Chapter One: It Does Feel Lonely
Summary: While on the journey to the Southern Water Tribe to see if Katara can restore Korra's bending, Korra notices that Lin doesn't seem to be feeling well.
Disclaimer: I own nothing.
Pairings: Korra/Lin ("Linorra", "Korralin")
Author's Notes: This was spawned by a prompt for Linorra week. My muses decided that my "bloodstain" drabble-like thing was part of a multi-chapter fic.
Korra couldn't sleep. Again.
Oogi didn't have the stamina to carry Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, the airbending family, and Chief Bei Fong on the most direct route to the South Pole, so they were taking a small ship. Korra was constantly surrounded by water to which she no longer felt a connection. The soft lapping of the water against the hull that Korra could clearly hear now that they were moored for the night was close to torture. So she tiptoed out of her room.
At first she wasn't sure what she was looking for; her mind was fuzzy with lack of sleep and she felt somewhat directionless. Then she realized her feet were carrying her to where Chief Bei Fong was sleeping.
Not that everyone else had been unsympathetic—quite the opposite—but the Chief (Korra couldn't help but think of her with that title, despite the fact that she had resigned) was the only one who knew how it felt to lose one's bending. Korra had asked her about it that morning when they were both unpacking their things; the airbending family had a large room on the boat, Mako and Bolin had a smallish room, and both Korra and Asami had their own rooms. The ship's captain had a room, but there were no other places for any guests to sleep. Rather than doubling up with Korra or Asami, Chief Bei Fong had offered to sleep in one of the common areas; Korra's room was really large enough for two people, though, so the Chief was keeping the few belongings she had brought on the trip in there.
When they had first boarded the boat, Korra hadn't felt like associating with anyone, so she had immediately scooted off to her assigned room. At the same time, though, Chief Bei Fong had also brought the few belongings she would need on the trip into the room and was trying to organize them; she had been able to tell Korra didn't want to be bothered and opted for polite silence following a brief "Hello, avatar...I'll be quick. I won't trouble you."
There was, however, something Korra wanted to address that she couldn't bring up with anyone else. "Chief?" Korra had asked hesitantly, nervous about talking to her about anything personal but sick of not being able to discuss how empty and frightened she felt without her bending.
"I resigned, remember? You may call me Lin, if you wish."
"Okay. Lin." Korra took a deep breath. "Did it hurt?" She could barely get the words out. "When Amon took your bending. Was it...painful?"
Lin regarded Korra steadily. "In every way possible, yes."
Korra blinked back tears. "I just feel so...so empty without my bending. I know I can airbend, but I can't remember a time when I couldn't waterbend. I'm cut off from the water. It feels lonely. Sad and lonely." Korra had begun to cry in earnest then, and had moved to turn away in shame, but before she knew what was happening, she felt herself wrapped in a tight embrace, and it was the Chief—Lin—who was holding her.
"It does feel lonely, doesn't it?" The voice was so gentle Korra hardly recognized it. "It feels half like missing a limb, half like missing a close friend."
"Yes," Korra sobbed. "That is it. Exactly."
Korra had been ashamed of her tears and tried unsuccessfully to stop them; she apologized for crying, but Lin had touched her hair and told her "Don't say you're sorry for your feelings. I know you're suffering. Go ahead and cry."
Korra didn't know how long she had stayed there with Lin holding her, all of her fear and insecurity and pain flooding out in loud, ugly sobs. Lin never complained, even when her shirt was soaked with Korra's snot and tears. Instead of complaining, she had simply told Korra that she was available if Korra needed to talk about the loss of her bending.
It had been so comforting. Korra had always loved hugs, any hugs as long as they were consensual, but something about the one embrace she had shared with Lin stuck with her. Maybe it was that Lin didn't seem naturally affectionate, so it must have meant she felt truly sympathetic toward Korra. Maybe it was that when Korra had stopped crying, she felt calmed and safe in the former police chief's arms, but as soon as Lin let her go she started feeling frightened again.
Lin was asleep now, or at least ostensibly asleep. She was lying on her side on a pile of blankets and not moving, her back facing Korra. As Korra crept closer, she noticed that Lin's shirt was oddly colored; when she was only a few inches from Lin, she peered through the low light to realize in horror that the back of Lin's shirt was covered in a half-dried bloodstain. The little cry of alarm escaped Korra's lips before she could stop herself; immediately Lin turned over to face Korra, tense and primed as if ready to leap into battle. She rubbed her eyes when she saw Korra, as if she couldn't believe what she was seeing. "Avatar?"
