Mako hadn't been awake for five minutes before he stumbled barefoot and shirtless out of his room and discovered the Avatar sitting in their makeshift kitchen.
"What are you doing here?" he asked immediately. As the words tumbled from his mouth, he realized his tone sounded rather snappish and he was probably being rude again — but what the hell, she had to come in before he'd washed up and had some food? And — spirits, could he just have had the chance to put on a damn shirt?
"Oh," she said, looking a bit startled at his haphazard appearance. "I actually came to meet Toza today. We agreed I should meet your coach and start practicing in the gym soon if I'm going to be a permanent member of the team, so… I know we just won last night, but you, er, did say the sooner the better."
…That he had. And he had, admittedly, forgotten. But it wasn't like he was about to say that.
"Who let you in here?" he asked, a bit less aggressive than before, though not much. He figured he could plead overwhelming shock as a factor of any potential rudeness he was likely to call upon when the spirit of the planet incarnate in human form was sitting in his kitchen eating —
His komodo chicken. That was his komodo chicken.
"Bo — " she started to say.
" — lin. Of course. Never mind." Mako glanced around at the very obvious, very disgusting mountain of Bolin's uncleaned trousers for the week, their sweaty gym uniforms from the previous night lying over the stool three feet from Korra's left elbow, and the scattered pile of newspapers, single socks, crumbs, and just overall crap that was always clogging the floor no matter how many times he cleaned. The place looked like a cross between a men's warehouse in the wake of a tornado and an armadillo bear's hibernation cave — but mostly, it just looked like any attic where two bachelor brothers dumped their crap.
Dammit. The Avatar is in your place, Mako, she caught you with your pants down, now freaking DO something about it.
What, do what? Shirt first — he needed a shirt. His trousers were secure, right, it wasn't just a form of expression? Yes, good. But he couldn't pull off the casual shirtless thing, not with a girl he barely knew; Bolin was the ladies' man, he was just the tall jerkish captain. Would it be impolite to run back and grab one from his room, or should he test his luck and grab something from one of the dirty piles of laundry and pray it wasn't completely disgusting? What kind of message would that send?
"I'm sorry," Korra said, startling him out of his whirling thoughts as he tried to think of what could constitute a good enough excuse to run back to bed and toss himself under the covers for the next forty-eight hours. "About your, um, komodo chicken. Bolin had to go run some errands but said that it would be okay, that it was just leftovers or something… and I haven't gotten to eat much meat lately since Tenzin has me going vegetarian for airbending training, so…" She trailed off, staring at him like she wasn't quite sure what to make of him. "Are you — er, okay?"
"Fine," he said tightly. "I nee — er, 'scuse me for a moment, will you?"
He turned sharply on his heel and stalked back to his room. When he finally (finally) reached the door he closed it slowly, leaned against the frame, and sunk to floor.
Bolin. Since when did Bolin run errands that didn't include food or taking care of that stupid ferret? They'd just gone out shopping a few nights ago, so they should be set for the next week in terms of groceries, at the least, and the little red rodent shouldn't be in a bad shape either, since Bolin always made sure the thing was fed as he was. So unless his brother had pointlessly gone window-shopping, there wouldn't be any need for him to have left their place that morning, not when they both knew that the practice gyms were closed today and Toza was busy visiting his son anyway. But Bolin had invited Korra over despite it, under that guise, and then left her in their place alone with —
…The little punk.
“I’m afraid you’re out of luck,” Mako said, stepping back into the kitchen once he’d clothed and washed himself up. “We can’t use the gyms today. Teams are allowed full 24-hour access to them when they have preliminary matches, but other people need to use them today. Since we’re done with our matches until the tournament we won’t be able to get in until tomorrow. From now on our practice times are all based on a schedule, but they won't be released until this afternoon.”
“Oh,” Korra said, swallowing a mouthful of his chicken, “well, that’s okay. We can still talk to Toza about me joining, right?”
“He’s out visiting his son today. I doubt he’ll be back until late tonight.”
She paused. “So… your brother decided to induct me on the worst possible day for me to join the team.”
“Looks like it.” Mako had hoped that dressing and confronting the problem fully clothed would help him feel more focused, more in control; but Korra was still in his kitchen, still waiting for him to do something. He had nothing to distract her with and Bolin was nowhere to be found. Was this some sort of attempt to get the two of them on good speaking terms after his (admittedly rather rude) first impression?
Oh, he and his brother were going to have words.
First things first. The Avatar was still eating his what-would-be breakfast leftovers.
“Here,” Korra said sheepishly, pushing the carton over. “I’m sorry. I feel bad eating your food. I thought it was okay ‘cause Bolin told me to dig in and I was really hungry, but I should’ve waited to hear that from you. I didn’t realize you probably haven’t had breakfast yet.”
His stomach was rumbling dangerously. It felt somehow degrading to be allowed to eat his own food only after it had been offered by the Avatar; even if she didn’t mean it like that, his pride was telling him to wait until he was alone to eat, when he could sulk in private and didn’t have to worry about table manners or forced attempts at small talk.
Hunger won out.
