somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
Korra doesn't even notice him until he's standing right beside her.
Granted, his footsteps are so light that she probably wouldn't have heard him coming anyway: the throttling roar of the airship's engine expands inside her chest and ears. She is trying a bit too hard to eavesdrop on the conversation between Tenzin and Bei Fong. She is trying even harder to close out the sound of Asami's quiet sobs, and this should be easy given that a red scarf muffles them. She is keeping one hand pressed against a window, watching condensation bloom beneath her fingers, because the glass is cold and hard and flat and somehow reassuring in its objectivity.
Which might be why the added weight of Bolin's hand on her shoulder pretty much scares Korra spitless.
She starts as violently as if the touch has burned her. He leaps back, eyes wide and arms up in a gesture of surrender. The action sends Pabu toppling from his usual perch with a squeal.
"Whoa, sorry!" he says in a hoarse whisper. "I probably should've said something first."
Now a pulse throbs in her palm where it rests on the glass. Korra lifts her hand away, noting the almost perfect outline left behind. A long sigh sags out of her; it turns to ice and fogs the whole window, erasing both her reflection and her view of the city below along with the handprint.
She looks over at Bolin. About a pace of distance separates them.
"Don't worry. It's not like I was actually planning to do anything important with those years of my life."
He laughs, but a blotchy flush spreads up his broad, square cheeks all the way to his ears.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to sneak up on you. I'm usually bad at the whole stealth-mode thing, Mako says I'm as subtle as a maul to the face. This one time, when we were kids, we tried snitching a bunch of bean paste dumplings from Old Lady Chiyo's vendor stand, but the pot she served them from was so big that I tipped over into it and got stuck with my legs flailing in the air, so – Yeah, never mind. It's a dumb story. Sorry. Again."
He clears his throat.
"I was just coming over to, um…"
One hand smoothes down his hair, though that stubborn little forelock curl bobs instantly back into place; Bolin glares at it, and then reaches up to poke his left shoulder.
"…You're starting to get a bruise, you know. Right here."
Korra rolls her left arm forward for inspection. It makes a pop-pop noise like damp kindling. Sure enough, the skin of her shoulder and collarbone is starting to turn a mottled yellow-green; her ribcage and stomach probably look the same.
"Well, it figures. Hiroshi's mecha-tank thing threw me pretty hard. Tenzin and Bei Fong got the brunt of it, though. " She shrugs. Pop-pop. "I should go over and see what I can do for them."
"Ah, yes, because nothing could cap this evening off better than an encounter with your esteemed friend Chief Rock-Jaw herself."
"Oh, cut it out."
"I'm serious. You could dent a plow on that thing."
Korra glances over at the pair, figuring she could at least set a few of their broken bones for now, and stops short at what she sees: her airbending master kneels in front of his oldest friend, where she sits with her head bowed. If they were any closer, their foreheads would be touching.
("And the last one is Officer Gaoli," Lin is saying, staring down very hard at her hands. "I denied his request for promotion to Inspector three week ago. He'd confiscated several stolen phonographs during a Triad raid, and I walked in on the whole office cutting a rug to some record by Colonel Mongke and the Rough Rhinos. A real collection of fools, don't you think?")
Korra looks away fast. Bolin is still standing there.
"I'll wait until they're finished," she says, giving the shoulder another crack. "But this is nothing."
He cocks one of those heavy brush-stroke eyebrows. "Uh-huh, sure."
"You don't sound convinced."
"Because you always say that. You could be there with both of your legs twisted off and still be all, 'Oh, I'm fine, everything's just jake, I've had worse than this on a rough training day, tra-la-la-la-la.'"
The cue here is almost audible, so Korra wills herself to laugh. What results are a few coughs that hurt like jabs coming up. "Well, Naga did almost chew my limbs off a few times when she was a puppy."
"Yeah, I'd snuck out to go hunting during tiger seal season. I found her half-buried in the snow. I guess a wolf had tried to attack her and gotten bored, there was blood everywhere. I thought she was dead, until she snapped her head up and bit me in the arm. "
"Pabu chewed my hand up pretty good the first time I met him, too. Didn't you, boy? I'd been digging through a trash heap for some leather I could put onto the bottoms of my shoes, since the soles were pretty well shot, and then I found this little…Ah-ha-ha, nice try."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't think you can go changing the subject on me and get away with it. We're still talking about that nasty bruise, remember." Bolin crosses his arms. "And you were knocked out cold when we showed up. That's not nothing. Can't you give it the magical, glowy water treatment?"
Korra's nails dig into the damaged skin. A satisfying pain flashes down her arm, and she remembers the jarring impact of her body against stone before passing out. Stupid, she thinks. Stupid and shameful.
"I was never good with that kind of stuff," she decides to answer. "I'd have to pinch some broken vessels to stop blood from leaking into the tissue, and there's always a chance I'll pinch the wrong ones and send a clot right up into my brain. That'd be messy. "
His upturned nose wrinkles in mock disgust. "Hey, hey, easy on the healer talk there."
"Well, you get the idea. I'll be alright, honest." Water droplets have started to bead on the window, leaving tracks in the melting ice. Korra watches each one race down before it vanishes. "Are you alright, by the way? I forgot to ask."
