A/N: Back from Australia! I'm back in school now and super busy so I'm really sorry I haven't updated in a while now. But please do enjoy this latest chapter and hopefully I'll have time to write many more in the coming days. Thanks for the support, guys!
Chapter Thirteen: Liar Liar
Lin sat in the back of the police car while the female officer maneuvered the vehicle through the white streets, driving as quickly as the slippery roads would allow. Though Lin was anxiously waiting for someone to radio in that they had caught the bastard Pyro and the equally repulsive teenage shrink, she couldn't help but wonder about the mysterious caller whose house they were en route to at this very moment. A part of her doubted that this was real, it had to be some sort of hoax, a bored citizen wanting to play the police department's help. But a bigger part of her knew that attention-seekers rarely asked to remain off the record for their privacy as well as their safety. The woman had mentioned a younger brother of the Pyro, a child named Bolin. It was a lead, as good as any, which could lead them to Mako or possibly more relatives. It was a start.
The car turned a corner and they entered the Market District. At this time of night, nearly all the shops were closed. To keep from civilian panic, Lin had refrained from issuing a citywide lockdown so it wasn't much of a surprise when Lin saw that a few dimly-lit pubs were still open. What she didn't expect was the car to slide to a slow halt in front of one of them, the grimy windows dressed with a string of dirty lights. The faded letters painted on the glass panes read: The Bender's Grave.
"Officer Jun, what is going on?" Lin grimaced at the name of the pub. "Why are we stopping here?"
The female officer seemed equally confused. "I'm not sure, Chief. There might be something wrong with the engine. I'll go check it out."
Lin sighed, frustrated by the delay. They were only a few blocks away from the home address of the female caller – perhaps the key to finding Republic City's most wanted man alive – and now they were stuck in the snow. Damn police cars. Lin made a mental note to push for bigger budget on vehicles.
The car shook as the front hood was popped open. The hood obscured the front windshield as Officer Jun pulled it up. Lin waited, her eyes pointedly avoiding the pub windows. Suddenly, the scanner on the dashboard buzzed to life and a voice could be heard undercover a constant stream of static.
"… Chief…. We got – situation on our h – repeat, we have…"
Lin lunged over the front bench seat and grabbed the receiver. "This is Chief Bei Fong, do you copy? What's going on?"
Tangled under a blast of buzzing, the message came in a staccato of broken phrases.
"… she's dead – found in –"
"Who? Who is dead?" Lin shouted, cursing the receiver, yet another item to add to the list of things that needed replacing.
"… repeat …. Officer down – Jun is –"
Lin flew for the door but it was too late. A popping sound was followed by a hiss as smoke completely filled the interior of the car. Everything was shrouded in thick acrid smoke and Lin could barely keep her eyes open as she tried not to inhale. Unable to open the door, she managed to smash the window open using her metal gauntlet blades and scrambled out, her throat raw, her eyes watering. The fall to the pavement felt like a twenty-story drop, leaving Lin completely winded and gasping for breath. Her eyes rolling towards the dark sky and everything spun around her, melding and blurring into a mess of shadows.
Smoke continued to billow from the shattered car window and though Lin tried to get up, her legs felt like watery clay, collapsing with the slightest amount of pressure. She managed to crawl, inching her way over to the pub, its cheerless decoration mocking her.
"Where are you going?" a voice called out behind her.
"You…" Lin coughed, her throat and nasal cavity burning. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision. She could see the impostor coming closer, still wearing the RCPD uniform.
"That stuff really burns, doesn't it?" The impostor said, peering down at Lin. "'Course, if it were up to me, I would've slit your throat but – oops!"
Impostor Jun sidestepped the metal cable that cut through the air, narrowly missing her face. It punched a hole through the rear windshield, a spiderweb of cracks spread out across its surface. Lin breathed heavily, saliva dripping down her chin. Her eyes were bloodshot and they stared at the woman who looked back with an annoyingly smug expression.
"Who… who are you?" Lin managed, her voice ragged.
"But you already know, Chief. I'm the anonymous caller who tricked that sweet bumbling subordinate of yours to come running straight into my trap. Seemed rather eager to help you catch that Pyro, you know. She even lent me her car." The impostor's dark eyes flashed malevolently. "But that's not the question you should be asking, Inspector Clueless," the Impostor said sweetly. "No. You should be asking me whom I work for." She detached the police baton from her belt and slapped it against her thigh. "The answer's very simple: you're about to find out."
