A/n: Welcome to the home stretch! A final resounding thank you to wherewulf, whose dedicated beta work kicks my ass into shape. Thank you, friend!

Confession: There are a few passages that I recycled extensively (read: pulled multiple phrases/descriptive sentences from one of my fics from a different fandom). Chances are you do not share this other fandom and do not even know about my other FFnet account and would never know the difference, but I would feel guilty if I didn't admit it publicly.

Warnings: Please see the first chapter for an extensive list of warnings, as well as a general disclaimer.


Part V

It was bizarre, Mako thought, to have a partner without control issues. Even when Asami thought she was being forceful, she wasn't. She was too kind, too playful, and even her worse nibbles and scratches felt like tickles to Mako. She was firm but not rough, assertive but never domineering, and she wanted Mako's full participation. Several weeks later found Mako still learning how to work in this manner; he was not used to being an equal and fumbled through the whole ordeal like a lost man trying to read a map in a different language. Either Asami was blissfully ignorant or Mako had fooled her into believing that he knew what he was doing. The only obvious fact was that Mako had done this before—he was comfortable with her body, eager to learn its nuances and quick to respond to her needs. All physical boundaries soon disappeared. Mako stayed over often, sometimes climbing up the side of the mansion (and feeling rather juvenile) to do so. He would feel bad for leaving Bolin alone so often except that Bolin always seemed to have a late date with one or more of his fangirls.

With his brother safe, victory in the tournament a possibility, and a girlfriend who offered friendship and security, Mako should have been happy. At times he thought he might be, at least marginally more than he was before, but certain things worried him still. The most debilitating (and one he least expected) was Korra. They didn't see much of each other outside the gym, but he looked forward to even the earliest of practice sessions in part because she was always there. When she joined Councilman Tarrlok's task force just a few weeks prior to the start of the first round, Mako began to fear for his team's prospects. When she stupidly challenged the most dangerous man in Republic City to a duel and almost lost her Bending, he realized that his fear had spread from his chances at victory to Korra as well.

She starred in a nightmare that plagued him several nights a week. They were in their Fire Ferrets getup, strewn across the floor of the gym with a dozen motionless bodies. Mako was always fully conscious, fully awake, struggling to stand as he watched Amon take Korra's Bending. He tried to shoot lightning but had for some reason lost control of his limbs. His veins wrestled against his skin, pulling him apart as if from the inside, forcing him into the dirt. And by the time he succeeded in freeing himself it was always too late. Korra fell, dead by dream logic, and Amon turned his mask to Mako who would then wake up in a sweaty panic. Before he could fall back to sleep, he'd have to get out of bed and look out the window to make sure the city was not in flames. When he was at home, he knew Bolin wouldn't wake at the sound. At Asami's place, he was careful to keep quiet as he snuck back across the room and slipped into bed.

Why Korra was the victim of his subconscious mind, Mako couldn't say. The whole dream would make much more sense if Bolin was killed, since Mako cared about his brother most in the world. Even Asami would make more sense. Of all the people he knew, Korra needed his concern least; she was stronger and braver than most, she had a support system that Mako couldn't fathom. She was the Avatar. Mako went back to sleep.

The first day of the tournament began as one of the more optimistic in Mako's life. The Fire Ferrets performed phenomenally in practice and left in high spirits, walking out of the arena into a warm and clear morning. Mako and Asami shared lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the water, where they sampled fine teas and watched the children waste perfectly edible tablescraps by feeding them to the pigeongulls. The food was wonderful, the company amiable, but no amount of food could distract him completely from the pre-match panic boiling in his gut. Asami saw this, the hesitation in his replies that meant that he was stressed, and had probably foreseen it. She asked if he needed to talk about it, he declined, afraid to upset his stomach. So when they returned to the estate and she had locked the bedroom door behind her, she offered to divert him in other ways.

