Korra breathed deeply in, deeply out. She was home, but it certainly didn't feel like it.
There was tension, anger, fear, and everybody was expecting her to solve the problem. But she couldn't. All she'd been able to do was be a scapegoat, be blamed, feel terrible. She didn't know how to fix it. She didn't even know if she could fix it but she had to, she had to.
"More lights are going out, Korra. People are disappearing." Tenzin's voice was controlled, and it shook her out of her meditation. Korra opened her eyes and looked down at her fists pushed together near her stomach.
And she did. She'd been there at the festival the night that her cousin Desna had been taken by the Dark Spirit, as people had come to name it. It attacked and destroyed; she'd fought it and lost miserably. But now she couldn't even find it. Unlike any other enemy she'd faced, she couldn't simply chase this one down. It had disappeared, and she'd yet to see it again. It infuriated her.
Stupid spirit. What a coward.
She uncrossed her knees and leaned back, looking over at Tenzin, who still sat with his eyes closed and his back straight and his breath calm. She spoke again. "I'm doing everything I can, but... I don't know..."
"Other spirits could help you. They may be willing to guide you."
Korra scoffed. "As if."
"The Avatar is the bridge between-"
"-both worlds. I'm aware. But how can they guide me if I can't even go to the Spirit World? I can't even see them! I can access the Avatar State, and that's all well and good, so I thought that I'd be able to go to the Spirit World too... Aren't I spiritual enough now? I meditate every single day so why can't I figure out how to get there?" She slammed a fist onto the ground. "All I want to do is kick some spirit butt."
He opened his eyes now and glanced over at her. "Korra, this isn't some joke."
She rolled her eyes. "I know that."
"Well you certainly aren't acting like it."
"Hey, I want to fix this. I know something is wrong. Something feels off to me." She'd felt it for weeks now. It was windier, snowier, stormier, all without explanation. She'd lived here for seventeen years. She knew the weather.
Tenzin stood up. "The winter spirits are restless... more than I've ever seen them before, which leads me to believe that there must be a reason this Dark Spirit attacked. I believe the best route for you to take would be to talk with the spirits."
"And how would I do that?"
"Calm your mind."
"I have been trying and it's not working."
"And you're not helping!" She crossed her arms.
Tenzin took a deep breath. "I think it will come to you, just as the Avatar State did."
"Yeah, so I'll just have to lose my bending and then I'll see the way." She stood. "That sounds perfect. Just perfect." And with a swipe of fire, Korra stormed out, grumbling to herself. "Stupid... Tenzin... stupid...meditation... stupid... spirits..."
Korra was begrudgingly resigned to the fact that she wasn't going to get any help. No matter how much Tenzin was trying (and she recognized that he was trying) it wasn't working. Korra kicked at the wall, stopping her foot just before it made impact, deciding to stomp it on the ground. She pulled on her wolftails and tried not to scream (even though she was so very angry).
She'd have to figure it out on her own, just like she knew she'd have to.
After all, she was the Avatar. She was the only person in the world who could bend all four elements. She was the only person in the world who could communicate with her past lives and (supposedly) spirits. She was the only person who took the world's troubles on as her own, the only one whose sole job was to solve everyone else's problems.
She was the the only one.
And at the end of the day, she was alone.
Korra was reminded of when she was a child, stuck in the compound for days on end. When her masters and teachers would try and keep her in and force her to repeat and repeat techniques she already knew, when she was beyond ready to move onto something else, when they insisted that she couldn't do something, when they watched her and tracked her and bothered her, when she couldn't stand them anymore.
She'd burrow a tunnel through the ice and snow and run, run, run to her secret spot (a spot so secret she didn't have the faintest idea where it was). Korra remembered that it was a cave, dark and deep and painted with ice, but she didn't know how to get there. As a child, she simply ended up there, as if someone were calling her.
She practiced her bending to pass the time. She practiced her bending until she felt alone. Back then, she loved the feeling of solitude, of loneliness, of quiet.
And now, she wished she felt anything but alone.
Korra approached her bedroom, stretching her arms up over her head. She was so tired, so ready to go to sleep. She was ready to leap onto it and snuggle under the covers and drift off. But when she stepped into her room, she saw someone else on her bed, making it quite impossible to jump onto it. She gasped softly.
