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June 11, 2013
Book I: Heart
Chapter Four: Breakout
Noatak promises himself that he will never get thrown into another Phoenix Empire prison, ever, even if General Sokka ordered it personally.
The escarpment that he and the other captured raiders are imprisoned in is worse than the worst of slums. Filth dominates the cell; a healthy coating of rust and slimy grime covers the metallic iron bars, giving it a muddy, foul appearance. Elephant rats run freely along the corridors, their tiny little feet producing small pattering sounds against the stony floor as they scrounge for rotten scraps of food, their nosy trunks poking around in cracks and dark corners, snuffing around.
They needn't to worry about not getting enough food. Noatak is sure that there are grubs everywhere in this disgusting place, and he scowls bitterly at the Phoenix Empire's obvious neglect for this prison. To top all of his miserable conditions off, his ego had been bruised in the raid.
He was beaten by a firebending girl in Phoenix Empire gear, out of all people. And yet, something at the back of his mind tugs insistently, vying for his attention—how did she break out of that ice prison?
Noatak scowls, pushing the thought aside while slouching deeper into the shadows of his prison, hugging his torso with his cold, goosefleshed arms. It is freezing in the cell, and none of the guards have (or ever had) any decency to warm up the place with their accursed firebending.
He will make her pay for the trouble that she caused him if that is the last thing he ever does.
The cool beams of light from the pale, silver moon touches down on the gritty floor of the cell, shafting in through the gaps in the narrow bars of the sole window in his room. Noatak watches the iridescent moonbeams pool on the floor for a few moments, uncomprehendingly and blankly watching the colors slip and slide around—and then—
—he feels a surge of power course through him as those gentle rays of silver light charge his waterbending up to unprecedented heights, and along with it, another, far more lethal power escaping from the clutches of dormancy.
Some would call it evil. Others, invasion of privacy and unwarranted control. And yet others—such as his father, Yakone—revel in the power that it brings them.
Master Katara calls it illegal and unnecessary.
Noatak calls it his ticket out of the prison.
His eyes glitter like those of a wolf's: cold, primal, deep blue stone reflecting the light of Yue and expressing a mere fraction of the power she grants to all waterbenders at her fullest and her brightest phase in her journey across the starry sky.
The Water Tribe raider stealthily creeps to the front bars of his cell, a prowling beast on the hunt—and he merely waits for that single, opportunistic moment to present itself and leap out into the open, straight into his waiting claws.
Noatak's ears pick up the faint slap of rubber-soled boots heavily hitting the ground, and he quickly rises to his feet in a single, fluid motion as the prison guard stiffly stalks into view—a figure clad in the sturdy red-and-black armor of most Phoenix Empire foot soldiers.
Anybody who is wearing that dark, armored uniform instantly registers themselves as a threat in Noatak's radar.
His fingers stretch out, dark and long, tapered digits splayed wide in front of his body, arm muscles tensed and rigid. They begin moving through the air: twitching at first, but slipping into jerky, broken, complicated movements as the guard draws closer and closer.
Noatak feels the blood in the guard's veins suddenly attach itself to his will, and with a slow, shaking yank of his arm, he spikes the man's blood towards his cell and, ultimately, towards him.
A guttural, animalistic sound is wrung out, unwillingly from the man's throat as he slams into the bars of Noatak's prison, the young waterbender behind the iron rods mercilessly controlling his blood. Rather, he is controlling the guard's movements, as opposed to his will.
A quick flick of the wrist—that is all that is needed. The man twists and turns in the air into grotesque positions, his face screwed up into a soundless scream, one of utmost pain—and yet, his hand shakily creeps towards the loops of keys that is shivering on his leather belt, jangling around each other. The metal clacking, while simply intrusive and annoying to others who are not in Noatak's perilous situation, is music to the raider's ears.
"Twist," he hisses, slowly turning his hand down so that the palm of his hand is facing the ground. With his arm and finger muscles contracting and tensing as he struggles to maintain his choking hold on the guard, the ring of keys clenched tightly in the poor firebender's hand jerks towards the key hole, closer and closer, until Noatak can almost taste the delicious feeling of triumph and victory upon his tongue.
