It is, in the end, Lin: Lin who folds her arms; who says enough, no more; who escorts a grey and trembling Korra to her quarters; who places steaming tea before Tenzin and Pema and suggests that they have all, perhaps, had enough.
It is a bare three weeks since Korra returned to Republic City; a handful of days longer since she ascended to her full power. She'd assumed she'd acclimatised to the noise and the bustle and the media circus: she thought the culture shock of her first trip was it, done with, over.
She was wrong.
The acolytes had barred reporters from the island itself, but boats ringed it; her feet had not touched ground before a council representative requested that she attend City Hall.
Four hours later she has demonstrated her bending capabilities to the Council, barring - of course - Tarrlok; she has demonstrated them to the crowd gathered on the steps; she has given official interviews; she has restored bending to the council; and the lottery determining order of attendence at restoration clinics has been announced.
(It is Lin, too, who refuses to permit Korra to lay out a sleeping roll in an office in City Hall; Lin who insists the security risk is too great; Lin who catches Tenzin's eye over the back of Korra's head, as she slumps against a wall; Lin who shoves her back and briskly tells her to see to Naga before she goes to bed.)
And that is how three weeks go by: in a flurry of healing and public appearances and private meetings. But finally, finally it is over - and in a moment of narrative justice, it is Tahno who pulled the short straw, who is last - but after the fashion of every bureaucracy ever evolved, the paperwork continues and the press rumbles discontentedly (about restoration of bending to Triad members; with opinions on the odds of the survival of the Equalist movement; with speculation about the possibility of giving bending to every citizen).
So Lin steps in; so Lin holds firm.
So Korra finds herself at a loss. She has forgotten how to be at peace: between her tightly-controlled schedule and the war she was fighting and the tournament she was trying to win - to live without fear, to have empty hours stretch in front of her, is a problem she does not know how to attack. (She will learn to grasp these moments, to meditate, to cherish breathing space - but: later. For now, she stares into the darkness and listens to her own heartbeat and tries to remember how to sleep.)
She wakes with a start to the lightening sky, and she curls up small around herself. Naga whuffs gently from the floor; lumbers to her feet; pushes her nose into Korra's ear. "Hey girl," she says softly; wraps her arms around Naga's neck. "Wanna go for a swim?"
They head to the seaward side of the island - nothing between them and the horizon but salt water - and Korra picks her way down the cliff path, Naga ambling sedately behind her - or, where it's wide enough, beside her, one of Korra's hands resting lightly on her shoulder. They don't hesitate when they reach the narrow pebbled strip of beach: Korra deposits her clothes in an untidy pile behind her favourite rocks and keeps straight on going, wading out into the waves and their blanket of sound.
The world settles back on her shoulders with a thump as they crest the lip of the cliff to find Asami. Asami, living still on Air Temple Island: her family estate too full of painful memories. Asami, plainly dressed and hands folded quietly and gazing out towards the horizon as though there are answers tossing in the water.
Asami, whom Korra hasn't seen since their return from the South Pole; whom Korra has not spoken with except in passing for longer even than that. Yes, Korra's been exhausted - she hasn't exactly spent time with Bolin or Mako either - but she can't lie to herself well enough to pretend that she hasn't been avoiding Asami.
She inhales deeply and she grits her teeth - but the air leaves her in a rush, and she slinks deflated round the hillside to the doors to her dormitory.
Surrounded by people, with no rules to regulate her interactions with them, she can feel her panic rising. She eats lightly and little, and excuses herself as soon as she feels she can; she doesn't miss the look that passes between Pema and Tenzin, but she's too distracted to care. She leaves the clamour of the children and the silence of the acolytes and she climbs.
She has reached the bottom of the tower's final flight of stairs before her shoulders loosen out of their hunch. She is almost breathing easily as she crests the final corner, and then she freezes: because framed in the doorway and gazing out to sea is - of course - Asami, arms around her waist.
Korra hesitates a moment longer; and as Asami begins to turn, she crosses the threshold and pads across the room.
"I'm sorry," she says. "This is stupid of me. I admire you, and I'm grateful to you, and this is stupid, and I'm sorry. Would you - would you like to... I don't know, go somewhere, just us? And see if things can be okay again? Maybe?"
(Asami has always been more comfortable with boats than with bison; with cars than with Naga. She's watched Korra flinch away from machines, lose her certainty in the face of cogs, and she wonders: does Korra notice being noticed? Does she realise that Asami feels the same way watching Korra barrel headlong into bending? Nonetheless: they are travelling by boat. When she cannot sleep at night she creeps to the bridge to sight along the stars, or to the engine room to stoke the fires, and the crew make way for her with only token grumbling. She cannot bring herself to care that they have clearly been instructed to give her the run of the ship: she was building scale models from blueprints before she could read. She remembers her laughing mother telling her to colour within the lines. She gazes out to sea.)
