dedication: all the wonderful people this fandom has given me the opportunity to meet.
notes: I dunno why, but I always end up writing from Mako's POV. he's such a constantly-exasperated neurotic little fuck, it's hilarious.
notes2: AND NO FUCKS WERE GIVEN THAT DAY.
title: par for the course
summary: On gangsters, being a councilman, and shady poker deals at four in the morning. — Mako/Korra.
"Do you want to do something fun?"
Mako didn't like the way she was looking at him, sly out of the corner of her eye. The sun had been down for hours—most of Republic City slept in the summer's dew-drop heat, and Air Temple Island was no different. The sky was dark velvet soft outside the window.
"What kind of fun, Korra?" he asked.
(Korra's fun was often Mako's stupid. Miscommunication was a thing, there.)
She grinned, mischievousness personified in sharp-toothed Avatar girl—but strange, too, because mid-summer was too hot for the Water Tribe furs she normally favoured. The pale blue cloth was cut short against her skin, knees and elbows and shoulders, and she was dark long-legged grace smiling when she spoke.
"A game," she said, still grinning. "They like it down at the Purple Door."
Mako made a sound like a dying turtleduck at the back of his throat, choking on his own spit or maybe on nothing at all. "That—that's a gambling—we've been trying to get rid of that place!"
She shrugged, one shoulder up and down kissed dusky in the incandescent light swinging from the rafters. For a second she burnt through his system, cherry red and glowing bright as embers. She was front-page news.
(He could already see the headlines and he could already feel the oncoming headache.)
If Korra managed to stay out of trouble, he would eat his scarf.
"You're the Avatar!" Mako got out, aghast.
Korra didn't look very chastised. She rolled her eyes towards the sky. "La, it's better than the opium pushers who were there, before. You know it, too."
He couldn't argue that.
"'Sides," she continued, brushing dark hair out of her eyes, "Asami taught me to play before the gamblers did."
Mako didn't doubt that for a second.
Asami Sato was a sealion-shark when it came to any game where money was involved. Mako still remembered the way she and Korra had smirked at each other, and then promptly scammed all of the White Lotus guards on the temple out of three weeks' worth of pay.
Sometimes, the fact that the two girls were friends was the source of his most thorough stress. They were dangerous together, and there was a very good reason he did what he could to curb their combined influence on Tenzin's children (especially on Ikki; she was twelve and already halfway to criminal activity, and Mako didn't want to have to worry about whatever horrible ideas the pair of women managed to put into her head).
Not that he was ever going to tell anyone that.
So instead, Mako looked at Korra, and he didn't even have to say anything. He'd already given into going along with whatever mad scheme she'd come up with—she was good at that.
Korra chuckled. "C'mon, City Boy, we're going across the bay."
And it was all Mako could do to follow her down to the beach past the quay, and stay close behind her as she bent a thick little sheaf of ice to stand on, then motioned for him to follow her. He was very reluctant; not because he didn't trust her, but more like—
"You might wanna hold on," Korra advised.
Mako very determinedly did not cling to her, and they went skipping across the water faster than a dragon-hawk. Korra bent them across the bay, skirting the rocky shallows to send them tumbling through the air together until they hit solid land. Her laughter was a haunting melody trailing behind them.
He had to wonder how many times she'd done this.
Korra reached down to help him up. "Need a hand?"
She ran hot as a firebender (it must have been an Avatar thing), and Mako said nothing. He was doing that a lot, lately—he wasn't sure if he was flabbergasted or if he'd just come to terms with the fact that there were really no words for who Korra was.
He gripped her wrist and pulled himself up, instead. Her bones were solid as stone.
It was frightfully reassuring.
"Come on," she said. She looked towards the city, energy rustling tight along her spine and her eyes gone wide with excitement. Republic City wasn't quite the place they wanted it to be, not yet, because change was a slow thing.
Korra was creeping in slow, too, so maybe it would even out.
"Are you coming, or not?" she called over her shoulder. Mako caught the white flash of her teeth as she smiled, and she was already skittering away.
He could do nothing but follow along behind her.
(And sometimes, that's all Mako felt he was ever doing—trying to catch up.)
She led him through alleys lit by merry red lanterns; through the Water Tribe quarter, then down past the Earthbender Academy to the poor gypsy ghetto where clothes strung out between windows like many-coloured flags. Here, the people lived on top of each other, too many bodies packed into a too-small space, and Korra slipped through them like she'd been born doing it.
Mako thought that if she hadn't been the Avatar, she would have happily been a street rat.
He ducked under low-hanging power lines after the whip of her ponytail.
And nearly collided with her as she stopped abruptly. Korra looked up at him, lips parted slightly. Mako ached to trace the contours of her mouth.
"Here," she said.
Mako didn't know when she'd wound her fingers through his, but her nails dug into his skin, and together they pushed through the purple-painted door.
The air was thick like mud, saturated with sweat and blue smoke. Mako should have been out of place, but he wasn't—he'd worked in places like this for the better portion of his life.
But he still looked away when a girl no older than ten went scampering past him, her knees scabbed over and probably bound for the brothel across the street.
He clenched his fists. One step at a time.