"What happened to you?" Korra whispered. "Your back..."
Lin's face fell. "I was hoping the bleeding hadn't started again..."
"But what happened? Was it the Equalists?"
Lin nodded. "I should change the bandages. I have some spare ones in your room, but I didn't want to wake you."
"I couldn't sleep. And even if I were asleep, if you're injured...I wouldn't mind. Come on, let's get you some new bandages."
Lin got up, keeping her face flat and free of emotion. Knowing Lin, Korra guessed that she was probably in pain and doing a good job masking it. After she managed to stop being distracted by the rate at which Lin's white shirt was turning red, Korra noticed that it looked like Lin's whole torso was bandaged. After Korra let Lin into her room and helped her find her spare bandages, she peeled off the shirt; it was tacky with blood and stuck to her back. "I think this shirt might be a dead loss," she said somewhat irritably, as if the problem were the shirt and not how much blood she was losing. Korra saw that she was right; Lin was wrapped in bandages from waist almost up to her neck. "Korra, would you mind giving me a few moments of privacy?"
"Wait, what?" Korra blurted out. "You don't want help?"
Lin raised and lowered one shoulder so slightly Korra could barely see the movement; doubtless that kind of motion was painful for her. "I wrapped the bandages myself earlier. If you could bring me some water, though, I don't want these to get infected."
Korra shook her head. "If I were still of any use, I could use water to heal those."
Lin looked at Korra rather sadly. "You shouldn't talk like that. Your bending loss is only temporary, and even if it's not, you should never call yourself useless."
Korra sighed. "I can bring you some water." She went to the kitchen area where clean water was kept. She heated it in a kettle on the stove, wishing so hard it hurt that she could firebend to heat the water; Katara had taught her some non-bending-related things about healing, one of which included how to wash wounds and keep them clean. Korra had mentally scoffed at the lessons, believing she would always be able to heal with waterbending, and had only paid attention because she liked and respected Katara. Now she was glad she had listened.
She brought the kettle of warm water to Lin, who was sitting on the floor facing away from Korra. She had removed her bandages, revealing long red stripes down her back. The wounds were deep, and clearly still open, appearing to have scabbed over only slightly. Lin turned to look over her shoulder at Korra as she entered. "Water. Thank you."
"What...um...what did that? It looks like it was a knife."
"No, a whip. I think it was a bullwhip. I didn't get a particularly good look, but it feels like I was struck several times along the same...trajectory, I guess you could say."
Korra forced herself to look more closely. There appeared to be four long, thick whip wales, but each wound was actually composed of many clustered strokes. Whoever had beaten Lin was clearly a well-practiced torturer. Korra had had no appetite that night and was glad she hadn't eaten; the thoughts running through her head were making her stomach roil angrily. "But...Tenzin and Pema, and the kids...they weren't hurt. Neither were a lot of the other prisoners...former benders..."
"I was being interrogated regarding your whereabouts. Before Amon took my bending, he said he would let me keep it if I told him where you were. Of course I point-blank refused. But one of his lieutenants thought it was worthwhile to try to torture me into telling them where you were. I gave them false information to try to throw them off your trail, but...that was of no help, apparently." Lin smiled feebly. "I'm sorry."
Korra failed to see why Lin was apologizing. "It's not your fault. I revealed myself to Amon when I tried to tell everybody the truth about him."
"Well, thank you for the water, anyway. I should wash these before it gets cold..." Lin reached for the kettle with one hand, keeping one arm over her chest for modesty's sake, but Korra pulled away. "It's okay. I can probably reach better."
Lin shook her head. "I wouldn't ask you to do that."
"Lin, losing my bending was hard enough, but I was also a waterbending healer. It's bad enough that I can't heal you, but it's about killing me to see you injured knowing you were hurt protecting me and now I feel awful I didn't even think of coming to rescue you after I found out you were captured by the Equalists. Please let me help you with this." The words came out in a rush.
Lin thought for a moment before replying. "If it will help assuage your conscience, then you may help."
Korra dipped a cloth she had also retrieved into the kettle, wrung out the extra water, and gently pressed the cloth onto Lin's shoulder. Lin managed not to flinch as Korra moved the cloth over the wounds as carefully as she could, dabbing up the blood first and lightly scrubbing the wounds to clean them. Lin never moved or made a sound; her ability to ignore pain was almost eerie.
