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August 29, 2014
You hadn't been really sure how you expected the whole underground street fighting business to work out—some low-key, disorganized event, perhaps.
Definitely not a cleaned out space in an underground bunker with locker rooms (granted, they were primitive and earthen and in desperate need of cleaning), a judge's podium, and stone stands.
And you had definitely not anticipated the end result of this endeavor, however mad, either.
Mako had arrived (and had done a double take upon seeing you) sometime during Bolin's explanations of the rules: apparently, two combatants—bender or non-bender—would face off in a seventy-meter-wide dirt ring, and they weren't permitted to step outside the boundaries of that area. The first combatant whose back touches the ground loses—
—And best of all, there's money involved! Bolin had brightly exclaimed, If you win your first match, you get a hundred yuans. And then if you win two matches consecutively, you get two hundred—and then four hundred, eight hundred, et cetera, et cetera. But if you lose, you get nothing. He grins brightly at you, eyes sparkling in excitement. It's so much fun to watch; you'll love it!
You aren't as convinced as Bolin of the "sheer awesomeness" of this whole street fighting business—it's spirits-damned illegal, for Agni's sake—but you reluctantly agreed anyway, for you had told your father you would be out the whole day.
For obvious reasons, you tried to stay as far away as humanly possible from Mako, although that wasn't working out very well, because he seemed to want to get as close as humanly possible to you, so it was practically like the two of you are playing some very weird, convoluted game of tag with each other.
What are the two of you doing? Korra had asked suddenly, falling back to trot in between you and Mako, while Bolin sauntered ahead, happily taking the lead.
We're playing tag, you said dully, sidestepping to Korra's back.
Her lips quirked up into an amused smile, and she glided away from the two of you, with the passing remark of Have fun, then...
That was three hours ago.
Fast forward three hours later, you had seen Korra and the "Bending Brothers," as Mako and Bolin were referred to, sock their opponents in four consecutive games with combatants twice their size and return with a bulging sack of grimy paper yuans that were no doubt questionably acquired by the administrator of these street fights—not that you honestly cared either way.
Mako and Bolin had left after the fight. Korra had divvied out their portion of the winnings, quoting something about Mako needing to return to the power plant to work his shift, and you were left with Korra, who was cackling over her yuans like some money-hungry mongrel.
And that's when everything spirals out of control.
Going somewhere, Korra? a low, malevolent voice breathes from the shadows.
Korra's fingers instinctively tighten around the money bag and you can see her spine stiffen, slipping up ramrod-straight like she's got a broomstick for a back.
And when you turn, you can see an emotion in Korra's eyes, an emotion that you've almost never seen on her face before—because it's usually splattered with a bright smile and a good helping of confidence to boot.
But now? You only see naked fear and rage in her gaze, spreading across her features like a wildfire, narrowing her bright cobalt eyes into little more than slits and twisting her pretty face into a savage snarl—
Your fingers tighten around Korra's arm as a tall, scarred man steps into view, a sly smirk playing across his pale lips while his amber eyes glitter in the glow of the spluttering, naked white lights overhead.
Hello, Korra. Long time no see. And for whatever reason, he gestures violently at the long and jagged white scar that mars his right cheek.
You watch as Korra's fists clench at her side. Her lips press tightly together. You can almost feel hate emanating from her in thick, black waves; a dark radiance that burned as hot as the summer sun. Blue eyes, shadowed beneath thick brown bangs, are growing terribly dark with resolute intent—
—You, she says, her toneless voice colder than the snow she stands in.
Your eyes widen as the man laughs loudly, clapping his hands together. 'I see that you have brought your little friend along with you, now haven't we, Korra?
Korra spits at his feet. I didn't bring her here for you, she says in a very nasty tone of voice.
The man only smiles indulgently before he turns to you and bends over in a short bow. Allow me to introduce myself—I am Yakuza.
Yakuza, you faintly repeat.
Cut the bullshit, Korra snaps. Why are you here, and what do you want? I hope you remember what I told you—
Yes, Yakuza calmly interrupts, his thin hands fisted in the pockets of his thick gray overcoat, yes, Korra, I do remember. How could I ever—forget? His eyes widen maliciously after he enunciates the final world, emphasizing both of its syllables. Oh...but perhaps I shouldn't call you Korra...
That's the first true thing you've ever said to my face, Korra stonily replies, her hand twitching.
Yakuza's smile broadens. ...Avatar.
What? you dumbly say.
Korra's eyes flare dangerously at this word, a word that is meant to be honorific but coming out of Yakuza's mouth only sounds like a taunting insult—You haven't told anyone, she murmurs through clenched teeth, her blue eyes flicking towards you momentarily.
That I have not, Yakuza agrees genially, although I'm sure that the Order of the White Lotus would love to have you under their control. He lewdly leers at her impassive expression. But tell me, Korra, why wouldn't you reveal yourself as the Avatar? What do you have to gain from hiding in the shadows? You could be sitting in the lap of luxury rather than dicking around in the slums of Republic City. You could be playing the Fire Lord under your thumb. You could be, I don't know, settling peace talks in the Earth Kingdom, you could have all the fame and fortune in the world—yet, you are still here. That intrigues me.
