Hiroshi Sato's final moments occur in a Future Industries factory during an Earth Nation bombing raid. Earthbenders in a war balloon drop three tons of rock onto the factory from over a hundred feet in altitude.
It isn't a glorious end. He's tinkering with an engine when the raid hits. He dies instantly, before the first air raid siren sounds. One moment he's there, up to his elbows in engine grease. The next...gone.
That's the end of Hiroshi Sato.
But it's only the beginning of a new phase in the endless war, the war that began when the Avatar left the world, and never returned.
Grief is a maze.
At least, it seems that way to Asami Sato. It seems like she staggers through life, twisting and turning this way and that, every choice she makes getting her more and more lost.
Once there was a little girl called Asami who lost her mother. Did she lose her way there? Perhaps, but she had a father who loved her. A father who raised her to follow her dreams of being a builder, an inventor, an engineer: someone who could shape the world into a better place.
Asami was a student at Ozai University when her father died. He left her a fortune, a company that was the world's leading producer of motorised vehicles, and an emptiness she couldn't fill.
Certainly not by running her father's company, though she tried that for a while. She left the university and tried to fill her father's place at the head of the company.
She couldn't do it.
All the meetings, the public relations, reassuring shareholders...she couldn't do it. Not for long. She couldn't keep wearing all the smiles she had to wear when there were no smiles inside her to give. She couldn't offer all of the answers she was expected to offer, when there only questions screaming inside her.
For a time, she tried to be the inventor, the designer that he used to be. She refined concepts in his blueprints, drew some of her own, threw herself into building prototypes. Building better engines. Better weapons. Tools which non-benders like her could use against the might of the earthbenders and waterbenders.
She couldn't build structures that would withstand aerial bombardment, she told herself. But she could build devices that would ensure war balloons would never get close to Fire Nation territory ever again.
That's what she told herself.
But it wasn't enough. She couldn't sit in an office or tinker in a workshop and stay out of the fight, not take part in the war that her homeland was striving to end, the war that had taken first her mother, then her father.
When she'd realised that she couldn't go on being Hiroshi Sato's successor, she did the only other thing she could think of: she applied to join the Fire Nation's Aerial Corps.
She'd always had an affinity for engines. She had not only helped design and build them, she'd also help test them at every stage of their development. She was an excellent driver. She was a good pilot.
She joined the Aerial Corps and became a great one.
She helped take the fight to the Earth Kingdom, flying more than twenty successful missions before she was reassigned to the hunt for an enclave of Southern Water Tribe benders who have been plaguing Fire Nation fleet operations.
Asami's squadron is on its first patrol when they're surprised by a fleet of balloons. They're older war balloons, much slower than the Earth Kingdom Monarch Fighters or Asami's own FI-plane. Their construction makes them vulnerable to the barbed harpoons and flame lances Asami's squadron is equipped with. Even though Asami's planes have to get close to use their weapons, their speed and maneouverability usually more than make up for that disadvantage.
But not when waterbenders can bend clouds to hide their balloons and limit the visibility of the Fire Nation pilots. Not when the earthbenders in the balloon's gondola get to strike first.
One minute, they're diving under a cloud bank. The next, a hail of fist-sized rocks barrage them from above. Something punches through one of Asami's wings. She fights to control her shaking hands as her heart begins to thunder and fear snatches at her rational mind. She fights to control her plane as it lurches, shuddering under a series of impacts.
Asami opens the throttle up and pulls up. The attacks were coming from above. She knows that if she's to have any chance of winning this fight, she needs to gain altitude.
And she's going to win this fight. And she's going to figure out how to beat this style of ambush so that nothing like this happens again.
That's what she tells herself, to steady her hands, to focus her mind. That's what she tells herself, even as her plane responds sluggishly when she tries to bank left. Even when she catches a glimpse of one of her squadron's planes descending at too steep an angle, its engine stalled, fuel leaking from the holes punched through its fuselage.
Asami loses sight of the rest of her squadron as she climbs into the clouds.
Her radio gives her nothing but static when she tries it.
She keeps climbing, looking around her for anything that might help her figure out where the enemy are. She thinks she sees a flash of light, a flame lance briefly illuminating the clouds below her.
It's strangely beautiful.
Asami primes her harpoons and dives, looking for a target.
The second she sees a mass too dark to be a cloud, too slow to be an FI-plane, she fires. The barbed steel tips of the harpoons rip through the clouds and punch through the fabric and ropes of a balloon. Asami can feel the death of the war balloon in the thrum of the cables beneath her. She levels her plane out and pushes the button to retract the harpoons.
The cloud mass around her begins to break up. For a second, Asami imagines that she just might win this fight after all.
Then the gondola of a balloon pushes through a shredding cloud above and to her right.
Asami dives, seeking cover, seeking distance, but the clouds are too thin here and her plane is fighting her.
A rock punches the canopy beside her head, denting the frame. Another slams into her rudder. A third snaps a wing strut.
Half a dozen more tear through the fuselage of her fighter, hammer her engine relentlessly, and...
She drops into thicker cloud, then through it. Her engine sputters out. Her prop stills. Her plane dies. Asami stares at the ice and water below and realises that she's going to be next. She closes her eyes.
But only for a second.
She fires her harpoons and flips the switch to cut the cables, sending the heavy metal tumbling away from her. She pulls up on the yoke, urging her plane to one last effort. She strains to bring her nose up, to get the air beneath her wings, to turn her fall into a glide.
It takes every ounce of strength and all of her concentration to do it. She loses any awareness of the battle above. She loses any awareness of herself as a being separate from her plane. The battered struts and pierced body becomes hers and she struggles to bring her plane level, then to keep it level, then, as the ground gets closer and closer, to make the adjustments she needs to bring herself down in the water, rather than onto an iceberg.
She's so focused on that task, she's barely aware of the fact that she's whispering, over and over, "I won't die like this. I won't die like this. I won't die like this!"
She almost makes it. But as the water gets closer, she realises there's a small boat in the water, a civilian craft, and she realises she's going to crash into it.
Asami banks sharply. Her wing dips too low, and though she turns away from the boat, her wing tip hits the water rather than her plane's fuselage. The wing snaps, her plane heels over and crashes upside down into the freezing cold waters of the South Pole.
She wakes upside down, shivering, with her gloved hands in water and her whole torso in agony. The straps of her safety harness cut into her shoulders.
