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Arcadian Summer

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Kuvira staggers off in the direction of the East Wing. There's something playing over at one of the rooms, something slow with a thumping, pulsing bass. Kuvira wonders what type of music it is, but gives up after her mind runs through her limited musical vocabulary. She opens the door, not caring that she's strayed far from the rest of the party. She has to focus on the doorjamb, on swinging the door the right way, because eight cups of whatever are still coursing through her bloodstream, and whether she's drunk or not, she won't let herself trip.

She looks up into the room. It's huge. It's a hall, she realizes, after a moment. The floor's polished marble. And across her is a giant windowsill, a giant, full moon, and a girl sitting on the windowsill tossing a can of beer into a nearby trash can. It plops in perfectly, the sound of it colliding with other cans a perfect thunk.

It's the lull between two songs.

"Bit far from the party, aren't ya?" the girl's mostly in silhouette, because of the moon, because there are no other lights. She turns to face Kuvira, and Kuvira stares into the blues of her eyes. Water Tribe, Kuvira realizes, and it makes sense, with the moon and the blue darkness.

Kuvira's decided the girl is beautiful. Maybe it's the drinks, maybe it's the way she sits, one leg extended over the length of the windowsill, one propped up to her chest. Her arms are covered in arm warmers, stopping maybe eight inches away from her shoulder.

Nice arms, Kuvira thinks. Maybe almost as nice as her own.

The soft shadows of the room convince her to come closer.

A little late, Kuvira realizes that she's been asked a question. "I heard something," she says, hoping that her reply answers a question she's forgotten.

"Have a thing for trashy music, huh?" the girl grins at her, as the next song plays. There's nothing trashy about it, Kuvira thinks, but what she does know? It's definitely electronic, but outside of that, she has no idea.

There are plenty of questions in Kuvira's mind, but all of them slip away before she can speak them.

The girl points to the floor, where another six pack of beer sits, so cold it's sweating on the outside. Next to it is a smartphone plugged into two speakers, the sound reverberating in the dark hall.

Stay or forever go, the speakers say.

"C'mon, drink with me."

Kuvira drinks with her, snapping the can open for the girl. She wants to touch the stranger's short hair, maybe tangle her fingers in them. This summer will be her last chance. What for is she here, but to enjoy being a civilian before she leaves?

She has to say something. So she says, "Congratulations."

Her new acquaintance takes a long draught of the beer before replying. "What for?"

"For finishing the semester in one piece?"

"Oh. That. Well, that's why 'Sami's got this whole party, I guess. Smart girl."

"She is," Kuvira says.

They don't talk for while. Just outside, the waves pound on the coastline of the lake, water stretching onwards until it melds into the sky. It's so black, Kuvira thinks, wondering how dark the place must get when there's no moon.

Another song ends. Another song starts. They finish two beers in silence. Kuvira's can feel the floor moving, so she looks ahead, leaning against the windowsill, her hands trying to keep away from her new friend's feet. She's drunk, she knows. She likes it. It's what she came to the party for, this feeling of living in the now, not remembering what she's left, not having to think of what she has to do.

"Wanna make out?" Kuvira's eyes fly to the girl, who isn't even looking at her. The stranger's eyes are closed as a breeze blows by, but a smirk lightens her face.

"I don't kiss girls whose names I don't know," Kuvira says with a grin.

"Sitaka," the girl says, opening her eyes. Sitaka's whole body arches just slightly, as though challenging her. In the darkness, Kuvira notes that the the girl's eyes glow with blue fire.

"Kuvira. Nice to meet you." She takes the first move upwards to meet the girl's lips.

Kuvira doesn't think she's kissed a girl warmer than Sitaka. Maybe it's a Water Tribe thing, she thinks, her last coherent thought as she nibbles on the girl's lower lip, as she touches Sitaka's neck and jawline.

This is what getting drunk is for. They kiss, kiss, kiss some more, starting soft and shallow before Kuvira applies more pressure. Her lips ask for entry and are allowed inside.

Yes, she can hear Sitaka whispering. Her hands come to rest on the tip of Kuvira's braid after travelling all around Kuvira's shoulders and back. "Can I?"

"Mmm," Kuvira's lips vibrate their assent against Sitaka's mouth. She has no idea how long they spend half-hugging, mostly making out, her hair loosened and Sitaka's hands threading through the strands. "Fuck," Kuvira mutters as she draws back.

She likes that Sitaka's moved, lifting herself using her hands, from leaning on the windowsill to leaning against her, both feet hanging loosely around Kuvira and hands on Kuvira's face. She looks just as aroused as Kuvira feels, their breathing the only sounds in the hall. Kuvira wants, very badly, for them to be in a room, or a couch, or anywhere flat really, so that she can lay Sitaka down and fuck her properly. She can already see herself playing with this Water Tribe girl, spreading her open.

The music's stopped, Kuvira realizes. The silence makes her want to speak.

"Wanna take this elsewhere?" she asks, as she tugs Sitaka to her feet.

Though the gesture is gentle, as gentle as a drunk Kuvira can make it, Sitaka falls. The whole thing feels like slow-mo to an intoxicated, horny Kuvira. "Ugh, shit," Sitaka growls, swatting Kuvira's helping hand away with surprising force. "No, no, I can do this," she mumbles, pushing herself up with her hands.

Sitaka crawls a bit, her legs shaking in the attempt to listen to the rest of her body, telling her to fucking fold at the knees and propel the girl up.

Oh crap, Kuvira thinks, in her alcoholic haze. Sitaka's feet aren't working.

Did I do something?

She's disabled, stupid!

Just outside, she can hear someone coming in. Oh fuck, fuck fuck.

"Hey, Korra?" The door swings open.

It's Asami Sato. She runs to Sitaka (Korra?) while Kuvira stands uselessly.

"I thought we talked about this," Asami Sato growls out while the Water Tribe girl glares at her.

"I can stand, dammit," Sitaka grounds out, pushing Asami away. The hostess isn't having any of it though. She shouts in the dark of the hall, and the whole place rings with her voice.

"You're not going to get any better like this!"

Kuvira flees for the door, a drunken, graceless exit from a suddenly-too-personal situation.

 


 

Fuck, Kuvira thinks as she walks down the cold hill leading to the bus station. I was making out with some disabled girl.

Another voice in her head chides her for the sudden disgust. What is wrong with you?

She knows herself and her aversion to weakness. You're a jerk, the voice says.

She ran away, Kuvira knows. And she's running away now, having called Baatar to pick up her sorry, drunken, horny ass.

Never before has a turn on died so fast.

She trips at the thought but a nearby lamppost saves her from falling. Her hands are dusty from touching it. She touches her palm with her fingers, realizing that her hand is gross and clammy.

She sits at the bus station in the cold, mind still full of music, the girl's warm body, and her own disgust at the situation. She has no idea how it is that she's still wet while her brain battles with her conscience. Baatar, she thinks in her head, hurry up.

"What happened?" Baatar asks as he coasts by. Of course he knows something is wrong. Kuvira struggles to open the door before realizing that it's locked.

"I'm an asshole," Kuvira murmurs as Baatar unlocks the door. Without her usual grace, she crawls into the car and weakly closes the door.

"You're drunk. Please don't throw up in my new car."

Kuvira doesn't answer. She can still feel the ache down there, making her feel unsatisfied, pissy, disgusted -- at the girl, for some reason (no, you know why), and at herself.

"I made out with some girl," Kuvira says. She can't identify a single landmark in the dark as Baatar accelerates them to within the city.

"I can barely understand you. How much did you have to drink?"

"I was just trying to let her down from the damn windowsill," Kuvira continues, not answering Baatar. "Turns out her legs are busted, or something."

"So?"

"I don't know, I left."

"Spirits, didn't you at least help her up?"

"Her friend came in."

She hates seeing people weak.She always looks away. It's her way of telling herself: that's not her.

So what if that's how I feel?

The cold from the air conditioning lulls her to sleep.

 


 

Kuvira feels like absolute, disjointed shit in the morning. Baatar had helped her into the apartment. Baatar had helped her into bed. Baatar had made her breakfast.