Some time later, having just rolled over onto his back, Mako recalled one of the few things he remembered of his parents: they had adored one another. He couldn't remember their voices but their image still remained, that of two people so connected that they spoke with tiny gestures. When he was eight, mere weeks before his parents' death, Mako had asked his mother why she and daddy fell in love. She'd laughed and said there was no reason to it—it was something you knew when you had it, and once it happened there was no use trying to shake it. Looking back, he wasn't sure he understood it now any more than he had then. What it did tell him was something that he didn't want to hear.

Mako liked Asami—loved her, just a little bit—but he was not in love. He enjoyed being with her and doing all the things that couples do, but he didn't miss her when she was gone. She didn't stomp about his mind during practice or when he was alone. There was only one woman had ever had that sort of control over him, and Mako was actively trying to ignore that nagging feeling.

Attachment was natural. Mako knew that from the start, with his lifelong themes of abandonment, he would latch on to her the moment he could trust her for real. And to the merit of this side, he could easily partake in this relationship forever. It might not be love, but it was camaraderie. It didn't conflict with his goal, The Goal, to escape from poverty for good. Quite the contrary, being with Asami meant that the goal was essentially accomplished. Mako liked to think that his fondness was genuine, and certainly his attraction to her was a part of it, but it wasn't the only thing. Shallow as he was to think it, there was no point in pretending that she wasn't wealthy enough to keep them safe forever. She was. And that… that worked for Mako just as well, especially since he really did like her anyhow.

Mako lifted his head enough to see her in the dim light. Asami had yet to catch her breath. His gaze seemed to pull her out of the blurry, soft aftermath of climax. She sat up on her elbows to look down at where he lay by her hip, shirtless with his pants hanging off his pelvis. She smiled. Yes, Mako could stay like this, easily, even if it meant he had to stamp Korra out of his brain for good.

But it was not love. The truth was in the air now, the wedge in the gap of Mako's feelings that lodged in his gut like splintering wood. The half that prompted him to kiss the inside of her thigh and tell her she was beautiful competed directly with the greedy, irrational side that wanted even more. Mako felt guilty about this, but this didn't keep him from answering "Yes" when she brushed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and asked him if he was feeling any better.

Mako's perfectly agreeable and carefully constructed future was threatened by the end of the night. The Fire Ferrets won the match easily, channeling their hard work in practice into something even more glorious. Then Korra almost ruined everything. She opened up to him, she asked him out, she made doubt ring even louder in his ears. Mako tried to do the right thing and, ultimately, failed. He almost lost them the match. He led Korra on when he ought to have stayed behind. He kissed someone other than his girlfriend. And, most importantly, he hurt his little brother. Nobody—he didn't care how much he admired them—was worth risking his bond with Bolin. For that part alone, Mako was truly sorry and said as much. Everything else was a little more complicated.

Korra had been right about him. Mako was a liar. He decided not to tell Asami about the kiss because it was easier, because he didn't want to risk the repercussions of honesty. He lied to himself, too. Mako tried to convince himself that he hadn't kissed Korra back, that his pushing against her lips was not the result of a spark that ran over him like scalding water. Eventually they all decided to be friends. Mako sensed that he was being handed feelings that he was not at all equipped to work with. Yet even as he buried his doubt and marched his team on to the next phase, Mako wondered.

xXx

Throughout the entire training process, even with the added confusion of relationships and inter-team fights that chased them to this finale, the Fire Ferrets kept to their practice routine (with the exception of the previous practice, where nobody had showed up and Bolin was still too drunk on either feelings or liquor to walk at that point). Every morning they met at the gym for the second time slot. On non-match game days they practiced strategy. On the mornings of matches, they just met to warm up and review last-second plans.

But no matter the occasion, they started off the same: Korra always shuffled in five minutes before start with her hair still disheveled from sleep and her eyes half closed. Mako and Bolin had already jogged and eaten breakfast by now. Bolin stretched and watched Korra try to wrestle her hair into a ponytail while Mako prepared for her a cup of strong tea, forced it into her hands, and tapped his foot until she had set the empty cup down. Every morning, she insisted on listening to the radio as they practiced. Sometimes she turned it to a music station, but more often she tuned in to the news. She said that, as the Avatar, she should at least know what was happening around the city. If she weren't the Avatar Mako would have protested a little more; the back-and-forth drone of radio voices could be rather distracting. But then, she'd forsaken quality time on Tarrlok's task force to be here and was still more productive on half-attention than none at all. If she wanted to listen to the news, she was going to do it.

