Angel (n.): a spiritual being believed to act as an attendant, agent, or messenger of God; alternatively, a person of exemplary conduct or virtue.
Air Temple Island, Republic City
2 weeks after the fall of the Red Lotus
She was the only one sitting. Well, that wasn't true. She was the only one sitting in a chair—and not just any chair. It was a chair that made people's spirits fall on sight, that made them tense and cringe and put on smiles for show. It was more for their benefit than the person sitting in the chair. A vain attempt to make themselves feel not so uncomfortable by being nice to the crippled person. At least, most people responded that way. Most people made him sick.
She was different.
He knew who she was, yeah, and he knew the gist of what had happened two weeks earlier from the papers (not that he took those with more than a grain of salt), but that's not what he noticed. No, he didn't notice the dolled-up hairstyle, or the gently elegant clothes, or even the wheelchair and the way her legs hung limply as if she were fully paralyzed. No, the only thing he noticed was the look on her face: blank, limp…dead. Broken. He tried to stay strong, to sit through the long-winded speech by Master Tenzin congratulating his daughter.
He felt a twinge of something—hope maybe—when the airbending master vowed to mobilize his students and the Air Nation to protect the world during her convalescence. He saw the smile on her face as she nodded to him in thanks, so slight, so sad, her eyes half-lidded, though in exhaustion or something else he couldn't tell. He watched as Tenzin pulled the hood back from the now-bald girl, a breath catching in his throat—like over half the room—when he noticed the incredible resemblance between her and a young Avatar Aang. Jinora stood before the whole assembly, empowered and anointed and just a little shy.
The airbenders standing on the sidelines motioned toward rows of burning incense, casting loops of smoke through the air, twisting and turning into horizontal spirals, sending the air gently blowing through wind chimes laid in circles across the upper rafters. The breeze sent soft jingles across the room's large cylindrical space, a soft smile coming to the face of every person present, save one. The sounds of applause filled the chamber as Jinora pulled her father close, burying her smiling face in his robes while he held her back, immeasurable pride written all over his features as he closed his eyes.
Everyone was smiling. The proud mother, the would-be boyfriend, the pro-bending brothers, even the hardened police chief. Everyone, that is, except her. He looked over at her, as he had every few seconds throughout the entirety of the proceedings, his light blue eyes lingering on her much darker ones as they stared at the young airbending master. Her mouth remained closed, unsmiling, her face as blank and expressionless as ever, that in itself far more expressive than anything else she could say or do.
And then he saw it, and his mouth dropped a few centimeters.
A glisten, an increased shine over her eyes, the right welling up faster than the left. And it fell, just over the rim of her eyelid, past her cheekbones and down her jaw to the edge of her chin, the left looking like it would follow within the next second. Something broke inside him—his heart, probably. He tried to stay strong, to not let pity show in his expression. Knowing her from the papers alone, there was no way she'd take it well. He stayed resolute, his jaw tightening to a clench as the ceremony drew to a close and the procession moved outside, Jinora and her father at the front while the rest fell in behind them.
The sun-shiny day greeted Air Temple Island, casting golden light on it and the rest of Republic City in equal measure as the residents of the temple's great hall flooded into the courtyard. He stayed to the fringes of the crowd, as always, his mid-height, wiry figure all but invisible in this sea of rich, powerful, and distinguished. His eyes never left her frame, so muscular and built it would normally be intimidating to someone like him. Now, it's because of this that he couldn't help but feel his chest tighten a little more. The juxtaposition of her shape and her condition was almost too much for his bleeding heart to take. He watched as she quietly exchanged one-word sentences with President Raiko, who quickly ended the conversation when it became clear she wouldn't carry it.
He blinked as the dark-haired woman pushing her chair laid a tender hand on her shoulder, the recipient of the gesture not responding at all even as the hand tightened in comfort. He continued to watch as Tenzin broke away from the procession with Chief Beifong, her father, and the pro-bending brothers, all plus Jinora clustering around her with small, sympathetic smiles as easy, quiet conversation was exchanged. She was within the circle, part of the group, but not participating, and that was fine with them. Their conversation didn't try to include her, and that was for her benefit. They understood. They were good friends. Family. Support. Strength. All important, especially when she had (or felt like she had) none of the latter.
But they hadn't seen what he had.
Just four minutes after the coronation, he was sure of that. If they had…well, there would be some slight differences in their approach. For one, there would be a lot more touching and physical comfort. And secondly…secondly, they would get her away from here, away from all the crowds, as soon as humanly possible, because they'd know how ill-prepared she was to face them. Not her friends and family, those she could deal with. It was the crowds, the president, the whole world. Airbending crusaders or not, the world still looked to the Avatar, to her, for salvation. It was heavy, burdensome. It was unfair, especially at times like this.