Her limbs feel disconnected from her and her aching head. Outside, it's too bright. She wants to draw all the curtains closed, but it's too much of a pain to get up from her seat at the breakfast table. There are birds twittering outside. All it does is piss her off.

"I have to apologize," is the first thing that comes out of her smelly, unwashed mouth. Across her, a safe distance away, Baatar agrees.

"Do you even remember what you told me last night?"

"I made out with a girl. I don't even know her name," Kuvira scowls.

"That's responsible."

"I was going to fuck her," she says.

"Except when you accidentally let her fall and found out her legs were busted, or something." He copies how she said it last night.

"Fuck you," Kuvira groans. This is why she hasn't gone to that many parties. In the long run, it's all pointless pleasantry. She should have stuck to the rules.

"Really though, did you at least know how old she was? That party's not all MA kids, you know."

"They're not high school kids either," Kuvira snaps back. Fuck. Thinking of drinks reminds her of the Water Tribe girl downing one beer after another, the curve of moonlight defining her lips. She remembers the tan girl's hands on her neck. The pain in her head, thankfully, cuts off the memory before she feels uncomfortable.

She drinks all the milk and has two servings of cereal and toast. Then she downs a pitcher of water. Then she takes a long shower. By the time she's dressed, it's almost twelve and she still has a throbbing pressure against her head. Was it the wine? The fact that she'd mixed wine and some other shit? The fact that she'd tried every fucking bottle of liquor, regardless of whatever was in them?

You wanted to get smashed and have a good time, the voice in her head says.

Yeah, yeah, she knows. This is the price of that. She's seen enough parties at Zaofu to know.

Had she puked last night? Baatar would know.

"Did I throw up last night?"

"Yeah, but in the driveway. I've hosed it down."

"Thanks," Kuvira says, sounding more gentle than she likes.

"You really drank a lot," Baatar says, and she knows what he's saying underneath those words. Talk to me, he's saying. We're family, he's trying to say. He is, in fact, the only family she has left, at the price of leaving Zaofu, but her head hurts like hell and she wants to forget about it, just like she did last night.

She has other wrongs to right. "Can you drive me to the Sato estate?"

 


 

In the afternoon light, the Sato estate is massive. "Almost as massive as Zaofu," Baatar says, referring to the family compound in the heart of the same-named city.

Zaofu at Zaofu, or Zaofu Squared, the twins used to joke. The name of the family compound was kept even as it expanded into a city. Kuvira hates the pride she used to feel at being a part of it.

Focus, dammit.

The problem with focusing on the problem at hand is that she always thinks of the blue light of the girl's eyes. Kuvira couldn't shake off the way they glowed in the dark, but Kuvira tells herself to chalk that up to the alcohol. She saw what she wanted to see, and the minute it wasn't what she wanted she left.

Baatar drops her off and makes sure she wants to handle this alone before driving away.

"Kuvira Zhongli," Kuvira murmurs into the intercom.

Asami Sato answers the door herself. "Hey," Asami says. The sense of familiarity of those from the Republic always takes Kuvira by surprise.

"Hey," Kuvira replies back. "I came because of last night," she starts. "I disappeared so quickly instead of helping you out with..." she trails off, not remembering the girl's actual name.

"You were with Korra," Asami says.

"Yes," Kuvira says. "I'm sorry."

"I haven't decided if I'm angry at her, or you, or myself, or all of us." She turns her back then adds, "but since you're trying to fix it, I guess you should talk to her yourself."

Why would you be angry at yourself, Kuvira wonders. The only person with a head on in that hall last night was Asami.

They walk past a few corridors into another wing. "Korra?" Asami calls out. A voice from some room answers: "Gym!"

Asami walks into one door out of many, and it is revealed to be yet another hall, converted into a gym. Korra is doing pull ups on the highest rung of a set of horizontal bars, her eyes flickering to the newcomers. The shorter horizontal bars are spaced some distance away from each other, creating a diagonal set of rungs, the shortest of which can be reached without standing on tiptoes. That way, Korra doesn't have to jump up to the bar. Next to the end of the horizontal bars is a wheelchair.

Sweat drips down Korra's jawline, and Kuvira is momentarily distracted by the knowledge that just last night she was kissing the very same spot.

Dammit, she thinks.

The Water Tribe girl descends the bars as though going down a ladder, by maneuvering to a lower rung, and a lower rung, and a lower rung, relying solely on her arms, until her toes touch the ground.

"Oh no you don't," Asami mutters, lifting Korra as she's about to let go and stand on her own. Asami holds Korra from behind, round the torso, forcing Korra not to jump.

"Fuck, Asami, I can do it."

"Yes, you can, and you can also ruin your PT. Don't strain your tendons."

Kuvira awkwardly helps Asami put Korra on the wheelchair. At one point she is carrying the girl, because while Asami is strong, Korra's not so easily carried either. If Korra (or Asami) are surprised by Kuvira's strength, they say nothing. They also say nothing about the weirdness of it all.

Korra looks as though she wants to yell at them. Kuvira realizes Korra can't do this with a virtual stranger around, so she's forced to hold it in and glare at Asami. With a surprised blink, Kuvira also notices something she didn't notice last night: a dogtag round Korra's neck.

"You should have thought better of how you were going to descend from the bar," Asami counters. "And anyway, you have a guest. I'm going to the kitchens." Asami looks at Kuvira. "She's not allowed to walk for the rest of the day, don't strain her."

"I won't," Kuvira says.

"You do realize that I had to stand to start working out," Korra complains. "It was perfectly okay. An hour of walking isn't enough --" but Asami's left, and Korra sits fuming.

Kuvira takes the handlebars behind the wheelchair. With Asami gone, she's just  the creepy woman that hit on Korra yesterday.

"Hey," she starts. She notices that Korra smells nice, even after a workout.

"Kuvira from last night, right?"

"You lied to me about your name."

"Yeah well, I don't like being recognized."

Korra. Dogtag. There's only one Korra she knows with a dogtag.

"You're not an Avatar, are you?"

"Ding ding ding ding ding! Give the girl a fucking prize. I'm the Avatar." The subtle correction of her title to the singular is not lost on Kuvira.

The situation has gone from weird, to weirder, to being in an alternate dimension. Kuvira doesn't mix her politics with her pleasure. She has to take control of the situation, before a spirit walks inside the room and bids them good afternoon.

"I'm sorry about last night."

"I scared you off, huh? Drunk girl falling on the floor, can't stand... that's pathetic."

"I should have helped you up."

"Asami bursting in all worried probably freaked you out more. That woman fusses over me way too much. She has this uncanny ability to see me do stupid things."

Kuvira doesn't know how to reply to that. "Anyway, let's go to the garden outside. And don't push the damn chair, please."

Kuvira lets Korra lead the way. The girl's hair is wet with sweat; her arms are glistening too. Korra picks up a face towel from a nearby chair and they're off, going down more halls, until they reach a set of French doors. Kuvira opens it for Korra, grimacing slightly when the Water Tribe girl glares at her.

Even in the goddamn daylight, her eyes are glowing a deep blue. The glare is dropped though, as a gust of wind blows in. The smell of the lake is muted in Kuvira's sober mind, muted compared to the sting of it last night. She wants to go back to that moment, staring at a dark sky, wind whipping her hair, a blue-eyed stranger's hands on her face.

"Nice, huh?"

Kuvira's thankful Korra can't read her thoughts.

"Yeah." Korra leads her up to a pavillion.

"Let's start over," she says. "I'm Avatar Korra. Sorry I lied to you last night."

"Kuvira Zhongli. MA in Government."

"I never went to school," Korra replies with a grin.

Kuvira remembers the propaganda videos for Korra. Two wars, a string of failed missions, the Red Lotus betrayal, the fall of the Earth Kingdom. How can she not know, when she is leaving at the end of summer to rebuild the Earth Kingdom?

"Did you have fun last night?"

Korra laughs. "Up until the part where I was struggling to stand, you kiss very well for a drunkard."

"You too," Kuvira says, and means it. "Anyway... is there anything I can do to make it up to you?"