Mako grabbed the carton as politely as he could and took a seat. He cracked open their only drawer, digging out a pair of clean (if mismatched) chopsticks; he tried to position his body so that Korra couldn’t see the mess inside the drawer, but she seemed preoccupied with the morning newspaper spread out on the tabletop.
“It says here you guys have won your past nine matches,” she said, peering down at the scores listed next to the article detailing their win the previous night. “That must be pretty good, right?”
It was better than pretty damn good, especially considering Hasook was a fucking lunatic; but that seemed too impolite to say, considering that he should be trying to start over with Korra on a fresh slate. Mako swallowed a bit of chicken, shrugged, then said around a mouthful, “It’s not bad.” A far cry from the “It’s freaking fantastic,” he wanted to say, but he was still chewing and she would have to get used to the fact that he wasn’t a morning person, anyway.
“Is that your default response to everything?” The corner of her lips twitched upwards. “‘Not bad’?”
He shrugged again and kept chewing.
“Well, ah,” Korra said, folding the paper away, “I guess we could go over the rules, at the very least. I realized ten seconds into last night’s match that listening and watching pro-bending matches through the radio and newspapers hasn’t exactly taught me all of the rules I’ll need to know to actually play the game. So if we can’t practice, I can at least know what not to do for next time, right?”
Korra seemed to have wanted more of a response from him, because she just nodded awkwardly, as if waiting for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, she glanced to the side, as if looking for something else to say.
It occurred to him that this whole teammate bonding thing might be a lot easier if he weren’t such a jackass.
Mako frowned down at his last piece of komodo chicken, slathered in cold sauce at the bottom of the carton. Bolin had been telling him that he needed to lighten up for ages, but maybe it was time to face the facts. Hasook might not have bailed if he hadn’t – well – blamed him entirely for nearly losing the match.
Oh, fuck, no. He may be reevaluating his dynamic as the team leader here, but even the Avatar’s unexpected pro-bending debut wasn’t about to have him regret putting that sleazebag in his place. Or their waterbender before Hasook. Or the one before him…
Right, so maybe this wasn’t exactly an uncommon thing. Maybe he was just used to it being him and Bolin and he didn’t like it when people could come knocking around and messing with what they’d been working for. If he caught the slightest hint that Korra was the kind of idiot that would get herself and a teammate knocked off the ring and leave the weight of winning the final round solely on one player’s shoulders, then no, he wouldn’t regret yelling at her, either.
Mako could – maybe – admit that his piss-poor attitude toward her during their first meeting had been a bit unwarranted, but he wouldn’t ever regret lecturing a teammate for screwing up their chances in the tournament, Avatar or no Avatar. He liked to think that it was this kind of effective, take-no-shit philosophy that made him a good leader. No, he wouldn’t hold your damn hand in the arena. No, he wouldn’t do any of those stupid team chants. They were playing to win or they weren’t playing at all. In no uncertain terms, Korra had to understand that.
But Bolin had left him alone with Korra in an empty apartment and there was nothing to do but… talk. It was a message to his older brother that, one way or another, they were pretty much stuck with each other, at least until the tournament was done. Bolin was counting on him to not screw this up, to not drive this one away and make Korra at least want to stay – so the least he could do was humor him.
“All right,” Mako said finally, swallowing the last bit of chicken. He dropped the chopsticks into the empty carton and pushed it aside, then flipped the newspaper over, found a blank corner, and began sketching a rough diagram of the arena for her to see. “How much of the gameplay do you know already?”
"If we've advanced into the opponents' Zone One, can we still move around in our territory behind us?"
"How long are attacks allowed to last?"
"Mhm. So that means…?"
"No hosing the other team, got it."
"What are the rules on freezing the water and using it as ice?"
"Korra. They're strict and in place for a reason. No fog, no steam, no ice – "
"Because it'd impair everybody's vision and turned the arena into an ice-skating rink, I got it. Yeesh. Do you have those here?"
"Ice-skating rinks. In the South Pole there's really no need but I hear Republic has a few since the temperature here's too warm to keep any ice naturally frozen over year-round."
"Would you focus?"
"Is that a no?"
"Have you read the rulebook I lent you last night?"
"Past the table of contents?"
"Yes, all right?"
"What's chapter three discuss?"
"Thought so. Get through chapter seven by practice tonight. We'll be going over the drills in the third section."
"Tui and La, you're relentless…"
"I'm your team captain. I'm allowed to be a hardass if it gets you doing what you're supposed to."
"Hey, you admitted it!" Korra stopped in the middle of the hallway, grinning with her hands on her hips. "Now what do I have to do to get you to apologize for being a jerk yesterday?"
"I didn't admit anything," Mako snapped. "And I wasn't a jerk. I was just in a bad mood."
"A bad mood that lasts two days?"
"I'm not a morning person," he said shortly, leading her down the main staircase of the arena's entryway. The gold building was near blinding at dawn, when the sun shone directly onto the pavilion and straight through the glass and reflected off the shining floor. Mako had learned within the first few weeks of moving into the arena that leaving the attic for the lower levels of the arena was only a good idea if it was still dark outside or the sun was well into midday. The routine he had developed over the years favored the latter option; he had grown used to rising before the sun even hit the horizon to either get working on Toza's job of the day or squeeze in some extra training before their morning rounds.
