Notes: Written sometime after episode 3-therefore, it's essentially an AU in which Mako never gets with Asami, and he's just an awkward mess. The ending was inspired by the kiss before episode 5 aired. Oh and this is super cheesy so please enjoy that.

Mako didn't consider himself to be a romantic. Especially not in comparison to Bolin, who got swept up by soothing ballads on the radio and would spend his last yuan on flowers to hand off to a pretty lady. You never know who you're going to meet, Bolin would say with a grin, nudging Mako in the ribs as a blushing girl would walk away, a flower tucked between her fingers. He was ever the optimist.

Mako never minded Bolin's excessive dating. It made his little brother happy, and it never really interfered with their personal lives. What he did mind was Bolin's incessant need to find Mako a date.

"Come on," Bolin would whine. "You have fangirls too, and they're really nice! Just one date, please?"


There was no need to bring another person into his life. He saw the way Bolin would drop money on his dates, the way he would cut out of practice to see them, the way he would forget his responsibilities just to make sure they were happy-Mako didn't want to take care of another person. He knew what it was like to dedicate his life to protecting Bolin, and he felt no inclination to add another to that list when he doubted the payoff would be worth it. At least with Bolin, they were family, and his brother could never really leave him. Girls could. And in Mako's experiences with people, they never stuck around forever like you wanted them to.

It was his own form of self defense against people. Mako knew he only worked in two extremes: aloof, or overbearingly close. For him there was no middle ground and there never needed to be, because if he was going to love someone, they had to be like family. There had to be no doubt in his mind that they would ever leave him. They would be beholden to each other in the same way his parents had.

Because if Mako ever thought of having a relationship, his ideal was modeled after his parents.

He heard the story enough times as a child to remember it clearly. It was never jumbled by age, forgotten like other details from his childhood. Whenever Bolin was broken up over a girl, Mako would repeat the story to him as if it were the first time telling it, each sentence breaking forth with new enthusiasm and warmth.

Their mother and father were two sides of the same coin, similar, but wildly different. Mako could remember how they would always laugh together, sharing the same sense of humor, or how they would go out dancing once a week because they both loved it so much. They were bold and loud together, often embarrassing the boys as they sang off-tune to the radio in the kitchen while cleaning up after dinner. They only ever became whole when in each other's presence.

Separately, their mother was more reserved. She was proud and had a habit of being cocky, but she generally slipped through public areas with no intention of being noticed. It took a lot to provoke her. She woke up late and hardly ever said a word in the morning until downing her third cup of tea. She liked filling their kitchen with houseplants and put hot sauce on everything she ate.

Their father, on the other hand, was large and intimidating. He had a blocky face and build, his thick eyebrows constantly knit together in a threatening look that warded off any strangers. He was still a kind man, just rough around the edges. He woke up everyday before dawn, ate a fried egg for breakfast, and had a habit of mouthing the words silently as he read the newspaper.

They had met when she walked past a construction site their father had been working on. He lifted his head, saw her, and catcalled.

It was rude, their father warned him when he relayed the story, You don't do that to any woman. Even if it was the best decision I've ever made.

I had been having a bad day, their mother would chime to continue. And I had been looking to take it out on someone, and your father looked ready for a punch to the face, so...

That's what she did, their father laughed with pride, Hopped the construction fence in her fancy skirt and heels, and clocked me right in the jaw.

He had been knocked flat on his back, and she stood above him with her fist aimed at his face, a small flame igniting from her knuckles in warning. Before she could finish the impromptu fight in proper Agni Kai fashion, he asked her out for lunch.

She dropped her fighting stance to place her hands on her hips.

Just lunch? I'm worth a night on the town after all the trouble I've caused, she replied, then extended her hand to help him up.

They went out dancing in their father's favorite, small but boisterous club, and two weeks later she ignored the protests of her middle class family and he those of his friends to elope. Everybody thought they were idiotic for rushing into marriage, something so uncharacteristic for them both, but they knew they had changed when they were together. Everybody remarked how his father never stopped smiling since the day they had met, how his mother walked with more self confidence-apart, they were lesser people. They saw the best in themselves when together, one being the perfect compliment to the other.

Then they had Mako and Bolin. The natural mixes of them both, with Mako inheriting their mother's fire and height, while Bolin received the earth and larger than life attitude of their father. And everyday they would remark how lucky they were to have found each other, to have had a pair of healthy children, to have not once regretted the rush decision of marriage.

