"What's going on?" Asami cried as she and Korra leapt out of their seats and towards the edge of the balcony. Dozens of other spectators followed suit, making their way to the front to try to get a closer look. The match had come to a standstill – the air was rife with panicked cries and confusion, and the players were frozen in their bending positions.
A look of utter fear crossed Bolin's face. He ran over to where his brother lay kneeling on the ground. Bending down beside him, Bolin gently examined the wound on Mako's torso. Cringing, Mako struggled to choke out a few words. Korra could not hear what he was saying. Bolin nodded and swallowed.
Hasook neared them and attempted, with Bolin's help, to pull Mako up to a standing position. Mako cried out again, and his teammates quickly lowered him back down. Bolin signaled over to the side. Two medics hurried over, carrying a stretcher.
Heart beating quickly, Korra was shaking with worry and fear. The announcer shouted something loudly, words which echoed in her ears and made no sense in her mind. She watched as the medics carried Mako on the stretcher out of the arena and out of sight. "Where are they taking him?" she demanded.
She felt as though the blood pumping through her veinswas in a frenzy. She saw Asami's lips form the answer she was looking for, but before her friend could finish, Korra had turned and ran.
Minutes later, navigating through a tangled web of hallways which seemed to circle for miles on end, Korra found the door labeled "Clinic" and burst through.
The Fire Ferrets looked up, startled, and Korra came to a stop. She had run all the way here. Sweating profusely, she steadied her breathing and neared Mako, who was lying on a hospital bed. A medic was frantically wrapping a bandage around Mako's torso, in which there was a large, red gash. The blood soaked through the wrappings and would not stop.
"Korra," Mako breathed. "What are you – "
"What's going on? What happened?" she cried. "One minute you were there, fighting, and suddenly..." her voice trailed off as her vision landed on Mako's Fire Ferret uniform shirt, which lay folded on a table. There was a patch of crimson blood staining the front. Mako's blood.
"It was a stroke of bad luck," Bolin said grimly. "Really bad luck."
"I don't think so," Hasook spat. "They did it on purpose."
"Someone tell me what's going on!" Korra insisted impatiently.
"The earthbender from the other team kept hitting Mako in the same spot," Bolin said. "I don't know if he did it intentionally or not, but there was only so much that part of Mako's body could take."
"While we were playing, every time I looked over at Mako, he'd either be dodging a stone disc or getting hit by one in the stomach," Hasook said. "And every time I tried to defend him, the other two members would start attacking me."
"Same here," Bolin narrowed his eyes. "Looks like that was their strategy the whole time."
Korra let out a groan of anger and clenched her fists. "What kind of sick, dirty, foul – "
"It's not against the rules," Mako cut in. "It's a strategy, and an effective one at that. They just happened to think of it first, and I just happened to be the victim."
"Why is he bleeding like that?" Korra grimaced. The medic had unwrapped the bandage again – it was soaked all the way through with blood – and was replacing it with new wrappings to little avail. The blood kept seeping through the cloth, an angry, scary patch of red.
"An old injury," Bolin explained. "While training some time ago. He got it stitched up, but getting hit over and over again opened it right back up."
"The muscle underneath has been critically hit, as well," the medic said. "The injury might be..." he paused. "Permanent."
The word shot through Korra like ice. "Permanent?" Mako repeated in a fragile voice.
"The muscle has been torn," the medic elaborated. "Too much strain was put on it, especially after the first injury. It was still in a weak state when Mako entered the match, and the continued impact of the discs made it much worse."
"Can't you do something?" Bolin was starting to get hysterical. "If it's permanent...he might not be able to pro-bend anymore!"
"The bleeding has to be stopped first."
Korra had lost patience. She knew what she had to do.
Both Tenzin and Pema had stressed to her, repeatedly, about keeping her identity as the Avatar a secret. So, since her arrival in Republic City, Korra had kept the bending to a minimum. So far, no one had found out. The person who came closest to finding out the truth, however, was lying right there on a hospital bed, needing urgent help.
