It’s not Korra bound on the floor before him, or Bolin up above still fighting.
He’s the one kneeling on the floor with Amon standing behind him, still bargaining, still drawling out threats and plans while Korra runs her voice hoarse with violent promises on Amon’s life. Her eyes welled with tears for a moment when Amon made his intentions clear, but they quickly disappeared to be consumed by fire. He’s glad she’s still fighting.
But she doesn’t have to fight for him.
“Korra, Korra, it’s alright,” he says, trying to keep his voice level. There’s a hand on his neck and he jerks his head up, up to look into the darkened holes of that mask. He keeps snapping between moments of calm just to control Korra, to blinding rage that makes fire claw in his throat.
“Don’t touch him.”
Mako tries to lift his head but the fingers at his neck tense around tendons and pressure points, making it difficult. He can see her lying on the floor with her legs and hands bound, but limp from the small jabs the two of them had received at their sides, rendering them both useless. He’s never seen someone so angry, so justified in their rage, and he knows that she’ll kill Amon if he doesn’t try to force a smile and calm her.
“Korra, I’ll be fine,” he says through a trembling smile, and he can feel Amon lift his hand. “I’ll be fine, I’m always fine. Just stay calm.”
He hears her mangled yells for one sharp moment right before a thumb is pressed against his forehead.
Firebending starts at the gut and spreads out everywhere from his body. It moves with a flow unique to the element, the only one save for air that can be produced within himself. It’s self reliant. He does not need the earth beneath his feet or water from a pond to protect himself and what he cares about. It has always been him.
The way the fire draws up from his stomach feels slightly familiar but it’s off, this subdued feeling that licks out at each notch in his spine as it drags, like the squeal of tires against a road leaving a trail of black marks in its wake. It jerks around as it travels up his body and it almost feels as if he’s going to vomit, it’s wild and burning like the first time he tried to mimic the breath of fire, and it’s hitting the back of his mouth and swirling with smoke around his tonsils.
It jolts upward, up to his head, rather than spill from his mouth like all those countless, practiced, controlled times from before. The feeling makes his eyelids draw back over his eyes and expose them to the dry air, his mouth hanging open and mangled coughing works his throat.
The fire sizzles as it is drawn out of his stomach, out of his body, and into Amon’s thumb.
If it had to be anyone, he’s glad it’s him.
Moments later his eyes draw back into focus to see Korra under Amon’s grasp. He thinks he shouts her name, feels his head digging into the floor as he tries to lift his body, but he’s still so weak.
Korra’s eyes shut as Amon’s thumb is raised to press down.
They open seconds later blinding white blue.
Mako has lost his bending but Korra can still fight for hers. The only problem is, is that she doesn’t know when she’s won.
The room swirls with air to the point where Mako has to shut his eyes to block it out, but he realizes as his body tenses that he can move it. Amon seems partially frozen into place near Korra, and Mako can imagine a forced reverence of the power that is being unlocked before them on the face behind the mask. It’s enough of a victory for Mako to sense some fear in the darkened figure. He knows that won’t be enough for Korra.
As he tries to stand, he hears the scuffle between Amon and the Avatar, the former having the gall to attempt an attack. Korra doesn’t have to touch him like he needs to touch her in order to force the life from his body.
Mako shuts his eyes as his limbs protests his demands for movement and hears the sound of a body slamming against the wall over the wind.
“Korra, stop!” he shouts.
He manages to get to his knees and sees her twisted with rage, suspended in the air before him, broken ties still cutting into the skin at her wrists, prompting him to stand upright.
“Korra!” he yells again but nothing seems to stop her.
She lifts Amon’s body from the ground with airbending and slams it back down, and she’s going to kill him and he can’t let her do that.
He stumbles forward and reaches out to her leg mostly by accident, trying to keep himself upright against her as his knees tremble and lock into place. He can sense a change in the winds and he extends his arms higher though his hands knock against her arms to grab at her. His hands enclose around her wrists and he tugs her down.
She gives out against his chest and he can’t keep them both up even though he’s trying, even though he could do it before, and they crash to the floor.
