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|Again and Again|
January 171 AG
Mandy & Tsura
September 12th, 2013
Saved by herself, in a way: by the thousands of her past incarnations, finally broken free from her spiritual side that had been locked away for so long. Korra could finally, truly call herself the Avatar in every aspect of the word... But here she was, some hours after the fact, and she still felt like just a stupid teenager—not at all like some all-mighty being.
And it was all because of Mako.
If he hadn't followed her, if he hadn't been there when she had seen Aang, and gone into the Avatar State... if he hadn't been the only one there when she came back from the brink of nearly killing herself, if she hadn't been so elated and had stopped for just a minute to think, before running over to him and sharing her happiness in the stupidest possible way...
Maybe if she wasn't such a spirits-damned idiot, then she wouldn't be having this problem now.
The ride back on Naga to the Southern Water Tribe afterwards had been a comfortable one. As they got closer and the endless joy over her revelation had somewhat lulled, however, she began to realize just what they had done.
Korra might've still felt like a stupid teenager, but she was smart enough to know she didn't want to be that kind of person. She couldn't fathom being a homewrecker; more importantly, she couldn't handle the thought of hurting one of her friends in the process. Asami deserved so much better than that, so much more than the two of them not only betraying her, but also not even admitting it to her face.
At least, Korra knew for certain she had yet to say anything to Asami, but she only had a vague certainty Mako hadn't, either.
Which was why she was going to talk to him, first, to clear some things up... before she came clean with and apologized to Asami.
In all honesty, Korra wasn't much looking forward to either conversation. With her heart still feeling so heavy, however—and perhaps thanks to some subconscious influence by her past incarnation—she knew she had to do this.
A large, celebratory dinner with her family, friends, and teachers was in the middle of being prepared; with so many people helping out around the small cookfire in her parents' home, it was easy enough for her to slip away for a short while and seek out that certain firebender. Lucky for her, she found him alone—perhaps he was thinking the same as she?
Big crowds had never really been his thing, which he supposed was ironic given that he was a remarkably successful pro-bender. Crowds came part and parcel with the job. Still, he found them stifling and after a few awkward, smiling excuses the firebender managed to detach himself from the party. A few minutes of wandering eventually brought him to a blissfully empty room. Though it was sparsely furnished it sported a rather large window that offered an impressive view of a courtyard and a glimpse of the tundra that lay just beyond. It was a shame that such scenery was lost on him.
You're an idiot.
Mako took a moment to stand back and admire the fine mess his life had become. It was a wonder that he could coherently parse even a fraction of the thoughts currently flying through his head. The few thoughts he could glean and subsequently understand were, however, poignant.
Today, Korra, his team mate, his... Friend, his absolute favorite pain-in-the ass, became a fully realized Avatar. It was an event that would be preserved in the annals of history for future generations to know and reflect upon.
He had also witnessed her just moments before lost in a state that even now, hours later, had left him shaken to the core. Avatar Korra admitted defeat to her own demons and had been on the verge of dedicating herself to hungry waves that lashed against jagged icy cliffs. In other words, she had wanted to die. And to add insult to injury this event had occurred directly after he had admitted his feelings to her.
Though he was grateful that Korra had pulled herself back from the brink even before he had rushed across the snow to save her, he couldn't help but feel hurt. It felt like he didn't matter. Like he simply wasn't enough reason to convince the girl he loved to retain her mortal coil.
His fists clenched and he grit his teeth. No. That wasn't fair. The entire time he had supposedly been falling in love with her had been spent stubbornly ignoring her affections and the minute signs of jealousy that she exhibited whenever he was in Asami's company. If he was completely honest with himself, he could concede that on some level, the idea of the Avatar pining for a nobody like him may have given him an inflated sense of ego. The inherent hubris in such thinking was disgusting, and he scoffed inwardly at himself.
"I don't deserve either of them..." He mumbled, rubbing his fur enclosed upper arms in an action that was more nervous fidgeting than any effort to keep warm. After all, he was a firebender, if he needed heat all he had to do was call upon it. "What the hell am I even doing..."
A growl crept up his throat and he palmed his forehead, closing his eyes as his brows knitted together in frustration. He was eighteen, still just a kid despite whatever pedestal he had placed himself on. What could he possibly know about a lofty, life changing topic like love?
Nothing. Not shit.
