She'd never felt more exhausted in her life.
Her entire life had been devoted to bending, working on techniques and training and pushing her body to its limits. She'd felt fatigued before, of course, but right now she just felt… tired.
So very tired.
Korra's knees were nearly buckling under Bolin's weight as she and Mako carried him up the stairs together to the brothers' home. Each step she took made her legs shake with the extra burden. Bolin's arms were wrapped around each of their shoulders, but he, too, was miserably drained of energy, and was still pretty out of it. He couldn't support his own body, and after the night he'd experienced, Korra couldn't blame him. He slipped in and out of consciousness easily, but she wished he would just stay asleep.
Bolin screamed every time he awoke from his dreams. It made Korra cringe, unwilling to imagine the torture that he had been through.
She didn't want to think about it.
Bolin's boots banged against each step as they climbed, resonating a deep, hollow noise. It was the only sound she could hear in the quiet arena other than Mako's labored breaths that he exhaled with each footfall.
They reached the top landing.
"You open," Mako mumbled as he leaned in, balancing the load of Bolin's weight on his body. Korra nodded, not even saying a word, and swung the door open. Even without Bolin on her shoulder, she felt a weight, heavy on her chest. It pressed on her heart, dense and painful. Trying to ignore it, she rolled her shoulder and steadied herself before Mako tossed Bolin back in her direction. She grabbed hold of him, and the three stumbled inside.
"Which way?" Korra asked as they stepped into the front room. It was shabby, but warm and comfortable.
"His bed is over here," Mako said, pointing to a simple futon on a wooden palate set in the far corner of the room. They staggered over to it and laid Bolin down, much harder than they wanted to. While Mako strode over to the cabinets, pulling out a worn pillow and a tattered, green blanket, Korra immediately went and sat down on the set of spiral stairs behind the dining area. She rolled the kinks out of her neck and raised her arms up above her head, breathing deeply as her muscles stretched. Her body ached, but her mind raced.
Bolin wasn't going to be permanently hurt; he just needed a long rest. Frankly, so did Korra, but she didn't think she was going to be getting one anytime soon. Dawn was close, and she knew that the day would be full. Conversations with Tenzin, meetings with Beifong and her squad. Maybe even a press conference.
She bit her lip. Korra dreaded the possibility of a press conference, of the cameras flashing their blinding lights in her eyes, the reporters yammering non-stop, pens flying on their notepads, catching every syllable Korra uttered. She didn't want to talk about what had happened. She didn't want anyone to know. Not a single soul. She wouldn't be able to lie if they asked, and she knew they would because reporters always ask those kinds of things:
"Were you scared?"
Throat tight, Korra shook her head, willing her imagination to calm down, willing the thoughts away. She rested her elbows on her knees, and inspected the dark bruise blossoming on her forearm, vaguely wondering how many injuries she was going to go home with. Those would be a joy to explain to Tenzin and the kids. Oh, the kids… Jinora… Ikki… Meelo… She couldn't imagine what they'd say when they found out.
She felt her legs trembling underneath her, and her body shook with the motion. Mako coughed lightly, and she glanced up. Sitting on his knees, Mako was laying the blanket out over his brother, taking care to tuck him in. He laid his hand over Bolin's forehead, brushing back the tendril of hair that frequently hung down, holding his palm still. Korra knew Mako had cared for Bolin as they grew up, but she hadn't realized how many roles he had had to adopt.
Brother, father, mother. What else?
Mako turned around and met Korra's gaze. "He'll be fine," he said simply, his voice cracking ever so slightly. If the room weren't dark, would she see wet eyes? She didn't want to mention it and possibly embarrass him. Crying made her uncomfortable.
"Then why do you look so nervous? We're safe."
She was very nervous. How could he tell? Did he know what she was thinking? No, he couldn't. If anyone found out…
She hung her head and shook it, her hair swaying against the sides of her face. "I'm fine… I'm just… not ready to go home yet. I don't want to deal with Tenzin. He is going to be so furious with me when he finds out what happened. I didn't even leave a note when I left."
"Probably a bad move," Mako said, standing.
She looked up. "No kidding."
He approached her and leaned against the intricate iron railing of the staircase. "C'mon, as long as you're avoiding going back to Air Temple Island, I want to show you something." He turned and began climbing up the stairs.
She glared up at him. "You want me to go up more stairs? Seriously?" Korra groaned.
"Last ones, I promise."
She grumbled a bit as she stood. If she was this sore now, she didn't think it would be possible to move tomorrow. But despite her body's aching, Korra's thoughts kept her alert. Her hand reached out, grabbed the railing, and yanked herself up to wherever Mako had gone. She wound around the staircase, noticing that Bolin had already turned to his side, snuggled into his futon. It seemed his road to recovery would be a short one. She wasn't sure if the damage done would ever truly go away, though, based on the terrors he seemed to be suffering from. How could she even help? She was pathetic, the last person he should—
"Wow," she breathed, ascending the last stretch of the stairs.
