Korra hates morning meditation.
She's never been an early riser, never developed the habit of waking before the sun has long finished it's rise in all of her sixteen years. The time she spent in Zaofu didn't help either, despite how rigorous her training had been. Toph wasn't fond of meditating before sunrise, wasn't a fan of meditating at all.
Sifu Azula, however, is a different sort of beast.
Korra grumbles under her breath as she drags her feet, making her way out of the house and into the beach where she knows her master is already starting her daily meditation.
Katara is waiting for her near the door.
"Good morning, Katara." she mumbles.
Katara graces her with a warm smile. "No training for today, young Avatar. Azula is in Capital City. She left last night."
"Oh. Is there anything wrong?"
"Just some minor political squabble she has to help her niece with. Azula's always been better at dealing with hotheaded nobles than anyone else, mostly because she's their greatest fear."
Korra snorts, imagining the image of haughty Fire nation lordlings cowering over Azula's glare. "I can't say I blame them."
"She'll be back soon." Katara places a hand on her shoulder and gently steers her away from the door and towards the kitchen. "For now, breakfast?"
Korra is all too eager to agree.
All fed and roused by a cup of strong tea, Korra is lounging with Katara on the sizable porch overlooking the beach. To her surprise, Master Azula didn't leave her any work to do, not even a single set of hot squats. Perhaps she forgot to tell Katara. Her departure must have been really last minute.
"It's been a while now since you arrived here, isn't it." Katara muses after nearly an hour of companionable silence.
"Three weeks." says Korra.
Katara nods, humming thoughtfully. "And how has your training been? Is Azula anything you expected her to be as a teacher?"
"You get to watch us almost every day."
"I want to hear from you."
Korra thinks about her answer. She has seen Azula in action once, before the legendary firebender took her in as a student. She was younger then, and Princess Azula was in the South Pole to pay her wife a visit while the latter was teaching Korra waterbending. It was a day like any other, until all of a sudden she heard screaming and the unmistakable noises of fighting that even her young ear can perceive, a surprise attack by the remains of the Red Lotus. Katara whisked her away to safety, though not before she saw Azula throw blast after blast of bright blue flame towards the strange men in red robes, a flash of lightning when Korra peeked between her fingers as Katara handed her to a nearby guard.
Everything happened in a blur, even the memory itself was vague, but she will never forget the sight of blue fire and lightning shooting out of her master's fingers.
Since then, Korra started to hero-worship Azula. She already looked up to her before the incident. Her reputation was great, after all. The Fire princess who helped bring dragons back to the world, a hero during the fight against the Red Lotus. She admired her despite the hushed whispers she would sometimes hear about Azula's darker and less palatable deeds. Any doubt she might have had were powerless over the stories, like how Azula reclaimed the Fire Nation from the Red Lotus, and the glorious sight of Azula astride her dragon, claiming the skies with awe-inspiring majesty.
Even now, when Korra finally got a taste of Azula's sharp and very particular, very scrupulous ways of teaching, her annoyance hasn't tainted her deep respect and admiration for her.
Instead of telling Katara all this, Korra shrugs and says, "She can be a stick in the mud sometimes, but I understand what she's trying to do. I feel like I'm really learning something valuable, and that she's not being strict just for the hell of it."
"Good." Katara flashes her a conspitary smile. "Don't tell her I said this to you, but Azula is really taking this job very seriously. More than I expected from her, even."
Korra's eyebrows shot up. "Really?" For all the times Sifu Azula seemed bored or unimpressed while watching her attempt complicated forms, she wouldn't have expected this.
"She's quite passionate about helping you be the best firebender that you can be." Katara's wrinkled features turned fond. "My guess is that she senses your ambition, a certain drive that she recognizes, something she knows deeply."
"Oh," Korra breathes out.
"It might not show, but Azula is being really careful. She doesn't want to corrupt that fire inside you. She wants to hone it, encourage your desire to be the best, but not let it define you or limit your mind and heart with it."
Katara's right, she thinks. It really didn't show. Not obviously, at least. "Wouldn't think that with the way she keeps making me do a gazillion hot squats. And all those extra physical exercises? All the boring meditations?"
"She's shaping you to be a well-rounded and sophisticated firebender, capable of control as much as strength. You already have all that raw firepower inside you, Azula is simply equipping you with the right tools for agility and subtlety." explains Katara.
"Now you sound like her."
Katara chuckles lightly. "I've been married to the woman for years."