She frowns ferociously at his words, each tensed muscle of her body screaming in disapproval. Oh? Well, you tell me, Yakuza, what kind of person leaves their family to rot in squalor while they "play with the Fire Lord under their thumb"?
The man's eyes narrow dangerously. What kind of person holds the world's safety in their hands and then shatters it carelessly against the ground?
Korra? You shake her arm. What's he talking about? What safety?
Korra's hand twitches. And she says, As far as I know, none of the other Avatars have ever stayed with their family.
Ah. So family matters the most to you in the world, doesn't it? More than another's trust, more than—money?
Why are we talking about this? Korra only snarls savagely, and you can tell that she's close to losing her temper. She takes another purposeful step towards the lanky, amber-eyed man. You already know all of this.
Yakuza only scoffs at the scene, his cold amber gaze meeting Korra's angered one—I don't think you understand, girl, that money—money and power—are the most important things in the world. They can buy you fame, buy you friends; it can buy you everything. I suppose you wish you had access to all that fortune for...say, your family, now don't you?
Korra doesn't say anything.
That being said, and putting aside your incapability to fulfill your role, you and your kind don't belong here, Avatar or not, Yakuza viciously says. And many agree with my sentiment. You saw how easy it was for me to take away that little girl's spirit, now didn't you?
You still have no idea what the hell Yakuza is going on about, but Korra's voice has turned horribly, horribly flat. And it contains an emotion that you had never associated with Korra before. It contains fear, fear and sorrow—No one was there, but me and Akua. Then she jumps back, into you, her quivering form in the circle of your arms—And you—you leave him out of this.
You lie to yourself, Yakuza hisses. You see, you fool, when you remain in one of the poorest, one of the meanest slums in the world, all that you possess is what I allow you to have. All you are, I allow you to be. And that which you desire most is mine to give and take as I will. Think on this now, and in all the dark hours between this moment and the day your sister rots in a forgotten grave, know that each one of them is an hour that I allow you to have. And I have to power to take everything you have left. Do you understand me?—everything. And I will hurt it first.
Then this man, this Yakuza, he steps back and points a stiff finger at Korra—You watch your back, Avatar. I haven't forgotten your words. But neither should you.
The sounds of his retreating footsteps fade into the distance.
From besides you, Korra speaks—I have to go.
You glance at her in surprise—her tone is jaded; her voice fractured and upset. And you can't help but ask—Korra? Are you...? And then you stop yourself, because it's completely redundant to ask if she's alright when she's clearly on the verge of tears.
Asami, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—
You don't know why Yakuza's words have affected her so much. But you know it isn't your place to ask.
—please, I have to go—it isn't—Akna—
You blink. Akna?
Looking very much like a deer caught in headlights—N-no...She turns away, shoulders hunched up practically to her ears, Asami...
Then she turns away and whispers, Don't follow me.
And you blink as if waking from a blind stupor—you nod numbly, a completely mechanized movement—and then you watch her leave.
Korra inches open the door to her family's flat, poking her head into the space inside before easing herself in fully.
The sharp sunlight from outside filters into the dusty air, casting beams of yellow-white light into her living quarters and pooling on the dirty ground in an ever-shifting lake of gold.
She's absolutely numb.
Completely closed off to the world. There's nothing firing chaotically through her mind; no tears spilling down her cheeks. She can see her hands, which have been perpetually trembling ever since she encountered Yakuza, but it's as if she's viewing it from far away; she can't stop them from twitching, can't feel them. She can see her muscles tensed, stretched taut underneath her skin, but she can't loosen them. And in this moment, all Korra feels like is a walking, mindless robot.
Shuffling through the flat, she pushes open the door to Akua's room, finding her younger brother sitting hunched over on his thin mattress, his skinny arms tightly hugging his torso. She stops—looks at him; doesn't move.
His voice is coming from a million miles away, struggling to tread through the chasm in between him and Korra, and all the blue-eyed girl can do is cock her head as a reply.
Korra? he asks again, and this time she thinks she can detect a strong undercurrent of worry in his voice—what is worry?—and suddenly there are a pair of warm arms circled around her torso.
She stands there, mute and stiff as a statue.
Korra, Akua whispers, and he sounds like he's about to cry, Korra, please answer me. You—you're starting to worry me.
I'm the Avatar, Korra dully says, and has no idea why she has chosen to say this, out of all the things she could have said—and she sees a reflection of her own inner confusion ghost over Akua's pale blue irises.
I know that, Korra.
I'm useless, she says, her voice detached and floating somewhere far away.
What? Akua sounds absolutely appalled. Korra—Korra, you're not useless.
What's the point anymore? she murmurs, and her words are not framed in a question but that of the dead husk of a statement, empty and hollow. The world doesn't need an Avatar anymore.