Asami blearily looks around her and realises that water is trickling steadily into the canopy. Asami gasps. She lifts her hands out of the water pooling in the glass of her canopy after her third try. She manages to get her gloves off with her teeth after her hands prove too clumsy to manage either her safety harness or the gloves. She unbuckles herself and falls awkwardly into the deepening pool of water, bumping her head and straining something in her neck.
Asami gasps again as the cold invades her, setting her teeth to clicking violently against each other. She thinks that she has maybe a minute before the cockpit fills up. She thinks she has less time before the cold robs her of the power to move.
The canopy refuses to open. The frame is buckled where a rock struck it and she wastes too many seconds and too much of her strength trying to budge it.
She wriggles around in the cramped confines of her cockpit until she can slam an elbow against the glass with a dull thud. She sucks in air that tries to freeze her lungs, that burns her throat and does little to power her limbs.
She hits the glass again. She thinks maybe something cracks. She can't tell if it's the glass or her elbow. It takes her a few seconds to raise her arm for another strike. She has to twist her head to raise her lips above the level of the water. She can only tell her mouth is too low when she swallows some water.
Her elbow thuds into the canopy. Pain registers distantly in her failing body.
She tries to raise her arm again. She tries to raise her head above the level of the water. She tries to say, "I don't want to die like this."
She tries to hold on, but the cold claims her before the water can.
Asami wakes up to the feel of needles and pincers assaulting every inch of her flesh. She utters a hoarse croak of a scream and flails around, trying to escape her tormentors.
A voice says, "Spirits, you're awake! Which is good, but...bad. It's okay! I know it hurts, but you're okay! Hold on, hold on!"
Something warm envelops her and slowly, much too slowly, the pains recede, one by one by one. But long before the pain stops, Asami's conscious mind does.
The next time Asami wakes up, she's cold rather than freezing. Her elbow hurts but she otherwise feels healthy. She opens her eyes and finds herself staring up at the clear night sky and more stars than she's ever seen before.
She's lying under a pile of furs in the bow of a small boat. She's otherwise naked. She takes a breath that hurts her lungs slightly and plumes out a fine mist on her exhale.
"I'm alive," she says, her voice creaky but strong.
"Yeah, though it was kinda close. Sorry."
Asami turns her head and looks at the only other occupant of the boat. She's a woman with the brown skin of the Southern Water Tribe. She's only wearing dark pants, a vest, and a cloak, but she doesn't seem cold. She has large blue eyes, short brown hair, and a crooked smile she's aiming at Asami.
She's the enemy.
Asami can't remember the last time she saw a waterbender this close. "You're a waterbender. Powerful one."
The woman's surprise makes her youth more apparent. She's in her early twenties, maybe. About the same age as Asami. "Uh...wow! How'd you work that out?"
"Your breath doesn't mist."
The woman chuckles. "That's...impressive observation considering you just woke up after, uh..."
"Maybe you should focus on the 'almost' part?"
Asami looks back up to the sky. "Why did you...apologise?"
She sighs. "I should've done more, sooner. And I should've been quicker when I got to you. Took too long figuring out how to open the...door...thing."
"Canopy. You...saved me. I don't see what more you could have done."
The woman says nothing.
Asami stares up at the cloudless sky and finally wonders how many--if any--of her squadron survived. She croaks, "Why did you save me?"
"Are you kidding? Here." The woman tosses her a waterskin.
Asami looks at her. She isn't smiling anymore, but there's no sense of hostility to her. Just concern in her eyes. Asami ignores the waterskin. "We're enemies."
The woman frowns. "We're really not."
"I'm Fire Nation. You're a waterbender."
She tilts her head. "You're the whole Fire Nation? Wow! I thought you'd be bigger."
Asami blinks. "What? No! I don't mean..."
"Wanna try again?" The woman grins a crooked grin. "I'm Korra. You are...?"
"...Asami." She hesitates, then raises her chin defiantly. "Asami Sato."
Korra smiles. "Nice to meet you, Asami Sato. Just a minute now, okay?"
She turns away and busies herself with a small stove. Savoury smells reach Asami, and her stomach growls. Asami watches Korra cook and waits for Korra to comment on her family name. Future Industries is famous throughout the territories held by the Fire Nation. Its vehicles and weapons are infamous everywhere else. And everyone knows who built the company, whose name is attached to their first great innovation: the Satomobile.
But a minute passes, then another, and it becomes clear that Korra isn't going to say anything about her name. Could she not know?
As stealthily as she can, Asami picks up the waterskin, wincing when her elbow throbs with pain. Once she's uncorked the skin, she uses her right arm to drink and rests her left. "What are you going to do with me?"
Korra shoots her an exasperated look. "Feed you? Help you recover? That sort of thing."
"I...you're a waterbender. All waterbenders fight the Fire Nation forces. We're-"
"Don't say enemies! We're not...ugh. You don't believe me. I thought you were smart, Asami. Y'know...maybe use your observational powers and work out the truth?"
Asami stares at her. She looks around the boat. There isn't much to see in the dark. But..."These are your furs."
"Yup," Korra agrees cheerfully. "It's my boat, too! See? You're good at this observing thing!"
Asami flushes. No one speaks to her like that! Not even her instructors at flight school! Not even her superiors! No one has dared speak down to her since...her father.
Asami starts to roll over, intending to turn her back on Korra, but when she puts weight on her sore elbow, she cries out.
Korra rushes to her side and helps her sit up against the side of the boat. "Easy! You've got a fracture."
Asami grits her teeth against the pain and the humiliation. "Let me go! I can manage."
Korra lets go. She rests on her haunches beside Asami. "Is the pain bad?"
"I can handle pain."
"Are you trying to impress me?"
Asami blinks. "No. I'm not."
Korra nods thoughtfully. "Stop pretending to be someone you're not then."
Without warning she raises her hand and flicks the end of Asami's nose
Maybe it's the cold air, but it stings. "Ow!"
Korra grins. "Better! Pain is sore. Everybody knows that. You can admit it. So...elbow?"
Asami glares at her. "It's fractured. Of course it hurts."
"Think you can eat okay?"
Asami stomach growls. She flushes. "Yes..."
Korra stands up. "Good! Food first, then I fix you up!"
Korra returns to the stove and begins putting food into bowls. "Yup! I already did some work on you, but healing really drains the body. You need food before I can safely work on the fracture. Sorry. It's a pain, I know."
