the hero of this story (Korra/Asami)

Book 3 finale spoilers. 2,500 words.

 One thing comes loose, and all else follows.

Asami doesn’t say a word about the tears soaking her shirt.

*

       She’s been awake for three hours, staring to the left of her mirror for most of them.

       By now, she should be exhausted. Battered and bruised, hair plastered to her forehead, every element bending to her will. Her legs should be aching, reminding her that a ten mile run at dawn wasn’t the best idea, or she should be meditating out of frustration when her technique’s a fraction of an inch off, a second too slow.

       She should taste salt on her lips from the sweat running down her face, eyes stinging. She should be grinning, thoughts fixed on the mountain of food that passes for lunch; she should be groaning, wanting to be anywhere but there, daydreaming about getting a lie in, for once.

       But she’s just sitting, staring.

       It’s as though the poison’s still in her, settling as steel in her veins.

       Something has to be holding her back.

       Something other than her own mind, her memories.

       Korra’s fingers tighten around the arms of her wheelchair, nails digging in. Her jaw trembles, but it passes.

       She’s still. Staring.

       She could go out. She should go out. The air nomads are departing today. She told them she wasn’t feeling well, that she was sorry and wished them luck, and they pretended to understand what she’s going through. It’s only nine; she still has time to see them off.

       But if she goes outside, they’ll tell her she’s a hero. They’ll tell her how brave she was, how much she sacrificed, as though she doesn’t know. As though she isn’t living it.

       They’ll call her a hero, because it’s their way of making themselves alright with all she’s become.

       The word rings hollow to her.

*

       “It’s a gorgeous day,” Asami says. “I thought we could—”

       “Go for a walk?” Korra croaks.

       Asami frowns, glancing away for a second. She isn’t knocked back for long. Smiling in the face of Korra’s spite, Asami reaches out an arm, gesturing to the basket atop the table.

       “Eat lunch outside,” Asami says.

       Korra says nothing, and Asami picks the basket up, hooking it over one arm. She watches Asami from the corner of her eye as she fusses in front of the mirror before they leave, using her fingers to brush her hair into place and wipe away any stray streaks of make-up, as though she doesn’t already look perfect.

       Korra rubs her knuckles beneath her eyes but the dark marks don’t fade.

       “Ready?” Asami says, reaching for the handles of her wheelchair.

       “I can do it,” Korra says, clicking her tongue.

       She hears herself snap, but it’s too distant to take responsibility for. Asami stands a little straighter and the weight of Korra’s own words don’t sink in; everyone has to feel sorry for her, everyone has to understand why she is as she is. Why bother bottling all the misery within her chest?

       Hands on the wheels, Korra rolls half-heartedly out of the door, drifting to a stop when she reaches the first patch of sunlight. Her arms are heavy, impossibly so, like every rock she’s ever bended is weighing down upon them.

       What’s the point, she thinks. What’s the point ing being dragged out to make a spectacle of herself under the shade of some tree when she could just eat inside, not wasting any of Asami’s time.

       Shoulders slumping, Korra draws a gust of wind from the air, striking the back of her chair. That exhausts her more than anything else, and the chair skids a few feet forward, veering off to the right.

       Asami catches up with her, and Korra looks away.

       Kneeling by her side, Asami places a hand on her knee and says, “Shall I… ?”

       “… yeah,” Korra says, biting her lower lip. Asami’s not going anywhere; she can stop trying to chase her away. “Alright.”

*

       One morning, after hours of staring at a book she’ll never read, Korra decides to stand up.

       Putting the brake on her chair, she grips the arms, pushing herself up. Her elbows tremble and her wrists ache, but she’s still strong. All the strength she’s ever wielded is still deep down inside of her, and it’s just a matter of finding it again—or so everyone tells her.

       She swings on her arms, throwing her legs forward. There’s a faint tingling as she places her feet on the floor, but nothing beyond that. Korra puts her weight on her feet, legs supporting her for a fraction of a second, if that.

       She lands with a thud against the floorboards, pain shooting up her elbow. She holds her breath, listening for the faintest sound from the corridor beyond, praying that no one comes in and finds her like this.

       And when they don’t, she bites back the anger that comes with being left alone.

