A/N: Well, I hope this tugs on your heartstrings at least a little . . . especially if you recall how important water bending is to Tahno from the fourth chapter. And, more importantly, the consequences of losing something that ties him so strongly to the earth.

They touch three times the night of the final championship round.

Their first touch comes soon after Korra straps her helmet into place in the locker room. She rests her fingertips gently on the visor and hopes it won't crack under a Wolfbat assault.

"Oh, look at that. It's my favorite team of losers." Tahno leans against the doorway to the room, his mouth stretched in its usual smirk.

Mako cracks his knuckles and makes a pointed advance on their rival as if simple physical intimidate could make the waterbender shudder. "Why do you keep getting into our business?" he snaps.

"Yeah, and the match is in a few minutes," Bolin adds. "Go back to your own team."

Korra resists the urge to throw Tahno a rude gesture involving her middle finger. "Or did you come to tell us you're backing out? Too scared to face us, huh?"

"We need to talk," he tells her. "Right now."

Mako grabs Korra's shoulder. "No way. It's some kind of sabotage."

"We don't trust nasty dudes," Bolin agrees.

But the young Avatar hesitates. Tahno's eyes lock on hers, and she feels the steady thrumming of their linked heartbeats. Why would he come here now with minutes to go before the match if it wasn't vitally important?

"I'll just be a minute," she assures her teammates. Both brothers gawk at her retreating back as she follows Tahno out into the hall. "Okay, what?" she prompts once they're out of earshot. "This better be serious."

"I'm worried you'll be tempted to cheat, Uhvatar. So I want to lay down some rules."

"How, exactly, do you imagined I'd pull that off?"

"Think how easy it would be for me to distract you during the match if I kick myself in the shin while you're going through a maneuver."

Damn. Korra hadn't really thought about that.

"But it's a two-way road because you'd return the favor," he says. "So let's just agree to avoid all that. Can we make that deal?"

She stares into his strange gray eyes and tries to see through his veil of douchebaggery to a trustworthy person inside. Nope. Can't see it. But if he breaks his end of the bargain, she can always just break off her promise. "Fine," she says. "Truce."

"Truce," he agrees. He extends a hand, and she takes it.

And so their first touch is her gloved hand on his gloved hand and the contact of skin on skin between their open fingers. They crush each other's hands in a touch that is neither gentle nor fleeting. But there is still something here. She looks at the half-smirk on the parting of his lips and decides that tonight she will humble him. Korra will strike him down from a self-deluded platform of godliness, and she will do it when he's vulnerable out there in the heat of a referee-regulated struggle for dominance in front of thousands of his screaming fans.

She growls watch your back, Wolfbat, and she means it.

He nods approvingly. "Take care, sweetheart," he says.

Once in the ring Korra discovers that apparently cheating is actually entirely legal, but only when Tahno and his Wolfbats are the ones pulling it off. She learns this in the midst of touching her rival again, though this second time is not through skin contact. Their touch is the skimming of water on water as their hands manipulate pulses of living liquid at each other. Korra feels her element surge through her blood and channel through her fingertips, and she uses her raw power to fight back however she can. Yet there is only so much she can do when the referee refuses to call out blatant cheating tactics. At least the highlight of her night is facing off alone against Tahno in the round two tiebreaker.

"I'm taking this one," she tells her friends when the Fire Ferrets win their coin toss. Her eyes cut to Tahno. "Let's go!" she calls. "You and me, pretty boy!"

"Thought you'd never ask," he says. He saunters forward in his usual exaggerated style, his feet dancing through a series of gestures that say you can't touch me, Uhvatar.

She punches herself hard in the arm to remind him that she always can now. Then her body automatically settles into a natural waterbending stance as she gauges the distance between them on the small middle platform.

"Come on little girl," he taunts. "Give me your best shot."

The sneer of his mouth is so different from the broken glint she thought she glimpsed that one night by Yue Bay. Korra is grateful for this because she has no reason to feel anything but selfish pride as she knocks his stupid helmet off his stupid head and hair. Her friends congratulate her with things like nice one! and that's the stuff, you're my hero! But where her attention lingers is on the Wolfbat waterbender's clenched teeth and his glare that is not used to this shade of defeat, this shade of humility, this shade of betrayal. Because she's not supposed to be better. She's supposed to let him win.

