Korra arrived early the next morning, an entourage consisting of Su, Lin, Kuvira, Tonraq, and Lord Zuko awaiting her. She had greeted her father with a heavy heart, going with them to Su's study. Strategy had been discussed and a course of action found elusive. Upon contacting Tenzin they discovered that they were much too late. Zaheer had acquiesced to come to terms with them, but in his own time. Thus, the only course of action that lay before them was to wait; and so they did.
With heavy thoughts weighing their brows, the council departed. Zuko flew his dragon high above Zaofu to clear his thoughts. Su and Lin remained in the study to discuss further strategy. Tonraq properly greeted his daughter before retreating. Kuvira and Korra were left alone.
"I'm glad you're back Korra," Kuvira ventured.
"Glad to be back," Korra deadpanned.
Kuvira shuffled awkwardly. Korra's demeanor was far darker than normal. Kuvira reached for Korra's hand, which Korra limply accepted.
"Are you alright Korra?"
"Yeah. I'm just tired. I think I'll go take a nap. I'll see you later," Korra pecked Kuvira's cheek and let go of her hand, leaving Kuvira alone.
"Alright..." Kuvira whispered to an empty hallway. Somewhat hurt, she retreated to her office, only a few floors below Su's study. Reclining on the comfortable leather couch, she allowed herself a moment's rest. Korra wasn't the only one who was exhausted, Kuvira hadn't slept since last night, running errands for Su nonstop and preparing for the meeting.
She hadn't even bothered to put on her heavy armor, opting instead for the ceremonial dress of Zaofu guards. It was simple, dark green and black, with a metal collar and wristbands. She wore light green pants and heavy black boots with it. It was functional, to say the least. She could easily use the collar and wristbands as weapons. Baatar had even designed a few components to add to it, making it even deadlier. Baatar didn't like people to know, but his passions not only included engineering and architecture, but also fashion. The Bei Fongs were a multi- faceted family.
Just as she closed her eyes, the thick oaken doors of her office flew open and one of the guards rushed in, "Ma'am, Zaheer has contacted us."
Kuvira shot up, "Inform Su immediately. She'll provide you with further instruction. GO!"
The guard snapped to attention and rushed out of the room as quickly as he had entered. Being head of the guard and a facet of the community helped Kuvira often. Many problems were brought to her and solved by her before Su even knew that they were a problem. Kuvira gathered herself and strode out of the room after the guard, making her way to Su's office.
It took only moments for all of the members of the council to reconvene, even Lord Zuko, who had nearly crashed into the building as he rushed to return. With hesitation evident in their eyes, they opened the connection to Zaheer.
"Hello avatar Korra."
Korra stepped forward, "What are your terms Zaheer?"
"Straight to business then. We want you avatar. We will trade the remnants of the air nation in return for you."
"Remnants?!" Korra yelled before being overshadowed by Su.
"We will absolutely not give up Korra to you!"
"To answer the avatar first," Zaheer interjected, regaining control of the conversation, "One or two airbenders might have been, accidentally removed in the taking of the temple. To address Madam Bei Fong, Korra will release herself into our custody without conflict or we will wipe out the air nation."
"You're a monster Zaheer. There are children there," Korra snarled.
"Unfortunate casualties that can be easily avoided. We will await your answer, you have until sundown."
The feed cut off, filling the room with a brief static before failing, casting the severity of the situation into its true light.
"You can't give yourself up Korra," Su began. Kuvira could see the motherly worry in her eyes. Not for Korra, but for herself. Su's eyes were filled with fear, not only for the avatar's sake, but for Kuvira's well being as well.
As the other members of the council provided their opinions, Kuvira saw Korra sit down on the couch and bury her head in her hands. She saw Bolin plead with her for her sister Opal's sake. She saw the conflict between Bolin and his brother Mako as they argued over what Korra should do. She saw Su and Lin take a stance with Tonraq against allowing Korra to turn her self in. Lord Zuko and Asami seemed to be the only ones who had no hand in the argument. Through all of this, Kuvira saw Korra bend deeper and deeper, burying her face into her hands deeper and deeper.
Kuvira stepped forward and sat beside Korra. She lay a hand on her back and Korra raised her head. Kuvira could see the tears welling in her eyes. Not a word was spoken across the din of the flustered study. When eye met eye Korra became calm. She turned fully to Kuvira and wrapped her green eyed lover into a bone crushing embrace, burying her head into Kuvira's shoulder.
Their embrace went unnoticed, it seemed, as everyone was far too absorbed in their own rowdy debates to pay much attention to the person who's life they strove to control. Korra placed a single, tentative kiss on Kuvira's cheek before she released her hold upon her and stood.
"Enough!" she proclaimed, drawing the numerous discussions to abrupt end. The council looked upon her with respect, "I don't know what I'm going to do yet. One thing is for certain though. We have to try to rescue the Air Nation. I say we go, now."
Uneasy glances were cast about the room. Su cast a worried gaze to Kuvira before opening her mouth, "She's right. We can't just let the Air Nation die. We can strategize on the way. Kuvira?"
Kuvira snapped to attention, "Yes Ma'am?"
"Mobilize the guards. Bring our best metalbenders and yourself. Have them suited up and ready to fight in an hour. Meet us at the airship docks."
"Right away Ma'am." Kuvira exited, making her way down the hall to the barracks. Suddenly, a hand caught her shoulder, staying her stride. She was wrapped in powerful brown arms and drawn close to Korra, supporting Korra's weight as the avatar leaned heavily on her.
"Thank you Kuvira," Korra whispered into her ear.
Kuvira smiled and bumped her elbow against Korra's stomach, nudging her away. She turned and wrapped her arms around Korra's neck, drawing her in for a quick kiss and a quicker good bye.
"See you soon."
With that, Kuvira was off, Korra admiring the way she walked. Korra returned to the diminished capacity of Su's study. All had departed to pack, save Su and Tonraq. They were deep in discussion.
"What are you talking about?" Korra asked.
"Oh nothing dear, you should pack," Su subverted with a sly gaze.
"No, what's going on?" Korra inquired further.
"Kuvira seems like a nice girl," Tonraq interjected. Korra blushed furiously, suddenly cross with Su for telling her father.