       Korra doesn’t cry. Pressure builds behind her eyes, but they’re far too dry for that.

       She moves onto her back, staying where she is, staring up at the ceiling. Until—

       “Korra!” Asami calls from the door, rushing over, kneeling by her side. “Korra, are you alright? What happened?”

       Asami’s watched her tumble down mountainsides, seen fire and earth rain down on her, but this is what really scares her: Korra falling from a chair.

       “I felt like lying down,” Korra says.

       Asami doesn’t buy it for a second. Korra watches her bite the inside of her cheek, desperately looking around as though there’s something that could possibly help either of them. Eventually, Asami forces herself to smile, and Korra finds it harder and harder to ignore the strain behind it.

       Asami doesn’t take hold of her shoulders and help her up. She doesn’t tell her to move.

       She just lies on the floor, hair brushing against the top of Korra’s head.

       “I meant what I said, Korra. If you want to—”

       “It’s fine,” Korra’s quick to reassure no one.

       Talking won’t get her anywhere. What is there to say that Asami doesn’t already know? Should she tell her how she was raised from the age of four to be the Avatar, kept from the rest of the world until mountains trembled in her wake, until rain rose up at her command? That she has always, always known that the world was counting on the Avatar, and now she is as nothing, of no use to anyone, least of all herself?

       “Asami?” Korra murmurs when she doesn’t speak another word for long minutes.

       “What is it?” Asami asks.

       Korra doesn’t know. Doesn’t know how to talk through her problems, don’t know how to deal with them in any way beyond breaking chains and breathing fire.

       She stretches her arm above her head, knuckles scraping across the floorboards.

       Asami doesn’t miss a beat. She turns onto her front, hooks her fingers around Korra’s and looks down at her, hair falling to frame her face.

       “Can we just… stay here for a little bit longer? Do you mind?”

       “Of course I don’t,” Asami says, and she bows her head, pressing her forehead to Korra’s, letting her pretend that she’s on the floor because she wants to be, if that’s what she needs to get through this.

*

       Dinner goes well. No one talks about bending, no one brings up the air nomads and the good they’re doing, and Korra pretends not to notice anyone striding around certain subjects.

       “Thank you so much for having us,” Asami says to Korra’s parents as they leave, smiling in a way that’s earnest and warm and close to impossible to look away from. “It was delicious.”

       Her parents assure Asami that it was a pleasure to have her over, and after promising to do it again soon, Asami takes hold of the back of Korra’s chair. Korra doesn’t tear out her throat for it. She smiles as floorboards creek beneath the wheels, and it brings a dull, sinking sensation along with it. Whatever cheer the last few hours have infused her with is already draining away, sand slipping through her fingers and lost to the wind.

       She grinds her teeth together, grasping at granules of it.

       “That was nice,” Asami says, humming contentedly to herself. “Bolin and Mako keep dragging me to noodle stands every night.”

       “I don’t think they have any choice but to cook me all my favourite things,” Korra says. “There has to be some upside to this, right?”

       Asami squeezes her shoulder, not knowing whether it’s alright to laugh.

       Korra idly brings her hand up, fingers brushing against Asami’s. She’d stay like that all the way back to her room, if Asami didn’t need both hands to turn the corner.

       Asami puts the brakes on to say goodnight, stepping around the chair. Korra looks up at her and manages one more smile than she thought she had left in her, holding out an arm, inviting Asami into an embrace that’s supposed to say thanks for coming, thanks for not getting fed up with me, thanks for stopping me from spiralling even deeper.

       Leaning down, Asami puts her arms around Korra. The angle’s a little awkward, but they both brave it, and Korra holds on tighter than she meant to, not letting go as quickly as she’d intended to. Asami says nothing of it, not standing back up when Korra’s grip on her loosens.

       She whispers a goodnight and kisses Korra’s cheek.

       Korra turns her head towards her, mouth stuck in the start of a what—? and Asami’s lips wander, finding hers. Her hands press to the sides of Asami’s face before she absorbs what’s happening – Asami’s lips grazing against hers, her own mouth softening against Asami’s – and her shoulder rise up to her ears.

       “Don’t—” Korra says, turning her head away.

       She doesn’t push Asami back. She trusts her to listen.