Asami frowns. "I...see." She looks up to find Korra watching her, eyebrows raised and a smile on her lips. "Yes?"
Korra pouts. "Nothing. It was...nothing. Food's ready!"
She presents Asami with a steaming bowl of fish stew. She discovers that she isn't hungry, she's ravenous. It takes some effort to figure out a way to wedge the bowl between her knees and her injured arm, but she manages to spill only a little of the broth as she shovels food into her mouth with a pair of bone chopsticks.
Korra devours her bowl every bit as hungrily as Asami. With two functioning arms, she finishes first, too. She sighs happily and sits back, her gaze drifting out to the horizon.
Asami studies her more closely. Her clothes are old and crudely patched and mended here and there. They don't look nearly warm enough, but Korra doesn't seem to be cold. Her hair is uneven and it looks suspiciously like Korra simply hacks it to a manageable length with a knife whenever it begins to annoy her.
Which...means that there's at least one knife around here. And since Korra must have caught and prepared the fish...there are more likely several knives. Fishing line. Maybe a net.
Asami considers the possibilities. Korra isn't particularly tall, but she's obviously athletic. In fact, she's impressively muscled and confident in her movements. Asami's trained rigorously in unarmed combat techniques, and she's an excellent fighter, but she doesn't think she'd stand a chance against Korra in her current state.
If she was completely healthy, or had a weapon...she'd still have to strike quickly, before Korra could bring her waterbending into play.
But even if she were to attack and overpower Korra, that would leave Asami in unfamiliar waters trying to pilot an unfamiliar sail boat and survive a hostile environment with a dangerous prisoner for an unknown amount of time. Too risky. She needs more information.
Asami looks back at her bowl, shocked to find it empty.
Korra says, "You must have been hungry. I'm a lousy cook."
"No, it was..." Asami tries to find a polite word. "...filling."
Korra laughs. "Thanks!"
She relieves Asami of the bowl, picks up her own, and takes both to the side of the boat. She cleans the bowls in the freezing water, humming quietly to herself.
Asami purses her lips. "Korra..."
She looks round, grinning. "That's me! What's up?"
"I...are you taking me to the mainland?"
Korra's grin fades. "Right now, we're anchored. In the morning..."
Asami waits, but Korra doesn't continue. Instead, Korra finishes cleaning the bowls. She tucks them away in a small cupboard, along with the chopsticks, then repeats the cleaning and tidying process with the pots on the stove. Finally, she takes a pot, fills it with water and puts it back on the stove. When she's done, she sits beside Asami again. Her face is grave and unsmiling.
Asami's heart is racing and she's sweating under the furs, certain she knows what's coming.
Korra surprises her yet again when she says, "Why'd you bring up my furs? It sounded obvious at first, but...you're smart and you haven't said anything without some kind of reason. What was the reason?"
Asami shifts, sitting up straighter. She tugs the furs up around her neck, wincing when her wounded arm protests. "You told me to work out why we weren't enemies. You had to have been wearing some of these furs. It's too cold to imagine otherwise. So you took them off to help me get warm. After...you pulled me out of the water. If you only needed to keep me alive, you wouldn't risk your health removing layers of your own clothing just to make me more comfortable..." Asami shrugs. "That goes some way to suggesting that you're not an enemy. An enemy would do the bare minimum."
Korra claps her hands. "Spirits! I just wanted you to shut up and stop stressing yourself, but you really are smart!"
"You weren't serious?" Asami shifts again, gritting her teeth. "Of course, an enemy would want to make sure I survived for questioning. They might not want to risk themselves unduly, but...you're a waterbender. How big of a risk did you take, diving in after me? And the cold doesn't seem to bother you, so maybe I was mistaken about the furs. You're going to take me to the mainland, aren't you? I'll be questioned. Then probably executed. You know that, don't you? But you still claim we aren't enemies?"
Korra shakes her head. "So smart...but you're not thinking clearly."
"I think I'm stupid to have even considered that you were trying to help me out of...ha! Kindness. But I'm in pain. It must be affecting my thinking."
Korra's eyes brighten. "Finally! You said something sensible!"
Asami grits her teeth. "You said you'd heal my elbow? Take away my pain? Or is that only if I answer more questions? Is this where my interrogation begins?"
Korra sighs. "Sensible by accident. No more questions. Well, one. But I don't want you to answer it right away, okay? I want you to think really hard about it first. Ready? Here's the question: where do you want me to take you?"
Asami stares at her. "You...want me to think about that?"
Korra holds up a hand. "No. I want you to think really hard about that. Really hard is important."
Asami scoffs. "Well, let's see! I could go to your people and be interrogated and, if I'm lucky, imprisoned. More likely executed, though."
"That is an option," Korra says, nodding seriously. "It's a terrible option, but it's one that you have."
Asami rolls her eyes. "Or you could take me to my people, where I'd be looked after and I could go back to-"
"Killing in a war that has gone on too long?"
Asami looks away. "Protecting my people! Trying to prevent more death!"
Korra rubs her jaw. "So your plan to prevent more deaths is by...killing people?"
Asami rounds on Korra, her elbow throbbing, her heart pounding. "It must be nice, to sit there judging! Is there no blood on your hands, Korra? Am I the first Fire Nation pilot you've captured? Or do you not care what happens to people like me when you pass us along to your superiors? Maybe you like to pretend that because you're a healer, you haven't helped someone go on to kill my people? Innocent people? Not everyone who dies in an Earth Kingdom raid is a soldier, but do you even care about that?"
She slumps back against the side of the boat, panting.
Korra closes her eyes, her expression pained. Her voice is old and heavy when she says, "There is more blood on my hands than you can possibly imagine, Asami Sato." She sighs. "Catch your breath. Back in a second."
She gets up, goes to the stove and collects the pot of water. Asami looks around wildly for a weapon, but there's nothing useful nearby, not even one of her boots.
Korra hunkers down beside her, her expression cheerful again. "Okay! Let's see that arm."
Asami swallows. "Why...do you need boiling water?"
"I don't!" Korra dips her fingers into the pot and flicks a few drops of pleasantly warm water over Asami's face.
Asami flinches, crying out. Then, as her brain catches up with events, she flushes and looks away.
"The water heats up anyway, but I figured you might not want to be doused in icy water again for even another second."