"Well, uh.. you see dad I was gonna tell you, but," Tonraq cut her off.
"Go pack. We'll have plenty of time to discuss your romantic endeavors later."
With blushing cheeks and a disgusting amount of sweat on her, Korra nearly ran from the study. Behind her she could hear the parental laughter filling the hall.
Through the windows of the airship, Kuvira could see the green pastures of Zaofu roll by. The day quickly approached it's end, and the council had reconvened to further discuss what to do in regards to Zaheer's terms. Save Lord Zuko. Zuko had bid them adieu before they left, stating that he intended to return to the Fire Nation to both protect his daughter and to form an army against Zaheer, if the need may arise.
Regardless of the state of his presence, the debate had not declined in ferocity at all. It was nearly unanimous that Korra should not give herself up to Zaheer. Korra had yet to make any decision, however.
Kuvira stood shoulder to shoulder with Korra, watching the hills roll by in silence. Their hands were intertwined as the debate raged around them. Kuvira could feel the tension through Korra's hand, she was nearly crushing Kuvira's hand in her iron grip. Behind her she could hear the commanding tones of Lin battle with the equally powerful baritone of Tonraq.
"There's no way to win no matter how we look at it Tonraq!" Lin said.
"Then what should we do? We can't exactly plan a sneak attack when Zaheer knows we're coming." Tonraq rumbled.
"It's our only shot. We can't attack from the air, the three eyed bitch will see us coming and shoot us down immediately," Lin said.
"Attacking from the ground won't fare any better," Asami chipped in, "Their lava bender will melt the mountain under us."
A ponderous silence filled the room. Kuvira knew that any attack they planned would be a suicide mission. They hadn't even contacted Zaheer yet, and time was running out. Suddenly, an idea blossomed in her mind. Releasing Korra's hand, Kuvira spoke.
"Wait a moment. Zaheer doesn't know we're coming yet."
"What?" the whole room said.
"We haven't contacted Zaheer yet. He thinks we're still in Zaofu."
Everybody in the room seemed to collectively mentally smack themselves. This made Kuvira smile, proud that she was the only one to actually realize the obvious. Korra suddenly opened her mouth.
"Kuvira is right. Zaheer doesn't know we're coming and he has no idea how many of us there are."
"What do you two suggest then?" Su asked.
"Well," Kuvira began, clearing the map on the table centered in the small room, "We don't know everything yet. We can suspect that Zaheer is at the Northern Air Temple, but we can't know for certain until we contact him."
"Kuvira is right. We need to know where he is before we come up with anything," Korra said. She sighed heavily, bowing her head before she looked her father in the eye, "I need to give myself up."
"Korra you can't," Tonraq started before Korra shut him down.
"Dad I have to. It's my duty as the avatar. You can't stop this from happening."
Tonraq was obviously not pleased by Korra's words, but stepped back, once again giving the floor to Korra.
"Su, can you contact Zaheer? We need to speak."
Su nodded. She turned to the radio and fiddled with it momentarily. Turning back to Korra she nodded her head, "We're connected. Say when and I'll open the channel"
"Nobody talk. I'll do this alone," Korra said. She nodded to Su and a brief static buzzed before Zaheer's voice pierced through the speaker.
"Avatar Korra. Have you contacted me to agree to my terms?" He asked.
"Yes Zaheer. On the condition that you release the airbenders immediately. Where are they?"
"They're being held at the temple. You'll get your airbenders when we get you. Meet me at noon on Laghima's peak in two days. Let your friends pick up the airbenders at the temple."
The feed cut, ending their short conversation. Kuvira's eyes instantly began to pore over the map, searching for Laghima's peak. Finding it, she set her finger on it.
"There it is. Only a few miles from the Northern Air Temple. We're here," she said, moving her finger across the map to rest about fifty miles west of Ba Sing Se.
"We could make it there by tomorrow morning."
"Should we go there immediately?" Bolin asked her.
Su piped up, "If we're already there then we can scout the mountain and take Zaheer by surprise."
"And if his people are already there?" Tonraq asked.
"Then we'll have to take them out and damn the consequences," Lin said.
"Then we should have people at the temple too. In case they send back a message and alert Zaheer," Mako contributed.
"Good idea Mako," Korra said, "I say that we land the airship at the mountain and get off. Mako, Bolin, and Asami should go to the air temple to check it out, and also to receive them once the deal goes down."
"Do you think that's a good idea?" Bolin asked, "Zaheer is at the temple. If he catches us we won't be able to take him."
"Stay out of sight then," Lin said, "Sneak in and see if you can find the airbenders. Report back on the radio anything you find."
"You got it chief," Mako said. Lin rolled her eyes, but Kuvira saw a slight smirk pull at the corner of her mouth.
"Then its decided!" Su clapped her hands before contacting the engine room, "Put the ship at maximum speed, I want to be in Laghima's asshole by midnight."
Kuvira choked back laughter as the chief engineer yelled over the din of the engines. Putting the mic down, Su dismissed everyone, with instructions to prepare for an extended camping trip. As they trickled out, Korra grabbed Kuvira's hand and pulled her along, through the corridors of the ship and into Korra's small room. In the few hours they had been in the air, Korra had already managed to riddle her room with her personal belongings, mostly weapons, but all this flew to the rear of Kuvira's minds as Korra ripped the bands from her hair and threw herself face first on the bed.
"Close the door," she said, her voice muffled by the pillow.
Kuvira closed the door and sat on the bed next to Korra. She rubbed her hand down Korra's back and felt the tension in her shoulders. Straddling her girlfriend, she went to work. Her muscular hands kneaded the knots from Korra's back, starting at her shoulders and working her way down to the small of her back. As her fingers trailed their way down, Korra suddenly flipped under her.
As Korra lay on her back, her hair splayed around her like a halo, Kuvira couldn't help but admire the art before her. Every chiseled muscle, every scar. The way Korra's eyes reflected the candle light and how her skin shone like polished mahogany. She became lost in the masterpiece before her; adrift in a sea of delicate yet powerful beauty, the waves of which contained the power to cast her against the submerged monoliths, and oh how she would let them.
In the midst of her admiring gaze, Korra's fingers went unnoticed as they moved up her legs to her waist, grasping and pulling close the stricken admirer. Her lips brushed against Kuvira's ear.