He was sitting on her bed and petting Naga, but stood when she entered, a tint of embarrassment coloring his face. Without another word, she ran to him and threw her arms around his waist and buried her face in his chest and let him her hold close. "Hey there," he said, and she breathed him in.
"Hi," she mumbled into his jacket.
She hadn't realized how much she'd missed him. It had been weeks since they'd seen each other. Mako had stayed in Republic City when she and Bolin had traveled to the South Pole for the festival. Bolin had gone back, but Korra had stayed. She was supposed to have gone back with him, but then the Dark Spirit came and she wouldn't leave until she figured out what was happening but then she couldn't leave because she couldn't figure it out.
But it didn't matter right now. Mako was here, pressing his lips to hers, and it tingled just right.
She broke the kiss to speak. His forehead rested on hers. "What's going on? Why are you here?"
"You didn't come back. I missed you."
"I missed you too."
It was as simple as that.
She clung to him once more, pulling on the back of his jacket as she hugged him. He stroked the top of her head, his fingers playing with her tip of her wolftail. She felt his breath close to her ear.
"Korra, are you okay?"
And she remembered. She remembered that Desna had been taken and others were taken and people were blaming her and the Dark Spirit had beaten her, bruised her. She remembered those cold nights spent in forced meditation that weren't really meditation at all because she couldn't think of anything but how guilty she felt, how scared she was that she'd never be able to figure it out.
She pulled away. "Yeah. I'm fine."
"Bolin told me what happened at the festival. Are you upset because of that?"
"Korra, please, talk to me."
"Nothing's wrong!" she yelled.
Korra turned away, sitting down on the bed with a huff. Mako hesitantly sat next to her. She rested her face in her hands. It wasn't fair for her to get upset at him. It wasn't fair for her to take it out on him. He came all this way to see her, not to listen to all her problems.
Korra closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said.
He leaned his head onto hers. "...It's okay. We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
And then it was just the two of them again. She tilted her head up to kiss his jawline, and his arm wrapped around her shoulders, squeezing her close to him. Her eyes drifted around her room, and she finally noticed how gray the light coming from her window was. Mako seemed to notice at the same time.
"It's been snowing a lot lately," Korra said softly.
"That's one thing I don't think I'll ever understand. I know it's your home and all, but how do you stand the weather here? I was freezing the whole trip down. Freezing."
"Oh, come on, it's not that bad."
"Says the thick-skinned Water Tribe girl."
She elbowed him playfully. "Okay, well cold is one thing. But snow!"
"Yeah, I just don't like winter," he confessed. "Maybe because I never really played in the snow. And if I did when I was younger, you know... when my parents were alive? If I did, I don't remember it."
Korra's hand found his knee. She bit her lip and felt that twisting inside her, whenever Mako talked about his past like this, when he talked about it like the tragedy it was. And it hurt. It hurt because she couldn't help, because it was so long ago, and nothing she did could take away the pain he'd been through.
"I just remember winter in the city when it was just me and Bo... trying to keep us warm and fed. Being a firebender helped, but we were still cold. I didn't have time to play in the snow and frankly, I didn't really want to. So I never did."
"You never built a snowman? Never had a snowball fight?"
Mako shrugged. "I just didn't have time for anything like that."
Korra looked outside at the gray sky and the falling flakes, freshly coating the already snow-covered ground. She couldn't change what had happened. She couldn't erase his memories of those cold nights.
...But she could make new memories for him.
Korra leaned closer, pressing her hand into his. His fingers curled up between hers, warm and secure. "It looks like you have time right now." He rolled his eyes, but she pulled gently. She stood, and he copied.
"Coat!" She let go of his hand and strode over to where he had tossed his coat, lifted it and held it open. He walked over to her and let her help him put his coat on. He drew his scarf out so it lay on the outside of his coat.
Her hand reached down once more, and he grabbed it. She held tight and lead him slowly outside her room, led him out into the cold. The wind was sharp, but that didn't matter to her right now because she would help him make new memories. She had to help him.
Korra turned and tugged on the end of his scarf.
She couldn't help but laugh at him, laugh at his attempts to not smile. He attempted to shove her shoulder, but she ducked and dodged and bounded out into the snow, where she whirled around in the flurries, laughing still. "Come play with me, Mako."
He finally broke and smiled, and she finally warmed and let herself feel something other than guilt. He reached for her and she reached for him and so with hands clasped and laughter light on their lips, they ran out to the snow.
