They've chosen about a dozen former-benders for the first round – it's just a demonstration, proof that Avatar Korra can in fact heal these wounds, proof that Amon's work will not be permanent; the real work will come over the next few weeks and months, while she works to restore bending to all those who had lost it, but that work at least will not be in public. She doesn't know who chose the candidates, but she suspects Tenzin had a hand in it – Tenzin and Lin, more likely, because she sees two policemen in line, right behind the Fire Nation's councilwoman, who is blinking back tears on the arm of her husband.
The cameras are rolling, the microphones are pointed at her, and Korra presses her fists together like Tenzin and closes her eyes: breathes in; breathes out: calls air to her, filling her lungs; feels earth in her bones, and water in her blood, and fire in her heart.
(When she'd pressed her thumb to Lin's forehead, she'd seen Aang, standing tall behind Lin's kneeling form; she'd felt his peaceful energy around her, buoying her like a gust of wind until she almost wanted to laugh, laugh at Lin's solemn and beautiful face, because Aang was here and everything was joyful, everything would be okay, and she was so happy she could burst.
It wasn't until two days later that Lin had told her she'd heard Uncle Aang's laughter, too, in that split second between universes before her bending filled her again.)
Today when Korra opens her eyes and breathes in the world, it isn't Aang before her: she's startled when she opens her eyes and Avatar Roku bows to her through the spiraling mist she always sees in the Avatar State. He opens his palms to her, and she reaches out to clasp them, just a quick affirmation: his smile fills her with warmth, the glow of flames beating inside her.
I am here to lend you my strength today, say the words inside her heart.
Korra wonders whether Roku is here to honor his councilwoman, since she's the first to kneel before the Avatar, her eyes clenched shut in fear and hope. Korra feels Roku's flare of pride, and she doesn't need too much of his guidance to find the knot of nerves and blood and chi, clotted in the councilwoman's energy. Korra reaches deep down into herself – into the echoes of years that is the Avatar, the energy that is all four elements bound and freed, combined, all four elements living, the spirit line Aang showed her how to tap: Korra reaches deep, and brings up energy to gently bend away that clot of blockage.
She feels the councilwoman's entire body shudder, as Korra opens the ley line into her soul, and her connection to her firebending returns.
Korra glances up at Roku; he's smiling, as steady and strong as a campfire, his hands folded before him with grace.
She undoes Amon's clotwork in Lin's two metalbending cops, washing the knots away; she clears the darkness from a waterbending healer, and then an earthbender she recognizes from the marketplace. The Avatar State is thickening around her, and Roku's eyes are gleaming blue-white as he channels his spirit energy through her hands. Korra feels light-headed and dizzy, but she feels victorious too. She thinks she might be crying, back in the real world, where her eyes aren't white and her hands don't glow with warm spirit power and Roku's blessing.
Of course it's Tahno when it happens.
She barely recognizes him, although it isn't his fault – he hasn't changed as much as she thinks she might, as she thinks she would have, as she fears she did in that dark time she didn't have her bending; it's the mist, clouding around her glowing hands. It blocks his face. Roku catches her eyes and frowns in concern, reaching out to take her hands. Korra looks up at him, her mouth open to ask, What?
When she opens her eyes, it's to a splitting headache and cool concrete on her cheek and no mist anywhere: the Avatar State is gone. She must have collapsed; she rolls over slowly, letting her muscles speak to her, and although they're ringing with tension and exhaustion, she doesn't find any bruises or blood. Tahno must have caught me, she thinks, and that's when she realizes she knows him – that's when she remembers what she was doing, the rolling cameras, the watching crowd, and she sits up with a gasp. Of course Tahno would be here; he's a Republic City celebrity.
"Careful there, Avatar," says Tahno, his voice still silky and condescending – maybe moreso now that it's his only defense; "I'm not sure I'm quick enough to catch you twice."
"I'm so sorry," Korra says, and she's so embarrassed to hear the desperation in her own voice, and the regret. "I must have just lost it, for a second. Just – give me a minute," and she tries to catch her breath, to soothe her panicked and pained muscles.
"Outta my way," Mako calls, and he's at her side, Bolin only a few steps behind him; Tahno slides away gracefully, with an ease she still envies and a smile that could cut stone.
"I'm okay," she tells Mako, including Bolin in it. "I must have just gotten tired for a second. I'll be alright." She's aware of Mako's hand beneath her elbow; aware of the cameras, still recording; aware of the eyes on her. "I just need to catch my breath."
"I'm not going anywhere," Tahno says, silky and smug, and Mako gives him the dirtiest look he's ever given anyone.
Korra waits a couple minutes and then stands up; Mako and Bolin back up to give her space, and Bolin throws her a thumbs-up and a grin as she turns to bow to the crowd in apology. Her knuckles meet before her chest again, and she breathes in. Breathes out. Feels the air and the earth, the water and the fire, bound and freed in her own body.
