Knowing where Mako was brought Korra a certain kind of surety that she hadn't had in the weeks Mako had been chasing her. Even if she knew that he was possibly only ten minutes behind her, she knew where he was. It shouldn't have made her feel at all any better, but it did. If she really tried, she could pretend that she was just Korra, and he was just Mako, and they were just playing a childish game of hide-and-seek. And when he found her, he would just kiss her on the forehead and say 'I win', with a soft, almost imperceptible smile on his face.
But then she reminded herself that he wasn't following her because he loved her, but rather because he wanted her to fix what she had broken. He would probably be rather doing anything and everything other than chasing her across the republic. He hated her. The very idea of her made him cringe. Her very presence had made this look of disgust come over him. A lot could change in two years, Korra tried to reason … but not that; that had been as clear as day.
Shizu was taking her through the woods, along a trodden, narrow path that led to a village where she could steal an ostrich horse or something to get away. Korra felt a sickly feeling of guilt crawling through her consciousness at the idea of leaving Naga behind, just to get away from Mako. But that was what it was all about, right? Running, staying away from the city, away from her failure - that was of paramount importance. Everything else came second to that. And it wasn't like Naga was lost, or alone, or hurt. She was with Mako; and he would look after her. He would keep her fed, happy, healthy - he would let her know when she was out of line. He would take care of her.
Korra felt a pang of jealousy washing over her, but she shook it off.
"There it is, up ahead," Shizu pointed forward, as the overhanging leaves and branches opened out onto the pure blue sky, where clouds of deep, dark gray began to loom on the horizon. Out in the center of the grassy stretch before them, Korra could see the tile roofs of a village popping up above a slight crest. Her way out was just a minute's walk forward. Shizu pulled her onwards. There would be carts heading west, Shizu had said while pulling her through the woods. She had remembered that bit, even though she'd drowned out most of the other things he'd said.
Shizu didn't know that Naga was with the man following her, only that she couldn't wait around for her polar-bear dog anymore. Running came first. Korra felt strange, mixed feelings about that being the single, clear and honest fact that a perfect stranger could know about her. Fleeing, always evading and hiding, it wasn't her. It was nothing like Korra, the Avatar.
'Except that I'm not the Avatar,' Korra's mind whispered earnestly, like a mother explaining to a child, and then the cynical harshness of her shame kicked in. 'I botched that up two years ago,' it continued.
And the painful part was that it was completely and undoubtedly true. Avatar Korra was a bad memory to most of the world, and a stupid dream to the few that could still muster a kind word for her. And to Korra herself … 'Avatar Korra' was a past that she could never get back. It was a wonderful, idyllic memory filled with happiness and love - dear spirits, love - and friendship. It was a when and a where in which the things that went bad could always be fixed. 'Avatar Korra', to the ex-Avatar herself, was like the way any given person remembered their childhood; with sunlight shining through leaves on trees, and wooden swing sets, and parents swinging them around by their hands in the summer.
But now the leaves on the trees were shriveled, and the swing sets burnt, and the parents … Korra's parents thought their daughter was dead.
Korra didn't know she had clenched the hand around Shizu's into a fist until he slipped out of her hold and suppressed a hiss, looking at her suspiciously. They were walking to the village at a brisk walk, both hustling and trying to remain unsuspicious. Korra flashed him an apologetic look, and he just waved it off. She could read his mind in his expression. 'It's all right. I know you're stressed.' It wasn't because she just knew him that well, but rather because he wore his heart on his sleeve. He wasn't like Mako. She didn't have to work for the love and the acceptance. He just liked her because, well, he thought she was pretty, and he didn't see all that many other girls. Not that Korra deserved to be picky or anything.
Not that Korra deserved anything in general. Least of all Shizu.
They ambled into the village, Shizu looking around hopefully for his friend who owned the traveling carts, and Korra looking around anxiously, nervously, for Mako. He could be around any corner, any turn. He could be right behind her. He could be lost in the woods. Korra didn't know if she were worried or hoping that had happened. She needed to be away from here. She needed to be gone. Korra couldn't go back to the city.
Republic City was the grave of that wonderful past, wasn't it? It was where Bolin was buried, where that perfect, perfect life with Mako had ended - and where bending, and everything she knew about herself, her purpose, her life … had just crumbled to pieces. Why? Because she was a horrible, weak, pathetic excuse for an Avatar. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people were dead and worse because of Korra. She would never get that world back, and she didn't deserve to, either.
There was a flash of white in the corner of her vision. And then a loud, unmistakable bark. Korra's head snapped up, and she saw familiar eyes staring at her from the center of the dirt plaza.
Naga. Naga! Korra felt her stomach knotting up, for some reason, and her cheeks puffing with a huge, happy smile that burst out on her face. "Naga!" she shouted out, and her arms, where they had been flopping at her sides, came up and out and reached for her animal friend. The polar-bear dog leapt up from its spot in the middle of the village and thundered toward Korra. Shizu shouted out, but Korra didn't care. Naga, Naga, Naga!