There was a full day between their last match and the final against the Wolf Bats, and Mako intended to use that time well. On the morning of the buffer day, the Fire Ferrets entered the gym to find that it was not empty. The White Falls Wolfbats had moved in and dumped their gym bags on the floor. Already the air was humid and heavy with the stink of sweat. Mako accosted Tahno, shoving the gym schedule under his nose and arguing until Bolin threatened to fetch Toza and have them kicked out. At that point Tahno did relent. He shrugged coolly and told his teammates to hit the shower, and out went his teammates like obedient children.

Tahno lingered behind. He gave the excuse that he had pulled a muscle in his shoulder and needed to stretch some more before he left. Mako suggested he see the athletic trainer. Tahno said the trainer wasn't going to be in for another ten minutes and that he needed to stay close. Bolin looked about ready to toss Tahno out the door, but the threat of disqualification physically held him back. Tahno asked with mock politeness if he could watch them practice until then, but sat down by the door and ignored Mako's answer. Mako suspected that Tahno's "injury" was a ploy to get a look at the Fire Ferrets before the game began—after yesterday's close match, Tahno must have started to take the underdog team a little more seriously. Mako had almost expected Tahno to make an appearance, though not this early in the morning. Probably Tahno was just looking to rile them up before they could get a footing on practice. They certainly weren't going to go over any plays with him sitting here.

They followed their morning routine as if Tahno were not scrutinizing them from the corner. Korra guzzled her tea (Mako made her another when she continued to look sleepy; this she accepted with a smile and mumbled word of thanks), Bolin switched the radio station to the news, and all parties ignored Tahno when he made a snide comment about having distractions at practice. If Tahno was looking to see the Fire Ferrets' best moves, he walked away disappointed. First Korra struggled to warm up. Then Bolin had to stop midway through drills to use the toilet. And finally, when they had fallen into a comfortable tempo, the next news story began.

The talk show host opened up with a recap of the story that had broken late last night. In the aftermath of Amon's rally, during which most of the key members of the Triple Threat Triad gang had lost their Bending and disappeared, the police spent weeks preparing for a massive raid on the rest of the gang. The start of this story stopped all three Fire Ferrets mid-stance, and for three different reasons. The brothers shared an anxious glance. Tahno asked what the big deal was. Ignoring him, Mako told everyone to keep working and warned that if they couldn't focus with the radio on, it would have to go off. The host went on. He enlightened the audience as to the nature of the raid, including a statement from Chief Bei Fong on their apparent success. The police had shown up to several locations affiliated with the gang, and had uncovered several major crime spots in a complex of abandoned factory buildings. In one building, the police found several stores of illegal drugs and weapons. Another of the buildings appeared to be an abandoned brothel.

"—the Chief says that as soon as it got out Lightning Bolt Zolt was kaput, witnesses came flocking to the police with reports that they had been threatened or abused by the Triple Threat Triad," said the host. "I do not envy Lin Bei Fong today, my friends; let me tell you she is up to her ears in testimony from all over Republic City. Earlier this morning you heard one man's story, of how the gang threatened his family when he couldn't come up with the money for some illegally traded weapons. Now we have a different sort of guest altogether. This young woman's name is Mara, and she claims that the gang trapped her in some sort of prostitution-drug cycle. Say good morning, Mara, you're on the air—"

Off to the side, Tahno groaned his annoyance. He asked if they could just stop it with the radio, but Korra snapped that if he didn't want to listen, he was as close to the door as he could get without falling backwards out of it. Privately, Mako would rather kill the volume as well; but both Bolin and Korra had all but stopped working to listen. They got back to Bending when Mako resumed his stance and began shooting at the net, but their focus had shifted.

