A Line in the Sand
(A/N: The season finale is tomorrow. I can't wait. I am always trying to improve my writing. Unlike bending, writing isn't an art that can be completely mastered in a single human lifetime. At best it's a journey, at worst it's a slog. Reviews and honest critique are the main things that help me in this endeavor, and as such are much appreciated. Well, enough babbling, on to the story.)
Saikhan didn't pace, he simply stood and looked out from one of the windows at the utter devastation raining down on the streets outside. His weathered palms shook slightly, but he clasped them behind his back to prevent the aides running the communication lines from seeing this. It took every ounce of discipline he had not to go rushing off and join the battle himself.
What would Chief Beifong have done? He wondered. Would she want him to spread out his forces, give them hell for every inch of ground, or would she tell him to confront the enemy head on, holding nothing in reserve?
"Sir, the Equalists have made multiple breakthroughs in the first line. What are your orders?"
Saikhan held out his hand for the yellow command net phone, which the aide quickly gave him. Outside, his message echoed across emergency radio relays, the only lines still functioning.
"This is Chief Saikhan to all Republic forces. Auxiliaries! Hold your positions at all costs. Your city and your families are depending on you, benders and non-benders alike. To all Police Regulars: advance! Engage and destroy the enemy wherever you find him. Show no mercy, for you will receive none. Now is the hour of need, defend your homes! Defend your city! Draw a line in the sand, and show Amon and his terrorists that they cannot silence us! These are my final orders."
With some trepidation, Saikhan hung up the field phone and turned to his assistant.
"Rely one last set of telegraphs to the officer corps. Let them know that was a real, lawful order, and they are to obey it, to the last man if necessary. I am fully expecting our communications to be cut at any moment."
The younger captain, who had been drafted at the last moment to fill his own recently vacant position, snapped a crisp salute and relayed the message to the operations sergeant. Mentally, Saikhan breathed a sigh of relief. One way or another, the battle was out of his hands now.
The group walked along in silence, their clothes still smelling slightly of the sewers they had just finished trekking through. They had seen very few civilians so far. Everyone had apparently been evacuated. Mako had dropped his hand from Korra's shoulder, which she was grateful for. She enjoyed being close to him, but now was not the moment for romance, especially with a pissed-off Asami directly behind them, her icy gaze boring a hole into the back of Korra's neck.
They walked out into the middle of the main thoroughfare and stopped, looking up the street towards the center of the city, where the majority of the fighting was taking place. The sounds of battle seemed to be getting closer for some reason, not just ahead of them, but behind them also.
"Uh, guys…?" Bolin said haltingly, jabbing a finger opposite the direction they were staring.
They all turned around and saw the crowd. It was a few hundred yards from them now and closing fast. Presumably they came from every walk of life, but it was impossible to tell because each was wearing a white mask identical to Amon's. Amon's visage was also splashed across a large banner that the vanguard of this motley army was carrying. At the sight of the Avatar there a great cry of anger went up, and they began to be pelted by a rain of bricks and bottles. The bravest participants began to run directly at them while they were shielding themselves from the hail of objects. Mako swept the majority of the projectiles aside with a gout of yellow flame.
"We have to stop them! Saikhan has enough on his plate fighting a full scale rebellion; he can't spare any officers for crowd control. If this bunch gets to the city center its game over."
"Be careful, we don't want to hurt them." Asami said.
Bolin and Korra cast each other a glance, before grasping at the air as one and lifting their arms upwards. A massive, foot-thick wall of rock erupted from the cobblestone, blocking off the street entirely. This was only a temporary measure however, as the more radical Equalist sympathizers simply ran across and up the next street. Before long they were surrounded by a hostile mob, trapped against their own wall.
"What do we do?" Mako hissed to Korra, who was sizing up the closest protestor.
"Keep bending to a minimum, Asami's right, we don't want to hurt anyone. That would just play into Amon's hands."
"We can't just sit here and do nothing!" Mako said, his fists clenching and unclenching as they did when he was especially nervous.
"Just follow me. I'm going to try to make us a path through them."
Korra reached out with all her senses, and found water. It was flowing freely in the pipes beneath their feet. She bound it to her will, and sent it bursting up through the closest manhole. She directed this stream of liquid through the crowd and forcefully split them into two halves, creating a narrow path.
"Come on!" She shouted, motioning to the others.