"It's like something you hear on the radio," Bolin replied with a sad smile, rubbing away his tears from his latest break up.

Mako ruffled his brother's hair, smiling. "Yeah, but it actually happened. So don't just cry over some girl, alright?"

"Do you believe in that junk?" Bolin asked, serious. "You know, soulmates and true love?"

He could only answer that question truthfully for Bolin. "Yes."

If the question had been posed by anybody else, anybody who did not know the story of their parents, who had not been around to witness them together, he would have felt foolish. Destiny and fate were silly notions in the city, where the lower class people Mako knew were far too hurt by the world to trust that anything good could serendipitously happen to them. It felt childish to cling to such a fantastical notion, but at the same time, comforting. He had seen it. There was good in the world, and he had no doubt Bolin would find it.

Mako didn't care if he himself did or not. Bolin's happiness was his happiness, as far as he was concerned. Mako never had long term goals for himself. He could see a bright future for Bolin with no problem, as he worked to make it a reality for his brother every day-but where Bolin's life continued, Mako couldn't see his extending beyond the next paycheck.

He had thought that maybe Bolin's story would be even greater than their parents' when Korra showed up. How ironic it would be for his little brother to locate the Avatar at the arena, bring her to a match and strike up an instant liking for each other. As happy as he was for Bolin, he was slightly jealous: he didn't think his brother would be leaving him this quickly. He held back his own emotions and encouraged Bolin to go out to restaurants and clubs with her, just because it made him happy.

He was floored when Bolin insisted they were just friends.

"You didn't know?" Bolin balked at him from across their table in their apartment. "Wait, this whole time you thought-woah!"

"You go out on dates with her nearly three times a week!" Mako exclaimed.

"Bro, she's like my wingman," he said, tossing his hands into the air. "We go out to eat, then we hit the clubs and dance with tons of people...we're not dating."

Mako sighed and dropped his head into his hands, violently rubbing the heels of his palms into his eyes. No wonder he flirted so shamelessly with Asami Sato when her father agreed to sponsor them. How did he miss it?

No, he knew Bolin better than that. He had to be right.

"So you don' that?" Mako struggled to say.

Bolin shook his head, laughing. "Nah. I mean, I practically asked her out the second we met, but she shot me down. Which I'm pretty happy about now, since I only think Korra and I are meant to be friends."

Meant to be? "You say that like you're destined to be friends or something."

"Well," Bolin shrugged. "She is the Avatar. She said Avatar Aang was destined to be friends with Toph and Zuko-so why not me, too?" Bolin's face broke out into a wide smile. "You know what she said to me? She said that some friendships are so strong, that they can transcend lifetimes."


"Yeah," Bolin said with a dazed sigh, before brightening back up. "Like, out of all the people she could've met, the Avatar chose us. That's pretty special, don't you think?"

Mako shrugged. Special for his brother, maybe, but he had the feeling that the Avatar wasn't in any way destined to be his friend. They got along on occasion, and she was the only person Mako could personally call reliable, but they disagreed too much. Their relationship was a struggle, and not easy like it was for Bolin. He didn't have any friends, but Mako had the feeling that friendships didn't work out this way.

He prepared himself for an eventual departure. She was, in many ways, the worst person to ever enter Mako's broken family. She belonged to the world. He chased away the hollow feeling that came whenever he thought that she could never belong to him, in the same sense he had always viewed his parents-he told himself he didn't want that from her. That was too much, too frightening to think about. She was too important to ever need another person in the same way his parents needed each other, to find someone to highlight her better qualities and compliment her with balance.

Balance was her job, after all, even if sometimes he thought she was terrible at it.

When she asked to hear stories about their parents one night, homesick for her own, he obliged. It felt right to tell her, for reasons he didn't dwell on-maybe it was because she would understand his use of the word destiny better than anyone else. They were crowded on the floor of the apartment in the middle of a terrible storm that knocked out the power in the city. Firebenders were working on recharging the generators through lightning, but Mako decided it was too cold, too windy, and too wet to brave the storm. It was infinitely nicer to sit on the floor with cups of tea and blankets in the dark, telling his favorite stories over the sounds of the rattling windows and thunder that raged around them.

