got tough for difficult territory – hardly the type of clever scheming I'd imagine from Amon and his cronies."
Mako was on edge. However much of him agreed with Korra, he didn't think provoking the man, however unintentionally, was a good idea. "Korra – "
"Besides, you only brought out the knife when you had me alone," she continued. "Like you were waiting for the right moment to give it your all." A pause. "And then you went after my friend when you realized you couldn't get to me."
"Korra," Mako tried again, "what are you getting at – ?"
But Korra had frozen, staring at their opponent with a sudden dark inspiration. "The Avatar State, then," she said thickly, "that's what you're after?" Her assumption hung in the air, heavy and thick, and then there was silence.
The first thing his brain registered was confusion. He understood all of the words individuality, but not together. He knew of the Avatar State, sure, but the rest of the sentence seemed so shockingly uncomplicated, it didn't make sense that he would feel this confused by the simple words.
Rumor had it that the Avatar State was supposed to be some sort of triggered mechanism that awoke within the current Avatar when he or she had need of it. Apparently some powerful spiritual forces from the great beyond would be summoned and help Korra out when she was up to her ears or something. It sounded pretty good, but considering he'd never seen it in action, he wasn't about to count on it to save their asses just yet.
…Why would Korra think that Amon and the equalists would be trying to trigger it?
"You don't have to confirm it," Korra spat, startling Mako out of his thoughts. "I can tell from the look on your face." Mako glanced over at the equalist – to notice that, yes, he did seem fairly shaken, from what they could see of his swollen skin. "But I'm afraid you're out of luck. Like hell I'm going to enter it for you."
"Your ignorance of your own position is crippling," the equalist replied. There was no mockery in his voice, only barely suppressed irritation at Korra's accurate guesswork. "As is common knowledge, the State is triggered when the current Avatar is in critical, immediate danger, and equips them with all the knowledge of the past Avatars that came before."
"You're pretty arrogant," Korra snorted, "assuming you could take me on single-handedly when I'm at my most powerful. But knowing what it costs me, you still assume I'd even bother trying to enter it?"
Mako's eyes darted to Korra, trying to meet her gaze with a questioning look. He didn't understand what was going on, but he knew he didn't like it.
"Avatar," he replied testily, "I am not going to give you a choice."
"You're not going to trigger it," she responded firmly – too harshly, almost, as if she was trying to convince herself as well. Her response made Mako's skin tingle with dread; he tightened his fist and subtly widened his stance with his good leg.
"Am I not?" There was a sharp glint to the man's eyes for a moment, a victorious look in his expression amidst the mess of the mistakes they'd all made tonight; Mako was reminded, again, of the man's youth, of the way he'd practically leered at her through the mask when he found them under the bridge, like a cat with its prey trapped in its claws. He wasn't sure what it meant, but the implications were pointing toward something else, some explanation dangling just beyond his grasp.
"The State's activation is not up to the individual," the man spat around swollen lips, "for one inexperienced with and unworthy of its power. You mock my actions, yet fail to realize that your own have set you at a great disadvantage." He gave a faint smirk, as if he was enjoying unnerving her as much as she had done to him; this was what he wanted, Mako realized, in talking. A chance to dig his claws into them, one last attempt at unsettling his opponents in a weak attempt to gain the upper hand.
A bubble of blood rose and burst at the corner of the man's mouth. For a second he looked half mad in his frenzied state, standing there swathed in shadows with a bloodied uniform and glinting knife, and Mako shivered despite himself. "Displaying your exploits across the newspaper headlines and broadcasted from the radios of every living room has told the world exactly where to hit you – and with whom."
Mako thought quickly. The only reasons Korra would have been in the headlines lately would be due to their recent success in the arena, the buzz of speculations and predictions around their chances to win the upcoming tournament… their pro-bending team. The equalist was talking about – him and Bolin?
He glanced over to Korra to confirm that she had reached the same conclusion; but once again, she was paying him no attention, staring at their opponent with a look of fierce, wide-eyed outrage. What little color left in her face had drained from it.
"It's exactly this dependence that was nearly the previous Avatar's downfall," the equalist said, so quietly Mako had to strain to hear him. "We'll try again, though…"
"So you just attack the three of us out of nowhere?" Mako stepped in, mind whirling as he furiously tried to both comprehend and also act like he understood what they were talking about, why it involved him and his brother, what was going on. "Endangering other people in the process? That's real nice, some great equality you've got there. And don't you think your chances of success are a bit low, considering you didn't even bother with backup?"
From what they could see of it, the man's swollen face was tight with suppressed emotions. "My colleagues," he said tightly, "and Leader Amon have decided to wait until after the winter season passes, when the Avatar is out of her natural element. I saw no use in wasting time, not when nonbenders grow more restless and oppressed by the second. Avatar, a month is far too long for you to roam our streets; you have overstayed your welcome in Republic City. I saw fit to end it tonight by attempting to do battle in the streets, where everyone could see your downfall, but when that proved difficult I decided to relocate to a terrain that you would be unfamiliar with."
"I don't think your boss would be happy to hear you're going against his orders," Mako replied.
"Had I succeeded and returned to our great Leader, I'd have been sitting at his right hand," the equalist proclaimed, breathing unnaturally heavy. "A pity that I won't make it to the end, but still… I'll be known as the one to bring down the mighty Avatar, I'll still be praised as a hero long after I'm gone…"
He wasn't fighting for his movement as much as he was fighting for himself, Mako realized, clenching his teeth. To him, killing Korra wouldn't just mean success for the Equalist Revolution – it'd mean apromotion.
Mako was so distracted by his anger that he almost didn't notice what was going on above his head. He heard a low rumbling, the sound of the earth slowly shifting, not even noticeable to those who hadn't grown up with an earthbender all their lives. His leg throbbed. No, they couldn't afford another collapse, not now…
He glanced over at Korra and saw that she had her right arm bent and leaning on the collapsed pillar behind them in an odd position, natural to any onlooker, but growing up with a little brother that was always trying to pull subtle earthbending pranks had given him a sixth sense that he doubted many others would appreciate. But Korra was counting on that now to warn him; he suddenly understood that she was trying to bend the rock again, trying to get some work done as Mako distracted their opponent.
"Anyway, your brilliant plan is missing one detail," he said, searching for something to stall with. "You kill her in here and we're the only ones left. I'm not an earthbender, as you well know, and I doubt you're going to start displaying any new bending abilities that could help us to get out of here, so if you take her down, then we all die in here. Including you."
"A necessary sacrifice," was his response. "One I'm willing to make."
"So that's it?" he snarled. "You set out to murder a seventeen-year-old girl tonight? That's your boss's great plan in the name of justice?"
"The Avatar is the Avatar. It makes no difference whether it is a young girl or an old man on his deathbed. The result will still be the same."
And Mako knew, in that moment, that there was no reasoning with him. He wasn't insane, only fiercely dedicated to a job he had assigned himself to brew himself some glory and stir Republic into chaos. Out for himself, but disguising his motivations behind layers of blanked statements to satisfy his leader and companions.
Even if he didn't make it out alive to sit at Amon's side as right-hand man, he'd be remembered by his people, praised as a martyr and used as an excuse to instigate more rebellions, more violence, more attacks against benders…
"Princess Azula nearly succeeded in the Coup of Ba Sing Se," the equalist was speaking again – to himself, Mako realized with a jolt. The mottled skin they could see was red with adrenaline, as if he was preparing himself. "And I'll finish her work here tonight."
"No, you can't — " was all he got out before the rocks came crashing down again.
Mako inhaled a lungful of dust that coated the inside of his mouth and, coughing, dodged the equalist as he shot toward him — wait, no, not at him, he was aiming for Korra —
"Korra, look out!" he tried to yell, though the dust made his voice too raspy to understand, even for him. He lunged for the equalist and Korra at the same time, pulling her away so roughly she hit her head on the back of the wall and clutched her skull painfully. He barely had time to apologize before their opponent burst into his line of vision, wielding his knife – and suddenly, his already injured leg suddenly felt as if it had been struck with a fierce, white lightening —
— My leg, he's STABBED MY LEG —
Every inch of him was sore and exhausted, but through the pain he blasted him back with a volley of firebending strikes. Behind him, Korra was concentrating despite her own injuries, doing something with earthbending — a large, low rock ledge shot out from the wall above their heads, brushing his hair and forcing him to duck — and then Korra dropped.
