She leans over the cliff's edge and just feels it, for a moment, letting her imagination fill in the blanks: the hard-packed earth beneath the permafrost, the icy sea, the heat of her breath that's never enough to warm her now. But those aren't the only voids in her heart. There's the space between the respect Beifong gives her, and that walled-off stare when she heard Katara say it couldn't be undone, and there's…whatever it really is Tenzin means when he manages to say, "I'm proud of you." There's the girl she was that confessed her love to Mako, and there's Mako now, telling her he loves her, except the gap between those things is a thousand miles wide, and she can't cross it now, no one can.
And then there's the cold air blowing in over the sea, the rush of a new sense awakening, and the tears finally come because it's so empty.
She doesn't have it in her to jump.
Avatar or not, Korra knows somehow she wasn't an airbender until Amon changed her. Before that, she'd only wanted to possess airbending—and for what? For status, for power. But the bitter lessons are learned. You don't own the air, it doesn't get you anywhere. You give everything you have and you get a handful of wind to blow through your fingers.
She watches the last of the autumn pass through Republic City, and thinks it's the saddest season. Most would say that's winter, but she knows winter, the secrets born on the longest nights, the deadly ice, the depths of the sea. It's the darkest season, and the most dangerous, but it has a presence, the snow is solid and real. But fall's just about surrender, it's about dying, it's about giving up everything you were and becoming something else. The chill winds drag at the last of the leaves, and one by one, the trees release them, until there's nothing left but bones, like the Air Temples she sees sometimes in her dreams.
Sometimes she sits by the harbor and looks at the statue of Aang, the early sunsets casting him in rust. All these years she spent envying him, wondering how she would fill his shoes, she never once thought about all the things he had to let go.
She's good at airbending now. Terribly good. She could drift through the forms in her sleep. Amon tore three holes in her heart, and now the wind blows through them, clean, perfect.
They meet only by chance, but she's glad it's him, because when it's someone she likes, the weight of their gaze feels too heavy. He calls her name and she tells him he's got the wrong girl, but then he says, "I hate being recognized too." And she almost doesn't recognize him, either. He's not the man she faced in the ring. She recognizes him more by the outline of what he was, the sense of loss. Only a handful of people in Republic City have that look in their eyes.
She sits down next to him, and there's a lot of things they could say. She could ask him if he's all right or if it gets easier, maybe he could resent her for not being a better Avatar, or for acting like she's got it as bad as him when she's still a bender. But they stay silent and let the wind do the talking, until she notices him gazing off into the distance, at the statue of Aang lit with floodlights against the dark sea. It's a sore spot for her, the statue of her previous incarnation still revered while she's a failure, except this time it strikes her that she's not the Avatar anymore. She's free.
"So, um," he says, caught looking at the statue, "is there any chance that…."
Korra's heart hardens. "He's not going to help. I'm not going to help anyone either. I'm not the Avatar anymore, do you get it? I don't save people." She bites down just before the words I can't even save myself escape.
"Oh," Tahno says. "That's…not what I was going to ask."
"Actually," he continues, "I was going to say…is there any chance that we could go for noodles or something?"
Korra just stares at him a moment. "No, Tahno."
"All right," he says, dragging himself to his feet. "I mean…yeah, I get it. We were never friends or anything, and it was stupid of me to think that just 'cause—"
"No, no, Tahno," Korra says. "There's no chance, because they're closed now. No one's open this late."
He pauses, and smiles. She hasn't seen anyone smile in a long time. Not around her. Well, the children still do. But it's different. They don't understand, and their smiles seem to come from very far away to her. She can barely make them out. But this, this is close by, like an out of season flower, bitten and wilted by the frost.
"I think I can find a place," he says.
He's wrong, but they wander the empty streets before dawn, pausing at the occasional shuttered storefront, until morning comes and the shops open, and they sneak in like fugitives, taking their orders to go and vanishing into the nearest alley.
They don't make plans or promises when they part. When Korra makes it back to the island, she sees Mako training in the courtyard, and stills to watch him. There's a bit of pride—that's the firebending she saved. That was the first moment she understood airbending. The moment she let him go.
He sees her, and stops. "Korra…."
And she passes like wind through his fingers.
They dangle their feet over the edge of the pier, Tahno's legs just long enough to scrape the tips of his boots on the lapping waves. "So that's it," he says. "He's still out there."
"I told the whole thing on the radio," Korra says. The White Lotus hadn't been pleased with that. But she'd let go of her pride, and all that left behind was the truth.
"Yeah, I…haven't been listening to the radio much." For a moment there's just the sound of his feet kicking the waves. "So he could be starting over…taking people's bending away all over again somewhere else."
"I hope he uses his second chance for something better," Korra says.
Tahno looks at her strangely. "You really are an airbender, aren't you."
Korra shrugs. "I guess I am."
"Better than nothing."
How can she tell him that it really feels like she's become nothing? She feels…weightless, diffuse. Opened up and so full of empty space that she could float. But for all her years of trying to be something, this isn't as bad as she'd thought it would be. It's almost a relief.