"I'm scared Kuvira."
Korra looked ashamed, casting her gaze away, but Kuvira brought her back and kissed her, "What are you afraid of?"
"I'm... I'm afraid of Zaheer. I'm afraid that I'm going to fail against him."
"You're not going to fail Korra. You're the best bender... the best person... fuck it," Kuvira righted herself and looked down upon Korra, "Korra? You are the most powerful, amazing person I've ever met," leaning close to Korra again, she said, "You won't lose Korra. I have faith in you, everybody does, and for good reason."
Korra's eyes welled up, "Kuvira... I... I can't do it. I always lose when it matters. No matter what. Against Amon, against Vaatu and Unalaq. I always lost without help. I can't do it."
"Yes you can Korra. You can do anything. I know you can, you're you. And you're going to win. The world will end before you give up Korra. I know it."
"No buts. You can do this Korra. I know you can. There's nothing that can stop you."
"No!" and Kuvira's lips rushed forward to keep Korra's from moving. They met and refused to part. When the impossible finally happened, Kuvira closed her eyes and set her forehead against Korra's.
"I love you Korra. I swear I'm going to protect you. I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
"I love you too Kuvira."
Korra broke the silence that had fallen between them, "Hey Kuvira?"
"Wanna make that a full body massage?"
Kuvira smiled. She knew she had no way with word, but if Korra was still ruining moments, then she must have said something right. In acquiescence, her teeth found the strap of Korra's shirt and slowly undid it.
"Contact us soon as you reach the temple."
"Got it chief," Mako said.
"And stay safe," Lin added.
"Don't get soft on me chief," Mako quipped. Lin rolled her eyes and signaled Asami to go. Kuvira saw Asami give Lin a thumbs up before closing the hatch and waving good bye to Korra.
Korra's spirits were much higher now that they were off the ship. Kuvira could see her helping carry the supplies they needed with the soldiers from Zaofu. They were packing the essentials on a wide ledge connected to a small cave a ways up the mountain.
As they finished the heavy loads. Kuvira could see Korra skipping towards her. She grabbed Kuvira's hand and spun her around, pressing herself against Kuvira's back and resting her head on Kuvira's shoulder. With her free hand, the other still clasped with Kuvira's, she pointed at the mountain.
"Look at that mountain."
"I see the mountain," Kuvira said.
"I'm not sure you do. Look at the mountain."
"I'm trying," Kuvira said, playing along with Korra's antics.
"If I try any harder my eyes might explode."
"Okay then, that's hard enough. Do you know something about this mountain Kuvira?" Korra asked.
"I know its a mountain."
"I'm going to reach the peak before you."
"Not this time," Kuvira said, breaking free from Korra and turning around. Or, at least trying to. In her mindless blithering, it appeared that Korra had distracted Kuvira well enough that she was able to freeze her feet to the ground. Now, Korra was on her butt laughing as Kuvira's face was in the mud.
"Oh my fucking Raava, I can't believe that you didn't notice that!"
Kuvira's face was flushed. The metalbenders around them had all noticed their captain's fall and were dutifully avoiding recognizing her embarrassment. Su, Lin, and Tonraq had all all noticed, however, and participated heartily in Kuvira's dread.
With a flourish of her hand a ball of mud flew into Korra's face, effectively silencing her and the laughing crowd. Kuvira broke the ice around her ankles and helped Korra to her feet.
"What are you all gawking at? Get back to work, the camp won't fortify itself."
"Yes Captain," her metalbenders chanted together.
"That was enjoyable," Su said, coming over to join Korra and Kuvira.
"I'm so glad you enjoyed that Su," Kuvira sardonically replied.
"I'm only teasing you two," Su defended, "So what is the plan then Captain?"
"Well we have tomorrow to scout the mountain so I'm going to send the guards to scout the mountain while we remain and strategize.'
"Sounds like a good plan kid," Lin said, approaching.
"Too late to do anything today anyways," Korra said with a yawn. Kuvira looked skyward and saw she was correct. The afternoon sun was already starting to dip behind the mountains. In less than an hour the valley would be dark.
"When will the other group arrive at the Northern Air Temple?" Tonraq suddenly asked. If not for her precise self control , Kuvira might've jumped from her own skin. She was surprised at the large man's ability to move so quietly, a skill his daughter seemed to lack.
"Tomorrow morning, at the latest."
"I say we turn in. Can we turn in?" Korra interjected.
"So we can expect a radio call in then?"
"Yes. if they don't get caught."
"Is there a contingency plan in case they do get caught?"
"Guys, please, I'm tired," Korra interrupted again.
"I suppose that they'll become part of Zaheer's deal then," Su proposed.
"That's if he won't require retribution. He might take it as offense and break off the deal. Or worse," Lin said.
"I'm going to bed."
"They have to take the risk. If they get caught we'll just have to deal with it," Kuvira proffered.
"Nothing to do, but wait then. I say we turn in, It's getting late," Su said with a glance to the sky.
"I agree," Su said.
Kuvira looked around for Korra. Unable to find her, she followed the group of elders in silence, staying a polite distance away from them, so as not to overhear the conversation. Su often told her that it was perfectly acceptable for her to listen in on her meetings, given her status both in the Bei Fong family and position in the guard, but old training persisted.
As they reached the top of the ledge where their camp was located, Kuvira took the liberty of inspecting the minor fortifications about the small encampment. Her metalbenders had enclosed the ledge with stone, effectively shielding it from view from the sky. It was very important to check the earthen canopy, if done incorrectly, the entire rock might collapse. Kuvira had seen it happen and she never wanted to again.
Attracting the attention of one of her guards she said, "Where is the radio?"
"Inside the cave Captain."
Entering the cave sent a chill up her spine. To be surrounded by earth might seem like the ideal place for any earthbender, and for many it was, but Kuvira still hated caves. Her soldiers had done a fine job making the cave as hospitable as possible. In the side of one wall she saw that they had carved alcoves for themselves. It was a natural feeling for an earthbender to be calm when smothered with earth.
