AN: Who else can't wait for Book 2? :D
I don't ship Makorra. If you cannot bear the thought of them breaking up, this may not be the story for you. I'm leaning pretty hard toward some Korra/Iroh (Korroh? Korriroh?) possibilities, but neither character is there to begin with. We'll see how it all develops. :)
Korra sat with her friends in Oogi's saddle and, eyes shut, let the air buffet her face. There was something wonderful that she had never noticed about the way air felt at once solid and then fluid, how it pressed in and then was gone.
Before Amon had shut the pathways to her elements, she had not thought much about air. Certainly, she had tried to master it with force of will and physical strength, but as a source of so much frustration, air had not earned the right – by Korra's estimation – to be appreciated as more than a substance for breathing. Then, that thumb had come down on her brow and shut off all of her other pathways. Suddenly air was all she knew.
Against her side, Mako shifted. His warm arm came around her shoulders and she felt the prickle of his hair as he leaned his forehead against her temple. Korra smiled but did not open her eyes. She was discovering something.
The bison ride to the South Pole had been agony. When she was conscious, every brush of the wind had reminded her of the elements stripped from her. When she was not, she dreamed of a raspy voice and a cool thumb and all the muscles on her body shriveling, all of the teeth breaking out of her mouth.
Korra hated helplessness more than anything. As the Avatar, she had trained from childhood and had total confidence in her bending and in her body. Korra was strong. It was a part of what made her who she was.
And then there was Amon, who had ways of making all that strength meaningless. For the first time in her life, Korra had known fear. Then, the thing she feared came to pass and something strange had happened; she had survived. She had saved Mako despite the bloodbending, despite everything. It should have been a comfort – and it was – but a cold one when Katara made her diagnosis.
Mako's lips pressed against Korra's cheek, shockingly hot after all the chilly wind. His fingers came to her jaw and she let him guide her head to turn, let him tip her mouth to meet his. The past few days had held a lot of these kisses and Korra reveled in the pleasure each time Mako initiated them. A heady thing, being wanted by someone she had wanted for so long. Love. They were in love.
It had almost been enough to make the dark moment easy to forget. Almost.
When Korra had ridden Naga away from the village, when she had stood out on the cliffs and stared out at the vast ocean, the idea spread in her mind like a blot of ink on a wet page.
I need to die.
It wasn't the abandonment of hope or the crippling self-pity, though both were heavy upon her. It was her duty. As the Avatar, Korra could not bring balance to the world with just one element. She had to die so that the Avatar could be born again, clean of Amon's monstrous bloodbending technique.
It wasn't fair and it wasn't in her nature to do it at all to begin with. Korra didn't want to die. She wanted to live, and kiss the boy she loved, and ride Naga across the tundra. She didn't want to hurl herself off a cliff; she wanted to hurl herself against life in the kind of wrestling match that ended with stitches and broken bones. Yet she had to die, and if she didn't kill herself, who would?
This was exactly the internal debate Korra was having when Aang appeared to her on the cliff. And then, in a white flash that set the ice plains to glittering, everything had been made better. And it just kept getting better.
Mako ended the kiss and stroked Korra's jaw until she opened her eyes. At first, all she saw was him, his brilliant yellow eyes, his beautiful face. He was so handsome when he smiled. It was nearly blinding.
But not blinding enough that she did not see Bolin and Asami sitting together against the far side of the saddle, peering determinedly out over the edge. Bolin waved his hand at something that Korra couldn't see from her angle but was sure to be far, far below. "That, for instance, is um, probably close to, ah… Well just look at how big it is. We'll reach the mainland before you know it."
Asami said something low that Korra could not catch over the wind. Her down-turned face and hunched shoulders were pretty easy to read, though.
"Hey," said Mako. His fingers on Korra's chin tugged harder until she looked back at him. "What's wrong?"
Korra narrowed her eyes briefly. Had he been this blind to her when she was the one looking with abnormal interest at nothing? Still, her tone was level. "Don't you think we might be making Asami and Bolin uncomfortable?"
His eyebrows rose and he shot a glance at the other teens. "They aren't even looking at us."
"Gee, I wonder why." So much for the level tone.
