Title: The Free Fall
Fandom: The Legend of Korra
Pairing(s)/Characters: Mako/Korra; Bolin, Tenzin, Lin Beifong, Katara, Tenzin's kids.
Summary: He should have recognized her immediately, but even after the acknowledgment hits, it's still some time before the true appreciation of it lands home. The journey of their first year in Republic City together, as seen through Mako's eyes.
Author's Note: Prompted by sache8: He should have recognized her name.Spoilers for 1.01 and 1.02.
He should have recognized her name.
The epiphany washes over him in an instant while Bolin is still trying to figure it out - water and earth and fire, and huh, you can really do all three?– and the urge to slap his palm across his own forehead is slight, but there. She is the talk of the city, after all. High-spirited, young, rash, (pretty, a few had gone out of their way to mention) and altogether earnest. The new Avatar. He should have recognized her immediately, but even after the acknowledgment hits, it's still some time before the true appreciation of it lands home.
After she joins their pro-bending team, he doesn't know what to do with her at first. They're opposites in so many ways and it's always clashing; where he's methodical and calculating, she likes to shake things up and do everything off the cuff. Bolin gets along with her like two peas-in-a-pod, and Mako contains a sigh because he had enough trouble keeping his brother's free-spirited nature in line; now there's two of 'em. Honestly, he doesn't even get Korra, though he supposes she's always upfront about what she's thinking or planning to do. He grew up hard, the responsibility of his little brother's welfare weighted heavy on his shoulders since the age of seven. So how can she be so guileless when the measures of her responsibility are a hundred-fold? It isn't a lack of understanding; he's positive that Korra takes her duties seriously.
He supposes his main problem is that he always imagined the Avatar as old, stately, and poised, thinking of Avatar Aang's statute presiding over the gates of the Republic City. The girl in front of him is not any of those things. She takes things labeled non-flammable as a personal challenge. As a firebender, he can appreciate that. As a person with a healthy sense of sanity, sometimes he's just plain disconcerted by the smile the stretches across her lips just before she destroys something.
Still, she makes a good member for the team. Even if the pro-bending rulebook that he brought her after that first match remains unopened, much to his frustration. Still, they've made it to the finals because of her help.
That's all that matters, for now.
He's glad that Korra doesn't tease him when he works around to asking about her firebending defenses. It stings the pride a little, but he's man enough to admit he can always improve in some way and he might learn a thing or two. Instead of just offering a tidbit or two, she circles around him and positions his hands in the exact placement needed.
"You're too tense, Mako. Loosen up a little bit." He takes a breath, and tries to lessen the stiffness in his shoulders. Unsuccessfully, if Korra's rolling eyes are anything to judge by. "Just ease back a little. I swear the world won't end if you learn to relax."
"I am relaxed!"
She sighs. "Look, it's like when you taught me how to cook Sweat Sour Crab last week. I generally read recipes the same way I read science fiction. I get to the end and think, Well, that's not going to happen. But you took the time to point out the small stuff along the way, and we worked it out. It's gonna have to be like that again. Start small, and work towards the bigger stuff. But you gotta trust me. And the first rule of at The School of Korra is: relax a little."
He takes a breath, deeper this time, and lets it go slowly.
She smiles in approval. "Good, now, first we gotta differentiate between what moves you already know, and which ones work best for you. If Tenzin were here, he'd say something like, Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad, or something like that, and we'd spend the entire hour trying to figure out what any of that had to do with defensive training. But me? I go by a different philosophy on figuring out what moves work best for you. Basically…" her eyes darken with mischief. "Think fast!"
The firebolt comes out of nowhere, and he should have known Korra's idea of starting slow was trial by fire – literally.
"Mako, do you ever think about them?" Bolin says, looking at Tenzin's family from afar as they gather around the new baby. There's a familiar look of painful nostalgia on his little brother's face, and Mako knows without asking where the conversation is headed. "Jinora looks like Mom, doesn't she? The same hair and nose."
Mako doesn't comment, just tugs his jacket tighter around his body; the topic of their parents has always been a sore one for Mako, but he endures them whenever Bolin brings it up because memories are all Bolin has left of them. For Mako, it isn't as bittersweet. Painful memories are ones that Mako prefers to avoid. Their father was a northern earthbender, and their mother came from a long line of firebenders. His parents were both very young when they got married, but then again they did everything young – fell in love, had kids, died. Mako was only eight years old when they'd been orphaned, and ever since then they'd been living on the streets, earning their wages through panhandling, thievery, and when their talent was discovered, pro-bending.
"Do you remember the song Mom used to sing to us?" Bolin asks.
With startling clarity.
"C'mon," Mako says, sullenly, gesturing to the exit. "We've got practice early morning tomorrow. Let's leave."
Aside from Bolin, the thought of family is a thing of the past; Mako prefers for it to remain that way.
She's fuckin' crazy.
It's a thought that Mako has just as she leaps into the air, a frigid drop into the choppy waters below, and he knows – intellectually – that she's the Avatar and there isn't much danger to her because the fall is lessened by her airbending and the raging waters are calmed by her waterbending – but for a split second all he sees is Korra going over the high walls of the City with no forethought whatsoever, chasing after two metalbending thieves in a blind pursuit that lodges his heart in his throat.
She makes it, of course.
Afterwards, soaking wet and grinning, Korra drops the two suspects onto the pavement road in front of Mako. "Told you I could catch up with them."
