Mako woke to the sounds of screaming.
No, it wasn't really screaming— it was more of a horrible, ear-piercing, infantile screeching, the same exact sound that had plagued him every night and every day for the past two months. He groaned.
Reika was crying again. And he was not surprised. He'd been listening to her screeching all night long. She'd finally tuckered out a few hours ago but was back at it again, lungs as powerful as ever.
As his body slowly started waking up, his eyelids trying desperately to open, he felt a body stirring next to him and heard a familiar muffled moan against his back. Korra must have gotten home during one of the two precious hours the baby had granted him sleep. He rolled over to look at his wife, and her eyes opened slowly, their brilliant blue muted by the dark. She looked at him sleepily, expectantly.
Oh, no. Not tonight. He'd already put in his time.
"It's your turn," he mumbled before she could even ask. He'd spent the whole day working at the power plant and then spent all night listening to their baby cry about who knows what and then spent his entire sleep (all two beautiful hours of it) dreaming about her crying. It was Korra's turn to deal with her.
She closed her eyes again and snuggled into her pillow. "Mako, I seriously just got home thirty minutes ago. I can't."
Mako sat up in the bed. "I watched her all night. By myself. And the night before."
"And I have a press conference tomorrow—"
"And I have the early shift—"
"And you of all people know how much they stress me out—"
"And you were gone for days—"
"And I'm exhausted."
This argument was routine. That being said, all arguments between the two of them were routine. They'd been arguing with each other about anything and everything since the first day they'd met, and it continued through the years, from their first pro-bending tournament to the awkward confession of their feelings to their wedding night. But in the two months since Reika's birth, things had changed drastically, and their disagreements had escalated in intensity. Years ago, even six months ago, their arguments were about enforcing their ability to bother the other, about challenging each other. The topics had been simple: which one should be the defender in a pro-bending match, which one of them should follow Bolin to the bar so he didn't make a complete fool of himself, which one should be on top… But those innocent disagreements filled with annoyed sighs were long gone.
They'd start with a quick back and forth, accusations being tossed, voices being raised. It almost always ended in a screaming match, their yells, harsh and hurtful, melding together with the baby's. It was a chorus of anger and pain ringing through their apartment, and it was the worst when Reika woke them up in the middle of the night like this. They'd be at each other's throats in seconds. Sometimes Mako thought it was all due to sleep deprivation.
And sometimes he didn't.
"Mako, please," Korra begged. "Just this once."
Anger fizzled beneath his skin.
"Fine," he said with gritted teeth, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
Just this once? Was that some kind of joke? It'd been 'just this once' countless times; Korra never gave him a break. He was always the one who had to get up. Always. Even though she'd been gone for two days at a Fire Nation council meeting and Mako had been alone, just him and the baby, she still wasn't giving him a break. This was so very normal, so very Korra. She'd pile on the excuses about all her responsibilities as the Avatar and how the world was counting on her and bla bla bla, guilting him into getting up (albeit begrudgingly) and tending to Reika instead of her. It didn't matter that he worked his ass off every day at the plant, or that he had actually given up pro-bending, all so he could work more and stress more and make more so he could try and support his young family. Oh, no, none of that mattered.
And it really pissed him off.
He stood and left the bedroom, not bothering to look back.
He entered the nursery, his fingers massaging his temples. His head still ached from the hours of crying that he had already suffered through that day. It amazed him constantly that a creature so tiny could make such a loud noise. Reika lay in her bassinet, face red and scrunched and ugly, screaming (pleading) to the world to take her pain away.
Mako wished he could. Really, he did. But nothing he did seemed to work. He didn't even know why she cried like this.
He leaned over and picked her up, cradling her head in one hand as he held her against his bare chest. Her tiny fists beat against him. His voice low, he hummed out a lullaby that lingered on the edges of memory. It was the one his mother used to sing to him and Bolin when there was a storm. The notes were calm and vibrated his chest. Reika still screeched, sucking in huge breaths of air to supply her crying.
Mako looked down at his baby girl, at the tears flowing down her face. She wriggled in his hold, and he wondered vaguely why he even bothered performing the lullaby. He'd tried singing to his daughter many times before, but she refused to be consoled. He'd tried feeding her more, changing her more. He'd tried rocking her, walking with her, swaying her in his arms. The list went on and on. Touching, talking, warming, anything he could think of he tried. And it never worked. He didn't know what else he could do but let her cry herself back to sleep.
She was inconsolable, and she flailed, crying against his shoulder.