Mako frowned at her, squeezing her tight with that arm that was still around her shoulders. "Bolin and I are brothers, Korra. We can get through anything. And Asami and I have talked. Things are okay. She understands."
Korra wasn't convinced. Partly because she'd spent so much time with Mako in the past week or so that there was no way he had really taken the time to talk to Asami. And partly because Korra still remembered how well she had understood when it was her in that awkward position. It was a kind of soul-crushing understanding, knowing that Mako didn't feel the same way. Asami raised her hand to point at something and Korra could see the way she moved just a little more sluggishly than normal, like someone suffering an extended convalescence. Things definitely weren't okay.
But Korra didn't want to drive Mako away now that she had him. So she laid her head against his shoulder and stared in another direction so she wouldn't have to look at Asami or meet Mako's eye. "If you say so," she said.
Under her head, Mako sighed and rubbed his hand up and down her arm. She didn't move closer or away and, after a minute, he stopped.
At the front of the saddle, Pema was dozing with the baby in her arms. Her children were arranged around her, snuggling close or sprawling like road-killed rabbit-dillos. Korra could look at that scene and smile. Could that be her future now? A happy marriage with Mako and a few kids (absolutely not four)?
Korra hadn't really thought about that kind of thing before she left the South Pole for the first time. She had had a couple of boyfriends, sure. (Heck, she was the Avatar. Who wouldn't want to date the Avatar?) But no one she had really taken all that seriously. Water Tribe men were funny about strong women. They claimed they loved strong women but that definition was different for them than it was for Korra. To Korra, a strong woman was someone who engaged in knock-down drag-out fights whenever the need arose. To most Water Tribe men, a strong woman was someone who could spend an entire day butchering tiger-seals and processing meat and hides, and then cook a decent supper. Korra was fully aware that this was tough work that required physical strength, endurance, and specialized skills, but she didn't think it marked any measure of exceptionality. All the women in the South Pole did this stuff.
Except for Korra, who had spent so much of her time training that she had never really mastered any of it. This put her in an awkward position with boys, who were very impressed with her bending and thought she made a great buddy and were even eager to date her – but couldn't quite envision her as the 'marrying type.' So Korra had decided that none of that mattered and she would be an awesome Avatar anyway and have fun bending and beating up bad guys and who cared if she never got married.
Now there was Mako, the thrill of his touches, and all the exciting futures Korra hadn't really allowed herself to imagine before. With her head on his shoulder, she could allow herself to shut her eyes again and forget all the obstacles, all the things that weren't okay. She could even forget having ever seen Asami's head rest in the same place.
"General Iroh," said Lieutenant Nodako. She stood at attention at his open door, a slip of paper in one hand and a salute in the other. "There was a wire for you, sir. From Command."
Iroh rose from the borrowed desk where he had been scribbling out a rough estimate of the hours it would take to search the tunnels under the city for the Equalists' new base, and crossed the room in three strides. "Thank you Lieutenant," he said.
He took the paper and dismissed her, but Nodako hesitated. She glanced at Iroh, then stared into the distance while speaking. "Permission to make a request, General?"
The Lieutenant was an older woman, somewhere past forty, and the uniform jacket she wore had always been a bit tight around the middle. Now, it hung slightly open having lost a few brass buttons at sea. Her hair was cut in the short military style but she still wore a Southern Water Tribe bead in front of one ear. Iroh realized he had never noticed that before. So he invited her into his office, the office he had been granted the use of during his stay in Republic City, and shut the door.
When they were seated on either side of his desk, Iroh laid the wire aside and sat back in his chair. "Go ahead, Lieutenant."
Nodako's expression was stoic, grim. "I can't speak for Lieutenant Cheng, but my soldiers are wound tight. Hybo and Machi were making cracks today about resigning without commission if they have to smooth out another street."
Iroh's jaw clenched and he sat forward. "Do you expect them to desert?"
"Not those two. Their mouths run faster than any other part of them. It's the new waterbenders I worry about. They aren't integrating into the unit well." She paused, then crossed her arms. "They're taking a lot of cues from Teklek, sir. I know what happened to his unit. It's tragic and I've got all the sympathy in the world for him but he still balks at my orders. Now it's rubbing off on my waterbenders. If it doesn't stop soon I'll have outright insubordination."