His expression is bored, because that's what is expected of him. "Do I need to mention that we're now late for the tournament? The thing was set to begin five minutes ago."
"Oh, c'mon! They're not gonna start without us. Who's their big draw?" She claps an arm around his shoulder, tugging him closer with a giddy grin. Her dampness soaks into his uniform. "The Fire-Ferrets are all this city talks about." Actually, she is all this city talks about, but he appreciates her efforts to include him. "Oh," Korra says slowly, squinting at him. "Were you worried?"
She says this with the same tone that she would in suggesting he'd grown a third eye on his forehead. He ignores the pathetic groans of the two trouble-makers on the ground; his default expression of boredom must not be cutting it, so he recovers with a scowl.
"I wasn't worried about the drop," he informs, coolly, "but I gotta say, the abrupt stopat the end had me raising an eyebrow."
She smiles. "Aw, Mako, you were worried about me. That's… sweet." He hates the way that sounds, like he's amusing to her. "Don't worry, though. I intend to live forever. So far, so good," she jokes with a laugh.
"Korra!" Bolin hollers, from down the street, running towards them.
The shout startles Mako into straightening. Korra's hand drops off his shoulder, and the other two begin their usual banter at once.
"Did you see that—"
"It was awesome the way you—"
"Yeah, but I couldn't have done it if you hadn't stopped those two others from following—"
"But the drop. How long was it? Was it like—"
"Oh, you know," Korra answers with a shrug, smugly. "Pretty long."
Mako restrains an eye-roll. "If you two are done patting yourselves on the back, we've got to get back to the stadium."
Korra and Bolin trade looks, and though Mako is long used to his role as the wet-blanket in the group, he doesn't appreciate the sentiment behind the exchange. He keeps silent as they each gather up one of the metalbenders, and then follows behind the group towards the police station. Then, the stadium. He takes one last look at the lengthy city wall behind him, knowing the drop on the other side to be at least a few hundred meters down into tumultuous waters. He hates the feeling of a free-fall; he's well familiar with it, and the sudden loss of all control and power freaks him out a little; Mako always prefers to be in control.
He lets out a sigh.
Just shake it off, he tells himself.
The impossible happens, and he loses his firebending.
It's the Equalist's fault, though he doesn't quite know how they pulled it off. All three of them without their powers, and Korra is by far taking it the worst. Frustrated, restless, angry, she never stops moving. Mako is trying to keep it cool, but they're out in the abandoned ruins of the old city, the parts that were never renovated when it officially became Republic City, and he's trying to start a fire the old fashioned way for the first time in his entire life. The chilly night air seeps into his skin, and he isn't from the Southern Water Tribe like Korra and can't stand the same drops in temperature.
Neither can Bolin. "I can't feel my fingers," he starts in a whine. "I'm pretty sure that's the first sign of hypothermia."
"I'm trying to get the fire going," Mako grunts under his breath, in frustration.
How is it that one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire? Mako restrains a groan until Korra snatches the matches from him and then gets a fire started within a few seconds.
Sometimes, he really hates how everything comes so easy to her.
"What's the plan?" Bolin asks.
"I don't know," Korra answers. "I'm not so good with plans. I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not even sure that's the problem." She continues, unaware of the inherent irony of that statement. "I just know we have to recover our powers first. I'm like a useless sac of potatoes without them!"
"You're many things," Mako answers, calmly. "Loud, presumptuous, brash, more than a little impatient—"
"Is this going somewhere?" Korra cuts in, "Because the last thing I want to do is hurt you, but it might still make it on the list."
"But you're not useless," Mako declares. "Even without your powers."
She stops, briefly looking to him with a type of vulnerability that reminds him that she may have been training to be the Avatar for the last thirteen years of her life, but underneath all that swagger she is just a seventeen year old girl. A girl that isn't quite as sure of herself as she pretends to be.
Mako can relate.
(Well, not to the girlpart, but to the other – you know what he means.)
"You really think I could take on someone without my powers?"
Mako stares, incredulous. "Korra, I say this as a person that has had the unfortunate experience of being picked upby you one-handed, but you're a lot stronger than you look. And a lot smarter, too."
She smiles back at him, softly, then freezes. "Wait. Did you just imply I look dumb?"
"What?" Mako exclaims, straightening. "No, that's not—not what I meant."
Korra keeps the stern expression on her face for all of two seconds before she dissolves into laughter, and he realizes with a sigh that he fell for it. Still, Korra's laughing, and that's better than seeing her throw her weight around in frustration or misery. (Plus, she has a nice laugh.)
Bolin coughs, rather loudly and a bit awkwardly, and Mako snaps out of his gaze, shifting to find a knowing look on his brother's face. Straightening, and clearing his throat, Mako gets back on track. "Anyway, you made this fire, didn't you? Didn't need your firebending skills to start it."
Korra tries to shrug it off. "Great. Now if the Equalists only wait on me to get some matches ready every time we fight, I might actually win this thing." But she sits down next to him, crouching near the fire, and the light shining off her face indicates that maybe his words have had the intended effect because she looks calmer. "Thanks, Mako," she says.
He tells himself he would have done the same for Bolin.
The metropolitan city stretches out almost as far as he can see, but Mako only looks across the ocean waters towards the Air Temple Island. Korra has returned home for the night, but Mako seems wound tight still, as if they'd ended practice too early. He blames that on the full moon.
