A/N: This chapter and the previous went up at the same time. Longer A/N at the bottom of this epilogue...
Previous chapter: Korra and Noatak meet up in Republic City two years later, and both have realizations about what they need out of the relationship, and what they're willing to sacrifice.
Korra and Noatak move onto the stage together and stand before the Elder, positioning themselves on either side of the pedestal. Korra's eyes travel across the small group gathered in the ice hall: her parents. Her friends. Tarrlok and Akna. Tenzin and his family. Naga and Pabu, curled in the corner. Beside them, on a small table, are photos of Asami and Noatak's mother, flanked by candles and incense.
Swallowing hard, she anxiously smoothes her silk dress. Noatak's hand tightens around hers; when she looks at him, he gives her a kind smile, but it wobbles, as if he's just as emotional as she is. There's no beard this time, no hair dye, just Noatak. Of those gathered, only Mako would ever recognize him without the beard, and he already knows the truth.
"Avatar Korra," says the Elder. "Saomik."
Noatak, thinks Korra, legitimizing the vows in her mind. Saomik is the lie. Noatak is the truth. It has always been the truth.
"Marriage is a vow for life," says the Elder. "A promise to bring your best to each other, and bring out the best in each other." She sets a chalice on a pedestal before them and crumbles dried herbs into it, then fills it with a steaming tea mixture that Korra has been assured tastes like berries.
"Saomik, you will be the first to present the chalice."
Noatak kneels, his head bowed. The scar on the back of his head is barely visible now that he wears his hair longer and ties it back. Sometimes, Korra sees him rub it as if it's sore, but he won't let her soothe it with healing.
She stands before him, and as she looks down at him, her heart floods with too many emotions to name. She's glad he has to give her the drink first, because she won't be able to speak without wetting her tongue.
He's breathing hard, but he won't lift his head. Is he nervous? Having second thoughts?
"Look at me," she whispers.
She sees his back rise, then fall, and then he lifts his head. Their eyes lock, and she sees tears forming in his eyes. Her jaw starts to quiver, and she bites her cheek. Don't you dare start me crying.
He clears his throat and accepts the chalice. "Avatar Korra-" His voice cracks, and he clears his throat again. "Korra, I offer you my companionship, my protection and my faithfulness, in body and in spirit, for as long as we journey through this world."
She lifts her chin in a vain attempt to escape her tears; one trails down her cheek anyway. Her hands close over his and she lifts the cup out of his hands, then takes a sip. It burns her mouth and floods her body with warmth. She hands it back to the Sage.
Now it's her turn to kneel before him, and for a fleeting moment, they stare at each other eye-to-eye, then he stands.
And now it has arrived: the moment where she will commit herself to this man for life, with all their messy history, their enormous age gap, their forced secrets. She looks inside herself for any hesitation, for the slightest bit of resistance, but finds none.
"Saomik," she says clearly, "I offer you my companionship, my protection and my faithfulness, in body and in spirit, for as long as we journey through this world." The words are rote, a formal signature on a contract, but in her mind, she adds a different vow: Noatak, I'm proud of how far you and I have come together, and I'm excited about how far we'll go.
A corner of his lips lifts, as if he heard her thoughts. As if he is grateful.
She passes him the chalice, and he drinks from it, then helps her stand, drawing her seamlessly into a kiss while the onlookers cheer.
He's about to pull away, but she leans in, extending it. She wants to savour this moment, symbolic of all the changes they have undergone together. The first time they met head-on after his arrest, she was the one to retreat. The second time, when she was corrupted, it was his turn.
This time, they are two equals colliding head on and never pulling away. This, she realizes, is how their battle was always meant to end, why every ending before now felt incomplete.
Noatak finally breaks the kiss and gives her a gentle smile, holding out his hand. She returns the smile, and her fingers intertwine with his.
"Beloved guests, I present to you your newlyweds, Saomik and Avatar Korra," says the Elder.
In unison, they take their first steps as husband and wife, their chins high with pride, their chests glowing with hope.
A/N: Life has a way of coming full circle, and each time we cross the same threshold, we know ourselves better, so we can see the things we once feared in a whole new light.
When I started writing Love & Corruption, I was using it as a way to vent an extremely difficult time in my life. The themes of the characters struggling to define themselves at a time when their body and/or mind was betraying them was a direct reflection of my own struggles: Korra's corruption was a reflection of my physical illness, Kwan's depression was a reflection of my mental illness, and Amon's skewed sense of self was a reflection of my own. I set out to write a tragic tale ending in death and heartbreak, where the character's struggles would be their downfalls, but they surprised me: they found hope. And so did I.
I know this fic has uneven pacing, polish issues and other problems, but it's possibly the most personal story I have ever written, and so I say this from the bottom of my heart: thank you for reading. Your reviews and comments kept me writing when I wanted to quit, and the cathartic experience of it was a big part of my ongoing recovery. Thank you for your help.
For those of you struggling, I hope you will find your hope, maybe even in the unlikeliest places. May our darkest times help all of us to learn, grow and end up in a better place because of it. xo