This was it. This was the view that Bolin had told her about, that first day they'd met. He called it great, but great was an understatement. It was absolutely amazing. The water extended out to the horizon, undulating gently with the tide. A spattering of stars reflected on its surface. She could make out the silhouette of Air Temple Island; only one light was on. The sentries were awake.
Mako was standing at the edge of the small room, opening up one of the windows. A fresh breeze rolled over them. He sat up on the ledge, resting his head against the wall, and beckoned Korra over. She obliged, and climbed up, sitting a space away but still facing him. She pulled her legs up to her chest and looked out at the water.
It was so calm. Peaceful.
They sat there a long time.
Korra rested her chin on her knee as she stared at the tower on the island, lost in her thoughts. The weight on her chest still pressed down. What was her story going to be? Bolin had been captured, and then she and Mako teamed up and rescued him. It could be as simple as that, and then nobody would have to know about what had happened when those two chi-blockers snuck up on them.
"You're quiet," Mako said. Instead of taking in the view, Mako had been watching her. Watching her run her hands up and down her shins, watching her bite her lip, watching her eyes dart across the bay. "Usually you'd be insanely loud about our victory. Aren't you happy?"
This was true. The last pro-bending match they won, Korra had gotten quite a bit excited, and that energy had stayed with her for hours afterwards. This resulted in random bouts of yelling whenever it hit her again that they were going into the semifinals. While Bolin had gone along with it, screaming along whenever she did, Mako had only half-jokingly threatened to kick her off the team if she didn't calm down. She turned her eyes away from the water and glared at him.
"Of course I'm happy we got Bolin ba—"
"Not only that, but I thought for sure you'd be throwing a told-you-so or two in my face right about now. You did say that we had to work together to get him back, and look, here I am, admitting you were right."
She couldn't help but smile at that. "Yeah, that's true. We should really incorporate some of that teamwork into our next match, huh?"
He smirked. "Now, now, I'm the captain, I'll decide what plays we use."
"Why do you always gotta pull the captain card on me?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. His expression softened and turned serious. He cleared his throat. "But Korra, I need to…" He scratched his head. "I should thank you. If it weren't for you, I don't think I could have done it. You're the one that took control of the situation, you're the one who kicked some serious Equalist butt." Korra refused to look at him. She hadn't been in control of the situation. She just hadn't. Mako continued, "You could have done it by yourself and been fine!"
"Now that's not tr—"
"Oh, that's right, I gotta give some credit to Naga. She is the one who scared off those two chi-blockers. I should go downstairs and give her a treat before you head off. She'd like that, right?"
Korra stared out the window, silent.
The one moment she wanted to forget, and here Mako was, making her think about it all over again.
"Korra, is something wrong?"
She turned away from the window, spinning so her legs were dangling off the ledge. Her hair hid half her face. Of course something was wrong, and she remembered it so clear. She'd been fighting the Equalist, bending the hottest fire that she could muster. And then the Equalist took her down so easily. All it took was a few jabs in all the right places, and Korra was down, her body slamming against the street. Mako followed suit and fell in front of her. And as Korra had looked up at the masked Equalists, ropes swinging, ready to capture them, she felt it. For the first time in her life, she felt it.
Pure, all-encompassing terror shook her to the core as she lay on that street, out of ideas and out of elements and out of control. The fight that burned inside her extinguished so easily, and a horrifying panic had spread through her veins. It left briefly, but it had returned full force. It squeezed her heart right now, reminding her with each pump of blood that she had felt fear. The Avatar, the protector of the people, the bringer of peace, the fearless warrior… she had been scared. "I'm not afraid of anything!" How many times had she shouted it up to the world? She was pathetic. How could she be the Avatar if she wasn't fearless anymore? Everyone would lose faith in her, Amon would be the victor, and benders would be eradicated.
She saw them now. Earthbenders, waterbenders, firebenders, airbenders. Lined up, awaiting judgment and punishment and maybe even death by the Equalists' hands. Who knew what all they were capable of? Tenzin, the kids, Bolin… Mako… bent and broken… all because of her.
"Korra," Mako's voice, now tender, broke through her thoughts. He leaned forward, squinting his eyes through the darkness. "Are you… crying?" Her hand flew up to her cheek, and her fingertips felt the wetness lingering. No, she wasn't crying, no, no no no nonono—
"NO!" she yelled, standing and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. Her fist flew against the wall, summoning fire as her punch made impact. She felt no pain. She fell back, sliding down the wall and plopping on the floor. The heels of her hands dug against her eyes, but it was too late. He had seen her crying. He had seen her weak.
Korra groaned, shaking her head and wiping at her eyes again, trying to get control of herself. "Ugh. So embarrassing," she confessed, her shaky voice muffled by her hands. When she looked up, she saw Mako sitting on the floor in front of her.
"You can, um… you can tell me," he stammered awkwardly. "I mean, you can talk about it. With me. If you want. I'll, um, listen." Her throat tightened and her lips trembled as she tried to keep it in. Why couldn't he just be a jerk right now? Why was he acting like this? He reached out and gently stretched his fingers out over the bruise on her arm. "It's okay."
