He felt the movement behind him, heard the rustle of the glove, the slight scraping of the fuel cap, and realised what his little brother must be planning.
Even surrounded by water, he barely had time to encase himself and his brother in a protective shield.
He thought he was dead.
But death should not hurt this much. The frenzied burning of his skin reminded him he was still alive. His whole back throbbed with searing pain. When he lifted his head, that one small movement sent a jagged line of agony throughout his entire body. It was so unexpected and so overpowering that he could not help but cry out, yet even as the sound escaped his lips he clamped down hard and scrambled to collect his dazed thoughts. His heart pounded erratically and he focused on that sound, counting, counting, distracting himself from the burning pain.
When at last it subsided, he was very careful how he moved. The pain was still there - he could feel it along his back, his arms, his neck - but it was a bearable, dull prickling crawling over his skin and not the searing agony he had provoked earlier. He noticed he was lying on his stomach, on something smooth and soft. The sound of lapping waves was gone, replaced by groans and cries of pain. He could hear people bustling frantically about. Honing and expanding his senses, he felt, close by, the wounds and blood clots of many others. As he waited and listened, he could feel those wounds healing and closing up. This must be some hospital.
Noatak opened his eyes slowly.
Night had fallen. It was dark and peaceful here. Shafts of moonlight filtered through a partly opened window. A faint scent of lavender rose from the bedsheets, but pleasant as it may have been, the sheets still smothered his wounds and made him sweat.
He struggled to push himself up, ignoring the renewed pain scalding his skin. He fought the urge to vomit and finally sat, swaying uncertainly. Next to him, his brother was lying unconscious, covered in a mass of bandages. They were alone in the room, the other beds all unoccupied. But in the next, he could sense the blood pulsing sluggishly through the throngs of injured. Mostly non-benders.
He swung his legs off the bed and gripped the bedpost, forcing himself to stand. He wanted to see the extent of the injuries of the people in the next room, the oblivious people who had fought for him. The moment he stood, his knees buckled and he crashed to the floor. Stars exploded before his eyes as his head smashed to the ground. Struggling not to cry out, he bit his lip and endured, reminding himself of the hundreds more unfortunate suffering the same pain. Perhaps not quite the same - none of them had been cloaked in burning flames after all. If only he reacted faster, he could have stopped Tarrlok before they were blown into this place.
'I heard something in the next room,' a voice said. 'Like something falling.' Footsteps sounded, then the door creaked open and a shaft of light fell onto his face.
'Are you alright? Here, let me help you up.' A figure appeared by the doorway, a black silhouette against the backlight.
Fool, do I look alright? he thought bitingly as the healer helped him back into bed. Where her hands touched him, he felt no pressure, as though the act of carrying him was just a ruse. Intrigued, he slumped his muscles, and, as he predicted, he was lifted, but this did not come from the healer's strength. It felt...like his body was rising of its own accord. Bloodbending.
Of course, of course. Full moon. He had forgotten others needed it to bloodbend.
'Where am I?' he asked.
His curiosity over the healer's bloodbending vanished as a more pressing problem presented itself. Yue Hospital. The biggest hospital in Republic City. After all his efforts to get away and start a new life, he was back where he started, in a city that now hated him. Did this healer even know who he was? She didn't seem to recognise his brother, despite his prominent position within the council.
'And where is the Avatar?' he asked.
'Avatar Korra left for the Southern Water Tribe a few hours ago. Rumour has it that –'
Another creak as the door opened again.
'Nankka, you are best healing with your hands rather than your mouth. Now go back and tend to those injured, and keep an eye out for trouble.' A larger, burlier healer entered the room, put his hands on the female healer's shoulder and spun her towards the door. The woman huffed and stalked off. Noatak watched her leave, at the same time running through every possible escape route. He couldn't leave through the front door, that was certain. Hospitalised Equalists would point him out the moment they set eyes on him. Obviously the hospital staff didn't know who he was, or they'd have left him to die. He was surprised that his clothing didn't give him away. On that thought he glanced down –
'Why am I wearing this?' he asked, shocked by the plain outfit he wore.
'Don't worry,' said the healer, 'your United Forces uniform was too badly burnt to be kept. I'm sure General Iroh will be happy to let you have another set.'
'United Forces?' he said.