"Show up at the next summer parties, of course." Korra says with a grin.

Kuvira wants to ask this near-stranger (near-friend?) many questions: are you okay, shouldn't you be in the South Pole, what was it like? But Korra is deflecting with the practiced ease of a liar that's been in front of the cameras since she was seventeen, dealing with media faux pas in an impossible world. Am I really here, she thinks. Did I really kiss the Avatar, she wonders.

"Can I see your dogtag?"

"Haven't you seen it enough in the tourist traps?" Korra laughs, but takes it off.

Kuvira looks at it as though it will tell her how to continue the conversation. Strangely enough, Korra keeps talking, probably detecting the older woman's unease. "The White Lotus says I can return to active duty in six months. I was pretty pissed, actually. Six months. I've been sitting here, giving my best friend a headache while Ba Sing Se's a smoking ruin."

"The Air Nation is there," Kuvira says, hoping Korra will not take the words as hollowly as Kuvira means. Of all the people to want to fuck, it has to be someone she shouldn't get to know.

"It's not enough," Korra says. "But really, here I am depressing you. So. Do me a favor -- change the subject."

Kuvira's mind flits through the possible topics: the weather. Plans for the summer. Asking if Korra lives here. She ends up saying nothing, and they both stare out at the garden and down the road leading back to the city.

Korra gives up on Kuvira's ability to bridge an awkward moment. "Here I am trying to think of something to say," the Water Tribe girl says, with a careless grin that Kuvira's no longer sold on, "and all I can think is -- come back in two weeks and I'll be running again. 'Sami's bound to have another party. We can stay in the East Wing like last night."

"I'd like that," Kuvira says, relying on the kernel of truth that she is attracted to Korra to help sell her own smile, while her thoughts all scream: too smooth, Avatar. She doesn't know why, but in less than twenty-four hours she wants to know Korra, wants to shatter the younger girl's brittle bravado with a truncheon and see what lays beneath. Korra's pretty determined to shrug it all off in favor of a casual encounter.

Kuvira shakes her head. Getting to know Korra is a bad idea, and mutually wanting to fuck each other is only slightly less bad. What she should want is nothing at all. Every day that she spends speeding down Republic City's well-paved roads is a reminder that there are no roads to speak of in the Earth Kingdom. Tangling with some White Lotus soldier will not make her work easier. She's already lost her family, no need to add another loss.

 


 

"How was it?" Baatar asks, disturbing Kuvira from her research.

"Terrible and awkward. She's the Avatar. I shit you not." Back at their apartment, Kuvira fires up the computer and prepares to spend the evening looking up on the Avatar.

"What? Isn't the Avatar at the South Pole, recovering in some top secret White Lotus compound?"

"She was. But since she can walk a little, she was transferred back to Republic City."

Baatar takes a seat. That small action doesn't even begin to sum up how surprised Kuvira is. Not that she would ever admit it.

"Does she know you're from the Zaofu contingent?"

"No," Kuvira says. At the crossroads of the political and the personal, there isn't anything to gain. She keeps telling herself this, or perhaps the lie that all she wants is to fuck the girl.

She puts on her headphones and does her online research. She watches the propaganda videos from the White Lotus, showing soldiers in the Avatar Corps in a variety of tasks. The best of the best, the video says. This is Avatar Korra, trained since she was four. A rare prodigy and talent... and then there's a whole video about their recruitment and selection process, about parents lining up to have their children checked. Children are usually checked for several years, tracking their progress. We are very meticulous in our methods, checking arm length, muscle-to-fat ratio, metabolism...

Of course. Any family of an Avatar would be glad for the stipend, the martial education their children are guaranteed to get.

I never went to school, Korra said, and Kuvira can't make head or tails of that.

Scrolling down the training videos are comment after comment of some armchair expert, saying this is staged because of this-or-that. Kuvira switches to the live demonstrations, and even when the proof is in front of them, the videos still have the same garbage commentary.

Korra's track record is unfortunate. She fought in the Siege of Republic City at seventeen, in the Water Tribe Civil War at nineteen, and was involved in the Red Lotus insurgency and the fall of the Earth Kingdom. Her high-profile kills included the former Chief of the Northern Water Tribe, for which she was given a medal. And she won yet another medal for being the only Avatar left alive after the end of the Civil War.

Seems like a shitty thing to do to her, Kuvira thinks. As she watches the video, she can't help but try to put the images side by side in her head: this Korra in the video, looking worse than death, sitting at attention anyway, nodding at all the right times and accepting a bunch of medals and pins -- and last night's girl, with a wry smile and careless fingers. And then there is the younger Korra, in her previous videos, who dances up and down like a five-year old after finishing a marksmanship test. Did you see that? I'm pretty good! She couldn't have been more than seventeen.

It's impossible to reconcile Sitaka, carelessly throwing beer cans, with this Korra. She cut her hair, Kuvira thinks idly, as she scrolls down photos of her. Having seen behind the political scenes, she knows how meticulous the White Lotus must be, to school their soldiers and track their performance through the media, the subtle touch of editing that makes an act treacherous or brave, precise or sloppy.

"It's fucked up," Kuvira murmurs.

"That you thought some poor disabled girl was weak and then she turns out to be the Avatar? Yeah, you're fucked up, sis."

I won't be like her, Kuvira thinks, but behind that thought is the creeping possibility that maybe she'd break that hard too, and pretend to be fine with the same act Korra's putting up.

That's not me. She has the Earth Kingdom to rebuild. The Avatar shouldn't fit anywhere in her plans. Korra shouldn't fit, but Kuvira can't stop wishing she could go back to last night and do everything right.

Chapter Text

Kuvira doesn't see Korra for the next week. Of course she wouldn't invite you back to the Sato estate sober, Kuvira thinks. Probably the only time Korra wants anything to do with her is when Korra's too drunk to really care. (In which case why wouldn't she pick up another warm body -- well, Kuvira thinks, she probably would pick up any warm body that enters her hall. That's what she did with Kuvira.)

For some reason, it bothers her. Every now and then she'll think of Korra's back, or Korra's hands holding out her dogtag. And every time she's close enough to the lake the smell will remind her of their first encounter. It's mostly a hazy recollection in Kuvira's mind, and not being able to recall something with perfect clarity pisses her off.

For the nth time today, she thinks, are you stupid?

The whole point of drinking is to not know.

Except, you know, it wasn't supposed to mean anything.

Therein lay the problem.

Kuvira knows herself. Attraction is something she can control. But the Avatar is a mystery to her, like looking into a well and seeing herself, wondering how far it is to the bottom.

Her mind has gone in circles with this thought: I won't be like her.

And in order to not break, she must know what broke the Avatar.

It's a strategy she's learned from war books, and maybe sometimes from experience. But she feels as though she's fooling herself, and it is harder to surface the truth from the bucket fallen into the well of her mind.

Thinking of attraction, of meaning something to someone, reminds Kuvira of her past life.

Only six months ago she would have died for Suyin and Zaofu.

How mortifying. (And there she is again, lying. It's not mortifying. It's painful, the kind of pain that you wake up with, the kind of pain you dream with, the kind of pain that keeps you awake at night. But she'll endure.)

She needs to talk to Baatar. She needs a cigarette. She needs, maybe, to get piss drunk in the afternoon, get it all out before the summer ends, because --

Because the Earth Kingdom needs someone. Someone that isn't drunk, or nicotine dependent. She has to stop sometime. Sometime soon.

For now though --

No, she tells herself. She has to fix herself now, not later, not at the end of summer. She isn't a mess. She isn't Korra.

Unsurprisingly, she's right next to a liquor store.

No no no no no.

She revs up the engine again.

Her thoughts circle like this as she speeds around Republic City on a beautiful Friday, ping-ponging between forgetting and remembering. Remembering is strength. Forgetting is weakness, a temporary respite.

 


 

 

She gets a text from Asami Sato (she can't help but complete the girl's name in her head, after all, they're acquaintances, not friends) two weeks after her initial meeting with Korra.