Asami sucks in a breath, composing herself. "I...see."
Korra chuckles. "Don't feel bad. Even the smartest people get things wrong sometimes."
Asami shuffles around, presenting her injured arm while trying to avoid looking at Korra's face. Korra raises her hands, and water flows from the pot, onto Asami's elbow. The water begins to glow, and warmth spreads out from the damaged bone, through her arm, her shoulder, her chest, her whole body. Asami groans as the pain briefly intensifies.
It fades again, is replaced for a moment with an almost overpowering itch, and then...
"All done!" Korra bends the water over the side. "How do you feel?"
Asami wipes some sweat from her brow. "Better. But...tired."
"Sounds about right. Sleep. In the morning, I'll take you wherever you want to go. Promise."
Asami makes a supreme effort and levers up one of her eyebrows. "You'll...take me back to my people...?"
Korra nods. "Yeah. I wouldn't say it's your best option, but it's an option."
"There...are...no other...options," Asami slurs, her eyelids drooping down.
"Sleep. And in the morning...think really hard, Asami. Okay?"
Asami maybe nods in reply, but that's around the time she falls asleep, so there's no way to be sure.
In the morning, Asami feels better. Clearer-headed. She finds fresh water in a waterskin on top of her dried uniform which lies beside her sleeping space. There's no sign of Korra.
Asami hauls herself upright, clutching furs to herself. She turns in a circle, carefully studying her surroundings. All she can see is ice and sea water. No sign of life, anywhere.
Asami drinks deeply from the waterskin. She forces her stiff body through a series of stretches and katas. When she feels loose and warm even under the weak polar sun, she dresses in her jumpsuit and fur-lined flight jacket.
There's still no sign of Korra.
Asami briefly considers stealing the boat. She rejects the idea as unattractive. She doesn't know how to navigate these icy waters, but she knows enough to know that she can't afford to make even a single mistake. Besides...she'd be stranding Korra. Assuming...assuming she's even coming back.
"She's coming back, Asami. Don't panic. You're not helpless. You've had training." Asami swallows. "One...whole day of survival training."
Since her father died...no. Since her mother died, Asami has pushed through life with purpose. Since her father died...she hasn't stopped looking for purposeful things to do.
It's calm here. It looks peaceful. But in reality, it's deadly.
Asami closes her eyes and takes a minute to shove down her fear. "If you can't act, prepare to act. You are not helpless. You're underprepared. Change that. Go."
Asami opens her eyes and goes to work learning everything she can about her new environment and her captor. She searches the cupboards, finding a few simple items of clothing, including Korra's cloak, pots, pans, bowls and simple utensils, a few herbs and vegetables. She finds a hairbrush, a toothbrush, two knives, both worn and simple, but with keen edges. She debates keeping one, but decides against it.
She finds a length of fishing line, but no net. She finds a jar of fragrant leaves. She finds a box of dried fruit. She finds a battered wooden box which contains a jar of tea leaves, a teapot, and two cups. She takes the box and a pan to the stove.
The stove is a squat lump of iron sitting in the middle of the boat. There are the embers of a fire in its belly. Asami finds a small bundle of gnarled sticks and carefully feeds the fire. She fills the pot with water from the skin and sets it on the stove.
She turns her attention to the single mast and rigging next. She's figured out the operation of the sail by the time the water's boiled.
She lets the water cool a little before she fills the teapot. She lets the water steep for a few minutes before she fills a cup. She retreats to the pile of furs and props herself up over the bow, watching the water ripple and listening to the ice creak while she sips her tea.
"She has no weapons. No uniform or anything inidcating rank or high status. She doesn't act like any soldier I've ever seen. And the nicest thing she owns is an old tea set that might be worth 50 yuans. But...she's a bender. She must have served in the military!"
Asami frowns. "She has to be a spy. Hoping to get close to the fleet. Why else would she offer to take me back?"
Asami drinks her tea and thinks.
Korra comes back ten very long minutes later.
She emerges from beneath the sea, borne up by a column of water that rises like a wave above Asami and the boat.
Asami gapes in awe, and can't help but flinch as the water spout rises up. But the wave doesn't come crashing down on her. Instead, it gently lowers Korra to the deck, before writhing up, away from the boat, and splashing back down.
Asami has seen powerful earthbenders in combat. She's seen some of the greatest firebenders in the world perform incredible feats of power. Korra's apparently been underwater for at least an hour, if not longer, in her underthings. And standing on the deck with a net bag on her shoulder, she's not even damp. The contents of her bag is; water drips from it onto the deck. But otherwise, Korra's bending preserved her in the cold, airless depths and brought no excess water onboard when she returned.
That level of contol can only be achieved by a true master bender.
Korra grins happily at her. "Morning, Asami! Wanna gut fish with me?"
She dumps her bag, which is full of fish, onto the deck.
Asami finds herself being stared at, reproachfully, by a dead fish. "Uh...I've...never-"
"I'll show you! Go grab the knives for me while I put on some clothes."
Asami looks up at Korra and gasps. "Spirits!"
Korra raises her eyebrows. "You okay?"
Asami quickly looks away. "Y-yes...I...fine!"
But she isn't, apparently. Because she lost control of herself for no good reason at all. Other than...having finally noticed that the half-naked Korra possesses the most astonishing physique that Asami's ever seen.
Which is valuable information. In assessing the capabilities of her captor.
Asami clears her throat. She watches Korra from the corner of her eye, vaguely aware that she's dressing but not allowing herself to take in any details. "Why, uh, how...what? I mean, how would I know where your knives are?"
Korra laughs. "You're not a morning person, huh? Me neither, usually!"
Asami glares at her, catches a glimpse of Korra's stomach muscles as she pulls on her vest and quickly looks away. "I don't understand what that has to do with-"
Korra grunts. "You were quicker last night. Come on! You made tea. So you found my tea set. Because you were looking for stuff. Are you telling me you didn't search every inch of this boat?"
Asami risks looking at her. She's pulling on her boots, watching Asami and smiling that crooked smile. "I...uh..."
Korra springs to her feet. She opens a cupboard and produces the knives and a scarred wooden board. "You didn't steal a knife. That's great!"
"You...thought I would?"
Korra shrugs. "I thought you might. I wouldn't have minded if you had. C'mon! Bring the fish!"