"Who, me and Mako? Oh, yeah. We're fine. At least Lieutenant Fu Manchu there didn't zap us with his kali sticks again. That's really all I ask when we're butting heads with these Equalist guys. I couldn't keep my hands steady for an hour after that first time, and now I've got these two matching scars where he jammed the rods in. I mean, they're not even manly scars. It honestly looks as if giant spider-tick bit me square on the chest. And that second time, at the arena? Forget it. It's like having a burning sparkler laid to your brain or something."
Ice on the window continues to melt, so Korra lifts one finger and draws the Water Tribe mark as she remembers hanging from Katara's neck: three loops for the breaking wave-tops, three sweeps for the tide beneath, an enclosing circle for the moon who dances with them. She had been made to memorize all four elemental signs during her first months of training, had taken to drawing them in the snow and naming each one in turn. Constant change, constant oneness, constant love.
Then she looks over her bruising shoulder to where Mako and Asami stand together. Mako is muttering something into the dark cloud of Asami's hair, rocking her back and forth as she cries, and Korra tries to imagine it: she imagines placing a hand upon her father's chest, just under the spot where she had rested her head when he carried her as a little girl, imagines feeling her arm go tense in preparation as the charge builds, and then I love you, Dad.
No, Korra thinks, never. Never. Never. Never.
Somewhere inside of her, a knot draws closed.
"…You guys must not be too impressed with your new Avatar so far, huh?"
Bolin is stooping down to pick Pabu up by his stubby forelegs, but stops half-way. The cautious smile disappears as suddenly as if he has been struck in the face.
She traces the Fire Nation emblem next. She had received a letter from Fire Lord Zuko once, on her twelfth birthday, and it had been pressed into the scroll's wax seal: three hard, curved prongs of flame to match those of the imperial crown. Terrible power, consuming desire, the will to achieve one at the sacrifice of the other.
"Right after Aang died," Korra says, her voice short and tight, "the White Lotus started building that compound in the South Pole. The one I grew up in? Well, they built another one in the North Pole. Katara told me they were exactly the same, right down to the lion-turtle carved on their front gates. That was so everything would be ready when they found the next Avatar, wherever I turned up. And, you know, whoever I ended up being…"
She draws the Air Nomad symbol, three currents as they spiral endlessly over and under each other. Freedom, and detachment, and joy. It was the easiest one to learn, too, because she had first seen it carved on an old wooden pendant Katara gave her.
Then all that remains is the Earth Kingdom sign, the badger mole resting on his front digger claws. The lines as she forms them are quick and practiced, though Korra cannot remember just now where else she'd seen it outside of her lessons. Strength, persistence, endurance. And she has saved this one for last, of course: because if she had broken her spine instead of bruising her shoulder, down there in the dark, the next one would have started off as an earthbender. And will, eventually. Once her turn is finished.
"… I know it sounds kind of weird to put it that way, but I'm starting to think it wouldn't have made a difference."
A beat. The airship rattles underfoot. Needles of heat prickle inside her nose and deep behind her eyes. By now the Water Tribe symbol has dripped itself into incomprehensibility, run together with the others, so Korra swipes the whole meaningless mess away with a hand. Left behind is her reflection in the darkened glass.
And, a moment later, the reflection of someone else next to her.
Maybe it is his tone of voice that cracks her.
"Lin's turning in her badge tomorrow morning. I'm bringing my sifu home to his family with a bruised kidney or two, at the very least. I was right about Hiroshi, but I didn't want to be. Asami even had to –" she doesn't trust her voice beyond this, so Korra thinks about the cold- hard-indifferent glass beneath her hand again "– Guh. Amon's won, just like before. I keep playing into his hands like a chump, and I'm sure it's all doing wonders for Avatar Aang's legacy. I don't think I've done a single thing right since I got here."
"Well, you did save me."
"I hope that counts for something," Bolin adds, a bit shyer. "Does it?"
She is very still, then. Everything grows quieter, as if a pair of owl's wings have suddenly folded down around them both, and she looks at him: stares at him, to be honest, as if she has never seen anything like him before, because she really never has.
Her space in front of the window suddenly seems filled by his big, solid presence. He stands close enough that she can see the ropey muscles working in his throat as he swallows, to note an odd tremor in his jaw before he clenches it. A short breath puffs over her left cheek and tickles the shell of her ear, though Korra can tell he is trying hard to breathe shallow. She cannot remember hearing him take the few steps that brought him towards her; his gait is so light, after all, and he carries his burdens so easily.
But there is something startling and crushing and impossibly old in his expression, so then Korra stares at her own reflection instead. A bewildered little girl, who has perhaps just watched her mother waterbend an injury away or seen the Southern Aurora for the first time, stares back.
"But now we're even," Korra manages. "You guys just saved me, too."
He smiles, which shapes the lines of his face into something a bit more familiar.