"What exactly is your request, Lieutenant?" Iroh asked. As if he couldn't already guess. His eyes flicked to the wire from Command. He clearly had more important things to do.
Nodako firmed her chin and looked at him as she spoke now. "General, I'm requesting that Teklek be transferred into Cheng's unit."
Frowning, Iroh peered down his nose at her. Teklek had been a lieutenant before the battle, and had seniority over Nodako but had refused to take over her unit, most of which had survived. It had been an honorable sacrifice for an officer to make. Nodako should be grateful yet here she stood, complaining. "Why are you bringing this to me instead of Major Chogachi?"
"I already have, sir. Three days ago."
"He told me to deal with it on my own, sir."
Iroh wanted to rub the throbbing place in his temple and ask why she was here, again, but he looked at that bead that he had never noticed before. There were a lot of things he hadn't noticed before. "And just what did you do to deal with it, Lieutenant?"
Nodako briefly explained the conversations she'd had with Teklek, both before and after her meeting with the Major. "Every time he reassures me that he isn't trying to undermine my authority. And I believe him, but that doesn't make it stop." She'd stayed calm up to this point and her voice was still steady and low but her hands at her sides were creeping into fists. "Small stuff. The way he phrases questions. His complete lack of hustle. I issue an order and Teklek smiles like I'm a kid and he's my damn father." She blinks, glances at Iroh. "Sorry, sir. I really didn't want to bother you with this but…"
Iroh frowned. "But I know what it's like."
Nodako's lips thinned but she didn't apologize again. "Yes, sir."
Iroh stood from his chair and slowly paced to the window. Below, Republic City buzzed with late afternoon traffic. People were living their lives again here despite all the work the United Forces still had ahead. Iroh clasped his hands behind him. "It's like Major Chogachi said, Lieutenant. You have to deal with it yourself. Teklek will trust you when you prove to him that he should." He looked back over his shoulder. "You don't believe me."
Nodako was gripping the arms of her chair hard and her jaw was hard and her right eye twitched. "Sir, Teklek is a Northerner. He'll only trust me to command if I magically turn into a man."
Iroh hesitated, then turned to face her fully. "He requested to be in your unit, Lieutenant."
Her mouth fell open and her eyes shot wide. She stammered and was quiet.
Iroh returned to his chair and sat slowly. "Trust yourself to command and trust your soldiers to follow. If you can't do that, resign. Understood?"
Nodako blinked and, still seated, bowed. "Yes, General Iroh. I understand."
She bowed again at the door. "Thank you, sir." Then she shut the door behind her and was gone.
Iroh finally gave in to the urge and rubbed his temple. Every day was a long day in Republic City, full of little agonies like headaches and this. He hated lying to his soldiers. The only request Teklek had made was that he be allowed as little responsibility for the lives of others as possible. He, a waterbender, had watched his entire unit drown before he could save even one of them. That sort of thing left a scar. Probably, he was trying hard to fall back into line as a private. With a new boost of confidence, Nodako would be able to see that. And if he really was trying to undermine her, she'd have to bull through that obstacle on her own anyway. Transfers would take more adjustments for everyone and no one had the energy for that nonsense now.
At last, Iroh took his fingers from his temple and picked up the wire. If it was from Command, it was important. He probably shouldn't have spent all that time listening to one lieutenant complain. He scanned the message quickly, shot to his feet, and then read it again. The paper fall like a leaf to the desk. Iroh left the office through a side door into the former meeting room beyond.
It was sparse; all the loaned quarters in City Hall were. A cot was set up against one wall and there was a trunk for the few clothes Iroh had been given. He removed his red coat and hung it from the back of a chair. Someone had stitched a new sleeve on it and scrubbed most of the stains out. Without it, Iroh felt almost cold. He crossed the room to a small altar he had set up under the window and sat cross-legged on the floor there.
Iroh was not the sort of man to make mistakes. He grew up listening to the heroic stories of his grandfather and great-uncle, how they joined the cause for balance and peace and fought beside Avatar Aang when the resistance had seemed almost beaten. As a child, he would sit listening to his father speak so proudly and feel a wild swoop in his heart. He wanted his father to be that proud of him one day, too.
