Chapter 1: Romance of the Bandit King
A tour of the best attractions in the Northern Water Tribe: warehouses and dockside bars.
Varrick asked to see her alone in his hotel. He met her just outside, holding a paper bag full of gourds and medicine bottles, his nose red from the cold and dead leaves blowing around his feet. He took her to a small table near the back and piled the medicine bottles high. Some of them spilled over the edge, forcing Asami to catch them before they fell onto the plush rug below.
“Quick, tell me which one will fix Zhu Li,” he said.
“Morphine and codeine and… antacids?” She should’ve guessed he’d be hopeless at picking something useful. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Stomachache! Won’t stop throwing up! It’s disgusting,” he said, pensive.
“Is she…” She couldn’t imagine them having a sex life, but she had to ask. “Is there any chance she might be… pregnant?”
“None at all! Children are bygone products of the past. We’re working on something that’s going to hit the market and completely wipe them out. You’ll love it. We’re calling it Tamagotcha.”
He handed her a small egg-shaped piece of metal with a cat dog face engraved on it. It didn’t do anything when she held it. She put it on the table between them.
“If you want, I can send for a doctor,” she said. “But if this isn’t about business, I’m going home.”
“It’s not so much as business as it is… a personal favor.”
“If it’s the doctor—”
He looked around the room and lowered his voice. “Do you remember my honeymoon?”
“Why would I?”
“You weren’t there?”
“Whatever!” he said. “The point is, Zhu Li and I were gone for a while. We built a house together, launched new products, ate tons of those tiny little eggs with the crunchy shells, what do you call them…” Asami declined to provide the word. “We were gone for so long that I completely forgot about it during the hubbub. Back when I was getting my company on its feet again, I was working on a showstopper of a weapon, capable of—”
“Varrick, I know about the spirit weapon.”
“I had some of our early prototypes shipped to a locker in the North Pole. Out of sight, out of mind. You know.” He leaned in, uncomfortably close. “I need it taken care of. You and Korra are just the gals for it.”
“Why are you asking us?” Asami said. “You have the resources. You could do it yourself.”
“Eh. Not my style. What if it explodes? Only the Avatar can fix that. So, what do you say?”
“Even if she does it, what is she going to do with the weapons afterwards?”
“You’re just trying to avoid taking responsibility for what you did!”
“Okay, okay,” Varrick said. “Fine. What if I told you I can take care of the Avatar’s Raiko problem?”
“If you mean arranging another kidnapping, then no thanks.”
“I mean money for the election,” he said. “I heard the Avatar’s tour around the Confederation this summer wasn’t a voluntary one. You do this and I can put someone more… agreeable to her policies.”
“All I want are some tax breaks. And some contracts. You can trust me now. I have a do gooder’s heart.”
That made her pause. She wrapped her scarf around her neck and put on her coat. The election would be this spring. It was tempting. Zhu Li might prove to be a moderating force—or an enabling one. She could never figure out what was happening between them. “We’re not interested in that. But Future Industries has a need for better shipping contracts in the Fire Nation. If you can get us a three year contract at the same rates you have with the Sun Frogs, I’ll bring it to Korra. She might still refuse.”
“Tell you what,” Varrick said. “Just for considering it, I’ll talk with my guy and see if he can’t talk with whoever you’re using. Who are they?”
“Hate those guys. But hey, your choice. And if you want the Sun Frogs, finish the job and I’ll get them to give you two years. Maybe ten, if Korra loses an arm or a leg.” They shook on it. He gave her a card. “This is my lawyer,” he said, sounding tentative. “Zhu Li told me to give this to people.”
It was not yet winter when they left Republic City. Trees red and yellow, smelly gingko fruits dropped into the grass, a delicate rot in the air. It had been just a few weeks since the mid-autumn festival.
Out on Yue Bay, the warm currents kept temperatures comparatively mild until they entered the final stretch of northern waters. Cold water rushed up the side of the ship and broke over the painted railing. Nights grew longer, dawn and twilight lingering then giving way, like the flare of a passing automobile light at night.
She and Asami spent a lot of time in their cramped cabin, reviewing their plans for Varrick’s job and making a game out of making love. How quiet could they be, or how long they could keep the room for themselves before Naga started whining for them, or until one of the sailors banged on their door asking if they’d collect Naga before she started roughhousing with the scuttlebutt again.
Their destination was just outside of the main Northern Water Tribe. The city was the same as always: magnificent, sparkling white, dense blue and green ice reaching for the clouds.
Eska and Desna met them at the dock. Korra went for a hug, then backed up, thinking better of it.
“What’s up with you two? Still sleeping in the bathtub?” she said to Desna.
“That’s only for when we’re away from home,” Desna said. “Otherwise we spend all night sitting up and gazing into each other’s eyes, seeking the void.” He looked at Asami briefly, then said, “She does not look like someone who stares into the void.”
“I hope not.” Time to move this conversation along. “Thanks for coming to meet us.”
“We’re here to warn you,” Eska said. “The Tribal Council wants to see you about your inheritance.”
“What do a bunch of old fogies from the North want to do with me? I’m from the South.”
“Take it up with them. One more thing.” She snapped her fingers. A man with an armful of scrolls wobbled over and deposited the pile into Korra’s arms. “You asked for our father’s spiritbending scrolls. We give them to you now.”
“Oh, wow. The White Lotus said you didn’t have any left,” Korra said, struggling to keep them in hand. Asami moved in to take a few.
“We don’t have any for strangers. You are not a stranger. Probably.”
“Are you sure you don’t need them anymore?”
“Father used to make us meditate and study his spiritbending,” Desna said. “We’re done with that now.”
Eska turned to the man who had carried the scrolls. “Light a lantern for us. I’ll let you be my footrest at dinner tonight.”
They were staying at the palace in the guest wing. A few other guests were staying at the palace, all of them affable yet somehow inadequate young men. Desna had already accepted an arranged marriage with an allied tribe, and was not plagued by dating woes; when Korra tried to congratulate him, he and Eska exchanged looks and said, “Avatar Korra isn’t getting married, is she?”
“She isn’t,” Eska said.
“You could never understand our woe.”
“We are beyond her comprehension.”
“Okay, okay,” Korra said. “I get it. I won’t say anything about it.”
It had been a long journey, so instead of heading straight to the warehouse, she and Asami went to the city instead. They called for a cab—elk horse drawn, since no automobiles or snowmobiles were allowed within city limits—to a bar. Most of the Northern Water Tribe was constructed in the old way: made of ice with some stone laid in for the roads, cold everywhere, the use of heat and fire carefully regulated. For all its beauty, there were few luxuries. Cold clamped down, day and night.
There were some modern amenities further out from the city, a tiny village of wood and stone. Korra had never felt the urge to go there before, but Asami had asked the cab driver to go there straight away. It was probending season in Republic City, and Asami had gotten the bug again. They went to each of the bars until they found a quiet place with a radio and several empty booths.
“Let me order,” Asami said. She went to the bar. “Whiskey on the rocks for me. What do you have that’s sweet that tastes good warm? Okay, we’ll get that. Can I also ask that you change the station to the probending tournament in Republic City? Hmm. Bad reception? Can I take a look?”
She returned with their drinks. In the background, old Shiro Shinobi announced plays to the radio audience. Waterbender from the Snorkeling Grumble Otters, knocked back to zone two. Now the firebender, pushed back by a disc. Earthbender was still in zone one, managed to knock the opposing earthbender and the firebender to their feet with the same disc. The Grumble Otter waterbender shot a jet of water into the opposing earthbender’s chest and…
“I swear, the twins get weirder every year,” Korra said, sipping from her drink.
“I think they’re… better than their father.”
“Leave it to me to monopolize the weird in-laws. Actually—I was wondering. Do you have any other family?”
“I don’t know,” Asami said. She didn’t seem too happy to think about it. She slid the ice around in her glass. “Dad’s family died during a cholera outbreak before he met Mom. My mother’s parents didn’t approve of Dad, so she broke off with them. They weren’t even invited to the funeral.”
“I’m sorry.” She took Asami’s hand and squeezed it.
“Thank you. It’d be nice if I knew, but I don’t feel as though I’ve lost anything by not knowing, either. Any other relatives of yours I should look out for?”
“Just future mini-Eskas and Desnas. You know, they’re planning on having a double wedding.”
Asami ran two fingers along Korra’s forearm, up to her shoulder, then to her chin. She brought her in for a kiss. Asami’s lips were slippery with fire, and burned the inside of her mouth. Air from deep inside her mouth smelled like alcohol, as though she had been drinking for a long time. The room had a musty smell from where the mold had grown in, from the melting ice. The table was sticky from spilt beer, hastily wiped away. From outside came the conflicting smell of fresh, cold wind and the refuse layered just beneath. It felt new, fresh; invigorating, in a way it didn’t feel when they were in Asami’s apartment or Korra’s room at Air Temple Island.
“Why don’t we ever do this at home?” Korra said.
“We work too much, that’s why.”
Asami pressed forward, her lips pushing against the hinge of her jaw, tongue licking out to her earlobe. She held onto Asami’s thigh, gripping onto her nylons just beneath her skirt. She felt teeth against her ear, and her hand went up further. She thought she could feel the heat coming from between Asami’s legs, if only she could move her hand higher—
Asami went stiff, and pulled away. “Yes?” she said, to someone not in the booth. Korra looked around, confused.
A man and a woman were standing at the table, watching.
“Oh, good, you’re done,” the woman said happily. “Is this a private session, Avatar Korra?”
“What? I mean, yes! What kind of question is that?”
“I told you she wouldn’t want to be interrupted,” the man said to the woman. “We’re sorry for the confusion. We assumed you were picking people up while you were in the city and thought we’d make an approach. Is that…”
“It is! Ms. Sato, President of Future Industries! I read in the papers that she’s pregnant.” Asami glowered. “With ideas. And designs.”
“Thank you,” Asami said.
“What do you mean ‘picking people up?’” Korra said. “Everyone in Republic City knows I’m with Asami.”
“It’s my fault,” Asami said. “I’ve never put out an official statement.”
“Because you shouldn’t have to! It’s bad enough the press keeps jabbering on about what a lousy job they think I’m doing, I don’t need their commentary on this, too. And I’d never cheat on Asami—” She meant this honestly, but saying it out loud reminded her of their history with Mako and her sometimes incredible fuck ups. She found herself red in the face. “I don’t even know why you’d think that.”
“Everyone knows you had an affair with Kang in Baixiu City two years ago,” the woman said dreamily.
“I don’t know who or where that is,” Korra said flatly.
“You know, when you were sneaking around the Earth Empire, trying to take Kuvira down from the inside with Kaowei the bandit king…”
“I never did that, either. We’re leaving.” She got out of the booth and offered her hand to Asami. Asami drained her whiskey in a single go, took Korra’s hand, and kissed Korra on the mouth with purpose, going as far as to dip her down low enough that Korra’s ponytail brushed the top of the table. They asked the bartender to call for a cab, and left.
It was freezing outside, and they huddled together on the street corner while they waited. Korra wrung her hands, burning with indignation.
“You know I’d never cheat on you, right?” she said.
“Of course. I’m more interested in Kang and Kaowei the bandit king. Do you think they have stories about it somewhere?”
“Probably just tabloids. This isn’t even the first time someone’s asked me about Kang. I just thought he was someone’s neighbor or something.”
“When we get back home, let’s put together an official statement. To prevent these things from happening again.”
“Yeah. I’d like that.”
“Good,” Asami said. She took Korra’s hands in hers, and pressed a kiss to her lips. Ah, she had been hoping to make that announcement for a while now. Korra hadn’t realized.
“I need to prepare myself to be, ‘Future Industries President’s girlfriend, Korra from the Southern Water Tribe’ from now on.”
“Oh—you don’t know how many times I’ve been called ‘Avatar Korra’s lover’ in the spirit world! It’s about time you get a taste of it.”
The cab took too long to arrive. They ducked into another bar, drank some more, made out in the bathroom, snorting with laughter the whole time. They drank some more and caught a cab with another couple. She and Asami got out first, about a half mile from the palace, and snuck in through the back together.
