14: Say Something (I'm Giving Up on You)
"…so I went to go and see Mako, that's Bolin's brother, remember? Now, he, he is just one hell of a pretentious punk. Should've seen the way he looked at me, like I'm dirt on the bottom of his shoe. But the funniest bit of it was when I told him I'd help him. I meant it, you know? His face was just priceless, Xin, like someone had smacked him across the face. Nearly cracked up. But he pissed me off, and we threw some punches." Liao rubbed the fading bruise on his face ruefully. "That Asami chick, though, she threw one hell of a punch—I've still got a bruise. She's hot, too, you'd like her, buddy. Can't chase her, though, or else I'm pretty sure Mako and Korra and Bolin would castrate you. So look on from afar."
Liao stopped and buried his face in his hands. It had been nearly four days since that asshole of a CID—who, thanks to Gainika, had been tortured and then stationed elsewhere—had absolutely beat the shit out of his partner. Doc and the rest of the meddies had at first been optimistic that Xin would wake up, but as the days passed and his vitals grew steadily worse, their prognosis changed. Now they weren't sure if he would wake up.
"What's the prognosis, Doc?" Liao asked, his voice quavering. He sat up straight, still clutching Xin's hand.
Doc looked down at a clipboard, then at the same pretty dark-haired nurse, who grimaced. Liao's heart rate sped up. Grimaces were never a good sign. "Liao," the head doctor began, but Liao furiously interrupted him.
"Just tell me, damnit!" Liao almost shouted. He sniffled. "Doc, it's—he's my partner. Don't sugarcoat it, please. Is Xin going to be okay? Please. Tell me."
Doc exchanged another look with his fellow dark-haired meddie. Liao held his breath, and he almost burst into tears when Doc slowly shook his head. "No, Liao," Doc sighed, suddenly looking forty years older. "I'm sorry, but judging by the look of his vitals…there's nothing we can do but wait. It's going to be up to the Spirits and Xin." While Liao tried not to throw up, Doc continued. "What do you think, Liao?"
"Xin will pull through," Liao insisted stubbornly. He couldn't lose his partner. Besides, he owed Xin for taking the fall for this. Xin couldn't die…not ever. Not before him. "He'll live."
"Will he?" Doc asked in a tone that one could've said was contemptuous, but Liao knew his tone was a failed attempt at sympathy. "Does he want to?" Liao almost exploded. Of course he did. "How strong is his will to live?"
"The strongest," Liao countered.
"I'm not so sure, Liao," Doc retorted. "He's an idealist. Well, as much as he can be given the line of work you two are in."
"He is going to make it, Doc," Liao said firmly. "I know it."
But as time went on, Liao lost his vestiges of hope. The list of grievances grew larger and larger. Xin was on a ventilator. He had trouble breathing. He'd gone into cardiac arrest twice and almost hadn't come back the last time (Liao had had to be sedated in order for the meddies to work on his partner and woke up an hour after, expecting for Doc to tell him that his partner, his best friend, was dead and gone forever).
Liao had been an Agni Kai for almost three years, and had been Xin's partner for most of that time. Liao had suffered through bullet wounds, surgeries, beatings, the whole shebang. Xin had almost never suffered, being the big earner that he was. Gainika had always sent him to locations where she knew that he wouldn't get banged up too much.
The somber Agni Kai Recruit looked down at his still partner with a sigh. If there was one thing that Liao knew for absolute sure, it was this: if Xin was going to leave Liao on this planet without him, Liao would very calmly walk to his quarters, put a heater in his mouth and pull the trigger.
"Mako was in the hospital because Zhen shot him in the chest. Poor bastard was in a coma for a few days, like you, partner. But he woke up," Liao said softly. "Why can't…why can't you do the same for me, Xin?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "Goddamnit, Xin. Please. Please wake up. Come on, just—please? I'm willing to donate a fucking kidney, partner, if you'll just wake up. Anything."
Liao released his partner's hand and placed it gently on the cot. He ran a hand affectionately through Xin's hair. "I'll be back," he promised. "I'm off to see the prisoner, okay?"
Like usual, there was no response.
Liao walked away and managed to get a good distance away from the infirmary before his tears began to fall.
The loud crack of a whip echoed in his cell, and Bolin screamed, huddling into the fetal position, tears coming out of his eyes. Liao lowered the whip and shook his head. "Come on, Bolin, it has to be more convincing than that!" he ordered before cracking down the whip against the wall again.
Once more, Bolin screamed, but Liao cut him off, waving his hands around in exasperation. "No, no, no! Kid, come on! Be convincing! W-weren't you once a—a mover star, or something?"
Bolin nodded, taken aback. He hadn't thought of his mover career in such a long time, although he had had some pretty close calls when some of his classmates in college, including Vanek and Tukka, were positive that they recognized him from Varrick's anti-South mover. "Not in horror movers," was all Bolin could think of to say. "I was in Nuktuk, Hero of the South."