There's nothing. Nothing catches, no trickle of other-worldly energy, no force and grace weighted with centuries of age. Korra breathes in, breathes out. Still nothing. Her fists are pressing so hard she feels like she'll break her fingers, and her teeth are clenched, and there's nothing. She pushes and pulls, pushes and pulls, feels the ground under her feet rattle with her anger; her blood boils in desperation, and her breath chokes in her throat, and there's nothing.
Her eyes fly open, and she turns, seeking Tenzin out in the crowd. "I can't find it!" she gasps, before she has a moment to think about whether or not she can admit this on city-side television, before she thinks about any of the implications. "Tenzin," and her words are breathless like she's forgotten how to airbend, "I can't find the Avatar State."
Tenzin makes the excuses Korra can't, stern and noble and so kindly intimidating on camera. He tells them she's tired, that the Avatar State and spiritbending are both dangerously exhausting skills, and that Korra needs to rest and regain her strength. He tells her the same thing, later, although the words he uses with her aren't cloaked in honey and political grace.
"I'll try again tomorrow," Korra huffs.
"You will do no such thing." Tenzin narrows his eyes, although the look he's giving her is the one she calls calculating rather than angry. "Korra, this is very new to you. You can't – you shouldn't," he amends, and her lips quirk in wry recognition at how difficult the phrasing must be for him, "push so hard that you hurt yourself."
"Tenzin, I—" The rush of fury leaves her, like an exhaled breath of air, and Korra hears her voice crack. "I know that I shouldn't. I really do. But it isn't fair." She holds up a hand, clenches it into a fist to hide the shaking. "All these people lost their bending, and I couldn't protect them. When I didn't have my bending, it felt like … it was like my bones were missing. It was so awful. And I didn't…" She swallows, because the memory of that darkness, that weakness, nerves stripped raw and broken from her body: it's still the worst thing she can imagine. "It wasn't even that long for me, and it was bad enough. I didn't have to live with it, like they did. Like they are."
"Oh," Tenzin says, in that way she hates because it means he's deduced some other truth about the inner workings of her brain and is about to share it with her, when she'd really rather go punch fire at something. "Korra," and the way he says her name is awful; full of sympathy that leaks through the cracks in her walls and sogs up her heart, "you shouldn't feel guilty about having your bending back. You're the Avatar. We need you to bring balance. You can't do that if you are imbalanced within, can you?"
For some reason it brings tears to her eyes and Korra hates this, the way she cries so easily now; she's almost sorry Amon is gone because she could really use a good fight at the moment. "It just isn't fair," she mutters. "I know what it feels like, Tenzin. I don't want anybody to have to go through it any longer than they have to."
"But if you burn yourself out, you won't be able to help anyone," Tenzin points out, and she also hates how he is almost always right. "There were parts of his training where my father was unable to reach the Avatar State entirely. You remember that, right?"
"Master Katara said his chakras were blocked," she says, slowly. "Do you think that's what's happening to me?"
"I'm not sure," Tenzin replies, equally slowly; they're both thinking about it. "Aang brought you the Avatar State during an emotional period when you were wide open to the Spirit World, because of your loss. Maybe now that you've recovered somewhat, making that connection is more difficult."
"Or maybe coming back here," Korra mutters, waving her hand in the general direction of Republic City: she thinks of the destruction, the way the battle laid waste to so many proud buildings and humble homes; she thinks of the arena, of Tahno; she thinks of the line of people waiting for her to press her glowing thumb to their forehead. "There's so much going on. There's plenty of stuff here that could be clogging up my flow." It's meant as a joke, but Tenzin only hmmms, in thought.
"I urge you to meditate on this," he says, and his lips quirk upward in a smile. "Now that you have all four elements, and you've spoken to Aang before, the connection should be easier for you to make." The smile turns rueful. "Maybe just having a few minutes of peace will be enough to recharge you."
Korra doesn't want peace. She wants to spar, to get this fizzing frustration out of her bones; she wants to stretch her airbending, the one skill she hasn't yet tested to its limit; she wants to go get her ass kicked by Iroh the way they did when they were kids, she wants to shoot rocks into the ocean with Bolin, she wants to simultaneously snog and punch Mako senseless. She wants to work on chi-blocking – and blocking chi-blocking – with Asami. She wants to tear airships apart with Lin Beifong. She wants to get on Naga and run, just run, the way they used to: not to run away, but just to run, because Korra has always preferred motion to stillness, action to thought, active to passive: she wants to find this block and beat it down until it breaks.
She's been here before.
Korra takes a deep shuddering breath. Now that her airbending has been unlocked, she's still amazed at the way she feels the element in her lungs: it tingles up at her, full of potential; the awareness isn't pushy or demanding. It's as light as a breeze on her inner self, just a touch: I am here. Now that she knows the way its fingers feel she wonders how she ever felt balanced and complete without it.
"I'll try," she says instead. Her own smile turns rueful. "I wonder if… I wonder if I've lost the connection to Aang, too."