'Yeah, it seems everyone on that fleet got badly injured by those Equalist planes, even the General himself. All your comrades are fine though. We got Iroh's message and sent boats out all over the harbour to look for survivors. You two were drifting very far off from the fleet and we almost didn't see you, but then that explosion went off and we came over to investigate. You're damned lucky we found you.'
Surprise and relief, mostly relief, shot through him. He was safe here. No one knew his real identity. Yet even as that relief settled, caution gnawed at him. Sooner or later the Avatar would come here to see the wounded. He glanced at Tarrlok sleeping beside him. Hard, bitter lines had overwritten the face of his once-gentle brother. If the Avatar did not give them away, his brother would. They - he - needed to get away from here. He could escape through the window, though jumping out might be a problem given his present state. A careless twist could easily send lines of agony tearing through him.
He looked back to the healer, and to his surprise he found that the healer had gone. In a healthier state he would have been much more aware of his surroundings. How weak and powerless his own injuries rendered him.
A heavy groan came from his brother. Noatak pushed himself up again, slowly, and dragged himself to Tarrlok.
'Are you awake?' he whispered.
'What happened?' said his brother. 'I thought we died?' The question hung heavily in the air.
'We would've if some healers hadn't found us. We should get away from here. There are Equalists in the other room and they won't take kindly to our presence once they discover our identity.'
'Tarrlok,' he said sternly. 'We can't stay here. It's not safe. We need to leave.'
'Then you go,' said his brother. 'I'm not stopping you. It's not like I've ever been able to anyway.'
Noatak sighed. Perhaps, tonight, he would have a look around the place, and depart tomorrow. Leaving Tarrlok where he was, once again he climbed from bed and tried to cross into the next room. Determined not to collapse this time, he bloodbent himself, and the notion unnerved him so much that when he finally reached the door he slid down and sat heavily, breathing hard. When his heart ceased pounding so unevenly he stood up again and pulled the door open a crack.
Warm light flooded his face. A dozen healers stood over their patients, but he could sense from the way the wounds were closing, that the glowing water enshrining their hands had nothing to do with healing. Like the case where the healer named Nankka had lifted him into bed, the healing water was not in effect. What? Then it hit him. They were bloodbending.
He watched, fascinated. He could feel exactly what they were doing. The healers, instead of using water as a catalyst to speed up healing, were using bloodbending to knit all the veins and arteries together. Instant recovery. He never knew bloodbending could be used for something so…so non-aggressive. The concept was entirely foreign and absurd - as though a Unagi had just been discovered breathing fire.
'Hurry!' one healer, who looked to be in charge, shouted. Sweat beaded on her forehead and he could tell she was exhausted. 'We only have a few hours before the sun rises and there's still about twenty people with serious injuries that can't be healed normally!'
'All Equalists,' another grumbled. 'Why are we staying up all night to heal people who are trying to take our bending away?'
'We are healers! We save lives, it is not our job to decide who lives and who dies. That decision rests with the Avatar.'
He was touched. After all that his people had done to the city, there were still unprejudiced benders. He wondered if any of his own people would do the same for a bender.
The lead healer looked up and caught sight of his face.'You should be in bed!' she barked.
'I wish to help,' said Noatak.
'Well, you can't,' she said.
'I am a waterbender,' he said quietly.
'I know, but you're also tired and injured, and in no shape to help with the healing. Frankly I'd rather you go back to bed and rest rather than mess things up here and force us to heal you all over again.'
'Isn't bloodbending illegal anyway?' he said.
A collective gasp arose from the healers. Their shocked responses made it apparent that they were all well aware of their illegal bending. Everything clicked into place - bloodbending was illegal, and to hide this, they pretended to use water...
The head healer shot him a silencing glare. 'Very clever. To this day you are the first person to have worked it out. You'd do well to keep it to yourself. We only use bloodbending to heal. Without it, a lot more patients would be dead.'
'I see. All for the greater good,' he said, amused that their ideals were so close to his own.
'Go back to bed,' the healer said, rolling up her sleeves and advancing upon him menacingly.
As much as he would have liked to put the woman in her place, he was in no condition to resist. Frustrated, he nodded and backed away. Closing the door quietly behind him, he climbed into bed and tried to relax, taking solace in the fact that his face too injured to be recognisable. Yet, something about the lead healer's edgy demeanor told him everything was not as under control as usual. Tomorrow morning, when he was sufficiently recovered, he would wrest the truth from them.