"Korra!" he yelled, turning immediately. The weight of standing was suddenly too much and he fell to his knees with a thud as well, checking her head, watching her blue eyes roll back into her skull. He barely registered another series of rocks falling down above; the shelf she had made was protecting them from their destructive force, but five paces away the equalist caught the full force of a large bolder and he collapsed underneath it with a cut-off scream and a loud CRACK that Mako barely noticed.
"Oh — oh no, no, Korra! Stay with me!" Mako ignored the pain of his leg and grabbed her shoulders, shaking, and this probably wasn't the right thing to do for someone with a concussion but damn it, he didn't know what to do and she just wasn't waking up — "Korra, you've got to stay awake! Damn it, don't do this to me! Korra! KORRA!"
When Korra came around, she awoke to darkness.
It took her a moment to realize that she was lying on her back and that, yes, her eyes were open, but the reason she couldn't see anything was because… there was nothing to see. The fires had gone out.
"It's all right, Korra," Mako's quiet voice came from the right, somewhere above her head. The words sounded dull, like an absent mantra he had been repeating. "You'll be fine. We'll be all right."
Korra closed her eyes again, tight, and counted to five silently in a few shuddering breaths. It was all right, they were going to be all right. If she said it enough, eventually, she would believe it herself. She had faced worse than this. She could clamp down on her fear, keep her emotions reined in for the next few hours, or however long it took them to escape from this place – she had to. But there in the dark, where it was cold and wet and she couldn't even trust the very air she breathed, it was just so, so hard to hold it together.
She inhaled a deep breath, held it, and released. Okay. She could do it.
Mako shifted at the noise. "Korra, is that you? Are you awake?"
"Yeah," she murmured finally. "What about you? Doing okay?"
"I'm hanging in there," he said, voice echoing in the dark. It was odd hearing him – sensing him, feeling him – but not being able to watch his lips move. "But for a moment there, I panicked and thought I'd killed you… It's been a few hours since the equalist… well. I'm sorry, I yanked you back hard, your head hit the wall and you got knocked out and I just…"
Suddenly she noticed there was a pair of very stiff, very cold somethings sitting on her chest. Two digits – two fingers – pressed firmly on her sweater in the valley between her breasts.
"What the hell!" She jumped up, yanking Mako's hand from her chest and smacking it away. "What, I get knocked unconscious and you decide it's time to cop a feel?"
"You're back to normal, then," he said gruffly. "Should've known you wouldn't stay quiet for long. Good to know I wasted my time."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she snarled. She knew it wasn't fair to take all of her anger out on him – he was trapped down here too, they were in it together, but damn it, her head felt as if it had been run over by a car, her left arm was useless, she was sick and freezing and starving and so tired of it everything, and now, of all times, Mako had to feel her up? "And why didn't you use your Breath of Fire? You're freezing!"
"Already did, earlier. It dimmed a while back. It used up a lot of energy and I don't know if it's safe to keep doing them again and again…"
"Then why not light a fire?"
"Didn't want to waste the air."
"And have me wake up to an ice cube where my sleazy friend used to be?" she snapped. "Just – forget it, I'll make one myself."
She turned her back on him, concentrating. Okay, so what if she couldn't earthbend in here without fear of bringing the place down? Firebending was okay, that was natural, the easiest thing behind waterbending. Right.
Before she could blink again there was a small, steady flame cupped in her palm. Korra squinted, but after taking a moment to allow her eyes get used to the light, she let it grow a bit, fed it some of her energy, and concentrated on keeping the flame in control so she wouldn't have to look back at her companion.
Mako was quiet as she lit and tamed the fire to a size that would provide enough light and heat in their little space, so quiet she nearly forgot he was there if it wasn't for the fact that his elbow kept bumping her back when he shivered. "I'm sorry for that," he said finally, his voice low. "I didn't mean anything… sleazy by it. I couldn't feel your pulse, and I just… had to make sure."
Make sure of what, Korra wanted to ask, but she was so not in the mood for an argument anymore. Despite the fire, she could tell he was still freezing: all she could see was his left side, arms curled in, shivering violently.
Korra set the tiny fire loose on the strip of a wooden plank next to her hip that looked big enough to feed it but small enough not to grow out of hand. She watched as it hovered in the darkness and stabilized. Shadows bounced against the walls of the cave, coating everything in a dull gray-orange glow. After making certain it wouldn't burn itself out, she noticed that one of Mako's sleeves was missing form his jacket, exposing his pale skin to the cold air.
"No wonder you're freezing," she said. "What happened to your jacket?"
"H-had to stop the bleeding…"
She glanced at his leg, which, she now saw, was wrapped clumsily in his jacket fabric to form a makeshift bandage. Dark stains coated the material and parts of it were still dripping blood steadily onto the ground. The knife he had pulled out had been tossed aside, where it lay a few meters away, glinting in the firelight. She was surprised Mako was still awake and aware with the temperature, lack of food, and all the blood loss… but then, he was a stubborn bastard. Sighing, she began shedding her coat, mindful of her throbbing left arm.
"Wai – what are you doing? You'll freeze!"
In response, she pulled the sweater over her head, struggling with just one flexible arm, and then shoved it at him. "You need it more than I do," she said in explanation. "Trust me, I can comfortably go sleeveless in an igloo, but you probably aren't used to that kind of weather, right?"
"No, but – "
"Just take it. I don't want Bolin killing me because I let his brother turn into a popsicle."
Mako eyed her warm blue coat for a few moments. She could practically hear the gears buzzing in his head, weighing the choices of warmth and pride, before he chose the former, grasping for it and yanking it over his head. For a moment that image was, possibly, the most ridiculous things she'd ever seen: a pale, skinny firebender huddled in her thick Water Tribe coat, but when she moved over to sit between his thighs, his face took the number one spot. "What – "
"Don't," she said before he could protest. "This is going to be awkward any way we go about it."
"Go about - ?"
"We need to share body heat."
"Are you sure…"
"I'm from the South Pole, remember? Consider me an expert."
He was quiet as she shifted her weight in a more comfortable position for the both of them that didn't jar or irritate his right calf, then let out a grunt when she turned in front of him, her back to his chest, and leaned closer. After a moment, he wrapped his arms around her front, and meeting no resistance, rested his face in the curve of her shoulder, his nose tickling the clammy skin there. "Thanks."
Pressed this close, she could feel every shiver from his body: the way his fingers clutched her pelt in a vice grip, the way his breath tickled her ear. She resisted the urge to fidget from the movements and said, "If we've lasted this long without running out of air I think we'll be safe with a fire for a while longer. Let's just put our heads together and figure a way out."
Mako made a noise of agreement. She turned her head to glance back at him and noticed he didn't seem to be paying attention to what she was saying: his eyes were locked on something else, something in front of them, with a concerned sense of unease.
She turned, squinting and searching for what had caught his attention – and discovered a pair of feet a few meters away, sticking out against the darkness. With such dim lighting, the blood coating the ground and train tracks around the figure looked like shadows.
Right. Where else would the equalist have gone?
"Dead," Mako said flatly. She could feel his chest rumble as he spoke. "I heard his skull crack from one of the stray rocks that fell from the ceiling. The earth shelf you made above protected us, though, so we were safe from anything like that."
Korra looked above and confirmed that, yes, the thick rock shelf she had made above their heads had managed, in one form or another, to save their lives. She had been half delirious when she'd formed it, and now counted herself lucky that she hadn't accidentally triggered another collapse, or worse, injured either of them in the process, considering Mako's height and her dizzied state…
She realized with a dark thrill that Mako had just spent the past few hours alone in absolute darkness with limited air, keeping faith for an unconscious friend to awaken, while a fresh corpse lay just a few meters away. She swallowed and pressed up against him a bit more comfortingly.
"It's all right, you know," he said quietly. "You didn't kill him. It was an accident, it wasn't - murder."
"What? Oh – yeah, I know, it's just…" She turned her head, determined not to look at the man, not to remind herself that it was still her fault, one way or another, that he was dead. She may have wanted to break a few of his bones, but she didn't want this.
She didn't even know his name.
"Just," she swallowed, searching for something to say to change the subject, "why didn't you at least try to get some sleep while I was out? It must be the middle of the night."
Mako was silent for a moment, then muttered, "I had to stay awake. You – were so cold, and I was scared of lighting a fire to warm you up. I can't tell how much air we have in here to use, so I didn't risk it. You couldn't die. I had to stay awake and… make sure you didn't."
And suddenly, his hand on her chest took on a whole different meaning. With two fingers pressed against the side of her left breast, he would be in the perfect position to feel every heartbeat, to check that she was still breathing, without touching much of her at all.
"I've heard that you shouldn't sleep after a head injury," he said. "It could mess you up, or something. I was worried that falling unconscious might make your head worse. I tried waking you up a few times but you didn't budge, so… I got desperate. I'm really sorry for stepping out of line."