But he had learned the hard way about the painful truths of life. The world wasn't fair or just by nature. It was cruel and ruthless and unforgiving. That was the nature of human nature, self-interest before altruism. Always quick to judge and slow to understand. Always with the assumptions and the victimizing and the spirits-damned entitlement.
He was different.
He assumed nothing—if he did, that ruled out potentially game-changing breakthroughs. He was not a victim. Not anymore. He had been, once, when he was young and foolish. He was certainly still young, biologically speaking, but his soul had aged far faster than anyone else he knew. Anyone, that is, except maybe her. He was an orphan, had been since he was eleven. Entitlement wasn't a word he even knew the meaning of until he was entering his teenage years. He looked around at the one-percenters around him, few and far in between, but still more dense in this crowd than in the actual population of Republic City, and he shook his head. How could they all be so damned calm?
Hope, he understood. Without it, he too would have perished with his parents, lying side-by-side with the only two people who had ever loved him. He would have welcomed it, the blackness and oblivion, or the transfer of his soul to the spirit world after death. But they had raised him better than that. They had raised him to be strong and brave and optimistic. "Slugger," his dad had called him. The term still brought a bittersweet smile to his face. But as his mind returned to his present company, all he could think was that none of them could possibly appreciate what the crippled girl had sacrificed—for them.
How could they? She was the Avatar. It was expected. He hated that.
His eyes turned from the crowd back to her barely moving body, taking in the worn look and the dead expression and the—wait, were those—
His mouth opened briefly before closing again, sympathy once again twisting his features as his strength and self-control began to slip. His fingers splayed and tightened to fists in alternation. His feet itched to move. But he couldn't. He couldn't possibly—
The moisture built in her eyes once again.
Something else snapped—his restraint, most certainly.
And then his feet were moving, not at a walk or a lope or even a jog. Well…perhaps a jog would have been the best comparison, but of the passers-by who were practically standing still, none would have called it that. A dozen streaks of golden lightning drew a curve across the island, ending rather abruptly in the center of the loving cluster. He locked eyes with Master Tenzin within a split-split-second of his arrival.
"I'll bring her back soon, promise."
With that one rushed but understandable sentence, his arms went around her shorter but beefier frame, cradling her legs and torso with them as she was lifted from the wheelchair into a bridal carry. Another lightning strike, this time away from the cluster and toward the edge of the island. It didn't stop when he left, but kept going further and further, until they were just about out of sight. Her dark blue eyes, wide as saucers, flickered from his face to the water and back, mouth opening and closing sporadically as choked gasps came from her lips.
"You—you're—running on water," she finally managed, voice bearing nary a trace of sadness and simply confusion and shock.
Good. Distraction. That's the first step.
He simply shot her a thousand-watt grin. "And you can surf on water with your bending, so really, how much of a stretch is it?"
She blinked owlishly at him, mouth still hanging open as her gaze flickered down to his legs, the two blurs completely indistinguishable. "I don't—I don't understand. Who—how?"
His head shook. "It's really not important right now." He looked away from her to his destination, noting how rapidly they were approaching it. "But you should probably hold onto me."
Korra followed his line of sight to the rapidly closing lighthouse in the distance, and her arms instantly looped around his neck as they got within fifty feet of its side. She let out a startled yelp when he seamlessly ran up the rocky approach—and outright shrieked when he kept running—up the side of the lighthouse. Straight up on a sheer brick surface he ran, golden lightning trailing behind him until he reached the top, a railed level overlooking the bay and in fact the entire city. He came to a stop here, walking at a normal pace toward one side of the platform, then crouching down to set her back-first against the inside wall, facing outward.
He sat down next to her without a word, gazing out at the city with a solemn, peaceful expression. Korra just stared at him, his light auburn hair framing a young, thin face with light blue eyes. He couldn't be older than sixteen or seventeen, but those eyes…those eyes told a different story. She blinked hard, jaw dropping another couple centimeters as she realized—color apart, they were the same eyes that stared back at her in the mirror.
"You know," he said suddenly but quietly, "I come up here sometimes." He shrugged. "Okay, I come up here a lot."
She ventured a "Why?"
He blinked and cocked his head, looking out. "I like watching from a distance. Everything seems so small from so far away. Everything. The good, the bad, the crippling. Every problem and hurt we go through every day just seems so…insignificant, even the horrific and scarring ones."
Korra kept staring at him.