Each soldier had bent a small niche in the wall for themselves to sleep in, 16 in all. It would seem that Korra had carved herself one as well; Kuvira could see her bare feet poking out from a small hole in the wall. She could even feel the vibrations of Korra's soft snores through the ground. She must have been really tired. Kuvira wondered why she hadn't said anything.
Deciding not to wake her, Kuvira followed the cave's walls to a small chamber. Inside were two of her soldiers, playing Pai Sho. These two were on radio duty for the night, set to switch off every four hours.
"Feng, Pu Lo, alert me to any activity on the radio tonight. I'll be outside all night."
"Yes ma'am," they both snapped to attention.
Exiting, Kuvira trekked through the cave, exploring it's labyrinthine structure. It had seemed small, but the cave proved expansive. This was a severe tactical disadvantage. As she closed off the many passages with her earthbending, she was reminded of the children's tale Su used to tell her before bed. The one with the small men and the smaller man. How they were trapped in a cave and captured by little beasts who came up through the cavern floor.
She forgot the name of that story, but it had been one of her favorites. She especially like the main character. She couldn't remember his name either, but she had felt akin to him. No home, earthen, lost, struggling to reclaim something. She'd have to ask Su the name of the book later.
When she finally emerged from the depths of the cavern, she found almost everybody asleep. The only ones awake were Feng in the radio room and a single guard outside the cave. Her name was Oma. She also happened to be Kuvira's lieutenant.
"Evening Oma," Kuvira said, approaching softly.
"Good evening Captain," Oma said, snapping to attention before Kuvira waved her down. Formalities were only enforced by Kuvira during formal events or while on duty, but Oma was a good soldier, she could slack, within reason.
Kuvira had gained her soldiers trust this way. When she had entered the guard at sixteen she was well known by the guards and well liked, but she was often given sinecures, which she did not enjoy. As she strove to take more dangerous jobs, her skills were recognized by the former captain who, against Su's direct commands, made her his successor.
Upon her promotion, Kuvira had found her guards less than willing to follow the eighteen year old. While they liked her, they didn't respect her enough to follow. That was quickly rectified. Through strict enforcement, Kuvira had them under her thumb. Then she established their boundaries, allowing them freedoms once they had realized she was in charge. Through all of this she had had Oma behind her. She had been a huge aid to her early on, only recently being promoted to lieutenant in recompense for her invaluable help.
As Kuvira settled under the canopy, across the entrance from Oma, she stared across the sunset valley. The last rays of light were receding behind the peaks of the mountains and the first stars were beginning to cast their petty light upon the earth.
"Have you ever noticed how many mountains there are in the Earth Kingdom Oma?" Kuvira asked.
"I have, actually. There's a shit load."
"And we never seem to go anywhere where there isn't. There's always a fucking mountain, somewhere in the distance. Why?"
"I don't know. There's just alot of mountains."
"Do you think there as many mountains in the rest of the world?"
"Probably not. I think we hoarded them. I hear the fire nation has alot of volcanoes though."
"And the water tribes probably have glaciers everywhere."
"What about the Air Temples?"
"Aren't they all on mountains?"
"I hear one is underground," Oma proffered.
"How's that work?"
"Don't ask me. I like to keep my feet on the ground not in the air."
"It is cool."
A silence passed between them. They were friends, and Oma was often one of the only people Kuvira talked to regularly. Since she had begun to date Korra, however, she and Oma had talked less and less, but Kuvira still considered Oma a close friend.
Oma broke the silence, "So how's it going with the avatar? Hot and heavy?"
Kuvira looked away in mock disgust at the lewd expression on Oma's face, "You're disgusting."
"Seriously though. Spill"
"It's going ok. We've on;y been together a couple of weeks."
"How many exactly?"
"Let me think. A month.. five and a half weeks."
"I think this is the longest relationship you've ever had."
"Fuck you too hon... are you worried about her?"
"What do you mean?" Kuvira asked, somewhat on guard.
"I mean, are you worried about the mission? It kind of does involve putting her in mortal danger."
"She'll be fine. She's the avatar."
Kuvira didn't answer immediately. Instead she picked absently at the laces of her boots, "I guess, I'm a little worried that something will go wrong, but she's strong enough to take care of herself. She can kick my ass."
"Bet you you'd let her, "Oma eyed Kuvira, waiting for more, "Is that it? Is that all I'm going to get from you?"
"I guess your nickname is well deserved then."
Kuvira's head snapped up, "What nickname?"
"Oh you didn't know? The other guards gave you a nickname."
"What is it?"
"Are you sure you don't want to find out on your own?"
"Yes, tell me. Now."
"Is that an order?"
"Yes Oma. Tell me."
Oma laughed, "Oh my spirits fine. They call you Iron Lips."
"Iron Lips? That's a stupid nickname."
"I agree," Korra said, sneaking out from behind the lip of the cave, "Those lips are softer than butter."
Oma erupted in laughter as Kuvira's face flushed crimson, 'Korra! How much did you hear?"
"Ohhh, all of it," Korra said, grinning mischievously.
"Nice to meet you avatar Korra," Oma said, interjecting and cutting Kuvira's embarrassment short.
"You too. How have I never met you before? You two seem like good friends."
"Oh we are, but I guess Kuvira likes to keep her business and pleasure separate."
"Oh my fuck, Oma go,' Kuvira managed to croak out, traumatized that Korra had heard her conversation.
"Is that an order?"
Oma laughed again. She gave Kuvira a quick hug and shook Korra's hand before bidding them both goodnight.
"I thought you were asleep," Kuvira opened as Korra sat next to her.
'I heard you get up."
"How did I not feel you?"
"Oh, I used airbending so you wouldn't hear me. Good to know it has multiple uses. How did I not know you had seismic sense?"
"Zaofu is made of metal. It doesn't work as well on metal so I don't usually bother to use it in the city."
"Oh,' Korra said. Before the silence could become uncomfortable, she grabbed Kuvira's hand and held it tight. They stared off into the valley, waiting for the moon to rise.
"I'm going to be fine you know? I've got you protecting me."
Kuvira sighed, "Where did this confidence come from?"
Kuvira couldn't hide a smile as Korra kissed her cheek. As the moon rose, Korra yawned and stretched.
"You should go to bed Korra."
"What about you?" Korra asked.