"It's fine," she said. "I get it. You just startled me. It – was a bit unnerving, but I understand, I guess. I mean," she paused, licking dry lips, "you also saved my life back under the bridge and I never thanked you for that, so…"
"You saved me thirty seconds later when I dropped us into the water, so we're even."
Korra huffed out a laugh. "Is that how it works?"
"We're a team," he replied. "Of course it is."
The silence that followed his words wasn't uncomfortable, but it wasn't exactly comforting, either. Korra had been training with Mako and Bolin on their probending team for nearly four weeks, so for all intents and purposes, yes, they were a team, however much they argued and goofed off. Who else besides the two of them could she call a friend?
Besides Naga, of course. She was always trying to be the person that Naga thought she was. And Naga understood her in ways she doubted any person, even her parents, probably ever could. When her parents would argue against the exhausting physical exercise she pushed herself through, when her masters would deny her requests to try harder techniques because "You're not ready, Korra," when the kids she'd grown up with in her village slowly ostracized her as the Avatar wedge between them widened the distance more and more… occasionally it felt that the only being in the world that she was positive she loved was Naga.
But other times she wanted someone to talk to, not just talk at. Sometimes she wanted a hand to hold just because she felt like it, maybe even a shoulder to lean on if she got tired. She could do things on her own – and indeed, she would have to, eventually. She was the Avatar and she loved it, but sometimes…
…Sometimes the tasks before her – mastering the elements, defeating Amon and his equalists, dealing with the crime in Republic, unlocking her spirituality, coming to completely understanding and controlling herself – loomed over her like the shadow of some great black mountain in the distance of her mind's eye. Sometimes it felt like too much.
When she allowed herself these dark thoughts, imagined scenes of her future, sometimes, all she could see was Amon and shadows. And she had dragged Mako and Bolin into it. If she died, the Avatar would be reborn in the Earth Kingdom; even if she was remembered as a failure by the world and the Order, the cycle would continue.
But Mako and Bolin didn't have that. If they were killed, they weren't coming back.
It had actually turned out to be a smart move, she realized with a bitter taste in her mouth, for the equalist to try to use her friends in an attempt to trigger the Avatar State within her. And now, knowing that the same sort of emotional exploitation had once been used against Avatar Aang… it tugged at her somehow, a heartbreaking pang that resounded in a part of her being that she didn't know she'd had.
The only thing that had granted her the tiniest sense of comfort while talking to the equalist earlier had been the fact that she hadn't ever entered the Avatar State before. She wasn't even sure how to. Apparently Aang was supposed to show up one day and explain all of the mysteries of it in a way that would clear up everything and give her insight on how to solve the world's problems, but she'd been waiting for years and he never came. Korra knew he and the Avatar State were supposed to help, but they were hidden in some unlocked corner of her being that she hadn't ever even come close to reaching, no matter how much she trained and tried.
But mostly it just seemed like her spirituality as a bender was so far gone (missing, almost) she wondered if there had been a mistake, if she was a fluke, if someone else was actually the Avatar and she wouldn't have to explain how she didn't know why she couldn't enter the Avatar State, couldn't master airbending, couldn't save the world.
"Korra?" Mako's voice startled her back into the present. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said immediately. "Have you had any thoughts about how we're going to get out of here?"
"Nothing that's reasonable in the eyes of modern science," he sighed. "I don't think digging our way out is going to do much good…"
She nodded absently.
"…Are you all right?"
"You just asked me that."
"I know, but it's just, you're shaking…"
"You can have your sweater back, if you want. I think I'm a bit warmer now."
"Keep it," she insisted in a tone that held no argument. "I won't take it back."
Mako sighed in a way that indicated he felt like he should have expected that answer, then leaned his head back to the wall. After a moment, he spoke up, as if he was finally voicing something he'd been pondering on for a while. "Korra," he said hesitantly, "can I ask you something?"
"What did he mean by all that?" He paused. "All that Avatar stuff. I understand if it's a secret and you can't tell me or something, but I was just wondering…"
"You mean the Avatar State?"
Korra bit her lip, and then decided that Mako, of anyone, was one of the two people who deserved to know the most. "Well – how much do you know?"
"Not much," he admitted, "but I'm curious."
She sighed. "It's kind of complicated."
"I'll try to keep up."
She gave a tired smile that he couldn't see. "Basically," she said, "The world's screwed if I don't know how to control the Avatar State."
"…Why's that?" he asked hesitantly, as if he wasn't sure if he wanted to know or not.
"The Avatar State…" She sighed. "It taps into all the knowledge of the past Avatars. It's basically the Avatar Spirit awakening inside its host and offering him or her all the power in the world. But it puts itself a big disadvantage, leaving itself so out in the open like that… if I die in the Avatar State, the reincarnation cycle would be broken. There'd be no more Avatars. It would die with me."
Mako was quiet for so long she wondered if he had heard her. She was starting to wonder if this was all just a product of her headache, giving this much information away so readily… but it was Mako. She could trust him and his brother, if no one else.
"That – can't be right," he finally said, sounding somehow broken. "That… that's not fair."
"Doesn't matter. That's how it works." She shrugged as if to imply it didn't really bother her, but it came out as more of a shudder that raced down her spine like a drop of water, enhanced by the cold. "You're calling on the world to help you out, so you'd better be prepared to deal with the consequences of holding all that power at once."
"But, that's just – " Mako took a breath, then let it out, as if trying to calm himself. After a moment, he continued. "So this Avatar Spirit," he said tightly, "is like a… thing."
"The Order would say that 'thing' is inappropriate terminology," she said, smiling grinning at the mental images that would have been on her masters' faces, "but yeah. A thing."
"A thing that… reincarnates… into people." She can tell from the inflection of his voice that he was frowning. "Like it's just recycling people's bodies to keep existing?"
She glanced back at him. "It's not a bad thing, Mako."
"I know that, but it's just like… using people."
"We're using it," she explained, wary of where he was going with this. "I thought you knew this…"
"I do," he said quickly. "Or I figured I did, on some level… Sorry, it's not like I'm not grateful or anything. The Avatars have always done great things… You think of them as the ultimate icon, the biggest celebrity in the universe, so it's just weird thinking that there's something behind all of it, like it pulls the strings." He took a moment, then added, "I guess it's just different when I know you as you, not as the Avatar."
She wasn't sure what how to respond to his last sentence, but swallowed and tried her best to address the rest of it. "It's… mostly just lying there quietly until I need it. The only thing it changes in my day-to-day life is that I can bend all four elements. And the way people treat me."
She sensed him nodding. "So, it's not, like… alive."
"I have no idea. I don't know what it is, exactly… I just know that when the Avatar State is triggered, that's the entire force of the world at your fingertips, all contained in one person, and if that container died… so would it. If an Avatar dies normally, it's no big deal, the spirit isn't there with it at that moment."
"But if it takes on a physical form," Mako continued, "then it's… vulnerable."
"The thing about the Avatar State," she said, nodding, "is that it's not always just a triggered thing. I could enter it, if I… you know."
"Was more in tune with it?"
"Yeah. Apparently Aang once trained with a guru at the Eastern Air Temple who helped him master it there after meditating for days. But Mako…" She laughed without humor. "I can't do that. I'm impatient and stubborn and reckless, remember? I can't sit and meditate. I've got to go train at the gym, or go stop some gangsters from robbing a shop, or break up an equalist riot… I don't know how Aang managed to deal with an entire war, master all four elements, and still maintain all that… calmness. I need to master just one more element and deal with a citywide revolution. Compared to him, what I have seems like a piece of cake, and I just… can't do it."
"Korra," he said suddenly, "please stop talking like you're going to lose."
"I'm not talking like I'm going to lose – "
"That's what it sounded like," he said, "and it's scary."
She grew quiet. The fire flickered and the shadows danced on the walls, but she just stared at the ground, wondering what would help him understand, wondering how she could explain, wondering how they were ever going to get out.
"Have I ever told you," she began, "about how I found out I was the Avatar?"
She felt him look up, watch her for a moment, and then shake his head.
"I actually don't remember finding out," she admitted. "I was so young when my parents called on the Order… Apparently I was waterbending by the time I was four, and earth and firebending by five. I've always been the Avatar. I've never really had the time or opportunity to grow up without knowing that I'd have to bring balance to everything, be the bridge between worlds, and all that."
Mako made an odd noise in his throat, as if he wanted to say something, but then quieted to let her continue.