Asami gets up, frowning. She hauls the bag onto her shoulder and staggers over to Korra's side. Coldly she says, "You think bending makes you invincible?"
Korra relieves her of the bag, handling it easily with one hand. "No. I know even powerful benders have their limits. But I think you're a basically reasonable person. And I don't plan on giving you a reason to stab me. So...here!"
She passes Asami a knife, then busies herself opening the bag, pulling out a huge silver fish, and placing it on the board. Which leaves Asami standing over her with a knife in her hand. Asami very carefully steps over the board and seats herself opposite Korra.
Korra beams at her. "I'll do this one. Just watch for now, okay?"
Asami watches. Korra wields the knife with skill, but it clearly takes a lot of her concentration. And...she sticks her tongue out of the corner of her mouth when she concentrates. She looks so young, and so earnest, and so...happy.
Asami suddenly feels ill. She carefully puts down the knife. "I...haven't said thank you, have I?"
Korra doesn't look up. "Nope."
Asami whispers, "Thank you for saving me, Korra."
And now Korra does look up, smiling gently. "You're incredibly welcome Asami. I'm glad you're here."
Korra glances over her shoulders. She leans closer, lowering her voice. "Don't tell anyone else in the Water Tribe, but I kinda hate gutting fish." She straightens up, grinning. "Your turn!"
Asami laughs for the first time in longer than she can remember.
Korra shows Asami how to clean and prepare the fish, and how to cook them. Then they eat together by the stove.
Korra asks, "How are you feeling today? How's the elbow?"
"My elbow's fine. I'm...confused."
Korra grins. "I know! But you're getting better."
Asami focuses on her breathing for a few seconds. "I mean...I'm confused by you."
"Ah. You've been thinking!"
"Have you been thinking really hard, though? I mean really hard, mind."
Asami stares into her bowl and focuses on her breathing.
"Your face gets funny when you try not to be mad, you know," Korra says, conversationally.
Asami glares at her. "You make no sense! You're a powerful bender, but you're not military. I thought you might be a spy, but...a spy might have at least tried to hide the extent of their bending skills! You've been almost...flaunting them!"
Korra frowns. "I really haven't. But maybe you're right. I'll be more careful!"
"That makes you sound more like a spy! But somehow less at the same time! You're frustrating!"
Korra chuckles. "Are you sure you're not just frustrated for your own reasons?"
"Yes, I'm sure!" Asami hesitates, but if she thinks about Korra's question, she risks thinking about all the things she's been avoiding. Asami grabs onto her anger and rides it. "And what is it that I'm supposed to think really hard about? I only have one choice! I have to trust you'll take me to the fleet. If I go to the Water Tribe, I'll be arrested and eventually executed. If I go to my people..."
Korra carefully puts down her bowl. "Yes?"
Asami slumps, her anger flowing out of her and leaving her hollow. "Korra...there's a good chance you will be arrested."
Korra blinks. "Seriously? For saving you? That's kinda twisted."
"You're a waterbender. No one's going to believe you're a non-combatant. They'll think you're a spy."
"What do you believe?"
"I don't know! I'm confused, remember?"
"But you're making progress, Asami! Remember that, too."
Asami groans and clutches her head. "What progress? All I know is that I..." Asami sighs. "I don't want you to get hurt. You saved me. You're helping me. I believe...in that."
"Thank you," Korra says, softly.
Asami shakes her head. "For what?"
Korra grins. "Taking so many steps in the right direction. It's...I needed this. It feels like I've been doing nothing real for so long, but...I'm making progress, too. So! Wanna learn how to navigate icy waters?"
Asami stares at her. "You are definitely not a spy. A spy wouldn't teach me how to survive out here. A spy would want me to feel like I needed their protection. Make me dependent to make me more pliable. Unless..."
Korra jumps to her feet. "No, no, no! Too much thinking! That's too much thinking! Let's get to sailing. First lesson! Do you know what the front of the boat's called?"
Asami rolls her eyes. "The prow."
Korra snorts. "Uh, no! It's the pointy end. Now, I want you to head for the butt and grab the lever thingy. You'll be steering."
Asami stares at her. "Um...you mean the stern and the tiller, don't you?"
"I know what I said."
Asami bites her lip. "Uh...do...you know how to sail a boat, Korra?"
Korra rubs her hands together, her eyes gleaming. "Only one way to find out!"
Thankfully, Korra does know how to sail a boat, and how to navigate the ice floes, and the last of the morning and much of the afternoon passes with Asami taking turns on the tiller or at the simple rigging, learning how to handle the boat and how to avoid the dangers of the water.
She learns quickly, but even so, she'd likely have sunk them if it wasn't for Korra's bending keeping them away from ice and rocks a few times. Asami becomes so absorbed in learning everything she can that it only occurs to her that she hasn't asked their destination. But it's obvious enough. They're headed east. They're headed for the Fire Nation fleet.
Asami broods over that until darkness falls and Korra anchors the boat in the lee of a huge iceberg.
It's only when Korra's busy at the stove again that Asami works up the courage to ask, "Why are you taking me back?"
Korra glances at her. She smiles. "I'm not. I'm taking you forward."
Asami shakes her head, but she's too tired to be angry. Or maybe she's just getting used to Korra's weirdness. "You know what I mean."
Korra frowns at the fish she's searing. "I think maybe I need a closer look at the Fire Nation people. I've learned all I can from my time here." She suddenly looks at Asami and smiles. "Well, not everything! I'm learning a lot from you!"
Asami gets a weird feeling in her belly. "Don't...say things like that."
"It makes you sound like a spy," Asami says. But that isn't what put the weird feeling inside her. "If you're serious about approaching the fleet...you need to be careful."
Korra's smile fades. "I'm not sure I can afford to be careful. I think I've been careful for too long."
Asami shakes her head. "Why are you...who are you? What do you want?"
Korra grins. "I'm Korra. And I want peace."
"There hasn't been any lasting peace in a hundred and seventy years. There won't be peace until the Fire Nation wins."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"Because we have the most advanced technology. The best weapons. The most versatile benders. We've conquered most of the Earth Kingdom. The North Pole fell decades ago. The resistance will only cause more death and destruction and fail in the end. Because..."
Korra doesn't. "Because it's been the dream of Fire Lords for nearly two centuries to rule the entire world. Lady Azula is no different than her predecessors. And she has the people behind her."
Asami hangs her head. "...Yes. Not all of them, but enough. Especially among the elite."
