I want to say thank you again to everyone who has reviewed or left me nice notes over on Tumblr and deviantArt. Seriously, like, I'm running out of nice words because my feels are getting in the way. ;U;
WARNING: Speaking of feels, though, this chapter is probably going to break them. This chapter does contain mild (in my opinion) violence and a fuck ton of angst. It surprised me, too, but this chapter wrote itself, so I'm not complaining. This is more true to the tone of the overall fic anyway. Tri nt 2 crey 2 mch gaiz k?
SoA still applies!
Wow okay this is the worst author's note ever. I blame lack of sleep from working three shifts in a rowsfjhgkdfjghjd
"Do you think you can handle my questions today, or do you think you'll have to inexplicably run off and get hypothermia again?" Noatak teased as Korra sat across from him, absently stirring the bland stew in his bowl.
Korra made a face in response, tucking into the ice table, settled as comfortably as she could on the bench. "I think I can handle it, but go easy on me," she replied with a sardonic roll of her eyes.
Noatak, thankfully, doesn't launch into a whole inquisition instantly. As he stirs his stew some more, he seems to ponder exactly where to start. He's quiet, but not uncomfortably so, and even though he doesn't look at Korra, she doesn't feel ignored. For once in her life, she patiently waits, watching him think and sort of wishing she could be part of the process. But then again, she supposes as she takes small sips of her drink (kind of like the tea in Republic City, but boiled with kelp instead of leaves, and more salty and tangy, less bitter or sweet), if she knew what he was thinking, she wouldn't be as pleasantly surprised when he finally spoke.
"So, Katara," he started, looking up and meeting Korra's eyes. "She was your waterbending sifu—but when you talked about her, it sounded like you were close." The question wasn't obviously stated, but openly curious. Korra was more surprised that his first question had been about her, rather than about what she knew of him.
"Well, her husband was the Avatar before me," Korra replied, shrugging a little. "Mostly, though, Katara liked my mom. She was way more domestic and stuff, but she's a talented healer—which is probably a good thing, considering how much trouble I got into—and was one of Katara's students. Then, when I was old enough, Master Katara started teaching me. I think she knew I was the Avatar before anyone else did."
"And Chief Kya?"
"Whenever she visited her mother, she would visit me. She's known me since I was a kid. She'd bring all sorts of cool things from here in the Northern Tribes; drove my mother nuts. She was still hoping I'd become some meek, cultured lady or something, but she was never bitter about it." Korra smiled faintly, sadly.
Noatak didn't say anything, but when Korra looked up and met his eyes, she could see the inquiry there. Korra appreciated it—he knew that she would answer any question he asked, but by not asking, he left the choice to her.
"I didn't see my parents much," Korra continued by way of explanation, looking down into her cup and its contents. "The White Lotus took me into the compound as soon as I was old enough to be without my parents; you know, walking, talking, toilet trained. They left the kiddy stuff to my folks, then whisked me away into a thirty-foot-high walled complex of ice so I could train."
"It sounds like you had little time to be a child," Noatak observed calmly, without inflection or blame.
Korra shrugged; she'd never really noticed, not until Aang had pointed it out, and now Noatak. She never felt like she was lacking in any way—it was just the way her life had been. "I managed. I didn't really have friends or anything, since everyone tried to keep me focused on training, but... Naga helped."
The man made a strange sound that might have been choked laughter. "Yes, Naga. What exactly...?"
"She's a polar bear dog," Korra answered, grinning widely. "They're native to the Southern Icecaps. They say I'm the first to tame one. Naga was wandering around the outskirts of the compound; must have gotten separated from her pack. I overheard some guards talking about her, so I went to go check her out. She was lost and lonely and was in pretty rough shape—it took me about a week of bringing out whatever scraps I could find to let me touch her, then another week or two to let me ride her. Without a saddle, mind you; ugh, that was rough." Korra laughed at the memory, how she'd clung desperately to her new pet's fur as she was jostled, hurting both of them. Once Korra had finally gotten Naga to let her put a saddle on, one meant for the whale-horses and not a polar bear dog, the experience had gotten marginally better. "Once I convinced the sentries to let me keep her, they commissioned a properly-fitted saddle. It didn't last long, 'cause she grew like a leopard whale, and she's still growing. She won't get too much bigger, though, since she's nearly four."
"So you found her when you were..."
