With each passing hour, the night deepens. A well, slick and stony, filling with drops of thought, trickles of emotion, and the reflection of your face on the surface rises. Korra lies awake in her old room, flat on the floor, bed untouched. The pro-bending poster she tacked to the wall when she was thirteen is yellowed. The window is open, and a cold breeze brushes the edges of her water tribe banners. They come away from the wall, barely, and touch back down.
She can’t sleep. She stares at the ceiling and traces the lines in the wood, back and forth, from window to door to window again. Korra lifts a hand and lights a flame on her fingertips. She pulls a ribbon of water from the snow on the windowsill. She snaps - a soft pucker of air, at long last.
Everything is back to normal, and more, and yet.
Yet she lies awake.
It had been like – like someone had taken away her name, or her face, or removed her from her own body and stuck her in another one. What was an Avatar without her bending?
She had done what she’d always done, so well, a child growing up with impatient adults and then a girl set loose in a hostile world: closed herself off, cried alone, let the three agonizing days between Republic City and the South Pole pass like a shadow over a rock. Undisturbed and calm. Blank. It would be a challenge like any other challenge. Learn the form and master it. Grab the komodo rhino by the horns and – no. It had been too much.
Aang had been wrong; her lowest moment was before he came to her on the cliff, back in the complex in the healing room. When Master Katara waved away the cool, glowing spot of water from Korra’s forehead and shook her head, and Korra had felt a deep, shivering dread, her mind numbing into the hard reality that her bending was gone and her bending was everything and without her bending she was nothing, a girl who had always come second to a dead man and we had so many hopes for you, Avatar, but you’re nothing like Aang and now you will never be anything but a footnote in a dusty history scroll, for people to unfurl and frown and think, oh, tragic, the Broken Avatar, what happened to her after she left Republic City?
No one knows –
‘She died young, I think,’ came the words, frozen in their simplicity.
Let go of all earthly attachments, except pride.
A hand on her shoulder – I love you, Korra. Mako being endlessly frustrating, insisting that he loved her, loved who exactly? He had told her things but at that moment they just felt like scribbles on a page, or useless scrap paper in her hand, while the self-image she had painted on a canvas burned and turned to ash.
She had stood on the edge of the cliff, looking at the snowy slope and drop off into the sea, the waves rolling and whipping against the ice and – he loved her anyway.
Not Korra, the Avatar, but Korra, the girl.
Her heart leaps again, a brief burst of joy, from the memory.
Korra had decided on the cliff that she would cry one last time and then she could accept this. She would not just accept this but embrace this. She would be a leaf in the wind, attached to the sky.
And then Aang returned her bending, with change, and now what was she supposed to do with these half-baked feelings? What was she supposed to do now? It was almost like disappointment – disappointment that the opportunity to rise to the challenge had been taken away, even though she had been given her own self back.
And Amon – no, Noatok – or Amon – she wasn’t really sure which – he had a point, after all; she had seen it for herself how non-benders were treated, but had felt at a loss to understand it, to know it, to know their lives beyond fighting curfew laws and beating up extortionist Triad gangs. Here was a chance to redeem herself for – she rolls her eyes at herself, she can’t help it – bending is the coolest!
A curdling sense of shame rises up her throat and fills the edges of her mouth, pools hotly around her jaw. You’re oppressing yourselves! Dumb. Sheltered. So proud of you, Avatar Korra. Tenzin’s voice, bent into mockery.
Her embarrassment burns her face in the dark.
Korra moans in frustration, her confusion overwhelming her, and she slams her fist onto the floor and cringes. She doesn’t care that it has begun to snow outside and the room is freezing cold, she just wants to tie the threads in her mind together, and make a rope she can hold onto for a while, to guide her through the fog of this mess. She rolls onto her side and eyes her bed, knowing that attempting to sleep is futile and that action is what she needs.
No, not action. Talk. She wants to talk to someone.