"They forged the trail to honor and glory for us, Iroh," Weiko would say, gripping the boy's shoulder. He stood very tall and gazed down on his son. "All you have to do is follow in their footsteps."
So Iroh did. Since Weiko sat the fire throne after Zuko's death and Iroh's older brother was next in line, Iroh turned to the path of his namesake. He entered military service as an officer and surged to the top of the ranks in just a few short years through determination and hard work. When other young officers relaxed at the end of the day, Iroh studied strategy. When they went home to visit their families for holidays, Iroh volunteered for undesirable command posts. He hunted the bandits that plagued the roads throughout the United Republic, chased pirates, and even rooted out the last of the old players in the Fire Supremacist Movement. As it turned out, Iroh had an instinct for spotting potential sources of trouble and his mind was a machine for formulating military strategies. Some even called him a prodigy, though he waved that aside as exaggeration. Hard work. Determination. That was his grandfather's way and it would be his too.
The day he was granted the title General, Iroh prayed at the graves of his ancestors, expressing his gratitude for all they had done. He hoped they would be proud and would continue to guide him to be a wise and just commander.
It was guidance he sorely needed. As the youngest General in the history of the United Forces, Iroh could not afford to make mistakes. Though he had held the post successfully for almost a year now – and had certainly cut a sharper image of a General than Bumi could manage – his appointment was far from uncontested. There were members of Command who still scrutinized his every move.
Yet this had not been on Iroh's mind much as Republic City settled into the rhythms of reconstruction. His political opponents had in fact completely slipped his mind in the struggle of the past week. He hadn't even been meditating. There had been no time for that and sleep.
Sitting before the altar, Iroh drew a deep breath and fire sparked on the wicks of the two candles. He reached out with one hand and smoke plumed off the end of an incense stick, filling the room with its aroma. Then Iroh unlaced the pouch at his belt, drew out the two tokens of his ancestors, and arranged and rearranged them on the altar before him. He straightened the knife to sit perfectly horizontal before him, slid the Pai Sho tile a hair's breadth forward, then back again.
It was all Iroh had of his ancestors now – the Earth Kingdom knife and the old lotus tile. There were other things at home, of course, but Iroh had brought tokens with him for luck. Thankfully, he carried these two on his person so that even when the ship went down, they did not. The other things he had kept in his cabin on the ship were lost in the explosion. But he did not want to think about that now. Iroh lowered his hand and was still. Through the window, the lights of the city winked on as the day went pink and then night came on. In a room somewhere above, someone was pacing.
For the first time since the battle, Iroh tried to meditate. Yet his mind would not be still. Not with so much to think about, so much to consider.
He thought a lot about the Equalists, scattered and in hiding without their leader but still very much a threat. He thought of the missing council members and police, the bombed streets slowly being repaired by too-few earthbenders, and Amon, who had vanished. With a glimmer of hope, he thought of the wire they had received just days ago from Avatar Korra informing them of her surprising recovery and her immanent return to Republic City. Iroh knew there was a strategy for all of this, if he could just turn it over in his head enough.
Yet other things preyed on his thoughts as well, things for which there were no strategies. There was the one pilot who had died before he could jump from his plane during the fighting, a man whose terrified face was still bright on the backs of Iroh's eyelids. There was the sparse remainder of the first division, a few units slapped together from the scraps of thirty-five. And of course, always, the thirty-three lost fighting and engineer units, totaling nearly four hundred enlistees. Three hundred ninety-six, to be precise.
Iroh pressed his hands to his face and, behind them, bared his teeth. He felt the taut pull of his skin as it creased in places unfamiliar with grief. Three hundred ninety-six soldiers. Three hundred ninety-six letters he had been forced to write far too quickly in the evenings since the battle. Very soon, when those letters reached their destinations, three hundred ninety-six families would shatter with grief.
There was no number for how much Iroh hated himself. Not only had he failed to recognize the Equalists' trap before it was too late, he had fled the wreckage without his soldiers. He had taken it upon himself to write all of the letters, but he had dozed off writing them some nights and had been relieved when they were finally out of his hands. As penance, it made for a pathetic effort.