The twenty-six year old explained how she had become addicted to drugs and alcohol at a young age, gotten kicked out of her home, and turned to the Triple Threats to feed her habit. She said that they had soon trapped her in a cycle of poverty. They offered her drugs and cash in exchange for sexual favors, and within weeks they had begun withholding payment. To get her fair share, said the girl in a quiet tone, she became something of a slave. She reported to the factory building many times a week, where she was beaten, tortured, and sexually assaulted by clients. There was nothing she could do. At first she tried to get out of it, but soon the gang had made her believe that this was the only path for her.

"I met some women over the years who chose this job over something else," said the girl. "Some of them were perfectly okay with it, but none of them were Zolt's girls. We lived like prisoners, and most of us were kids. Mostly girls. They told us we weren't worth anything else, and after a while we believed them."

The radio host let out an audible sigh before asking, gently, "And what is it you plan to do now that you're out in the open? Are you going to press charges?"

"Yes," said the girl. "Right now I'm still trying to get clean—the police helped me find somewhere to live and get help—but as soon as I can do it, I'm suing the gang for everything they've done to m—"

The radio faded to a buzz and then went silent. Mako whipped around to see Tahno standing there with the electrical cord dangling from one hand. Bolin demanded to know what Tahno thought he was doing. Tahno said he couldn't stand to listen to this drivel anymore. It was simple, he said. If the chick hadn't fumbled up her own life, she wouldn't be in this situation. The whole case was just the government wasting money on a useless angle. Last time he checked, prostitution was perfectly legal in Republic City. What this girl did was a perfectly legal transaction—she screwed some guys, she got paid, and then she wasted her money on drugs. If she really wanted to get out of it, he said, she could have gotten a regular job like everyone else.

Korra told him he was being rude and needed to leave, but he didn't relent. He said everyone was ignoring common sense and letting liars run the law.

"If the police really wanted to pinch the gang, they'd hit them on the drug trafficking," said Tahno. "It's just stupid. Everyone knows you can't rape a whore."

Mako opened his mouth to shout, but closed it again for fear of saying something regrettable. Part of him thought he ought to be more upset, but his internal switch had flipped at the sound of Mara's name and his space for feelings had been wiped mercifully blank. Bolin moved as if to go after Tahno, but stutter-stopped to a halt when his brother raised a hand. Then Mako saw a flash of blue as Korra stomped past him, pointing to the door and shouting for Tahno to get his ass out before she kicked him out. Mako yelled for Korra to stop, that he was baiting them. Dropping the cord, Tahno raised his hands in mock defense. He wished them luck and had ducked out of the door before Korra could get close enough to throttle him. A few seconds of silence passed at the slamming of the door until Korra, turning slowly, crossed her arms and announced that they weren't allowed to have guests at practice anymore.

xXx

They lost the match. Years of training went to waste on cheating referees and foul play. Yet despite this blow—and the loss of their home, which they knew for a pitifully short time—Mako found he only gave those facets a passing thought. Amon had ascended. The game had changed. Suddenly the whole city's priorities had changed, and Mako's along with them.

At eighteen, Mako learned about true friendship and began to suspect he might not deserve it. He was only self-loathing in that he resented his life situation and his inability to do more about it. Otherwise he criticized himself only for that which he perceived he could control—his now profoundly unbalanced feelings for Avatar Korra, for example. The events leading up to and following Hiroshi's underground renegade fiasco proved just the sort to make Mako take a good look inward. The type of friendship Korra wanted was hardly a cousin to the friendship that Mako knew. Growing up he had had friends, of course. As a child he had run around the park with other street kids, playing games when safety and sustenance weren't issues. In his teenage years Mako found companionship with the night crew and Nikka. As an adult he was friendly with some of the other Pro Benders and those of Republic City's homeless population who had made it thus far.

But being friends with someone, in Mako's experience, meant something different than what Korra knew. It meant giving someone a friendly nod even if you were in a foul mood from hunger, or chatting with someone enough to care about their life and what they had to say. On rare occasions it meant offering shelter up when someone was in need, or—almost never—food to someone when they were closer to death than yourself. A friend was one or all of these things, yet Mako would not hesitate to ditch them if they made trouble. Life was already too complicated without the added burden of entertaining those who could interfere with Mako's plan. And Mako never worried about having his throat cut as long as he held others an arm's length away.