And from there she must have fallen asleep. She woke up on the floor, sweating like mad and retching clear, slimy spit onto the floor. She barely kept her gag reflex down; waking up had kicked it in gear. Naga barked, just loud enough to wake Asami.
“Korra?” Asami said, groggy. The blankets rustled. Naga came over, nudged Korra with her nose. Korra got to her feet, paced a few steps. She opened the curtains to the balcony, which opened out to the ocean and harbor. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine—I’m fine,” she said, flexing her fingers individually, picking her knees up higher with each step. What was she doing? Testing them, she realized. “Must’ve had too much to drink. Bad dream.”
“Come back to bed. Do you want to talk about it?”
“I forgot it already.” She sat on the bed, not wanting to show her face just yet. Asami’s hand rested on her back. She slipped back into the covers. “Down, girl,” she said when Naga tried to climb in. Asami’s cheek and nose pressed against her back. She shut her eyes. Just on the edge of sleep, she heard something whispering her name, a terrible white sound that battered her and tugged at her with the force of great limbs until she wrenched herself free and escaped into sleep.
Their alarm was set to go off at the usual time. Up here, that meant they woke hours before sunrise. Korra left the room first to stretch and practice her forms. Asami read the newspapers, read reports from back home, and sent a few telegrams with her orders. The sky had barely changed color by the time she finished.
Korra returned. Asami got in her jumpsuit, picked up her toolkit, and headed out. They strolled through the main street of the city, picking up breakfast from the street vendors: grilled trout, shrimp skewers, salted sea-bird egg and congealed seal blood dumplings, fried whale skin with flatbread, and a type of moss tea.
“I’ll stick with plant teas from now on,” Asami said after taking a sip.
“Good idea,” Korra said. “You never get the mud taste out of your mouth. I’m glad we import all our tea in the South.”
“Why don’t they do it here?”
“Blah blah, modernization corrupts, blah blah, my uncle. Eska and Desna haven’t done much to change his policies.”
“Do you think they will?”
“Nah. No incentives to change, right? They’re following what he did before he went off the rails, but they don’t have a grand vision or a future plan. If I were them, I’d think about how to keep people from running off to the city and find a way to regulate the spirit portals more, but… it’s not really my place to go in and…” She broke off with a frustrated sigh. She was getting better at understanding global politics and navigating its troubles, but it never seemed to make her happy. Asami took Korra by the arm. She hoped the work Korra had done would make itself apparent soon.
Then they went to the warehouse, located further inland, away from the main city. The warehouses were surrounded by tall, metal fences topped with barbed wire. Each building, too, was made of metal and concrete, and the ice around the warehousing complex had cracked from the weight. Guards in big, blue coats went around the complex repairing the ice. No fewer than four spotlights concentrated on them when she and Korra approached the fence. At least Varrick had put the prototypes somewhere safe.
They were escorted to the main gates and asked to tender identification. Asami had her papers, but Korra had to puff fire and blast air into the sky. They were brought to a set of warehouses built into a cave, then left alone. There were three different prototypes taking up a single massive warehouse each. They agreed to start with the one furthest from the cave’s entrance.
The prototype itself was still in the massive crate it had come in. The original package was twice as tall as either of them, and at least twenty feet long. Once they finished unpacking, the weapon was still a foot taller than Asami, and some ten feet long, not counting the tapering rear parts. She popped the panel over the maintenance area, peeking cautiously. The spirit vine was still in the prototype, but had been disconnected and the chamber flooded with some kind of liquid. Asami removed it gingerly, and gave it to Korra.
“You don’t have to stay,” Asami said.
“I like helping you work,” Korra said. She held the battery against the light, then set it on the ground carefully. She looked at the innards and made a face. “Wow. I don’t get any of this.”
“Hopefully you won’t find yourself staring into the barrel of too many of these babies.”
“Look at you, talking like gunslinger!”
Asami took out the notes Varrick gave her, and slowly disconnected the circuitry.
“Is this even safe?” Korra said. “Just stashing a couple of giant super weapons in the North Pole?”
“Probably. Varrick was too lazy to take it apart, and everyone else was too scared to try. The oil in here must be to short out the battery. I’m still not taking any risks, though. Varrick said these are made of steel, not platinum. Can you remove the outer layers for me? I want to see how he built this.”
She liked watching Korra bend metal the most, for selfish reasons. It was something they could do together, and it was cute watching Korra wiggle her fingers to remove screws. And it was a lot easier to have Korra screw in a nut in a hard to reach place than for her to stick her entire arm in and bang the wrench around willy nilly.
They took the case apart. Korra compressed the metal to a cube and set it aside without a blink. Asami took a good look at the recoil adapter, taking notes, occasionally talking out loud or carrying on conversation with Korra. She could see Baatar Jr.’s work in this, too: the impeccable wiring and soldering, the Zaofu high-power battery system, adapted for use with the spirit vine, the circuit board, which had been made by an eastern OEM frequently used by Zaofu engineers. She ran her hand along the cannon barrel, admiring it. Then she and Korra disassembled it and compacted the metal to multiple large cubes. She’d ship it back to Varrick later, she decided. He’d appreciate the gesture.
The next step was to disable the spirit vine battery. The liquid holding the vine had frozen from the cold, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t still volatile. She and Korra tried dismantling it; then Korra, frustrated, used some metal to cut a hole through the glass, melted the ice, and yanked the spirit vine out with her bare hands.
They were making good time. If they kept at this pace, they’d have the second done tomorrow, and the third the day after.
They went to start work in the second warehouse. They knew there was something wrong when they entered the room: the room was warm, and mud pressed upward from the cracks in the floor. They were quick to unpack the prototype. Inside the box were hundreds of small spirits, barely more than balls of light.
“What are you guys doing here?” Korra said. “Okay. You can’t be here. I know you’ve been here for a while, but I’m telling you, I’m the Avatar and I’m saying you can’t be here. This thing is really dangerous. What do you mean, you can’t move to the other one anymore? What happened to the other weapon? Are you kidding me?” She brushed a few motes off the weapon and turned to Asami. “So, guess what.”
“Bad news?” Asami said, trying to play it light; she knew Korra hadn’t gotten much sleep.
“They’re saying a spirit stole the other weapon.”
“Right. I’m thinking—I guess we should—”
“Remove the battery first,” Asami said. “We can disassemble it later. Shoo! Sorry,” she said to the unhappy spirits. She went over to the panel and popped it open. Like the other weapon, the battery cell had been disconnected and filled with liquid; unlike the other one, spirits had used their bodies to reconnect the spirit vine to the rest of the weapon, and another set of spirits kept the temperature up to keep the liquid from freezing, and even more spirits were crowded inside the liquid, zipping around the vine.
The vine itself seemed to be doing well in the liquid. She flipped through Varrick’s notes again. Early prototypes used electroconductive solution to enhance output… later prototypes did not use this due to the solution enhancing the destructive potential beyond even Varrick’s barely existent safety tolerances? She tried to power down the prototype, but none of the buttons did Varrick said they would. She’d have to yank the battery out now, but she didn’t want to yank it out while it was still live. “Korra, can you freeze the liquid in here?”
“Let me get the spirits out first… Yes, I’m serious, you really can’t stay. Okay, right… I get that. But you need to understand, if this bomb goes off, you’re going to kill a lot of people, maybe even destroy the spirit portal up here, too. Come on, I’ll give you guys a lift to the town. From there, you can… I don’t know, find a nice light bulb. Well, it’s better than getting blown up!” She opened up her coat. Spirits jumped into her coat, gloves, and hood until she puffed up as though she was wearing a down coat. Once they were all stuffed inside, she froze the liquid and Asami moved in to remove the battery. This one was easier to open up and disable, no glass cutting required.
“I look like a total idiot,” Korra said, trying to close her coat without dropping the spirits. “No, I’m not saying you look like an idiot… Just give me enough time to check on the last prototype! Hey! Asami, this spirit here said my hair looks dumb. What do you think?”
“You have a shaggy chic thing going for you right now. I like it. It’s cute.” It had recently gotten long enough for Korra to pull it back in a bristly ponytail at the top of her head, although she had let it down today. She normally did that when she didn’t want to be recognized, or when she wanted to be left alone.
They went to the third warehouse. Korra knocked on the side of the crate, listening.
“It’s still in there,” she said. “I thought you guys said it was gone.”
“Let’s see,” Asami said. They unpacked it. Asami popped the panel. Just as she feared. The spirit vine was gone. “I don’t understand. Who could have done it? It doesn’t look like anyone was here before us.”
“Not a person,” Korra said. “A spirit must have done it. One of you guys must have seen it, right? You mentioned that you were using both prototypes. Did you get a look at who took it? Yeah. Yanhan? Okay. Where can we find it? Him? Okay. Him. Where can we find him? Are you sure? All right.” She looked to Asami. “Mind if we take a quick detour to the spirit portal? I need to drop these guys off.”
“Are we going to take a trip?” Asami said. She had promised the chief engineer that she’d send a message before disappearing to the spirit world again.
“Nah. Just a drop off. I don’t want to leave these guys in the cold for too long… yeah, yeah, I get it, I’m displacing you. You guys should have thought better of living inside a bomb.”
They left the warehouse complex, drove out to the spirit portal, and returned to the palace nearly straight away. It was dark and moonless, and keeping with Eska and Desna’s strange tastes, the bare minimum number of lamps had been lit inside the palace. Korra lit a fire in her hands as they navigated back to their room, walking a step ahead of Asami.
“What are you going to do about this Yanhan?” Asami said.
“They told me how to find him. We can pick him up tomorrow. Weren’t you listening?”
“I couldn’t hear them.”
“You couldn’t?” Korra stopped, then kept going. “I noticed that about the Northern Water Tribe. The smaller ones don’t even bother making mouths, they just beam it straight into my head. I think. You don’t think I’m just talking to myself, right?”
“Definitely not,” Asami said. “Hey—are you tired? Do you want me to get dinner from the kitchen?”
“Dinner! I forgot all about dinner. Let me go with you.”
They picked up their trays of food from the kitchen and ate in bed. It wasn’t even that late when they finished, just past eight o’clock. Asami caught up on business from home, while Korra took Naga out and about town.
“Do you want to head into town?” Asami said when Korra came back an hour and a half later. She still remembered the excitement they had felt, kissing in a bar in a new city, the pressure of Korra’s hand against her inner thigh.
“Okay,” Korra said. “Sure. Why not?”
They went to a bar by the docks. Asami won a few games of pool, then cards, then darts, while Korra arm-wrestled the sailors and carried a few on her back and drank an ill-advised amount. It was a good time, winning and losing money, watching her girlfriend win contests of strengths, knowing that Korra was showing off for her, to advertise her strength.
They returned to the palace past midnight. Korra was frisky on their way back, her hands never leaving Asami, constantly seeking to get beneath her coat and clothes, but once they got back to their room, she stopped.
“What if Naga wakes up?” Korra said. Naga was asleep by the balcony door.
“She’s a grown polar bear dog. She can take it.”
She ate Korra out, relishing the heat, the way she could feel everything against her tongue and mouth, the physical weight of Korra’s sexual desire for her, right against her face. And she loved the way Korra came against her mouth, the delicate yet wild twitching against her tongue, the spasms in Korra’s powerful, brown thighs.
She stripped out of her clothes, knelt over Korra’s stomach, and ground down on it, warming up. She swatted away Korra’s hands a few times before grabbing them by the wrists and pinning them above Korra’s head. She lifted her hips up and started touching herself with her free hand, letting out a few admirably fake moans for effect.
“Oh, please—come on! How is this fair?” she said, squirming beneath Asami, trying to get free.
“It isn’t,” Asami said. She hadn’t let go of Korra’s wrists. She knew it wouldn’t take much for Korra to break her grip, and thinking of Korra strapping up, pinning her down, and taking her from behind made her wet—but seeing Korra’s face flushed from her recent orgasm, hands clenching, desperately trying to listen, desperately wanting to disobey, was bringing her to the edge even faster.