Korra slowly grew used to the sight of the deep, unsettling wounds, and her thoughts began to turn to Lin herself. She was of lean build, not unlike her mother had been if the pictures (not to mention the statue in Republic City) were to be believed, and even through the cloth Korra could feel the tightly wired muscles of her back. Korra ached to summon healing energy and pass her hands over Lin's flesh, making the ugly marks disappear, never to be seen marring Lin's body again. It was like defacing a finely crafted work of art, Korra thought as she used the tail end of one bandage to dry the dampness the cloth had left. How could anyone bring themselves to mark up something so lovely?
"I think they're pretty clean now."
"Thank you, Avatar."
"You can call me Korra, if you want." Korra turned over the cloth in her hands. It had once been light blue. If she didn't wash it soon, it would be one big bloodstain. "Do you need help with the bandages?"
Lin shook her head. "I would appreciate the help, but this is nothing you need to see."
"I've already seen the, you know, whip marks," Korra protested.
Lin looked surprised. "I didn't mean the whip marks."
"Well...I don't understand." Korra's brow furrowed.
"I meant you shouldn't have to look at me," said Lin gently.
"Well, if you don't want me to, I won't look." But that didn't mean she couldn't help. Korra began wrapping one long bandage at Lin's waist, slowly moving up, staying behind Lin so she wouldn't violate the other woman's desire for privacy. When she was finished tying off the bandage, she asked "Is that too tight?"
Korra slumped forward so her head was resting on Lin's shoulder. She wanted to apologize, to blurt out that she was sorry, that she had probably been either aching to punch some Equalists in the face or gazing at Mako while Lin was being beaten, and it hadn't occurred to Korra once that somebody should go after Lin after she had risked her life for the airbenders. She was the last Bei Fong, a master earthbender and metalbender, former police chief of Republic City, and she had ties to Korra. Of course she was going to be terribly mistreated. She was lucky to be alive. She might have died trying to protect Korra, and she hadn't crossed the girl's mind once. The mental image of Lin's blooded bandages was burned into her mind now, an image pulsing with guilt. Korra couldn't manage to voice any of that, though, so she just whispered "Do you want to stay with me tonight?"
"That's all right. I get more rack time than I do sleep in my bed at home, so my body likely wouldn't know what to do with a comfortable bed."
"There are bunks in the precinct for when we're working cases around the clock. It's referred to as 'the rack', and sleeping there is 'rack time'."
Korra carefully put her arms around Lin's waist, trying to avoid pressing against or touching her injuries. "Please? I'm used to sleeping next to a big cozy polar bear dog. I feel comfortable with you."
Lin got up with a sigh, forcing Korra's arms to fall away from her. "I know you're feeling lonely and vulnerable right now. Trust me, I am too. But it would be seriously improper of me to sleep in the same bed with a seventeen-year-old girl."
"I couldn't sleep. I got up to find you so I could ask you to stay with me. We don't even have to, you know, cuddle or anything. I just want you to be there."
Lin snickered mirthlessly. "And bring everyone running when you wake up screaming after finding me next to you?"
"If I wake up and find you next to me, I'll probably give you a hug and ask if your back is feeling any better," Korra protested.
Lin thought for a moment. "Go ahead and get into bed. I'll be right back."
Korra lay down. Lin returned in a few moments, having put on some kind of loose overshirt; Korra felt disappointed for some reason. Lin was also carrying a chair with her, which she placed at the bedside. She sat down and reached for Korra's hand; Korra clasped Lin's hand tightly. "Can you sleep sitting up?"
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep, but I'll stay here if you want me to."
Korra moved closer to the edge of the bed and, in a moment of boldness, brushed her lips against Lin's knuckles. "Thanks, Lin. I'm sure I'll sleep fine now."
When Korra woke the next morning, the chair beside her bed was the only indication that Lin had been there. Korra remembered that they had still been holding hands when she had fallen asleep. Had Lin been able to sleep at all? Had she left after Korra had fallen asleep?
There was a light tap on the door. Korra immediately burrowed under the covers, disgusted by the possibility of interacting with another person. "Korra?"
It was Lin's voice. Well, at least she would probably understand that Korra wanted to be left alone. "Not now."
"It's nearly noon. Tenzin and Pema are fussing over the fact that you haven't eaten since we boarded."
Korra groaned. "I'm not hungry."
"I thought you might say that. May I come in?"
So much for her understanding I want to be left alone, Korra thought with a grimace. "Okay."