Walking down the steps now, he squint his eyes and led Korra to the hallway for the main offices. It was just a few hours past sunrise but the gold was still brighter than usual. He'd tried to put off making this trip until later in the day when a simple walk downstairs wouldn't cause him a headache, but he'd been stalling for an hour already and teaching an impatient teenage girl the rules to a competitive sport did require leaving their kitchen eventually.
"You're a firebender." Korra wasn't squinting at all – Mako was again harshly reminded of where she was raised and that her eyes were probably used to the blinding brightness of sunlight on fresh snow, so he frowned a bit deeper at the unfairness of the universe. "Don't you rise with the sun and all, like the legends say?"
"Just because I'm awake in the morning it doesn't mean that I have to like it."
She barked out a laugh. "If that's the daily attitude you assign yourself when you wake up, it's no wonder your face always looks like that."
"Like that," she said, pointing right between his eyes. "Like your underwear's always too loose while your trousers are too tight."
Mako had no response to this.
"Come on," Korra said, "at least I brightened your day today. If I didn't show up this morning, you'd just be in the gym working out all day until Bolin forced you to eat something."
"I'm not an infant, Korra. I don't need feeding."
"No, but – spirits," she said suddenly, stopping in the middle of the stairway; he turned back to find her grabbing the collar of her shirt and fanning her neck, mouth hanging open in a disgusted pant. "It's so hot here. I don't see how you can stand it…"
"Usually I don't remain standing in the middle of a metal staircase that's still warm from heat left over from the sun shining directly on it a few hours ago," Mako replied. "It should come as good news that we're heading into a cooler hallway. Would you like to continue our journey downstairs where the rising heat won't bother us, or are you going to stand there in your thick Water Tribe getup complaining about the autumn weather?"
"All right, you smartass," Korra grumbled. "Lead the freaking way…"
Mako turned on his heel and continued down the steps, hearing the thumping of Korra's boots following close behind. What had they been talking about again?
"When the buzzer sounds," Mako said, digging into his memory for a situation he'd once seen in the ring before he'd joined the game himself, "the blue team has two members knocked out and one player in the red team's Zone Two. All three of the red players are still in on the field in their Zone Three. Who wins?"
"And for the love of all things good in the world," Mako says, closing his eyes, "what is the one and only way you are allowed to knock players off of the ring?"
Korra had caught up to him by now and was walking close enough for him to see her frowning out of the corner of his eye. "I'm not stupid, Captain. We both know I know this one."
"You didn't answer the question."
Korra scoffs. "Over the back of the ring. We've covered this. Can we move on?"
"Only when you've proven that you can remember it in a match."
"I proved it during the third round last night when I knocked out their last player single-handedly, I'll have you remember."
"Congratulations on catching up to everyone else's speed during the last minute of the match."
"Ugh. What does it take to impress you?" Korra scoffed. "I'm still waiting for an answer."
Mako was saved the trouble of replying as they reached the cool hallway of the main offices. There were already several dozen people lined up at the booths waiting to buy their tickets for the tournament matches when the counters opened in – (he checked the large, ornate clock hanging above their heads) – half an hour.
"Over here," he said, leading her past the line of people. He pulled out a small ring of keys and used one to unlock the coordinators' office, then held the door open for her as they stepped inside and he flicked on the lights. Korra made to stop and stare wide-eyed at the elaborate office setup and window view, but Mako impatiently nudged her into a side room. He could remember staring the first time he'd stepped inside the offices a few years ago too, though the splendor of the elegant furniture and beautiful view over the bay had lost its shine after he'd scrubbed every inch of the room clean thousands of times.
"Toza told me they'd be posting the schedules by two," Mako said as they stepped inside the other room on their left. "We're a few hours early, but we might as well check." He flicked on another light and blinked as his eyes adjusted, then peered up at the various rows and columns of mailboxes that stretched from the floor to the top of the ceiling.
"Woah," Korra said behind him. "Is this the mail room?"
"Your powers of observation are stunning."
She looked a bit flustered at that and frowned. "No need to be rude."
He ignored her and stepped up on the round pad stationed in front of the third column, then motioned for her to come forward. "Come over here and earthbend us up."
"Our mailbox is up there," he said, pointing upward, and she craned her neck to look. "Number 457, Row 15, Column 3. Usually we get them as a team but since Bolin doesn't see it necessary to join us today, you'll have to do it."
"Wait, which one is it again?" she asked, squinting. "I can't see it."
"And you won't," he replied through his teeth, "until you bend us up. Step on the platform and let's get going."
Korra blinked down at the wide earthbending pad he was standing on, one of many others in the long row that stretched across the room and aligned with each column of mailboxes above. She stepped next to him and then made a tight thrust with her arms; the earth below them immediately rose and lifted them into the air. The air whistled as they rushed upward past the dozens of rows – Mako quickly learned that Korra earthbent much faster than Bolin, so much so that he occasionally lost track of the marked numbers that they passed by.
"Slow down," Mako said when they reached the 400s. Korra obliged and Mako then instructed her up to their slot, where they slid to a stop.