Korra broke into a run, leaving Mako behind. She scooped her hand through the air, bending a pile of snow up into her hand where it formed a neat ball. Whipping around, she caught him unawares, and the snowball burst against his shoulder. She stuck her tongue out at him, and he smirked. He bent down and gathered a handful of snow, packing it together and throwing it at her. She avoided it easily and burst into laughter.
"I know you've never done this before, but come on, Mako. I thought you had better aim!"
"Just you wait! That was a practice one."
She pushed her fist against her hip. "I'm waiting!"
Mako gathered a snowball and chucked it in Korra's direction. She twisted to the side, letting the snowball just barely whiz past her. Mako bent down for another one, and Korra pushed her arms out, rolling the snow on the ground and flicked her wrist up, bouncing it up into her hand. Mako was biting his lip as he aimed and splat! hit Korra right in the stomach, just as turned, avoiding hers.
Even from across the distance, Korra caught his wink.
"You're gonna get it now!" she said, stretching her hands out, feeling the individual flakes, pushing them together with tiny flexes of her fingers. But Mako was already running farther away from the compound, grinning brilliantly, and it thrilled her. She chased after him and the snow flew behind her, swirling as it collected in the air. She watched his body shift and move as he scooped some snow, and she let it go, bending the snow ahead, fast and hard, slamming him forward.
He fell face first. He lifted himself up on his hands and knees and looked up at her, stunned, shaking the snow out of his hair. Korra crashed to her knees with laughter.
"I think you're the one who's going to get it," Mako growled, smirking, which just made her snigger harder.
Mako scrambled up and ran back to Korra, stuck in the snow, clutching her sides. She giggled and struggled to stand and just as she found her footing, he leapt towards her, tackling her back down. She coughed and laughed and rolled over, pulling him with her. They rolled and rolled down a hill, holding close, holding tight.
Winter whirled around them.
"Whoa," Mako said as they slowed down, sliding the rest of the way down the hill. When they'd stopped, she glanced over at him; he stared at her. She airbended the snow out of his hair with a puffy breath and he grinned. His fingers found hers. His eyes were gold and wide and bright and alive and Korra loved him.
And as they lay on their backs, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, hand in hand, Korra stared at the sky. The snowflakes kissed her cheeks. It was so cold, but she felt so warm.
The snow thickened as it fell to the earth and the wind howled desperately. But they were together in the middle of it all, and the confession bubbled up because even though she didn't want to tell him, she had to.
"...I can't figure it out, Mako," she said eventually, eyes still on the sky. "Nothing I try seems to work. No matter how much I meditate or how much I concentrate, I can't figure this out. I don't know what to do." He squeezed her hand. "And I'm getting so mad at myself, which makes it harder for me to focus, which just makes me madder. And it's a stupid never-ending cycle."
She breathed in deeply, burning her lungs with the cold.
"I know you're working hard, but you're not letting me help you. I mean, that's why I'm here. And maybe if I helped, I could... I dunno..."
She stared at him, and he was right there, hovering above her, his cold hand stroking the side of her face. He bent closer, his breath hot on her face. Her eyelids fluttered when his lips pressed against hers, when his breath mixed with hers. Her mouth opened up to his, her tongue sliding out to greet his, and she drank him in, drank him deep.
He smiled into the warm kiss.
"Thanks," she breathed.
"No, thank you."
Mako rolled back over next to her and squeezed her hand again, but Korra kept her eyes closed, still feeling his heat on her lips, still feeling his weight above her, still feeling his arms, strong and secure as they held on to her, and his hands, gentle and sweet. And she heard his voice so crisp and clear in her mind. His words echoed in her memories:
I don't care if you're the Avatar or not. Listen, when Tarrlok took you I was losing my mind at the thought of never seeing you again, I realized... I love you, Korra.
Her eyes opened, and she saw it in a flash, catching it right before it disappeared. She saw it jetting across the sky, spreading a fresh blanket of snow, blowing out the biting wind that pricked her skin because that's what it wanted. She'd never seen it before, but she knew what it was. She knew because it was calling her.
A winter spirit.
She bolted up instantly, her eyes seeking the sky for another sign of the spirit. "Did you see that?"
He looked up at her. "See what?"
It flickered into her vision again, flying off through the air, and she felt the cold bursting gale slap her face in its wake. It had taken the figure of a bird, wings sparkling in and out of visibility. The snow dripped from its feathers, and it awed her. But she didn't stop to ask Mako this time, she didn't stop to think or to question.