Maybe that's why it's easier to forgive, too. When she thinks of Amon—of Noatak, and of Tarrlok, she feels only pity. She's sincere in her hope that they're doing something better with their lives now. It's not that what they did was all right, she thinks, looking at Tahno's slumped form next to her, at her own boots swinging above the indifferent waves. But all that hate seems so hard to hold on to. She can hardly even hold onto the things that matter.
"Wait…no, I didn't mean," Tahno mumbles, and Korra meets his eyes—pale, shadowed, miserable. "Didn't mean it like that."
Korra twines her fingers with his. "It's all right," she says, and he relaxes incrementally.
They just breathe a few moments, her breaths deep and calm, his shaky and tense. "I do envy you, though," he says at length. "I don't even mean the airbending. I mean just…it's like nothing can even get to you."
A bitter laugh dies in Korra's throat before it can be voiced. "I don't know about that," she says. "You didn't see me. I cried."
"I still cry." He says it flatly, without fishing for sympathy or trying to salvage any dignity about it.
"I'm sorry," Korra says.
"Yeah…me too." She knows he means for both of them. Then, after a long moment, "Do you ever think about when you were a kid? The first time?"
Korra says nothing, but shows she's listening, and he continues. "I always wanted to be a bender. Didn't even know what I'd end up bending if I did—had a bit of everything in my family. Some people even said mixed city kids like me couldn't bend. Then one day in the rain, Mom was walking me home from school, and I was tired and cranky, I was throwing a tantrum, and…just like that." His face eases a little with the memory. "I forgot whatever I was upset about, and just pushed the rain around for the joy of it. I still think of that, whenever it rains. That moment when I went from thinking I'd never be a bender, to knowing I always was one. Like it'll happen twice."
Somehow, Korra is reminded of the day her grandfather died. Everyone took turns telling stories about him. They were all sad, but glad too, that they'd known him. It was like when those stories were shared, he was with them again. So she begins, to make things dead and gone live again, more for his sake than for hers.
"I was really young. My parents were both waterbenders. I remember they were giving me a bath, and used bending to move the water. So I moved the water with them. I'd rock it forward, they'd rock it back. I remember it wasn't a big deal. They didn't fuss over me or anything. I just felt like everyone in the world could do it. It was different when I started earthbending and firebending too. I remember my parents said they were so proud I was their daughter." For some reason, that hurts a bit. She's come to terms with the loss of her bending, but she can't help feel that her parents' pride is gone with it. She breathes to let it go—air in, grief out. It takes something more with it when it goes, and she realizes she barely even knows her parents. If they died, she wouldn't have many stories to tell.
"My mom made a big deal out of my bending," Tahno says. "Like I was the spirits' gift to water. Always said I'd make it big. And I believed her without question. I don't know why it was pro-bending, really," he adds thoughtfully. "I guess I could have studied to be a healer, too. I never learned to heal." He seems suddenly very sad at that, as if he's discovered a friend he'd lost before ever meeting. He looks at her, and softens somewhat at the sight of her face, at whatever he's read there. "Are you all right?"
She must have been asked that question a thousand times since it happened, and she's gotten used to throwing out the stock answer. This time she hesitates. "I don't know." It's the most honest she's been, and it surprises her that it's with him. They were never friends, but since Amon touched both their lives, they share something else, and Korra can tell him things she can't tell Tenzin or Mako or Bolin.
However ill-intended, Amon did succeed in one thing, in the end. They're equals now.
"I want to see it."
"Are you sure?"
Korra steps a few paces back, into the empty courtyard. She slips into the steps of the form, spirals and whorls, and the air flows around her, blows clean through her, and she's not even touching the ground. It's a form of bending most people are never lucky enough to see, and despite the circumstances, Korra feels privileged to have learned it. She thinks of the people whose steps she traces, the nomads who carried nothing, ruled nothing, were owned by nothing, feared nothing.
When she's done, she looks across the courtyard at Tahno, windswept and distant. He's watching, with a mix of awe and longing. It's nothing like waterbending, of course. It'll never feel like waterbending. But it strikes Korra for the first time that air isn't nothing, for all it is the most rarefied element. Without it, one would suffocate. And maybe that's what he's been doing all this time, asphyxiating while she mourns the emptiness of the sky.
"You're good at it," he says when she draws near.
"Tenzin says I'll be a master soon."
"What will you do then?"
She says nothing, and for a moment the raucous cries of raven eagles fill the misty dawn air. Then, "I guess there's nothing keeping me here."
He looks out to the blue shadows of mountains through the mist. "I think about that sometimes," he says. "Where would you go?"
Korra shrugs. "Someplace far away from here. Wherever they don't have newspapers, and there's nothing on the radio but static."
"Take me with you," Tahno says. He spends a moment, searching her eyes, and she sees the fear that he's said too much, gone too far, but he won't take it back and he won't beg. Not this time.
For an answer, Korra leans forward, and when she kisses him, he kisses her back so desperately that it's like she's giving him air.