Then she told her own stories. Her parents had grown up together in their small village, and simply fell into rhythm with each other that couldn't be replicated with anyone else. For them, it was natural, and slow.

"What about your past lives?" Bolin asked, his mouth muffled through the blankets he had drawn up around his neck and chin. Only his wide eyes and nose showed, making him look far younger to the point where Mako had to consciously resist the urge to baby him.

Korra's eyes flicked up to meet Bolin's, and her nose wrinkled when she smiled. "Like you haven't heard the stories about Avatar Aang and Master Katara a thousand times."

"Oh come on," Bolin whined. "I want to hear more stories like our parents. Sometimes it's nice to know the end of the story when it's happy."

Happy? Mako wondered what his brother meant by that, because the ending of his parents' story, though rarely mentioned out loud, was terrible. As uplifting as their love story was, it ended, like all things in Mako's opinion, with fate's cruelty.

Korra rolled her eyes, clasping her hands around her small tea cup, and rolled it against her palms to spread heat from the cracked porcelain into her skin. After taking her time to warm her fingertips, she started.

"From what everybody's told me," she said, looking down at the tea cup. "Love really is about destiny for the Avatar. Even though Aang didn't fall in love with Katara at first sight, he said he felt...something. He knew she was special. And she felt it too. Sometimes I really like the beginning of their story, but other times I wonder what would've happened if he never got trapped in the iceburg."

"What do you mean?" Mako asked.

Her eyes darted up to meet his, almost nervous, before bowing her shoulders and looking into her cup again. "I mean, if they had never met, would they have just found other people? Because from the way Katara talks about him, I can't imagine them being happy with anyone else."

Bolin's eyes were wide and he leaned forward eagerly, already completely captivated despite the worrisome edge to Korra's voice. Mako sensed that she wasn't going to continue with her story unless reassured.

"Well, it's a nice thought," he said, and she looked up at him eagerly. "I guess it means that even though he didn't know it, he had to give up his duty to the world just to be with her."

She broke into a smile. "He did that more than once. He gave up control over the Avatar state for her."

After that, it was easy for her to tell the stories everybody already knew. How Aang sacrificed his powers, part of his culture, to love Katara and bind him to the physical world. But she didn't just tell the old tales from the Cave of Two Lovers, the Day of Black Sun, all the classics-she paid attention to the friendships. How Aang saw visions of Toph in a dark swamp, how Zuko had saved his life even when they were enemies, and how Sokka had relented early on to act as Aang's new family.

"Do you have any more?" Bolin asked when she finished.

She shrugged. "Uh, I know some other Avatar's stories. Do you know about Roku and Ta Min? Or Kuruk and Ummi?"

Halfway through Avatar Roku's story, Bolin interrupted with, "So, wait. Does the Avatar just know who they fall in love with? Because that really sounds like it's your job and you wait for the other person to catch up."

Korra looked up at Bolin with an amused, bright smile before her eyes darted to Mako's and it grew a little wider. Without knowing why, he returned it.

"I guess?" she said.

"What does it feel like?" Bolin asked.

Her smile fell and she pressed her lips together in a worried line, her blushing just noticeable despite the lack of light in the apartment. With her eyes wide she blinked at Bolin as if buying time to consider her answer.

Panic ran through Mako's chest, moving down to flip his stomach and up to tighten his throat. She must have found somebody. He wondered if it was someone he knew-maybe it was Bolin and his brother was breaking her heart, or if it was someone back in the South Pole waiting for her. He did know that it felt terrible to see her avoid looking at either of them, and he felt so stupid for getting himself worked up about it. He knew she was the Avatar, that she would find someone to love, and leave the city with him to fulfill her duties. He just didn't think it would be happening so quickly.

"I don't think I know yet," she said, her voice quiet but tilting her chin to meet Bolin's eyes.

His brother's face cracked into a smile, glancing at his brother. "You don't think you know yet? Come on, who's the lucky guy?"

Mako felt like leaving the room. He didn't want to know the answer.

Korra scrunched up her nose and puckered her brow, speaking through clenched teeth. "Bolin. I already told you," she hissed.

Bolin turned his head to smile brightly at Mako, and Korra looked ready to toss her cup of tea on his brother. Then, it couldn't be his brother, Mako realized with relief. Whoever it was, it was infinitely amusing to Bolin, who wouldn't stop looking at him with that strange smile.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" Mako snapped.