It's a party, something to do with Air Nation volunteers returning to Republic City. Kuvira knows from Baatar's logistics reports that the Air Nation is here to restock and refuel. Any thought of the party is drowned out by a swell of guilt -- she's not moving fast enough, her whole operation's not moving fast enough.

Because six months after transferring from Zaofu, the train isn't finished (neither are the tracks), the supplies aren't complete. Lesser people would make excuses -- that the railway to the Earth Kingdom was underbid, so of course the materials were fucked, whatever. Since Baatar's company has taken over, she should be happy they're almost done, and that the job's done properly.

Too slow, Kuvira thinks. Unbidden, she wonders if Korra thinks the same of her legs. Recovering too slow.

"Dreaming's like a lottery lately," she confesses to Baatar, looking up at him from the cellphone.

"You're pushing yourself too hard," he says, understanding immediately what she's trying to say. That's their bond, but even that thought does not give her any gladness.

"I dream of Suyin sometimes," she admits. On other nights, she dreams of the fall of Ba Sing Se. On other nights, she dreams that her train makes it to Ba Sing Se, only everyone is dead. "No one gives a fuck," she says. "That's what I dream of the most. No one fucking does anything. You know what's really weird? Sometimes I dream of school."

"Failing a test?"

Kuvira doesn't know, really. She just knows that grades make their way into her dreams. An F for the Fall of the Earth Kingdom. Only her brain would cough up such a joke.

"Your connections in school are useful," Baatar says softly. "We have Professor Varrick helping us," he says.

It's nice of him to repeat all the things she's done right, but saying so is unnecessary.

"Kuvira," Baatar says. They face each other, sunlight streaming through the apartment, Baatar actually looking away from his computer. "I don't care what you think. You're on vacation. There's nothing for us to do but wait until all the parts are fabricated and assembled. Save your strength."

"For another two months?"

"We'll never be civilians after this," he says.

"Our lives weren't exactly normal before it," she points out.

"Your life wasn't," Baatar admits. "But Kuvira, you've been working to set up our regiment for the past six months. And you've been going to school while doing operations. Let the engineers handle this. It's our turn." The look on her face says fuck no, and Baatar sighs. "You're angry," he says. "Too angry to be of any use to anyone."

That kills the rebuke about to explode from her.

But Baatar isn't finished talking. "We weren't exactly party royalty in Zaofu, but we had our moments," he says. "And I thought that asking you to take the summer off would at least... help you enjoy the little freedom you have between Zaofu and the Earth Kingdom. I mean, you've always been so..." he struggles to find the word. Distant? Controlled? Bitchy?

"Ugh," he says. "Even when you're making out with some girl you have to be in fucking control," he says. "And I thought it would help for you to just act like... an ordinary adult."

"Twenty-seven's a bit old for making a mess of myself. And what is your point, anyway?"

"You're angry, because we haven't left. You're hurting because of Zaofu. Just admit it. I thought that maybe if you went around a bit you'd loosen up. So you do get drunk as hell, which I thought would help, but I know bad drinking from good drinking --"

"Despite being three years younger than me," she says.

"And I'm sorry that I kept pushing you to behave like a civilian. You tried, the results were terrible."

Behave like a civilian. The drinks did help convince her to do that. Convince her to make out with the wrong fucking person. What the fuck was she thinking?

Baatar continues: "But you can't be angry when we help people," he says, gesturing to her. "I will follow you wherever you go. I mean that. But you're hurting too much and it's affecting your judgment. Train for two months," he suggests. "That's your 'job'. Get all your frustrations out and get yourself in top form. And learn how to operate the new radios and the equipment. There. I'm dropping the whole Kuvira's First Summer plan. A good enough compromise?"

You're hurting too much and it's affecting your judgment and you refuse to talk to me about it so fine, beat a punching bag to bits because that's how we deal. It's the closest thing they can get to I care about you, you big sister idiot fool.

Kuvira blinks. Then a slow smirk forms. It takes effort, but she and Baatar have always been patient with each other (or as patient as she can be with him.) "If I'm angry, what are you? You're not exactly drowning in blueprints because you're happy. And really, this whole thing is your fault." The change in tone is slight, but Baatar gets it: she's teasing him.

"You're not saying no to my compromise," he points out, with a tentative (but spreading) smile of his own. They get each other. They're cool.

 


 

 

The day before the party, she spots Korra walking out of a grocery just at the edge of Republic U. Even with Korra's head down, there's no mistaking those shoulders, her hair, how she walks.

Kuvira stops the convertible and calls out Korra's name.

She realizes she shouldn't have done that when Korra's head turns in horror. Thankfully no one is around. The Water Tribe girl quickly puts on a beanie, then walks over.

"The car's not mine," Kuvira says, feeling defensive at the way Korra looks at the car's interiors. "It's Baatar's. I mean, a friend of mine's." She notes the sunglasses hanging off Korra's collar. Hiding. Probably kept her head down at the checkout. Who would believe it's her, anyway?

"Fancy. Not a Sat huh?"

"Modified design. I wouldn't normally drive something like this. Anyway, walking around with that load can't be good for you."

"Geez, you sound like Asami. Yes, I totally walked from the outskirts of Republic City all the way to downtown, and now my feet are gonna fuck up."

"You would walk if you could get away with it," Kuvira says. What little she knows of Korra, she knows the tan girl would.

There's a pause, suddenly, as they have nothing more to say.

"C'mon, I'll take you back to the Sato Estate," Kuvira says.

Korra looks at her skeptically.

"The faster you return, the faster you can do pull ups," Kuvira points out.

"You got me there," Korra says, hopping in, neatly putting her feet onto the car's floor.

 


 

 

Kuvira turns on the radio as they buzz through traffic.

"Wow," Korra says. "I didn't know people actually still listened to that stuff."

"Perhaps I should put it into an AM station, just to shock you even more."

"News stations?" Korra asks.

Kids who grew up on the internet, Kuvira thinks. In the Avatar's case, she's grown up in it, a part of the media. She wonders what the girl behind the title thinks of it all.

She'll flash you another lopsided smile and talk about how she's always wanted to be an Avatar. Kuvira has heard Korra say it too often on the propaganda videos, from a tiny four year old Korra saying she's honored (complete with a shitty bow), to an angry teenager impatiently asking when she can get in on the action, to a newly deployed seventeen year old trying to be calm.

I always wanted to be an Avatar!

After a few songs and too many commercial breaks, they're just out of Republic City and the news comes up.

This is what Kuvira's been waiting for, her mid-afternoon update.

A new leader has emerged, claiming the State of Shen as his own. The man known as Captain Rishu is now the new Governor and Commander-in-Chief --

"Turn it off," Korra says. Kuvira ignores her. She needs to know what's going on. "Please," Korra adds.

-- nothing more than a warlord that has used brute force as his mandate of power --

Kuvira looks at Korra out of the corner of her eye. Korra's all hard lines, rigid as a statue. She should know, Kuvira thinks. She can't run away from this. Neither of them can.

Her eyes stay glued to the road as the report continues. The State of Shen has had at least three Sons of Heaven in the past two months, the last warlord having lasted only until yesterday's conquest --

Crack!

"What the fuck," Kuvira snaps, her head turned away from the road. Of course Korra has to smash the console. She can't just jab the off button angrily. Kuvira swerves to stay on the road, having been distracted. Korra doesn't flinch at the force of opposing momentum.

For a few minutes, they don't talk.

"I'm sorry. I can get off here, it's close enough."

"Like hell you will. Just stay in the damn car until we get to the door."

Nothing more is said.

It feels, though, as though Korra would like to say more. Maybe Kuvira would like to say something also. But neither of them know how to talk.

They make it to the Sato estate in one tense piece, the engine whining and bitching to Kuvira. Of course, it's all in her head. Nothing's wrong with the car, just with its occupants. Korra carries all the groceries in both arms, as though hugging a bear. She mashes the intercom with her grocery bag because she has no free hand.

Dismissed! Kuvira thinks of herself.

 


 

 

Kuvira shows up the next day anyway for the party.

She doesn't find Korra at the usual place (as though a one-time occurrence could establish a pattern.)