Korra's parents are waiting at the dock - and so is Katara. Korra whoops and flings herself onto the water, surfing the final hundred yards. Naga remains curled peacably on the deck above the engines; Asami exchanges wry glances with the captain over her head.
Katara whisks them rapidly to the village: even within her furs Asami is shivering, and Korra is too busy volubly catching up to catch breath, let alone notice her guest. Katara has tea waiting to be brewed, naturally, and suddenly Asami finds herself overwhelmingly the focus of Korra's attention: explanations and stories that everyone else has heard or related a thousand times before, the history of the village and the details of "Uncle Iroh's tea set" and everything in between.
Asami finds she cannot begrudge Korra this homecoming - in such different circumstances to the last - but she aches as she smiles her polished smile; and once or twice her nostrils flare minutely as she bites back a retort; and wrapped in her loneliness she founds countless new ways to be homesick.
She is relieved when a whuff from outside jolts Korra out of her stream of chatter; relieved when Korra excuses herself (with uncustomary politeness) to stretch Naga's legs ("Oh no - poor Naga - she's been getting pretty restless..."); relieved when Katara firmly and gently encourages guests to their rooms. Her head is swimming with names and relationships - the journey has tired her and she is sure she has muddled Katara's children and grandchilden along the way - and it is almost without her noticing that the room empties down to just the two of them.
"Now, young lady," says Katara, briskly, "you look like you have a headache.
Would you like me to do something about that?"
Asami groans gratefully, and Katara flashes a smile so bright and vivid that Asami briefly wonders whether she hallucinated a portrait of the healer as a young woman.
"I'm sorry about all the fuss," says Katara drily, as she throws another log onto the fire. (She acquired a taste for wood fires when she was a girl; she receives regular deliveries by bison from her family and by boat from the Fire Kingdom - as tribute. After all these years, this still strikes her as ridiculous.) "I managed it as best I could."
Asami flaps weakly at her. "Please," she says. "I quite understand. It is an honour to meet you and your family under better circumstances, with time for proper introductions."
"Nonsense," replies Katara, and smiles at her again. "Now. How are you, my dear?"
And she sits and sips her tea.
Asami sits in silence for a while, her hands tucked around her waist.
"Isn't it strange for you?" she asks, eventually, "having Korra around? Especially now she's, well."
"She's not Aang," says Katara, and Asami can hear the humour and the fondness and the slightest touch of sadness in her voice.
"I miss my mother," she says softly.
"Ah," says Katara.
"I can't help wondering if it would be worse if I knew her. Now, I mean."
Katara looks at her evenly, from her place across the fire.
"Korra doesn't understand," Asami says.
"No," says Katara, "she doesn't. Maybe I do, but it's not because of Aang and it's not because of Korra."
"Ah, there you are," says Katara softly, she places her arm through Korra's and draws her through to the kitchen.
"It doesn't look all that different to the racing track at h- the house," she replies.
"Wanna get a closer look?" asks Korra, and nudges Naga back into motion before Asami's had a chance to reply.
Korra opens the great gates with only the smallest of efforts, these days. She guides Naga through the outbuildings to the arena, where the women slide to the ground.
Asami steps out into the open space and lets Korra's nervous chatter wash over her. She notices the drifting at the edge of the paving; realises with approval that it is kept free of blown snow. You're trying to fold yourself up small, she thinks, and you don't even notice room you take up doing it. She smiles a secret smile, just for her and the ice cliffs in the distance: and she spins on her heel. "You ready?" she interrupts.
"Huh?" says Korra, baffled.
"Don't tell me you brought me out here just to sight-see," returns Asami.
Korra hesitates - a moment more - and just manages to settle into her stance and her grin before Asami gets moving.
"Oh, that depends," says Asami, relaxing her grip. "Will you call me Sifu?"
"One more condition," she adds. "You take me penguin-sledding."
Korra shoves Asami off, rolls onto her back, and props herself up on her hands.
"What?" Asami shoots back. "Katara told me last night, while you were out. It sounds fun."
"... I've never really done much of it," Korra admits. "Naga doesn't like it. And the White Lotus weren't too hot on the idea of me messing about in the ice caves."
Asami grins toothily. "You scared?"
"... maybe tomorrow," says Korra weakly.
This time Asami lounges against a post in the stables and watches, arms folded. When Korra's finished with her, Naga pads over to Asami and nuzzles at her insistently, until she gives in.
Korra glances up. "Hey, she likes you," she observes, a little redundantly, as Naga happily licks the side of Asami's face.
Asami looks back, her hand pausing in its ministrations to Naga's ears. "Do you want to learn to drive?" she asks.
"I," says Korra.
"It's useful," says Asami. "More anonymous than Naga. And her feet aren't designed for paved roads. Let me know."
"Welcome home," says Korra, softly.