Akua knits his eyebrows. Korra—
She shakes her head slowly, the movement practically dripping with disenchantment and defeat. Go to sleep, Akua.
Go to sleep.
He studies her with concern. Korra, what's wrong?
She chews pensively on her lower lip. Tears her sleeve away from Akua's tight grasp and stares at the decrepit flat in front of her.
Everything, she says, before taking a few steps away from her brother.
She doesn't want to see the expression on his face.
I'm going out for a while. Because Korra can't bring herself to stay home.
She immediately trudges out of the flat thereafter, leaving Akua standing at the doorway to his room before she aimlessly wanders out of their home and begins to wander around the city without any sense of direction whatsoever.
Everything, she mumbles to herself, everything's wrong...
Blind grief and fury hit her then, suddenly blazing away through her mind, forcing her hands to curl into trembling fists by her side. She needs a reprieve, a relief. The sounds of the metropolis are pounding discomfortingly in her mind, rattling inside her skull and pushing what feels like a thousand, white-hot iron nails into her head, and it's all she can do to prevent herself from pressing her hands tightly against her ears while screwing her eyes shut, while she staggers blindly through her home streets and pushes out of the boundaries of the city that never sleeps.
Even then, it takes her several minutes tromping through the trail that led to the abandoned playground to have the noise completely fade from her ears, yet the sounds still leave a sticky, lingering afterimage in her head, clinging onto her thoughts like irritating cobwebs and refusing to fall away.
Korra stumbles into the decrepit playground and all but collapses onto one of the old black swings hanging limply from its dusty wooden supports, its rusty chains grumbling in annoyance as she settles down on the thin plastic strip.
She would be perfectly content to stay in this position for the rest of the day—hunched-over, head buried in her hands while she wallows around in self-pity and hopelessness, with nothing but the hollow embrace of the wind for comfort, but before long she hears the soft tread of footsteps thumping against the ground growing louder by the moment.
Korra, an unfamiliar voice (although she does pick up that its timbre is very tired and very male) quietly says, and she doesn't even bother to grant this mystery man a short glance.
Talking to her hands, she manages to grind out, Whoever you are, just...leave me alone.
The footsteps stop, and Korra grudgingly glares up, staring into a pair of old, sunken gray eyes. Snowy white tufts of hair sprout around his ears, ringing the back of his head but leaving the top completely bald. The man's skin is like wrinkled leather, stretched with age, his hands pockmarked with liver spots.
Korra, he says again. I would like to talk with you.
How do you know my name? she bluntly asks, turning her head back down before it falls heavily back into her hands. What do you want from me? Who are you?
One question at a time, he dryly chuckles.
Korra merely grunts.
My name, the old man quietly says, is Aeton. I am the leader of the White Lotus.
Her eyes widen imperceptibly, and she automatically jumps off the swing, taking a step back. White Lotus? Her stature hardening, I'm not going anywhere with you.
I did not come here to ask you of that, he responds calmly yet quickly.
Head tipped to one side in a gesture of confusion, she frowns, Then why are you here?
At his name, darkness descends upon her expression like a raging storm, narrowing her eyes into slits and twisting her mouth into a savage snarl—Don't you dare mention his name around me, she spits out through gritted teeth. No, wait—how do you even know him?
The sound of the wind whooshing through the forest behind rips through the air like a gunshot.
You see, Korra, this man, this Aeton murmurs. Yakuza didn't work on his own.
Her pupils dilate. What—what is it that you are trying to tell me?
Aeton chuckles mirthlessly, his old body shaking erratically with laughter. I think that you are smart enough to figure that out by yourself, Korra.
The White Lotus leader turns, eyeing a horrified and appalled Korra with an unfocused set of eyes—I apologize, Avatar Korra, I really do...but Yakuza's employment was necessary for your...expiration.
...Expiration, and the word comes tumbling out past her lips in a whisper before she can stop it.
Her breaths are coming out in random bursts now, erratic and sharp. The same as her thoughts, racing wildly through her mind.
This man employed Yakuza to kill me, her mental voice whispers.
He wanted to kill me.
The fucking White Lotus wanted to kill me.
Why are you telling me this now? she whispers, blue eyes wide and haunted as she staggers back from the full brunt of the revelation hitting her.
Shaking his head—You're a smart girl, aren't you, Korra?
He doesn't say anything after that, only stares at her with an unidentifiable expression—but is that sadness?—in his pale gray eyes.
Everything had been moving so slowly for her, as if she had been drenched in tar and was now struggling to move against an incoming, sticky black tide.
But everything has been honed into razor-sharp clarity in those few crucial seconds. Her castle of glass, still soaring up towards the sky, refracting thousands of rays of light—
—and then her glass castle, her entire world, shatters into a million pieces around her.
All Korra can do is stare at the old, frail man sitting hunched across from her, his watery gray gaze fixed expressionlessly onto her own.
This was the man who had wielded the sword that was Yakuza? The man who had caused all her heartbreak? This frail, pathetic thing of a human being?