"That's not to mean they don't matter, or that we don't matter, because we do. Everyone matters." He looked over at her, suddenly nervous. "And I'm not trying to…trivialize what you're going through. I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
He shifted his gaze back to the city, dots of people bustling about without a care in the world, so oblivious to the storm raging just off the coast, in the heart and soul of their greatest protector. "But when you look at it all from this distance, when you consider how small and insignificant we are in the scope of the world, you realize something. From this far away, everything looks about the same size, both us and our problems." He gulped and took a long breath. "What I'm trying to say is, if we're strong enough to survive something as small and impacting as we are…then we can't help but grow stronger from it.
"It's human nature to give up." He looked over at her. "It's heroic nature to get up." He put a hand on her arm, ever so lightly, barely a brush of wind. "And you will…but you have to have hope. Without hope…we die." His thumb rubbed her shoulder gently. "There are still people who need you, Korra. And I don't mean them." He nodded toward the city, so impersonal and vague that he couldn't understand how someone could base their life around helping it without knowing its populace personally. "I mean them." He pointed to Air Temple Island, where her friends and family were likely going crazy searching for her. He made a mental note to get her back in the next couple minutes.
Korra just stared at the side of his head, eyes drifting down to his hand on her shoulder, so gentle, yet so firm, like an anchor in the middle of a typhoon. He was a complete stranger. She didn't allow strangers to touch her, most days. Maybe it was because this wasn't most days, but she didn't find that she minded. The Avatar was still confused, though.
"Not that I'm…complaining or anything, but…why are you doing this?"
He blinked rapidly, slowly turning to face her as his expression softened considerably, though not in pity, in understanding. "Because I know, Korra." His jaw clenched and hand gripped one of hers as he made and held eye contact. "I know what it's like to be unmade."
He stared into her eyes, those dark blue orbs flickering from one of his to the other as her lips parted slightly, the same dead expression on her face as her eyes began to well up again. His heart wrenched again as guilt struck him, wanting desperately to shield this woman, this hero from every dreg of pain in the world. She didn't deserve it. He doubted anyone deserved it. Instead, he simply curled an arm halfway around her shoulders, his other one hovering just above the ground in a simple, silent invitation. To his surprise, she locked both arms around his chest and pressed her face into it, about half a minute passing by before he felt dampness leak into his shirt.
He didn't mind. He couldn't. He'd never begrudged anyone a shoulder to cry on, or a chest to cry into. If he'd had either of those growing up, maybe he wouldn't still wake up in the middle of the night, heart in his throat as it beat two thousand times a minute. Maybe he wouldn't still feel like a dagger was piercing his chest every time he saw a smiling couple on the street holding a small boy between them. Henry. Nora. Those two names would always bring tears to his eyes, no matter how hard he fought to keep them back. Only distraction could keep them from falling, and belatedly, he realized his grief was still unresolved. It didn't matter, not right then anyway.
Someone needed him there, in the moment, and he couldn't afford to spend his time reminiscing while she cried soundlessly into his chest. His arms tightened around her body slightly, the slight shake in her frame sending his hands rubbing over her back in soothing circle motions. It was a full minute before she calmed down, the flows stopping little by little as her eyebrows furrowed, the orbs beneath staring at his hands as she pulled them into view. He looked at her confusedly until he realized he'd been experiencing the last minute in dilated perception, time slowed to a crawl. His hands had been rubbing her back at an extreme pace.
"Sorry," he chuckled sheepishly. "Guess I was movin' a little too fast."
Her eyebrows shot up a little as a sarcastic smirk played over her face, as if to say, "Oh really?"
He grinned in response, a feeling of self-satisfaction predominant as genuine mirth leaked into her features.
"Well," she said quietly, the smirk turning into a small smile, "I can't say I minded. It was…really soothing, actually."
"Good. Was goin' for soothing."
After a moment of smiling into the distance, he gave her a sideways look and a mischievous grin before moving his hand to the top of her head and vibrating it so fast, her covered top-knot came loose, her raven hair flying around her face in sporadic waves. She yelped and swiped at his hand repeatedly as a laugh bubbled from both their throats. Seeing that his hand moved too fast for her to catch, she gave his shoulder a playful swat instead.
"Ow!" he yelped, a little too loudly.
Her eyes rolled. "Oh come on, it wasn't that hard."
He shifted his gaze to her arm and made a show out of squeezing her well-defined bicep. "Or maybe you just don't know your own strength." It was said in a joking tone, but the way his eyes met hers with a knowing look indicated a double-meaning.
She smiled and nodded slightly. She got it.
