Here I am, thousands of feet above the open ocean, on the back of a gigantic beast, with my ex-boyfriend, his brother, and the Avatar. We few, we lucky few, have been selected in all of Korra’s enlightened wisdom to be her companions.
I received a first class education and you can bet your bottom dollar that we talked about the Avatars and all of their esteemed companions. (If you can’t hear me gagging, imagine it now.) When I was getting myself kicked out of class for suggesting that anyone who had exercised bloodbending for any reason should face consequences, I never imagined that I might be invited to join the ranks.
Besides not ever wanting to be a companion, there’s the additional issue that I don’t deserve it. I spent my entire life — up until recent weeks — working to destroy the Avatar and all other benders. That’s not exactly the “most trusted compatriot” Tenzin was talking about. Plus, I just brutally dumped one of the other companions, days after he lost his job and his home. So when Tenzin said that he was glad I had a “good head on my shoulders” and implied that I might bring some stability to this team, well, that was laughable.
Not that anyone is going to be laughing when they find out who I really am. I don’t belong. I never will.
They’re not going to find out. They don’t have to. That chapter is closed.
On top of everything else, this bison ride is really fucking awkward. Mako refuses to even breathe the same air as me. He is crunched into a moody ball, staring out the back, over the ocean we’ve already crossed. Korra seemed unable to put a complete thought together when she realized she’d asked both me and Mako to be her best-friends-forever, and has been taking her bison-driving duties very seriously. Bolin is the only normal one on the roadtrip. When he suggests that we lie back to look at the clouds and make up extensive backstories about the characters we see there, I agree a little bit more enthusiastically than I might normally.
“Why do we have to fly all the way out here?” Mako asks, an hour into our journey.
Korra shrugs. “I dunno. Tenzin said this place was sacred to one of my past lives so he thought it might help.”
“Ooh, which one?” asks Bolin.
“Avatar Tashi,” Korra answers.
“What were they like?”
Korra shrugs again.
“Tashi started the Air Nuns,” I say, sitting up. “Before her, only male airbenders were allowed to learn bending, even though every person born to the Air Nation has the ability to bend. Avatar Tashi oversaw the building of the Western Air Temple, so female airbenders could have a place to study and practice. And she convinced the spirit of the mountains to bless the temple so that it could only be approached by air.”
Korra turns around at the reins to look at me in surprise.
“So that’s what you learn in school,” says Bolin after a moment.
Slowly we come upon a landmass and Korra guides our fearsomely large transport into a landing. We dismount into thick forest, with the type of dark, foreboding trees that grow in cold climes.
“Tenzin said this was the place,” Korra says uncertainly.
“Over here!” Mako calls, pointing to a rough ring of stones in the ground. “It’s an old foundation.”
He’s correct. We poke around a bit more and find other signs of life — life that lived long, long ago.
“Why is this place sacred to Avatar Tashi?” I ask.
Korra frowns, concentrating, then begins to pick through the ruins, leading us away from the main cluster of buildings.
“Maybe she was born here,” suggests Bolin as we follow Korra through the trees.
“Or died here,” Mako offers. As always, a bright ray of sunshine.
The chill in the air grows colder. Ahead of us Korra begins to walk faster, breaking out into a jog. She scales a low hill and halts. Below us is another foundation. It’s smaller than the ones we saw when we landed, and every inch of the interior is covered in brilliant wildflowers. There’s a flower for every color imaginable, and nothing like what should be growing in the dead of winter. I spot an orchid that I know is only found in the Fire Nation, and a rose that is called the Summer Secret which, as you might imagine, is supposed to be seasonal.
“It’s not any of that,” Korra says in a faraway voice. “This is where she fell in love.”
The chill suddenly doesn’t seem so bitter.
“How do you know that?”
“I have no idea… I can just tell.”
“Is… is Tashi here?” Bolin asks, squinting as if to spot a ghost.
Korra laughs. “No, no, nothing like that.”
“Well, in a way, she is,” I point out. I put a hand on Korra’s shoulder, and then just as quickly snatch it back. Three pairs of eyes follow my hand. I shake it out awkwardly, and rush to say: “What I mean is, technically Tashi’s right here.” I point at Korra. “And so is Aang, right? That’s the whole reason we’re doing this?”