... Except that when Tarrlok had taken her, he knew for a fact that he had never felt more helpless and scared in his entire life. The thought of her being in danger, of being hurt or worse had made him physically ill. He could think of nothing other than Korra even while Asami was trying to do her best to calm and support him, like a loving girlfriend should. At the time however he was beyond being comforted. In fact, while consumed by unbridled, absolute fury he had been within a hairsbreadth of burning a man's tongue clean out of his skull just to figure out where she was. Honestly, he had yet to feel guilt regarding that particular event when recalling the indescribable relief that had washed over him when he was finally reunited with Korra. Like he had saved himself as much as he had her.
He pulled his hand slowly down his face before digging into the pocket of his parka to fish out a pre-rolled cigarette. An ironic smirk crossed his lips. With as many secrets as he hadn't been able to keep from his brother or his love interests it struck him as odd that this particular habit of his had gone unnoticed. A part of him wished that this was the most awful of those secrets, but unfortunately he had a bad habit of screwing himself out of good things and inevitably the worst that could happen, did happen. With a grunt he brought the blunt to his lips and bit down as he lit it with a single flaming fingertip. He then leaned against the window sill, taking a long drag and exhaling slowly, watching as tendrils of smoke meandered towards the magnificent blanket of stars that peppered the dimming twilight. It really was beautiful. The lights that punctuated Republic City's night life didn't allow for such views.
His thoughts soon slowed to a gracious crawl, and the firebender contented himself with puffing away and leaving his problems for future Mako to deal with. However, minutes later it seemed those problems were more stubborn than he had originally anticipated, and he almost yelped when Korra's tentative voice touched his ears. "Mako," Korra greeted; there was a rare note of hesitation in her voice, her gaze steady on her boots.
She took a second to steel herself with a deep breath, and then finally looked him in the eye, even as her shoulders hunched under her parka and she shoved her hands in the front pocket. "I... I need to talk to you, about... stuff."
He jerked the cigarette behind his back, through he felt ridiculous for doing so and offered the girl a smile as he turned to look at her, only to have it fall as she asked him the one thing he had been dreading all night. He swallowed, surreptitiously edging to the window and trying to find an opportunity to flick the burning cigarette outside.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, she looked away from him, over to the door. There would be no better privacy for this talk about "stuff" than outside—maybe in the makeshift courtyard that lay nearby—where from the window, night was beginning to fall and a light flurry was falling. "Um... Alone." She cringed. "...If that's okay, I mean."
Smooth, Korra. Real smooth. She chastised herself.
"Uh... Sure Korra. Any uh, place in particu-OW~!" The firebender hissed and dropped the smoldering blunt on the ground, stomping it out as he patted down the flaming fur on his cuff. Damn, he'd forgotten that he'd spilled a bit of lamp oil on his sleeve earlier.
So much for worrying about her own awkwardness: within a minute of just being in the same room as him, Mako had gone above and beyond in beating Korra at being smooth.
Unfortunately, despite his persistent patting the fire refused to go out and left with no recourse he yanked off the parka and threw it on the floor, using his foot to roll it in on itself and smother the flame. Did he really just set her dad's parka on fire? It was all Korra could do to just stand there and stare as he stamped out what looked like a cigarette, then ripped off the parka and used his boot to roll the garment in on itself and snuff out the flames. Him. A firebender.
A few seconds later the flames were put out and he found himself puffing in slight exertion as he looked up at Korra. She looked blankly back at him, then at the ruined coat, before awkwardly going over to pick it up.
He opened his mouth, then shut it, unsure of what he could possibly say to explain this.
... Agni hates me. "... Sorry about your dad's parka."
"Uh... That's okay?" she offered lamely, wincing as she eyed the black scorches along the sleeve that were still faintly smoking. "I mean, my mom can fix it... er. Maybe. ...He's got other parkas, anyways."
Shame twisted his guts as he watched her collect what had been a quality, handmade tiger seal parka that was now a smoldering mess. The sleeve was beyond repair, he was no tanner, but he knew enough to figure that there wasn't much one could do about missing fur and so didn't quite believe Korra's half-felt assurances that her mother could fix the garment. Sure the man had other parkas... But Mako had honestly been flattered when Senna and Tonraq had offered him the coat to wear during his stay in their home. From the moment he'd met them he had almost immediately been treated like family. It wasn't always a good thing, as Senna had been throwing these odd, embarrassingly knowing looks between him and Korra the entire night. But nonetheless they had put their faith in him on a small but meaningful level and not even a few hours into his stay he had already ruined one of the things they had entrusted to him.
Shaking her head, Korra tossed the parka on the nearby bed, glancing to Mako with a raised brow. "I didn't know you smoked... Isn't that bad for you? I mean, I remember Master Katara telling me it was."
Ears burning, Mako looked up as Korra commented on his smoking habit and in response he looked at the floor, eyes running over the scorch marks in the carpet as he stuttered an explanation.
