Korra was shaken from the attack. Not from the ambush – she'd expected that – but from her encounter with that last chi-blocker.
He wasn't at all what she'd expected. He was smart and skilled. Not your typical lackey.
But what really struck her was his final words.
Benders didn't abuse their power. Benders and non-benders were treated equally where she was from. If anything, she'd been teased more because of her bending.
So why would that equalist say something like that?
She scratched behind Naga's ears as they reached the pier, sighing.
"Well, I wanted an adventure, didn't I, girl?"
Naga sneezed and shook her head.
"Yeah, better be careful about what I wish for from now on."
The fight kept replaying in her mind. She should have finished it and made sure he wouldn't be able to follow her, but she didn't. She couldn't.
She growled in frustration, kicking Naga into a run and plunged into the bay.
Mako waited sullenly until his companions regained consciousness, frowning out at moon's reflection shimmering across the bay. He should have been knocked out just like them, but he wasn't.
The Avatar was not at all what he had expected.
She was a fighter, and she was kind of amazing.
He pushed those kind of thoughts out of his mind as the thugs with him groaned and returned to the world of the living.
"What happened?" The bigger one moaned, sitting up and rubbing his forehead.
"We got our butts kicked, that's what happened," Mako snapped. "I'm not going to be the one to tell the Lieutenant how badly you failed. At least I stayed awake."
"But you still let her get away," the other one pointed out.
Mako shot him a look. "She's the Avatar. Give me a break. We underestimated her."
Despite his protests, Mako was still called in on the debriefing. Each man was called in one at a time, and Mako was last. When he entered the room, it was dimly lit, and the Lieutenant stood beside his desk, still, his eerie green goggles giving off a faint glow.
"You let the Avatar escape," he began without preamble. "I'm disappointed in you."
"I'm one man," Mako protested. "She's much stronger than you think. She may not be a fully fledged Avatar, but she is still powerful. You'd need more than three men to take her down."
The Lieutenant stared him down thoughtfully, rhythmically tapping one finger on his desk. Mako shifted uncomfortably.
"Perhaps. Perhaps we need to take another method with her. It seems mere strength won't be enough for this one." He paused. "She is the same age as you, is she not?"
Mako hesitated. "I think so. Maybe a little younger, I don't know. Sir."
"You will win her trust, then deliver her to us."
"If she can't be brought down with brute force, we'll have to be more subtle."
"I don't know if I can - "
"What made you join the Equalists, son?" He interrupted, fixing that piercing stare on Mako's golden eyes.
"To restore the balance of power in the city. And to punish the benders who abuse their powers."
"Then don't you see that bringing down the Avatar is the only way that will happen? She abuses her powers more than anyone. She flaunts her bending. She's a fraud, only looked to because she happens to be a certain kind of bender, with no regard to her character or moral convictions. She must not be allowed to gain support in Republic City."
Mako's face showed no emotion, save for the slightest twitch of a frown on his lips. "I understand, sir. I'll do it."
"Good. When you feel you have her trust, report back to me, and I'll tell you where to go from there. I hope I won't have to rebuke you a second time for failing me."
"Because there are only so many chances I can give you." He trailed off suggestively, and Mako knew that 'only so many' meant this was his last chance.
He'd seen what happened to those who'd run out of chances, and it wasn't pleasant.
"You may go."
Mako dragged his feet the entire way home, arriving just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. He cringed when he realized how late it was getting. Bolin might already be up and see him come home.
He trudged up the stairs and heard his brother banging around in the kitchen. Great.
He climbed into the attic apartment, bracing himself for Bolin's inquisitions.
"Are you just getting home?" Bolin was quick to ask, though his voice was still lethargic and heavy with sleep.
"Uh, yeah," Mako scratched the back of his head. "I'm going to bed," he said, trying to avoid any further questions.
"You don't have work?"
Mako groaned. All he wanted was to sleep. "Yeah, I forgot. I'll just go wash up then. Don't wait on me, I don't want you to be late on my account."
"Is everything okay?"
"Perfect. Just perfect."
Bolin let it go, but watched his brother leave the room in concern. It was too early to push him now, but he'd figure it out later.
The day dragged on and on. Mako fell asleep during his lunch break before he could eat anything, and was rudely awoken by the overseer only to return to work hungry in addition to being even more exhausted.
He stayed until the closing bell, dead on his feet, and gratefully made his way home, grabbing some take-out on the way. It wasn't in his budget but he was too tired to care or cook. He'd pull an extra shift when he'd had more than 20 minutes of sleep.
As he started the climb up to the attic, he paused at the sound of feminine laughter ringing out, mixed with Bolin's chuckle.
The day just kept getting better.
If Bolin had brought home another stray, he was seriously going to have a chat with his little brother. The boy was too free with his generosity, not to mention too poor. Mako couldn't afford to let it continue, though he hated to reign in Bolin's kindness. There weren't enough kind people in the world.
Mako entered the tiny apartment and stopped in his tracks.
Of course that laugh would belong to Avatar Korra.
"Mako!" Bolin shouted a warm greeting. "Look who I found getting into trouble again?"
Mako raised an eyebrow at the Korra, who was sitting comfortably on the lumpy couch he'd rescued from the curb ages ago.
She shrugged. "I'm sorry but where I'm from, you're allowed to sample the food before you buy it."
"How have you not been arrested yet?" Mako asked, genuinely curious.
She grinned. "I have an in with the Chief. Also, I am the Avatar. The job has to have some perks."
He couldn't help but break a smile.
"And one perk today," Bolin said as he reached for a bag, "is the spoils of her quest."
Korra shrugged, a hint of color in her cheeks. "I wanted to pay you guys back for the other day. Plus I don't really know anyone in the city, and it's nice to get off the island. That is," she paused momentarily to look at Mako, "if you don't mind."