It was times like these that he wished his dad were still alive. Mako vaguely remembered watching his dad comfort Bolin when he was still a toddler. His dad was always good at making both Bolin and Mako stop crying. Just like his old scarf, his dad always made them feel safe; his dad always knew what to do; his dad always gave the best advice. And Mako needed advice more than anything right now.
It wasn't something that he'd ever advertised, but he'd never wanted to be a father. Kids were never something that had appealed to him. As a child, babies scared him. As a teenager, they annoyed him. And as an adult, they simply had no place in his life. But part of him, some part that resided deep down in his gut, had told him time and time again that if he had a child and then he died, that child would be an orphan. And Mako dreaded bringing another orphan into the world. It terrified him. There were far too many orphans already, far too many in this city alone. He hadn't wanted any of this, but it happened anyway. Reika happened. And now not only was Mako a father, he was a bad one, incapable of calming his only child.
"Maybe try a different song," Korra suggested. "I got some good water tribe ones we could try again." Reika was crying loudly in his ear, but Mako still heard her. The anger started bubbling underneath his skin once more.
Still cradling the baby, Mako turned. Korra was leaning against the doorjamb, her arms crossed over her chest. Her hair was a tangled mess. She only wore her underwear and one of Mako's old tanktops. It grazed the tops of her thighs, and one strap threatened to fall off her shoulder.
"That won't make a difference," he said, bouncing Reika up and down a bit.
"You haven't tried. How do you know it won't work?"
"How do you know it will?" he retorted.
"It's not like you're ever the one dealing with her. How would you know?" He rubbed Reika's back. She screamed in response.
"Oh, please. I have to do this all the time."
"Right," Mako said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "And I'm the most famous pro-bender in Republic City! Oh, wait… that's right. I had to quit pro-bending so I could watch our daughter since you're never here."
Korra approached, fists shoved against her hips, and glared up at him. Her eyes burned blue, the hottest of fires. "Believe me, if I didn't have to, I dunno, protect the world, maybe we wouldn't be in this. But oh, yeah, being the Avatar? It's kinda my job."
This sent Mako over the edge. "Well maybe I don't want it to be your job! And I'm sick of you always pulling the Avatar card on me!" he yelled.
"Well, too bad, Mako!" she screamed, hands flying out in a gesture. "Because you married the Avatar! And you gotta deal with it!"
The argument paused, both of them locked in a furious stare. Palpable tension snaked around them, holding them steady. And Reika cried louder, stronger, angrier than before.
"Fine," he said, his voice tens of decibels lower. "I give up."
Korra strained to hear him. "What?"
"I said I give up!" Mako yelled again, thrusting Reika out into Korra's arms. She scooped her up without question, but her expression towards Mako was indignant and laced with disbelief. Mako strode back into the bedroom and yanked open their shared armoire. Korra stormed in behind him.
"And what do you think you're doing?" she growled.
"I can't handle this right now." Clothes flew everywhere as he sifted through them. He pulled out a pair of pants and jerked them up his legs. He rifled through the clothes again to find a shirt, which he threw over his head. "So I'm going out," he said as he pulled the shirt down and pushed past her to their front hall. He stooped down and picked up a pair of shoes, pulling them onto his feet as he hopped closer to the door. The baby still screamed.
Korra's voice was softer now, but still obviously furious. "Mako, it's the middle of the night. Don't leave." He ripped the door open and looked in her eyes, shadowed and tense. "Stop!" she pleaded over Reika's cries. He ignored her and slammed the door shut.
She did not follow him out into the night.
He skipped down the stairs leading to the ground floor, eager to have the feel of fresh air on his face again. When he jumped his landing, he turned around to face sweet, perfect silence. It was so rare and so beautiful, and he'd never really appreciated it until now. He smiled and left their building.
Mako needed to get away, to have some quiet time, to have some alone time. He deserved it, didn't he? After Korra having been gone, he'd had nobody to help him with the baby at night, nobody to take the load of him. And he'd still had to work long hours. Juggling both was hard enough, but with Korra off gallivanting throughout the four nations, it was near impossible. He'd been alone. He still couldn't believe that he had survived to today.
He turned down one of the main roads, and walked along the road underneath the streetlamps. He hitched his thumbs in his pockets and slumped his shoulders as he walked. The street was lonely. It was very late, but that did not stop Mako from fuming, complaining to himself about everything that had happened.
It was times like these that his mind wandered. It wandered to places that it probably shouldn't be. It wandered back to Asami.
He thought of the life that could have been had he stayed on the path leading to her, the one directed to the gorgeous girl with the polite demeanor and sweet nature, the one that led to the generous and kind and at times, surprising, girl. The life he could have had with her was very different from his life now.