"I... Yeah, i-it's bad for you, but I've been doing it for a long time... It's hard to give up."
Eager to avoid the conversation they needed to have for as long as possible, Korra was about to ask what he was doing in here, when she caught sight of something else smoldering on the rug between their feet. Mako blinked as her hand suddenly entered his field of vision to scoop up an object that was off-white and slightly smoking. Frowning, Korra bent down to pick it up, only to straighten back up with a plush polar bear dog pup dangling from her fingers.
What was once a soft and cuddly reminder of her childhood—and perhaps the reason why she had so eagerly taken Naga under her care at the precocious age of ten—now was blackened and burned, stuffing coming out through a hole popped in its leg stitching, a black bead of an eye melted in its head. "Oh, Foo-Foo..." she mumbled sadly, momentarily forgetting she wasn't alone as she clutched what had been her favorite toy to her chest. "...It's okay, maybe mom can fix you," Korra assured the stuffed animal as much as herself.
His gaze followed her as she stood straight; clutching what he was now sure was a stuffed animal to her chest, cooing softly at it as she stroked the soot covered fur. For a moment he simply stood and stared, not quite believing what met his eyes. The Avatar, standing there and cuddling a child's plush toy like it was an old friend, lamenting blue eyes trained on the crown of its fluffy little head. The picture she painted was endearing and for a moment Mako forgot just what she was and found himself flushing just a bit. It was adorable, and, honestly speaking, he could relate to what she was feeling.
Should I...? After the mess I made I probably should... he thought.
Abruptly, Korra remembered he was right there, and predictably her demeanor changed.
Flushing a bright red, Korra cleared her throat and tossed "Foo-Foo" behind her, shrugging and looking away. "...Not that I care—I-I mean, it's not a big deal, whatever." She cringed—that sounded fake even to her—and ultimately gave up a moment later, signaled by the frustrated sigh she blew out as she flopped back on her childhood bed.
If he hadn't been so thoroughly chagrined Mako might have laughed as she tossed the toy carelessly over her shoulder, blowing out a painfully fake dismissal of its importance to her as she sighed and flopped bonelessly onto her bed. The firebender didn't speak for a moment, his eyes flitting thoughtfully between "Foo-Foo" and his mistress. The tenseness in his brow soon relaxed, a rueful smirk curling his lips as he reached a hand into the lining of his tunic. In no time his fingers found what they were looking for and with an awkward clearing of his throat he pulled out a small, taupe-colored lion dog plushie to present awkwardly between them. The ragged little thing was missing an ear and various stains in its fur belied the fact that it had once been an almost eggshell color. The firebender could still remember a time when he was small enough to hold the beloved toy flush to his chest when he went to bed at night in a house he could now barely recall. The thing was now barely bigger than his hand.
"I... My, p-parents," He started awkwardly, unable to look at her as he held it out. Explanations tangled in his throat, his heart thudding and his face heating as a mishmash of emotions presented themselves all at once. He really hoped she wouldn't make him go on, and that the underlying explanation was understood. Aside from him, the only person that knew about the toy was Bolin, and there was an unspoken understanding between the two of them about it. "An-anyway, this is Mochi." He scrunched his eyes shut, blurting out the next thing that came to his mind before he could think better of it. "-Mom named him."
In a nervous rush he all but stomped over to her and plopped the toy onto her belly before taking a seat at Korra's side.
"Until your friend is better... I... Just hold onto him for me okay?" Mako muttered, his voice made barely audible by embarrassment.
The toy had clearly seen better days; mention of his parents solidified her suspicions, and Korra knew to leave that unsaid explanation hanging between them, and not probe further. It was almost as if he knew she was thinking this couldn't get any more embarrassing and was determined to prove her wrong or something. Her blush darkened a shade at the realization of just what he was giving her—well, letting her borrow, technically—and her gaze dropped to the stuffed toy as she gingerly picked it up.
Mochi. She sat up and cradled the lion dog to her chest hesitantly, finding some odd comfort in doing so. It was easier than looking to Mako when he spoke, than acknowledging how stupidly difficult this was. Things couldn't get any worse, so might as well finally broach that stupid talk now, yeah? "We could just... talk here, I guess. If that's okay with you." Kind of weird to do this in her old bedroom, she supposed, but it wasn't like anyone would think to come looking for either of them in here. "Um... I was kind of hoping we could... Talk about us. I mean... You know," Korra gestured to the space between them, swiftly growing annoyed with herself. "About... us, and Asami, and this, and... Everything." She scowled, tugging nervously at one of her pigtails. "...I just... I don't think this is right, to us or to her or... To anyone, really."
