Challenging a hot-headed young firebender to a duel in an old dirigible factory had been a mistake. Judging from the crumbling roof and the three-story flames engulfing the factory, it might be the last mistake Amon ever made. He scanned the area around him with a tactician's eye, but fire surrounded him on three sides and collapsed metal and wood on the other. It was as if he was destined to die by fire, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.
A cough came from somewhere near his feet. A pile of half-charred planks shifted, and Amon considered stepping on it. He could crush the avatar under the heel of his boot, snuff out whatever life was left inside her. At least then he could die a hero, if only to himself.
But that would just create a new avatar, and if anyone could get him out of a collapsing inferno of melting support beams, it was probably this girl. He knelt and began pulling the rubble off of her. She opened her eyes and recoiled at the sight of his mask.
"Relax," he said. "I won't end you today. Unless we work together, neither of us will win this battle."
"What happened?" she croaked.
"Your fire blast must have ignited a hydrogen tank," he said. "There was an explosion."
"Oh." Large splinters were tangled into her hair, and her lip was bleeding. If her calm demeanor was any indication, she hadn't yet noticed the large metal hook protruding from her stomach. Or perhaps she had, and her calmness was part of being the avatar. "Can we call a truce until we get out of here?"
"Yes," he said. "We'll finish our duel another day. You must go into the avatar state and put out the fire."
She frowned. "I can't just flip it on and off. I don't know how to do that yet. But I can get us out of here. Help me stand up."
"No." He gestured to her stomach. "I should carry you."
The young avatar looked down at the hook, and for a moment Amon was certain she was going to faint. To her credit, she stayed conscious, but it took her a moment to be able to speak again.
"This is bad," she whispered. "This is really bad, isn't it?"
"It can't be too bad if you can still speak," Amon said. "Can you firebend without touching the ground?"
"I've never tried it," Korra said.
Wonderful. Amon left her side to dig through the chaos for an axe or a hammer, anything he could use to cut the chain linking Korra to the hook's machine like an umbilical cord.
"Wait, don't leave me here!" Korra begged. "I'm sure I can firebend without touching the ground. Please don't leave me! I don't want to die like this!"
"I'll be back," he said. "Don't move."
He found a sledgehammer trapped in the collapsed wall, the area farthest away from the avatar. He had to pilfer through the remnants of the wall, which caused a small, rumbling landside. When he returned, the avatar was becoming hysterical, thrashing around and trying to pull the hook out.
"Get it out!" she was shrieking, tears cleaning a path down her dust-covered face. "I can't die like this! Get it out! Oh, please, get it out of me!"
"Be still!" Amon ordered, grabbing her wrists in his hands. "Pulling it out would only make you lose blood more quickly. If you pull it out wrong, you could skewer more organs and die instantly."
She stopped trying to agitate the hook, but her breathing came much too quickly. She was going to hyperventilate and go into shock. Amon sighed and pounded the chain with his sledgehammer until the link yielded.
"You need to breathe normally," he said, winding the leftover chain through the sleeve and collar of her shirt. His fingers brushed cool, sweaty skin underneath her clothing. "I intend to keep you alive so I can fight you properly another day. If you'd rather die a coward, though..."
His words seemed to breathe life back into her. She took a deep breath and set her jaw, and with a whoosh she parted a pathway through the fire in front of them. Amon hefted her into his arms and carried her towards the door.
He found himself struggling for breath more than he should have. The avatar's added weight was making it even more difficult to climb over the debris, and his mask couldn't filter out all the smoke. Halfway to the exit, he doubled over, wheezing.
"Can you... clear the smoke?" he asked, kneeling on one knee.
"No." She had buried the lower half of her face under her shirt, but her blue eyes were watering from the smoke. "I can't airbend yet."
A flaming hunk of wood dropped onto their path, and it took everything Amon had not to drop the avatar and stumble backwards.
"Put my feet on the ground," she said.
He didn't question her. He lowered her as gently as he could, quietly relishing the look of pain on her face as the hook jostled inside her. When she was standing upright, most of her weight leaning on him, she raised both fists and then stomped on the ground. The earth quaked underneath them, and for a moment Amon thought the last upright parts of the factory would collapse on top of them. He was going to be buried alive and burned to death. His lungs felt like they were shrinking-
And then the factory floor split open to reveal a deep ditch, a straight path two feet below where Amon was standing now. He lifted Korra again, and walked under the smoke, breathing more easily without obstacles. Her arms snaked under his, wrapping around his chest as if she were afraid he might dump her on the floor and run. Silly girl. He lived by a code, and he'd meant what he said about fighting her properly some other time.
"Door!" Korra pointed to an exit almost in front of them. Despite the passageway she'd created, the smoke was thick and nauseating, making it difficult to notice anything.
Amon kicked the door, but it didn't budge. He doubted he could have knocked it open even without holding Korra.
"Let me," Korra said. She took a painful-looking breath and then blew it out, moving her hands in a complicated-looking dance. A fiery concussion knocked the door off its hinges. All that remained was a twisted frame with sharp edges curling outwards.
Amon wasted no time hustling her into the dark night. The muggy night felt like an ocean breeze after the scalding factory air. Once they were a block away from the fire, he sat her on the side of the street to catch his breath.
"Is this where we go our separate ways?" she asked.
Now that they were safe, Amon noticed the hoarseness of her voice, the way her entire body shook like a soaked leaf, and the salt and pepper pattern of ashes and soot that covered her from head to toe. He took off his coat and draped it over her shoulders, only realizing that it was as sooty as she was once it was on her. A dark wet spot appeared in the back almost immediately.
"Nonsense," Amon said. "I still need to dominate you in a fair duel, lest the benders make a martyr out of you. We'll part ways at the healers'."
"Oh, good," Korra said. With that, she collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut, her eyes rolling back in her head.
Amon grunted and heaved her off the ground one last time. It simply wouldn't be a real victory if the avatar died of injuries in a gutter. He limped off, coughing spasms burning his throat.