"Hey, Mako," Bolin calls, then adopts a mocking tone, chiding, "Don't stay up too late. Practice first thing in the morning!"
Mako gives a half-hearted glare while his brother chortles to himself and disappears to the attic above the arena. The mocking reminder of their practice in the morning is hardly necessary as it's a running gag on how long it'll take Mako to drag his brother out of bed any given morning. He's resorted to buckets of ice water on occasion.
Mako turns back to the open window, and stares.
He wonders what Korra is doing, right then.
"Are you sure, Lin?" Tenzin's voice drifts in through the open door. Mako shouldn't have overheard it, but something about the urgency of Tenzin's voice draws his curiosity. "Where did you get this information?"
"From the same source inside the Equalists that I get allmy information," Lin Beifong answers. "Which is to say it's a source I'm not willing to reveal."
Tenzin sighs. "Fair enough. In any case, I have always known the Equalists were dangerous, but this… this is bordering on insanity."
"Is it? A world without benders, Tenzin. Isn't that what the Equalists want? It doesn't matter that their name may reflect other prettier sentiments. It isn't about a balance of power; this has become a form of genocide."
With a start, Mako creeps closer to the door, intent on eavesdropping from a better position.
"Is it true? Is it possible?"
"I don't know. I've always feared the vulnerability of Korra in the Avatar State," Tenzin continues, and Mako can't follow that because he's only seen Korra in the Avatar State once, and there is nothing vulnerable about it. "My father was always worried that if he ever perished while in the Avatar State, then the entire chain of Avatar reincarnations would end. But this… this is so much worse than our worst nightmare."
Mako freezes, overwhelmed by the revealing information; he has trouble thinking of a worse nightmare than one in which Korra dies, and brings the long line of Avatars to an end. The thought is almost too horrific to comprehend.
Lin draws in a lengthy breath. "But, Tenzin, is my source correct? Could killing Korra in the Avatar State lead to the end of allbending?"
What? Mako has to bite down on his tongue hard to keep from making a noise.
Tenzin sounds alarmed, and yet gravely solemn, "The Avatar is the bond between this earthly world and the spiritual world. Without the Avatar, it wouldn't be too farfetched to imagine a world in which there wouldn't be bending of any kind. It's all been academic until now. No one has ever targeted the Avatar with such purposes."
Lin's voice is challenging, "Amon is a determined son of a bitch. I think he's crazy enough to try. Which means that young girl's fate is the fate of us all."
Tenzin's voice is soft, "That's always been the case, Lin. That's always been the case."
"Watch it, bender!" a bystander threatens, as he bumps shoulders with Bolin.
Bolin blinks, rubbing his shoulder, then offers his apologies even though Mako knows it isn't his fault – but that's Bolin for you. They try to wedge their way through the crowd, but the annoyed pedestrian whirls on them; he's got seven or eight buddies too, Equalists by the looks of it. They gather around Mako and Bolin like wolves going in for a kill. Mako isn't intimidated. Ever since regaining their powers, Mako has been itching for fight. It's only the caustic memory of the discussion that Tenzin had with Lin Beifong that keeps him in check; the city is rife with tension between benders and non-benders. Mako can't add to the trouble.
"Our mistake," Mako grits out. "We'll be on our way."
"Benders," the man mocks, with disgust. "Think you can do whatever you want, wherever you want."
"Look, we apologized," Bolin tries. "Now let us leave or we'll—"
"What?" the man challenges, poking Bolin in the chest. Mako watches his brother turn red-faced. "Do some violence? That's all you benders are ever good for."
"Look who's talking, pal," Bolin throws back, annoyed. "I'm a humble person, normally. But maybe you've heard of us? This is my brother, Mako, and I'm Bolin. We're the Fire-Ferrets."
"Ohhh," the guy mocks, and the entire crowd breaks down into laughter. "The ferrets? I gotta go buy me some boots to shake in. The Avatar's lackeys."
Mako steps forward. "I am no one's lackey," he says calmly, but the hint of a threat is undeniable to miss.
It all happens so fast, Mako doesn't even see it coming. One of the rebel-rousers smashes a bottle across the back of Bolin's neck, and his brother caves in at the knees. Mako screams and chaos breaks out. He throws a punch, bends a few fiery balls towards the encroaching men. They block, duck and advance. He doesn't see his brother move. The men jump Mako, and he gets slammed from the side with a chair, going down. From across the floorboard, he sees blood from Bolin's head wound and something turns red – and it isn't fire. It isn't blood. It's Mako's vision, because if there's one thing in the entire world that Mako does well, it's protecting his little brother.
There's a towering wall of a fire, all of a sudden.
Mako yells and begins attacking with roaring flames that shoot high and wide. Mako isn't aware of much except the sheer desperation of protecting his brother – he doesn't notice when the crowd begins to retreat. He tightens his fists and drives out the burst of adrenaline, pounding his way through assailant after assailant.
"Mako! Mako, stop!"
The voice doesn't register, because Bolin is still unconscious on the floor and the man that hit him is huddled in a tight ball behind an overturned table. Mako can still get him.
"Mako!" Korra yells, from behind. She must've entered the building at some point. "Mako, stop!"