She ends up roaming the Sato Estate, avoiding the party. She thinks of Opal, leaving with her mother's blessing. The irony of it stabs at her. She wonders if she can ever tell Baatar the truth behind her anger.

She makes it to the garage, where she hears someone tinkering away.

"Hey," she says.

Korra turns her greasy face up to Kuvira and winces. The light from the corridor's too strong.

"Close the door," Korra mutters, turning away to return to the jeep she's fiddling with. The hood's open, and Korra is poking around it, probably just performing routine maintenance. Her olive green tank top screams military. She's wearing the dogtag today. Her loose pants complete the look.

"You should be enjoying yourself," Korra says, the first to lose this battle made of empty silences. Kuvira thinks of how different they are when they're nervous. Korra gives it away, sweats nervous tension from every pore, fills it up with action.

She decides to let Korra sweat it out a little more. When Korra pats a side table around for a wrench, Kuvira hands it to her. Korra's probably not that great of a mechanic, being a CQC specialist (according to those damned vids), and her work is clearly not that of an engineer's -- but she's doing it anyway. Anything to keep moving.

"I don't get you," Korra says again. Kuvira lets her keep blustering her way through the air. "I was a jerk yesterday. And I'm not drunk as hell tonight. There's a pretty girl from the Air Nation today. You should chat her up. Short hair, green eyes, smiles a lot."

Kuvira laughs. Suyin's daughter.

"What's so funny?" Korra turns to face her.

"I'm from Zaofu," Kuvira says. Maybe it's too much to reveal.

"You know Opal?"

"I do." She doesn't give Korra an inch beyond that.

"Well, there are other girls if she's not your type. Or boys. Whatever."

"If you feel so awful about the console, you can try to fix it."

"No, I'm shit at stuff like that."

"I believe you," Kuvira says, having watched Korra putter around for fifteen minutes in the garage. She doesn't have an organized brain for this kind of work, the kind of methodical, steady process that is required for mechanical tasks. "And nevermind, it's forgiven."

"What did you use to do at Zaofu?"

"I was a guard," Kuvira says. "Moved here to study so that I could get a promotion."

A half-lie.

 Three fourths of a lie.

No, a pretty large untruth.

Why she's damning herself, Kuvira doesn't know.

"Oh."

"How are your legs?"

"Ran a little today."  Korra grunts and exerts pressure on the allan key, until it nudges the screw loose.

Their conversation starts and stops like a vintage car, sputtering smoke all over the place. Kuvira asks about Korra's work with the Air Nation. She knows the answers, and Korra parrots the answers in her videos almost to the letter.

For a change... finding those with Air Nation ancestry... my mission wasn't a battle. Exploring the world was a lot of fun. We actually had a show on, like a circus show, kind of like a publicity thing to help spread the word, y'know? 

There's something more to it, but Korra says nothing about what surely wasn't fun.

She's surprised when she feels a heaviness in her chest, but Korra moves on to the next topic. Eventually the conversation peters out with the admission from Korra that she'd rather train.

"We should spar sometime," Kuvira says. "When you're better."

The expression on Korra's face is doubtful for just a flash, and then it's back to that smile. That tired smile. "We should," she says.

She's done doing whatever she's doing on the car. Kuvira's moved from leaning, to sitting on a seat, to looking around the Sato garage (beautiful cars everywhere, not to mention the scooters and motorbikes), to standing as she watches Korra work from behind.

Kuvira admits to herself that watching Korra's back is not unpleasant. She laughs internally at her attempt at dryness. Even to herself, she has to keep her cool. Baatar would snort were he watching her.

"Beer?" Korra asks, throwing it to Kuvira without waiting for an answer. Kuvira angles her head to see where it's coming from -- oh, a cooler she hadn't noticed, at the side.

Kuvira doesn't open the can. She follows Korra to leave, thinking to herself that she's replacing the pain of losing Zaofu, with the pain of getting to know the only Avatar.

Korra walks outside through the garage gates, hauling the cooler with her. Kuvira follows. The Sato mansion has a classical tinge to its taste, something Kuvira is not a stranger to. She thinks of Zaofu Squared, and for once it's not painful, even while she's sober.

They end up sitting on the grass. It's a cold evening, but Kuvira's got a jacket and Korra's put one over her shirt. The jackets make the cool pleasant. She could sleep here, Kuvira thinks.

"Sorry about yesterday," Korra says. "I do kinda like you, y'know. For someone I've only met once. Twice. Whatever."

"You should have said that when you were sober. Now I have to wonder if it's the beer talking for you again."

"Well, our first night together, it was definitely the beer acting for me," Korra says with a smirk. "But it's just me now. This is real talk, y'know?" Korra thumps her chest with a closed fist.

Kuvira laughs at Korra's attempt at authenticity. It has the intended effect; she lets Korra take pride in making her laugh.

"You're cool," Korra says with a grin. "From the less than twenty-four hours that I know you."

Kuvira takes the invitation stretched out before her. "You should double check just to be sure. Hang out with me more."

This time Korra laughs. It's a genuine, barking, whole-face-is-laughing kind of laugh. "Man," Korra says. "This is weird."

Kuvira thinks the exact same thing. Imagine that picture: a soldier from a warzone, next to someone about to leave for war, talking like this.

 


 

 

Korra conks out pretty quickly. Then again, Kuvira had let her drink up all the beer. Overall the night is a success though: Korra didn't throw up, just fall asleep, and carrying Korra back into the Sato estate is something Kuvira prefers over sheepishly apologizing to the hostess (again).

Kuvira uses the evening time to think.

This disparity between her civilian life and who she has to be is foreign to her. All her life she was Kuvira, a person with a constant role, stepping out of one shoe into another. First she was a daughter. Then she was an orphan. Then... a student. After graduating, she danced, and leapt into the opportunity to serve Zaofu. She became a guard, was promoted to guard captain. Now it's... what? Earth Regiment One Commander? MA student? She has only two feet, and too many shoes to fill, suddenly.

Unbidden, her early memories of growing up with Baatar surface. No, she realizes. There was a time she had more than two shoes to fill. She's Baatar's sis, but she isn't Suyin's daughter. She was held apart as Suyin's protege, but she would never be a Beifong. Her parents and Suyin have taught her: family is not a construct set in stone. Only Baatar tries to tell her otherwise, but he doesn't consider the Beifongs his family anymore (there's irony in that situation, when you look at it from that angle, Kuvira knows.)

"Hey," Asami calls out, from behind her.

Kuvira hears her take a seat next to Korra, who now sleeps in between them. Asami's red-faced, but it doesn't stop her from taking Kuvira's unopened can and drinking it.

"Hopefully you guys didn't have another fight?" she asks.

"Not this time," Kuvira says cheerfully. Kuvira the civilian, she thinks to herself, observing her own change in mannerisms.

"Good," Asami says, smiling at her. "She likes you, y'know."

"I'm convinced," Kuvira says. Asami plays with Korra's bangs, parting them neatly to the side. Korra doesn't even stir.

"Does nobody else know that she's here?"

"Her friends know, but she... asked for time alone." Asami looks down the road, her eyes straight on the city lights beneath them.

Her friends. And what does that make you, Asami Sato?

"It was terrible at first," Asami says. "Being able to fuss over her now is a relief, actually. Weird as it might sound. When the Red Lotus poisoned her, we all thought she was going to die."

Kuvira stills her breath for a moment. The way Asami speaks makes Kuvira think she is intruding. This is too personal. Again there is that feeling of wanting to remove herself from the two of them, just like the last time. The gravity of death isn't something Kuvira takes lightly, but here Asami is, saying things out loud.

A breeze blows by before Asami continues. " She was in a coma for a while. When she woke up, she couldn't walk. She wouldn't talk, wouldn't eat, wouldn't do anything but stare out the window."

"What pulled her out of it?"

"The inauguration of the Air Nation," Asami says. "She looked like hell but she knew she had to be there. So she made an appearance. Looking like hell."

Kuvira knows that part. It was all over the evening news. Avatar  Korra unable to walk. Who will protect us? A selfish headline, full of selfish bullshit, but the kind of bullshit Kuvira's used to expecting from civilians. Now that Korra's up close, the damage can't be turned away from. Kind of like a far-off city getting bombed. It doesn't feel real until you're there, smelling the ash and watching the women wail.