(Being part of Republic City's council had changed him, but it would never change him so much he would look easily on the abuse of children. But the orphanages were dangerous places, dark and dank, grim places to grow up, and he knew that many had younger siblings to think about. He'd been one of them, once.)
"I know," Korra said, soft.
"I know you know," Mako said.
But it wasn't enough.
It never was.
The gambling house had its own dark glamour. Dark wood panelling hung with heavy velvet hid the electric scorch marks—the previous ownership had several run-ins with the still-elusive Equalist movement, and none of them had turned out very well. The clink of crystal tumblers full of brilliant-white arctic wine was audible over the murmur of voices and the click of loaded dice.
It was a quiet little place; easy to hide in.
And Korra looked just at home here as she did on the Island.
"Ah! Avatar Korra! It's so good to see you again, and you've brought—a guest?"
Korra and Mako turned in tandem, back to back without even thinking about it.
He was a mousy little man with small green eyes and an unfortunate goatee, nervously rubbing his hands together as he looked at the pair of them. He wore green silk richly embroidered, and the light glanced off the signet ring he wore; the Triple Threats had a foot in this place, then, either on protection or backing the place with cash. Probably both.
There was a moment where Mako met the man's squinty little gaze head-on—and he knew then that he'd been recognized, but given the type of establishment this was…
(In Republic City, everyone expected corrupt politicians. It was just par for the course.)
"Oh, this is—" Korra started.
"Lee," said Mako. "Just Lee."
The lie rolled easily off his tongue, and suddenly he was fifteen again, casually trying to convince men twice his age that he was eighteen, old enough to work as a bodyguard for one the city's criminal lords.
Korra looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and he knew she was wondering what in Koh's name he was getting himself into.
Mako didn't really know, either, so that was something.
"Well, just Lee—" Mako instantly hated the man's sneer, "—it is good to have you. Any friend of the Avatar's, after all. But I do hope the council will not hear of this visit. That could be… problematic."
Mako inclined his head. The threat was loud and clear. "Of course not, sir…?"
The man's expression turned ugly-smug, and he bowed. "Very good, Master Lee. I am Jian, the proprietor of this establishment. Please, follow me."
"What was that?" Korra demanded. Her voice was a heated whisper against his ear. Mako thought that if she squeezed his hand any harder, his bones were going to break.
"Politics," Mako replied. His lips twisted into something that would have resembled a smirk, had it not been so bitter. "Having fun yet?"
Korra rolled her eyes. "Of course."
Mako chuckled, and when she inelegantly jammed an elbow into his side, his breath left him only a little. He let Korra drag him forward, and he popped his knuckles one-by-one when she flopped down into a rickety chair at a table where three men sat in shadow, shuffling a deck of cards.
Korra propped her elbows up on the velvet tabletop and grinned.
"Hello, ladies," she said.
They rumbled in reply.
He was tempted to slam his head against the wall. This was just one of those times that Mako thought that Korra was absolutely insane.
(Then again, no woman who thought that jumping out of burning buildings was a good bonding activity could be completely sane.
Things just didn't work like that, in the real world.
He loved her anyway.)
"Deal me in," Korra said.
Mako had a very bad feeling about this.
A Very, Very Bad Feeling about this.
"What are you doing?" he said through his teeth.
"It's called poker," Korra replied. "It's Earth Kingdom, originally, I think?"
Mako didn't really have anything to say to that.
He watched as the dealer shuffled the deck again and again, obsessive-like, ritualistically cutting the deck once, twice, three times. And then he dealt, and Mako was left to look anxiously over Korra's shoulder.
It was different than any other game Mako had ever seen played before. Certainly different than pai-sho, but that was a game he'd never been much good at in the first place.
Korra's face was perfectly emotionless. Mako had never seen her like that before, but he knew the stories—Avatar Aang had faced Koh more than once, and had come out with all his features intact. That wasn't something that just anyone could do.
She was blank as canvas, blank as parchment, blank as grey winter sky.
The dealer flipped the cards.
And Korra cheered.
She cheered so loudly, it drew the other patrons nearer. Mako could feel a burning gaze on the back of his neck. He didn't need to look to know that it was Jian, staring at them both like he could see right through them.
Mako didn't like it, but then, he didn't like the whole notion of this place.
"Again," Korra said.
And so they played again.
And they played again.
And they played again after that.
And Korra won every time.
She won every single time; if Mako didn't know Korra, and didn't know how painfully honest she was, he would think that she was cheating. But the Spirits had always favoured their Avatar, and this was no different.
Korra had been born lucky.
She tapped her cards to her bottom lip and grinned in an obscene way, lips pulled back from her teeth; she grinned the way predators grinned at their prey, and it was unnerving. The mood in the room had shifted: where it had been quiet it was now a roar, laughter raucous in the background while they played.
"Again, gentlemen? Or—oh, wait, never mind. I've cleaned you out, haven't I?" she asked, but it was a rhetoric question. The pile of round wooden circles that sat in front of her was frightful in its proportions to the rest of the players'.
No one looked very pleased.
"I guess I should turn these in… Lee, help?"