Korra puts a hand on the rug and lifts herself up noiselessly. She brushes snow off the windowsill and swings the window shut with a damp hand, heart feeling light with anticipation of answers, or at least someone else’s voice. She pads down the hallway in the dark, holding a small wisp of flame in her palm, past the room where Mako and Bolin are sleeping – snoring, really – and then Asami’s room; where she trips in the dark over her own feet and grunts, loudly, steps landing heavily on the floorboards. She freezes; listens to her heart beating wildly for three eternal seconds, and then rounds the corner and stops in front of the second door to the right.
Korra takes a deep breath, slides the door open, and takes hesitant steps towards the still form of Lin Beifong, gracefully asleep with one hand out and one arm across her chest. Korra stops and swallows nervously. Lin still seemed – like jumping into the Southern Sea. Biting and cold, but good for you. So Korra reaches out and lays her hand on Lin’s shoulder.
“Chief? Uh, Chief Beifong??” She whispers into the dark, gently shaking Lin.
Lin reacts faster than expected, green eyes flying open, and Korra snatches her hand away, taking a step back and suddenly losing her voice.
“What? What is it? What’s happe – Korra. What’s going on?”
Her brushed-steel voice comes swift and firm, and Korra blinks and flinches as Lin pulls the lamp cord and swamps them both in yellow light.
“No, no, nothing is wrong – nothing’s happening!” Korra says hastily, as Lin sits up with purpose in her eyes, white shirt clinging to her muscled frame, and Korra quickly sits on the edge of the bed and blushes as Lin pins her with a skeptical frown.
“Chief Beifong! I just, uh, wanted to, uh, uhm – “
“Oh for goodness’ sake, call me Lin,” she says, resting her arms on her drawn-up knees.
Korra opens her mouth and closes it again, and takes another deep breath.
“I just wanted to know… what were you going to do? I mean, without your bending?”
Lin makes a face, a bemused moue, and sighs.
“You couldn’t wait until morning?”
Korra looks at her feet.
“Having second thoughts about being the Avatar again?”
The question takes Korra by surprise; she jerks her head and –
“No, that’s not it, I want this. I’m just – I feel like – I – I don’t know,” she finishes sheepishly, and Lin blinks slowly, amusement pulling at the lines on her face. After a moment’s thought, she carefully swings her legs out from under the sheets and readjusts, sitting next to Korra, hands on her knees.
“I was going to keep fighting, of course… What did you think I was going to do, you silly girl?”
The words by themselves seem harsh but her tone is light and affectionate.
“I don’t know,” Korra says again, simply; she wrings her hands and lets them flop into her lap.
“Do you think I would’ve let something like losing my bending stop me from fighting Amon? From challenging the Equalists and people like Tarrlok? There are other ways to be a warrior, Korra. You know this. Your friend Miss Sato knows this very well, and so does Aunt Katara,” says Lin.
“I know that!” blurts Korra, her voice rising to a stage whisper; “I just feel like – “
“Like what, exactly? What are you so confused about, then?”
In the half-light, Korra can see most of Lin, hardening lines and sharp sea-glass eyes.
If only she could bend her feelings into something she could explain.
“I just feel like now I had the chance to become more than bending - to become more than just bending, just the Avatar. I remember when you – when you told me that I wasn’t anything special just because I was the Avatar. And I think I realize now that you were right,” she says, voice climbing and breaking, and Lin draws a weary hand down her face and sighs deeply.
“You silly girl,” Lin says again. “No one ever told you that you could be anything other than the Avatar, did they… I’m going to tell you something my mother told me, and first it comes with a story.
“When she was growing up, all her family said about her was that she was weak, and helpless, and that she would need to be taken care of for the rest of her life. You already know how this story ends. She was the greatest earthbender the world had ever seen – and she didn’t need anyone to tell her that. She knew it herself. She chose that for herself. And she told me this, a long time ago, with the hope that I would learn the same thing – that even though people tried to tell me who I was, that I was Toph’s daughter, I could become something more than just part of a legacy. And I had to decide for myself what that was.”
The lightbulb flickers and Lin’s green eyes bore into Korra.
“You’ve been told all your life that you’re the Avatar. That being the Avatar is all that you are, all of what makes you you. There was a reaction against you, as the Avatar, in Republic City. It must have been hard,” she murmurs, and Korra nods silently.
“Partly my fault, but I think it was justified,” Lin adds, and snorts at Korra’s reaction.