Korra glanced down. The mailroom didn't have the highest ceiling in the entire building, but it was still the narrowest room; he could remember feeling dizzily claustrophobic the first few times he'd made this trip, suspended high above the floor surrounded by tight walls and row after row, column after column of the repetitive mailbox pattern. He briefly wondered if he should've warned Korra, but then brushed the thought aside. She was the Avatar. She could take it.
"You won't fall off," he settled with when she didn't stop peering at the ground.
"Of course I won't," she said easily.
"Then what's so fascinating about the floor?"
"It's just." She shrugged. "Interesting. I've never seen this kind of system before. It's so intricate."
"It has to be. It caters to hundreds of people that work and perform here."
"I know, I know. It's just weird."
In comparison to what, Mako was going to ask, but he reminded himself again that Korra had been raised in the Southern Water Tribe by the White Lotus, where she probably hadn't seen more than three hundred people gathered together for any one event for a period of time.
A nagging voice in the back of his mind suggested that the reason for Korra's screw-ups in her first match may have been because she was so busy observing the grandiose effect of the pro-bending match and stadium themselves, and not just the actual game. Which would've been much better reasoning for her hiccups than the poor excuse of a green player's first awkward attempts at playing the game, given that she'd apparently been a fan before she even saw a match.
Except acknowledging that she had a forgivable reason for being distracted would require apologizing for his harsh attitude…
He shook aside these thoughts and motioned toward the frozen lock. "All right, melt it."
Mako told himself to be patient, that it was her first time, that she didn't know what was going on. He made a tight sigh and elaborated, "Melt the ice around the lock so I can open it."
Korra blinked then looked at the mailbox. "All of the locks are frozen?" She glanced around at the others to see, that, yes, that was exactly the case. "Why would they do that?"
"To encourage teamwork," he said. "Once the earthbender brings us up to the mailbox, the waterbender melts the ice around the lock, and the firebender lights the spark inside that sets off the tumblers and opens the box. Everyone needs to work as a team both inside and outside of the ring. It's not enough to say we won't do it without each other. We can't do it without each other. We have to prove it to not only ourselves but the audience, the sponsors, the opposing teams, the press, everybody. So we have this."
"Woah," Korra said, eyes wide. "Are you serious? That's so cool – "
"Not," Mako interrupted, looking at her squarely, "if one of your teammates is the Avatar."
She faltered. "Huh?"
"This is where we pick up everything," Mako said, stressing. "News, schedules, sponsor notifications – it's our job to keep up to date with this stuff and we won't do it without each other. You got that?"
"Yeah, I get it," she said, wary. Her eyes were narrowed in confusion. "Why'd you say that thing about the Ava – "
"Because you need to understand how important it is that we do this together," Mako replied. "I mentioned the other day that we live in the attic, Korra. This isn't just our source for updates for the pro-bending team; for Bolin and I, it's how we get our news for everything. Our jobs, our rent, pay, everything. This is how the rest of the city reaches us."
"…Okay? So – "
"So you understand," he said, "that as the only person on the team – the only person in the world – who can bend all of the elements and therefore reach this place by herself, being on the team gives you the ability to come here alone whenever you like, something not even Bolin or I can do."
Korra froze. "Mako, I would never come here and mess with your stuff – "
"I'm not saying you would. But we check this place once a day, and during the tournament, it'll probably be twice. It's important. And ignoring that you could do it is just stupid, so I'm putting it out in the air so I can get it out of the way. We're a team and for Bolin and I, that means we're trusting you with some things a lot more than you have to trust us with others." He tried to keep the accusing tone out of his voice, but the words still hung in the air: You're the only person in the world we could have this problem with.
Korra looked at him for a moment, not saying a thing. Her face had fallen, not out of hurt, but what looked like cautious acceptance. "Okay. I get it. I swear I won't come up here alone – on my title, if you want."
"I don't need you to swear," he sighed, "I just need you to not do anything regarding the team without either of us. Preferably both. Or preferably me."
"Sure," she said. "I get it. You're the captain, and all. I'm still learning the ropes."
"Glad to hear you admit it," Mako said finally. "Now could you melt the ice, please?"
Korra did so with a wave of her hand. The water dripped down into a small compartment below and revealed the thick lock, inside which a neat hole was carved into. Embedded in the center was a small fuse; Mako lit it with a tiny flame and watched it burn out, and then leaned back as the tumblers clanked and the door swung shut.
"There's no code or anything?" Korra asked.
"Nope. Just bending." Mako dug his hand inside – yes, there was something in here, the trip wasn't a total waste – and pulled out a few mismatched envelopes, then shut the door again. Upon closing, the tumblers clicked back and a new fuse appeared in the hole. The tiny compartment below the lock hissed out the water as cold vapor that condensed back onto the lock and froze within seconds, resealing the mailbox.