They dashed into the break, but already the mob was regaining its feet. The end of the gap quickly closed, and as she looked over her shoulder she realized with a surge of panic that they had been boxed in entirely now.
The next few moments were a blur. All four of them threw down as hard as they knew how to, Korra sending kicks and punches in every direction, dancing from one foot to the other as though she were water bending. Soon, though they were overwhelmed and tossed to the ground. As the blows rained down upon her head, she curled into a ball and waited for the end to come.
There was a loud boom from behind them, and the crowd took a step back, allowing them a reprieve to look up for just a moment.
A squadron of Future Industries mecha tanks rolled out of the gaping hole they had just blown in Bolin and Korra's blockade, and black-suited Equalist troops were rushing through. Perhaps convinced that the Avatar was about to receive a much more royal beat-down than what they could dish out, the crowd stood back.
This was a mistake, as they soon found out.
Korra could feel the anger burn inside her at the unfairness of it all, at the cheapness and cowardice of the enemy's tactics. She reached deep into her being, and found the fire.
It poured out of her fingertips and onto the unsuspecting troopers, engulfing them in flame. Mako did the same, and the heat of their combined fire bending forced the crowd to shield their eyes and take a step back. Bolin sent a series of boulders hurtling into the midst of this inferno, and was rewarded by several loud clangs.
When the blaze ceased, most of the enemy formation had simply ceased to be, melted into the pavement, the walking tanks transformed into nothing more than burnt, crushed hulks. The survivors clutched their wounds and crawled back behind the wall, just as another identical formation rolled through, pincers snapping and stun batons cracking. Behind this, they could see even more Equalists, stepping over the bodies of their fallen comrades to join the fray.
Korra didn't remember making a conscious decision to split up. The last she saw of Asami and Bolin, they were high-tailing it in the opposite direction, away from the main street and into the side alleys, just like she and Mako were. There was no time to think, no time to consider, only time to survive another instant.
They dashed down the alleyway and forced their way into the ground floor of one of the apartment complexes. Quickly, Korra barricaded all the doors and windows on this level with stone blocks before they proceeded up to the next. She stopped briefly, to look north. The city center was obscured by the richer residences. Each had its own small slot of land, with the closest sharing an alleyway with their building.
"What should we be doing?" Korra wondered aloud. "I'm the Avatar. I have to find Amon and stop him, before it's too late."
"I hear you Korra, but we have to find a better way through. At this rate we're never going to make it." Mako replied. "By the way, did you see what happened to Bolin and Asa-"
At that moment there was a crash, followed by a tinkling of glass and several pairs of heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs. They had only time to share a brief, terrified glance, but it said everything: please, survive this. I can't bear to lose you.
As the first Equalist stepped onto the landing, his comrades in close pursuit, she felt a spike of adrenaline rush into her body. Time slowed somewhat, and she had the opportunity to watch as the barrel of the bulky, backpack-fed lightning thrower was leveled at her.
The next thing she knew, Mako had pushed her roughly aside. There was a blinding flash of light, and all her hair stood on end at once. She looked up to see Mako redirecting the electricity through his own body with incredible difficulty. It arced wildly upward, vaporizing the drapes and charring large portions of the ceiling. He fell backwards, and Korra screamed, getting to her feet and throwing herself at her enemy.
The fight that followed was intense, more brawl than bending match. Her fist connected with flesh, again and again. Her hands bent fire and pain, and every other element her brain could think of at that moment. It was sloppy. She overexerted her offense on several occasions to avoid being hit, instead of putting herself in a position to avoid the strikes, as any true martial arts teacher would advise.
The fight didn't seem to end. Eventually there came a point where none of them were moving, and she nearly tripped over Mako. His eyes were staring straight upwards in surprise, and he was not breathing. Fighting back tears, she knelt at his mouth to confirm this, and then immediately began to perform CPR, pushing his chest and blowing fresh air into his lungs, plugging his nose with the other hand. When she went to compress his diaphragm again, she noticed that his heart was not beating either. Panic was clutching at her, threatening to make her loose her cool. For some reason it was even more insistent than it had been in the thick of battle. She felt as though a wonder of the world was slowly dissolving into dust in front of her eyes.
Think, Korra! She extolled herself.
Then, the answer came to her in a flash, and she almost laughed for joy. She took a moment which seemed an eternity to calm herself, and to summon the will required for what she was about to do next.