"I'm going to sleep out here. I don't want to sleep in the cave."
"Say no more,' Korra said. Instead of getting up, Korra stretched out on the ground and laid her head in Kuvira's lap, "Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all."
As Korra drifted off to sleep, Kuvira watched the moonlit valley as her hands wove between Korra's locks absently.
Kuvira was awakened by a soft nudging from Korra. As she opened her eyes they were flooded with early morning light, temporarily blinding her.
"What is it?" she asked Korra, but Oma answered.
"We've received a message from Miss Sato," Oma answered.
"So she's made it then?"
"Yes ma'am. She also has urgent news."
Kuvira groaned getting up, "Alright, I'll be there in a moment. Have you woken up Su and the others yet?"
"Yes ma'am I put three men on it."
"Good. Wake up the rest of the guards and get them ready and fed."
Kuvira turned and almost fell over Korra. It seemed that Korra had curled back up on the loose soil when Kuvira had stood up. She nudged her awake with the toe of her boot.
"Wha...? I heard something about Asami?"
"She's called in. Urgent information. Get up."
Korra got up and stretched before racing into the cave, Kuvira following. Su, Lin, and Tonraq were all already there, waiting for Korra.
"What's happened?" Korra asked as she entered. Kuvira slipped in behind her, silently ordering the radio operators to abdicate the room.
"We don't know yet, we just got here," Su said.
Korra sat down at the radio, "Asami?"
"What's happened? Did something go wrong? Are Mako and Bolin okay? Are you okay?"
"Geez Korra one question at a time," Asami quipped. "We're all fine. I called in to report that a Ba Sing Se airship left the Air Temple a few minutes ago. They weren't heading for the mountain though."
"Where then? Are they all on it?" Korra asked.
"Not all of them. I know Ghazan is still here. He met a man who drove up with a few trucks just before the airship left. And they were headed straight east."
"Alright. Thanks Asami. Are you guys hidden?"
"Yeah. We landed a few hours ago. Bolin and Mako are outside now looking for an entrance in the mountain."
"Thanks Asami. Stay safe."
"You too Korra."
The feed cut off. Before the bureaucratic Su and Tonraq could speak, Kuvira took control. Grabbing a map off the floor she began, "Zaheer just left, so, if he's not leaving for here, then he's most likely going to arrive here around midnight. That leaves us plenty of time to scout the mountain and form a strategy."
"How long will it take to scout the mountain?" Su asked. Kuvira was surprised when Tonraq answered.
"Depending on the skill of your metalbenders, it should take until midday. That's how long it would take a group of waterbenders to scale a glacier this size."
"My metalbenders are the best Chief Tonraq,' Kuvira said.
"Lead the way then Captain."
As a unit they left the chamber. The metalbenders all stood at attention in the main chamber of the cave, Oma stood at their head.
"At ease!" Kuvira barked. "We have had a slight change in plans. Zaheer is expected to arrive tonight instead of tomorrow. We're heading out immediately. The fifteen of you will be divided into groups of five. Second Lieutenant Ping?" she asked.
"You will work the radio. Record all information called in and inform Madam Bei Fong."
"Yes sir," Ping said, returning to line.
"The rest of you, I want you geared up and in your groups outside in five minutes."
She was answered by a unanimous call of "Yes Sir!" and the sounds of busy soldiers. She turned back to Su and the others.
"What will we be doing?" Korra asked.
"You'll be with us Korra," Su answered, "We'll be taking the information from the recall teams and forming a strategy."
Korra balked, "I don't think I'll be much help there. I should probably go with the scouts. I was a pretty good glacier climber back in the day. Right dad?"
Tonraq nodded. "Regardless Korra, I think it will help you to participate in both the physical and mental aspects of strategizing," Su said.
"I don't know sis," Lin said, "You can't really force that mindset onto people. She's better with her hands than her mind, but she's good in a pinch too."
"Besides!" Korra peeped, "If this showdown with Zaheer is going down on the top of the mountain, I should survey it myself."
"I suppose you're right."
"Sweet," Korra said. She grabbed a bag of maps and the portable radios Kuvira had retrieved from the equipment pile and raced out of the cave. Kuvira witnessed Su and Lin give each other looks while Tonraq shook his head and smiled.
Kuvira followed Korra out of the cave and addressed her soldiers, "Group one, Oma is in charge. Group two, Feng, group three me. Avatar Korra will be going with my group. Here are your radios and maps.
Korra handed each group a radio, a map, and a chart for elevations and information on the mountain.
"Check in every twenty minutes. Inform Ping of all abnormalities in the mountain and all possible hiding places. Return to base immediately after you reach summit."
"Yes sir!" They chanted. Group one went to the right of the mountain, group two to the left, metal cables swinging like vines. Kuvira headed straight up.
Now able to use her metal cables, Kuvira ascended the mountain swiftly, leaving Korra and her group in the dust. Leaving the communication relays to her group, Kuvira worked on modifying the mountain. At every alcove she would stop and use her seismic sense to detect anything in the caves. It was mostly wolfbats, but she did find something interesting at the third alcove she checked. She waited for her group to catch up.
Korra was panting by the time she reached Kuvira, "How the fuck are you that good."
Kuvira shrugged, "There's a tunnel in there. It goes straight up, probably to the peak."
"Wanna check it out?"
"We have to," Kuvira signaled one of her soldiers over, "Keep climbing. Avatar Korra and I are going to survey this cave.
As the soldier departed to rejoin the group, Korra and Kuvira made their way in the cave. Korra illuminated their surroundings with a ball of flame. The tunnels struck Kuvira as odd. They weren't natural, but man made. If her seismic sense wasn't being tricked, however, then that would make sense, as the tunnel went up.
After many minutes of walking in silence, Kuvira suddenly stopped Korra.
"Wait," She hissed out.
"What is it?"
"The ground here. It changes. We're walking on tile."
Korra crouched down to inspect the ground. Brushing centuries of dust off the floor, Korra studied the panel, "These are airbender sigils," she finally said.
"Why are they here?"
"Well this mountain is named after an airbender. Maybe there was a secret training center or something in here."
"Maybe,' Kuvira mused.
They kept going. Kuvira was surprised by the lack of traps. Whenever she went through tunnels in mountains, there were usually trapped.