Anyway, he already knew she was not an airbender. Would it be that bad for him to know that she was actually a waterbender – and a trained healer, at that? Would she do nothing and let Mako bleed on the hospital bed, his pro-bending career growing more and more out of reach, while knowing that she could do something to help?
Korra was selfish, but not that selfish.
"I need everyone to leave the room," she said quietly. Korra had entered a state of strange calmness. Her senses felt heightened – she had an increased awareness of her surroundings – but everything seemed dull at the edges. The people in the room turned to look at her.
No one protested.
As soon as the door closed shut, and the room was empty apart from herself and Mako, Korra got straight to work.
"Not a word of this to anyone," Korra whispered.
Mako nodded cautiously. His eyes were wide in anticipation. He did not expect what would happen next.
Korra closed her eyes and lifted both arms slowly. Water streamed out of a sink in the corner of the room. Mako nearly jumped, startled, but winced in pain instead.
"Waterbender," he mumbled, shaking his head in disbelief.
Holding the water in a sphere between her palms, Korra bent over the wound in Mako's stomach and lowered her hands. As soon as the water made contact with his skin, Mako gasped in pain. "Relax," she said. "I'm going to heal you." For several tense minutes, she stood over him, massaging the wound with water. As time passed, the pain began to subside, and Mako's breathing relaxed.
Korra bent the remaining water down the sink drain and propped up a pillow behind Mako's head. "How are you feeling?" she asked gently.
"Much better," he said. His voice was tinted with a little surprise. Tentatively, he tried to sit up. "It still hurts," he said, "But a lot less." He could sit up now and support the weight of his upper body, though his stomach still felt a little sore. The gash was gone, leaving behind a small red scar.
"That'll be there for a while," Korra said. "It'll go away eventually."
The two of them remained in silence for what felt like hours, neither knowing what to say.
"How can I ever thank you?" Mako said softly.
"You can keep this a secret," Korra responded. She searched in the shelves and finally pulled out a roll of fresh new bandages. "Now sit up properly."As she wrapped the bandages around his torso, he looked down at her and smiled.
When Bolin, Hasook, Asami, and the medic came back into the room, Mako had changed into a clean shirt and was peacefully sipping tea with Korra. Although Bolin pestered the two of them for weeks after that, demanding to know what had transpired in his absence, neither of them would say a word.
"Follow through the movements with me one more time," Tenzin instructed.
Korra nodded. Together, the master and his student went through the motions of a basic airbending form. Korra twirled gently, arms raised about her. In the corner of her eye, she could see Tenzin's robes flowing in the air as he spun. She stifled a giggle, and the pair finished with a final forward thrust of the arms.
"One more time," Tenzin persisted. "And focus."
"You said that the last time," Korra whined, but nevertheless, she obeyed.
They fell back into position. Having repeated this move for quite literally hundreds of times, Korra no longer had to think. The steps came easily to her, like muscle memory, or the choreography of a dance she had learned. Airbending was indeed, in many ways, like a dance to her. Korra followed through the final motion, pushing her arms out in front of her.
And a gust of wind blew out from her palms. It shook the branch of a tree standing several feet in front of her.
Her jaw dropped, and so did Tenzin's. The latter quickly regained his composure and cleared his throat. "You did it," he said in his usual deadpan. But even Tenzin could not completely hide the pride in his voice.
Korra whooped, punching her fist in the air. "I made wind!" a second later, she realized what she had said and snorted.
"Impressive," Mako's voice came from behind her. She turned quickly in surprise.
"How did you get here?"
"I came in while you were training," he said. "You were too in the zone to notice, I guess. Ready for our tutoring session?"
"Sure," she said. "Hey Tenzin – "
"You may go," Tenzin said, sounding pleased. After several long weeks of fruitless training, the fact that Korra had managed to produce a single gust of wind was a major milestone. With a big grin, Korra headed towards the white tower, dragging Mako behind her. They passed by a small pond, into which the three children were cheekily tossing Tenzin's pai sho tiles.