"Anyway, she was shipped off to the South Pole. I don't know why I didn't go. And I guess that's why I'm so stupid like this, why I'm fussing all the damn time. I... kinda want to make up for not being there. When the healer said that Korra could walk a little, some of us showed up uninvited at the South Pole. For support, you know? Sometimes Korra pushes people away, but it's not good for anyone to be so alone."

What a good friend you are, Kuvira thinks. Her mind lingers on friend, feeling at the edges that there is something different about Korra and Asami. Together, that is. Kuvira isn't blind, or slow on the uptake.

There's a long pause. Asami Sato's never spoken to her, and she's never spoken to Asami Sato. It always catches Kuvira by surprise, this first-world tendency to simply open up, or talk about their work, talk about their friends, talk about the things that interest them. Talk about their deepest, darkest secrets, their dreams. She may be from Zaofu, but that's the Kuvira she presents to the world, not the Kuvira that grew up in the rural Earth Kingdom, where you never gave anything away.

The willingness to trust displayed by Republic City citizens is because they never have a reason to hide.

 "Yeah," Asami says, as though Kuvira said something. "We showed up and then she wanted to come back so we came here and every day we try to... work things out, you know? "

There's another long pause. The evening wind blows on. The smell of the lake reminds Kuvira of how warm Korra is (was?), close against her. Shit, she thinks. She wants to lie down next to Korra just to smell the girl.

What a terrible, terrible joke. The irony of being here with the hostess and this stupid Avatar.

"It must be weird for me to just come up like this and dump it all on you."

"That's what the drinks are for, yes?"

"Well, just tell me if I'm making you feel uncomfortable. And... why aren't you talking?"

"Nobody's asked anything about me!"

"Well, tell me about yourself then."

So Kuvira talks a bit about work, a bit about dancing. Unsurprisingly, Asami is a martial artist and an engineer -- it's the kind of combination that comes from being rich and well-educated -- and Kuvira catches herself before she lets her competitive streak get the better of her. It would be petty, and Asami being what she is shouldn't remind her of Suyin. Dancer. Leader. Wife. Mother. Collector of rare meteorites.

Hah, Kuvira knows she's not being fair at all.

 


 

 

At the close of the evening, Kuvira helps Asami carry Korra back in (she's totally, utterly gone). Asami returns to her guests, saying that Kuvira should meet some. But Kuvira stays next to Korra on a couch away from the crowd. She watches Korra's face, propped up on cushions, as though it has the answer to her question: is it okay to like someone as hastily as Kuvira's coming to like Korra? The question is moot, really, because Kuvira the Earth Regiment One Commander will eventually leave, may eventually never reappear, may eventually disagree on policy with the rest of the world. But she asks the question anyway, because maybe one day they'll meet only as Korra and Kuvira, not as Avatar or Commander. All that without even considering Sato in the equation.

Wishful thinking, she thinks, with a smile so bitter it's turning into a laugh. That's what summers are all about. Summer is the season that tastes of possibility, eventually run down by time.

Chapter Text

Kuvira doesn't know how she gets an invite back to the Sato mansion, but she does. She doesn't know how this becomes a routine, but it does.

Her days fall into a pattern: working out in the morning with Baatar, late afternoons and dinners with Korra. Sometimes Asami's there, sometimes she's at the office; Korra will usually know.

The eastern hall turns into half Asami's work room and half Korra's gym. Korra invites Kuvira to work out only once; Kuvira shrugs. Korra doesn't press the issue.

When Asami is around, Kuvira helps her out with her engineering things; it's a familiar setup, for she does the same with Baatar. She feels like an intruder, a spy. It should be weird. Asami likes Korra, and Kuvira's sitting in the same room.

But it isn't weird. They fall into a rhythm of talking on and off, listening to the television, and working on their own projects. Asami is working on the miniaturization of an engine. Every other day, she brings home newly fabricated parts from work. And on the days that Asami isn't around, and Korra trains, Kuvira brings her 'schoolwork', which Korra never cares for.

Of course, it's not actually schoolwork: it's all the manuals for the trains and machinery Baatar and his crew have been setting up. Kuvira is careful to make sure Asami doesn't see 'em.

Today is an Asami-less day, and technically Korra's rest day. She's flipping through the channels, which always annoys Kuvira, since Korra has the patience of a five-year old. She takes a split second to decide whether to stay on a channel or go, and Kuvira can hear the television flickering constantly to keep up with Korra.

"Video games, perhaps?" Kuvira asks, watching her torture the television for the nth time.

"Not a fan," Korra replies. "Never grew up on them. My coordination on those damn controllers is shit. Besides, why go on a virtual adventure when I'm living the life?"

"The coast then? You never get sick of the water."

"Course not, I'm Water Tribe," Korra agrees, finally laying the television to rest. She looks outside. Kuvira looks at her. The sunlight streaming from the huge windows forms a pattern of squares of light on the marble and around Korra. Her clothes for the day are a plain navy blue tank top, loose trousers, slippers. Slouching as always on the couch, her hair parts to reveal the back of her neck.

Kuvira looks away. She'd do things to that girl's neck, if she doesn't watch herself.

 


 

Korra loves to dig her toes into the sand. She's not the sort to wear a sunhat, not the sort to wait for thirty minutes after eating, not the sort to give a damn if she's wearing the right clothes for the water or what. This time though she contents herself with wading through knee high water. It's summer, but with the Republic being fairly high above the equator, it's not very warm. A breeze passes by, billowing Korra's pants. Kuvira watches, perched from a rock a safe distance away from the water. They might walk all the way to a cove, and then walk back when the sun sets.

"You're so lame!" Korra shouts. "Get over here, loser!"

The last time Kuvira did that Korra had tackled her into the water. She'd shivered the whole time, even with a towel wrapped round her. Korra for her part didn't need anything: not sunscreen, not a towel. And she'd waded around deeper waters, wearing her clothes, not caring at all.

Eventually Korra comes to her. Kuvira has to smirk a little at that.

"You are so lame,” Korra says again.

Kuvira jumps down from the boulder and walks with Korra to the cove up north. They're quiet for a while. Even though Korra doesn't need it, the older woman holds out the towel.

She can't keep the words from tumbling out of her mouth: "Sometimes I wonder why Asami's so nice to me. You guys feed me every evening."

"She's just like that," Korra says with a lopsided grin. "And hey, I'm nice to you too, aren't I?"

"You want to sleep with me," Kuvira says. "Or at least make out with me, since I dumped you that first night."

"I just want to get to know you better."

"For the purposes of deciding whether or not I get a second chance with you in bed," Kuvira replies.

"Heh, I like that about you. You're blunt."

And you're a liar, Kuvira thinks. How Korra pulls off being a civilian, she doesn't know, but Korra can play the part to the hilt. She wonders where Korra learned all the right things: what things were safe to say, when to be quiet, when to drop an issue, how to smile genuinely.

Small pause, then Korra says: "The offer still stands. No strings attached, though. Don't want any at the moment."

"Because you're always tied up?"

"Yep, I am. Gotta love the world before I love anyone else."

Including yourself.

Another pause. And then Korra looks into the horizon and says: "In all seriousness though, I think the offer isn't one you'd like to take."

"There are always strings, even when people say there aren't," Kuvira says. She thinks of Asami, and what a tangled mess this could quickly be.

Korra snatches Kuvira's sunhat without warning. She places the towel down on the grit and lays down. Then she covers her face with the sunhat. Talks through the woven fiber: "Strings on your end or mine?"

"Both," Kuvira says, sitting down on the thin strip that was all that remained of the towel. She draws her knees folded to her chest and stares at the slate-grey water.

Kuvira always gets what she wants, but what she wants from Korra is not so clear. Korra, the Avatar. Korra, who she feels an attraction for. Korra, who's currently inactive and can't even run for so long. Korra, who kind of disgusts her with her weakness and fakeness and lying. Korra, who makes her doubt herself. The loss of absolute control, even in her own mind, reminds her of Suyin, whom she loves and whom she hates. Fuck that woman, who finds a place in her mind even when she's with another girl.

