He gives her a flower.
Korra doesn’t realize until later, when it’d be strange to go back and bring it up again even though she wants to. She hadn’t been listening to what he was saying when he handed it to her, hadn’t looked at what he’d given her, had tossed the cake to Naga later and put the flower on her bedside table without thinking about it because she was too intent on trying to imagine a life without bending. Whether it would hurt when it was taken away, or if it’d be like getting your hair cut—not knowing that it’s gone until you reach back and you can’t feel it anymore, the strange lightness of your head when you look to the side.
She thinks it probably won’t feel like a hair cut.
It isn’t until later, after she challenges Amon and faces him alone—after she wakes up with the image of Aang’s face on the back of her eyelids, a voice that she does not recognize ringing in her ears (do you really think friendships can last more than one lifetime?)—it isn’t until after Tenzin takes her home and puts her to bed and stays by her side until she falls asleep that she realizes that the flower is gone; that it was a flower in the first place, after all.
I still have trouble sleeping, Bolin had said, almost as if it didn’t mean anything. Korra had believed him.
She goes to practice the next day for the first time in more than a week. Mako isn’t there, but Bolin is. Focused on what he’s doing, his fists in front of his face as he sends a series of rocks into the nets on the far wall, one two three. The sweat is dripping down his forehead. It isn’t mid-morning yet, but the sun’s already hot, heating up the training room like an oven.
“Hey,” Korra says, and Bolin looks up at her, grins.
“You made it!” He looks so happy to see her, his green eyes bright. If he hasn’t been sleeping, he hides it well.
“Yeah, wouldn’t want to miss it.” She feels a sharp pang of guilt at that—if they lose the tournament, it will be her fault. Her fault if Mako and Bolin can’t scrape together enough money to feed themselves or pay the rent. She hates, in that moment, all the things she does not know. Her life at the Southern Water tribe seems very far away.
“Mako might stop by later.” Bolin’s already focused on his next set, light on his feet in a way that still makes Korra itch whenever she looks at him—she’s never seen anyone move less like an earthbender than Bolin does. She’s terrified for him, but she doesn’t say that.
“Out with Asami?”
“Yep.” The rocks collide into the far wall and explode this time, satisfyingly. “That’s where he usually is, now.” There’s a note of resentment in Bolin’s voice, childish. Korra doesn’t know whether to fault him for it and decides—all things considered—that maybe she shouldn’t be so quick to judge.
“I wanted to thank you,” she says as she moves towards the containers of water along the wall.
“The flower you gave me.” She pauses. “And the cake. Naga loved it.”
She realizes it’s the wrong thing to say when Bolin’s shoulders move in on themselves, like two boulders crumbling against each other. “That was for you,” he says, rather pointedly. “Because, you know, you saved my life.”
“You wouldn’t have died,” she says. “Just….”
“Yeah.” He doesn’t look at her. Bending is Bolin’s livelihood. Without it—well, that’s exactly what Korra doesn’t want to think about, what keeps her up at night.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I wasn’t really—I had stuff on my mind. It wasn’t you.”
“Well, that is a big relief.” He rubs the sweat out of his eyes, but his shoulders are still hunched, like he’s curling in on himself.
“Did you sleep last night?”
He shrugs. “Did you?”
She remembers Tenzin smoothing her hair out of her face, telling her it would be morning soon. Pema had come in later and found Tenzin asleep in his chair. Korra had pretended to be asleep then, so Tenzin would go back with his wife.
She says, “No,” and watches Bolin smile at her, weakly, and gesture to that morning’s paper lying on the floor. Her face stares up from the front page, beneath the headline that shouts: AVATAR KORRA CHALLENGES AMON, MIRACULOUSLY KEEPS BENDING.
“I didn’t think you did,” Bolin says, and they don’t say much else for the rest of practice. But somehow, it’s enough; Korra leaves the practice room lightened, and Bolin’s shoulders have stopped trying to crawl into his chest.
