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    The first time you realise what the words you aren’t saying mean, there’s an ocean to stop you feeling like it’s too real.

    She could be there with you. Should be. She’d endure the bitter cold for you, the dark days and your darker moods, but when you look at your legs, useless and still and weighing you down, you convince yourself you’re glad she isn’t there.

    You’re glad you’re alone, trapped by the prison bars that are your legs.

    You write to her, and only her. You miss her. You miss her but you’re glad you’re alone, because she wouldn’t want to see you like this. No one should have to see you like this.

    You put the pen to paper and write those three simple words: I miss you. Once they’re out of your head, it’s like you’ve released every feeling you haven’t quite tangled with into the ocean that divides you.

    You miss her, and you miss her for years to come.

*

    The first time you take her hand, a bridge forms. Not just between you and her, but between the beginning and end; between all that you’ve been through, and all that has brought you here; between who you were and who you are. The pieces fall into place as easily as her fingers entwine with yours.

    You’ve literally held the balance of worlds in your hands before, but this is something different. Something bigger.

    You can’t stop smiling.

*
    The first time you kiss her, the spirit world buzzes and thrums around you. It isn’t that the past hours have felt unreal; rather, they’ve felt too good to be true. Asami is sweet and kind and beautiful, and you can’t stop thinking that over and over again -- beautiful, beautiful, beautiful -- because you’re allowed to, and she knows.

    It’s been building to this. You’ve felt it. Wanted it. You sit beneath a purple-blue tree, and when she fixes her eyes on you like that, you don’t know how to react. Your stomach twists in ways that should feel unpleasant, but don’t. As much as you feel the need to look away and bury your face in your hands or her shoulder, you can’t.

    It’s not until her teeth graze her lower lip that you realise you aren’t the only one nervous in a way that makes your face red, right up to the tip of your years. You press your hands to the sides of her neck, brush your thumbs across the line of her jaw, and the pair of you laugh. It’s wonderful and ridiculous and you’re literally in your own world.

    You knock your forehead against hers and catch her eye.

    Neither of you are laughing, now.

    There are millions of miles to cross in the inches between your lips. You think of all the rocks you could stumble over, all the gnarled roots that could catch your toes, the tangled thorns that could block your path, but no, no¬--

    You’re already kissing her.

    Your heart’s in your throat, and then it’s exactly where it’s meant to be.

    Her arms wrap around your waist, and when she leans against you, she fits. You pull her closer, though her mouth’s already against yours and her fingers are twisting in the back of your skirt, and her lips are so soft that you don’t understand how you haven’t been doing this forever. Why did you wait; what could’ve possibly been so important as to keep you from this.

    She makes gentle, breathy sounds into your mouth, and you kiss her slowly, thoroughly, wholly. You don’t want to stop. Not until you realise that not kissing her means being able to look at her, being able to see the brush spread across her cheeks as her lips remain ever so slightly parted.

*

    (Her hands press either side of the mattress, and her long hair spills across her bare shoulders, creating a halo around your head. You don’t remember when your clothes came off, in the same way that you don’t really remember ever wearing them; it seems ridiculous to think that there were ever barriers between you. That you ever felt comfortable wrapped in something that wasn’t Asami.

    She leans in, kissing your mouth. Your body rises and you watch the way her muscles pull taut at something so simple as your fingers wandering across the small of your back. Exhaling heavily, she straightens her back, and for all that you’ve seen in your life, you don’t know how to take in the sight of her. Your hands find her hips, and as you try tugging her back towards you, she splays a hand against your stomach.

    The sound you make causes her to run her fingers through her hair and bite on her lower lip, hard. You press your thumbs into the curve of her hips and she relents. She crumbles atop you, mouth at your ear. She’s murmuring your name before you realise your fingers are trailing up the inside of her thigh. When she bucks her hips against your hand, it’s all you can do to bite her shoulder and focus on this; just this, just her.)

*

    The sky is so miserable it makes you forget the colour blue, and rain drearily plinks against the windowpane. There’s an inch-wide gap in the curtains, and when you stretch your legs, your toes bump against Asami’s. It’s the first time you’ve woken up in her bed, and though she’s not even awake yet, you can’t stop grinning.

    Shuffling over, you kiss her temple and watch her stir. There’s a sleepy sort of bliss spreading across her face, and you nuzzle her cheek, hating -- but not really hating -- waking her up. You trace your fingers up and down her spine, and she hums into her pillow before rolling onto her back. The pair of you are still naked and comfortably so, and you murmur your good mornings between kisses and gentle touches.

    She asks if you want breakfast. You say yes but anchor your arms around her waist and pin her to the bed. She laughs and tilts her head back, letting you kiss your way across her neck, and memories of last night flash through your mind and turn your throat dry.

    It’s two hours before she pries herself away and heads to the kitchen in little more than a robe. Lying back, pleasantly exhausted and aching all over, you close your eyes and listen to the falling rain.

*

    Asami says you need to go on your first date at some point, and you laugh, because what is she talking about? She flicks your nose and tells you that the spirit world doesn’t count because that was a vacation, and staying in bed for three days definitely isn’t date material. As much as she loved it. And no, you need to stop looking at her like that.

    You agree, because why wouldn’t you want to go on a date with Asami? It’s not until you’re home, rummaging through your things, that you start to feel something as absurd as nervous. You can’ decide what to wear, as though this is some kind of blind date, and you need to make a good first impression. In the end, Jinora has to sit you down and remind you that you’re already girlfriends. (Girlfriends!) Tonight should be about having a good time, no pressure, no expectations. You’ve already surpassed them all.