Another half-minute passed, staring out on the city, before he started to rise to his feet, his well-worn shoes scuffing against the concrete platform. "Anyway, we should get back. They're probably missing you big time. After all, it isn't every day the Avatar gets stolen away on a bolt of lightning."
Korra blinked once, cocking her head inquisitively. "Yeah…how do you even do that, anyway?"
He shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Maybe I'll tell you one day, if we see each other again." He chuckled as he crouched down, looping his arms under her knees and around her back.
"Why wouldn't we?"
Another chuckle. "Well, for starters, I don't think the police chief is gonna be too keen about some random guy who kidnapped the Avatar from the middle of about a dozen cops."
Korra snorted. "Lin may be the chief, but I'm the Avatar. It's time I make my own choices, and they're all just gonna have to learn that."
He looked at her sideways, a slight flutter in his chest as he tried to suppress a smile. "So, does that mean you want to see me again?"
Her head cocked slightly, those previously dead eyes now sharp and intense as they traced over his features. "Maybe. But I have to know something about you first."
His face fell slightly as he walked toward the edge. "I dunno. I'm…a pretty boring person."
She outright laughed. "Are you kidding? You're a guy around my age who can run faster than the average airship. What's boring about that?"
"I meant me, not my powers."
Her arms looped around his neck, eyes narrowing slightly. "You took me from the middle of a crowd of cops and powerful benders, knowing you'd likely be arrested on sight after, all so you could bring me, a complete stranger, to a place that's important to you all in an attempt to cheer me up. That doesn't sound like something just anyone would do."
He let himself smile a little, the curve widening when she leaned her head into his shoulder and closed her eyes. "Not a fan of heights?" he asked, changing the subject.
Her eyes opened, one brow raised. "Hm? Well, I don't particularly mind them."
He smirked. "Then you should probably keep your eyes open."
Before she could ask why, he vaulted over the railing into a free-fall that ended when his feet met the outward-sloping wall of the lighthouse. The lightning trailing behind his body and feet traced the edge of the rounded building as he ran toward the ground at a massive speed, instantly shifting from vertical to horizontal running when his feet met the ground. The speeding youth carried Korra down the rock base of the lighthouse and onto the water, jets of it being shot up and behind him as he ran across its surface. Korra just stared at the flying liquid and the way it caused ripple upon ripple upon its return to the surface, slowly returning her eyes to his face.
"You got a name, at least."
The sudden statement caught him off-guard, but he managed to keep his pace toward Air Temple Island, trying to think at super-speed of an answer that would satisfy her without giving away any of his personal information. A small smile came to his face as a memory of his mother came to his mind, a story that resonated with him well after her death—and the name of the main character. His eyes shifted back to her.
She mouthed the name, tasting it on her lips in a small whisper. A smile creased her lips. "I like it…though I take it it's not your real name."
His head shook. "Sorry. I'm just a…very private person. With what I can do…you can probably imagine how many people would beat down my door looking for answers."
She snorted. "Yeah, I get enough of that from the media. Trust me, not a burden I would wish on anyone else." She poked his cheek. "Sure I can't know your name?"
He looked at her and winked. "Maybe someday." Someday soon, he added mentally.
"Well," she started quietly, "thank you…Gabriel."
Another thousand-watt smile. "You're very welcome, Korra."
A glance forward revealed Air Temple Island in an uproar. It had been barely eight minute since they left, but already search-and-rescue efforts were underway. Asami Sato was still standing aimlessly at the back of the wheelchair, jaw limp as her expression, looking completely lost and helpless in the flurry of activity bustling around her. He frowned slightly at her slumped form, then directed his entire focus to a little sleight of hand in the four seconds before he returned Korra to the chair.
Lightning struck once more, causing a tired but smiling Avatar to reappear in her chair in a flash of light. Asami's jaw dropped even more, along with most of those present, Master Tenzin rushing over to her along with the pro-bending brothers and her father.
"Korra!" Tonraq shouted as he slid to a stop, crouching and taking his daughter's hands in his, eyes wide in alarm. "Are you—"
She gripped his hand steadily, smiling genuinely. "I'm fine, Dad. Really. I'm fine."
Tenzin wasn't entirely convinced, and put a hand on her shoulder even as she realized something was in her closed left hand. "Korra…what was that?"
Her hand opened to find a twine of wire, twisted into the shape of a lightning bolt, the gaps between wires forming words.
Ignite when you need me.
The Avatar blinked once, her jaw dropping slightly as she realized she was holding a twisted chunk of magnesium, a flammable metal used often in flares and fire-starters that burned bright as the sun. A small smile creased her features as she stared at the bolt, then out into the bay, where the ripples on the water's surface flowed in his wake.
"An angel, I think."