“Bolin!” Korra’s running up the stairs, out of breath, the color high in her face and she feels good, better than she has in a long time. She crashes through the door and into his and Mako’s apartment, still breathless, saying, “Hey, Bo, I just got this great idea we could try out in practice tomorrow—”
She stops short when she sees Mako and Asami on the couch, Mako looking stricken, Asami blushing. Her lipstick stains the outline of Mako’s mouth; he looks ridiculous, and Korra almost tells him that but then she doesn’t, because—she doesn’t know because.
“Sorry,” she says, deliberately not looking at Mako, which means she ends up looking at Asami instead. The tips of Asami’s fingers are touching her lips, and she’s looking at Mako and giggling, uncontrollably, as if nothing has ever been funnier in her life.
“I’m looking for Bolin,” Korra says, stiffly. Her voice doesn’t sound like her own. Asami doesn’t notice, but Mako raises an eyebrow at her.
“He’s not here.”
“Obviously,” Korra snipes back, snidely. “Well, I’ll just go, then. Leave you to—whatever you were doing.”
“You don’t have to leave.” Asami’s still smiling, like she doesn’t care that she has lipstick streaked down her chin. Mako leans forward and wipes the streak away with his thumb. Korra hates him.
“I really do,” Korra says, and turns away. Her face feels hot, like she’s spent all day in the sun with Meelo and Ikki, chasing after them and bending water from the bay to rain down on them when the sun becomes unbearable.
“Oh, don’t.” Asami gets up from the couch—somehow managing to look elegant even as she untangles herself from Mako—and follows Korra, reaching out to grab her hand.
“I really need to talk to Bolin,” Korra says, and she sounds apologetic—and why the hell is she apologizing, she hasn’t done anything wrong. She tugs her hand away from Asami and closes the door behind her, firmly. She lingers, her fingertips against the smooth wood, her blood hot and fast beneath her skin before she pushes away.
She wanders around the stadium for a bit, wondering where Bolin’s gone and when it’ll be safe to go back up to the apartment again. She isn’t sure how she feels about Mako and Asami. She’d thought—but she doesn’t know what she’d thought, really. And she has bigger things to worry about. Things that Mako doesn’t care about, that Asami has probably never even thought about.
“Being the Avatar sucks,” she says aloud to herself, though she only half-means it.
“Oh please, tell me more about how difficult it is to be able to bend all the elements.” Bolin’s there, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed in front of his chest. “That must be so hard for you.”
“Jerk,” she says.
He just grins at her. “Come on. There’s something I want you to see.”
“How did you find this place?”
They’re standing atop the roof of the pro-bending stadium, looking out over the bay and towards Air Temple Island, which glitters in the late afternoon sunlight. There’d been a staircase—from the looks of it long since used, cobwebs in the corners and the dust on the steps remembering the imprint of their footsteps as they’d climbed—and then Bolin had thrown open a trapdoor in the ceiling and the sunlight had streamed into Korra’s eyes. He’d held out his hand to her and helped her up, even though both of them knew that she didn’t need it.
“Mako and I found it a few months after we first moved in. Just stumbled on it, I guess.” Bolin shrugs. “We’ve never taken anyone else up here before.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Korra says around the smile she can feel at the edges of her mouth.
“Oh yeah, definitely. You’re only here because you’re like, the second awesomest person I know.”
“Only second? Bolin, I’m hurt.” She presses a hand to her heart, dramatically, and Bolin leans back and laughs.
“And one of the closest friends I’ve ever had,” he tells her. He’s loosened his collar in the heat and is lying back against the roof, splayed like a cat. “So stop being greedy and just take the compliment, Avatar Korra.”
She stares at him. “Am I really one of your closest friends?”
“Of course.” He peeks at her from under his hand, which shields his face from the sun. “You knew that.”
Had she? There hadn’t been anyone close to her age in the White Lotus compound at the South Pole. Sometimes she’d been allowed to visit the village where her parents lived and see her old friends, but—they’d moved on from her after she’d left. She couldn’t blame them. They moved in different spheres now, like constellations wheeling across the night sky and never quite meeting each other at the apex. Hell, a few weeks ago she’d told Mako that Naga was her best friend and meant it. She probably still would mean it if she said it now, but—maybe she can have more than one best friend.
“I didn’t know,” she says, “but I do now.”
“Really?” Bolin frowns a little at her, but it might just be the sun. “But…you saved me.”
“Mako saved you. I just provided the distraction.”
“You came after me, though. I thought that meant….”
“I wasn’t really sure,” Korra says, trying to explain—that she just doesn’t know how these things work, how to be someone’s friend, what to do and what not to do—but that she wants to know, desperately. “But I hoped.”
And Bolin—he accepts this, at face value. No questions asked, no insults taken. “Okay,” he says, and they’re silent for a long while after that, watching the sunlight on the sea.
“I think Mako hates me,” Korra finally says, when the sun dips below the horizon and lights the sky and sea on fire.
“Nah, that’s just the way he is,” Bolin says. “There’s no way he could hate you after what you did.”
It’s an unexpectedly self-aware statement from him, and for a moment Korra wonders why she’s even surprised. Bolin understands Mako better than he’ll ever let on, takes care of him even while Mako thinks it’s the other way around.
“You’re a good kid, Bo,” she says, teasingly.
“That means a lot, coming from someone of your advanced age,” he tells her, and she considers throwing him into the bay before settling on wrestling with him until he shouts, “I yield, I yield!” with tears of laughter streaming down his face.
The night before the pro-bending match, she dreams.
She’s standing in the center of the pro-bending stadium, the crowd pulsing around her like a living human heart, every one of them whispering something that she can’t understand. Their mouths move and she spins, looking for someone, she doesn’t know who. They never stop whispering, the sound building and waning like the swell of the tide against the shore.
The lights turn on, too bright, directly above her. She’s standing in a pool of white light and suddenly it’s too hard to look anywhere. She shields her eyes—her heart is pounding behind her ribs so hard that she thinks it might bruise.
Avatar Korra, she finally hears—the crowd is saying her name, over and over.
“What do you want from me?” She screams it, the words rough at the back of her throat. “What do you want?”
The lights go out.
She hasn’t been this cold since she was a little girl, out fishing with her father; she’d slipped out of the boat and bobbed along the ice floes, her teeth chattering, and laughed when her father pulled her out and wrapped her inside all of his furs. She’d held out her hands and little flickers of fire had shimmered there, reflected in her fathers eyes. That was when they’d first known. That was when her entire life had changed.
In the darkness, the whispers have stopped. There’s silence, and a strange stillness like after some great disturbance. The calm after the storm, when everything’s already gone.
Korra, someone says, and she turns around.
Asami is staring at her, wide-eyed. Her mouth is open, her lips parted around Korra’s name. She’s smiling. Korra can’t figure out why she’s smiling, what’s there to smile about right now—the crowd is still there, watching Korra, waiting. She has to fall some time.
Asami holds out her hand—slender fingers at the side of Korra’s face, in her hair—and Korra wakes up, trembling and cold, the sudden shouts of the crowd echoing in her ears.
She stares at the ceiling. What the hell, she thinks; what the hell, Asami, what the hell.
She shows up at the tournament feeling shaky and diluted, like she can’t do this. Asami is there wishing Mako good luck. Korra does not look at her, nor answer when Asami says, “And good luck to you too, Korra.”
“I’m going to throw up,” she says under her breath to Bolin, who is bouncing on the balls of his feet and throwing punches every few seconds.
“You too? I almost barfed in Mako’s breakfast this morning.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Mako says. “You know, for not actually doing that, that was good.”
“You guys are going to be great,” Asami says, her hand in the crook of Mako’s arm. “You’ve been working so hard—there’s no way you won’t win.”
Korra’s stomach just turns in on itself further. She’s been trying so hard to figure out this equalist thing and somehow train for the tournament at the same time and she doesn’t think she’s managed to prepare herself for either. She can’t save the city; she can’t even help Mako and Bolin.
Their team is called. Mako and Bolin file into the stadium. Bolin’s playing the crowd, any trace of nervousness erased from his face as he bows and blows kisses. Mako looks tenser than usual, but that could be anything. It could be nothing.
Asami catches hold of Korra’s arm before Korra goes out “Hey,” Asami says, her voice low, her pale green eyes too serious. It’s hard to look at her. “You can do this, okay? I know you can.”
“You don’t know me,” Korra says; “you don’t know anything about me.”
Asami smiles at this, sadly. “I would if you’d let me.” She leans down a bit—she’s taller than Korra, which is really just the last straw, Korra can’t stand it—and kisses Korra on the cheek, lightly.
“What the hell,” says Korra.
“For luck,” says Asami, and then she pushes Korra towards the stadium and Korra hears only the roar of the crowd. She takes her place on Mako’s left and drops into her stance.
“You’ve got a little….” Mako gestures at Korra’s cheek, where Asami had kissed her. “On your face.”
Korra rubs the lipstick off with the back of her hand, her face burning. Mako just looks at her strangely. Bolin’s grinning at her, but screw him, she can’t deal with this right now.
“Let’s just win this and go home,” she growls, in her throat.
The whistle sounds.
They don’t win.
Korra doesn’t want to admit whose fault it is, but she knows it’s hers. She hadn’t trained enough. She hadn’t focused enough. She hasn’t had to. It wasn’t her family at stake. The thought just makes her more miserable.
She pulls off her gear in the changing room, not meeting Bolin or Mako’s eyes. For once, Bolin is silent. Korra drops her uniform onto the floor, wearing only the shift and drawstring pants that are worn beneath it, pulls the ties out of her hair so that it’s loose and free around her face, and then she walks out of the room.
She doesn’t know where she’s going until she’s there—the place on the roof that Bolin had showed her, because they were friends. She has no idea if they still are. That seems like something she should know. She doesn’t know how to do this, any of this. She doesn’t know who she is or how she fits into the world, and it hurts right now, all of it hurts.
It’s past twilight. The wind is cool off the bay, lifting Korra’s hair behind her. The city is still bright and alive, sparkling on the tops of the waves, and she pulls her knees into her chest and watches the ferries come and go from the docks.
The trapdoor opens behind her, but she doesn’t turn around. It’s probably Bolin, here to tell her that it’s time for her to go back to Air Temple Island.
She jumps. “Asami?”
Asami sits down next to her, bumping shoulders. Her body is warm beside Korra’s, a shield against the cool night air. Korra resists the urge to lay her head on Asami’s arm. She isn’t even sure where it came from. She doesn’t understand anything anymore.
“How did you find me?” she asks.
“Bolin said you might be up here.”
“But he didn’t come himself.”
There’s silence for a moment, heavy in the air. “It’ll be okay,” Asami finally says. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Korra looks over at her. Asami has taken off all her makeup for the night. It makes her face look softer, more delicate at the edges, like a painting smudged with the brush. She still looks as beautiful as she always does, if not more so. More alive.
“Don’t say that,” Korra tells her. “Don’t lie. You know it was my fault.”
“No, I don’t,” Asami counters. “I’ve watched every match the Fire Ferrets played this season. Every one. And this time I could tell that Mako and Bolin weren’t at their best. Mako was too tense, Bolin was too loose. You were—”
“Inexperienced?” Korra offers. “Untrained? Completely and totally awful, in every sense of the word?”
“No,” Asami says, gently. “You did your best.”
“So what.” Korra looks out at the water. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“I think it does.” Asami curls her arm through Korra’s, like they’re friends or something. “There will be other matches. Other tournaments.”
“Not like this one. We needed this one. I—they needed this one.”
“They’ll be okay.” Asami’s voice is quiet, her eyes wide. “They always have been, right?”
Korra’s not so sure about that, but she doesn’t say anything, just listens to the movement of the waves and watches the moonlight on the water. Asami hasn’t let go of her arm, and her dark hair keeps brushing against Korra’s face.
“Your good luck doesn’t seem to have done its job,” Korra finally says, heavily, and Asami laughs.
“I’m sorry about that.” Asami smiles, her face lit by the moon. “Perhaps if you had let me kiss you properly.”
Korra stares at her. “You think that…would have made a difference.”
Asami shrugs. “You never know,” she says, and leans forward, closing the distance between them. Her mouth is soft on Korra’s when she kisses her.
Korra remembers her dream—the way the lights had gone out and she had been so cold. She feels warm now, all the way down to her toes.
Asami pulls away. “Is this all right?” she asks.
“Yes,” she says, and she puts her hands in Asami’s hair, pulls her back in to kiss her again, and again. She still doesn’t understand, but right now, she doesn’t care. She slides her tongue across Asami’s teeth and smiles, despite herself, when Asami says her name.
She doesn’t dream that night.
She wakes up in a pool of sunlight through her windows, stretched out across her bed, the blankets tangled around her legs, and takes a moment to appreciate this. Then she gets up and goes down to eat breakfast with Tenzin and his family before airbending training. They all tell her what a good match it was, how she couldn’t have done anything different, how she did her best, and Korra lets herself believe them. Ikki bounces around her, chattering loudly; Jinora pushes her sweetroll towards Korra and won’t let her give it back; Meelo drools on her shoulder, still exhausted from staying up late to watch the match.
It’ll be okay, she hears Asami’s voice say in her head, and she doesn’t lose her patience once during her airbending training that day. Afterwards, she cools off in the baths, dresses, and gets on the ferry to the stadium.
She finds Bolin in the apartment, asleep on the couch. There’s no one else there. She explores the place for a bit, uncertain whether she should wake Bolin or just go back home. The door to Bolin’s bedroom is open, and she slips inside, only slightly guiltily.
It’s small, sparsely furnished—little else but a bed and a table beside it. There’s a picture on the table, unframed. It curls in on itself around the edges as if it’s been picked up and held many times before, the imprint of someone’s fingertips well-remembered by the glossy surface. Korra picks it up, gently, as if it might turn to dust between her fingertips. She recognizes Mako and Bolin right away, though they are many years younger. Mako is smiling in a way that Korra has never seen. Bolin is laughing, sitting on the shoulders of a man whom Korra does not recognize—their father, she guesses. And their mother is crouching beside Mako, pointing at the person taking the photograph, her arm curled around her son’s small shoulders.
Pain stabs suddenly in Korra’s chest, and she puts the picture back where she found it. The doorway darkens.
“I think this is trespassing,” Bolin says, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “This is probably definitely trespassing. I should report you to Chief Bei Fong.”
“Oh please, no,” Korra says. “She hates me.”
“Yeah, well, she’s the only one who does,” Bolin says, fiercely. He pauses for a moment. “Except Amon, I guess.”
Tears sting Korra’s eyes. “Thank you.”
“What for?” he says, and takes her by the arm. “We’re friends.”
“Asami kissed me,” Korra confides later, when they’re sitting on the floor playing cards. Bolin is winning.
“I thought that was lipstick on your face before the match.”
“No,” Korra says. “I mean, yes. But then she did again later. When you told her I was on the roof.”
Bolin stares at her. “What?”
“Yeah, I know.” She puts her cards down on the table, but Bolin doesn’t seem to be playing anymore.
“I’m not sure I get it,” Bolin says. “Wait—no, I definitely don’t get it. Explain please.”
“I can’t. I don’t get it either.”
“This is officially the weirdest day ever,” Bolin says, and shakes his head. He lays his cards flat on the table and wins this round, too.
Korra gets to her feet. “You should come over for dinner. I’m starving, and I’m tired of losing this stupid game to you.”
“Understandable,” Bolin says agreeably, and Korra punches him on the arm.
It’s at that moment that Mako comes through the door, noticeably upset. He looks only more so when he sees Korra.
“Asami’s looking for you,” he says, and closes his bedroom door behind him.
Korra looks at Bolin. “What do I do?”
He shrugs. “No idea,” he says, but he gives her a thumbs-up before going after his brother.
There’s a lot of stairs from the attic apartment down to the actual stadium. Korra’s out of breath and sweaty when she reaches the bottom, her hair sticking to her face, and she really doesn’t want to see Asami now. She has no idea what to say. Thanks for kissing me, it was surprisingly not awful? Everything just sounds stupid.
She finds Asami in the practice room, standing alone. Her hair is braided down her back, the shorter strands curling around her face. She seems to know Korra’s there without turning around.
“I used to wish I was a bender,” she says into the silent room. “When I was a little girl. There was nothing I wanted more. I always thought I would be a waterbender, if things had worked out that way.” She turns around and smiles at Korra, gently. “I haven’t thought that way in a long time, but—sometimes I wake up at night and wish for it so hard that it hurts. You don’t know what that’s like.”
“No,” Korra says, because it’s true. And then—when Asami doesn’t look as if she’s going to offer anything more on the subject, and Korra doesn’t know what else to say, she changes the subject. “Mako seemed upset.”
“Yeah.” Asami is looking at her feet. “My fault, of course. I told him we could still be friends.”
“That sounds final.”
“I guess it is.”
There’s a silence, and Korra considers. All the things she wants, all the things she’s never had. The things that keep her up at night and the ones that help her sleep. The sharp black line of Asami’s eye makeup, and how she looks better without it. Somehow, she doesn’t think Mako has ever seen her like that. The thought makes something bloom inside her chest, warm and unfurling like a flower turning its face to the sun.
“You should come with us,” she says. “Me and Bolin. And maybe Mako, I don’t know if he’ll want to come. We’re going to get dinner.”
“Sure,” Asami says. “Where are we going?”
“My place.” Korra grins. “Airbenders can never turn away hungry guests, you know.”
Bolin makes Mako come with them, but Mako isn’t happy about it. Korra and Bolin sit between Asami and Mako during the ferry ride, bumping their knees together and laughing when the boat hits the tops of the waves. Asami just smiles. Mako digs his hands into his scarf and looks out at the water.
Neither Tenzin nor Pema is upset that Korra has brought so many guests for dinner unannounced. In fact, Tenzin gives Pema a look over Korra’s shoulder, like he can talk to his wife without saying anything at all.
I want to know what that’s like, Korra thinks as Tenzin tells her to introduce everyone to the kids and Ikki shouts that she’s met Mako already and latches onto his leg like a pentapus. Mako gives a long-suffering sigh but looks at Bolin and Korra from under his lashes, the hint of a smile hidden somewhere in his eyes. Bolin sits on Korra’s right during dinner, and Korra isn’t surprised when Asami sits on her left: her back straight, her hair tied out of her eyes, her conversation with Pema and Jinora easy and light.
After dinner they go down to the pavilion because the kids want to watch Mako and Bolin bend. The two of them circle around each other, staging a mock fight as Ikki and Meelo cheer and Jinora tries to pretend she’s older than she really is.
Korra glances at Asami, jerks her head towards the water. Asami follows her down the steps and they sit side-by-side above the bay, dipping their bare feet into the water and looking at the sunset. Korra leans back on her hands and pretends not to notice when Asami laces her fingers in hers.
“I’m going to kiss you again,” Korra says, like a warning.
And Asami just smiles. Her eyes are lit from within, glittering like stars. “I hoped you might,” she says, and leans into her.