With a heavy grunt, the Water Tribe raider casts his arm to the left, throwing the hapless prison guard against the steel wall, where he crumples weakly to the ground, almost folding in on himself, his blood spiraling dangerously around in his veins as the death grip on them suddenly relinquishes. The guard's heartbeat is still arrhythmical, but Noatak really doesn't care—the firebender's kind has killed enough of Noatak's people that one dead Phoenix Empire guard isn't really that big of a deal. For good measure, the waterbender pulls the helmet off of the guard and gives him a good, hard and solid kick to the face, merely for spite out of the firebender's sheer existence in the world, and gropes around for the keys. He pries open the firebender's clenched hand and extracts the jangling mess of metal, giving it a quick look over before pocketing it snugly in his clothes.
The raider takes a moment to regain his breath, a little winded from the tough effort of bloodbending for so long, and he moves silently down the corridor, as stealthy and smooth as a shadow.
His fingers grope blindly around at his dark surroundings; hands patting against the smooth, cold metal wall to make sure that he stays on the right track—although, he is not quite sure what the "right track" is.
Noatak curses, quickly withdrawing his hand from the wall as the sound of his ragged fingernail scraping noisily against the metal echoes through the corridor. His eyes dart around wildly, searching for any guards that may have caught wind of the soft click, but no one in red armor comes to investigate the source of the sound, much to Noatak's relief. He replaces his fingers lightly on the metal, grazing them across the wall, until his hand suddenly perturbs into open air. Shaking his fingers lightly, it meets resistance on the left and right sides, which tells the waterbender that he has reached another cell. He lightly slips his hand from the bar, careful not to make any noise.
There is a rustle from within the prison, and a dark hand closes around the grimy bar, his knuckles popping out through his translucent skin. Two blue eyes peer out from a curtain of ragged, oily hair that obstructs his face, and the hoarsest whisper tumbles out from between his lips.
Noatak presses a finger against his lips, stressing the importance that the raider must stay quiet. His fellow waterbender gets the unspoken memo, retreating softly back into the cell.
The Water Tribe raider grasps the keys in his hand, moving slowly as to make sure they do not jangle and clack against each other loudly.
1-6-8. He runs his calloused digits over the carefully inscribed numbers on the top of the keyhole, and carefully, carefully searches for the corresponding key in the ring. His fingers close around the jagged end of the key and he quickly inserts it into the lock, wrestling around with it for a moment before he hears the soft and satisfying click. The cell door stiffly swings open— —and screeches like a dying arctic hen in the process.
And the sound is loud. Very, very loud.
Noatak winces visibly as the door swings on its hinges once more (CLURRRRRRRRK!), groaning and grumbling with evident lassitude.
Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It is the ages-old rust on the metal hinges. He should have known better; his fight with the raider, while isolated, has covered the own creaking of his cell door up...
Loud clanking fills the air, getting closer and closer, and Noatak curses, yanking his fellow raider—whom he now recognizes as Akota—to his feet. "You feel the moon, don't you? It's full tonight."
"Mmm." Akota flexes his fingers, and then pushes his hair behind his ear. "Thanks, Noa."
Noatak nods curtly as the first guard rounds the corner. He stops mid-stride, obviously stunned by the scene in front of him—two raiders broken out of their cells, with no apparent reason as to how they escaped in the first place.
Noatak acts quickly and thrusts his hands out, falling back onto bloodbending, as the guards took away his water skins when they first threw him into the prison. His fingers grope around the air for nothing as the guard lets out a strangled choke, his chest expanding as he writhes grotesquely in midair, until with a heavy grunt, Noatak flings him to the side, sending him smashing against the wall. The man slides down the metal without so much as a groan, although the sound of his impact resonates through the hallway. Faint shouts start up, and the alarms begin to blare, twirling red flames casting a blood-like, sinister look down the corridor.