His brother's smile grew wider, and he looked over at Korra. "Oh. No reason."

Korra was adamant about not looking at Mako, her face practically turned away from his, and with a flash of lightning he could see that the curve of her ear against her dark hair was bright red. She could be quick to get flustered, and he always assumed it was due to her lack of contact with people outside of bending.

Bolin sighed. "I'm sure it'll work out, Korra. I mean he's said it himself: he's an idiot."

"If he's an idiot, then why do you like him?" Mako ventured to ask.

Bolin's peel of laughter didn't die down even when the pillow Korra threw hit him straight in the face. Mako didn't even have time to ask his question again when she threw a second one at him, clipping him on the side of the head.

He had tried to forget about Korra's lovelife once the pillow fight started, but even through his laughter it still clung in the back of his mind. When they were all exhausted on the floor, surrounded by messes of blankets, pillows, and feathers, he tried to will it away. He turned his head to the side from where he lay, and his nose could just brush the side of her stomach. Of course, he was very careful to not touch her. Her torso rose and fell with every panting breath, shaking as the last tremors of her amusement and laughter died down. Looking farther up, he could see Bolin at her side, his arms tossing bundles of feathers into the air that Pabu jumped on his chest to catch. He would have to clean this up tomorrow.

Something brushed against his hair, and he craned his neck at an awkward angle to see Korra's hand above his head. She raised her head to look down at him, smiled, and reached to his hair again to retrieve a feather that had been stuck there. Waving it in front of his face, he had to cross his eyes to keep it in focus, an expression that must have inspired her to laugh. She gently knocked her knuckles against his nose before pulling her hand away.

He relaxed his head to its original position, and allowed her to pluck the remaining feathers stuck in his hair. It was a far gentler action he had ever been on the receiving end of from her, and it didn't help shove away the panic in his chest that she was in love, a sign that she was ready to leave them.

Trying to rationalize it as they all fell asleep on the floor proved difficult. It felt a bit like when he assumed Bolin would be leaving him, but far more cruel. Hadn't he set up his usual walls against her? Her departure shouldn't come as a shock. He had known it would happen. So why did it hurt? She was going to leave Republic City after her airbending training, after the tournament ended, after everything with the Equalists had been taken care of to fly off on her next journey. It was what the Avatar did. He had no doubt that whatever idiot who was too thick to realize she liked them would come to his senses soon, and she would sweep them off with her to complete her duties. Leaving Bolin and Mako behind.

She would come back for Bolin, he knew. If there had ever been a pair of friends destined for each other, it was them. They acted in tandem to the point where it was difficult to find where one mind ended and the other began. She'd come back cocky as ever, maybe less inclined to do illegal activities, but they would cling to each other when they were weak with laughter as they did now.

He couldn't even imagine himself in the future. What would he do? He would hope that Bolin found himself a career, a nice girl, and start a family, but Mako's life revolved around his brother. Without Korra around to wheedle him into doing ridiculous things like dancing, eating contests, and drag racing, he had no personal life. His world had been Bolin before it miraculously expanded to add Korra. He would be alone.

It was the right sacrifice, he thought, for Bolin. Korra owed him nothing, so her departure was natural. He had made his choices at a young age, and he didn't mind sticking to them.

It was just...sad.

Self pity was easier to ignore than the troubling ache in his chest for Korra. An ache, he found out for the next following days, that would not go away.

All talks of her lovelife had died away, seeing as Mako didn't want to know, and he felt that Korra had no inclination to tell him. He knew that everything was normal, their schedules the same, but it all felt different. With the pressing fear that she would be leaving soon, despite her never explicitly stating so, he had agreed to every invitation Bolin and Korra extended to him. They went out to eat, to clubs, even snuck into a few pro-bending matches to scope out the competition-and it was fun. Fun marred by Mako's ill-fated premonitions, but he couldn't help letting the easy smiles pull through.