"This airbending stuff… it just doesn't suit me," she huffed. "I think you know that by now. And for a while I thought it was because I wasn't patient enough or something, like Tenzin keeps telling me to be, but…"
She took another long pause here, collecting her thoughts between the poundings of her head. She wasn't sure if talking so much was even a good idea when she had a concussion, but she wanted to get this out, wanted to help him understand. "The world's so different from Aang's time," she continued. "Or that's what they tell me, at least. Aang was such a different Avatar, he did so much in such a short time, everybody loves him… People are going to remember him for a long time. He was so peace-loving and spiritual. I've never been… like him. And I can tell the Order was really disappointed when I could firebend by age five but couldn't even make a single breeze by the time I'd mastered it twelve years later."
"You're only seventeen," Mako said quietly, "and every Avatar's had a bending discipline they struggled with. People say that Aang was awful at earthbending for a long while…"
"No, that's not just it," she said, shaking her head and sighing as she turned her head sideways to look at him. "It's more than just the Avatar stuff. Mako, the world…" She swallowed. "Look at Republic, look at the benders in the pro-bending arena… Everything's been so muddled lately, the elements aren't really their own anymore."
Korra bit her lip. "I can't really sense the earth like how Chief Bei Fong's mom could… I'm not like Aang. The world's losing its spirituality, our bending's getting worse, and instead of preventing that from happening I'm its worst product. I can master the elements all I like but if I can't learn why… I'm n'better." The last words were a mumbled mess, but she didn't feel up to repeating herself, so she just let her voice die.
Mako was strikingly quiet. To be honest, she didn't blame him. The Avatar was sitting in his lap having an identity crisis, and comforting her probably wasn't something he had been prepared to deal with that day. But then, neither of them had exactly been prepared for all of this.
"I'm sorry," she said to keep the silence from getting awkward, "about what I said. Before, when I was talking about our responsibilities and all. I know you've got a lot going on, and I know you mean well. And most of the time when I'm in all these fights… I'm the Avatar, I mean, I can deal with it, but sometimes… I just need to push myself. I need to show them I'm not going to sit back and let myself be pushed around just because I may not be very spiritual. I can match fire with fire. The revolution's driving me in circles and I think people are starting to realize that I don't know what to do… but I'm not going to be held back, so I just need to make sure people know that."
"Korra," he said, "I don't think anyone could doubt that."
She was quiet for a moment, then mumbled, "I don't think – "
"And you aren't a bad Avatar," he said. "I know how dedicated you are to your job. This whole airbending thing, your spirituality… it's just a block. You can do it. I know you can."
Korra looked at him for a long moment, blue eyes meeting his, then closed her eyes and let out a tired, shuddering breath. When she opened them again, she could feel the hint of tears prickling at their corners. It might have just been her throbbing head, but… "Thanks."
"Also," Mako said, "a revolution isn't the same as a war. It's just as dangerous, just as violent, but it's different. With a war you've got two sides going at it for power, dominance, money, whatever. With a revolution…" She looked back and caught his eyes growing dark for a minute. "This one's been starting from the inside, beginning from the ground up. It's centered on an idea that needs to be fixed or addressed, and by the end of it, everyone involved'll be forced to take a side."
He coughed again, having inhaled more dust, and she looked at him in concern but he waved her away, continuing. "But the war… wasn't like that. A war doesn't determine who's right, and you can be side-less and still get caught up in the mess. It may not be easy to deal with a war, but it's easy to understand it has to end. Revolutions are different, you never know what side to take. This equalist movement… maybe it's on a smaller scale than the Hundred Year War, maybe it isn't, but it's every bit as complicated. Aang had his challenges, and yours are every bit as notable now. Hundreds of years from now, people are going to look back on your time and be proud of how you handled it."
She was quiet.
"Which leads me to another thing," he continued. "I've said it before but I'll say it again. You can do it. The Avatar spirit… thing wouldn't have picked you if you couldn't." He swallowed. "Nobody said it would be easy, but nobody said you'd be alone, either. Bolin and I are here. You're our friend, and we're a team now."
Korra didn't trust herself to speak. She turned around to face the opposite wall, leaning softly against his chest again, and tucked her knees in to clutch them, just for something to do.
"We aren't going anywhere. You know that, right?"
She nodded and blinked back hot tears, looking anywhere but his face. Her head was still pounding and she was starting to feel dizzy again, but she focused on his words, tried to commit them to memory for when she'd have need of them again.
He unwrapped one arm from around her waist and placed it gently on her shoulder. The tips of his fingers gently brushed against her collarbone. "I know you can take care of yourself. But… just in case."
And she cried. Deep, shuddering sobs that she didn't bother trying to hold back anymore. She was tired, and she was scared, not only of Amon and failure and of her friends' safety, but of herself, of the terrible power trapped in the back of her mind. It defined her: she was the Avatar, and she embraced it, she did, but she was terrified all the same.
Mako said nothing. He just kept his arm on her shoulder, squeezing, and let her know that he was there.
"…Mako, do you think that they have a point?" she asked softly. "The equalists? Are benders really corrupt?"
He took a moment before responding. "I think," he said, "that there's a lot of inequality in the world that needs addressing. But this isn't the right way to handle it."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, when you notice a large group of people are being socially oppressed in a culture, you don't try to drag everybody else down to their level, do you?" he said, scratching his face absently. "You try to push that group up. Benders have a privilege that we don't see until we're called out on it, and I'm starting to realize it's about time someone did. Things have gotten out of hand, yeah, but the equalists…"
She heard him swallow behind her. "I just don't think they're making things really 'equal.' Nobody's exactly the same, and in a perfect world we should be allowed to be different, and accept each other's differences and come up with ways to make up for the ones that put some people in unfortunate places. But if we're all the same…" He sighed, his breath tickling the back of her neck. "It's a different form of oppression that's keeping people from being who they are. I don't think that's equality anymore. Not the way it should be."
Korra swallowed. "…Mako, what am I going to do?"
"I don't know," he said, "but you'll figure it out. I know you will." His palm rubbed her shoulder a bit, squeezing for a moment, before letting go.
She took another few moments to gather herself. When she felt her voicing evening out again, she tried changing the subject. "…How long do you think we have?" She tried to sound as if she didn't really care, though the act of asking must have said it all.
"If we put the fire out and stop talking?" Mako sounded tired, more than he'd ever been, and she immediately regretted ever getting angry at him. "Maybe a few more hours."
She nodded, then wiped her eyes and nose on her cold arm. Mako offered her the sleeve of her own coat and she snorted at the irony but accepted it all the same.
"I want to ask you something, now," she asked, and he made a noise of inquiry as she turned to face him. "Does it bother you?"
"Does what bother me?"
"This entire… thing. You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for me, all caught up in the middle of this revolution."
Mako gave her a soft look, as if he knew they were both aware of what his answer would be, but he said it anyway. "I'm here because I want to be here," he said. "Remember?"
"I know. But… this whole thing. Is it hard for you?"
"…No, it's not hard," he replied quietly after a moment of thought. "It's just… odd."
"My friend's the Avatar. She has to master all four elements and save the world when it needs rescuing. I know it, and I don't have a problem with it, but when I think about it sometimes it feels kind of overwhelming, I guess. Bizarre."
"You're telling me," she huffed, and he laughed.
"I guess I'm not one to talk. Does it get weird?"
Korra turned her head back, looking at the opposite wall again, and paused. Did it get weird? How was she supposed to know? She'd always been the Avatar, but most of the others that had come before her could at least claim that their teenage years were relatively normal before the ball dropped and they got dumped with the world's baggage. She, however…
She'd known all her life. She couldn't remember not knowing.
Still, for all that she loved being the Avatar, for all that it affected other peoples' perceptions and dipped its influence into practically every aspect of her life, there was a part of her that existed beyond it, despite it. It was what had made Aang, Aang, and Kyoshi, Kyoshi… She had to be more than another name in the long chain of Avatars. She wanted to be remembered; not out of pride or vanity, but out of remembrance for the girl, the woman, even if she didn't quite understand who that was yet.
She knew that it was never the Avatar that Mako was speaking to; their daily arguments and head-butting proved as much. But sometimes, it was just nice to have a confirmation that he was thinking about the person.
Korra settled with, "The weirdness comes and goes."
He snorted. "Whatever that means."
She smiled even though he couldn't see it. "Can't explain it much more than that, sorry. Maybe Tenzin can help me figure it out."
"In between airbending training, his family, a kid on the way, and the Republic City Council, I don't know how much time he'll be able to dedicate," he said wryly. "How is airbending going, by the way?"