Liao scoffed. "Hm. I don't think I've seen that one—ah, never mind. Think about it like this, kid: what if Zolt or my Section Leader walk in and see me cracking a whip against the wall?"
"Why…the hell…would Gainika or Zolt do that?" Bolin panted, out of breath from screaming. "Zolt's an idiot, yeah, but Gainika's not that stupid."
"You never know," stated Liao. "One time, she spied on some Recruits in the bathroom because she was sure they were telling everyone about her plan to work with the Triads."
"So what I'm hearing," Bolin wheezed, "is that Gainika spied on Recruits in the bathroom, because she thought people were gossiping about her?"
Liao opened his mouth, then closed it, opened it again and then cracked up. "I've never heard someone put it that bluntly before," he admitted with a chuckle. "Yeah, pretty much, Bolin. But that's not the point: what I mean is, my Sect—Gainika only snooped around them because she was suspicious. Get what I'm saying, kid?"
Bolin shook his head. "That is a negative, sir."
Liao palmed his forehead in exasperation and began to pace the perimeter of Bolin's cell. "Spirits. Okay. Let me try again. Do not give her a reason to be suspicious. I'm already spending a lot of time in here as it is. I've been the sole torturer since Xin—well, for a while, and Gainika thinks that it's because of my anger at that Combat Instruction Director. Suppose she comes in when I'm not here and sees that you're not hurt. What happens then?"
"She's already come around, Liao," Bolin said glumly, making Liao whirl around in surprise. "I just moaned, begged her to put me out of my misery and to get you as far away from me as possible. Seemed to work." Bolin had already thanked every Spirit that he had once been a mover star for pulling off that performance. Gainika had kicked him in the ribs, but he'd ignored the pain in his stomach: after all, he would've gotten injured way more if she'd found out what he and Liao were planning.
"She laps that stuff up," Liao waved his statement away with a small smile. "Typical Gainika." There was a slight pause before Liao clapped his hands together. "Alright, come on, let's do it again."
Liao whacked his whip against the wall, and Bolin howled in fake agony, remembering how he felt when he'd held a dying Ash in his arms, when Gainika had first betrayed him, and, the cream of the crop, his parents' deaths. He hadn't given very much thought to his mom and dad dying in the last few years, and felt horrible for it. When he'd last seen his brother, Mako had made a point of visiting his parents' graves every week. Bolin wasn't a hundred percent sure that he still did it, but knew the possibility that Mako had stopped was unlikely.
Bolin knew many things, but one thing that he knew for sure was that if his mom and dad could see him now, they'd be horrified at the life he lived.
Suddenly, real, hot tears were streaming down his face. Liao stopped cracking the whip. "Brilliant!" he commended. "Now that's emotion, kid! Great work!"
"Shut up," Bolin murmured under his breath, wiping his tears away. For once, he wasn't handcuffed to the wall, so his hands were free. He'd nearly forgotten how to use them after nearly two months of imprisonment. Where did the time go?
"You okay, Bolin?" asked Liao uneasily.
"F-fine," Bolin said shakily, but how could he explain to the somber Agni Kai Recruit that all he really wanted right now were his parents? "Can w-we stop for a minute?"
Liao, like Bolin had expected, shook his head no. "Sorry, kid, but we can't. Gotta keep this up."
Something about that statement rubbed Bolin the wrong way. "Are you really taking your rage out on the wall?" Bolin asked randomly.
Liao blinked, mouth agape. "Excuse me?"
"Are you pissed about Xin or is it something else? Stress?" Bolin pressed, unsure why he did so. Liao's jaw tightened. "I was almost a shrink, you know," the earthbender said, thinking of his old days at college with Vanek and Tukka. What were they up to now? "You can tell me."
Liao looked as though someone had hit him in the face with something heavy. "I'm not insane!" he spluttered.
"I never said you were—"
"You implied it!" countered Liao. "Damnit kid, yes you did, don't even deny it. You think I'm insane for helping you, don't you?" Liao chuckled dryly. "I think I'm insane for helping you. You think I'm under stress? Of course I'm under stress, you idiot! I'm helping you and keeping up a double life while going to through TS's and my partner being in a coma! I wake up in the morning and wonder, sometimes, if this life is worth living and the merits of putting this heater," Liao held up his heater, "in my mouth and pulling the goddamn trigger! How much more stress and rage could I possibly be fucking under?"
As if to demonstrate his rage, Liao kicked the wall. Then, as if on cue, someone knocked on the door. Bolin immediately curled into the fetal position and moaned in fake distress while Liao barked, "Come in." A young Recruit, probably Ash's age, entered, shaking a bit at the look on Liao's face.