He navigated the foggy streets, finding himself meandering towards Central City Station, and let his mind wander, his imagination filling the holes of the unknown. Each passing late-night Satomobile was a glaring reminder of the life that could have been.
He would have inherited a piece of the company. A huge piece. Asami, who would have actually been around all the time, would own most of the company after her father passed, but Mako still would have made a difference in the biggest, most important company in Republic City. He might have started working as a laborer, but he would have risen through the ranks easily. He would have engineered new plans for faster, safer, better Satomobiles. He would have been on the board of directors. He would have been a businessman, and most importantly, he would have been wealthy.
Imagining all the money he could have had practically made his mouth drool. When they'd been together, Asami always dropped hundreds of yuans on him so casually. At the time, he hadn't quite understood how or why she did it, but as he'd aged, he realized that she bought him all those things simply because she could. She had insane amounts of money and enjoyed spending it. Because she could.
Mako paused, sighed, and looked up at the cloudy, starless sky. He could have had money. Real money.
He would have been an influential member of the city, and he would have gone to galas and parties and pro-bending events. He would have sponsored a team just like Hiroshi Sato had sponsored the Fire Ferrets those many years ago.
And if they'd had a child, he wouldn't have been the one groggily trying to calm her down if she cried, and neither would Asami. They would have been able to hire a nanny. Seven nannies, probably. So he wouldn't have had to take on those extra shifts at the power plant. He wouldn't have had to quit pro-bending. He wouldn't be worried every month if they'd be able to pay their rent or not, if he could scrounge up enough money for food. He'd have had so much money that he couldn't spend it all and would have to store some away in the bank.
Mako would have had a safety net.
But that's not the path he chose.
He'd managed to walk the entire way to Central City Station. The familiar statue of the former Fire Lord loomed over the square, shedding its light over all. He strolled over in front of it and looked up, meeting Zuko's eyes as they kept a formidable watch on the city. Mako turned and slouched down, his back sliding against the cool metal grate as he sat. It was a familiar place. He and Bolin had spent a lot of time here as a kids.
Deep in the shadows across the way, he saw… was that? Yes, it was a pair of eyes, low to the ground. Mako smiled in their direction and gestured for their owner to come closer.
A little orphan girl, six years old maybe, with green earthbender eyes cautiously stepped into his sight. She stared at the man who had invaded the place she called home, and he observed her. The girl was filthy and very skinny. Too skinny. Her faded dress was torn, the old lace around the collar yellowed and ripped. Her dark hair was short and pulled back into two braids that fell on the sides of her face. Her bangs were uneven. The toes of her shoes had been cut out, allowing her feet to grow without pain. She bit her lip as she stared at Mako, and twisted her raggedy doll's arm behind her back.
"Come here," Mako said softly. The girl obeyed and shyly walked closer to him, her knobby knees shaking. "What's your name?"
"Do you live here, Li-Hua?" he asked. She nodded and hugged her doll. Her eyes, deep and haunting, bore into Mako's. He didn't hesitate as he stood, drawing her sight up to his impressive full height, and patted the sides and back of his pants. He hoped that he still… yes, he did. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled pink bill. The girl's eyes widened in surprise and flicked back and forth from Mako's smile to the yuans in his hand. He held it out for her. "Here," he said. "This is all I have." Hesitantly her hand reached out and snatched it from his grasp. Mako could swear that she hugged it tighter than she'd been hugging her doll. "Stay safe, okay?" he said as he took one hand and stroked the side of her head, fingers running over the tangled hair in her braid. She nodded and scampered off, quiet as a mouse.
Mako sat again. No matter how little money he thought he had now and how much he complained about it, he knew there were always kids running around with even less. Some had nothing at all. He'd been in the same position, after all. He knew how it felt to have nothing but the clothes on your back and the hope for a better tomorrow, the hope for a warmer night and a bowl of noodles in his belly.
Mako had spent time on these streets too, so he knew.
He'd lived hard, with only his brother's embrace and his father's old scarf to keep him safe on those cold, dark nights when his stomach ached from hunger. Out of habit, his fingers reached up to his neck. But it wasn't there.
He didn't wear his scarf anymore.
He couldn't really recall when exactly he'd stopped wearing it. If he thought about it, he'd probably have to say that it was a slow process. He'd forgotten it once, on the first real date he had taken Korra on. They were at Narook's Seaweed Noodlery. He didn't understand the appeal of such a place, but after Korra had expressed how much she missed the food from her home, he knew that's where he needed to take her. He was so nervous about Korra and the date and the possibility of kissing her that he completely forgot about his scarf. And when he realized it, halfway through their dinner, it felt like his stomach was twisting in a painful knot. Everything felt wrong and too bright and unsteady and it wasn't until Korra touched his fingers across the table (the first time they'd held hands) that the knot untangled. And he felt okay.