"It's going," she said simply, sighing. "I'm trying as hard as I can."
"I know you are. I was just wond…"
He trailed off. She waited for him to finish, but when he didn't, she looked around and was startled to find a wild look in his eyes and the hint of a smile on his lips.
"Korra," he said suddenly, "that's it."
"Airbending. You may not be able to earthbend, but you can at least airbend, right? You could find a vent, or even make one, you could find a way out – "
She felt her throat tighten. "No."
"It won't work. We have to think of something else."
"Korra, I've been sitting here for the past few hours doing nothing but think. Why won't it work?"
"I just – can't do it."
"Yes, you can," he said quietly. "Even if you weren't the Avatar, I'd believe it."
"You're just saying that."
"You don't believe it?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I do."
She sighed. "How'm I supposed to do that?"
"Uncover a vent," he said. "All this dust in the air is still floating around… I've been watching it. Normally it would have settled by now, but it's still in the air. Somewhere, I think there may be air coming in that's keeping it afloat, but I have no idea where it could be from. You can tell, though."
Korra rubbed her temple. "And then what?"
"Earthbending entire pillars may be dangerous, but there's nothing wrong with moving a few rocks out of the way, as long as you're careful. You could find a shaft and widen it, crawl through. Maybe one near the top of the ceiling so that you won't risk having the tunnel collapse on you again. Once you're over the mess we made earlier, just follow the train tracks from before. They'll lead you out of the tunnel one way or another."
She frowned. "I don't understand. You're talking as if it'd just be me leaving. How would you get out?"
He closed his eyes for a long moment. "I'd wait."
"We aren't getting out of here together, Korra. Besides, I – "
"Shut up," she said fiercely. "No, I don't want to hear that crap. Just stop talking. You cannot seriously expect me to leave you here to die – "
Mako barked out a laugh, then stopped to cough violently as shivers wracked his body. "No," he said, his voice raspy as his eyes watered from the dust, "sorry, I didn't phrase that right. I don't intend to die here. We're both going to make it out of here and live long and happy lives. I'm sure I'll die in my sleep when I'm a hundred and thirty years old and surrounded by a large group of doting great-grandchildren. But you can't stay just to keep me company, not when you can go get help to save the both of us. Get out of here, get yourself to safety, and then get help. In that order."
Korra knew that dry sarcasm was his go-to territory when he faced with nerves he didn't know how to deal with in a vain attempt to hide his fear or discomfort. That didn't mean she had to like it. "Why don't you go?" she insisted. "You need more medical attention than I do right now."
"Even if I agreed with you, my leg's so wrecked I doubt it could take me to the other side of the tunnel without collapsing," he replied without a trace of self-pity in his tone. "Look, please. You stand the most chance out of the two of us."
And she knew it, but that didn't make it any easier. She couldn't leave him here with a dead body for company, like some sort of omen, a reminder of how he would end up if she didn't return with help in time. She couldn't leave him alone in the dark to wait for a sign of help that he had no guarantee would come – not again. If he was going to stick with her despite all the troubles and strife she dragged into his and his brother's lives, then she owed him the exact same respect and dedication, even if he didn't want it.
But the look in his bright eyes held no argument and she felt herself faltering, if just for a second, against his determination.
Korra almost hated him for a moment, hated him for all his sense and reasoning and dumb logic. Why'd it have to be now that he used his head? Mako was the reason that they were trapped in this stupid tunnel in the first place because he couldn't rein his temper in when he thought she'd been in danger. Mako was the reason the cave had collapsed and the ice had broken at the bridge and allowed the equalist to escape.
Mako was also the reason they had made it this far, the reason they were able to discover what Amon and the equalists wanted with her and why they were willing to sacrifice their lives for it in a messy, wasteful death in an abandoned tunnel. Mako, who hadn't said a word when she'd cried, hadn't mocked or, worse, comforted with empty words and stupid sappy promises. Mako, who, even now, was pushing her well-being over his, reasoning it with logic he'd probably just came up with on the spot.
But it did make sense – that was the whole point. He was right. And she had to go.
"Korra," Mako said quietly, "you're not leaving me here to die. You're saving my life."
It was why she couldn't leave, but also why she had to.
Despite herself, she bit her lip. "You have to promise me you won't die down here. Keep a light going, make notches to count the minutes, do whatever you have to."
"No, really, you have to mean it. Promise me, Mako."
He sighed, raising a hand, and placed the other on his heart. "I shall try especially hard not to die as I wait for you to send for help. It would be terribly rude of me to put the people I am closest to through that tragedy and I have no intention of causing my friends or family further pain and loss in their already over-complicated lives. I promise to make it out alive and live to the ripe old age of hundred and thirty to ease the worries of my teammates."
"And," she said, "your friends."
Korra nodded, then bit her lip and added, "Don't forget your Breath of Fire. I'd rather you be tired than dead."
He nodded. She could tell that he wouldn't do it, not if he was scared of risking it again when he was already so weak, but she nodded back. She just needed to know that he would try, one way or another.
At a loss for ideas of what else to say, she stood up and dusted off her pants with her one good arm. Her feet tingled, having fallen asleep during the past few hours, but she ignored the prickling sensation and walked to the collapsed wall.
It stood just as impressive and frustratingly immovable as before, but yes, Mako was right. Air had to be coming from somewhere. Dust was still floating, still drifting by their faces, however sluggishly. She had to find a hole, widen it, and get them out of here.
She put her right hand against the earth, concentrating. She may not have complete control of the seismic sense like most earthbenders did, but she could probably still tell where a few holes may be poking through.
Korra concentrated. Felt the earth under her palm, sensed its instability, and searched…
There! High above, hidden in the ceiling, there was a crack – a tiny one, a barely noteworthy, but for her, it was escape. For them, it was a way out.
She bit her lip. Airbending was everything that earthbending wasn't. She could feel a breeze drifting in from the crevice, but that didn't mean she could control it… She just had to try. One good try. She owed Mako, Bolin, and Tenzin – and herself – that much.
She slowly raised her good arm up and down, felt the currents, sensed their origins high above their heads… It was a shaft that widened as it climbed high into the mountain, and then leveled out as it headed closer to the entrance. If she managed to funnel enough of a force, generate enough power, then she might be able to blow some of the rocks and dust back up the shaft and out of the way…
It was worth a shot. She slowly rotated the sluggish air, felt it gently stirring at her fingertips… and then, aiming back up toward that crack… pushed.
It wasn't long before she was rewarded with a sound above her head – the sound of rocks being blasted back from the wind currents she had stirred up.
"Korra – look, up there – "
She opened her eyes and noticed a large, gaping hole that hadn't been there a minute ago.
"Here, let me help you," Mako said from behind her, struggling to his feet.
Maneuvering cautiously with his bad leg, he gave her a slight boost up. She reached the hole above and managed to secure herself inside it. Mako's support from underneath her disappeared and she could hear him sitting back down against the wall, settling into waiting once more.
Korra wanted to say something, anything. She didn't know when she'd see him again, and she wondered if he'd be okay, if he could keep it together, if there were any words she could say now that might help him through the next painful hours…
Don't look back, she told herself. If you look back you won't be able to leave.
She didn't know if Mako watched her figure until she was out of sight, didn't know the expression on his face or the look in his eyes when she finally did. All she could sense was the jagged earth, the occasional wisp of fresh air around her face, and the dull throbbing in the back of her skull.
She made slow progress with only one arm to work with, and paused when she arrived outside of the fire's circle of light, panting. There wasn't any time to light another fire, anyway. No longer with anything to see by, she'd have to rely on bending and instincts alone in the total darkness. The rock below her was no longer so vertical: it was leveling out, and every so often she would earthbend tiny bits and pieces away to mold the ground into more of a crawl space than an air shaft. It was enough to make a difference in her path toward the exit, but not enough to trigger any collapses; she kept in mind that there was a boy behind her that would be on the receiving end of those rocks if she wasn't careful. She widened it bit by bit, trying to make a difference for him, and crossed her fingers that it would be enough.
It was dark and cold and lonely again. Korra closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the earth under her body and hands. The ground she gripped was gritty, filthy, and she was certain she smelled like complete crap, sweaty and bloody and disgusting with dirt and mud plastered all over, but she didn't mind. It was still warm, solid ground, firm material that she could rely on…
And she let it go. She turned her attention to the air: listened to it, smelled that musty scent, followed its sluggish pace as it traveled up, through, and out…
Korra took a breath, pressed herself up, and reached for the next ledge. She had to get going.