“Right,” Korra says, cracking her knuckles in a way she knows I hate. It takes all of my willpower not to smack her hands — but usually when I do that Korra tries to find ways to make me slap her again, and then I have to pin her down, and I think we’ve piqued the boys’ suspicions enough for today. “All righty, Aang, get ready to spill your secrets.”
This girl. She makes talking to her own past life a damn confrontation.
“What are we supposed to do?” Mako asks.
Korra scratches her head. “I guess just like… be here?”
“What are you gonna do?” Bolin asks.
“Like — meditate! I don’t know. It’s the Avatar State, I’m the Avatar, and Tenzin said being here would help. So, it should just, like, come to me.”
I’m starting to wonder what instructions — if any — Tenzin gave Korra before we set out on this quest.
“I think we should back up,” I say to Bolin (and hope that Mako realizes I’m talking to him as well, or not, whatever, let him get his own head blown off). “In the past…” I drift off, thinking through what I know about the Avatar State. Tenzin might insist it’s a connection to the Avatar’s spirituality, but from my studies I’m more inclined to agree with Korra — it’s like plugging the Avatar’s powers into a megawatt generator. Avatars of the past have wielded enormous destruction through the Avatar State. And I’m not sure I want to be right next to Korra when her eyes start lighting up.
We move outside the ring of stone and watch Korra settle into a lotus position among the flowers. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply. There is silence except for the wind in the bare branches and the movements of whatever creatures are still about. Nothing happens.
One of Korra’s eyes — still beautiful, boundless ocean blue — pops open and I glance away quickly. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, but it suddenly seems really weird that I was staring at her.
“Is it supposed to take this long?” Bolin wonders aloud.
Korra opens both eyes to glare at him, then groans loudly and flops backwards into the flowers. Mako and I exchange a glance and get up to join Korra. It’s the first time we’ve looked at each other since the breakup without immediately falling into a well of pain. Carefully, Mako, Bolin, and I seat ourselves around Korra. She looks really beautiful, framed in flowers, and really frustrated.
“What do you know about the Avatar State?” I ask gently. Korra’s face twists into a scowl, but after a moment she sits up.
“Not that much. Just that it’s powerful… and dangerous.” Korra hugs her knees to her chest. “Tenzin said that in the past young Avatars have gone into the Avatar State accidentally because their emotions got away from them.” Korra picks at a nearby stem, working her lips silently before speaking very quickly. “Aang got himself locked in ice for a hundred years, Kuruk sank an entire island, Kyoshi threw a mountain at someone. She was so angry that she destroyed this entire mining town, trying to get revenge.” The stalk breaks in Korra’s fingers. “That’s why Tenzin wanted us to go all the way out here. Because… he’s scared. Of me. He thinks I’m rash and out of control and my temper gets the best of me. He thinks I’m going to fly off the handle and wind up in the Avatar State and end up—” She breaks off, apparently unable to say what it is she’ll be capable of.
But I know. She could level cities, end hundreds of lives with a sweep of her hand, crush anyone who stands in her way. When Korra goes atomic, it’s all up to her, who lives and who dies.
And yet… this girl, sitting in front of me among the flowers — she doesn’t want to hurt anyone. She’s nearly shaking with the possibility that she could wield such power.
“I don’t think Tenzin’s scared of you,” I say (though what do I know? I’ve spent a week at his house and have never been able to meet his eyes). “I don’t think he sent you out here to insulate you from yourself. It sounds like all the Avatars struggled. He just wants you to be safe.”
Korra’s eyes shine with gratitude.
“Hopefully,” Bolin adds, “he doesn’t think you are gonna blow up — ‘cause that would mean he thinks we’re expendable. And I think Tenzin and I have formed a genuine bond.”
“Power like that is scary.” We all turn to Mako, who’s digging his fingers in the dirt, not looking at us. “When I first… bent lightning, it was because I was angry.”
No. No way. Not possible.
I know all about blueflames: powerful firebenders who could reportedly create incredibly hot flames and produce pure electricity. The idea for the taser gauntlets was born as I sat in the back of my Fire Nation History lecture, bored out of my skull. My professor tacked a poster to the wall that I would have totally overlooked, if not for that fact that the main colors used were shades of blue, not red like every other picture of every other Fire Lord who had ever existed. It was Fire Lord Azran, a Fire Nation ruler who lived a millenia ago, who was feared across the world for his blueflame abilities.