Lin opened the door. She was wearing some kind of black robe that she had probably chosen to wear because it didn't irritate her injured back, and she was holding a ceramic bowl in one hand. "I'm sure you're not hungry. But you should keep your strength up. I brought you some plain porridge; hopefully your stomach won't object." She walked over and placed it on the chair where she had been sitting the night before. "I don't feel like I can eat either. But I know you're hurting. Don't hurt yourself more."
With that, Lin turned to walk away; Korra caught her hand. "Lin...wait. Please."
Lin looked at Korra expectantly, still appearing somewhat confused. "Do you. Um. Do you need help with your bandages again?"
"I took care of them myself this morning. You were still asleep, and considering how surprised I was that you were able to sleep, I didn't want to disturb you."
"I wouldn't have minded."
Korra was still holding Lin's hand. Lin sat down on the edge of the mattress. "What is your newfound fascination with my hands?"
"They're weird," said Korra without thinking.
"Oh, that's nice." Lin rolled her eyes.
"No, I mean...you've got these small, pretty noblewoman-looking hands, but they're all tough and strong." Korra pressed the aforementioned hand to her cheek.
"I bear a passing resemblance to my grandmother. That woman was more delicate than a boiled bamboo shoot."
Korra laughed. "That's funny. I didn't know you could be funny."
"I have my moments. Are you planning on holding my hand hostage?"
Lin was quiet for a moment. "I'm more inclined to think you're still upset about losing your bending and are just holding my hand until I take you in my arms and tell you you can cry over the loss of your bending again."
Korra sighed. "Yeah, that's about it."
"All right, come here." Lin crawled over to Korra and draped an arm around her shoulders. Korra leaned her head against the base of Lin's neck, but was at a loss in terms of where to put her arms so she wouldn't aggravate Lin's injured back. Lin noticed. "It's going to hurt no matter what you do."
Korra linked her fingers behind the small of Lin's back. "Thanks, Lin," she whispered.
Lin lightly scratched Korra's scalp with her fingernails. "Do you want me to get Tenzin?"
"One of your friends?"
"No. I'm fine."
"Korra, the fact that also Amon took my bending isn't going to make me any better at comforting you. Comforting people is not one of my strong points."
"Hugs are comforting. Also, my friends call our, you know, our group...the 'new team Avatar'. And I came to Republic City for avatar training from Tenzin. But you never cared about me being the avatar. And you scritching my head is comforting too."
"No, I suppose your title never mattered to me except when I thought you were abusing it. And...'scritching'? Is that a word?"
"It is now."
"I genuinely have no idea how to comfort people. I'm scratching your head because the badgermoles like this."
"The badgermoles?" Korra blurted out before realizing that of course Lin would have befriended the badgermoles in and around Republic City; hadn't those same animals taught her mother to earthbend?
"Yes, particularly behind their ears. Although they are enormous, so I have to be careful they don't crush me...sometimes when they're really enjoying having their ears scratched, they'll roll over onto their backs."
"'Here lies the legendary and amazing Chief Lin Bei Fong, who was tragically killed when one of her beloved badgermoles crushed her while receiving ear-scritchins'," Korra intoned. "Yeah, not the most dignified eulogy."
Lin snickered once, and Korra couldn't help but smile; she'd made Lin laugh. Korra had never heard her laugh before. "I appreciate the compliments, but what does me not caring about your title as avatar have to do with how insistently you're clinging to me?"
"You won't...I don't know...fuss over me. Coddle me. I don't want to be fussed over. I just need a hug. And to be told it's okay to be upset over losing my bending. Even if you have to pretend I'm a badgermole. So how would a badgermole show affection back?"
"Hmm. Well, I'd rather you didn't do that."
"Oh really? Why?"
"This one male badgermole likes to wrestle with me. But most of the time, badgermoles lick each other's faces—or a person's face—to show affection."
"Huh. Okay." Korra leaned back far enough to flick her tongue against Lin's jaw; she meant to make the gesture a little bolder, but for some reason she couldn't place, nervousness held her back.
"Korra!" Lin sounded annoyed, but as Korra had predicted, she wasn't aggravated enough to push Korra away.
Korra rubbed her cheek against Lin's shoulder. "Am I being badgermole-like enough for you?"
"The badgermoles are cuter."
"I can be cute! Would you rather I be crying on your shoulder again?"
Lin paused. "No. I don't like seeing you upset. But I don't want you to stifle your feelings because it feels like you have to either."
"When did you get so nice?" Korra whispered.