Korra smiles softly at that. Katara and Azula being married has long been an established and accepted fact way before Korra was born, though knowing their histories Korra imagines it wasn't always that way. "How did that ever happen though? You and her? I mean, you don't have to answer that-- it's personal, I know, it's just that I've always wondered--"
Katara's full laugh cuts her off. "It's okay, Korra, you can ask. Not that I can give you any straight answer. Sometimes, it's still a bit of a mystery to us, like many other unexpected good things in our life."
Curiosity now piqued, and encouraged by Katara's openness, Korra ventures to ask more. "Did it start when you were fighting the Red Lotus together?"
"Not quite, but that's when our trust for each other first formed, when the world started to trust Azula at all, to be frank. She had quite the reputation as her father's greatest weapon in the war before the Red Lotus' rise." Katara sighs, years of remembrance in her breath. "Azula had been the enemy then, and a ruthless one at that. But she was also a child who grew up in the shadow of her father, a child who deserved a second chance to heal and change and make up for everything.
"Azula was groomed by her father to be something he can use. He weaponized her ambition, her talents, tainted something that was meant to flourish with something ugly. It made her strong and unstoppable for a time, but it destroyed her in the end. Thankfully, Zuko took pity on her and tried to help, to which Aang was very encouraging of. I wasn't as benevolent as the Fire Lord and the Avatar had been, and I berated them to no end when I found out that she escaped and was gone, not to be seen for the next six years. Then Red Lotus crawled from where they've been hiding and plotting from under our noses and captured my friends. I was without an ally, when out of nowhere she swooped down on her dragon and suddenly I wasn't alone and hopeless in the fight anymore."
"And then you helped take down the Red Lotus together. Sounds pretty romantic to me." Korra says, grinning, which draws a laugh out of Katara.
"It wasn't at the time, believe me. I yelled at her a lot, and she was aloof at the start. Not to mention our lives were in constant danger and the Red Lotus had basically infiltrated the Four Nations in their attempt to dismantle everything. But it's hard not to build a bond with someone who saves your life several times while you both try to save everyone else. The Red Lotus abducted all world leaders, all notable benders. For a while, we only had each other. She wasn't the same Azula that I remembered during the war, and slowly I let go of the idea I had of her and saw her for who she'd become, who was much more like the Azula that you know now. Someone who wasn't nice but who tried, someone who can still shape her words to cut but tries do it only when the other person actually deserves it. She was still ruthless, but it was for the right reasons, and for the right cause. She was dedicated to saving her brother, her nation. When she told me what happened in those six years that she was gone, it all made sense to me, this change that wasn't entirely a change but a healing. Someone who reached rock bottom until there was nowhere to go but up."
Katara falls silent for a moment. Whatever Azula told her about those six years must have been a tough memory to dig up again. Before Korra can start feeling guilty for it though, Katara turns to her with a small smile.
"After everything, when the Red Lotus was defeated and peace was restored, when she became Zuko's advisor the same time I accepted the post as the ambassador for the Council of Nations, I finally stopped preventing the inevitable. Watching her bravado slip in those early days was definitely worth it." She smirks, and Korra thinks she can see a sliver of her past youth in the twinkle of her blue eyes. "We were a forgone conclusion, the two of us. I was still young then and already I faced two wars in my lifetime. There was no use stopping the tide anymore, no use considering what other people might think or say. Even at that time, I knew her better than anyone, and she got me like no one ever had. I didn't want to squander that."
"That sounds perfect." Korra sighs wistfully after a long moment of silence.
Katara pats her hand, her palm warm like her smile. "You'll meet someone. Aang did, and they were perfect for each other. I'm sure you will, too."
Korra's chest lurched at the idea, despite not knowing exactly what it's like to love someone like that and have them love you back the same way. There was this nice boy she kissed back in the South Pole, and that one pretty girl in Zaofu... but the concept of romance is still very much foreign to her. She can't help but feel relieved, though. Relieved to have something to look forward to that is as tender and warm as this when all her life she was told to expect the weight of the world to fill the rest of her days.
(Sifu Azula arrives after only a few days, and the routine they've established is back on track. The only thing that's changed is that Korra is now more observant of Katara and Azula's easy affection, the way Katara can easily coax out a smile from Azula, the way Azula can draw out a side from Katara that she rarely sees whenever they bicker playfully. Korra thinks to herself that she wants to share that with someone, someday.)
I knew her better than anyone, and she got me like no one ever had.
Amid her buzzing mind and her pounding heart, Korra recalls those words from a lifetime ago. It came from a memory of a clear bright day, the sound of waves soothing her, Katara's recollection filling her with wonder and a strange sort of hope that somehow resembled longing.
She has the necklace clutched in her sweaty hand.
They're sitting under an enormous tree with leaves the shade of any color imaginable in what passes as night in the spirit world. It's far from their first visit here, but the magic of the place never gets old.