"That's so cool," Korra murmured again, completely enchanted by the mechanism, but Mako snapped his fingers with one free hand to gain her attention and then motioned downward. She got the hint and set about lowering them back down the ground as he began opening the largest package, stuffing the others underneath his arm. He shuffled through what looked like bills, bills, payment from the owner of the house he'd painted last week, the deposit receipt for Korra's uniform that he'd ordered last night, more bills…
"We're in luck," he said, pulling out their schedules. "Toza said they'd be available around two, but it looks like they delivered them early." He flicked through the sheets and handed Korra her blue copy. "Don't lose it. That has not only our practice schedule but also our game times. If you have guests you want to invite to the matches, there are tickets for them on the last page – you're allowed four guests, no more and no less, and no, Bolin and I won't be lending you our extra tickets if you need more, so don't bother asking."
"I wasn't going to ask – "
"And I requested for them to send the forms…" Mako dug through the sheets again and then pulled out a thick packet, handing them over. "Here. You'll need to fill those out by tonight to officially register as part of the team. Name, address, bending – you'll have to mention your position as a side-note, but I'm sure that won't be a problem since the ref gave you the okay and Shinobi already broadcasted it to the world and all."
"Okay." She looked a little overwhelmed, arms stuffed with papers, and for a moment he almost felt bad for unleashing all of this on her at once. Almost.
"Look," he said as the earthbent pad came to rest firmly down back into the floor, "I know I haven't – er…"
She waited, watching.
"…Been the nicest guy," he finally spat out. He plunged on before her eyebrows raised any higher. "But this is important to Bolin and me – and you don't have to know why, so don't ask. And yeah, I'm probably going to get on your case a lot. And you're probably going to piss me off a lot. But as long as we can work together in the ring, then that's what matters. If you can just respect that this isn't all fun and games, then that's all I'm asking."
"I know," Korra said. She looked at him square in the eyes. "I got it. I'm taking it seriously. You don't have to tell me this is important to you. I could tell when I watched you play."
He didn't know what to say to this.
"What time is it?" Korra asked suddenly. "I think I told Tenzin I'd be back by eleven."
"It's almost ten."
"All right. So for the forms, I guess I'll just come back tonight and drop them off…" Korra looked down at the forms in her hands, trying to sort them out, and Mako decided to take pity on her.
"You can fill them out upstairs," he said, walking back out into the main hallway. "If we start now we can finish with enough time for you to head back in time. It might be better if you do it with me, actually, since I can fill in the information you wouldn't know."
Korra frowned as she hurried to catch up. "I can do it myself. What kind of stuff would I needyou for to fill out my own form?"
"How about the signature of the team captain?" he suggested, lifting a brow. "That's on page three. And the last two pages are short answer questions on the gameplay that you need to correctly answer, which I think would require my help, at least for now."
She blinked, then looked away. "…Right, then."
That settled, he turned back around and started walking.
"You're laughing at me," she said suddenly.
"You are, I can tell."
"Do you see me laughing?"
"You're laughing on the inside."
"If you say so, Avatar Korra."
Korra grinned, which surprised him. "You know, I don't care what your brother says," she said, quickening her pace to match his as they headed past the line of people and up the main staircase. "I don't think you're a total killjoy."
Despite the early hour, despite the hassle of adding a new teammate so late in the game, despite his brother's annoying absence and the blinding gold light that hit his retinas as they turned and headed back up the main staircase – when he caught Korra's bright expression out of the corner of his eye, he couldn't help twitching the corner of his lips upward. He knew he'd deny it later, but still. Just a bit.
"So," he tried again. "How exactly are you allowed to knock players off the ring again?"
"Spirits above, shut up."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Mako helped Korra push through the first five pages of the forms in half an hour, spending most of his time correcting her on game terminology and rules as she wrangled her way through the last few questions.
"I'll sign it when you're done," he had replied when she asked why he didn't just do so on the document now. "I'm technically not allowed to until it's completed, anyway."
In truth, he'd been procrastinating on writing his signature. It wasn't until they'd sat down at the kitchen table to get started that he realized the rather embarrassing problem that he had placed himself in by sitting next to a girl who'd most likely been taught calligraphy and penmanship by the best teachers in the world, while he himself had never even attended a formal school, much less learned how to write at a level neat or appropriate for most young adults his age. He knew what he needed to know to pay the bills, compete in the tournament, and get him through his and Bolin's jobs, but beyond that…
Well. He wasn't stupid. He just wasn't as lucky as some others. But she didn't need to have that spelled out for her yet.
"Question," she said, and he grunted for her to continue. "In the case of a deadlock, when the round is tied and there's a face-off, say they pick the waterbenders to be the ones to fight against each other and break the tie-breaker. I'd still obviously only be allowed to waterbend, but do all of the other rules still apply?"
"I wouldn't understand why they wouldn't. Which ones in particular are you asking about?"
"The ones about ice, and all." Korra pointed to the rulebook, which he'd laid open on the table between them as they worked through the forms. "For deadlocks it says…" She traced the page with her finger, looking for the passage, and then read aloud. "'The players can use their respective elements, as well as grappling, but no "empty hand" striking, i.e. a punch to the face, or a kick to the stomach,' blah, blah." She looked up. "Still no ice, right?"
"Still no ice."
"What if I – "
"I was just curious. Trying to get a little creative."
"We can't afford to be too creative. That's what leads to people tossing over other players over the side of the ring."