From then on, he needed it less and less.
He still kept it, of course. It was tucked away in their armoire, not because he was ever going to wear it again, but because he couldn't bring himself to throw it out, no matter how faded, old, and tattered it was. It was the last and only thing that he owned from his father, and he'd never get rid of it.
Mako's face contorted as he thought about his father. He pulled his knees up and rested his elbows on them, crossing his arms to form a flat surface. He rested his head.
Was he going to be as good a father as his own?
He thought about his parents less and less as time went on. Their features, nearly twenty years gone, were blurs in his memory like a watercolor painting left out in the rain. He couldn't recall the shade of his mother's eyes or the laugh lines in his father's face or the gentle touch of his mother's hand or the firm hold of his father's hug. His parents were fading, slowly but surely, and he hated it. Some things were still crisp and clear, and he relished those memories. He held onto them tightly, because he couldn't lose everything. He refused to lose everything. His father's advice, given after he'd been caught cheating in school when he was seven, rang in his ears, the impression as defined as his hands in front of him now.
"I know it's hard, but you need to never give up, Mako," his father had said to calm his bout of tears. "There will always be two roads in life, the easy and the hard. And you need to know that the easiest isn't always the best." He'd hugged his son then, and Mako recalled the way he smelled like wood, fresh and clean. "The other path may be harder, but the satisfaction is so worth the struggle. It's worth more than any treasure, believe me."
"How do you know?" Mako had asked quietly with a sniffle.
"Marrying your mother instead of the woman your grandparents wanted me to marry was my hard road. They'd wanted me to keep our Fire Nation bloodline pure, but I loved your mother. They hated my decision, but it was so, so worth it. Especially because I got you out of the deal." He squeezed him again. "And you, Mako, can rise up to any challenge you put your mind to. Believe me, because I believe in you."
He closed the memory off, shielding himself from the accompanying emotions. Maybe that's why he always took the hard road. His father had told him to, and he always listened to his father. Always.
After his parents died, he and Bolin were bound for a hard road… the hardest of roads. But back then, they'd had no choice. But maybe that's how he got through it all, though, through the heartbreak and the loneliness. He rose up to the challenge. And when he started getting the options, he always chose the hard road. When he was old enough for real work, he started working odd jobs instead of staying with the Triple Threats, even though the money he made with them was fast and simple and easy. He took the hard path and he took the honest path. He rose up to the challenge, and he hated it and he complained about it and he loved it.
Maybe that's why he ended up with Korra. She was the hard road, and she was more of a challenge than anything he'd ever dealt with, all through their relationship.
After a few years together, Mako had saved up enough money to buy an aquamarine stone. He'd spent weeks figuring out how to carve it, and with Bolin's help, he'd crafted a betrothal necklace for Korra.
She hadn't believed he was serious when he proposed to her, and it took him ten full minutes of heated arguing for her to realize that yes, he really and truly wanted her to be his wife because he loved her, he loved her, he loved her. She was so stubborn. The memory still made him laugh.
He stood up from the ground as the realization hit him all at once, flashes of images running through his head, and his mind's gears cranked fast.
Asami was sweet and kind and gentle and interesting in her own special way, and he had fallen for her so fast. But she'd been the easy path. His love for Korra grew slowly, and it wasn't done growing, was it? Recollections of his wife barraged him, and his mouth slowly opened as he thought of them all and they filled him with a deep, intense longing.
Her sassiness when they'd first met.
Her willingness to help him find Bolin when he'd been captured.
Her jealousy towards Asami.
Her fierceness in the pro-bending tournament.
Her strength when she kissed him for the first time.
Her embrace after she'd saved him from Amon.
Her tears of joy when he'd confessed his feelings for her.
Loving Korra was far from easy. She was the one who pushed him, who challenged him, who made him think. She was the one who worried him, who ignored him, who pissed him off. She was the one who he longed for, who he needed, who he loved.
A streak of lightning tore across the sky, and a crash of thunder boomed overhead.
She was the one he loved, and he wasn't ever going to give up.
He started running, sprinting, flying back home because he needed to be with her five minutes, five hours, five days ago.
He missed her so much.
Tiny drops of rain fell on his face as he dashed through the empty streets, wetting his hair and stinging his eyes. But that didn't matter because Korra was home and she was his and he was hers and their daughter was perfect in every possible way.