She let go so she could grab Korra by the ponytail and bring her face to her breasts. Korra got one hand around Asami’s waist, fingers drawing powerful lines down her back, making her buck and fall down to one elbow. Korra got her leg around Asami’s hip, flipped her over, and kissed her wrist.
“Let me,” she said. “Come on, please, I want to. Let me feel you.”
“I can’t resist it when you ask me nicely.” She felt Korra’s smile against the soft crook of her elbow. Felt Korra rest her hand just above her pubic mound. She kissed Korra, tilted her hips up. She let herself be carried for a few thrusts, then said, “I packed a strap-on.”
“Oh, fuck,” Korra said. She kissed Asami, then scrambled off the bed and to the suitcases. A minute passed, then another. “Why do you always bring so much stuff?” she said, tossing clothes out. “It’s im… no—no, Naga… go back to sleep…” Naga whimpered for attention, then slouched back to her corner of the room and gave both of them a dirty look.
Asami put her face in the sheets to keep herself from laughing. She beckoned Korra back to bed. They covered themselves in the blankets, trading heated kisses, giggling and speculating on whether Naga might try to join them in bed. Korra got her hands between Asami’s legs, working with straightforward, uncomplicated motions, drawing out one fast orgasm, backing off, then going straight back, steady and tireless.
The heat was nearly unbearable: her breath felt narrow, her skin still flushed from the alcohol, every movement a fight against the weight of the blankets. But she didn’t want to break out of the sheets, either. It felt part of the game, this difficult pleasure she was subjecting herself to. When she came again, she kicked off the blanket and drew in long, full-lunged breaths that felt nearly as good as coming.
“That was so hard,” Asami said, still dizzy from the experience. “I love you and you’re amazing, but why did we do that?”
“Sex contest? We have to stop doing that. I’m dying.”
They showered to cool down, then went on a brisk walk through the palace. They hid from guards behind pillars of ice and in the deep shadows spilling behind furniture and doors. They made it down to the lobby before returning to their room and sleeping.
It was still dark when she sensed Korra leaping out of bed. Asami was out of bed a second later.
“Who’s there?” Korra said. “Where are you? What? What is it?”
Same thing as the night before: too much to drink, a bad dream. Korra pacing, rolling her shoulders, shifting her weight from hip to hip, trying to hide her fear of another bodily breakdown. Coming back to bed, claiming she couldn’t remember anything.
Just as Asami began to fall asleep, Korra began talking again. Who are you? What do you want? Stop—stop. What are you doing? But no matter how hard Asami tried to wake her, she stayed asleep, fingers tight on the sheets, eyelids fluttering fast, as though they were trying to escape.
Chapter 2: The Whale
Several spirits, and one especially pesky one.
Early in the morning, before Asami was up, one of the palace’s manservants came looking for Korra.
“Chief Duba and Chief Sunak from the Tribal Council have requested you,” said the manservant. “They are already waiting.”
One of the benefits of being a waterbender: really, really fast showers. She got dressed, left a note for Asami, and went with the manservant to a meeting room just off of the lobby. She recognized both of them on sight. Duba was a round woman, a famous whale hunter who could throw better with seven fingers than most people could do with ten. Sunak ran a small but elite waterbending school, and had been among the first men from the Northern Water Tribe to learn how to heal. She greeted them with a deferential bow and they returned the gesture.
“We know you’re busy,” Duba said. “So we’ll keep this short. The Council has named you as Eska and Desna’s successor.”
“That’s nice, but I don’t think that’s… They’re marrying soon, right? So it’s not going to be a problem.”
“The twins listen to no one and answer to no one,” Sunak said.
“You knew that when you chose them to continue in Unalaq’s place.”
“It isn’t like the South, Avatar,” Sunak said. “The leader can’t be whoever happens to be up for the job. Eska and Desna were the best choice we had. They—and you—represent the crucible of countless alliances and strategic marriages made over the centuries. No other bloodline can be considered without war.”
“Oh, of course,” Korra muttered, and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger.
It was Duba’s turn to speak. “Eska’s dalliances are coming to an end. She has told us she will make a formal proposal at the winter solstice. But marriages will bring even more problems until the heirs are produced. If one of your cousins dies before an heir is produced, then what will we do if the widowed spouse tries to claim the throne for their tribe, hmm? Or if they are both killed. Then who will be chief of the Northern Water Tribe?”
“But I’m the Avatar.”
“Even better! Everyone is already inclined to listen to you.”
“I’ve already told the Council of Elders in the Southern Water Tribe that I don’t want to be considered in case anything happens to my Dad,” Korra said. “If you need help resolving tensions, I’m happy to do that, but I can’t jump on the throne. It’d be a—a…” She had read something about this back in the compounds, or one of the White Lotus bores had given her a lesson on this back when they were covering Avatar duties as ‘stuff beyond mastering elements and knocking down bad guys.’ “An… abuse of… authorization. I mean, authority. Thanks for the vote—the time. But I humbly decline your offer.”
“Give it thought,” Duba said.
“If you won’t do it,” Sunak said, “then do something about your cousin. Make sure she chooses someone virile. Or get married yourself. Your heir could be chief of the Northern Water Tribe.”
“I’m already—how does no one up here know this? I’m seeing someone already. She’s great. Uh, no heirs for us.”
“In my day, women would just go out to the ice, get impregnated by a whale, and come back.”
“What Duba is trying to say is, there are alternative methods, Avatar Korra. Options that do not involve whales.”
“I have to go,” she said.
“President Asami Sato’s beautiful, politician lover, Korra, Chief of the Northern Water Tribe,” Asami said. “I like it. It has a good ring to it.”
“Ha, ha,” Korra said. They were getting breakfast from a Fire Nation café. Soup, freshwater fish, rice, eggs, soy sauce, and a ridiculous amount of money for bitter tea. “I hope Eska’s marriage situation settles down soon. They said she’s supposed to make a proposal by winter solstice.”
“That soon? She’s still speed dating everyone in the guest wing, right?”
“Yeah. They’ll probably call me back if she’s not set up in time. ‘Avatar, use your powers to make her marry!’”
They finished breakfast and headed for the town to find Yanhan. The spirits in the weapon had told Korra Yanhan was living on the outskirts of the city, in a small apartment. The city had taken to integrating the spirits well enough, developing small shelters in public areas and putting up signs like, “Spirits Underfoot And Dangerous, Make Light Conversation But Do Not Disturb” and “Please Do Not Urinate On The Spirits.” Korra found a few on a street corner and squatted down next to them.
“Hey there,” she said. “I’m Korra. I’m looking for someone.”
The largest of the spirits, a rabbit spirit with two mouths, sniffed Korra’s hand, then said, “Money first.”
“I—what do you need money for?”
“We like to eat at the Green Star’s lunch buffet on weekends. Eighty yuans should cover all of us.”
So much for the North being less materialistic than the South. Korra dug into her pockets. “I’m looking for a spirit called Yanhan. I was hoping you might know where he is.”
“You mean the shifty snake otter?” another spirit piped up.
“The mean one!”
“What do you want with the spirit, human?” said the rabbit, toothing on the coins.
“It’s Avatar business.” The rabbit spirit immediately tried to give the money back, but Korra patted its head and said, “It’s fine, seriously. Lunch is on me. –you bit me!”
“Instinct,” the rabbit said, chattering its full sets of teeth. “Didn’t mean nothing by it.”
The spirits gave her three possible locations: an apartment building about six blocks away; a small house on the other side of town; another apartment complex, on the fourth floor, in room four thirteen. She was about to head there on foot, but they stopped her and showed her a trick: if she meditated and focused on the spirit’s name, she’d be able to transport her spirit self there.
“What an honor, to have the Avatar meditate on our spot!” said the rabbit spirit. “If she gives us an endorsement, we can charge people for it.”
“I can still hear you,” she said, folding her legs and sitting on the street corner. She closed her eyes and focused on the spirit’s name. She had a vision of a snake otter, buying groceries in a neighborhood in town; a vision of the snake otter again, roaming the streets; the snake otter staring at her direct in the eye and running—running, running where? Sharpened her mind, pointed it, where was ‘home’ for this guy? There, a mile across town, seventh floor.
“Got it!” she said. “Thanks, you guys.”
“Our pleasure,” the rabbit spirit said, its nose twitching. “But don’t do it at night. Very dangerous to do it at night. Moss grows on you.”
“Okay. Message received.” She got up and took Asami by the hand. “I found where he is,” she said. “We’re going to have to run.”
They took off at a dead sprint, running through the town the best they could on the ice. She spotted a strange figure wearing a long coat running towards the apartment building. She slowed down, squinting at the sun. It looked about the size of a human, but it definitely moved… The creature turned—and it was the same spirit she had seen in her meditation. “Hey!”
Yanhan switched course, opting to dash straight down the street. The streets were virtually empty during this time of day, and they had little luck getting close—not until Asami let out a yell and made a tackle, foot first. She caught Yanhan with her legs, knocking him to the ground and forcing him to be still by pinning his limbs into the ground.
“Nice!” Korra said to Asami, jogging over.
“Thanks,” Asami said. She hauled Yanhan up, twisting his arm behind his back. “Where is it? Where did you put it?”
“Augh!” Yanhan squeaked. He tried to wiggle out of the wrist lock, but he was more otter than snake, and couldn’t beat Asami’s grip. His tongue flicked around his mouth unhappily. “Please, please don’t kill me! I’m innocent!”
“Give it up,” Korra said. “Your old buddies already told us you were the one who stole the battery. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to someone in the spirit world! Honest!”
“What for?” Korra said. “What did you get in exchange?”
“This body. I used to be much smaller. I could never hold a job down if I were that tiny. Please, Avatar, don’t kill me. I have rent! I have friends! I want to live here, with the humans. I want to stay.”
“Do you know what you’ve done? That bomb could kill thousands of people—or spirits!” Yanhan moaned, and rubbed his face with his free hand. Korra put her hand against her forehead. Calm down. Calm down. She still needed information. “Who did you give it to? What was its name?”
“It didn’t tell me its name. But I can tell you what it looked like. It’s an old mountain goat fox spirit. I can show you where I found it. Come here.” It beckoned her close. Korra took one step, then another. It grabbed her face with its short, clawed arms and shut its eyes. Korra flinched, then relaxed. She shut her eyes as well. A shaggy creature, long-legged with pointed mountain goat hooves and a fox’s face and square pupils. The image pulsed, then rippled and solidified. She could see it clearly now, without any ambiguity: the prickly white fur around its pointed face, its bushy tail, the smooth its tiny beak, its tiny paws and bushy tail. She knew, too, where it lived and how to get there. Yanhan let go of her and they parted. Yanhan giggled nervously. “That’s good enough, yes?”
“We’re going to have a long talk later,” Korra said. “You can let go of him, Asami.”
Asami released Yanhan. He took off on all fours, occasionally looking behind him.
“Did you work everything out?”
“Yeah, we did. You were right there, didn’t you hear us?”
“Neither of you were saying anything,” Asami said. “You’ve barely said a word to the spirits all morning. You never do that at home. The whole ‘speaking to spirits with your mind’ thing.”
“It happened again?” She touched her mouth, then her throat. “I didn’t notice that at all. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a problem. It’s just a little weird for me, since I can’t tell what’s happening. So, where to? The spirit portal again?”
“Actually, I was thinking we should return to the warehouse,” Korra said. “You can keep taking the weapons apart and I’ll meditate and help out when I’m done. I don’t want another scare like this again, even if the spirit vine battery is missing.”
“Sounds like a plan. Are you doing all right?”
“I’m okay. Let’s go.”
“Actually, I could use a rest. Still trying to catch my breath.”
They went to a sunny part of the street. Korra leaned against the wall. She had a terrible headache. When had that started? Asami must have noticed it before she did; she wasn’t even pretending to be winded. Korra took Asami’s gloved hand in hers.
“You’re always looking out for me,” Korra said. “Thanks.”
“It’s because I love you,” Asami said lightly. They stood out in the sun until her headache subsided, then went to the warehouses.