He was slightly worried that something was terribly wrong with him when he found himself agreeing to anything she suggested. Clinging onto her torso while riding Naga side-by-side with Asami and Bolin in a car next to them, police sirens audible in the distance, should have put him into a screaming, panicked fit-and he was worried. Worried about getting arrested, about crashing, about his brother in the seat of a car driven by a girl as reckless as Korra, but when he opened his eyes and glanced behind him to see the police, he laughed. Because Korra tossed her arms in the air to bend a blinding wall of dust from the road behind them, making sure they weren't spotted by the police and found later on because when it came down to it, Korra could be practical. Before she returned her hands to the reins, she patted one of her own on top of his, head turned to look at him with a cocky smile.

"I always told you I wouldn't let you get arrested!" She shouted.

And later that same afternoon, she had suggested they work through firebending techniques together. She let him take the lead, showing her how it worked with pro-bending, and how he used traditional breathing practices to stay calm in the middle of a fight. She was serene and caught on quickly, aided, she told him, through her advances in airbending practice. As happy as he was to show her his unofficial forms of meditation, the realization that she was succeeding, that she would soon master her last element and leave, clawed at his throat. He shook it away to enjoy the quiet, peaceful moment he had with her.

Taking a break, she sat down cross legged on the floor, and he followed after her. Panting, she wiped the sweat from her hairline and looked up at him with a smile.

"You know, someday we've got to carve out time in our schedules to teach you the old styles of firebending," she said.

He smiled back. "Yeah? And when will that be?"

"Probably when the tournament's over," she said. "I mean, then you'll have money, so you won't need to work. You won't need to train and practice. You can just," her ears turned red. She was already flushed from training, but this, he knew, was different. "Spend time with me."

A thousand reasons why their lives couldn't possibly be that easy ran through his head at once, drowning out the hopeful yes that he desperately wanted to say. What if they didn't win the tournament? What if the Equalists did wage a war? What if, free of her responsibilities to the team, Tenzin filled her days with airbending and kept her in the island? Far too much was out of their control to look so far ahead into the future and plan for brighter days.

So he tightened his smile and shrugged. "Maybe."

The disappointment that fell on her face made him want to shout no, I was lying, I want that, I just don't think I will ever get it--but she bounced back with a smile as if nothing had happened.

And for a long time after that, the world bore down on her with unfair cruelty. She fought and learned through the pain of her responsibilities, entered the Spirit World and Avatar State many times over as the city brewed with unrest. Her airbending lessons accelerated to accommodate the fast downward spiral the Equalists were pushing the city into. He and Bolin fought by her side, their own wounds and pain making the world slow down, but she had to keep going. Her pace had to match that of the world's, and it slowed for no one. She became the Avatar, and took on Amon.

After Bolin and he were cleared from the hospital a week after her success, she visited them in their attic apartment. Bolin was still on bed rest, while Mako had secluded himself to his brother's side to take care of him. He knew when she arrived that this was the moment he had known would come, as it always did.

"I have to leave for a while," she said. Winter was starting to close in on the city, and despite her love for the cold, she was wearing her parka.

"Where are you going?" Bolin asked.

"Back home."


She wrapped her small hand around Bolin's large one, careful so as not to disrupt the deep bruises on his knuckles. "Master Katara is sick."

"When will you be back?"

When the tears welled in her eyes, she didn't stubbornly brush them away as she used to. Perhaps the pain of leaving was too much, or it was the threat of death to her beloved friend, but Mako thought it might have been the childlike way Bolin spoke. His little brother's eyes were wide and he tried to wrap his mind around what felt like being abandoned by his best friend.

"Hopefully, when Katara gets better," she choked out, attempting to smile through the tears. "And if not then...I'll let you know. But I'll be back."

As Bolin's eyes threatened to overflow with tears, Mako finally worked up the nerve to look at Korra. Her eyes met his, but he had more resolve than all of them to not break down. They had to rely on him to keep everything together, to act as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. As far as he was concerned, her departure was normal.

"When do you leave?" he asked.

"Tonight," she said.

He nodded and turned back to his brother.

She stayed for the rest of the day, quickly raising Bolin's spirits by telling nonsensical jokes and making promises on what they would do when she came back. Mako was glad that she stayed to cheer Bolin up, knowing that he would have had a difficult time with it. She cared about his brother. It would be hard to get on without her.

When night fell, and she had to leave, she walked to the staircase and turned back to look at Mako expectantly.

"Walk me out?" she asked, her voice timid and hopeful.

Timid didn't suit her. He nodded, tucked another blanket around Bolin despite his brother's protests, and followed after her out of the arena.