Another flash of lightning lit up the night, and he willed himself to go faster, his feet slapping against the wet pavement in a desperate hurry. He raced into the building and climbed the steps three at a time, impatiently awaiting the sweet sound of his baby's cries. He opened the door and greeted…
His heart dropped into his stomach, and his imagination created possibilities in his head. Had Korra taken Reika and left him? Had somebody come in and kidnapped them? Killed them?
No, no, oh, please no.
The apartment was dark, and he removed his shoes so he could walk lightly. He stepped quietly through the hall, his pulse racing. The light in the nursery was still on, and it reflected across the floor as he approached. He prepared his fists and felt the heat of his firebending ready to be released. He moved closer and peered in, fully expecting the worst but witnessing the absolute best. His vision blurred slightly as tears attempted to fill his eyes, and his throat tightened.
He couldn't help but stare at his two beautiful girls.
Korra sat on the floor, her back against the wall, fast asleep. Her neck was crooked to the side. The strap of her shirt had fallen off her shoulder, revealing the smooth, glowing skin of her clavicle. A dab of drool threatened to escape the corner of her mouth, but she was so beautiful. And in her arms… oh, in her arms… Mako tiptoed closer for a better look.
Reika slumbered peacefully in her mother's arms, her expression free from any pain. She was angelic, perfect, precious. And then when he saw what had finally calmed her down, the tears finally spilled over, and he couldn't believe they hadn't tried it yet. Korra must have found it after he'd tossed all those clothes everywhere.
The worn, red fabric of his scarf was so old and tattered. It looked like it wanted to unravel, but it stayed strong wrapped around his baby girl, keeping her calm and keeping her steady and keeping her safe.
He leaned down and scooped his swaddled daughter into his arms, cradling her close. Korra stirred as he took Reika, her eyes looking up at him both sleepy and confused. He grinned at her before walking to the bassinet and laying the baby down gently. She woke for the briefest of moments, but she did not cry. She did not scream. Her eyes, the warm amber eyes that mirrored his own, looked up her father.
And she smiled.
Korra had stood up from the ground and walked over to Mako. She wrapped her strong arms around his waist from behind and squeezed. Mako turned, catching his wife's face in his hands. He kissed her hard, like she was the only thing that mattered in the world.
And really, she was. She was.
Korra responded in kind, pulling her arms up and over his shoulders in an embrace, her fingers weaving through his damp hair. Her mouth opened slightly and let out the softest of moans when he pressed his tongue against hers and lifted her up from the ground. She wrapped her legs around him, and he held her close and tight. They didn't let go of each other, didn't take a single breath, as Mako walked out of the nursery and stumbled into their bedroom.
They fell into their bed, tangled up in each other, laughing and loving and living.
Korra pressed her forehead against his.
"You're wet," she whispered, tugging at the bottom of his shirt.
"I know," he said, lifting it up over his head and throwing it on the floor. He shimmied his pants down to his ankles, kicked them off, and followed Korra underneath their blankets.
"I'm tired," she mumbled.
They entwined their limbs together, pressing their bodies as close together as possible, and breathed each other in. Their embrace was tight and uncomfortable and perfect. Mako leaned his chin in for another kiss, which Korra willingly gave.
"I'm sorry," he whispered as he pulled away, his lips grazing against her face as he spoke.
"I'm sorry too."
"I missed you."
"I missed you too."
"I love you."
"I love you too."
She was asleep in moments, but he didn't want to let go. He maintained the embrace. He was never going to let go, never going to give up.
He'd always taken the hard road, and this was no exception. Being with Korra was frustrating, and being a father terrified him. But seeing his two girls, so full of beauty and perfection… it reminded him of his father's words.
And as he lay in the bed, breathing in the smell of his wife, his baby sound asleep in the other room, he knew. Lying still in the arms of his safety net, he knew he had made the right choice by choosing the hard path. After all the arguments and fights and frustrations they were more deeply in love than Mako ever thought he would be. And after tonight, more than ever, he believed his father.
It was so, so worth it.
a/n: Okay, guys. Totally gave MYSELF some feels with this one. I'm not gonna say that I teared up writing the part about the baby being swaddled in the scarf, but I'm not gonna say that I didn't. Paaaaathetic. ^^;;
ALSO. MARRIED COUPLES ARE HOT.
I never do babies or things this far in the future so this was hard to write. Personalities change as people age, so getting their characters the same but still different was quite the challenge. But I'm mostly happy at how it turned out. Hope you enjoyed~!
Korra and friends © Bryke