She burst into tears.
"It's not! It's not okay!" she sputtered out between heaving sobs. "I was terrified, Mako! When those chi-blockers came, before Naga sent them off! I was scared! So scared!" She sniffed, lips trembling. "I was powerless, helpless, out of control… and scared! I'm not supposed to be scared! How can people trust me as the Avatar? I don't want to… I'm not strong enough… I don't want to be scared like that ever again. What are people going to think of me? I can't… I…" She choked on her own voice.
He was taken aback at first, but slowly, cautiously, gently, Mako put one arm around her. Then two. He held her close and tight and strong and let her cry.
And oh, she cried.
Once Korra's barrier broke, the tears flowed freely, her sobs loud and unabated. His hands had drifted to the back of her head, and he pulled her against him. She buried her face against his scarf and wrapped her arms around him. Her body quivered as she cried. And cried. And cried. She really couldn't say how long she'd been sitting there, halfway into Mako's lap, clinging to his shoulders…
It felt like a moment, and it felt like forever.
But she felt herself slowing; she felt the fear dissipating in Mako's presence, just like before.
"I was scared too," he admitted, resting his chin on her head now. His voice was calm yet commanding. "When I discovered that they had taken Bolin, I was scared. When the chi-blocker took my bending, I was scared. When I saw you falling, I was scared…" She trembled in his arms, her breathing slowly getting back under her control. "When I was a kid, after our parents died, I was terrified. I was just a kid! What was I supposed to do? I had no food, no place to go, and my brother to look out for. For weeks after the accident, I was very scared and very clueless. I went to sleep every night, horrified, wondering if I'd be able to steal enough food for us without getting caught, if Bolin would get sick, or if I'd lose him. Lose him like I lost him tonight. I had a lot of bad nightmares then.
"I tried to keep my fears in, because I had to be strong for Bolin, you know? I had to be there for him. But then one day, it overwhelmed me, and I started crying. Bawling!" He laughed lightly. "And Bolin found me in the alleyway behind that tea shop down the street. I told him that I wasn't strong enough, something like that. And you know what he said to me? Oh, man, I remember this so well. He told me that I was the strongest person that he knew, like I was a complete idiot for thinking otherwise. And after that day, everything changed. It hit me. Being afraid wasn't a bad thing. Me being afraid was what kept us alive. Me being afraid was what made me strong, what made me into who I am today.
"Korra." He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her away from him so that he could look at her. She took his scarf and, with a sniff, wiped her nose.
"Yeah?" she said quietly as she stared into his eyes, tears clinging to her eyelashes.
"You are the strongest person I know. You."
She shook her head and opened her mouth, but Mako raised a finger and pressed it to her lips before she could speak.
"And there is nothing to be ashamed of; nobody is going to judge you. You are only human. An amazing human, but a human nonetheless. This is only going to make you stronger, which is, well, mind-blowing. Amon is the one that should be afraid now."
Korra let out a half-laugh, half-sob. "Stop. Just stop talking."
"No, it's the truth! I already told you tonight how I couldn't have gotten through tonight with you."
She swallowed. "Mako, no, it's the other way around. I couldn't have done it without you."
Her mind went back to that moment.
She had been knocked onto the ground, Mako in front of her, when the chi-blocking warriors had advanced and sent the fear rushing through her. And it attacked her, cold and ruthless and penetrating, even when Naga untied herself and leapt forward with a roar, intimidating the two fighters. Korra had lain there paralyzed, partly from the attack but mostly from the sheer terror, eyes wide, gasping for air. And then it went away. It went away when Mako turned his head back to her, and she met his gaze, fierce and determined, and she heard his voice:
"It's okay, Korra. I'm here."
And as she looked up at him now, sitting in the dark, another tear dropped off her lashes and rolled down her cheek. Mako took her face in his hands. "It's okay, Korra," he whispered, wiping the tear away with his thumb. "I'm here."
She nodded. And slowly, cautiously, Korra bent her face up, feeling his breath on her face. She leaned forward, and her nose grazed against his as she touched her forehead to his. Her lips quivered, so close to his, warm and welcoming. Mako tilted his head ever so slightly and pressed his mouth to hers.
When they kissed, she felt the fire again. That burning inside her that had left when the fear attacked came surging back. She pushed herself into the kiss, opening her mouth slowly against Mako's, their breaths mingling together. She nudged him backward, and he responded, placing his hands on her waist and pulling her forward as he reclined back onto the floor. Korra's fingers traced his jaw, running down from his ear to his chin. Her lips brushed against his, and he embraced her tightly against him, deepening the kiss with heat and want and need.
They kissed with a sense of urgency, of adrenaline, as if they feared this would be their only kiss.
But Korra knew that there was nothing to fear. Not really.
She pulled back and mumbled, "I'm not scared when I'm with you."
"Then let's stick together," he said. "Team?"
Mako tilted her chin up and kissed her lips, sweetly this time, with no trace of fear.