Lin did not close her eyes or look away. The last thing she remembered as the baton arced through the air was the look on Fu's face as he was swallowed by the swarm of golden fireflies. It was not the fear of death that had gripped him. It was the fear of an unknown enemy and being utterly helpless to stop it.
He could feel it. He could always feel it before he saw or even smelled it. Mako felt fire, the mere presence of it, and not in the way people normally did. No. He wasn't normal. It was not the heat that made his skin crawl – it was the whispering. No matter how small or dim the flame, no matter where he was or what he was doing, he could always hear its voice.
Mako. Can you hear us?
But this time was different. No whispers, no murmuring – just screams, so loud they tore at his flesh, reverberated in his bones. It was so much, and he couldn't fight it. The screaming was so shrill, so invasive, and he couldn't hear a single word. Just noise, that's all it was, and now –
Mako's eyes snapped opened, unable to believe what he saw. He was back again in the same alley, holding Bolin against as his chest as he watched his parents die. His father was already dead, sprawled on the ground. Now it was his mother's turn.
"No, stop!" Mako screamed yet not a sound came out. "Stop! STOP!"
It was over. Just as it had been, his mother's body joined his father's. And now the two Hunters turned, ready to take their prize.
Through an immensely thick fog, it seemed, Mako heard the two Hunters talk. They were the same exact words that had been spoken on the night, the night everything had changed. When the Hunters tried to grab Bolin, Mako moved forward to block them, just as he'd done over five years ago. As though from a long distance away, he heard the scarred Hunter speak, the last words he would ever say.
"This might hurt a little."
It happened without thought, without feeling. As though he had practiced the motions, every step and turn, every breath a choreographed dance, Mako attacked. Fire felt like an extension of his body, his muscle and bone connected to each spark, each wisp of smoke. Flames poured from his fist, first dark orange then yellow then colorless. They shredded the first Hunter, flesh, blood and bone. He had no time or air to scream as his face peeled off and his ears shriveled into curled ridges. He fell backwards and lay on the ground stiff as a board. Mako turned his attention to the other Hunter who remained unscathed, cowering in fear, petrified by the sight of his companion's remains. As the eight-year-old boy approached, the man cursed in fright and tried to back up against the wall. He held up a hand, waving it wildly.
"Stay back!" he cried, his hood slipping away to reveal a handsome cruel face and a set of petrified gray eyes. "I said stay back, you monster!"
He tried to Firebend at Mako, creating a fireball in his outstretched hand. Mako blocked it by locking hands with the Hunter, extinguishing the weapon before it was launched. Then, hands still intertwined, Mako released a much larger, much hotter flame. The miniature inferno swallowed the man's hand and then his entire arm. He screamed a terrible blood curdling scream, twisting and fighting to move away. With tremendous effort, the man made a last attempt at life and physically tore his body away. His charred arm broke above the elbow, leaving most of the limb still burning in the child's hand. The Hunter, cradling what still remained attached to his shoulder, fled the alley.
Mako returned to the first Hunter, the one who had dared to take Bolin. Miraculously, the man was still alive. His entire body was unrecognizable, a horrifically mutilated still-breathing corpse that wheezed through a damaged set of pipes. His fingers had melded together and his other arm was lying next to him, burned and cracked beyond recognition. The man was blind, his face a featureless stretch of mottled skin punctured by a dark gaping hole. Most of his legs had crumbled away into dust and the whitish ends of the bones stuck out from where the joints had snapped off.
There was no pity in what Mako did next. He lifted two fingers and slashed the air. A fire whip formed, white as day, and smashed the brittle husk of the Hunter until all that remained of it was a pile of ash. But even then he couldn't stop. He kept slashing away, and he knew someone was coming. Someone was coming to find him but he didn't care. He would hurt all of them if he had to, kill every single one –
Mako turned mid-slash, ready to strike down anyone who opposed him. But the sight of the unexpected visitor stopped him cold. His fire whip dissipated into smoke at once. To his utter amazement, Tahno stood before him – not as the handsome teenager – but as a child of no more than seven or eight years old, his head a mop raven curls, his cheeks still plump with puppy-fat.
"What are you doing here?" Mako finally managed.
Tahno stepped closer. "I'm here to help you."
"I don't need help," Mako retorted. "No one can hurt me or anyone I love ever again."
"No one?" Tahno repeated, looking deep into Mako's golden eyes. "What if that person is you?"
"What do you mean?"
"This isn't right, Mako," Tahno whispered, his eyes suddenly much too sad for a child. "This isn't you."
"Yes, it is!" Smoke flared from Mako's nostrils, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You can't stop me, either."