The class got excited about that (there are a lot of firebenders who attend the Royal Academy), but our professor assured us that the ability was incredibly rare and exclusive to Fire Nation royalty — which I translated as “garbage propaganda spread as evidence of divine right to rule.”
But even if the Fire Nation was a bunch of liars, it didn’t mean that my ideas about electricity transfer were dead. I combed through the tombs in the library, used Future Industries resources as well, and learned everything there is to know: which is very little. In the past five centuries there are only two somewhat reliable reports of lightning-benders. The most recent was a princess who apparently wreaked holy hell during the Hundred Year War. (Supposedly, this prodigal princess was the sister of Former Fire Lord Zuko, but if information about blueflames is rare, information about Zuko’s sister is nonexistent. Her name has been wiped from existence.) And a few centuries before Zuko’s sister, Avatar Kyoshi is said to have vanquished a blueflame when she was seventeen. To be completely honest, I just thought that was more Avatar upselling. I never — not in a million years — thought there was a chance that any blueflames existed today. And I certainly did not consider that the boy in my bed the past few months could have anything to do with an old, definitely-not-true legend.
“Lighting?” Korra asks. “You can bend lightning!?” She’s excited — thrilled. Mako isn’t. He nods forlornly at the dirt.
“I found out one day when we were living on the streets. We came back to our hideout and these guys — kids really — were taking off with the last of our food. I was so scared about what would happen to us. It was my responsibility to look out for Bolin. I tried to firebend, but this bolt of lightning came out of my fingers. It’s lucky for them that I was a kid and starving and had no idea what I was doing. Or they’d be dead.”
Silence meets this pronouncement. Mako doesn’t look at us, just continues digging his miniature trench.
“You were a little kid,” Bolin says eventually. “You didn’t know what you were doing.”
“But I did!” Mako insists. “I was angry. I wanted to hurt them. But I just ended up hurting myself. I passed out, left you alone, made myself weaker when we had no food. And now that I know what it feels like…” Mako shivers.
I remember the agony of the taser ripping through my body. It was like my very cells were being shredded. Mako and I agree on one thing — neither of us ever wants to be the cause of that kind of pain again. The difference is Mako can choose not to lightning-bend; I gave the power of electricity to trained soldiers.
All your fault. Traitor.
Mako reaches out and takes Korra’s hand. “Lightning-bending and the Avatar State aren’t the same thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try. It’s just, I think I understand what Tenzin was worried about. Power has a cost, and he wants it to be as low as possible for you.”
I recognize the look on Mako’s face as he talks to Korra — because he used to look at me that way. He loves her. Realizing it takes my breath away. Now that the veil of our relationships has been pulled back (thrown on the floor, more like) it’s obvious how painfully thin it truly was. He’s drawn to her like a magnet; and I have to stop pretending that she doesn’t feel the pull as well. Sitting here, among the flowers, she leans towards him as he speaks. There’s a connection in their shared experiences that I can never be a part of.
She should be with him.
I’d rather be tased again.
I focus my panic attack on a flower in front of me so no one can see me lose it over something that was never mine in the first place. The petals fold into neat tubes, like caves, dark red in the center, flowing out into a robust, cherry yellow. The color mocks me. I’ve been so stupid. I lost everything — and what? I thought I was going to replace my entire life with Korra? I thought that I could go from an Equalist to the Avatar’s girl overnight and that would just solve everything?
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
You know what else is stupid? The amount of power sitting in this long forgotten home. Bolin can move the earth we stand on. Mako, apparently, can wield the might of a thunderstorm with his hands. And then there’s Korra: who’s about to be infused with the knowledge and force of a thousand Avatars. The power that these three people — these children — possess is unconscionable.
Korra looks heartened by our comments. She smiles and sits up straight, clasping her hands in front of her. I almost want to scream, “No!” and push her out of the way — but what am I saving her from? Her own destiny? Korra is the Avatar. There is nothing I can do to change that.
When the Avatar tries again, it is obvious almost immediately that something has changed. A strong wind whistles through the trees. It’s warm and smells like spring. The flowers in the dwelling seem to lean in. Then Korra lifts off the ground. She rises up, her arms loosely extended, her feet inches above the flowers. I’m holding my breath, looking up at her. With a huge gasp, Korra opens her eyes. The ocean blue irises are gone — replaced with blank, glowing white light.