“Korra, I’m fine,” he mutters but he’s not sure if she’s even conscious to hear it. He knows what he is saying is the truth. “Are you ok?”
She starts to breath heavily and he can feel her hot sobs push through the thin fabric of his Equalist uniform, muggy against the skin of his chest but it’s warm. It’s almost familiar but he swallows that feeling away.
“I’m so sorry,” she cries.
He wants to hold her and let her cry. He’s let himself touch her for comfort before, hold her hand, carry her, but he can’t. Not now, when Amon’s body is to his right and he doesn’t know where his brother or Asami are. Not when Korra still has a job to do, and now all he can do is help her with words rather than fire.
“Korra,” he says, voice stern. She stills. “We need to get out of here and find the others. Can you carry the body?”
Bolin can tell something is wrong the second they meet back up with him in the infirmary on one of the remaining battleships. He stumbles in with his arm slung over a police officer’s shoulders, there’s a nasty gash in his leg that keeps him from walking on his own, and his clothing is mostly in tatters. Mako notes that he’ll have to stitch it up later.
“Mako?” Bolin says and his face falls.
He is seated on a low table while a healer runs their hands up and down his body, his shirt resting at his side along with his scarf, a bandage wrapped around his head as a precaution from the gash that ran from the back of his right ear. His stomach still hasn’t settled and he’s worried about Korra, and his eyes keep flicking to the scar covered body in the back of the room. A mask lies forgotten on the edge of the bed.
But his little brother is in the room looking terrified, as if he’s had the worst nightmare of his life and now Mako has to hold him all night to keep it away.
“Hey, Bo,” he says lightly and with a smile.
Bolin cries for a long time against his shoulder.
It reminds Mako of when their parents died, when Mom and Dad were no longer the strongest, most capable people in his life. They were just two mangled bodies lying in the street that tried, and sometimes, trying wasn’t enough. Bad things could happen to good people.
“Bolin, I’m going to be alright,” he whispers, tangling his hand in his little brother’s hair and ruffling it. His black hair is wet with sweat and he needs a bath. His other hand rubs circles into Bolin’s back. “I’m still here. It was just a little fire, that’s all. I’m still alive.”
“Barely,” Bolin hisses.
It’s rare that Bolin gets angry but he is once he pulls of Mako’s arms. He’s never seen the determined expression his brother now wears, his lips pulled into a tight line rather than a childish pout like usual when he’s upset. It actually scares him.
Even though there are more tables available, Bolin refuses them all in order to sit next to Mako and watch him be healed. He lashes out at anyone trying to pull them away from each other, even when it’s just to bring Mako to a proper bed for rest. He snaps at Tenzin and General Iroh and no one can bring themselves to argue back.
When Bolin stays by his bedside when he is brought to an infirmary bed, Mako curls up on his side to take a moment to fold in on himself. Bolin tucks their father’s scarf around Mako’s neck gently before grasping his hand, lifting it once to hold against his mouth, before setting it back against the mattress.
It’s hard to watch his little brother be forced into adulthood just like he was, but he manages to keep a smile on his face as he drifts off to sleep.
Asami takes pity on him during the days immediately after Amon’s downfall.
“How does it feel?” she asks one night.
He had stepped outside to enjoy the fresh air, take a break from the sad looks that trailed after him wherever he went. There are lanterns strung up outside the porch and he still likes watching the flames flicker behind the paper-covered wires.
He shrugs. “I miss it, but I’m trying not to.”
“You’re doing better than most of us,” she notes.
He looks at her and she’s not bitter, but she is staring out at the skyline of the city with a sharp intensity in her eyes. It reminds him a bit of the stern looks the United Republic Forces’ wore, battle worn and battle ready. He looks back out at the city to take in what remains of the skyline, noting the large gaps of black between the top floors of the tallest buildings to where their lights can still glow below, where the bombs couldn’t hit.
“How are you?” he asks with no hesitation.
She sighs heavily and leans into the wall behind them. They’ve broken up two days ago when they found the time to talk, but Mako can see how everyone around him is broken, so he steps up when the others can’t. He knows Asami doesn’t want his care anymore but he thinks she needs it, even if it’s just words rather than touches.
