Night in the city takes its cue from its people: when they start to move, the sun does, too. It's drawn to the same half-built horizon and blackened streets, casts its shadows over those who step from the growing dimness of the streets into the bright yellow lights of the speakeasies that spill into the streets to join the night with smoke and laughter and the clinks of glass and brass. At night, the doors are always open. The one rule, unspoken, is that everyone comes and goes unchallenged, even the girl in the corner decked in Water Tribe blues and furs but for the lidded hat sitting as though tossed by her side.
It's unobtrusive, these speakeasies, an easy means of taking refuge from the too-quiet monastery where nothing moves. Korra slips away when she can, from the bare-lit cliffs along Air Temple Island to the blazing streets, where she must shout to be heard over the music and mingle and wagers a game or two, even, of strength. Korra suspects that if she were discovered, late in the shadowed corners with a glass in one hand and a barely-blackened cigarette in the other, she might be able to talk herself out of trouble with Chief Beifong. Watching, as one excuse. Waiting. In exchange for letting Korra assist on the police force—in the interest of protecting remaining airbending relics Korra hasn't yet touched, in the interest of Tenzin's and Korra's melting sanities, and, fine, perhaps, the Avatar could make herself useful—Beifong wants Korra to learn.
She doesn't like whiskey, but she tips her glass back against her lips anyway.
Korra's left against the wall, the speakeasy's patrons more interested in cards than in dancing to the band that beats dutifully in the back. Maybe it's the whiskey or maybe the noise that clouds her reflexes, or maybe the smoke that curls lazily across her vision and as she puffs, pushes, from her lungs. But she misses the signs, for whatever reason—takes a full-bodied hurdle against her back that slams her forward against the bar as a shout goes up throughout the room.
"Don't cheat me," she hears, and she shoves the offending body away and whips around to the source.
He's tall—that's Korra's first thought as she watches the speakeasy patrons draw behind the boy who stands, arms crossed and hips forward, to look in her direction. His face is tight, despite the loose stance of his legs: eyes pinched and eyebrows lowered, jaw set more forward than it usually has to be. "Watch it," Korra says, and she's not sure whether it's the rush of alcohol to her brain with the sudden stand, or whether she wants him to look at her.
He shifts—weight from one foot to the next—not even sparing a glance for his human discus, who stumbles right back into Korra's side. "That's my fight," the cross-armed boy says, and his eyebrows pull even closer.
There's a moment in which Korra takes a moment to ponder those words, roll them around as she tightens her hold on the struggling captive who persists his feeble fight for freedom. It's a sluggish consideration, her mind working to catch up to the realizations of the moment. The one in her hand is the one who stirred the moment, after all; but as she ponders, and she watches, her body makes the decision before her brain.
With her free hand Korra jams her cigarette back into her mouth and takes one last drag. She's not thinking about the smoke that curls into her lungs or the tickles in her chest and throat. The tip of the cigarette flares, and when she breathes out, she breathes fire and black smoke that rises from the corners of her mouth and nose to wrap her in heat. "If you want a fight so badly, you'd better watch where you're taking it," she says, and she spits ashes on the ground.
It takes only seconds. The initial bodily offender goes flying again, disregarded now but for his piece in the game. Korra follows the shove she gives him right back into the crowd, and among the shouts and whoops she thinks she hears a sigh, a breath against the crown of her head. She catches an arm—and as she twists that arm, notices, just for a moment, the ripple of tattoos bright above the veins that pop beneath his skin, heat runs beneath her fingers and flame lights on his palm.
And she smiles.
"Not a good decision," he says, and she looks up into gold and tilts her chin.
"My words," she responds, and he jerks and she, too, lights on fire.
He smells of smoke and alcohol, of the dingy corners of the city, of sweat and ashes and dirt. And Korra breathes it in—breathes the heat of his fire and his body, feels the flex of muscles beneath her hands as they grapple and as she twists the arm in her hold around his back and slams him against the wall. She has one hand curled in his shirt, just the plain white cotton twisted in her grip, and the other flat against his wrist, but all that's missing, in this exploration, is taste.
He pushes, and she pushes back. She pushes closer. And this time the taste is on her tongue as well as her nose—salt and sweat mixed with skin, and the last thing she thinks—she remembers—is that this must be the taste of heat and flame.
Nights are also for work, just as they are for pleasure.
The police turn their attention from the speakeasies, because of all the laws in Republic City that can be broken, drinking and dancing are hardly the worst. They exist in unspoken agreement, hardly laws, in the end, with no one to shut either down. Republic City police protect the speakeasies: at night the triads move.
If they're lucky, it's the police who run the game. Usually they miss. The triads are one step ahead, information run through the streets and the children who can slip unnoticed by the "careful watch" of the city guard. But sometimes, just sometimes, they get it right: a runner feels too in over his head or the movements of the turf invasions catch the eye of the nervous vendor who sells okonomiyaki from a cart outside. And when they're right, they're ready—and the triads don't always scatter.