She holds Korra's left hand with her right, anyway. She goes to the Sato mansion, anyway. She puts up with being something of the Avatar's nanny, anyway.

"You guys didn't have any beaches in Zaofu, right? It's all mountains there."

"We had springs in the mountains, that's about it. Small streams, but not the kind with sand like this."

"Do you miss home?"

"Yes," Kuvira admits. Maybe her partial dislike of Korra is due to how hard it is to lie to her. The girl's not even looking at her, and she still feels compelled to share a piece of herself. "Zaofu was -- is -- beautiful. It's the most progressive city in the world," she can't stop herself, how she practically sounds like a travel brochure. "But there's a price, and I just didn't want to pay it blindly forever."

She's said too much.

"Want to make a change in your home city, huh?"

"Yeah," Kuvira admits. "Let's drop it," she says, remembering Korra wrecking her radio.

Korra gets up. Kuvira turns to face her. There's maybe the length of a ruler between them. Korra closes that distance. Forehead to forehead, Kuvira closes her eyes and lets Korra kiss her.

It's Korra's way of saying: Damn those strings, whatever they are.

 


 

It's Kuvira who pulls away and sits up. She can imagine the grin on Korra's face even as the Avatar breathes heavily, trying to replenish air lost in their torrid kissing.

Want to make a change in your home city, huh?

There are times when Kuvira understands why she is attracted to Korra: the younger girl knows, instinctively, what she's trying to say. It's making her reckless. Kissing on the sands is not her.

"I thought we just said no to this," Kuvira grumbles. She runs a hand through her hair. As usual, Korra undid her braid. Kuvira pats around for her tie and puts it on her wrist.

"Sex or making out? I think it was the sex you turned me down on."

"I can't figure you out," Kuvira gets up, tugs at the towel, but Korra isn't moving. "C'mon, let's go back to the mansion. Asami might be back."

"Not until eleven thirty today," Korra answers, not giving up the towel.

"I'm cold," Kuvira says. The sun's set. They were too busy making out to give a fuck. Now though the gloam is ending and the moon's light won't be enough for her.

"Yeah, yeah, fine." Korra stands up and doesn't wait for Kuvira. Kuvira trudges through the sand to keep up.

"Really? You're the one that kissed me. Why are you the one angry?"

"If you didn't want it, you could have said something."

"Excuse me? You're the one who -- oh. I get it," she says, things clicking into place. The Avatar is feeling insecure. Now it's her turn to be angry. "You don't get to be angry, Korra. You're screwing around with me just to make yourself feel normal. Don't fuck with me like that."

They can cut each other both ways, she realizes.

Korra raises an eyebrow at her. In the dark, her eyes are blue fire. "Everybody screws around to feel normal. That's kind of the point."

Kuvira thinks of Asami. Goddammit, why does she have a conscience? Why does Korra not know? Why does Kuvira even fucking care?

Kuvira catches up to Korra. The anger in Korra's eyes dies down, just a little. "You're making things too complicated. Don't think of the future, it hasn't happened."

"So what, we should just take what's in front of us? No wonder you always lose, if all you can think is the present."

Korra swallows. That's a low blow, Kuvira realizes.

"Korra --" Kuvira tries to think of something to cover her words up, but Korra beats her to it.

"I'd like it if for once in my life I didn't have to think," Korra says. "About everyone else. I don't seem to have scared you off, legs busted or what."

"I don't even get how you could make out with someone who'd leave you like that."

"What can I say, that someone still wants me," Korra says with a grin. "You're so worried about strings. I'm full of them. Tied with my hands behind my back. You have no idea what my life is like. If you're worried about screwing the Avatar, don't. I'm just Korra until I return to active status. And I like you. Are the strings on your side so terrible next to mine? Or is my guess right and you just don't want to be the one that fucked the Avatar?"

"I don't know."

The strings on her side are as heavy as the Earth Kingdom. She could not say this to Korra, not yet. Or maybe not ever.

Crunch, crunch, crunch: in the dark, the sounds are magnified. There's the steady tread of their slippers through the sand. The waves lapping at the shore, the earth churning and turning finer and finer and finer. The world turning dark, the hoots of the night creatures. All of it feels like they're converging on Kuvira, asking her to make a move already.

"You're surprisingly unromantic about the whole thing," she says. If this were anyone else, they would take it as a cue to make it sweet. But Korra does not lie about the kind of contract she wants from Kuvira.

"Maybe kinda pragmatic," Korra agrees. "Kinda like you."

"I wouldn't call you pragmatic, not normally."

Korra shrugs. "You sort of dropped into my life. And it's not every day I see an opportunity."

"So why don't we just use each other, huh?"

"Yeah."

The problem, Kuvira knows, is that she sees no problem with it, if she could quell her conscience.

"Let me think," Kuvira says. "And when I say no, don't fucking turn it into a yes."

Korra snorts. "You could have pulled away anytime."

"Next time you do that, I'll kick you."

"You liked it, though. Don't be such a hypocrite."

Is that a problem? Is that a good thing? Kuvira doesn't know. The Sato mansion lies ahead.

 


 

Another evening, where Korra has gone to her bathroom after a workout:

"She's more cynical than I expected," Kuvira murmurs.

Asami gives her a pointed look. Looks at the television, but her gaze is unfocused. "She's been on display all her life. On her first day here, people recorded her dash through the city with their cellphones. Her approval rating was seven percent when she left to rebuild the Air Nation. She was poisoned in a live broadcast on the internet and on every damn television around the world. And the world expects her to bounce back. You'll have to excuse Korra if she isn't what you expected."

It's a little unnecessary to bring all that up, Kuvira thinks. But then perhaps it's a little unnecessary to say that Korra's cynical.

"Not a very big fan of the human race, huh?"

Asami shakes her head. Glares at the television. "I'm not a fan of the mob. Especially not the mob at Republic City. The average citizen here hasn't ever smelled the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, much less set foot outside their cushy houses. Korra's got a better rep outside of Republic City."

And as always, Asami gives a level-headed answer.

"Sometimes I think I should have stayed with her in the Southern Water Tribe instead of coming here. Maybe I was... being selfish." Asami would say more, from how her lips move, but she keeps her mouth shut.

Kuvira doesn't answer that gaping uncertainty. "The opinion at Zaofu was that they shouldn't have trained Korra at four, but at sixteen like the rest."

"Yeah well, everyone's got an opinion. It's easy to crucify people, much harder to actually carry the cross. Besides, Zaofu's one to talk. Your home state still conducts searches for those with Avatar potential on behalf of the White Lotus."

"Zaofu acknowledges the White Lotus," Kuvira says. "We're more a part of the international community than we are a member of the Earth Nation." Too late, she catches what she said unguarded.

We. That damning we. It hadn't been a lie, at that moment. Habits are hard to break.

Asami: "They say to give it a decade and we'll have the Avatar Corps's first batch after the Water Tribe Civil War."

"What does Korra think?"

"She thinks... it's necessary."

"What?"

"She says that if she's around, she can at least make sure that mistakes aren't repeated. The next generation of Avatars won't be under as much scrutiny."

She'll never step down as the Avatar, not while she's still alive, Kuvira realizes. Not even if she hates the strings.

"And what do you think?"

"I think whatever the Avatar Corps is doing should be kept out of focus."

As if you can keep secret an inter-state institution that's been around since forever, on that scale, with public funding.

 


 

Kuvira thinks, in the early morning, on a bench. She's waiting for Baatar, and as always Korra knocks on her noggin, or maybe the girl breaks and enters. Her thoughts of Korra are unbidden, uncontrollable, and often uncomfortable:

You sort of dropped into my life. And it's not every day I see an opportunity.

She says it like that because she's in jail. Korra's been at the Southern Water Tribe Compound all her life. She carries it with her in her head. But it's a jail she's locked herself into, the choice she made as a child when she said, I'm the Avatar, and you gotta deal with it.

Korra must look at herself in the mirror and say that: you gotta deal with it.

