“Raise your knee! You’re letting it drop.”
I lifted my protesting leg with a groan and kicked feebly at the wooden post. I’d been bruised more times than I could count by that stupid thing — each kick sent the wooden posts spinning towards me at ferocious speed and, if I didn’t dodge correctly, I was hit. I’d managed to dodge it maybe…oh, zero times.
I wasn’t a very skilled fighter.
“YOU CALL THAT A KICK? ONE MORE TIME, CADET!” Nora, for her part, was very excited to be training me — too excited.
“Plumbob, Nora. You’re worse than Victor,” I gasped out, clutching the wooden post for support.
Nora had the grace to look sheepish. “Okay, maybe I got a bit too into the role,” she said.
“You think?” I felt approximately eighty-two years old. Every muscle in my body ached, and I felt like I was going to disintegrate and combust all at once.
“Keep going, Cadet,” I heard Victor call out. We’d settled into a tense truce — at the very least, we were no longer glaring at each other. He was very serious all the time, and I found his severity disarming. Nora said we were too alike — stubborn and, as she put it, “pigheaded at times.”
With a groan, I lifted my aching leg and lashed out once more. Only the thought of the robots kept me going; I wasn’t going to allow myself to be vulnerable again. If I didn’t have magic, at least I’d have…the ability to raise my knee high enough.
As I practiced, Nora and Victor settled down with a notepad. For a brief moment, I felt hope bloom in my chest. Perhaps he was teaching her about integrals or photosynthesis or something else any other high schooler should be taught. Perhaps —
“The guards change shifts at 2:10 am. We can make it out of the borders if we go then.”
Victor shook his head. “You know I don’t like this idea. After Kel’s successful hit on the armory, everyone’s on high alert. This week is just not a good time.”
“I know that, Victor, but you saw her friend — if he doesn’t get aid soon, he’ll die. I won’t have another man’s blood on my hands, Victor.”
“I said, I won’t.”
Victor relented with a sigh, which he quickly cut short when he saw the look on my face.
“Can’t you discuss these things with Kel, Victor?” Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they would make my sister angry, but I couldn’t help it — she was my younger sister, and I’d always feel the need to protect her. It was written in stone the moment she was born.
“Korra, you need to stop babying me! I know what I’m doing. You’re not my mother!”
She was almost my height. Her birthday, I realized with a start, was fast approaching. At that point, she’d be a legal adult. If – when – we managed to get home, Mom and Dad would be greeted with an adult, not a child.
I’d been greeted with an adult. Teenager or not, Jinora had matured whether I liked it or not.
“I know,” I said quietly. “Believe me, I know, Jinora.”
And I did — my sister was no longer the same innocent eight year old, and I was no longer that frightened fifteen year old.
My sister softened and pulled me into a hug. “I know you know,” she said, pressing her head against my shoulder.
When we parted, Victor had a mischievous look in his eye. To my shock, the sight sent a brief – brief – flush to my cheeks, and I hurriedly smothered the emotion. This was not the right place, time, or man to think about anything like … that.
“What?” I demanded, angrier than I’d meant.
“All this time, I’ve been wondering how two sisters could be so different. You’re a gruff, cranky bear and Nora’s, well, Nora. But I think I’ve realized the truth, now.”
He took a pause for dramatic effect and I rolled my eyes.
“You were dropped on your head as a child, right?”
“No, actually, I’m a bloodthirsty witch who turns people to ice if they cross me.” Not false, but he didn’t know that.
Victor blinked, his eyes wide open.
“Ha,” I said. “You should see the look on your face.”
Victor scowled and turned to Nora. “Tell your sister she can’t joke about some things!”
Nora shrugged, and Victor threw his arms in the air.
If only they knew.
Later, I made my way to the small keyboard situated in the sleeping area. The keys were covered in dust and the volume was set so low that the sounds were nearly inaudible, but I still found myself drawn to it.
I had little musical talent, but I could plunk out a simple melody or two. Mom had taught me a bit when I was young — before I’d gotten frustrated and quit all lessons.
Without thinking, my fingers traced a familiar pattern. As the notes of my mother’s song drifted around me, I felt my shoulders relax for the first time since I could remember. She’d stopped playing it after Nora’s disappearance. She’d stopped doing a lot of things.
I could only hope that, some day, we’d all be together again.
“Is — is that — ” Nora whispered. She looked absolutely stricken, and the sight sent another wave of grief through me.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “It’s Mom’s song.”
When we were little, Mom played the same song on the piano to send us to bed. It was a sweet, quiet lullaby — so like Mom — and it never failed to make me a wistful sort of happy.
“I…I’d almost forgotten about it,” Nora said. She sniffed and settled herself on the ground.
It was nice to play for her. I could almost pretend we were back home, playing on Mom’s piano with the smells of whatever delicious meal Dad was preparing wafting around us.
When the last notes frayed into nothing, I swiveled, facing my sister. “Nora, I owe you an apology.”
She blinked. “You’ve already apologized, though.”
“I know, but…I really am sorry. I think I’ve been so caught up in this grand quest to rescue you, that I never thought to think about your wishes. Or anyone else’s, if I’m being perfectly honest. I’ve — I’ve been pretty selfish, and I’ve hurt more people than I want to think about,” I confessed.
Nora tilted her head. “I’m not perfect, either, Korra. No one is. I’ve hurt people, I’ve lashed out, and I’ve done stupid things. You’re not alone.”
“You’re not alone, Korra,” she repeated firmly, gripping my hand tightly.
It felt like a colossal weight had been lifted from my chest, and I breathed my first semi-free breath in years. Semi-free, because there was still the matter of my magic.
“Nora, I have something to tell you. It’s…it’s kind of important.”
She looked at me expectantly with those angular green eyes and, suddenly, I couldn’t do it.
“I hate to ask, but, are you and Victor…” I asked, naming the first thing that came to mind.
Coward, I thought to myself.
Nora laughed. “Korra! No. Victor’s a friend.” She paused and wagged her eyebrows. “Why? Are you interested? Victor had a huge crush on you a while back, remember?”
I flushed a deep red. “No! No. Just — just looking out for you. In a non-parental way, I swear!” I added hurriedly, and Nora laughed again.
“Okay, Korra,” she said.