Korra wasn't sure what parts of what she saw was real; she could feel the cold on her skin, but she saw herself standing before an open pyre of burning bodies; benders, all of them. Most were pro-benders she'd played against in the ring, but others were famous benders like the new Fire Lord, and Chief Bei Fong. She flung her arms around herself and stepped backward.
Straight into someone standing behind her.
A sharp gasp escaped her and she spun on her heel, only to see a tall figure standing there, a hand reaching for her head. The firelight glared right up into the figure's hood and illuminated their mask. Light glinted in malevolent eyes, gleaming with hatred. Korra stepped back, away from the hand, her own eyes staring, and stumbled right into the fire. The pyre came alive under her, and she was still cold, but screaming. Charred, skinless arms grasped for her, and Amon watched.
As soon as she was aware she was about to scream aloud, Korra caught the beginnings of a shout in her throat, her fingers gripping the straw under her head. Her blue eyes snapped open and she pushed herself up from her position lying on her stomach, sweating, breathing hard. Just a dream. Just another stupid dream. She rolled to her back and sat up, hands wiping wet hair away from her forehead.
It was just a dream. All that was long way away. Long ago; not forgotten, but long, long ago.
She peered around with narrowed eyes at the hayloft she resided in these days; on a quiet farm in the more docile part of the United Republic, and her favorite part, miles and miles away from Republic City. The sun was peering in through cracks in the wooden, panel walls of the barn, and a warm summer breeze was rolling through, causing the hay and straw to crackle against it. Korra wiped her face and climbed to her feet, dusting straw from her clothes and wandering to the ladder down to the ground floor.
Korra was greeted by the sight of Naga, stretched out on her back in the dirt, and she grumbled inwardly at the thought that she'd have to brush her clean later on; keeping Naga clean had always been so much easier with Waterbending. Just like keeping warm hadn't been a problem with firebending on hand. And rockslides - pfft, no problem! Naga rolled onto her belly and fixed canine eyes on the pitiful excuse for an Avatar, no semblance of resentment in her gaze.
She loved that about Naga; even though she had failed the whole damn world, Naga would always be there, happy to see her.
Korra grinned and marched up to Naga. "Morning, Naga," she said cheerfully, before flinging herself at the beast and leaping onto her, hands clutching fur and feet digging in to hold on. Naga got up to her feet, Korra still holding on, now giggling, and shook herself off. Korra finally fell off, into the dirt, and grinned up at Naga, who proceeded to lick her face. Laughing, Korra pushed the animal off her. There was something reassuring about Naga's constant, unchanging companionship.
"You gonna mess around with that animal all day, kid?" came a raspy voice from the barn door. A hunched, thin man was leaning in the doorway, the sun hitting him from behind and casting a dark shadow over his kind eyes. Korra looked up from her spot on the floor with an awkward smile at the old man, who only smiled back.
Korra coughed a laugh and got up, patting dirt from her gray work shirt. "Sorry, Chung," she smiled ruefully. "How's your back treating you today?" Korra asked, approaching him.
Chung would've shrugged vaguely, if his back weren't extremely painful today. He gave a weak smile and tried to stand straight. "Being a pain again," he admitted reluctantly.
Korra sighed, still smiling. "You shouldn't have come all the way out here. I'm already up for once," she gestured to herself with both hands. "Come on, I'll help you back to the house," she put a hand on his shoulder.
Chung laughed and batted her away. "Never mind that, kiddo; just get started on that back field, will you?" he shook his head, "It's a perfect day for it, and I'll get to the house fine on my own."
Korra rolled her eyes, passing him and heading out into the sun. "You sure?"
"A'm sure," he waved a hand dismissively, "Now get to work, y'lazy pain in the behind!"
With a laugh, the failed Avatar turned and plodded toward the field, waiting until she was sure Chung wasn't in Naga's path to call over her shoulder, "Naga, come on, we got work to do!" glancing back in a teasing, scolding tone. She caught sight of the animal guide begrudgingly getting up from a warm spot in the sun and walking sulkily after her. Naga hated the sun, for the most part, and working didn't help. When Naga caught up to her, Korra added, "We'll go down to the lake later on, alright?" putting a hand to the beast's neck.
Naga whined, annoyed.
Korra hooked up Naga to the cart, led her to the back field - a large expanse of five open acres, grown three feet with golden wheat - grabbed the machete from the cart, and set about slicing the first row of the crop down. She grabbed the top six inches of a bunch of stalks and swung the blade against the bottom of it. It split from its root and came away without problem; Korra tossed the crop into the cart.