“I’m feeling terrible,” she says, then tilts her head to look up at him.
He wonders if she’s always been this blunt and the dissolve of their relationship makes him notice it.
Tentatively he reaches out his arm to clasp his hand over her shoulder. She doesn’t shake it away but she does tense for a second, before melting back against the wall.
“You’re strong,” he says. “You’ll be ok.”
Her lips, still painted red despite her fatigue, her sadness, quirk into a small smile.
“You know, coming from you, I kind of believe it.”
He smiles back. At least he can try and make their friendship right.
“You’re not fine,” Korra says one night. “You can’t be.”
They are in her bedroom on the island, seating side by side on her bed with water glowing in her hands. Like everyone else, he’s spent the day in the city, rebuilding and cleaning all of the debris from the bombs. He’s sore and covered in small cuts and scrapes and dirt, his dry, callused palms cracked, the broken lines embedded with grime. His muscles twitch under her fingers as she guides them along his body, but it’s the good kind of fatigue that makes him feel useful.
“Honestly, I’m adjusting,” he says and watches her grimace.
“You don’t have to pretend. You can tell me the truth.”
He smiles. “I am telling you the truth. It’s different but I can handle it. I’ve dealt with worse.”
She nudges his arm and he lifts it so she can heal his torso. The rippling, weaving muscles over his ribs sting with the movement, but they are quickly subdued under her hands. He honestly loves the way it feels and never wants to go to a hospital ever again. If she’s willing to heal him for the rest of his life, he will gladly accept.
“Fire is life, Mako,” she suddenly bursts, voice cracking. “It’s not like earth or water or air, it’s like he killed you and you’re some ghost and -“
She starts choking on tearless sobs, the water slipping from her hands and dropping partially on his lap, the bed, and the floor.
She’s been doing so well since the war officially ended. She has gone to the city every day to rebuild, to discuss the new laws in City Hall, fighting for the nonbenders and understanding the dangers of speaking for them as a bender herself. She’s yelled at politicians until her voice died in her throat about how much needs to change, how they need to change, and her anger has been surprisingly quelled despite the burning that fuels her every morning.
He doesn’t mind that she breaks before him. He shifts closer to her, the water on the bed seeping even more into his pants, and he wraps his arms around her. She clings to him violently and he’s starting to understand that this is how she loves, with iron grips and fierce promises, just like him.
He bends his head to get his mouth near her ear, just to make sure she will catch every word. Without his bending he’s quickly started to learn that words can protect and comfort just as much as his fire could.
“This wasn’t your fault. I’m alive. I’m happy. The people I care about are safe and I had to sacrifice something for it. I’d do it again.”
Her fingers dig into the skin of his back and it hurts, but he doesn’t flinch. Her hands are still wet. He holds her tighter.
“I’m so sorry,” she mutters against his skin, pressing the words there like a kiss but it’s desperate and not romantic. “You’ve lost too much. You and Lin and the guards and Asami.”
With Asami’s inclusion he knows this sadness goes beyond his own loss. It is for all of the destruction that has fallen on the city that she couldn’t prevent, and he just wants to shake her shoulders and tell her you’reseventeen but that means nothing. Being only eight years old didn’t erase the responsibility he felt, and still feels, for the death of his parents. It’s just hard to watch it happen to her.
“I’m not giving up,” he says and she shudders a hot sigh against the skin of his shoulder. “This isn’t the end of my life, Korra. It’ll just be…different.”
“You’ve lost a part of yourself.”
He sighs. It will take forever to make her understand, to take away her guilt, and he feels guilty himself for being the cause of this pain. For being a symbol of her failure. It’s not who he wants to be to her.
He pulls away from her but she keeps herself wrapped around him. It’s enough space for her to lift her head and look him in the eyes, and she’s not crying.
“I’ve lost something but I’ll gain something new back,” he says.
Her blue eyes waver, flickering over his face, and he smiles lightly because they dance like a flame. Small and rounded like the burn of a candle, heated just enough for light and comfort in the dark.