Icy cobalt eyes become unfocused and stare across the gulf between now and the days when she was a little girl, before Akua and Akna had been born, when she was still living in the South Pole and small enough to ride on her father's shoulders through a sea of ice and snow (her father, whom she barely saw nowadays, and each time he comes back from the fishing boats, he's a little more weathered, a little more battered). Her little fingers wrapped in her mother's fists, laughing bright and clear as they danced in the dappled silver light of Yue (her mother, whose hands were now frail and bony; cracked and bleeding from all the manual washing of clothes she does for others).
Too long ago—the memories fade and blur into each other like something out of an old lithograph, colors muted over time until all that is left is an impression; a half-image on yellowed, curling paper.
And Korra stares at this man, this White Lotus leader, this Aeton, in an unblinking, nonverbal challenge, and though she says not a word, she's pretty sure that everyone can read her thoughts as if she had said them out loud.
Look at what you have done to me, her piercing glare screams, Look at what you have done to my family. At what this wretched world allowed you to do. At what you allowed the White Lotus to do. Look at me in the eye, and are you not ashamed of yourself and your entire, despicable organization?
When she does speak, her voice is low and calm, but she is struggling only with allowing the White Lotus man to think that her words are all coming from pure hysterics—hysterics and paranoia; deep down inside the blackest, most bleak realms of her heart, where mere ashy remnants from a fire that had been kindled inside her soul ever since the day Akna was shot whip around in a bitterly cold wind, Korra unequivocally intends for her words to make that vile man bleed inside—I wish I were anywhere but here, she says lowly, I wish I were anywhere but here, in front of you. I wish you never existed.
A long pause crashes down heavily, pregnant with anger and sorrow. The methodical sound of the wind whistling through the leaves on the trees.
Wishing for the impossible, Aeton says softly.
Another long pause.
If you're going to hate me, he eventually continues, at least hate me for the mistakes I could have avoided.
Korra slams the heel of her hand against the wall, her face screwing up into an expression of pure distaste—Like tearing my family apart? Like trying to rip my life into pieces?
You will be reincarnated, Aeton plaintively says, as if he is talking to a mere four-year-old.
I will not, Korra viciously snaps, her fingers tightening around Akua's shoulders, and her shoulders squaring together in defiance, not me. I think that it's high time that you realize that I am Korra. Just Korra. I will not be defined by anything else. I as an individual human being will not be reincarnated into anyone else. If I'm going to be remembered, I don't want to be remembered as the x-th Avatar who helped resolve an issue of dire importance like, I don't know, no taxation without representation; I don't want to be another statistic.
You are the Avatar, Aeton says, but from the hardening of his cold, gray eyes it is clear that he is starting to lose his patience, you are the bridge between the Spirit and the Material Worlds. You are the bringer of peace and balance to the Four Nations! Yet here you are, mucking around the slums like some sort of dirty commoner—what use are you to the world in this state? The world may as well not have an Avatar at all! He shakes his head in disgust. How can you be so immoral and selfish?
So your completely moral and unselfish solution to my problem of inactivity is killing me, and then waiting sixteen years for the next Avatar in the Earth Kingdom, Korra says through gritted teeth.
What would Avatar Aang say if he saw you?
Well, Aang is a doddering and half-insane voice in the back of my head, how useful do you think he is to me? I don't think that he cares that much, although he was perfectly happy to offer his opinion on the frankly deplorable conditions during the Industrial Revolution in one-seventy-eight AG when we discussed that in a few scattered conversations. In any case, I think that the Four Nations is getting along fine without the Avatar.
Aeton's right eye appears to have acquired a violent series of tics. The Avatar, he hisses, is the most important being in the world.
No, Korra says in a truly sincere tone of voice, you're just too attached to the old ways. She points beyond the forest of scraggly trees, beyond the swing set; towards the craggy purple mountains shrouded in silver mist and the city gleaming underneath the warm rays of the sun. And she can't see it perfectly and clearly, but she knows that there are cars growling along the cobbled streets, spitting dark gray exhaust into the air; knows that there are police airships prowling through the sky to catch even the barest whiff of criminal activity. Knows that there is an influx of people surging among the metropolis's many streets, the chatter and bustle of daily activity within Republic City swelling and retreating like the great waves that pound against the shore of a beach.
For even when Korra and Aeton are locked in a stagnant standstill outside the city, a rush of life still goes on within its boundaries.
You see that? Korra quietly asks, spreading her arms. The world has progressed at a rapid pace, and without the Avatar. The Material and Spirit Worlds rarely have any contact any more. Humans and the creatures who live in our mortal realm keep to themselves...and with spirits...vice versa. The way I see it is that at the worst, the Avatar has become nothing more than a liability...at best, a figurehead with a title that has been stripped of all meaning. The world will progress and forge on with whatever decisions they feel are best, whether it be for their own nation—for others—or themselves.
She turns her back on him with finality.
