A/N: For Yamino, who had the idea of writing a fic like this in the first place.
“Ow!” She flinches, scrunching her face up as she turns to shoot a glare largely false over her shoulder. “What’re you picking at me with, kid? A crablobster claw?”
Her smile all teeth and eagerness, Ikki beams unabashedly up at the Avatar. “They’re tweezers,” she professes. Rocking forward on her knees and arching too, she rasps the metal tongs over the tip of Korra’s nose. “You’ve got about a billion splinters.”
“A billion cuts,” Jinora adds, leaning in toward the Waterbender’s front with a cotton swab.
“Billion bruises,” croons Meelo. He gives one of the largest mentioned blotches a prod. “Purple and green and orange and—”
“Yeah, yeah, a whole rainbow, I got it, fine,” Korra sighs. She knocks her knuckles against the turnip-shaped head of her youngest nurse. “Hey, Meelo—c’mon.” The medicine burns. Holding still against the tingle even so, she urges, “Show me those moves again, okay?”
The wind is soft in the grove. Clambering obediently upright, the little boy half-dances over to where the panes of wood in their grooves spin gently, and when Meelo’s heels come down hard the breeze does too, almost roaring. “Hah!” he says. He wheels to look at her, eyes wide, gray like bubbles of air beneath the ice, like Naga’s fur after she’s been through the smokehouse in search of herring. “You gotta”—his hands rise, curved; his arms wiggle—“be the leaf, Korra!”
He turns, taking the wind with him through the panes and the pegs. He is a flash of yellow, then orange: out on the other side quicker than she can blink, unscathed. His gaze flicks to her again as envy coils in her chest, more painful than the antiseptic slipping down her arm and pooling in her wounds.
“The leaf,” he repeats. It comes out laughing, but there’s a little of his father in his face whether he means it or not: in the crease at his temple, pinching. In the way his breath curls out slow. The panes swirl behind him, beckoning.
The tribeswoman rises. Jinora clucks. Tweezers catching the sunset’s glow, Ikki says, “Aw! Not again!” but she’s giggling, hoping, and Korra smiles despite herself.
“Yeah, one more time.” She joins Meelo. Knowing her question already, he poses for her, his stubby fingers turned down and his thumbs sticking out like the handles of fancier teacups. “Like this?” she asks, mimicking him.
“Relax your shoulders,” Jinora insists.
“Oh boy,” says Ikki.
Less than half a minute later, Meelo informs her, “Billion and one bruises,” and crawls atop her back to perch in the well between her heaving shoulders. He pulls the sweaty tail of her hair aside: leans over her, his slight weight driving her chin and cheek down into the dirt. The panes creak beside them, slowing now, almost sluggish. In her ribs she can feel the pressure of the points of his shoes.
“Next time,” he promises her, and plants a wet kiss in the sweat along the nape of her neck. He finishes, “Ew.”
The mattress bounces and the child’s hip rolls against hers. Smirking down, Korra asks, “What?” She wiggles her eyebrows because Ikki likes it, then snaps her nightshirt and wriggles into it, making to pull the garment down over her head. It catches on her ear.
“Lemme play with your hair,” Ikki demands. Pooching out her lips, she helps Korra yank the shirt into place and adds, “Please?” Longingly she stretches her fingers up to the dark tendril left of the Avatar’s cheek. Her palm flashes in the room’s weak light, smooth, small.
“Okay,” Korra says easily.
The older girl grins and shrugs. She turns on the bed to better face the young Airbender, lowering her head. Ikki is barefoot. Her toes wiggle: twitch, fervent. “Careful,” Korra warns. Producing a comb from a sleeve, her visitor pauses to listen. She continues, “There are probably tangles.” Her company’s nightgown has flowers on it, she notes. Yellow ones.