She counters his bending with some of her own, and then it's her spear of water battling his lance of fire, a clash of icy blue and vengeful red in the middle of the chaotic room before Mako realizes he's fighting Korra. He's fighting Korra. The realization sags the fight out of him, and he stops, abruptly. Korra cuts off her bending just in time, and the sudden inactivity leaves a chill of silence in its wake; Mako stares wide-eyed at Korra, at Bolin's grumbling form as he regains consciousness and looks around, at the broken hobble of a teahouse surrounding them. Everything is in ruin, and a few of the men suffer extreme burns.
"Mako," Korra asks, breathless, "Are you all right?"
The question should be ridiculous given everything, but Mako fights off the rough answer of, no.
Mako stares out at the massive statue of Avatar Aang with new eyes. It's erected on a small island on the outskirts of Republic City, standing guard near the gates. Aang wears the Air Nomad monk robes and holds a staff aloft, looking serene and wise, as just as the stories tell of him. It was a gift created by the Fire Nation as a sign of peace and goodwill, and Mako is in the mood now, apparently, to think of history. Of all its failings and how, finally, after nearly a hundred years of strife, it got it right – only for things to go wrong yet again, now, in Republic City.
There's so much to learn, but for the first time in his life, Mako doesn't think he has all the answers.
"Hey," Korra says, approaching him cautiously from behind. "You're staring at that statue pretty intensely. Thinking about all the ways my hair is so much more awesome this life around?"
For a beat, he wants to confess everything he's overheard, but something binds his tongue. "Just thinking," Mako remarks at length, keeping it vague. "The City of Harmony. It isn't going the way it was planned, is it?"
Korra pauses, then turns her gaze towards the statue of her former self; he still isn't used to that, the idea of her past incarnations. She's quiet for a long time, and then, just when he's given up on getting any type of response, says softly, "Harmony isn't a magic state you achieve, Mako. Avatar Aang knew that, and it's taken me forever to realize the same. I'm starting to see that there isn't peace without struggle. There isn't hope without the element of doubt. Harmony is something you have to workon, and constantly."
Mako stares at her, and for a moment, he doesn't have any trouble believing the young woman in front of him is the Avatar incarnate. He's seen her bend all four elements to her whim and fight off an army of men single-handedly, but it's here, now, in the serene backdrop of the Republic City, that he truly sees the similarities between Korra and Aang. There is such hidden strength there, and wisdom far beyond her age. She has to work at it, but Mako can see the long strides she's already made in the months here.
Mako realizes he'd be willing to follow Korra anywhere, and he's never been the type to follow anyone.
Even after nearly nine months of knowing the kids, Mako panics at the idea of babysitting them. Meelo, in particular, can be a handful; that's saying something considering Mako had to singlehandedly take care of Bolin as a child, and his younger brother had a habit of breaking at least one thing every week – they were lucky on the occasions where it wasn't a piece of his own body. But when Tenzin asks for his presence in the Air Temple so that he can look after the children, Mako is so thrown by the request that he can't immediately think of a refusal. So, that Saturday, he drags Bolin out of bed and takes the ferry across the waters to the Temple.
Instead of Korra, Tenzin and his kids are waiting for them at the dock. Meelo immediately tackles Bolin to the ground, and the sight of the little guy knocking over Bolin's sturdier frame would be more amusing if Mako wasn't fearing similar treatment.
"Hi, Mako," Jinora says with a giggle, smiling up at him with large eyes. He gets the feeling she might have a crush on him, which would be flattering if he wasn't unusually intimidated by all of Tenzin's children to an unhealthy degree. "We're glad you could make it."
Mako tries for a relaxed smile. "It's my pleasure—"
"Are you going to firebend for us?" Ikki interrupts. "And then is Bolin going to earthbend for us? And are we going watch you guys duel? That's so cool, dueling! I've never seen the pro-bending matches before. Daddy says that it's a sport meant for Neanderthals. What's a Neanderthal? Oh, maybe we can airbend at you! So that way we can have all the elements in place. Korra can be the waterbender. She likes to waterbend. And then we play teams and have fun and be bestest friends—"
There's an undignified scream from Bolin when Meelo bites him.
"Kids," Tenzin says, rather tiredly. "Why don't you see if your mother has finished feeding the baby? Then you can have breakfast. Mako and I need to talk."
Bolin gives him a helpless look as he's led away.
"Sir?" Mako asks, when the area has cleared.
"Oh, relax, Mako," Tenzin admonishes. "This isn't anything to be concerned about. I just wanted to talk to you, that's all."
Mako blinks. He gets the feeling that this isn't as an innocuous conversation as normal, but he can't think of anything he's done lately that could inspire Tenzin's wrath. Well, beyond the normal shenanigans that Korra drags him into every week, and Tenzin is more than well aware that sometimes those situations can't be helped. Which is another way of saying it's Korra's fault, but Mako is trying to rephrase that into better terms just in case he's going to have impending need of it; Tenzin would respond better to a diplomatic excuse, rather than outright saying, Have you met Korra? She has the same destructive force as a tornado. Sometimes our only hope is just to point her in the right direction and get out of the way.
"Mako," he says instead, in a rather stately manner, "I'm wondering what your intensions are toward Korra."
On second thought, Mako is suddenly wishing for babysitting duties for the next week. The next month. The next year,even. Anything is better than this.