It's awful. It's awful and even Kuvira knows that. For she carries Zaofu in her mind too, the shadows of the domes and the lack of stars in the night sky. She lived in a golden, glittering, art-deco cage.

Something about their mutually-fucked up cages calls to the other. They may not know each other, not really, but it's why Korra is so familiar, why Kuvira can talk to her the way she does.

 You're screwing around with me just to make yourself feel normal. Don't fuck with me like that.

It may go both ways. Kuvira doesn't know. Korra's the one spot in her life that isn't solid, isn't the earth, isn't sure. But of course. Korra is the water. Always changing. Fits into the mould carved by the silt and stone and rock. And in a way, doesn't water erode earth, too? Carve it out, in some kind of dance?  

 


 

It's a day with all three of them when the television dredges up old news. Slow news day and all. Something about capturing more Red Lotus insurgents. They do a recap. They show The Clip. The tell-tale twitch of tinny sound, a recording from a makeshift 'studio', gives it away.

Korra drops from the bar. Asami stands in alarm, but Korra waves her off. Glares at the television. Kuvira turns it off, but Korra's gone in long strides, out the room, likely out the mansion.

"Should we..."

"Give her some space," Asami says.

"Can I turn on the television?"

"No," Asami mutters. Such curtness is rare. They take a break. They don't talk. Asami goes outside for a stroll, maybe a smoke, maybe a ride. Kuvira taps her phone open, looking for it online. The report will be there. She listens with headphones.

The White Lotus has apprehended a number of Red Lotus insurgents within the Earth Kingdom...

Our viewers will recall that just over six months ago, the Red Lotus managed to capture the last Avatar and almost kill her.

The recording from the Red Lotus is not so long, maybe five minutes of Zaheer explaining who they are and why they must kill the Avatar, in a bare abandoned room that could almost be an office. The last thirty or so seconds -- when they drag Korra in, struggling against her chains and screaming she'll kill them all -- gets cut in time by the White Lotus, who'd infiltrated their headquarters.

Thirty seconds. It starts with distant screams, follows with the sound of chain links attached to metal pillars as Korra is dragged in. There's a moment of respite from Korra's angry shouting as Zaheer tells her just how many people will see the end of the Avatar. Everyone in Zaofu was watching, Kuvira recalls. It's the kind of horror show one could not stop watching.

For a half-second, Korra is afraid, and then the Red Lotus injects her with the poison, and of course there is that tell-tale flash of eyes -- the Avatar State that Korra cannot control...

The clip goes black and it's back to the news anchor explaining that the Avatar State could not be defeated and with help, the situation was overcome. The tinny sound of shitty recording equipment is gone.

There would have been absolutely no dignity left for Korra, Kuvira thinks. Screaming and frightened and poisoned all on display. The White Lotus tried as hard as it could to scrub the thing off the internet, but it's impossible. That only earned more backlash.

She flicks the video back to Korra's face. There's almost nothing recognizable from the Water Tribe girl she knows. To the rest of the world, this person with this frozen face of fear is the Avatar, not Korra.

Like three weeks ago, Kuvira wonders if she too will break that hard.

She can't afford to.

She switches to another video streaming site. Lots of takeups and putdowns of the same video. Kids without an ounce of sympathy saying they'd make better Avatars, or that this dead guy would do better.

Kuvira presses the lock button. The phone's screen turns black with a click.

 


 

Korra returns after the sunset, dripping into the mansion and disappearing into her room. When she returns, Kuvira has toast and tea waiting. Asami's still gone. She's not surprised.

"Went out to the cove and swam a bit," Korra says.

"Glad you didn't drown yourself."

Kuvira really is.

"You know, everyone treats me like I'll kill myself or I'm delicate. You make me feel normal."

"I'm not about to say yes to your offer because of that."

"See? That's why I like you."

Even with how they've been talking, even with the both of them laying the truth out bare, Korra steers the conversation in distinctly civilian concerns. They're running low on tea and crackers, they need to do the groceries, and she needs someone to help haul some more carpet and gym equipment to the work hall.

"By the way, Asami is at the office."

"Ah," Kuvira says.

And then Korra goes on about missing the show they watch, a late afternoon soap opera for housewives. It's like a switch is in Korra's head, and all Kuvira can do is watch. None of the guards in Zaofu had such a jarring about-face, but then none of them had gone through a war.

Kuvira lets Korra carry the conversation before retreating to her apartment. Too late she realizes, surrounded by the cold of the AC, that she's left her jacket. She glances at her watch: ten o clock.

There's a strange, irrational fear that grips at her, or maybe it's been there all day, bandaged only by Asami telling her to give Korra some time off.

Glad you didn't drown yourself.

That she cares and has no right to makes her pause.

No, you don't hesitate, she thinks. Kuvira of Zaofu doesn't hesitate. But she's not from Zaofu, she thinks, and then she thinks again: that's not the fucking point!

She swerves the car back towards the Sato mansion.

 


 

Kuvira enters the garage -- it's always unlocked, that's the way Republic City folks are -- and in the dim light, she can see Korra sitting on her military jeep, the one she'd been fixing up during the second party.

Korra's head whips up, startled.

"Sorry," Kuvira apologizes, not quite sure what she's feeling herself. It's like something's draining out of her. Dread's draining out of her, replaced with relief. She walks to Korra's jeep, hand on the top of the car's small door.

"S'fine," Korra says, her hands folding the paper she's reading. "Forgot something?"

"Think I left my jacket -- " and then Kuvira notices a canopy of tarpaulin covering the back. "What's that, Korra?"

Korra laughs. Kuvira wrenches the tarpaulin off, the sound of it coming off strangely heavy in the quiet garage.

Cooking equipment, cans of beer, coolers. Tents to one side, a fishing rod, tackle box, a bunch of packs. Tip of the iceberg, Kuvira's sure.

"You're leaving Republic City?"

"Just for three weeks," Korra says, not bothering to hide.

"So this is why you always know her schedule."

"Yep, she's got a suspicious mind. So do you, apparently."

"Why?"

"I think I need some time away from everyone," Korra answers. "There's a rest house up north, close to the border to the earth kingdom. I was planning on staying there."

"When were you leaving?"

"Tomorrow."

"I'm coming with you." She glares at the Avatar, daring Korra to disagree.

"Heh. Not gonna take no for an answer, huh."

"I always get what I want," Kuvira says, despite not knowing what she wants at all.

"Mm, I'll pick you up."

"Just how stupid do you think I am?"

"Darn," Korra says, making a show of snapping her fingers. "I leave tonight," she admits.

"We're stopping by my apartment, then. Just for a quick clothes run."

"Are you serious?"

"I'm on summer break," Kuvira says, the words wry in her mouth. Baatar flits to her mind, but only for a moment, for she is not to be distracted from the here and now.

Another one of Korra's chuckles fills the quiet space.

"You win, Kuvi. I was just writing this for Asami, actually. Let me just leave it in her room."

 


 

Hours later, Korra willingly dumps driving duty on Kuvira. The sun's rising on the open countryside of the Republic. They haven't spoken all evening; there's the engine and the sounds of the great outdoors for company. And now there's a third sound: the snap of Korra's beer cans opening now that she has her hands free.

"Beautiful day," Korra says, as though it's a toast. She grins. "You're nuts, you know that?"

Kuvira is nuts, having not thought of this at all. She'd brought her cellphone with her, unlike Korra. She hopes to text Baatar (and maybe Asami) when she's come to her senses. She hopes to shake Korra awake from this road trip dream and bring her back to the Sato mansion -- yes, back to Asami -- as soon as this crazy spell is over.

Snap! Another beer can opens. Korra looks like a girl in a commercial, arms out of the window, windows rolled down, sunroof opened up, Ray-Bans and beer and the sunrise, wide plains and mountains in the distance.

Kuvira has six weeks before the maglev leaves for the Earth Kingdom.

 


 

A/N:

If you actually got this far, I salute you. Thanks for reading.

And if you were wondering -- yeah, this is STILL a non-bending AU. The way the Avatar State is interpreted in this story is different.

Concrit & comments are always appreciated.