This was the ultimatum that Mako had given to Korra—leave him in peace or be left behind. It was easier to ignore his craving for her company than to let it ruin the progress he'd made toward security. And yet, even after he treated Korra poorly, even after she turned out to be right and could have used this victory to torment him, instead she did something that Mako had never expected: she offered shelter and food to Mako, Bolin, and Asami, and she did it free of charge.

Guilt hounded Mako all the way to Air Temple Island. He did not deserve such unconditional friendship—not after the way he had treated his brother, his friend, his girlfriend, all without real apology. He was wary of it, what it might mean to the boy who had only ever had one mission in his life. With Asami he still had a chance at fulfilling that plan, The Plan, but as time wore on he began to see that this wouldn't do. No doubt his past experiences made his actions understandable, even sympathetic, but they did not make them okay. No longer was he under the immediate threat of death or starvation. It was time to start acting like it—to be a little kinder and a little less cynical toward those he called his 'friends'. Even as Mako reminded himself of this, the pang in his gut recalled that his mainstreaming efforts weren't admirable thus far.

Korra's kidnapping only made this more apparent. Somewhere inside of him, the guilt had latched on to his inhibitions and began to rust them through. When he heard that Korra was gone, that rusted knob broke and the valve opened up, spilling his doubts like blood through his fingers. He'd thought it would be easier to abandon his misguided feelings with Korra. He had been wrong. Now that she was gone and her opinion of him clear, he felt a crazed need to see her again. Mako was just as selfish as ever, the same as when he'd cheated on Asami and hoarded Korra away from Bolin. And though this time he knew it, he didn't even start to care until Korra was safely back on Air Temple Island. He had never felt this way before, and hesitated to admit that it was what he lacked with Asami. If this was love—this frantic drive, a nausea-inducing anxiety that dwindled long after her safe recovery—then Mako didn't want it. Things could be so much easier if only he didn't have it. But there it was.

Korra slept for over a day, Mako leaving her bedside only when he had no choice. The aftermath of her rescue had left Mako with plenty of time to sit and contemplate what he'd done. Once again, without hesitation, he had done wrong by those who cared about him when his task-oriented brain had set itself on her rescue. Currently he was pretending not to notice the tension that had sprung up between himself and Asami like a weed. He wasn't sure that he could deal with that just yet. Bolin, too, looked more nervous than usual…

Mako glanced down when he heard Korra breathe a long sigh. It was the first sound she'd made since passing out on the sky bison's back the night before. He leaned forward and, gently pressing her chin between his thumb and forefinger, turned her face to examine the healing wounds. Pema had done a marvelous job with the limited supplies they carried on the island. Probably mending the cuts and scrapes of three children had something to do with it, especially given that one of them behaved more like a wild animal. Mako propped his chin on the heel of one hand and brushed the hair from Korra's eyes with the other. For some reason he expected her skin to shock him with cold, yet beneath his rough fingers there was only a calm heat. She would make it through this just fine. For him to even consider otherwise was an insult to her character.

At the far end of the room, the door slid open and in stepped a new visitor. The last person to peek in had been Pema, who kicked Mako out to re-dress Korra's wounds and left a bowl of crackers when she departed. This new guest made Mako sit upright in his chair despite the heaviness in his back and shoulders. Though their paths had crossed in the last few weeks, Mako had not spoken directly to the Chief of Police since he was fifteen.

Lin Bei Fong strode to the opposite side of Korra's bed and looked down on the sleeping Avatar with clinical interest. She asked how Korra was recovering, and Mako replied that she was healing better than they'd hoped. Lin nodded once, just a dip of her chin down and back to center. Then she spotted Mako's hand sitting atop Korra's and frowned.

"Aren't you with the Sato girl?" she said impassively. Mako nodded. Bei Fong opened her mouth to speak, looking very much as if she had an opinion to express, but seemed to reconsider just after taking the breath to say it.

A silence ensued. Both parties stared expressionlessly at the other for almost a full minute before the Chief spoke again.