"You see, Mako," Tenzin continues in a soft voice, his most wise and authoritative, "I understand more than most how important it is to that the Avatar have ties to the mortal world. I would not be standing here right now if my father had not loved my mother deeply enough to forsake the normal oaths of a solitary life that most other Avatars accepted. My only concern is… well, that we keep in mind that Korra is a young woman. She has a lot of responsibilities, and things can be confusing enough without… further complications."
Kill him now.
"Sir," Mako finally manages to dislodge his jaw. "I don't know where this is coming from, but uh…" he actually has to fight back a rush of nervous laughter, an uncharacteristic reaction to say the least – but is it suddenly hot out here? When did summer arrive? "Korra and I are just friends. That's all."
Tenzin watches him with a soft, knowing look. Then nods. "Of course, Mako. Of course. But just… as a general principle then. My father and mother did not acknowledge their feelings for one another until Firelord Ozai was defeated. Even at such a young age, they knew that emotional complications would be… distracting."
"Right." Mako swallows. "Is that all?"
Tenzin studies him, and Mako isn't a small man by any measure, but underneath Tenzin's six foot, four inch towering frame, he suddenly feels tiny and diminutive. "That'll be all," Tenzin says, looking pleased with himself. Whatever he wants accomplished with this talk, apparently he achieved it, because as they move back towards the hall, Tenzin changes the topic to something harmless.
Where had this entire conversation come from? Mako is close to Korra, but really, he's no closer to her than Bolin is – and Tenzin obviously singled Mako out for this little chitchat. He wonders what the older man sees, or clearly hallucinates – because him and Korra? Please! They'd kill each other before kissing each other. Not that—not that there is anything particularly unkissable about Korra, but – well, it's Korra. The woman is mad. Certifiably.
Mako tries to play it off as absurd, even riding through the sinking feeling that it isn't as outrageous as first blush would suggest.
"Mako, shut up and dance!" she exclaims. "We're supposed to be blending in here, and your sulking is getting us noticed."
He rather thinks her dancing is getting far more attention, but Korra has already got him by the arms, swinging him around the dance floor in what he's fairly certain is theguy'ssteps, but that hardly seems to matter. Thankfully, the dance floor is filled with people with no rhythm or clue what they're doing, so Mako and Korra don't stand out much.
Bolin cuts in halfway through, and Mako releases Korra gratefully and quickly slips into the corner of the room where hopefully he'll be able to blend in with the wallpaper. This entire night was a bad idea. Infiltrating like this was too obvious, even if they were decked up in costumes that hid their true identities. At least he thinks they've got a chance at fooling people, but then Lin Beifong, dressed in her starch uniform, seeks him out within a minute.
"What are you doing here, Mako?" she asks, gruffly.
"How'd you know it was me?"
She glares, like answering that is beneath her.
He swears inventively in his head. "We were just… just taking in the festivities. We're not allowed to celebrate with the rest of the City?"
Lin's lips thin. The guest of honor for the evening is the newly elected official that won by a landslide majority. To Mako's disappointment, it went to a man with obvious Equalist's sympathies. Korra, Bolin and Mako decided to crash the party with the hopes of getting a closer look at the man, but it seems that the Chief of Police might rain on their parade before they even get the chance. (After Mako suffered the indignity of allowing Bolin to glue a fake beard on him, and everything.)
Mako sighs. "We just wanted to listen to his acceptance speech," he offers. "I hear it's going to be revealing."
Lin studies him for a long beat, then drops her shoulders. He has the feeling she's about as happy about the election as any of them, but her duties are crystal clear. "Look, kid, I get it. I do. But as far as I'm concerned, politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason. This guy won the election, but he won't be here forever. Just keep your head down, and keep cool."
He wonders who she's trying to convince: him or herself. For the first time, he gives a thought to what an Equalist might do with a metalbending Chief of Police, and winces. Lin Beifong is intimidating, but she's always been fair. Mako and Bolin have gotten out of a few messy scraps because of her well-timed interventions, and he doesn't like the idea of anyone replacing her.
"How bad is it for you?" he asks, before he can stop himself.
Lin glares at him, but it seems like an automatic reaction and after a beat, she relents with a sigh. "Don't worry about me, kid. I'm not nearly the biggest target in the City."
Without a word, they both turn to look back at the dance floor where Bolin whirls Korra around in some mad rendition of a dance that bears no resemblance to its formal steps. He watches his younger brother laugh, but then Mako's eyes hone in on Korra alone; the chill of Lin's words sink in like a warning. The Avatar. There would be no greater danger to the Equalists than Korra, and the threat to her is greater than ever now that there's an election backing them. Worry gnaws on Mako's stomach.
"God help us," Lin admits with a deep breath, and she must be a lot more concerned about the situation than she previously let on, because she adds, "that girl might be our only hope now."
It doesn't matter what happens to him, but if she dies, Mako will never forgive himself.
It's this thought that permeates through him as he sits quietly at her bedside, watching the healers shuffle around her bed and talk in hushed whispers of concern. It's his fault that she's in this condition, a psychic coma that came about because she hadn't been protected properly while in the meditative state.
Korra never slips into her spiritual state easily. She's got the physical part of being the Avatar down pat. (After a few false starts with her airbending, of course.) But Korra has always been her most vulnerable and uncertain when it comes to the spiritual realm, and he knowsthat.
It had been Mako's duty to protect her. Instead, he'd been overwhelmed by numbers and thrown to the side like yesterday's trash while Amon had attacked her.