Akota gives him a strange look, one that holds a question and a hint of fear in its gaze. "Bloodbending, Noa? Master Katara won't be happy when she finds out about this."
Noatak waves an impatient hand as his eyebrows draw together into a frustrated line; the other hand is currently preoccupied with tugging Akota down the hallway. "Well, my least concern right now is how Master Katara will react to the consequences of my bloodbending, because it's the only way we can escape out of this disgusting hole. Would you rather get caught by a firebender? Come on, Akota, let's go!"
"But still—" the other man tries to counter, but Noatak whips him around a corner, and his response is torn away from his lips as he dangerously swerves, consequentially hitting the wall with a dreadful-sounding thunk.
"Then...how about we let Master Katara not find out about the bloodbending in the first place?" Noatak asks coolly, his cold blue eyes flicking to Akota's equally blue irises.
"Yeah, yeah," Akota grumbles, righting himself while rubbing the crown of his head. "Watch it next time, Noa!"
Noatak leads him without another word sprinting down another corner, their scantily-clad feet slapping against the cold ground, sending a wave of chilliness into their soles.
"Water! We need water!" Akota calls out to him as Noatak tosses the ring of keys through the air. They land on his fellow raider's fist, and the raider is sifting through the clicking metal objects for a moment, until he thrusts one of the keys into another cell's lock, hereby letting the rusted door swing open (producing another obnoxiously loud noise whose sound grates irately against Noatak's ears). The raider imprisoned inside staggers unsteadily out, his sunken eyes set deep into his gaunt face. A bright red burn stretches down the length of his left arm, the skin encompassing it stretched tightly around the inflamed flesh.
"I don't have any water!" Noatak snaps back, adrenaline coursing through his veins. Excitement and fear has settled around his being, sending a warm but sick feeling coursing through his body. "If I had water, don't you think that I would have used it by now?!"
Akota curses as the rough voices begin to get louder and louder by the second, heavy feet stomping down loudly on the metal ground, sending a small rumble rippling throughout the whole prison. The raider scurries to the cell's window and violently grasps the pitted iron bars, giving it a good hard yank.
The rods, of course, stay put, and Akota growls in frustration. "By La, these are the times I wish that I could metalbend."
Noatak scoffs at that. "There's only even one proficient metalbender in the world; it wouldn't have helped you that much, anyways."
He is, of course, referring to the great Toph Beifong, who is, apparently, currently hiding somewhere in the Earth Kingdom with her own band of rebels. She, General Sokka, and Master Katara were reportedly part of the original "Team Avatar", as it was known, before Avatar Aang was brutally murdered in the Avatar State by the Phoenix Lord Azula in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se.
Akota turns to the burned raider. "Ikkou, can you run?"
"It's not as if my legs are broken," Ikkou snappily responds in his own curt way, pulling himself upright. Akota raises his hands up in mock surrender. "Okay, okay! For La's sake; I was simply asking!"
"If you had any eyes, you wouldn't be asking," Ikkou peevishly mutters as the first guard rounds the corner, shouting something indecipherable as he brandishes a fist full of flickering orange fire at the raiders.
Noatak pulls the other two raiders along, the keys still jangling merrily in Akota's fist, and they run into a servant carrying a towering tray of neatly stacked metal bowls. The servant gasps in surprise, her gray eyes instantly flying wide open as she loses her grip on the pyramid of dishes. Water slops messily over the edges of the ragged, scratched and pitted metal bowls, tipping out into the open air—
—Water! The thought registers itself in Noatak's instinct before his mind processes it, and his arms are shooting out to catch the precious liquid. The blobs of water halt in midair, twisting and swirling into formless shapes, and Noatak draws the shining globs to him, where they coalesce into one huge shivering ball of water. He holds on tightly to the liquid with his bending grip.
"Do any of you have water skins?" he asks, ignoring the terrified squeak of the maid behind him as she hauls herself to her feet to scurry quickly away from the crime scene.
Akota nods, taking three out from under his ragged tunic. "The guards figured that it wouldn't be any harm to let me have them, after they emptied the skins of water first." He grins, revealing surprisingly white teeth.