Korra blinked her eyes open, to fix them on a face staring down at her. "Tenzin?" she murmured, before her eyes focused and she saw the airbender clearly. Her mind spun and her stomach lurched, and she felt like a sack of bricks. She was weak - she didn't even have the strength to lift her arms, but she still tried; to try to wipe her face, where tears were dried. "What's … what happened?" she glanced around quickly; there was a cool breeze against her burning, feverish skin, and above, she could see a red night sky.
Tenzin suddenly pulled Korra into a relieved hug - something very unlike him to do - and exhaled a heavy breath. "You're all right," he stated thickly, more to himself than to her.
Korra's eyes stayed open, defying heavy eyelids, and she shook her head quickly. "N-no," she said groggily. "No, my bending," she continued weakly.
Because it was gone. This time, her bending was really gone. Just like Mako and Bolin; Amon had taken her bending, killed her friends, and attacked the council in their homes. The city was under attack. She suddenly felt the urge to get up and do something, but she was too weak.
Tenzin held her at arm's length again. "What?" he snapped, the warmth in his voice dissipating for a moment, "He … he took it?"
Korra blinked slowly at him, and then forced a sluggish nod. "It's gone," she answered, exhaustion kicking in. She felt oddly relieved that it was gone - like a weight had come off her shoulders. Like she didn't have to worry about it anymore, like it wasn't her problem. Consciously, she might have known that was a horrible to think, and ridiculously selfish. She had nothing to lose anymore.
She felt a twisting in her chest at the thought of Bolin falling from Amon's airship, and the memory of Mako screaming out, hands clutching at the railing. "BOLIN!" he had shrieked, so loud Korra had been sure he'd make his throat bleed. Over and over. And Bolin, screaming back. Korra felt her stomach lurch again.
"Bolin," she breathed out. Bolin was dead because she'd roped the brothers into her fight with Amon. "Bolin, Bolin," she repeated with a shallow breath, her brows tilting and her face screwing up. She couldn't breathe - couldn't bend, couldn't feel anything.
'This is all your fault! You did this!' Mako had yelled, roughly grabbing her by the cloth of her shirt. And she'd been too stunned and scared and lost to answer. She'd even stared at him as electric rods stabbed him in the back and his eyes went wide, his lungs spitting out a horrified, painful gasp.
Korra was breathing hard, crying now. "No, no," she gasped, a lump in her throat.
She failed them. Failed everyone.
Korra furrowed her brow, pushing away thoughts of her failure in Republic City. That was in the past now; years had long gone since all that. She wasn't the Avatar anymore. She was just that nice kid that worked for Old Chung, in a small, remote town in the United Republic outlands. She couldn't fail at this. She chopped at the last stem of wheat and piled it onto the cart, before turning and admiring her work. The five acres was hand-chopped, and now a bald field ready to be fed to Chung's ostrich-horses.
Naga gave a grumble and turned her head up to see the high afternoon sun overhead.
Korra grasped Naga's fur and swung herself up to the polar-bear dog's back. "Come on, Naga. Back to the barn."
They pulled the cart back to the barn, left it inside - she'd bale it later - and separated Naga from the cart. The two decided it was time for a break and set off across the yard and down the road. Korra went on foot, having gotten rid of Naga's saddle long ago; too many memories of too many good times that it hurt to remember. Naga would occasionally stop and sniff the ground for scents of people already traveled on this road, but eventually, the two wound up overlooking a large lake of glistening green-blue.
Korra was reminded of Republic City Public Park, and her stomach twisted, as it always did. Naga went straight for the water, splashing in and burying her face in the blue, searching for fish. Korra approached much more tentatively, exhaling nostalgically and pulling off her green tunic and peeling off her flat shoes. She wondered what her parents were doing these days.
They probably missed her, but she couldn't have gone back to the South Pole. The White Lotus were there and they'd have her on a useless, soul-searching journey in a heartbeat if they found her. Sometimes a person just needed to disappear. This was Korra's solution to her shame in Republic City. Having her bending taken away and being strung up in the middle of city hall, helpless, for Tenzin to find her …
Korra didn't think there was any kind of shame worse than that.
She couldn't escape her own image in that helpless, weak, pathetic state, in the newspapers. It had echoed around the world for months after her defeat. She was happy it was gone now. The worst thing now was when people wrote about the missing Avatar in the papers. Some likened it to Aang's disappearance before emerging to defeat the Fire Nation. Others simply wished her ill.
Most people fell to the latter of the two.
Korra could remember the latest Avatar Korra headline. 'Avatar Korra gone for two years now; politicians cry 'Suicide'!'
Ha. She'd read the whole damned article, too. People wanted her to kill herself, so they could have an Avatar who could bend. They cried out for her to 'do the right thing for the world' and she really nearly considered it. But death was just far too easy an escape for her; she didn't even deserve the blissful nothingness of death. Not that she'd ever have the guts to go for killing herself.