"Is that what you want? To see the Fire Nation rule over everything they don't destroy first?"
"I want the war to end, Korra. I want innocent people to stop suffering and dying. I don't want anyone else to lose...but peace can only happens if the Fire Nation wins."
"I think you know that suffering doesn't end when the conqueror is victorious, Asami. If anything, it takes deeper root. Is that what you want?"
Asami closes her eyes, remembering the destruction of the war balloon facility in Omashu. Remembering how the city burned. Remembering how she fought in the skies above, and how she walked the shattered streets afterwards, waiting to feel satisfaction, relief that she'd avenged her father. Waiting to feel anything other than numb and slightly nauseous.
"No, but I don't see how we...how the Fire Nation can lose. I don't...I just don't see another way."
"Well maybe you need to look harder, Asami. And if you still don't see one..."
Asami opens her eyes and meets Korra's brilliant blue ones. "Yes...?"
Firmly, Korra says, "Make one."
They eat in silence.
When she's finished, Asami goes to her pile of furs and lies down facing away from Korra.
Isn't that what she used to want? Isn't that what she used to do? She used to build things. Not weapons, but...useful devices! Things that helped people! That made the world a better place.
But the world isn't better. It's worse. She's been making it worse.
Asami curls up into a ball under the furs. Somewhere along the way, after her father died...she gave up. She gave up on the world and on herself. And now...now, in the night and the cold, with Korra's furs all around her and Korra's words running through her mind over and over again, she's forced to see the truth: she's been trying to avoid her pain, her grief, her anger by taking action, first by doing something, then anything to escape what's inside her.
She's been running for so long, but there is no escape. No way out.
Asami is lost.
When the tears come, Asami cries as quietly as she can, dreading Korra hearing her. Dreading Korra offering her comfort. She whispers, "I don't want to live like this anymore."
She whispers it over and over, choking back her sobs, unable to do anything else.
"Shh." Korra's hand suddenly touches her head. She gently strokes Asami's hair. "You almost died because you turned your plane to avoid my boat. To save a life, knowing it could be at the cost of your own. You're not a monster, Asami Sato. You've got a good heart, under all that pain."
Asami turns and buries her head in Korra's lap. She stops trying to hide her tears. Korra doesn't stop stroking her head, not until sleep claims Asami at last.
Asami wakes up feeling fuzzy and strange and with her head in Korra's lap.
Korra's asleep, sprawled against the side of the boat, softly snoring. Her hand rests on Asami's head. Moving as carefully as she can, Asami gets up. She drapes a fur over Korra, fearing that trying to move her would wake her.
Asami tends the stove, takes Korra's tea set from the cupboard and boils water for tea.
She stares out into the waters of the South Pole while the tea is steeping and smiles. "It's beautiful here," she murmurs.
She carries the teapot and two cups to the bow and sits beside Korra. Korra's still asleep, still snoring. The wind has ruffled her hair and drool has frozen on her chin.
"Beautiful," Asami whispers, smiling.
Because Korra is and because Asami isn't afraid to admit that to herself anymore.
Korra stirs, groaning and wiping the drool from her chin. "Oh, no...morning."
Asami laughs. "You really aren't good at mornings."
Korra stretches her neck and her arms. Asami focuses on her tea, blowing on it to cool it and taking her fist sip.
"It's really good. What kind is it?"
Korra shifts around, putting her back against the planks. She picks up her cup, takes a gulp, and smiles her crooked smile. "Thanks for this! Uh, I dunno, though. It was a present from my teacher."
Asami raises her eyebrows. "Your...waterbending master?"
"No, no. A different teacher! Tenzin's more of a...hmm. He's like a cultural and spiritual teacher." Korra's eyes gleam. "He's a good man, but...he puts on a lot of airs and graces."
Asami smiles, even as her brow wrinkles. "I...feel like I'm missing something."
"It's my humour," Korra says cheerfully. "I'm probably too sophisticated for you."
"Says the woman who calls the stern of her boat the 'butt'."
Korra sniffs. "That's approved nautical terminology. I wouldn't expect a flying-engine thingy pilot to know these things."
Asami laughs. "I have a yacht back home, Korra. Admittedly, it's motor-powered, but I know my way around ships."
Korra sips some tea. "A yacht? Huh. You must be wealthy."
Asami's smile fades. "Ah...you really don't know who I am?" She takes a nervous gulp of tea.
Korra grins. "Oh, that's easy! You're Asami. You're my friend."
Asami chokes, coughs up a fine spray of tea and sputters, "Wh-what? I'm...what?"
"You're my friend, Asami. Deal with it."
"You...really don't know. I'm...my father was Hiroshi Sato. He founded Future Industries?"
Korra purses her lips. "Huh. Okay, I've heard that name."
Asami hangs her head. "Yes, well, I'd think so. We're one of the chief suppliers of military vehicles and weapons systems to the Fire Lord."
"Well, okay. That's...hmm. I see."
Asami groans. "Please don't be cryptic, Korra. I'm not...I can't..."
Korra pats the deck beside her. "Come here."
Asami hesitates until Korra repeats the patting gesture. She crawls over and sits beside Korra, who shuffles closer to her, draping the fur over both of them.
Asami suddenly feels very warm. She takes a few deep breaths.
Korra says, "You own Future Industries?"
"Yes...technically. I haven't really dealt with the day-to-day since I became a pilot."
"So. What would happen if, tomorrow, you were on a Fire Nation cruiser and radioed FI HQ, telling them to cease all production of arms?"
Asami stares at Korra. "That's...an interesting question."
Korra rolls her eyes. "Don't do that."
"Try to trick me into telling you things. You can just ask what you want to ask! Uh, after you answer my question, that is. Please."
Asami finds a sliver of a smile. "Oh, since you asked nicely...let's see. The board would convene and hold a vote. Not over whether to cease production, but over my fitness to have a seat on the board. They wouldn't stop making arms. Not because I asked them."
Korra nods. "Okay. So why do you feel guilty about owning the company? Is it the yacht?"
Asami blinks. "Is it the...? No, I..."
She trails off, considering how wealthy she is, and where so much of that wealth has come from.
Korra nods. "The thing is, there has to be a will to stop the war. And some people have an...interest in keeping it going. Like your board. That has to change, but change can't come from just one person. It can start with one person, though."