"I was in charge of your parents' investigation, you know," she said. Mako paused, almost suspicious by his own lack of response. He nodded. He remembered what she'd said at the police station when he was eight years old and too young to doubt her: that she would do her best to bring this murderer to justice by whatever means she had to.

"I never was able to find that man, and after the case went cold there was nothing I could do. I always meant to apologize for that."

Again, Mako kept silent. He shrugged one shoulder in dismissal of her concern, willing her not to dwell on it any longer. They'd made it without them. His parents—he had their faces, painted in a blue as if he had dreamed them, and he hardly remembered their voices. If not for the scarf around his neck, he might just believe that he and Bolin had always been alone.

Lin didn't seem satisfied with his response.

"And everything you've had to do to keep yourselves alive, I'm sorry for that too. I can't even begin to imagine it."

"Don't be sorry," said Mako, suddenly finding his voice where it had been stoppered in his throat. "Nobody else gave us any pity when we needed it; we got here on our own. It's not worth it to be sorry." He hesitated when Lin kept staring at him, with that same knowing look she'd given him when he was fifteen and in prison. She offered him remorse, but it was in her words and not borne across her face. Mako continued on, in a steadier tone that he'd thought he could manage. "I'm not ashamed of what I did, or what happened to me. Even if it marks me for the rest of my life, I don't care. I did what I had to do."

"Does your brother—"

"No." Mako shook his head. "Bolin wouldn't understand. If he knew that's how I bought his food and clothes, he'd…" Frustrated, Mako shook his head again. "He can never know."

"You have my silence. But that boy's a lot smarter than he lets on," said Lin, raising a brow. "I think he'd understand. Not that it's any of my business."

Lin left Mako where she found him, sharing a grim nod before she turned and headed out of the room. When the click of the door stopped resounding in his ears, Mako was left alone with his thoughts.

Later that night, after the inhabitants of the island had finished dinner, the brothers offered to wash the dishes so that Pema could get off of her feet for the night. The two of them worked silently in the dim kitchen, the sound of water in the sink almost drowning out the waves outside. Mako worked quickly, piling dishes in the soapy water faster than Bolin could scrub them. If Korra should wake up, he wanted to be there so that she would not have to be alone.

After some minutes of work, Bolin mentioned that that the girl whose case had been on the radio would start tomorrow in the lower level courts. He'd read it in the evening paper while Mako was with Korra. Bolin said that for a while he had forgotten that life was still going on as normal in the city while theirs had stopped for a while. Even though he'd always known the gang was a group of criminals, they could be quite friendly once you knew them. Sometimes it was hard to believe they were the same crowd that beat up Mako, and the radio broadcast they heard during practice reminded him how he had felt then.

Bolin asked if Mako knew about all the horrible things the Triple Threats had done to those people. Mako had done the bookkeeping, after all, and knew the different departments. Drying the last supper plate, Mako said that he'd had an inkling. The book was full of code names so it was almost impossible to know who did what. Mako and Bolin didn't speak until they had wiped down the counter and stowed the dishes. Then, when Mako hung the dishrag on its peg, Bolin asked if he was doing all right. Mako said that he was fine and that they ought to get to sleep now.

"Asami said you've been having nightmares," said Bolin in a rush, his posture braced against an oncoming argument. "We weren't talking about you or anything! She just… mentioned it, and asked if she should be worried."

"It's nothing, just stress," Mako said. He hadn't had any dreams at all since the Equalists raided the tournament. He'd hardly slept enough to dream.

"So you know about it?"

"Of course I do. I'm fine. Neither of you should be worried."

"But I am!" Bolin sighed, looking defeated as he rubbed his eyes. "Listen, I know I'm a deep sleeper, but I'm pretty sure this hasn't happened for years."

"What do you mean, 'for years'?"

"Well, I mean… back when you were first working for the gang, before you got promoted, you used to have these… nightmares, I guess. Bad dreams."

Mako said he didn't remember ever having bad dreams. Bolin said that was because Mako always seemed to forget them by the morning.