    You meet Asami in the heart of the city. You wish you could say that you get in how incredible she looks (seriously, how long did it take her to do her make-up like that?), but it becomes starkly obvious that the two of you are no longer in your own world.

    You expected it, on some level. You’re the Avatar and she’s the CEO of Future Industries; one of you alone is worth a gaggle of reporters tracking down. But this is different. It’s not that you’re ashamed of her -- spirits know that you want to show her off -- but there’s something in the way people are looking at you.

    Something in the way they’re murmuring.

    You feel oddly vulnerable, scrutinised by virtue of simply being there, of being yourself.

    You’re very, very aware that you’re both women.

    Your shoulders rise. Asami catches gaze you from the corner of her eye and squeezes your hand tightly. She gives you a smile that wears away at all of the worry engulfing you, and with a grin, you’re determined to ignore the flashing camera bulbs and lead her into the restaurant.

*

    Work takes her away for two solid weeks.

    It’s the first trip of many, and you tell yourself that it’s better like this. Let her be gone for days upon days, so that you’ve experienced the worst of it. Trial by fire, and all.

    You tell yourself that you’ll get so much work done. You have half a million Avatar duties to attend to, and the world hasn’t quite recovered from Kuvira (or the disaster before her, or the disaster before that), and without Asami around, you’ll be able to focus.
    That’s your plan, at least.

    It’s hard to get anything done when the echo of your every thought sounds like Asami, Asami, Asami.

    The days drag on. It’s the emotional equivalent of thinking you’re getting into a warm bath and finding it ice cold.

    You whine to Bolin about how long she’s been gone, and how long it’s going to be before she gets back. He laughs at you, slaps your back, and says you were gone for three years, so this should feel like nothing. You guys are invincible!

    Despite his best intentions, it doesn’t cheer you up.

*

    You’ve been lucky, this far. Your bad nights have coincided with those you’ve spent in your own bed, and the worst Asami’s had to deal with is you mumbling in your sleep. And that could’ve been about anything.

    But after an evening spent too exhausted to do much more than eat leftovers and fall asleep on her sofa, before dragging yourselves to bed, your dreams pick out fragments of the past and let them swirl round, round. You can’t say they’re the same old things you always see, because each flash of an image cuts through you like it’s the first time you’ve seen it.

    Zaheer’s face. Irons around your wrists. A sinking sensation in your stomach and a numbness below your waist. Fear presses its calloused fingers and blunt nails against the inside of your ribs, but it isn’t a fear that you’ve lost it all again.

    You’re afraid that you never regained it at all, and that all the good and bad before this moment have been the real dream.

    You’re aware you’re drenched in sweat before you realise you’re awake, or that you’re yelling. Shouting incoherently, for the most part. It doesn’t stop you from lashing out, from fighting something you can’t see.

    From fighting yourself.

    Asami’s voice is the first thing that reaches out to you. She says your name over and over until you’re grounded again. But not enough so to endure her hand on your shoulder. You pull away as though her fingers are red-hot, and when she flinches, you finally realise it was a dream.

    It was a dream.

    You draw in a deep breath, but there’s no relief in it.

    Only embarrassment. Shame.

    She was never supposed to see you like this.

    That’s the whole reason why you disappeared for so many years.

    You pull the duvet to your chest. You should get up. Dress. Leave. Fall down into your own bed and bury your face in a pillow for the rest of time.

    You definitely shouldn’t sit there, shoulders shaking.

    She says your name again. She places her hand on the mattress, close to yours, but doesn’t touch you. She tells you that it’s already, that she understands; that she’s still here for you.

    You screw your eyes shut. You should get up and leave, but when you eventually do fall back to sleep, it’s in her arms, face buried in her chest as she runs her fingers through your hair.

*

    It tumbles out of your mouth.

    You don’t mean to say it. You don’t not mean to say it, either.

    You’re sitting on the kitchen counter while she tinkers with something that definitely isn’t lunch. Some new contraption she’s working on. You’ve listened to her talk about it, you really have, but Asami only needs you to be sounding board. She doesn’t expect you to understand any of what she rambles on about. The sun’s finally broken through the last few months of cloud cover, and the light strikes her face in a way that makes you realise how wonderfully normal this is.

    You woke up with her, kissed her nose. Ate breakfast together. Lazed around her living room and listened to the radio broadcast utterly uninspired pro-bending match.

    It’s nothing worth remarking on, but to you, it’s everything.

    Asami pulls out a cog or a gear or a something from the device she’s perfecting and tuts under her breath. She parts her lips to mutter much of nothing, but before she can speak, you tell her you love her.

    She forgets all about her latest invention.

    She looks up at you, and though you want to wipe the grease stain from the bridge of her nose, you’re frozen.

    There’s silence in the room and a pounding in your head. For a horrible moment, all you can do is wonder why you said that. Why you thought Asami, beautiful and smart and kind and understanding, would ever reciprocate your feelings; why you think you even deserve to be around her, after all those years you were missing.

    But she smiles, and the words come freely, warmly. Your ears ring with it and the fear’s gone.

    You wrap your arms around her shoulders and she buries her face against the side of your neck. There’s nothing you can do but tell her that you don’t remember how it feels to not be in love with her, and you never want to, either.