Lightning Bolt Zolt is a name Korra has known, but not a face. Now she sees him, and now paces—steps, foot over foot, her eyes never leaving his. "Call off the dogs," Zolt says, and Korra shakes her head: "I don't really feel like feeding yours, either, bucko. It's just you and me, now."
A shock of blue—and Korra doesn't stop to think. She drops, rolls with the momentum and rises with fists full of earth and flame. Korra's only inches from his face; she knocks his arm and lightning jumps now to the sky. It's his stance she breaks next, and she brings him to the earth as it locks, almost lovingly, around his legs and hands. Years of fear, of running, of always missing him at the last moment, and Korra has challenged and brought them to an end in an instant.
And below the shifting earth she catches, just for a moment, a flash of color—bright along his skin in a pattern touched, not long before. She takes her steps back, one two quick, twisted and almost a stumble.
"Lightning Bolt Zolt, you're under arrest," she hears, and the crowd scatters, but for a firebender in a white shirt, who only watches.
"Mako," someone says, and he pulls around a corner.
Nighttime is last-minute organization, when daytime business can't interrupt the turn and flip of pages or personal thoughts in the silence. The record scratches as it spins, the only sound that echoes through Beifong's office and the empty hallways of the police department. Korra's left alone. She thumbs through the files in the police chief's drawers, her fingers rough against the pages as she searches for just one name, one among thousands that hold records of misdeeds and families whose names have either risen above or been dragged through the mud. Just one name—and the memory of bright flashes of color against skin on arms that she held and arms that she threw in the cells below.
Night pays the erhu, whose whine is barely heard above the clinks of glasses and chatter of the evening's minglers. In the speakeasies again, Korra watches. It's meetings she notices, now, that are the focuses of the night: shady deals made through the haze over glasses of wine, dirty money passing hands under the tables, figures and faces from long ago resurfaced.
Or perhaps not so long ago.
Something drops onto her head and Korra smells sweat and smoke and earth. "You left your hat," a voice says, low into her ear, and she doesn't even have to turn her head to recognize the voice or the patterns along the arms at her side.
She does turn, though, to look at him square. He doesn't look away; he leans back, left arm resting on the table, gaze head-on and steady as she doesn't blink. "Congratulations, Water Tribe," he says, and his drawl is slow and quiet. "You've found me. Is this round two?"
She leans, and once more she breathes him in. "Round two of the Triple Threats. And I know you know what that means."
His reaction is slight—just a twitch of his hands, a near-imperceptible shift in his gaze.
He follows her lean in, then. His right hand curls around her waist and lips tickle her ear, breath hot against her skin, as he murmurs, "Choosing a Triple Threat base wasn't the best place to have this conversation, especially when you chose to earthbend in full Water Tribe gear before a triad whose head you just took down, Avatar."
She turns her head, a near kiss against his cheek, and lifts a hand to his hair to pull him even closer.
"I just want to know what you're doing."
She feels his body tense beneath her hands, feels the shift in control as he pulls back, only a fraction. "Keep your nose where it belongs about things you don't understand."
"But that's why I'm asking," she says, impatient. "Look, we have your boss in prison. I took him down, myself. You and Zolt have the same tattoos—you can't even try to pretend you're not a Triple Threat. I saw your file, but I don't want to bring you in again. I just want to know—I just want to be able to make it stop."
She hears his breath hiss through his teeth before he responds, and his voice hums low against her skin.
"You know you're in our territory—any triad that boasts they've taken down the Avatar could have absolute power in the city. No turf wars for years."
"And you'd like that, wouldn't you, Mako?" she asks, and she grips his arm before he can jerk away. She shifts her weight, wraps her other arm around his shoulders so they sit, wrapped in each other with their lips against each others' ears. "No more turf wars, because if illegality get done for you what the authorities can't, you'll take it—but just because they can't get it done, not that you like what you do."
He doesn't speak.
"Age ten, in for stealing food—age thirteen, clothes theft—age fifteen, bending lightning on the streets—age eighteen, rigging probending matches for your brother—you just want out, you just want money, you just want somewhere else to go but these are the only people who give you anything."
"Looks like my file told you all you need to know," he mutters, and she hears his teeth click together by her ear. "Because the police have all the answers."
"No," she says, and she pulls back now to look at him, but he keeps his gaze down and body tight but his hands and arms don't move from hers. "But I want to find them."
It's his turn to stare, minutes that feel like silent hours beneath the erhu that continues to play over the noise of the patrons' chatter. Then Mako tilts his chin, forehead brushing against the brim of the hat that still sits askew on her head, and he says, "I don't have them—because all this is is a game to survive. And you, Avatar, you'll never understand that."
She breathes, "Then teach me how to play."