"Hey, you three!" The firebenders are drawing closer by the second, and Noatak fills the skins as quickly as he possibly can, sweat trickling down his brow as he feverishly works on carefully streaming the water into the packs. A little of the liquid spills out from the side, staining the dark leather, but this is no time to be picky.
Akota keeps one of the skins for himself and passes the other two to Noatak and Ikkou. He nods at the latter raider, saying, "Just bend if you have no other choice; we'll get you healed up once we escape and get back to Yue City." Noatak quickly draws a stream of water out from the skin and thrusts his hand out. The water follows his movements, twisting its tip into a sharp point as it flies towards the guards, lethally. They scatter like bugs in the wind, and Noatak melts the ice back down to water, drawing the liquid back to him.
One of the guards bends a stream of orange fire at him, and a torrent of water from Akota blocks it, easily dispersing the flames. Noatak quickly follows through on Akota's defensive maneuver, quickly raising a glob of water from his reserves to send it rocketing towards the Phoenix Empire guards. The water bullet strikes one of them in the face, causing the poor man to topple over into several of his companions. They tumble down onto the floor in a mass of shouting, writhing, armor-encased limbs and bodies.
Noatak's eyes dart quickly around the branch in the corridor in front of them, calculating which route to take. He quickly sprints to the crossroads, and his sharp gaze falls on a metal door in the right lane. Gesturing frantically to Akota and Ikkou, they follow him to the exit way, until Akota hesitates, slowing down his pace. "What about the others?"
"We can't help them now," Noatak grimly says, corking his water skin shut. "And besides, three of us breaking out are better than none. We can come back for them later."
Akota still looks hesitant, but Ikkou elbows him with his good arm. "Noatak's right. If we can't escape, then there will be no hope for the raiders at all. If we can, there's still a chance that we can come back to help the others."
Akota purses his lips, but he allows himself to be led to the exit. Noatak wrenches on the iron wheel, cranking it with all his strength, and it finally springs open without a sound, exposing the ocean beyond.
"There." Ikkou nods at a moderately-sized canoe-like boat, docked at the gates, peacefully bobbing up and down in the wavy sea. "That should be enough to hold the three of us until we get back to the mainland. And it seems light enough; hopefully, we can use waterbending to propel it."
Ikkou nods. "So, are we going to go directly back to Yue City?"
"That's a five-day journey," Noatak thoughtfully considers, lightly leaping through the open doorway and onto the puffy snow below. An image forms in his head, and his face darkens as he turns to look at Akota and Ikkou, who are both looking at him expectantly.
"So, no," the raider says, his own voice sounding strange in his mouth. "Besides...there is someone that I want to find, first."
The room is small and dank. Humidity is high. Torches line the walls, bright yellow flames hissing and sparking in their places, throwing off much-needed light and heat. Long shadows are thrown across the scuffed wooden floor of the area. Cluttered tables, spread with sheets of curling, aged yellow parchment are shoved carelessly in the front of a chair, where a man is silently observing the withered plans.
A loud knock penetrates the silence.
"There is at least one Phoenix Empire soldier in the woods. The scouts counted a total of three figures."
"Interesting." The lanky man sitting at the throne presses his thumbs together; his dark and shadowed gold eyes peering into the distance. "They are all benders, correct?"
"As far as we know, yes."
"Moving. All females, actually, as far as we can tell. One of them is ahead of the others."
"Did you get a good look at their faces?"
"The girl in the front looks almost like she could be from the Water Tribe. She has the skin tone, at least, but she still has the crimson armor of a Phoenix Empire soldier. And the other two, they were in the shadows at the time, so we couldn't get a good look at them."
The lanky man's lip curls in disgust, and his lips silently form an indiscernible word. He turns to his subordinate, his voice dark and menacing. "Very well. Capture them. Bring them to me."
"Yes, sir." The scout scampers out of the room, shouting orders as he goes, the rough timbre of the voice fading away as the door closes behind him, effectively muting the sound all together.