Iroh was not the sort of man who made mistakes to begin with. Now that he had failed so horrifically and at the cost of so much life, he did not know what to do. How does a man claw his way up from disgrace? How does he hold his head up long enough to do it?
Iroh tore his hands from his face and sat up straight again, breathing deeply and forcing his expression into something almost calm. His eyes fell on the knife in its sheath. The Pai Sho tile. He wanted to pray to his ancestors, to beg their forgiveness and guidance. But he could not. He did not deserve the help of heroes.
Apparently, Command was in agreement. The text of the wire sprang back to his mind, cruelly memorized already.
We have taken your report as well as those of your surviving officers under consideration and have found your actions, while exemplary in some cases, warrant inquiry in others. A sanctioned agent will arrive in three days. Until such time, refrain from taking any major action without consulting with Commander Bumi beforehand. We trust you will cooperate fully with the upcoming audit and all resulting decisions.
Head Councilman Takichi
While he sometimes labored to understand the subtleties of Command, Iroh did not have a problem reading between the lines of this wire. He was being babysat by that maniac Bumi – his subordinate, for Agni's sake – while they deliberated as to just how to punish him for his calamitous failure.
Something horrible was building inside him, something he had never really felt before. It had been two weeks since the battle and Iroh had packed his days with work and his nights with writing letters. Even his sleep was torn between nightmares and hours spent awake, turning the situation over in his mind. Now there were no letters to write and no duties to perform. The nights had grown impossibly long, filled only with Iroh and his self-loathing slowly building up. And up.
With a roar, Iroh grabbed the little table upon which he'd built his altar and hurled it across the room. It struck the far wall and left a deep gouge behind, then clattered upside down to the floor. The candles flared then puffed out as they hit the floor. Cracks furrowed the wax while the incense crushed to powder.
The knife fell abruptly and did not so much as roll, as if it was unimpressed. The lotus tile spun on its edge with a tiny rhythmic huffing, wobbled, and fell flat.
Iroh had never been the sort of man to make mistakes. Now he had, and he didn't know what kind of man he was anymore.
A man who threw tables, apparently. He stood glaring at the mess he had made for a long moment, a little shocked and a little satisfied. Iroh had never thrown a table across a room before. He had never had the urge. Because he had only just ruined himself for the first time. His career, his reputation, his honor; it all dangled by a thread while every minute an agent with a pair of scissors was coming closer.
He had to sleep. Night had deepened and grown quiet while he sat. Iroh started to step over the scattered objects from his altar but could not. Unwilling, undeserving, he knelt and picked up the knife and the tile and returned them to the pocket at his hip. It was pointless. The blessings would not come again for such a disgrace as Iroh.
The pouch was still at his hip when he laid down to sleep and he did not notice it but his finger tapped the outside as he counted, as he counted every night, to three-hundred ninety-six.
The hut was ramshackle, an old storage shed mounted on a rocky outcropping over the sea. The walls were slatted wood that kept most of the wind out but the roof was rotting. As soon as this storm rolled in, everything inside would be soaked. 'Everything inside' consisted mostly of broken boat parts and there was a work bench with rusty tools scattered around. Dust lay thick over everything. There was nothing useful here.
On a bed of gathered seagrass, Tarrlok bared his teeth and groaned. It sounded like he was probably in a lot of pain. Not undeserved. He was such a weakling.
"Wake up, Tarrlok," Amon said quietly. "It's time to face a brand-new day."
He could see the way Tarrlok cringed at their mother's words spoken so hatefully, even after all this time. It crossed Amon's mind that something awful might have happened to her. Maybe the old man had lost what pitiful grip he'd had on reality and hurt her. It didn't matter. Not really. All that mattered was that Tarrlok kept failing to silence that tiny cry as he breathed. So much pain, so much sorrow. It was almost enough to make up for what the little coward had tried to do to them.
"I said wake up. Or do I need to make you?" Amon raised a hand, crooked his fingers.