Bolin drops down to the seat beside him, and runs a hand through his hair in frustration. "Any word?" he asks, worriedly tipping his head towards the group of healers gathered on the other side of Korra's bed.
In response, Mako just shakes his head.
Up until now, his world has consisted of only one philosophy and that was to protect his little brother. But time and time again, it's becoming more obvious that Mako can't deny two things. One, his world has grown to include another because Korra has taken up residence in his life in a way that defies logic and all sense of rationale, but it's unmistakable now. It isn't just him and Bolin anymore. Korra is family. Mako will do anything for family.
But just as obvious comes point number two. He failed.
If she came out of this alive and whole, Mako makes himself a promise.
Mako doesn't regret much, but he regrets the way things fall apart between them in the weeks that follow after. It's a series of false-starts and blundering overreactions. He can't help it. It's an itch now, to protect her. It wouldn't be such a big deal if she wasn't so unreasonably stubborn about it, insisting that she can take on anything even though it's obvious as daylight that she's still recovering. They get into a heated fight about it after one occasion, when it comes to light that the Equalists have splintered off into a cancerous cell of Separatists, and the entire city is all going downhill fast.
Amon made another reappearance, but only briefly to warn Korra of a fight she cannot win; Mako still lays the odds on her, even if the numbers keep getting stacked in one lopsided way.
He's changed the way he thinks of her, subtly – or maybe he should say he's finally confronted the way he's always felt about her. He's kind of annoyed with the revelation, to be honest. It'd help if Korra wasn't just so… Korra about it, oblivious and stubborn and just as hot-tempered as always. He has enough troubles in his life without adding lovesick teenager to the list, and he's disgusted with himself nine times out of ten when he finds himself staring at Korra's profile, watching the way her hair cascades across her face or the particular look of fierce concentration she gets when she's about to bend someone across the room. He even thinks she looks hot when she's angry with him.
At least he's self-aware enough to appreciate how pathetic he's become.
"Look, Mako," Korra says, voice rising, "I don't know where you're getting off telling me what to do, but it's my job to track these people, and it's myresponsibility to—"
"And all I did," Mako cuts in, "is offer some help. The words you're looking for are, thank you, Mako. You saved my life."
"Thank you?" Korra repeats, incredulous.
"You're welcome," Mako responds wryly, getting in her face.
"Just stop it, you two!" Bolin yells, looking fed-up. "Do you wanna get arrested for disturbing the peace again? Because let me tell you, you guys may have the right to remain silent, but you don't have the ability!"
Bolin turns and flounces out of the room, annoyed, while Korra and Mako blink at his retreating form. "What's his problem?" Korra asks, bewildered.
"Don't know," Mako remarks, equally as bewildered.
"All we were doing was talking," Korra says, and she's lying through her teeth, but Mako isn't one to call her on it. "Jeeze, drama-queen."
"I know, right?" Mako agrees. "He's always been like that, since a little kid."
Later, when he's alone with his little brother, splayed out on their respective bunk beds, there's this awkward exchange. "So, what's going on with you and Korra?"
"Shut up, Bolin."
A beat of silence follows, then in the darkness there's a small chant: "Korra and Mako, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N—"
There's a loud and angry crash that follows, one that is entirely predictable.
It's a start when he sees Korra crying.
He doesn't know what to do with it, or even what could make Korra cry, because she's not like other girls when it comes to emotions and stuff. Or at least he assumes that, anyway. (His interaction with girls has usually been one-sided adoration from his fans, and unlike Bolin, he doesn't revel in it.) But Korra is different, because he's seen her shake off a blow that would make most grown men cry; it's with trepidation that he approaches her.
It doesn't take Korra long to spit it out. "It's Katara," she says. "She's sick. Really sick."
Mako doesn't really know how to respond, so he sits down and awkwardly extends his arm around her shoulder. She collapses against him inelegantly, sniffling and blowing her nose loudly. He knows a bit about Katara – who doesn't? Avatar Aang's wife, Tenzin's mother, Korra's waterbender teacher, and a woman that helped reform the world a few decades ago. Everybody knows who Katara is.
Korra finally pulls herself together. "Tenzin is going to visit her down in the Southern Water Tribe. Mako, I think I want to go with him."
There's a pause, because that means she'll likely be gone a while, and then Korra's parents are also there, which means Korra might find reason to end up staying there – which is ridiculous because he knows Korra has ties to Republic City, including friends and duty and everything else, but he still panics at the thought; all of this passes through his mind in the few seconds that follow, but Mako manages to recover.
He offers a tight, reassuring squeeze at her shoulders. "Yeah. Of course. Yeah."
She must sense his hesitation. "I'll be back before the new tournament season starts."
It takes a second for Mako to even realize what she's talking about. Pro-bending is the furthest thing from his mind, but he latches onto it like that is the reason behind any concern. "Don't worry about it, Korra." He shrugs it off. "That's months away." Don't let her be gone for that long. "When are you leaving?"
"In an hour," she answers.
"In an hour?" he repeats, and belatedly realizes it's a loud voice and has to tone it down it a bit. "Yeah, uh. That's quick."
"Tenzin insists, and you know Tenzin."
Less than an hour later, he's watching Korra and Tenzin load his sky bison. Korra trades a hug with Bolin, and Tenzin is bidding farewell to his family. There's a pause, and then Korra blows a whistle with her fingers and Naga comes galloping down the street. At first, Mako hadn't known what to do with Korra's pet polar bear dog, but over time he's gotten chummy with her. So it isn't that much of a surprise when Korra hands over the reigns of Naga to Bolin and him.