Asami's mouth dries. "Give them a way to profit from peace, rather than war."
Korra nods. "It should be obvious, right? People shouldn't need excuses to make peace. But they do."
"You...are you recruiting me, Korra?" Asami leans her head back, staring up at the clouds scudding across the sky. "Do you want...me to be the person that starts the change?"
Korra bursts out laughing. "No! I'm the person, Asami! You're already part of the change. But what you do is always up to you. Always."
Asami turns her head. Korra's facing her, smiling fondly, her blue eyes huge and full of life and hope.
In spite of how warm she is, Asami shivers. "Who...are you, Korra?"
Korra's smile fades. "I'm...oh, spirits!"
Korra tilts her head up. "That cloud's wrong. I think there's a war balloon overhead. They sometimes send people down for an inspection."
Asami wastes a second studying Korra, but her expression is as open and guileless as ever. She looks up at the clouds. "I don't see...no, I do! It's moving in the opposite direction of the others! What should we do?"
Korra purses her lips. "Hmm. You could be a runaway from occupied Earth Kingdom territory. Someone I'm transporting to her family."
Asami frowns. "Do you think that'll work?"
"I'd like to avoid trouble."
Asami wonders how many earthbenders and waterbenders are above them. It wouldn't even take more than one big rock dropped from above to sink Korra's boat. She bunches her hands into fists. "You could avoid trouble by turning me over to them."
Korra narrows her eyes and thrusts out her chin. "That's not happening," she says coldly.
So coldly it feels like the temperature drops a few degrees around them. Asami blinks when she realises that breathing in is making her lungs sting. The air is colder. And...the dregs of her tea have frozen solid.
"Uh...Korra...? Did you...?"
She isn't sure how to ask if Korra just got mad and accidentally made the air around them colder. Particularly since...she's a waterbender. How could she affect the air? Could all waterbenders do that? Did it have something to do with the moisture in the air, maybe?
Asami blinks when Korra touches her arm. Korra smiles sheepishly at her. "Oops! Sorry. Don't worry, though. Okay? Just take all your clothes off!"
And abruptly it feels like the air gets much warmer around Asami. "E-excuse me?"
Korra raises her eyebrows. "Uh...your uniform? We need to hide it! You can wear some of my stuff. It won't fit well, because you are tall, but that'll help our story sound more convincing."
Asami swallows carefully. "Oh! Uh, I see. Well...okay."
Korra grins and waits expectantly.
Asami flushes. "Turn your back!"
Korra blinks. "Huh? Why...oh! Sure!"
She turns away and Asami starts wrestling with zips and buttons.
With her back turned, Korra says, "So...would it help if I pointed out that I've already seen you naked? I had to strip you when I pulled you out of your plane. You've got nothing to be embarrassed about, Asami!"
Asami freezes. "That's not helpful! That does not help! Why would you...? Stop trying to help!"
"Sorry," Korra says, cheerfully. "I just didn't think it bothered you. I was mostly naked yesterday and you didn't seem to mind."
Asami trips over her own jumpsuit as she tries to free her legs. She falls into the pile of furs. She twists around, looking over her shoulder through a tangle of her hair to ensure that Korra isn't peeking.
"You okay, Asami?"
"Don't look round! Do not look round! Do not help! I'm..." Asami kicks her way out the jumpsuit, grunting. "Fine!"
She stashes her uniform under the sleeping furs and quickly picks through the rest of the heap, assembling an outfit. She changes as quickly as she can, shivering and muttering under her breath. She's only just settled Korra's cloak over herself when she hears a thump behind her. She turns to find a rope dangling from a very low cloud above.
Seconds later, two blue-clad men slide down the rope and thump down one after the other onto the deck.
Korra stands up. "Good morning! Nice cloud you have there!"
Asami's eyes widen. She glares at Korra over the men's shoulders.
To Korra, the more moustached of the two says, "What are you doing out here? You're near a Fire Nation shipping lane."
Korra ducks her head. "Oh, I know! We had to slip past them last night on our way to Harbour City."
"You're coming from Earth Kingdom territory?"
Korra nods at Asami. "Mei Li's parents paid me to smuggle her to safety."
Asami blinks. She quickly bows when the waterbenders both glare at her. "Ah...yes. I am very grateful to Korra! And to the brave warriors of our great nations! I long to be reunited with my parents..."
Moustache grunts. "Funny. We spotted a boat just like this the other day, west of here. But you're coming from the east. Right?"
The other waterbender drops into a ready stance.
Korra snorts. "You know boats! They basically all look alike."
Moustache takes a step closer to Asami. "A Fire Nation fighter was shot down two days ago. We recovered the plane. Didn't find the body, though."
Korra says, "I guess you didn't look hard enough."
Moustache grins at Asami. He half-turns towards Korra. "Or maybe you found the pilot. Maybe she promised you a reward if you smuggled her back to her people."
Korra laughs. "That's really not what happened."
Moustache smiles. "Oh? Maybe not. But maybe..." His hands whip out and make a series of circling motions. A tendril of water rises from the sea, circles Asami's torso and freezes in place. "Maybe you're a traitor, Korra. And maybe sweet Mei Li here is-"
"I am," Asami gasps, struggling to stay upright. "I'm the pilot. Korra's no traitor, though. I forced her to take me back to my fleet. I threatened to kill her."
Korra groans. "As...ah...Mei Li...don't!"
Asami glares at her. "Shut up, filthy Water Tribe trash!"
Moustache grins. "Ha! Well, well. You'll both be coming with us. Taqqa!"
Taqqa flows into motion, summoning another tendril and directing it towards Korra. Who raises her hand and makes a single, sweeping gesture. The tendril suddenly recoils, slapping Taqqa in the chest and enveloping his body and limbs. Korra makes another forceful gesture and Taqqa is frozen in place.
Moustache turns on Korra, hands raised defensively. "You...you're a bender?" His voice hardens. "You are a traitor. Die!"
He blurs into motion, thrusting out his hands. Shards of the ice encasing Taqqa chip away and fly towards Korra at terrifying speed.
Asami cries out.
Korra makes a seemingly lazy circular motion with one arm, and the ice turns into water. She sweeps her other arm in a casual gesture and the individual drops of water coalesce into a large sphere which circles her body as she twists sinuously, avoiding another barrage of ice. Korra throws out her arm and the sphere rapidly expands into a thin whip, smacking Moustache in the face.