The remaining man lightly presses the tips of his fingers together, his mouth set into a firm scowl.
His thick eyebrows draw together in slight consternation.
"Can we go to the fair? Pleeeaaase? Mother said that we could!" Large amber eyes accompany the plea, peering hopefully up at his. The look that he always melts in front of, the look that he can never resist—and he doesn't refuse this time, either.
"Fine, fine." He chuckles a little, teasing a lock of the girl's black hair that has fallen in front of her eyes, before he gently pushes it back behind her ear, tucked neatly away. "C'mon, let's go. Race you to the fire flakes!"
Bright peals of laughter ring through the air as both of them take off, their patchy shoes kicking up clumps of sodden mud and grass up in the air.
Those were the good times. The good times, until she discovered her firebending.
Her parents—their parents—were besides themselves with joy, evidently glad that one of their children had the ability to produce fire at will.
She, the younger, became as valuable as gold.
He, the eldest, became something less than dirt.
It isn't fair, he thinks bitterly, glaring at the wall over his clasped hands, she was only twelve.
But life is never fair, and he learned that the hard way, when he saw her again. Only three years later, when he was twenty and she, fifteen.
But she had changed. The playful glint was no longer in her eyes, instead replaced with a steely sheen of determination and something akin to anger.
No, no, not quite anger. Just ambitiousness. Hardness.
...That's what bending does to people.
His face darkens with reminiscence at the evidently painful memory.
Flames rush past his face, narrowly missing his right ear by mere centimeters. He dances out of the way, his eyes narrowed, fixed on her, on the girl he thought he knew—he can still hear her laugh, the sound of bells tinkling in the air—
That's what she...that's what she...
And he falters, just for a moment, a shadow of pain crossing over his face. And maybe she sees it, and maybe she doesn't, because another stream of fire is roaring towards him, and he has no choice but to hit the dirty ground, scraping his cheek on the rough and rocky road.
And then—his arm is on fire—and he's screaming—
—And she's screaming—
—the smell of charred flesh hangs like a sweat-soaked veil in the air, suffocating everything it can reach in its dark, moist hold—
—fire and bending—
—fifteen and a murderer—
—Because that's what bending does to people—
They change into monsters.
His fingers, almost of their own accord, drift over to the quill by his side and make jagged strokes on a clean yellow piece of parchment.
He stares at the name for a moment, and then snatches the sheet and crumples it, throwing it behind him in disgust.
He doesn't notice as it hits a torch. Flames lick up the sides of the wadded piece of parchment, and it curls onto the ground, blackening all the while, a thin line of orange lava evaporating it to bits of black and gray ash. The first letter inscribed on the sheet is the last to disappear in a burst of curling flames.
Ruan pounces on Korra as soon as Asami leads the corporal to the forest's edge.
"So," the firebender nonchalantly says, keeping her gaze trained straight ahead, "do you really have any idea where you're going with this quest?"
Korra listlessly bats away at a branch that has sprung in front of her face, her expression curiously blank and subdued. "Sure."
"Yeah, it totally seems like it." Her tone of voice is mordacious. "For all we know, we're just walking around in circles." She gestures impatiently towards the fluttering leaves all around them. Wild animals run underfoot, their tiny paws slapping against the layer of dried leaves that litter the forest floor. The sunlight from above shafts in through the gaps in the leaves, dappling the bright foliage with darker shades of shadows. "Seriously, it's really easy to get lost in the woods."
The corporal bristles immediately, snapping off a few twigs from the tree in anger. "Look, I don't have to tell you every single tiny detail about the hunt, okay? It's my quest."
Ruan sneers, her sharp eyebrows drawing together into more of a scowl than they already are. "Remind me to teach you how to lie, Korra."
"What?" Korra snorts dismissively, waving a disinterested hand. "That doesn't even make any sense."
"Sure, it does. You're avoiding the main point. Where are we going?"
"That's a total load of crap, and you know it!"
"Well, I know that we're wandering around in the woods aimlessly."
"We haven't even been in here for five minutes!"