The warehouses were just the same as they had left them. Asami got to work with her notes and her tools. Korra settled in a corner, got in lotus position, and eased herself into the spirit world. She wanted to land close to the goat fox’s lair, but not right on top of it. A place where she could see the entrance and if there was any activity, but not be seen. The goat fox lived in a giant spire of ice, with other spires rising up nearby. If she was careful, if she calculated it right…
She materialized in midair, and crashed to the ground.
“Ow!” She pushed herself to her feet. She stood in the middle of a charred black pit, nothing but lifeless ground for miles. At the center of the pit, right by her feet, was the still active spirit vine battery. That goat fox must have taken it back and jostled it too hard. She looked around the spirit world, at the cold black ruins around her. This could have been her city or the Northern Water Tribe.
She picked up the battery. She couldn’t bend the elements in this state, but she could do some energybending. If she focused, she might be able to overload the circuitry until she could come here in her physical form and take it apart. She put her hands over the vine and moved it up to the conduit, shifting the energy and power until the battery grew hot in her hands. A tuft of smoke came out of the lid. The liquid inside the battery heated up, but the spirit vine looked just as hardy as ever. She shook it—a mistake. A terrible light shot out and all she could hear was screeching, animal sounds—when it stopped, the skies were as black as the ground and a lion osprey spirit was standing in front of her.
“It’s you again,” she said. Desire flicked its tail, and moved towards her in greeting, rubbing its face against her shoulder. She let it, then pushed it away. She hadn’t forgiven it, not entirely, for the trouble it had given her and Asami when they came to the spirit world a year and a half ago. “Did you have anything to do with this?”
“I only sensed that you were here, and that you were making changes to the land. I’ve been looking to make amends.”
“Really?” Korra said, crossing her arms.
“I know that it is better to be in your good graces than out of them,” it said. “I’m a good ally to have, Avatar. Spirits of my nature are inclined to be helpful.”
“Have you been staying away from humans?”
“You’re the first one I’ve approached since the last time we met.”
“All right,” she said. “All right, let’s work together. What do you know happened?”
“We’ve heard of your war and your weapons. Some spirits took an interest. One of them was Tailor.”
“Tailor? Like… someone who makes clothes?”
“Tailor is a spirit of adaptation, but it has made a nice side business in transformation. That thing it stole was a means for it to make better and faster changes, for spirits who wish to live among the humans as an equal.” Desire sniffed the broken battery, then the ground, and looked at it contemptuously. “Tailor is not as smart as it thinks it is.”
“You make it sound like Tailor is still around,” Korra said.
“It takes more than an explosion to get rid of a spirit like that.” It yawned, stretched out its limbs. “Call on me again soon, Avatar. There’s nothing I like more than making an equitable exchange.”
“What were we exchanging?”
“You desired assistance in ridding the world of an old pest. I was happy to provide it.” It smiled as it faded away. “Be careful on your journey back.”
“Thanks,” she said. She didn’t like the way it was looking at her. Something about it always seemed ready to make trouble. But it wasn’t like she could stay here. Either way, she had to go back. She closed her eyes and prepared to return to the material world. Voices in her ear again, a harsh, crackling sound, like someone crumpling paper or dropping water in hot oil, right next to her ear—she could see herself in the warehouse, but from the outside. Something white with a long tail was trying to slip into her ear. She grabbed its tail and yanked. Whatever it was fell out, snapping at her face, laughing like a hyena goose.
She slammed back into her body, so hard that everything was in a jumble. She tried to move her leg, but her arm lashed out; she tried to open her eyes but her foot turned in. She tried to move her hand, and her head threw itself back—and she was falling again, head only spared from cracking against the floor by Asami’s hand. She couldn’t get anything to move right. Her jaw wouldn’t stay in alignment, her mouth gaped stupidly—she was in her body, but it no longer felt like hers. It wasn’t like before, when she couldn’t get her body to move the way she wanted it to move; it was more like everything she did was getting sent to the wrong place.
She struggled for a long time, twisting and thrashing, first on a metal floor, then on what could only be a stretcher, from the weightlessness she felt, the crowd of people around her. She felt a dizzying, powerful urge to jump out of the stretcher and blast the people carrying her to the ground and run away. When she tried, her legs lurched over the side and her head fell the same way, and she tumbled to the floor with a cry. After that she stopped fighting it. Why bother. If her body was collapsing, then this was the end for her. If it was temporary, just a side effect of that thing trying to get into her or a curse put on her by Desire, then she’d get back control sooner or later.
By the time they arrived at the healer, Korra had returned to normal. The healers got her into a pool, ran some water over her, and proclaimed that there was no problem with her chi or chakras. What had happened was most likely a stress reaction from excessive use of her powers in the spirit world. She was given her clothes back, and orders.
Bed rest. Return to the healer in the morning.
There was no chance of Korra going to bed. Asami didn’t mention it. They went to the palace training grounds. The grounds opened to the water, and had a bed of liquid water alongside tall walls of ice. Korra blasted blocks of ice into the ocean while Asami strapped herself into the pads. When she got her hands in the punching mitts, she called Korra over.
“What do you want?” Asami said.
“You attack. I’ll counter.”
She feinted twice with her left hand, then drove forward with her right. Korra moved with blinding speed, socking the right mitt twice, before launching into a spinning kick. As Korra landed, Asami stuck her leg out so her forefoot touched Korra’s hip and pushed her off-balance. Korra recovered fast, rolling on her shoulders and spinning around to catch Asami behind her calf. She buckled, then somersaulted away, using the momentum from her fall. She popped her left mitt off and hurled it at Korra, and it caught Korra in the face.
“Ow!” she said. The punching mitt slid down her face, down her torso, and onto the floor. She gave it a puzzled look and said, “You win that one.”
“Don’t be sorry. That was a good move.” She rubbed her eye absently. She looked around the training grounds, then said, “Can you be honest with me? Would you still be with me if I hadn’t gotten my bending back?”
“You know I would. You don’t believe me?”
“I do. That’s not what’s bothering me, though.”
“Do you want to talk about what happened today?”
They sat on the cliff. Korra told Asami about what she had seen in the spirit world, her meeting with Desire, and the goat fox, Tailor.
“So it’s what?” Asami said. “A ghost?”
“That’s what Desire made it sound like.”
“Unalaq always made it sound like the Northern Water Tribe was more in touch with spirits than the Southern Water Tribe. That means there must be other people in touch with the spirits up here. If we ask around, we can get a read on what’s going on.”
“You’re a genius!” she said, beaming. “That’s exactly what we need to do! Let’s ask Eska and Desna if they know any spiritual masters around here.”
They found Eska and Desna in their room pushing paisho tiles around a grid of ice. As far as Asami could tell, they were using the tiles as pucks. Those certainly weren’t legal moves.
“Hmm,” Eska said. “Spiritual masters.”
“Some of them entered the spirit world and haven’t been seen since. Isn’t that right, sister?”
“And others have been arrested for treason. Isn’t that right, brother?”
“What about ones who are here now?” Korra said.
“Sunak on the Council is a spiritual master. Sometimes.”
“Yukkan. The one who keeps petitioning for us to prosecute his neighbor for fishing in his pond. Pinna. Who else?”
“Pinna went to the spirit world.”
“No, she came back.”
“No. She went to the Southern Water Tribe.”
“No, she’s still here.”
“Great,” Korra said. “Thanks for the help. Hey, Eska, we were wondering whether any of those hunks in the guest wing caught your attention.”
“They all look the same to me,” Eska said. “Yawn. Bored.”
“Korra should tell us about Kaowei the bandit king,” Desna said.
“How do you guys know about that?”
They laughed together, creepy as always.
“If you’re looking for a spirit master, then you’ve finished the scrolls I gave you already,” Eska said. For whatever reason, she sounded disapproving.
“Uh, no. Actually… Have you noticed anything weird around the spirit portal? Or have you heard any voices, or seen any spirits showing up only at night?”
Eska and Desna exchanged looks, and shook their heads.
“Have you?” said Desna.
“Yeah, a little. When I’m meditating, or right before I sleep.”
“Interesting,” they said.
“Wait,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you should go looking for it.”
They dismissed her with a wave of their hands.
It was past dinner and dark. No point in running after the spirit masters now. Korra read some of the spiritbending scrolls Eska had turned over to her, and practiced them with a pitcher of water. When she was satisfied with her progress, she filled the bathtub with water and practiced some more there. Asami called her to bed.
“Give me a few minutes. I want to practice some more spiritbending.”
Half an hour after Asami went to bed, Korra snuck out of the room. She went on a run through the city. A neighborhood was having a feast, three seals to show off their hunting, some imported duck and pork and lamb to show off their wealth, and invited her over. Two men, both hunters, were to be married in the morning. The Northern Water Tribe was different from the Southern Water Tribe and Republic City, in that it had been slower to accept these things, even though nearly everyone else had done so hundreds of years ago. Most of the guests and neighbors were unrelated to one another, but seemed to love one another, even without blood.
The grooms recognized her right away. They were a pair of handsome men, wearing matching carved necklaces, worn lower around their necks than a woman would usually put it. Wearing necklaces to symbolize both the betrothal and marriage was fashionable in the North, and had even spread to some of the younger members of the Southern Water Tribe. She had never felt particularly attached to them one way or another, but she found herself eyeballing the ones the grooms were wearing and comparing it to the ones on Kya and Katara’s necks. If these were the type people wore these days—it wasn’t that she’d wear one. She just thought they weren’t so bad.
The grooms were trying to get her attention. Above the din, they shouted, “Is it true that you’re with another woman?”
“Yeah!” she shouted back. “Smartest and most beautiful in the world! She’s back at the palace. Where do people—like us. Where do we go, once it’s dark out? We’ve been hanging out in the wooden bars by the harbor.”
“It’s not in town. You have to kayak there—Irrut, you give directions, I’m no good at explaining to Southerners. Bring your girlfriend with you.”
“Yeah. Yeah, definitely, before we… Oh, thank you.” She accepted a glass of clear, distilled sorghum spirit a guest gave her, knocked it back, and sprayed it all straight out of her nose.
The stinging alcohol and talking about Asami made her want to go back. What was she doing out here, when Asami was asleep, or awake and waiting for her? She kissed the grooms on the cheek, congratulated them again, and wound up dancing with both of them before she could escape.
She jogged back home, her good mood burning off of her. Her bones felt as though they were absorbing the cold and releasing it back into her muscles and tendons. She wished she had woken Asami up and taken her along. She wished she hadn’t left the palace at all.
Chapter 3: Conviction
Fight, fight, fight!
They went to look for the spiritual masters. Sunak was first on their list. Asami could sense it wasn’t going to be a good meeting a few minutes in: Korra was prickly from a night of bad sleep, and Sunak spent the first ten minutes addressing Asami as Korra’s nurse: were attacks like this frequent? Seizures could be a consequence of the poisoning. Did she or any other of Korra’s minders have experience with such events? What about evidence that Korra had been experiencing seizures but hiding them? At that, Korra changed the subject with a scowl. He and Korra spent a few minutes exchanging information about the spirit world. Korra was obviously unimpressed and they left not long after.
They got breakfast from a small Ba Sing Se-style bakery, and ate at a table. Korra rested her forehead against her palms. Last night she had gone out for a run and wound up at a wedding party and returned and couldn’t sleep at all. Was that okay? Was Asami mad? No, not much. Well—a little. She would have liked to meet these people and try the food. And she would’ve liked Korra to try harder at resting.
“You sound like you want this to be a fight,” Asami said, dipping her fried tofu in warm soy milk.
“Not between us. Makes me miss having the triad around.” If getting out of bed and going for a night run was worth fighting over, then they’d both be in trouble. Korra tugged a meat bun apart with her fingers and chewed vigorously. “How are you on the weapons?”
“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” Wrong thing to say. She didn’t want Korra to think she was hiding anything, or thought Korra should step away from helping her. It’d drive her nuts. She squeezed Korra’s arm. “What I meant was, if we work fast, we can finish it today. After we finish seeing the spirit masters.”
The other spirit masters were taking an extended trip to the spirit world, and would be back after the solstice. That left only Yukkan. They arrived at his home, a nervous, icy structure that bent east. They knocked twice before a slim man with an untrimmed beard let them in. Then he took them to his backyard, where he paced around a frozen pond and listened to Korra explain what she had experienced.
“That’s normal,” Yukkan said. “If you can do any real spiritual feats, becoming extremely disturbed is normal in the North Pole.”
Asami and Korra exchanged unimpressed looks.
“To me, it sounds like a common case of possession. Did you make any enemies here, or have anyone who might want to target you? In fact,” he said, stroking his beard, “most spirits don’t need an excuse to break etiquette and try to invade. Sometimes they just see your body sitting there and shloop! In they go.”
He explained further: the Northern Water Tribe had a strong overlap with the spirit world; this had been apparent even before the spirit portals were open. The overlap was strongest over the spirit oasis, but could be felt weakly throughout most of Northern Water Tribe waters. Up here, even Korra, whose connection with spirits was based primarily on conversation and occasional muscle, could perform minor feats of astral projection and speaking to spirits with her mind. But that left her vulnerable to spirits that might cry to crawl into her mind or body. The voices, the sense that someone else was there, all pointed to at least one spirit trying to hitch a ride.
“So I’m not going crazy,” Korra said. “And my body’s not… wigging out on me. That’s great news! Except for the possession. So, what can I do against it?”
“Do you want to be my student?”
“Uh, I’m not sure.”
“Spend the next five years here! I’ll teach you everything I know.”
“She can’t do that,” Asami said, cutting in with a smile. “Do you have any reading she could do, or exercises?”
They left with a list of confusing instructions; neither of them were sure what to make of it.
They went to the warehouses. The guards were waiting for them, and were unhappy.
“We took a look inside the warehouses,” the supervisor said. “And we saw that you’ve been storing weapons. That’s strictly against policy.”
“Those weapons were shipped here under Kuvira’s name,” Asami said. “I’m taking them apart and making sure no one else can use them.”
She spent another five minutes doing inane back-and-forth before they let her in, and even then, they only did it because Korra threatened to metalbend the warehouses into the ground.
“They were way harder on you than they should have been,” Korra said once they were inside. She compacted the metal Asami had taken apart the day before, then moved onto taking apart the rest of the weapon together.
“It’s fine. We wouldn’t be happy if someone was storing three spirit vine weapons just outside of Republic City, either.”
“But they were definitely harder on you because you’re not from the Northern Water Tribe. People around here are so frustrating. If they do that again, I’m siccing Naga on them.”
“If that’s how you feel, you should take up the Council’s offer to become the chief.”
Her estimation from this morning had been correct. She could finish this today. She didn’t take as many notes today; she had her notes from the previous sessions to work off of, and she wanted to finish taking apart both weapons as soon as possible. She might not know the exact nature of their latest problem, but she, more than nearly anyone, knew how worked up Korra was, and how frayed her concentration had become. She had to deal with these weapons fast: no loose ends, no mess, nothing that might come back and divert them from their goal.
The second weapon was a neat pile of metal cubes after a few hours of hard work. They moved onto the third weapon, working even faster: Asami spent half an hour looking over the most interesting parts of the prototype—heat shields, power converters, recoil system—before having Korra scrap the entire thing. She circled the weapon, legs rooting her lower body to the ground and punching with both hands, until the circle shrank and the weapon was nothing but a shiny, marbled cube.
“Are you going to the spirit world right now?” Asami said.
“No, I want to try these exercises Yukkan gave me. If I can figure out what I’m supposed to do. How many more days do we have here again?”
“We’re done with this, so we can head out any time we want. The ship we came on is leaving in three days, if you want to go back that way.”
“All right. That sounds long enough. I want to spend the next two days preparing. We’ll head to the spirit portal after that.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Asami said.
They meant to stop by the palace just long enough for Asami to drop off her toolbox and get out of her jumpsuit before dinner. But there was a commotion in main hall of the palace and they were forbidden from proceeding to the guest room. People kept talking about blood—where could it all come from? What had happened?
It was Desna. He and Eska had been alone together. Eska had attacked him and run away.
They went to the healer straight away. Half of the Tribal Council was crammed into the small building, too, crowded around the healers. Once Korra entered the Tribal Council swarmed around her, instead.
“What do you want?” Korra said.
“This is exactly why we wanted you as a successor,” Duba said.
“Okay. No. I’ve given you my answer on that already. How’s Desna?”
“Not well enough to move,” Sunak said, from the healing pool. “Would you like to see him, Avatar?”
The Council held Asami back. Korra reached behind her and tugged Asami forward, through their lines, with ease. Desna was prone in the water, his head supported on a pillow on the floor. Sunak ran a handful of spirit water right under Desna’s ribs. The wound was open, flaps of skin pulled back to expose the thin, bubbly line of white fat, the wet, red space beneath.
“How long has it been since you found him?” Korra said.
“The guards found them two hours ago, not long after the incident. They were able to stop the bleeding on the scene. He arrived here an hour and a half ago. Looks like a straight hand to the ribs. It’s a severe injury. I’ll work on the worst of the damage tonight, and close in the morning.”
“I’ll leave him in your hands, then. Where’s Eska?”
“She ran,” said Duba. “The palace guards gave chase, but lost her. We have a land team tracking her now.”
“I want updates when Desna’s awake and Eska’s location. I have to go. The White Lotus will know how to find me.”
They went to the lobby of the healer’s building. Korra sat on the floor in front of a potted plant in lotus position.
“What are you doing?” Asami said.
“Tracking Eska. Do you remember how they reacted, when we were talking about hearing things in the night and meditation? That was Tailor. I can catch up to them in the Avatar state, but not if I run out into the ice without knowing where I’m going.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t have any problems when I was looking from Yanhan, and I’m not trying to get to the spirit world this time. Anyway, I have Raava. Maybe that’ll do something.” She looked, uncertainly, at her own hands. Did you notice anything last time?”
“Not until your attack.” She wished, not for the first time, that she was more connected to the spirits.
If Korra felt slighted or underserved, she didn’t show it. “I’ll be back soon,” she said. She squeezed Asami’s hand, and began to meditate. A few minutes passed. She broke lotus position and got to her feet, without opening her eyes. She hung her head and shook it back and forth.
“Are you all right?” Asami said.
“I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong. I’m—I’m okay.”
“Let me see. What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Korra said. “I found Tailor and it came at my face. I—I panicked and it bit me.”
“Look at me,” she said. “Where did it bite you?”
“My hand.” She took off her sleeve and stared. A goat eye, yellow with horizontal pupils, stared back. “Well, that’s weird.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No. I just freaked out for no reason.” She flexed her hand and frowned at it.
“Can you see out of it?”
“No. It can see us, though.”
Eugh. “Did you get any information about Tailor’s whereabouts, at least?”
“No. Wait. Yes.” She closed her eyes, concentration. “It was northwest of the city. I could tell because of the sun. Yanhan was with it. As a lackey, I think. But I don’t know where they were going. I’ll have to track it again and see what I can find out.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Yeah, all it could do was… make me grow an eye on my hand. I can take it. Whatever it throws at me.” She settled back into the lotus position and meditated again. Her hands clenched into themselves. A few minutes later she jumped to her feet and tugged at her ears. They had turned white and long, and pointed to the side. “Oh, come on!”
“Did you find anything else out?” Asami said.
“It’s headed for the spirit portal.” She frowned and rubbed at her ears. “It’s spying on us. I can tell. At least the eye on my hand’s gone.”
“That’s because it’s moved to your eye.”
“There’s a second iris, in your right eye.” Yellow, with horizontal pupils, it overlapped with Korra’s own pupil, sometimes sinking beneath it, sometimes sliding out to look in places Korra was not.
“That’s… Desire did say it was a spirit of change and alteration.” She shut her eye, then opened it. Did it again. “I can see it,” she said. “I can see what it’s seeing, through Eska’s eyes. They’re a mile away from the spirit portal. Maybe more.”
“So we can spy on them, too. Good.”
“Only with my eyes closed. Ugh. It can probably hear what we’re saying, too.” She tugged at the sleeve she had removed earlier, and said, “I’m going to blindfold myself. Keep as close an eye on Tailor as possible. Guide me?”
Asami sweet talked her way into borrowing a biplane instead of a snowmobile. Korra stayed mostly out of sight; Korra felt her way into the second seat in the biplane, put on the seatbelt with minimal difficulty, and set her hands on the dashboard. “Huh. What does all this stuff do?”
“Do you want lessons?” Asami said. She found the switch to disable input from the copilot’s seat, and switched it on. Korra might not have a clue what was in front of her, but that wouldn’t stop her from pushing every button like a kid. “It’s a little harder than driving a car, but you’ll like it once you get started.” Korra flipped a few switches, apparently lost in thought. “Korra?”
“What? Sorry. Yeah. Think I’ll get my driver’s license first.”
It took them minutes to fly to the spirit portal, and not much longer to enter the spirit world. Korra gathered some water and ran it over her face and ears. Sure enough, the ears shrank away. When Korra raised her head, her eyes were clear and blue—no slotted pupils in either eye. The breath she let out seemed to contain her entire weight and spirit; a level of relief that Asami hadn’t known someone could feel.
Korra greeted the spirits that came up to meet them, let them know why she was here and what she needed, and ignored some of their usual dithering until one of them said something useful. It offered to bring a large, powerful friend to help Korra defeat Tailor.
“Yeah, the more firepower, the better,” Korra said. “Here, let me… Let me see if I can just show you where I’m going.” She put her hand on the spirit’s head.
“What are you doing?! Mind invasion? Get out, get out!”
“I wasn’t—okay, fine. Did you notice a big explosion a while ago, off by the—”
“It will find you, okay, okay!” it said, and scampered away.
The second it disappeared, Korra’s lips grew pale. Then she laughed. “I should have known they’d be no help!” she said. She took the pelt off from her waist, tied it up, and gathered some spirit water into it. She checked for leaks, and carried it in one hand. She extended her other to Asami.
It wasn’t a show of power that Korra would have usually liked to perform: ripping off the top of a mountain, shooting lightning without shocking herself or someone else, launching herself up to the top of the tower while making three full rotations. But it was by far the most otherworldly feat Korra could do. The Tree of Time went out of focus, then shrank. They crossed hundreds of miles—what seemed to be hundreds of miles. For all she knew, they could be going to another planet entirely.
They arrived behind a rocky outcrop, in a blackened, cold place. It was like nowhere else she had seen in the spirit world: the scorched ground, the blasted rocks. They took cover behind the rocks. Eska—Tailor, she supposed—was sitting in the middle of a black crater. Yanhan was walking around, occasionally peering behind rocks, but mostly looking nervous.
“Did you see it make much progress on the battery before?”
“Can’t tell. It was trying hard, though.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Tailor doesn’t know we’re here yet. Probably. Yanhan definitely doesn’t. Take down Yanhan and we can gang up on Tailor. Do you think you can take him by yourself?”
“Of course.” She hadn’t brought her glove, but she had pocketed a screwdriver while she was at the warehouse. “I’ll be back as soon as I put him away.”
She moved out of cover, walking quick across the ice until she found cover at the furthest point from spot just out of sight during Yanhan’s rounds. His little feet scratched against the ice. She saw him stop between a pair of rocks, flick his tongue out, and lower himself onto all fours before proceeding. His tongue met the air a few more times. Then he doubled back at a run.
He knew she was here. How? Because of his tongue, she realized. Yanhan was a snake otter, and had smelled her even if he couldn’t see her. She grabbed onto the screwdriver, sprinted after him, and dove across the ice, wrapping her legs around his body and bringing him down. The ground angled down and they slid down, stopped only when Asami dug her heel and elbow into the ground. Yanhan nearly slipped out of her grasp and opened his mouth to bite. She made a short, stabbing motion, and the tip of the screwdriver pressed against the roof of his mouth.
“Don’t move,” she said. “You’re going to do exactly what I tell you. Go straight home. Don’t tell Tailor a thing. Can you do that?”
She didn’t know how long she had been waiting for Asami to finish off Yanhan. She knew Tailor knew she was there. She had felt it the second she came into the spirit world. Now they were closer, Tailor had stopped working on the battery. It was moving its head around, each time casting about for Korra’s mind. It wasn’t an aggressive intrusion, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous, either.
She tried to remember what Yukkan had said about protecting the mind: find your center, think of a place, recreate it, the humidity, the temperature, the way the air hit your skin, the sounds, all of that—but she wanted to get up, run at Tailor, get it out of her cousin’s body, and beat the spirit up. Unless it turned her hands into hooves partway through.
She didn’t like that it could change her body at will. She kept feeling her ears, to make sure they were still hers. She knew she hadn’t slept well these last few days, but she had been able to push through it. Her limbs felt heavy and her joints cracked every time she shifted her weight or moved them.
“I’m back,” Asami said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I have a plan. I’ll go underground and ambush Tailor from below.” She handed Asami the spirit water she had gathered in her pelt. “I’m going to need you to keep this safe. Stay down until I launch the attack, then get it as close to me as possible.”
“Understood. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I have you with me. When was the last time anyone took the two of us out?”
“Remember that time we went street racing with Jiejie?”
“She took out your tires!”
“You should have thrown me across the finish line!”
That put her in a good mood, got her feeling limber. She bent a hole and jumped into it. But the closer she got to Tailor, the more insistent its attempts to break through her defenses. She thought of her first night in the probending ring, the stale sweat yellowing the tags on the helmet, the coarse, bumpy texture of the zones, the indistinct shouts and faces. Inside her, she felt an overwhelming urge for mercy, to hand it over and be relieved of her anger and burdens. Wasn’t that what she should do to her enemies, if she wanted to turn them to her side?
“You attacked my cousin,” Korra said. “You took a dangerous weapon. That weapon belongs to humans. Spirits have no right to it.”
She was still in the probending ring. The referee was straight ahead, his lips stretched out and the color of sand. Mako adjusting his gloves. Her heart beating faster, knowing she was next to the probender she admired, knowing that he was handsome up close. Mako turning his head to say something to Bolin.
She had a clear view of the referee, with his stringy, brown lips. Wasn’t it a good thing, the referee said, that he was removing this from human hands—taking it, instead, somewhere where humans would not be hurt?
It hadn’t thought that at all. All it wanted was more power. She wouldn’t let it manipulate her with such cheap sentiments. She knew what real conviction in an ideal looked like—had nearly been killed for it, multiple times. Opportunism didn’t impress her.
A burst of annoyance. The probending ring was changing, her excitement morphing into dread, into her hand and arm withering, becoming thin.
She had to change this, fast. She lit a fire in her hand and smashed it into her own forearm. The pain made her knees buckle, but crowded Tailor out. In the bright firelight, she saw its grinning face, phased through the earth, now in retreat back to Eska’s body.
She broke out of the earth just behind it, grabbing its coat with one hand and sweeping its leg out from under it with the other. It grabbed onto her with one hand as it fell, twisting so they both hit the ground. She got her arm up just in time to absorb Tailor’s elbow strike with her forearm, but it snuck its hand around Korra’s head and smashed it against Eska’s chin. Then it gathered the battery in its arms and ran—galloped, more like, with two legs instead of four, using Eska’s lanky body.
“Hey!” she shouted. “Stop!”
Korra bent a wall of earth up directly in front of it. It turned sideways, leaned against the wall, and scaled the wall using the edges of Eska’s feet. Korra crumbled patches of the wall, made some parts recede or advance, but it adapted to everything she threw at it. She tried folding the wall in to enclose it, but it was like trying to punch a mosquito fly: Tailor responded fast, was constantly trying to jump down, never seemed to be where she needed it. She blasted air at it, now not to immobilize, but to keep it off-balance, get it to lose its footing. It looked back at her and threw the battery into the air—Korra froze, just long enough for it to jump up, snatch the battery out, and run away.
Korra sprinted after it. She could hear the heavy clop of Aasmi’s boats behind her. Spirit water spilled over the edge of the pelt she held in one hand. In her other, she held something metal and gleaming. She ran until she passed Korra, then twisted her hips to the side, closed her chest, and held the pelt in front of her body, the screwdriver behind her. The next motion was like watching a door slam, the swing of her shoulders and arms, her leg plowing into the earth, her long black hair blowing out behind her. The screwdriver sailed straight through the air and pierced Tailor—Eska—through the back.
“You stabbed her!” Korra said, shocked.
“Never mind—hurry up and capture her!”
Tailor was on its knees, already trying to stand up. Korra caught it in a sphere of air and lifted it up. She took the spirit water and encircled Tailor in it. Inch by inch, she forced it out. Eska, inside the bubble, coughed something red out, a small, barely visible goat fox made out of a small handful of Desna’s flesh and blood.
She lowered the pair of them down, releasing Eska first, but not the goat fox. It raised a misty paw to its cage, then shied away.
“Desire told me about you,” she said. “How you blew yourself up. That’s why you needed a new body, isn’t it?”
It swished its tail. In her mind, she saw the referee again—now Tailor, itself, watching her, its narrow face pointed straight at her.
“Well?” she said. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
I left a part of me in you. Even if I disappear now, I’ll come back.
You’ll disappear, without even knowing it.
A vision of poison, of failure. Her body splitting apart at the marrow, the parts that ached the most when she didn’t get good sleep, after a bad fight. The goat fox emerging out of the splinters. Eating her to make itself.
She regarded it coldly, and brought the purifying waters up and around Tailor. Water pushing at blood, water breaking it apart, water washing it away clean. Once she did that, she looked down at the spirit vine battery at her feet, where she had dropped it, froze it in a block of ice, and stomped on it. It broke apart harmlessly.
Asami had been tending to the Eska—she somehow managed to exude disdain, even unconscious—while Korra worked on Tailor. She had taken off Eska’s coat, and was using it to staunch the bleeding.
“Let me,” Korra said, kneeling besides her cousin. She used the remaining spirit water to heal Eska. It was a surprisingly deep wound; not only had it broken past Eska’s coat and clothes, but by luck, Asami had gotten it between two ribs and punctured a lung. “Remind me to not go against you in a spear-throwing contest.”
“Some people at work have been trying to get me to throw the ball for them in one of their games. ‘Batball’ or something.”
“You probably shouldn’t. You might end up killing someone. … why do you look so excited about that?!”
“I’m not, my mind wandered… How’s your arm, is it all right?”
Korra looked down at her arm. The burn she had given herself was still there. It didn’t look right, the way it was white all around the edges, skin healing over in cracks… Was that what Tailor had meant, by leaving a part of itself in her?
Korra took some of the remaining spirit water and ran it over her forearm. Something soothing and cool went through her veins. Raava. Yeah. If anything happened, she could come here, to the spirit world, and Raava would help her out. She wasn’t alone. Not within herself, and not as long as she had Asami. But why was it that her strength always relied on someone else being there for her?
She finished healing Eska, and was awash with exhaustion. She slumped onto the ground and put her hands against her eyes, pressing down on them with her fingers.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just tired. I haven’t slept in… it feels like forever.”
“You could sleep in my lap,” Asami said, apparently offering it with complete sincerity.
Korra let out a fond laugh. “No, we should get Eska back… how are we going to do it?” Yanhan and Tailor had come by snowmobile and the biplane only seated two.
“Let me take care of it. Can you take us back to the spirit portal? I’m going to use the radio and see if they can get someone back.”
They did just that. They waited just outside the spirit portal for the palace guards to show up in their own snowmobiles and take Eska away. From there, it was a short trip through the skies and back to the airport. Naga was waiting for them at the gate. They got on her back and returned to the palace as the sun rose.
Chapter 4: Bodygirl and Guardfriend
A fever, an iceberg, and an island.
Their return home was delayed by a fever that kept Korra down for nearly a week. By the second day, Korra was restless, jumping out of bed, chatting with Eska’s suitors in the hall, calling spirits to their room and playing games with them, then passing out in the bed and being surprised she was still feverish in the morning. She did this so often that by the fifth day, Asami locked Korra in and forbade the palace guards from letting Korra in or out. All meals would be brought to the room. She even got some spirits to join her, too.
“Really?” Korra said, pouting. “You’re tyrannical.”
“No working out, either. I left some books for you.” Four technical manuals and three newspapers. Same thing.
“Wait—you’re not staying with me?”
“If you’re a good girl, I might let you out again,” Asami said, tweaking Korra’s nose between two fingers. “Choo choo!”
“What? You weirdo.”
When Asami left, Korra was lounging in bed with Naga, reading through some spirit scrolls and throwing longing glances at the door, as though she hoped Asami might ask her to come with her. But it wasn’t hard work, and it’d be better for Korra to focus on recovering her health. They’d have to go home eventually, after all.
Asami went to the warehouses first, and made arrangements to ship the metal back to Republic City and close Varrick’s accounts. She made a call out to Varrick’s Republic City office, but couldn’t reach him or Zhu Li. She called his ship, then his Omashu branch, then took out her cardholder and pulled out his lawyer’s number. She might as well try.
There were some contracts Eska and Desna’s advisors had asked her to look into. And there were some storeowners who, when they heard Asami was in town, wanted to see if they could import Future Industries’ consumer goods directly, instead of going through the Southern Water Tribe. Cameras, audiovisual equipment, projectors, a type of synthetic insulation, pens and stationery—very popular, in the North.
It was nearly sunset when she returned to the palace. Three spirits were pacing in the main hall. Asami frowned at them. With Korra and the twins on bed rest, there wasn’t anyone else who could take care of them. The Tribal Council deferred spirit dealings to Korra while she was here, and had their hands full taking care of day-to-day affairs while the twins recovered. Asami looked around the hall. She had never dealt with spirits directly before, but she couldn’t see a reason why she shouldn’t try.
She approached the spirits. They were loitering about, talking among themselves: a caribou hippo, a salamander squirrel, and a six-legged creature with enormous, red eyes and no mouth.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you waiting for the Avatar?”
“Yes,” the caribou hippo said. “We have complaints.”
“Okay. I’m Asami. I’m not the Avatar, but I might be able to help. What’s going on?”
“It’s a problem only the Avatar can solve.”
The issue was Tailor’s old territory. Now that Tailor was gone, the three spirits had moved in to take the land, only to find another spirit had been camping out on it. What spirit? Desire. Of course.
So how did claims usually work? Was there a formal system, or was it first come, first serve? Well, that was the thing: usually the victor would make the claim. But the Avatar had done it, and now they waited for her to deliberate.
“While you’re here, Desire could be strengthening its own claim to it,” Asami said.
“No. Because we left two of our party there.”
Six spirits total fighting over some rocks. It wasn’t her idea of prime real estate, but if spirits were willing to come all the way here for it, she’d have to start seeing it that way.
“What do you want, then? For her to mediate between the six of you?” The spirits nodded eagerly. Asami’s forehead started throbbing. “Can’t you wait another week to survey the land and come up with a presentation?” That was the company president in her saying it. The spirits looked at her with dumb amazement. Survey? A presentation? The longer they stared, the more jargon and protocols and procedures came to mind, and the more it seemed like a good idea. This was likely how bureaucratic hells were created, but the spirits needed some form of infrastructure and procedure, and while she was fixing up the White Lotus, she might as well get this going, too. “Why don’t you try it? Find three neutral parties you all trust with no interest in the land, have them look it over, and bring the results over to Korra, with recommendations. She can decide from there. Or I can. Actually, I shouldn’t. Korra will do it.”
The spirits looked to one another, and started bickering. Then the salamander squirrel said, “We accept your advice and will return to you when we are ready for the Avatar to make judgment. Come here so we can mark you, human, as a gesture of our friendship.”
“That’s so nice of you,” Asami said. “But you can approach Korra about it directly. Really.”
Now all her business was done. She went back to her room. Korra was in bed, a tray of unfinished food on the nightstand. The sheets had tangled all around her body, the newspapers and manuals spread all over the floor, the room full of a heavy, sickly scent even though the windows were open. Asami rushed up to her and put the back of her hand against Korra’s forehead.
Korra opened an eye. “Hey,” she said. “Guess you were right after all.”
“Are you all right?” Asami said. “Should I call for a doctor?”
“Nah, just need to sweat through it. Used to get these all the time when I was a kid. All the White Lotus guys kept bringing in new infections to the compound.” She looked ready to tell Asami about it, but seemed to decide it wasn’t a good story. “What did you do today?”
“Not much,” she said. She sat on the edge of the bed and went through her day. Then, more carefully, she talked about the spirits and what she had done with them. She felt apprehensive about it, in a way she wouldn’t have expected from herself, or from them. But the more she described what she had handled the situation, the stranger Korra’s face became, passing through shock to darkness to exhaustion. Asami stroked her cheek and said, “What are you thinking?”
Korra propped herself up on her elbows. She looked over at Asami, her face lively beneath the heavy fever that seemed to weigh it down, and said, with unexpected accusation, “I hate that you locked me up in here.”
“What?” Asami said, more surprised by the force of the words than what she had actually said. The second Korra had said that, they both had gone blank, as though someone had tossed a bucket of water on them. The first feeling to emerge from her jolt was a sense of mild injury, that her caution had been justified.
Korra sat up, her cheeks dark, alarm running across her shoulders and neck like a slipping scarf, leaving behind a confused, unfocused expression. “Never mind,” Korra said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it.”
“You’re tired and you’re sick.” Saying this made Korra’s brows come down over her eyes, and a muscle in her jaw go tense. “Korra—what is it?”
“I’m sick of being here.”
“No, I mean… I hate being up here, I hate that I’m falling over just because some spirit decides to camp in my head or because someone sneezed on me, and that I can’t go home with you, back to the city—every night we stay here, I’m scared my head’s going to come apart and I’ll end up on the floor bleeding out of my eyes or something.” Her words were weighted with a dead, inert anger. She got up and started pacing, wearing the blanket around her shoulders like a cape, agitated.
“I’m sorry,” Asami said. “I shouldn’t have—”
“No, no—I was really sick today. A few hours after you left, the fever got really bad. They had to send for a healer. It wouldn’t have been pretty if I had been out at sea.” She sat on the bed, folding her legs beneath her, shivering when the cold wind blew into the room. Asami got up to shut the windows down and sat down next to Korra. “And while I was heaving my guts out in the bathroom, you were off doing my job for me.”
“Don’t think like that.”
“I mean it. I need you. I don’t need you because you can lift rocks with your mind. It’s because of who you are.” She had said it before: she hadn’t fallen in love with Korra’s bending or strength. It was her bravery and charm, the clarity of Korra’s being. The way the starlight settled on the rim of Korra’s eyes, like fallen leaves piled around the base of a tree. She took Korra’s arm and held onto it. Korra’s body gave off a pulsing, unceasing heat.
“I know. After everything with Kuvira and the spirits, and going off on my own…” She took Asami’s hand, then released it when her palm turned out to be too sweaty. “It just means a lot to me, being able to bend and to fight. I like it. I worked hard to get back here. But any time I get taken out, I get scared I’ll end up back where I started—maybe worse. I don’t know if I’d survive going through it again.”
“Of course you would. You’d have me.” She kissed the side of Korra’s head, ran her hand from the back of Korra’s neck to the base of her spine. Her hand had followed this path in so many different contexts, friendly, sexual, intimate but sans destination, but this time a difficult, unexpected emotion rose in her chest, pushing up as though commanded to do so by a piston’s pump. She wanted to pour herself into Korra, to fit into one another, to set the both of them alight.
She repeated the motion, this time one hand span to the left, and Korra closed her eyes and put her weight against Asami, her back rippling to Asami’s touch. She was still shivering from the fever. Asami was about to pull her hand back, but Korra pinned Asami’s hand to her body and shook her head.
“Keep doing it,” she said. “I want you to. It feels good.”
How many times had she heard that? Korra’s eyes half-lidded, dark, and liquid, containing a potent desire that left Asami trembling, from her calves to her chest to the tiny, barely controllable muscles attaching her ears to her head. She had learned the effects of her body and face on others as a young girl, the sweet power of perfumed wrists and the tumble of black hair. Learned what she could do to others, without reciprocating its depths, until this last year and a half with Korra. It frightened her, a fear that fed on itself and turned pleasurable when she looked into Korra and saw, even through fever and sleepiness, a love without cynicism, fear, or anger. A gift meant for her, and no other.
She sank into the bed besides Korra, tucking her forehead against the back of Korra’s neck.
“I love you,” she said. It felt as though her sternum had dissolved and reformed into a new, alien shape. She kissed the slope of skin and tendon and said it again, and the same feeling shot through her.
“What’s up?” Korra said, turning over. “Don’t get too close, though, or you’ll get sick, too.”
“Say it back. Say it back to me. Don’t laugh.”
“Love you. Love you, too. Always. Wash up before you go to bed, you’ll break out from all the makeup if you don’t.”
“I don’t want to get up.”
“Then don’t,” Korra said. Asami’s hands were around her waist. She clasped Asami’s hands in hers, and did not let go.
By morning, Korra’s fever had burned itself out. Korra felt Asami’s forehead with the back of her hand, and exclaimed, “You’re not sick?”
“You wanted me to be sick?”
“No. Well, yes. But only because it’d be fair.”
Varrick’s things were already on their way back to Republic City. They made arrangements to catch a ride on a ship headed for an airship hub in the Fire Nation the next day. They spent the rest of the afternoon stuffing their things back into the suitcase, checking in on Eska and Desna, and playing with the spirits and kids.
At sunset, they borrowed a pair of kayaks from the palace, made of wood and sealskin, and paddled parallel to the shore of the city, until they reached ice floes and spikes of tall icebergs. Korra said that one of the locals had pointed her to a bar—their last of their trip. Asami didn’t see how this place could possibly have anything of interests, until Korra pointed out a berg bright green in the middle and a dark, sensuous blue at the top and bottom. They kayaked to the other side, and arrived at a spacious grotto lit up with lanterns, and a number of kayaks piled high on racks just outside. Through the ice, they could hear the sound of people chatting inside.
“Wow,” Asami said. “They don’t have these in the South, do they?”
“We have cooler people.”
“But not the cooler buildings?”
Korra got out of the kayak and helped Asami out. Then she put both kayaks on her shoulders and set them on the racks outside the grotto. “If I wanted to, I could make an entire new city. I’d just have to go to the Avatar state. And find the part of me that’s a civil designer.”
“Korra, all I’m saying is, the North has nicer architecture.”
“Ugh! Just you wait, I’m going to become the best city planner.”
“You’re adorable,” Asami said, kissing Korra’s cheek.
They went deeper into the grotto, until they reached a furnished room in the middle of the iceberg. There were patrons of all types: many in traditional Water Tribe garb, but others in more urban style, and a few who looked straight out of a historical daguerreotype of Republic City’s early urban trendsetters, men in tight shirts and oiled facial hair, women in replicas of old wandering warrior robes.
There was another room just beyond them. When they went over to check, Asami saw something, a pair of shadows, and jerked Korra back by the elbow.
“What’s wrong?” Korra said.
It was hard to hear above the music and people drinking and playing games, but if they concentrated, they could hear people moaning, shouting, and moving flesh against flesh.
“Holy shit,” Korra said. Her blush worked its way across her cheeks, up the bridge of her nose, to her ears.
“Why don’t we stay on this side for now?” Asami said. She nudged Korra’s side with an elbow. “Unless you want to go in.”
Korra’s blush grew more severe. But she looked down, then to the side, and said, “Let’s see how we feel about it after a few drinks.”
It was Asami’s turn to blush. She knew sex clubs existed, but she had never gone to one herself. She had assumed it was because she wasn’t interested in that kind of thing; but watching Korra consider it was changing her mind.
They went to the bar. No menu. The bartender chatted with some patrons for a few minutes before coming over to them and listing the drinks: fermented berry juice, multiple types of rice and fruit wines, and some awful brands of liquor she might otherwise enjoy. On the cocktail side, the usual stuff she could find at any Republic City bar, but more expensive and with a few substitutions that looked truly depressing. Korra let her order for them both.
“You two new to the city?” said the bartender once the drinks were ready.
“Yeah, I’m from the South. She’s from Republic City.”
Asami tied her hair back quickly. “I live there now. But I was born in the state of Yi. My parents moved when I was young.”
“Right. And now she’s a famous radio reporter. I’m her…”
“It’s new,” Asami said.
“Whatever,” the bartender said, and went back to talk with his friends.
“‘Radio reporter?’” Asami said.
Korra sucked on her straw, looked bummed out, then sipped some more. “You don’t think you have a sexy voice?”
“No way. I sound too nice.”
“You do not think that, you’ve used the sexy voice on me tons of times—you’ve used it on Bolin, when he was helping me move my stuff into your place.”
“I know I can sound sexy, but most people on the radio… So what does that mean? Do you get turned on listening to Little Lau give the morning weather? ‘Monsoon coming in, bring an umbrella, look smart?’”
Asami ran her foot along the inside of Korra’s calf, not looking up from her drink. “How’s that backroom sounding now?”
“Good.” Voice breathy, excited. Korra never hid her desire; it was one of the things that made touching her so exciting. Korra slurped another quarter of her drink down. “Should we take the drinks with us?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know, I’ve never been to one of these. No?”
“Okay.” Korra drained her glass. She undid the wrap around her ponytail, and shook out her hair. “Let’s do it.”
They put money on the bar and went to the backroom. The bouncer gave them a quick look over to make sure neither of them were out of it, then asked them a few questions. Was one of them a bender? Private room or out in the general area or semi-private? How long?
They put down the cash were taken to a row of similar rooms, each just big enough for a block of ice that was supposed to be a bed, too-thin cotton blankets thrown over the ice, walls not thick enough to hide the forms of the others around them. No door; Korra had to bend it shut behind them. An electric light dangled off a wire above them. Asami sat on the edge of the ice block while Korra fluffed up the blankets with hot air.
“We’re going to have to keep our clothes on if you want to stay warm,” Korra said, once she had done as much as she could. She had laid her coat and pelt on the ice, as impervious to the cold as ever. “Is that okay?”
“I don’t have a problem with that.” Asami got in the middle of the little nest Korra had built, lay there and tried not to laugh because their neighbors next door were laughing, shrieking with it, begging their partner to stop, then succumbing to delight again.
But Korra didn’t seem to have this problem; her attention was on Asami, her eyes moving all over Asami’s body, even though she hadn’t taken off her coat, and hadn’t even unbuttoned the collar. Seeing Korra biting her lip, the obvious excitement—Asami settled onto the pile of clothes and blankets, threaded her fingers through the fur lining of Korra’s hood. The room had a pungent smell—the smell of northern ice, ancient and algal, earth and salt, and the smell of bodies. And there was Korra, the smell of her rising from her clothes, from the bare heat from her body.
She took off her mittens and undid the first two buttons of her coat. “Come here,” she said. “Warm me up.”
She expected Korra to be nervous or apprehensive, but instead the coldness and her lack of clothes compared to Asami seemed to embolden her. Korra made her way to the ice block, crawled over to Asami on her hands and knees, and kissed Asami with just her lips, working just hard enough to draw Asami out, kiss by kiss. She tugged at Asami’s scarf.
“How am I doing?” she said, unwinding the scarf from Asami’s neck.
“Not bad. But my hands are still cold.” She rolled Korra’s top up an inch, running the back of her fingers along the circumference of skin. Two doors down, a whip cracked and someone yelped, and next door, the laughing pair were really going at it, shouting out things only partially muffled by the walls—Asami giggled, then laughed, then buried her face into Korra’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it. It’s just too weird. How do people do this here?”
“Do you want to switch?”
“Let’s give it a try,” she said, even though she didn’t think it’d make much of a difference. She sat up and moved aside so Korra could lay down in the blankets and her coat. Asami ran her hand through Korra’s hair, spreading it out so it radiated from her head, sometimes dragging her nails along Korra’s scalp, sometimes cupping Korra’s cheek. With her other hand, she pinched Korra’s nipples, a touch of pressure with her nails, enough to make Korra lift her hips off the ice, bite her lip, close her eyes and gasp. Her breaths came hot; Asami could feel them under her palm, how each suck of air made Korra’s ribs expand and her breasts compress beneath her hand.
“Aren’t you going to cover me?” she said. “Keep me warm?”
“I thought you were a tough little thing,” Asami said. “You’re always showing off your arms and walking around in that tight shirt.” She got her hand out from beneath Korra’s shirt, and removed her long arm sleeves. “How’s this? Cold now?”
“No. Ow!” she said, as Asami twisted her nipple. “That hurt.”
“They’re perkier than usual. Must be the cold air. Sit up.” Korra did and tried to go in for a kiss—Asami pulled her shirt over her head first, then pushed her back onto the ice.
“No kiss?” Korra said.
“We’ll see.” She kept one hand on Korra’s breasts and used her other hand to feel her arms, her stomach, her chest. “Stop airbending.”
“I’m not,” Korra said, but a second later the goosebumps appeared on the inside of her arms. “Ow! Not fair, it’s unconscious—ow! Do I get a kiss now?”
“On what? Whether you ever stop being a jerk? Ow!”
“I was going to say,” Asami said, pinching Korra’s cheek, “on whether you can make me come with your mouth without taking off any of my clothes.”
“You’re wearing pants. And like, three layers of long underwear. Not feeling so cold now, are you?”
“You can talk to me like that after you’ve made me come,” Asami said, but it was true. It was taking everything she had to not pin Korra to the bed and give her everything she wanted. She unbuttoned her pants and took Korra’s hand and guided it inside.
It was a tight fit. Korra rotated her hand, parting her folds, smiling when she felt how wet Asami already was, how Asami rolled her hips into her hand.
“Not going to get on your back?” Korra said.
“I’m not coming in my pants on my back,” Asami said, pulling a face.
“That’s… Why is that where you draw the line?” Korra kissed her, the angle awkward from their position, but her mouth blazing hot and playing it slow, tongue reaching out then pulling away, never biting down hard enough to push Asami over the edge, even as her hand down Asami’s pants worked fast, one finger already inside her, the others focused on providing as much friction as possible. When Asami brought a hand up to Korra’s face, Korra broke the kiss and took two of her fingers into her mouth and sucked. Asami’s back arched, her hips lifted, and Korra got a second finger into her. She let go of Asami’s fingers, laughing out of success.
This time when Korra kissed her, she held nothing back. Asami came not long after, practically leaning over Korra and humping her hand, body burning up, and her underwear definitely ruined. She let Korra tip her onto her back so they could kiss more. They unbuttoned her coat and were working on pushing her pants down when a knock came on the door.
“Time’s up. You have to be out in five minutes.”
“Romantic,” Korra muttered. She buried her face into Asami’s shoulder, bit down lightly. “Think we can…”
“I don’t think so,” Asami said. She kissed the top of Korra’s head and drew away. “Do you need to come?” Korra shook her head. Getting kicked out had evidently killed the mood. “Do you want to find a place like this when we get home?”
“If we’re at home, I’d rather just… be at home, you know?” Korra got back into her clothes and shook out her coat. “What about you, did you like it?”
“I liked that you liked it,” Asami said. “Let’s try it again the next time we’re traveling. Maybe you can change my mind.” She adjusted her pants again. Next time she’d bring a change of clothes.
They got another drink at the bar before heading back to the palace in their kayaks. With the sun all the way down, the light from inside gave off an eerie light. As they headed back, they spotted two other icebergs lit up: one pale blue, the other yellow.
“More bars?” Asami said.
“The blue one might be,” Korra said. “My dad used to tell me stories about serial killers who lived out in the bergs. I wish we had met Irrut and Sertok there. I wanted to ask them how their wedding went. They must’ve gone to visit their families back in their home village. Their necklaces were really pretty.”
“Necklaces?” What an unusual thing for Korra to notice. “I’ve always wanted one for myself. Maybe we could get a matching pair.”
“What?” Korra teetered dangerously to the left, then pitched right, then threw her paddle up in the air and had to waterbend it back. “It’s—it’s not—I never thought about it before? I mean, I have, but I thought you’d—want to wait or something. If you’re serious, then yeah. Let’s do it. You normally make them yourself. Or if you’re rich, get someone really crafty to make it for you. But yeah. If you want to. If you’re asking.”
“I’ll ask around, then.”
They were quiet the rest of the way back to the harbor. They carried the kayaks back to the palace. Korra was unusually affectionate, insisting on taking Asami by the hand the whole way, even though it made walking back home hard. Kayaking was pretty fun, Asami thought. She could use it for a teambuilding exercise for her senior workers at home, or save this for a date night later.
Once they returned the kayaks to the palace, they returned to their room. Korra kept turning to check on Asami’s face, her expression first anxious, then dissatisfied, then puzzled. Then she laughed, falling onto the bed.
“You have no idea what you asked me, do you?” Korra said.
“What? What did I say?”
“I was talking about their betrothal necklaces.”
“Their… their… oh!” She covered her face with her hands and hit the bed knees first. She pushed her face into the pillows, her whole body flaming with embarrassment. “No. No! No.”
She looked up. Korra was grinning, crooked as usual, her eyes alive with mischief. “I’m going to tell this story for years.”
“I’m taking a shower. You don’t mind if I go first?”
“Sure, go ahead! Maybe it’ll wash this away from your memory so I can remind you again. Haha! Yeeears.”
She was still laughing when she got into the shower, but once she turned on the water, she became quiet. The white tiles seemed to pulse, and her stomach felt as though it was being shoved up to her chest. She was flushing in unexpected places: the top of her thighs, behind her knees, between her shoulder blades.
What was wrong with her. She had never considered the question before—not true, she had deflected the question. Marriage was no longer a prerequisite to being respectable in the eyes of Republic City society, but she didn’t care what those people wanted or didn’t want. She hadn’t seen the point of it, the whole settling down, raising a family, dying young, and getting consumed by fantastic passion and succumbing to megalomania.
She turned off the water. She was older now, in love, committed; in short, at a stage where it made sense to at least try. To do this for a purely selfish reason, to make them both happy. The golden machinery of her parents’ doom glinted before her eyes, suddenly appealing.
She stepped out of the shower. The lights were off, the curtains open. Korra was laying on the ground next to Naga, and got to her feet. Her hair shone in the starlight and her eyes were blue and calm as tidal pools, filling up as though with bright ocean water.
They decided to take another vacation. Why not. What was the point in being one of the richest women and the most powerful bender on the planet if you couldn’t take off once in a while. Asami sent in a truly flimsy excuse about needing to check on expansion opportunities in the Fire Nation, and they were off to the beach.
Once they arrived in the Fire Nation, Korra put her hair in a topknot, bought a change of clothes of Asami’s choosing, and dragged Asami from one tourist attraction to another. They biked along seaside paths, bought scoops of passionfruit and mango ice cream at the beaches, and went on hikes up to temples devoted to the sun. At night, they went to the summer festival held in the center of town, dancing with the locals and other tourists to heavy drumbeats, tossing things into the bonfire on the beach. At midnight fireworks went off over the water, bright colors barely an interruption in their lovemaking. Ah, they were lucky women.
They spent most of their vacation in anonymity. Korra tried sticking to firebending, but she had been seen waterbending in public to cool down a group of overheated children, airbending to gather up the mailman’s escaping letters, and earthbending to improve the soil in the community garden. Towards the end of the vacation, the townspeople ambushed them on their way out for breakfast and carried Korra away. “We need you to fix—” It was hard to hear, but Asami swore she heard ‘rampaging yak moose in the shrine.’
Asami would have followed, if not for Varrick popping up next to her and shouting, “Asami!”
“Please, no,” Asami said, putting her face in her hands.
“Great place you’ve run off to,” Varrick said. “Sheesh. I thought my secretary went blind when he said you were spotted out here! Want a Tamagotcha? They’re selling like sweet cakes. People can’t get enough of them. You could sell it as a special collector’s edition.”
What are you doing here, Varrick?” Asami said, accepting the Tamagotcha. It hadn’t changed much from Varrick’s original design. She pocketed it and resolved to forget about it. “Is this about the weapons?”
“Nope,” Varrick said. “I’m here on business. Why, did you finish that job already?”
“Neat. My lawyer will take care of… whatever it is we talked about. Probably.”
“I have to go after Korra,” Asami said, heading for the crowd—but Varrick looped his arm around her shoulders and steered her towards the town instead.
“I’m thinking of getting a winter coat here. For when I get back to the mainland.”
“They’re not going to sell—Varrick, you’re Southern Water Tribe, you should know a million places… I don’t have time for this,” she said. She pulled out a business card, wrote down an address, and pushed it into Varrick’s hands. “That’s a clothing store in Republic City. I have to get to my fiancée.” It was the first time she had said those words to someone back home. She turned pink immediately.
“Where’s the ring?” Varrick demanded. “Or the necklace. Whatever they’re wearing these days.”
“It was more of a spontaneous thing. We’ll have them before the press conference.”
“Well, why wait!” He grabbed her by the arm and shouted to a local, “Hey, you! We need a ring!”
It took her almost an hour to get away from Varrick. Asami went up the hill to the shrine by herself, wearing a new hat and stuffing what was possibly a still-living snake into her purse. She had, by some miracle, avoided having Varrick buy her a ring as a token of his appreciation.
The path to the shrine was lined with imposing red columns, tall trees and greenery everywhere, as though winter had been banished. Those were not the only things out of place. Both of her parents had emigrated from the Fire Nation, yet here she was as a tourist. She found she had taken a liking to the frozen expanse of the North and South, for no other reason than Korra. She remembered Korra’s lips close against her ear as she pointed out the features of a landscape that once was nothing but a pair of white expanses, sky on snow. Look, here: the waves in the ice. The way it drifted. The pack.
Was that a part of becoming a married person, being absorbed into someone else’s life and family, being happy to be assimilated? It seemed to be the norm, if she were to judge her social circle. Pema and Tenzin, Baatar and Suyin. Baatar had warned her to remain herself in the face of someone else’s awesome charisma and vision. She wondered how he’d see it when they made their engagement public, what Tenzin and Pema would say. Korra had already called Senna and Tonraq while they were on the ship, fizzy with excitement, stammering, blushing, putting Asami on the phone, dragging her into their happiness. It made her wish for her own parents to be there—or some version of her parents that would sit Korra in front of a table and grill her, but without hopping into a mecha to electrocute her to death.
The temple was surrounded by tall trees, and their shade fell welcome across the red tiles and rock gardens. Korra had apparently finished whatever duty she had been asked to complete. People were bringing her water, and asking her to do tricks. Be a fountain! Make eight water tentacles and wiggle them like an octopus! Make a rainbow!
“There you are!” Korra said, breaking through the crowd and returning to Asami. “I thought we lost you.”
“Varrick caught me first.”
“If that’s not a sign we’ve been here too long and need to go home, I don’t know what is.”
“Pretty much!” she said, laughing. She turned her face into Korra’s hair. It was hot from the sun, as was the bare skin of Korra’s shoulder against her arm. “I told Varrick and he tried to get you a ring. I just barely stopped him.”
“I would’ve wanted to see what he’d get us, though,” Korra said. Asami took the snake out of her bag. “Eugh! I’ve changed my mind.”
She ran her hand along Korra’s arm, from bicep to hand, and entwined their fingers together. “Have you eaten yet?”
“Not yet. I was waiting for you to find me. Let’s see if there’s anywhere open for lunch.”
They went down the stone steps arm in arm, down to the sunny road that awaited them just past the shade of the trees and the stern, red columns. After lunch, they drove up to the top of a nearby mountain, a dormant volcano that had filled up with water, and spent the day swimming. Hundreds of feet above ground, higher than either of them would have ever dreamed to find themselves swimming, until they had arrived at their destination.