Talking about her feelings? So not her strong suit.
The firebender understood where she was coming from, and looked at his lap, listening carefully as he shot furtive glances at her face to gauge her expressions. His heart leapt with some unnameable emotion as the girl referred to them as an 'us'. He hadn't even gone as far as to say that, although he had all but rushed into telling her he loved her of all things. When Asami's name entered the conversation, he had the decency to look disgusted at himself, his fists clenching in his pant legs. Since the night had started he was ashamed to say that she hadn't crossed his thoughts nearly as much as she should have.
"I know it's not right Korra." The words came slowly as he carefully deliberated over what he wanted to say next. "I care about Asami, I'm..." He grit his teeth. "-ashamed of how I'm treating her..." He glared at his hands, frustration stewing to a boiling point before he suddenly deflated, shoulders slumping. "I didn't even have the grace to break up with her before I came running to find you..."
He let those facts hang in the air between them, raw and exposed and unforgivable. "But..." The boy forced himself to look at her, steeling his jangled nerves and willing his heart to stop racing as he took a deep breath to brace himself for what he had to say next. "I... I can't deny what I feel about you. When Amon..."
He almost gnashed his teeth, the explanation getting caught in a sudden, unbearable lump that had formed in his throat. Sure he had hurried to tell her that he felt the full scope of human affection towards her without really knowing what it meant, but explaining the way that he felt was another matter entirely, and despite his nervousness his body began to move before his mind had even formulated the reason as to why. The mention of Amon caused Korra's breath to catch in her chest, just as the space between them suddenly became nonexistent.
In the span of a breath he had her shoulders straddled between his hands as he bent over her, golden eyes reflecting an odd mix of fear and a plea for understanding. "I didn't know what to do. I'd never been more scared in my life... And I was so angry and I didn't even know why."
Her eyes were wide as they met his, further betraying her upset as much as her nervousness. "Mako, I—" she tried and failed, not sure what she might've said even as he interrupted, trying to get her to understand.
He hung his head, unmindful of the fact that his hair was probably brushing against her face. "I... I don't know if what I feel for you is love..." The admittance came slowly, almost begrudgingly. "But what I do know is that I never want to feel that way again."
His explanation came out in a burst, and by the end of it he was just a bit out of breath. In truth, Korra just felt more confused now. She tried to ignore the tickle of his bangs against her forehead as he met her gaze again, offering her an out. "I..." She struggled, searching for words, trying to organize her thoughts.
He puffed slightly, gathering whatever courage he had to look her in the eye before going on with a proposition that needled at something inside him that he couldn't quite place. "I-if you don't feel the same way, if you don't want this, know that I'm still your friend at the end of it..." He tried for a reassuring smile that wavered weakly on his lips. "And if you want, we can pretend like it- us, never happened."
Saying it felt like a lie, but he said it anyway. They both had much more to consider than just themselves and if he was honest, they'd already hurt more people than his conscience could bear to condone. Her eyes squeezed shut and she blew out a sigh, inadvertently realizing she probably just hit him full in the face with breath smelling of smoky fire-spice tea. Korra cringed, deciding it would be better not to bring that up, and peeked an eye open at him as she finally, lamely offered, "...I... I don't know. ...W-what I want, I mean."
He listened carefully, his eyes trained on her expressions as they transitioned between differing stages of anxiety and nervousness. The firebender awkwardly sat back as she sat up, though followed through with his determination not to look away. Mako almost smiled as he saw her clutching Mochi like he was a lifeline, as he had done in the past many many times when he needed to glean more strength than he was readily capable of. As she went on to explain her confusion with the situation at large, with herself, he nodded his head in understanding, not uttering a word even as she blew breath tinted with the sour scent of tea. He wasn't a fan of the stuff (He had always been more of a coffee man), but had tact enough not to cringe. She was nervous enough as it was, and this situation was ridiculous enough to warrant a pass to ease tension.
"I just... I don't know what I feel. I thought... I thought we were supposed to be together," she admitted and felt incredibly stupid for it, particularly as she added in a much smaller voice, "...Like Aang and Katara." Yeah, because spirits knew he didn't have enough proof as it was that she was a complete moron! At the mention of Aang and Katara he felt a bit of bemusement as he recalled the day where she had all but thrust the fact of her crush on him in his face. Korra shook her head, suddenly angry with herself again. "...Look, I just... I don't have any experience with... B-being with someone, I guess. Before I came to Republic City... My whole life has been about training, about being the Avatar. I've never really been just... Korra. It's always Avatar Korra."