Mako glanced at his brother, who seemed to be waiting for his answer just as anxiously.
He sighed, feeling like he was going to fall asleep on his feet and far too tired to argue. Plus his assignment weighed on his shoulders.
"I don't mind," he said quietly, trying to muster up a warm smile. "Actually, Korra, can I, uh, talk to you for a minute?"
Korra and Bolin exchanged confused glances, but Korra nodded and scrambled up off the couch to meet Mako over near the stove. There wasn't much privacy, but it would have to do.
"I wanted to apologize to you," Mako began with a sigh. "I know I was rude to you, and I don't want you to feel uncomfortable around me. I'm not the nicest person after a long day of work and I was taking my frustration out on you. It was wrong of me and I'm sorry."
Korra blinked and exhaled slowly. "Wow. I wasn't expecting that."
"What were you expecting?"
She bit back a smile. "You to tell me to stay away from your brother and never show my face here again?"
Mako chuckled and shook his head. "Bolin can make his own decisions - I won't interfere in that part of his life. Although," he added as an afterthought, "If you break his heart, I'm obligated to hunt you down and hurt you in some way."
It was her turn to raise a brow at him. "As if you could. I'm the Avatar, remember? Also, I've made it clear I'm not interested in that part of his life. Just so you know."
Later, he blamed it on the lingering thoughts of his task combined with his exhausted, but he blurted out, "Is there anyone in that part of your life?"
Her eyes widened, and the blush was back in her cheeks. "Oh, uh, no…" she stammered. "I'm pretty busy with training and stuff…" She trailed off, waving her hand uselessly.
Mako regained his senses. "Not that it's any of my business. I mean, uh, sorry."
"No, it's okay. I don't mind." Her cheeks were burning now.
It might be easier than he thought to work his way into her life. If he didn't know better, he'd think she was already attracted to him. But that was ridiculous.
"Good." He tried to smile charmingly, but it felt lacking. "Now if you don't mind, I need to get some sleep."
"Extra shifts again?" She asked, frowning sympathetically.
"Yeah." It was almost the truth.
"I'll save you a plate," she promised. "You won't want to miss what I'm planning."
Now the smile was sincere. "Thanks."
When Mako opened his eyes again, the sky outside was dark. He could hear the radio playing and Bolin's grunts as he worked out.
Mako's stomach growled.
He savored one last moment of peace in his bed, then dragged himself to his feet.
"Well, look who's rejoined the land of the living," Bolin joked, grabbing a towel to wipe away his sweat. He turned down the radio. "I was afraid you were never going to wake up."
"I wasn't asleep that long," Mako protested as he combed the shelves for something to eat.
"I thought you were going to sleep clear through the night! And Korra left you a plate, it's in the ice box. You can probably heat it over the stove. It was pretty good."
"Korra was sad you couldn't join us," Bolin continued. "She told me you apologized to her, and that it meant a lot to her."
Mako didn't have anything to say to that, and instead focussed on his food.
Bolin sighed. "Fine, don't tell me what's going on between you two. I'll figure it out on my own."
"There's nothing going on between us," Mako said, trying to keep his voice level, but didn't elaborate.
"Sure, sure. So why did you get home so late this morning? I don't remember you saying anything about an extra shift."
"It was a last minute thing," Mako lied. "No big deal."
"You work too hard."
"I'm fine," Mako snapped. He bit his tongue before he said anything else, and inhaled a mouthful of dinner.
Bolin held up his hands in surrender. "Alright, alright. I should know better than to talk to you when you're half asleep. I'm going to turn in."
Mako swallowed and watched his brother climb up to his bed in the narrow loft with a determined look.
It would all be worth it in the end.
"You'd think in a town this big, we'd stop running into one another."
Mako startled at the increasingly familiar voice and turned to see Korra with a hand on her hip and an amused smile on her face.
"You'd think so," Mako agreed slowly, the Lieutenant's mission ringing in his ears. "Did you get lost again?"
"No," Korra snorted indignantly. "I'm running errands for Pema. They grow most of their food on the island, but she wanted me to pick up a few odds and ends." She held out a piece of paper. "I've got it covered."
Mako plucked the list from her hand and scanned it. "Really? You know where to get Aunt Cho's Home Remedies for Expecting Mothers?" He raised an eyebrow.
Korra flushed and snatched the list back. "I'll figure it out."
"I can help, if you want."
She flushed deeper, for some reason Mako couldn't decipher. "Really? I mean, I don't need it, but - "
"I insist," he said, one corner of his mouth turning up. "And I don't ever accept 'no' for an answer."
"Well that's going to be a problem, because neither do I," she smirked. "But I'll let you win this time."
Despite himself, he gave her a genuine smile.
As they maneuvered through the busy streets of Republic City, Mako found himself surprisingly relaxed around the young Avatar. She laughed freely and often, and was quick to learn the complicated patterns of the neighborhood.
More than once, he had to check himself before forgetting that he was on a mission and that she was the enemy.
Before long, they were at the ferry dock and it was time for Korra to return to the island.
"I had fun with you today," she said, surprisingly shy. "Thanks for your help, even if I didn't need it."
Mako chuckled. "You're welcome, and you did need it."
She rolled her eyes, but smiled and gently laid a hand on his wrist. "You know, you're not as much of a jerk as I thought you'd be."
He wanted to fire back a retort, but found himself unable to speak.
Her touch burned him, but not in the way he was used to from firebenders. Her fingertips sent fire through his veins, a slow burn that seeped under his skin and circulated throughout his body, pooling around his heart and making it thrum.
His breath came in shallow pants as he stared at her, trying to make sense of everything.
She released his wrist as the ferry bell rang, and she left his side with a final wave goodbye, but the sensation of her touch lingered for hours afterward.