Korra huffed out an annoyed sigh. "You're never going to get over that, are you?"
Truth be told, he wasn't really all that upset about it anymore; it had just been the easiest example that sprung to mind that he knew she could relate to. He shrugged.
"You know," she said, "that's the kind of thing that we're gonna fondly laugh over in five years when people ask for stories of my pro-bending debut."
…In five years? In five years he'd be gone. Out of the arena's attic, out of the equalist mess, out of these filthy clothes and shitty back-breaking jobs, out of the garbage bins and alleyways he'd scavenged in his whole life. Maybe even out of Republic, if he wanted. He'd have money for food. He'd have Bolin safe and sound. He'd have his sights set on his future, as always, no longer bound by the social class rung he could remember struggling to climb his entire life.
He wouldn't have time for fond recollections of a past that he'd been trying to avoid looking back on for as long as he could understand that it wasn't one to be proud of.
Mako looked away. "If you say so."
She frowned. "Are you all right?"
"That's what everybody says when they don't really want to talk about something," she said, then sighed. "All right, I can take a hint."
Mako looked over at her as she got back to work, concentrating on the questions again, and then glanced at the old clock hanging above the staircase that led back downstairs. It read 10:16, but given that the thing was about ten minutes slow (which he'd learned through experience his first day living and working in the arena), he figured that they had at most another fifteen minutes before she had to head back to Air Temple Island.
"Okay," she said, "I think that's it. I just put my signature here, right?"
Korra signed her name with a practiced, elegant flourish – bold and brave and big, just like everything else about her, it seemed – and then pushed it over to him. "Your turn, captain."
Mako took the pencil and a breath. Korra, to her credit, said nothing as he signed the form in his scratchy, sloppy handwriting. His simple name didn't look like much next to her characters – which, of course, indicated her weighty title as well – but it was enough.
"All right," he said, gathering it all up, "I'll bring these back down to the office. That's all I have for you today without Bolin here, so I suppose you should head back before you're late."
Korra bit her lip – an indication that he was starting to learn meant that she wanted to say something – and took a breath. "Listen," she said, "I want to tell you, while Bolin's away…"
She frowned. "…Um, sorry. Nevermind."
"Hold on," he started, "you can't just say that kind of thing and not tell me. What is it?"
"Um." She palmed the back of her neck, scratching and avoiding his gaze. "I guess I wanted to apologize."
Of all the things he had been preparing himself for (a lame excuse for not making the upcoming practice, a new development that would prevent her from playing, or – spirits forbid – the announcement that she'd changed her mind and decided that she didn't want to join the team at all, despite his efforts), it definitely wasn't this. Startled for a moment, he asked, "You do?"
"Yeah, I guess so," she said, eyes darting across the room and looking very much like she didn't want to at all.
There was a moment of silence before Mako asked, "…About what?"
"Well." Korra shrugged and motioned with a hand. "You know."
"I truly do not. Enlighten me."
"You're really going to drag this out of me," she muttered, then sighed. "I'm sorry for – er, putting you in this position. I know I'm not exactly your top choice. Your other waterbender probably would've been a lot less trouble."
Mako didn't freeze, but he did feel oddly stiff, for reasons he couldn't quite yet fathom. "It's fine."
"I almost cost you the match." There was no self-pity in her voice. They both knew it was true.
He resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands, wishing he had the ability to will this conversation to resolve itself without his involvement. "You pulled through. You won't be a green player for much longer. We'll drill you in the upcoming weeks to make sure you're up to speed."
"…Right," Korra said, "but that isn't really what I meant." She turned and squinted at him. "I'm just saying sorry. As long as we're being honest and all."
"Huh?" he asked intelligently.
"Well, about the mail room and all," she said slowly, like she wasn't sure what his reaction to her next words would be. "Like you said, you guys have to trust me a lot more than I have to trust you. The over-the-side foul wasn't the only mistake I made."
"You don't have to remind me."
She closed her eyes and he briefly considered feeling guilty for letting that slip out of his mouth, but the thought passed relatively quickly.
"The entire reason they know the Avatar is on your team is because I earthbent those disks, right? I didn't even mean to, it just happened. So training myself to just use waterbending may also be a bit… weird." She looked frustrated, as if annoyed that the words weren't coming the way she wanted. "I'm used to having all the elements – or at least water, earth, and fire – available to use. So it – well. I'm not going to say that it's going to happen again, but since you're the firebender on the team I figure you should know that's the element I've been tending to use the most lately. I just passed my firebending test last week and it's freshest in my mind and body. It feels really natural to me so I've been relying on it a lot lately."
This was an interesting bit of news. He wanted to ask questions, but she took another breath to speak, so he kept his mouth shut.
"So I guess I'm apologizing in advance in case I… step out of bounds. Or on your toes. In any way. It'll probably happen a lot. But I know that winning the championship tournament is important to you guys."
Mako caught the way that Korra's eyes twitched across their shabby attic; a movement she probably hadn't even intended to make, but he caught it easily after years of studying his opponents in the ring and on the streets to search for weaknesses.