"Were reaching a rotunda," Kuvira said. Twenty more feet and they were there. Korra increased the fire in her palm to engulf the entire room in light. As Korra looked around the room, Kuvira studied the floor.
'Look, tracks. Somebody else has been here, but not recently."
"Whoa Kuvira look at this."
Korra sent a gust of wind into a small hole in the wall. A loud creaking met their ears and, slowly, light flooded the cave. The ceiling had revealed itself to be wooden panels, blasted open by Korra's airbending. In the new light, Kuvira could make out the words on a plaque on the wall.
'The retreat of Guru Laghima. May his spirit never touch the ground," She iterated.
"What does that mean?" Korra asked.
"No idea. Who is Guru Laghima?"
"He must be the Guru this mountain was named after."
"Probably. There's nothing here, but scrolls though."
"They might have something in them,' Kuvira said.
"Okay then. Feel free to check them out. I'm going up top."
Korra airbent herself through the slats of wood and up the top of the mountain. Kuvira perused the collection of scrolls. They were all covered with heavy dust, but a few seemed to have less. She picked them up. They were studies on the avatar and... metalbending! Kuvira was astonished. It would seem that Toph hadn't invented the art. She tucked away both scrolls into her bag and continued to look.
Many scrolls caught her eye and many scrolls were deposited in her bag. A study on leadership. Detailed accounts of military strategies. A study on meditation techniques. Earthbending techniques. Spirit energy. She found scrolls so old that they predated the existence of the avatar. She'd have to tell Su about this place. The libraries of Zaofu would contain knowledge lost to the world for thousands of years. Hundreds of scribes would be hired just to copy the information down; it could take years! Twelve year old Kuvira was ecstatic at the thought.
As Kuvira was browsing, Korra leapt back down, 'Kuvira come up with me."
"I found something you've got to see."
Korra grabbed Kuvira by the waist and blasted them skywards.
"What is it?" Kuvira asked.
"There, by these rocks. Look behind them."
Kuvira walked behind a large cropping of rocks. She looked around, but saw nothing, until she looked down. Korra had laid out a heart made out of rocks.
"You're a fucking dweeb Korra."
"It get's better," She said. She snapped her fingers and a spark flew down, lighting the center of the heart. It read 'K + K forever.'
"Let me reiterate, you're a massive fucking dweeb."
Korra got dramatic, "After I Slave for you, this is how you treat me?"
"I didn't say I wasn't flattered."
"No. I'm not speaking to you."
"Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?" Kuvira asked playfully. Korra leaned in close and whispered in her ear.
"Make me scream baby."
Kuvira blushed instantly, "Oh my fuck Korra, we're not having sex on a mountain."
"Why not?" Korra pouted.
"Because the guards are climbing it as we speak!"
"So? That makes it more fun."
"Korra you have problems."
Midday had long since passed, and the sun had begun its arc to the horizon. The scouting parties had returned and Kuvira had been in council for the past hour.
Korra was pointing at three separate points on the map, "We should set the metalbender groups here. One group just below the lower portion of the peak. Two on the higher. That'll give us the high ground."
"There's a higher likelihood of being seen in those positions," Tonraq said.
"What if we keep the positions the same, but put them below the cloud cover?" Su said, "Then we'll be hidden, but still able to strike quickly."
"What's the difference from the clouds to the peak?" Lin asked Kuvira. She browsed through a stack of papers. This was her job. Whenever she was in a meeting, did she get to come up with strategies? Sometimes! Usually she just looked up information for Su though, which was boring and she hated it. But she found the paper.
"One hundred feet."
"We can scale that in seconds," Lin said.
"Is it decided then?" Su asked.
"I think so," Tonraq said.
"Alright then. We're ready for action. Kuvira?" Su asked.
"Yes Ma'am?" Kuvira responded, straightening in her chair.
"Have the metalbenders ready by seven tomorrow morning. The rest of us will come up just before noon, when Korra is to meet Zaheer."
"Yes Ma'am," Kuvira said. She rose to go, but static from the radio halted her departure.
"Korra?" Mako asked.
Korra rushed to the radio, "Mako? Is something wrong?"
Mako's brother cut in, "Oh definitely. Something is definitely wrong here Korra."
Mako cut back in, "The trucks from earlier just left. With the airbenders on board."
"What!" Korra yelled, biting back a string of expletives. "Where are they taking them?"
"We don't know. Asami took one of the bikes on board and followed them."
"Why'd you let her go alone!" Korra erupted.
"Because we were outside when she left. She left us a note."
"Why didn't the crew stop her then?"
"She was alone in the cockpit. Most of the crew have been in the mess or there cabins. Asami gave them some time off."
Korra growled into the microphone, "Damn her. Damn Zaheer."
"What do we do?" Mako asked. Korra turned back to the group, shrugging her shoulders.
"We can't back down on the deal," Kuvira said, "Zaheer might kill the airbenders anyway."
"So we should just let Korra give herself up anyways?" Su asked.
Kuvira shrugged, "We still have the element of surprise. We can capture Zaheer and force him to tell us the location of the airbenders. If Asami doesn't find it that is."
"Yeah," Korra said, struck with inspiration. "We can play normally, I'll go to give myself up, but before he can take me, we'll strike."
"What about us?" Mako asked over the radio. "Should we stay here?"
"Are any airbenders still there?" Lin asked.
"We don't know."
From the radio, another voice arose, "Tenzin isn't with them."
"Asami!" Korra yelled, nearly jumping from her chair.
'Asami you idiot! What were you thinking?"
"I had a lead so I acted on it."
"That was so stupid of you! Did you even think it through?"
"Nope, I followed my gut. And Tenzin isn't with the other airbenders. Neither is Kai. I couldn't follow them all the way, but Jinora had noticed me following. Her spirit projection told me everything."
"Well what happened?" Korra asked in trepidation.
"As far as she knew, Tenzin is still alive, but... Kai might be dead. Jinora said that he was shot down trying to distract the combustion bender so they could escape."
"Anything else? Are they okay?"
"They're not hurt, but JInora's spirit cut off pretty quickly. I think they might have noticed her meditating and knocked her out or something. I came right back after her spirit faded."