"That? Nah, that was all Mako's plan back there. I usually follow along and try not to make things worse. When we were in with the Triple Threats, this guy named Arrluk – I hear you mashed him into the grill of his car, by the way, nice job – this guy Arrluk and I worked down at the docks rerouting liquor shipments. I'd have to spend about fifteen minutes before each run just getting my knees to stop shaking. I'm a big possum-chicken when it comes to stuff like this. Here, look…"
Then Bolin reaches up and sets his hand beside hers on the (cold-hard-indifferent) glass.
"…I don't even have the electrocution excuse this time."
His hand is wide, roughened like a worn-out elkhide glove, with short, clumsy fingers and big, knobby knuckles. Several nails are split to the cuticle. Others have dirt caught beneath them. Pearly scars, which look remarkably like tiny teeth marks, form a half-circle on the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger. Two prominent veins plunge down into his broad wrist: and the hand is trembling, Korra realizes. Just a bit. What exactly he's afraid of, though, is not her business to guess.
"I know I'm not as good a fighter as Mako," Bolin continues, "so I'm not really sure how much this is going to mean to someone as strong as you, but I'm still supposed to be your teammate. I'm – I'm your friend, I think. Am I?"
Korra nods, one-two.
"So stop acting like you're in this mess all by yourself, then. Seriously, at least let me try to do something right for once." He chews the inside of his lip for a few anxious seconds, although there is no blush on his face this time. "Okay?"
And he seems to suddenly be even closer, although Korra knows this is just some kind of trickery on her own part. But if she bends her head slightly to the left, now, Korra realizes that she will be resting it on his right shoulder. Her shoulder. The one she had healed for him. She thinks about pushing water down inside the wound, pulling it over tendon and muscls as the dislocated joint clicked into place, feeling all of the warmth and strength hidden there.
Then she slides her littlest finger over one quarter of an inch, which taps it against the very tip of his own and closes the distance between their hands on the window
"What was that?" he asks, wryly. "I didn't catch it."
"Okay, okay! Sheesh. For a friend, you sure know how to pester somebody."
"Good. That's the way it's supposed to be."
Bolin drops his hand. Korra drops hers, too. Two more prints are impressed there on the flat, cold, hard glass, but she doesn't bother to wipe these away. They stay standing like that for what feels like a very long time.
(And Korra finally recalls where she first met with that sign, the Earth Kingdom badger-mole who waits and listens. When the world had first discovered its new Avatar within her, some king or other had sent a huge folio of stories as tribute. The book opened and shut with ivory tallies. Its pages had been bound in embroidered silk and printed with colored woodblocks. The squared, practical symbol had been hand-drawn, though, at the end of one story which was placed somewhere in the middle of the volume. But Korra still cannot remember the title, though she thinks it might have been about two people named Oma and Shu.)
"…Now, I'm curious," Bolin finally says. Pabu leaps back up onto his shoulder. "I've never tried to airsit a babybender before, but it sounds like a challenge."
It still hurts a bit to laugh. Korra does it anyway. "Oh, it's not so bad…Wait, no, never mind. I'm lying. It's bad. Tenzin and Pema draw straws to decide who gives Meelo a bath.
"Was he that pantsless kid in the punch bowl at Tarrlok's gala?"
"However did you guess, sir?"
He scratches Pabu under the chin. "Manly intuition. Besides, I had to admire the little guy. Everybody knows pants are an illusion, but to really prove it before a crowd of Republic City's hoity-toitiest takes certain gumption."
"Well, Meelo and Ikki seem to have gotten that in spades."
"She's the one with those little buns on her head, right?"
"That's her." Korra's grin pulls at an angle. "Oh, speaking of illusions and punch, don't drink anything if she's the one who gives it to you."
"Because it might accidentally make you sprout wings and fly away to a magical castle in the sky, where you'll eat clouds with spoons and use stars as ice cubes forever and ever and ever." Here she adds a dramatic sweep with her arm. "And I'd have a rough time explaining that to Mako."
"He'd probably believe it. When I was four, I bent some bamboo poles into the shape of giant fans and wrapped a few strips of Mom's cheesecloth around them. I climbed up onto our tenement roof and was standing there on the ridgepole with one big flapper in each hand. I probably would've jumped off, too, except our landlady spotted me and got Dad."
"Well, when I master airbending, you can have second dibs for a ride on my glider." Korra's smirk widens. "We'll jump off the Republic City radio tower."
"Sounds like a plan. But who got first dibs?"
"Jinora. She's the oldest one, with the funny hairstyle? She asked me because I'm a firebender, too, and she wanted to pretend she was the Mt. Makapu Volcano Princess riding her dragon into battle. Or something like that."
"Is Mister Tenzin sure they're his kids? They all seem to have an inclination for theatrics."
"I hear they take after their grandfather."
Bolin pulls a very serious frown, exchanging a conspiratorial glance with Pabu. "Wait 'til we bust out the Ladder of Peril, then, buddy. We'll knock their socks off."
She laughs again now simply because she can. "I'm sure they'll appreciate that. Trust me, they're going to love you."
"You think so?"
Korra is about to nod, but this does not seem like enough. So she tilts her heavy, tired head over and rests it against his (her) shoulder, pressing her cheek there for one- two-three-four quick beats, and breathes in.
"Well," she admits, "it's an easy thing to do."
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens: only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands