Korra was pretty sure her entire body would ache for the next month, but for all the strains and pulled muscles, she walked away from practice rather pleased with herself for the first time in what felt like ages. Despite the injuries she’d been nursing from the entire fiasco with Tarrlok and Amon, there was a newfound determination there, an unexplainable but steady obligation to prevent herself from slacking off. Ignoring Tenzin’s warnings, she had insisted on going through with her training for the day: the equalists wouldn’t wait for her to master airbending, and besides, she had already wasted enough time. Contacting Aang’s spirit hadn’t inspired her with a magical spiritual epiphany as she had hoped, but knowing that it was possible to get in touch with the Avatars before her (she had done it, all by herself, even), inspired a buzz beneath her skin, like a proud rush of newfound energy that she was determined to use wisely by directing it to her airbending.
…But damn if she hadn’t fully realized how sore she would be after a day of meditating, starving, fighting, and freezing in the cold. Korra knew from experience that as much as a new workout may hurt the first day, the second day is even worse: the sore wounds from the first are still raw and open and the body is never ready to deal with healing new ones on top of them.
She studied her arms, flexing them and watching the discolored skin stretch. The products of her struggles were starting to finally form and settle into her skin, like deep and dark reminders – of what, she wasn’t entirely sure, and didn’t want to think about. It seemed as though they were things she should be sorry for, and yet, she couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty; she had just been protecting herself, after all. It wasn’t as if she had anything to be ashamed of. Still, it was hard to feel fully confident when you looked like a walking bruise: already they were staining her skin purple and yellow, and they did a poor job distracting the eye from the even nastier, older cuts littering her arms and face.
Yeah. Korra rubbed a particularly nasty wound on her arm distractedly, nursing it with a frown. It was healing, but still. She should have remembered. The second time was always worse.
Korra turned down the hall and gratefully slumped down the corridor to her room, stifling a yawn to prevent herself from falling asleep right on her feet. Practice was over so she could rest, now, finally, and collapsing onto her smooth, inviting bed had never seemed more appealing.
The illusion of a restful sleep was ruined when Korra walked down the hall to find Mako slumped over, sitting against the wall a few meters from the door to her room. His hands were clasped together, arms resting on his knees as he stared at the opposite wall, eerily silent. The scene immediately reminded her of another time, walking up to the pro-bending arena to see him sitting on the steps, waiting to confront her about Bolin and hurt feelings. Seeing him now, waiting for her again, she could practically feel her exhaustion grow ten times heavier. She was tired and sore from practice and not in the mood for another talk. Really, really not in the mood.
She could only imagine what he wanted to say, but she knew that she didn’t want to hear it.
Korra sighed before she could prevent it, and the noise alerted him to her presence. He looked up and had the decency to look a bit ashamed.
“…Hi,” Mako said, and she noticed he didn’t even bother to stand up. “Er. Sorry, I just realized that you’re probably worn out from practice. I can go if you’re tired. I just figured – ” He clasped his hands tight, then released, then closed them again. “ – I wanted to talk. Because I kind of… have some things to say. I think you know what it’s about. If you’re willing to listen.”
Korra was silent, standing over him as he stared silently at the wall. She closed her eyes, willing him to disappear by the time she was ready to look again. Counted to three. Opened them again.
No. He was still there.
She was almost asleep on her feet and just not in the mood for this. Somehow, the only thing she managed was, “Are you drunk?”
“What?” He got up, as if startled out of his stupor. “No!”
“Mako, I’m just… I’m tired, okay?” Korra said, not bothering to prevent herself from sounding snappish. She moved to head inside her room, grateful that he was sitting far away enough so that she didn’t have to pass him to head inside. “I can’t deal with this right now. I’m sorry.”
She was halfway through the door when she heard him say seriously, “Don’t apologize. That’s why I’m here. I realized I’ve kind of screwed the both of you over lately, and I – ”
“Mako,” she said, “I’m not in the mood. Maybe tomorrow, okay? I hate to tell you to go when you’ve waited outside my door for so long, but…”
“I…” He was quiet for a long moment, then continued, softly, “okay. I’m sorry. That’s just – that’s what I wanted to say.”