"I hope she's okay," Korra muttered. "This is bad. This is really bad. Did she tell you where they were being taken?"
"It was in the mountains. She said she could see Laghima's peak from where they were. Do you have a map?"
Kuvira grabbed a map from the table and spread it out, "Yes."
"She said it was North East of Laghima's peak."
"That would mean it's straight east from the Air Temple. That must've been where Zaheer was headed," Korra deduced.
"Why didn't he just take the airbenders himself then?" Mako asked over the radio.
"Would you want a bunch of airbenders you've taken hostage with you on an airship Mako?" Asami asked him.
"Alright. Here's the plan," Korra said, drawing everyone nearer. "We'll go through with the deal with Zaheer here. You guys have to make the trade with Tenzin. Nothing has changed, except now we now that he can't threaten to kill them. And be careful. There's bound to be some sort of trap."
"You're still going to give yourself up then Korra?" Tonraq asked.
"I have to."
The sun was minutes from it's apex. Kuvira readjusted herself to hang more comfortably. She and her metalbenders had been poised to strike for hours. Zaheer's airship had already been tethered to the mountain side, but neither he nor any of the other Red Lotus members had left the vessel. Kuvira moved again. These cables were really starting to hurt her hips.
From below she heard the sound of rock being broken. Su, Lin, and Tonraq all hurtled up to join her group. Seconds later, Korra was flying by. She landed on the lower platform of the mountain. Kuvira made her way up, barely peeking over the edge. She saw the hatch of the airship open and Zaheer and P'li exited its confines. Kuvira flashed her middle finger and her ring finger down to the group below, signalling them as to who had exited.
"Avatar Korra," Zaheer proclaimed, his voice carrying over the wind.
"I'm here like you wanted Zaheer. Now let the airbenders go!" So far so good. Korra had to keep up this charade.
"Not until you give yourself up first. This isn't a negotiation."
"It kind of is," Korra said. Kuvira could've slapped her. This was not a time to be cheeky.
"You will lay down your staff and surrender yourself immediately. I trust your friends from the inn are there to receive the airbenders?"
"They're there alright."
As if on cue, Korra's radio crackled to life, "Korra?" Asami's voice said. "We're here. Ghazan is taking us to the airbenders."
"Roger that Asami," Korra said. She dropped her staff and the radio and began to walk up to Zaheer. All according to plan.
"Halt," Zaheer said. Kuvira swore. Zaheer motioned to P'li, who removed cuffs from a bag at her waist and descended to Korra. Kuvira pulled out her radio.
"Group one, move to the center. Group two, compensate." She heard two affirmatives. Looking back, she could see that P'li had locked Korra's wrists and ankles in chains. Korra wasn't metalbending out of them, so they must've been platinum,
"Dammit," Kuvira whispered. She held out her hand, waiting to give the attack sign. Just a few more seconds. Her metalbenders had to be in place. Oma's voice cut through.
Kuvira's hand twitched and the metalbenders vaulted skywards. P'li and Zaheer were taken by surprise, but their confusion didn't last. Group two quickly attracted Zaheer's attention. Korra and Tonraq joined the assault on Zaheer. On the lower peak, Groups one and two were swarming P'li, but the combustion bender could more than hold her own. She had placed herself in the center of the platform, giving her open space and a three hundred sixty degree viewing angle.
Kuvira and Oma both rushed P'li. The two had often fought together on out of city missions and, as such, had acquired a peculiar duality when fighting. Kuvira launched herself in the air with a pillar of earth. As soon as she had cleared it, Oma shattered the base, toppling the monolith on P'li. With a deafening explosion, the pillar shattered, but that didn't matter.
Kuvira had placed herself behind P'li. She was completely unaware Kuvira was there, and Kuvira quickly took advantage. She sent her metal cables directly at P'li's head. A chance dodge from another attack rendered her useless. P'li turned on her and Kuvira narrowly dodged. Regaining her bearings, she saw Oma herding the metalbenders behind a massive stone wall she had made. Kuvira smiled. If Oma was using that trick, then Kuvira wouldn't be needed for a few minutes.
While the Red Eyeball shot blast after blast at the great wall, Kuvira saw the remnants of group one trickle down the cliff face. Two fell off. The rest rolled down to the lower peak. Judging from the blasts of all four elements, Kuvira assumed that at least Korra was still fighting.
A massive eruption drew Kuvira's attention back to the fight at hand. Splinters of rock flew everywhere as the wall fell, the combined power of fifteen earthbenders crumbling the monolith. Now it was Kuvira's turn.
As expected, P'li easily avoided being crushed, but that was the least of her worries now. Leaping across the flying boulders, Kuvira took hold of two boulders and sent them hurtling towards P'li, who narrowly avoided them. This was their most powerful move.
Years of fighting and dancing together had led Kuvira and Oma to develop many moves capitalizing on their unique abilities. Oma was an above average earthbender, able to bend massive quantities of earth at a time. Kuvira was more focused. While Oma had amazing strength, exceeding that of any normal earth bender, Kuvira had focus. She was renowned in Zaofu for her ability to fight multiple, separate, battles at one time. She used these skills masterfully now, sending rocks hurtling in every direction at P'li, who couldn't even hit her as she leapt from rock to rock, kept aloft by the metalbenders below.
P'li was having trouble keeping up now. She had stopped trying to blow up the boulders now and simply strove to evade. Kuvira hurtled rock after rock at her. She was impressed by how long this was taking. Suddenly, P'li decided to play dirty. Narrowly avoiding one large boulder, she leapt upon one of the ones held aloft and fired at the metalbenders. They scattered, and Kuvira fell.
Her reflexes barely kept her alive. As she landed she looked back, expecting another attack, but Su and Lin had already taken her on with a group of metalbenders. A few had fallen off the cliff, but were vaulting back up. She saw Oma ascend and turned towards the battle with Zaheer.
Kuvira ran up the cliff face just in time to see Korra trip Zaheer. Tonraq had formed an ice gauntlet, sharpened into a spear point and was seconds from killing Zaheer. Seemingly impossibly, Zaheer evaded the attack. With a gust of wind he launched Tonraq off the mountain.
With Korra's devastated cry ringing in her ears, Kuvira leapt off the side of the mountain.