He staggers back, losing his concentration and with it his control of the ice. Before he can recover, Asami kicks the back of his knee, sending hhi sprawling onto the deck. She puts her foot against his throat and applies some pressure. She snaps, "Don't move!"
Korra waves her hand and the ice around Asami melts back into water.
Asami tries not to let her shock at the power of Korra's bending show. She simply raises an eyebrow and asks, "'Mei Li'? Really?"
Korra grins. "What? You're the most beautiful person I've ever seen. Mei Li suits you."
Asami briefly loses the power of speech. "Uh..."
"It's better than filthy Water Tribe trash, anyway."
Asami flushes. "I was trying to make them think I hated you!"
"I'm glad you don't. Hey. You okay?"
Asami shakes her head. "Am I okay? I wasn't the one fighting two waterbenders!"
Taqqa, still locked in ice, gasps, "You've sealed your fate, traitor! You can't fight all of us! And you can't stop our balloon!"
Korra rolls her eyes. "Why should saving a life make someone a traitor? That's a bad way to think, Taqqa. And I promise you, I'm against the Fire Nation war machine."
Taqqa gapes at her. "Then...why are you helping her?"
Korra stares at Asami, amused. "Does she look like the Fire Nation war machine to you?"
"She's the enemy!"
Korra sighs. "No. That way of thinking is the enemy, Taqqa."
Asami starts when the rope twitches. "Korra!"
Korra glances round. "Oh! Right!"
She moves into a waterbending stance and...she stops simply moving, and becomes living, fluid grace. Each motion, each gesture is clear and distinct yet flows so smoothly into the next that it's impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins.
Asami is awestruck at the sight, until she notices Korra's tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. She has to clap a hand over her mouth to stifle a sudden giggle.
At first, Asami has no idea what Korra's doing. The sea around them is unaffected. Then she looks up and gasps. The cloud surrounding the balloon thickens, darkens, then freezes into place.
Taqqa whispers, "Spirits! How...there are two other waterbenders aboard and she's...doing that? Against them both?"
Korra isn't done, though. She bends the entire cloud and the balloon inside it out of the sky, lowering the whole thing smoothly on top of iceberg above them, where she freezes it in place.
Korra ends her movement, closing her eyes for a moment and breathing slowly and steadily.
Asami stares at her, dumbfounded. "Korra..."
She looks round and smiles her crooked smile. "Let's ditch these two and get out of here."
Asami hauls Moustache to his feet, locking his arms to ensure he doesn't try anything while Korra freezes Taqqa to the side of the iceberg.
Taqqa gasps. "Who...are you? I've never seen bending like that. Why aren't you fighting against the Fire Nation? You could help destroy-"
Korra taps a finger against his forehead. "I am not going to destroy the Fire Nation. I am not going to help destroy any nation. We lost too much when the Fire Nation almost wiped out the Air Nomads. I'm going to bring peace to the world, Taqqa. I'm going to need good people like you and Mei Li to do that. Please think about it while your friends in the balloon work on rescuing you."
Korra freezes Moustache beside Taqqa. "Sorry about this! Bye!"
While Korra raises the anchor, Asami hesitantly approaches the frozen men. "Taqqa...my name is Asami. And I promise you this: I'm no longer a pilot in the Fire Nation Aerial Corps. I'm...not your enemy."
They get under way, heading east, with Asami at the tiller. Korra either sits in the prow, bending water to speed their passage and shouting back occasional instructions, or she tends to their sail.
The wind seems kinder to them whenever Korra's at the sail.
Asami watches Korra throughout the rest of the day. She thinks about everything's that happened, and what might come next.
When night falls, Korra anchors them and bends a mist around them.
Asami stretches and sets about preparing their dinner. "Borrowing a trick from those waterbenders?"
Korra completes her bending and flops down on the deck. "Yeah. But I had to bend a lot of mist so we don't stick out. Tired now."
Asami nods. "I can only imagine. You've been doing a lot of bending today."
"Heh. Yeah. More than I've had to in a while."
Carefully, Asami ventures, "You're an excellent fighter. You handled those soldiers...easily."
Korra sighs. "Too tired. Be straightforward."
Asami winces. "...where did you learn to fight?"
"I learned bending and the combat arts from several teachers over the years, all over the world. I learned to fight in rings, cages, arenas, back alleys. I learned to win fights by losing a lot of fights."
Asami frowns. "I...I've heard of those kinds of fights. They used to be popular in the Earth Kingdom..."
"I've never heard of waterbenders competing."
"No. Only firebenders and earthbenders."
"Huh. That's weird. I wonder how I managed?"
Asami swallows nervously. "I...also, I heard that the Air Nation was destroyed completely. No one survived."
Asami doesn't need to look at Korra to know that she's grinning. "Who told you that?"
"The most expensive history tutors money could buy. They told me that the airbenders were all wiped out."
"Think you can get a refund?"
Asami almost burns herself turning a slab of fish on the pan. "Korra! Do you have to be so..."
"Ask me what you want to ask me, Asami," Korra says in a voice as calm and cool as deep well water.
Asami plates up their dinner with shaking hands. "Are you...aren't you tired of fish?"
"No! I'm exhausted of fish! I dream of noodles. After I drop you off, I'm going to the Earth Kingdom. I will eat so many noodles, Asami. Maybe all of them."
Asami carries their plates to Korra, who remains slumped bonelessly on the deck. She smiles at Asami. "Hey. Sit with me."
A smile trembles on Asami's lips. "Not yet. You know, I have a lot of questions, Korra..."
"I can tell. I'll answer what I can, but I don't have all the answers, Asami."
Asami nods slowly. Her legs are shaking. "That's true. You don't have my answer yet, do you?"
"Ah." Korra grunts and pushes herself into a sitting position. "Have you been thinking, Asami?"
"I have. Really hard."
Korra smiles a fleeting smile. She sits up straight, her expression becoming solemn. "Then where do you want me to take you, Asami Sato?"
"With you." Asami kneels. "Avatar Korra."
The Avatar smiles her crooked smile. "Terrible choice, but okay. Now eat your fish. And please get off your knees. Friends don't kneel for friends, Asami. Sit."
So Asami sits and eats her fish with her friend.
Later, lying in Korra's furs, surrounded by mist and strange waters, Asami realises that she no longer knows where in the world she is.
But she no longer feels lost.