"Thirteen," she answered. "I turned seventeen a few weeks ago." Suddenly, she felt strange for pointing it out; immature, for being showy that she was an adult. It felt childish. "Anyway, Naga's my best friend." Ugh, even more immature. Korra resisted the urge to cover her face with her hands, instead taking another sip from her drink.
"She does make good company," Noatak replied with a small smile, one that implied he didn't think Korra's statement was childish at all. Then, he looked considering, and asked his next question. "Where did you come from? Before you came here, I mean."
"Republic City," Korra answered, watching his expression carefully, but seeing no trace of recognition beyond the usual.
"What were you doing there?" He asked, watching her with honest inquiry as he started to eat. "It's a little far from the South Pole, wouldn't you say?"
"What wasn't I doing there?" She replied with a wide grin, attempting to smother her own hesitance. "Well, Tenzin, Master Katara's son, lives there with his family. He's the only airbending master around, and there were some social issue things going on in the city," Korra waved her hand vaguely, as if she hadn't been a part of every one of those social issue things. "So I moved there with him and the kids to train airbending. Then, I got tangled up in pro-bending; not entirely on purpose, but, hey, I wasn't going to complain."
Noatak snorted softly in disbelief. "They let the Avatar play on a pro-bending team? That hardly seems fair."
"I only bent water," Korra protested.
"Still, hardly fair," he insisted. "I haven't seen you waterbend often, but your healing is impressive. In combat, I bet you'd be quite fearsome."
"Flatterer," Korra snickered, only realizing what she'd said after it was too late to take back. She blushed, but pointedly attempted not to look at him. "We lost the championship, anyway," Korra continued, scowling at the memory, expression smoothing over as she remembered what came just after. "It was pretty obvious that they paid off the refs."
Noatak's eyes narrowed, head tilted in confusion. "The opposition cheated? Was it very obvious?"
"Extremely," Korra nearly spat. "Disgusting, no-good cheaters. I wouldn't have minded losing if it had been fair—but it doesn't matter. We won't be playing them again, either way; their team broke up, and so did ours." She sighed softly. "I guess it's for the best. With the United Republic still in such a squabble, it's probably a good thing that I'm free to wander and keep an eye on things."
"Still in a squabble?" Noatak repeated, pausing and lowering his utensils. "Why?"
Korra cursed herself internally; Noatak was too sharp to let her little slip go, and since he had asked... "There was an incident," she started slowly, mimicking him as she lowered her spoon, arms pulling away from the table and crossing over her chest. "A few months ago, in Republic City. Or several incidents, really."
Noatak picked up on her hesitance, but did not seem willing to back down. Fortunately, he did not push, allowing Korra to gather her thoughts before she continued; even so, he watched her with sharp eyes, searching for any sign of a lie.
"There was a non-bender movement that got extremely aggressive—they called themselves the Equalists." As he watched her, Korra did the same, doing her best to hide the obvious suspicion as she continued to tell him the tale. However, if he had recognized the name Equalists, he did not react. "They demanded equal status to the bending population of Republic City—something that I naively thought already existed. And, truly, in its purest form, their goal was noble; I would have stood behind it, behind them, but their leader..."
Korra lowered her head, jaw clenching. Her hands gripped tightly at the edge of the table, knuckles going white from the pressure. Even so, she could not combat the horror of her own memories, of being the weak one, for once, the prey. Silence loomed heavily over them, and Korra wasn't sure how to continue, or if she even could.
A hand settled over hers, warm and present and comforting. She looked up and met Noatak's eyes—worried, she realized, about her. Clueless to the horrors she had suffered at the hands of the unnamed man.
"He was radical, limitless, dangerous," Korra continued quietly. "He started with the crime gangs, but it only escalated from there. Before we could stop him, he'd singlehandedly brought our justice system to its corrupted knees, and we all had to watch as our lives crumbled around us. The things he did, to all of us—" She hadn't realized until her voice cracked that her eyes held the sharp sting of tears. Furiously, she blinked them back. "He played us like Pai Sho tiles, and we were all his puppets until he cut our strings, powerless to stop him. He stood and smiled as he watched the city burn."
Noatak shuddered, his eyes fixated on Korra's face, either unwilling or unable to look away. "How did you stop him?"
Korra laughed bitterly, but it sounded like a sob. "I got lucky," she admitted in a whisper, angry and humiliated that she was reduced to such a mess, even if she didn't cry. It didn't matter if she did or not; the fact of the matter was that Noatak knew she wanted to. "Amazingly, stupidly lucky. I'd tried to face him alone before..." She choked on her words. "I... I couldn't— he almost—"
Noatak's hand tightened around hers before he let go, and before Korra knew it, he was tugging her to her feet and leading her from the room by the hand, drawing the curious stares of healers and patients alike. No one dared to stop them, though, and Korra allowed him to wordlessly lead her through the healing center, and, to her surprise, out.