Korra turned back, finally meeting his eyes. “Thank you,” she said, then paused for a moment before going on. “You’re forgiven. At least on my end. But I hope you’ve said the same to Asami.”
“I have,” he responded, then huffed out a breath. “Still, we – decided it wasn’t working.”
Spirits above, this could not seriously be happening.
“I just wanted to tell you first,” he continued, “just so – you know, so you don’t hear it from someone else before me. I figured you deserve to get it from the source. You’ve been patient and gracious enough with all of this…”
“It’s not like I’ve been sitting back all this time waiting for you to run to me,” she murmured. “I’ve kind of been busy.”
“Right,” Mako said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. And I’m not – this isn’t a rebound thing, okay? I want you to know that. But it’s clear – it’s obvious to me, at least, that… well, my feelings for you aren’t going away any time soon. It was clear to Asami, too, and I really…”
His breath hitched a bit, as if he was nervous, an emotion she was unaware he was even familiar with. “Really regret hurting the both of you. I’m still confused, but I’m trying, I promise I am. I don’t even – I don’t even know what I’m asking here. But Korra, I mean, you have to know… I don’t know if you still even like me after all of this, but if your feelings are still the same, then I thought you should hear it from me. I hope we can still work this out, whatever it is – whatever you want it to be. I’m okay with it. Just let me know, whatever it is, or whatever you’re feeling. I’ll take it. I don’t really deserve to ask you out or anything, and you shouldn’t even feel like you have to tell me, but… I was wondering. I hope you’re all right with me asking.”
Mako looked to the side, swallowing. There was a long beat before he turned back to her, and he somehow looked tired beyond words, ashamed and longing all at once. He pushed his next words out in one big rush of a breath, eyes closing as if to shield himself from her response, whatever it was. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you before, I really am. But I’m here now, if you’ll have me.”
She almost hated him for making her feel guilty. The tables were turned and here he was, heart on his sleeve, and what she wouldn’t have given for this a month ago, but…
But. She couldn’t even list all the reasons why not. And from the way Mako was talking, it seemed as though he already expected her answer, anticipated hearing what he wouldn’t want to, and yet there he was anyway, braving her rejection and temper and her.
She was sorry, too, but not for this.
“I still feel the same,” Korra said quietly, “but I don’t think I can do this right now.” Before he could open his mouth to respond, she went on, stepping back through the doorway before she could catch the look on his face or let herself hear something that may persuade her otherwise. “I’m sorry for leaving you hanging, but… it’s been a long day. I’ve got to focus on my training. And Amon.” She swallows. “Good night, Mako. I’ll… see you in the morning.”
Korra slid the door closed and told herself to breathe. She’d done the right thing, of course. She was busier than she’d ever been in her life: between Amon and airbending and the endless maze in her mind that was starting to represent her spiritual journey, it was all she could do to get a good night’s rest each day. She didn’t even know what she would have done with a boyfriend, anyway – she wouldn’t even have the time or energy left over enough to continuously dedicate it to someone, couldn’t offer enough that they’d deserve. She was doing them both a favor, really.
Besides, no matter what he may have said, he was on a rebound – it would pass and he’d feel less lonely this time next week, once he’d had the time to get over the end of his first relationship. He was just lonely. It never hurt as bad as the first time, after all.
No, that wasn’t right, she reminded herself as she stepped into her nightwear. The first stings because it’s new and unfamiliar and there’s all the shame of falling prey to the age-old trap, the one everyone assumes they’ll be exempt from. But on the second, you should have known better – she should have known better. It was the same old deal and she should have expected it, should have prepared, but hadn’t assumed it would ever happen again, and now the break stung twice as much.
The second time. She knew it was true, but there was no satisfaction, no pride in being right. It had never felt worse.