Bolin was just tethering the airship to the anchors at the Northern Air Temple. Over his grunts, Asami heard heavy footfalls resonating from within the temple. Moments later, Ghazan stepped out. He looked utterly bored. Jutting a finger behind him he said, "Follow me."
"Whoa whoa whoa," Bolin interjected, "We're not going anywhere with you."
"Do you want the airbenders or not?" Ghazan said testily.
They exchanged looks. Asami took the lead, Mako and Bolin following close behind. They made their way through musty temple corridor after musty temple corridor. Asami was astounded by the amount of damage that had been inflicted on the temple.
"Did the red lotus destroy this place?" she asked, an edge in her voice.
Ghazan shrugged, "Some of it."
Asami huffed indignantly. Finally, they reached a set of double doors. Pointing to the radio strapped on her side, Ghazan spoke, "Call the avatar. The airbenders are through here."
Asami picked up the receiver, "We're here. Ghazan is taking us to the airbenders."
"Roger that Asami," Korra said. Ghazan opened the doors. At first, Asami couldn't see. The dim light barely illuminated the form of Tenzin, bound, beaten, and gagged on the floor. Asami rushed forward.
"Asaaammii..." Bolin said. Asami recognized his terrified tone and followed his outstretched figure. Behind Tenzin were at least twenty hooded airbenders. This was the trap.
"Duck Asami!" Mako called. With a swift kick he illuminated the entire room, melting the ice figures of the false airbenders. Ming Hua snarled from behind them. As Mako cast fireball after fireball at her, Asami worked to free Tenzin. As she undid the lock, she heard Mako cry out.
He flew back and slid to a stop. Ming Hua had encased his legs in ice. As he worked to free himself, Bolin turned to the offensive, dueling with Ghazan as Ming Hua set down beside him. Unfortunately, despite the bending brother's skill, Ming Hua and Ghazan had cornered them.
"Stop playing with the boy and bury him already!" Ming Hua screeched to Ghazan. With mighty sweeps of his arms, Ghazan set the floor to Lava, encasing the room. Bolin set to stopping the lava just as Mako freed his arms, coming over to Asami to help hold up Tenzin.
"Are there any other ways out of here Tenzin?" Asami desperately asked. Through his haze, Tenzin managed to order Bolin to carve them an exit through the wall behind them. As they made their way through the makeshift tunnel, the heat only increased. With dangerous strength, Bolin carved out a tunnel deep enough to reveal a spiraling stone staircase.
They descended as quickly as Tenzin's state would allow. Asami could tell he was delirious. She hoped he wasn't accidentally leading them to their deaths.
"Is it just me? Or is it getting hotter?" Bolin asked. Asami suddenly noticed. It had steadily been getting cooler as they went. Now, though, she could see the dim glow of lava flowing down the stairs.
"Ghazan must be trying to bring the whole temple down!" Mako said. Bolin closed off the staircase and they increased their pace. Mako and Asami were no longer supporting Tenzin as much as they were carrying him entirely. The farther they went down the more hopeless it seemed. Bolin was constantly closing exits and reinforcing the roof. The lava was flowing from every direction.
"We're going to burn!" Asami yelled, undoing her collar.
"You're right!" Mako yelled back. The din of Bolin's earthbending and the shattering of the temple above was deafening.
"Bolin!" Mako yelled, "Carve out this wall."
Just as Bolin shoved tons of rock through the mountain, the lava surged past them, singing Asami's hair.
"This is it!" Bolin yelled as they reached the end. Through the hole in the mountain, Asami could see clear across the valley. She turned to Mako. With a nod, they prepared to let Tenzin out through the hole. Even if they couldn't escape, Tenzin might be able to airbend his way down.
Suddenly, Bolin rushed past them, "Bolin!" Mako yelled as the lava engulfed Bolin. Asami thought she must have been suffering from heat delusions when the lava seemed to bend around Bolin. As Bolin solidified the wall of lava into obsidian, Asami almost collapsed from relief.
"Bolin," Mako said, shocked, "You're a lavabender."
"I know. I just found out."
"Need a hand?" a familiar voice asked.
"Kai?" Tenzin asked wearily.
"We thought you were dead!" Bolin almost spat out.
"Guess not, climb on."
They climbed on top of Kai's diminutive bison. As Asami got on she could hear it grunt. She was mildly offended. She certainly wasn't the heaviest person on the poor animal.
"Yip yip lefty," Kai said, making the bison fly, albeit slowly, towards the ground. As they left the burning temple, Asami searched the skies. She could see their airship, dimly, almost to Laghima's peak. Looking back at the temple, she cringed as she saw the blood spatters painting the ground below the lava.
Kai landed and Asami and Mako helped Tenzin off the Bison. Bolin set to keeping the lava from reaching the ground.
"Kai," Tenzin said, staggering towards the young man. Kai looked somewhat afraid at first, then more afraid as Tenzin wrapped him in a hug.
"I'm glad you're alright Kai. Thank you."
"Hey," Kai said as Tenzin released him, one arm behind his head, "No problem. Just part of the job."
"You need to go to Laghima's peak Kai," Tenzin said, pointing at the mountain behind them. "Korra is there, and many others. Tell them what's happened here."
"How will you get back?"
"I'll find Oogi. We'll meet you there, now go."
"Yes Master Tenzin," Kai said, bowing.
As Tenzin staggered through the trees, blowing Oogi's whistle with Mako following him, Asami could only sit and stare at the mangled bodies of the engineers, smashed against the ground, not fifty feet away.
Kuvira strained against the rock face, the spool of cable at her waist strained to its absolute limit as Tonraq gripped to it for dear life.
"I'm going to throw you up!" she called to Tonraq. He nodded his affirmation and she began to sway, grunting from the exertion. Korra's cry broke her concentration. She looked around just in time to see Zaheer, an unconscious Korra slung over his shoulder, fly past. She could hear Su and Lin curse Zaheer and she saw their cables fly out to him, only to fall short. She heard Tonraq scream in anger and funnel a torrent of water at Zaheer, only to fall short. She could hear her promises to Korra ring out in her mind, she had fallen short.
"I was supposed to protect you..." she whispered, but the wind whisked her words away, just as her tears.