Korra felt the wind knocked out of her chest as Naga hit her front and the ground her back, but her arms wrapped around Naga's neck and hugged on tight. The polar-bear dog licked happily at Korra's face, giant paws either side of the ex-Avatar's head. "I missed you so much!" Korra laughed out, squeezing her eyes shut and gripping Naga's fur. She was safe now.
Safe, she thought. Warm, too, with Naga standing over her. This was home now.
Shizu was watching the scene with a look of pure, unadulterated confusion scrawled across his features, right up until a phrase was yelled out by some bounty hunters approaching - a phrase that had been skittering at the edges of his mind for the past four days. It was a phrase he had forced out of his mind, afraid that his Tenka, his perfect, pretty, helpful Tenka, was … was …
And for a moment, everything skidded and screeched to an agonizing halt. Korra's fingers loosened on Naga's fur, and she went completely still, eyes bulging in her head. At the sudden stillness, Naga ceased in her ministrations of licks and yaps. The sound of footsteps on dirt echoed in Korra's head, and she counted the men without even looking at them. Three … five … six. Six of them. The wonderful feeling that had filled her body moments before faded away, and in its place, a choking, squeezing sensation clenched around her lungs and her heart, tugging and tightening.
The words held so much weight, like a dumbbell resting on her shoulders.
But somehow, Korra's hands - shaking, though they were - grabbed tufts of Naga's fur and pulled on them. She pulled her legs up under her and kicked at the floor until she was standing. Her back was to the bounty hunters, and she smoothed at Naga's soft, white hairs for a moment. Korra was caught. Now what? Even if she escaped - and Korra didn't know that she would - the newspapers would know where she was, and then everyone would know where she was. Bounty hunters all over the world wanted her blood, because they were paid by people with money, and people with money usually had power, and people with power were usually benders.
And a lot of benders had lost their bending lately.
So now what, she asked herself again. Was it death now? Maybe … maybe that wouldn't be so bad. She'd never had the guts to end it by herself, but she could stand still and let them get her, couldn't she? Naga sniffed at her calves, and Korra gripped onto the fur in her fingers again. No. Naga needed her, at the very least. She had to live her life out, she had to pay her penance - do something, anything, to make things better. But not go back. She wouldn't, couldn't, go back.
Shizu swallowed hard, and then opened his mouth, brows coming down. "Avatar Korra," he said slowly, quietly, and then with newfound disgust, repeated it. "Avatar Korra," he raised a hand to the side of his head, his face contorting, twisting into horror. "You … used me! You lied to me, you …" he said loudly, angrily. Hatefully. Shizu and Tenka had never existed. Korra vaguely remembered him telling her how he'd gotten his farm. Inheritance money.
Someone close to him had died, leaving a lot of money to him. She'd bet anything that person had died in Republic City, two years ago.
A hand snapped out and grabbed the back of Korra's shirt, tugging her back and spinning her around. Korra was caught surprised - she hadn't felt this much adrenaline since Amon's power play in Republic City, and the was having some kind of panic attack, she was sure - as she gripped the floor under her leather shoes, and took a sharp step backward. Shizu was staring at her, and the bounty hunters were behind him, and Naga was bridling a growl. But she wasn't surprised anymore; she'd been on too many battlefields to be surprised at the next thing that happened. Shizu's hand went back, and went flat, and came flying at her face. And Korra didn't stop him.
His wide palm stung across her cheek, and exploded in her ear, and threw her head to one side. Her steadiness wavered, and her mind jumped in her head, and because she did nothing, Naga did nothing too. Shizu stood in front of her, panting hard, on the verge of screaming. He was feeling pain, probably. Pain she had caused him, like most people in the Republic. A bounty hunter behind him smacked him on the shoulder in agreement.
Korra turned her head back to Shizu, and looked him in the face. Her brows were up, apologetic, but this time he met it with a look of pure hate, a look that would have terrified some. Korra had gotten this look from the man who had meant most to her in the world - and getting it from an almost stranger was nowhere near as painful. And Mako … as much as he hated her, he had never hit her. Was that good or bad, Korra wondered.
"You …" Shizu breathed out, grunting like an animal, "You piece of garbage!" he clenched his fists at his sides, and the bounty hunter behind him tightened the hold on his shoulder; probably because their job was to bring Korra to wherever she was wanted alive. A crowd was gathering around, and Korra knew she wasn't going to escape. "You're the reason … you're the reason my … my sister is dead," his voice shook, and it was clogging up with tears.
The crowd began to clamor in support, some shouting out. The bounty hunters began to look at one another challengingly, and Naga began to work her way between Shizu and Korra. The failed Avatar gripped Naga's fur, wanting nothing more than to jump on and run away, but her eyes wouldn't obey her. They were jumping from Shizu, to the other people - people who had lost loved ones because of her. Part of her wanted to stay and take what was coming to her, what she deserved.
A bounty hunter - in a long trench coat, with even longer rope wrapped around his torso - grabbed Shizu and threw him backward, away from Korra and through the crowd. "Enough," the bounty hunter began, brows down and face serious. "It's time to go," he ground his jaw for a moment, and then lunged for the ex-Avatar like a jack in the box. Naga leapt out for the attacker with her claws out and her teeth bared. A flash of crimson blood crossed Korra's vision.