“I lost my earthbending, yes. And that means I lost my connection to my mother and my life’s work as a police officer. But that did not mean – it never meant that I lost my sense of self. I still knew who I was, sitting in Amon’s cell, without my bending” - Lin’s voice rises and her eyes gloss and find a point in the space above Korra; “ – I was a woman who didn’t give up. I was someone who fought for what she believed in, to the end and then past that end. If you think I didn’t give them hell when I was their prisoner, you’re thinking wrong,” she says, raising an eyebrow at Korra; “and losing my bending had nothing to do with it. Do you see what I’m saying?”
Korra is silent. Her mind is deep below the surface of her wide blue eyes.
“Uh,” she breathes, “I think I do.”
“Korra,” said Lin, “there is a life for you outside of being the Avatar. Just because you are the Avatar again doesn’t mean that life is closed to you.”
Korra chews on her bottom lip, taps her toes lightly on the wood, trying to find a rhythm of meaning she can dance to. Lin’s silence has become an expectation.
“So… what do I do?”
Lin forcefully exhales and rolls her head around, away from Korra, and then looks back.
“You figure that one out for yourself,” she snaps, but nicely: she isn’t mad. She merely stands up, gives Korra a firm, warm hug, and then, one hand still on Korra’s shoulder, motions towards the door. Korra still has questions. She still wants to know so many things about Lin – this woman, as cold and grey as the Southern Sea, whose touch is warm and solid and comforting.
Korra opens the door a fraction and slides out, grinning and blushing furiously as she hears Lin slump onto the sheets and mutter loudly: can’t she just ask Aang next time? As she clicks the doorknob into place, she leans back, resting against the wood; she is too awake to sleep but there is a thick exhaustion pooling in her eyes, dragging on her eyelids.
There is a sound down the hall; a creak, a light snap of the floorboards under pressure. She starts and stands, stock-still, in the middle of the hallway, feeling slightly vulnerable without an explanation that didn’t sound dumb in her head.
A hand appears on the wall, attached to someone around the corner, and its owner tilts her head and thick, lustrous mane of hair into the hallway and smiles softly at Korra.
“Hey, what are you doing awake?”
Asami must’ve woken up from the noise Korra made, and waited. Or maybe she was just sleepless too, as someone also cut loose and set adrift in a sea of ambiguity and confusion: The Sato heiress and the Avatar. Two sides of the same coin, aggressively detached from its worth, the gilded privilege of a title you can't escape. Soften the metal and re-stamp it. The past is claustrophobic. Korra has had friends – real friends, not polar bear dogs, who can only keen and whine and thump their tails and stick their wet noses into your face when you look sad – for less than half a year. What is she doing awake?
Korra tells her. Asami listens.
She kissed her boyfriend. Hugged her parents. Her teachers and her friends. (They had been hesitant at first, even resistant, but that, she felt, only made the need stronger.) Threw as little as possible into a saddlebag.
Boarded a ship with Asami, a map, and a cranky, growling motorcycle, and then, on a chilly, sunny day, pushed the motorcycle through a pocket-sized fishing village clinging to the Earth Kingdom coast and paused at the top of the hill on the edge of town.
The desert sprawled before them. The road peeled off from town, dropped to the plains, and split in two, vanishing into the musty, distant haze. They were both silent, the sound of wind rustling past them, flapping their clothes; hair rounding around and streaming past their faces.
“So… map?” asks Asami, sliding her driving gloves over her fingers, snapping the leather mischievously.
Korra looks at her.
“Nah,” she says, and Asami smirks. She frog-leaps onto the motorcycle and Korra does too, straddling the seat behind her. Her friend is excited in a way that tenses her body language – a tight color, to be unraveled and rewoven into peace of mind and purpose. A life outside her disappointments, her status, her father.
A life outside being the Avatar. It was not on the map, but it was there, somewhere.
Asami sticks a heel out, kicks the stand and twists the throttle. The motorcycle growls aggressively and vibrates; large, drumbeat shudders of metal and fury. Korra wraps her arms around Asami’s waist and smiles, feeling light and giddy. Happiness rising like a kite. She is ready to get lost.