"You'd just sit up all of a sudden like you were wide awake, but you'd be sweaty and shaking and breathing like you were having a panic attack. I always tried to talk you down, but… you just looked right through me, like I wasn't even there." Bolin shuddered. "At first I thought you just didn't want to talk about it. After a while I realized you didn't remember."

Mako stared. He opened his mouth to speak, struggled to find his words, and finally, baffled, asked why Bolin hadn't told him.

"Because it would just make things worse! You were already dealing with so much," Bolin said. "And if could help you at least think you'd gotten a good night's sleep, then I was gonna do it."

"Bo, I'm so sorry," said Mako.

Suddenly he was even more ashamed of his nightmares. His selfish fears and desires had once again caused unnecessary harm to his only family. He may not have asked for all these changing relationships and complications, but he had them and had failed to do right by them. Chief Bei Fong had been right to look at him as she had, when she opened her mouth to criticize him but decided not to bother.

Bolin, wonderfully merciful, asked Mako why he would be sorry for something he couldn't control. Mako struggled to find the right way to answer.

"It's not just that, it's—I haven't been a very good brother lately. I haven't been a very good person, and I haven't been around for you as much as I should, even before all this stuff with Korra, and I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," said Bolin, forcing a smile. "Yeah, I've missed having you around all the time since you started dating Asami, but I like her! It's nice to see you… happy."

The final word fell flat between them, as if the chaos of the last few days had tripped it on its way out of Bolin's mouth. Bolin knew, of course he did. Granted, the kiss had been an obvious indicator, but the tone of his voice suggested something else, too; even if he hadn't known about Korra, he'd known about Asami long before Mako figured it out. Bolin often ignored life's harsher memos, but with Mako he never missed a thing. Almost never, anyway.

Mako was always amazed that Bolin had survived their childhood in the way he had—fighting through it with unconditional optimism and his heart light—but he was glad one of them had survived more or less intact. It gave Mako purpose when he felt useless, hope when he thought they might be better off someplace else. But it was a tricky relationship, and though he knew Bolin would always forgive him, Mako resolved to limit the need for such selflessness.

The brothers simultaneously realized they'd been standing in silence. Bolin shifted his weight to his heels and back, offering up one of those crooked half-grins. He sighed heavily and announced that tomorrow was a new day and that they should get to sleep. He said not to worry if Mako heard him puking in the middle night—he wasn't hung over this time, just terrified of Amon and Tarrlok. Mako chuckled.

"We'll be all right," he said, and offered a hand. "Win or no win, we'll be all right."

"Thanks to you," said Bolin.

He grasped Mako's hand, then pulled his brother over and hugged him tight, lifting him easily into the air. When he set him back down, Mako first had to blink the spots out of his eyes. He thought of what Tahno had said, how so few words had brought him back to the lowest moments of his life. He thought of all the times he'd come limping back to the shelter feeling like a dying animal, like a throwaway, only to find Bolin waiting there for him as if he actually mattered. He thought of Bolin in the library as a child, learning how to read. Bolin stepping between Mako and Pabu, studying his carefully-sketched Bending forms, tossing an icepack to his wounded brother, always watching but never judging. Growing up, Mako kept them fed. Bolin had kept them alive.

Mako set a hand on his little brother's shoulder.

"Thanks to you," he said.

xXx

End.

xXx


A/n: Thanks again for reading! Wherewulf (my lovely beta) and I wrestled a little over the ending, but this is what we ultimately wound up with. There's so much more that happens in the actual canon story after this scene, but I wanted to leave you with a moment of peace instead - one that is hopeful for the brothers, but probably a bit ominous to you, who knows what happens next.

Anyway, thanks to the wonderful reviewers of this story, who kept me posting when I'd rather just hide: whisper, Sapphire Leo, Constance Bonacieux, , Inky Perspective, wherewulf, ShadowWalker NightCrawler2, Ecchi Blanket, somebody's world, and several anonymous reviewers. Thanks also to those who left kind messages for me on Tumblr (for the curious and or bored: Tumblr username is also Invaderk). I wouldn't have wanted to do it without you!