She was so damned weak, and pathetic. It made her sick.
Korra stepped into the water.
Mako's lips ghosted over her collarbone and she wound her fingers into his hair. Korra tilted her head back at the way he pushed into her, gasping out. Her back arched and her toes curled, and she held onto him for dear life. She cried his name into the darkness, her senses overtaken by the smell of his skin, and the sound of his breaths; the sensation of his hands on her body.
He uttered her name against her skin, and wrapped the sheet into his palm to keep himself from clawing his fingernails into her when she tensed around him; to keep himself from clutching her too tightly, to make sure he didn't hurt her when his own body responded with an uncontrollable wave of sensation.
The two collapsed into one another and hit the softness of the bed, breathing hard. Korra laid her cheek against his chest, her eyes falling shut. Mako placed his hand on her head and stroked her hair with his thumb. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he exhaled, "You are amazing," with a slight chuckle to his voice.
Korra gave an amused sigh. "Me? You did all the work," she poked her fingertip into a spot just under his ribs.
Mako winced a little, pushing her jabbing finger out of his rib. "That's not what I mean," he reached up to wipe his sweaty brow, "I mean …" he searched for his words - perhaps he just wanted to give her praise, or say something in the heat of the mood, but there was something he wanted to say - with his fingers slipping through her hair where it rest on her bare back, "I mean I don't think I could be like this with anyone but you," he finished awkwardly.
Korra grinned slowly. "Are you saying you love me?" she asked quietly.
Mako was silent for the longest time - to the point that Korra almost thought she'd said something extremely tactless and stupid - but when he responded, it was with a happy feeling in his middle that he couldn't place. "I think I am," he answered, smiling.
Korra's first inclination was to say the same, but instead she found herself worried. Without even thinking, she looked up to his face, brows tilting upward. "Would you still love me if I wasn't the Avatar?" she queried in a small voice. "If I wasn't …" she stopped, drew a breath, "If I was like a normal girl? Like …" she hesitated, "If I was like Asami?"
Mako's brow furrowed, "Korra, I don't love Asami," he said quickly, before sighing and shaking his head sluggishly, "But I know what you mean. I don't love you because you're the Avatar; I love you because you're you. And you couldn't possibly be normal," he finished in a teasing tone, the corners of his mouth tilting up again. "Ever."
Korra scoffed a laugh. "You're still a jerk," she cuddled into him. Mako pulled the sheet up over them.
When the cool water reached her chin, Korra gave a sigh, turning to look back to where she'd left her outer layer of clothes on the grass bank. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised she was thinking about the days of old; the good times. Things had been so simple back then, even that little tiff with Bolin and Asami making things difficult for her and Mako as a couple. After her failure, things back then seemed so straightforward.
Korra raised her hand from the water and stared into her palm. She could remember herself holding the water in any shape she desired in that very palm, two years ago. She could hear Naga splashing in the distance, and she could still smell the freshly cut wheat stalk on her skin, and everything seemed so different from the city. She'd never gotten used to the urban life, but she missed it now. More than anything, she missed bending.
Korra knew if she were able to bend right now, she'd feel the water pulling on her senses, pushing and pulling her consciousness in such a magnificently natural way that she'd be unable to keep herself from bending. She knew this for certain. She'd feel the sun beating on her shoulders enriching her with energy, and she'd want to spill fire from her fingertips. She'd feel the earth humming with its own life force, just begging to be shifted by her will.
She'd never realized, until her bending had been taken away, how deeply it had connected her with everything. Korra had never considered herself to be very spiritual, but without her bending, she felt as though many of her senses had been taken away. She was numbed by its absence.
Korra dipped her hand back into the water, gently pushing it with her palm. The water shifted at her push, but nothing like it once had. She sighed and dipped her head back, until the water soaked her hair and stuck it to her neck. She missed wearing it in her old hairstyle; but she couldn't be recognized. Nobody here even knew her name; she was just 'kid' or 'kiddo' to Chung, and she didn't talk to anyone else, except to go into town to buy the odd newspaper every now and again.
'2nd Anniversary Of Avatar Korra's Disappearance'
'Good Riddance, says Councilman Tarrlok'
'Avatar's Parents attend State Funeral'
Korra drew a long breath and ducked under the water, hoping to disappear a little more. Sometimes she could completely forget her past, and she was just a simple farmhand helping a poor old man where she could, and others, she'd end up mulling over the festered scars of her failure, unable to let them go. It had been six months since the second anniversary of her disappearance, and people had given up on finding her. The only stories about her now were statements from diplomats and politicians, urging her to sacrifice herself for the greater good, and they just got harder and harder to ignore.