"There goes the fire lily tile," Jinora observed. Her younger siblings cackled as they watched the tile sink in the water. When they heard rapid footsteps approaching, the three children quickly shoved the remaining tiles into their pants and turned around sheepishly.
"We didn't do anything!" Meelo shouted.
"Uh," Korra said, coming to a stop. "What?"
"Oh, it's you," Jinora said. Her gaze shifted over to Korra's companion and a smirk flickered on her face. "And..."
"Ooh, Korra, who's this?" Ikki jumped in, folding her hand behind her back and peering curiously at Mako. "Is this your boyfriend? What's it like to have a boyfriend? You like him, right?"
Chuckling nervously, Korra clamped a hand over Ikki's mouth and leaned in. Through gritted teeth, she whispered. "Stop talking, or I will tell Tenzin that you have his pai sho tiles stuffed down your pants." Ikki obeyed immediately.
Mako shoved his hands into his pockets and smiled, completely ignoring Korra and Ikki's exchange. "Hi," he said. "I'm Mako."
Mako was taken back when a small figure tackled him. "Meelo!" the small boy announced himself. He climbed onto Mako's shoulders and buried his fingers in Mako's hair. Roaring loudly, Meelo proceeded to grab various parts of Mako's face. Korra's arms shot out and she attempted to tug Meelo away from the older boy.
"Meelo!" she scowled. Meelo held on tight to Mako's hair.
"It's alright," Mako reassured her. "I got it." Within a few short seconds, he had somehow maneuvered Meelo from his shoulders and onto the ground. He patted Meelo affectionately on the head, reached deep into a pocket, and held out a fruit candy. Meelo's eyes widened. He looked up at this tall, older boy in amazement and beamed.
"I want one too! I want one too!" Ikki jumped up and down, holding out her hands.
Mako pulled out another candy and placed it in her hands. "Shh," he said, bringing a finger to his lips. "Don't tell your parents that I gave you candy," he winked. Ikki grinned and nodded. "What about you?" Mako turned to Jinora. "Do you want one, too?"
"Okay," she timidly reached out and smiled at Mako as he handed her a piece. "Thank you."
"So, uh," Korra tugged on Mako's sleeve. "We better get going."
"Bye, tall firebender man!" Ikki waved as the pair walked into the tower. "Come back soon!"
Korra and Mako shuffled alongside each other. Korra looked at her friend and snickered.
"What?" he raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, Mako," she laughed. "You are such a mom!"
Several long hours had passed since Mako and Korra began their tutoring session. Dusk was beginning to settle in, and the atmosphere around the island was calm and peaceful. What was not calm or peaceful, on the other hand, was the teenaged girl inside the tower who was glaring at her textbook. A pencil, snapped in half, was crushed in her right fist. Beside her, Mako pinched the bridge of his nose.
They had been working on the same problem for at least half an hour now. Mako wanted Korra to learn – he didn't want to give her the answers to her homework without her putting in any effort. So he sat resolutely in silence, tight-lipped, as Korra scribbled diagrams of triangles over a number of sheets of paper. "Okay," he said, tapping his own pencil against a series of letters and numbers he had printed out at the top of the page. "Follow this formula to find the hypotenuse of this triangle."
Korra's knuckles turned white and she gripped her pencil even harder. While she agonized over this problem (which was overly simple, Mako thought) he picked up one of the pieces of paper she had scribbled on and examined it. Amidst what looked like angry komodo chicken scratches and badly drawn triangles, there were several doodles that Korra had drawn.
He raised an eyebrow at one of Korra's drawings – a likeness of himself made in pencil, with a speech bubble protruding from his head. Inside the speech bubble was a very, very offensive curse word. Mako rolled his eyes and glanced at the girl next to him. The pencil had been reduced to a small pile of ashes on the wooden table. He sighed and dropped his pencil and paper onto the desk.
"Alright," he said, standing up. "Let's go downtown. We've had enough studying for the day."
Korra couldn't look more grateful.