But he wasn't searching for weaknesses, not anymore. He didn't know what he was looking for in her, why he had humored her playful taunts all morning and offered to help her out when he had never leaned this much for any other teammate that wasn't Bolin.
She had surprised him three times now: first had, of course, been the announcement of her being the freaking Avatar; second, the miraculous turnaround at the end of the match; and third… jeez, now she was apologizing. The Avatar was sitting in his crappy place apologizing for – well – being the Avatar.
…No, not quite. She wasn't apologizing for being who she was (as she shouldn't, he figured). He was still tired and still definitely, definitely not a morning person, but he understood that much, at least. He'd get no apologies out of her for being herself.
But now she knew. And he knew she knew in the way she'd passed over the carton as soon as she'd realized she had been eating his food and the subtle glances at their attic, their clothing, his penmanship. Korra was reckless and brash and hard-headed, but she wasn't stupid. She could put two and two together to get four.
"It is important," he said finally, and she looked up at him immediately, as if she'd been waiting on the edge of her seat for his response. "For more reasons than most people are aware of. And I know you know that. Like you said, it hasn't exactly been subtle."
She bit her lip. "Mako – "
"I don't need to hear it," he interrupted, and she grew quiet at his tone. "You know why we need to win. And so did Hasook, but he still bailed. I won't deny that…" He sighed, then bit out the next few words. "That it may have been partially my fault he stormed out and didn't show up the next day. But like you said, we're trusting you a lot more than you're trusting us. We're trusting you not to pull that kind of crap that he did in the ring. We're trusting you not to earth or firebend – we'll work on it if you're that worried about slipping up – and we're trusting you not to disappear when we need you.
"There's no pretense here, Korra," Mako said, closing the rulebook shut and shuffling the forms again just for something to do with his hands. "I'm still just as much of a jerk – as you can imagine – and I'm not gonna turn into some swell guy that's gonna hold your hand in the ring any time soon. We need to win the tournament. We need three players to do it. You're here and you're willing to be our waterbender. For the most part, it's just business. I'd rather not make it personal."
Korra was looking at him oddly, as if she knew something he didn't – or rather, as if she had just figured out something that he hadn't yet realized. "Right," she said finally. "Okay."
He blinked. "What is it?"
"Fine," he said tiredly, then glanced at the clock. "You've got ten minutes to make the next ferry, anyway, so you'd better get going."
"That's fine, I'm not worried," she said dismissively, and he started to ask why not when she interrupted. "But you don't really mean that, do you? About it just being business?"
He frowned. "Of course I do. What else would it be?"
"I dunno," she said quietly, shrugging. She was fiddling with the pencil, rolling it across the table and back again; he had half a mind to slam his hand down on the thing to get her to stop fidgeting so much, but he relented. "It just feels like more than that."
"Like… it's more than a game."
"It's a professional sport," he said slowly. "Of course it's a game."
"Yeah, but… I'm just saying," she said. "I've studied the book and I've read articles on your wins and heard you on the radio and seen you play. You put your all into each round. You pushed yourself and single-handedly won the match when your other teammates were knocked out, all because you knew you had to win and there was no other option. That doesn't sound like just business or just a game to me. That sounds like something a lot more personal."
Mako had nothing to say to this. He searched his brain for something to respond with but came up empty-handed, so instead, he simply watched her. The pencil rolled across the table again. A small piece of her hair was falling out of her ties. The clock ticked down; she had eight minutes left. He swallowed.
"Well," he said, but his voice sounded hoarse and indiscernible so he tried again. "Well. Right. But I was talking about it more in terms of… the dynamic between us. As a team."
Korra frowned. The corners of her eyes crinkled in confusion. "You want me to sign a business contract with you guys to join the team? Haven't I just done that?"
"No," he said, frustrated, "I want – or, I wanted – " Spirits help him. He didn't know what he wanted with her anymore. "Nevermind."
"No, no," she said, suddenly grinning. "You don't get to pull that on me now. Keep talking. What were you gonna say?"
"We can't afford for it to be personal," Mako said in one breath. "Okay? We can't afford to get attached. Bolin and I, we're in this to win, and then we're done. You've got to understand that, too. I don't know what you expect from us – beyond being your teammates – but I'm just warning you, it can't be too much."
"…Ah," she said. Her eyes were bright and he could see a white slip of her teeth as she smiled. "Mako, I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. If you wanted to be friends, you could've just asked."
Not for the first time that morning, he was struck nearly speechless. "Excuse me?"
"If that whole speech was just as a cover to say you're too afraid of getting close to anybody that isn't your brother, that's okay," she said. "I can take a hint. But I think I'd like it more if I could consider and trust my teammates as friends rather than business associates."
"Korra – "
"I think Bolin's great," she continued. "I don't think there'll be any tension or anything between the two of us. It's you I'm worried about. Here I was afraid of you judging me for everything I've done so far but it turns out you're just as scared as I am."
Denial was on the tip of his tongue, but it struck him that she was right. Blunt, rude, and way out of line, but she was right.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is…" Korra paused. "I'm willing to make this work if you are. Yeah?" She held out her hand.