After that, the entire crowd jumped for her. Naga got in their way every single time. A knife buried itself in Naga's side, and she yowled out, but continued to protect Korra, claws swinging and teeth snapping. It was happening too fast, and there were just too many of them to get away. And people were getting hurt here. Naga sputtered as a second blade cut through her skin, and Korra felt her lungs burst out through her mouth.
"Naga! Stop!" Korra suddenly screamed out, and Naga came to a halt, even as the bounty hunters came near again. Naga went as still as ice, and then slowly turned her great head to her master. Red slashes of color streaked across her beautiful, white coat. Blood shed for Korra, to protect her. "It's okay," Korra heard herself say, and she'd made the decision long before she really thought about it. Hands were smacking out to grab her, but Korra stayed perfectly still. She didn't want to see any more blood shed for her - least of all, Naga's.
Shaking, hesitating, Korra put her wrists out in front of her, and lowered her eyes. Naga howled out in protest, understanding what Korra was doing, and pushed herself up on her hind legs a bit.
"I said stop it!" Korra repeated, and this time she heard her throat clogged, and she couldn't see properly because her eyes were filled with saltwater. A rope tethered itself around Korra's hands, and slowly, the bounty hunter on the other end of it slowly inched over and tightened the rope around her wrists. Naga whined under her breath, and opened her mouth to cut the rope with her teeth. "No," Korra squashed her eyes shut, "Go away. Just go now!"
Naga looked hurt, confused, lost, but Korra didn't see it. She was keeping her eyes shut, because if she opened them, she would cry.
Korra continued, knowing her friend was there. "PLEASE NAGA, LEAVE!" she cried out this time, and when the words were out, she crumbled.
Naga could have shot up onto hind feet, claws swinging, a feral roar exploding out into the air … but she didn't. She shrank down, and lowered her head, and moved after Korra, as they started to pull her into the center of the town, chanting, chanting 'burn, burn, burn' with little guilt apparent in their voices. Korra breathed in, slowly, and then forced the air out quickly. The tears in her eyes subsided, and she forced them open. This was her penance; her price to pay. She would face it like an Avatar; with humility and acceptance.
An arc of fire burst open like a firework before Korra, burning her vision for a moment and forcing her eyes shut again. The tight pull on her wrists went away - the rope burnt through. For a second, she thought they couldn't wait another minute to execute her, and that they weren't even going to build a stake to burn her at. The people around her shouted out, some of them screaming, and some of their clothes catching fire. Korra's head whipped around, confused, and scared.
Some of the fire burnt out in mid-air, and the shape behind it was so fast, so sharp, so desperate … that it reminded her of herself.
Fire sent bounty-hunters sprawling backward, and there was no regard for any of the people who had crowded around the ex-Avatar. A weak, hopeful splash of water tried for a hit at the firebender, but it was quickly snuffed out, with a threatening - hateful - roar. The waterbender went flying backward, his shirt on fire. Korra could see very little through the orange flames, and she thought, hoped, for a moment that it was him. That it was Mako. But it couldn't be. That would be too … convenient. Things like that didn't happen, and if they did, they were not deserved by her.
Naga curled around Korra, whining out in pain, blood slipping down her fur, and Korra felt her entire body aching to take the pain away, to take it on herself.
A hand suddenly clawed through the fire and grabbed onto Korra's arm, just above where the rope was now loose around her wrist. She gasped, eyes widening, fixed on her arm, but the fire faded away then, and she could actually see. The crowd was pushed back into a large circle. The light neutralized, and so did the image before her. She didn't know what she'd been expecting, but the image of a completely expressionless, familiar face, cut through her like a million arrows.
He was taller, and he was paler. He looked like he hadn't slept a minute in the time they'd been apart. His eyes, his swimming, amber eyes pierced into hers and tore her mind into shreds, as if he were trying to tell her something telepathically. Mako's fingers were cool and dry - she could tell even through the fabric of her long-sleeved shirt - and they were so tight that she was losing feeling her own fingers. He was wearing the rucksack she had left back at Shizu's house, as well as his own traveling pack, but she didn't notice any of that, though. He had her trapped, in more ways than one.
His face twisted a bit, his brows came down, and his grip tightened on her arm. And his voice, his raspy, familiar voice, ground out; "We need to get out of here."
Korra was staring like an idiot at him, but Naga was smart. She threw her jaw open and grabbed Korra by the shirt, massive fangs piercing the fabric and gripping he ex-Avatar without hesitation. Mako was fast, cool under fire as he'd always been, and he grabbed hold of the stirrup on Naga's saddle as she threw herself forward, a little choppily with the blades stuck into her. The polar-bear dog broke into as fast a gallop as she could reach without further injuring herself, and Mako kicked himself up into the saddle, gripping the fur instead of the reins, as they had slipped through the saddle in the riot.
Korra was thumped, hard, against the ground a hundred times as Naga ran before the feeling, the sounds, all faded away. She was lost, she was prisoner … and at the same time … she was home.