"Where are we going?" She asked, sniffling pathetically, quickening her steps so she could more easily keep in stride.
"Elsewhere," Noatak answered stiffly, giving Korra the distinct impression what he was attempting to hold back whatever emotions he was feeling. She wasn't sure how successful he was, however; she could feel his hand shaking in hers. It was a pity that she was too distraught to enjoy the moment.
It took her nearly until they reached the building to realize where they were going, but did not complain as they entered—unlike the healing centers, this place was warm and full of soft, yellow light from flickering oil lamps. Korra found herself strangely comforted by the sound of hay rustling under her boots as she walked, the distinct but familiar smells of fur and feed reminding her keenly of home. When Noatak opened a wooden gate that looked nearly ready to crumble at his touch, Korra's pain was replaced swiftly by surprised joy when Naga bounded forward to greet her master.
Korra laughed, feeling strange and boneless as she curled over Naga's head, embracing the animal's wide, warm neck as she sank to her knees. Her eyes closed, pain momentarily forgotten as she folded over her patient, gentle companion, holding Naga's head in her lap, careless of the chill she felt from Naga's wet nose against her stomach.
This was exactly what she needed—and, somehow, Noatak had known before Korra herself had.
She felt him crouch next to her, not quite touching, but close. His body radiated comforting heat as he simply waited, then tentatively placed his hand on her back, palm flat and wide between Korra's shoulder blades. With her face buried into Naga's great mass of fur, Korra felt far less insecure as she let a few traitorous tears slip from her eyes.
No one had ever asked her that hadn't already known what it was like. No one had ever asked her, asked Korra, instead of just asking the Avatar. No one had ever really cared how she felt, because, as far as they were concerned, she was the Avatar and should just suck it up and deal with it.
She'd never been able to just talk before, and so she talked.
"I've never been so scared," Korra whispered into Naga's fur, half-hoping he wouldn't hear the evidence of her weakness. "All my life, I was told that I was practically invincible, and that the only risk present was to myself and my own self-destructive tendencies. Call me arrogant—you wouldn't be wrong. It had never occurred to me, even in the slightest, that there might be someone out there with enough power to present a challenge. Then, there I was; a sheltered, spoiled brat, stuck in the middle of a crisis that I couldn't even begin to understand. I was so stupid, so young."
She collapsed back into a cross-legged sit, Naga lowering her huge head into Korra's lap, whining softly. Noatak shifted, leaning back against the polar bear dog's front leg. Korra could feel his eyes on her, but didn't look up to meet them, and her back felt strangely cold now that his hand was no longer there.
"It didn't even matter how young I was, though, you know?" Korra asked bitterly. "Everyone was trying to use me to further their agendas. City Council, Equalists, it didn't matter. The fact of the matter was that I was sick of it, so sick of being pushed and pulled around, feeling trapped between what I perceived was my duty and what I actually wanted. I challenged him before I was ready. That didn't really matter, either. He ambushed me, and I was completely at his mercy... and he made it very clear that he was in control; not only the one with the power, but the only one with any power. In his eyes, I was less than nothing. He had a point to prove and—" Korra swallowed convulsively, feeling the panic all over again. "—and if I wasn't so despicable, so pathetic to him, he probably would have proved it much— m-much worse."
She gasped raggedly, the first time she had ever been able to admit her most potent fear, the one that still haunted her. Headstrong as she might have been, Korra was not a fool, even then. Tied up and completely at his whim, bending blocked and beyond reach of help, he could have done anything.
She'd wondered for months afterward if Amon had known how simple it would have been to destroy her, as he promised, right then and there.
"Korra," she heard Noatak whisper, voice tainted with horror at her implication. "Surely he didn't—"
"He didn't," Korra affirmed weakly. "But he could have; it would have been too easy. Maybe that was why he didn't; I don't know, and I never want to know. I can't even imagine—" But she could. She could imagine, and all of the endless possibilities were awful, and it terrified her.
Noatak had to have known she was lying, even without looking at her face, but he blessedly didn't push her on the matter—that matter, at least. "But why, Korra? What reason did he have?"