Mako was inordinately grateful that she'd remembered to use his fake name. He helped her gather up the chips, helped as she stacked them into neat little piles sorted by colour, and quietly kept an eye on their bristling opponents. Korra tucked her hair behind her ear, and that seemed to be the movement that finally set them off.
"Put 'em down, miss, an' no one's gonn' get hurt."
The snick of someone clicking an Equalist glove into place was loud in both their ears. It was probably left over from a raid on the opium house. And the Triple Threats knew how to press their advantages.
So that's how it was, then.
"Why?" Korra asked.
Beneath the table, Mako held a fistful of fire.
"Avatar, miss, it ain't decent t'cheat."
Korra snorted. "And you weren't?"
And they lunged.
It was a flurry or fire and air and the neon-blue crackle of lightning. They fought as a seamless unit—and when Mako sent a shot of enemy electricity towards the ceiling, it blew through the roof. Wood and smouldering shingles from the roof rained down.
The air was still thick, but now with sparks and smoke from the fires.
Mako didn't know who'd grabbed who.
He just knew that suddenly, they were moving.
They dove for the door, just as the place began to crackle with flames around them. Outside, the hole that the re-directed lightning had blown through the roof was smoking.
Korra grabbed at his wrist again, and they ran.
"Is this why you wanted me to come along?!"
"Yup!" Korra laughed out loud.
"I can't do things like this, Korra! If people think I'm—and how is this fun?!"
It was probably a good thing they were in the gypsy ghetto. The people here liked their Avatar—she'd done nothing for them but try to fix things, and the gangs had done nothing but the opposite.
The clothes lines pulled tight behind them, ducked down and underneath to tangle around the gangsters like the living vines from the Foggy Swamp.
"Too bad! It is fun!" she laughed again, gone into the flurry of night-life ahead of him.
He followed her down an alley or three. The twisting maze of Republic City's backstreets was Korra's kingdom, and he had absolutely no idea when that had happened. If she was panicking, she didn't show it.
"You could have told me we were going to be causing property damage!" Mako said as they skidded around a corner, griping like he was eight-two instead of twenty-three.
It made him feel better, if only a little.
(And this was just going to be bad press—three buildings up in flames in three weeks? Agni, why?!)
"You sound like Tenzin!" Korra shouted in reply. She hauled herself up the cracks in the mortar to swing herself over the wall, lost to a free-fall that Mako couldn't see.
He scrambled after her anyway, and didn't look back.
They hit the ground running fast and low, ducking into the shadows of doorways when they could. The harbour was another twelve streets down—Mako grabbed Korra around the waist twice to stop her from turning back and setting fire to a building to slow their pursuers down.
"Come on," he said through clenched teeth. Trying to control his temper when he had an armful of willful Avatar was not an easy task, and Korra snickered breathlessly into his ear.
They were most probably going to die.
They were always most probably going to die, when Korra was around.
Agni, forgive me, Mako prayed.
They ran the rest of the way at a dead sprint. They ran on nothing but adrenaline and the sheer joy of running—they ran on bloody feet and the knowledge that maybe they'd managed to do something good, and when they finally did get to the quay, they were both knee-deep in the water before Korra thought to bend them a bubble of air.
The water was deep.
The water was dark.
Mako had lived through worse.
And half an hour later, the pair of them stumbled onto Air Temple Island's beach. They were sweaty and exhausted. Mako was still too busy being amazed that they hadn't been zapped to death to really process anything that was going on around him.
"Well," Korra said. "That could have gone worse."
He stared at her for a minute, stunned out of his stupor; in fact, he was too stunned to speak. She grinned widely, and Mako could only pinch the bridge of his nose.
"How?" he asked.
"We could be dead," she said.
This was true. But this was not something that Mako wanted to focus on. Being dead would have put a damper on his life plans, to put it mildly. He looped his arms around her and grumbled grouchily into her hair.
"Next time, tell me before you decide to do something that endangers our lives," Mako said.
"Oh? So there's going to be a next time?" she asked. He couldn't quite say he liked the way her eyes sparked up to that particular bright summer blue because it was very rare that any good came from that look, but he couldn't quite say he disliked it, either.
It was just that she was Korra, and she was beautiful, and she was most probably going to be the end of him.
And the funny part was that he couldn't even bring himself to be mad about it.
"Korra," Mako sighed, "with you, there is always a next time."
"Hah, yeah," she said. "I guess there is."
Mako shook his head. He tucked her in between his legs, and looped his arms around her—he could have this, for now. Korra leaned back against him, a little bedraggled, a little weak, but mostly calm, finally.
"Look," she murmured. "The sun's rising."
He dropped his chin to the top of her head as pink and gold crept along the horizon. Korra tipped her head back to kiss his jaw, lips lingering against his skin.
It was so easy to tilt his head to catch her mouth to mouth.
So he did.
"Yeah," he said, at last. The sun was up. It set the ocean to dazzling, but neither of them looked away.
"Yeah, it is."
notes3: shit, I get so much more writing done when I don't have internet access.
notes4: please don't Favourite without leaving a review (oh look, they already changed the name back. good job, FFN, it only took your three days)!