Lin sniffed. "Since I don't like watching people suffer. Most of the police force shares that sentiment."
"I slept really well. You know, with you here. It was a really deep sleep. I think I was hoping I'd wake up and losing my bending was only a nightmare. It still feels like...like there's a huge hole in the pit of my stomach. Sad and lonely again. Or still sad and lonely. I don't know. I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until we get to Katara."
Lin stopped scratching Korra's head and instead cradled her scalp in one hand. "I don't blame you."
"Please stay with me again tonight."
"I can still feel Amon's hand on my face. On my head."
"Even now?" Lin brushed her thumb through Korra's hair; she was still holding Korra's head to her shoulder.
"It's not as bad now." Korra moved one of her hands to the back of Lin's head, trying to return the gesture. Lin didn't strike Korra as the type of person to primp, but her hair was fine and silky, as if she took good care of it.
"Have you tried distracting yourself from that feeling? It's not something I would suggest long-term, but perhaps you could try exploring your newfound connection to air more. I'm sure Tenzin would help without fussing over you."
"I'm much more comfortable doing this."
"Doing what? Sitting here holding on to my hair?"
Korra closed her eyes. "I guess now that you mentioned it, I'm going to have to cry on your shoulder."
"Go ahead and cry if you need to."
Korra felt tears begin seeping out from beneath her closed eyelids. "Spirits, Lin, why does it still hurt? Why couldn't I stop him? I guess I got what I deserved. I'm a lousy avatar, or I was."
"Hush. The training you'd had wasn't sufficient to deal with a master bloodbender. I know Tarrlok called you a 'half-baked avatar', but he was just trying to bait you."
"Maybe the spirits were wrong to choose me."
"Korra! Don't you say that."
"I'm not the avatar anymore. Maybe it's a sign. I wouldn't know; I have no connection to the spirit world."
"The spirits haven't been wrong before. I know you're hurting. But when you bumbled into my city with your ideals of vigilante justice, you seemed overzealous, but...devoted. If my bending can't be recovered, I'll find a way to still protect Republic City. And so will you."
Korra shook her head as best she could. "I'm not as strong as you, Lin."
"I think you underestimate yourself."
Korra stayed there, crying steadily, for a few more moments. "It looks like by the end of this trip, half of your clothes are going to be covered in blood and the other half are going to be covered in my snot."
"Hmm. Lovely." But Lin didn't move or protest.
There were footsteps. Korra looked up to see Mako standing in the doorway. "Afternoon, Mako," said Lin diplomatically.
When Korra met Mako's eyes, all the signs of her crush were there: fluttering heart, blood rushing to her cheeks, the sudden feeling that she was completely unable to form coherent sentences...except for one. Usually she felt like wrapping her arms around Mako every time she saw him, but at the moment, Lin was still holding on her head in a way that eased the constant psychological pain of Amon's terrible grip on her. She didn't want Lin to move. She didn't want to move either.
"Finally, yeah," said Korra feebly.
"And she's not feeling too well," Lin added.
Most people would have taken that as an indication that they should leave; Mako stepped into the room. "Well, let me talk to her."
"Try to get her to eat her porridge, would you?" Lin let go of Korra and stood up; Korra clenched her jaw to keep from making a disappointed noise. Lin could be much more warm and caring than Korra had ever thought, but apparently she could also turn that off as if with a switch. Korra actually shivered.
Lin walked out; Mako climbed onto the bed and scooped Korra into his arms. He hugged her tightly. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Korra muttered. "Just...out of it."
"It's going to be okay," Mako insisted, pulling Korra into his lap. Korra was reminded of when he was carrying her just after Amon took her bending; her head started aching and throbbing where Amon had gripped her again, and she began sorely wishing Lin were still holding her. Mako, you're sweet, but please, can you not interrupt me and Lin? She knows how I'm feeling.
"Yeah...I know. I just...it feels so awful to be cut off from the water. So lonely."
Mako gave her a squeeze. "You don't have to feel lonely."
Korra thought of Lin's gentle hand on the back of her head. "I guess I don't."
A/N: Scars and Bandages is still in progress. There will probably be at least 3 more chapters. My muses for this fic were...louder, I guess? I don't know how much I'll be producing in the immediate future because I'm in danger of being kicked out of my grad school, and apparently my diagnosis of MDD might be wrong and I actually may have bipolar disorder and present with mixed affective states instead of manic ones. Oh, and the reason my academic standing is in jeopardy? One exam. My first grad school exam ever. Ain't life grand?