*

       She’s been staring at Asami’s door for three minutes.

       It’s been three days since she last saw her. Three days spent ignoring knocks at the door, calls from outside. Three days of letting disgust fester within the pit of her stomach, the back of her throat.

       Not because Asami kissed her. Because Asami kissed her; the Avatar who can’t even rise to her feet, who can’t do what every incarnation of herself has done before. If she can’t give to the world, can’t protect it from the next threat and all the unrest roiling within it, then why does she deserve to tear any small sliver of happiness, of warmth, from it?

       She reaches up, knocks.

       No turning back now.

       Asami answers in a matter of seconds, but she wasn’t expecting Korra to come to her door. Her gaze trails down and her eyes widen as she mouths oh, wary of whatever disaster’s dragged Korra there. She was on her way to bed, make-up washed off and hair—well, that looks as perfect as ever, and Korra wants to make her excuses and leave, muttering she’s sorry for turning up so late.

       But she can’t do it anymore. Not alone.

       “Can I…” Korra begins. “Can we—talk?”

       Asami steps to the side, ushering her in.

       Talking comes no more easily, purely because she’s announced her intentions. Korra wheels her way across the room, toes knocking against the edge of the sofa, and with a puff and a heave, she manages to drop herself onto the cushions. She wouldn’t have been able to do that a week ago, she realises, but thinking of it as a victory puts a bitter taste in her mouth.

       “I’m sorry,” Asami begins as she heads over, and it’s a relief for someone to be sorry about something other than what’s become of her. “About the other day. I didn’t—”

       “Didn’t mean to do that. I get it,” Korra says, nodding over and over.

       Asami sits next to her, sucking a breath between her teeth.

       “No, no,” Asami says, hands in her lap, knees pressed together, taking up as little space as she can. “It was just thoughtless. Bad timing.”

       “Oh,” Korra says, still nodding.

       The silence between them stands as a testament to how bad an idea this was. Minutes tick by, neither one of them looking at the other, and Korra would run out, if—well.

       Monologues unwind in the back of her head, making her eyes burn, but no words push their way past the lump in her throat. Asami dares to glance her way, exhaling heavily each time, finally offering out a hand.

       Korra takes it, holding on tight, but it’s not enough and Asami knows it.

       “Come here,” she says softly, inching over to Korra, both arms wrapping around her.

       Korra’s arms loop around her waist, and she buries her face in her shoulder, but it’s still not enough.

       “I know you’re probably sick of hearing this, but we have to keep saying it until you realise it’s true. This won’t be forever, Korra. You’re strong. You’re scared and that’s alright, but you are strong, and none of this changes that,” Asami murmurs into the top of her head. “You were poisoned and you managed to fight against your Avatar State. If you can do that, you can do anything.”

       Korra’s fingers twist in the back of Asami’s shirt.

       “Do you know why I did that? Do you know why I fought?”

       Korra wishes there was some hazy distance between the words she speaks and the way she feels, but the truth is pouring out of her, making its way through every nerve.

       “Why?” Asami asks, fingers brushing through her hair.

       “Because if I kept flickering in and out of the Avatar State, there was a chance they’d strike at the wrong moment. That they’d kill me before I was trapped in it,” Korra says quietly, “And the Avatar would be reborn. The Avatar would keep on helping the world. But if I let them kill me in the Avatar State, that would be the end of everything. I’d have failed not just this generation, but the future, too.”

       Asami’s arms tighten around her.

       “Korra…” she murmurs, holding her tighter. She doesn’t say anything else, not straight away; she just places her hands on the back of her head, nose pressed to her hairline. It’s enough, it’s enough.

       Korra doesn’t think she needs Asami to say anything else. She just needs her to listen, to soak up the words that have clogged up her chest, drowning out her thoughts, these past few weeks.

       One thing comes loose, and all else follows.

       Asami doesn’t say a word about the tears soaking her shirt.

       “Korra,” she says, kissing the top of her head. “You’re more than the Avatar to us. We’re worried about more than balance—you haven’t let any of us down. We want to be here for you, like you’ve been here for all of us.”

       Korra nods into her shoulder, sniffing and sobbing, and clings to Asami, trying to forget the way the rest of the world would call her a hero.

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