“I’ll be gentle,” vows Ikki. She is, mostly. Cupping Korra’s chin in a grasp more feathery than firm, she runs the comb’s teeth through the tribeswoman’s fringe first. The thick locks snag, still wet from the shower, but Ikki works at them, elbow shivering, tongue caught in the cage of her teeth. “Jinora doesn’t like to let me do this anymore,” she says, “and Mama’s tired all the time and Meelo doesn’t have hair and Daddy, puh”—her cheek scrunches; her nose wrinkles and her eyes narrow, guileless—“he says having braids in his beard isn’t dignified.”
“What a lame-o,” Korra commiserates, and wonders then, “you’re gonna braid mine? My hair?”
As it turns out, maybe not. Ikki pulls free the ties in it and observes the swaying, sweeping curtain it makes along the older girl’s shoulders, damp, the ends wanting to curl. She stops then, nibbling her lower lip. She admits, “My braids are always crooked. Jinora—she’s better at them. And Mama’s best.”
But her fingers twist together, wistful. The comb taps in her knee’s crease. She looks at Korra through the slats of her lashes and the tribeswoman feels herself give way, all slush inside.
“Just between you and me, well, I like crooked braids,” she offers, and ignores the laughter at breakfast the next morning.
It wakes her like the shake of a hand would, suddenly and with enough force that her head snaps up from her pillow. She waits tensely, curling her fingers in her sheets. It comes again but a moment later. Through the sleeping temple it is a sharp bramble of noise: rmmmm. The floor trembles. Korra’s bed does too as she vaults out of it, following the sound at a run from her room and down the hall.
An avalanche, she thinks. But there’s no snow here, no ice to crack: nothing outside but the bay and a sky full of weird clouds, their undersides coffee-colored and swirled for the glint of the city’s lights. She stands confused in the dojo’s archway, staring out through the windows toward the Pro-Bending arena and the docks even beyond that. She is still watching when a thin tongue of light snips down across the horizon, glacial blue and gone faster than she can fathom. She goggles. Awed gooseflesh pricks up the hair on her arms.
“You’ve never seen a storm before, huh?” whispers a voice in the dark. Korra blinks and checks it. From the shadows of the hall Jinora comes tiptoeing, her knees knifing up almost to her chest, her nightgown aflutter. The floorboards don’t squeak even once under her. As she draws abreast of Korra, she pursues keenly, “You don’t have them up at the Pole, do you?”
“Not like this.” Brushing sleep from her eye’s corner, the Avatar looks back out across the bay. There is another whicker of jagged light beneath the clouds: underfoot the dojo’s mats quiver, and Korra rocks back to feel the tempo of the sky in her heels. “They were all snow and ice and wind up there. But thunder and lightning—yeah, wow.” She stops, her pulse heady in her ears and hard behind her collar. “This is my first time seeing them outside my head,” she says. “Because I’ve read about them. Maybe dreamed about them too.”
A faint rustle: Jinora’s feet on the mats, finally. She asks, “Are you scared?”
Korra isn’t. She folds her legs and settles on the mats, rubbing her palms over her knees and picking at the wrinkles in the cloth there idly. “You like stories, right?” She looks up at Jinora. The girl’s round face flares white-hot briefly in the storm’s shivery glow, the snub of her nose like an upturned petal, her mouth a bowl of shadows. “Stories about the past? Your grandfather?”
“Oh,” says Jinora. At once she drops, the thump of her thighs and ankles on the mat muffled for the thunder. “Oh”—she takes Korra’s hand without asking and tugs it, hope in the press of her thumb, curiosity in the shade that scribbles down her cheek—“yes, very much.” She tacks on, “I wish I’d known him.”
Outside the wind is rising, bringing in its bower the lowing of the bison and the lemurs chittering behind them. Korra squeezes Jinora’s hand and says, “You do.”
She straightens. There is a twinge near her spine’s center, a phantom ache: when she glances to the glare of the storm on the water, it throbs. Her heart crowds up into her throat. Swallowing it, she begins, “A long time ago, once, there was a princess who could Bend lightning.”