She placed her palm over Mako's heart, and brought a single spark of lightning into existence. Mako gasped and sat upright with a jolt, his lungs clawing for air. Korra held him tight against her chest, the tears streaming down her face.
"Thank- thank the spirits! Mako, I thought you were gone…"
"Hah. I'm not ready to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet." Mako managed, and his dry wit brought a smile to both their faces.
"We have to get out of here." Mako said after they had sat there for a moment, feeling the simple joy of each other's presence.
They stood, Mako with some difficulty. Korra made a hole in the wall ahead of them, and with a kick, an identical one in the wall just across the alley. She gestured to the neat square of stone that had been carved away. Outside, scraps of paper and trash whipped into miniature tsunamis as a small fleet of Equalist airships roared overhead.
Mako leapt across the gap, and Korra followed, sealing up their trail with earth bending so that they could not be followed. They moved from room to room, each more elegantly furnished than the next. The sumptuous, high-thread count carpets muffled their footsteps as they peeked into one chamber after another. At last they burst into a dining room, to find several figures huddled against the far wall in terror. A mother, a father, and their two girls. The father stood in front of his family, shielding them.
"Please, we want no part of this, we're just watching over our property!"
"Relax, we're not here to hurt you." Korra said softly. "I'm the Avatar."
"Why didn't you evacuate with the others?" Mako said.
"I told you, I couldn't just abandon this house, it's been in my family for three generations." The man replied, looking at Korra with newfound interest. "The Avatar you say? Couldn't you stay to help protect us? We're all on our own here."
"I'm sorry, but we have to be moving on. We're needed elsewhere." Korra said. "Do you have a window that overlooks City Hall?"
"The drawing room, it's at the end of the hall on the right. Stay as long as you like, I implore you…"
The table was set for a full six-course meal, minus the food. The china rattled ever so slightly as the airships dropped another load of bombs.
General Iroh watched the observation balloon float away from the deck of the destroyer UFS Pioneer. The United Forces fleet had formed a double line, and every deck was a flurry of activity as the crews loaded and double-checked the cannons.
How had it come to this? He wondered. Another war between the benders, sure, but this? An armed Equalist uprising? Not even grandfather Zuko could have predicted this.
"Shall we launch the landing craft, my lord?"
Iroh shook his head.
"No. Amon will simply turn his forces southwest and use his air superiority to destroy us while we are still unloading our own men. We must wait for him to become fully entangled with the defenders before we commit to an amphibious maneuver of any kind."
"And how long will that take, sir?"
As if to answer this question, the observation balloon lit up the radio circuit.
"General, I see several large formations of enemy mechanized troops with air support heading towards City Hall. There seems to be little or no non-combatants on the street at this point. I can see the metal-bender's frontline, and it looks pretty ragged. If Amon's second wave reaches them, they're done for. I can give you a fix on the biggest concentrations of targets, but my visibility is shot to hell. There's a lot of smoke."
Iroh went and sat down in his chair, putting his feet up on the metal console in a very uncharacteristic display of nonchalance.
"Load the first salvo with training rounds only. Target the airships."
"Training rounds, sir?"
"Yes, training rounds. They'll act like big darts, and if they miss they won't destroy as much of the city. Spirit knows we're going to have enough collateral damage when this is all over."
"Roger that. And what about the second salvo?"
"Load high explosives, and set them on a steep trajectory so we hit as many of our targets with as few rounds as possible. The observation balloon will give you your targets."
"Understood, sir." The lieutenant said, turning and marching down the steps to the command and control deck.
Nearby, the flagship's sister gunboat, a super-heavy battlecruiser named the UFS All Under Heaven, swiveled its guns as the rest of the fleet did. The gunnery sergeant barked his orders to the eager crew, who had been drilling all day in the heat and humidity. Now they sprang into action with a singular purpose.
"Battery, fire mission, six rounds dud followed by twenty five rounds HE! Stand by for coordinates!"
They packed the first shell and an over-stuffed propellant charge into the cannon and slammed the breach shut.
"Standing by, aye sir!" came the chorus from the crew.
"Angle is two-twenty! Bearing zero-eight-one!"
A pair of spry hands twisted the dials deftly until the barrel of the cannon was pointing at the appropriate angle. There was a long pause, and then…
"Gunline… open fire!"