"I doubt he'll stay away long, now that he's met you." Tenzin's smile is mysterious, exasperated, and affectionate all in one, and for a second Korra wants to burst with it. "My father wasn't in the habit of abandoning his friends."
Her own friends are waiting for her when she steps outside. Mako's eyes pull to her instantly, like beads on a string; she sees Bolin leap to his feet a brief half-second after his brother. She sees Asami tense, too, before she stands up and tosses her hair aside the way she usually does. Korra knows there's a crack here, something simmering beneath the surface; she knows the faultline leads to her, as much as everyone pretends that they're ignoring all the issues.
"What did Tenzin say?" Mako asks.
"Same thing he told the reporters, only meaner," Korra says; her grin feels half-hearted, but she's trying. "He thinks I've exhausted myself, or that I've fallen out of spiritual enlightenment."
"Can that happen?" Bolin cocks his head, and Pabu – around his shoulders – echoes the movement. "Once you get enlightened, aren't you forever… en-light-ed?"
"I'm sure you're just tired," Asami says kindly. "And you haven't had a lot of practice with this kind of bending either. All of your other bending took a lot of training, didn't it?"
"Yeah," Korra says, and shrugs. She thinks about her elements; even with airbending, her newest companion, she'd put in hours and hours and days and weeks learning all the forms, the breath, the movements. And it had been so hard for her to get firebending – to truly master it, that is – because of her Water Tribe heritage; part of the reason it came to naturally to her now was that she'd worked so hard to get there.
"What is it?" Mako asks. She glances up; his eyes are on her, only for her, his forehead creased with concern. She loves and hates the way he reads her: it's just like Tenzin, creeping in through the cracks in her defenses, a closeness that simultaneously calls to her and scares the crap out of her. "Is there something else?"
She shrugs again. "I don't know – yet. Master Katara has told me a little bit about the Avatar State. She said that Aang got totally blocked from it at some point because of his chakras. The energy points in his body got all …closed off. She didn't go into it very much, though. But Tenzin is wondering whether the same thing is happening to me."
Mako frowns. "But what's different now that wasn't before? You defeated Amon, you got airbending… What else is there to do?"
She can't help but laugh at that, bitter and brittle; Mako's face snaps shut as if she struck him, and she feels tears pricking her eyes again. "Mako, what isn't different? There's so much left to do. I'm back here, I have a city full things to fix, people who need their bending back, houses that need rebuilt… Amon's gone, but I don't think that's the end. Aang's cycle didn't end after he defeated the Fire Lord."
"Korra," says Asami, and her voice is kind and soft and the sharp look she gives Mako only lasts a flickering second. "Listen to you. You're stressed out and exhausted. If I were Aang, I wouldn't give you the Avatar State right now either. I know you feel like you have to take care of Republic City, but …you have to take care of yourself, too." Asami's hand is on her shoulder, and Korra brings her hand up to clutch at Asami's fingers, even as she turns her face away, sullen.
"Plus," Bolin adds, "you aren't alone in this. We've told you before. Maybe you're the only one who can spiritbend, but we can help with the rest." He stamps his foot, and a column of earth lifts him a couple feet in the air, where he flexes ridiculously. "The mighty Bolin will build forty houses a day, and then ask for more."
"Take a break, Korra." Asami squeezes her hand, and then drops her arm. "Just for a bit. Relax. Do your meditating if you think it will help, but otherwise… Just breathe for a second."
Breathing isn't the same anymore, not now that she can see the air with her spirit, feel the way it brushes her limbs and tangles in her hair; she feels it gust from her lungs, feels its touch between herself and Asami, and Mako, and Bolin. Even breathing, now, reminds her that she's the Avatar. Korra hangs her head.
Mako takes a tentative step towards her, and his hand comes up to her neck, landing lightly there as if he's afraid she'll throw him off. When she doesn't, he squeezes, gently, his thumb pressing into the tension there, his fingers moving soft circles into her muscles.
Korra breathes. She feels the air in her lungs, the water in her blood; she feels her heart beating with fire, her bones rooted in earth. She hears Mako's breath, the rustle of Asami's hair; she senses Bolin's sigh. Behind all of that she hears Pabu's chatter, Naga's snore; she tastes the winds of Air Temple Island, smells the light touch of the sea beyond it. Republic City murmurs like a beacon beneath it, a background noise she can almost hear, a gently pulsing backdrop of breathing, burning life.
(When she'd been up on the cliff, she'd thought about it. What kind of Avatar only had one element? She'd thought about the Avatar Cycle; about whether it could have been broken. She'd thought about some poor baby in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly aware of more than the solid strength of his or her muscles and fibers and bone: suddenly aware of the throbbing fire of her heartbeat, the cooling rush of his blood.
It was only for a second, and her heart had discarded the idea as foolish and selfish and not at all fair, but in that one moment, she hadn't really cared for fair at all, because it hadn't seemed fair to strip the Avatar bare of three elements and leave her barren and blind and toppling in a world that desperately needed balance.)
Korra closes her eyes: breathes in; breathes out.