"Just until I get back," Korra says, while Naga takes a big, long lick across Bolin's face.
"Sure thing," Bolin says with a grin.
Korra steps up to Mako, and he isn't really sure how to play this. She might be gone only a few days, or she might be gone months. He doesn't want to be too formal, but neither does he want to overstep some imaginary line. It figures that he doesn't really know how to judge the situation because he's never really known what he's getting himself into with Korra. Of course, this is no exception.
"So," Korra says, and they do this awkward two-step, breaking and halting between an abandoned hug to an aborted handshake, when finally she settles for a kiss on his cheek. Mako tries to lessen the burning of his face, because he doesn't know what's worse: Bolin's knowing expression or Tenzin's. Judging by the amusement and riveted attention of their audience, Mako wonders if just about everyone knows of his feelings for Korra – except Korra herself, of course.
"Stay out of trouble," Korra mock-admonishes, just before she leaves.
Mako crashes to the floor with a grunt. It's frigid cold in the basement, but Mako tries to keep from voicing the pains of his body because he doesn't want to give his kidnappers the satisfaction. He is less controlled when they throw Bolin to the ground after him. With an angry shout, Mako tries to reach across the cement floor to help his brother to his feet, and earns a rather brutal kick to the stomach from the one of the guards instead. Mako fights off a grimace, grits his teeth, and keeps silent.
"Boss will be with you soon," their guard informs.
Mako should have seen this coming, honestly. With both Tenzin and Korra out of town, this was the perfect time for the Equalists to make their move over the city. All across Republic City, Equalists were capturing and fighting benders of every breed; he'd already seen Lin Beifong take a brutal hit to the stomach, and can only hope against the worst.
Five minutes later, Amon is standing before him. Mako has fought the masked figure a few times before, and each and every time, despite the advantage of firebending, Mako has barely made it out of the skirmishes alive. Amon may not be able to bend any of the elements to his whim, but he exudes an aura of authority and an intimidating skill at fighting hand-to-hand.
"Mako and Bolin," Amon addresses them amiably by name. "The Avatar's friends, brothers-in-arms. I had hoped to have this conversation long ago, but it seems we kept getting sidetracked."
"Loosen these metal handcuffs," Mako threatens, "And I'll try to be quick about distractions."
"A hot-tempered firebender," Amon remarks. "How quaint."
Actually, there's the heavy irony that Mako is more grounded than his earthbending brother, and that Bolin inherited the more unpredictable nature, but talking about oversimplifications of bending clichés is a lost art on an Equalist, especially this one.
"Pleasantries for later," Amon declares, then nods at one of his guards. "The younger one may go. Keep the older one."
"What?" Bolin asks in confusion, and Mako is right there with him, bewildered as he watches one of the Equalists release his little brother. He decides not to question the good fortune, but Bolin isn't as smart. "Why are you releasing me?"
"Bolin," Mako hisses. "Shut up and go!"
Amon's voice sounds amused, "You're being released because I want you to deliver a message to the Avatar. She must come and collect Mako personally. In the meantime, we will keep the young man occupied. Painfully occupied, but alive. That ends in two nights, on the full moon. If the Avatar is not here then, then Mako dies."
Before Bolin has a chance to even open his mouth, he's shoved out the door and it's slammed shut in his face.
Mako consoles himself with the thought that at least his brother is safe.
"Begin," Amon orders his men. "Remember, make it painful, but keep him alive."
Mako needs a moment to catch his breath because he feels dizzy, propped up weakly on bent forearms like a broken doll. Amon watches him from the seat in the corner. Funny thing is, they never ask any questions.
"Why are you doing this?" Mako demands, weakly.
"Because Korra will come for you personally," Amon answered. "And when she sees you in pain, it will upset her."
"Yeah, and what's that gonna do?" Mako mocks, wheezing. "Besides piss her off?"
"The Avatar State is sometimes triggered during moments of great emotional turmoil," Amon announces, quieting him with those simple words.
With a start, Mako knows exactly where this is going. He remembers all too hauntingly Tenzin's worry. If Korra is killed in the Avatar State, then not only is the Avatar line finished, but possibly all bending would come to an end.
Mako shakes his head. "You're not killing Korra. She's too good for you."
"Impulsive little girl playing savior," Amon counters, calmly. "Her weaknesses are obvious. For one, there's you. What better way to move her to the Avatar State than through harming the person she cares for the most?"
Mako stares, caught in the maelstrom of everything unfolding at the seams – Korra's vulnerability, the implied affection she may carry for him, the fate of the entire world resting in the balance – and Mako doesn't even hesitate for a second.
He jerks up, dives right across the room towards Amon's men. He tackles one to the ground, cuts his rope with a knife that falls to the floor, and rolls over, popping back up on his feet. Amon advances. Mako throws a fireball, and slams into the wall when the sharp slice of Amon's sword draws a wide arc across the air. Strength previously abandoned to Mako is returned in full form, fueled by adrenaline and conviction.
The fight continues, full of parries and ducks, a quick advance and a faster retreat - but Mako miscalculates the reach of Amon's sword, but more importantly, Amon miscalculates the measure of Mako's resolve. Because when Mako is impaled through the stomach, he looks up, realization hitting hard, and thinks, self-sacrificing idiot, but at least I'm not bait anymore.