Tahno pointed to the mouth of the alley. "In a few minutes, two policemen will arrive. They'll take you and Bolin."
Mako shook his head. "No. I'm going to stop them. I'll kill them if I have to."
"What if Bolin gets hurt, Mako?"
"I'll protect him."
A car screeched to a halt nearby. Footsteps could be heard. They were close.
"I ran before and look where it got me." Mako said quickly. "My brother and I have been running for the past five years and now I'm being hunted by the police. This is what I should have done when I had the chance! I should have killed all of them! Hunters and cops – everyone."
"You have to make a choice, Mako," Tahno said softly. "If you fight now, Bolin will die in the crossfire. Run, and you both live. It's revenge or Bolin's life. Not both. Now choose."
"But I can protect him –"
The footsteps were closing in now. Any moment the police would be there to find a pile of ashes, and two corpses. It would not take long for them to figure out what Mako was and kill him, one less Pyro in the world. Bolin, on the other hand, would sold off to Hunters or government laboratories. Mako would fight to the death before that happened but he could not fight and shield Bolin at the same time. It was one or the other.
"All right!" Mako said, turning to Tahno. "I'll take Bolin and run."
"Good choice," Tahno said, smiling. "But there's something you should do first."
"What's that?" Mako asked.
Tahno's pressed his hand against Mako's temple, a hand that was shrouded in healing water. It glowed bright white, so bright that it momentarily blinded Mako. All around him, the screaming of a thousand voices filled his ears again. There was just one difference. He couldn't feel the flames.
Like a drowning man resurfacing from the depths of an icy lake, Mako woke drenched in his own sweat. He sucked in air in great heaving breaths, unable to shake the feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. He could remember faint snatches of conversations, heard himself pleading with Tahno not to light a match but then –
Before Mako could go any further, a light flickered on. Blinking in the sudden brightness, Mako saw that the man who had entered was not Tahno. This might've scared Mako if it hadn't been for what the man said next.
"Ah, you're awake. Got a phone call for you. It's Tahno." The man, middle-aged with a beard that fell all the way down to his chest, dumped a black rotary phone onto Mako's lap and slapped the receiver into his hand. He left as quickly as he'd arrived, leaving a bewildered Mako to momentarily stare blankly down at the receiver as though he'd never seen a telephone before.
"Hello?" Mako said, holding the receiver up to his ear. "Tahno?"
"Hey, kid. You up already?" It was definitely Tahno's voice on the other end.
"Yeah… uh, where am I?"
"A safehouse. I'm sure you've met Clock already."
"The bearded guy. He'll be watching over you for me until you get better. Might feel a bit sore in the head for a while though."
"Wait… what happened?" Mako asked, sitting up straighter though he could definitely feel the headache drumming up a storm in his temple. "I could've sworn you lit a match and… did I..."
"Listen, Mako, you didn't do anything, okay?" Tahno said sternly. "I just moved you because we were in someone else's house and it wasn't safe. But right now you've gotta stay put 'til you get better."
There was a pause. "That's actually why I called. I'm not coming back."
It had been many years since Mako had asked questions that normal kids asked. When are you coming home? Can I have another cookie? What's that man doing behind the dumpster? But living on the streets, on the run, and even at Survivors HQ, Mako had learned not to ask questions to which he already knew the answer. The truth was that Tahno had finally become fed up with taking care of a wanted criminal, Surrogate or not. No one wanted a Pyro and he could never blame anyone for that.
"Okay." That was all Mako could think of. "So I guess this is goodbye, then."
"One other thing – I want you to promise me something, Mako. Whatever you hear, don't come looking for me. Ever."
Mako swallowed hard. "I promise."
"Take care of yourself. And stay hidden."
"I will. Thanks for ev –"
The line went dead. And just like that, Mako was alone again.
Inside the building, the whole place was abuzz with people despite the late hour. No one seemed to notice anything until a short uniformed woman with frizzy black hair nearly crashed into Tahno. She upended the cup of coffee in her hand, splashing brown liquid all over his coat.
"Oh, sorry about that, I –"
The officer stopped dead when she saw Tahno's face.
"Can I have your attention, please!" Tahno said loudly enough so that everyone in the vicinity simply froze. All eyes stared down at him bug-eyed, the elusive shrink who had betrayed them all slap-dab in the middle of the police station as though he couldn't imagine being anywhere else. "My name is Tahno Han. I'm here to turn myself in for the kidnapping and murder of Mako the Pyro."
To be continued...
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