Mako waited. He trusted Korra, had faith in her, but he didn't know how much time it would take to gather the forces required to dig him out of there. If the Avatar alone couldn't earthbend without potentially triggering a rockslide, then would even more earthbenders be of any help? Sandbenders? Was there such a thing as a woodbender? Hell, he had no idea. He had no idea of anything. He was starting to wonder if he'd imagined it all, if the conversations with Korra and the equalist were just a hallucination, if he had always been lying there alone, if he was waiting for help that would never come.
No, she'd made him promise not to give up. Help is on the way. He held fast to that, repeated it like a mantra, even when he could see his vision blotting out and he slowly started to lose feeling in his right foot.
The fire in his palm eventually snuffed out. For a moment he was confused in his exhausted state, wondering why it was suddenly so dark, wondering if this was the end and he was really dead now and he couldn't keep his promise, before he realized that a draft had blown it out. The wind. There was air. He could feel it now, could taste it on his tongue and breathe it in, clean and fresh, through his nose. Korra had widened the air shaft for him.
The last thing he remembered for a long while was thinking that he would have to thank her for saving his life again. And then he was gone.
When he came to, he lit another fire and kept it going, stronger this time. Even when it flickered and faded, he had to keep it going. Couldn't let himself fall asleep and never wake up. Keep going. He made a promise.
Mako counted koala sheep, made notches in the dirt beside his head every sixty seconds, fell asleep and woke up time and time again. How long ago had Korra left? It was dark, so dark, and so cold…
Help is on the way.
"I'm not going to die," he said aloud, surprising himself: he hardly recognized his own voice in its hoarseness. But it didn't matter – he didn't know how long he had been here but he wasn't going to make these minutes his last. He was going to keep warm and keep alive, dammit. He could do this.
He wrapped his arms tighter around himself, huddling his shoulders. The wool fabric pressed against his ears and he realized after a slow moment that he'd forgotten to give Korra her sweater back. It's all right, he told himself, you'll get your chance. You'll see her again.
Eventually, he allowed himself to take a look at his leg, and immediately regretted the decision as soon as he slowly unwrapped the blood-coated fabric. He hissed when it was opened to the fresh air and immediately begun bleeding freely again. The sight of so much blood and gore nearly made him retch – the knife had gone straight through layers of tissue, almost nicking the tibia in his lower leg: he caught a glance of shockingly white bone and had to look away. Thick purple veins and yellow bruises stood out against his pale skin, accompanied by freakishly vivid colors that he didn't know the human body was even capable of producing. He couldn't feel much of his foot anymore.
He wrapped it up quickly, hissing when his bloody fingers brushed against the wound for a jarring, numbing moment. The sense was electrifying, buzzing from the combined pain of the puncture wound and his crushed calf, as if someone had taken his leg and sharpened a knife along the edge of his bone.
Mako wasn't an expert on injuries, but he knew when he was screwed.
Dammit, no. He was the best freaking firebender in the pro-bending arena, and he wasn't going to let a stupid knife wound destroy his right leg for the rest of his life. But he was losing too much blood and he would have to do something about the wound – soon. He couldn't wait for Korra.
He'd have to burn it closed.
He didn't know how to deal with a crush injury, but he knew this, at least, was possible. Hell, it was probably even pretty simple. Make a fire, any fire, and holding it there long enough, he was bound to see results eventually. He'd seen the scars of firebending old-timers from the Hundred Year War, entire portions of their faces blackened and mutilated limbs. He'd heard of emergency on-site medical practices conducted by firebending doctors on the battlefield who burned cuts and injuries shut and sterilized needles with a wave of their hands. Firebending had destroyed thousands of lives, but used the right way, it was possible it could save just as many.
He looked at his palms. Dry and cracked from the weather, coated in grime, smeared with streaks of blood, dripping in sweat from his recent bursts of adrenaline. And they were the only tools he had at his disposal, the only resources any firebender really had at the end of the day. It was up to him to control his own fire and determine what he did with it; but there was no option here. It had to be done.
The thought of scarring, or worse, disfiguring his leg with one wrong move was terrifying. But so was the thought of blood loss here, alone, because he was too afraid of a few burns that could keep him alive.
Besides, he'd made a promise.
He unwrapped the cloth again before he could convince himself otherwise. He wondered with dark humor if it was ironic, how all firebending seemed to be able to do was destroy even when it was healing, but brushed the thought aside. It didn't matter. In the wrong hands firebending could wipe out civilizations, scar and torture and punish, but in the right hands…
Mako conjured a white-hot ball of flame that danced in his hand, readied it, gave himself five seconds, and pressed it to his leg.
The pain was instantaneous. His leg exploded with agony that tore at his bone and muscles – he may as well have doused it into a volcano – but he concentrated, pinched himself to stay sane, and got to work melding his skin back together. He could do this, he could.
And he tried keeping it in, he did, but before long his screams were all he could hear, bouncing back and forth along the mine, a cacophony of tortured yells echoing back at him in the abandoned tunnel. And he was inhaling the scent of his own burning flesh, that was his body he was destroying – no, saving, he was saving himself, this was worth it – while his mind was screaming for release, but he refused to allow any opportunity to convince himself to stop.
When he lowered the fire to check the progress, he told himself again he would make it, that help was coming, that he was going to be okay. He ignored his blackening vision and concentrated on the task at hand. He didn't let himself count this time, knowing he would just convince himself it wasn't worth it, that he should take a break – so he just pressed it back down again.
The moment he finally finished his body gave out on him, shuddering violently as he collapsed and gave himself over to the pain. It hurt, it hurt…
He must have blacked out, judging by how small the fire was when he finally came down to his senses. The pain still hadn't left and he was starting to expect that it never would… but if he concentrated on something else, anything else, to keep himself from losing it here, then maybe he could make it…
His empty stomach clawed at him from the inside (but he was used to that, right, wasn't that normal?). And his eyes were starting to get used to the darkness, tricking him into thinking there were things crawling around, shadows dancing toward his skin.
Mako didn't know how long he lay there. Perhaps for as long as he had first waited for Korra to wake up, perhaps double the length of time he had already been waiting, but he waited for it to end, for someone to come, anyone, for Korra or Bolin or Bei Fong or even Amon to come finish him off (no, not that, you made a promise) – but no one did. So he stopped waiting.
When he finally sat up, pushing himself with his hands backwards to lean up against the wall again, he felt calm. Calmer, perhaps, than he ever had in his life. Maybe he was delirious, maybe he was dying, but he didn't care. He huddled himself in her Water Tribe sweater, inhaling Korra's scent, and kept the flame going, head down, trying not to weep and failing. He told himself he was lucky to still even be alive, lucky to know such loving and dedicated people that would risk their lives for him, and usually that worked because it was true. Sometimes it just didn't work, that was all. So he cried.
He was gone for a while after that. Later he would conclude that he had passed out, because the next thing he remembered was being lifted by tall, dark figures and strong arms. He tried to tell them to stop, that he was dizzy and nauseous and felt like he was going to vomit – and his leg still hurt, hurt more than anything had a right to – but then he heard voices.
"Hey, are you awake? Can you hear us?" a voice said. "Hello? What was his name again?"
"Bah-ko, I think?"
"Hey kid, we need you to wake up. Your leg's in pretty bad shape and we can get you the help you need but you've gotta talk to us…"
Mako opened his eyes and realized that he was seeing these people by a light that he hadn't lit. There were torches and lanterns and new metal support beams holding the ceiling up and for a moment it was too much to take in. He took a breath and tried speaking, tried telling them that he was awake and aware, but all that came out was a haggard cough.
"You with us?"
"I'm – " More coughing as the figures waited for him. "I'm Mako, 'm with Korra, and the tunnel collapsed, we couldn't make it out. Did she – did she send for help?"
The figure on his left, an old portly man with a smiling face, gave a short, good-humored laugh. "Kid," he said, "we are the help. Sura, get over here. The man's still alive and kicking, but he won't be for long if we don't get his leg fixed up."
He was starting to drift again. He closed his eyes and followed the conversation as closely as he could, but he was so tired and all he wanted to do was sleep…
"Hey," the first voice said, "is that guy over there – ?"
"Oh my – he's dead. What the hell happened down here?"
"I dunno, the Avatar still hasn't released a statement yet. I think she's waiting until we get the kid out…"
"Hell, I don't blame her, this guy's pretty banged up. All right," the older man was saying again, and Mako felt a hand on his face. "You hear us, kid? We're getting you out of here."
"I'm sorry," Mako said – he didn't know why – and then he was gone again for a little while. It wasn't quite like blacking out; it seemed more like his memory had been spliced, split into sections here and there.