"In the end, there was no reason at all," Korra replied, defeated. "Every word he ever said to anyone was a lie; his own name, his own face." She looked up with red-rimmed eyes, seeing Noatak's surprised expression. He opened his mouth to ask, but Korra mutely shook her head in a silent plea to let the issue drop, at least for now. Reluctantly, he did.
"Don't be offended, Korra, but... how was he even a threat? I mean—" Noatak frowned. "You're the Avatar. I would think that someone would have more sense than to challenge you."
Korra lowered her head in shame. "I wasn't a fully-realized Avatar yet, and I didn't have any experience in anything other than single combat. Taking on more than one enemy was tough enough, but when you factor in that they were chi-blockers—"
"They were what?" He asked, perplexed.
"Chi-blockers. They..." She swallowed, steeling herself. "They temporarily disable a person's bending by hitting pressure points."
Noatak leaned forward, looking a strange combination of alarmed and intrigued. "Is that even possible?"
"More than possible," Korra replied with a nod. "And all of the chi-blockers were nonbenders... except for one."
His face twisted, first in confusion, and then in utter disgust. "The Leader—he was a bender, wasn't he? That's what you meant when you talked about—" Noatak cut himself off, suddenly looking furious. "A wolf-bat among the sheep-pigs. None of his followers knew that he was a bender, did they? They were all blindly following this man, believing every one of his lies, probably worshiping him as a hero. And he betrayed each and every one of them, abusing their trust."
"Abusing their faith," Korra added solemnly. "He had them all convinced that he was blessed by the spirits, like a prophet meant to guide and protect them."
Noatak scoffed. "And what made him so special?"
Korra's nails dug into her palms. "He could take away people's bending. Permanently."
For a while, he simply stared at her, his expression chillingly blank. Then, his lips thinned into a tight line, face growing darker and darker as long, uncomfortably silent minutes passed. As his eyes narrowed, Korra's widened, a terrible chill going through her at his hateful look. Korra's hands twitched instinctively, flexing blood into her fingers, and despite the knowledge that Noatak was her friend, Korra's body was prepared for a fight.
Finally, when she was about to say something, once even Naga's ears perked up at the palpable tension, he spoke, biting out halting words. "What kind of a bender has that ability?"
Korra fought the urge to back away with all that she had, and instead forced herself to answer, albeit in a whisper bordering on the silent. "A bloodbender."
Korra was honestly starting to get a little bit scared, wondering in a split-second whether or not she would be facing the very enemy she had only just confided about. With huge, terrified eyes, and her heart pounding like the wheels of a train against a track, Korra moved slowly, her hands leaving Naga's fur to rest against the hay-covered ground. Inch by painful inch, she scooted closer to Noatak, despite every nerve in her body telling her to move the other way. She moved closer until their knees brushed, reaching out to his balled fists and attempting to unwind his fingers, much as he had done for her earlier. "I don't know."
He laughed once, bitterly. "If you had to guess, Korra. Would any bloodbender be able to do that? Would your Master Katara be capable of something so extreme?"
"I don't—" Korra faltered under his piercing look. "No, probably not."
In a move more swift than she could follow, Noatak seized both of her wrists, squeezing harshly. Korra hissed at the pain, but was much more worried about the snarl that twisted his features into something nearly unrecognizable. "It's funny, though, isn't it—" Noatak snapped. "—that when a man washes up with a case of amnesia, and they call the Avatar? They didn't call you to heal me, Korra; they could have managed that on their own. So why would they tear the Avatar away from a socioeconomic crisis where she was so sorely needed, hm? Can you think of a serious enough threat that would make a hardened Chief panic? Because I can."
Korra flinched back, but with his hold on her, she had nowhere to go. A quick glance at Naga showed the polar bear dog's ears fully back, eyes alert—but not growling, not attacking. Korra had to trust Naga's instinct, because she knew her friend would never allow Korra to be hurt. Looking back to Noatak, Korra clenched her jaw. "You're hurting me."
"I asked you a question, Avatar," Noatak sneered.
Stupid. She was so stupid. Korra wasn't entirely sure what heartbreak felt like, but if it felt anything like the utter betrayal and disappointment that felt like it was crushing her chest, making her gasp for breath, then it was the worst sensation she'd ever encountered. "I don't know, I don't know," Korra insisted, overwhelmed and scared, but fighting it back—if it came to a fight, she had to be strong. She had to be strong, she had to be—
"Do you really not know?" Noatak snapped. "Look at me, Korra. The Leader, Korra, what was his name?"