They don't need the Avatar to keep the peace...and if they start wars...humans shouldn't rely on one person too much. And Avatar or not—I'm just one person. I wouldn't be able to be everywhere at once. There'll always be something going wrong in this world at any given time, and the Avatar will not always be there to resolve those conflicts. And how do the people caught in those unresolved conflicts react? They'll have to solve it by themselves.
Her voice has turned impossibly soft.
Do you get it yet, Aeton? Either way...they don't need me...
Tension, stretched taut in the air until it begs for mercy and screams in pain—
...Don't need an Avatar.
—and mercifully, the pressure finally gives in and snaps.
Korra quickly bows her head. Bites down hard on her lower lip, glaring venomously at her feet.
She doesn't hear Aeton say anything. Only hears the swish of his clothes through the air, the soft thumping of his boots upon the soft ground as the White Lotus Leader pads away.
And even as the muted sounds of feet hitting the ground melt away into blessed silence, a single small dot of hot, salty water pools across her tightly clasped hands.
The playground in the corner of the universe is still waiting for you—much as you have expected.
She's there, too, and somewhere in the back of your mind, a place full of whirling dark shadows that whispered inflexible truths in your ears you shut out because you didn't want to hear them, you knew that she'd be there—knew that she'd be in this playground, even after what happened with Akna so many ages ago—because of what happened to her.
You know that Korra's lost—she has to be lost, must be torturing herself over old wounds that had never really been healed and have just been brutally ripped open once more by Yakuza. Must be wandering around somewhere in the scorching wastelands of grief like a demented half-ghost—oh, you can definitely see it. The hard, shaking lines of her shoulders, even visible from your vantage point behind the line of scraggly, unkempt trees of the forest behind the playground, tell you that much. Shaking and rocking like there's something vital that has been torn from her chest and only just starting to regrow, but once again, it's gone—gone forever.
You can still remember it, Korra's last reactions to Yakuza's acidulous words, in meticulous and horrifying detail—even now, clear as day in your head—the fact that you were there and did nothing about it, nothing to intervene makes it a hundred times worse. You can still practically hear Korra, flat and monotonic and low—I have to go. Can still see wringing her hands like a madwoman, fingers trembling, twitching like a leaf in a hurricane—Asami, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—misery and torment, starting to pool into her pretty blue eyes and spill out into the physical realm, one by one, drop by drop—please, I have to go. Can still see her turning her back on you and hunching her shoulders in a meek cover of shaky defiance—Don't follow me. Said like she was terrified she'll fade from his grasp and disappear forever. Her words, practically vibrating with panic and anguish, still reverberate in your ears, keeping you up at night in the black form of sweat-soaked dreams, tearing your insides out and laying them bare, twitching to the nightmarishly cold air around you.
You try and reassure yourself, asking this simple question to your troubled conscience—what the hell could I have done, anyway?
Nothing, comes the answer, a very biased answer, the one that you want to hear. One that still rings of truth. Nothingnothingnothingnothingnothing. That was their conflict and theirs alone. You didn't even know what happened, Asami.
So why are you here? Why are you at this playground again, the one that lies in the furthest corner of the universe, the one that you told yourself you'd never come back to again?
And even as you struggle internally, you're watching Korra silently from the trees, over at her quivering form as a silent shadow—you watch the grief etch itself deep in every taut muscle of her body, watch it run its freezing fingers across her skin and send her into shivering, erratic spasms, and yet you're a little unsure of whether she's noticed you yet or not in the treeline. She doesn't even start at your words, your voice, and instead says in a horrible and thick, blank voice—Go away.
No! Stop it! She leaps up, possessed with sudden manic energy and glares at you through puffy red eyes that are still glassy and wet. What've you come here for? What do you want with me? No—no, scratch that—why do you want to see me, even after all that? Why are you still here?
Her last words cause you to wince:
Why do you even care?!
Korra, you say gently, taking a step toward her even as she trips over her feet to scramble away from you, Korra, listen to me. It's in the past. We'll only learn from our—er—mistakes.
Even though they're swollen, her eyes still flash dangerously, before she growls lowly, Nothing was a mistake, Asami. Then, in a lower voice—I still failed.
You hesitate before speaking up. Well—I mean, no one got hurt—oh, come on, Korra, please—
This is not the right thing to say and you only realize it too late.
The girl with blue eyes the color of an ocean screams bloody murder at you, fingers raking through the air like a roaring tiger's steely claws and her matted, dirty and loose hair whipping around in the snarling wind, which only contributes to her current overall look as a madwoman—No one got hurt? You—you're telling me—no one got hurt?! And she jabs a trembling finger into your face, almost squashing the tip of your nose into oblivion, her livid expression twisted up into an ugly expression of undiluted rage, Don't—you dare—say that to me... don't—with Akua and Akna... don't say that—in my face—Asami—Sato!
I didn't mean it like that, you levelly say, taking her firmly by the shoulders. Hard blows come down on your shoulders like lightning strikes, blows that are sure to leave some massive and mottled bruises behind, even as inarticulate, shapeless sounds come flying out past her mouth. But you tell her, Don't kill yourself over this.