"Oh, dear Agni, you have finally made a valid point. Whatever shall I do?" Ruan gasps mockingly, placing a hand over her heart.
Korra points at her stiffly, not at all impressed, and acidly bites back, "Mako's rubbed off on you."
"Now that really is a problem." Her voice is practically dripping with sarcasm. Asami sighs in exasperation, the breathy sound cutting effectively into the two firebenders' heated argument. "Can we walk two steps without arguing? Please?"
And for a blessed moment, the crunching of leaves being crushed to tiny, dusty bits under boots is all that is heard.
"Hey, look, that's two steps. Let's resume our argument." Korra kicks sulkily at a tree trunk.
"I didn't mean that literally!" Asami protests, her green eyes wide and protesting.
"I am a literal person."
"Yeah, we've pretty much had that all figured out around five years ago, hon," Ruan sardonically shoots back, her hands reaching up absently to tighten her tied hair.
"Don't call me 'hon'!"
"Why not? You certainly seemed fine with it when Akira called you that."
"I did n—argh!" Korra stomps further into the woods, leaving Ruan and Asami behind. The echoing shout of her last words rebounds between the trees ("You are so freaking insufferable!"—except that the "freaking" was actually another much, much more awful word that caused the guard to wince visibly), and Asami turns to Ruan in exasperation, throwing a hand out to gesture towards Korra's retreating back. "What is up with the two of you?" she demands.
Ruan snorts off-handedly, evidently scornful of the corporal's ireful attitude. "Oh, I find her at the docks of New Ozai, wallowing around in self-pity. And she's just sitting there, so I ask her what's wrong, and then she's off like a rocket, complaining about how she hasn't seen her family for ages and if she doesn't find this Blue Spirit figure, everyone's dead. I try to point out to her that everyone has their own personal problems, that we all have to move on at one point, and Korra being Korra, she doesn't take the blatant hint that indicated that she should get up and moving, and then she gets all sulky and even more pessimistic on me."
"Oh." Asami, for once in her life, doesn't know what else to say to that.
"Yeah, I know, right? Sometimes, I can't believe how stupidly self-centered she can be! It's as if everyone else's difficulties vanish, and she's just in her own little world, moping around about whatever." Ruan swipes at a branch in disgust, her mouth thinning into a straight line.
Asami senses that the firebender has had her say, and so, she cautiously responds.
"Well...I guess that we all just have our own rough patches at times in life."
"Really, now?" Ruan sounds incredibly unconvinced. "Then her whole life must consist of one gigantic rough patch."
"But—" Asami weakly starts, trying to cover for her new companion, but Ruan cuts in, her expression and whole demeanor in general suddenly furious. The firebender rounds on the guard with pure, undiluted ire in her flashing golden eyes.
"But what, Asami?" she demands hotly. "But what? Listen, you've known Korra for, what, maybe a few hours? I've known her for seven years, and she's been relatively unchanged over that long period of time. Yes, she has her serious and somewhat pensive moments, but those happen once in a blue moon—and most of the time, she's hot-headed, arrogant, and excessively pugnacious. She doesn't feel, I swear to Agni!"
"Of course she has feelings," Asami quietly responds. "We all have feelings. Besides, wasn't she taken away from her parents when she was...four? Five?"
Ruan gets into the guard's face and gives a short jerk of her head, her spiky blank hair swinging angrily through the air behind her. "Yeah?" the firebender snarls. "Well, guess what I think about that." She shoves up two fingers in the air, and Asami can't help but pull back in astonishment.
"That's what I think about it." Her voice is trembling with checked rage. "Why, do you think that she's the only one who has a broken family?" Her voice rises to a yell. "I lost my family, and I lost my life!"
"Cut the blather and listen to me!" Ruan's scream echoes through the forest, and ahead of them, the shadowy figure that is Korra stiffens and turns half around as she observes the raging firebender with a confused gaze.