He was still smiling until she mentioned her responsibilities as the Avatar, his smile then faltered and before he could think better of it he blurted-
"You've always been just plain old Korra to me." He said, his voice tapering off until it was barely audible. True enough she was the Avatar, but he had first known her as a team mate and a damn good waterbender. "Stubborn as shit, temperamental... And much more fun at parties." He added with a rueful smile, even as the ending of her proclamation made his stomach sink miserably. "And I also think you're wrong." Reaching out, he gave her a good-natured tousle of her hair, wondering guiltily at how soft it was as it bunched beneath his fingers. He withdrew his hand before the physical contact could start to become awkward. "I've considered you my friend for a very long time. You were my friend before anything, and you stayed that way... Even when I took you for granted and all but paraded Asami around you, even though I knew damn well how you felt." The firebender trailed off there, unsure of how he wanted to move on from that, but then sighed slowly through his nose. If he loved her, as he suspected he did, she came first, just as Bolin always had before he'd let his misconstrued notions of romance come between them. "I don't want to lose our friendship because of something as stupid- Well, maybe not stupid, but..."
Now she was the one trying to get him to understand, even as she didn't fully understand it herself. The words were coming too quickly, thoughts she hadn't ever really taken the time to fully consider, herself, coming to the surface. "I think... I think we just... I just... moved way too fast," she admitted slowly, feeling out the realization hesitantly. "And... when we get back to Republic City, I know... there's going to be a lot expected of me. I'm going to have to be the Avatar, first. It's... It's always going to be like that." Korra swallowed, some sort of feeling of loss welling up in her chest, even as she pushed forward. "I don't think I'm ready to be in a relationship with you—w-with anyone, really. Not yet. I think... I need to learn how to be me as much as being the Avatar, first, because... I don't think I ever really have."
For a moment, she fell quiet, contemplating this as much as them, and something else occurred to her. She glanced up at him, her gaze searching his as she tried for a smile in turn, though it didn't quite meet her eyes. "And us... I mean... We've never really been friends before we got into this. Whenever we've been alone together, we've either been fighting or about to fight, or working undercover, or... well, you know." It was going to sound like the most pathetic brush-off ever, but if she was lucky, he wouldn't see it that way; if she was super lucky, he would realize just how genuinely she meant it. "I really... I really, really want us to be friends, Mako. We work really well as a team... " She offered him a grin, trying to inject some levity into the situation as she added, "...and, obviously, I like you a lot, too."
Unconsciously, his hand meandered to her knee, where his fingers gently squeezed as he turned and looked her in the eye once more, searching for a sign, a hint, something. All he found was honest confusion, but paired with it, an overwhelming amount of sincerity. She cared. In her own way. But there was a soupcon of sadness there that drew out a response before he had properly realized its repercussions in his mind. "This was a mistake. I should have known better, I should have thought about you. You don't belong to anyone. You belong to everyone."
After a few moments of thought, wherein it felt as though a vise was slowly crushing the life out of his chest, stealing his breath and his rationality with it, he tried to grin back at her, return her levity with some of his own. But his eyes were stinging for some reason, and, horrified at himself, he stood up, looking away from her, just a single traitorous tear meandered down his face. He was her friend. And friends didn't put their needs ahead of people they cared about now did they? Mako hitched up his shoulder, acting as though he were simply scratching the corner of his jaw with the fabric of his tunic. It served to be rid of any evidence of moisture before anything could be said of it.
"Ah... Anyway..." He cleared his throat, forcing out a laugh that sounded fake even to him. "I... I've been talking to Chief Beifong... They have positions open in the police force for non-earthbenders and she offered me a job. I'm taking it."
He strode over to the window, looking out into the courtyard, anywhere but at her, trying his damnedest to ignore the enigmatic ache in his chest. It was almost unbearable. But he stiffened his back, squared his shoulders, and did his best to maintain what little dignity he had left. "I'll be in training almost as soon as we get back to the city. We won't..." His brow relaxed, some small amount of relief finding him at the new found realization. "We won't be seeing each other as much, and... Even after, you know, on the job training and stuff, just- I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier."
As he watched light flurries dust over mounds of snow that had settled over the course of the night, his lips drew into a rueful smile. "Hey Uh-vatar." He intoned in his best imitation of Tahno's shit-eating voice. He turned around at that, channeling the persona that came to him during a pro-bending match. All smiles and confidence, though he was quite sure it didn't really meet his eyes. It was quite possibly the hardest thing he had ever done in his life. "You gotta admit, we're much better at beating the snot out of each other than talking anyway."
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