Korra grins behind her visor. Tough luck, losers.

But of course the losers are still getting help from the referee, still cheating with things like crushing stone discs into large pieces and enveloping the rocks in water, and there's only so much the Fire Ferrets can hold off before even their best honest tactics get them knocked over the edge of the arena in a knockout victory. Korra is caught by the pool of water that cradles her gently before pushing her back towards air. She breaks the surface with a gasp and takes off her head gear, only to catch sight of something entirely unexpected. Sparks are flying around the stands, and on the lower platform near the water stands Amon's dear Lieutenant. He raises electrified kali sticks and plunges them into the water before Korra's desperate water strike can reach him.

The intensity of the electric voltage rips like fire under her skin. It would knock her unconscious if not for another even stronger force, a primal fear freshly ignited that sends a hormonal surge of I won't let you steal this from me through her blood and body. The combination of lightning shock and terror leaves her dazed. She's unable to do much but cycle air through her lungs, but at least she's awake. Aware. A rope snags around her ankle and drags her slowly through the water toward shore. Adrenaline quickens her heart. She feels the phantom grip of restraining hands on her arms. Feels pressure against a point directly between her eyebrows. The smooth gesture of someone's thumb on her forehead, pressing down.

Somewhere behind her closed eyelids and as fine as a glass shard working its way through her skull, there comes a breath not of physical pain but emotional pleading. A begging shriek so raw it threatens to cut through flesh down to her very heart.


His name is a whisper on her tongue. "Tahno?"

Equalist hands are dragging her out of the water now. She's faintly aware that someone is binding her with rope against a pole, or is she imagining this? The lingering pain of the lightning shock tugs her back towards calm unconsciousness . . . until, suddenly, a solid sheet of water smashes against her face. It fills her mouth, burns her eyes, drowns her body. Korra hovers in limbo between earth and air, trapped in a layer of water so cold it burns. An element that imposes its will over her own. An element that doesn't respond when her fingers reach out to recruit its help. An element that defies her as she claws desperately to the surface and swims to shore, only to climb out and crumple on solid land with full knowledge of a single fatal fact.

She can't bend water.

She can't bend water ever again.

This is her final waking thought before she slumps forward and passes out.

Korra isn't entirely aware of the rush that comes after, though she does cling to a few critical and desperate facts.

Bolin's clever teeth-clicking trick with Pabu. Amon's speech to the attendees of the pro-bending match somewhere far overhead. The fire ferret biting through their bindings. Her own voice yelling I'm going after Amon. Mako warning her be careful as she plunges into the water and spins around beneath. Whatever earlier fear she had about her bending must have been some lightning-induced delusion because she easily conjures a spiraling water tower that carries her skyward. Together with Lin, they confront the Equalists on equal terms until a struggle between the young Avatar and the Lieutenant sends Korra plummeting down towards the arena. It's only a cable thrown by the police chief that saves the young Avatar's life. The cable swings her to safety, and Korra lands in a heap by the stands. She rolls to her hands and knees as Lin runs over to help her get up.

"You alright?"

Korra nods. "I'm fine, thanks to you."

"Don't mention it, kid." They both gaze up to the hole in the roof. "Look like we lost this one," she adds, staring at a zeppelin soaring away through the black night.

There's a sound of footsteps behind her. Korra turns just as Mako jogs up and wraps her in his arms. She's struck by his immediacy and the warm point of his chin against her shoulder. He's holding her so tightly. She's never been held like this by a person she admires, and for a moment she lets herself melt against his strong arms.

"I'm so glad you're okay," he tells her. Is that really worry, or does she only desperately imagine it into his voice?

"Me too!" Bolin calls, hugging them both.

And then they are silent, and this quiet restores Korra more strength than could any of their words. Those who have true friends like hers learn this secret truth about life: the strongest pillars in our lives are those people who are willing to share the weight of tragedy. The friends who offer to stand beside you and listen even when there is no miracle healing solution to your grief. The friends who, when faced with the reality of their own powerlessness, still touch your wounded heart with their gentle hands. I'm always here for you, the true friend's presence says without him even needing to speak.