Her eyes are burning with a blue fire so hot that you're surprised it doesn't come shooting out past her lids and incinerate you into a crisp. Don't tell me how to live my life, she spits.
I lost my mother, you bluntly remind her. I lost her right in front of me. I saw the firebender attack her, I—I saw her face melting, Korra. I know how it feels. You hesitate before winding an arm around her erratically quaking shoulders. I promise you.
You don't need to elaborate beyond that.
She stares at you through half-delirious, swollen red eyes.
And then she collapses, like a limp rag doll that's devoid of all life down into your arms. Presses her face into your shoulder—and lets herself cry.
You don't think you've ever seen such a sad sight in your life.
You don't push Korra off of you—you don't question her about what happened after her meeting with Yakuza. You don't bother to whisper any more empty platitudes to her anymore, like "I'm sorry" or "I understand." You really are sorry (perhaps more sorry than you've ever felt in your life) and you really do understand (you wonder for the briefest moment if your mother's looking down at you from the stars), but you also understand that there's a time and place for everything.
Silence speaks in more volumes than words ever can.
Silence—this is the sound that envelopes the two of you in a warm blanket, whispering soft promises in your ears—whispering of halcyon days and lying in the soft glow of a morning sun, of an unbroken stream of peace.
Akna, and Korra's terrified voice rings loudly through your ears. You don't know exactly what happened to this Akna figure, you don't even know who this person is—but you do realize that it's similar to Akua's name.
Almost suspiciously so.
And you hesitate—then you put your lips to Korra's ear even as her despair soaks into your brown jacket—Imagine, if but for a moment, that...Akna is still with you. Imagine a world of the two of you, with no one else—just the two of you. And remember what made you care. Remember what you loved about him—
Korra jumps beneath your arms, and she corrects somewhat hoarsely, Her.
—her, you quickly amend, your voice growing even softer, remember how that feels—and just imagine you and her in that situation, together. It wouldn't be for the first time, would it?—but it also won't be for the last.
A moment of silence, and then a new series of demented, wrenching sobs meet your words.
You whisper all the more quietly, your fingers starting to trail across the spherical outline of that armband you saw Akua making ages ago, years ago; the one he said he was making for Korra—Those memories...they're not a finite line, Korra. They're a circle. You walk through them once, you walk them again, and you always come back to the start—but you find something different each time, in each one. Your last words are barely more than a tickle of your breath against her ear. And a circle is eternal. There is no stop, there is no start. Just a loop.
You don't have a sense of exactly how much time has passed, but after a while, Korra's sniffles begin to taper away and she's just sitting quietly in the cradle of your arms, a broken and crumpled mess. You silently continue to hold her and watch the sun sink below the horizon and watch the stars wink into existence one by one.
And once the sky has colored itself a dark, dark blue with glittering bits of fire strewn all across its shadowy folds, you bow your head down and whisper in her ear, Hey, Korra?
She licks her chapped lips and looks up at you with the hint of a plea in her shattered blue gaze—Asami...I—
And you put a finger to her moving lips to stop the beginnings of what would have been an undoubtedly awkward, bumbling apology that would have made you feel a lot better or worse about yourself (either way was possible), and you simply say to her, You cared. You just cared, Korra.
You shake your head, and she crumples lifelessly into your lap. You cup your hands around either side of her tear-streaked face and gently tilt her head up so it's bathed in the quavering light of the stars above—
Korra—look at the sky.
A moment of thick silence.
Then you whisper—
The stars are out.
Asami, Korra says after a few moments, and when you glance at her, she's not looking at the stars, but at you.
You nudge her gently with an elbow, and then tip your head up.
No, listen to me. She's propped herself up now on her elbows, her eyes still puffy and red and wet, but there aren't any new, telltale tear tracks running down her cheeks. I...owe you an explanation.
Korra, you don't have to explain anything to me.
But she silences you with a cold finger pressed against your lips—I do. There's so much to say—too much to feel. I—I need to tell you the truth. She hesitates for a mere second, and suddenly she's so close that you can count every eyelash, feel her warm breath puffing into your face.
Presses a chaste kiss against your lips.
I had to do that, she murmurs, still staring into your eyes, once. Just once. Because...I just want to... thank you. Thank you, so much.
For everything. She sighs. For keeping me grounded. For...just being there. For whatever. Whenever. Hesitating, ...Trusting me, I guess. So, thank you.
She shakes her head, then sits back promptly, her cheeks slightly flushed.
Asami...I've, um, never told you...completely about Akna, have I?
You're still in a half-state of shock, your fingers gaining a mind of their own and floating hesitantly up to press against your mouth, but you notice it anyway. It's sad, and barely perceptible. But it's still there.
Her blue eyes are shining brightly, but the gleam is not from tears. Stars swimming in the midnight blue of the sky and ocean, the ruddy golden glow of the city beyond.
The faintest of smiles rides upon her lips.