She wondered if she should just reveal herself - let the angry citizens of Republic City come for her blood. Maybe that was the best thing to do.
But right now, Korra was surviving. She could survive for now; things were simple and quiet, and she had some space to be alone with her own thoughts. This was okay for her. She couldn't screw this up.
Korra pulled herself out of the water and waded back to the bank, unable to enjoy the water as it was. She was clean, at the very least. What she'd give to feel the water - really feel it, like she once had. She half expected to be able to bend herself dry once she was out of the lake, picking up her clothes. She drew a breath and pulled her trousers on, quickly followed by the long, sleeveless green tunic she wore most days. Korra walked back along the dusty dirt road barefoot, her sandals held in her fingers.
"Naga, come on!" she called over her shoulder.
There were a few loud splashes - Naga running out of the water - and then the polar-bear dog was walking beside her, shaking off the wet right onto the ex-Avatar, who laughed despite her mood.
"Might as well go see what Sola's made for lunch, huh?" Korra reached out and caught Naga's floppy ear in one hand, gently tugging it in a teasing fashion. Sola, Chung's wife, was a plump woman, hunched as her husband was, with bags under her eyes and wiry gray hair to her waist, tied back into a bun that reminded Korra of Katara. Korra wanted to smack herself for being so nostalgic today; it never did her any good.
There was no note. No 'I love you but I have to go' left for Mako, no 'I'm sorry I failed' for Tenzin, no 'be good for your parents' for Jinora, Ikki and Meelo. If she'd left a note, she also have had to apologize for Bolin being dead, for the destruction caused to the city in the midst of bender-antibender war, for the countless people caught in the middle of a battlefield she could do nothing to help. What kind of Avatar was she if she couldn't even bend?
Korra threw a rucksack of food, money and some camping supplies over her shoulder, her free hand untying Naga from the hitching post in the White Lotus' encampment a few miles outside of the war-torn city. 'Nice night for an escape,' Katara had said. Korra almost wished her Waterbending master were here now, to offer wisdom, to tell her what to do, to make things go back to the way they had been. The old woman had always been great at doing that.
But she couldn't go home - not to Katara, not to her parents, not to the compound at the South Pole. They'd make her continue being the Avatar, a useless, pathetic excuse for a savior, having failed everyone. She'd have to live in the shame of her defeat. She couldn't. She knew it was the wrong thing to do, but she had to go somewhere else. She had to be someone else.
Korra couldn't bring herself to stay. There were few things left here for her, anyway, in this barely secure fort. Mako hated her now, and she didn't blame him. Bolin's death was her fault - she'd been so busy fighting Amon's lieutenant to notice chi-blockers driving him further and further back until he lost his footing and went falling through the air to the blazing, rioting city. And she'd let Mako hold Amon back for her. How weak and pathetic was she, that she would let him do that?
She wished she had gone into the Avatar state - she'd hoped to every god there could possibly be that everything would go black and she'd wake up, the spirit of some former Avatar having saved the day for her - but she hadn't even been realized enough to be a suitable vessel for the Avatar spirit to take over. She had had one chance to save the city, and instead of being smart about it, she'd rushed in, headstrong and immature and foolish, and it had cost everything.
Naga whined reluctantly as Korra hopped up into the saddle, grabbing up the reins. "Come on, girl," Korra gave the beast a quick spur onward. Naga stayed rooted to the spot, turning her head to gaze at Korra. Korra furrowed her brow. "Don't look at me like that," she hissed indignantly, and kicked the animal again. Naga exhaled heavily and moved into a trot into the darkness.
Korra ate very little in the way of lunch, and didn't go to the house for dinner. The day faded away into night, and the heat of the blazing summer sun melted away. She sat in the barn, tying the wheat into neat bales to be taken to market and sold tomorrow, humming under her breath. No particular tune - she didn't remember anything from her days in Republic City, and she hadn't heard much in the way of music at the compound at the South Pole - but just taking one note and moving to another every so often. Naga sat in the straw with her chin on her paws, eyes staring into the middle distance in silent boredom.
She always stayed up late, and tonight was no exception. She turned out the lone light bulb hanging from the ceiling and climbed up into the hayloft. "Night, Naga."
Naga answered with a grumble that indicated how much she hated this life. It wasn't like Korra liked it any better - she was just a lot better at fooling herself into thinking that.
Korra lay in the straw for a while, staring through the cracks in the wall, sometimes catching the light of a star, until she couldn't keep herself awake, and she welcomed the nightmares that flashed into her mind each night, when they finally came to her. Sleep. Blissful sleep. The wonderful nothingness of sleep.