Through this silent hug, Mako and Bolin reaffirm once more that they are Korra's true friends for life.

She savors this last fragment of peace before stepping back and glancing to where Tenzin has just rested a hand on Lin's shoulder. The police chief whispers something about her disbelieve, and Tenzin agrees with he played us all . . . Republic City is at war.

And in every war, there are bitter casualties.

"Where's Tahno?" Korra asks, suddenly remembering the impact of cold water on her face. The thumb on her forehead. The overwhelming splinter of fear that kept her conscious in the water.

The young Avatar only has to remember Amon's presence at the arena tonight to understand that which she so wishes were not true.

"Wait, where are you going?" Mako calls as she runs back toward the arena.

"Korra!" Bolin yells.

But she has already jumped off the edge of the stands towards the water below. In one swift motion, she bends the water up so it catches her and softens the impact. A wave forms as the water falls back down. She rides the current to shore and runs to where the three uniformed Wolfbats are huddled on the lower platform.

The earthbender (Ming, right?) nudges the firebender (Shaozu, she thinks). "Hey, look who's come down," Ming says. He tries to smile, but it comes out pained and too stretched.

The firebender nods. "We saw some of what happened up there. You're pretty impressive, Avatar. You put up a great fight."

Korra skids to a halt beside them. "Are you guys okay? What happened? Did Amon . . ."

But it only takes her a moment of observing the sad scene before her to confirm her dark suspicions. Tahno's two teammates are sitting on either side of him by the water. The waterbender himself has stripped off his boots and holds his bare feet beneath the still, clear surface. One of his hands hovers above the pool. His fingers flex.

"Listen, I think we better get out of here," Shaozu suggests.

Ming stands and offers Tahno a hand. "Come on. We'll get through this."

But unlike his friends who are at least trying to adjust—or who are, in front of the Avatar herself, trying to save face—Tahno seems to be beyond caring and comprehension. He stares at the back of his hand as if the force of his gaze could will it to bend water. When the water remains flat and unresponsive, he bends forward and dips his hands into the pool. He carefully cups the water in his palms like it's too precious to be contained by any but a respectful hand. He splashes water across his face over and over as if in some ceremonial act of commemoration to that which once was his. The water left clinging to his eyelashes and cheeks is the exact color and quality of bitter human tears.

Korra wants to tell him that everything's going to be just fine and that they'll find a way to get his bending back, but the words simply won't leave her mouth. For once, she doesn't know what to do. She stands there motionless for a moment, trapped in a breathless instant of indecision. Then she remembers her silent hug by the stands with Mako and Bolin and kneels down behind Tahno.

She doesn't proclaim her intentions.

She doesn't even ask permission.

The third time they touch is when Korra simply presses her nose against the center of his back, right between his shoulder blades, and wraps her arms around his waist from behind.

"I'm so sorry," she whispers, her voice breaking on the words. Because rival or comrade, foe or friend, no one deserves this fate. And whether Tahno can even process that she's trying to hold him, the young Avatar pushes her face against his back and stays there. She stays until she can feel him trembling against her cheek. And the one thing Korra knows for sure is that from here on out the fight against Amon runs deeper than her duty as the Avatar to protect the people of the city. Now it's personal. To properly commemorate Tahno's waterbending and what it meant to him, she has to beat the Equalists and dedicate her victory to his loss.

When she gets Amon, it will be for both of them.

For now, she has no idea what she might do for her bond partner. All she knows is that he'll need someone around and they're stuck with each other anyway. And it is only very distantly that she realizes two strange things as she remains kneeling there, the first of which is that his waterbending loss left no impact on her own bending despite their connection. The second of which is that, as they huddle there together, Korra feels something unexpected stirring in her chest that is beyond physical perception.

The whisper of a black, foreign grief that is distinctly not her own.

A/N: You know how people usually search for stories on FFN by review count? So what stinks about that is that people automatically assume good stories have a lot of reviews. Few reviews = bad story. I know that's not true. You know that's not true. But that's what people tend to assume. So I would really, really appreciate you taking a few moments to just leave a few words if you're enjoying this story so far (we're 50% of the way finished!). Please, my dears? Also, I have a brand new tumblr account now [{ladyavatar} . {tumblr} . {com}], so feel free to go over and say hello!