Korra bit hard on the inside of her cheek, her mouth filled with the iron-tinged taste of blood. She had to be strong, she had to be strong, she had to be strong—
"Tell me!" He commanded.
"His name was Amon!" Korra screamed at him, furious and petrified. "It was Amon, okay?"
Noatak dropped her wrists, on his feet in a second, backing away from her until his back was against the gate. His chest heaved with adrenaline, hands twitching at his sides, which he balled up again almost immediately. Korra, for her part, couldn't quite figure out how to use her legs—not that it mattered, because she was sure that if she stood, she would fall again when her knees buckled. Instead, she scrambled backward, probably looking more pathetic and undignified than she ever had, not daring to take her eyes off of him for a second. She'd seen how fast he moved. She couldn't let her guard down.
Noatak was the first to look away, doubling over and starting to laugh, the sound wounded and helpless—a man completely out of options. If Korra hadn't already sworn that she wouldn't cry, she would have started right then.
"It was me, wasn't it?" Noatak asked, arms wrapped protectively over his stomach, fingers winding in the fabric at the waist of his coat. "That's why they called you here, right? I'm Amon."
"I don't know," Korra replied, voice thick and trembling, and this time it was the truth.
"You don't know?" He repeated, incredulous and mocking. "What, after all this time, you still can't be sure whether or not I'm the monster from your nightmares?"
Korra shuddered. "Amon—he wore a mask. I only ever saw him without it once, and it was from far away."
"Oh, of course." His lip curled. "So, why wait? Why don't you just kill me and get it over with?"
"I won't kill a man who hasn't been proven guilty," she replied vehemently. "And if I were going to kill someone, I wouldn't want it to be you. Do you think this is what I want?" Korra trailed off into painful silence. "You— I woke up this morning, and you were there. That's not nothing to me, okay? You're my friend. You matter to me."
"I'm not just another stray you can pick up, Korra," he said, voice cracking on her name, shoulders starting to shake.
What happened next, Korra couldn't explain. Noatak's body seized, curling in on itself and knocking him off-balance. He fell hard to the floor. Korra was about to check on him when something suddenly felt like it snapped inside of her and she screamed, shrill and piercing. The pain was like nothing she had ever felt, like being torn apart from the inside out by razor-sharp claws, hell-bent on tearing her to pieces before letting her bleed herself dry.
The feeling got worse and worse and worse until Korra thought she couldn't take anymore, was willing to die if it meant the pain would end, and all at once, it stopped.
Her eyes were watery, her vision blurry, and somewhere in the background, Korra was pretty sure that Naga was howling, but none of that mattered as she crawled to Noatak's side, trembling fingers feeling for a pulse that beat swift and uneven. Noatak's eyes were squeezed shut, brows knitted together in pain, and Korra barely had time to pry his hands away from clawing at his own arms before her body was wracked by another spasm of pain.
Her whimpers made his eyes snap open, and in the second that their gazes met, the pain seemed to dwindle and die. Eyes wide and clear, for the first time since this mess had started, Noatak reached for Korra's hand and squeezed it weakly, Korra instinctively—stupidly—curling protectively over his body.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered, haunted eyes looking up into hers. "I don't know what—" His body was wracked by shudders, a pained sound escaping from between clenched teeth, nearly crushing Korra's fingers that were twisted with his.
When Korra's body buckled under a new wave of pain, she knew. "Bloodbending," she gasped. "Amon used a psychic b-bloodbending technique. Waterbending is n-notoriously hard to control; the stress must be—" Korra's words transformed into a shriek as she felt something close around her heart and squeeze.
"Noatak, please," Korra begged, tears finally working themselves free, slipping from her cheeks onto his. Her strength failed her, the last bare inches between then disappearing as Korra's head became heavy, their foreheads pressed together. "You're going to kill us both!"
Like the words were a trigger, everything suddenly stopped and became very still. Korra's heart beat furiously in her chest, her labored breathing fighting with his for the title of loudest sound in the room. Even Naga had gone strangely silent, but Korra felt her damp nose against her back, so she had to be fine.
The horror of the entire situation was somewhat surreal, and most definitely more than Korra could handle. By all means, she should have run away, crawled if she had to, but Korra was never particularly wise, nor did she adhere to the typical standards of self-preserving behavior. Instead, she stayed put exactly where she was, one hand carefully protecting Noatak's head from the ground, the other clutching desperately at his hand, which held on to hers just as tight.
Like she hadn't in months, Korra just stayed and cried, finding her greatest comfort and torment in the presence of the man who was most assuredly her enemy.