"Are you okay, Korra?" Asami asks, her green eyes staring back at her with that soft look that took her a stupid long time to read as more than just friendly regard all those years ago. "You look like something's on your mind..."
She knows me so well. This amazing, brilliant, genius, beautiful woman knows me more than I know myself.
"I've been meaning to ask you something." Slowly, she raised the fisted hand she's hidden from Asami's view. She opens it to show the bethrotal necklace she's spent ages perfecting, the act a question in itself, and hears her love gasp so quietly.
Asami surprises her then when she reaches inside her jacket to a cleverly hidden pocket, tearfully smiling as she shows Korra a ring with a rock the color of a bottomless ocean glinting at her like a promise. And it is. All of it. The necklace, the ring, the tears gathering up in Asami's eyes, the smile Korra can't wipe from her face...
It all felt like a promise.
Bonus chapter aka an excuse to write from Azula's POV.
As soon as Azula slides down from her dragon, her feet landing on the ground, she's assaulted by an excitable Avatar. Well muscled arms wrap around her without the fear of being maimed which usually give people pause before stepping into Azula's personal space.
Azula allows herself to pat Korra's back once, twice, three times, before extracting herself from the girl's grip. "That's enough hugging for a year."
"Sorry," says Korra, not looking sorry at all. "It's just that I haven't seen you in ages! Also, you're late. Katara arrived in the city days ago!"
"I'm a busy woman, Avatar." Azula's eyes wander away from her former student to the two people standing nearby. She sees her wife first and though Katara's face doesn't betray anything, her eyes speak an entire sentence at Azula.
Azula has to stifle the childish urge to roll her eyes. Yes, yes, the kid is getting married. I'll play nice.
Katara walks over to them, arm in arm with a tall young woman who Azula quickly identifies as the Sato girl. "Good, you're here in one piece."
"Please, those bandits were no match."
Korra perks up, frowning. "Bandits?"
"Dragon hunters. Delusional amateurs, really. I could've just sent some of Izumi's men, but I had to deal with them myself, a display of power lest others entertain the idea of disturbing our great ancestors again." Azula runs a gentle hand over her dragon's bright cerulean scales. "It's sort of my job."
"Well, you'll always have my help if you ever need it." Korra tells her with a genuine smile. A retort nearly escapes her lips before catching Katara's eyes. She keeps it to herself.
Azula turns to Korra's betrothed. "Asami Sato, a pleasure to finally meet you. Korra has spoken about you in her letters."
"It's an honor, Your Highness." Asami says with an elegant bow. Aside from her bright green eyes, Asami has the sharp features of her people. Her clean cut look betray none of her notorious reputation as one of the Avatar's companions, and Azula thinks that as an advantage. Satisfied by her assessment, Azula engages in a conversation with the non-bender as they make their way indoors.
They enter Azula and Katara's house together, which is right outside of Republic City limits. Its imposing red and onyx exterior melts into calmer shades of Water Tribe blues and whites when they step inside. It's one of their many homes. They have one in each places they frequent, since the two of them used to travel around the world like Air Nomads in the very early years of their married life. They also have one in the South Pole, Ember Island and Kyoshi Island.
The four of them dine together, Korra leading the charge as she wolfs down both Water Tribe and Fire Nation dishes. Asami is a lot more reserved, moving with a natural elegance that doesn't look forced nor practiced, as if taking precise and measured bites is second nature. Azula can't help but smirk at the contrast between the two.
If her experience is to be trusted, which is usually the case, contrasts aren't always a bad thing in marriage.
Asami has to leave after dinner, citing a problem at a factory or the office or whatever stressful business matter. They see her off and Azula lets the girl hug her briefly, ignoring Korra's sappy expression at the sight. Katara retires for the night after what she said was a long day at one of the city's healing houses.
Korra and Azula decide to spar. After all, Azula is never too old for this. She's the greatest firebender alive for a reason.
"So, what do you think of her?" Korra asks while she stretches.
"I can see why your wording was so giddy in your last letter, when you broke the news." Azula remarks. "I'm surprised she agreed to marry you."
Korra laughs, used to this by now. "Yeah, I got lucky. Good 'ol Avatar charm, I think.
She continues stretching in silence for a while, but before they both shift into a fire bending stance, Azula ventures to tell her what she believes she has to.
"Asama is a capable and lovely young woman, and you seem happy together. So I guess I'm also... happy. For you. Katara and I both are."
Korra, oblivious to the strain in Azula's voice whenever she expresses sentiments like this, or simply doesn't care, runs up to her and embraces Azula for the second time that day.
"Thank you, Sifu."
Azula rolls her eyes but smiles against the Avatar's shoulder anyway.