That’s when I get a bad feeling in my stomach.
The Avatar lifts her hand in front of her face, examining it for a moment. Then she swishes her wrist, sending an arc of flames away from her body. It’s more powerful than the other firebending I’ve seen Korra do. Mako, Bolin, and I drop to the ground to avoid the swell of heat that comes with it. The Avatar lifts her other arm, making the stones in the foundation jump. Bringing both of her hands towards her chest and pushing out, she sends a gust of air sailing through the branches above.
For a second, Korra is visible underneath the face of the Avatar. Her teeth flash in her signature crooked grin.
Then her body lifts higher as she runs through more and more complex bending formations. Fire, earth, and air sail around us. Bolin and Mako watch, awestruck. I see a problem. Korra is going to want to play with all the new toys at her disposal, and we’re miles away from the shore. Just as I think this, the ground begins to rumble. The wind swirls faster.
I jump to my feet and yank the boys away. Mako looks like he wants to argue, but before he can say a word the ground begins to churn like an angry ocean. He follows us quickly up onto the ridge.
Korra is pulling water from beneath the earth. Little geysers are popping up between the flowers. Quickly, though, they join together, gaining power. The wind howls and the dirt moves like wine. Korra is building a maelstrom with herself at the center.
“Korra!” Bolin’s voice is small compared to the gale.
“KORRA!” Mako bellows.
The white light in Korra’s eyes flicker. The jets of water continue to build in strength.
I pull on the boy’s jackets. “We have to get out of here,” I tell them. “She’s gonna tear this place apart.”
“No!” Mako says. I recognize that hard look in his eyes. I want to smack him. Chivalry is a load of shit if all it does is get us killed by our friend.
“She’s the Avatar,” I remind him. “She’ll be fine. Us? We have to go.”
A stone from the foundation rips out of it’s centuries-old spot and cuts through the surrounding trees. Bolin tackles Mako and me to the ground, seconds before we’re decapitated.
“See!” I scream. My breathing is growing erratic. Korra has turned the cold winter day blisteringly hot with the billowing surges of fire she’s tossing around. Sparks are flying around the dead, dry trees. This whole forest could go up — we need to get out of here.
“Come on, Bolin.” Mako jerks Bolin to his feet and they start making their way towards Korra. They get farther than I ever would: Bolin is able to steady the ground and halt most of the flying projectiles. Mako cuts through the swatches of flame like it’s nothing. Maybe to them it is. I remain face-first on the ground, watching as they get closer and closer.
Korra is hovering nearly seven feet off the ground now. Her limbs no longer move, instead she’s locked into a stance that looks as if she’s holding an invisible ball of power in front of her chest. Her face is a mask. The white light accentuates her expression, throwing contrast onto hills and valleys I’ve never seen that face make. Mako reaches up and as his hand touches her foot, Korra’s attention, which until now had seemingly been nowhere, is fully directed at Mako.
At that moment, I am sure that Mako is a goner. There is not a hint of recognition in Korra’s blank eyes, just white-hot fury. The wind blows harder, the fire burns louder, the geysers shoot higher. Mako says something that I can’t make out — and then everything stops. Like a switch being flipped, nature turns off, and the resulting calm is almost eerie.
Korra falls back to earth. Hard.
I sprint down the ridge, but Mako and Bolin are already at her side. She’s okay. She’s breathing. She’s conscious. There are tears in her eyes. Mako talks in a low soothing voice. “It’s okay. You’re all right. Everything’s fine.” Korra squeezes her eyes shut and buries her face against Mako’s knee.
I can’t watch. Instead my eyes fall to the ruined wildflowers. My yellow marigold is shredded to death, laying half-submerged in a muddy puddle.
“Do you want to go home?” Mako asks. Korra’s head jerks in a way that might be a nod. Mako and Bolin help her to her feet, leaving nothing for me to do but follow as we slog back through the forest.
What a pathetic companion I ended up being. I didn’t deserve Korra’s trust when she asked me — and now I’ve proven I’m completely useless anyways. I can’t bend! How was I supposed to do anything about that swirling hellstorm Korra created? If I’d taken one step towards her, I’d be dead. Korra inhabits a world that I can never be a part of. I always thought benders were exclusive out of arrogance and pride, but no: they’re exclusive out of necessity. There are things I will never be able to do, and those things will always sit between Korra and I: a yawning chasm, unable to be crossed.