Everything fades to darkness.
The mid-morning sun is hot on his face when Mako next awakes – which, hey, waking is good. Waking is very good considering he wasn't sure if that would ever be happening again. For the first few seconds, disorientation rules, especially when he finds himself in an unfamiliar bedroom and suffering more than a few minor injuries. There's a bandage wrapped around his naked torso, and when he tries to move, he gets a grunt of pain shooting up his spine for the trouble.
"Don't move," an elderly woman warns, wearing waterbending attire. "I've put in far too much effort in healing you to have you unraveling it all."
It takes a long beat before Mako is able to place the woman, but he recognizes her from pictures. "You're Master Katara," he breathes out in realization. "What? I thought Korra was—"
"Visiting a sick old woman?" Katara interrupts. "Not so old and so sick as to sit idly by while Republic City falls into the hands of men like Amon."
His full memories return with a flood, and Mako bolts straight up in bed, winching again. "Korra! Amon wants to attack her in Avatar State. She can't face him!"
"She already has," another voice cuts in, amused and feminine and familiar. Mako turns to find Korra standing in the doorway, head tilted aside and a soft smile on her lips. Relief tears him through at the sight. "Hey, Mako."
"You all right?"
Korra rolls her eyes, wandering over and then jumping onto the edge of his bed. "Says the human shish kabob. Yes, Mako, I'm fine. How're you?"
"Fine," he answers automatically.
"He needs rest," Katara counters, but she eyes the two of them with affection and amusement. "You can have a few minutes alone with him," she says to Korra, pressing a hand gently to Korra's as she rises. "But only a few. Then he needs to sleep."
"Thanks, Katara," Korra calls.
"Oh, uh, yeah," Mako manages, remembering himself. "Thanks for the, y'know, healing and everything."
"Yes, yes," Katara returns, and leaves with a laugh.
For a long moment, there's nothing but silence. Korra is watching him with an intent look on her face that he can't describe, a mix of affection, relief and worry. Mako thinks back to the last few moments before everything blacked out, and he knows there's a whole bunch of questions he should be asking, but a part of him foggily stalls on the implications of Amon's words: What better way to move her to the Avatar State than through harming the person she cares for the most? The most.
Korra grimaces. "We got there not long after you were stabbed. I… heard what you did, Mako. You almost got yourself killed."
He wants to shrug it off, but shrugging is a bad idea in his state. "I didn't want him using me against you," he admits.
Korra's face pales. She shakes her head, and then it all unfolds, the entire story. How Bolin was released and went to immediately track down Korra and Tenzin in the South Pole; how by the time they'd come back, half the city had fallen into chaos. Lin Beifong had been badly injured, but Katara was able to use her waterbending healing abilities to save Lin's life as well. From there, they'd tracked down Amon and had stumbled upon the scene of Mako's broken body.
"I almost lost it when I saw what they'd done to you. God, Mako, I'm so sorry."
"What are you sorry for?"
"You wouldn't have been there if it hadn't been for me."
"I was there because of Amon, not you," he chides. "What happened to him?"
Her expression sours. "He got away, but it's all right. I'll find him, Mako. I promise."
He reaches across the bedspread and somehow finds the courage to take her hand. It's different, this sort of contact. Maybe it's the near-death experience, or maybe he's emboldened by Amon's taunt – not that a megalomaniac's word should really be taken at face value, but Mako finds himself hopeful that maybe Korra does… care about him. That maybe she feels about him the same way as he does about her. The way she's looking at him now certainly lends the possibility more credibility.
"Why you'd do it, Mako? Why'd you risk your life like that?"
"Because," he replies, feeling a little adrift. "I wanted to protect you. I know, I know. You're the Avatar, and that isn't my place. Still doesn't mean I'm not gonna try, Korra."
She swipes a little at the corner of her eye, looking overwhelmed. Later on, he's going to find out that the City is back under control, and that more than half the Equalists responsible for the riots are behind bars, but in this moment, right now, there is this odd silent space in the world that exists of only Mako and Korra.
"You can't die on me, Mako," she says. "I'm serious. I don't know… I don't know what I'd do if—"
"Hey," he tries. "Still here, aren't I?"
"Nothing's changed much in the last year, has it?" Korra says softly, shaking her head. "I'm still the Avatar, and you're still an idiot."
He smiles. "Both are true."
And then she reaches up and just kisses him. Just like that, so Korra, without hesitation, flinging herself into this new uncharted territory with recklessness. Mako finds he's not opposed to cutting loose some control on this particular occasion. Lips press against lips, and he's too aware of everything between them, past and present. Then his hand finds the back of her neck, fingers pressing into her nape, and the kiss deepens. It lingers, almost bittersweet. In all the reckless moments when he couldn't stop himself from wondering and thinking about this moment, he'd always imagined it to be like their bending, clashing and aggressive. This, however, feels like a kiss of someone who knows him well, temperament and all, maybe even better than he knows himself. He cups her face and tries to be gentle with her.
He knows it's stupid to fall for the Avatar, that she's lived a thousand lives and she'll live a thousand more; it's going to be a rough road ahead of them. It makes Mako feel like free-falling, a sensation he's well-familiar with, but never in this context.
He finds that free-falling isn't so bad, after all.