She just ran.
"Korra?" Mako called from behind her, but she didn't stop. She slipped through the snow as she tried to keep up with the floating spirit as it taunted and teased and beckoned her near. It tittered with laughter, and she had to stop and brace herself as to not be blown back. The weather was getting worse. The wind screamed in her ears, and tiny ice crystals pricked her numbing cheeks. She saw there were more now... three, four spirits gusting through the air.
"Korra!" Mako yelled, having caught up with her. She could barely hear him, but she kept going, kept running, and he followed.
Seven winter spirits danced in front of her, calling her, wanting her, and her skin stung and her lungs burned but she reached out for them. They snickered, twisting into nothing once more, and the storm calmed instantly. Korra bent down, hands on her knees to catch her breath, and looked up to where they had led her, the jagged opening covered with frozen teeth reminding her of her location.
It was the cave. Her secret cave, lost in her memories.
"They brought me here?" And really, it was just like when she was a child. She'd never found it, she never knew where it was, but she always felt like she'd been called there. Korra hadn't seen it in ages, and it sent a wave of nostalgia through here, and it seemed so crazy but this is where she needed to be.
"Where's here? Who's they?" Mako said as he caught his breath.
"The spirits." He stood straight, mouth hung open slightly. She ignored his shock. "It was my spot," she said, resting her hand on cave's mouth. "Kinda like my hideout." She took his hand and walked inside, admiring the ice-covered walls, the frozen waterfalls, the dripping crystalline ceilings, the smooth, blue and purple stone hiding behind it all. It was all so familiar, so calm. Mako lit a flame in his palm, holding it high so they could see. "When I would run away as a kid, I always ended up here."
"Well I guess it's where I found Naga. She came to me here. But before that, yeah, it was just me."
Mako was quiet for a moment, and Korra stared at the ice sparkling with the light of his fire.
"I can picture it," he said. "You as a kid here. All alone." Korra felt the weight of his words, and they pressed hard on her chest, pressed deep. "At least I always had Bolin with me." He draped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him.
She leaned against him and closed her eyes. "It was kinda nice back then... being alone, you know... but now..."
He kissed her head once. "You're not alone, Korra." Twice. "You're never alone." And the calming wave ran through her once more, and this time, she expected it when she opened her eyes. The spirit spiraled through the air, waving her forward.
"It's there," she said.
"I don't know if-"
But she was already walking ahead, chasing the hope that this was the way to go, the place to be, holding her hand out behind her.
She reached to him. Oh, she reached for him.
And he caught her.
Fingers locked together, they ran after the spirit that only Korra could see, both cupping a flame to guide their path through the narrowing cave. Korra walked ahead, Mako following behind. Korra didn't remember going here before. It was different, no longer icy. The air was warm here. She brightened her fire; the cave was opening up again.
Mako stepped up to her side, and she stared, astonished and trembling. The chasm was bright and snowy, lined with ice-coated flowers and vines. Sunlight dripped down through a hole in the storm, and Korra heard a trickle of water coming from somewhere (or was that just her imagination?) and she heard the spirits as they danced above, as they sprinkled winter down on them, as they called her near.
She trembled as the memory revealed itself to her, of coming here as a child, angry and alone.
But she wasn't alone now. Not this time.
"Are you scared?" she asked Mako.
"Of course. You?"
"Of course not."
Korra smiled because he was right. She was scared and excited and reassured and so very calm. So when she approached the shimmering edge and looked over, it thrilled her and filled her. She didn't know what would happen. She didn't know what to do, so she reached for Mako. And when he smiled at her, smiled knowingly, she felt it:
And Mako caught her as her eyes lit up and her body went limp, as her soul went to the Spirit World. He wrapped himself around her and held her close and held her safe, protecting her and caring for her and waiting for her.
And it felt like destiny, sitting on the edge of the mortal world, letting Korra go. She helped him; he helped her. They lived and loved together, and nothing could change that.
So he waited, daydreaming of playing in the snow with her once more.
Korra awoke in a field of flowers and rain, glowing ethereally. It was green and pink and yellow and wonderful. The air smelled sweet. She looked around yet saw no one, but she stepped forward, unafraid. Unafraid of this place, unafraid of the spirits, unafraid of her fate.
Because she wasn't alone.
She was not alone.