"What do you want?" Liao said through gritted teeth with an acerbic bite. His fists clenched.
"I've come to deliver a message for you, Recruit Liao, sir," the young Recruit said fearfully, looking like he'd rather be on the receiving end of a root canal.
"And what could this message possibly be?" Liao asked sarcastically. "Enlighten me, Recruit Kuroki."
"Doctor Yamakiro sent me," stammered the messenger. "Your partner's awake."
Liao's heater and whip clattered out of his hands and fell to the floor with a thud. Bolin could see him turn pale and stagger to the wall, fighting to remain upright.
"We'll continue this later," Liao stammered, and kicked Bolin in the back—not hard, but elicited a fake groan from Bolin for the sake of the young messenger. Liao turned to Recruit Kuroki. "Take me to him," he commanded breathlessly, and Kuroki squeaked, nodded, and led the Agni Kai Recruit out of the cell.
Liao had long since abandoned Recruit Kuroki on his way to the infirmary, running faster than he ever had in his entire life down the now-familiar hallway, shoving fellow Recruits out of the way to get to his destination. "Out of my way," he shouted, jostling Wanryoku and Ayumu out of his path and continued to sprint, his heart pounding out of control.
He exploded into his partner's room, causing two meddies to screech and jump backwards, but he only had eyes for Xin. "Doc!" Liao panted, clutching the stitch in his side.
"Where's Kuroki?" Doc asked, wiping his hands on his lab coat.
"I ditched him," was Liao's slightly bitter, gasping response. "Xin?" That one word had so many layers of meaning and twenty questions laced inside, starting anywhere from Is he okay? to How many problems did you find? to Spirits, let him be okay. Please. Please.
"Over here." Doc led him over to Xin's cot, where his partner lay, eyes shut, muttering something under his breath. The world around Liao vanished as he collapsed into a chair at his friend's side. Xin's breathing tube was gone, and he wasn't on the ventilator either. But that was all that had changed.
"Xin?" Liao whispered, straining to hear whatever his partner was mumbling. "It's me, it's Liao. Come on, partner, talk to me."
Xin mumbled something again, a bit louder, but still garbled. Liao leaned in closer. "What?" Liao asked, eyebrows scrunched.
"'S my prop'g'nda," Xin whispered, eyes still shut. "D'nt h'rt…hmm…s'fine…"
Liao was willing to bet any number of yuans that his heart was crumbling to a million pieces inside of his chest. "Aw, Xin," Liao muttered, rubbing his forehead. "It's okay, Xin, that asshole's gone, no one cares if it's yours, we got an appraisal from our Section Leader, 'member? Open your eyes, will you, partner? Please?"
Not expecting anything, Liao was surprised when his partner grunted softly, blinked very laboriously, and opened his eyes. He seemed to have trouble completely focusing, but Liao didn't care. Xin squinted up at Liao.
"Hey, bonehead." Liao's voice quavered, but he was grinning, so relieved that at any given moment he could jump up and down and start to sing. "Welcome back to the land of the living."
Xin's gaze squinted a little at his own partner. "W-who're you?"
"What?!" Stunned, Liao fell backwards out of his chair, not able to keep himself from shouting, and only when a meddie helped him to his feet did he catch Xin's half smile. "That is not funny!" Liao seethed, clenching his fists to keep himself from backhanding his partner. On the other hand, Liao had to fight to keep from grinning. Xin was joking around again. Maybe everything really was going back to normal.
"S'kinda funny," Xin replied maddeningly.
"Doc, you had better get me out of here before I strangle him!"
"Don't—don't w-worry 'bout it, k-kid." Xin's voice was hoarse, but at least he was talking. That was a thousand times better than having him remain in a coma, in Liao's opinion. "It'd be—" Xin coughed hard. "It would be…damn hard…to f-for—forget y-you." He then looked at the head meddie, who was fighting not to laugh also. "W-what's t-the pro—prognosis, D-Doc?"
"What's the prognosis?" Doc chuckled darkly. "Hm. Let me see. First, you had intracranial hemorrhaging, which we managed to fix up, but you went into cardiac arrest because of it. Twice. Broken ribs, internal bleeding, external bleeding, dislocated shoulder—so no use of guns for the next two weeks—and a lot more than that that I'm not going to mention right now because I don't want to give you a relapse. You've got one hell of a guardian angel, Xin."
Liao had started to smile once more, his elation winning out against the fury. "I was betting every meddie in this joint that you'd wake up. Even Doc lost hope after a few days." And I wouldn't have given up on you, buddy. Not ever.
Xin's eyes shone. "Th-thanks, Liao." He gripped Liao's hand tightly—not a strong grip, but not weak either. "S-so what've I m-missed?"
Liao laughed. "Partner," he said, "have I got things to tell you."