He nearly blinded himself when he next awoke. Light streamed into his eyes as he blinked them open and he realized he was outside – outside, outside, in the sunlight, with the winter trees blurring past, and the brightness hurt his eyes but it was the sun – and he was lying down on a square earthbent stretcher-like contraption, hurdling toward Republic on the train tracks that led in and out of the city. Leaning over him were faces, healers with water, doing something to his leg. He couldn't feel it anymore.
"Am I going to die?" he asked one of them, the same man from before.
"You're not going to die, Mako," the healer replied. "The Avatar says you're not allowed."
Only Korra could hold back death by sheer willpower. He tried to smile, but it hurt too much, so he closed his eyes and tried resting instead.
"But you're in pretty bad shape, kid. We're keeping your condition stabilized, but we need to get you to a hospital fast. Can you wiggle the toes on your right foot?"
"No," Mako replied, and it came out as nothing more than a whisper. "I can't feel it. I can't feel my leg."
"Try," the man insisted. "It's still there. Give it a shot, just once, and then I'll let you sleep some more. Deal?"
Mako tried. He remembered once hearing about phantom limbs from the veterans on the streets, where amputees could somehow feel limbs that had long been removed from their bodies moving without their consent, and mused on the irony that he was trying to attempt the exact opposite.
His leg was still there. There was still hope for it. He concentrated, focused on his right thigh, then traveled it down… where he had once felt nothing, now, there was a strange tingling, as if his limb was slowly awakening from sleep but hadn't gotten used to feeling yet. Was that the work of the waterbending healers leaning over him now? Slowly, he came to recognize a strange prickling sensation, like thousands of tiny needles being stuck inside his skin.
But his foot. His foot was still there. He tried feeling it again, waking it up, and then gave it what he thought might have been a good shake…
"That'll do," the man said. "Thanks, son. You can go back to sleep, if you like."
"My toes moved?"
"Sure did," he replied. "A good, healthy wiggle."
"Where's Korra?" he asked, and in his hazy state he wondered if he had already asked this, but he needed to hear it again. "She made it out?"
"Yeah, kiddo, the Avatar made it out safe and sound. We've gotta get you back into shape before you're presentable, all right?"
"And my brother?"
"He's just fine, too. They're both waiting for you."
"Could you tell them…" Mako trailed off, dazed. It was on the tip of his tongue, but it kept slipping away…
"You can tell them yourself in a little bit," he said. "Get some rest now."
Mako wanted to ask when, when could he tell them, but he didn't get the chance to. He didn't remember falling asleep, but he must have, because in the next slice of memory he could recall later he was looking up at bright white lights and there was the squeak of wheels below him.
"He's awake," a voice said.
A healer leaned over his head, holding a gadget over his face. "Mako, can you hear me?"
It was odd, the way everyone was calling him by his first name now. As if they were pals, as if they were friends; as if now, when he was injured and in critical condition, he was more important than when he and his brother were starving on the streets. But all of this felt like too much effort to say, so he only nodded, though the act of doing so made his ears ring and his head throb.
"I want you to breathe deep," the healer said. "When you wake up, you can have — er, what would you like?"
Water. Dinner. His bed. But mostly, the sight of Korra and Bolin, healthy and alive and okay, just to make certain they would be safe, even if he didn't make it.
("Promise me, Mako.")
"Pork bun from the restaurant on South Street," he ended up saying, even though he knew the offer was just an empty promise to get him to cooperate, "would be great, please."
The healer laughed. "Kid, when you wake up, you can have all the pork buns you want."
He lowered the instrument over his face. Mako breathed in deep, and everything went black. Later he would remember very little of the surgeries he underwent or the doctors that preformed them. There were big gaps in his memory during this time, though there were a few flashes, confused glimpses of faces and white rooms and looming medical tools. There were echoed voices and occasional questions that stood out every so often ("Take a deep breath, thank you," and "How old are you, son? …Ah, that's a fine age, my daughter's a year younger…"). There were delusions and hallucinations fed by the painkillers: he saw Amon in his mind's eye telling cameras that benders were dangerous, just look at what this one did to his leg; he saw Korra turning back for him in the tunnel and being crushed by another rockslide; he saw his long-dead mother sitting by his hospital bedside, holding his hand, stroking his hair, apologizing. Mostly, though, there was darkness.
When he awoke later he was indeed allowed all of the pork buns he wanted, which was a fine joke on him because he didn't want any. Every inch of him felt heavy and rotten and filthy, despite the clean sheets he was now laying on and the smooth white walls that framed his bed.
Chief Bei Fong was the first one to visit him, before even his brother.
"Don't look at me like that," she said at his alarmed look when she walked in the door. "Your brother already yelled at me and the Avatar was practically screaming for my blood, all because protocol says I need to be the first to brief you in on what's happened."
She pulled out a sheet of papers. "This is the official report that has been sent to the newspapers, approved by Avatar Korra."
He couldn't read the expression she gave him as she handed the forms over, so he prepared himself for the worst as he opened them up.
Around six in the evening (18:00) this previous Tuesday, an unidentified equalist jumped the three members of the Fire Ferrets pro-bending team (Avatar Korra, age 17; earthbender Bolin, 17; firebender Mako, 19) as they were leaving their practice session, armed with a knife and making various attempts to seriously injure and cripple his opponents. After a series of skirmishes in the streets of Republic, he chi-blocked earthbender Bolin, who Mako left in safe medical care before returning to the capture the suspect under Chief Lin Bei Fong's orders. The equalist then led Mako and the Avatar under the West Bridge and up into the abandoned mining tunnels past the Warehouse District around seven (19:00). Once there, Avatar Korra attempted a series of earthbending movements to try to capture the equalist, but the instability of the mine overwhelmed them and trapped the three in the tunnels.
Approximately fourteen hours later around nine the next morning (9:00), Avatar Korra emerged from the mountain with a concussion and severely fractured arm. She alerted Chief Bei Fong of the current situation, explaining that the equalist had been killed in the tunnel collapse, but her companion, Mako, was still trapped inside. The chief then called upon three teams and informed them of the details: three elite metalbending policemen then on duty, a Search-and-Rescue squad of four (one fire, one water, one earth, and one nonbender), and an emergency medical team of three (one fire and two waterbenders). The ten of them combined their efforts, using a combination of metal, earth, and firebending to first stabilize the tunnel, and then clear a path through the rubble to remove the young man according to the Avatar's directions.
Once Mako was located at around one-thirty in the afternoon (13:30), the waterbending healers administered the correct on-scene medical aid to his crushed leg, stabilized his stabbed calf, and then transported him to the Central Hospital using the emergency railroad tracking system at a speed of roughly one hundred and ten miles an hour. His left leg had been severely injured by the equalist's knife (upon rescue, the wound had been seared closed with his own firebending) and he was suffering from ranging levels of untreated hypothermia. Mako entered the hospital at approximately two-fifteen in the evening (14:15) and was immediately processed into surgery.
The unidentified equalist's body was removed and buried at the entrance to the mining site.
Mako swallowed and put down the form.
Eighteen and a half hours in near total darkness. He thought he had been gone for days.
And there was nothing about the second tunnel collapse, Korra's airbending, or the entire discussion of the Avatar State and Amon's plans. According to the paper, and to the rest of the world, the equalist injured him before they even entered the tunnel, and was dead by the time he and Korra had awoken inside it.
"Korra informed me that certain details concerning the Equalist Revolution, as well as her duties as the Avatar, were discussed in the tunnel between the three of you that would be best not to spread amongst the media and the masses." Bei Fong was staring down at him, silently informing him in no uncertain terms that this was the story he would have to keep up for the public. "The details here have been slightly modified to fit the story that the three of you never had the time to discuss them. The earthbenders involved in your rescue are aware that this is not the full story, as they have seen the tunnel's varying levels of damage with their own eyes, but have agreed to keep silent on the matter for reasons of the city's security. Understood?"
He could only nod, overwhelmed by everything. It was too much for a moment, almost too much.
"I owe you an apology," were the next words that came out of her mouth, which shocked him so much that he could only blink as his brain tried to understand what she'd said.
"An apology," she explained patiently, "for not appreciating the gravity of the situation when it was initially reported. Considering how far this incident has gone and the avoidable strife that it caused, I understand that my inactivity put lives in danger, and for that, I apologize for not taking immediate action."
"Oh," Mako said. His head was still pounding and felt stubbornly sluggish. He wished he could be more articulate in the presence of authority to make up for his last rude encounter, but all he got out was, "Um. It's okay. I mean, I get it. I know you're busy."