"No one ever listens to me!" Ruan shouts, almost insanely, slamming her fists onto a tree repeatedly. (Asami could almost swear that she could see a vein pumping in Ruan's forehead.) It would have been quite comical had tears not been streaming down her long face, and all Asami can do is freeze to the point of her bones snapping and watch the firebender launch into a loud tirade, occasionally choking around a few words. "It's about them! It's always about them! The self-centered idiots in the world!
"Firebending! They told me it was a gift! My life was ruined by firebending! I've been told what to do, how to live, when to do this and to do that—do you think that it was spirits damn easy to be the child who could bend in my family? Do you know how much expectation was put onto me? For crying out loud, no one gave a crap about how I felt about being thrown into boot camp when I was twelve, surrounded by recruits who had already been training for half their lives!" She stiffly points at Korra, whose expression is a mix of fear and confusion. "You think that you had it bad? At least you're good at what you do. At least you're always at the top of the class when it comes to firebending. Try being the runt of the grade, that kid who couldn't even produce a single, measly burst of flame half the time during drills! The newbie!"
Korra strides over, her eyes set with steely determination, and she grabs Ruan tightly around the shoulders. "Ruan, calm down. Just—"
"Shut up!" the firebender wildly shouts, spraying Korra's face with flecks of spit. "By Koh's realm, is it that hard to, for once, listen to someone other than yourself?"
The corporal draws back immediately as if someone has just threatened her still-tender back with an open flame.
"I wanted to complain!" Ruan continues furiously, slamming her tightly-clenched fist onto the tree once more. The rough bark finally cuts into her flesh, but she doesn't seem to notice, and the thin trail of blood running down her forearm only further contributes to the appearance that she has gone utterly insane and has lost her mind completely. (For all Asami knows, she has.) "I wanted to cry, to scream, to run—but who do I run to? What do I cry and scream for? I had—I have no one! At least you know that your family is still alive, and chances are, they still care about you! My parents only see as far as the bridge of their nose and think that sending me to military boot camp is the best thing that will ever happen to them, because it will bring them prosperity, and my brother—by Agni, don't even get me started on him!" Her voice hitches for a moment, but she quickly resumes her line of speech. "So you, Korra, can give up ever moping around about your woes, because I can confidently assure you that many people have it worse!"
Korra furiously opens her mouth, probably to voice a heated rebuttal, and Asami is just preparing to break the two apart once more when a streak of brown flits out from the treetops and strikes Ruan's shoulder, penetrating through the coarse fabric of the shirt and pinning it to the tree she had just been abusing a minute beforehand.
"What the—?" Korra yelps in pain as another arrow sinks itself shallowly into the general area of where her shoulder blade is, and Asami can only assume that it has hit a sore whip gash, or maybe it has simply hit a sensitive spot, because the corporal drops like a stone, curling instantly into a fetal position on the ground. Simultaneously, a cold blade of a sword slides its way under Asami's neck, forcing her head to tilt back.
"Stay still," a voice coldly says from behind her. "The General wants to see you three firebenders."
Asami twists violently under her captor's grasp. "I'm not—!"
"They are not firebenders," Ruan suddenly cuts in, her voice still loud and shaking a little from anger, but it is, more or less, controlled. Her sharp amber eyes are still somewhat puffy and red, but she stares defiantly back at someone behind the guard. "She"—Ruan juts her chin out at Korra, who is still on the ground and not moving at all—"is obviously from the Water Tribe, and if you think that any member of the Water Tribe can bend fire, then you must not have a brain inside of your head. And she"—she gestures impatiently towards Asami—"is a non-bender."
There's a rustle behind her, and a figure enveloped in a dark brown cloak slides into Asami's view, his eyebrows set into a dark scowl. "And you?"
"I'm a firebender," she admits.
The man's mouth quirks downward into a frown of disapproval. "Regardless," he stonily says, "all of you bear the crest of the Phoenix Empire, and anyone working with them, those foul creatures, are our enemies." He nods at one of his subordinates. "Cuff the firebender, and get that Water Tribe girl up from the ground. Don't remove the arrow."