The sound of approaching footsteps, muted thumps landing upon the dusty floor of the flat, wakes Akua up from his troubled sleep. Pushing his knuckles into his eyes, he vigorously attempts to rub the sleep clinging stubbornly onto his lids and forces them up, as to take in the hazed, blurry image of someone standing over him.
Korra? he drowsily whispers. Did you go? Are you okay now? His tongue, thickened by fatigue, words slurring around each other as if they're being stirred in a pot of soup. He draws his elbows back and struggles to prop himself up on the thin bedroll.
She doesn't respond immediately, only looks down at him with her arms loosely hanging by her side, hands limp—tired and crushed. Then she holds those arms out, like he's still five and she was going to carry him, drooling and snoring, to his bed—
—and Akua rises from his mat and hugs her fiercely back.
Together, they stay like that—arms entwined tightly around each other, Akua's head buried in Korra's shoulder—for a few blissfully empty moments.
Korra? he softly says into her shoulder.
Her voice is weighed down with disillusionment and unshed tears. Yeah?
I don't think you're unimportant.
A warm, if distantly stilted and confused laugh tumbles out past her lips—And who ever said I was unimportant?
You did. Akua's fingers momentarily push down into her shoulder blades as he pulls Korra down to have her sit beside him on the bedroll.
To the casual observer, Korra didn't react to his simple statement at all, but Akua is looking at her facial expression, trying to decipher the hidden secrets behind that mask. He sees her eyes flicker momentarily to the right, before she snaps her gaze back to him. Her tone is thinly layered with warning.
...Akua, please...I don't want to talk about it...
He shakes his head resolutely. But I do. And...and I will.
Then, he looks up into Korra's face—her lips still downturned into the faintest of frowns—he looks at her with wide and honest blue eyes, the faint beginnings of a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
A hollow pause, permeated only by the dim sound of the wind breathing in the background.
I think that the world still needs you, he whispers. Truly.
She doesn't respond, but her arms subtly tighten around his thin frame.
Still needs you, he repeats gently, yet with force, still needs an Avatar.
The silence is pregnant with tension.
And then Korra sighs and drops her head down in apparent acquiescence.
Maybe, she only says quietly, maybe.
And Akua senses that this is about as close as he's going to get regarding this whole, very messy and very complicated Avatar subject.
So he drops it.
But he keeps on holding onto her, arms wrapped around her torso, cherishing the warmth and the steady beating of her heart—the fact that she's the one dependent constant in his life, the one that he knows he will always be able to rely upon, whether the times are sad or happy, dark or light—that Korra, against all odds, is still here and still with him, still alive. He cherishes her; loves her above anything else living in the world—knows that she truly, mindlessly, wholeheartedly cares about him—and after all the two of them had been through with each other, after all he has seen her do for him, he knows that he strongly cares for her, too.
It's quickly approaching, and it's inevitable—and the very thought is somewhat puerile, something that a boy at his age should not quite be feeling as if he's being hit with a sledgehammer—yet still he dreads the bleak moment when he will finally have to let her go.
At nineteen, studying at the prestigious University of Republic City, he still dreams about Akna.
Aana and Ata have since passed into the realm of the spirits over the course of the years, years that wash over him as quickly as a flowing stream.
Partly due to his own urging, his sister has finally turned herself over to the Four Nations as the Avatar, albeit at the relatively old age of twenty and still stung with a lingering grudge—thus, she stoically refuses to come into contact with the White Lotus after the revelation that Aeton had given.
Akua can understand her sentiment. It's what he would've done. And he supposes that Korra would be happier traveling around the world solo to master the four bending arts (and learning them in a very unconventional order, traveling to the Fire Nation first for some vague—and Akua suspected untruthful—reason she alluded to as not wanting to be another statistic), as she's currently doing right now, than be cooped up in some huge compound the White Lotus had built off in the deep recesses of the Earth Kingdom. The last letter Akua had received from her, she was complaining about how dreadfully hot the summer in the Fire Nation was and devoted an entire paragraph describing, in painstakingly meticulous detail, how she had managed to burn tea in front of a scandalized General Iroh the Second. But she sounded pleased enough with her firebending training and promised to come back to the city as soon as possible to visit him, which Akua was certainly glad to hear, given that she had now been gone from his life for an odd six months and he had never been parted from her that long.
He jumps in his seat at the vaguely familiar tone, whipping around to stare at a young woman with long, black glossy waves of hair tumbling down her back and bright green eyes, green eyes that he always used to look into back in his days of primary school.
She smiles and settles down next to him on the bench. "Hi, Akua. You attend the university, too?"
He nods. "I do."
Asami looks like she's hesitating, deciding whether or not she should say what she looks like she's about to say, and the apparently decides in favor—"Actually, I've been hoping to see you some time."
"You have?" Akua quietly asks, sweeping a few stray bangs away from his eyes and peering at her with mild curiosity.
"Yes," and Asami draws this word out slightly, "I've been meaning to ask—do you ever miss your sister?" And she hesitates, "Akna?"