"Would you like to file a complaint for a case of improper police response?" Her tone was dark with ironic humor, but she still seemed just as serious as she'd ever been, if not more so. "In most cases, the form would go directly to the head of the police officer's division, but seeing as it would be inappropriate for me to review my own case, I would have it sent to Officer Saikhan. I spoke with Avatar Korra about this, but she left the decision to you, as you were the one to inform me of the situation."
"No," he said quickly. "It's all right. I don't need to do that, it's fine. I understand…"
For a second the chief looked at him rather oddly, as if something was softening in her gaze, but her expression turned stern once again. "I said that I would only drop the charges against the damages to the city granted that the equalist was successfully captured by the two of you and turned over to be interrogated by the official authorities." At his signs of protest, she raised a hand. "For helping to uncover part of Amon's plans concerning his revolution, I've decided to drop them regardless of the equalist's fate."
Mako nodded, taking it in. "Okay," he said finally.
Taking that as her cue to leave, the chief gathered her forms and made to exit. When she had pulled the door halfway open, however, Mako's voice stopped her. "But what about Korra?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Korra, they're going to kill her," he said, suddenly desperate to get this out, to explain the urgency. "They're going to trigger the Avatar State and — "
Bei Fong shut the door closed and rounded on him so fast it nearly made his head spin. "What part of this conversation did you not understand?" she practically hissed at him. "Do not mention the conversation you held outside the confines of a locked door. Don't speak about it, don't reference it in passing, don't even think about it until we uncover more information. Do you understand?"
Mako nodded, internally chastising himself. "Right," he said, "sorry."
She watched him for a moment, then lowered her voice to disguise it from any possible eavesdroppers. "Due to recent events, the Avatar has been given extra measures of security," she muttered. "Members of a group of highly elite fighters from all bending and non-bending disciplines will be trailing her in groups of two at all times, hidden from the sight of most onlookers, beginning tomorrow. Is that satisfactory?"
He blinked. "Yeah. It's, I mean… of course, as long as she's okay with it."
"She has given her… grudging approval," Bei Fong replied. "She also insisted that similar arrangements be made for you and your brother, though that will be left to your discretion when the two of you are in good enough health and consciousness to come to a logical decision. For now, I have sentries posted at the ends of this hallway and at the entries to the hospital's doors to stand guard while you recover. I trust this will be enough for now, as I highly doubt Amon or his followers would attempt anything drastic this soon after such a large incident concerning the fall of one of their men."
Mako could only stare.
She caught the look on his face and frowned. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," he said, but she wasn't buying it. "I'm just… surprised."
"Er," he started, "um. With you. I thought — that you didn't even like us."
She frowned. "Is it so hard to believe that I might genuinely care for the well-being of you children?"
She watched him for a long moment, so long that he started to wonder if he had said the wrong thing. Finally, she turned on her heel and stepped to the doorway once more. Upon opening, she called loudly over her shoulder, "Get some rest before I change my mind about your charges," for the entire hospital ward to hear. The door slammed shut behind her.
Bolin and Korra came to visit two hours after that. He highly doubted they were allowed in, as nobody came into inform him he had a visitor as they had with the chief. Instead, he was given three seconds to prepare for their entrance by a shout that echoed down the hallway.
"Miss Avatar, we put that wheelchair in front of your room for a reason — !"
The door barged in. Bolin rushed forward, Korra following quickly behind, and they both looked downright terrible. Both of their heads were swaddled in bandages, though his brother looked to be in much better health than Korra. Her left arm was set in a cast and under her hospital robe he noticed that thick gauze was wrapped around her torso.
They rushed to his bedside. He had expected shouted exclamations of relief and "How dare you make me worry"s and "Took you long enough to join us"s, but none came. They each went around to a side of his bed and pulled up a chair, waiting carefully for him to say the first word.
But Mako didn't know what to say. What could he, after the past twenty-four hours? What could he tell them that they didn't already know?
Korra eventually broke the silence. "Got pretty bad in there for a while," she said quietly.
"No kidding," he replied after a moment. "But I kept my promise."
She nodded. "I didn't doubt it."
Mako swallowed and turned to his brother. He had carefully avoided looking down to prolong his fate for as long as possible, but he figured here, among good company, he didn't mind being judged. "My leg," he said, not bothering with trying to sound nonchalant, "is it still there?"
"Yes," Bolin said, "and it's going to stay that way. You'll need crutches for a while and you may be walking with a limp every odd Tuesday, but it'll be fine. Doctor Hakora, the old medic who helped rescue you, preformed some ground-breaking surgery to save it, so he said you'd better take care of it."
"Remind me to send him a thank-you letter."
Bolin grinned. "Aside from that, the malnutrition, hypothermia, and slight delirium were a piece of cake to deal with."
"I can only imagine."
"By the way," Bolin said, fidgeting with something he had stuffed in his coat, "I almost forgot." He was dragging something out, something long and red –
"Had to wash it a few times to get the blood out, but, well. It's still in one piece. I know you'd have my head if it weren't."
Mako snorted, fingering the fringe of his scarf with the tips of his fingers, and remained still to allow his brother to drape it over his shoulders, a shockingly deep red against the bland hospital outfit. He was too tired to argue with the teasing, too tired to come up with anything clever to say. Bolin and Korra were safe. That was enough to tide him through whatever else came next.
With the scarf back in its proper place, he looked down and realized, suddenly, that he wasn't wearing the woolen blue Water Tribe sweater anymore. Though he told himself it didn't matter much in comparison to what they'd just been through — he was in the hospital, of course he wouldn't be wearing it, and it wasn't like she couldn't get another one — he felt desperate to explain, to apologize. "Korra — I'm sorry, your coat — "
"Is fine," she said. "They got it back to me the day they pulled you out." It took a moment, but she was soon giving him a rueful grin, too. "Though they almost couldn't get it off, since it barely fit over your big head."
He accepted the jab, one of the only times he was willing to take it without retaliation. "It saved my life. So did the airbending trick you did. Snuffed out my fire, but it saved my life."
She paused, not smiling anymore, and then nodded. "Good. But you saved your own, too, you know. Firebending on your own leg, and you call me reckless…"
"Well, you keep trying dangerous stuff just to give me a heart attack."
"You're about due for one, if you keep freaking out over every single little thing. Anybody ever tell you that you worry too much?"
"No, I worry exactly the right amount. Who else is going to worry for the three of us?"
"We can take turns," Bolin said. "I'll be Mako for a day, then Korra, you can give it a try…"
Korra met his eyes, and for a moment, Mako held his breath.
Teammates, friends, partners, siblings… He wasn't sure which of those terms the three of them fit, but maybe that was all right. Maybe they could be a bit of all of them. Just the three of them against the world, as a team or a group or whatever they wanted, did feel a bit intimidating, but then and there, it didn't sound so bad.
He had spent so long down in the dark waiting, wondering, thinking about what to tell her – tell them both – when he got out, and now, face to face again, he came up empty-handed. Everything he could ever say would just sound ridiculous, disingenuous. He wanted to chastise her for being so unnecessarily reckless and stupid and noble. He wanted to thank her for saving his life, however many times it had been by now. He wanted to hug her, confirm she was okay for his own sake, put his body's tension at ease once it could be sure that she was safe.
But Korra apparently didn't need to hear anything. She lifted her right palm, took his hand in hers, and gave it a gentle squeeze that said everything that she needed to.
It was enough.
She didn't need to ask that he would keep their discussions back in the tunnel between themselves. Mako felt honored that she didn't have to ask.
Korra didn't need someone there all the time, hovering around in case things went wrong. Things were always going to go wrong, and she would have to know how to handle herself when they did. Sometimes – perhaps even most of those times – she'd have to be alone.
Other times… well, at least she'd know he'd be there, if she let him. Just in case.
On his other side, Bolin gave him a smile that brightened his entire face with tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. A gentle look that said I can't believe you're actually okay.
Mako reached over and pulled him into a one-armed hug, shoving his younger brother's head underneath his chin in a rare display of normally tightly-held emotion. After all that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, he could allow himself this much, at least. Besides, he knew how much it could mean. Having someone who believed made a lot of difference. They didn't always have to offer hugs or make pretty speeches. Sometimes just believing was enough.
…Korra wasn't through with the world yet. She was alive and ready with a firm grip on her fire, the flame inside that hadn't even fizzled during all the time they'd known each other, and, Mako was beginning to suspect, most likely never would. She held all the glory of the past Avatars and all the best of her friends and family, but there was something else there that was entirely hers. It was something bold and brave and winged, something that would save them all; it was something, he knew, that would lick the sky and lead the way.
It would soar.