She didn't say anything on the long walk through the arena, down to the docks. Mako was partially glad for this, because it gave him time to think. She and Bolin had said a heartfelt goodbye, and he was equally dreading and hoping for the same thing. He wasn't good with emotions-he still wasn't sure why he hadn't reigned in his own, as he reinforced the thought that this day had to come eventually. Now that it had, he couldn't stop his heart from pounding away at an uncomfortable speed, or swallow enough to work the knots out of his clenched throat. He didn't think he would be able to say a single word to her in the state his body was leaving him in. But it would be nice to hear her say, in the way she had to Bolin, that she would come back to him. That she cared enough to make him promises fate might not allow them to keep.

He was rushed with the panic that they hadn't spent enough time together, that his distance in the beginning of their relationship was quite possibly the biggest mistake he had ever made when they reached the dock where Naga was waiting for her. With a sigh, Korra spun around to face him.

"So, this is it," he said.

She frowned slightly. "No it's not. I'll be back."

"Are you sure?"

She blinked in surprise, and her face broke into a nervous, trembling smile. "Jeez, Mako. I ran away to Republic City once. You think, after all the friends I've made, that I won't do it again?"

It was a challenge. He smiled weakly and held onto the hope that she would be like him, shove away any unnecessary emotions and pretend that everything was ok. Maybe make this easier for the both of them.

"Can I ask you something?" she ventured to say. It was the same cautious tone she used when asking him anything personal, when she was afraid of stepping over the line. But he never turned down her questions, so he nodded. "Will you miss me?"

"That's a stupid question."

He said it before thinking, and her face fell with disappointment. Not even a laugh at his expense for being so terrible with words-this was too serious for him to stumble through like he usually did.

His mind was drawing a blank, every word he had ever learned suddenly forgotten, and he swallowed to try and fix his throat. She was looking at him so expectantly that his only choice was to try again, even if his first attempt was terrible.

"I-I mean, yeah," he said. "Of course I will. You didn't really need to ask."

She tried to pull her face into a wry smile. "I'm never really too sure of anything with you. So, yeah, I did have to ask."

So, she didn't know. He had covered up all of his fears of this moment so well that even now, she couldn't see the way the blood in his veins pulsed against his skin with pain. He realized he had a lot to make up for.

"Look," he said, trying to pull himself together. "I've been an idiot, but maybe by the time you come back I'll...I'll be better. With this. Because I know I haven't ever said it, but you're really my only-"

He didn't have the time to finish. She took a step forward and closed the distance between them, pressing her lips against his and making his attempts at explanation pointless.

But his mind raced, this couldn't be happening, not to him of all people, and his eyes were wide open so he could count her eyelashes as if each one were a reason why, why of course it had to happen. She loves you.

Unable to process any of it, the warmth of her lips against his, her hands fisted in the front of his shirt, he managed to remember that he had a body. He placed his hands on her shoulders and pushed her away, her eyes flying open to fill with worry from what she perceived as rejection. They were frozen like that for a moment, the heavy breaths they struggled to draw in expelled into the cold in steamy clouds cutting the air between them.

Her mouth tensed to work out words of apology, but he gripped on her shoulders tighter and bent his head closer, eyes scanning her face hungrily.

"Me?" he asked. "Really?"

"What?" she said breathlessly, partially spitting out the last syllable.

"You like me?"

Her brow furrowed and even though it was the natural sign that she was nearing anger, he just stared and waited, gripping tightly onto her to make sure she didn't leave.

"Well, I just kissed you, didn't I?" she spat.

"I-sorry!" he exclaimed, suddenly realizing that maybe, as always, he never found the words to explain what he meant. "I just...I didn't think you me. Much. At all."

Slowly, her eyes narrowed into fine slits, and he could see her eyelashes weave together but never fully meet. "You're an even bigger idiot than I thought."

A large, dumbfounded grin spread across his face, and he could see Korra's expression turn more sour at the sight of it. Then, he laughed, and before she could spark flames in her hands or knock him off the dock, he finally worked up the courage to kiss her back. It was awkward and stiff and desperate, but with her pressed against him, he felt worthy of her.

When they pulled apart, hands still clinging onto the other with white knuckle grips and tendons popping, they stared at each other. His smile returned, and she looked up at it in a daze, before smiling back.