The cold air has returned in the absence of Korra’s inferno, and all four of us are soaked to the skin. Thankfully, the ferocious beast that brought us here seems to know the way back home, because neither Mako, Bolin, nor myself know how to drive a bison. Korra is lost. She lays down on her side in the saddle, covered in a heap of blankets; her eyes stare into the middleground. I want desperately to stroke her sweaty hair off of her forehead, pull her head into my lap, lay down next to her and wrap my arms around her. But I can’t. She’s somewhere else, and there’s nothing I can do for her.
“What was it like?” Bolin asks tentatively as we soar over the open ocean.
Korra comes out of her reverie like someone being dragged out of a deep pool. She squints at Bolin. “What?”
Korra closes her eyes and shakes her head. Then, with seemingly great effort, she pushes herself into a sitting position. “I don’t know…” she says. “I can’t describe… it was incredible.” She turns to us and I see something I haven’t often seen from Avatar Korra: humility. “My limbs could move without my brain. I could do bending I’d never learned. But—” She frowns. “When I tried to look for Aang… that’s when it got out of control.”
She pushes her forehead into her fist.
“What do you mean ‘out of control?’” Mako asks. I’d forgotten about his tender voice. It unrolls something in me — it picks at the lie I tell myself that Mako meant nothing to me, other than a job.
“I mean he wasn’t there!” Korra sounds indignant and frightened. “It was — it was everyone . It was like a stadium of people fighting for my attention. I couldn’t make out one voice from another, I definitely couldn’t hear what the fuck they were trying to say to me.” She beats her knuckles against her shoulders. “And they kept taking me places.”
“What do you mean? You were here the whole time,” Bolin says.
“In my mind. One minute I was at the Northern Water Tribe, the next I was in the Fire Nation palace, then some home that looked like it might have been in the Earth Kingdom. But it was just flashes. I didn’t see anything helpful. I didn’t learn anything about energy-bending.” She sighs loudly.
“It’s okay,” I say, even though I hadn’t intended on adding anything to this discussion. I’m way out of my depth, but Korra is hurting and I can’t stand it. It will be okay, because it’s Korra and it has to be. “It was your first try, right? Did you…” my brain searches for bending terms I don’t know. “Did you water whip the first time you tried it?”
Korra smirks in a way that tells me I have not used bending terminology correctly. It sends a wave of relief through me. The Korra that can make fun of me is back.
“Yes,” she says snottily. “I water whipped it good.”
“Well, you can’t be good at everything.”
She snorts. “You always know what to say, don’t you, Miss Perfect?”
No. Of course I don’t. I have no idea what to say to this immortal being who just skipped through centuries worth of memories. I can’t help her. I can only distract her.
“You’ll get it,” Mako says. “All new skills take time.”
One day, I’ll be big enough to be grateful that Korra has him. Not today though. Today I smolder silently with impotent jealousy.
“What did you guys see?” Korra asks. She pushes the blankets off of her shoulders, apparently remembering that she never gets cold.
We explain quickly how she levitated and nearly destroyed a portion of the continent.
“I airbent!” Korra crows. Always looking on the bright side.
Half of me wants to take her by the shoulders and make her understand what just happened. Make her see that she nearly killed us and herself. Make her understand that she’s incredibly powerful — and had anything besides Mako’s graceful handling of the situation happened, there would be serious consequences.
The other half of me laughs in relief.
“So once you figure this out,” says Bolin as we approach Republic City, “you’re going to have all of the memories and experiences and powers of all the old Avatars?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Bolin smiles giddily. “Like… all of them?”
Oh spirits, Bolin.
“Uhh? Yeah? I guess?”
“Like… you know.” He winks several times.
Unbidden, my imagination shifts into overdrive. Kuruk was supposed to be quite the ladies man… and Kyoshi could certainly teach Korra a thing or two… I shut those thoughts down as hard as I can. I think about the last time I told Korra we were never going to hook up again — and that was before I knew how deliciously exquisite it could be. But this time I have to be firm. I have to be strong for both of us. Korra deserves so much better than me.
Korra barks a laugh when light finally dawns. “Your mind is a twisted place.”
“Shut up, Bolin,” Mako sighs. “It’s a spiritual thing.”
Korra’s eyes meet mine and she winks.