They couldn't afford to be friends, he thought wildly, they really couldn't. Bolin was fine with throwing himself around, giving his trust and friendship over to people on a silver platter, but Mako knew it was better his way. He had it drilled into his mindset that everybody else would let them down, that it was a dog-eat-dog world out there, that given the choice, everybody would always pick to save their own skin over anyone else's. Korra was the Avatar, but she was still human; she had to be the same. It was just easier, preparing for that one day when she would let them down, would leave them hanging just like the others. And when that day came, Mako refused to be caught by surprise. He would simply shrug and turn to Bolin and say I told you so.
And perhaps this time it would hurt a lot less.
Korra's hand was still waiting for him.
Dammit, she was ruining all of his plans. She was digging into his fears – for the team, for his brother, for their future, for his own sake – and dragging them out into the open. It was like she had stormed into his life, completely unapologetic, and assigned herself the task of reorganizing his things, rearranging furniture and pressing buttons and pushing the envelope, and then expected him to be grateful for it.
Well, he wasn't grateful for it. He was still tentative and cautious and – yeah, fine, okay – a bit scared. Mako wasn't sure he was ready for her to crack her knuckles and get to work messing around with their team, with the carefully controlled life he'd worked hard to build over the years. He just wasn't ready for her.
But she had happened to him all the same, wild and unpredictable and raw, and there was no going back.
Mako looked down at her hand and bit down on an irritated voice that reminded him that he should have been the one to offer his hand first to shake as the team captain and all. Leave it to Korra to mess and trip him up without even trying.
"Yeah," he said finally, taking her warm palm in his. She had a firm grip as they shook, solid and sturdy. "Welcome to the Fire Ferrets, then."
"Thanks." She grinned and opened her mouth to say something else before –
"M' back," Bolin announced as he wandered up the stairs, Pabu wrapped around his shoulders and a basket of fruit under an arm. "Took me all morning to find a cart with good prices and the best offer I got gives us twice as many as I meant to buy, but I figure we could use the extras for target practice."
"We're not wasting good food by bending at it," Mako said immediately.
"Who said anything about bending? I figure we could drop these on Tahno's head from the roof when he walks in for his match today."
"Who's Tahno?" Korra asked.
"I'll explain later." Mako glanced at the clock again and started. "Korra – it's ten 'till eleven, you're not going to make the ferry."
She laughed, full-throated and bright. "Don't worry, I'm not taking the ferry," she said as Bolin offered her a moon peach from the basket, which she politely turned down with a wave of her hand. "Do you mind if I open your window?"
"Uh," he said, glancing out at the large floor-to-ceiling windows behind them. "Sure, I suppose… Do you want me to walk you out or something?"
Bolin made an odd sound as he walked over to set the basket on the table, something that sounded crossed between a cough and a hastily-designed bark of laughter. Mako would've glared, but Korra interrupted him by shrugging and replying, "You're welcome to join me across the room, if you like."
"I filled out all of the forms, so you don't need anything more from me, right?" she asked as she headed over to the tall windows and opened the hatches on one. A crisp autumn breeze blew into the room and Mako shivered – he hadn't been planning on leaving the arena today, really, so he wasn't prepared for the cold – but Korra looked fully comfortable in the shift in temperature.
"You filled out the forms?" Bolin said, digging into the basket to hand Pabu a snack as the ferret scampered onto the tabletop. "You guys got a lot farther than I thought you would." He turned to the animal and whispered, "This is more than I was hoping for – I was just crossing my fingers they wouldn't challenge each other to an Agni Kai and blow up the building."
Mako ignored him and followed her to the window when she stepped up to the ledge. "No, you're all set with the forms," he responded, wary. "Korra, what – "
"All right, cool. I'll see you later, then!"
Without further warning, Korra leaped outside – Mako barely had time to register what had happened, much less shout or say goodbye, but he rushed to the window, one foot on the floor with the other on the ledge she had jumped off, and peered over just in time to see her bend up a crest of water to soften her fall into the bay. After a moment, her dark, bobbing head arose in the blue waves; he could barely see a tiny arm waving up at him, accompanied by a shout of something – but he couldn't make out what she had said for the life of him, he was so high up and she was so far. Soon enough she disappeared back under the waves again, headed in the direction of Air Temple Island as the sun glittered over the water, leaving him waiting and watching once more.
Mako heard a laugh behind him. He didn't have to turn around know that his brother was sporting a large grin that spread wide across his face; as if he had figured out, as Korra had, something that was beyond his own grasp of understanding, if only for the moment.
"Oh, bro," Bolin said, chuckling as he reached into the basket for another peach. "You're a goner."
Aaand that's a wrap! I'm sorry this couldn't go on forever, since I've gotten many reviews recently that indicate people seem to think that it would, but I never was planning on having it even be longer than two parts (hell, I was never even planning on writing the thing in the first place – I scrawled the first part out one night, posted it on a whim, and after I got requests for more I figured why not). Somehow it stretched to three, and then four... But I know if I kept going on now I'd never stop, and I wanted to finish it before we got episode three so it won't hang over me while I'm watching the show, knowing that everything in this fic is officially deep into AU territory.
Thanks much for all the lovely comments! Hope you enjoyed.