A tremendous roar ripped through the fleet, sending smoke cascading down onto the water as each ship fired every gun in its arsenal all at once. The rounds arced overhead, and the crew jumped into a frenzy of action once more, loading the next charge.
"Gunline, correction!" The sergeant shouted over the din. "Come up one, right three!"
The firing was irregular now, but still overwhelming, as each group of ships was directed like a single unit. The sky trembled. The earth shook. Iroh watched all of this from his chair, his fingers digging into the soft fabric on its arms. At once he was exhilarated and terrified. This was the fulfillment of his wildest dreams, to be able to order the full strength of his men down upon the enemy, and yet this was a city they were bombarding.
Their own city.
How had it come to this?
She liked this kind of silence. It was the quiet that old friends shared, not burdened by the social considerations of idle conversation. It gave her strength, made her hope for a future where she could share this silence with someone, perhaps in a tea garden or an out-of-the-way house by the seaside.
The metal-benders had been pushed back so many times there was no longer a defined "front". Scrums of men clashed in the streets. The Capitol Building belched smoke from many of its windows, and the long stretch of park that occupied most of the square was pockmarked with craters and blast scars. A little further up the row, squads of Equalists tossed canisters of sickly green nerve agent through windowpanes, and smashed in doors, doubtless searching for them under Amon's orders.
"I wonder why he doesn't want me dead." Korra said at length.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, a few weeks ago, when I challenged him to a duel at Aang's statue, he had me dead to rights. He could have ended it all, right there. Why not?"
Mako shook his head.
"I don't know. Maybe this is all some sick game to him. Who knows if the back story he's given is really true, or just a convenient fabrication."
The silence came again, but this time it was less satisfying. She felt like she was not standing in a drawing room filled with musty tomes and a single grand piano. She felt like she was standing alone on the edge of the biggest diving board in the world, about to leap off to an uncertain landing among the rocks. One way or the other, it would end today. If she was not strong enough to face Amon, it would be the end of her. No, it would be worse than the end. Amon would take her bending away and force her to live as a symbol of his power, she knew it. It would be just like him.
She felt like there was no time left for any games or white lies. No stone could be left unturned. She reached out and grasped Mako's hand.
"You know, it's weird, we met less than two seasons ago… but I feel like I've known you my whole life."
Mako squeezed her hand back gently.
"I know. I feel the same thing."
He turned, and she stared into those deep brown eyes that seemed to pierce right through her, flesh, bone, blood and soul.
"When this is all over, we'll figure it out, you and I." he said, tucking a stray lock of her hair behind her ear.
For the first time that day, Korra genuinely smiled, not because she was relieved, but because she was happy. They closed their eyes and sank in for a kiss that seemed to last forever.
Eternity was shattered by a terrible noise from outside. It sounded like a fully-loaded freight train steaming past with all the stops let out. This noise was followed by a tremendous, rending scream. They broke apart and rushed to the window.
Outside, a trio of airships had been blown to pieces, and more were dropping out of the sky like poisoned flies.
"What-?" Korra began, but a second later the tempo of the noise switched.
The explosions were distant at first, but they crept nearer and nearer with alarming speed until they were both taking cover.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Huge clouds of dust and rubble leapt skyward, the grim hail raining down on everything and obscuring the world from sight for a time. They cowered in the corner behind the piano, the master of the elements and her companion reduced to nothing more than frightened lambs in the face of such raw, unyielding kinetic power.
As quickly as it had begun, the noise tapered off and ceased.
A great silence descended upon the whole city, but this silence was pregnant with danger. Crackles and pops still echoed, signs that the fighting was going on unabated.
"What in the nine realms was THAT?" Korra said, coughing as a fine dust leaked in through the unsealed windowpanes.
"United Forces. There's no one else it could be," Mako said, peering out at the moonscape that Republic City was quickly becoming. "If I have Amon figured right, this is the part where-"
Mako's timely prediction was interrupted by the wireless set, which, up to this point, had lain forgotten on the mantelpiece. It sparked to life, and Amon's dread growl issued from it.
"People of Republic City…" it began.
Korra looked at Mako. Mako looked at Korra.
"That's our que, isn't it?"
"It would seem so. If we move fast, maybe we can get him while he's still jabbering." Mako said with a roguish smile.
The two exited the drawing room side by side, Mako switching off the radio behind them as the left.