"Yes, sir." A soldier in block-like, dark green armor, a classic Earth Kingdom uniform, smartly salutes him and roughly hauls Korra to her feet. A quiet but sharp cry of pain tumbles out from past the corporal's lips as she staggers back a few steps, the Earth Kingdom Resistance soldier holding her upright. Another quickly crosses over to Ruan (who gives him a very dirty look), albeit cautiously, quickly tearing the arrow out of the bark and spinning her around to lock cuffs onto her wrists.
The man with the cloak jerks his head to the left. "Come with us. You will meet the General shortly. And if you try any funny business, you will be dead before you can say 'Dai Li'."
And what choice do they have but to follow the entourage deeper into the forest?
"Hey, where's Korra?" Akira's bright and happy tone of voice rubs abrasively against, in total contrast, Mako's irate and tired state of mind. "And that other girl? The one with the spiky bangs and the tied-up hair? Ran? Nan? Joo-ann? Something or the other?"
"Ruan." Mako's reply is curt and short.
"Aw, come on, I was close!"
"Well, they're both gone."
"Why?" Akira asks questioningly. "You and Korra were all buddy-buddy back there! What happened?"
"Her stupidity happened." Mako marches down the hallway and slams the door shut behind him, firmly enclosing himself in his quarters and throwing himself on the bed, armor and all.
He doesn't regret what he said. He really doesn't. Because it was all true—that girl assumed so many things, but in the long run, they would only benefit her, and only her—it takes selfishness to the extremes.
So, why does he feel a splash of guilt running under all that irritation and anger?
She sees him again exactly where she first met him. Cracked remnants of the iceberg float around in the sea, littering the ocean with its jagged chunks. The biting wind rips at her face, but she ignores it, only having eyes for the boy in front of her.
"She is coming," he tells her, a gentle hint of warning in his voice.
"A-Aang?" is the only thing she manages to stutter out, her blue eyes locking onto his wide, gray ones. "Aang!" She reaches forwards to grasp his arm, but her hand only passes through him—for he is only a spirit. Not a physical manifestation.
"It's okay," he promises her softly. "You'll see me again. I promise."
"But not you," she whispers, tears welling up in her eyes and threatening to spill over. "It won't really be you."
"I may not be alive, here," Aang murmurs, gesturing towards the icy land around him, "but I will always remain alive in there." He puts a hand to her parka-clad chest, right over the place where her heart is beating.
"You are so cliché."
"But it's true."
"Promise me that you'll teach the new Avatar waterbending," he tells her, his voice pleading and imploring. "Please."
She turns away from him, unable to bear watching those stupid eyes that she always melts in front of, that she always gives in to.
"You have to, Katara."
"I don't have to do anything," she responds coolly, fighting to keep her voice steady and strong. "I am not teaching the new Avatar waterbending. I don't even know if there is a new Avatar."
"Katara." His voice has taken on a stern, insistent quality that is far too old for his twelve years. "You do know. Zuko and Sokka—"
"—saw that Water Tribe firebender getting whipped to a hair before losing her life," she responds, her voice oddly detached and dull. "That doesn't prove anything."
"Listen, when was the last time you saw a Water Tribe member firebending?"
"...Maybe it's genetics?" she asks quietly, an undercurrent of uncertainty slightly evident in her voice. Unfortunately, her statement is phrased more like a question than a conviction than she would care to admit, and she knows that Aang knows it.
The dead Avatar begins to fade. "Genetics does not play a part in determining whether or not a person can bend. You will have to make a decision soon. The time is coming. And I can only hope that the choice that you make will be the right one."
He silently leaves her with the fresh smell of springtime and an impossible judgment to make.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Book I: Heart|
| 1. | 2. | 3. | 4. | 5. Scars | 6. Cosmos | 7. Vortex | 8. Phoenix | 9. Fire|
10. Fallout | 11. Betrayal | 12. Avatar
|Book II: Mind|
|To be announced after "Book I: Heart" has been completed.|
|Book III: Body|
|To be announced after "Book II: Mind" has been completed.|
|Book IV: Soul|
|To be announced after "Book III: Body" has been completed.|