Tarrlok jolted upright, body rigid under Amon's hold but not so firmly gripped that he could not scream and reach for one arm with the other. Amon stood looming over him and his mouth curled upward at the edges as he watched. Tarrlok's left hand flew through the space where his right arm should have been and slapped against his bandaged ribs. Amon only smirked harder as he released his hold and watched the frightened widening of his brother's eyes. Tarrlok was gasping and his movements were stiff, sharp as if he was still being bloodbent. It had to hurt, grabbing at all that scorched skin, but he kept searching for that arm anyway.
"Don't be so stupid, Tarrlok. You'll make me regret saving you from the fire."
Tarrlok finally looked back at him, expression a little furious, a little feral. "You weren't supposed to save me. You weren't supposed to survive."
Amon laughed, hard and cold. "Oh, so that was an attempt to assassinate me? I hadn't realized you could squirm any lower. An explosion behind my back? At sea, Tarrlok?" He held out his arms despite his own scorched back and grinned. "Perhaps you have forgotten that I am an unmatched waterbending master."
But his brother's eyes were quicker than they had been when he was a boy. Tarrlok must have spotted Amon's grin faltering into a grimace for just that instant. "But you still aren't the greatest healer, are you Noatak?"
Amon paused, just for a heartbeat, then bent and slapped his brother with a crack of knuckles on cheek. Tarrlok folded under the force of the blow and would have fallen back on the grass if Amon didn't grab a fistful of his ruined blue coat and drag him back upright. "Noatak is years dead. I am Amon. Amon." Tarrlok, gritting his teeth, grabbed the fist under his chin with that one good hand. Amon jerked him hard and went on. "And you're lucky I was strong enough to put your face back on. Brother."
Tarrlok stared up at him and it was as if all the years hadn't truly put so much space between their minds after all because Amon could practically hear in the bruising of his recently-healed cheek, just like the good old days. Yakone, he remembered, had been a true master of the back-hand.
But all Tarrlok said was, "Why did you bother? Have you become so cruel that you enjoy watching me suffer?" There was a little blood between his teeth.
Amon smiled and patted his brother's cheek sharply enough to make him blink. "I told you, Tarrlok. You are all I have left."
Tarrlok glared up at him through his loose hair. His eyes were searching, discerning in a way that they had never been when he was a boy. Not ever. Amon resisted the urge to slap him again. Outside, the rain began, drilling the roof overhead. At last, Tarrlok said, "You and I both know the bonds between us are severed. What is it that you want from me?"
The wind was truly howling outside, a grieving keen of water and wind, a growl of distant surf. Amon released Tarrlok's coat and let him fall abruptly back on the pallet with a grunt. They watched each other as Amon slowly rose to his feet. He was steady now, numb, and his hand was did not so much as quaver as he pointed a finger at his brother. At the man who used to be his brother. Once.
"You have ruined everything. You told the Avatar my former identity. You destroyed years of my work with the Equalists and may even have single-handedly given a teenaged girl the power to put down the entire revolution." Amon crossed his arms and slowly paced the tiny space available, still watching the man on the mat. "And still I freed you from that cell. Saved you from Republic City's justice. I even healed you after you attempted to kill me." He stopped pacing and frowned. "You owe me quite a debt, Tarrlok."
"You took my bending. I would say that we've reached a point of equilibrium. Equality, even."
Amon narrowed his eyes at the almost-smirk on Tarrlok's face. "I may have become cruel, but you did worse by becoming a politician."
Tarrlok said nothing. His dull expression betrayed nothing. Politician.
"You are going to help me kill the Avatar."
That hit him. Tarrlok's eyes grew wide and he bared his teeth. "And if I refuse?"
Amon crouched down to his level, bringing his face in very close. "Then you will experience a lot of pain, Tarrlok. Afterwards you will still help me, but first there will be pain." He tipped his face to one side, unblinking. "Do you remember the sort of pain I can give you? Do you need a reminder, little brother?"
Tarrlok swallowed. "You are not my brother anymore," he whispered. The rain was so heavy overhead, it seemed it could bring the roof down at any moment, a whole heap of rot to break their silence. Amon did not once look away from Tarrlok's eyes, which finally dropped. "Yes, Amon," he said. "I will help you kill the Avatar."