And the blue-eyed boy sharply inhales and reels back from Asami as if she's lit a two-ton crate of firecrackers in front of him, "What?"
"Korra told me," Asami explains quickly, holding her hands up in a gesture of peace. "In the playground. After...after, well, Yakuza confronted her that last time in the fight arena. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to surprise you like that."
Akua takes a deep breath—"...Yes," he eventually says, with a soft and plaintive touch to his voice, "I do miss her. I miss Akna very much. More than anyone could ever imagine."
Asami looks at you from beneath her long eyelashes, one hand absently tucking a strand of loose black hair behind her ear. "But you've accepted her passing, haven't you?" she asks, and her voice isn't as sympathetic as Akua had expected it to be, or even overly soft; it's almost matter-of-fact. Straight and direct and clearly honest in a way that, for all her love and ministrations Korra never truly was, and Akua isn't sure whether he appreciates or hates Asami simply saying things the way they are, instead of elusively dancing around the main point.
And so he opens his mouth and says quietly, "No one has ever asked me that."
"I know," and Asami gives him a small smile before she flicks a page over in her sociology textbook, her bright green gaze slowly sliding down to stare at the hardcover in her lap, "I understand. I know that people mean well when they offer apologies to me because I lost my mother, but I never understood why they apologized so much. It wasn't as if they were the ones who killed her," she pauses here to make a mark in her book, and then says frankly, "I didn't want people fussing over me. I know that the world has always viewed me as a daddy's little girl, especially after Mom died, but I can and will handle myself...I've—I've moved on from her death." A touch of melancholy enters her tone; still she looks up to stare at Akua with frank and honest green eyes, "I still love her, you know," she states, her voice turning quieter, "I still go to the playground as often as I can, where some of my best memories of her remain."
Akua looks down at his hands.
He's told himself that he doesn't want to move on from Akna's death, because to him, moving on feels like it means that he's finally sealing shut the truthfulness of her death, means that he's accepted the fact that he'll never see Akna again. And this thought repelled him; revolted him. He never wanted to think that she was totally gone from this world, never wanted to let go of the small, heatless fire still spluttering weakly inside his heart, the fire that he clung on to like a dying man, flames that he deluded himself with—believing that she was still there, believing that one day he would wake up besides Akna and it would all have been nothing more than a bad dream.
But she's left him. Akna's passed on into the Spirit World and has been there for so many years now. He's always known it—he didn't want to confront it. He still doesn't want to confront it. Korra isn't even with him now; she's halfway across the world in the Fire Nation, occupied with firebending training while somehow managing to achieve the impossible feat of burning tea. Akua knows that she still privately blames herself for the incident and knows that she will until her dying day. His eldest sister, as he had learned over the years, was horribly obstinate in that way.
But he isn't. He's open to change. He's so sick and tired of it all—sick and tired of withdrawing into his shell and hiding from the rest of the world because he still clings to the shadows of the past and doesn't want to let it go.
He loves Akna, but he knows that it's time to leave her death to become a thing of the past. He's going to miss seeing her, hearing her, but he doesn't think he will ever stop feeling her next to him, holding his hand, watching over him.
"You know," Asami muses quietly as if she's reading Akua's mind, now completely ignoring the sociology textbook sitting pathetically in her lap, "Korra once told me, ages ago, around the time when we first met that she loved the concept of eternity. That she hated death. I didn't really understand what she meant back then—I told her that death was a form of eternity. And it is, but now that I think about it, I don't believe that's what she really meant when she said eternity. No, no, it definitely isn't...I think...it's something more like the bond I had with my mother. The bond you had with Akna.
"Over the past years, the feeling of my mother's warmth and comfort has still not left me. They still exist, because I still remember her. The memories and the relationship we had still survive, and because of that, so does she. She will never truly leaves me unless I forget her, unless I forget what the two of us shared. And I will never let that bond be broken, and so, we are always connected.
"I still hear her when I wake up. I feel her when I go outside and look at the city, the mountains, the sky, the water, the sun, the moon—and the stars. She is present in everything that reminds me that I am still alive because of her. The link between the two of us was so strong, it couldn't possibly be destroyed by something like death, and I'm sure that yours and Akna's was the same. They'll both be with us for as long as we remember what we all shared. We'll always be together."
"...Always," and the quietly-spoken word slides out past Akua's parted lips and floats away with the cool breeze.
Always together. Blowing my hair in the wind. Heating me with the sun and cooling me with the snow. Watching over me from the stars. Comforting me when I am scared and hugging me when I am happy. Still with me. Still here.
From by his feet, crinkled brown leaves are stirred from their resting spots by the breeze and twirl up into the air, a small twister of dead plant matter, before the wind relinquishes its grip and lets the leaves float down to the ground once more.
Akua peels his gaze away from the leaves to look at Asami.
...Spirits, what do you say to people like her?
A wan smile flickers around the edges of his lips.
Thank you, thank you.
That's what you say.
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